"Mummy, he's there again."
The boy stood at the window, stretching his muscles from the tips of his toes.
Carefully positioning her cup and saucer beside her on the coffee table, his mother tried to make her bones forget how they really did hurt the rest of her. She slowly progressed towards the window which framed the silhouette of her son like a poster advertising a dark kiss.
"Yes, there again."
Through the mist which gave dusk an aura of calm flirtatiousness, the mother saw a child flying a kite. Every afternoon, even when there was no wind, the child was there, tugging at grey sky.
"Can I have a kite, like him?" asked her son, with his piping voice that either irritated her or filled her with unutterable love. This evening, it was irritation's turn.
"I've told you before, Clive, rich children like you don't want for things."
Clive didn't answer. He never knew how to respond to his mother, when she was in such a funny mood. If funny were the right word. Clowns were funny. The knife-sharpener man was often funny as he cracked a joke and his grinding-wheel spun sparks. Clive's mother was never funny, was she? The word itself was funny.
"Rich children need nothing," she added, by adding nothing but a disguised repetition.
"So why haven't I a kite? I want a kite."
Clive had now given up looking at the child outside, so he sat on the window-seat and shook out the strains of his craning. From previous experience, Clive knew that if he looked again, the child would be gone. Perhaps tugged up into the sky.
"You haven't a kite, because, if you really wanted one, Clive, you would most certainly have one. The fact you haven't proves you don't, at heart, want one."
That night she sped him to sleep with a mother's sweetest kiss.
Clive gathered a dream, one in which he left his bedroom and saw a mass of large insects on the landing. Each had legs bunched like darkly blotched bananas together with other wirier appendages. Clive tried to stab their pulpy parts with a weapon which the dream had provided, but there were too many for him to cope with alone. What surprised Clive most, however, was the way the insects sluggishly waited for death. They didn't scatter, as normal insects would when attacked. In fact, the more that appeared the more Clive continued his spate of bug-sticking. Their mix of clucking and twittering sounded neither afraid nor angry. Simply pure sounds of sickness.
"Mummy, he's there again!"
Today, Clive merely enunciated it as if he were lip-reading someone else who had become him. A game he often played. He was bleary-eyed from an ever-turning night, one where he'd gathered dreams, only to lose them amid forgotten memories.
His mother had a visitor. So Clive watched the child fishing the sky for what was probably the biggest kite of all ... then turned his attention to his mother and the visitor.
"We really can't let this go on for much longer, Mrs Bede."
The man was the type who tended to drink only half-a-pint all night in the company of a non-descript companion. Clive hated the way his moustache was tweezered and hair smarmed back to accentuate encroaching baldness. And the winkle-picker shoes. Yes, those godawful leathered feet that couldn't kick without stabbing. Clive cringed, since he was old enough to understand things too old for him.
"Just a few more days, Mr Court," said his mother. "I'm expecting a cheque from Clive's father."
She was nearly in tears. So much for her show of being rich. This conversation was a ritual every Wednesday morning. It was funny Clive should have that same dream every Tuesday night. The dream he always forgot having.
Clive's father may as well have been dead, for all the good he'd left behind. At least the Railway Children's poverty had granted them a life full of adventure and countryside pursuits and cosy loyalty and the eventual return of their dear dear father as he emerged tearfully through the steam-laden mists of the train station.
Mr Court departed at last. The funniest thing was that he drove a large dumpster, parked outside in the drizzle while the Wednesday morning interviews proceeded within the house. The vehicle burst into life with reluctant snorts and trundled through the blurred perspectives. Clive sensed that it knew the sound of its own engine would be the first nightmarish indication of Mr Court coming back.
The child with the kite was still there. When the day was near to sodden, the kite was heavy, rather than lighter-than-air - and it would drag behind on the ground as its master surrendered all hope of a launch that day.
Clive never questioned why he was not allowed to play outside himself. He'd read The Secret Garden and knew the answer. He was ill. Perhaps not in body, but certainly in the mind. At least the sick boy in that book had the archetypal premonition of its happy ending - even at the darkest of moments ... whilst Clive knew, in his heart, that there was no such garden for him to play in. No playmates, either. For some reason, the child with the kite was beyond Clive's wildest hopes. The kite that flew a ghost.
Clive laughed at his own conceit. Thoughts were a comfort, especially thoughts without a source. Such thoughts surprised him more than the autonomous children with whom his imagination peopled his more secret moments of play.
Mrs Bede didn't notice that her son had gone upstairs to the nursery, via the dark landing.
"Money can't bring happiness," she said slowly, debating the various permutations of happiness, riches, sadness, poverty, sickness and health, "If you only want what it is possible to have - that's true happiness." And she smiled, as if someone nice had walked over her grave. But that rat, Mr Court - did he actually live in his damn dumpster? "I bet he's happy, making people like me unhappy." She noticed that Clive's place at the parlour window was vacant and she went over to fill it. "Clive must have gone to play with his toy soldiers." She pretended the child outside with the kite was herself as a small child. Soon she'd go upstairs with Clive's kiss.
Clive had a dream that was somehow associated with a different dream which he had never dreamed. Mr Court's dumpster was chock-a-block with the insects which it was his job to collect from house to house as a matter of pest control - or was it rent collection?
