Saturday, 21 November 2015

Mind The Gap

Mind The Gap is a story from my collection Some Body's At The Door

“I hate the Underground, it’s smelly and dirty. And creepy; you know those things live down there,” complained Andy, shivering. “I’d rather walk.” He folded his skinny arms across his narrow chest and stopped dead exactly where he was, eliciting tuts and annoyed grunts from the people behind him.

Leigh looked at her brother disapprovingly. She paused. She sniffed. “You’re welcome to,” she said, slipping her ticket into the barrier, “But I’m getting the Tube.” Playing mother to an unwilling child, she began to walk towards the downward escalators when she heard little feet running towards her. “Leigh!” shouted the younger boy, moving as fast as he could, his eyes wide and scared. “Mummy said you’re not to leave me on my own!” There was panic and a hint of hysteria in his voice; “Please, don’t leave me on my own down here.”

Turning, feigning reluctance, Leigh held her hand out to her little brother, her thirteen years to his eight opening up like an impossible gap between them. “Hurry up, then!” she scolded as he reached her. “I would like to get there sometime this year!” She pushed the boy, guiding him in front of her, and kept a hand on his shoulder, comforting contact, making sure that she knew exactly where he was. Andy reached up and held her slender-fingered hand in his small one. He squeezed tight as the moving stairs took them down deeper into the grimy half-light of the Underground station.

As they descended, Leigh gazed at the top of her brother’s blond head. Recently she had noticed their age difference more and more, and it seemed especially large at that moment. She looked at her brother and saw a boy, a child. It wasn’t that long ago that she had been a child too, and they would play together and laugh at the same things, but now, now she was a teenager. And things had changed. The gap was growing, she could feel it widening and she didn’t know whether she liked it or not. Leigh shivered. Andy looked up at her, twisting his neck. “Are you all right?” he asked, and Leigh wondered whether he could feel the change as well.

“Fine, fine,” she told him, lying. She felt like an adult when she did it. She supposed that Andy’s childish fear had spooked her far more than she had realised, but she couldn’t let it show or Andy would get even more jumpy than he already was. Instead she said, “Stop worrying, would you? Look out, we’re at the bottom.” She pushed Andy off the escalator. He leapt, avoiding the crack where the metal stairs met the dirty floor. Leigh deliberately trod on it, watching Andy’s face with interest. His mouth opened slightly, his eyes even wider than before. “You shouldn’t have done that, Leigh,” he said in a whisper.

“Why’s that?” asked Leigh, sidestepping to let other passengers past her. “What’s wrong with doing that? It’s not got anything to do with that silly old rhyme about breaking my mother’s back, has it? You know that’s all rubbish, don’t you?” Again, the differences. It wasn’t so long ago that she would have avoided the crack herself.

“Of course it’s rubbish!” shouted Andy, causing passers-by to stop and stare at him. He began to sob, surprising Leigh who was at a loss as to what to do. She hadn’t meant to push him so hard. Andy continued to shout at her through breathless hiccoughs. “I know that’s not true, but you still mustn’t stand on the cracks. They’ll see you. You mustn’t let them know you’re here, so you have to stand just on the steps otherwise they’ll look up and see you. And then they’ll come and get you! And the ones that are already up here – you mustn’t look at them!”

Her mother’s voice crept stealthily into Leigh’s head, the last worried warning words as they left the house that morning repeating; “Don’t forget, Andy’s only eight. Look after him. Make sure you don’t let him wander off. I love you.”

Sighing, Leigh bent down to Andy’s height. “Andy, there’s nothing to be scared of,” she said, trying to soothe him. “Millions of people come down here every day and they go about their business and never get hurt. So just calm down. I promise there’s nothing lurking under the stairs. Come on, Aunty Kelly is expecting us for lunch, we don’t want to keep her waiting.”

Andy sniffed and nodded. “Okay.” He attempted to smile but ended up with an expression on his face that was somewhere between abject terror and sympathy for Leigh and her obvious inability to understand. He was worried. Surely she knew… She used to know. And now she must have forgotten. She had forgotten a lot since her birthday. A lot of things that were important to know. Essential, in fact, to know. Kids knew. Adults didn’t. Leigh, though… He worried still. Leigh was neither here nor there, neither child nor adult, and she was on dangerous ground. Still vulnerable, but unable to believe she was. He would have to look after her today. And for all days until she was safe and he, too, forgot what there was to know.

Andy reached out his hand to his sister. Leigh took hold and gently led him towards the strip lighted tunnel that would connect them to the trains, thinking she was in charge. Thinking she was doing what her mother had asked of her. It wasn’t hard, was it, to keep a little boy safe?

Sad music, a drifting, dreamy version of ‘My Favourite Things’, floated towards the pair as they walked, echoing along with their footsteps and voices through the tunnel. Despite the tune sounding more like a lament than a jolly show stopper, Leigh dug into her pocket for some spare change. She offered it to Andy. “Want to give this to the violin man?” she asked, nodding in the direction of an unkempt man in a long overcoat who stood a little way ahead, creaking out the miserable melody on a decrepit and battered violin. Andy shook his head quickly, decisively. “No, thank you,” he said. He did not go into details – he understood now that Leigh wouldn’t believe anything he said about the buskers. He understood now that it was best just to ignore them and hope that they would go away, just like he did with the monster in his wardrobe and the ghost under his bed.  

