So this is my response to the first writing exercise. Like a terrible human I haven’t finished it or even stuck to the parameters of my own task as I haven’t managed to steer the story round to the second sentence (The boat drifted gently out to sea).
I challenged myself with this one to keep it simple as far as word choices go. Also, I’m currently in an argument with my four year old daughter about how to make a paper aeroplane so I’ll keep this intro simple too.
On the other side of the door the whispering had stopped. At this point Eugene usually waited a few minutes before leaving the room. Brian had advised him to do this on the day they had met, told him how disastrous it would be to come out too early. Once, when Eugene was six, he’d seen the family cat perish under the wheels of a white van, its last cry a sort of mangled scream, eerily human. It had stayed with him for weeks and years, that sight and that sound. Brian had known this, of course, and had warned him that what he saw if he left the room early would make Tuppence’s death seem mildly pleasant by comparison.
“Just sit tight for a couple of minutes after the whispering stops, then you can come out,” Brian had said as they sat opposite each other on Eugene’s mother’s floral three piece. “Then you can just get on with your day.” Brian had sat back, arms across the back of the sofa, left ankle on right knee, beaming a window salesman’s grin. He wore a green tracksuit and a red snapback and, though Eugene assumed Brian could take any form he wished, it was this form he always chose when they talked. Maybe he thought it made Eugene feel comfortable.
Eugene stood up and carefully slid the white wooden chair back against the wall. It was the only piece of furniture in the room; Brian had made him clear it out on day two, four days before They first came. “Paint it white,” Brian had said, tipping back his cap and casting his eye over the walls and ceiling and floor. “Can’t have any distractions for you in here.”
“Why not?” Eugene had asked. It was one of the few questions he’d had.
“Puts Them off,” Brian replied. “They’re using you as a Conduit; they don’t want you thinking about a pot plant and ballsing the whole thing up.” Brian nodded as though he understood. Then he went to B and Q in his Fiat 500 (the last journey he would ever take in it), bought some white emulsion, came back and set about painting the room. Brian stood watching, pointing out patches he’d missed, advising a second coat on the walls and a third on the floor.
Eugene stood still for a moment to make sure he had his equilibrium, then walked across the white floor to the white door and pulled down the white handle.
As always, the first thing that hit him was the faint scent of flowers and extinguished matches. It reminded him of when his mother was still alive, when this was the family home not just his, and she filled it with oil-burning pots and incense sticks and even plug-in air fresheners before someone advised her of the hell they play with your sinuses. It had taken five or six years for the real smell of the place to fight back against the floral onslaught: damp wood and stone; dust in places no deep clean probing had ever reached. Then They had come and brought back this familiar but more subtle, earthier scent.
“How did it go?” Eugene asked.
“Fine,” Brian replied matter-of-factly. He was in his usual place on the sofa and cradled a cup of tea in one of Eugene’s mother’s blue and white china cups. “Tea?”
“Sure,” said Eugene. Brian went into the kitchen and Eugene sat in the armchair, picked up the remote control and flicked idly through the channels. He was a tall, thin man with a pinched face, a broad forehead and thinning red hair. His eyes were pale and glassy and flitted left and right, in search of nothing in particular. Despite his slender frame his t shirt clung to his body, frayed at the hem, yellowed at the armpits.
“I’m supposed to tell you They’re impressed with you, mate!” Brian called out. “I mean, They ARE impressed with you, and They wanted to make sure I said. Your efforts are appreciated.”
“I don’t know if ‘efforts’ is the right word, Brian,” Eugene said. “I just sit there.” There was no emotion in his response. It was merely an observation.
“You’d be surprised,” said Brian, leaning against the kitchen doorway, dunking a teabag. “Some people just can’t…cope… Your mind is perfect for it. No…thoughts getting in the way. No offence.”
“No, no.” Eugene waved a vague hand.
After a minute or two Brian returned to his spot on the sofa, sinking down into a divot perfectly fitting his buttocks and thighs.
“Anyone special in today?” Eugene asked. “I know you can’t say too much.”
“Oh, the usual, really. Mainly Level 4s from both Sides. Bigwig from Downstairs popped along towards the end – some issue with a borderline case. I honestly don’t pay too much attention to stuff above my paygrade,” he yawned. “Once I’ve taken care of the Conduit,” he gestured towards Eugene, “and got Them all here I’m just happy to drink my tea and take it easy.”
