“They Were Here” by Alan Bradley

He was woken at four by what must have been a cough, or maybe the sound of a foot on gravel. He sat bolt upright for a while in his bed, listening wide-eyed in the darkness. He waited for the sounds outside to subside, and then he moved quietly through the darkened house. First he went to the back kitchen, where he reached into a corner and plucked out a shotgun. It had been resting into the wall alongside black pipes and old sticks and in the daytime went entirely unnoticed by visiting neighbours. He then went to the press under the sink, retrieving two red cartridges from a box, hoping that the damp of the cardboard had not worked its way through to the shells. He gently slipped one cartridge into the gun’s barrel and placed the other in the breast pocket of his pyjamas. Then he shuffled to his fireside.

When he sat, he rested the length of the gun across the arms of the chair and planted his elbows on it, as if it were some kind of geriatric aid. Then he watched. He watched the white marks of his own bare feet fade across the blue floor tile. He watched the last embers die in the grate of his range, and he studied with square intent the window in front of him. Who ever had made the sound outside was gone now, but he was certain of their return. The view through the window threw up no surprises. One corner pane showed him the hunched and breathing silhouette of a cat returning to sleep. The other suspended the black shape of a rectangular sticker. Even in the daylight this sticker could not be read, the letters which once spelt out “Neighbourhood Watch” long faded into illegible grey.

He sat and he waited, and the room waited with him. His dresser, his table and his wall cabinets were all approaching 90 years of age by his reckoning. He often wondered if there was any timber left under decades worth of red paint. These spaces held the ephemera of his life; old postcards from Canada, electricity bills, yellowed match programmes, almanacs…a pioneer pin he wore just to appease his mother. He had pricked his finger once fishing it out of a pint glass.

When he was 16 his older sister had fallen pregnant to the son of a neighbour three houses down the road. When the truth emerged one November night, the family erupted around their fireside. In the midst of the uproar, no one saw him slip out the back door, barefoot and holding only a box of matches. He walked the mile and a half to the boy’s house across ditches, gravel roads and fields dew-slick and glistening in the moonlight. He set that family’s barn on fire and then stood and watched it go up, feeling the heat and the wet cut of grass between his toes. The resulting bout of pneumonia caused him to shake and sweat violently on the stand in court. Many neighbours believed he got a lenient sentence because of this. Memories such as these chose now as the time to march back into his skull; they heavied his head and his eyelids began to droop.

But he stayed alert because it was only a matter of waiting for them to come back, and then he’d give them what-for. The curt stock of the gun pressed beneath his elbow and steeled him in his convictions. He had read about the men, old men, bound and gagged and killed for no more than forty of fifty pounds hidden in a tea-caddy. A woman out west somewhere bleeding to death in her own bed. They would be young people with hot tempers and hot tongues…what could he do? He’d be well within his rights, they shouldn’t be thought of in normal terms…no more than fox or fowl really (the last time he used the gun he had winged a pheasant…that could have been six months ago, or two years). They were away now, meeting in a car somewhere, three or four of them. He didn’t worry, he was ready for them, his round mouth yawned.

The kitchen clock ticked a half-second behind the one on his bedside table; turning time to a stilted thing…the sound of the small hands became the sound of reluctant little armies marching. All the doors in the house sat open. He was aware of everything in the half-light, sitting where it should be. Legs of tables, legs of chairs; they may as well have been bolted to the floor. Move them and the house might fall apart. Suddenly he was aware of a face looming out of a corner; bearded, blue-eyed and long haired…Our Lord and Saviour with his little light gone out. He had forgotten to change the devotional bulb, and as a result forgot about Christ himself. After jail he wasted six months thinking about a girl he never had the wherewithal to speak to. He would lie in his bed at night growing increasingly frustrated as he tried to remember the outline of her face. He thought about her when his mother served up dinner, still angry as he couldn’t conjure up her eyes, or the shape of her lips. And through the steam rising from his plate, Jesus would taunt him from the wall…the face no one ever forgot. In his mind God’s face supplanted hers, and melded with it, so that when she did swing into focus from some dreamy recess, she would immediately be replaced a slight looking man in a blonde beard. If her image did remain intact, she would have an eerie red light glowing under her chin. Changing that little bulb was never his top priority.

