some good advice.
The persecutors get their comeuppance.
Aunt Olivia stood leaning against the kitchen surface, vaguely watching the telly through the doorway of the living room. She had asked to speak with Eustace, but was told no contact could be made while the trial was pending. The judge had called a recess of two days to discuss the recent testimony of Virgil’s commanding officer, and Eustace was being held in isolation until the trial was resumed. She felt numbed. She could only keep everything vaguely tidy, throwing away the paint cans and white spirit and doing the remaining washing up. As if through syrup, the familiar trumpeting intro of the news reached her ears. She finished her tea and slowly started to make another as the newsreader told of embezzlement, strike action and an inspirational story about a child prodigy who had made an exact replica of the Eiffel tower out of kit-kats.
The noise of the boiling kettle obscured the news-readers next lines but as Aunt Olivia glimpsed the reporter’s footage out of the corner of her eye, she dropped the spoon she had been holding into her remaining tea. She watched with astonishment as the stark-black facts confronted her on the ceilings and bunks of two bare, military-style rooms. The screen was split down the middle to show a comparison of the two, the squat char-lines and the strewn and crumbled soot and debris zig-zagging and doing figure-of-eights at her as the amateur camera men panned shakily around each room. They focused on the thin holes in the floor, small but jet black with depth. Black that did not fade when the screens slowly illuminated as the cameras adjusted to the drop in ambient light. The kettle stopped boiling.
… current investigation into the disappearance of the two soldiers, thought to be in connection with a military investigation, the details of which remain undisclosed. It may be that more information will be released by military authorities, who have scheduled a press-conference for Monday, but due to the secretive nature of circumstances and information surrounding the case, many doubt that this will shed any light on proceedings. Join us again at ten for another look at today’s headlines.
* * *
As he stopped at the zenith of the great ramp, holding the jacket he had filled with earth in one hand, the soldier peered at the sky through the binoculars he held in the other. Dark light of red and pale green hung in great swags high in the air, dripping slowly down to the horizon, and exploding in writhing fire on impact.
Although the two soldiers were more tired than they had ever been, they found that they could not stop. They both agreed that they had been working non-stop for just less than two months, marking off the days from their watches. The other looked very small standing at the bottom of the ramp, hauling up the last of the thick wooden planks as he had been commanded by the statue. It whispered its instructions and threats almost constantly now, as if in anticipation.
The soldier at the zenith spread the earth from his jacket onto the last section of the un-boarded surface of the ramp, folded his shaking legs under him and waited for his companion. Some time later, he emerged at the lip of the ramp and they sat for a time, panting heavily until the statue made them get up and demanded to be conveyed to its resting place. The opening in the cliff, a shallow recess in the shape of a rounded arch, was nearly eight meters high, ranged around with strange and complex designs, the pale blue stone finely carved in the images of obscure martyrs and the instruments of their martyrdom. Curving around the top of the arch, fully a meter high, were the words ‘FALSE IMPRISONMENT’.
In the centre of the alcove, a stone plinth stood ready to receive the icon, which buzzed and crackled in their heads unbearably now. One of the soldiers hurriedly opened his pack, and both could see Eustace’s face, etched in some black, shining mineral, staring up at them from within. As they positioned the idol in the proper place of exultation, it shone darkly, picking out the detail of the chains around the hands and feet and the emaciation in the hollows of the eyes.
The next exciting installment in which Eustace’s fortunes change for the worse.
He got the large tin of white paint out of the garage and swung it painfully into his knee by accident on the way up the hall, went into the living room, and began removing the last traces of Virgil from existence. As he methodically deleted his friend’s image, smoothing out his rough blackness into white, he realised that he had not entirely let go. He closed his eyes for a time, then went into the kitchen and got the last of the whiskey. Back in the living room, he swigged heavily and then, because it felt like the right thing, splashed the rest upon the ceiling, in homage. He white-washed the rest of the ceiling, and went to sleep until his aunt got back.
She burst in at 8 o’clock, set her shopping down, bustled into the other room, and shook him awake.
– Eustace? … Eustace!
She swum into existence as he opened his eyes. She looked worried, which was not normal.
– Eustace, there are two men at the front door. They assure me that they are army investigators. They want to talk to you.
He shakily righted himself and progressed to the doorway with trepidation.