"Mummy, he's there again!"
Mrs Bede caught her breath, thinking, for one moment, that Clive meant Mr Court. Surely not on a Friday afternoon? And, no sound of the dumpster. But, no, of course, it was that kid again. The one with the kite.
"The weather's getting colder this time of the year," she said, in answer, as if that were relevant to the child's umpteenth reappearance. Indeed, the cold should have had a counteractive effect on the child's presence with the trusty kite. Still, when she was a little girl, she was a plucky individual - went out to play in all weathers. It was funny she'd never had a kite. Her parents said that kites cheated on God. She never really understood, but imagined that they referred to kite-flying as an attempt to pray better than the other children who simply placed palm to palm in their schoolrooms and projected minds rather than tassel-tailed surrogates. In those days, superstition and religion went hand in hand. Now, religion was far more up to date. All manner of misbehaviour could be condoned without the threat of Hell.
"If it's so cold, wouldn't it be nice to ask him in for tea?" suggested Clive, still as certain that the child with a kite was a boy as his mother was certain in the opposite direction. "We could both play with my toy soldiers and he might lend me his kite."
Mrs Bede frowned.
"If a kite means so very much, Clive, I'll buy you one at the shop tomorrow."
That night he fell asleep, before the arrival of his mother's kiss.
Clive dreamed of watching his mother dream. The insects smothered her face - crawling in and out. This dream was the most outlandish of them all. Indeed, he knew, from the previous dream - only remembered by being a memory within the new dream - that the insects, scale to scale, were too big to thread her nostrils and also to negotiate the soggy see-through sockets where her eyes were snailed.
Mr Court began to visit Mrs Bede on days other than Wednesday. Clive was consigned upstairs to the windowless nursery with the door locked on the landing side. And the solitary clue was the dumpster's characteristic sound that held just the right note to make the walls shudder. The soft click of the front-door and the pad of feet were followed by the rent's increasingly slow-motion collection. Clive's mind was aware of more than he could ever hope to understand.
The toy soldiers were Borrowers. They had lives they lived to lend - and a worldliness that wars had worried into their worn-out ways. Being thus carried away with alliteration was not necessarily Clive's fault. Any observer standing behind the nursery door would indeed wonder how Clive knew more than was good for him ... then would hear minuscule men mutter to Clive of this and that, including how toys could speak.
Sometimes something crept into the house to listen to things that went on that only went on because it listened to them. Its kite left outside.
Clive began to dream he was the separate subject of his own dream, whilst dreaming everything that the boy called Clive he dreamed about dreamed. The insects had managed to find their way into the boy's head. Their wirier appendages tickled his ear-drums with tantalising swishes and they coiled down from a nasal chamber to flick upon the tongue. The larger banana-like parts served as levers for the otherwise unwieldy carapace of scales and pulpy innards; they tested, too, the backs of his eyes for gruel. There must have been scores of the things crunching, clucking, twittering - tweaking their soul-mate the brain, the boy's brain. But the worst point of the dream was the empathy of taste. So rancid, yet sweet, with the redolence of marinated tombfruit and long-incubated excremental produce seeping towards the mouth.
Clive woke to a thought that told him that he'd barely escaped from actually becoming the boy in the dream: trapped forever beyond the silhouette of sleep. Then he promptly forgot all about the dream, except for an echo of eating sick and ear-drums throbbing to a distant dumpster engine.
"Mummy, he's here again!"
The child with the kite wasn't there, for once, but Clive said it, nevertheless. Rituals deserved more respect than realities.
"Is he, dear?"
"Yes." This 'yes' was a plea for a change in subject, which he provided for himself. "I keep dreaming, Mummy. Every night. And the dreams are getting worse and worse, each time. Until I forget them."
"Do you, dear?"
"And the dream I had last night was the worst dream possible. So bad I scarcely forgot it."
"Well, let's hope they've finished being dreams, then."
"I think I might have to dream again, Mummy?"
"Don't worry your little head about your thoughts."
"Do you ever dream, Mummy?"
"Sometimes, but never nightmares."
"Are my dreams nightmares?"
"They sound as if they might be, Clive."
That last night, Clive heard the dumpster's distant drone, never getting nearer. It spent its undercurrents on shudders that grunted within his ears. He had tried to stay awake all night to deter another dream. He had listened to the silence, expecting the twitter of insects, but silence remained priceless - until the onset of judders betokening Court's chugging climb to the power-house at the end of a tow-rope...
Then, he fell asleep. So silent, Clive yearned for noise. So blank, he yearned for blindness. Ever-tugged by God towards a funny Heaven.
The nursery door swung wide to reveal a pair of clucking fan-tailed kites, black creatures silhouetted against and even blacker landing, lent, leant, lending ... their spiny feelers entwined with each other's and throbbing an unspent passion - intent on renting a kiss from the landlord of the lips. Black borrowers who wanted Clive's goodnight kiss, no doubt, for their own use. But where the headlease dream? Where the dump of dreams? Where the child? Which the mother?
Published 1997 ‘PEEPING TOM’ and ‘BEST NEW HORROR’. Copyright DF Lewis. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without author permission.
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