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The street was narrow, made up of two rows of tall semi-detached clapboard houses. The street ran at an exact right angle to the track of the sun across the sky. Because of this, and the tallness of the houses, and the narrowness of the street, the sun touched the front doors of the houses only at midday. Even on sunny days, the road was usually in shadow. The long damp shadows bred dank green mosses and sparse yellow lichens in the cracks between the boards. The slats of light that broke down the alleyways cut the blacktop like a bar-code.
In one of these houses there lived a mother and a father and a little boy. The mother was big, burly, with a thick mop of red-brown hair. She liked western philosophy and drove a pickup truck that she had christened the “Skipmobile”. She worked freelance for building firms. The father was tall and thin and wore thick glasses. He wrote essays on chemistry and sometimes analysed samples sent by courier van from a college in the nearest city. The boy was small and scrawny and didn't do much. They moved to the town in the spring of the boy’s seventh year.
Summer holidays. A wet August afternoon. A Sunday. A fine drizzle falling. The mother was on the far side of town, hauling gutted house appliances and crumbling bricks wrapped in shreds of dust-cover into the back of the Skipmobile. On her lunch break she ate egg mayo sandwiches and drank milk tea from a thermos flask and read the paper. The father was sat in front of his computer in his study on the second floor, tapping out paragraph after paragraph on crystallography. On his lunch break he ate nothing and drank black coffee from a homemade white mug and reread what he had written. The mug had been painted with a bumblebee in oil paint by the boy. Anything drank out of it tasted slightly of clay.
The boy had awoken at seven thirty and eaten a tasteless bowl of oatmeal and watched T.V. until lunch, which was leftover tuna salad. After lunch he put on a shapeless red mackintosh and went out to play in the garden. His father had told him not to go beyond the end of the road. The boy thought of calling on Alex, a friend from school who lived across the road, but Alex had glandular fever and wasn't meant to be called on for any reason. That was okay. The garden, with its weeded beds and broken ceramics and two big car tyres and lone mildewed tool-shed, hadn't lost its lustre. The garden connected directly to the road via the alleyway, and was a good two and half metres lower than the pavement.
The boy entertained himself by lifting the trash in the garden and terrorising the native fauna. Slimy things thrived in the dim light and dewed air. Leopard slugs longer than his father’s fingers bred and ate and glowered in the wet darkness, innocent to the world of salt and bran and beer traps that waited in the brain of the boy.
On this day he systematically purged the colonies beneath the broken plant-pots and the car tyres. He delighted in the salt froth, bubbling like adolescent acne from the skin of the slugs. He did not know what osmosis was, but he knew that slugs hated salt, and that he hated slugs, and that was enough.
A wet, painful cough, followed by three more. The boy’s laughter was silenced. The house connected to his was uninhabited, as was the one on the other side of the alley. He did not know this cough. Another. Muffled but nearby. Utterly unfamiliar – not his mother’s. Not his father’s.
There was a door that the boy had not really acknowledged before set into the white-painted brick of the house wall. This was not to say that hadn't known it was there – he had - but it had never intrigued him. The door was plain metal with a fine metal grille at five feet. His mother had inquired about it when they’d bought the house, but they were told that it was locked from the inside and that the room was empty. It had never meant anything, never factored into any of their lives. It was from this door that the coughing was coming.
“Hello?” called the boy. He was old enough to be wary, but not smart enough to be frightened. He approached the door and knocked on the thin metal. “Who’s there?”
Another cough, and then a voice. Deep, thick with saliva. Words over-enunciated, spoken from an unaccustomed mouth.
“Pardon me? Who is that?”
The boy waved a hand above his head, in front of the grille.
“Who are you?” the voice said. An uncertain quaver, amplified by the hard walls of the basement.
“I’m a boy. I live here. Who are you?”
“Oh. Oh oh. I’m. I’m nobody.”
The boy didn't quite know how to respond to this – he was talking to somebody, but that somebody was nobody.
“What are you doing in there?”
Another cough, phlegmy and harsh.
“This is my home. I live here.”
“But this door is locked! How did you get in there?”
“I have lived here since I was very little, little boy.”
