May Contain Nuts
We pulled up near the massive front door and as Toby ran up the steps his Mum, my daughter Kathy, was there grinning from ear to ear. It was lovely to see them as Toby ran into her arms, had a great hug, then turned and ran back to me and hugged me too. “It’s super! It’s huge!” he shouted as he stood once again with big eyes sweeping from one end of the building to the other.
His Mum laughed. “It’s not all ours, Toby, we have just a little bit of it. There are lots of people live here, all of us in little houses built inside. You’ll probably see them other boys and girls, so just you keep an eye out and let me know if you see any!”
I don’t think Toby was interested in making friends at that point, he was just in awe of the size of the place. “It’s like a museum” he observed.
Yes, I pondered, it has a history, that’s for sure. It used to be a lunatic asylum, years ago. The nuthouse, it was called in those days. Now it had a more upmarket name, something which sounded as if it had been replanted here from an elegant London street.
We walked in through the great door and into the equally large hallway. Toby ran to the lift and pressed the button for the top floor, for that was where Jackie’s flat was. As we went up in the lift he and I smiled at each other, our secret smile, just between the two of us. Somehow at times we seemed to be the same person. We loved to wind up Toby’s Mum, because we seemed to communicate without words and she would stand there perplexed: “How do you two do that?” she would say exasperated, when we had agreed something to do together without a word being said.
I could feel the electricity sizzling between us strongly as we went up in the lift. I knelt down and we stared at each other, his eyes clear and blue, mine browned with age. He stepped forward and I held him close, feeling him tremble slightly with excitement.
The doors rattled open, the same steel doors from all those years ago, the ancient concertina type where you had to be careful not to get your fingers jammed between the rails when the door opened.
Toby looked at his Mum to confirm which way to go and ran along, counting the numbers on the doors, skidding to a stop outside his new home. Jackie let us in and Toby disappeared, but we could hear him whooping and shouting, his running feet echoing from room to room.
Soon he was reporting back: “It’s huge!” he said again. This was true: the ceilings were high, the rooms were big, the windows were big enough to stand in. Jackie and her boyfriend Sam had moved from a small terraced house in London when his company relocated and had then rented another small terraced house while they looked for somewhere to buy. They had moved in here over the last couple of days and Toby had stayed with me and we had some quality time together. Meanwhile, Toby had settled in well at his new school which was conveniently close. It was wonderful that they had moved here as I had been living nearby too, having inherited an aunt’s house which I had moved to a couple of years back. I used to live here. For a while. But that time was best forgotten.
Toby wolfed down a snack, then went exploring again. “Would you like to have a look outside, Toby?” his Mum asked.
Outside, the extensive lawns were laid with paths criss crossing from one end to the other, which kept Toby amused as he ran up and down them as fast as he could. “Can I cycle on these paths, Mum?”
After a while, Jackie looked at her watch and went in to start dinner. Sam would be arriving back from work in an hour’s time. Jackie’s work she could do anywhere, anytime: the marvels of the internet.
I stayed outside with Toby and he carried on exploring the woods below the lawned areas, hiding then jumping out as we walked around. There were trees to climb, paths circling round and round so he could run as fast as he could but still be in the same spot one minute later, which bemused him. It was lovely to see him, free and fast, enjoying the fresh air, as free as a bird. I felt my tension relaxing.
We went back to the flat, in time for Sam to arrive home. Toby hugged his Dad, then ran back to me and asked where all his toys were.
Jackie served up straight away though, and after a leisurely dinner Jackie got Toby into the huge bath, then afterwards handed him to me, wrapped in a snug warm white towel.
“Story?” she smiled at me. Toby nodded emphatically.
As I carried him along the hallway, Toby snuggled close to me. He was warm, with the scent of a clean towel and clean skin and Toby’s own delicate scent when his skin was close.
I put him down at his bedroom door and left him to clamber into bed while I just popped to the bathroom, still warm and steamy from Toby’s bath.
In the bathroom, it was quiet. Except for the tap. The dripping tap. I couldn’t wait to turn it off fully but in that half a minute the panic had risen. I had so had it under control. It had been a long time. But it started to come back, the forgotten but familiar feeling. I could feel my muscles tense and consciously had to make an effort to relax. I flushed the toilet, and with that came the faint scent of antiseptic that Jackie had used on the toilet. It was not her usual brand. This was different. This was . . . familiar. I felt my hear racing again. I closed my eyes. The smell was strong. My feet were cold on the tiled floor. The room was cold. I shivered.
