He either imagined a good life, or lived a miserable one. So he spent his time creating worlds from streetlights, heroes from beer cans, villains from cigarette packets and damsels in distress from plastic bags that fluttered like pigeons in the wind.
Home was a council flat in Bermondsey, a stone’s throw from London Bridge: for a giant with a long arm and the right stone. Every council flat was built from the same brown brick. Every door was the same brown colour: glass only reflected cement. The lucky council tenants had peeling walls, the unlucky tenants had to be shipped off to cheap hotels until the damp was sponged from their homes. The balconies doubled up as open air storage cupboards. The dead grass was covered in broken fridges and battered sofas hopping with fleas. One first floor flat had two trampolines in the garden, but the residents had no children, so the trampolines sat upside down collecting rust and providing shelter for abandoned pets. The flies that buzzed above the stairs knew if they circled long enough, eventually something would die and start rotting beneath. People were born into broken families on this broken estate, by broken roads, in a broken part of England.
This was a place where any hope found, was smoked.
Men who couldn’t find work sat in the corner of the pub on the council estate, scratching their foreheads on tables, drinking the strongest lager they could afford. They snorted cocaine in the toilets then returned to the table to shout about finding work and seeing their kids, but before they did, could anybody buy me a beer? At night children, packed into small flats like sardines, were forced onto the streets to play for long periods with older kids, and then hated for returning home and daring to ask when dinner is. This was Bermondsey: nobody needed to put a glass to the wall to hear violence.
A boy stood at the foot of a tall building with his hands over his eyes looking up with a mix of disbelief and wonderment. He’d been walking home. The same journey, the same route he’d repeated a thousand times, on a thousand days: the same journey he felt destined to repeat forever.
A white label with black letters stuck out from his sock. His stepmum Belle had used his full name, she always did. He hated her for it.
But everybody called him Deep.
Fourteen-year-old Deep looked up at the tallest council block he’d ever seen. There was no discernible end to the building. Not one that he could see or imagine. He’d walked past the building staring at his shoes every day, wondering if at school he would be able to steal food, because his stepmum used hunger as punishment: but now he looked up, amazed.
The world had previously been dark, but as his eyes focused on the building, light from above glared down, slapping awful reality over the surface of the world: a sticker happy dentist, thumping smiley faces onto the chests of children with gum disease.
The familiar sound of a teenager on a motorbike rumbled and chugged through the air. On his motorbike, the world was his lobster. He could ride anywhere he imagined, but he just drove around the same old estate like a thick Bilbo Baggins.
Deep studied the tall building. He read the name across the door in his head.
The sun vanished from the sky: plucked from above like the last feather on a bald chicken. The darkness was darker than usual. The world became a shadow of a shadow. Deep stared up into the black day. He noticed a small shape, a dot, falling out of the sky. The dot grew in size: from dot, to bug, to ball, to something larger still.
The object was falling towards him.
Deep looked around. No adults in sight.
The dark shape grew bigger, from mouse to rat, to something the size of a cat. The shape grew larger still, until it looked like a small bear and then a windmill. The black shape had a body, and a head. What looked like arms kicked and reached for invisible handles to grip. The black falling shape, for a glance, became secondary to a shape entirely more wonderful. Floating across the dark sky above the falling figure drifted the most beautiful balloon Deep had seen. A flock of colours floated in silence across the darkness. The balloon was the size of a house. Red, blue, green, purple, orange: it was as if a rainbow had curled into a ball, and somebody had attached a basket beneath. The rainbow balloon was circular, wondrous, entirely captivating and unexpected: a stranger walking out of the grey, who says you look beautiful today. The moment a girl realises boys do smell, but the smell is better than chocolate. The rainbow balloon reflected in the brown eyes of Deep. This was special, something beautiful in Bermondsey. A flower growing through concrete.
Deep imagined the peace he would find sailing through blue sky. He would talk to birds and eat the edges of marshmallow clouds. He would wave to people on planes and rescue cats from trees. He wanted to climb the ladder and live in the basket beneath the rainbow balloon forever. His mouth hung open. His brown eyes span like Catherine wheels. His spirit rose in wonder with the impossible.
His brain cells inflated and drifted in the wind of his thoughts. He watched as a flame burst above the basket. The balloon thickened. The flame and the light flashed across his pupils and he knew, in that flash, it was possible to escape his life. He was just one massive rainbow balloon short of leaving Bermondsey.
Deep was so distracted he missed the black object fall through the windscreen of the blue car parked in front of him. The car was a 1984 blue Ford Fiesta, nothing flashy: the average family car. Two doors, plenty of luggage space for a suitcase and large packs of baby nappies. The alarm pierced the air with such a force birds exploded in the sky. The ringing drilled a hole through his happy moment. Rainbow colours and balloon memories leaked back out of his brain. Images of the estate popped his floating membranes with the pin of life, until Deep was back standing in the same place he had never left, feeling deflated.
