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Darkness Brighter Than the Sun

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“The coffin, the casket, whatever. We need a bigger one, right?” The words disappear down the crackling phone line. Orange-patterned walls creep closer. The tiny front room hasn’t seen a paintbrush since the seventies and it stinks of stale baccy.

“… only five-feet tall.”

“What?”

“He was five-feet tall, JJ. Seems a waste to spend more than necessary.”

Fuck you, Malcolm. The edge of my vision shimmers red. Grandad towered. Had towered. A giant amongst men. A colossus. Yes, okay, I matched him height-for-height at twelve. And later I grew taller. But he had stature. No one beat Grandad for stature. Especially not fucking Malcolm the Miser. “Why not get a cardboard one, then? Or better still, just leave him outside to rot?”

“Grow up. Look, have you decided what you’re doing yet?”

“No.”

“Well, make up your mind soon because we need to sell the house.” The line goes dead.

I want to smash the damn phone. Smash fucking Malcolm, too. But the only pleasure I have these days is confounding their expectations, so I replace the brown plastic receiver in its cradle as gently as a newborn baby. Tea. I need tea. A splash of scotch. Or two. I take my medicine and head into the garden.

Towards the shed.

Head down. Watching one foot and a clumsy, metal-filled shoe negotiate the gauntlet of steppingstones, avoiding any glimpse of the borders, crammed with obscenely cheerful flowers. I close my eyes as I pass the flattened patch where he fell. An ugly temptation spawned when I heard the news. Take a hedge trimmer—a flamethrower!—to the bloody lot, it whispered. But I didn’t. The day he retired, Grandad traded his pickaxe for a spade. Swapped the eternal night of the coal mine for the vivid days of his garden. He’d never have forgiven me for declaring war on his flower beds.

White confetti from the cherry blossom dusts my chest and shoulders and I brush off the petals with an impatient hand. The bastard tree weeps more easily than me.

I turn the final bend. There. The shed, basking like a cat in a slice of sun. I can’t remember when the clapboards looked less than freshly painted, or a cascade of blooms didn’t grace the window box he’d constructed from a discarded wooden pallet. In the deepest winter, with snow up to your knees, Grandad coaxed something to grow. Heather maybe, or a clump of hot-pink cyclamen.

I pull open the door and duck under the doorframe.

Cross the threshold of an old man’s shed and you cross a border into a foreign land. Each has unique customs, laws and anthems. Grandad would give “The Nod” before anyone set foot inside. The offer and acceptance of tea would follow, with all the ritual of a Japanese ceremony. The biscuit tin appeared as if by magic. Inspection of seed catalogues and the complex planning and placement of bulk orders took place in the dark months. Any family milestone, an engagement, a birth, an exam result, merited a toast with hedgerow homebrew. University graduation—the most hallowed achievement—earned the hip flask. A demijohn of elderberry wine probably lingers in the cupboard, wrapped in a moth-eaten bodywarmer and tied up with twine. I can’t bring myself to check.

The place is warm, stuffy almost. The thick air shimmers with smells of sawn wood, hot dust and four-stroke oil. Grandad’s own scent. I lift a deckchair from a hook, flick it open one-handed, and slump down. The old boards creak beneath my weight. The shed looks the same. To my right, a menagerie of jam jars filled with nails, screws, nuts, bolts, washers. To my left, toolboxes stacked corner-straight, filled with initial-scratched spanners of every size, hickory-handled hammers, wicked sharp saws, oil cans, mallets. The obligatory scarred workbench. A shelf of half-empty paint tins. Yellow newspapers thriftily stored to make biodegradable pots for seedlings. A tidier man than Grandad you’ll never meet. Everything had its place. Even the spiders kept their webs all neat and Disney-fied for him. Not a single mousetrap, either. Vermin wouldn’t dare enter Grandad’s domain, let alone steal grass seed or bird food.

I toe the faded jute rug running the length of the shed. Keeps the cold from rising, Grandad said. One corner of the rug curls up like an autumn leaf, coaxed out of shape by years of shuffling feet.

I drain the tepid dregs of tea and put the cup on the floor. The whisky hasn’t thawed the ice block in my stomach. Doesn’t touch the dependency that lurks in my marrow.

