I arrive at Chance House at 8.25am. I considered coming after school, to give myself more time. But then I thought - what if something goes wrong? With Mum at work, it could be hours before anyone even notices I'm missing, let alone institutes a search. Whereas I reckon if I'm more than fifteen minutes late for morning school, Miss Raynham will have the tracker dogs out.
I don't go round the back of the house. Not immediately anyway. I stride boldly up the front steps, advertising my presence in the hope that Niker will jump out of some bush. But he doesn't. Never there when you want him, Niker. There's a man emptying rubbish outside the Cinderella Hotel next door and I look to him too, needing him to challenge me, call me a trespasser, rail about the despicable youth of today and threaten me with the police if I don't vamoose PDQ. But, no. He just shuts the lid of his dustbin and goes back inside.
So I'm forced to come down the steps and start walking. I go round the side, past the door totted into its frame and overgrown with brambles, past the beer can… Beer can? I don't remember any beer can. Up to the corner of the house now and then on, round - into the abandoned garden. The dandelions are still there, and the bluebells, the smashed wine bottle, the branch of a tree), the washing line, the scorched earth and the microwave. Microwave. The microwave is definitely new. I couldn't have missed a microwave. Could I? I half hope the mesh will have been screwed back over the kitchen door and that all access will be denied. But of course the mesh is of and the kitchen wide open.
I look up. The top-floor windows give nothing away. They are blank. But no more blank than those of the Cinderella Hotel next door. What exactly am I expecting? It not as though there's going to be a body up there. If there was to be a body it should be down here. I look at the concrete beneath my feet. Plain ordinary concrete with a few blades of grass pushing through the cracks. Pushing up the daisies. Maybe he's under there after all, the boy, pushing up the daisies, forcing those cracks, erupting from the soil beneath...
Robert Nobel. You are an idiot. You are Norbert No-Brain. It is just a story Niker's story. And anyway the boy would just be worms now. It all happened – if it happened - so long ago.
Last night I couldn't sleep. Was thinking about the flat, Edith Sorrel, the boy, the strawberry jam over and over - and then I dreamt... No. Forget that. It was only a dream. A story - just a story like the other story. Concentrate on getting into the house. Please, just get into the house!
I get in.
It's not windy today and the holly bush is not scraping the window. I step over the litter of paper, the envelopes, the fireplace rubble. The inner kitchen door is closed, the brick up against it. Nothing seems touched. But I touched that brick, I moved it into the corridor, then pelted back through the kitchen door, leaving the brick where it had fallen, on the other side. So someone has been in. Someone has put the brick back in its place.
Quietly, I move the brick and enter the inner house. Through the gap between the floorboards and the wall I see again the basement mounds of lamps and flowerpots, the Ming cabinet. the ceramic sink. They too look undisturbed. Yet something is different. I stand still. The water. There is no sound of gushing water. No sound of water at all in fact, not even a drip. I don't want to think about an explanation for this, because it has to involve people, other people, and...
It could be the sound of me, because I've started walking again and the bare floorboards are bowed here, so they could be creaking. But they're not. The creak is in some other part of the house. Or maybe outside. It could well be outside. It's the sound they put in the movies when someone's hanging on the gallows and they don't want to show the body so they just have this creak. Creak. No - that's just my imagination. It doesn't sound like that at all. It sounds like feet. Someone moving in the house above me. And... and... I've arrived at the hall. A big, spacious entrance hall with a patterned tile floor: red, brown, yellow, terracotta, powder blue. At intervals groups of tiles are broken - not cracked but shattered, as though they've been smashed with a sledgehammer.
Four doors lead off this hall. Three of them are shut. I have to get to the stairs, so I can put my back against the wall. I'm far too exposed standing here. Anyone could come from any direction. So why aren't I moving any more, why am I standing here completely still, paralysed? Because I'm afraid because if I step in the wrong place, I'II send tile shards skidding, then they'll know from the noise that I'm here, and they'll come for me...
It's definitely upstairs. Up the stairs where I'm going. And I am going now. My feet are moving, skirting the smashed tiles, swiftly almost silently
That was me. First foot on the stair and it creaks. So the other creaking must be the stairs too. Must be a person. I put my back against the wall. It's hard, bumpy, gritty. All the wallpaper has been tipped off and strewn on the stairs. So much paper it's difficult to see where the stair treads are. So there can't be people. If there were people going up and down, then the paper would be trodden flat, wouldn't it?
Dream. This is what I dreamed. Wallpaper. White going red. I dreamed that something murderous had happened in the house next door to ours in Grantley Street, and though it had happened many years ago, the house remembered and bled. And, because the house is part of a terrace, the bleeding came through the wall. The wallpaper in my room was soaked red. A spreading crimson stain which got bigger and bigger until...
Half-landing. Something horrible and white and spongy and I'm treading on it. Wallpaper? No. Can't be. Wallpaper is not this thick. I lift my foot and put it down again - my shoe sinks in. Deep. What is it? Some plastic-coated giant bandage? No, no - stop panicking - it's just lagging. Just an abandoned old piece of lagging that used to go round a hot-water tank. Don't ask why it's here. You don't need to know. Turn off your thinking button. Just keep going. Keep your back against the wall. And breathe. Remember to breathe.
Second floor. Creaks must be outside. Otherwise they'd be getting louder, wouldn't they? Or different anyway. Besides, if they were really footsteps, someone would appear. You can't walk round a house indefinitely. Walk, walk, walk, I mean, where would you be going?
Fire door. Hardened glass door in the middle of the stairs blocking my way to the Top Floor Flat, Chance House. No-Chance House. No chance of getting through the large, shut fire door. Thank God. It's shutting me out. Shutting Edith's secret in. I give the door a gentle push. There's the suck of an air vacuum and it opens.
