The Angel Arch – A Short Story

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The Angel Arch

Mama always said the garden was at its best in the autumn. Summer, with its insipid pastels and lurid hues – that was a mere prelude, she said. As if the good Lord were mixing his palette; testing his colours. It was autumn she loved, in all its melancholic glory: the crimson, scarlet, blood-red, gold-leafed leaves; magnificent in their death throes. That was the garden’s gift: its equinoxal inheritance, which would carry you through winter and into the harsh reawakening of spring.

Jonathan was not sure he knew what she was talking about. He understood some of the words. Prelude, for example. That was the name of a piece of music that Mama played on the piano. But why then was summer a prelude? Was summer like music? Was music not as charming as art? Was sound weaker than colour?

Blood red. He knew the redness of blood and it wasn’t the same red as sycamore leaves in autumn. Those were more like heat, like fire. He could feel the redness on them. Blood red – that was the colour of pain, of nightmares, of the dead weasel that Jones had caught in his trap and shown to Jonathan, raising it up by its tail. Something so dark it was almost black had fallen from the animal in slow, treaclish drops.

And so, taking all in all – as Papa often said – Jonathan did not really know what Mama meant when she talked about the garden in autumn. But he didn’t want her to think him ignorant, so he kept his mouth shut and his hand firmly clasped in hers as they wandered from tree to fading tree.

“Just look, Jonathan. Look!” She gazed in wonder at a horse chestnut, its leaves like burning hands, its spilled fruit glazed by the wet grass. Jonathan scooped up a few of the conkers, stuffing them into his pocket and rolling his fingers against their shiny hardness. Mama seemed to speak to the trees; to pay them each a visit as if they were old friends, just as once she’d visited her old friends in Manchester, dragging Jonathan around with her. She’d left visiting cards behind her as if she too were spreading leaves. He remembered something of that time, even though he’d been tiny then: the chink of porcelain cups, a woman’s high, forced laughter, the stuffed animals with their glassy eyes which somehow filtered into his dreams after their visits.

But after some time, there were no more trips. The laughter dried up and the visiting cards were consigned to a mahogany box in her room. And now the garden walls marked the edges of their world; lattice work and briar rose stretched between them and those endless cups of tea and whispered words.

She had her back to him now as she gazed up at the sycamore and – he imagined – shared her secrets with it. Jonathan riffled through the conkers, selecting the roundest, the brownest, the glossiest; discarding the rest and doing his best not to look at the angel arch. Because they were near it now. So near, and half of him wanted to drag Mama away before they reached it. But the other half wanted to pull her towards it: to make her stand and listen. To make her hear at last what he could hear.

“Well, on we go then, little man.”

It was too late. She’d taken his hand. They were walking towards it. The angel arch. That was his name for it, a name he’d permitted Mama to use too. In truth, it was just an opening in the wall which led from trees and grass and space into the delicate geometries of the knot garden. The arch was set into the moss and stone of the wall and centred above it hung the carved figure of an angel – or rather a chubby child in swaddling, its arms outstretched as if it had just sprung from a cradle.

“No!” Jonathan said with sudden heat, and he wrenched free of Mama’s grasp or tried to, for she caught him and held him fast, her fingernails sinking like tiny blades into his shoulder.

“Jonathan, enough of this silliness. There’s nothing through there apart from a few of Jones’s old traps. And I’m with you.”

“No!” He writhed away again. Because he could hear them already – the distant whisperings. That was how it always started, not with one voice but many; quiet at first, their shrillness gathering in pace and volume until it felt as if it were not the angel arch at all which spoke, but that the hum and drone, the thick fusion of sound was in his head after all.

“Jonathan! Come!” She jerked him onwards and he tripped, his knee scraping the ground; grass staining the wool of his trousers. They were mere yards away and the whispering was a rush, a confused roar. It was all around him; it was within him. He cried, he screamed and beat his fists against the folds of her dress. The sound carried solid weight. It pressed him downwards.

“Listen, Mama! Listen!”

“Listen to what, you unnatural child? Listen to what?” Her face was red and flushed. She was on the verge of tears. But she couldn’t let Jones see her cry. Or father, who might be watching them even now from the window of his study.

Jonathan retched, the muscles of his stomach contracting, the coppery taste of bile in his mouth. With one hand pressed to his ear, he kicked out at Mama and she slapped his face.

“Now that will do! Your father will hear of this…” She glanced back at the house. “If he hasn’t done already. Now come on!”

The voices were laughing at him now. They had him like the weight of waves, crashing over his head. He lashed out one more time…and they were through. Mama rested against the wall, her fair hair loosened from its pins and streaming down her face, and Jonathan on his hands and knees; his nose an inch away from one of Jones’s mole traps. The air was silent and still, save for the chattering of sparrows in the hedges.

“Why?” Mama’s breath was a harsh, ragged wheeze. “Why must you do that?”

“Can’t you hear them? Mama, can’t you?”

