Before Today Begins

 

He rubs his eyes. He’s tired but awake now.

No proper sleep last night, not a proper jot, and usually he sleeps so well, so sound, as dead to the world as a mouse in a trap. He yawns. He’s calmer than he ought to be, and it’s no surprise that he’s taken this so well, he’s been waiting such a long time, waiting for today.

‘They’ll kill you when you’re old enough.’ He hears the girl’s voice, teasing yet comforting. He imagines her still here, speaking to him in a low tone, confidential, making sure she’s not overheard.

She made him cry that time. He told Miss Havisham, who hit her across the face ‘for saying such a thing’.

‘And him just a child.’

‘What a wicked thing to say.’

They argued for hours. Havisham spitting her words like she had a mouth full of nails. The boy couldn’t listen, he just watched with hand covered ears.

‘She’s Miss Havisham and you’re her Pip.’ The girl hissed at him when they were alone again. She told him the story of Great Expectations, or part of it at least, the parts she could remember and she told it so slowly, the whole four hundred page book spread over a week’s worth of  nights, lying in the dark and next to each other in the narrow bed they shared. She told him about Magwitch and the River Thames, about wedding cakes and all sorts of other things which he was sure she had made up, weren’t part of the story at all.

‘So who are you then?’ he asked her when her story was finally told. ‘Which part are you if I’m Philip Pirrip and Mrs Green is Havisham?’

‘I’m going, that’s what.’ She replied and he might have cried out loud at that, such an awful idea, such a shock, and the thought of being alone cut him, cut the skin of his arms like broken glass. He felt cold, he felt sick, he rubbed himself warm and he was glad he didn’t cry. She would have laughed if he had cried, teased him because she was older.

She’ll almost be an adult soon, he thinks now. She looks like an adult, she has enough height, she walks tall, confident like she’s the centre of everything.

‘She is the centre of her world and the whole earth revolves slowly around her.’ the boy says aloud, mutters into the silence of the house through dry lips.

He swallows. He tries not to think. He doesn’t want to wonder where she is right now. He ignores the question that is battering against his mind, filling the space in front of his eyes, intruding his thoughts, making him blind, ‘How far did she get? What did they do to her?’ He doesn’t know what he’ll do without her.

She claimed she remembered things he could only dream about, or ‘nightmare about’ she joked, laughed her sour laugh.

‘Do you know what they did?’ she poked him in the ribs, poked him with her bony finger, poked him until it hurt so that the following morning blue dot shapes bruises appeared on his chalk coloured skin. She put her face close to his and he could smell her breath, which smelt of pear drops now, sweet since she had given up eating. ‘They killed every child that was over twelve. They killed them and –’ She stopped, thought she heard Havisham again, listening at the door.

‘Shhh!’ the girl mimed with a finger in front of pursed lips.

‘Was it her? Did she do it? Was she one of them?’ the boy mouthed, wanted to ask out loud. He pointed towards the door, to where they thought Havisham might be standing, on the landing where there were gaps between the unvarnished floorboards, dusty and dark, cobwebs on the wall and newspaper in the window frames to clog the cracks in the glass.

The girl didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer without being heard, or maybe she just didn’t want to answer, didn’t care. Instead she stood up and walked out. Not a sound. She was down the stairs and out the door in one fluid movement, silent like water, as constant as the rain that always beats against the window now.

Miss Havisham watched her go. She was indeed standing outside their room and she waited until the front door had slammed into its frame and the girl’s footsteps had sounded across the patchy gravel drive and disappeared. Then she looked at the boy, looked at him for a long moment. No words. She looked at him until he felt uncomfortable and awkward like an actor who’s forgotten his lines.

Then the boy looked at his hands. Havisham frowned a thin lipped frown.

She’s never liked us going out, the boy thought. If she had her way she would keep us here, locked in our room, feed us through a gap at the bottom of the door. She’s scared of losing us, she’s probably afraid we’ll run away, get killed, get taken by someone who’ll then claim us for their own.

‘What was she saying to you?’ Havasham asked finally, all the while kept her eyes fixed on him, letting her words cloud from her mouth, flit about the room like the flies that circle the bare light bulb above them.

The boy shrugged.

‘Well, boy?’

‘Nothing much.’