Two men were indeed standing in the doorway in military fatigues and with their identical crew-cut heads turned pre-emptively towards him as he made his way down the hall.
– Mr Mateus?
– We’re sorry to bother you at such a late hour.
Eustace doubted this, although their demeanour did positively radiate helpfulness and service, hands clasped in front of them in order to affect a more respectful trespassing.
– We are here because we have been charged with carrying out an investigation into the disappearance of Virgil Alighieri.
Eustace felt as if his gut was being coated in molten lead.
– May we come in for a moment?
– …Yes … yes, certainly.
He ushered them through the narrow hallway and into the kitchen, where he offered them a seat, his stomach lurching and twisting. When they had been seated, they continued in the same polite, non-threatening manner.
– It seems that private Alighieri was due to undertake a short tour of duty in the middle-east in early July of last year, and our records show that he did just that.
The taller of the two shifted in his seat, as if he were not used to sitting. The shorter carried on where his colleague had left off.
– You may be wondering, Mr Mateus, why we were not alerted to his absence sooner, but you must understand that the nature of this mission was highly covert, and even contact with headquarters was heavily restricted. This is why we had no knowledge of the absence until recently and did not contact you sooner. I realise that the last year must have been distressing for you, not knowing when, or if he would return.
At this point, Aunt Olivia came in with the tea, wearing a look of anxious interest. Eustace made some quick mental leaps. It appeared that Virgil had done a bunk, preferring to spend his tour drinking with his friend. Thinking back, Eustace had noticed that he had been somewhat restless for a few months that year when he had got back after telling him that his tour had ended early.
– As one of the private’s oldest acquaintances, we were hoping you might be able to shed some light on the matter for us? Of course, we do not need to impress upon you the importance of finding Private Alighieri so that he made be tried by the proper authorities, as is the law.
The investigator shot Eustace a pointed look.
His guts were spinning wildly now, his heart jamming into his ribs. The implacable buzz-cuts sat matter-of-factly on the soldiers’ heads and seemed to judge him. He moved his teacup from the lip of the table and then back again, and shifted his chair more towards the table. His worry spattered into his stomach in hurried gouts. He could claim ignorance of the whole affair – realistically, they had no reason to suspect him. Somehow though, he knew deep in himself that it would not be right. Even as he tried to think up an appropriate lie, he was horribly certain that he was not about to sully his friends passing with some lashed-together untruth.
He knew then, with a terrible finality, that he would have to tell them.
– If you would come with me into the living room, what I have to say would be best explained in there.
The soldiers looked uncertain, but followed him in, and to their credit, sat patiently for half an hour as Eustace took white spirit and scraper in hand feverishly wiped and scraped the new paint from the ceiling, balancing upon a step ladder. When he had finished, he calmly set his equipment down, and explained.
– I have no idea why it was Virgil’s intention to shirk his duties, but he did turn up here a short time afterwards.
He sat facing them, straight-backed, fingers laced on his lap. He paused.
– It may surprise you to learn, gentlemen, that Virgil is dead. He was, in fact, possessed by a demon in the bedroom above this ceiling, and while his body was burnt away – in front of my very eyes, I should tell you – his soul escaped …
He snatched away the rug that had been covering the hole.
– … Down this apparently bottomless opening, which I suspect may lead to hell.
Those are the facts as I am aware of them.
It took a long time for the soldiers’ subsequent expressions to turn up on their faces.
* * *
The back of the police van was unbearably hot with the sun shining fiercely down upon its roof as it conveyed Eustace to the station. His wrists ached where the hand-cuffs bit into them. He was soothed, however, by the assurance of his innocence and his truthfulness. As an innocent man, he had nothing to hide. Though, would an innocent man, fearing no retribution, have such a lump in his throat, or quite so heavy a film of sweat on his brow?
The car pulled up and he was taken into the station, led to the desk and his finger prints, retinal information and weight and height were carefully noted and recorded. His personal effects were removed, boxed and filed. He demanded, as he was led somewhere to change out of his clothes, what it was that he was being arrested for, and the answer came – Suspected Murder, first degree. His trial would be in three days time at the crown court. He shouted then, and cursed and struggled against those who led him, but he was dragged inexorably into a tiled room containing nothing but a mattress and a seat-less, steel toilet. The door was bolted and he was left with nothing.
