New Friends to Build a Backbone by Alun Evans
September 11, 2020
A Fine Day’s Sport by Suki Linnell
September 11, 2020
 

Of Sprites and Spirits


Short Fiction by Jim Toal

 

The dump was a big, steep-sided crater in an old slagheap next to Miley’s scrap yard. From the top, fourteen-year-old Habib lobbed a stone at a fridge poking out of brambles that crept up the slopes. It missed. Beside him, his friend Craig balanced the upturned bonnet of a Ford Fiesta on the lip of the crater where a scar of coal-black earth plunged right to the bottom.

‘Gonna get in or just stand there throwing stones all day?’ said Craig.

Habib launched another stone. It glanced off the fridge. He was thinking of his older brother Nasser, trying to remember happier memories. Best of all, the time when he was eight and Nasser eleven. They’d gone to Lodge House, the grotto in the grounds with the mosaics and carvings and the lake below. Nasser doing dares that made Habib think him invincible.

‘Think I’ll give it a miss,’ Habib said.

He hadn’t wanted to come out with Craig in the first place. When Craig had called round at his house that morning, he wanted nothing more than to stay in bed. He’d tried pretending he wasn’t in, but his mother, home for a cup of tea between cleaning jobs, had invited Craig in.

‘Come on,’ Craig said. ‘Don’t be such a wuss.’

‘Nah, man. Not in the mood.’

Craig was a newish kid at school; moved up to Durham from Leeds. Being the only person in school who didn’t seem bothered by what the other kids said about Habib, he’d become his friend by default. Still, even though Habib liked him, he felt he couldn’t confide in him. When it came to telling Craig that he’d been up into the early hours watching a video featuring his dead brother, the answer was a definite no.

The news of Nasser’s death hadn’t made national headlines or anything like that but had featured in The Evening Chronicle and on BBC Look North.

Stanley teenage jihadi killed in Syria.

There hadn’t been a body to bring home. No funeral service or burial. No proper goodbye. It hadn’t seemed real. It still didn’t. Everything was a blur. The police searches and questions. His mother’s shame and outbursts of grief. Neighbours who shunned them. The brick that came through their living room window one Saturday night when they were watching Strictly Come Dancing. The shard of glass he’d pulled from the back of his mother’s armchair.

‘Please yourself,’ Craig said. He climbed on the bonnet, leaning forward to tip its weight over the edge. ‘Later.’

The bonnet slid away, kicking up dust. Gathering speed, halfway down it hit a ridge, bucked, and came down hard. At the bottom, Craig howled like a mad dog.

Habib buried his hands in his pockets. The video was freely available on the internet. It showed members of Isis destroying ancient monuments in Syria. Stone slabs carved with intricate friezes crashed to the ground to chants of Allahu Akbar, and somewhere in the background was Nasser. Over the sound of pneumatic drills, angle grinders and sledgehammers pounding and gouging his brother’s laughter could be heard, his determined grunts and good-humoured complaints of weariness. Only at the end, did the camera swing round to capture a glimpse of him. It was so brief it was easy to miss, but clearly Nasser despite the keffiyeh covering the bottom half of his face. As he’d done many times before, last night he’d watched it again. His face illuminated in the darkness of his bedroom by his iPhone screen, it was as if repeated viewings of an event filmed shortly before Nasser’s death would bring a better understanding of what had happened to his brother.

A cloud crossed the sun and a shadow slithered over the ground. Habib turned away and wandered towards Miley’s yard. His limbs felt heavy like they were full of wet sand. Towers of scrap vehicles glinted in the sunshine behind a fence topped with razor wire. On his side of the fence there was a wrecked bus. A rusted shell so ancient it appeared rooted to the earth. Inside, there was a smell of old engine oil, the deck missing with nettles growing up through the sunken chassis.

He took his iPhone from his jeans’ pocket and watched the video again. It wasn’t as if Nasser had been particularly religious beforehand. That was what confused Habib the most. Only in the few months before he’d gone travelling had he attended mosque regularly. Before that Habib could only remember prayers at Eid and the funeral prayers for his father who had died of a heart attack three years ago. That had been the extent of Nasser’s faith.

A rattling outside the bus disturbed him.

He glanced up from the screen to see Craig peering in through an empty window and tapping a stick against the buckled frame.

‘Alright,’ said Craig.

In his haste to put his phone away it slipped from Habib’s fingers. He dipped his hand into the nettles and recoiled in pain.

Craig came inside the bus. ‘What’s up?’

‘Dropped my phone in these nettles.’

‘Clever.’

Craig began scything the nettles with the stick.

‘These can be right bastards.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Habib said, fingering his inflamed skin.

Craig lashed the nettles again, paused and stooped over. ‘Here we are.’