Glass flew in his direction. Bits of glass too small to notice found a home in his socks, the larger shards spat from the blue car and embedded in grass. Deep covered his face. Silver slivers of glass scratched the skin on his arms. A large chunk of glass rolled across the concrete: a rolling glass stone slicing the throats of moss.
Deep removed his arm from his face. A wheelchair sat on the roof of the car. In the wheelchair pumped a heart. The wheelchair had possibly dropped earlier from the sky, seemingly landing with all of the grace and beauty of the best movements of ballet. The black object that had fallen from the sky was embedded into the bonnet, and had landed with precisely none of the same grace. The black object had landed with a thump: it was all too clear where the heart of the wheelchair naturally belonged. The bonnet of the 1984 blue Ford Fiesta had imploded. The windscreen was smashed. The left wing mirror bent to the right. The right mirror dangled on colourful wires, like the horror on the bonnet had forced the car to throw up on itself. One of the wipers swung upside down from the branch of a nearby tree. A fat cat sat on the branch beneath the wiper. Deep was nervous, but intrigued. He walked closer to the car to get a better look at the black shape on the bonnet. Deep hoped the sun would return to spread a little light over the day. He looked down at the black object. Embedded into the bonnet, in a state of physical discombobulation, was a massive black dog, flattened. The black dog was a collection of broken bits, fur in the wrong places, a missing lower jaw and a brain that sat in the driver’s seat. The dog had a missing paw and three broken legs. Teeth and bone littered the floor. The dog’s heart sat in the wheelchair, covered in clumps of fur and two stringy blobs of a vascular blue disposition. More blood than Deep realised could be in a dog painted the blue car red. The car was no longer fit for family use. Deep was certain the black beast was dead, but being a curious sort he watched (in horror) as his finger moved into the side of the dog, giving it a prod. The dog confirmed it was dead, as the light prod had enough force behind it to separate canine head from body. The brainless dog head rolled down the bonnet and dropped onto the feet of the boy.
Deep didn’t want to get into trouble for exploding a dog, not when he’d recently served a detention for refusing to shower after sports.
He looked up. The silent dark London sky complemented the rainbow balloon, which floated peacefully, but dangerously close to the wall of the building.
Deep looked down. Blood everywhere: dismembered dog head.
He looked up again. He watched the hot air balloon smash silently into brick and windows. The balloon crashed into LUPIN POINT. The rainbow balloon silently and slowly fused with brick and pushed through windows. A beautiful fairy easing a sponge cake into the face of a witch. His mind wandered, as it often did, turning him into a system of logic without a home. He switched off, and for a second he didn’t quite know where he was.
A desperate scream roared across the darkness from high above. The scream was high pitched, animalistic and long.
The scream switched Deep back on. He looked into the sky.
The desperate cry of a female, thought the boy.
The screaming girl was in very serious, possibly grave danger. The scream was so loud and long the sound shook two teeth loose from the mouth of the dog. With no lower jaw, the teeth dropped to the floor. Deep stared into the dark abyss of all that existed above planet earth as hard as he could, but it was pointless. The scream had come from beyond his vision, from above the black, from somewhere above the balloon. From the roof of LUPIN POINT.
A mobile phone lay smashed on the floor, near the front wheel of the car. The screen was cracked, its insides hung outside, wires and electronic parts pointed in all directions. A robot starfish had swallowed a grenade and exploded immediately afterwards.
Deep looked around for a responsible adult, despite knowing responsible adults (the ones who read and eat salads) only live inside the television. He picked up the destroyed phone and put the parts in the pocket of his grey school shorts. Maybe the dog, the phone and the balloon all belonged to the screaming girl. He listened for another scream, but no further sound, not an utterance or mutterance came. The slight breeze that had fluttered the edges of nearby flowers, encouraging bees to ejaculate into them, had slowed to that moment before adventure begins.
Deep considered entering LUPIN POINT and climbing to the roof to investigate the scream. He knew if he went home his stepmum, Belle, would be drunk, or complaining somebody had drunk all of her drink. Belle would be angered by his presence, and his dad would either be at the Mosque, or shouting about the state of the world. Or drinking, which he had taken up recently with the precision of a clock maker. Deep wanted to do something other than walk home to cook his own chicken nuggets. He didn’t want to spend another night sitting in his room, sticking his long nose out of the window, wondering if it was possible to smell adventure.
The fat cat meowed from the branch of the nearby tree. The cat was red and white in body, and blue in tail. The cat licked its lips, and stared at Deep with stars for eyes. The cat must have been spray painted by some of the kids of the estate for their amusement. In the land of the abandoned, all life was potential art to be deployed. Deep felt uneasy. He felt the cat knew something he didn’t. He didn’t much like the idea of that.