‘Nothing much.’ Havisham mimicked, ‘The usual tripe, she talks, filling your head with nonsense, scaring you so you won’t sleep. You pay her no heed, you hear? No heed at all.’ And she seemed satisfied at that, that she’d said her piece. Although really it would have been more use saying it to the girl, her darling girl, the girl she despised so much. She wouldn’t dare though, she wouldn’t dare after the last time, the time before that.

Their arguments were epic. Like two worlds clashing, like two religions at loggerheads, both stupid, self destructive, and it would always end with the girl walking out. Sometimes she would be gone for days.

The boy remembered the girl from before. He remembered her from after school when she would walk home with the other girl, the blondish, short-haired girl, and there was something about her that made the boy nervous, unsure of himself when he spoke to her. There were other kids she would hang around with too, kids who weren’t around anymore, kids that disappeared in the first wave.

The boy stops. He is tired. He doesn’t want to think of these things because he knows they will only lead to one place, to that special place. They will lead him by the hand along the path and into the clearing in the woods where the cleansing took place, a bright, sunny place, where even in mid-winter the sun always seemed to shine, where the earth is bare and the grass has been worn away by the tramp of a thousand feet.

The boy sighs. He knows it’s no use. To think of happier things, it’s just not possible. Instead he concentrates on the rain, how each drop is like a tear, how it patters on the window in the night and makes a sound like children’s fingers tapping a rhythm on the glass.

He stands up and looks again through his window and he gets that cold feeling, that dampness, like the smell of the wall when you press your face against it, like the air outside when the sky is turning black.

I feel this damp as a thought, he thinks, an expectation, a fear of what’s to come – the cold earth, the pavements so dirty now, so splattered with grime, with dark marks the shape of shadows. It’s because no one cares anymore, except Havisham of course. She says I’m safe, she says I’m not to worry. ‘There, there’ she strokes my hair, and the people at the church, they say kind things, they say my name, they say this and that and that ‘It’ll all be over soon, things will go back, back to the way they used to be.’

I hope not, the boy thinks. He touches his cheek. Things weren’t so great before. There have always been drunks and drugs and needles in the gutter, tramps, gangs, fights on Friday night. He had lost count, counting the spots of blood on the ground, litter on the pavement, kebab meat, dried and old like ripped shoe leather, chopped lettuce and puke. Although it is true that it’s worse now, that steadily it’s been getting worse. Children are a commodity now, protected by the just, the few who still believe in the old ways.

Havisham believes. She also gets paid. She parades them, him and her, like trophies. She takes them to the church and everyone watches as they enter through the high wooden doors. They inspect them like they’re entrants at a dog show. Yet at the same time they make a show not to care, not to be fascinated that his thumbs are so short, his hair so thick and skin so smooth and pure.

The people in the church say they don’t believe in memes, they say that they believe that children are holy. The ideas that are spread, ‘They can’t be true, they are not true.’ They repeat to each other.

‘There are patterns in the sand.’ The vicar said in a sermon he gave. ‘Patterns of death and new ideas that we can’t fully understand which go against everything we have ever believed. Pay them no heed. Pay only heed to God. God is your salvation.’

So wise, yet so fragile, his argument, even the boy sees that, now that the world is governed by reason, that faith, blind faith, is unacceptable. It has become a taboo that can’t be broken and deep down, the boy thinks, the people in the church don’t believe, not really, they just hate the idea, hate the thought that things have to change. So they watch, and they watch the girl especially.

When she left yesterday the boy knew she wasn’t coming back. So he sat for a while and then left his room and he passed Havisham on the stairs. She narrows her eyes like she knew something.

‘I’m hungry.’ He said, which was a lie. He looked at her and he hung his mouth ajar and Havisham took this for insolence.

‘Well you’ll just have to wait.’ She rushed in reply, fumbled awkwardly with the old book she was holding. She shook her head. It was the easiest way to unsettle her, the boy had learnt it from the girl, to talk about money, to ask for food that they didn’t have.

‘It’s because she thinks she doing the right thing, it’s because she believes.’ The girl had told him, ‘But really she doesn’t believe, she just needs the money and she gets money for taking us in.’ and then she thought, looked away, then back again, ‘She houses us, nothing more, she doesn’t really care about us.’

