Extract from Desolation

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

An extract from Desolation, Chapter One

Cain had few possessions, even fewer memories, and no family. Nowhere seemed a perfect place to begin his new life.

The taxi dropped him at the kerbside and left him sitting on his suitcase, several plastic carrier bags scattered around his feet like bloated dead pigeons, real birds chattering from gutters and telephone lines, irate at his intrusion. He turned to the wooden chest beside him on the pavement and grabbed its handle, hardly surprised when he found he could lift one end from the ground with ease. Its weight seemed to vary with his own moods. Today, he was happy to be here.

The street sign announced itself as Endless Crescent, but some wit had daubed Nowhere across the name in bright blue paint, ironic vandalism that would likely confuse more than amuse. Such skewed intelligence was hardly in evidence in other graffiti that decorated walls along the street, occasional proclamations such as, ‘Darren woz yer’, and ‘Mandy has a wet pussy’, and ‘Follow me for the Way’. Some of the perpetrators had imagined themselves as artists, the vandalism taking on colours and shades and shapes that were meant to bestow individuality. Such ego was a nonsense, as the work was always done in secret. Cain stared at one of the names sprayed across the side of a garage in great green swathes, ‘Kelvin’, the tails of the ‘K’ turned up into crude wings, the dot of the ‘i’ a hooded eye, comical when it was intended to be threatening. He wondered where Kelvin was now, what he was doing, and whether he even knew himself.

Someone had once tried planting trees in an attempt to turn Endless Crescent into an Avenue, but their efforts had been led nowhere. Thin stumps protruded from squares of removed paving slabs, snapped off at waist height or lower, kicked and scarred, and blackened with dog piss and rot. The ground around them held more life, weeds sprouting as if in mockery of the trees’ doomed attempts at existence.

The houses in the street were all large, an unusual mix of modern and Victorian, mostly three-storeys, and over half of them had been converted into flats. The unmistakeable signature of student accommodation marked some: open windows blaring a heady mixture of rock and dance music, bikes chained to garden fences like dangerous pets, uncurtained windows displaying half a dozen scenes of domesticity gone awry. Most of the houses were in a good state of repair, though one or two looked as if they should have been condemned years ago. Indeed, one house directly across the street from where Cain sat seemed to have been surrendered back to the wilds. Its render had blown and been shed right across the front façade, and its windows were smashed, boarded up from the inside. The front garden was a riot of weeds and unkempt roses bushes. Cain could see the house’s name plate bolted to the wall beside the corrugated iron front door: ‘Heaven’. A joke, surely. He closed his eyes and shook his head, and when he looked again the sign still read the same.

A shout sounded from somewhere out of sight, a woman’s shrill voice calling some missing kid in for lunch. Perhaps it had been missing for months and the woman tried this every day, hoping that continued normality would bring her child scampering back to her from whatever unknown distance it had travelled.

Cain looked down at his feet. Narrowing his field of vision helped him to calm his nerves. He shifted slightly and the suitcase flexed beneath him, threatening to burst open and spill his clothes across the street like fabric guts. He should go. He should stand and drag his possessions along to Number 13, his new home, his new life, or so he had been told. It’s time to stand on your own two feet, the Face had said, handing him another pill.

Two children ran along the street, laughing and swearing, and laughing again at their secret rebellion. To Cain they seemed easily old enough to be in school, and too young to be out on their own. They stopped a few feet from him and sized him up, their eyes far too mature for their age.
All Cain could remember of his own childhood were the dreams.

“Hey mister!” the taller of the two kids said. “You wearing that coat for a bet?”

Cain glanced down at the duffel coat, up at the sky, the sun burning its way through a haze of clouds. “It was cold where I came from,” he said.

“Where’s that then, the fuckin’ Arctic?” the short kid said, and they both laughed.

“No, not that far away,” Cain said, trying to remember the name of the home, but there were only feelings and sensations — rough sheets on his bed, sterile décor, dirty floors — and the Face and Voice giving him advice and pills, food and comfort.

“I like your new sitting room,” the tall kid said. “Where are we, then, in your kitchen? Where you going to sleep, in the box?”

Cain smiled. “It’s a chest,” he said, “and I’m sure I’d never fit in there.”

“Bet I would,” the short kid said.

“I’m sure you would.”