Daylight appeared in the sky in an instant, like someone had flicked a switch or opened a lid. Deep could see clearly again. A crack like thunder ripped through the sky. The day rained.
His eyes dazzled in the sudden change of light. As the dazzle subsided, Deep looked through the diamonds in his vision. The red white and blue cat with stars for eyes should have been covered in dog bits, but the windscreen wiper hanging from the branch above had gently guided all dog away from it.
Deep was lost for words.
He sensed he was being watched. He turned. Ten metres away and staring at him stood an old lady more on her way out, than on her way in. They made eye contact. Deep was unsure what to do. He wasn’t afraid of the old lady, but something wasn’t right about her, something that took a second to place. The old lady had dark skin like his. Only her skin was drained of moisture. She looked shrivelled, thin and slightly yellow. She gripped a wheelbarrow in her frail hands. In the wheelbarrow sat another wheelbarrow, and in that wheelbarrow was a third wheelbarrow. They held eye contact and stood still in silence, surrounded by broken tree, and bits of black dead dog. The old lady stood outside the entrance to the building. Deep knew without his help the old woman would struggle to open the door to the building and keep her grip on all of her wheelbarrows.
Deep took a few steps closer. The head of the dog was the only object between them. Deep could see that in the second larger wheelbarrow was an extremely small third wheelbarrow that looked like a toy. Sitting in the small wheelbarrow inside the larger wheelbarrow inside the smaller wheelbarrow was a book titled:
“How to How to: The Secret to How To How to How to.”
The old lady was stressed. She lost her balance. She wobbled. She was toppling over, all three wheelbarrows and all, but pulled hard in the opposite direction. She stayed upright. She was still, and then the weight of the wheelbarrows moved her sideways again. Deep could not watch an old lady struggle. He stepped over the head of the dog and stood in front of her awaiting instruction.
He was young, and not very tall. The old lady was very old, and the same height: about four feet nothing. Pocket sized people at oppositional positions on the age spectrum. Two large crusty eyes looked at Deep, and blinked. The years of her life weighed heavy on every part of her skin. The bone under her skin moved like tectonic plates move land. Her bone moved inwards, squashing her face together, causing profound crevices of skin stuffed full of age. Deep was certain he would hear balls of wool and bombs from World War Two if he rested one ear to her cheek. The old lady spoke one word in a voice, broken and croaky: a frog after Biology. Her word hopped across the rickety bridge of her throat, and dangled desperately from the strained rope of her mouth:
Her chances of living to see new dreams actualised reduced by the day, by the hour, and by the minute. One day she will wake in the chasm of her life, and there will be nothing beneath her but a sudden fall into the jaws of all of our fates.
The old lady knew more than the young boy about carrying a book inside a small wheelbarrow inside a big wheelbarrow inside a smaller one. As it was quite a limited skill and she had practiced it limitlessly. She liked to remind people she wasn’t born yesterday, even though all of us are. She needed Deep to get her key from her pocket and let her into the flats. There was nobody else around. She didn’t want to put her wheelbarrows down and have to pick them up again. Like flying a plane, the hardest part of balancing three wheelbarrows of various sizes is in the taking off and landing.
He had brown eyes and was silent, which she found strange. There was an odd quality to him she couldn’t place: that feeling you get when you text the person you love and they don’t reply, so you imagine them dead and the last time you spoke was a fight. She thought he was in his early teens, thirteen, maybe twelve, but possibly a little younger because of his height. His dark hair was unwashed and greasy, and scraped over his head in a side parting. He had dark skin. The woman thought he looked Indian, or from somewhere in the Middle East. Possibly a Muslim, she thought, not that she cared. She was too. She thought the boy had an open face, the kind of face that absorbed information. His eyes looked alert and brave. He made her think of a rabbit standing in a road at night with a shotgun, waiting for headlights. The old lady had seen the boy walking around the estate carrying books. The other children on the estate spent their time climbing trees and playing football in the street, or screaming. Some of them smoked, all of them fought. The brave ones swore at passing cars, drank alcohol, and tried to fit into conversations with the older age groups. This boy was slim in the face and body. He needed a good meal. His teeth looked stained: the colour teeth go after a while of living with parents who don’t parent their children. He wore a school uniform. Grey shorts and a white shirt. No blazer. School had finished but the boy had not removed his tie, and his top button was firmly secured. She thought the boy was thoughtful, because she had not yet come across a silent thug. Thugs, she knew, always spoke first and thought last. She knew teenagers were fools: the boy would soon be too old to blame others for his life, but he was still young enough to believe strongly all mistakes were down to the failure of others.
Deep wanted to ask about the book, but instead fixated on the vein that pulsed out of her head. The vein ticked at the same speed as time. He was certain if he wrapped the old lady around his wrist, he would still arrive at school punctually.