The boy paused and looked at his wellingtons. The high wall sheltered him from the rain. His light green corduroy trousers were slathered in dark creamy mud.
“But what do you eat in there, anyway? Don’t you have food?”
A droolish chuckle, soft. It unnerved the boy.
“Oh, I manage. I manage just fine.”
The boy kicked at the mud at his feet.
“Do you go to school, little boy?”
“Yes. I go to infants’ school.”
“Ahhhhh-ah-ah. I went to school once. Do you like it?”
“Yes. I do literacy and numeracy and painting and the teachers are horrible but I don’t mind.”
A brutal cough punctuated the last sentence and a drippy swallowing sound echoed through the door. The boy thought the man’s lips sounded sticky.
“Do you watch television?”
“Yes. I watch Blue Peter on Saturday but there’s nothing good on Sunday.”
Another soft chuckle. It made the boy’s stomach feel weird.
“And do you read the Beano?”
“No, what’s that?”
The conversation continued for a long time. The boy knew lots about the outside world and the man remembered little, and the conversation consisted of a regimented question-and-answer routine. It began to get dark and the boy told the man he had to go and the man spoke, with dreadful sadness in his throat, of his loneliness and of his boredom, and what a treat it had been to finally speak to someone.
“But I’ll be back tomorrow!”
Which was answered by that sad chuckle again. The boy waved goodbye to the grille and made his way up the path and into the alley, the hood of his raincoat up. His father scolded him a little for the state of his trousers, telling him he’d have to wear waterproofs over them tomorrow. He asked, in a voice hacked at by ancient resignation, what the boy had done all day. The boy answered that he’d played in the garden.
The mother came home at eight, kissed the father daintily on the mouth. Dinner was string beans and cheese. The boy was a long time going to sleep, unable to shake the feeling that something soft and wet awaited him in his dreams.
The next day the mother went out, the father went upstairs again and the boy was alone. He put on the same mac and the same boots and the same unwashed trousers. He forgot the waterproofs, out of absentness or spite. He talked with the man behind the grille again. This routine continued for three more days after. The man never ran out of questions. For his part, the boy was fascinated by the diseased voice behind the door. A voice without shape, scent or texture. A voice utterly organic but without origin.
On Friday, the boy awoke with an idea. It was an idea that made him smile. It was the first contact his brain had made with human charity, and the feeling was intoxicating. After dressing and confirming that the mother was upstairs and the father was gone, he made his way down to the kitchen. Shining greyish tiles and a stained sterile faux-marble worktop. He opened the refrigerator. The boy stood on a chair and rooted around on the top shelf. A jar of caper pickles and the last stripes of a jar of horseradish mayonnaise, and at the back half a plastic tray of processed ham discs. He took two and made his way down the alley to the garden, leaving the fridge door slightly ajar.
“I have something for you.”
The man was waiting. The boy expected him to be asleep but he was there, mouth near the grille, waiting.
“What did you bring me, little boy?”
The man let out a low, liquid growl. The boy found his mouth very dry.
“What food have you brought?”
“It’s ham slices.”
A strangled noise, all of disgust condensed into one guttural syllable.
“Ugh. Not ham. Ham is bad meat.”
“No, they’re really nice.” The man said nothing. “Well, I like them.” The man said nothing.
“I’ll put one through the window.”
“No, don’t. I don’t want it.”
The boy rolled a slice up into a thin cylinder, his small pudgy fingers sticking to the moist meat.
“Just try one. It’s really nice.”
The boy reached up and poked the cylinder half-way into the grill. After a moment, the other end was taken – not by fingers, but by a wetly grunting mouth. The sound of frantic chewing, loud and greasy. A swallow and a raspy belch.
Then a retch. Then the muffled sound of vomit bubbling up from the man’s guts and the splatter of it, heavy against the metal door. Again and again. Violent and relentless. The boy’s eyes widened and the blood drained from his face.
“I’m really sorry. I’m really really sorry.”
The other ham disc fell from his fingers, and he turned and ran. He did not look back. He stumbled up the stairs and crawled into bed and whimpered under his sheets, afraid that he might have killed the man behind the door. He shivered and wept and after a while slipped into a dream.
