Artwork by Tim Judd. fb.me/Quillhook
The earth under his feet sounded different in the dark.
It crunched when it had no reason to, and creaked like floorboards, when all there should have been was moss and darkness. Dennis rolled his eyes, gritted his teeth, tried to laugh at himself. But, as he exited the yellow warmth of his car, and headed across the field and into the tangled, frozen undergrowth among the trees at its edge, every step felt like a testing. It was as though something might be lying there, beneath the soil, waiting for him to tread a certain way, on a certain point, before it would heave and swell and reach up to grab him. A twig snapped, like a gun crack and he leapt in fright, the wan circle of torch-light in front of him shaking in alarm, lighting the wizened bark of a tree in some gurning parody of disco strobe. The laugh made it out then, but it was short and harsh and behind it there was a small, panicked scream. It echoed in the silence. There was no one else out at this time in this weather. Not a light at a window. Not a car on the street.
Pull yourself together.
He stopped. Breathed. Considered how ludicrous he would seem to the others, close to hysteria now, after all they had been through. Above him, somewhere, an owl screeched and it calmed him to know there was something else near him that was alive. Gradually, he counted his heartbeats. Concentrated until his breathing slowed and the torch in his hand produced, once again, a gentle circle. A little millpond of light.
It was only when he had reached a suitable place, propped the torch against a tree root and pulled out the tools he had brought from the garage, lining them up on the ground ready for digging, that he realised he’d left it in the car. The whole point of this evening. The thing he’d come here to lose.
“Why tonight?” his wife had asked him. “I don’t see why you need to go out in this weather. Can’t you do it tomorrow?” She had paused then, dropping her voice to a sort of hopeless whisper, as if she knew, already, the reaction, “or you could just hide it here?”
Sophie and Barry and Gram and Elina. Their faces, swimming through his mind. He saw their trust and their need and their accusation. He felt the intensity and the violence of it.
“No,” he had said, “I can’t. I just have to. They’d know.”
Dennis swore to himself. Only gently, and under his breath, so that even the owl would be hard pressed to hear. He wasn’t a man who swore, as a rule. And as he turned back again, torch in his hand, to retrace his steps to the car, he heard the laugh come again, more naturally this time, a reflex response to a ludicrous situation. He wasn’t a man who buried secrets in the overgrown areas at the edge of public spaces. As a rule.
They had come together in a series of short scrabbly bursts. A couple of them at a time, falling through the doorway into the over-bright lighting and shifting about on the hard plastic chairs. Sophie and Gram were first, Sophie’s plump hand around Gram’s sticklike wrist, dragging him behind her like one of those tiny, bow legged, quivering dogs. Sophie had launched straight in, of course. She was desperate to share, her words spilling out onto the bristly carpet squares like bilious vomit, congealing with shame as soon as they landed. It was only natural. When you’ve held the kind of secrets that Sophie had, for so long, without sharing, they become poison inside you. She was permanently retching to get them out.
Gram spent the first twenty minutes of that initial session perusing the tea trolley, and then the next ten explaining his name. (Gram, short for Graham – spelled like the weight measurement – a nickname from childhood – wouldn’t answer to anything else – couldn’t imagine being called Graham – after all who’s called Graham these days? Everyone is ‘Skye’ or ‘Leaf’ or ‘Dyke’. Well maybe not ‘Dyke’. But you know. You know what it’s like. Names.) Sophie and Gram were the first. They had been in The Group for the longest. If you didn’t count Dennis.
Dennis had been in The Group from the start.
Arriving at the car, he scrabbled at the lock and opened the door. Warm light flooded over him. There was a brief moment when he hesitated, the cold numbing his lips and the wind whipping at his ear lobes, and then he slid inside, just for a moment, and closed the door. The sounds from outside grew muted and distant. He flicked the switch to maintain the light and felt the residual warmth of the car begin to brush gently at his frozen edges. It was behind him, lying on the seat. He looked at it, dully, reflected in the mirror. Perhaps this was madness. He was going too far. He should hide it at home.
But he had promised The Group.