She nodded to her pocket and wiggled a plastic hip. Her keys jangled. The young boy with the dark eyes, hair and skin understood the woman was giving him permission to find her keys.
Without his eyes, she thought, he could be any lump of dark hairy flesh. With them, the timeline of the ages shone back. Deep’s skin was dark, a lighter dark, like milky coffee. There was something angelic about his narrow face, but there was also a hardness. His nose was long and pointed. A wisp of an attempt to grow a moustache sat on his top lip, which only served to make him look younger than he was pretending to be. He was ugly, in the conventional sense. None of his features met in the right place, and there was a furriness to his forehead. She felt there was little motherly love in the air around him: a feeling that silently drew a new line on her face.
The old lady felt his hand in the pocket of her long skirt. Her heart beat a little faster. Deep touched her keys. A loud T H U M P echoed from above. Deep’s thick black eyebrows hid under his greasy fringe. His brown eyes broke into territory that belonged to other parts of his face. His light brown, beautifully soft hands shook like they were no longer his. He dropped her keys. The old lady rolled her dusty eyes and muttered about the world being full of easily distracted runts. Deep looked up. He was dazzled by the whiteness of the sky. The basket on the balloon swayed left in the wind: drifting away from the building, then crashing back into it, like a door slamming shut in the breeze of an open window.
The old lady told Deep that hot air balloons hit LUPIN POINT on a daily basis. She said it was nothing to get excited about. She said the balloon would free itself eventually. They always do, she said. She smiled but died a little inside. At his age, the boy should be accustomed to seeing some new wonder every day, but he was already conditioned to expect nothing but the same, and not complain about his expectations.
Deep gave her keys a jangle. The sound reminded Deep of his stepmum sticking earrings to her face in the cracked mirror before he left for school. The old lady imagined a silver spoon hitting the side of a cup of tea.
The old lady wobbled again. The smaller wheelbarrow wobbled the bigger wheelbarrow which wobbled the smallest wheelbarrow which made the book fall over, but the old lady regained control and balance.
The old lady noticed the label sticking out of the Muslim boy’s sock.
“You are labelled?”
Deep lowered his leg.
“Well Deep. My name is Kharia Baddourn. The kids on this estate call me old lady Kharia.”
Deep smiled. Without possibly knowing that she had, old lady Kharia had called him the name he preferred. His stepmum Belle would not approve. A small part of Deep wanted to stay with the old woman and never leave. Old lady Kharia nodded to the door. She wondered why Deep had not spoken. He was probably shy, as often children are when not surrounded by their parents or friends.
“Cat got your tongue?”
Deep ignored old lady Kharia’s direct question. He placed the black square on the lock. The door clicked. He pushed it inwards. He walked into the building and stood to the side. Old lady Kharia trundled past him. Her head bobbed left and right as she checked the wheelbarrows would pass the frame of the door.
Old lady Kharia headed further down the corridor. Deep had a decision to make. He stood on the inside of the door looking back out at the world. He could go home, or he could walk further into the building and have an adventure. He could go home and eat chicken nuggets or try and get to the roof. He could go home and try and smell adventure from his bedroom window, or he could climb the building and try and see if he could fly in a beautiful rainbow balloon.
The door to LUPIN POINT closed. The second it clicked shut, a thought popped into his head. Deep thought mysteries exist around us all the time. Sometimes they’re the nearest person to us but we look the other way. We repeat mistakes, and complain life is grey. Dreams are Phoenixes. They must burn alive in front of our eyes, before they learn to grow wings and become things.
Deep wasn’t sure what his thought meant. The words appeared in his mind, but didn’t feel like they were his. He looked back into the building, then back out through the door at the world. He opened the door slightly and poked his nose out of the entrance. He breathed in. He could only smell rubbish, old food and litter. He turned. He watched old lady Kharia slowly wheel her book in a tiny wheelbarrow in the bigger wheelbarrow in the slightly smaller wheelbarrow along the corridor, further into the council accommodation. Deep breathed in, and snorted fat waves of adventure. He followed his nose. He walked along the corridor behind old lady Kharia. She’d already decided to ask Deep into her home for a cup of milk. She thought she might even explain her secret book of how to how to: The Secret to How to How to How to, to him.
Deep grew in excitement. He’d lived bored, but finally had a reason not to go home, a distraction from the breadcrumbs and the silence. He was inside the tallest building in Bermondsey, on a council estate in London. He was following an old lady carrying a book titled How to How to: The Secret to How To How to How to, which sat in a wheelbarrow, which sat inside a bigger wheelbarrow, which sat inside a slightly smaller wheelbarrow. He would fly away in the rainbow balloon, and swoop down to pick up the girl who needed saving on the roof as he did. And, on the way, he would seek the driver of the blue Ford Fiesta and tell them their car had been in an accident. And, if he could, he would find the owner of the big black dog. He would sit the owner down, and tell them how sorry he was, but their dog had been murdered by gravity. Deep smiled.
