I was cleaning the attic when I heard the news, my arms covered in a sticky second skin of dust and cobwebs up to the elbows. From the hatch, I heard my wife’s feet padding against the carpet.
“Joe…” Her voice trailed up, wavering just slightly “… There’s a letter for you.”
“I’ll get it when I’m finished up here.” I wheezed, the dust playing havoc with my lungs.
There were two more pads as she started to walk away, then a pause as she thought better of it “It’s about your father.”
His name was Michael Castle. I hated him. The letter said they found him in his office, a cluttered garret that he rented from the spinster who lived below. Officially he was an accountant but there was nothing official about him. It’s always painful for a child to accept that their parent may not be “The good guy”, the eternal archetype. Unlike unfortunate others, my pain wasn’t physical. It was certainly mental though. When I first learned the difference between rich and poor, I assumed my family was the former. We dined at fine restaurants, threw extravagant parties, wanted for nothing. It wasn’t until I was older that I came to realise that what we had in abundance wasn’t money. What we had was money’s insidious and ugly bride, influence.
The street hadn’t changed. Rain-slicked cobbles and squat, cramped buildings that had been on the verge of collapsing for a century. I’d returned for the funeral, though I’d already said goodbye to the old man decades ago, and couldn’t resist the pull of the dreaded office where he’d lain dead for days before the spinster had found him. Her curtains fluttered as I passed the window. The creak of the stairs hadn’t changed. Each rickety step carried me further back into childhood, when the creaking unnerved me so that I would climb up the scaffolding on the other side rather than hear it. I looked down at that scaffolding when I reached the top and wondered how I ever managed to clamber up it. It was nothing more than fragile wooden boards, swollen and warped with rot. The desperate primate agility of youth seemed so far away yet the fear that inspired it was still ripe. As I reached for the door handle ridiculous visions of it reaching for me in turn came to mind. I scolded myself, but only after my fingers were firm around the handle. The office hadn’t changed. The room was packed on all sides with various cabinets, cupboards and crates, leaving no floor bare apart from a necessary path through to the great oakwood desk at the far end. The roof sloped downward as it neared the desk, as if everything in this little world culminated in the presence of my father when he sat at his station and presided over his kingdom.
Over time I began to notice the… artifice of it all. At the lavish parties my father threw, the guests grinned through gritted teeth and gripped their glasses tightly to hide shaking hands. Waiters and waitresses always seemed slightly too eager to please, their smiles never reaching their eyes. I asked my mother, bless her, about this and received puddle-deep platitudes. Having received plenty before, I’d learnt to spot them. Not too long after, my father invited me to his office for “a talk”. I’d never been before and the ramshackle garret shocked me, it was a world away from our cosy home and my parents expensive tastes. My father showed me in and slipped behind his desk. Only someone of his diminutive stature could’ve even fit in against the slope of the roof.
“What do you think I keep in all these containers, Joseph?” He asked, gesturing around.
I shrugged, the unfamiliar surroundings robbing me of my words.
He laughed, his familiar chuckle that was as warm and dry as the drought that we’d suffered from that summer. Despite all I’ve learned since, that laugh will forever be inextricably connected with innocent infant love.
“It’s favours, Joseph.” He said with a smile “All of it.”
Favours were Michael Castle’s bread and butter. Favours made his world go round. Everyone in town owed him a favour. His office was full to the brim with all the favours he’d done and all the favours he was owed. How I came to hate that word, that word that my life was seemingly built on.
As I stood in the untouched office, I expected my father to appear from behind a cabinet and step into the quintessentially English grey half-light that loped sluggishly into the room from the dusty window. I could hear the laugh followed by some kind of smirking gloat.
“Told you I’d get you back here.” Maybe he’d say.
“Not for long, old man.” Maybe I’d reply.
I crossed the floorboards to a large packing crate and opened the lid. There was nothing inside. Disappointed and not sure why, I let the lid fall back down with a dry thump that sent a fine cloud of dust up into the air.
“They took it all away.” Came a voice from the door.
I flinched and turned to see the spinster from downstairs, waiting at the door and tugging at the shawl around her shoulders “Who’s ‘they’?” I asked, my voice weaker than I wanted.
The old woman took small, deliberate steps through the doorway “I don’t know, my dear. They came in the night, woke me up with all their clattering about.”
I opened up the adjacent cupboard to see if she was right, it was just as empty as the crate.
“I’m sorry about your father.” The old woman said. She hadn’t changed. Grey had turned to white but that was it.
