Sunday, 11 March 2012

Come Inside

He first saw the hands when he crossed the iron bridge over the river. The whole arch of the bridge had been wrapped in sheets of white plastic for months, while it was repainted. Barker thought that it looked like a giant piece of modern art, or maybe an over-sized wedding present.

It was late November, and dark by four o’clock. He was on his way to a meeting on the company’s riverside site and had decided to walk as part of his strategy for losing weight and becoming fit enough to do other things that he had not yet decided upon. The wind stole in from the sea along the black river  and tugged at Barker as he trudged along the footpath. There were a couple of women walking in front of him, and there was no room for him to get past so he had to reduce his pace and walk behind them. This made him feel uncomfortable, as if any minute they were about to turn around and look at him as if he were stalking them.

To solve his dilemma he took a great interest in the bridge, even though all that there was to see were great white sheets of plastic, flapping and rattling in the breeze, the name of the contracting company printed on them in blurry blue letters. Every now and then the end of a scaffolding pole jutted out, and high up a frayed blue nylon rope had come adrift, and danced about in the window like a snake chasing its prey, first this way, then that. High up, from the top of the bridge, a pale white arm waved down at Barker.

A torn piece of plastic, he thought, or another loose rope. It did look very much like an arm though, waving at him with a sense of purpose, not a greeting but an urgent beckoning. He laughed to himself, feeling foolish, and immediately choked the laugh off in case the women heard him. When the pavement opened out at the end of the bridge Barker scuttled past the women and kept up his faster pace until he was well beyond them. He wanted to look back at the bridge again, to see if the flapping plastic on the top still looked like an arm from this new angle, but he did not want to be stupid so he just walked on until he reached the pedestrian crossing, and by that time he was too far away to see.

The meeting meandered on in an over-hot room, and Barker felt the beginnings of a headache. He contributed once or twice to show that he knew his stuff, and then sat back in his chair, and drifted. He thought about someone trapped on the top of the bridge, unable to move, pinned by fallen scaffolding, voice snatched away by the wind, able to do nothing other than wave desperately, up here, look up here, come up here, help me. Perhaps later that night the arm would stop waving and simply hang limply, above the world, unseen by everyone who passed. It wasn’t the arm of one of the workmen who had been painting the bridge though -  it wasn’t an arm at all, Barker reminded himself – it was too thin, too pale.

The meeting finished well after six, and Barker was tired and hungry, so he caught the bus back into town, bought a fried chicken takeaway to bring home, and ate most of it before he got to his front door. On the bus he had looked idly up at the bridge but it was raining, and the windows were a mosaic of water and dirt. He could not see anything much, and then they were into the long white tunnel inside the bridge.

That night he woke, tangled in his blankets, from a dream of fingernails tapping on his window. He turned over and pulled the sheets around him, annoyed that he would be tired at work the next day because he hadn't bothered pruning the branches of the apple tree. It was when he woke again an hour later, this time for no reason, that he remembered that he had cut the tree back only a month before. He threw back his blankets to go and look, then thought to himself that it was stupid, he would sort it out in the morning. But he knew that it was one of those thoughts like had he left the heating on, had he locked the door, had he left the tap running in the bath, and he would not be able to get back to sleep if he ignored it. Barker stumbled out of bed, walked across to the window, and drew back the curtain. The branches of the apple tree shivered in the wind a foot or more away from the glass. There was a full moon, and the night sky was unnaturally bright, as if someone were training a searchlight upon it, marbled streaks of cloud racing from darkness into light and then into darkness again. Barker let the curtains drop and climbed back into bed where he slept fitfully until morning.

He walked to work the usual way, down through the tree-lined avenue of graceful Victorian houses, past the sprawling secondary school, along the street of decaying Victorian terraces now turned rented flats and student accommodation.  The path banked down low at the end of this street, and ran alongside the dual carriageway that was choked with cars as usual.  Halfway along the path, not long before he reached the dull slab of his office, a concrete underpass tunnelled beneath the wide road to reach the flats on the other side. As he walked past that morning he glanced to the side, as he always did. He disliked underpasses and subways, felt claustrophobic and nervous whenever he had to walk through them, always thought about muggers and gangs of truculent youth even though he had never been bothered by either. The underpass was the same as always. Cream painted concrete, covered in graffiti that would be painted over within a year and then back again within a week. Flickering fluorescent lights that gave the air a chill blue cast. An emptiness that was threatening, waiting, the way the world felt just before a storm breaks. And at the far end, where the light of day spilled down onto the bottom of the steps out, from round the corner, a pale arm waving.

Barker walked on, stopped, pretended to look in his pocket as if he had forgotten something. It gave him an excuse to look back along the path. No-one was there to witness him acting strangely. He walked back down towards the mouth of the underpass and then stopped again. This was foolish. He turned to walk away but is curiosity got the  better of him.

“Fuck it,” he muttered under his breath, and took two long strides and looked down the underpass. There was nothing at the other end. 

“See?” he said to himself. “Fucking waving. Fucking idiot.” He stomped off to work, and was in a bad mood all morning because despite whatever he might say to himself he had seen something there, waving. By lunchtime though he had managed to successful transfer the blame onto his sleepless night. As he passed the dark mouth of the underpass he pointedly stared straight ahead, refusing to look to the side, and almost walked straight into an elderly woman who had just come out of the tunnel. The shock made him jump, and even though he apologised he wanted to swear at her, tell her that she ought to look where she was going.  A double decker bus rattled past ten feet above them, sending a cloud of stinking diesel exhaust drifting down, and as it drove away into the night and he walked down the path in the same direction, something moved in the back window of the bus, and Barker looked away down at the wet pavement and did not look up again until he was home.

He dreamt again that night, and woke sweating and sick. But he couldn't remember what his dreams had been about. The next morning he had the same thing for breakfast he did every day, dressed in his usual clothes for work, and walked the same route. This time, he looked down the underpass. There was nothing, and then there was something, a pale wave. He wasn't so sure it was an arm any more, wasn't so sure that it ended in a hand, but it waved to him, a gentle beckoning. He thought about being late for work, about going to the doctors instead, but he turned into the underpass, knowing that he always was going to anyway. The pale arm waved once more and then withdrew.

Barker walked through the underpass, and the sound of the traffic above him dropped. The air felt very still, like just before a storm. He got to the end of the tunnel, and as he turned the corner, the arm came forward, and then another, and then another, and the arms took him and drew him deep inside. His last thought was of a sea anemone that he had seen in an aquarium as a child, graceful tentacles waving in the currents, waiting, waiting.

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