On burning boxes
(note to the reader: I don’t know what this is. It may be a chapter of something bigger or just left alone as an experiment in massively overdoing descriptive language. Who knows? I’m seldom in control of these sorts of things).
The key was right where he said it would be. The lock clicked, door swinging silently inwards on well-maintained and freshly oiled hinges. I stepped into the narrow hallway, ivory-pine tinted wooden flooring, a small and old-fashioned telephone table to the right of the door. I smiled, running my hand over the surface of the table, remembering similar ones from other-nether worlds, rotary-dial telephone still plugged into the wall. A blue notepad and pencil lay neatly next to the telephone. I lifted it and turned the first few pages. Nothing but slight indents: a firm handwriting. Beneath the table a closed telephone book, on a wooden slatted shelf. I knelt down and ran my hand over the spine. Cracked, well used, some dog-eared pages, perhaps turned in as bookmarks. Such a foreign concept these days, a phone plugged into a wall. Most kids wouldn't know what to do with such an item, in this day of charging things: charging phones, charging tablets and books, charging even bloody cigarettes.
Memory: my son asking me to pause the story we were reading while he ran off to the bathroom…
I shifted the telephone book back into its original position, realigning it with the little dust border that I had disturbed and stood, turning to close and lock the front door. A somewhat familiar but just out of reach song reached my inner ear, just the bass signature, from a house somewhere nearby. I turned and walked on down the hall, starting to notice that mustiness that starts up in any house left standing and unoccupied after a few days. The light was dim in the house, heavy curtains closed, the only light coming in from a slight opening in the hallway curtains behind me, little dust fairies flipping and frolicking in the late afternoon rays. I batted a couple aside, tried to catch some others; always eluding, always furtive, just out of the reach and contact of a questing fingertip.
The first doorway to the left led into the lounge. Here was a lounge, and indeed I suspected an entire house, belonging to a single and elderly man for whom the phrase 'A place for everything and everything in its place' would have been neatly embroidered onto a hand stitched cushion for him by someone down at the old folks' home. A small floor-standing cast-iron fireplace, swept clean, pipes leading into the wall behind it, was bordered by two cream-upholstered wing back chairs, a glass-topped table between and in front of them. Head cocked slightly to one side, I walked towards them, eyes fixed on one of the scatter cushions neatly resting in the angle between the back and arm rest of one chair. A once-plush carpet, nothing that a good solid steam cleaning wouldn't fix, took up most of the room. I lifted the cushion and turned it around, half expecting to see the imagined phrase neatly embroidered in blue and gold. Alas. No luck there. I smoothed it out and placed it back, head turning to take in the rest of the room. Heavy maroon curtains tinted the room a dusty pink. I drew them back, allowing the afternoon sun to wash in and opened some windows, the light autumn breeze stirring up my little dust fairies, sending them scurrying back to wherever dust fairies call home and hearth.
The rest of the room was sparsely furnished, a penchant for minimalism perhaps; a man who didn't entertain a large amount of guests here. A floor standing lamp in one corner, four-chair dining table with white tablecloth, a writing desk: oak? Old, certainly, small hole bored in it for an inkwell, minute scratches on the surface. I ran my fingers over them, wondering what may have caused this particular pattern of scratches. Some pencils, sharpened as I had come to expect, a fastidious mind this one, leaning against each other in a little open wooden box in the centre rear of the table. Another of those blue writing pads. I opened one of the drawers: empty. The other contained a plastic-wrapped pack, still sealed, of those little blue writing pads. A bulk buyer. Well.
I closed the drawer and walked back to the open lounge door. The one immediately across from me was closed, so I ignored it for the moment, continuing down the hallway and into the kitchen. Blue and white checked linoleum floor (linoleum?), a skylight directly above a central island.
Memory: catch me daddy, catch me, launching from the kitchen counter, trusting, unwavering…
Four barstools, white frames and blue seats and backs pushed in under the island, two to a side. A man who liked to colour match his rooms. No problem there. As idiosyncrasies go, it's a good one. It beats the hell out of theming your rooms: Egyptian lounge, mermaid kitchen, tropical bathroom. Gasp, hack, spit-spit. Talk about restrictive.
A very antique-looking and whitewashed ladder hung from ceiling above the island, suspended on chains. Brass (bronze? probably brass) pots and things hung from the rungs on neat little hooks. My lack of wood knowledge competing with my lack of metal knowledge, I brushed one of the pots with my fingertip, a light clank as it swung and knocked against a flat thing full of holes: colander?