This, he was certain from all of the books he had read, was adventure beginning.
Old lady Kharia wheeled her wheelbarrows into the middle of the room of her flat. The room was almost completely dark. Thick black curtains covered the skinny windows, defying most of the light. Deep breathed in, and sucked fourteen billion particles of dust down into his lungs. The smell reminded him of the time his father took him to a zoo, and he stood behind an elephant as it relieved itself of vast quantities of mostly digested food. Old lady Kharia lowered herself into a large wooden rocking chair. As her weight compressed the cushion the thickness of the air in the environment doubled. A squeak oiled the silence: a mouse on the hunt for some sun. Deep wanted to be helpful. He was happy to help the elderly, the sick, those who could not help themselves. He strode over to open the thick black curtains on the other side of the room. He felt watched by a thousand eyes. He told himself not to be silly, and focused on letting in light. He reached the curtains and pulled them aside. There was no window. Huddled one on top of the other, surprised at being disturbed, piled a clump of bricks.
Old lady Kharia’s voice crackled like dead pork. Her words limped from her tongue, so frail they glided on top of dust particles:
To avoid the window tax of 1696, she said.
Deep turned away from the brick, curious, but not curious enough to speak.
A single beam of light, from what looked like a bullet hole, sprung into the room through a door. The beam provided enough light to make out some details: the carpet was brown. The walls were black, a bad decorating idea from the seventies that had never been changed. The beam of light stopped half way across the room, in mid-air, before it hit any object or wall: blocked on its journey by the thickness of dust and wall of invisible misery. Plants in brown pots littered the edges of the floor, dead. Brown leaves on brown stalks. Tiny bugs slept underneath the brown plants, not breathing in or out. The ceiling was stained with large yellow circles. Next to old lady Kharia, on her right, was a bin full of ash and cigarette ends. The room smelt like surviving a car crash after sustaining agonising and life threatening injuries, only to be told when you wake up in the hospital tests have revealed you have an incurable disease, which is more painful to die from.
Deep was familiar with fear, yet still his eyes dragged his brain to areas of the room he didn’t want to see. His eyes pulled his thoughts into the shadows. They stuffed wet socks down his oesophagus and wound his tongue through a meat grinder.
He placed a small sweaty palm against the black wall. The wall felt like jelly and wobbled with his knees. He lurched to the other set of curtains. He grabbed them and pulled them to the side, revealing another squat of bricks behind. The flat contained no windows. There was only the single beam of light that stopped in the middle of the room. There was only enough light to highlight the growing certainty that everything was a little off centre.
Deep could see the silver outline of old lady Kharia. Strands of wild thin white hair fell down either side of her face. Deep didn’t want to judge her looks, but he’d long ago read Hansel and Gretel, and the voice in his head was shouting that old lady Kharia might be a witch. Deep studied the outline of her bony hands, her fat veins rose like slugs. He looked at the black hole where her face should have been. Two silver eyes glinted back: white stones dropped in a dark forest. She rocked back and forth in her chair. When she rocked forward her chair squeaked, and when her chair rocked back it cried like Tin Man having his heart cut out by Dorothy. She spoke. Her words mumbled and crackled slowly, like she was trying to tune a radio using the back leg of a turtle.
“If you want to see in the dark, you first need to cover the light.”
Deep followed the beam of light to the hole in the door. Covering the only light to see out of the dark made no sense to Deep, but he was the guest. She was the boss. So he did as she said. A small latch fastened above the breach: a spy-hole over a door. He moved the small latch around. The latch covered the hole completely, removing the only light. Deep turned. As darkness spread thickly over the room, everything glittered in brilliant emerald. Deep looked on in amazement as the brightest stars of the galaxy fell from space, and sparkled poetry about their last days.
“Glow-worms Deep. The bastards bit through my door. They created the wormhole with their faces. Australian glow-worms. Millions of the little devils ate their way through the planet to get here, then politely let themselves into my flat one at a time.”
Deep moved the palm of his hand in front of his face in wonder, back and forth, letting it sink in he was emerald green. The tiny balls of emerald light that sat on everything reminded him of Christmas lights, the type he saw every year in shops in England. The type of lights he saw walking past homes during the festive period. His family didn’t celebrate Christmas. His father, Durr Thinqir, was a strict Muslim who never allowed it. Though it should be said his stepmum, Belle, was not religious at all, and was certainly no kinder for it.
