Weekend Fiction: Artefacts
Normally these sorts of letters are about his Mum. It’s been a few months since the last wrangle and the postman’s been on time for once, so that’s something. Brian takes the official-looking envelope into the kitchen and sets it down on the counter. 25 Castleton Road. There’s no hurry to open it. He’s used to throwing forms or money at what’s left of her problems. All in good time.
First he clunks the mechanical arm of his espresso machine and spoons fine earthy grounds into the basket he cleaned out, as always, after yesterday morning’s coffee. He’s not the type to leave muck in his kitchen overnight. He wipes spillage off the marble worktop and sets the machine trickling. The emerging smell welcomes him into the world and makes him feel that a day’s work will be possible after all. The daily cup is so small and yet so full of promises: today you will move forward; achieve things; be productive! Feeling under the flap of the envelope, he surveys the wooden chairs tilted against the solid patio table. The lawn is well-mown. The flowerbeds are dug over, ready for planting in spring. He notes the raggedy rhododendron bushes looming in front of the back fence. They’ll need sorting out soon. But, with any luck, the previous year’s battles with moss and bindweed will turn out to have been won.
The letter is written on a good quality weight of paper and announces its authority with a municipal letterhead. It’s not one Brian recognises, so he pauses. Then, little hands start wringing out his intestines as he absorbs the information:
Dear Sir or Madam
I am writing to you on behalf of the Coal Authority, a government organisation that works to protect the public and the environment in coal mining areas.
Seven million properties lie within Britain’s coalfields and we have records of over 170,000 old coal mine shafts. We are now carrying out an inspection programme of those mine shafts as part of our public safety strategy.
Our records show that your house is close to the recorded position of an old mine shaft and we would like to inspect it. Problems with mine shafts are very rare, but it is entirely possible that the foundations of your house, home, sense of self, security and hopes for the future could all implode with astonishing speed and very little notice. I write this not to alarm you, but to make you aware that everything you have worked for, achieved and acquired is in jeopardy.
Brian knows he’ll hit rush hour if he doesn’t leave soon, but he can’t resist it. He brings up the Coal Authority website and soon finds what he’s searching for: a rich seam of worst case scenarios. Collapse of shallow mine workings … subsidence … risk of entry into shafts and adits … gas emissions… What would a disused shaft do to the house price? Surely his grandparents would’ve got a survey done before they bought the place? The screen bathes his face in blue light while he burrows through windows, forums and threads. Clicking on links, he fizzes each time a new page loads, the time bar always creeping forward just that little bit too slowly: Spontaneous combustion of coal … underground heatings … carbon monoxide … ground fractures … And was he going to be compensated, if something was really wrong? Or would his case just get buried somewhere under a pile of solicitors’ letters? Like Grandpa’s.
The letter slips onto the floor as he throws the coffee down his throat and heads for the back door. The cranky lock frustrates his fingers. Why has he still not got that fixed, for pity’s sake? The more he tries, the harder it seems to find the right combination of twist and pressure. It’s impossible. He’s trapped in his own bloody kitchen! Still wrestling with the key, he lifts his foot to kick the door and then the lock turns—easy as that—as if the whole thing was just a joke to get a rise out of him. The neighbourhood is still quiet but he advances across the patio like a man squaring up to a boozy high street. Cold air crunches into his chest. The morning light is tinged with purple
The perfect lawn winks at him.
Clunking sounds. Muffled voices. He turns and there’s no one there. The rhododendrons rustle. Or is that the sweep of broom?
He crouches to get closer to the ground and carefully lowers himself down onto his hands and knees. It’s an unusual position for his body—more used to desks and armchairs—and he feels tension in his legs and weight across his back. Underneath, something shifts, like one of those tussocks up on the moors that wobble when you put a boot on it. He runs his hands over the ground, pushing and searching for a way in, but everything just feels cold and hard again, unwilling to open up. He doesn’t notice the dirt grinding itself into his dry-cleaned white shirt as he leans down further and presses his cheek to the grass, listening.