Havesham mumbled something and turned her back on the boy, said something like, ‘the things I do, the things I do for you.’

The boy seized his moment and left.

Outside the street was wet. Broken glass and copper-coloured water standing in pools about the drains, a smell of cabbage hung in the air, sour like breath, like something burned and forgotten. The boy stood in the rain. He didn’t know what to do.

He had been brought up in clean house up on the hill, he couldn’t remember exactly where. It was too many years ago, he had been too young. He thought one day that he would go back there, that he would find his old house. Merely for curiosity’s sake, not to lay any sort of claim. The idea was absurd, that he should knock on the door and demand whoever it was who was living there now to up and vacate, that he would have to argue that it was his house, that he might even need to fight, because everything was settled by fighting now, the idea made him shake.

It would be different if Father were still here, he thought. But Father was someone that he had been told to forget, to let his memory fade, and he could barely remember Father’s face now. If he tried with his childish mind to picture him, to make an image of him in his mind, his full height, his black hair, the shirt, trousers and tie he wore, he was only able to see a blank space where his face had been, a blank fleshy mask, although not frightening. He could never be afraid of his father, not ever, because the good memories he still had were too strong, too ingrained in his mind. They could never be forgotten.

The boy remembered the tough skin of his hands, as hard and rough as brick, the fat veins and thick black hairs that were like wires. The boy remembered his wedding ring, which was the colour of butter, the neatly cut nails, the smell of soap. He remembered the clip of his heels, he remembered the place where he worked with its vinyl floor and tatty posters on the walls, pictures of teeth and slogans such as ‘Smile’, ‘Good teeth, good looks’.

The boy ran past the surgery where his father had worked. It was getting dark and the rain beat down on him, spattered the pavement like a spray of blood in a slash-horror film. He felt eyes watching him, dark rimmed eyes, hollow, eyes that knew his price and suddenly he thought he heard the crunch of a boot behind him and he ran faster.

Fast, fast, down to the end of the road, he rounded the corner not daring to turn and look back. He was sure there was someone behind him. He was scared of the dark. Every night now was filled with howls and sirens, and every night he heard Havisham rattling the handle of the front door, checking the windows were shut, checking and checking.

‘That’s proof that she cares about us, that she protects us. She keeps us safe. She looks after us.’ The boy had said once to the girl, determined not to believe what she had told him, determined that she was wrong.

‘No,’ the girl had been adamant. She had flashed her eyes to show that she would get angry if he carried on, if he pushed it. ‘She’s just looking after her assets, that is all. Nothing more. She won’t get her charity money if she loses us, gives us up.’

To the boy this was untrue. He had heard the sum that Havisham had been offered that time when they were coming out of the church hall. The man with the long coat, the car keys hanging from the hook of one curled little finger. It had sounded a lot, the boy had seen the roll of notes too, held tight in a fist and flashed form inside a pocket. He had seen the man adjust his crotch as he got out of his car and so he must have been waiting a long time, the whole time they were inside, waiting for them to come out.

‘Come on, Love. He’s not yours, is he? It’s not like I’m going to hurt him, not if I’m paying cash. He’ll go to a good home.’

‘No.’ Havisham had said. A definite answer, strong, righteous, although would she have said yes if no one had been watching? The others coming out of the church had stopped, they were listening, had begun to gather round, smiling behind stern, unflinching faces. Perhaps they had wanted her to fail, to show weakness, to be less righteous.

‘Alright, have it your way.’ The girl said eventually, ‘If you think she’s safe, then she must be safe.’ And she looked serious then, sombre and she fixed her eyes on him for a long while, looked at him but said nothing.

It was then that she told him about the house.

‘It’s painted white.’ She said, and the tone of her voice told him that what she said was important. She spoke in, slow, carefully measured words. ‘On the other side of the river. It’s empty there. No one has any reason to go there. It’s safe there. It’s a big white house. Go there, meet me there and we’ll leave. We have a car and when it’s fixed we’re leaving.’

He didn’t know who We was, whether it meant just him and her. He knew there were others, that she had friends that she couldn’t tell Havisham about. He didn’t know if they were alive still. They might have been killed in another bout of cleansing.

People thought children spread lies, wicked ideas. The boy looked at the girl to check she wasn’t lying.

‘They’ll kill you when I’m gone.’ She said.

