Jack Darkins sits in the front seat of his Ford Focus trying to concentrate, his eyes raw from exhaustion and his tongue parched despite the tasteless chewing gum stirring in his mouth. He’s parked the car far enough up the road not to be seen, but close enough to see, and he grips the electronic cigarette tight between his fingers.
What he really wants is a real cigarette. He wants to feel the burn pass through his throat and down into his lungs. He wants to see the smoke escape his parted lips and encircle him in the scented smoke of B & H Gold, the cigarettes his father used to smoke before he disappeared.
He can remember the last day he saw him in the airless basement of their rented flat, a temporary accommodation advocated by the lawyers, the law itself in question. It was the only solution, they advised, telephones disconnected and blinds drawn, detox initiated and cold sweats and cramps disabling the rage of asphyxiation.
When reports of the ‘Crack-head Composer’ first surfaced he was shielded from the details, protected from the news which set up camp outside the house and fought to reveal the exclusive nature of his decline. He was only eight years old, but he remembers the shuffling maids as they disposed of drained syringes and singed metal spoons, carefully eradicating the evidence of addiction.
In the weeks that followed he was taken from his father, adopted, and eventually left an orphan. He was given a new name, a new family, and new bruises and abuse. Eventually the world lost interest in a damaged man and his infected music, a reputation ruined, his legacy destroyed by savages and sickness. Everything was gone and all moved on, everyone but Jack, the final treatment fixed within his fist; a .40 calibre prescription long since overdue.
Confirming the coast is clear he steps out of the car and moves, head down and collar up, shadows shifting on the concrete slabs ahead. He reaches the door and examines the locks. They are aged and worn and offer little resistance to his acquired skills, practiced for such exact intent, a pupil firmly focused, slow, precise, and perfect. He listens from within, hinges settled once again, locks and latches sealed, the boy a man, and angry.
The hall is wide and chaotic, unopened mail and sealed magazines strewn across the floor, shoes scattered along the flaking skirting boards, hats and scarves hanging from a cluttered coat rack, a solitary umbrella leaning in the corner. To the side of the stairs is an open door and he removes the pistol and inches towards it, careful of the creaking floorboards. The air is thick and oppressive, the musk of cat-piss festering around him. Peering around the door frame he grips the gun, his finger hovering above the trigger.
Stepping into the room he examines his surroundings; the furniture regal yet close to ruin, Chesterfield sofas ripped and worn, dark mahogany cabinets overflowing with books and long forgotten souvenirs, a bureau brimming with disjointed files, the walls covered with crooked empty frames, the floor on which he walks barely visible beneath layers of sunburnt newspapers. Even the ceiling is stained and yellow, white pigments long since altered and overcome.
The dining room is exactly the same; the table and chairs concealed by stacks of paper and tomes of periodicals, dirty plates and upturned mugs spread among the chaos, crumpled clothes suffocating in every corner. Walking towards the patio doors his foot catches something hidden beneath a pile of newspapers and he picks up a broken walking stick, aims his gun, and lifts the edge of the paper. Instantly a vile smell invades the air and he winces and covers his nose with the back of his hand, the paper falling back down on to the decomposing corpse of a cat. He holds on to the walking stick and backs away, the maggots and worms engraved on his eyeballs, demise and decay already in action.
The kitchen is littered with empty tins of food and punctured packets of ready meals and discarded take away containers. Milk bottles and cardboard cartons lay crushed amid the drained bottles of inexpensive wine and whiskey, dirty dishes and grimy pots and pans overflowing from the filthy sink. He decides not to enter and examines from a distance; an abandoned litter tray overflowing in the corner, coagulated faeces and bile festooned with flies and insects, wrappers and bags and broken glass scattered across the floor, a myriad of mice entombed in traps, the house itself a shrine to time.
The guts of the ground floor confirm the existence of only one inhabitant, the man he’s monitored for the past six months, alone and abandoned, upstairs. He turns and walks towards the hallway, feet carefully carrying him to the bottom of the stairs, a piano playing in one of the rooms above. With his back against the wall he ascends the staircase, cautiously climbing one step at a time, his jaw tense and muscles tight.
He pauses several steps from the summit and cranes his neck to look between the bannisters; three separate doors leading away from the empty landing. He knows from the floor plan that the door to his left is the bathroom and the remaining two are bedrooms, the one to his right the source of the current spring of music.
There it is. Years of exhaustive investigation leading him to this street, this house, this room. All the miles of trampled asphalt, sleepless nights and surveillance, dead ends and dead people, all about to end, one way or another. He thinks back to the day he lost his dad, that day unlike today, his to regulate and transform. Today, he will have control. He will make the choice; death or life, decide.
Moving across the landing he glimpses a shape within the room, a shadow cast onto countless sheets of music strewn across the floor. He waits, inhales, and enters. The room is empty bar a grand piano positioned in the centre and a hunched figure sat before it; long grey-streaked hair cascading down his back, his clothes ill-fitting and loose atop his hunched and crooked back, hands and fingers dancing across the keys. He inches closer, lifts his arm, and points the gun. The music stops.
Without turning the man picks up a pencil and scribbles furiously on the crumpled sheet before him, flickers of graphite leading the composition along the lines and filling those beneath, dashes and dots and swirls of instruction flowing down the page, down and down and down until the final set of words: ‘The End.’ He stares at the sheet, rain smashing against the window, a leak somewhere up above echoing in the distance, the gun now pressed against his head. Gathering the scattered staff paper he forms a pile and places it on the stand, the title page empty bar a grainy photo of a baby, crying. He turns the first page and begins to play the piano, his hands moving sinuously across the keys, fingers gently ushering tender secrets into life, flesh and bone bewitched. He pushes his head against the barrel of the gun and their fingers work in unison, hammers striking, notes uniting, the tutti tamed at last.
Photo by Tomek Dzido
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