Niker rings to say: forget dusk. We'll meet at Chance House at 8pm. Nice and dark, eh?
“Fine,” I say. But it's not fine. Not just because of the dark - though that's bad enough, but because if I don't leave till just before eight, Mum will get suspicious. She'll start saying stuff like: “What sort of parent invites a boy round for the night but isn't prepared to give him supper?” And then I’ll have to think of an answer which isn't quite the truth but isn't exactly a lie either. And things will get difficult. So I pack my backpack at 6pm and announce: “Niker rang.”
“His mum’s taking us to supper at Marrocco’s.”
“Oh - that's nice.”
“So I’ll walk. Meet them there. Is that OK?”
“Of Course.” Everyone knows Marrocco's. It's a seafront cafe owned by a gregarious, generous Italian couple. It's renowned for its ice-cream. Its food. Its welcome. A family place. Safe and warm. A good place to while away time. And I will have supper there. Well, chips anyway I've got a little money. So I'm not lying. Not really.
She kisses the top of my head. “God bless,” she says.
She doesn't say that very often. In fact the last time she said “God bless” was before she went out to dinner with Dad to discuss their separation. When they returned that night, we were a one-parent family.
“Bye,” I say.
“Sure you don't want me to walk with you?”
“Just asking.” She smiles and waves me into the night.
It's dark but of course there are street lights. Warm lozenges of orange, the colour of boiled sweets. I wish I could pluck them from their lamp-posts, pop them in my pocket for later, for just in case. Do street lamps go off - or are they ablaze all hours of the night? I haven't thought about that before. Haven't had to. What about the stars? I stop walking, look up. It's cold and clear. So there are stars. A whole heaven of them. That has to be a good omen.
It gets windier as you approach the front. I pull my collar up about my neck. I'm wearing my thick donkey jacket with the rain-coloured quilting inside. I don't often wear it, because it's rather old-fashioned. “Is it your granddad's?” Weasel asked when I wore it to school once. But it's the warmest jacket I have and if I'm going to be shivering, I don't want it to be from the cold.
I could take St Aubyns and then St Aubyns South on to the Esplanade. But of course I don't. I choose Medina Villas and then Medina Terrace. I tell myself it's quicker, but it isn't. It's just less frightening. As soon as you turn the corner from Medina into the Esplanade you can see Marmcco's. I turn the corner. There are no lights on at the cafe and no menu board outside.
Marrocco's is shut.
But Marrocco's being shut is not part of my plan, so I keep on walking. I stride purposefully along the seafront as if, if I just keep going, the Italians will suddenly appear, unlock the door and start frying chips. They don't. I arrive at the door and press my nose to the glass. My safe haven is bolted and dark. Like many seafront places they close at dusk in the winter. There just isn't the business to justify staying open any longer. I've lived in this town long enough to know that. Need makes you forget things, I guess. Selective memory again.
I stand back from the cafe and look up at the second-floor windows. What am I expecting now? That if I chuck a few pebbles up at the windows the family will come down and rescue me?
I chuck a few pebbles. But not at the windows - at the beach. Fat, sea-smoothed, flint pebbles lifted on to the prom by the wind. I thunk them back where they belong. Thunk. Thunk.Thunk. Wtat am I going to do now? I lob a huge rock, one that looks too big to have been wind-lifted, on to the beach. It bounces. Fine. I’ll go somewhere else. Who cares about Marrocco's anyhow? There are any number of places to get chips along the Kingsway. I’ll just stop at the first place I come to.
The first place I come to is Vinney's. It's not a pleasant little cafe with red and white chequered tablecloths and a smiling proprietor. It's a seedy fish-and-chip shop with a cracked lino floor and chipped formica on the one table inside. It's difficult to know which is greasier, the deep-fat fryer or the man standing behind it.
“Yeah?” the deep-fat man says to me. There are little bubbles of sweat on his forehead.
“Chips, please,” I say.
“Do you have medium?”
“If we'd have had medium, I'd of said, wouldn't I?”
“Large, then. Thank you.” I don't want to appear mean, or like I can't afford it.
He shovels chips into a bag. “Eat now?”
