Morning all / evening / you get the idea …
Not much to say about this one. We’re back with Jason Oye, and completely in first-person present tense. I think I like this viewpoint with Jason. I like being inside his head. To be honest, at this point in the writing I’m still finding my way with him a little bit. When I’ve finished Ash I’ll have more of an idea of exactly who he is.
A new and very important character makes an appearance in this part. The eagle-eyed among you will have seen her before. This is where Coals of Fire and The Endless Circle really start to mesh.
Read on …
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
I don’t feel like going to school the next day, but I feel less like staying in the house with mum and her work, so I leave before she’s awake and arrive at school just as Ed the caretaker’s opening the gate. I make my way to the canteen, where the air’s crowded with the smell of frying and the sound of the radio, and I sit at a table by the window and watch as the early-birds begin to arrive: year sevens with their uniforms ironed and buttoned, looking like tortoises with their huge bags strapped to their backs. They laugh and joke together across the empty grounds. For now they’re happy, but in an hour they’ll be quiet and timid, scuttling away from the older students in tracksuits and hoodies who carry only cigarettes and flick-knives,.
As I watch them I can’t help wondering just what the point is to their happiness. Soon enough they’ll become the same as those who were here before them — eagerness will turn to boredom, hope will become indifference, and they’ll leave school with the same prospects as anyone else: a mindless job if they’re lucky, and a lifetime on benefits if they’re not.
They’re morbid thoughts, and I look away. This is why I didn’t want to come. Now I’m ready to put my plan into action nothing else seems worthwhile. I’ve already started to distance myself, reducing the people around me to shades of grey so they will be easier to leave behind.
More students trickle into the canteen. A group of boys sits down at a nearby table and begins a noisy game of cards, shouting at each other as they argue over the rules. I put up with the noise for two minutes before I leave.
The corridor outside the form-room is quiet, at least. I slouch by the door and wait for the minutes to tick by. I haven’t been there long when I feel a prickle on the back of my neck. I look up to find that I’m being watched. A girl is standing at the far end of the corridor, by the door to the stairwell, her dark eyes fixed on me. Her skin is pale, almost marble-white, and her black hair falls straight down either side of her face. She’s young, too young to be a student, and for a moment I think she’s the daughter of one of the teachers — then I notice that she’s dressed only in a hospital gown, the sort that has to be tied at the back, and her feet are bare.
I push myself away from the wall.
“Hello.” My voice echoes in the empty corridor. “Are you all right? Are you lost?”
In reply the girl turns and walks into the stairwell. I hesitate for a moment, then follow her; but when I reach the stairwell and look down she’s no-where to be seen. I can’t even hear the sound of her feet on the stairs.
I wonder about it for a minute, but in the end I can’t be bothered to worry.
The day drags by, and I drift through it like a ghost. No-one speaks to me — they haven’t since the business with the Sylph — but more than ever I don’t care. They aren’t people any more; already they’re on their way to becoming memories. They ignore me, and I ignore them. It’s as if we live in different worlds.
At lunchtime I walk out of the gates again and get on a bus. No-one tries to stop me. When I reach the last stop, somewhere in the middle of the city, I get off and walk some more, down to the river where there’s open sky and the smell of the water. The South Bank is heaving with early summer crowds: Germans, Americans, Japanese and Italians all meandering aimlessly, stopping only to stare at the street performers who paint their faces and dress as statues to pose for photographs.
I lose myself amongst them, disappearing in their jostling ranks. It’s comforting to think that no-one knows me, and no-one knows where I am. This is what it will be like in Australia. I’ll be able to be anything there, anyone I want to be. I’ll be able to leave Jason Oye behind and start a new life, free from the chains of this one.
I’m so caught up in my thoughts that at first I don’t notice her, but then someone knocks against me and I look up and see her, the girl from school, standing a hundred yards away from me with her eyes fixed on mine. She’s still dressed in the hospital gown, and her feet are still bare.
We stand staring at each other for what seems like an hour. I’m too surprised to do anything. I don’t even wonder what she’s doing here. She’s looking at me with a detached expression, like someone looking through the glass of an enclosure or a one-way mirror, seeing without being seen.
Except I can see her, and when the shock wears off I take a step towards her, but then the crowd surges between us and she disappears behind the bodies, and when I push through to the place where she was standing she’s not there any more.
I turn and look behind. A cold finger of paranoia runs down my spine. Who is she? Why is she following me? Why is she wearing that gown? For a moment I wonder why no-one said anything about it, but then I remember: this is Lonfon, where no-one notices you no matter what you do.
I look around for another few minutes, but she’s well and truly gone. In the end I feel too uncomfortable to stay, so I turn and push my way through the crowds back to the bus stop.
There’s a man in the kitchen when I get home. When I open the front door his eyes are already on me, but he looks away when he sees who it is. He’s sitting with his long legs stretched out under the table, a polo shirt stretched tight over his chest and arms, a black jacket hanging from the back of the chair. There’s something in his jacket pocket, something familiar from TV and films. I stop when I see it, and take a second look; then the man glances up at me again and I look away.
Mum’s in the living room on her laptop with papers spread out around her, her hair tied up in a scarf. She glances up when I come in, but she doesn’t smile.
“Who’s the guy in the kitchen?” I say.
“He’s from work,” mum says, tapping at the keyboard without even looking at me. “He’s here to look after my experiment. Home early again?”
“I’m not feeling great,” I lie. “I’m going to go upstairs and do some coursework.”
“Ok. Hope you feel better.”
