31 Aug Lunchbox
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Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
We ended up going to a place I knew. John had no idea if the bars he used to frequent were still cool, or even open. The cold air shocked him back to his senses, some, and as we stumbled through a labyrinth of back streets you could tell he was thinking we might not even be going to a club. How well do you know your old buddy Charles these days? Suspicion prodding him with questions he should have asked long before setting foot outside his front door.
But the lure of the good old times, no matter how rose tinted, were too strong.
We swung off into the front yard of somebody’s house. Somebody who’d once had kids but maybe not now, maybe not for a long time, and John grunted and tripped on toys scattered across the concrete square. Either way, the parents’ hadn’t had the heart to get rid of their things.
Reaching the miniature swing set I sat down and swung back and forth a little, grinning up at John smugly. The entire structure creaked and groaned alarmingly.
‘We’re going to need the Jaws of Life to cut your ass out of that seat,’ John observed unkindly. ‘Ages four to twelve it says on the side. What are we doing here, Charles?’
Giggling a little I struggled up but the seat came with me, chains rattling. ‘Oh crap, I am stuck.’ A brief moment of panic before John managed to help prise the four to twelve seat off my adult backside.
‘Shh!’ John looked at the house nervously, though all the lights remained off. ‘You’re going to wake the family.’
‘Not bloody likely.’ I wrestled with one of those little rocking horsey things that lurch back and forth on springs, trying to lift it right out of the floor and likely to bust a gut doing it. ‘Help me with this.’
Somebody had to be fired from the toy factory. The jolly grinning beastie inviting some kid to leap into its saddle sported a stubby little horn jutting from its face that must have been quite long and wicked once, before a wiser soul had sawn the plastic down to make it less noticeable.
John loaned his twiglet arms to the effort. ‘Why are we stealing this?’ he hiss-whispered, the way tipsy people think they’re being quiet. ‘It’s not going to match your sofa.’
‘Not stealing,’ I grunted. ‘Push it to the left.’ Which shouldn’t have done anything, the springs seated deep in concrete, but which nonetheless yielded a deep mechanical click.
The entire slab we were standing on grated off to one side and John leaped away with a girlish shriek he instantly tried to cover by coughing.
I bowed, gesturing him down the revealed staircase. ‘Welcome.’
‘What the hell, Charles!’
‘Hey, we’re celebrating. What with my suddenly being un-married and all, and you offering to share your spooky secret I’m gonna treat us to something special.’
The dimly lit space we dropped down into could loosely be called a bunker, although the remains of brackets on the walls attested it’d been
machinery that had once cowered down here, not people. Now the space was crowded with any old paraphernalia that somebody had thought looked cool, glass fronted cabinets springing up all over, busting at the seams.
‘Chaar-leei!’ the bartender hollered, a stringy little fellow with less gristle to him than John and not even as tall, he could scarcely peep over his own bar.
‘Sanjay!’ I boomed back, shoving my way to a bar stool and bringing John along for the ride. ‘I’m treating my friend to the good stuff tonight, Sanjay. We’re off to see a ghost.’
‘Ghosts, now!’ Sanjay rolled his eyes. ‘What excuse for a good drink’ll you think up next? Armageddon?’
The obligatory pretty young things pulling drinks to either side of him, a lass and a lad, smiled weakly. Flashing cleavage was a cheap trick to get the sad bastards lining up on a mission to drink themselves into believing they might be in with a chance, but it was the same worn out dog of a trick everyone used. If you fell for it, more fool you. At least Sanjay ensured these kids learned their stuff, they could leave to run their own establishments someday from books to stock. And he kept them more virtuous than his own children.
‘Bric and Brac,’ Sanjay indicated with a flip of his hand, not handing the adolescents’ real names out to anyone, even regulars. ‘When you want the best drink in the city this is where you come.’
Bending to a spout he filled two grimy glasses. ‘Some say that a sip brings immortality, you’ll live to see the end of days. I’ve had men and women in here swear it gives sleep without dreams, a far more precious commodity. I call it “tears of fools.”’
I accepted mine eagerly. John merely stared at his own set down on the bar in front of him so I prompted, a little annoyed. ‘You’ve never tasted anything like this, mate. It ain’t cheap.’
Sanjay squinted through the labial light at John’s face. ‘Your friend is nervous of the yellow death. He’s a good lad to take care of his liver, you should treat it like your old mother.’
‘I do!’ I protested merrily. ‘A sherry tipple every night and shandies on Thursdays.’
‘Let Bric set your fears at ease.’ The improbably comely lad who had to be skirting the minimum for responsible service, unless they handed them out at kindergartens these days, drew a tiny amount from the tap with a spoon. Taking a tealight candle from the bar he deftly lit the spoonful with the tiniest “woomph.” Delicate blue flamelets flickered and curled across the surface.
After a moment of holding it for inspection Bric flicked it into the sink with a curse, shaking scorched fingers where the spoon had heated up.
‘Run it under cold water,’ Sanjay instructed absently. ‘You see, friend? Red means dead, just like my ex-wife’s stare but this burns blue as my girlfriend’s beautiful eyes. Spirits. What better drop to toast the paranormal?’
‘Ghosts don’t exist,’ Brac asserted from her half of the domain, having that rare ability to work and track the conversation at the same time. ‘The city would be wall to wall ghosts by now if they were real.’
‘And how would you tell?’ I wriggled my fingers at her, booga-booga style.
