Frank E Lee
Frank E Lee has always been involved with words from the day a teacher said ‘I want a word with you’. Now that he is retired he pens plays, poems and short stories mainly for his own amusement as his dog leads him along the harbour walk.
Cul de Sac
The image was always the same. A narrow street of small houses huddled together, artisan’s dwellings in an old neglected part of the city urban renewal had yet to rejuvenate and cleanse of the shadows of the past. At one time the place existed because I walked on the glass glinting there and saw a few mangy mongrel dogs chase a coal cart with motorcar tyres. There was no sound. Not even the smooth swish of soft rubber on rough concrete. There was no sound. Not even the sharp clip of horses hooves on the cobblestones. The gray painted houses were silent. The slates were slanting awkwardly on the roofs and in places green moss grew like acne on a teenage face.
I was young then and I have no memory of any sound, but it must have been audible, the sharp crack of the coalman’s whip, the surprised neigh of the pained animal and the forceful stomp of iron on glass littered concrete. Not even the Angeles bell from the golden cross atop the convent intruded on the silent scene. Yet, there must have been sound. All I saw was the horse and cart, the small stone grey houses and the lazy dogs on the green patch of waste ground.
Then I was awake. It was always the same. I saw the houses and a fear descended on me. I was in the street, tapped and I could not get out because all around me were the small tiny houses joined together and the front doors were closed and the absence of sound and people frightened me and led me to panic, to cry out, to banish the past. The doors were uninviting, cold and almost dark, although my memory is of a dull sunny day and there was only one way out and that was through the house at the end but the high wall was covered in glass, pieces of sharp coloured glass embedded in the concrete.
I could see the slivers standing like sentries set in the hard concrete atop the wall. I could climb the wall, I knew, because I could put my leg on the ledge of the sitting room window and I could haul myself up on to the wall, even though the glass would cut me. It was a price worth paying to be out of the street, to be away from the shadow of the unseen menace.
* * * *
I was lost. It was dark. I could see the sitting room window open and I knew that a hand could grab my leg if I tried to scale the glass-covered wall. I had to do it; the urge to escape was powerful. I was alone, frightened and desperate to be re-united with everything that was familiar. I was lost and I wanted to be found.
I was awake again. Trying to figure out where I was and I knew if I closed my eyes I would be back in the small street and there was no escape through the closed front doors.
The only way out, it seemed was to scale the glass covered wall and that would mean the rip of flesh and the smell of blood as I grabbed the top of the wall and hauled myself up, feeling the pain in my palms and cuts opening deep as my weight tore my hands down along the glass lines in the hard concrete.
Outside the small slate houses, painted a dull gray, the only flash of colour was a tiny canary in a birdcage nailed above the door. A songbird in summer. “You need never lock the door,” I heard my father say. It was long ways back “Will you buy me a canary Dad?” I had no recollection of the day.
At night I had to make my way back. The tide had come in and now the low river walkway was covered with water, but I had to get through, to escape from what was behind me. I had to walk through the water, so I plodded on what I thought was the walkway. All I can recall was the water rising high, I stepped deeper, till the tide was to my chest and I walked through the water, it was to my neck, I was level with the tide yet I did not panic. I could see the waves swaying before me. I was level with the water and the lights of the city danced on the dark horizon, yet I was calm, just moving through the water. I had to get away.
The water had gone, receded, sank away and I was standing on the riverbank, stomping my frozen feet. My clothes were black with water as if it had been painted onto me. I was freezing cold. I cried out and woke up again. I was calm. The horse and cart swept silently across the row of small gray slate houses. There was no sound, not even the rush of a river at night.
** ** * * **
The only way out was over the glass-covered wall, the row of houses now spread out in a square. The only exit was at the end of the avenue, an open sitting room window, a leg up on the ledge, up and over the wall and then drop down. The only escape. Even before I moved toward the ledge, I could feel the sharp glass ripping my flesh. The sickening thick smell of fresh blood – I doubled in pain, my hands bloody and useless, I tried to use my arms to move forward, to pull myself over the wall, to haul my aching body over the top only to drop into the same street of small gray painted houses.
I had escaped back to where I was, I tried to stifle the pain and set out yet again to find the end house of the cul de sac where the open window led to the ledge and I could scale up the wall where the spikes of broken glass were fewer, some smashed by the weight of my young body sliding over and dropping down into where I stood.
The pain eased and blood ceased and while I was disappointed I was determined to try again. I laughed, I could escape, it had not struck me before, I could cling to the coal cart and it would take me out of the maze, away from the pain and dark.
The horse and cart came slowly, I could not hear a sound, and the canary was silent. I could see the young driver, his whip raised and sharp in the weak sunlight, rubber tyres silent on rough concrete. So I ran after the cart, and the sound of my racing footsteps frightened me. I reached the edge of the cart and clung on to the wooden frame, coal dust crunching under my fingers. The driver heard the sound, the cart continued round and round, the small street was never ending, the beginning and end merged into one repeating street and the driver cracked his whip. In the bright sunlight I saw it was a fine wire and it lashed across my fingertips whipping red blood into coal dust.
I was lying on the grass. I tried to see the house at the end of the cul de sac. I knew the pain, the awful slitting of skin by sharp glass, but I had to try again and again and every time, after all the pain and agony, I found myself back in the same street waiting for the horse and cart to arrive. Then shattering the silence the small canary sings. The little bird leaps in the cage. He begins to sing, clear sharp notes reaching me and leading me out and into all the familiar surroundings.
Wilt you buy me a canary, Dad?” His eyes were dull. The smell of blood and drink. I remember the hardness of his naked arms. He stripped to the waist, the kitchen in ruins, the mother beaten to a bloody mess, butter and sugar all mashed together on the floor. I tried to separate them, but I could only lie against his hard arms and cry, to try to save her, to stop the blows, to take the pain. It had started with his key sharp against the lock, scraping, trying to find the keyhole. “Let your father in,” she had ordered me. He was cold, the wind had blown his hair into a wild wig and his coat was incorrectly buttoned and his dull eyes watered.
“Get up to bed,” his voice angry and sharp like the glass on the wall, the quiet urgent voices at first then the loud shouts and the smash of a plate on the cold kitchen floor and the red glow of her cigarette in the darkness at the end of my bed.
‘Will you buy me a canary, Dad?” I could hear my young self “Will you buy me a canary?” Stop beating her I wanted to say but I could only hear the canary sing. A caged canary. In a row of small gray slate houses where nothing ever happened, except the coal cart passing by in the cold sunshine, I could hear the canary sing…sing so sweetly as if he was free.
© 2018 Frank E Lee