“Please.” He shakes and splashes. Then he slaps another couple of sheets of paper around the bag. “£l.30.”
On the board behind him it says large chips are £l.20. But Deep-Fat doesn't look like the type of man you argue with so I pay up.
Gingerly, I loosen the chip paper. The chips are pale and fat. Squarish slugs of potato lolling on each other. I turn one over between finger and thumb. It's limp, luke-warm and has a slightly grey tinge.
“Do you have tomato ketchup?” I ask.
“Ketchup's extra,” says Deep-Far.
“I’ll give it a miss then,” I say. Even I have my limits.
I sit. I stir the chips. I push them under the flaps of paper. I observe how the grease turns the paper transparent. I lick a couple of grains of salt from my fingertips, but I don't eat the chips. I know I should eat the chips. Partly because I've paid for them, partly because I know there isn't going to be a McDonalds on the top floor of Chance House and partly because ravenously hungry. But I can't eat. Just looking at these chips closes up my gullet. Just smelling them. So sit and I sit and I stir. Deep-Fat watches me.
“What's up wiv yer?” he asks finally.
“You got a problem with them chips?”
“Looks like yer have.”
“Last supper syndrome,” I say.
“When you go to the electric chair,” I say, “you get a last request. A last meal. You can have anything you want. In America they always order chips. Hamburger and chips. But what happens when the food comes? Do you think they can eat it? I mean, just half an hour before they make that final trip. The one to the buzz buzz chair.
Goodnight world. I mean, would you have any appetite, if it was you?” I'm saying this, but this is what I'm thinking: suppose it was your last meal and they sent you rubbish chips. I mean, would you think, oh well it doesn't really matter because I’ll be cinders in half an hour anyway, or would it make you mad? Your very last wish on earth thwarted by some lousy cook? Would you jump and scream and demand a stay of execution until you got decent chips?
“You cheeking me?”
“No,” I say.
“You are. You cheeky little blighter.”
He comes out from behind the counter bearing a dripping red, squeezy bottle of ketchup.
“You give me sauce,” he says, “and I'll give you sauce!” He lunges
at me, squooshing ketchup over my chips. Great, sloppy puddles of
red sauce, which look like regurgitated sausage casserole, or
strawberry jam, or plain, old-fashioned blood.
“Oh yes,” he replies, emphatically. “Oh Yes! Here yer go! On the house!” He doesn't stop squeezing until my plate is a lake of red. Then he wipes his brow with his sleeve, take a fat satisfied breath and points the bottle at me. “Now, get out of here, you little creep.”
I don't need telling twice. I grab for my jacket, fumble and drop it. As I bend over to get it, I hear the burp of the sauce bottle. There's a wet flimp on my neck, my hair. The back of my sweatshirt. “You understand English?” he yells. “I said, scram! Beat it!”
Don't worry. I scram. I beat it. But I do have the foresight to grab a couple of serviettes in transit.
“You filthy little thief,” he screams. “I’ll get the police on you.”
But I'm already across the Kingsway and into Vallance Gardens. I
don't stop for at least 200 yards, not until I'm out of breath and
convinced he's not following me. Then I wipe my hair and neck with
the serviettes but I can't reach the muck on my back. So I
It's then that I look at my watch. It's five to eight. I don't
believe it! After all this time-wasting, I'm going to be late. I
start running, but I'm not sure why. Is it normal for condemned men
to run to their executions? I mean, what's the hurry? The fact that
Niker said he'd kill me if I wasn't there? What difference is that
going to make?
Can he have gone round the back already? I edge my way around the side of the house. It is much darker here, the pools of light from the street hardly penetrating at all. Beneath my feet the ground seems lumpy, humps of mud, tussocky grass. I don't remember the earth being so uneven before. But that was when I could see it.
Something grabs at my leg and for some reason I think it's wire, even though I know it has to be the low branches of one of the overgrown bushes. I want to reach for the torch that's in my backpack but I don't. Because, although I want to see, I don't want to be seen. So I stumble on to the corner and turn into the wet, still garden. It's even darker here, no light at all from the street and only the smallest spill of yellow from a couple of lit windows in adjacent buildings. Where are the stars? I look up. The night has clouded over and the sky is now a haunting milky blue.
