The Keeper’s Door

I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. Waited. Silence. I curled and uncurled my hands three times, wondering whether to knock again. Just as I made up my mind, my right hand instinctively rising to the panel of dark wood between the two smoky plates of frosted glass, I heard a thump from behind the door. I could make out a shadow moving inside. I lowered my hand to my side. I heard a vague rumble of a voice, muffled by the distance and the heavy wood of the door. Then slow, heavy footsteps. The shadow grew larger until it filled the glass, obscuring all light that was peeling through to me. Then There was a clinking sound, metal-on-metal. A loose chain, jangling like atonal bells. A deep, guttural thud as the key turned over the lock once. Twice. I felt the air, displaced as the door shifted from its frame and then slowly, slowly, the door silently glided open.

Towering a full head and shoulders over me, his presence filled the doorframe completely. My eyes searched for his, above his bristling beard, wound like shiny wire wool and completely obscuring his face. Eventually I managed it, difficult as it was with the light refracting off of the thick bottle-bottom lenses of his round spectacles. I felt the faintest hint of a smile as we made eye contact, but it soon disappeared. He inhaled, his huge chest expanding like an industrial bellows and I felt my palms wet with perspiration while I waited for what he might say.

“So it’s you again,” he said in his thundering baritone. “I suppose this must be … the third time? Or the fourth?”

I let the question hang in the air as he took off his glasses and, with a hanky removed from his faded corduroy trouser pocket, he polished them off before looking up to the light through them. He nodded to himself slightly and set them back onto the bridge of his large bulbous nose. “Speak, lad,” he said, a note of irritation colouring his words this time.

“I suppose the third,” I replied, inwardly cursing myself for the tremble in my voice. “I …”

“I don’t have time,” he cut me off before I could go on. “… for the carefree comings and goings of someone like you. Oh, I remember the time, at your age, when things were different. All sorts of mischief I’d find myself in. Causing bother and who knows what else. But today … today I like things to be a little quieter.” He angled his face down at mine more intently now. I could smell his breath, each word laced with stale coffee and the pipe smoke that sometimes wafted out of darkened windows, a few feet from where I stood. “What do you suppose,” he went on, “might happen to you, should you continue to persevere in disturbing me from my affairs, young man?”

It felt like a threat and I swallowed hard. Hard enough that the sound of it cut through the silence of the deserted lane where we stood. I looked down at my scuffed shoes and saw myself moving my weight from one to the other. I looked at his weathered hands, balled into loose fists. I imagined what even the most half-hearted blow might do to me and my small frame. I looked up again and his eyes were fixed on me, still. They were intense, a lively brown with flecks of green illuminating the edges of his irises. His brow was rigidly furrowed into a firm frown and I could barely detect the heaving of his breath.

“Cat got your tongue?” he asked, another feint wave of halitosis blowing warm on my face.

“I suppose,” I said. “I mean, I think it might lead to quite a lot of trouble for me. But I’m not here looking for trouble. I tell you truthfully, I’m really not.”

“Then what is it that you are here for, exactly?”

“I came here because I had no choice,” I said, stifling a whimper. My eyes darted to either side of me. “None of this was ever meant to happen. I was trying to do things the right way. I was trying not to do something that might bring me grief. But I made a mistake. Something went wrong and it’s my fault and the only thing I could do was to come here and to try to put that right.”

My chest was heaving. My hands were trembling. I concealed them behind my back, hoped he hadn’t seen this sign of weakness in me.

“I’ll ask you once more,” he said.  “I’ll ask you very plainly. And I don’t want any more stupid answers. No more foolish stories. Do you hear me?”

I nodded, yes, and sniffed hard.

“What,” he boomed, “exactly … do you … want?”

The silence hung palpably in the air. I looked around one last time. The lane was still deserted. Even the walls of the houses seemed to be looking away from me, unwilling to acknowledge my pleading eyes, desperate for support.

“All I want,” I said, taking in a huge breath. I looked up at him and bit the corner of my lip to regain my composure. “All I want—and this is the last time—all I want is for you to throw my football back over the wall. Please!”

“All right, lad,” he said, after a short pause. “But it’d better be the bloody last time as well.”

 

The Keeper’s Door

A Breath of Fresh Air

This was a story I wrote for the competition on the website http://www.1000wordchallenge.com/

While it didn’t win any of the prizes, it received a mention in the list of stories they’d enjoyed, so I thought I’d share it here.