Barry had joined next, blustering through the door with his special brand of bolshy good cheer and his boyish humour, only partially buried beneath his jowels. Elina came later, but close enough behind him that Dennis suspected she’d been watching the doorway. Waiting for somebody else to walk in. A canary to lower down into the mine. And that was the four of them. Assuming you didn’t count Dennis.
Four of them. Four years of work.
All of it leading up to this moment.
Dennis let out a noisy sigh which became a groan, half comedy, half pain, like a Father telling a joke which he knows will only irritate his children, who are, incidentally, no longer children, and who he knows he is losing. Then he twisted around to hit the switch of the car light, plunging himself back into a darkness which made the inside of the car suddenly more threatening than the outside, fell clumsily and hastily out into the sharp, wind-whipped rain and moved around to the back door. It was there, still, on the seat. And he felt a sort of mild surprise, as though it might have disappeared by now. As though, in that moment of light and normality, it might just have quietly ceased to exist.
He reached inside and picked it up, struck, suddenly by how light it felt. How deceptively easy it would be for him to carry. This collection of parts which had fallen so heavily on the lives of four people and splintered and crushed them into rust coloured dust.
Five. If you counted Dennis.
They had cut the funding, which was the only reason the Group existed. It was the only such arrangement in the county, at least as far as Dennis knew. A punishment, somehow, for the smallness of the neighbourhood, the privileged few who lived out of the city. Usually there would have been four separate groups, of course, four separate sessions. For the Sophies and the Barrys and the Elinas and the Grams.
“You’ll be running with the addicts,” Genevieve Hallward had said, with characteristic obliqueness, “a mixed group – you know – whatever it is – alcohol or drugs. Whatever comes through the door. It’s a new thing. It might work. It might not. The bastards cut the funding.” She’d been gathering her folders and her handbag as she talked, and by the time Dennis could respond she was half out of the door. “Six o clock,” she said, “Tuesdays” and then she was gone.
And so, at six o clock on Tuesdays, Sophie and Barry and Elina and Gram brought their motley collection of personal obsessions, and laid them, like bleeding sacrificial offerings, in the centre of the circle, at Dennis’s feet. Each one had been born as a tiny beast, a little mischievous, perhaps, but alluring. But they had grown so quickly, fed so succulently by pain or by guilt or rejection, so that now they were huge and terrible and murderous. By the time The Group had its opening meeting, they had already half consumed their victims. Sophie and Barry and Elina and Gram were only struggling prey, partially digested, buried deep in the bellies of their erstwhile pets. They had made it through the door powered only by a certain expectation, a rare, almost forgotten, glimmer of hope. And they had taken their seats on their hard plastic chairs and dug their heels into the places which the carpet squares were peeling, and looked out at him through the gaping mouths of bigger, hungrier creatures. And waited. It was Dennis’s job to facilitate their escape.
The rain was pounding at him now, slapping him hard in the back of his neck as he carried it, carefully, back across the dark grass and into the tangled undergrowth where, somewhere, he had left his tools. Something nonsensical had made him hesitate, before he brought it fully out of the car, a feeling that the rain would mar it somehow, that there would be something awful about him simply carting it carelessly, this thing which meant so much to four – to five – people, opening it up to the rage of the elements. The torch in his mouth jerked and jolted as he walked, and he felt his breathing grow laboured, water pouring down his face, and dripping down into his nostrils from the end of his nose, his mouth cramping slightly, his throat hoarse with the urge to spit or to swallow. He had it cradled in both arms, swaddled in the blanket he kept on the car seat, which he had not found a use for since the children were small. He thought of the mud, of the wet, worm-infested hole he would dig for its burial, and he knew then he would bury it wrapped in the blanket. A final bastion against the indignity of the earth. He would have laughed again for comfort, but a laugh now would be wrong. And as he stumbled about among the tree roots, searching for the place he had selected, even the darkness closed around in respectful silence.
The owl was gone.