Suddenly he was overwhelmed, unable to breath. He felt cold despite the morning sun on his back. He felt scared, alone and he gripped the edge of the mattress he was sitting on.

‘Take this.’ She said and she held out for him the blunt end of a knife. ‘Use it if you have to.’ And she mimed what he would have to do, mimed the jab, jab, jab, quick like she was working a faulty bicycle pump, one that’s leaking air. ‘Use it if you have to.’ She repeated.

The boy turned the knife in his hands. The blade was sharp, chipped too where it had been scraped clumsily with a stone. It had been taken from the kitchen. He recognised it. He remembered Havisham complaining when it had gone.

The boy knew he had to trust the girl. He knew he had to hurry and the rain had stopped by the time he had crossed the field that separated the town from the river. The clouds remained though, seemed darker, and it was getting late. The boy knew he didn’t have long. Soon it would be impossible to find a way across the water. If that happened he would have to go back.

The thought made him feel sick. If the girl had really gone, if he was on his own now, he tried not to think what might happen. Instead he walked faster, broke into a run again and hurried to the river bank.

The house was on the other side. He knew it well, had known it all his life, although had never looked at it properly, never spent the time to stare at its white walls, its grey-blue roof and two big dark windows above the door that looked like eyes, kind and intelligent. Trees sprouted from the earth all around it, overgrown and clinging to each other as if they were linking arms in an act of solidarity that looked all the more powerful because the trees were so tall, so old, majestic.

Then, as he was looking at the house he noticed that birds were singing, some old summer-song. It was so easy not to notice the sound of birds nowadays, when life contains so much fear, such confusion, ever-present and suffocating.

Suddenly something darted through the air in front of him, swooped from a halcyon blue gap between the clouds. He lost it for a second and then spotted it again, shooting low across the grass, a swift, it flew back up, effortless like it was powered by tiny jet engines. It swooped down again like a dive bomber, happy as a lark and fresh from a winter in Africa.

The boy waded forward into the water fully dressed. There was no point in stripping off, even if he did his clothes would still get wet. The water was green and when he dived forward and the cold of the river squeezed the air from his lungs, he remembered fleetingly how the same sensation had made him laugh before, squeal like a child.

His parents hadn’t allowed him to swim here. In fact, no one used to swim here for fear that the current would drag you down. Havisham wouldn’t have cared though, she never left the house, didn’t know perhaps, that the river was so close, that it was just the other side of the field from where she lived, in a house that nestled amid the safety of the town.

Sometimes she would stand by the front door, looking out with her arms folded across her thin chest. She would frown as if she was afraid of something, as if someone nearby, someone that made her uncomfortable, was watching her.

She would keep the windows shut and bolted in the night. She would check them before going to bed, dressed in her nightgown with her grey straight hair tied behind her head. She would rattle each handle of each window, even in summer when it was too hot to sleep, when sweat would leak from every pore, would soak the boy’s pillow and when more than anything he needed air, needed to breathe, needed to feel a weak wind on his face, still she would keep them closed.

‘If someone wants to get in they can just break the glass.’ The boy had told her once. It had been in the morning and he was irritated, hot still and feeling groggy from lack of sleep.

‘How dare you!’ Havisham had snapped in reply and charged at him with an ugly snarled face, hand raised, ready to slap.

‘It’s just –’

‘You live in this house for free, you show some respect.’ She said, more controlled when she realised he hadn’t meant to be rude.

The boy reached the other side of the river out of breath. His head felt light and once out of the freezing water, which hadn’t felt any warmer with his effort, with the exertion of every stroke. His head span, he felt sick.

Too much empty food, not enough exercise. It seemed every meal in the last year, longer perhaps, had been straight form a tin. It hadn’t been like this before. He had been brought up on fresh vegetables, eggs straight from his grandmother’s garden. Mother had cooked every night, dinner always at the same time and they had eaten at the big table with the television switched off.

Havisham hadn’t cared about such things. She didn’t cook. Behind her house was a tangle of weeds, an old shed that had almost completely been reclaimed by the garden, which was wild now, a haven for butterflies in the summer, foxes that would cry in the night, pretty flowers, small and exotic looking, although not exotic at all, completely native to the land upon which they grew but denied growth, cut back instead by our progress, our ideas.