Old lady Kharia rocked back into darkness, and then rocked forward into green emerald light. Emerald light sparkled through her thin white hair. The power of the glow was thicker than her skin, making her look like she wasn’t really there. The room had been destroyed by a recent fire. Deep felt a sense of unease: the feeling of finding a dead person slumped in a chair with a still lit cigarette smoking between their fingertips washed over him. His body shook: a reminder our bodies are never ours to control. Old lady Kharia rocked forward in her chair. Her eyes dazzled emerald like a monster. Her skin looked tight and green like a lime.
“Somebody just walked over your grave.”
She rocked back on her chair and disappeared into darkness, the tears of Tin Man spilt on the floor around her. A waist high cupboard, on wheels, sat menacingly next to her. A square guard dog with a face she could open and store electronic cables and books in. Old lady Kharia, with great effort, extended a green bony finger towards Deep and prodded it twice in his direction, motioning him backwards. He stepped back two paces and felt the presence of a chair, but the thought of sitting was replaced by a sharp stabbing pain. Claws of a creature dug into his skin, scratching the surface of his leg. Before Deep could turn, old lady Kharia smiled the type of smile an intelligent person gives a Daily Mail reader: mostly pity. Her mouth was full of black and gold teeth, a curious mixture of misery and expense. Deep grabbed his leg and turned. He stood, mouth agog, when presented with some rather frightening facts. He wanted to scream, but his voice was as oppressed as the rest of him. He’d been clawed by a stuffed bear. He pulled his grey shorts away from the claws and they ripped. Angry, but still respectful, he looked up at the corner of the ceiling. He stared at the yellow swirls of nicotine sprayed with glowing emerald green. He counted backwards from ten. As he counted in his head, he felt the look from old lady Kharia pulling at the edges of his skin. Her eyes pinched his fears. She didn’t have to move, or talk, to control him.
Old lady Kharia studied Deep. He looked like any other fourteen-year-old boy with dark skin, dark brown eyes and black hair illuminated in the emerald glow of a thousand glow-worms. A jigsaw with the last piece missing. She thought his parents had either recently divorced, were in the process of divorcing, or were thinking about divorcing. Like all parents, she thought. He was wearing his school uniform. Grey shorts. A white shirt. A navy blue tie. His socks were still pulled up and his top button fastened. His black shoes had seen better days. The shade under his eyes danced, indicating a brain that spoke to him faster than he knew how to decipher. His dark skin was worn and his eyes flicked with red dots. He appeared exhausted. His nose pointed. The hair on his top lip cried out to be waxed from his skin. His chin looked like a thumb without the nail. He was not an attractive boy, in fact, if you didn’t look at him he was quite ugly. But puberty had yet to properly kick in. And puberty is fate, a hand that changes the roads of boys and puts them on their paths to becoming men. Perhaps he could still yet develop something attractive on him to look at. Yet, despite Deep not being attractive in the Hollywood sense, old lady Kharia could not deny that the boy looked like somebody people wanted to know. He looked like a boy who could become a great man. He looked wise and noble. The boy could observe, without evaluating. Hear his thoughts without believing they were his: the essence of wisdom. In that sense, the old lady thought Deep could be the most beautiful boy she had ever seen.
Quite tasty, to eat.
There was a patience to Deep, like he would be happiest standing by a river watching water flow, for the simple reason he found peace in seeing it go. He was not forthcoming with his ego to tell others how to live or behave. In fact, she realised, the boy had not yet had a single word to say.
Old lady Kharia smelt breadcrumbs in his aura.
Before Deep had reached his mental count of seven, a loud buzz belched from above his head. Lowering down on a thread, like a spider, was a bee so fat it looked like a mouse. Old lady Kharia chomped down on her few teeth. The grinding made Deep look in her direction. As he did, the bee let go of the thread, dropped through the air, and landed on the end of his nose. Deep thought you can tell a lot about a person by how they react to a bee landing on them. Those who panic and scream live on the surface, those who panic and scream before the bee touches them live for the drama, and those who do not react are either connected to the universe or depressed.
Deep did not react.
The bee rubbed its sting against the skin of Deep’s long dark nose, but the bee did not sting Deep, and Deep did not try and swat the bee. Old lady Kharia decided Deep was either greatness hiding as failure, or failure hiding as greatness. She could not decide which, and the line between the two is fine. She stood from her rocking chair, rickety back and bendy knees, glass stones hitting bricks. She placed her weight on the cupboard next to her chair. On top of the cupboard sat a fish tank, but the tank was not full of fish, it was full of Argos catalogues. A single dead fish lay at rest on top of the catalogues.
