It is dawn when I wake. I have slept more soundly than I did in the hotel. There is a spider on my leg. I kick it off and wipe my face in case there are more. I feel dirt wiped onto my face, and dampness. I grit my teeth and there is dirt in them too, as if I have spent the night underground.
The damp is from mist that descended in the night. It is thick and I cannot see the house.
I get up, piss against a tree. My head hurts, my neck too.
I walk down the road to the gate. When I begin to see the shape of the house, I stop. It seems lighter like this. As if I could walk up to the house and then straight through it. Or wave my arm and watch it break and curl away, like smoke. I hold my breath as if even that could make it disappear.
I stand in the hall. All is quiet. I draw in a breath and hold it. Silence. The house smells closed up. Something died in here, I find myself thinking.
I listen. I realise I am listening for Peter.
I take it in this time, the house I mean, look around me properly. Here in the hallway the tiles are different. The carpets are probably different too, but they are the same colour as I remember from my childhood. In front of me, in the lounge, is a sideboard. My father kept liqueurs there. I stare at it. He appears before me, as if real: my father. He is dressed in shorts and a collared shirt. This is Port Elizabeth in the early 1980s. He comes into the lounge, a grin on his face. Though I cannot hear anything, there is the sense that someone is talking to him. A joke. He goes up to the sideboard and kneels and I see his bald spot that we used to tease him about before Paul died, and I see him open the cupboard and take out a bottle and two glasses. He opens his mouth and shouts something, but there is still no sound. He laughs, but again nothing.
Then he stops, as if he has heard something. An intruder. He turns his face towards me, half turns. My heart stops. He does not see me. Of course he does not see me. But he is looking right at me. I cannot help looking behind me to see if there is someone there, but it is me he is looking at. There is still a grin on his face, but it starts to fade, to disappear and his shoulders slump as if under an unbearable weight.
I shake my head to get rid of this thought, or vision, whatever it should be called. Walking into a place like this, the house in which you grew up, is bound to have a strange effect, bound to awaken memories or conjure visions. I feel I can imagine them here. My family. Smell their scent. As if they have just left the room I enter.
I walk through the house and open windows. I need to get the air in.
I sniff the damp air. Maybe the smell comes from out there, not the house itself but that which surrounds it.
In the lounge there is a photograph on the table, covered in dust. On the back are the names Peter, Paul and John, and a date, 11 December 1983. As if the names and the date could be forgotten.”
The kitchen is as I remember. The tiles are the same. There are still flowers on them in places where they haven’t been worn away. The cupboards, too, are exactly the same. For a moment I wonder if they are in fact the same or whether my mind is playing tricks on me. Perhaps I have forgotten everything, and am fooling myself that I remember. Perhaps the tiles were replaced soon after I left with a similar pattern, and then perhaps once or twice more, each pattern resembling the one before. The last pattern is definitively not the first, but able to pass for the first because of the gap of twenty years. Somehow the weight of change eliminates the difference from the first.
In the lounge there is a photograph on the table, covered in dust. I pick it up. Three boys, two with their arms around one another. I wipe away some of the dust. On the back are the names Peter, Paul and John, and a date, 11 December 1983. As if the names and the date could be forgotten.
Beneath this photograph is another. A boy, his back to the camera, sits on the ground clasping his legs to him. He is in a forest, or at least in the bush. We do not have forest here.
It is Peter. I took the photograph.
I go upstairs, open more windows. I stop at the entrance to the main bedroom. The bed is unmade. I wonder at this. The rest of the house is neat, prepared. Why wouldn’t he have made the bed? He knew I was coming, would have guessed I would come. That, surely, was the point of the letter: to goad me into flying out here after him.
I pull the sheets off and hold them up. They are yellow where he has laid on them. I sniff. They smell of a person, a man. I don’t know what I expect. To recognise the smell?
I detect a faint warmth on the sheets. The sun slants across the bed.