It had been four years for Dennis, but much longer for the others. Sophie had fought her monster for half of her lifetime, Gram since adolescence, and Elina was convinced it had been with her from birth. Only Barry would joke, full of brittle bravado, that he was a spring chicken compared to the rest. But the previous two years had cost him his marriage, his children, and that loose self-assurance which he wore like a costume, but which used to be real.
Finally stumbling, almost by chance, on the place where he had laid his tools so much earlier, Dennis dropped the torch with relief and knelt down on the ground. Too late, he remembered he had brought a kneeling pad, stolen from his wife’s gardening stores, so well prepared. He had considered every element, he had thought it all through. But now he felt the wet of the earth, the crunch of the browning leaves in their papery decay, the seep of the soil through his trousers to his skin, and he gave himself up to the dubious pleasure of his own minor suffering. His ears were numb, his cheeks raw, the loose cartilage clicking in his joints. He curled his frozen fingers around the trowel and drove it, viciously, into the soil. It sank easily into the moist, dark earth, and he pulled on the handle, levering up a thick, black slice like a bug studded gateau. He deposited it neatly to the side of the hole, and drove the trowel in again, each movement becoming easier as he expanded the grave. He dug and as he did so he felt a tight kind of fury inside him, frustration powering each movement and thrusting it home.
“Progress isn’t linear,” he had said to Genevieve, two years in, when she was cradling her swollen belly and picking out booties. She had looked at him, then, a slight frown on her face, and he had thought perhaps she wasn’t following the concept so had tried to explain, “With addiction, I mean. It comes and goes. You win some, you lose some. You just sort of have to…try to win the most often.” But then he had thought suddenly that perhaps this was defeatist, that maybe his attitude was the reason The Group would not fully recover, and he had been filled with a cold fear. When Genevieve had opened her mouth as if to speak, he had expected her to rebuke, even to sack him, but she had only coughed a little and then he had realised that she hadn’t been listening, and was tapping at something on her phone. He felt like a criminal getting away with a crime, some vile and secret thing which would gnaw at him all night. He went home and looked out all his old textbooks, and searched on the internet until he found enough sources which assured him he was right. Progress was very rarely linear. But it was three in the morning before he had closed down the laptop and wondered wearily if he ought to diagnose himself with OCD.
In the torchlight, every so often, luminous in the soil, the writhing white body of a decapitated worm would appear, gleaming wetly in the agonies dealt it by the trowel. Dennis, with a vicious mixture of remorse and wild fury, hurled the bodies away from him, hearing them sometimes, landing against the bark of a tree or a stone with a squelch. Still he dug, merciless, until the hole had made was much larger than necessary, even given the blanket. Until the hole would be worthy of an occupant of such huge and terrible import. Until his sweat mixed with the rain and stung in his eyes.
Sophie had won for six months, until her work forced her to take holiday, and in the silence of her house, with no other distractions, she had given in once. It had taken her a further nine months, and a bloody, sobbing, battle of attrition, before she regained the lost ground. Gram had lost spectacularly and disappeared altogether for over a year, returning thinner and wilder and with tiny, spidery lines of blood mingling with the desperation in his eyes. Barry had won for a whole eighteen months, before losing one weekend, in a moment of arrogance, believing too firmly that he had control. And Elina won and lost in weekly intervals, her tiny frame wasting and burning, her heart, like the fragile bird she resembled, beating so fast and so frantic that the weeks felt, to her, like years. It was Elina, of all of them, who came closest to breaking him. That never ending hope, that continuous, unsubstantiated belief that, this time, finally, she’d really done it. That the days in which she had managed to wrestle a brittle kind of victory, were proof of her continuing vanquishing efforts, and the few days before that, which she had spent in the hospital, were another decade, another life. It was a known pattern, with a known answer, and he had patiently given it. He had responded to all of them like the textbook cases they resembled. He’d done it all by the book.
But there was no book. Not really. And if there had been, these monsters were easily big enough to eat it.
