Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
Have you ever spent Sunday on your own?
I have. Many of them.
I expect most of us have at one time or another. You know what I mean.
First, you go upstairs. Then you come back down. You wash up everything in sight; flick the odd duster round the odd piece of furniture. Switch the radio on; stand there five minutes until you realise you havenít absorbed one word of what the latest political scandal is all about so you switch it off.
You half-heartedly open a can of beer Ė two hours later your find it again, barely touched Ė so you pour it down the sink and throw the can in the bin.
You gaze out of the window looking for a sign of any Ė anything to distract you but it looks like everyone is trapped in the same cage you are. You make a sandwich and eat it when youíre not really hungry staring at a repeat of some show on the television you didnít like the first time around.
About three oíclock it dawns on you that youíre just literally killing time Ė watching the second, the minutes tick by and the awful truth dawns on you that youíre willing them away.
Itís terrifying. The fact that youíre wishing to speed even quicker down that long slippery descent to the grave Ė but anythingís better than the state of terminal boredom youíre in right now.
Iím sure you know what I mean. In fact Iím absolutely positive you know what I mean.
It was just one Sunday like that when I made the mistake.
What was the mistake I hear you ask? The mistake was in trying to buck the system, trying to fix some point of interest; some reason for existence into the stagnant, loathsome passing of the hours that give you an itch you canít scratch.
The cat started it.
Usually it lies around somnolent and, from time to time, I give it a cursory check to make sure its breathing. It doesnít stir all day Sunday until five or so when it yawns, showing white teeth, stretches the entire length of its slim black body until it seems twice its size, then pads into the kitchen where it waits patiently until I open a tin. But not that Sunday.
That Sunday it suddenly sprang up, ears pricked, fur rigid, and all this at one oíclock, just past the yardarm for a drink, of which I might add Iíd already consumed several.
It ran to the front door and scratched frantically, its claws leaving long serrated marks on the cheap wood. Well I thought it had been caught short and we all know about that too donít we? So I moved at double the speed I usually do and let it out.
Darkness descended upon me with a speed that shut out the glimpse of mean, grey daylight I had begun to accept as normal and I plunged.
I mean I plunged like going into the sea or your local swimming pool. All I can remember was the sensation of water; cold, dark ripples of the stuff running by my ears Ė and they were freezing!
When I opened my eyes I couldnít see a damn thing. I thought Iíd gone blind. No such luck. Later I wished I had.
The room I was in was in that semi-shadow where it takes minutes for the eyes to begin to focus. When they did I saw it was bare, the floorboards giving off a musty smell like some river had run over them for about thirty years and left the rank, dank smell of sewerage and dead fish behind. The only light filtered through the boarded up window and, in the corners of the room, I could see what looked like piles of grey dust. I canít describe them any other way because thatís just what they looked like. Piles of grey dust about three foot high.
It occurred to me that this was not my living room Ė not unless someone had been in and radically altered the place while I slept and anyway it had been daylight when I last had a conscious thought.
I became aware that my hands felt too close to each other. Of course they did. They were tied together with strips of what appeared to be dirty bandages. I could still see some dry, dark stains on them. It crossed my mind that maybe they were old blood -stains, but I thrust the thought away as quick as I could.
Likewise my ankles suffered a similar indignity.
I was completely at a loss. Well you would be wouldnít you? I mean a chap opens his front door and the whole world turns upside down. Not exactly what you expect on a Sunday afternoon is it?
There was a single door in or out of the room depending on your point of view. It was shut fast but I could see that the hinges that held it were rusty, really corroded and that it sagged a little, leaving a gap at the top where the wood didnít exactly fit the way it should.
I contemplated shouting for help but gave it up almost instantly as a bad idea, as the only people likely to hear me were most probably those responsible for my predicament in the first place.
I hunched my left buttock off the floor and tried to flex its muscles. Pins and needles were taking over what remained of my circulation and it became imperative I move. So move I did.
Slowly I inched my way up the wall, the old plaster or what was left of it, flaking away, scratching my back in several places through the thin tee shirt I wore. I hadnít been dressed for adventuring. I cursed under my breath not wishing to disturb anybodyís Sunday slumber by yelling out loud and at last achieved an upright position. What the hell good I had thought that would do I hadnít bothered to think about beforehand but at least there I was, home sapiens erectus.
I felt better already.
Now I have good teeth. I may not be exactly your idea of a Greek God in the looks department but I figure I can get along with the ladies as well as the next guy. I mean, dark blonde hair ( my mother called it brown but never mind that), a good pair of wide-set blue eyes and a smile that says Ďcome and get meí when I show those magnificent white choppers, has usually been enough to see me through. One thing I always do is take care of the teeth. Iím fanatical about it. Yessir. Three times a day just like momma told me the old toothbrush gets to swill around my mouth. I tried an electric one once but gave up as I felt the element of personal control got lost somewhere in there with the technology and I do like to be in control.