There are no beds in the other rooms. The first room down the corridor was Paul’s. There are some cupboards built in, but otherwise the room is empty. The next one belonged to me. The furniture is the same as I remember: white cupboards, a desk under the window. I feel nothing, though. I cannot see myself in here.
I walk out and turn to go further down the corridor, but I stop. Something makes me turn around. I am not sure what exactly. I step back into Paul’s room. It is empty. There is a noise, though. Rather, not a noise, a sudden absence of noise. Like my eardrum has stopped working. It lasts just a moment.
I stare out of the window which looks out over the driveway, briefly picturing Peter returning, but of course there is nothing out there.
I do not go into the last bedroom: Peter’s room as a boy. I stand outside it, where I can see the door to the attic room. There are bolts on it, one of which has been drawn. The police appear to have cleaned up well after themselves.
To my left, a window. The mist has not burnt off yet. It is like I am at the top of a mountain looking into cloud. And then, through the mist, a brighter spot, a white disc.
In the lounge I sit in the chair and pick up the phone. There is no dialling tone. The bills have not been paid, I assume.
I do not know Rachel’s number anyway. I have never had to remember it since it was in my mobile. I could buy a charger for it, but I think it is better if I do not call.
I hear a knock on the front door. At least I think I hear it. I may have been asleep and dreaming. It is like I hear it some time after it has happened. I turn my head towards the door and listen. I hear nothing further, but I get up and go to the door. As I pass the second lounge, I see a shadow on the floor, something standing in front of the window, unmoving. I can see the shape of the head, the rest of it formless. I stop, then move closer. As I step into the room, a cloud, or the last of the mist, moves across the window and the shadow vanishes. I peer around the door. Nothing. There is also nowhere anyone could have gone. The windows are still open, but there are bars across them. There are two marks where someone could have been standing, but they are more likely just scuff marks. I stand on top of them. The sun casts my shadow, nothing else. I step to one side, hear my feet move on the carpet. The shadow stays where it is. Not a shadow at all: the light from the sun picking out an old stain. I open the front door but there is no one there either.
I spend the night on the couch. I have washed and hung out the bed sheets but they are not dry yet. The house is quiet. I hear only the occasional tick. I lie on the couch and watch the moonlight as it shifts across the ceiling.
Just before dawn, I go out of the house and into the garden. There is no mist today. The last of the stars are in the sky, and the wind, for once, is still, quiet.
Later I drive to a shopping centre and go into a hardware store. I buy tins of paint, brushes, white spirits, cloths, dust sheets, a sander.
I take my purchases out to the car and pile them in the boot. I have no firm plan yet, which is unlike me, beyond staying for a few more days before putting the house on the market. I will use the time to give the place a coat of paint.
I have never been good at DIY, though I think I can manage to tidy the place up a bit, make it more marketable for when the time comes to sell it. From what I can see, it would be hard to give houses away here, though. The bungalow on the left as I look up the road has boards across its windows and the one beyond that has a ‘For Sale’ sign outside. I have seen no signs of life from the house on the right, though it is more difficult to see from here than the one on the left. There is open land behind Peter’s house. It is still scrub. Not much has changed. On the way here I noticed that all the houses are set back from the road. I try to remember if I have ever seen anyone in the gardens, but I cannot.
I call it Peter’s house, as if he is still alive. I find it hard to think of it as my house, though legally it is mine now – or will be very soon – and once it was as much mine as it was his. The familiarity of it somehow makes it less possible for me to make it my own. I was a very different person when I lived here, almost a stranger. It is him that should claim it – that boy that I was.
I allow my thoughts to wander. It is years earlier, and I have returned, forgiveness on my mind. Peter and I occupy separate wings. The house is not big enough to have wings but it is not far off. We extend, perhaps rip out the attic room and put in an en suite. We meet local women, marry them. In a year or two, children. We gather in the middle of the house for family meals, Peter and I at opposite ends of the table. Patriarchs. Perhaps we would take holidays in the Karoo. A car trip to Barrydale and the mountain pass and a picnic in the river valley.
Our very own dynasty. A line of Hydes, beginning here, spreading out to populate the world.