“How did you know he was my father?” I asked.
“You haven’t grown up that much, love.” She giggled, a laugh that spoke of the innocent beauty she must’ve shone with so many years ago “You were the spit of your father then and you’re the spit of him now.”
Her words sent feverish prickles along my skin. Of course I’d noticed the resemblance to my father as my hairline receded and my features settled into stone but it was never something I allowed my thoughts to linger on “Yes, well…” I said dismissively “… Thank you for the commiserations.”
“He wasn’t a good man.” She said, dry cracks emanating from her spine as she straightened it.
“No.” I was taken aback by her bluntness “No, he wasn’t.”
“Are you?” She asked with a knowing tilt of the head.
“I like to think so.” I stammered “I’m not… I’m not him.”
She smiled slightly “Apples and trees, dear, apples and trees.”
It was a fuggy early Autumn evening when I took my childhoods final trip to my father’s office. Since that initial visit, my father had made several brief stops there with me in tow. That was when I picked up my habit of climbing the scaffolding to the side, rather than treading up the steps. It amused the old man greatly, he would laugh and wait at the top for me to arrive with sore fingers and empty lungs. Picking his way through endless and interminable documents, I nevertheless felt his gaze on me at all times. There was a general atmosphere of analysis, of study. With hindsight, it’s obvious he was in the early stages of grooming me as a helper or even a replacement. The thought of it occasionally wakes me at night, skin clammy with foreign sweat. He believed that our little talk about favours had quelled my curiosity when in fact it had been a flame to the wick of my young mind, fuelled in part by the pulpy crime thrillers that I was just about old enough to be enthralled by. In fact I had become somewhat of an amateur sleuth, listening at doors and rifling through bins for any discarded letters that may shed light on my father’s business practices. All efforts proved fruitless and I eventually took to trailing him through the streets of our small town. He would wander in a different direction every day, knocking on doors seemingly at random and entering homes for only a few moments at a time. Wherever he ended up, he would always return to the office at some point. After a few weeks of cautious stalking, I came to realise that gingerly tugging on the edges of the web would get me nowhere. No, the truth lay in the centre guarded by a hideous, squatting spider. That was how I found myself scaling the outside of a staircase once more, cursing each slight squeak and scrape my assent made in case the men inside the office might hear. My father had entered moments ago with a fidgety man in a threadbare suit and I had made pursuit. I placed my ear to the door and could just about hear the muffled conversation.
“Let’s not be hasty, Mr. Castle.” The squirrelly visitor was saying, an unsteady edge in his voice.
“Well that’s the problem, young George…” My father said “You’ve been quite the opposite for far too long.”
I couldn’t tell if the sweat under my shirt was a symptom of the cursed heat or the fear that had been building inside me for months, some part of me knowing that it was moments away from reaching a decisive, potentially destructive crescendo. I shifted my head to the keyhole of the ancient, warped wooden door, peeking into a new and alien world. My father was perched behind his desk, ‘Young George’ pacing back and forth over what little space was available.
“Mr. Castle, don’t think I’m not grateful for what you’ve done bu-”
“I’ve never been a fan of understatement.” Michael interrupted “If it weren’t for me, you’d currently be another pay cheque for the local undertaker.”
George stopped his pacing. I could see the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead, glistening in the dust-laden light from the window, and he said “I realise that, I do.”
“Well let me be clear, the undertaker is always looking for his next cheque. He’s not one to turn away money. Do you understand me, George?”
I wish that I’d turned my eyes away at that moment, slipped back down the scaffolding and ran all the way back home. Yet I didn’t. In some subconscious fashion, I’d always known that my father was capable of this. In the eyes of a child, parents are god and I was a couple of years past being naïve enough to believe god was eternally loving. Knowing it was a possibility was one thing, seeing your father threaten a man with death was quite another.
“I understand you.” George said, colour draining from an already pallid face.
Michael stood up from the desk and wound his way around it, fingertips drifting from the slick wooden surface to the edge of the nearest crate.
“And you understand what I ask in return for saving you from said undertaker?” He asked, smiling just as he would smile when explaining some aspect of adult life to me.
George looked down at the floor and mumbled “Yes.”
Michael’s smile widened “Speak up.”
“Yes, I understand.” George said, his eyes slipping back up to a fixed spot somewhere just above my fathers balding head.
“Good lad…” Michael purred and slowly opened the crate he’d been relaxing against.