The three fell silent for a few seconds, a silence loaded with something uncomfortable that Cain could not quite pin down. Had he issued a slight threat? Had the kids perceived it that way? Or were they threatening him?

“I’ve just moved here,” he said, “from somewhere else.”

“The fuckin’ Arctic!” the kids said in unison, giggling at their humour.

“Shouldn’t you two be in school?”

They looked uncomfortable at that, avoiding his eyes, kicking at a crushed tin can and giving the street another note to its urban theme. Cain wondered if the sounds around him made up the whole, or whether the street would have been exactly the same without them. He doubted that. Tin can rattling, distant music blaring, mothers shouting, a dog barking, cars grumbling, kids screaming, pans crashing, doors slamming… he was somewhere unique, a place set apart from anywhere else by its own distinct sounds, sights and smells. He tried not to sense too much.

“There,” Cain said. “That’s my new place. At least, a part of it is.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the letter of introduction, already crinkled and grubby from many readings. Afresh Respite Home, Tall Stennington, the letterhead read, and he knew where he was from.

The kids looked to where he was pointing and laughed, punching and grappling each other as they turned and ran away from Cain. “So you’re another fuckin’ nutter then!” the tall one shouted over his shoulder, running faster as if to escape the words.

“What?” Cain stood from his suitcase. But the kids slipped into a lane between two houses and were lost to him, leaving behind only an echo in his mind…another fuckin’ nutter… “We’ll see,” Cain said. He looped his finger through the carrier bag handles, lifted the suitcase, hefted the chest with his other hand — it still felt very light, almost empty, and he could move it by dragging one end along the ground — and approached Number 13 Endless Crescent. “We’ll see.”

The front gate swung open when Cain nudged it with his knee, and he was able to negotiate his way through and kick it shut behind him without having to put anything down. There was a path and a planting bed and that was it; no lawn, no gravelled area. The plants were waist-high and lush, their leaves dark green, big, spiked, like something from a rainforest instead of a suburban front garden in South Wales. And although there was variety here, all the plants must have belonged to the same family. Some leaves were larger than others, a slightly different shape, an alternative shade of dark green, but they were all spiked, with bright orange flowers hidden down at the leaf stems as if hiding away from the sun instead of seeking it. The many bees harvesting their pollen were fat, heavy and lazy, providing a low background drone. It was strange, but Cain did not know why. The only other garden he knew was at the Afresh Respite Home, and that had consisted of a huge, square lawn with a few random shrubs at its edges and a summer house in one corner.

Functional and easily maintained, with nowhere for mad folk to hide.

As he approached the front door, Cain realised that the garden was louder than the street. Leaves whispered in a slight breeze, bees bumbled from one flower to the next, and down beneath the waist-high canopy something was scurrying around in the shade. Birds, perhaps. Or mice. But all these sounds were somehow louder than the occasional car passing beyond the gate, the woman still calling her child’s name in vain, the music polluting the summer day from open windows. It was as if coming through the gate had moved him on a great distance.

For the first time Cain felt truly alarmed at being out here on his own, away from what he knew. He had been thrilled when the Face told him it was time to leave, invigorated, proud of his soon-to-be independence. Although his father’s death and much of Cain’s existence from before were little more than dreams — like the memory of a book read long ago, someone else’s life and experiences — he felt strong and fit and ready to begin again. He knew he was ready, he was certain of it… and yet he craved that Face, and that soothing Voice. The cool hand on his brow. The calm void of drug-induced sleep.

Natural sleep was when it hit him the most. Then, so the Voice had said, Cain’s mind tried to compensate for his lack of memories by creating false ones. Never trust them, he had said, they lie, and dreaming is going to hinder your recovering mind as much as aid it. Cain had his doubts, but the Voice knew what it was on about, he was qualified. Cain shook his jacket and heard the comforting rattle of pills. Here, the Voice had said quietly just as Cain was leaving, don’t tell… but take these. They’ll help you to settle in with only reality as your bedfellow.

“Help you?”

Cain spun around, letting out an involuntary squeal.

“Whoops, sorry!” The man in the doorway held up both hands and stepped back into the house. “Didn’t mean to spook you.”

“I’m not spooked,” Cain said. Strange choice of words. “Just a bit startled. Sorry. I was admiring the garden.”