Just like I was now.
I picked and picked at the dirty old bandages, flakes of the porous linen adhering to the sensitive tip of my tongue, occasioning much spitting and faffing but eventually they gave. I scattered them to the rotten floor and sat hastily. It was a momentís work to get them off my ankles and then I sat for a moment panting, pondering my next move.
It was pretty obvious really. Open the damn door and get the hell out of there!
So I did it. But not before I paused to examine one of those piles of dust. I wished I hadnít. Flakes of fine ash swirled gently from the handful I picked up, permeating the already stale air and floating into my eyes. My questing fingers encountered a small, solid object buried under the pile and I drew it out.
Holding it out for inspection it took me all of sixty seconds to realise I was holding a complete facsimile of what I was holding it with. A finger. Minus the flesh of course and minus the tip but nevertheless, clearly and unmistakeably a finger. You could tell by the knuckle joint even if you didnít have a current First Aid Certificate.
I threw it away with a moan of disgust and headed for the door with the speed of a four-miler. I was through it like a bullet.
The door led into another room. It was black.
Obviously no one paid electricity bills around here and it wasnít helped by the tatty black linen drapes pinned over the two windows. The room was long, maybe some twenty or thirty feet in length and there in the distance was a faint glow.
Small fires burning directly on the floor from the halfway point of the room focused the high and above them hung iron pots or large saucepans of some type. The hiss of steam escaped some of them and liquid bubbled and boiled. It was difficult to make out exactly how the fires managed to stay alight without burning the floor and crashing through but I wasnít so curious that I wanted to hang around too long to investigate. I could see the outline of another door set in the end wall. I couldnít wait to get to it.
For some reason I paused by the last but one pot. It was huge. Black and burnt, rancid grease clung to it and the smell was similar to that you get sometimes when you unwrap your fish and chips and you just know instantly that the fat theyíve been fried in is far too old and if youíve got any sense at all youíll throw them out immediately without even bothering to try one first. If you do, the taste hangs around in your mouth Ďtil the next day no matter how many times you brush your teeth.
I glanced down and hissed in horror.
The hand floating on the surface of the water was raw and severed; the shreds of flesh still hanging from the stump. It was bloating up; popping and splitting from the heat. I could see a large green ring on the index finger and I wondered inanely why the cook hadnít bothered to remove it. At least it would have paid for some groceries of the more regular kind.
Slowly it turned lazily on its side in the water until the index finger seemed to point directly at me, bent from the heat so that it seemed to beckon to me. I didnít wait to be sure but practically ran the last six feet through the door.
It was a good job my reflexes were almost back to normal.
The three- foot hole in the floorboards directly in front of me on the other side of the door would have killed anyone who fell through it. As I teetered on the edge I could see the darkness fell away for at least two storeys. I could barely discern the fragments of another room similar to the ones Iíd already encountered with the hole continuing to gnaw its way through floor after floor to whatever hell was below.
The floor seemed fairly intact either side of the hole so I cautiously edged to the side until I reached the comparative safety of the firmer floorboards. I thrust myself against the wall and worked my way into the corner, my fingers seeking the bend of the wall with a scrabbling motion, my toes inching their way round, testing each piece for solidity.
After what seemed an eternity, I made it to the middle of the wall and my hand felt the frame of another door. I stopped for a moment breathing slowly but surely. I had once taken Yoga that I practiced on Sundays, telling myself I was gaining insight and wisdom. It took three weeks for me to realise the only thing I was gaining was a sore bum and another reason to be bored. But I remembered the breathing. Calm, deep breaths to get the system going and I thought what the hell Ė give it a try.
It seemed to work and I opened the door and stood on the threshold wishing that I hadnít given up smoking so that I might had had a lighter or matches to help me. My vision steadied and I could see a flight of grey stairs that led down and, hopefully, to freedom. Glancing upwards I could see the smashed, hanging frame of what remained of the upper flight so there was nothing for it but to go down.
The stairs creaked on nearly every step. I tried staying to the edge of the tread but it was virtually impossible in the semi-darkness. Once my foot went straight through one of the rotted boards and I stifled a scream as the splintered ends scraped the flesh off my calf. More importantly, I could not bear the thought of my foot hanging there in empty space the prey to God knew what, so I dragged it back like a long lost child as the flesh was now serrated in an opposite direction to the wounds already weakening it.
I was in a stone kitchen.