Half an hour. Nip into town. Score a hit.

Piss off!

I rip back the rug. A cloud of dust mushrooms into the air. No gaping mouth. No hungry, black-throated monster. Just a trapdoor, hasp neatly set in a chiseled-out bed. The hinges don’t creak, they never had. But even Grandad failed to impose his iron will on the damp grave-stench that wafts from the cavity.

Four straight walls, each two foot six inches. At the bottom, off at a right angle, a horizontal chamber. Originally five feet long, later Grandad enlarged it to six. A place to lay when tiredness delivered a knockout punch. The Demon Hole, we called it. Yes, everything had its place in Grandad’s shed.

Even me.

The fetid draught trails an icy finger across the exposed skin at my wrists and neck. I suppress a shiver as I lower myself to the floor, swing my legs over, and drop inside. The trapdoor thunks closed above me. Different degrees of darkness exist, measured—in simple terms—by the absence of light. The darkest places have never felt the sun, have no knowledge, no memory, of our blinding fireball.

Darker and colder, to the power of ten, the depths of The Demon Hole.

Panic ignites, flares tracer-bright in my chest. The fingernail-ripping scramble. Skull-searing pain. The lash of unsatisfied cravings. Remembered sensations echo inside me and I bump off the walls like a grenade down a drainpipe.

How long did I spend down here? A week? A fortnight? Longer? Pissing in a pop bottle. Leaking diarrhea. Sleeping on the wet earth, a woolen blanket between me and the worms. Surfing wave after wave of hallucination. Hearing scratching and breathing. Groping for my absent leg, finding a phantom limb alive with maggots. Seeing glutinous corpses root through the soil. Fighting my demons, Grandad called it. I won the battle, I suppose.

Grandad didn’t. He never outran his demons. Yeah, he’d get a furlong ahead now and again, but they always caught him in the end. And when they clawed him, gnawed at him, twisted him so bad he couldn’t sleep without screaming, he put himself in the hole. Faced them down. Again. And again.

He never spoke about his role in the War. Men didn’t back then. I guess we don’t now, either. I certainly never talk about that last patrol in Chah-e Anjir and the man I caught beating a crippled girl. Or about the twenty-one days in-service detention I got for intervening. Or how it had all been a distraction so the Taliban could ambush us. How three of the best mates I’ll ever have begged to be shot at the end.

Half an hour. Nip into town. Score a hit.

PISS OFF!

As a kid, Grandad’s service record was a jigsaw puzzle for me to solve. I thought myself so damn clever, piecing it together. Like Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot. And like a famous detective, I did the big reveal in front of the whole family in the tiny orange front room.

“You dug six miles of tunnels and detonated nineteen mines and killed ten thousand Germans! People heard the explosion in London. The crater is four-hundred and twenty-three feet–”

“Stop it, Johnny,” Grandad said and stood up and left the room. He was a hero. Why did he look so sad, I wondered?

Silence arrived that day, took up residence, filled every crevice it could find. Talking about feelings, discussing concepts like love, honor and forgiveness? Luxuries belonging to the middle class. Not us.

At sixteen, my father told me: You work. You don’t complain. He forgot the last part: You die. And your family argue how much the funeral will cost.

Two decades after I outed Grandad, I returned from Afghanistan dead on the inside, with half a leg and a heroin addiction. I only felt alive in a country I hated, doing a job that could kill me. My family were ghosts. Or maybe I was the ghost, I couldn’t tell. Grandad turned up unannounced at the Ministry of Defense Hospital Unit where I was festering. After taking four buses and a cross-country train to get to there, he marched in and began ordering me about like the sergeant he’d been. Our lives collided and the past was obliterated. He offered the only medicine he possessed and when we got home, he locked me in the dark beneath the shed—bed sores and all—and his love shone brighter than the sun. No words required.

I clamber out of the hole, check my prosthesis hasn’t come loose and shut the trap door. It doesn’t matter what size, what material, they choose for Grandad’s casket. He won’t suffer it for long. Three hours or so, for the service and cremation. Afterwards, he’ll soar on the wind and never have to lay under the cold heavy earth ever again.

First appeared in Fictive Dream, May 2019.
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