I listen for a sound which might be Niker. Though I'm not entirely sure what sort of sound Niker might be making in a dark garden all by himself. I hear the hum of a generator, a drip which could be guttering, the honk and swerve of cars and, rather nearer, the sound of my own breathing. I walk towards the kitchen, stepping suddenly from grass to concrete. My feet making a different noise here, hard and echoless.
What if Niker's already gone in? What if he's waiting in the house for me? Slowly, I tilt my head upwards. He'd go to the room, of course. Stand at the broken window. Look out. Down.
Next thing I hear is a violent crash, the sound of falling and a scream. I wheel around.
“For Chrissake - who left that there?”
Niker has fallen over the microwave.
His body is spreadeagled in the dirt. As I look at him, I can't help thinking that, if he'd fallen slightly to the left, he would have landed on the concrete.
“Are you just going to stand there gawping, or are you going to
give me a hand?”
He pulls himself upright and claps off the worst of the dirt.
“Where’s your backpack?” I ask.
“Backpack? What backpack?”
“Your one for...things.”
“This isn't a hike in the Himalayas, Norbie. Just a little climb up some stairs in a house.” He pauses. “Oh right - don't tell me - you've brought cramping irons, an ice-pick, a camping stove, some baked beans and a bar of soap.”
“Crisps,” I say. “And an apple.”
“You are one serious boy scout, Norbert. Me - I just have the sleeping bag.” He pauses. “Correction. Used to have the sleeping bag.” He drops to his knees and begins scrabbling about in the grass. “Gotcha,” he says after a minute or two. As he stands up he swings a small drawstring bag over his shoulder. “Now, let's get on with the job, shall we?”
He leads the way to the kitchen and ducks under the swinging mesh. The wind is strong enough to be grating the holly branch against the window over the non-existent sink.
Scrape. Pause. Scrape.
“Ssh,” I say to Niker.
Scrape. Pause. Scrape.
“What is it, Niker?” I want him to be as scared as I've been.
“Well, Norbert, I'd say it was the incredibly sinister sound of a tree branch scraping against a pane of glass. What would you say?”
But I'm not saying anything because I've just noticed the brick. Or rather the lack of brick. Of course, some of the dark shapes on the floor probably are bricks, but they don't look like my brick. The one that can be up against the door. But isn't. Which means either no-one's been in the house since I was here last or - that someone's in the house right now.
“Brick,” I say.
“Don't start,” says Niker. He kicks his way across the rubble and holds opens the door to the inner house. “After you.”
I pick my way slowly across the room, climb the step and then stop. I don't want to be first into the corridor. Not just because of what might lie ahead but because of what will definitely lie behind. Niker. I don't want to have my back to him.
“Can we speed things up a bit here, Norbie?” There's a shove at the base of my spine and then I'm in the corridor. He is quickly in behind me and the door swings shut. I think he will push me again. But he doesn't. We are both held by the quality of the dark. It's like someone's thrown black paint in our eyes. I feel I ought to be able to rub it away, but I can’t.
After a moment Niker says: “You got anything useful in that bag of yours?”
“Like a torch, for instance?”
“Yes. Yes! I have.”
I unbuckle the backpack and dip in my hand. Sleeping bag, crisp packet, apple, crisp packet, bottle of Evian water, penknife, crisp packet again. What if the torch never made it? Ridiculous. Crisp packet, apple, crisp packet. What if I left the torch on the bed? Packed everything else, but forgot the torch? I begin to scrabble. Crisps. Don't panic. Of course it's here, I can feel the weight of it. Although the weight could be the bottle of water. It's Dad's torch, the sealed black rubber one he used to keep in the car. Mum laughed at him, called it the Mackintosh Torch, offered to buy it matching wellingtons.
“Give it here.”
Niker almost snatches the torch from me.
“Yeuch - what do you call this?”
“Rubber truncheon more like.” I can sense him turning it, searching for the ‘on’ button.
“Ideal,” says Niker. “Ah!” He locates the button. The beam is pale and insubstantial. He points the torch at the floor and then the ceiling. The beam barely reaches. “Does it have any setting other than dim? No, don't bother to answer that, Norbert.”