“Ah yeah, the plants. They look a bit severe but they keep people to the path.” The man came forward again, down the small front door step so that he was on a level with Cain. He was only Cain’s height, but something about his bearing made him appear taller.

“I’m here for the flat,” Cain said. “I have this.” He handed over the crumpled letter from Afresh, and the kids’ parting shot echoed once more in his mind, another fuckin’ nutter…

The man opened the letter, smoothed it several times as if the creases contained hidden messages. There were none — Cain had read it a hundred times on the way here — but still he was nervous at what would be found.

“That seems fine,” the man said. “I’ve had the flat ready for a couple of days, wasn’t sure when to expect you. Come on in and I’ll show you up.”

“That’s it?” Cain said. It all felt so easy.

The man gave him a frank up-and-down inspection, as if looking for scars or something less visible. “As I said, I’ve been expecting you. The people who sent you appear to be very good payers, and everything’s sorted. I’m not going to make anything hard for you with the deal I have with them. You stay here for a whole year, I get paid. You do a bunk at the end of the first week and disappear, I still get a year’s money. Not bad, eh?”

“Not bad,” Cain said, impressed, confused, flattered at the Home’s confidence in him.

“I’m Peter,” the man said, holding out his hand.

“Cain.”

“Pleased to meet you, Cain. First name? Last?”

“Just Cain. It’s easier to remember.”

Silence hung heavy for a few seconds, backed by buzzing bees and rustling beneath the plants that kept people to the path.

“So what happened? The letter says you’re been in the Home for quite a while.”

“My father died.”

Peter raised his eyebrows, expecting more.

Cain frowned, looked down, and he could remember nothing.

“No worries, just me being nosey,” Peter said. “Never could keep my nose out of other people’s business. Comes with being a landlord, I guess. Come on in.”

Cain heard something in Peter’s voice that told him he would be questioned again later. How would the landlord take the answer?

I don’t really know what happened to me, Cain would have to say. My father died, but before that there was only loneliness, and time, so much time. I don’t remember much of it except in dreams. And most of those are bad. Would Peter want someone without a past in his building, good deal or not?

Peter took the suitcase and left Cain with his carrier bags and the chest. Cain hefted the latter up over the front door step, and for the briefest instant it felt heavy, heavier than was possible, as if suddenly filled with lead. He grunted and let the chest hit the floor, then tried again. It slid easily across the quarry-tiled lobby.

“Hot day,” Peter said. “You warm in that coat?”

“It was cold where I came from.”

“Tall Stennington?” Peter headed for the staircase, head tilted slightly awaiting the answer, but Cain offered none. The landlord dropped the suitcase unceremoniously at the foot of the stairs, then turned around and grinned at Cain where he struggled with the chest.

“No lift, I’m afraid,” Peter said. “Almost had one put in a couple of years back for a guy who lived on the second floor. He used a wheelchair, so I’d have got a grant from the council. Then I could have charged more because I’d have been disabled access compliant. But he didn’t need it in the end.”

“Did you give him a flat down here?”

“No, he died.” Peter stared at Cain, obviously expecting a reaction. But Cain was not surprised at the revelation. It hardly seemed important. People die, he thought, and his own lack of concern chilled him.

“So where’s my flat?” he asked, glancing up the staircase. The lobby and stairs were wide, bright and airy. The walls had been decorated a pale yellow, and over time they had been scuffed and chipped from people walking up and down, apparently leaning against the wall for support. The vinyl flooring was the same colour. Lovely, he thought.

“He was killed. They found him on Rich Common with half his stomach eaten.”

Cain frowned, shook his head, avoided Peter’s gaze. “How do they know it was eaten?”

“Sorry?”

“How do they know?”

Peter shrugged. “Teeth marks, I suppose.”

“Right,” Cain said. This fool was trying his best to be antagonistic. All Cain wanted right now was to see his room, make it his own for the future, unpack, lie down and spend his first night in… ages. Ages, he thought. It’s been ages since I slept free.

“Room five, attic room,” Peter said, suddenly bright and casual again. “Come on, I’ll give you a hand with that!” He grabbed for the chest handle, and for a second Cain was going to lash out. Leave me alone! he thought, but it made no sense, and by the time he realised that Peter had lifted the chest and started climbing. It thumped from tread to tread. The tapping Cain thought he heard in accompaniment must surely have been an echo.