Eugene looked at Brian and felt something like jealousy. Here was a man, or…whatever, who was content in his job. Eugene had never been able to say that. He’d had a hundred jobs: from manning a desk at the local council, fending off homeless families to driving round in van delivering meats he suspected were not as halal as his employer claimed. The problem, he had started to realise, was that there WAS no job for him. He figured that’s why he let Brian into his house without any resistance, did as he was told, sat in the blank room every few days to facilitate the Conferences. Finally his lack of ambition and imagination was a positive.
“You’re absolutely right, my friend,” Brian said, grinning. “And don’t be ashamed to think it.”
No matter how many times it happened, Eugene couldn’t get used to the mind reading. Or whatever Brian wanted to call it. The way Brian described it there was no ‘reading’ to be done. Everyone’s minds, he said, were part of the same eternal everythingness, and he was just plugged into it.
“You know the other thing you’ve got going for you in this line of work?” Brian asked, finishing the tea and placing the cup on one of Eugene’s mother’s horse-themed placemats. “Never once have you asked yourself whether this all might just be going on in your mind.”
Eugene considered this. Brian was right, he had never considered that. He considered considering it now. What was to be gained? If this was a figment of his imagination could he make it stop? He doubted that. And they key question was: did he want to make it stop?
“People do that?” Eugene asked.
“All the time!” Brian replied, gesticulating with both hands. “They shout it at me! ‘You’re not real! I shouldn’t have taken so much of that shit last night!’” He chuckled and acted the part of one of these reality-deniers, clamping his hands over his ears and squeezing his eyes shut. “Funny when you think about it. Humans do have an extraordinary talent for believing only what they want to believe. Present company accepted.”
“Never had much time for belief,” Eugene said. “When mother died people told me she’d gone to a better place. But that just seemed silly.” He looked up at Brian. “Believing it blindly, I mean. Obviously it doesn’t seem silly anymore.”
“Oh, but it is silly, mate, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Just because its true doesn’t change that. I know barely more than you at my level but I’m telling you, even the Man Himself is making it all up as he goes along.”
“Will I see her when I die?” Eugene asked. Brian gave him a look that was somewhere between pity and admonishment.
“You’re better not asking those sorts of questions, pal,” he replied. “Not sure you’d like any of the answers.”
Eugene nodded slowly and the flame of something like a feeling flared for a brief moment in the pit of his stomach.
“Time to call it a day, mate,” Brian said cheerily, slapping his thighs and rising to his feet. “You get your head down and I’ll see you in a few days.”
Eugene usually drifted easily into a dreamless slumber but tonight he lay awake. He slept in the box room, hadn’t moved into mother’s big double room at the front of the house after her death. He’d barely gone in there for the first thirty years of his life and he saw no reason to now. His room was familiar and he liked how the walls were always almost close enough to touch.
He stared at the perfectly circular blue spot he’d made on the ceiling with a dart gun and some poster paint as an eight year old. Some nights he had the idea it was getting bigger and he had taken to measuring it every evening before bed. Tonight it was seventeen millimetres, the same as it had always been. But Eugene wasn’t sure he trusted the ruler.
He stared up at the spot and imagined it getting bigger and bigger and lifting him out of bed and pulling him in. Up there everything would be poster paint blue and you’d sit in circles and drink blue milk all day.
A noise disturbed Eugene from his thoughts. It was the kettle. Mother had talked about replacing it for weeks before she died because of the violence of its action, rocking back and forth on the element before clicking and slowly coming to rest like a tranquilised animal.
Eugene stepped out of bed and made his way downstairs. At the bottom he realised he hadn’t picked up anything heavy as a weapon and he wasted thirty seconds standing there imagining what he might’ve chosen had he remembered.
It was ok in any case because, when he came to the doorway of the kitchen and looked inside it was just his mother who stood there, pouring steaming water from the kettle into her favourite cup. She wore the nightdress she’d stayed in for the last few days of her life, and her cerise dressing gown with the cat sewn onto a superfluous breast pocket. She smelled of violets and burnt toast. She turned and looked at Eugene then gestured for him to take a seat at the table. He did so and she sat opposite him, her grey hands around the steaming cup.