Now he has the torch, Niker takes the lead. Quietly, I follow.
He's found the gap between the floor and the skirting board. The torchlight flickers over the filing cabinets, the desk, the lamp shades, the sink.
“Basement,” I say.
“Basement!” scoffs Niker. “Den, more like. Problem with you, Norbert, is you have no imagination.”
Problem with me is I have too much imagination. We are coming to the entrance hall, the one with the sledgehammered terracotta tiles. And I can hear that creak again. The wooden-gallows sound.
I look at Niker. He's got the torch low on the tiles. Can't he hear the creak?
“Jeez,” says Niker. “Who's done this?” He picks up a broken tile and runs his finger down the edge. “Sharp as a knife, this. You could kill someone with one of these. Death by tile.” As he stands up, I see him slip the shard into his pocket.
Now he hears it. He turns towards the sound, faces the stairs, points the torch. But the beam doesn't quite reach.
“Ssh!” He extends his arm as if that will make the beam reach the
bottom tread. It doesn't. And in any case the light is faltering,
tremoring between dim and very dim.
“What is it?”
“It's the sound of the house,” I say
“Houses don't make sounds,” Niker says.
“This one does.”
He thrusts the torch into my face. I don't know whether he's looking for knowledge or fear. Niker would make a good interrogator. But not with this light. It's weakening by the minute. The moment. And Niker knows it, which is why he has it shining at me and not the stairs now because the beam does, just, reach my face. And he is pretending - as I am – that the batteries are not fading when they clearly are fading. The light wavers, it rockers, off, on, off, on. And then off. Off. No light at all. Not hazy. Not gloomy. But pitch black. I cannot see Niker. He cannot see me.
There's an appalled silence and then he yells: “You jerk! You stupid, idiotic, brainless jerk!” I hear him wrestling with the torch, pulling and pushing and tearing, as if he could bring it back to life by throttling it. “You're a moron,” he continues. “An imbecile. A halfwit. A quarterwit. A drongo. How could you bring a torch with dud batteries, you, you…GERBIL!”
“You,” I mention, “didn't bring a torch at all.”
He lunges towards my voice. I feel the force of his body as wind moving. But be never arrives. He catches a foot on one of the loose tiles, skids and falls. I hear a hard object, the torch presumably, ricochet off a wall. I'm glad. He doesn't have a truncheon now.
“Ow!” he shrieks.
“Shut up,” I hiss.
“I said, Shut up. There could be other people in the house.” But suddenly I don't think so. If anyone was in the house then they would have come to investigate by now. This gives me a small surge of confidence. This and two other facts: one, that my eyes are already getting accustomed to the dark; and two, that the dark should be to my advantage anyway. After all I know Chance House and Niker doesn't. Although of course, it will get slightly lighter as we get to the top of the house. The mesh is only on the windows of the first two floors.
“Come on,” I say, “get up.”
He paws up at me. When our hands meet, he grips mine tightly.
“Shall I go first?” I offer.
He stumbles past me to where he knows the stairs begin, steadies himself to find the banister. With the banister he can be safe. He thinks. Underfoot is the stripped wallpaper, but he's going carefully. He negotiates it with apparent ease. I let him get a tread or two in front of me. He's gaining confidence, lifting his feet automatically, used now to the depth of tread, the glue-stiff paper. Then, all of a sudden he's on it.Sinking in.
“Oh God, oh no! Norbert!”
“It's only lagging,” I say, casually
“You know, that spongy stuff they put round boilers, to keep the heat in?” It's under my feet now. The suck and squish of it. Niker is breathing hard and I don't need a 100-watt lightbulb to tell what his expression is. I contemplate saying out loud the little thing that's nagging him, i.e., “You see I have been here before, Niker”, but I remember he's got the tile shard la his pocket, so I don't.
He ploughs on, up the stairs to the two and then, hugging the wall, across the landing. Halfway up the next flight of stairs is the fire door. Niker pauses but I don't think it's because he sees the door. Even I, who know it's there, can only see shadows. It would be decent of me to warn him. But I don't.