“Come on!” Peter said, pausing on the sixth stair, looking down at Cain and smiling. “And don’t mind me. I’m a bit morbid at times. Watch too much shit on TV.” He laughed as he started up again.
Cain hefted his suitcase and carrier bags and followed his new landlord. “So who else lives here?” he asked.

“Ah yes,” Peter said, paused on the first floor landing. “I should have given you the tour. Oh well, maybe later. There are a few things I need to show you — laundry room in the basement, fire escape, alarm board, post boxes, that sort of stuff. But for now… well, who else lives here.” He looked at Cain and smiled again. Then he giggled.

“What is it?”

“Well, mate, you’re sharing a house with some odd folk, that’s for sure.”

Another fuckin’ weirdo, the kid had said. “Odd? How so?”

“Where to begin?” Peter said. “Follow me up and I’ll talk you through your new neighbours.”

Cain felt uncomfortable at the thought of Peter describing his neighbours out here on the stairs and landings. Any of them could be listening, and he did not want their opinions of him to be tainted by what their mutual landlord had to say. But no doors cracked open, no shadows revealed lurking residents, and he thought that maybe they were all out. At work, perhaps. Or wherever it was they went during the day. Freedom was not something Cain was used to, and he could not imagine anyone not taking full advantage of it.

“Ground floor,” Peter said, “Flat One. Sister Josephine. Don’t ask me if that’s her real name. Bit of alright beneath her habit, I reckon, but as I’ve never seen her not wearing it — never — I wouldn’t know. She thinks she’s a bit special.”

“What’s a nun doing living here?”

“Who said she’s a nun?”

“Well, her name…”

“Yeah, but I just said don’t ask.”

They walked along the first floor landing, past two doors, heading for the flight of stairs to the second floor. The idea of inhabiting a dead man’s flat did not disturb Cain as much as it should. At least I’m out, he thought. Peter dropped the chest, glanced at his hand as if in pain, folded his arms and nodded at the closed doors.

“All strange,” he whispered. “It’s the number of the house attracts them. Number 13. Some streets don’t have it at all, you ever noticed that? Evens on one side, they’re fine, but odd numbers… seven, nine, eleven, fifteen… mad, eh? Surely number fifteen would really be thirteen, so it’d be just as fucked up?”

“I’ve heard some buildings miss out their thirteenth floor,” Cain said.

“Ah yes, but do they? Maybe the floors are all there, home to government agencies or alien corporations. Ever thought of that?”

“Not really,” Cain said, although he had read books containing that theory many times. He had no idea whether Peter was serious with any of this, or just testing him, dangling bait of various tastes and textures to see what he bit. Odd folk, thirteenth floor, a nun who may or not be. The landlord seemed just as strange. His face was old before its time — he looked fifty, whereas Cain was certain he was no older than thirty-five — and the lines and crags in his skin hid true meaning like an abstract poem. It would need deciphering, concentration. Cain would need to know it.

“Well, don’t forget it,” Peter said. He laughed again. He seemed to do that a lot, although Cain had yet to hear true humour there. Perhaps after so long in the Home he had become inured against wit.

“So who’s here?” Cain asked. The door he had just passed held a number Four, while the one next to him held a vertical word Three, the ‘T’ hanging askew from where a screw had popped free.

“Well, maybe we should get you to your room first,” Peter said, glancing at Flat Three, at Cain, then back at the door.

I’m too tired for this, Cain thought, too confused, too overawed. I need to sit in my new home and take out my book and read. He had read ‘The Glamour’ a dozen times already, but he never tired of it, always found new messages hidden between chapters, beneath lines, behind paragraphs of exquisite prose and mysterious metaphor. On the surface the book was about invisibility, and Cain could relate. He felt so unseen by the world.

“Yes, maybe that is best,” Cain agreed. He moved past Peter and headed up the flight of stairs to his attic room.

“Oh!” Peter uttered behind him, but Cain had taken the lead. He reached a small landing with two doors leading off, one marked Flat Five, the other bearing only long, deep scratches for its entire height, as if something large and fearsome had tried to get through. Unnerved, he waited for the landlord to reach him.