My friend Frank, who drew some nice pictures for the first post in this blog – he’s a lovely man – has got a house in France. It mainly houses spiders and huge, unknown insects that are a cross between a spider and a centipede. It also contained some unexplained black marks on the ceiling downstairs. This isn’t how they got there.
At the junction between the drop – seemingly bottomless and ranged around its circumference with massive totems that seemed something between a fowl and a man – and the edge of the gelatinous tracks, green and viscous, that stretched for miles, jutting down from the horizon in each direction, whose purpose was opaque, the two soldiers had started digging for their lives.
– You should never have done it.
– Done what?
– You know what.
– Don’t try and pretend like you don’t know.
– … But I don’t know.
– How can you not know? It’s why we’re here shovelling. Just leave well alone, I said. You should never forget that every god-forsaken crumb of peat that we relocate from one section of this awful landscape to the other will weigh upon your conscience for the rest of forever. Just remember that, what ever happens.
– Well, then … then I won’t do it.
– … What on earth are you talking about?
– I’ll just stop. I won’t move another bit of earth. If that’s what you want.
– … Are you insane? Or stupid? What do you think will happen to me? When you’re gone?
The other soldier did not answer. Instead, he reached into his pack and took out his tobacco pouch and cork tips and started to roll a needle-thin cigarette. He sat down with a deliberate motion and looked at his comrade. He sat there looking at him for a long time, motionless. When he felt that he had made his point, he took out his field glasses from the pack, and scanned the surrounding country, right to left, left to right. A hollow gesture seeing as they could go nowhere.
As he did this, his companion vaulted over the lip of the ditch, and started to create a barricade of earth around his head, positioning it to protect the base of his skull. Nothing much happened, then, the other let out a scream as his face changed. Darkly-shining light was trying to force its way out of his nose and his mouth, and his eyes. He thrashed around for a time, his body jading in the green glare from his face, until in desperation he picked up the shovel again and hugged it tightly to him. The green light subsided and he sat panting on the ground, the breath wrenched out of him.
– I told you you shouldn’t have stopped.
– Oh shit!
He panted hard.
– I didn’t think it would come on so quick. Or so strong.
– You took the piss bad with it, though. It knew you weren’t just stopping to rest. Don’t do anything stupid like that again.
Their plan was twofold. In order to reach the opening far up in the cliff, they would first have to create a series of stepped mounds, each higher than the last until the alcove in the cliff face had been reached, they would then need to line the whole with flattened earth and thin planks sawn from the twisted mounds of wood that seemed to rise up out of the earth like half-hidden seams of rock. This being done, they would finally be able to convey the relic to its proper place high up in the stuff of the rock.
They had tried many times before to destroy it, but it was unbreakable. They had tried to cast it into the precipice, but it ended up back in their packs. When they stood near to it they felt it prickling the backs of their necks, when they stopped to rest it whispered in its low soft voice to them and they couldn’t help but listen. Eventually both men had to accept that they could do nothing but what it wanted them to do.
* * *
Eustace staggered down the tiny upstairs hallway, unable to lift his legs, feet scraping heavily along the floor. He could feel the bile rising in his throat as he shuffled desperately in the direction of the bathroom. He could smell his own burnt hair, acrid and stinging. His shirt was burnt off to his chest, and on his arm was a black-red tracery of mild burns. Like a skin doily, he thought as he staggered through the door and was sick in the sink. Once he’d finished loudly retching, he was sick in the toilet. This having been done, he was sick in the bath for the sake of thoroughness. He lent on the lip and his elbows made squeaky duck-sounds as he slid on to the floor, curled into a ball and shivered. He lay there for a long time. He could still see Virgil’s face behind his eyes, the image more real now than the face that had left it. Who was he going to get drunk with now? They still had that case of whiskey to finish. He would go downstairs and start on it. What else could he do? He uncoupled himself from the bathroom floor painfully, went downstairs, and drunk himself to sleep.
When he awoke, the first thing that registered was the sting of his burnt skin. It had cracked painfully during the night and had started to scab. He got up and looked in the cupboard for some Savlon, and some gauze. He found half a tube of the Savlon but not the gauze. He took it to the table and started to smooth it over his broken skin, and then made do with the kitchen towel on the table to bind it with. He wrapped the towel around his arm methodically, in order to keep his mind from what it really wanted to think about.