He grips on to the banister again and begins the last ascent. He's going slightly faster now, maybe because he's angry. Maybe because there's no paper on the stairs here. I keep dose behind him, pressurising him to keep up the speed. The fire door is white wood and glass. Niker smashes straight into it. He reels from the impact and I'm too close so he knocks into me, and we both lose our footing and fall. Him on top. His elbow is in my nose and my bum bounces down two treads, but I still think it's worth it. Niker is moaning. Really moaning. Although I think it's mainly the shock.
“That door was open,” I mention as I pull myself out from under him. “Last time.” The boldness makes me feel all shivery.
He continues to moan. But I think he's heard me.
“Still got your sleeping bag?” I ask. My backpack is still firmlly strapped on, though I don't hold out much hope for uncrushed crisps.
Niker has dropped his bag.
“Do you want me to look for you?” I offer. And then I say, “Are you all right?”
“In slightly under an hour,” says Niker, dragging himself to a sitting position, “I have fallen over a microwave, tripped on some sharp tiles, slammed into a door that should never have been there, slammed so hard into the said door that even my bruises have bruises, and you ask if I'm all right. Of course, I'm all right, you stupid jerk. Why wouldn't I be?” He glares in my direction. “And yes, you can get my sleeping bag.”
I contemplate going back down to the landing and claiming not to be able to find it. But then I remind myself that I'm not really a mean person (and maybe I'm also mindful of that shard) so I do my best and there it is, as expected, in the comer. It's come to rest by a piece of corroded pipe. I can feel the powdery rust on the metal opening. And as it's only a small piece of piping, about the length of my thumb, I pop it into Niker's drawstring bag, pushing it down into what I hope is the opening of his sleeping bag. I think I'm getting the hang of this darkness business.
I take the bag back up the stairs and hand it to him.
“Are there really ducks?” he asks then.
“Yes,” I say
There’s a pause into which he could insert the word “sorry”, but he
We walk side by side up the last of the stairs. The door to Top Floor Flat, Chance House, is open, just as before. As I expected there is slightly more light here, partly because of the unmeshed windows but also because two of the rooms look over the front of the house, so there is some filtering streetlight. Niker scans the kitchen, the sitting room, the sledgehammered bathroom, and then sees the front room with the mattress.
“Five star,” he says. “That'll be my room.”
“Suit yourself,” I say The back room is pulling me. Somehow, in my
imagination, I haven't got further than this: the dark, the fear.
Niker. But now there's something else. I think it's David Sorrel.
Wanting me in that room, as though there is something to find after
all. As though Edith Sorrel's wisdom is in there and, last time, I
just missed it.
“Ducks,” I say. A million duck eyes stare at us.
“I expect Mrs Sorrel told you,” says Niker. “You were discussing home furnishings, then and now, and she told you.”
I don't bother to answer that, because I'm moving towards the window with the star of glass cut from it. I feel quite determined, quite peaceful. I am, after all, the sort of boy who can fly
“What are you doing?” says Niker suddenly
“Just want to look out the window.”
“No,” he says.
“No!” He dodges in front of me.
“Get out of my way, Niker.”
“What's wrong with you?”
“Nothing's wrong with me.”
“The window's broken. You're three floors up.”
“I know that, Niker.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I told you. I'm going to look out of the window.”
“Yes. That's all.”
He moves aside, but not so far that he couldn't grab me if he wanted to.
There is light coming through the window. The clouds have cleared. There are stars again. Hundreds of millions of stars. And also a moon. A huge silver disc hung in the sky like some giant coin. It’s so beautiful, so perfect, that I want to reach through the hole in the glass and touch it. And I will. But not yet. Not with Niker here.
I turn around, take off my backpack and make a show of searching for a clean space at the back of the room on which to lay my sleeping bag. “Hey - looks like you've got the best deal with that mattress,” I say. He watches me arrange things, take out the packet of plain crisps, the bottle of water.
“I think it would be better if we stuck together,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say “But no thanks. If you want crisps…”
“See you in the morning then,” I say cheerily
“I'm not letting you sleep in here by yourself.”
“You mean you don't want to sleep in there by yourself.”
“No, I don't mean that.”
“What do you mean then?”
