The windows constantly vibrate on the sixth floor with the thump and see-saw of the Nodding Donkey that pumps in the heart of the city.
Of the four habitable rooms left in the apartment, the reception area is the one that's most heavy with recycled air.
The furnishings are faded antiques that once smelt of polish and pride.
The boy, Aubrey, is jammed between the royal blue chaise-lounge and the bookcase that displays a set of untouched encyclopedias of The New World, a scuffed and battered gazetteer and an illustrated copy of The Erotic Works of Aubrey Beardsley, after whom the boy is named.
The dim lighting from the remaining bulbs struggles to illuminate the high-back club chairs on either side of the fireplace over which is a marble mantelpiece with an ornate clock that stopped shortly after the Master of the House disappeared, never to return.
There's a photograph in a silver frame beside the clock. The faces of the newly married couple have faded beyond recognition. It makes no difference. The boy's too short to reach it even if he was allowed to touch it.
There's a Penguin edition of DH Lawrence's classic open, but face down, on the table beside the club chair. Lady Chatterley's spine is broken and the pages would fall out if it were to be picked up during a quiet evening beside the imitation fire.
There are not enough bibelots or gee-gaws to make the space look homely. The Middle Eastern rug is faded but tasteful enough to be a reminder of better times.
Not a speck of dust has been allowed to settle. There's only a suggestion that it was once comfortable; a rapidly diminishing memory. Now it's a Reception area, a Waiting Room -- always waiting to receive something or someone. This is a room where people sit like loaded Jack-in-the-Boxes, observes Aubrey.
Aubrey lives mostly in his schoolroom. His mother calls it his bedroom. To Aubrey, it's another waiting room.
He's allowed to sit in the Reception area when he's dressed in his purple herringbone jacket, the Oxford tweed waistcoat, the red satin bowtie with the uncomfortable shirt-collar and the cuffs that stick out four inches to hide his hands and fingers.
His shoes pinch. His braces pull. His collar tightens. He can do whatever he likes, so long as it doesn't involve moving or scratching.
He knows other children his age are dressed in tee-shirts, jeans and comfy trainers with runaway laces. But not in this household.
Neither is he allowed to let his hair flop casually over his eyes. His is severely parted in the middle with a fringe of three inches to disguise his tall, broad forehead. The parting looks and feels like a scar dividing his head into two hemispheres.
He feels as uncomfortable as a stick insect in a bait-box, as his Daddy might've said. His only touch with normal life is Mister Nobody, the threadbare teddy he found in the dump cart between the blocks.
He keeps Mister Nobody out of sight but ever close. His mother would belittle him (Mister Nobody's description) if she saw him or knew how he talked to him, how he shared his innermost thoughts and secrets. What Mister Nobody knows would crack the boy's world like a china plate in a shooting gallery if she ever found out.
She must never find out. The boy is adamant on this point, just as his mother is determined that Aubrey must not call her, Mother. She'd have him call her, Jeannie. To Aubrey, a genii is a wicked creature, Hell-bent on mischief; three wishes, then a lifetime of mockery about his size.
The mother is wearing a tight, full length, black skirt that stretches from her high-heel shoes to her velvet choker. Her neck reminds him of a Modigliani portrait he once saw. Her hair is a tight beehive of black curls like the lid of a very tall, elegant coffee pot. Her lips are painted pillarbox red. When she smiles, Aubrey sees a lipstick smear on her white teeth and it reminds him how mother rabbits eat their young. Her perfume makes him squint and causes his stomach to cramp and his throat to tighten. He clenches his buttocks in case a slap comes out from left-field and he's not prepared.
Today, he'll be all right. Her agitation is directed at the Hollow in the middle of the room. It's not working right. It's stuck on a loop. The holographic image appears as vibrating, sparkling rods that are almost transparent. It's jerky but the image is still clear and almost as solid as when it's working perfectly.
The hologram, 'The Hollow', as Aubrey calls it, is of a tall, good looking man, much younger than his mother. His hair, under his broad-brimmed hat, is long and thick to his shoulders and fashionably cut. He has the face of an outdoorsman, masculine and paternal, rugged but well toned. His eyes are gentle, smiling, about to burst into humour.
The boy remembers laughing eyes and a deep comforting voice.There's no sound because the Hollow is broken -- stuck, more like. There's no smell either. Not that there would be even if The Hollow was working. But Aubrey remembers the smell of his Daddy. He simply doesn't remember his father as he used to.
He remembers his smell and his eyes. At least, he thinks he remembers his eyes.
He thinks he remembers a promise. A promise that his father would return. But Aubrey could've made that up. He's not so young as to not know a promise when he's given one. Like Mister Nobody, he keeps his Daddy's promise out of sight from the woman he knows to be his mother but he tells his friends (when he has any), she's the person his Daddy married before he had to go away.