Dennis sat back on his shins, the cold seeping into him upwards from the ground and down from the sky, a small belt of relative dry stretching across a narrow band of his torso, gradually encroached upon from either side. He was panting with exertion, kneeling at the edge of a hole large enough for him to crawl forward into. For a moment he considered it, the strangely inviting prospect of lying down in the dirt, his face on the soft soil, closing his eyes and, finally, giving up. He thought, with a stab of awful guilt, of the times when he had allowed himself to consider that they should all just give up. When all of this fighting and talking and the false hopes and new starts seemed only a sadistic kind of torture. The monsters, such as they were, held, at least a temporarily reprieve. Would it really be better for Sophie and Barry, for Gram and Elina to live long lives filled with effort, straining against bondage too powerful to escape? Dennis had thought these things, and dismissed them with anger. He didn’t have an answer and he didn’t want to know. Instead he, like The Group, just pulled himself forward.
If at first you don’t succeed, baby steps, baby steps, try, try again.
This is how we carry on. This is how we go.
And Dennis had imagined taking an axe to the off licence and the casino, burning the magazines, unplugging the web. But he had not done these things. And not just because it would be impossible. But because he too liked a glass of wine to unwind in the evenings, he didn’t really mind the odd game of poker, he was a little concerned himself about his love handles, and he had bought or stolen magazines in his youth which provided the same kind of titillation now housed online. Because it was complicated. Because Sophie and Gram and Elina and Barry, they were not every human.
They were just four of the best.
It was time. Carefully, with immense solemnity, Dennis turned to the blanket wrapped thing in the mud. Slowly, he unwrapped it, filled with a need to bid it goodbye. And as he revealed it, a jam jar, sealed and sturdy, the monsters inside it visible through its walls, even the rain seemed to recognise the moment, and ceased, just for a moment, to fall.
A time capsule. They’d been talking about them in passing, Barry’s children had done a project about them in school. And then somebody had made a small, bitter joke about the stale, shabby relics of the lives of The Group, what miserable offerings they would have for a time capsule, and everyone had laughed in a way that only they could. And gradually, the idea had been born.
A sealed container, capturing within it some symbol of each member’s personal pain. A tooth or a claw broken apart from the monster. Buried where none of them would be able to find it. A sort of poetry, an ode to self control. And as the idea grew, with Elina as its champion, it seemed to Dennis as though it might just be possible. As though this was the answer, once and for all. And no-one had realised how simple it would be. All those writers of textbooks. What did they know? And he had pushed the nagging sense of reality, the rational voice which acknowledged it might help temporarily, but cautioned that the fight must go on being fought, as far as possible to the back of his mind. And Dennis too, had begun to believe it, that the jar, and its removal, was the bright silver bullet that would puncture the soul of the monsters for good.
Now, as he knelt in the soil and examined it, it seemed foolish and too small.
A poker chip for Barry, that one had seemed obvious. It hadn’t taken The Group long to agree about that. Gram was more complex, they had considered a cork, a label and a ring pull, but nothing was quite right. Everyone agreed that the cork in particular was simply too light, it had too many shades of celebration, too many false connotations of achievement, of success. And the ring pull was too dismal, too pathetic a symbol of such a significant fight. The choice for Gram had felt especially momentous because, at the time of its choosing, he had been hospitalised again, another organ failing, the near misses growing nearer. In the end he had come up with it himself, a small, bronze key which had opened his late Father’s drinks cabinet, stolen all those years ago, at the very beginning, when he was still just a boy with his whole life stretched ahead of him.
There were tears that day, but then there had been plenty of tears in the lead up to this burial, each item lovingly examined, carefully selected and gently extracted into the arms of The Group.
Dennis felt the water in his eyes warming, stinging, no longer produced by the sweat and the rain. He winced from the pain, the pent up agonies of the past four years, felt the love and the frustration, smelled the dust on the carpet and the cheap coffee in the flasks. He saw Sophie’s round, gentle face, a little worried, a little clouded by guilt and shame. Elina’s bright smile, cracking through the stretched skin on her face like sun through ice. Barry’s swagger and his odd affectation of what he obviously thought was a more ‘common’ accent, masking his privilege and his waste and his pain. Gram telling his rambling stories which everyone had always forgotten the beginning of, and which Gram tended to abandon before reaching the point.