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A Breath of Fresh Air

It’s impossible to say what it’s like, waking up in the same bed, in the same position, with a tube in your forearm, for 232 days. The smell is the first thing I notice, even after all this time. I can discern the subtle differences between the industrial solvents, with their acrid bite, the excretions and vomit of my fellow patients and, perhaps worst of all, my own body odour. Not that they don’t clean you here. I get a bed bath every day, from a very considerate nurse. But it isn’t the same. I never feel truly clean. At 32 years of age, it’s a depressing feeling. At 7:15 it all changes. The smell of breakfast wafting in like the scent of fresh bread from the heavenly bakery at the end of my childhood road. Of course, by the time the trolley gets to me, all that’s left is the mixed-up-yogurt-goo. Even toast is too much for the stomach of someone with my condition. So I’m left staring in disbelief at the pot in front of me, as I mix it with my spoon, recalling children’s TV – guests being “gunged” with a substance that was not dissimilar and might well have tasted better.

Today had come about because… well because of everything that had gone before it for the most of the last year. It had started with the headaches, then fainting, and then, after that first check-up, the complexity of my condition. All of my doctors had loved that word. ‘Complexity’. From the GP who referred me for the x-rays, to the radiologist who referred me to the specialist who, in turn, confined me to this bed. Three to six months was his prognosis. Not enough time to book a trip to Switzerland to end it on my terms and, according to the doctor, I didn’t have the strength for the journey anyway. Nearly nine months later and I’m still here. It’s why today is happening. Why today has to happen.

Just outside the frosted glass door of the ward, the duty nurse is standing behind her desk. I see a figure walk in. Voices, muffled by heavy doors, start off inaudible and before becoming a little raised. Then a shout. Now a thud. And silence. I pull back my privacy curtain. “What was that?” I ask my neighbour, Adam, a 37 year old taxi driver with pancreatic cancer and two to three months left. “God knows,” he replies, before he’s back into his book. Before I have another moment to think, the doors burst open and in rush my brother, Phil, and Lucy, one of my closest friends.

“She’s gone. We’ve got about 5 minutes til she gets back. Omar’s making a noise about someone who collapsed in the next ward. Once she finds out it’s bull shit, she’ll be straight back,” says Phil. “Get in.” He gestures to the wheelchair he has just unfolded from outside the ward. “I’d love to,” I throw back in my best sarcastic voice, “but I’m kind of stuck here,” motioning towards the needle stuck in my arm. Lucy walks around to my side of the bed and, together, they lower me into the chair. Lucy drags the saline on its trolley, trying to keep up with Phil as he wheels me out of the ward, into the corridor. “Bye, Adam,” I manage to shout. “Tara, boss,” comes the reply. Ever the taxi driver…

The lift arrives and we enter in silence. Nerves gripping us, vice-like, as we wonder how we’re going to pull this off. Lucy’s eyes betray her feelings as she stares at my arms. So thin now. Bones, skin and just a sliver of emaciated muscle. She puts a hand on my back, stroking me, gently. Comforting. The lift lurches to a stop at the ground floor and we exit swiftly, my body almost sliding off the chair as we zoom down the ramp to street level. Rounding the corner, we see Omar, talking with the police. He looks at me, then away. I won’t see him again. Not today. Not ever. A little further and I see Phil’s car. The same Peugeot 305 he’s had for as long as I can remember. Still hasn’t cleaned it. One of the back seats has been removed and he lifts me into the one on the opposite side, Lucy carefully putting in the saline, then looking at me. My arms, legs, the bones in my neck. So prominent now. Phil breaks down the wheelchair, tosses it into the boot and we’re off. Out on to the road.

It’s amazing, after months prostrate in a bed, how much you feel the motion of a car. Massive muscle wastage, drug consumption, and the very real presence of death as a spectre over every waking moment probably adds to it. Suddenly roundabouts are like rollercoasters. Speed bumps like a rocket launch. “I love you, bruv,” Phil shakes me from my thought process with his words. “You too, mate,” I manage back, choking a little bit.

Haring around one last corner, we park up. As soon as I open the door, the sound hits me. A tear spontaneously rolls onto my left cheek. The sea. It’s a typical day on the English Channel. The wind blasts into me like a wall, with deafening noise, each time the waves crash into the pebble beach. Phil lifts me out, my drip coming loose from my wrist. He tries to catch it and in doing so, I fall onto the pebbles, damp with spray from the water. “It’s ok,” I tell him in a rasp. Now, at this moment, pain takes a back seat. For the first time in months of dying, I am alive. An hour until sunset. My last. “Thank you,” I take a shallow breath that feels like a gasp to my weakening lungs. “…for bringing me here.” I taste the salt on my cold cheek with my tongue. “Everything is so fresh.”

A Breath of Fresh Air