“Flat Five,” Peter said as he reached the landing, panting with the effort of hauling the chest. “Cain! Not such an odd fellow, perhaps.” He laughed again as he took out a key and unlocked the door, dragging the chest through. He looked at it as if it could contain proof of all the lies he had so recently uttered.

Cain stood on the threshold for a few moments, unsure of what was about to happen. Was his life really starting afresh? Were all the bad times behind him? Would those memories — those torturous dreams of being hurt and alone — ever fade away to give him the peace he craved? He felt the lump of the pill bottle in his jacket pocket, and remembered the Voice’s secret smile as it had pressed them into his palm. Avoidance, Cain thought. I can go on avoiding the truth for ever. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t always there, just as my father is always there. He hurt me, but he loved me. That’s what the Face and Voice said. I have to come to terms with the fact that he simply didn’t know what love was.

“Nice views,” he heard Peter say from somewhere in the flat. Cain stared down at the chest where it sat just inside the door. I’m in there already, he thought. I beat myself in.

“You can see the cathedral to the east, and north are the mountains outside the city. Wintertime, you can see snow on them from here.”

“This is my new home,” Cain whispered, not loud enough for Peter to hear. “I can do what I want in here.” He leaned through the door without setting foot inside, and rested his right hand on the chest. The wood felt warm, but that must have been the weather. “And I’ll never be alone again.”
“Cain?” Peter said, emerging from a room on the left. “You need a hand?”

Cain forced a smile, and then surprised himself by realising that force was not required. “Please,” he said. “I don’t have much stuff, but sometimes it’s heavy.”

“No problem.” Peter lifted one end of the chest and dragged it through the hallway. “I’ll put this in the living room.”

Cain entered his new home and closed the door behind him.

The hallway was large and bright, lit by a rooflight. It was painted entirely white, and hung with contrasting black and grey landscape paintings, surreal, beautiful scenes of dead trees reaching ragged fingers for the viewer. The floor was a pale timber, scored here and there with deep scratches. Three doors led off from the hallway, and Cain was stunned at the scope of his new home. At Afresh he had lived in one room — bed, settee, books, small bathroom leading off to one side. Here, faced with three doors, he felt a sudden rush of panic. What if he got lost?

The second door on his left swung inward again and Peter peered out. “Like it?”

Cain could not speak. His throat felt hot and hard, and he was afraid that if he opened his mouth he would cry. He had cried a lot in his life, but he did not wish to shed tears in front of Peter. He could not say why. Perhaps now, alone in the world, he did not want to appear weak.

“I chose the pictures myself,” Peter said. “I love dead trees. They’re so filled with expression. It’s as if shedding their leaves opens them up to view. What do you think? Do you like dead trees?”

Cain glanced at one of the pictures and nodded.

“Forgive the scratches,” Peter continued, tapping the floor with one foot. “Vlad used to tear the tyres from his wheelchair wheels just to make as much noise as he could.”

“Vlad?”

“The dead guy. An old Russian circus performer, so he said. Broke his back falling from the trapeze. Vicious, horrible bastard he was. Nickname.”

Cain wanted to explore his home, but something kept him motionless. He was a tree waiting to be swayed by a breeze, and the breeze was his own freedom. He had not yet fully grasped it. His father was still there in the background, a shadow standing beside him, holding him still and not for a second allowing him to bend. Pure Sight, a voice whispered, and it was not the Voice. It must have been his father muttering in his mind, come to haunt him now that there was a home to haunt.

But that was plain crazy.

He’s dead and gone, Cain thought, and behind one of the dead tree pictures he saw his own terrified reflection.

“So can I have the tour?” Cain asked.

“Absolutely! You’ll love this place Cain, believe me. I’ve never been to Afresh, but I’ve been places similar. And not to belittle it, but… well, you’ll be free here. Never alone.”

Cain frowned at that — how does he know!? — but followed Peter through the door on the right.

“Bedroom. Big, bright, great views, it even has a small balcony facing out into the back garden.”

“It’s nice,” Cain said. And then he smiled at his understatement. Nice? It was luxurious. The bed was a large double, white sheets and duvet already folded back. The iron bedstead was glossy black, setting off the cream of the walls and carpet. The sloping ceiling was dotted with a dozen inset lights. One entire wall was comprised of glass sliding doors, leading out onto a balcony with decorative wrought iron railings and potted plants softening its harsh lines. Fine net curtains were held back from the windows by metal hooks, affording a view out onto the large back garden and the houses in the next street. The sun was just striking the windows, splashing the floor and already moving in toward the bed.