“You sure?” asked Leigh, surprised. She hadn’t expected him to turn her down; Andy normally enjoyed giving his money to the various street performers around London, especially when there was the reward at the end of it, a sticker, a badge, one of those little furry bookmark things. He had a collection of them.

But this time Andy nodded, then shook his head, his lips tight shut. Leigh was caught. She personally disliked giving money away. She would rather spend it on herself, after all it was hers, not earned, perhaps, but given to her by people who had earned it and who expected her to spend it wisely. But since the money was in her hand, she threw it into the violin case by the man’s feet, avoiding awkwardness. He looked up and smiled, apparently happy with the meagre offering – literally pennies. Leigh smiled back, meeting his watery eyes, surprising in their age, being polite and not a little embarrassed over the whole situation.  Andy began tugging urgently at her arm, shielding his face with his bag. “Come on!” he said loudly, “We’ll be late!”

“I’m so sorry,” said Leigh to the musician and indicating Andy with her eyes, laughing, hoping the busker shared her problem, understood her meaning. She didn’t want to cause a scene. Another one.

The music stopped. “Not a problem,” said the violin player. His voice was husky with disuse and the words sounded foreign falling from his tongue. Rather than waiting for Leigh’s response, he brought the ancient instrument back up to his chin and began to play again, the haunting music floating away down the cavernous walkways, filling the air, filling every space with the lingering refrain. Leigh didn’t like it. It seemed to hover around her, enveloping her, a cartoon cloud above her head, making her feel dulled. Muted. Deadened.

Andy pulled Leigh along, her own stiff and heavy legs not wanting to move much of their own volition, only stopping again when the busker was out of sight. The music still drifted, but finally Leigh seemed to be knocked out of her fugue. Knocked out of that and straight into railing on her little brother; “Why were you so rude, Andy? What the hell’s got into you?” Her head pounded to the rhythm of the now silent music, and even her eyelids ached.

Andy knew there was a problem. He had the strangest feeling that this was a turning point. It was over, his previous life, his youth, perhaps, because he now understood more than he wanted to. More than his sister did. Which was unfortunate, and very unfair. He took a deep breath, stared straight into Leigh’s reddened, maddened eyes and simply went for it, screaming out his knowledge, making no sense as he did so; “You mustn’t look at him, Leigh, you mustn’t! He mustn’t see you!”

“I am fed up with you telling me what I mustn’t do today, Andrew.”

Andy, chagrined and crushed in a way only a younger brother could be by Leigh’s use of his full name would, in normal circumstances, have said nothing. But this time it was too important for lies and too important for the truth, so Andy had to say something in between; “I’m sorry, I can’t explain, Leigh, but it’s bad. It just is. Why can’t you remember? I wish you could just-”

Leigh snapped; “Enough!” The sound of her voice was so loud, much, much louder than her brother’s had been, that it bounced off of the bright tiled walls and boxed Andy’s ears as hard as a fist would have done. He gasped. Hiccoughed. His throat was scratchy and dry and yet he still tried to explain. “The man, the music man, you shouldn’t have looked, Leigh, you shouldn’t have listened, it’s bad, it’s a trick, Leigh, a trick!”

And then the real blow came. The stinging of his cheek was the only thing that made it real, otherwise he would have thought he was dreaming. A nightmare. Leigh had hit him. His large eyes brimmed with the tears of pain, of fear, of complete frustration and utter despair. They did not fall. Leigh saw to that. She used her sleeve to wipe them before they had a chance as dozens, hundreds, of commuters and tourists passed them, choosing to ignore the incident happening in front of them. Some probably even thought it was entertainment, put on for their pleasure.

No one understood. Because no one else had looked a busker in the eye.

No one understood except Andy, of course.

And being eight and inconsequential in the eyes of the world he could make no one understand.

The slap, as unexpected and ridiculously unnecessary as it was, slowed Andy’s thoughts and for that he was grateful. No longer on autopilot, he could breathe freely, if jagged with fright, and he knew what had happened. What was happening. And no amount of persuasion would make Leigh think again. So Andy apologised, and both he and Leigh knew he didn’t mean it. But she accepted it anyway.

“Come on, then,” she said, rubbing his red cheek and slipping her arm around his still shaking shoulders. Feeling him made her catch her breath, made her suddenly sad because he was only eight but soon he would be a teenager, an adult, an old man. Life was fleeting. And the soulful soulless musician’s music came back to her, if it had ever left. There was a melancholy stillness to the air, sound in a vacuum and she knew what she would do.

She wouldn’t do it.

She couldn’t do it.

But she had to.

Andy felt it. He felt a tightening of Leigh’s fingers on his arm and a tightening of the world around him. He didn’t like it. He couldn’t stop it.

As they emerged onto the platform the first waft of warm air hit Andy full in the face and stole his breath. That gust carried the music, and it was as though he could read Leigh’s mind. Terror ripped through the boy and he tried to run but Leigh had him gripped tightly. So tightly that he had no choice but to follow her lead. And she timed her jump well, just as train hurtled by.

And finally, the music in her head stopped playing.