I’d expected crowds at the wake, throngs of mourners spilling out of the building and lining the streets. Even when I arrived outside the funeral parlour to see no one, there was still the brief vision of hundreds waiting inside. A ghoulish surprise party, replete with banners and a raucous cry of “We got you!”. It was almost a disappointment to see nothing but empty benches and a filled coffin. The undertaker, the same po-faced man who’d held the profession in my youth, was as cold and clinical as you’d expect from someone who’d been going through the same routine for decades. He took my hand into a firm, dry shake and mumbled his condolences before leaving the room. The casket, a tastefully reserved oak affair, was left open.
At first I couldn’t see what my father had drawn from the open crate. It was only when the reluctant George recoiled slightly that I saw what became, to my swelling adolescent brain, the symbol of everything evil. A long, cruelly sharp knife. Michael held it in his hand. In one smooth, heartbreaking motion he twisted the blade around to hold out the handle to George.
“I can’t…” The boy, for he was just a boy really, gasped.
“These are the rules you’ve chosen to live by, George.” My father cooed “The world you have chosen to live in.”
“I can’t, I really can’t.” George repeated “It’s…”
“George.” Michael’s smile dropped like an errant glass, cracking into ugly oblivion “People do not say ‘no’ to me. Do you know why?”
“Oh god, Mr. Castle.” The words struggled from the poor boy’s mouth.
“People do not say ‘no’ to me because I do not allow them to. People do not live if I do not allow them to, do you understand, George?”
My heartbeat was frantic and for a moment I was sure it would stop all-together, bursting in my chest, an engine too faulty to continue functioning.
“Do. You. Under. Stand?” My father spat, twisting the knife around again with a flick of the wrist until the shining, lethal point was inches away from George’s bobbing Adam’s apple. Bile rose in my throat, a force that I would later call adrenaline holding every atom of my existence in a clenched fist.
“I understand.” George said after unbearable seconds, tears coating his pocked cheeks.
“Perfect.” The smile returned as fast as it vanished and I cursed my traitorous human nature for taking comfort from that grin. George took the knife, fingers shaking. My father told him an address, I knew the street but not the house.
“Thank you, sir.” George said, his voice flat and pained.
“Well, here we are… Was this what you had in mind, old man?” I asked the corpse, embarrassment tempered by the complete absence of an audience “You weren’t a fool, of course you weren’t. You must’ve known they all hated you really.”
Next to the casket was a gaudy display of flowers and cards, the most generic of platitudes. I wondered which one of the parlour’s workers had rushed out this morning to buy them all.
“Did you think they respected you or did you know it was fear all the way down?”
His skin was waxy through a thick layer of makeup. The last of his hair had fled in the years since I’d previously seen him. The hands that were clasped over his chest were slender, almost skeletal. Truthfully, every part of him seemed sunken and hollow, engulfed by the monolith of a coffin.
“Do you think they’ll remember you?”
As the meeting, if you could call it that, came to a close, I knew I should leave. There was only one door, it was only a matter of time until George and my father flung it open and saw the burgeoning spy clinging to the edge of their web. This spy was held fast though, mind running on the opposite of instinct. The world could have ended at that moment and I would still be trapped outside that door, swaying slightly in the face of crisis. I would eventually come to associate the feeling with too much alcohol on an empty stomach but it was something far more primal than that. Their business concluded, George and my father headed for the door and existence began to coalesce again. Time moved in heady bursts, splinters lodging in my fingers, soles slipping on wood until they hit stone. The cobbles rang out like shots with each step. There would be no going back.
Walking back up between the benches, thoughts turned to my long-gone wedding day. My side of the aisle had been sparse, the bride had already learned from endless, bittersweet evenings to not question why. Outside the parlour, a breeze ruffled the hairs that clung stubbornly to my head. There was no point in attending the funeral tomorrow. Funerals were for closure. I had no idea whether I’d achieved that yet or not but I knew that not a shred of it would be found in seeing an old man slowly descend into the dirt. If I left now, I could be home by nightfall. Real life beckoned from just past the blurred borders of this childhood simulacrum. I was happy to answer it.
J.H. Hook is an author that doesn’t let such trifles as a crippling lack of enthusiasm or miniscule attention span get him down. He was born in Liverpool, England in 1994 but don’t hold that against him. If he had a pound for every pirate joke he’s heard, he would already have built that spaceship that he’s been dreaming of for eighteen years.
If you enjoyed Favour and Sin, leave a comment and let J.H. Hook know.
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