‘Thanks.’

But Craig didn’t give him the phone. He dropped his stick and dangled the phone between his thumb and forefinger. ‘Come get it.’

When Habib went to take it, Craig snatched it away.

‘Come on, Craig. Stop pissing about.’

Craig only laughed.

Habib made a grab for his phone but Craig was too quick. His movements were cumbersome. He wasn’t in the mood for Craig’s games.

Craig smiled. ‘You know what they say? Finders keepers…’

‘Stop being a dick,’ Habib said. ‘Just hand it over.’

Craig extended his hand to offer the phone but withdrew it each time Habib tried to take it. Craig did this a couple more times before Habib snapped and lunged for his phone. Losing his balance, he pitched forward and inadvertently shoulder-barged Craig’s hip.

Craig laughed. He was much stronger than Habib and grappled him into a side-headlock, holding the phone out of reach with his spare hand. He tightened the hold. With Habib’s head jammed between Craig’s ribcage and the cruck of his elbow, he could smell Craig’s armpits, hear his insides gurgling like water draining down a plug hole. He twisted his neck and wrenched his head loose enough to throw a flimsy punch into Craig’s side.

Hardly a flinch from Craig. Without a word, he slid Habib’s phone into the waistband of his underpants that stood an inch proud of his tracksuit bottoms and grabbed a fistful of Habib’s hair, yanking him to his knees. Next thing Craig was on top of him. With his arms pinned to the ground, Habib gasped as the air squeezed from his lungs. He stopped struggling. Craig stared down at him and then brought his face, smeared with sweat and coal dust, up close to Habib’s.

‘Give up?’

Craig’s breath smelled like burnt toast, his glossy incisors yellowy at the gum line. When Craig pulled away, Habib made a show of pushing him off. Craig rolled over and stood up. He looked at Habib and heckled him with forced laughter.

‘Don’t want your stupid phone, anyway.’ He pulled Habib’s phone from his waistband and tossed it to him.

Still warm and tacky from Craig’s skin, Habib thumbed the screen. The video was paused at the fleeting image of Nasser. More than ever the image seemed detached from any notion Habib had of his brother. Not quite in focus, the transient image summed up what he felt about his brother after he’d turned so suddenly devout. He’d become a kind of ghost even before he died; changed from the fun-loving person he’d grown up with into the serious, lecturing version that Habib hardly recognised, never mind understood.

His pulse ticked in his temple like a cooling engine and he scratched at the braille of white blebs lacing his hand and wrist. Without looking at Craig, he got up, brushed himself down and put his phone back in his jeans’ pocket.

‘Might as well go home than stay here,’ Craig said.

‘Well, what you waiting for?’ Habib said. ‘Nobody’s stopping you.’

‘Want me to go then?’

‘Not bothered.’

Craig shook his head. ‘If that’s how you want it.’

After a moment spent looking for his stick among the flattened nettles, Craig stepped outside and whacked it against the bus, sending down a shower of rust.

‘See you,’ Craig said.

‘Yeah, see you.’

Habib looked down at a little hammock of spider’s web strung between the nettle leaves and speckled with rust flakes. A tang of crushed vegetation rose from the ground. When he looked up Craig had gone.

After counting to ten in his head, he went outside into the bright sunshine. In the near distance Craig dragged his stick along the ground behind him, sending up a thin plume of dust in his wake. Habib watched his departure as if witnessing a scene in a film. The piercing light after the shade of the bus made him woozy. Something was trying to push though his breastbone, constricting his breath. Somehow he was looking at Craig but seeing the retreating figure of his brother.

‘Wait,’ he called and ran after him. ‘Hey, hold on.’

When he caught up, Craig turned round and shrugged.

‘Yeah?’

He caught his breath. It wasn’t as if he’d been expecting Nasser, exactly. He knew that wasn’t possible but he couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

‘What you gawping at?’

Habib didn’t know if the idea was entirely his as it formed in his mind.

‘Wanna see something?

‘What?’

‘A place of magic,’ he said, aping Nasser by widening his eyes for dramatic effect. ‘Of sprites and spirits.’

#

Lodge House was a derelict Victorian mansion set out in the countryside. To get there, they had to cross town and walk another three miles in the midday heat.

Habib’s t-shirt, wet with perspiration, stuck to him. His skin itched where he’d been stung by nettles, and a combination of the hot sun roasting the back of his neck and a lack of sleep made him light-headed. Regardless, he was content to be leading the way.

On the other hand, the further they walked the more Craig became irritated. He plucked leaves from the dense roadside verges and stripped them back to their spines. He squinted into the sun and swatted at the flies buzzing around his head. Whenever Habib paused to think about directions, Craig would give him an exasperated look while exhaling through his nose.

