08 Sep Second Hand
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"Second Hand"Written by Michael Whitehouse
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
I’ve always been curious about the histories connected to belongings. I buy many of my things second hand from charity shops, retro speciality stores – those sorts of places. You can call me cheap all you want, but for me things have feelings. The vinyl record you listened to the night you were dumped, scratches and all; the shoes you wore as you staggered home drunkenly last Birthday; that old guitar you never bothered to learn to play; all real tangible objects, all with a story to tell, all with a unique view of the world.
If something is new, it’s like a baby. A clean slate with no experience of life. A brand new car, for example, has seen very little. A sterile factory as it was brought into existence, a showroom with a gleaming floor and an insincere salesperson with an equally gleaming smile. It has no knowledge of the open road, of the horizon stretching out into the distance like a limitless promise, or boundless threat. No, it’s just a baby. Give me a car with a few thousand miles on the clock and wheels that have sucked up the dust of a summer’s day, the frozen dirt of a winter’s night, and spat it back out onto the road behind. That car has seen things, been a part of a journey, gotten to know its owner – the music she likes, the route she takes to work, that time she cried herself dry on the dashboard when she first heard the news. That car knows the world, at least part of it, it knows the people who have owned it, and it has embraced and assimilated all those raw feelings, tiny moments and life shattering times – all of them.
When I wander into a rundown charity shop I know that I am surrounded by treasures. A book for 50 pence – Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine – once read by an elderly lady peeling each page back as she reminisced achingly about her youth. The book tells two stories, one contained in the inked words, and the other of a life and time through every creased spine and yellowed piece of paper. And yet some memories, some experiences, are perhaps best left to diminish like breath on a mirror. I say this because, while I always romanticised about the stories objects could tell of their previous owners, I never for a second thought that they could truly describe a nightmare; suffocating, violent, and real.
On a bright Spring day I saw it; sticking out from a pile of old clothes at the back of a charity shop. I’d been there many times before as the place sat on a quiet street just a few minutes from my home. I always smiled when I passed it, and looking through the sun kissed window to the abandoned things inside, somehow I felt that they smiled back.
An old sports jacket, dark grey with a slight hint of pinstripe; the buttons a mix of tan and black bleeding into each other like a wearied Yin and Yang: that’s what I saw on that day. It peeked out from a torn black bin bag which itself lay crushed by an unceremonious collection of musty jackets, ties, shirts and shoes. It was clear that the lady in the shop – an amiable pensioner by the name of Sandra – hadn’t had a chance to sort through the bags, and so there was no attached price for the jacket.
Lifting it out I was instantly taken with it. Normally, clothes were not my thing. I preferred objects – bashed board games, books, and other curiosities; but there was something about that jacket. The inside was a dark rich blue and felt like silk, although I was sure it wasn’t. Instantly I approached Sandra who sat behind the counter rustling through a packet of boiled sweets. She smiled warmly at me, being one of her most trusted regulars, as I enthusiastically asked about the price. For just a few pounds the jacket was mine, and, oddly, I left immediately to return home and try it on, leaving any other unseen treasures behind which might have caught my eye.
Facing a full length mirror which hung on my bedroom wall — another pleasing bargain from a charity shop — I stood there wearing the jacket. It felt comfortable, like an old friend, and fit perfectly. Pleased with my find, I carefully placed it on a hanger inside my oak wardrobe, which sat at the end of my bed, and went about my day.
And yet, my thoughts returned continuously to my latest purchase, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was almost giddy about it, the way a child is with a new toy. This was strange for me as I wasn’t particularly interested in clothes, and could never understand the enthused pleasure some derive from them. I had always been a scruffy type, jeans and T-shirts were my thing, but there I was after a short period of time standing, yet again, in front of the mirror, modelling an old sports jacket and feeling unnaturally pleased with myself. It made me feel formal in some way, and my thoughts while wearing it were of an elderly gentlemen in a large ballroom, wining and dining in the lap of luxury, and entertaining his companions with stories of adventures during his service.
That night I awoke to an unnerving experience. I sat up with a jolt as a loud sound tore me from a pleasant dream. Having fallen asleep while reading, my bedside lamp was still on and the dull bulb cast an increasingly diminishing light across the room. Of course there was nothing there, nothing palpable, just the silence of lifeless furniture resting in the night, but in the back of my mind that now absent noise still echoed, and with it the faintest hint of recollection. Try as I might I was unable to place anything but the familiarity of it. I wandered around my home, flicking on the lights in the hall outside my room first, then cautiously to the others until the entire house was bathed in yellow. But I could find nothing which suggested the cause of what woke me. The doors were locked and the windows all closed, and so, with confidence that the noise was merely the faceless product of a dream well forgotten, I returned to bed. And yet I still felt unnerved for some reason, keeping the bedside lamp on as I tried in vain to claw my way back to the warm comfort of sleep.