“I just don't think you should sleep in here.”
“Why? Because of David Sorrel?”
“What are you afraid of, Niker?”
“Me? I'm not afraid of anything.”
“Well, push off then.” I begin to remove my donkey jacket. “Nightie, night, Niker. Oh - and shut the door, will you?”
Grudgingly, he retreats. “I’ll be listening,” he says. “If you go anywhere near that window…”
He doesn't shut the door, but the configuration of the rooms is such that, I know, even with both doors wide open, he will not be able to see the star hole window.
I have plenty of time so I wait. Take a sip of water and open one of the bags of crisps. They are crushed, as expected, and I crush them some more, so Niker will think I'm eating. I even wait after I hear the zip of his sleeping bag. Then, just as I think he may be drifting off he suddenly shouts across the landing: “Did you bring a good book?”
“No, I got the telly,” I call back.
“This mattress is disgusting. It's got bird shit on it.”
“Well, don't go on. Everyone will want it.”
“Fancy a chat? You know, person to person? This long-distance stuff can get expensive.”
“No thanks.” I yawn. “I'm on the way out. Just going to tidy up my three-course dinner, then it's bed byes for me. Curtains.”
“That's what I said.”
He leaves the sort of pause that my mum leaves before she says “I love you”.
Niker says: “There’s a piece of piping in my sleeping bag.”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“I've got the same. I think it must be a free sample.”
“Why aren't you funny at school?”
“Why aren't you nice at school?”
“Sure you don't need me to join you in the master bedroom?”
“Sure. Night, Niker.”
He shuts up after that. I think about waning until I can hear him snore. But if he doesn't snore that could be a long time. So I give it about five minutes and then I pick a stealthy way across the bare floorboards. Of course one of them creaks, but Niker either doesn't hear or doesn't react. Perhaps he's getting used to tile noises the house makes. Perhaps he really is asleep. Please let him be asleep.
And please let there be no clouds. I need the sky to be dear. I need…Yes! I arrive at the window and there it is again. My perfect, magnetic moon. You can see why tides follow the moon. I feel the pull myself, the power of that huge planet hanging there, just beyond the broken glass. The latch of the window is old-fashioned, an arm of metal, heavy, pierced like a belt and painted cream. I lift it and know at once that the window is quite free. It will open with the gentlest of pushes.
And that's when the heavens come into the room, or I go out of it. The moon, the stars, the night wind, the vault of the sky. I inhabit it all and it inhabits me. The freedom, the vastness, the power. And also the beauty. And of course I'm not going to jump. I know that I cannot fly. Not with wings anyway. But I can fly, yes. Can stand bold at the top of Chance House because I have walked up each step of my fear and arrived here. Twice. And that gives the power. Power over myself and power over Niker. Who is still afraid. I breathe deep, inhaling and exhaling the possibilities of this night and, just for a moment, I feel gigantic. I feel capable of anything.
“No!” Niker screams from the door. “Don't do it!” He sprints across the room and rugby-tackles me to the ground.
“Oh no, no - I don't believe it!” His hands are on the back of my sweatshirt. “What have you done! What is this!” he yells.
“Tomato sauce,” I say, or rather I mumble as my face is squashed to
“Trust me,” I say spitting. “It's tomato sauce. Courtesy of one Mr Deep-Fat, Vinney's Chip Shop. I’ll tell you about it some other time. Now, do you think I could get up, please?”
He lets me go and then jumps up himself, pulls shut the window and stands guard, blocking the sky.
“What do you think you were doing?” he demands.
I can't tell him I was feeling gigantic, so I just say: “None of your business.”
“If you fall out,” he says, “they'll blame me. They'll think I pushed you.”
“Oh,” I say, “is that what's bothering you? Mind you, who'd know? From my position on the concrete, I wouldn't be doing a lot of talking.”
“This is not a joking matter.”
“Isn't it? I thought everything was a joke with you. Shane Perkiss,
“They have to do with - grapes.” And, for the first time, when I say the word ‘grapes’, I do not feel sick.
“I don't trust you,” says Niker.
“You don't trust me!” Very slowly I get up and cross to where my backpack is. I get out an apple. I also get out a penknife.