A flight of stairs. Twelve small steps, that's all. And me, with my very small brain, going up them. Thump. Thump. Thump. That's not my feet on the bare treads, that's my heart banging in my chest. Bang, bang, bang, all the way up to the top. And at the top another door. The door of the flat itself.
“Hello,” I whisper.
Who am I expecting to answer? The ghost of the boy? A man with a beer can? A guy who has a thing about bricks?
“I can see you.” Even quieter.
I go in.
The layout of the hallway is similar to that of the ground floor, only smaller - a central square with doors leading off. Four of the doors are wide open and one half open. Without moving, this is what I can see: to my left the tipped out remains of a kitchen; directly in front of me a bathroom, the white toilet and basin both sledgehammered; to the left of that a totally bare room which might have been a living room; and to the right, a room stripped of everything but flowery wallpaper and a mattress. A bedroom presumably.
The room with the half-open door is the one that looks over the back of the house, the one I know I have to go into, because it's from that room that you would have to jump if you were going to land on the concrete. Because of the angle of the door, I can see very little from where I'm standing. But I can see the wallpaper. It's children's paper. Babies paper even. A jaunty, if faded, mother duck with three little ducklings in tow. The pattern repeated over and over. That room must contain a million mother ducks and her little ducklings.
What else does it contain?
I have goosebumps. The hairs on my forearms are standing upright, and those on the back of my neck feel like spikes. It's not cold but there's something icy rippling up and down my spine. I think it's fear. Although it could be terror. There's also something drumming in my ears. If I had to guess, I'd say it was the muffled panic of my own blood, because my hand is on the door handle of the room and I'm opening it, I'm pushing the whole weight of my body into the room where a boy just my age is supposed to have thrown himself to his death.
And now I'm in. I'm standing in the room, shaking from head to foot, my teeth knocking together like skittles in a bowling alley And what's in the room?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No furniture, no light fittings, no
carpet, no bodies. Not a single body. Nothing but the million ducks,
the three million ducklings and a window. Yes. A window. A window
overlooking the garden. Overlooking the concrete. The window has two
large panes. One is smashed. A sharp cut-out star of broken glass.
Looking out - where he must have looked. Out into the garden. And I can tell you this - it's a long, long way down. The scorched earth is just a dot. Even the concrete looks like you could miss it if you weren't concentrating on exactly where to throw yourself.
I want to touch the edge of the glass. To feel its sharpness. But I don't due. Because all of a sudden I don't trust myself. I don't trust myself not to go too far. You know how it is when you stand on the edge of an underground platform and, just when you hear the train coming, you think, oh - I might just throw myself on to the tracks. And - although you don't, you can’t stop the thought? Well, that's what I'm thinking. If I get any closer I might just do it. I might chuck myself out. So I step back. Just like you do on the underground platform. Behind the safety of the white line.
Only here there isn't a white line. There's only the ducks and the door. So I make for the door, and I'm running now and I'm not minding about the noise I'm making and I'm making plenty of noise, panting and whimpering and creaking and clattering, and sponge sinking and tile-shard skidding, down and down, right down to the door with the brick and through that to the stripped kitchen and finally back into the garden where I take lungful after deep lungful of air.
And it's all so ordinary. It is bright. The sun is shining and there are birds singing. Twittering in the sky. At least I think it's ordinary until the slow-motion starts. I see a comb in the grass and then I see all the grass as hair. And beyond that, thick ropes of ivy gripping a fallen tree take the shape of a monkey clinging to its mother's stomach. And even the discarded microwave becomes a casket, the condensation on the inside of the screen gathering into opalescent jewels joined by a thread of quicksilver where a snail has trailed.
It's as though the world has suddenly decided to let me in on some marvellous secret, and is playing with me, gleeful, delighted. Or maybe it's me that's delighted. Me that's been to due top of Chance House and got away with it! I feel light, airy and full of energy I could skip, I could dance. Well. I could if I had the co-ordination. As it is I'm just sort of wheeling about, dizzying my way towards the gas works and my first lesson with the divine Miss Raynham.
“Watch it, you!”
I almost bump into some gentleman with a bull dog. I snide, I wave at him.
“Youth of today,” he snarls.
But I'm spinning away. Me - Norbert No-Bottle, hero of Chance House! I waft across the main road, narrowly missing a double-decker bus. A white van comes to a ban with a screech of brakes, but I don't think it's to do with me. Because I'm already on the pavement, whirling through the gates of St Michael and All Angels. Going via the churchyard is not as short a route to school as via the gas works but it is more decorative. There are gravestones and flowers and bag-ladies and surveillance cameras with notices that say whatever you do will be captured on film for ever.
What I do for the cameras is - fall over. I don't think it'son account of a gravestone. I think it's just my feet getting tangled up lo each other. Anyhow, I crash to the ground. The two thousand pigeons which have made St Michael and All Angels their home take to the air in a furious beat of wings. My mouth is full of mud and grass and something hard. Two hard things, in fact. Gravel, I think. I sit up and spit. But I can't see what I have in my palm because my glasses have gone missing in the fall. I scrabble about. I crawl on my hands and knees among the tombstones and then – hallelujah - my specs. I put them on. They are muddy but not broken. I open my palm. The things in there are small chips of white rouble. One is streaked with blood, presumably from the inside of my cheek. They're the sort of chippings you put round flower containers in graveyards, and, as people get picky about things like this, I decide to replace them.
There is only one grave with similar chippings. I shuffle back to
it and deposit my offerings around a vase of fresh daffodils. Then I
squint up to see on whose grave I fell.