Without her weight, the rocking chair cried forward and squeaked back, filling silence with sadness. Deep looked through the bee on his nose and at the dead fish on the Argos catalogues. He wanted to ask why a fish tank would be full of Argos catalogues: it looked like the fish had been picking out a bigger fish tank using the catalogue, but something for the little fish had gone terribly wrong. Old lady Kharia knew what Deep wanted to ask, but at her age patience was a moment stolen by people who could afford the time to have it. She cleared her throat: a dusty weak affair, full of bits of lungs peeling away from her spinal column, a leafless tree with no way of detecting when life becomes windy. A thousand glow-worms illuminated her dark standing frame. Her black saucer eyes and slugs for veins crawled as she spoke:
“The fish wanted to build a house, Deep, so the fish did. Against my judgement, I might add. The fish wanted the best house, the most expensive house. The fish wanted all the material. So he built his house, Argos catalogue by Argos catalogue. For a while, he considered himself better than all of the other fish and, I guess for a while, all the other fish silently agreed. But he kept building. He was greedy. He didn’t know when or how to stop. Argos catalogue after Argos catalogue the fish piled on, until, eventually, he built himself out of his home. No water left, he drowned where he now lives, on a photograph of an eleven pound ninety-nine Fisher-Price musical ride-along dolphin.”
She stared at Deep and wanted a response, but without words, Deep couldn’t explain what he needed to get across. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out his cherry lip balm. He smeared it across his lips, twice, and felt a little bit more in control of his face. Deep wasn’t sure why the lip balm calmed him down, the other kids at school laughed at him, and even his teachers explained that the balm dried out lips, it was proven: they said lip balm is a habit that goes nowhere. Deep thought all habits go nowhere. That’s what makes them funny bits: ha bits. When Deep remembered school, he recalled parents saying hello, without looking him in the eye.
Old lady Kharia wheeled slowly past him, her weight on the cupboard that looked like a dog with a book for a brain. The wheels squeaked and creaked like her rocking chair did. As she walked the emerald green glitter of the room parted. She reached into the dark and pulled back a match. She lit the match by flicking it across the bear arms. Deep understood every American had a right to bear arms. Why they would want them, was beyond him. She moved the flaming match to the candle wick that was fastened by a blob of wax to the forehead of the bear. The wick lit, making the bear look like a fat, hairy unicorn with a fiery horn. Old lady Kharia threw the match to the floor. Fire safety was not her strong point. Old lady Kharia continued on her way. The wheels on her cupboard squeaked. She disappeared through the door with the wormhole in it, and into her kitchen.
Deep stood alone in the room with the flaming unicorn bear and the glow-worms. The flaming unicorn bear spread more light. A small wave of fire flowed over the teeth and licked at the face of the bear, who was forever fixed with an expression that captured its last breath being stolen by the pointless cruelty of man. The light from the glow-worms looked to Deep like the eyes of wolves waiting to pounce from the dark. There was no chance the stuffed bear had been trained to stand still and maul him as soon as old lady Kharia was out of the room, but that didn’t stop the thought crossing his young imaginative mind. Deep could see that the walls were covered with burnt carpet. The floor was one large photograph of London taken from the sky. Deep looked down and felt confused. The ground looked like the sky, and the walls like the floor, but his primary concern, was the bee rubbing its sting on his nose. He stood still. He breathed slowly. Deep wanted to avoid a panic, because if his panic caused the bee to panic, he could get stung. And if the bee stung him he would enter anaphylactic shock, because he was allergic to bee stings. He would die. Old lady Kharia would return from her kitchen and find a dead boy on the floor, and a dead bee clinging to the nose of the dead boy: Romeo and Juliet, on a London council estate, without the love, and between a bee and a boy. Deep watched the little hands of the bee grip the skin of his nose. Deep thought bugs are beautiful. Deep tried to blow the bee off his nose gently, but the bee tightened its grip. Deep moved a finger up towards his nose. The bee lowered its sting. This was a standoff that had nothing to do with Mexico.
The door to the kitchen opened. A beam of light poured in. The green glow of darkness scattered back into the shadows. Deep, tense, shocked by the sudden light, gasped. Because he’d just exhaled all of his breath in an attempt to dislodge the bee, his intake of air was sharp, full and complete. The bee’s legs scooped away from the surface of Deep’s long dark nose and wailed in the air. The bee’s arms were powerless: toothpicks for drumsticks. All in a gasp, the bee disappeared from Deep’s nose, into his mouth, and was sucked down into his stomach. The door to the kitchen closed. The room was thrown back into the light of a thousand sparkling emerald blobs torn apart by darkness. Deep discreetly gulped.
Old lady Kharia wheeled her cupboard slowly into the room. On her cupboard by the base of the fish tank full of Argos catalogues sat two cups. Steam swirled in the air above, twirling like the ghosts of snakes. The fish had disappeared from the surface of the Argos catalogues. The wheels on her small cupboard no longer squeaked.
Old lady Kharia noted the bee was gone: bored of his face, she concluded.
A shower of pig oinks exploded in the air for a full second, then silenced. The oinks were over so quickly the first oink still oinked as the last oink ended.