All the floor was stone flags and the walls were heavy, clagged stones such as one might expect to find in an old-fashioned prison cell although the stones ceased half way up and some kind of dark panelling took over. I knew it to be a kitchen by the massive white sink complete with large faucets fixed against one wall. A huge black range sat at the other end of the room like a large mastiff, an odd, evil glow of embers showing like fierce eyes between the small iron grill at the front. It chuckled and hummed to itself, the tiny coals heaving and settling like living creatures.
I wondered how I could be in a stone floored kitchen when I must still be at least two floors up if the hole Iíd peered through had been showing me a scene that was true. But how could I consider anything to be the truth in such a labyrinth of twisted and skewed dimensions? I told myself not to worry about small inconsistencies for the moment, just to get out and then I could do the worrying in the safety of my own home.
The only door was down the end of the room where the range was. For some reason I was reluctant to go down there. A long, dirty wooden table sat squarely in the middle of the room and there were Ė things on it. I didnít look too closely but, from a distance, they seemed to be what butchers politely termed Ďoffalí when what they really mean is hearts, kidneys and liver. A slow drip, drip, drip to the floor at the far corner of the table penetrated my ears but I didnít rush over to inspect it.
I had to pass the sink on the way to the door and, as is natural, I looked down into it. They looked right back up at me. I do mean that. Eyes. The bottom of the sink was covered with eyes. And I do mean covered. Not an inch of the porcelain could be seen. My stomach told me in no uncertain manner that it wished to throw its contents up directly but I reasoned with it. Where the hell could I deposit what it wanted to get rid of? Over the eyes?
Somehow that didnít seem very respectful. The worst of it was that they followed me; hundreds of them turning in empty sockets to follow my progress. If you think I wasnít scared you can think again. I think I would have peed myself except for the fact that my penis had pulled itself up so tight I thought it had gone away on vacation.
I reached the door and pushed myself flat against it panting and moaning. I could hear this eerie little voice making strange sounds and my heart nearly stopped until I realised it was me. That didnít make me feel much better but it helped at bit.
There were pots bubbling on the range, one with its lid slightly ajar almost inviting me to look inside but I bypassed the invitation.
The door I stood against was one of those like they used to have in old stables. Strong, oak beamed with struts of metal, most likely iron. Iím not exactly au fait with those kind of things. It had an old-fashioned metal latch that you listed that that, if you made a mess of it, would drop back with a clang. So I was careful.
I pulled it to behind with bated breath and the gentlest of handling.
I stood now in a walled courtyard.
Flaming torches were set into the high stone walls. Weeds and long forgotten plants snaked and sneaked their way through the cracks in the paving. There seemed to be some sort of border on each side of the three foot wide path that led to an archway soaring high above the wall at the end.
Large, dark humped mounds lay like huge sodden moths in the borders. Probably old discarded flower beds but I didnít waste time going to look at them. The smell of sewerage, dead fish and the like was stronger than ever, so great that it began to have an almost hypnotic effect on me and I pinched my nostrils several times and blinked my eyes.
I moved as slowly and as cautiously as I could. It seemed to me that silence was of the essence here and I intended to obey my every instinct.
I was halfway to the arch and I could see through it.
Derelict buildings lay on either side but far in the distance I could make out the safe haven of a dim, ordinary streetlamp, shining and winking like the eye of a lighthouse. I almost sobbed in relief.
My foot met a piece of unnoticed metal and my ankle turned, throwing me off balance. I hit the stone paving with a loud thump. I sat up rubbing my ankle, tears stinging my eyes and misting my vision.
Through the haze I saw one of the black mounds in the border begin to grow, oozing itself upright like some formless growing cocoon. I became aware that, on both sides, the length of both borders, dark, monstrous shapes were forming. A terrible clicking noise like that of a million crickets filled the silent, heavy air. It was when one of those Ďmoundsí left the border and drifted onto the pathway I knew I had to move.
I pushed myself upright, wincing and grimacing as I placed weight on my left ankle.
More and more of the soft, creeping, growing things moved onto the pathway with disgusting plopping sounds. I was two yards from the arch and glancing behind me I thanked God for the slow progress of the oncoming shapeless masses. I turned to face the gateway to freedom again when I screamed. One of those high wavering screams that you get in horror movies when you know the heroine is about to die.
It reared up in front of me clicking and cackling, mumbling and slobbering, raising what I took to be its arms covered in cobwebs and debris the like of which I did not wish to inspect too closely. Two red, feral eyes glinted and gleamed in the depths of the blackness of its face and it muttered to me over and over again. I was sure that somewhere in its blackness that my eyes could not penetrate, it was smiling. I didnít think I could have heard correctly and I wasnít about to ask it to repeat itself.
I darted around it, leaping like a long-jumper bursting to win the competition he found himself in. Something raked my right side and I felt a burning agony so white hot I was sure a poker, fresh from the fire, had been thrust deep into my vitals.