The next day I went to work, on edge due to a restless night, but again I felt my thoughts returning to the jacket in my wardrobe; how smart I looked in it, how refined. I couldn’t wait to try it back on. As soon as the office clock struck five, I rushed outside with nothing but a mumbled word to my colleagues and headed home as fast as I could.
Fumbling with the keys in the lock, I made my way into my house, abruptly dropping my bag and coat on the floor, and rushed to the oak wardrobe in my bedroom; and there it was, hanging there like an empty vessel which had to be filled. I took the sleeve between my thumb and fingers, rubbing the dark grey material soothingly. With care, I removed it from its hanger and stood in front of the mirror. I was aghast at the sight of me! All my adult life I had been unkempt, my hair ruffled and messy. Wearing that beautiful jacket, it just didn’t seem right. I felt ashamed of myself, of how I looked. Quickly, I went to the bathroom and soaked my hair, before running a comb through it forcefully.
When I returned to the mirror I looked more acceptable, my hair now shaped neatly into a side parting. Yes, I felt much more at ease, presentable even. A smile crept across my face as my mind explored the image of an elderly gentleman wearing the jacket – a man of industry, a man of experience. Yes, things do indeed tell tales. He’d seen terrible things, ordered his men resolutely. Shells and gunfire. A man of duty. Yes, I imagined the stories that jacket could tell, of an old officer dining with guests surrounding him. Did they know what the Captain had really done, as they sat there in their evening gowns and dinner suits? They could eat and laugh and drink and dance; but the Captain, he could smile, yes, yet inside the world was turning, poisoned by the cancerous artifacts of war.
The Captain had indeed seen things. But he had been more than a harmless spectator.
In the throes of a dream, I was pulled involuntarily from a serene slumber. Familiarity then broke the silence; a sound I knew but could not place, this time louder than the night before. It had juddered suddenly before ceasing fire. Slowly I rose from my bed and wandered between the rooms of the house to investigate, frightened by the prospect of a burglar climbing through a window. The house sat in the bow of silence, its walls lifeless and the shadows of night, still and unerring. I knew the sound: I knew it. But like a reticent name on the tip of my tongue, the recollection refused to reveal itself.
The following day I struggled to work, shattered by my questioning mind in the night. The noise perturbed me, it engulfed me. I was frustrated by knowing yet not knowing. Just what was that sound? Two nights in a row I had heard it, but no sign or clue to its origin. Through the irritation of sleep deprivation, forced to falsely smile at my colleagues and surround myself with meaningless paperwork, my only comfort through the long day was to think of the jacket, that warm blanket of memory which had taken me into its embrace. Of course I knew that the Captain was merely a character in my mind, the latest in a long line of stories I had created to add sentiment to the world, but I was as fond of him as I was of his belongings.
By 5:30PM I was home, and, as I had done the day before, I dropped my bag and made my way to the oak wardrobe. Gazing into the mirror I felt disappointed at what I saw. My hair was pristine, combed to perfection, but the, now off-white, shirt I wore to work was cheap and grubby. In fact it was the first time I had noticed how ordinary my work appearance really was. It wouldn’t do, no; it wouldn’t do at all.
I managed to make it just before 6 o’clock – I breathed a sigh of relief that Sandra hadn’t closed the shop. She smiled at me as I entered, but I barely noticed, and instead headed straight towards my objective, to where I had found the jacket before. I started rummaging around the bags which still sat there, untouched, filled with the discarded belongings of unseen others. Smiling as I approached the counter, sweat pooling on my brow, I made my purchase and headed home.
In amongst the bags I had found an old Burgundy shirt. I wasn’t sure of the material, but it was beautiful, expertly crafted, and I knew immediately that it was a shirt worthy of the Captain’s jacket. Further still, I had found a waistcoat which seemed to compliment both, and so there I stood, looking much more presentable. The Captain would be pleased.
Once more I awoke to darkness, a sound having wrenched me from my sleep – the same noise I had heard for the previous three nights. I shivered slightly, not at the temperature of the room, but at something inside me. A virus or bug, whatever it was had produced a mild fever. My bedsheets were soaked in sweat, and I laboured to catch a breath. Feeling too weak to investigate the sound, I lay there in the grips of a strange and skewed apprehension. The room was black, but in the hints of objects, the outlines of walls and chair and wardrobe, I looked up to see the mirror. Not vacant, no, but filled with an indistinct reflection. Like a shadow, the silent suggestion of something. The memory remains vague, but one thing has stayed with me to this day – two eyes, white and wide, opened to meet mine from the mirror. An accusatory, angered stare which swept over me; a strange icy coldness then took me to sleep, try as I did to resist.