“No, Jonathan. No, I can’t.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She raised a hand to wipe them away and as she did, Jonathan noticed a bruise the shade of heather on her wrist. Had he done that?

“Come on, Jonathan.” She wouldn’t look at him as she offered her hand. “Perhaps we can persuade Papa that the doctor needs to pay us a visit.”

“I’m not sick!” he almost screamed.

But she hurried him along with clipped, prim steps, sniffing back her tears and smoothing down her dress. For around the corner came Jones in his felt jacket and trousers; dark, lank hair clinging to his gaunt face. He bore a stack of plant pots in one hand and a trowel in the other. As he passed he nodded to Mama, but fixed his eyes on Jonathan; eyes as dark and deep as the shafts of Papa’s coal mines. And as they entered the thorny remains of the rose garden, Jonathan realised something. Jones hears it too.

***

Tap, tap, tap. Jonathan’s spoon knocked against his soup bowl as if bidding for escape.

Mama cleared her throat. “Jonathan…Jonathan had something of a fright in the garden today.”

Papa said nothing. Silence pressed down on Jonathan, its swollen mass punctured only by seven distant chimes from the grandfather clock in the reception room.

“I thought…I thought perhaps the doctor?” Mama dabbed tentatively at her lips with the napkin.

Slowly, Papa lowered his spoon. “What kind of a fright?”

“It was at the angel arch,” she said.

He was going to be sick again. The hot, wet filth rose from his stomach and licked at the back of his mouth. Jonathan closed his eyes, willing his mother’s silence.

“I see.” Father sat back in his chair. Jonathan felt his gaze. “What happened?”

The vomit rose and welled, clawing its way upwards. A light animal mewl escaped his lips.

“Don’t snivel, boy! Stop snivelling. I asked you what happened?”

“Arthur, I think…” Mama’s voice was a strained clip.

“You don’t think. You never think. That’s your trouble. Let the child speak!” He leant across the table, peering at Jonathan, examining him as if he were a freshly mined lump of coal. “Well?”

“It’s full of people.”

“What?”

“I think it’s full of people, Sir.”

“I see.” With a groan, Papa sank back in his chair and rubbed his forehead. “A stone wall is full of people is it?” His face was white, save for a single vein throbbing on his temple. “This is your fault,” he said at last, staring at Mama.

She flinched. “Mine?”

“Yes. Yours. You…read to him. You tell him…things.”

“Arthur…” Mama seemed to curl into a ball like the hedgehog Jonathan had once poked with a stick. Far away, the clock flicked through its slow, painful seconds. Jonathan’s mouth was dry and strangely full, as if he’d stuffed all of his conkers inside it and was trying to swallow them down. And then the seat of his trousers felt damp and hot and he wanted to cry. The wetness trickled from his chair and dripped in counterpoint to the clock, pooling on the hard floor.

His parents both looked at him. A sob erupted from his chest. Papa grasped his arm, dragging him from his chair, his hand gouging into the boy’s flesh as he bundled him towards the door.

A chair scraped and Mama screamed, “Arthur, no!” But they were already out of the dining room and in the musty darkness of the hall, and Papa would not let go as he hauled Jonathan up stair after stair, his shins banging against the rungs. Jonathan wheezed and shivered, his nose and eyes leaking, his trousers cooling wet and clammy against his skin. And then a door screamed open. He was falling through the air, landing on his belly as the door slammed shut again; a key was forced into the lock and turned.

It was dark…so dark and so cold. Now on his knees, Jonathan whimpered as Papa’s feet echoed down the stairs. The dining room door slammed shut, and words flew like thrown plates: “Disgrace!” “Fault!” “Ruined!” “Life!”

Grasping the door handle, Jonathan dragged himself upright. He no longer felt like a child; a sack of skin filled with blood and bones and thoughts. He was more like a sheet of paper which could be punched through or scrawled on, crumpled or torn with no being of its own: no mind or will. Still clinging to the handle, he shook it. But it did no good. Instead, the key rattled in the lock and clinked onto the floor of the corridor. The house was silent, he realised and still, as if waiting. His lungs ached with crying. He turned back into the room and shed his clothes, wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and crept over to the window.

It was out there – hidden behind the wind-whipped branches of the trees and caged in by darkness, but he felt it. The angel arch. And they were whispering to him again. He heard them call.

***

Someone was scrabbling against the door. Jonathan roused himself from fractious dreams. He had fallen asleep on the floor, naked and swaddled in the blanket. Cold had seeped into his skin, fusing with his flesh, and now his body spasmed and shook, his teeth clacking like a clockwork toy.

The key pierced the lock and he sat up breathless, waiting for Papa’s rage and scorn, for his hard eyes and tight, pale lips. But it was Mama who entered wearing her nightdress and clutching a candle, her hair loose and streaming down her back.

“Jonathan?” She slipped inside and peered down at him, her face awash with dark and shade. Her nightdress was open to the throat and he glimpsed three livid lines barring her bare skin. She knew he’d seen it, for she wrapped her hand around her neck, crouching beside him.