“It’s fantastic,” Cain said.

Peter shrugged. “Thanks. New carpet. Vlad wore out the old one. There’s a TV in the cupboard there, remote’s on the bedside table.”

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“En suite. Let me show you.”

The bathroom was small but perfect, containing a shower stall as well as a bath and lit, like the hallway, by a rooflight.

Peter took Cain back through the hall and into the living room. This was furnished with various pieces of new furniture, none of it exceptionally expensive but all tasteful and functional. The kitchen was open plan, separated from view by a flowering plant climbing a network of stainless steel wires. The units were glass-fronted, displaying a whole range of cooking and eating utensils, and one cupboard contained a welcome pack of food: tea bags, biscuits, bread, sugar, rice, pasta, some jars of sauce. A door led out to the hallway. And there were more paintings, this time stark representations of animals set against muddy brown backgrounds. Nothing detailed or intricate, just a few white brush strokes revealing enough form and shape to identify. It took Cain until the third painting to realise that they were all depictions of extinct animals.

The living space was large enough to accommodate a dining suite as well, which sat below the wide dormer window facing the street. The walls held yet more paintings, but if they were by the same artist as the others, he or she was extremely adaptable. These images were more abstract, mostly constructed of many-angled shapes interconnecting or hovering within a hair’s breadth of touching, all of them black and white.

Through the large window Cain saw the cathedral as promised, and in the distance he could make out the mountain between office blocks and chimneys. He would sit here and eat breakfast, letting the early morning sun stream in to keep his toast warm. Perhaps the window would be open, letting in birdsong from where birds would roost on the roof around him. He would be alone, but alone with his new life. At Afresh he was never really alone, but he had felt empty and useless. Here, free, he would be able to revel in his own company.

The dreams, he thought, the dreams might still be there. But he would face them. Standing in his new living room, he promised himself that he would not take a sleeping pill tonight. The Voice had given them to help, but now it was time for Cain to help himself. He had spent far too long since his father’s death relying on other people to take care of him.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “I never expected it to be like this.”

“Well, I admit the outside is a bit of a mess,” Peter said.

“No, no, I just never thought I’d have somewhere like this. Live somewhere wonderful like this. Such a blank canvas.” Cain trailed off, aware that he sounded like a child in a toy shop.

“I’ve done a lot of work on it,” Peter said. “Vlad left it in a hell of a shape. Contentious old bastard.”

“How did he live here?”

“Sorry?”

“How did he survive? The stairs? The cupboards on the wall in the kitchen? The shower? You said he had a wheelchair.”

For a second — an instant so brief that Cain may have imagined it between blinks — Peter seemed enraged. But then he smiled that humourless smile again and shrugged.

“Well, I helped him. He paid me. Up the stairs, down the stairs. He could stand, just, when he really wanted to, and in time he may have been able to journey up on his own. But most of the time he chose to stay in the chair. He was… awkward.”

“Eaten, you say?”

Peter raised his eyebrows. “So it’s said. Strange… they never even found his wheelchair.”

Cain walked back through to his bedroom, opened the sliding doors and stood on the balcony. He glanced down into the garden, hoping to see some of the other residents down there, but it was home only to insects, birds and bees. The garden itself was somewhat wild, but weeds were kept down and paths and paved areas were well maintained. It looked like a place where he could be at peace. Sit and read. Enjoy being alive. Even at Afresh that was something he had never done.

“I like it,” he said.

Peter had followed him through and was standing at his back. “Good. I’m pleased. And I’m glad my talk of Vlad didn’t put you off. And anyway, it’s not as if he actually died here.”

Cain turned around. “It wouldn’t have bothered me if he had.”

Peter’s smile faltered, just for an instant, and Cain was pleased. You’re your own man now, the Voice had said. Time to make your mark on the world.

Peter left him the front door key and a phone number to call if there were problems. And when the landlord closed the door behind him, Cain ran from room to room, in and out, kitchen living room hallway bedroom bathroom, back again, filling the flat with himself so that it came to know him.