Sophie’s required a little bit of technical knowledge. The Group had collectively pooled their rather sparse resources, with Barry leading the way and Dennis holding himself, and his increasingly unsettled emotions, wisely back. In Sophie’s case it was hard, everybody agreed, to find the tail of the monster. Sophie was ashamed of what she looked at in the dark shrouds of the internet, and the shame made her hate herself and then the next look was punitive. The darker, the more violently edged were the images, the more effective the punishment, and the deeper the shame. In the end, it was decided that part of the problem was Sophie’s ability to indulge this in secret, and that, were this monster to be brought into the open, it would shrink and sizzle in the daylight. Computers being a necessary part of daily life, Barry had downloaded a ‘child lock’, but it was agreed it should be fastened at a point which would mean that Sophie couldn’t simply purchase a new device. This entailed a Group ‘field trip’ to Sophie’s house, which Dennis attended despite the advice of Genevieve and the text books to ‘keep his distance’. Triumphantly, a guard had been installed which would work on any device used on Sophie’s wifi supply, and the password for it compiled of random numbers and figures which no one would remember, written inside a tiny, tightly folded, scroll of paper and handed to Sophie to place in the jar herself. Dennis, sceptical and aware of the various methods by which a person might ‘get round’ this control, and secretly believing that the ‘tail’ of this monster had more to do with self doubt and an extreme and long term loneliness, had watched Sophie smiling and flushing with excitement in her new role as host, passing round biscuits and accepting with blushes Barry’s extravagant compliments on her house and her cooking. It seemed to him that it was this visit, and the excited plans for more, which might in fact, be the pathway to Sophie’s salvation.
Dennis squinted, water and emotion making his eyes ineffective in the dim of the torch, the battery already growing weaker. He felt a quick fear rush through him, that he might, sometime soon, be plunged into darkness, abandoned there with only the wind and the groaning trees for company. He needed to do this. To bury the capsule with its terrible contents and walk away from it once and for all.
It had been difficult to choose something for her. Magazines or apple-cores or diet pills or the pin ripped off a set of weighing scales. All had been considered. None had made the grade.
And in the end events had overtaken them. And they had simply added a lock of her hair.
Dennis gripped in both hands the jam jar and its contents and it took all his strength not to raise it and smash it on the tree roots below. He wrapped it, again, in its sodden blanket and laid it down inside the hole. He thought of Sophie, of Gram and of Barry. He thought of Elina.
Her bird’s heart, beating too fast to keep going, her small face, her smile, her unending good cheer.
He took it all and he hurled it at the glowering sky, howling like the sum of the monsters he buried, shot in the heart by a silver bullet.
And then, when it was all over, he picked up the trowel and began, systematically, to replace the earth he had dug out. The rain, sensing closure, resumed its downpour.
The fact was, it had taken nine months to plan this project. To conceive of it, name it, and select each of its contents. And during that time no-one, not one of then, had relapsed. Even when they buried, not the capsule, but one of their number, the shock had not triggered any new fall. They had pulled closer together, met more frequently, on other days that weren’t a Tuesday, and Sophie had held two dinner parties, and they had all attended in Elina’s honour. Dennis, exhausted and depressed at the funeral, and almost willing a release, had watched Gram like a bleary hawk all through the wake, and he hadn’t touched anything stronger than Cola. Now when six o clock came and went on a Tuesday, it felt like more of a social gathering.
Or, increasingly, a support group for Dennis.
The soil, newly replaced, was a little raised, and Dennis, abandoning the trowel, used the palms of his hands to pat it down. The ooze of the earth felt good between his fingers. He had chosen this spot deliberately because it was away from the main public ground, but here, on the edge, in this overgrown, neglected portion, just beyond the wooden boundary fences, it might conceivably, one day, become a part of somebody’s garden.
Because Dennis’s hope was secured in that day, sufficiently far in the future, when someone, a child perhaps, or a builder, might discover the Vice Capsule and its contents.
And not have any idea what they meant. Or what they had cost the people that put them there.