They sat for a minute or two, then Eugene reached across the table and poked the fleshless top of her left hand. When she spoke it was in her familiar soft Kilkenny brogue.
“What the fuck is the matter with you, son?”
Eugene recoiled. “I-I was just seeing if you were…”
Mother brushed the spot on her hand he had touched. “Not that. What are you doing with this ee-jut Brian?”
“Honest to God, Eugene Bannon, you’re as useless as when I was alive. He’s got you stuck in the house doing as you’re told and you’re just sitting there!”
Eugene looked at his mother’s face: the pale eyes, the thin nose, the slight quiver of the bottom lip. “Are you…are you really here?” he asked.
“Don’t change the subject, ye little bastard!” she snapped. “I’m trying to help ye, as usual!”
“H-help me do what?” Eugene asked.
“Help ye be a man! Help ye grow up, for fuck sake! Do you realise what a pain in the arse y’always were? Do ye? Thirty fucking years old and still in the box room!”
It was definitely her. She’d come back and picked up right where she left off.
“Listen, mother,” Eugene said, trying to put some assertiveness in his voice, “You have no idea what’s going on with Brian. What I’m involved with. It’s important work.”
“Oh, is it now?” she replied mockingly. “And how do ye know that? Because of what he tells ye? Because of a few whispers behind a door? You’re so….”
She sat back in her chair as though exhausted. Her tone softened. “Didn’t y’ever ask him any questions about any of it? Why could you never…wake up? Take charge of your life?”
Eugene stared blankly at the table, followed one of the whorls of the wood to its termination and back again. He thought of being sucked into the blue. A tear came to his eye and dropped onto the table.
“My boy,” Mother said. She reached across and touched the top of Eugene’s hand. Her fingers were hard and cold. “You know what you have to do, don’t ye?”
Eugene looked up and their pale eyes met. Mother wiped away the tear trail with a stone finger. “Ye have to open the door, son.”
Brian sat in his usual spot on the sofa. Another Conference had taken place and Eugene had submitted to it with his usual quiet.
Brian finished the last of his tea, scooped up a Sainsbury’s bag from the sofa and made his way to the door. Eugene watched him go. He caught a waft of flowers and tea.
“Why do you use the door?” Eugene asked.
“Sorry, what, mate?”
“I was just wondering why you use the door. If you’re…whatever…Can’t you just, you know…” He made a playground explosion noise and indicated Brian’s disappearance into thin air with his fingers.
Brian turned to face Eugene and his expression was blank for a split second before he furrowed his brow theatrically and scratched his chin. “Well, I could, you know…” he mimicked Eugene’s gesture, “but it takes quite a lot of energy. I told you I’m not Beelzebub’s right hand man; I don’t exactly possess an embarrassment of maledictory mojo, you know?”
Eugene nodded vigorously, but something had taken hold in his mind and it seemed to command his tongue before he could stop it. “So you, what, get the bus back?”
Brian scrunched his bag in his hands, squeezing whatever was inside through the orange plastic. “Lot of questions today, Eugene. You feeling yourself?” The smile quivered on his lips.
“I’m…good, really. I just…wondered, that’s all.”
“Play to your strengths,” Brian said, stepping closer and staring Eugene straight in the eyes. “Wondering never got you very far before you met me, did it? Why start now?”
“So…you don’t get the bus?” Eugene gulped.
Brian was inches from him now. His breath was hot and flowery. “Of course I do not, Eugene, old pal. I walk to a piece of consecrated ground a few roads over. It’s a portal and it takes less energy to use. Does that satisfy you? Shall I draw you a map?”
Something was happening to Brian’s face as he spoke. It was getting redder and the edges seemed to sharpen.
“Sorry, Brian, I was just…”
“Wondering,” Brian finished. “Have a little think about that for tomorrow, would you? You know your job and you’re good at it. Don’t get any ideas beyond that; it won’t help. Trust me.”
His fingers tightened on the bag for a moment, then he turned and was gone.
Eugene slumped back onto the sofa, breathing heavily. He picked up one of mother’s coasters from the table and turned it in his hands.