In this reverie, I give Peter my face. We always looked alike and I have not seen him up close for many years – not alive anyway.
I feel something: embedded in the fabric of this place, this house, city, country, a past that repels me. At the same time, though, the scent of it, the sense of it floating around me, in the dust on the air, buried in the layers of paint on the walls, it has its hook in me, a fish hook ripping through my gullet. The house pulls me in.
I don’t want it – any of it. Did I want reconciliation with Peter by coming out here, by trying to prevent what I saw coming? I have long felt revulsion for him, for what he did, though I know I should not blame him. And, here I lay it out in the open, I do not want to be in the house of a man to whom I have not spoken in eighteen years; I do not want to be reminded of those terrible events when my brother died. Peter drew me here with that letter, with those half-truths, those untruths, and the threat, implied or not.
I am annoyed with myself, I should never have come.
I will go back to London and try to resume my life, with Rachel if she will have me. My brother will be out of my life then, once and for all. It is decided.
I will sort the house out, put it up for sale, and then get back on a plane.
I unroll plastic sheeting on the floor, move furniture away from walls, cover that in plastic too, wash the walls, tape the edges of the windows, remove light fittings, switch and plug covers. It is while doing this that I discover the cameras. Each room has what appears to be a motion-activated camera, installed no doubt for security purposes. I have found no evidence of any other security or recording equipment though and do not give the cameras much thought.
For a week I paint through the day and into the night. Each night I sleep, I imagine, without moving, in the centre of the bed, arms at my sides. I do not shower, do not clean myself at all. I am covered in paint – my hair, even my feet, as I discover when I remove my shoes to go to bed, have paint on them, as if I have somehow unknowingly taken my shoes off in the middle of painting.
I notice, as I go through each room, there are marks on the carpet where furniture has stood. It is as if he had been getting rid of it in preparation for my arrival. Some of it I can even remember. I picture the dining-room table, standing in the middle of the room. Doors leading out onto the patio. Seated at the table are my mother, father, Peter and myself. I have scabs all over me. Week-old cuts and grazes. Paul is not there. My mother scrapes at the food on her plate. Peter stares at me from the opposite end of the table. I do not meet his gaze. It is not an accusatory stare. It is something else. As if he is pleading with me. Perhaps he has asked me to pass the salt. I sense that if I look at him, he will not meet my gaze. My father is looking at both of us as if he thinks there is something between us.
Do I remember this? Or, do I only remember sitting at the table and the rest is made up? Embellished by time and the dislocation I feel being back here.
I have not opened many of the cupboards or drawers that remain – it does not feel right somehow – but when I move an item of furniture I can feel it is empty. He wrote in his letter that he had cleared out most of the contents and he seems to have done a thorough job.
I know there are some items that remain and I will need to clear everything out of course before selling, but first I will paint the whole house: every room except the one under the eaves, the one leading off Peter’s old bedroom. There is nothing in there to paint: it is just brick, concrete and raw wood.
I do find something in one of the kitchen cupboards, though. I am looking for a jar in which to wash a paintbrush, and I find a document. A strange place for it but Peter was probably not the most logical man. It is a title deed in Peter’s name and the address is the bungalow next door, the one that is boarded up.
I stand at the window that looks out towards the house. Something flaps in the wind and catches my eye. One of the boards that was nailed across the window has come loose, or was always loose, I am not sure. I have not noticed it before. I go outside and walk up to the fence and watch it flapping back and forth.
I go back inside the larger house and have a shower, wash most of the paint off and change into fresh clothes. I am passing the window when I see the board move again. I know it is the wind that moves it, but something makes me go back out to the fence and stand there for a few minutes. Every window I can see, besides the one that caught my eye, is boarded up. The garden is overgrown but sparse at the same time. It does not rain much here. There are trees on the far side of it. They lean to the right, bent by the wind.
I feel, though only briefly, I am being watched. I dismiss it. Sometimes solitude can conjure up ghosts.