In his dream he salted slugs and as the foam rippled across their fragile backs they screamed.
He did not go down to the garden for two days. He was afraid of what he might find when he did. He was afraid that when he called into the basement there would be no reply and he feared that if there was a reply it would be a reply of anger. For two nights he dreamt of the sound of vomit on aluminium. On Monday he worked up the courage to knock on the man’s door. The sun, thin and strange, scattered a glitter on the dewed grass. Half an earthworm writhed spasmodically in the soft loam. The ham disc that the boy had dropped lay folded in the grass, swollen and spongy from the rain. On it was a massive brown slug, fat and repulsive, shining dully in the frail sunlight. The boy stood, waterproofed from head to toe, drew a deep breath and knocked on the aluminium door as the sun rose above the near horizon of the garden fence.
The boy waited for a while. He knocked again. Three times. Four. On the fifth time there was movement in the shadows.
A huge weight fell on the other side of the door, and a monstrous grunt wormed through the grille. The boy realised that the man had fallen. The man’s voice, high and strained.
“Is that you?”
The boy nodded and passed his hand across the grille, close to the metal.
“It’s me. Are you okay?”
There was a chuckle.
“Yes, little boy, I’m okay.”
“I’m sorry I made you sick.”
“Oh, that’s alright.”
They fell into their usually, easy, vapid conversation. All was forgiven and the boy’s heart was glad. The sun rose high and shone strong for the first time in weeks. The days continued like this for a long time. Sometimes it rained, sometimes the thin sun filtered through the clouds and shone bleakly on the neighbourhood. The boy enjoyed the man’s company. He was content.
The last day of the summer. Chilly and still. A heavy fog of silence blanketed the neighbourhood. The boy went down to the basement door after a lunch of avocado, vinegar and salt. He had slept well.
“It’s the last day of the summer holidays today.”
The man was silent for a few seconds. When he spoke, his voice was plaintive and limp.
“You’ll still be able to visit me, won’t you, little boy?”
“Well, I’ll try! But I’ll have homework and friends to see. I won’t be able to talk to you on most days, I think.”
Another silence. When the voice came through the grille it wavered with tears.
“Alright. I see. Will you do one thing for me, little boy, so I won’t forget you?”
“Yes. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to go into your kitchen, when your mummy’s not looking, and find the salt. You do have salt, don’t you?”
“Well, get the salt cellar and lick your finger and grind some salt into your palm and cover your finger with salt. Can you do that for me?”
The boy left the man, shaken but confident in his friend. Besides, residual guilt from the ham incident still worried at his mind. Up the garden path. The sun was crawling down the alleyway. Open the screen door. Quiet and methodical.
Of course, neither of his parents was in the kitchen. He took a red container of Saxa salt from the cupboard, poured a small pile of it into the palm of his left hand, wet his finger with spit and ground it into the pile. The salt stung the skin around his nail and the boy winced and groaned, but his love was true and his faith was strong. He did love the man, of course. Of course he loved the man.
He came to the door with his finger a sheer throb of pain. He winced and looked down at the crystal-heavy digit, like a stalagmite moulded with white diamonds.
“I did it. I did what you said.”
A noise, half-cough half-laugh, answered him.
“Why did you want me to do that?”
“Put your finger through the window. The salt finger.”
“I’m going to do something. Please give me your finger.”
The boy shivered in the chill of the day. He reached up and put the salt finger slowly and clumsily through one of the metal diamonds. It fit almost perfectly around his finger, like a tailored wedding ring. So little sound. All around the fog and the quiet.
Wet lips, rubbery and limp, draped over frenzied muscles. Slime. Sucking sounds. The boy tried to draw his finger back and he tried to scream but his voice would not come. A tongue rough, muscular, coiling and undulating like a dying slug. The boy struggled, put one foot against the door and pulled back in utter fear but though his finger popped in its socket it could not be withdrawn. He began to wail. A belch around his finger. A smell, sordid and cloying and earthy, dripping from the window. And finally, slowly, the vaguest suggestion of sharp tooth emerging from the murky waters of tongue and lip, a rotten iceberg looming from an ocean of disease. Pain.