‘Do you actually know where you’re going?’

When they eventually arrived, a sign tied to the ornate cast-iron gates declared in red capitals, KEEP OUT!

‘This it?’ Craig said.

Habib nodded and smiled. ‘Yeah, this is it.’

‘Where are we?’

‘You’ll soon find out.’

Craig shook the padlocked chain and peered at the ornamental spikes on top of the gates. On either side of the gates was a brick wall too high to scale. ‘How’re we supposed to get in?’ He peeled a strip of moss from the mortar between the bricks and crumbled it in his fingers.

‘This way,’ Habib said and led them to where the wall gave way to a yew hedge, exposing a gap just wide enough to squeeze through and enter the grounds.

They crossed a wooded area of oak and copper beech, the house emerging abruptly from behind a screen of pine trees.

‘Cool,’ said Craig, staring at the huge, boarded-up building, dark and imposing against the vivid blue sky. ‘Wonder who lived here.’

Though he didn’t believe a word of it now, on cue, Habib recounted what Nasser had told him. ‘It once belonged to a wealthy family who owned the coalmines,’ he said. ‘But then there was a tragedy. A child, the only son, drowned in the grounds. After that the father moved the rest of the family out and, turned mad by grief, attempted to burn down the house.’

‘That’s pretty hardcore,’ said Craig. He lifted the hem of his t-shirt to mop the sweat on his forehead.

‘Well, he didn’t succeed, obviously,’ Habib said. ‘Wanna see inside?’

At the rear of the house, Habib pulled back loose, corrugated tin from a small window. As he climbed onto the ledge, it was as if he could feel Nasser reach through the window, take his hand in his powerful grip, and haul him through. In the gloomy, cavernous interior, he pictured his eleven-year-old brother leading the ascent of a derelict flight of stairs, the vertebrae of a monster, to the top of the house where they had stood at the edge of a void.

‘Wait here, Bibs.’ Nasser stepped nimbly onto the joists. Habib watched from a platform of a few remaining floorboards crossing the main beam. When he looked down the distant floors below swam up to meet him. Nasser crossed the void and waved. Shadows dissected his body. Pigeons fluttered to beams overhead to attend squawking chicks. Bird shit caked the walls like dried yogurt. Habib waved back. ‘Be careful,’ he called as Nasser set out again, each step on a joist making Habib’s stomach lurch.

Craig scrambled inside without any help from Habib.

The weariness that Habib had felt all day turned to a faint, dull thudding as if he had a small insect trapped inside his skull.

The interior of the house smelled as rank as the underside of a log. Hunks of fallen plaster exposed furred brick, and, in many rooms, there were imprints of panelling, architraves and radiators ripped from walls. Mouldings and cornices had been chiselled from ceilings and tiles jemmied from floors. Graffiti covered most walls still standing. Glass and rubble crunched underfoot.

‘Sound,’ Craig said gazing about him. ‘How come you knew about this place?’

‘Nasser brought me here when I was little,’ Habib confessed.

‘Ah, okay,’ Craig said and fell silent.

Habib appreciated the fact that Craig didn’t ask him to elaborate.

They spent half an hour or so idly poking around the house. From time to time they’d come across evidence of fire damage: charred timbers or blackened bricks like piles of decayed teeth, and then Habib would recall the grief-stricken father of Nasser’s story, thinking he could still detect an acrid smokiness in the air. At one point, he looked at Craig, who was standing in a ragged patch of sunlight, peering up at the sky where the roof was missing, and felt a sad longing swell in his chest. Craig seemed so strangely out of place that Habib couldn’t help imagining Nasser’s last days; how it must have felt to be only seventeen and stranded in a distant foreign land among people who were more or less strangers to him. When he rubbed his eyes he saw in the swirling fog of his re-emerging vision the men in the video engaged in the pointless destruction that, no matter what had happened or anybody said, he would always struggle to associate with the real Nasser.

‘Come on,’ Habib said. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Where to next?’ Craig said. ‘The magic place?’

Habib smiled.

#

The grounds divided into sections by walls covered with brambles and creepers. They walked under archways mottled with lichen, passing empty plinths and toppled statues broken into chunks.

Following Habib along a brick path, Craig edged to his side. ‘This’s great, Habib,’ he said. ‘Thanks for showing me.’

To hear his name spoken with what he perceived to be such tenderness was strange and thrilling. ‘No bother,’ he said, lengthening his stride.

Mossy steps curved out of sight, and trees leant out from rocks. Huge ferns clung to the sides of the grotto. Everything was much the same as Habib remembered but more overgrown.