I look along the fence, and there, a short distance away, is a gap. The wire is old and here the fence seems to have simply rusted away. Or perhaps, some time ago, it was cut. I step through. There is no grass here, only sand. My feet kick up clouds of it, though I try to move lightly. I walk up to the single-storey building, the walls a dull brown. I walk around it until I reach the window with the broken board. The ground in front of it is undisturbed, as far as I can tell. I peer through the gap. The glass is still in place, though grimy. I rub some of the dirt away and place my forehead against the window, my hands shielding the glare. My eyes take a few seconds to adjust. On the wall opposite me is a painting of a scene in England, where I now call home. At least I imagine it is England: a babbling brook, a green meadow, a water mill. It is out of place here, does not belong. I feel, and I cannot explain this, anger. I think that is the word. I force myself to look away.
The rest of the room is almost empty. There is a dresser along one wall and in the middle of the room a chair on its side.
I walk around the house. At the back is a porch. There are dead cactus plants in pots. Plastic sheeting covers one end of the porch – protection from sun and wind. I imagine an old couple here, their ghosts. They drink tea, eat ginger cake, wear cardigans. Perhaps they talk about their neighbour – the man who lives by himself after his father’s death and who never married and never goes out and is a bit strange, but also maybe a bit sad. They do not think that one day he will own their house. I think back and try to picture who lived here when I was young, but I cannot.
There is a sliding door. There are no boards across it. I would be able to see in but for the closed curtains. I pull the door and it begins to open.
We would have known these people, even if just in passing. I do not remember them. I have no recollection of this house at all.
I write ‘We.’ I have no business writing ‘We’, I know that.
As I slide the door open, I listen for an alarm, but I do not expect one nor hear one. I reach in and move the curtain aside.
The house smells as if it has been closed for some time. Mouldy. It would take a lot to get rid of this smell. I will not paint this one, I find myself thinking.
The room I step into is a lounge. There is an old chair that faces a television. I sit in the chair and look towards the television. I can see my reflection in it. The arms of the chair are sticky. I get up quickly. I walk through the rooms. It is smaller than Peter’s house. I make this distinction, though this one belongs to him too. The lounge leads into a passageway. Three bedrooms and a bathroom, each empty, open off it. They are dark and I cannot see clearly, but I can see they are empty. Then I go into the dining room, the room with the loose shutter. It is lighter in here but there is not much to see. I take the painting off the wall, lay it face down on the ground and return to the lounge.
I see it then and I wonder why I did not notice sooner. There is a laptop on the floor near the TV. It is plugged in and I can see a light glowing. It is still on. Next to the laptop is a pile of seemingly blank DVDs. One case, though, lies apart from the others and is empty.
I press a key and the TV screen comes to life. The picture in front of me is of Peter. He is frozen in black and white, blurred. His face fills the screen and his eyes appear to be closed. In truth he is unrecognisable but I know it is him. Who else would it be, after all? Besides, this figure looks like me and I know it is not me.
I remember the cameras installed in the house next door.
I play the DVD. Peter springs back to life. I see him walking from room to room. That is all. The DVD is a collection of scenes of Peter doing nothing.
Until the end. He goes into the room in the eaves. There is a camera in that room too. He goes in there and he does not come out. And then I appear. I run into the room after him. On the DVD it is a split second after Peter; in reality it was a full day later. I rewind and watch over and again. But there is nothing else. This is all there is, all that is left of him. I flick through the other discs, but this is the only one out of its wrapper.
The room is silent. Not completely silent; there is a buzzing that comes from the screen. I put my finger in my ear but the sound does not change. Not from the TV or laptop then.
I leave, closing the door behind me. I stand still in the dark for some time. I do not know how long. I stand in the dark and when I do move, my limbs creak as if suddenly I have lost years of my life.
Extracted from Boy on the Wire.
Alastair Bruce was born in Port Elizabeth and studied at the University of Cape Town where he enrolled in a science degree course but finished with a masters in English Literature. He currently lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and two young children. Boy on the Wire and his debut novel Wall of Days are published by Clerkenwell Press. Read more.