‘Hello? Is someone down there?’
Then he feels a jolt in his elbow and up through his shoulders, like the ground has moved again. Still the surface feels solid. Wriggling his fingers, Brian finds a piece of turf to grip onto and manages to pull away a small strip. It’s not easy but he gets a bit of purchase on another chunk. After gouging out that piece he finds a rhythm and is soon pulling up handfuls of earth. Ignoring tremors in his knees, he bends to his work, as though deep down he is still his younger self on the beach at Filey, burrowing with all his heart for Australia. Hot breaths push out of his lungs. Could that be light shining up from deep underground? He keeps digging and digging, further and further, until a crack appears and the beam of a head torch swings directly into his eyes. He stops, eyelids quivering, trying to keep sight lines open, and then—
Brian peers down, trying to make out shapes and movement, but the blinding shaft of light only makes everything else around it darker.
Oh yes. I’m glad you popped by. Your Grandpa and I were just talking about you.
‘Grandpa’s down there too?’
Yes love. Just his normal self. Well, normal for now anyway.
A wheezy chuckle echoes around, as if through caverns.
So d’you want to come down and help me with this puzzle? Only I think I’ve gone and lost a corner piece down in a crevice somewhere. And you’ll be wanting tea won’t you? I’m afraid we don’t have any of that fancy coffee of yours.
Alright dear! I’m just talking to our Brian.
He hears a wrenching, guttural sound.
Hurrghh. Brian is it? Let’s have a look at you then.
Brian’s pupils have shrunk to needle points but they still can’t keep out enough light.
No, that’s no good. Straighten yourself up there lad. You’re better than this.
Arthur! Don’t mind him Brian. He’s not well and he doesn’t much like it above-ground these days.
Somewhere in the darkness, Brianbrushes against the vague grey shape of his Mum, sitting rigid among her pills on the settee while his Grandma and Grandpa arrived with road maps and picnic paraphernalia, chivvying Brian to find his anorak. Mum would flinch when they flung back the curtains. Brian didn’t remember her ever waving goodbye at the door.
Someone’s got to give the poor lad a chance!
His Grandparents made a point of taking him off to historical sights: Hadrian’s Wall, Holy Island, York Minster. On these trips, he forgot about home and he discovered that you found history by digging. Artefacts. He’d learned that word from his Grandpa. He’d had to learn a new word every trip and practise times tables in the car before the bag of sweets came out. Artefacts. Cold hard facts in the ground.
Brian had taken his son Jamie to York Minster not long after Grandpa’s funeral. There was an exhibition on about the excavation of the Crypt, about the different layers the archaeologists had found there: Medieval, Norman, Saxon, Roman. People leaving their marks, making the place important. Jamie had been running down the stone passageways and making echoing spat spat spat sounds with his feet. It had stung Brian to suspect that his son was bored. An afternoon in front of the flat screen would probably have worked better. Brian could never find his Grandpa’s way of making the past seem urgent or interesting. Now, with his face pressed against the damp earth of his back lawn, Brian remembers how he’d stood still in the belly of the Minster, feeling the future pushing down on him and the past rising up from below. Jamie scampering away from him, a resurfacing childhood wish that his Mum could have been there... Brian had felt something in the damp dark of that place but couldn’t find the words to give to Jamie. He’d checked his watch. Time running away with itself again. The lad needed to be dropped off back with Julie in an hour and a half.
Come on Jamie, let’s go and get you some pop and crisps for the drive home.
Jamie had perked up, Brian remembered, as the car had propelled them through the Vale of York, round Leeds, and down onto the M1 back to Sheffield. He’d flicked the child lock off so Jamie could get out before walking him across the concrete. Then he’d waited at the base of the dark stairwell, listening to his son’s footsteps clanging, until a light cracked at the door of Julie’s flat. That light had shone in his eyes all the way home.