She's holding a martini glass with green liquid, the colour of her eyes. She's smoking a cigarette. She's been smoking one cigarette after another since Aubrey started watching her. She lights one, then strangles it in the cutglass ashtray next to The Hollow that jitters on to the next image. The same man but this time he's naked.
He moves like a hesitant dancer, takes two steps and then he's sucked back into his original position but not before his mother appears equally naked. From where Aubrey's sitting up against the wall, he can see the man's back. He knows if he goes over to the window seat he could see the man from the other side.
She hasn't said he can't move but the message is clear. He could return to his room but the arrival of The Hollow repairman excites him. Mister Nobody wants him to watch.
Mister Nobody has a wicked sense of humour. He knows the boy's mother won't send him away because she insists that nudity is natural, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be uncomfortable about. She looks very uncomfortable but she's trying to look natural.
Mister Nobody likes to see her look uncomfortable. It gives him a feeling of being in control. She's a victim of her own free and easy contradictions. It makes Mister Nobody smirk when she appears naked in Hollow-form because it makes the real woman more uncomfortable.
Aubrey is thinking about his Daddy. Perhaps, it's Mister Nobody who's thinking about Aubrey's father. Aubrey's warned Mister Nobody not to say anything because it makes her angry. When she's angry, she breathes heavily through her nose. This frightens Aubrey, especially when she's got that smell around her; the sickly, sweet smell like the green liquid she drinks.
The smell seems to fill her up until she's had so much it starts to leak out of her. That's when Aubrey knows anything could happen. When the smell leaks out of her, the way to deal with it is to play the fool, say clever things that make her laugh. Don't ask questions like, 'Who was that man who came last night?' 'Why didn't he stay longer? ... stay for dinner, if he's such an old friend?' And, 'Why must I stay in my room when all your old friends come round?' 'Why don't they come back?' And, 'Why am I not allowed to talk to them or be seen by them?'
Mister Nobody says she tells lies. Aubrey tells him, 'It's not nice to tell lies.' Mister Nobody says he knows -- it isn't nice.
'It's not nice when someone tells you lies. You can't trust them. If you can't trust them, stay away from them,' That's what Aubrey tells Mister Nobody.
Mister Nobody asks why Aubrey's father stays away. He asks if his father doesn't trust his mother. Aubrey thinks Mister Nobody knows the answer to that. He's just being naughty. He's just playing.
Mister Nobody wants Aubrey to ask why the man has no clothes on. Aubrey asks, 'Why does the man keep having no clothes on?'
'Because the Hologram is broken and we're waiting for the repairman,' she says. Aubrey realises that wasn't the question Mister Nobody wanted him to ask.
He tries again. 'Why's the man got no clothes on?' He really wants to ask, 'Why do you appear with no clothes on?' But that's dangerous, he tells Mister Nobody.
Her tone is sharp. 'I just told you. The Hologram isn't working. The repairman will be here any minute.' The boy sighs. He tries to tell Mister Nobody she didn't understand, she misheard.
Aubrey hates it when Mister Nobody laughs like that. It makes him feel stupid. He was only trying to make excuses for her.
'She's a lying bitch!'
Aubrey joins in with Mister Nobody, 'Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!'
He stops himself abruptly. 'She can't hear you, you know.' Aubrey's not so sure. His Daddy always knew what he was thinking.
He'd say, 'I know what you're thinking ...' Aubrey would say, 'What?' His Daddy would reply, 'I knew you'd say that! You were thinking, What's he think I'm thinking, right?' This would make him laugh because it sounded funny. Like, when he asked, What noise annoys an oyster? -- a noisy noise annoys an oyster.
His Daddy always made him laugh. He always knew what he was thinking too.
He said a good laugh starts in your belly. It rumbles around until it gets so big it has to burst out your mouth and light your eyeballs up like a pinball machine. Then, he'd go all serious and say, 'If you close your mouth and don't let your belly laugh out, it comes out the other end.' Then he'd shut his eyes tight, close his mouth and blow out his cheeks. Sure enough, it would come out the back.
They'd roll around together laughing and laughing and the laughter would trumpet out. If it happened by mistake, his Daddy would say, 'You must've been thinking of something funny.' That was their private joke.
When Aubrey talks about his Daddy, it makes him feel sad, sad, sad. That's when Mister Nobody says, 'I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round.' He says it keeps the Meanies away.
So, when his mother says, 'What're you doing, Boy?' Aubrey replies, 'I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round.' She doesn't say anything after that. 'It works, you see,' says Mister Nobody. Mister Nobody knows how to keep the Meanies away.
'Go and answer the door, Boy. It's the repairman.'
He follows the man along the hallway and waits outside while he checks The Hollow. Aubrey knows the repairman will need to go down to the basement to turn everything off and then turn it back on again. His Daddy taught him that.