“Jonathan, get up. You can’t lie on the floor – you’ll catch your death. My God, where are your clothes?”

“They’re wet.”

“Well you should have…here.” She rose, crossed the room and riffled through a chest of drawers, plucking out a vest and underpants. “Now put these on.”

She helped him dress, which was wrong because she should have called the maid. But Jonathan said nothing, collapsing into her arms and stealing her warmth. She smelt of lavender and carbolic, of Papa’s pipe smoke and of fear. Jonathan would not let her go, and so she lay beside him on the bed, sealing him beneath the eiderdown. But now, he could not sleep. The morning would steal up on them. He would open his eyes and it would have arrived, staring at him with its monstrous eyes. It would bring light and pain. It would take Mama from his side once more.

She had fallen asleep. Her light snores tickled his ears.

“Mama, wake up!” He shook her. She moaned, but buried her face in the pillow and rasped on.

“Mama, can’t you hear them?”

The whispering again. How could they have found him, when they were so far away on the other side of the garden? That dull rush of sound; it had infected his bedroom.

“Mama!” He pushed her again, but she would not stir.

And yet…and yet. They were both asleep, his parents. Both cut off from this world that only he knew; that only he could hear. Perhaps if he could bring something to them and prove its existence… then he would no longer be Mama’s unnatural child, or Papa’s poor changeling. He would show them what he had found. He would lay it all in front of them. And they would be proud of him. They would listen too, and they would understand.

He slid off the bed, tiptoed across the room and wrapped the blanket once more around his bare shoulders. Mama twisted in her sleep, grasping the eiderdown and clutching it to her chest.

“Mama?” he whispered again. Silence.

The house was not a solid place at night. It shifted and moved; shadows smothered its lines and contours. Squeezing the bannister, Jonathan crept downstairs, his feet finally brushing the cold tiles of the hall. He could let himself out through the scullery door: cook left a key for that beneath a shelf. And once in the kitchens he felt safer; the residual scents of baked bread and soup still clinging to the air. But the voices were down here too, their whisperings peaking and ebbing like waves of sound. He scrabbled for the key, pressed it to the lock and turned the handle, stepping out onto a gravelled path. Jonathan sucked in his breath as chinks of stone bit into his bare soles. And then rain-soaked grass clasped at his bare legs, in the distance, grey light washed over hill tops. The trees were just ahead; no longer Mama’s friends, but strangers stripped of colour and shape, their branches warring with the breeze. And the voices rose, circling his head like birds about to roost, some pitched to a scream or a howl, others a brief bark of laughter.

He could still turn back. He could run to the scullery door and slam it shut, clamber up the stairs and into bed beside Mama, screw shut his eyes and clamp his hands over his ears. But without the prize…without proof that he was right, he would still be Jonathan: poor, strange Jonathan, the boy who wet his trousers if Papa so much as looked at him.

He staggered on, losing the blanket, now crawling amongst the trees in his vest and small clothes as the voices teased and tricked, sang and screamed. He was almost there. Once again the weight of sound pressed and pushed, and he could barely move.

“Jonathan!”

He turned as Mama raced like a phantom across the wet grass towards him, her nightshirt flapping around her bare ankles. She would not stop him. This time, she could not. She would watch and she would understand. Jonathan peeled himself off the ground charging against the wall of sound, his mother’s fleet steps mere yards behind him. The angel arch…it was above him. He stared up at the child: its clay as grey as dead flesh against the darkness. It peered back down at him with blank, dull eyes.

“Jonathan!”

He leaped, and Mama’s voice was lost to the wind, to the light. For here it was light; a brightness which seared his sight. And the rush of voices was now the surge of chaos itself: a raw, seething force, like a waterfall or summer storm.

He opened his eyes. Something flashed past – something red. Not the burning red of autumn leaves or the dark syrupy red of blood. This was all wax and shine, and its voice a low bellied roar. And behind it came another one; this a cobalt blue which swallowed up the light as it span into the distance.

He sank back down, whimpering, with his arms around his head. To his right, the words whispered on or sang, or screamed or barked, as if they had a life of their own. He turned his head, forcing himself to look. More shapes slipped past; some blurred at first, their colours muddied. At last they coalesced into…into hands and bodies, arms, legs, men, women and children – more than he had ever seen, a river of people snaking up and down beside him, not noticing the half naked child crouching in their midst. The ground seemed to shake as another massive shape hurtled past to his left, and Jonathan ran against the tide of people who would not stop, their voices a confused chaos of sound. He pressed his hands to his ears, blocking out the awful, insane rush until at last one of them stopped before him: an older man, with lank hair clinging to a gaunt face. His dark suit was trim, shrouding a lean, stooped frame. And in his right hand, he carried the limp body of a mole hanging from a trap.

“Hello, Jonathan,” said Jones.

 

***

A PDF of the story is available here:

The Angel Arch

 

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