A dripping tunnel took them under a meagre waterfall. Their restrained voices merged with a faint smell of urine. Habib imagined serious Nasser among them, cursing the idolatry of the place, but only briefly as his thoughts turned to fun Nasser; his daredevilry that Habib never had the courage to match. In the dimness, they were able to discern mosaics of faeries, and slender boys with green faces playing pipes. Which made Habib think of the drowned boy; his wet hair matted with pondweed as his father carried his lifeless body away from the lake and back to the house.

Craig pointed up at where the walls curved into the roof and carved stone faces of old men with sprigs of plants growing from their noses and mouths glowered down at them.

‘This’s brill,’ said Craig, his voice echoing theatrically, which made them laugh.

Craig patted Habib on the back and smiled. He smiled back and put his hand on Craig’s arm, lean and taut as rope. Once again it was Nasser he saw, the brother he loved without question.

They emerged from the tunnel into blinding sunlight and came to the spot where the path ended above a vertiginous drop. Below was a big lake, its surface covered with green weed and leaves.

‘This’s the place where Nasser jumped from,’ Habib said, touching the trunk of a tree. A thick branch overhung the grotto.

‘Jump,’ said Craig. ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’

‘It’s not that high,’ Habib said, grinning. ‘I’ve done it loads of times.’

‘Oh, yeah?’

‘Only kidding.’

‘How deep?’

‘Dunno. Deep enough for Nasser to jump into, I guess.’

Craig pondered for a moment, looking down all the time. ‘Let’s do it,’ he said.

Habib looked at Craig, and as he stared back a wood pigeon broke cover above them with a loud clatter.

‘Shit!’ said Craig, and they burst into jittery laughter.

‘Come on,’ Craig said. ‘We can do it together.’

He and Craig exchanged a quick glance.

‘Don’t know about that,’ Habib said.

‘Alright,’ said Craig and puffed out his cheeks. ‘I’ll go first.’

Habib had the impression he was reciting the same warning he’d given to Nasser six years earlier. ‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’

And like Nasser had back then, Craig ignored him.

Craig climbed onto the branch and edged along on his backside. Fragments of bark crumbled and showered down, hissing into the leaves. He stopped when he was directly above the lake. The air was greenish and soupy, midges danced in a scrap of sunlight at his feet. His face was serious, pensive. He licked his lips and spat. The discharge disappeared into the foliage below.

Habib watched, outwardly rigid and silent, inwardly squirming. When he was in position, Craig sat completely still. Neither of them said a word.

‘Ready,’ Craig said, eventually. ‘On the count of three.’

Habib nodded and stared down at the lake, which appeared further away each time he looked.

Habib began, ‘One, two…’

On three, Craig hadn’t moved.

‘Jesus, man!’ said Craig. ‘This’s scary. You sure Nasser did this? You’re not having me on, are you?’

Habib massaged his hand where the nettle rash had smoothed to a mild tingle. He considered lying; telling Craig that Nasser had backed down at the last minute, but found he couldn’t.

 ‘Nasser was always doing crazy impulsive things like that as a kid,’ he said. He paused for a second, before adding: ‘The same reckless behaviour that caused him to go and get killed.’

‘Okay,’ Craig said, holding Habib’s absent gaze. ‘Let’s say this one’s for Nasser.’

But in spite of his bravado, even at a distance, Habib could hear Craig’s breathing, heavy and shaky. ‘I’m gonna do it, man,’ he muttered. ‘Just give us a minute. You can do it.’

A moustache of sweat sprouted on Habib’s upper lip.

Craig glanced at Habib. His fingers dug into the bark. ‘Another count down, and this time no messing,’ he said. ‘I’ll start from ten, okay.’

Habib nodded but could see the fear in Craig’s eyes as he stared wildly at a point just above his head.

Craig began the countdown.

‘Ten, nine, eight…’

Habib’s lips moved in synch, but soundlessly.

‘seven, six, five…’

He wanted to block it all out but couldn’t take his eyes away from what was happening. And as he looked, he realised that it wasn’t just Craig balanced on the branch, or even the version of Craig that flickered occasionally into Nasser. There was another presence: a boy, no older than eight years old, sat there contemplating the lake below.

‘four, three, two…’

One the count of one, the boy linked Craig by the arm and slid from the branch, dragging Craig with him as he plummeted down.

They fell like a twirling baton and hit the water with a loud smack. The lake opened up, and Habib saw its dark, treacly innards beneath the green surface.

He stood waiting, looking down, eyes fixed.

He continued to wait, hoping for Craig to emerge from the water like Nasser had; his nonchalant hand brushing wet hair from his eyes, his wide, triumphant smile beaming up at him.

He waited while a weight of loneliness sank into his core, and clouds of thick brown smoke from the burning house drifted overhead, plunging the grotto into premature dusk.

He waited.

Waited until the water settled and the parted curtains of weeds and leaves drew back together.