I opened my eyes. It was Jackie’s bathroom, not the one I had flashed back to for a moment. I breathed deep and slow, calmed myself. Coughed. Walked out and into the hallway.
I could hear the muffled cries of a child in the next flat, through the thick Victorian walls. The hallway echoed as I walked along it. Toby’s room was at the end. The door was ajar. The light was not on. As I walked towards it, there was a slight luminescence and as I quietly arrived at the door, I saw it was from the moon shining in through the tall sash window.
Toby was there, at the window, staring up at the moon. His slim frame was in silhouette, the moon caressing his head and shoulders with its cold light.
He had shrugged off his bathtowel and stood there naked, how he went to bed in the summer.
I didn’t need to see him turn his head to hear him say quietly “Look at the moon.”
He was transfixed. I was transfixed. I was looking at him, at me those years ago. That had been me, those years ago, a little boy, seven, standing at the window, staring at the moon, naked because I had torn off the scratchy clothes they had dressed me in and driven me half mad by the dripping tap, the scratch of branches on the window, the noise of the other people screaming, the crush of smelly bodies in the corridor, the way people did different things to what they said and didn’t tell me, the noise, the touch of everything. They have a name for it now, they know what it is.
But I was proud that it had taken four people – four grown ups – to hold me down before they could tie me to the metal bedframe, still to carry on screaming and contorting and lunging and spitting and biting. Screaming animal screams, louder than any of the other inmates. Somehow, in the end, they got the needle into me though, and for a while everything went quiet.
To look at Toby was a help. He seemed so peaceful and quiet, just gazing up at the full moon.
I became aware of the crying child next door. For a couple of moments it was there in the background. Then, I realised it was me. In my memory. I was sure I was silent but my brain was crying out. My little boy memory.
Tonight, it would have to be a short story for Toby.
Actually it would need to be very short.
I felt my pulse rate quicken, I couldn’t control my breathing. Then, I thought, what if Toby picks up on this? That would be so wrong. I need to leave now, get out this room quick. Then, from Toby I heard a noise, a strange gasp I’d not heard before. I paused. He was still standing there, but I could see the tenseness in his body.
The scream from next door was louder. The scream in my head was louder. I remained quiet though, still. But as I watched Toby he turned, slowly, towards me. I ran towards him. Something was wrong.
Before he even saw me his eyes were wide, tortuous fear contorting his features. He knew. He knew. Or at least he didn’t know, he felt. He felt the horror of the place.
Suddenly I felt so guilty. I had never spoken of this place, to anyone, after we had moved away. Somehow I had managed to get out. Did the things they wanted me to, somehow. Got out. We moved away, never to return, till a couple of years ago. When I married, I never mentioned it. It was in the past, would stay there. I was concerned when I found that this was where Kathy, my daughter and Sam, and beautiful little Toby were going to live, but it was then such a lovely place for them, different. I would cope.
But here I am. And Toby, contorted, stiffened by fear. Finally his eyes found mine but they were unseeing. They looked through me, past me. He stood facing me now, his face in the dark, black shadow from the moon. I could not see his eyes, his expression.
But then, his tiny chest filled, his throat gargled and he screamed, a deep, agonising animal scream that sent icy chilling shivers down my spine and zapped my fingers and toes, made my hair stand up on my neck and then I too was overcome with uncontrollable sobbing and before I knew it I had taken in great gulps, sobbing gulps of air and together we screamed, screamed in the dark room, lit by the full, full moon.
coffee machine whirs,
I am 'grounding',
but I can't.
I have no roots.
I'm still drifting.
I laugh out loud,
reading to distract,
"may contain nuts",
feels like an attack.
Doesn't every room,
Yet I'm still drifting,
This is not how he expected to feel
finding himself further from shore
that he can correct.
It’s almost a relief to be inside
this grey-water washing machine
on the spin cycle.
Its warm, dark clutches have him by the throat,
He’s a village drowned beneath friends’
better lives, mute taunts.
Trivia of his past days whizzes by
like strangers cars, rigid lines melt
nothing stays contained.
He’s shreds of being, piled thin strips upon
popped balloons, papier mache,
undone by water.