The following day I felt remarkably well, dismissing the reflection in the mirror as a fevered hallucination; indeed I seemed to have recovered from my ordeal to a great extent. I still had a temperature, however, and so called in to take the day off work. I must admit that the idea of having a day to myself was appealing, and so, after a shower and making sure I was presentable, I ironed the burgundy shirt, adorned the silk-like waistcoat, and proudly wore the jacket once more. And there I stood – facing the mirror. Smiling and happy.
It was only when my phone rang that I realised I had been standing, rooted to the one spot for most of the day, with little or no memory of the preceding hours; only vague shapeless visions of light and dark shifting before me accompanied by strange distant knocks and thuds. This would have been a concern to anyone in their right mind, but not to me. No, I was concerned with only one thing – I still didn’t look right! I left my home, the ringing phone and an open front door, to make my way steadily, almost marching, to the charity shop.
Inside, Sandra asked if I was feeling well, as she was worried I looked a little peaked; but I abruptly told her to mind her own business as I waded through the unsorted bags yet again. Feverishly I pulled a pair of dark suit trousers from between two faded shirts, followed quickly by an old leather pair of shoes which had lost their shine many years before, and a leather belt with a similarly dulled buckle. I can’t remember if I paid for them or not, all I can recall is staggering up the stairs outside my home, and to the mirror.
Sickness had taken me. My stomach ached and turned as if fighting against the unseen waves of a turbulent sea below. Struggling on, my compulsion would not let go, and before long I stared ever deeper into my reflection. Perfectly ironed suit trousers, a gleaming belt and buckle, leather shoes now shined and restored, a burgundy shirt expertly pressed, waistcoat, and of course, the Captain’s jacket. Yes, I looked presentable. It would do nicely. Shipshape.
Breathing deeply, I gazed, and looked into the facsimile of myself which smiled back from the mirror. The sickness faded with each inhalation constraining the rhythm of my pulse. The seconds birthed minutes, and those minutes bled into hours. Moments; fragmentary slivers of consciousness seeped through like a morning haze creeping between a closed blind. Voices came to me. Mumbled, undefined, yet the tone was unmistakably one of anger. I saw flashes of light as I had before, and shapes of darkness moving nearby. My blurred vision continued to withhold the truth from me, the shapes trembling and shifting as if glimpsed through warped glass. A series of loud thuds, almost bangs, sounded; close yet distant.
As the sun set outside, the angered voices combined – voices of countless people, coalesced into one mind, one aching chant. Visions came to me. Unbearable sun, a scorched earth, and finally something finite, something tangible. Soldiers. Flags unfurled by a breathless wind. Boots, marching, a crowd of people frightened, and gunfire. Then there were bodies, countless bloodied victims strewn across a patch of dirt. The voice, now distilled, drew closer. Words forced their way between gritted teeth, ringing in my ears, still muffled as if spoken through an unseen viscous membrane.
I felt weight then, a heaviness which burdened my hands, dirtied and stained. In them, I held a rifle. And as I looked up I could see the light and dark which had shifted continuously before me. Patterns which I knew now to be the bleached sky, blocked by a tall shadowy figure. His eyes pierced my thoughts as he shouted, yelled; angered and filled with vengeance.
It was wrong, I knew it was wrong. Yet I raised the rifle up and pointed it at my target, people unarmed and afraid. The voice continued, carried high above the carnage, urging me on, commanding me to shoot. My finger began to squeeze the trigger as the man, that towering imperial figure which I had affectionately referred to as the Captain, moved closer, screaming in my ear, the heat from his breath close and palpable. I shivered. This was not me, not now, not then, not ever. My hesitancy drew condemnation from the shadowed outline of the Captain. I did not want to disappoint him, and while I felt pangs of duty and patriotism, I could not bear the looks of those people, staring up at me as they faced their final moments. I threw the gun to the ground, and as I did so I found myself staring at the mirror, my hand raised in salute. To whom or to what, I do not know.
The fever now returned, an aching pain burrowing in my stomach. I wretched as my body tried to expel something from within, yet it was not forthcoming. Collapsing to the floor I struggled to stay alert, panicking that I was in need of a doctor. I pulled at the captain’s jacket, slipping it off my shoulders and throwing it on my bed; followed quickly by waistcoat, shoes, shirt, and trousers. I lay on the floor for a time, shivering, convulsing as the sweat seeped through my skin to the floor, as if ridding me of some insipid infection.