But I kept on running, the wrenching pain of my ankle ignored in the all- consuming desire to escape.
I burst through the arch, my feet slipping and sliding on rubble. A horrible squelching caused me to look down in my headlong flight and I screamed again; one long, continuous Ďugh, ugh, ughí that I chanted like a mantra as I ran; crunching and cracking over the hundreds of skulls, rib cages and bones whose names I didnít know, gobbets and strands of flesh still adhering to some of the remnants of discarded shells that littered and strewed the pathway between the buildings. Not all of the bones were human but I guess they made do from time to time with whatever chanced their way.
The broken windows of the empty buildings lining the sides of the pathway leered and yawned at me like blank, unfocused eyes, the wind lifting and pulling at loose fabric and tiles so that a constant moaning and groaning accompanied my desperate, heedless, headlong -passage past them.
Sobbing quietly I reached the end of the pathway. Behind the rotted paling that fenced off the area, I could see the blessed shine and glow of the streetlamp. If I could just reach it normality would surely follow.
I beat helplessly with numb hands, knuckles scraped and painful along the tall fencing searching for a broken or smashed place. Surely to God there must be one. The rest of the place was in such ruin I could not that this and only this part of it would be intact. Again and again I pounded the fence until blood ran in streaming little rivulets, all the time conscious of the breaking and powdering of the bones beneath my feet.
A slow, lurching dragging noise alerted me and I turned, facing a solitary blackness that was at least some twenty feet ahead of its brothers. I knew for a certainty it was the one that had raked my side as I passed it. Desperately, I searched for something to defend myself with and, a shudder of distaste passing through me and uttering a prayer for forgiveness, I snatched up a large thigh bone that lay at my feet. He must have been a big man once. I knew I had only seconds to spare.
I smashed wildly at the fence in front of me, bone beating on the wood like some stone age Neanderthal. It began to crack and splinter. Another few blows and I would be through. With a cry of triumph I saw the first glimpse of normal light shine through the gap as one of the palings broke in half. I continued my task furiously driven by the insane knowledge of what fate must surely await me were I not to succeed. Two more palings broke, then more and finally sufficient for my body to pass through.
I was about to thrust myself through when I felt hot foetid breath on the back of my neck. Literally I felt the little hairs spring up like a tiny army of soldiers sprung to attention. I could hear the foul thing muttering and clicking as I turned to face it.
I screamed a challenge I never knew I had in me having been the most docile and placid of males since the constant challenges of my teenage years had faded into history. I raised the thigh- bone high above my head and brought it down once, twice, four times one after the other on the place I thought of as its head. The darkness wavered and the red glow in its eyes dimmed somewhat. I gibbered in ecstasy and beat and beat again and again, dancing a little jig of triumph.
I was conscious that its brothers were nearing but I knew now that they could not run and I watched with delight as my enemy sank lower and lower. I smashed and smashed on its every surface until my arms ached and I could do no more.
Wearily, I tossed the bone on its comatose form and made for the gap in the fence. I had one leg through when a desire I could not resist hit me. I withdrew my leg again and stood upright facing the advancing blackness of the vast column of mounds.
I planted my two feet on the sunken darkness before me and beat my chest as an atavistic roar escaped my throat.
Then I beat a hasty retreat through the fence.
I donít mind Sundays anymore. I am quite happy to be pleasantly bored. I have built a cat flap in the door so the cat can go in and out without me having to open it.
I potter about, read the papers, watch television aimlessly and drink a few beers. Iíve even got quite to like the dreary repeats they show. Thereís something rather comforting about familiarity, a kind of routine that wraps you round with safety.
Itís alright. They wonít come in after you. I donít know how I know that but I do. Youíre perfectly safe so long as you stick to the proper way of doing this. Sundays were meant to be boring and thatís that. Step out of line and wellÖÖ... I feel fine. I really do. Quite happy really. Except for the odd twinge from time to time from the three deep scars in my side but then I figure everyone has their cross to bear donít they?
So I stay where I am and if youíll take my advice youíll do the same. After all, itís only one day a week. The rest of the time you can do what the hell you like. But SundaysÖÖ. Take my advice. Stay indoors and grin and bear it. I know. I stepped out of line. Tried to break the mould. I wonít do that anymore.
You see the one thing I canít get out of my head if what it said to me, that thing as it barred my way. Under all the clickings and groanings it spoke to me quite intelligibly. It said.
ĎOh boy. Sunday Dinner. Goody, goody, yum, yum, yum. Sunday Dinner.í
You can understand why Iím quite happy to be bored. Canít you?
Copyright Sandi Johnson, 2009