The boy imagined his old school teacher telling him their Latin names. It would have been no use asking one of the new teachers, one of the guards who handed them leaflets and stood with folded arms by the hall door. School now meant sitting in silence and reading leaflets or badly written stories with names such as ‘God is Dead’ or ‘Memes and the Spread of Ideas.’

The boy was cold because of his wet clothes. They stuck to his skin, felt like weights pulling him to the ground. He stumbled across a patch of rocky shore and then let himself drop to the floor, where for a good minute he could do nothing but sit, bent forward and wheezing like an old man and with a feeling in his chest like burning coals.

He stayed sitting until he had the strength to move, driven onward by the awful thought that he was too late, that the girl had already gone. So he half ran, half walked to the house and followed a path that had been trampled flat around the edge of the building, between the trees and the brickwork, which was just crumbling plaster now, ivy taking hold.

On all sides windows were boarded up, chip-board screwed securely in place and only towards the top of the house had they been left unprotected.

At the back of the house were smaller buildings. Possibly they had been stables at one time, empty now though. In fact, there was nothing there, no car, no girl and it had begun to get properly dark now and what light still lingered in the air was shielded by the tall trees as if they wanted to protected the boy, hide him like Havisham hid him in the night, safe like a battery hen in a metal cage in an unlit barn.

The back door of the house wouldn’t open. The boy thought perhaps it led into a kitchen, a tradesman’s entrance, and the thought that he might find food inside encouraged him to look for another way in, so he tried all of the windows at the back of the house. They were all locked, but then he found one that had its wooden board unsecured at one side.

‘Hello?’ he called through the gap, but his voice was weak because he knew no one was there. ‘Hello!’ he called again, louder this time and he pulled on the board, not expecting it to come free, but it did and he fell backwards with the momentum as it came away from the empty window frame. He scrambled quickly to his feet and climbed inside.

It was dark in the house. A mischievous place, full of dust and broken plaster and shadows, a place where the light plays tricks, toys with your nerves. Sounds too, creaking boards and doors that shut by themselves.

He walked from room to room, keeping close to the walls, listening, looking about him all the time and moving like he might have play-acted in happier times, taking part in some game of Ninjas or War.

How things were different now. How serious life had become.

The boy wished he had done as the girl had told him, come sooner. It seemed safe here, safe enough that he could have lived here, and indeed, there was evidence on the floor that some people had been sleeping here – A black scorch mark, like a scar, on the parquet floor from where a fire had been lit, sleeping things, blankets, some old tin mugs.

The boy wondered why they hadn’t taken these things, packed them into the boot of their car. It was so clear that they were gone, that he had missed them. He walked then through the rest of the house, not searching for the girl anymore, but for curiosity alone and he felt strangely happy that she wasn’t here. It was a feeling of relief that he didn’t fully understand. He needn’t worry anymore. The end had come. It was over now.

Unexpectedly the image of his father came into his mind. The boy imagined him sitting in the old leather arm chair they used to own, one leg propped atop the other, he was tutting at the news broadcast on TV, he was shaking his head.

There were images of panic on the screen, scrabbling in the streets for provisions, people protesting.

‘Don’t worry, son. It’ll settle soon.’ He said and then mumbled something else, something about thinking about other things, about taking their minds off things, something else to get excited about and the boy hugged his knees, transfixed by the flickering screen.

He must have fallen asleep in the big white house, at some point in the early hours when the moon was at its darkest, obscured by cloud, and the room became so dark he couldn’t barely see the outline of the window frames. The memory of his father had been his last thought and when he woke, perhaps only an hour later, he could tell that it was an empty house still.

It was time to go home.

He left the house, stopping only in the field to watch the sun as it rose in the cloudy sky. Orangey blue and pink and red and he walked quite quickly through the streets, through the town, hurrying for what he did not know because home was where he really shouldn’t be. The boy had decided he didn’t care, though, not anymore, he didn’t care at all.

And so he sits now. He slumps on the bed which is all his now and he listens to the silence, to the tiny movements of the pipes inside the wall, the slow breathing of the pigeons that sit on the window ledge and listen intently. Just like the fly that rubs its legs together, upside down on the lamp shade, watching, waiting for the show to begin when Havisham wakes up and finds that the girl is gone, that she won’t be coming back.

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