He opened the dormer window above the dining table and, leaning out, watched Peter cross the street. The landlord stood on the pavement for a few seconds, chatting with two children that may or may not have been the ones from earlier. And then he walked into the unkempt garden of the house named Heaven, prised the corrugated iron front door to one side and vanished within.
Cain went to the shops. There were a lot of things he needed, and he had the money that Afresh had given him to start out on his own. There was a bank account, his father’s money sitting there waiting to be claimed — he had not died a poor man — but for now, Cain did not wish to dwell on such affairs. He had a new life to find first. Then he could pick up the loose ends of his past, confront them, and end them.

He did not see anyone on his way downstairs. He passed by Flat One, wondering whether Sister Josephine was praying in there even now. He had passed Flats Two, Three and Four with no idea of who was inside, and after Peter’s allusion that every occupant was odd, Cain found the silence strangely loaded. There were peep holes in each door and he wondered who was watching him pass by, the lens distorting him into someone new. Perhaps he would knock on Heaven’s door on the way back from the shops, ask Peter the truth.

He left the house.

The front garden fell silent to mark his passing, whether in reverence or disdain Cain could not tell. Probably neither, though ignorance was worse. As he closed the gate the spiky bushes rustled, the bees began to hum, and he was back in Endless Crescent again. The vandalised sign now read wrong; he was not Nowhere. For the first time in his life, he was somewhere he truly wanted to be.
He bought a bottle of wine, an Indian takeaway meal, and a packet of fruit jellies. He planned an evening of indulgence to mark the start of his new life. He felt that was more positive than celebrating the end of the past.

The past…

Cain’s father had never been good to him, though perhaps he was too mad to be truly bad. He had seen Cain as a project, his own subject for experimentation. Cain had tried his best to block those many terrible memories, and they had receded into his dreams, driven underground by his efforts at Afresh. The physical evidence of his past — the impossibility of what had happened to him — was locked away in the chest. He would never open it again, but he knew that he could never lose it completely. Having independence was another step toward creating a whole new life for himself.

Still, those dreams.

Walking back from the shops, Cain took time to really assess the neighbourhood. The buildings were a surprising mix of styles and periods, ranging from Victorian town houses — much like the one housing his new flat — to brand new modern executive homes; five bedrooms, large gardens and four-wheel-drives in the double garage. There were clutches of council houses mixed in with unique self-built homes. A terraced street backed onto a court of luxury apartments. It gave the whole area a surreal atmosphere, as if it had never known itself, nor what it wanted to be. A young businessman in a sharp suit walked along the pavement, talking into a hands-free telephone wrapped onto his ear. Cain nodded but the suit was too busy to reciprocate. Minutes later a gang of youths approached and asked if he had a light. Cain shook his head, unnerved, and they drifted off with a polite, “Thanks mate.” Halfway home he decided to sit and watch people pass by. He used to enjoy doing this at Afresh, but there the strollers were mostly mad.

He found himself outside a small park — little more than a fenced-in area of grass and shrubs, and some tattered play equipment — and sat on a bench dedicated to ‘Dear Jack’. The takeaway meal was going cold but he had a microwave, and besides, the air this afternoon smelled so much fresher knowing he did not have to return to Afresh that evening. No more day passes, no more weekly evaluations, no more prodding and poking, no more trial journeys, no more mornings with the Face smiling down as he woke up, no more evenings with the Voice asking how he was, where had he been, who had he seen. His time spent at Afresh since his father’s death — years, though he had lost track of just how many — was a good time in his memory. He had been treated well and, for the first time in his life, allowed to join in with the community. Interaction was good, they were always told. Whether he had actually wanted to join in, he was still not sure.

The street where he sat was quiet, salubrious, well kept. The few houses facing the park were all slightly different, extended and renovated versions of the same original plan. The cars in their driveways were new, high performance models. His father’s house had been a little larger than any of these, isolated out in the country. That’s where they had found Cain.

A man went by walking his dog. Cain smiled, the man averted his eyes and hurried on, tugging the dog on its leash so that its nails skittered across the pavement. Cain opened his fruit jellies and started eating. He had developed a liking for them at Afresh, and they were still the only sweet he remembered ever having tried.

A woman approached, searching through her handbag, muttering to herself and cursing, quietly at first and then louder. A few steps away from Cain she dropped her bag. Its contents spewed across the pavement; lipsticks rolled, tissues fluttered, notebooks and pens and purse collided and stuttered into the gutter. A mobile phone span on its end and then hit the ground with a crack.