“Either you sleep in my room,” he says, “or I sleep here.”
I cut the apple in half. “I'm not shifting.”
“Right then, I’ll get my gear. And you don't move. You stay right where you are.” He's out of the room for less than a minute, but I still have time to prepare eight perfect crescents of apple.
He lays his sleeping bag so close to mine they are almost touching. He must be lonely as well as frightened.
“Oh - go on.”
He takes apiece. Looks at me. Bites. “Yeuch.”
“It doesn't taste good?”
“Oh - perhaps that was the bit I wiped my bum with.”
He gags and spits.
Now, I know it's not a very pleasant thing to say and it also isn't true. But I say it because of the Grape Incident. This is what happened. Niker took me and Pinky and Perky into The Dog Leg. They were both new boys, Jon Pinkman and Shane Perkiss. and they wanted to belong, and that meant being on Niker's team. So they did what he asked. And I did it too. Although for me the reason was fear.
It's only a game,” he said. “A dare. This is how you play…”
Each of us was given a grape, a fat green grape. He told us to put it between the cheeks of our bum. And we did. Then there was to be a crawling race. From the first bend in The Dog Leg to the second. Niker had a whistle. He blew it. The person who came last in the race had to eat the grapes. I came last.
Pinky said then, “Surely it's a joke?”
And Niker said, “No.” It was a test, all initiation. We'd agreed to take part so we had to abide by the rules. He pushed those grapes into my mouth himself.
“Water?” I offer him now. He didn't offer me any water in The Dog Leg.
He takes the water and swills out his mouth.
“Do you want me to say ‘sorry’?” he asks.
“Sorry,” he says and then he says, “Robert.”
And of course I should be glad. Because I have dreamed of this moment, rehearsed it a thousand impossible times in my mind: Jonathan Niker apologising. Jonathan Niker saying sorry to me. But my victory is hollow, sad even. There's something obscene about Niker with his sleeping bag so pathetically close to mine and his head bowed. He looks crushed. Small.
“Forget it,” I say. And then, after a moment, “No, don' forget it.
Because I won't. I’ll never forget what you did, Niker.” He still
looks small. “But don't worry about the apple. It was just one of a
really weird bunch Mum got cheap at the market. Want a crisp?”
He gets into his sleeping bag and turns away from me. I imagine it will be a long time before he sleeps. But it isn't. Almost immediately he falls into a profound slumber. When the rhythms of his body turn him towards me once again, he looks like a baby. Curled up and peaceful and utterly innocent.
I'm tired now myself. At least my body is tired, exhausted even. But my brain will not let me rest. There is still the matter of David Sorrel. It was David who brought me here, who allowed me, for probably the first time in my life, to feel powerful. And David who I need to repay I need to know what really happened to him and I need to give something back to Mrs Sorrel, for she has kept her part of the bargain. She said there was wisdom in his room and there is. But there is obviously something else.
Something that she still seeks and I must find. But what? What am I supposed to return to her? I get up and begin to pace. The floor creaks but it neither worries me nor wakes Niker. In fact, after a while, I find it comforting, something predictable, something known.
I don't know how many circuits of the room I make. Maybe fifteen. Maybe twenty. I look in and between things. I push my nails in the dirt cracks of floorboards. I peel off pieces of wallpaper to reveal nothing but dusty plaster. The ducks observe me, unimpressed. There is nothing here. Nothing physical anyhow. Except a couple of feathers. Three feathers to be precise: small, greyish, unremarkable. Pigeon feathers probably, dropped by some bird who came to through the hole in the glass to shelter here a night. Perhaps the same bird, or birds, who shat on Niker's mattress. Not objects likely to radically alter a person's life. But I slip them in my pocket anyway. Then I return to my pacing. When I can walk no more I climb into my sleeping bag. I toss, I turn. I listen to the measured sound of Niker's breathing. Typical. I cannot imagine how, with his bruised body, he is sleeping on this hard, hard floor. But he is sleeping and I am awake. It's because I can't stop thinking and this is what it all comes down to: I wanted the Top Floor Flat, Chance House to be the end of things, but now I have to accept it's only the beginning.