I can feel the man’s eyes on me as I cross the hallway, and I take the stairs two at a time. When I reach my room I close and bolt the door, then sit down on the bed and stare at the wall. I’m sure of what I saw now, of the black pistol grip peeking from inside the man’s jacket, and it worries me. I’m used to mum’s work being sensitive, and I agreed a long time ago never to talk about it with anyone — but she’s never worked on something so sensitive it needed an armed guard in the house.
I stay in my room for the rest of the afternoon, and I don’t come down until he’s left.
I dream again that night.
This time I’m on the plane to Sydney. We’re passing over the Indian Ocean when we hit turbulence. The entire plane starts to shake, and the FASTEN SEATBELT signs come on, but before I can reach for mine the cabin drops like a stone, turning on its side as the engine scream, their rising pitch echoing the passengers’ screams. My stomach clenches and rides into my throat; I grip the armrests until my knuckles stand out, closing my eyes and trying to breathe as the whole world turns upside-down and cases and bags fly everywhere, spewing their contents so that the air is filled with pens and books and cosmetics and phones, clattering and smashing against each other and heads and faces. Then, suddenly, I know I’m dreaming, and I’ll wake up before we hit the sea — but the plane’s falling faster and faster, and the screams have turned to terrified sobs and prayers, and still I don’t wake up, and the world spins and keeps spinning so that I think I’m going to vomit, and I’m afraid, because I know I won’t wake, that I’m not dreaming, that I’m going to die …
I wake with a jerk, gasping and sweating in the cool night air.
It takes a long time for my breathing to slow and my heart to stop racing. When I can breathe normally at last I lie awake and stare at the ceiling, remembering the dream. It’s vivid in my memory. I can still taste the fear, like iron or blood in my mouth. I recall the terror, the awful certainty that I was going to die — but most of all I remember that the final thought that went through my mind was relief.
I’m wide awake now. The terror of the dream has receded to a dull ache, but it’s still there. I listen in the darkness. The noise I heard yesterday — the slow, rhythmic creaking that sounds exactly like someone walking up and down in the spare room next door — has returned. Creak, creak … creak creak …
I think of the man in the kitchen, with his iron-hard stare and his gun. I think of the banknotes bundled in the envelope in my drawer. I think of the girl in the hospital gown.
Then I swing my legs out of bed and leave the room.
The landing is a mottled patchwork of shadows cast by the moon, which shines full through the window at the far end.
Between my room and mum’s is the spare room, its door locked and bolted. Mum has Sellotaped a notice to it, something official about classified information and unauthorised entry. The creaking continues, louder here than it was in my room. I stop in front of the door and put my ear to it.
The creaking stops.
I straighten up and look at the door. The cold finger is on my spine again. I can’t help feeling that the door looks back.
I hurry to mum’s room. Part of me feels stupid — I’m sixteen years old, and no age to be jumping at shadows — but I ignore it. Stupid or not, I have to try to find out what’s behind that door.
Mum is a tangled shape under her blankets, huddled over on one side of the bed with her arm flung out into the empty space where dad used to be. When I touch her arm her eyes snap open as if she was already awake.
“What is it?” she says, her eyes wide in the darkness. “What’s happened?”
“There was a noise,” I say, nodding at the wall. “In the spare room. I heard it last night as well. I just wanted to make sure your experiment was okay.”
She relaxes. “Oh. All right.” She slides out of bed, makes sure her headscarf is still in place, then wraps a dressing-gown around herself and follows me out on to the landing.
The creaking hasn’t started again, and the house is still and silent. I feel like even more of an idiot as mum unlocks the door, slides the bolts back, and peers inside. I try to look around her to see for myself, but she motions me back with one hand.
“Sorry,” she said. “I can’t let you. Just stay here.”
I fold my arms and wait as she slips through the door and closes it behind her. I can hear her walking up and down, her feet creaking on the loose floorboards, exactly the same as the creak I heard before. Then the creaking stops and mum’s at the door again, closing it behind her, locking and bolting it.
“It’s fine,” she says, rubbing her eyes. “Just a loose part. It shouldn’t bother you again. All right?”
I nod, even though I don’t believe her. I want to ask something, but I’m not sure whether I can or should. Mum turns to go back to bed.
“That man,” I say. Mum stops. “Who was he?”
She looks at me. There’s something in that look I’ve never seen before. Fear, or maybe anger. Or both.
“He’s from work,” she says. “Why?”
“He was wearing a gun.” I hear the words come out of my mouth.
Mum looks at me for a long time. At last she says, “You know my work can be dangerous.”
“Yeah, but so dangerous you need someone with a gun in the house?” Again, I hear the words, but it’s as if someone else is saying them. Why am I bothering with this? I’ve never been this worried about mum’s work before.
“Look,” she sighs. She shakes her head, and suddenly she looks a lot older and a lot more tired. “It’s complicated, all right? I can’t explain everything. I wish I could, but I can’t. That’s just the way it is. This is my work, Jason. This is what I do. Sometimes it involves things I’d rather it didn’t. What can I say?”
“Will he be back tomorrow?”
“Him, or someone else, yes.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as it takes.” We stand in silence for a minute. “Is that everything?”
“Good. Now go back to bed and don’t worry. This is my work, and it’s well in hand, I promise.”
She turns without waiting for an answer and goes back to her room, closing the door firmly behind her. I watch her go with a sinking feeling I can’t explain. I wish I could believe her.
* * *
Once again thanks to all those who read these chapters. Feel free to chip in with any comments, or just to say you enjoyed it. Take care all!