Memory: oh just step aside, teasing, kiss on the cheek, spoon taken out of my hand, you couldn't boil water without burning it…
I opened one of drawers in the island, blue cutlery organiser, spoons, knives and forks in their place, a place for every spoon, knife and fork. Closing and turning around, taking in the dual-sink washing-up area, a gas stove (smile), a microwave (frown; bit of a let-down, modern touch), no dishes on the draining board. A large mirror-fronted fridge dominated one wall, another modern touch, the double-kind that you plumb in to dispense ice (blocks, crushed or whatever you fancy today) and water (cool, chilled, fucking freezing).
I opened the door to the left of the fridge. Ah, the garage. Yes. Man stuff. I flipped a switch next to the door: multiple powerful globes flooded the room with light. The garage door, the steel roller-type, had a wheeled table up against it. Not a place for a car then. Wooden workbenches took up two further walls of the room, tools of pegboards above both. The last wall was bare, save for a small wooden table and another cream-upholstered wingback chair, this one carefully covered in plastic, no doubt to protect it from dust and other things thrown around by whatever hobby went on in there. A glass ashtray held a large-bowled wooden pipe. It was the only ashtray I had so far seen. No smoking in the house then. The pipe still contained whatever had been previously smoked in it, the residue filling half the bowl. I sniffed: no. Burnt smell, carbon or whatever, no discernible flavouring. I smiled at this: pipe not cleaned out. Hmm. A small chink in the neatness armour here, a little indulgence?
I turned out the lights and closed the door, my eye falling on the back door and the large windows above the sink. I drew back the curtains and opened up the windows, looking out onto a small backyard: mostly paved, small round table with four chairs, all steel; oddly shaped lawn running along two sides, up against the wall, needing some trimming. Two poles were planted into one of sections of lawn. A hammock, gaily coloured rope, strung between them. I'll admit to raising a slight eyebrow at this one. It seemed…somehow out of character, though I didn't quite know why. An umbrella was in one corner, down for now, leaning against the wall. The concrete block it slotted into was under the hammock.
Memory: better take that down, the wind is picking up…yes dear…dropping the umbrella down, leaning against its own corner…everything in its place…
No key in the backdoor, just a deadbolt. I slid it back, turning the handle down. The door opened with a slight creak; not quite as well maintained then. I shut the door again, leaving the bolt for now. Perfect.
I stood up straighter, my shoulders back and let out a long breath, one that I hadn't realised till then that I was holding in. Eyes narrowed slightly, hands closing into fists and opening again: repeat. Okay. Right. Head only slightly moving, eyes roving one last time around the kitchen, I moved out and back into the hallway. Eyes fixed on the one still-closed door ahead, I brushed my hands along the wall, knocking framed photographs askew as I walked by. I slowed and stopped, fingers still brushing the wall, turning and looking back at the photographs. I turned back, looking at each in turn. No, not photographs, just prints. Cats on cushions, daffodils (marigolds? what's the difference?), a little Hemingway-like boat on a dusky beach, waves still, some crappy picture of a smiling girl playing in snow, black-and-white, forest-like scenery behind. I took that one down and turned it around. No price-sticker, makers-mark. Rough little frame, whitewashed, beautiful. Hand-made? Probably.
I opened the frame. An advert for Superfoods Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil. Well, fuck me: cut from a magazine. How thoroughly unoriginal.
Come to think of it…where there any other pictures in this house? Not the lounge, I would have noticed, certainly not the kitchen. Definitely not in the garage. No family pictures at all. Just these prints, five in a row. I could picture a laser level at best, a well-aligned string at worst. It seemed in keeping this this man's modus operandi. Careful. Calculating. Measure twice and cut once.
Memory: she went down fast, afterwards…just…numb, sort of, not blaming anything or anyone, not really, not talking…blaming something would have helped…
I dropped the frame to the floor, the glass shattering. I balled the picture up and then opened it again, ripping, tearing, pieces of paper flung left and right, joining the dust fairies in their joyous little dance. I growled at them. How dare they? I swept another picture off the wall, the fucking daffodil/marigold piece of crap, and kicked it down the hallway. It didn't slide far, and that just enraged me. I grabbed it up and flung it, spinning, at the front door. The glass in the frame exploded, a gouge cut into the door, frame in pieces. I screamed at it, that shitty daffodil/marigold thing, and ran at the door, kicking the pieces all over the hallway.
Hands on knees, deep breath, calm down…
Okay. Back to the closed door. I turned the doorknob and flung it open; the door hit something and rebounded back. I punched it back open. Stupid. Hand out I stopped the door, glancing around. Bedroom. Yes. I looked behind the door: low bedside table, a hole now in the hollow door from where I had bashed it against that table. I crossed to the curtains, drawing them back, slowly this time. Composure: a must-have. Perception: invaluable. Rage: not for now. That'll come.