“Fuck!” The woman squatted and began gathering her belongings. She did not appear to be aware of Cain’s presence.

“Need some help?” he asked.

“Shit!” She jerked upright and almost fell over backwards, eyes wide and startled, and her thoughts were a stew of nasty, vile images, ideas that should have driven Cain away, but they were seen and experienced by another part of him.

“Get away from me!” she said.

“I was only offering to help.” He went to kneel down, reaching out for a lipstick that had rolled his way.

“I said get away! I don’t need any help, not from you!” The woman hurriedly gathered her things and shoved them in her bag, pocketing the phone after a cursory glance at its cracked face.

“Really, I’m only trying to help.” Cain felt stupidly ashamed, as if this woman’s reaction were his fault, not her own. The need to explain himself was annoying, but he did not want her thinking bad of him. Not that vileness, that pure viciousness which scored her eyes from the inside out, unpleasant in the extreme.

She stood and stared at Cain for a moment, and he was sure that she was about to apologise, offer tales of missed meetings and lost phone numbers, an empty apology that may at least make him feel a little better. But her face did not change. A big car cruised by, adding a roar to her voice.

“Keep… the fuck… away from me!” She hurried away the way she had come, not glancing around once. Cain watched her go, and it was like saying goodbye to a bad smell. His mind cleared, the taint of her thoughts — expressed through her eyes, her voice, her stance surely, how else, how else could he know? — burned away by the afternoon sun.

“Well, someone needs to work on her manners,” he muttered. A bird landed on the railing behind him and sang its agreement. Cain turned slowly, careful not to scare it away, and he listened to its song, watching its chest vibrate with each warble until it flew into the park.
Back at the house, the other residents still kept themselves to themselves. Cain stood in the downstairs lobby for a while, listening, hoping that one of them would emerge from a flat or come home from work and meet him. He wanted them to accept him, to know that he was living here now, a part of the house’s small community. He still felt strangely unwelcome, as if the house would reject him at any moment. Perhaps it was the silence — he hated silence — and the crazy idea that seconds before he had entered the front door there had been TVs blaring, laughter, doors slamming as people moved from one flat to another, mixing and mingling and being involved in each other’s lives. And yet he also remembered a story he had read once, in which everyone in a block of flats was so reclusive that they ignored a brutal murder in their own courtyard. For them, everything was somebody else’s problem.

The lobby was still. If this was the heart of the house, his entering had caused it to miss a beat.

He started upstairs, and halfway to the first floor landing he paused as something annoyed his ear. Shaking his head, scratching with his finger, swallowing hard, none of these cleared the sensation. It was as if a fly had flown in and was hovering against his eardrum. He moved on, and two stairs later realised that he was hearing music.

Cain paused. The sound came from so far away that it must surely be outside the house, beyond the street, aimless. He held his breath, expecting the music to recede as a car moved away, but it was still there. He moved up to the landing, stood outside Flat Four and knew that the music was coming from inside. He could almost see the timber in the door shimmering and shifting as it transmitted the sound, becoming fluid under such relaxing notes. It was pan pipe music, the type the Face would play at Afresh to calm someone gone wild. The music of the elements; soulful, soothing, evocative. There was no particular tune, no identifiable melody, but it held an allure that bade Cain stay and listen. He remained on the landing with his Indian meal cooling in the bag, bottle of wine in his other hand, dusky sun shining through the landing window and lighting dust motes dancing to the music. The pipes continued. Cain began to think about energy and how it formed, the subtle vibration of the universe all around him, how matter did not matter, and that was not his way of thinking at all.

The music stopped. He shook his head again, this time trying to recapture the tickling against his eardrums. There was a thump from inside Flat Four — a door slamming, perhaps — and then total silence once more.

Cain walked up to his flat, glancing at the scored door next to his before entering. That was a heavy door, and those were deep scratches. He would ask Peter about them tomorrow. There was much that Peter had yet to reveal. But time was on Cain’s side — time was his, now — and with freedom the likes of which he had never known beckoning, there was no reason to rush things at all.
Occasionally when Cain knew things he should not, he tried to attribute it to nothing more than observation. Anything else was too frightening. He had read a lot since his father’s death, fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes he could close his eyes and read people like an open book.

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