He would have to move now, if only to stave off sleep. Walking proved no mean feat. On nights such as these he still felt the effect of that unthinking trek across the countryside at sixteen; memory in the form of joint pain and muscle wear. He opened his front door to find himself in that calm space between day and night. Everything seemed to glow blue, and frost lay all over his barren garden. The gun’s barrel bobbed black against his leg, shifting its weight back and forth in the crook of his arm. No sign of any considerable disturbance…they must have been very careful. Nothing in or around the house moved without making the sounds of age now, he would hear the little garden gate creak if opened, and beyond that the yard gate. It was long and meshed in ivy and always swung heavy, crashing into the laurels. The year it was hung was the same year his father carried a cot into the yard and took a hatchet to it for firewood while his mother cried; slumped across the kitchen table.

The cat on the windowsill yawned, and stared at him, seemed to be telling him to get back to bed. She lit down to the ground daintily, and perused the small area between the front door and the garden wall. He should have gotten a dog really…something mean. He could hear a car now on the road. At first he thought it was a good distance away, but then he could see lights through the trees. He swung the guns barrel upwards. He placed a black-nailed finger on the trigger. The car sped past. A neighbour heading to work an early shift. There was a time he knew every car which passed his road; make, model, colour and number. Now he only recognised a select few; older men who could not bring themselves to part with clean little numbers which were easy on petrol.

Horrible things happen on fine nights he thought. Even bad bastards don’t like coming out in the rain. The Plough and all the other stars whose names he couldn’t remember shone out still, despite dawn’s fast approach. Birds began to sing, a cow somewhere lowed. He turned back and locked the door. He laid the gun across the kitchen table and leaned over it, like some impassioned orator. A fit of coughing took him. Then he stood there for a good two minutes breathing through his nose and thinking, staring at the kitchen table, at a loaded gun surrounded by crumbs and opened letters.

No one would speak to him when he’d done his time, so he took to hanging around with a loner called James Devery. James was the seventh son of a seventh son so people expected him to be able to cure toothaches or divine water or something. James could do none of this. But he believed in James because when ever he touched a bottle of lemonade it went flat, and strange dogs would follow him over long distances, this was enough for him. It wasn’t a great friendship, not much talking was done, but each of them seemed comfortable with the others oddness. Bullies were drawn to them, and it was the only time either young man felt popular. He’d lost count of the amount of times he’d defended James in rushed, awkward brawls behind pubs, or on midnight walks toward home. Some malignant young man would take it upon himself to attack the jailbird and the quack –without- a- cure, just for the sake of it…because these tags would justify hatred. James’ was the one face he wanted to forget but couldn’t, it still looked up at him from the ground; pummelled, bloody and asking for help.

The emptiness brought it back more than anything else. It’s far easier to ignore someone when they’re sitting beside you. There were too many empty spaces in his life, where people should have been sitting but weren’t. The house was once a family house and it retained all the trappings…surplus rooms which served no purpose now, too many chairs, the cat was even of the same bloodline as the one his sister and mother laid claim to sixty odd years ago. And some stranger was going to try and desecrate it now, after he had suffered through it all. It wasn’t theirs for taking. He would make them suffer in this house as he had. If it was only money they were after he could understand, but he was convinced they were out to hurt him, for no reason, or maybe for a reason he would like to forget. The length between the table and the chair proved huge. He found it hard to walk; he shook with cold and violence and fear. The limbo between sitting and standing caused him pain, and he had to cling to the arms of the chair for dear life. The gun rested on the floor. It had grown heavier with every passing second. He finally got to sit again and saw the anticipated altercation play out in his mind. If they came he’d hear the gate surely. He’d hear the car engine, and the silence after it was turned off would be the signal. Where would he wait? Against the wall or in his own room? He’d wait for the door to open; he saw the lock bursting away easily from old timber…a hail of splinters. He might see a hood or a cap and that would be it. He just wouldn’t give them a chance, why should he? To hell with the consequences…he was an old man with nothing to lose but bad memories. There’d be problems if there was more than one of them, but that didn’t matter now, he’d make his point either way.

Anger, anticipation and the whole heady mix was too much for his consciousness. His head was a dead weight now. The Sacred Heart was flickering in new sunlight… no; his eyelids couldn’t stay open. On either arm of the chair he could feel his thumb and his fingers touch. The shine from the waiting cartridge in his breast pocket moved up to meet his drooping line of vision. He finally gave into sleep with an outstretch of his legs. The cat stretched in the window, and out on the road she could see a car through the ivy-mesh of his gate.

Biographical Note:
Alan lives is County Westmeath and holds a degree in English, Media and Cultural studies.

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