He could see the edge of it through the door from his position at the table, spread out over the ceiling, black and rough. He drank another glass of whiskey, in order to fortify himself, and he let his attention turn to the thing in the living room. He looked at it as he got up from the table and walked into the room. It slowly slid into view as he moved through the doorway – the stark, charred blackness of the radiating marks, the long, thin hole,
and the image of a man burned into the ceiling.
On the left corner of the ceiling, the rectangular outline of the upstairs bed could clearly be seen, with concentric blast marks and stabbed lines of force emanating from it, reaching nearly to the opposite wall. Contained within this was the burned-on outline of Virgil’s body in the position he had been lying, etched like a cave painting into the thick beams – the stick-limbs and box-body like a stylized interpretation of a prone person, the head squatter and squarer than in life. He realised he was shaking and he sat down with his legs out in front of him on the floor, partly to steady himself, and partly to inspect the hole in the floor. This had a similar star of blast-marks around it, and its long, thin shaft descended into the floor as far as he could see. He suspected that it had no end, or not in any sense that he was familiar with. He just sat for very long time. Not thinking about it – he couldn’t think about it – but just sitting because there was nothing else to be done.
Eustace simply got on with things, then. He put a rug over the hole and he just stopped seeing the thing on the ceiling – it becoming as natural as the grain of the wood. He would go to parties, have friends over, and go to work just as he would have done. He never explained the thing to anyone when they came over, as nobody ever asked. They seemed to think that it was some kind of sub-standard ceiling-art, and said no more about it.
One cold day in September he took Virgil’s army trunk which contained most of the apparel of his life into town and gave it to the charity shop. They gave him £30 for it out of politeness, which he gave to another charity shop across the road. Nothing then remained of his friend in the house, and even his memory had been consigned to a dim, subconscious place. He slowly forgot his face.
A year and one day after it had happened, His aunt Olivia was due to stay for a few days, and he tidied up as best he could. At four o’clock when she rapped briskly on the window of the front room as if she had already been knocking for half an hour, Eustace was racked with a dull sense of impending familial purgatory. He opened the door to her and the massive cake-like hat that continually accompanied her. She looked him up and down as though she was surprised in some vague way to find him there.
– …Hello, Eustace …
The barest of perfunctory greetings and she barged her way into the kitchen, and started making herself a cup of tea, her hat brushing the eaves of his tiny cottage. The hat, he knew, really had to be treated as a separate entity. It travelled on her rather than being worn.
– So, how are you then? Are you still working in that tiny little office?
He made a face in his head.
– …Yes. I like my tiny little office.
– And you haven’t ever thought about …?
She stirred her tea once clockwise, once anti-clockwise, and laid her spoon to rest in the sink.
– … something a little bigger?
– But why would I, I …
He stopped himself.
He thought sometimes that if the hat were to be removed, there would just be another of her disapproving faces gazing out from under it, directly up into the sky.
She had been saying something.
– What? Sorry?
– I said how’s Virgil? Is he here right now? I should very much like to talk to him about his tour of Namibia.
Eustace braced for impact. He would just get it over with.
– Come into the living room, Aunt Olivia. It will be best explained in there.
He got up and she followed hesitantly, still clutching her steaming tea.
As she entered the room, she looked as if she would make some kind of derogatory comment about the state of the place, but he held up a hand to silence her. She was not at all used to being silenced, and so was quiet.
– Just look up there.
He nodded to the corner of the ceiling.
– Well, it certainly has an ethnic quality, but the style is a little unpolished. Where did you get it from? You’ve probably been hideously scammed.
– Virgil’s not here because he was possessed, Aunt Olivia. I tried to save him, but he just burnt away in the upstairs bedroom. Those marks are where he succumbed to the demonic host. I gave his stuff to the charity shop. I got £30.
She looked at him for a moment.
– … Well, you can’t just leave it there, It looks ghastly. I suggest you paint over it by the end of the day. Three coats, just to be sure.
– … Yes … Aunt Olivia.
– I mean, …
She inspected the marks with narrowed eyes, and stepped carefully over the hole in the floor.
– … Have people been coming round all this time to this mess? It’s a wonder they come back at all. I’m going to the shops for sugar, do you want anything?
– … No.
– I can put it on my card, it’s no trouble? I won £50 pounds on the lottery yesterday. I can splash out? … No? … Suit yourself.
And she barged through the door and was gone.