Deep did not mention the bee in case there was something he could not see through the binoculars of his limited knowledge. He didn’t want to upset the old lady. He could feel this was the part where he and the old lady would talk. Deep thought there is nothing more tedious than the first thirty seconds of conversation with adults. The weather, work, what was school like: a collection of phrases wrapped around saying what we see. Never does a conversation begin with blowing up worms in microwaves, or teaching potatoes how to speak Japanese. The rules are embedded and everybody sticks to them. The rules are in place because people have a subtle desperation to be liked. That desperation leaves a slick of bull snuff on the skin of everyone.
Old lady Kharia started her conversation where all conversations should begin, in the middle. The middle was the bit after hello and before goodbye, the bit worth remembering, like life. She stood, her weight on her cupboard. Her dark skin glowed green, her ancient neck full of the honest sag of experience.
“Eventually in life, we all end up thinking daily about our own demise. My thoughts have led me to believe that heaven is a chance, not a promise. I think that after we die, we all get asked the same question at the gates of heaven. If we answer correctly, eternal bliss is ours eternally. We are asked: who in life was your one true love? If two people say the same name, they both get eternal bliss…
Her voice was upbeat, a contrast to her downtrodden face. Deep imagined a row of beautiful Bluebirds merrily chirping as they pecked the flesh off the face of a worm. Old lady Kharia lowered herself into her rocking chair, tea in hand, fish tank full of catalogues next to her.
The dead fish was gone.
She squeaked back and cried forward. When her rocking chair cried forward Deep noticed new features on her face. She was the sky with the sun cut out. So many thick lines crossed over her skin, she looked like a blind child had been asked to draw a map of the London underground in crayon. Her glasses were thick, like goldfish bowls. When Deep looked into them he could see her eyes were lost. Broken magic eight balls, devoid of moisture. Mysterious dark lesions sat on the skin of her cheeks. Death was pushing her face with his finger.
Old lady Kharia gesticulated with her arms, excited by her tale and audience.
The glow-worms darkened.
… But if at the gates of heaven the person you name as your greatest love in life says someone else was theirs, you are both sent back to earth to live as a slug. This is seen as suitable punishment for living a life lying to your own heart. The eyes of a lying heart scan a room and rest on a fantasy. Do you know, boy, how many people get into heaven? None. Every single person says a different name. What does that say about the existence of love? What does that say about the greed of people? Do you know how many slugs are wriggling around on the Earth? Millions. The greatest advice anybody can give is follow your own heart and be selfish with the journey, even if that means destroying the hearts of others. If you sacrifice your own heart to appease another, you are doing far more harm than breaking a heart: you are turning the planet into the universes’ biggest slug colony.
The story had taken years from her face. The further Deep fell into her words the younger she became. Deep was certain old lady Kharia was confused, or possibly delirious, most likely both.
“To live a life lying to your own heart is to begin a chain of events that are catastrophic to all of mankind. You have perhaps heard of the butterfly effect? One flap of a wing can cause a hurricane on the other side of the earth. It is, of course, nonsense. But what I can promise you, Deep, is this. When the wings of your heart flutter, you better fly in the direction of the truth. If not, nobody gets into heaven. Every lying heart living and beating today is an open door to hell. As you get older you realise the Devil is in the material, the Devil exists in the fabric. The Devil is the whisper that tells you to sit still and not approach the girl of your dreams. The Devil speaks in your own voice. The Devil is the pause button to your progress, but the trick is you think you’re advancing.”
Deep thought the truth, is not truth. Delusion is personal. How we decipher what we know to be true, is too. We live what we do, and we see what we think we want to. There is a truth underneath the truth, and even that truth barely scratches the surface of truth. Truth is far deeper and more complicated than the truth. The very nature of truth, the very basic understanding of the truth that we have, is a lie. There is no the truth. There is only truth, and truth is a jelly that moves and wobbles and fits into any shape we see fit to shove it into to prove our delusions as facts, and our facts as undeniable.
An angry shadow darkened the humanity of her face.
“I thought I was going to DIE! Nobody comes. My own children don’t know I exist.”
Deep, still standing, shuffled awkwardly. Old lady Kharia cackled loudly and slapped her knees. Grains of sand fell from her eyes, old tears long since dried.
‘MY CHILDREN DON’T KNOW I EXIST!”
She became gripped in the type of laugh where breathing takes second place to life: a belly aching laugh touched by the delirium of death. Old lady Kharia caught a breath. Then another. She gathered herself. She shook sand from her face and hair. She sighed.
“Oh sit down then, you boring mini noo noo.”
She rocked forward. She rocked back. The glow-worms returned to full glow, throwing emerald green onto everything. Old lady Kharia squinted behind her goldfish bowl glasses. Deep looked uncertain, unsure where to sit.
“The hippopotamus won’t bite if you sit on it.”
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