‘You’d know,’ Bric asserted. He figured his hand all recovered by now but Sanjay thrust it back under the running tap.
‘You know the rules. Ten minutes minimum for a burn, even a bee’s dick of one. And don’t let me catch you sticking ice on it like last time, either. Just damages the cells more.’
‘You believe in ghosts?’ Brac asked Bric curiously. Just went to show, you could work with someone ever so long and still have things to learn.
‘Used to live next to one.’
‘I call bullshit.’
‘No, really. You don’t have to see it to know it’s there. It makes everything … horrible. My family went all weird. I was off school for weeks, just staying in my room and it was like they hardly noticed.’
Sanjay in the middle looked unimpressed but Brac’s peepers were big and round, an expression that wound her age back at least another four years. Back to the age of never checking under the bed or in the closet, because it was better not to know.
I was delighted, really jonesing on the whole paranormal shtick. ‘Well come on. Don’t spare us the juicy-oocy.’
‘Dunno about “juicy.”’ Bric muttered, finally winning free of the tyranny of the sink, the spoon now cool enough to pop in the dishwasher. ‘It was my Mum started acting weird at first, and no-one except me seemed to notice.
‘I read up on it and apparently if you’ve had a loss the ghosts, well, they seem to just get at you more. My uncle, Mum’s brother passed away that year and although I’d never known him I think they were close when they were little. She’d been thinking on him a lot, going through photos and such. Said it made her realise how important it is to appreciate family, but her behaviour sure didn’t back that up.
‘One day the meat in my sandwich was raw. Just … just raw and cold, slapped between two slices of unbuttered bread and I bit into it before I realised. That was one hungry day. When I took it home and showed it to her she laughed in this vague, distant way and said, “What a silly Mummy.” That was for sure: I opened up my lunchbox the next day and she’d put a rock in it! Just … a rock. And she’d buttered it, maybe ‘cause I pointed out the bread thing along with the raw meat.’
Brac stifled a laugh behind her hands, although her eyes said clearly it wasn’t funny. Bric nodded his head. ‘Sounds silly now but I cried so
hard, all those other kids sitting around eating lunches from parents who loved them and there was me with a buttery rock.’
Now I snorted too, but I hope my face was full of sympathy.
Sanjay clapped Bric on the shoulder. ‘Lad, anytime you’re feeling peckish on my watch just say the word. Nobody does good work on an empty stomach.’
‘Much less a kid – I certainly wasn’t getting much out of school. Stopped even looking in my lunchbox. Safer to just hold it open over a bin and turn my face away from whatever came thumping out. But it got worse when Dad started acting up too. I don’t even know what he was doing: might be brushing his teeth or something, and suddenly he’d start trying to do it backwards. Had his lips sealed over the drain trying to suck back all the toothpaste foam.
‘He’d ask me to do something but if the words came out in reverse and I couldn’t understand he’d get angry, this horrible garbled back-wise yelling. He started watching me at night, too. Just sort of stood there in my bedroom in the dark, watching me. He stood in different places but his eyes were wet and I could always seem the gleam from the little light that crept under the door, staring at me. On those nights I don’t think he ever blinked.
‘That’s when I started staying home. I slept during the day so I could stay up all night and stop Dad coming into my room. I couldn’t stand him staring at me. And that’s when I felt it. Cold, a big blast of cold coming right through the wall from next door. But you could only feel it here.’ He put a hand on his chest, over his heart.
‘I know it sounds bizarre but it was the biggest relief when I realised. It meant my parents did love me after all. It was the ghost doing this to them.’
‘And ..?’ I urged. ‘Then what happened?’
‘That morning come daybreak I marched straight to my Dad and told him we had to move, there was a ghost next door and it was messing everything up. He nodded in his slow underwater way, but must have already known something was wrong and was just waiting to be told which way to jump. Before that day was out we were all in the car with everything we owned, heading off down the street. Looking about, it was obvious to see that all the other neighbours were gone. We were the last to leave.
‘I glanced back out the rear and I swear, next door’s street facing window had two handprints on it. Handprints outlined in frost.’
Sanjay gave a low whistle, shaking himself to work the shiver loose from the back of his neck. ‘Well that’s about the most disquieting thing I’ve ever heard.’
‘Cover your ears, then.’ Bric shook his handsome head miserably. ‘The worst was when we made it to our new house. Mum and Dad were already shaking it off: they did a lot of hugging ‘til the air was all squeezed out of me. Dad got started on a special dinner right away to make up for all those missed lunches and Mum, well for days I couldn’t open my mouth without her trying to cram food in. I ought to have been happy.
‘But there in my new room, when I went to unpack my toys I found that there were these long, old rusted nails driven into the faces of each and every one. Every toy I loved. I did that. And to this day I have absolutely no memory of doing it, or even where I got the nails. None at all.’
Whoa. I would’ve kept that last part to myself – for a while Brac’s big shining eyes had looked ready to bestow the ultimate in tender sympathy but now … now she just looked sick. We were all that bit disturbed and couldn’t settle on where to look, especially not at Bric who might have spilled more than he meant to.
It took a stern sense of reality to return to the hazy friendliness of the bar. Or irreverence. Raising his glass, John toasted a whey-faced
Sanjay. ‘Salut. To ghosts, hey?’ The others scowled but I raised my own drink enthusiastically. The tears of fools scalded like fire, going down.
Credit To – BP Gregory