Memory: an overheard conversation…bit of a temper, yes, but a good guy…wouldn't hurt anyone or anything…smile at me…marriage proposal freshly accepted…little celebration, friends…had just gotten annoyed at a spilled drink…a trifle, really…
Sweet little room, all told, in the autumnal afternoon light. Seems like an adjective I've used a lot during my leisurely stroll through this house: little. Little fireplace, little desk, little telephone table. Massive bed. My word. Was this queen-sized, or king? Just for one guy. I guess he likes his sleeping space. Funny legs though, tapering down to these big bases. I think they call this a ball and claw bed.
The proverbial 'they' – always saying things. Always whispering stupid shit.
A door in the far wall; I open it. Ah, yes: the bathroom. Can't believe I hadn't thought of this room. No tropical scene, thank goodness. Clean white tiles, purple towel, purple soap and…oh my god…purple seahorses. I was just starting to admire the…endearing…nature of this house, the antiques, the well-placed bits and bobs. The only fall from grace were those dastardly prints, I thought, but seahorses? Purple ones? May as well have a pink flamingo on the front lawn. Note to self: check for pink flamingo on front lawn. Kick it over and piss on it if present.
I opened the mirrored medicine cabinet, double-doors. One side contained little bottles and tubes of stuff, the other side was home to the usual vanity products: razor, spare blades, two bottles of deodorant, aftershave (Old Spice; not right, not right at all. You don’t buy Old Spice, it is given, it is bestowed, and no one gave this man Old Spice).
Memory: you like it daddy…I love it boy..it's called Cold Mice…you mean Old Spice…no, giggling, ruffled hair, kisses and cuddles and sweet-smelling…
The little bottles and tubes on the other side were the usual: aspirin, Maalox, Imodium. A brown bottle of diluted hydrogen peroxide, great for cuts and minor ow-wee's. Assorted bandages and plasters, a thermometer (I took this one and pocketed it), a pair of tweezers. That was about it. No telling anti-D's or anti-psychotics, no embarrassing haemorrhoid creams or packs of condoms.
I left the cabinet doors standing open and crossed back to the bedroom. I sat on the bed, colostomy-brown duvet over white sheets. Two pillows. The built-in cupboards were directly ahead of me. I sat up straight, regarding them with head turned slightly to one side, favouring my right eye as if measuring them up for a fight.
No time like the present. I surged up and opened the cupboards. Ignoring the hung-up assortment of clothing I looked at the upper shelf. Some packets of things, a number of boxes, haphazardly placed books, teetering on the edge of a cliff. I took the boxes down, four of them, placing them one by one on the bed.
The first box contained photographs. That's interesting, first I'd seen. The first showed a bunch of smiling men, young, dressed in army uniforms. Black-and-white picture, old looking rifles. World War 2? Probably, possibly. No significant insignia on these uniforms, though one guy had a funny little helmet, like an inverted round-bottomed bowl with a narrow rim around it. British? Something else lacking in my general knowledge, apparently.
No interest. I put the photo back, closed the box and placed it on the floor. The second box contained, after some unwrapping, a selection of tea cups and saucers, absolutely beautifully decorated. I was pretty sure that these must be valuable, somehow. China, they call them? Wouldn't be able to discern one pattern from another. Whether valuable or not, they were carefully and lovingly (I thought) wrapped; some sentimental value, or excessive sentimental value, I'd guess.
So I treated them with the consideration due their apparent sentimental value. I took the box to the bathroom and, unwrapping each piece with all considered reverence, dropped them one by one into the bath, shattering each one, stomping with my boots on any pieces that didn't seem small enough for my liking.
Memory: don't stress boy…sorry daddy…it's just an accident…mopping up…no use crying over spilled milk…mellowing a little in my older years…smiles…fresh glass of milk…
I opened the third box. Yes. This was it. I sat down next to it. It was, as with the key, right where he'd said it would be. I didn't take anything out, did not examine its contents: I just looked.
For a while.
With a slightly but not completely suppressed shudder, I closed the box. Sat a bit. Thought a little. Then I picked it up and left the bedroom, turning towards the kitchen. I opened the still unlocked back door and strode out into the garden, now swathed in shadows from the below-the-horizon sun.
I placed the box on the ground in the middle of the garden, on the paving. From one pocket of my jacket I extracted a cigarette lighter; from the other, a thin container of lighter fluid. Opening the box once more, I squirted the contents of the lighter fluid bottle into the box, dousing everything inside thoroughly.
Then I lit one corner of the box and stood back as the flames took hold, quickly engulfing both the box and its contents.
Memory: can I light it daddy…laugh…yes boy, careful with that…boys who play with fire wet their beds…no they don't…fires, lamb chops…beer…
The sun was way down by the time the box finally burned out, nothing left but ash and small pieces of burned paper and cardboard box. I brushed the remains around with my boots, checking. Nothing left that was recognisable. Good.
I exited through the front and, after locking the door and placing the key back where I'd found it, I left.