It was not until after midnight that my strength returned. I pushed myself up from the floor and staggered to the bathroom, where I sat in the shower, cleansing myself of the horrid remnants of my hallucination. The beads of water slowly restored me, and so finally I returned to my room, looking at the clothes, jacket and all, which now lay in a crumpled heap on the bed. It wouldn’t do at all!
Picking them up, I placed them carefully on a few hangers and hung them up inside the wardrobe. As I did so, a momentary sense of dread washed over me. How I wished I had listened to it. Deep down I knew that I should have been done with those clothes, but the thought of discarding them filled me with disgust – a lack of respect. Those clothes deserved admiration; they demanded it.
Exhausted from my earlier sickness, I staggered into bed. As my eyes gave in to the weight of tiredness, I experienced a moment of clarity. My thoughts cleared through the fog, and with the briefest flicker of insight, I questioned the illness and the profound visions I had experienced staring into that mirror. Whose voice had I heard? What violent act had I become privy to? My last impulse was an uneasy one – to escape my home and seek shelter far beyond the scope of a malevolent force, which now hung in the air, corpse-like and vengeful.
The fog of an unseen influence then dulled my senses. I felt being lulled, persuaded, even bartered with, to give myself to a comforting dream of rolling green hills, quaint villages, and a peaceful life far removed from the horrors of war. A place where one could put their atrocities behind them and continue on with a normal life.
The sound. That noise which had woken me on each of the previous nights; it once more called me to consciousness. I tried to pull myself up out of bed, but to my horror the sickness had returned, potent, the nausea griping my stomach. A cold sweat whispered across my skin to an almost unbearable crescendo. Yet the noise still rang in my ear, and in the clutches of sickness, its nature, its identity finally came to me. The realisation shook me, sending panic coursing through my body. A simple sound, one I had heard each day, but in the blackness of that room it took on new meaning. A threat, covered by the night. The noise came from the wardrobe, coat hangers clinking together like glass within.
I lay there frozen, staring at the wardrobe, which now appeared to me like a tomb. A standing coffin which played host to something unseen, and which infested the world outside with a stark apprehension. Holding my breath involuntarily, I waited for a sign of movement. I imagined the door slowly creaking open and revealing what lay inside. My heart raced, pounding like an unbearable drum, and in my weakened state fear truly took hold. I felt helpless, unable to mount a defence should something unearthly climb out from the darkness.
For a moment I thought I saw a shift in the wardrobe, something moving within causing its frame to shudder almost imperceptibly. I let out a gasp, and in that admittance of fear, that announcement of my wakened state, the truth presented itself; for there was indeed something there, something ominous and intrusive. Yet it was not inside the wardrobe. It was standing in the corner of the room, hidden by shadow. A figure, tall and dominant. Staring at me under cloak of night, its eyes pinpoints of light in an otherwise stygian nightmare.
Then there was a strange moment between us. A silence which provoked more fear in me than I have ever known. We stared at each other from across the room, and it felt to me as though the intruder was sizing me up. Calculating the cost. A strategy for attack, evaluating how weakened I truly was.
Suddenly it moved towards me, arms outstretched, and as it did so I saw it in greater detail, briefly illuminated by a slither of light from a streetlamp outside. The jacket which I had been so taken with, the waistcoat, the shirt, the trousers, the shined shoes, all there, presentable, respectable, and worn by the figure of a man, indistinct and shifting; his features and hands, nothing but blackened mist. The clothes moved with precision, and as I cried out in terror the shadowed trespasser was upon me. The dark coal-like fog which approximated a hand, grabbed hold of my face, feeling more like worn skin than was suggested by its incorporeal appearance.
I instinctively fell backwards, rolling out the other side of the bed, crashing to the ground. Despite my sickness adrenaline urged me to flee towards my bedroom door; but the man was quick and grabbed me by the arm, throwing me into the mirror which shattered on the floor at my bare feet. The glass slit open my back as it fell, and the sharpened pain of countless cuts congealed with the terror. It was then that the figure wrapped its misted fingers around my shoulders, lifting me up before slamming me against the shards of glass on the floor. Countless incisions and slashes rippled across my body as each piece of glass, small and large, ripped open my skin, embedding deep in the muscle beneath.
A silence fell across the room, broken only by the shifting weight of my attacker crushing glass under foot. It was then that I experienced physical pain which I cannot put into words. The fog-like figure, prim, proper, and presentable in the Captain’s clothes, placed its foot upon my chest, and pressed down with merciless force. Each blade, sliver, and shard of glass pushed deeper through, then under, my skin, thrusting further into my body, violently encouraged by pincers of floor and unnatural foot.