Coming home after that day, 25 Castleton Road had felt like an empty shell. After this morning’s letter, it’s now bursting at the seams, crammed full of life savings, trophy purchases, and plans for the future. Something to pass onto Jamie, even if he couldn’t live there now. Brian finds himself scrunching the hard earth with his hands. This is his land, his little piece of being taken seriously. He remembers the first time he stood in the garden, not as a visiting grandson but as a home owner: someone who had finally grown up and taken a chunk out of the adult world. An Englishman’s home is his Castleton Road! his Grandpa used to say, when he still had enough puff to chase Brian round his garden, clattering with broomstick guns behind deck chair barricades. Back then, who could have known how it would all end up? That Grandpa would be left defending his keep against the besieging bank, waiting for his compensation money, and no one else finding out until it was nearly too late.
Dirt presses into the tender skin beneath Brian’s fingernails and he closes his eyes to savour the pain. He’s fought for this house too.
There was that awful row at the funeral, when it all came out. No, Grandma didn’t know if the pay-out was due, and no, it might not be enough to save the house. And that’s right, his Mum never cared so long as the handouts kept coming. Brian remembers grabbing a pork pie from the buffet table and then storming out towards the rainy carpark.
You’ve all been burying your heads in the sand!
A few weeks later, Grandma had accepted Brian’s money quietly.
Aknight in a fancy suit with a trusty cheque book. That was what his Mum called him at the time. He tries to see her now, turning back in the doorway of 25 Castleton Road one last time, but the light is behind her and he can’t make out her features. How she would cackle if she knew the house was crumbling from under him. But this morning, with the damp bleeding into his clothes and a taste of soil in his mouth, he sees his offer for what it was, as she must have seen it then: a land grab.
And of course he’d seen that Julie and her lawyers never got their hands on the place either. But at what cost? Brian feels cracks everywhere, forming and transforming themselves with every inward and outward breath. It was what Grandma and Grandpa wanted, he tells himself again. Was it though? He can barely bring himself to ask, but something is erupting:
Alone for the first time in forty three years. I was never going to last long without your Grandpa. In that house on my own, I understood more about your Mum, I think. Spending all that money she didn’t have. How maybe she couldn’t help herself. But Arthur and me, we’d already talked about it and, if we could, we wanted to leave something for you to build on. A garden for Jamie to play in. Somewhere for your Mum to come back and stay if she needed to.
Aye and there’s been so much building. To think of all that money pouring in round here. You’ve done well for yourself, lad. You haven’t got left behind.
‘But what should I do now?’
There is nothing.
Brian listens, but there are no more voices and he is alone. Light sinks down onto him, onto everything: the flowerbeds, the garden furniture,the big fence,a deflated red football of Jamie’s nestling under the rhododendron bush.
And then he is suddenly very small, crouching in a tiny ball of space inside that same bush, right by the trunk. His bare legs are being stroked by the waxy leaves and he is enjoying the mulchy perfume of the flowers, which are just turning brown at the edges. He has been hiding out for weeks he thinks.
Now there are hands exploring a gap in the leaves, fingers with chipped purple nail varnish, followed by the face of his mother, red and puffy but unlined. She was so very young. It becomes clear to him how the corners of her green eyes and her mouth turned naturally downwards, sloping off the sides of her face. It was as if smiling for her entailed a fight against the forces of gravity. But the face appearing through the rhododendron leaves is lifting itself into a grin:
He listens for more, lying on his back now, palms flat against the dewy grass. Harder and harder he listens—searching splotches of memory for a bedroom, a face, a feeling—but there is nothing certain. He is being called away by the sounds of children shouting as they head for the school bus, by the hum of cars pulling out of driveways, their stereos pulsing with breakfast radio beats. A curtain is being drawn back. All down the street, houses are giving up their occupiers to the working world, which gathers them in. He sits up and then goes back inside. The coffee grounds need cleaning out, and there are many other things to be done.
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