I could not yell. I could not cry. I could only let out an involuntary gasp of air, and as I did so the figure finally spoke to me.
“On your feet”, it ordered, loud, pronounced, and with command; and in those words I knew that I was face to face with the Captain. Leaning over me, his clouded hands reached out, encircling his fingers around my left arm. With ease he pulled me up off the ground. “On your feet!” he screamed again, and then battered me against the glass on the floor once more.
I wheezed and coughed as a searing pain ran up my side, the impact winding me. I felt a crack deep within as a rib gave in to the assault.
“I said, get on your feet, private!” the captain ordered, leaning over to grab me once more.
Panic and pain mixed together, coursing through my veins — I knew I could not survive another attack. The fogged darkened hands of the figure then bore down upon me, and in one last desperate plea for survival, I clawed at something close by. A loud tear cut through the night, followed by an almost inaudible gasp. I had inadvertently ripped the pocket of the Captain’s jacket. My assailant staggered backwards for a moment in response as if wounded. Quickly, I grabbed a blade of glass which lay on the floor, and with ever ounce of life I had left in me I pushed up onto my feet.
Launching forward I feverishly slashed and cut, not at the shadowed man who had attacked me, but at the clothes which were the Captain’s Achilles heel. Smog stained hands thrust up to stop me, but, now weakened, they could not prevent me from cutting through jacket, waistcoat, and shirt. Blood oozed out of my hand as the blade of glass cut deeper into my skin with each attack, but I could not relent should the Captain regain his footing.
He fell to his knees as I tore, scratched, and sliced at the clothes, giving me the high ground. Finally, exhausted, I sat on the bed. From there I watched the Captain lying on the floor, his strength slowly diminishing. The clothes rose and fell with each spectral breath, as the darkness, the fogged appendages and head of what lay within, faded away to nothing. I sat there in that silence, but it was not long before the pain of each fragment of glass stuck in my back returned, as adrenaline gave way to utter shock. In the black of night I heard a word, distant and whispered from some obscure history.
Then I was alone.
After spending several nights in hospital recovering from loss of blood, two broken ribs, and a concussion, I finally ventured back to my home. Looking at the glass broken on the floor, my blood dried and congealed, I stared at the torn jacket and other clothes which lay before me. Like the scene of a brutal murder, they outlined the figure — shoes, trousers, shirt, waistcoat, jacket — all implying the shape of a man.
I began to think that it was a damn shame. A waste. They deserved better, the Captain deserved more than that. Yearnings began to build, and for a few minutes I explored the idea of having the clothes mended. Perhaps I could have done it myself? Needle, thread, and all?
No, I came to my senses, and knew that whatever influence those belongings had, I could not yield to them. Quickly, I gathered them up, putting them into a black bin bag much like those I had seen at the charity shop. An hour’s drive later, and I was in the countryside. I got out of the car and hiked for a while across some fields and through some woods, finally coming to a clearing. I did not know entirely where I was going, but Blackwood forest seemed as good as any a place to do what had to be done.
There I set a fire, for I did not want the ashes of those things near my home. As the flames grew I felt a deep urge to turn back and take the Captain’s clothes with me. But I persevered, I resisted, and threw the wretched things in the fire. First the shoes and trousers. Then, the shirt and waistcoat. But just before I committed the jacket to the flames, something caught my eye. From inside the lining, which had been torn apart by my attacks, something now protruded.
A hand written letter of commendation for services “above and beyond the call of duty”. The writing was worn and faded, and so I could not make out the rest. What I can say is that inside the envelope lay a medal which read “Captain Everett, Amritsar, 1919”. I threw all of it in the fire, and as I did so I felt a deep sadness and sense of loss within me. As the flames consumed the jacket and other items, the crackle of each burning ember sounded remarkably like that of gunfire, distant, long ago, echoing out from the past, or from beyond.
Yes, things have more than feelings, they have memories. They soak up the thoughts and actions of the people nearby. Heartache, laughter, joy – dread. I have never forgotten those days and my brush with the Captain. Often my thoughts return to the medal, which I’m sure lies out there in the countryside, blackened with soot, yet unharmed by the fire. I think of the words and the name engraved on the metal – the pull of its memory still haunts me, goads me even. I have never researched the name of Captain Everett, the medal, or jacket, and while my dreams are often invaded by the sound of gunfire, and embittered eyes bearing down on me, I know that I must never entertain the compulsion to go searching for answers. For those clothes came from a man of varied deeds, and his sins have left their mark on the world, and by association, an uneasy burden upon me.
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