'If it doesn't work,' he used to say, 'You've just got to boot it until it works again.' Together, they'd turn everything off, then turn it back on again. They'd kick the cupboard. They'd kick all the steps up from the basement to the first floor. 'For good measure,' his Daddy would say.
Aubrey tried to tell his mother about booting it, but she didn't believe him -- called him, 'Stupid'. Mister Nobody told him to sit down and watch the wheels go round and round until he felt better.
* * *
Behind his father's ear, Aubrey could smell make-up remover with a soupçon (his Daddy's word) of peach. Peach has a flat, wide smell. Aubrey would fold back his Daddy's auricule with a single finger to see if there were some missed flecks of foundation.
He could smell vanilla. It was the word itself that he liked; the feel of his top front teeth on his bottom lip; the small explosive push of air, then the tongue lightly placed on the roof of his mouth, a short nasal hum and a satisfying lap -- VAN-IL-LA, three delicious beats that sounded so much sweeter when drawn out. His Daddy told him it sounded like a fuzzy bumblebee and he could feel a tingle.
Aubrey asked his Daddy what a tingle felt like. 'Like a chorus line of fairy dancers leaving the stage,' said his Daddy, without having to think. It was as if the answer was always in his head. He didn't have to think or look for the words, they were always there, waiting in line, waiting to pop out and explain something as obvious as a tingle of delight.
His Daddy was clever like that. Clever at juggling words that explained what they meant by the sounds they made.
He could also pull faces; funny faces; serious faces. He could tell a whole story with his face and not say a single word. The words were inside Aubrey's head, the faces put them together and they would go dancing around his brain to tell a story.
Aubrey liked the smell behind his Daddy's ears. It was becoming more and more difficult to remember. Mister Nobody told Aubrey not to worry. He'd never get too big or too old to smell behind his Daddy's ear. He might not be able to lie on his chest, rest his head on his Daddy's neck and breath in the smells but there would be quick hugs when he could snatch a whiff. Then, tease it out like candyfloss on a stick.
His mother said Aubrey was getting too late to cling (she never said, big). The thought of one day being too old to curl up against his Daddy's chest gave him an ache in his own.
She clung to people -- men! They weren't his Daddy and she wasn't smelling behind their ears either!
'What're you doing, Boy?' asks The Hollow repairman.
'I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,' he says. He's yet to smile at the man. He hasn't made up his mind about him yet.
He knows all about him. He knows his wife won't let him into the apartment with his boots on, because he took them off at their door without even being asked. She's house-proud, probably -- too houseproud, perhaps? She makes him keep his favourite jacket, the one with all the pockets for bits of string, pencil stubs, useful things, in the shed on the roof. Aubrey knows it's a roof garden because there's no soil between the boot-treads. Roof gardens are all that are available to the common worker. Aubrey suspects they stopped talking to each other and he spends all his free time up there.
He knows he's lonely. Aubrey can hear the loneliness in his heavy footsteps. He can smell the damp air on the jacket he keeps in the shed at night and puts on before he goes to work. The jacket she won't let him wear in the apartment. The jacket he loves so much because of the pockets and the comfort it brings and the security it gives him. He could be somebody's granddaddy.
Aubrey wonders if The Hollow repairman's wife makes him dress up to sit in their sitting room too? -- perching room.
'Mr Bell-O-Que.' The boy whispers the name to Mister Nobody. They giggle. Mr Bell-O-Que. It's a fine name for a lonely, tubby Hollow repairman. It's a fun-name.
Mr Bell-O-Que used to laugh a lot once. Aubrey can see some of the laughter-lines left around his eyes, the ones she couldn't iron out or perhaps, it's a work in progress for her, as his Daddy would say when he was practising putting on his stage make-up to play a new part in the theatre.
'Would you like a cup of coffee?' she asks out of politeness.
'He's just had one,' says Aubrey. 'And half a sardine sandwich,' he tells Mister Nobody who nods his agreement. 'He couldn't wait until lunchtime. He'll catch it if she finds out.'
Mister Nobody disagrees. He tells the boy, Mr Bell-O-Que makes his own sandwiches in the morning. 'If she made them,' he points out, 'they wouldn't be wrapped in tinfoil and loose. They'd be in a plastic box with an apple and a chocolate biscuit bar' -- like Minnie used to make for him when he went to school.
Aubrey thinks about that. Mister Nobody's right. He usually is.
'Do you think he'll do it? Do you think Mr Bell-O-Que will do it for us?' Aubrey thinks if he uses the man's name in his head (especially, inside his head), he'll be more amenable.
'Amenable?' laughs Mister Nobody. 'It means, he might ...' 'I know what it means. I taught you, remember?' Aubrey doesn't argue. It was the word the widower used when his mother agreed to be his dead wife for an hour. Or was that, 'accommodating'?
Mr Bell-O-Que is looking at Aubrey curiously. He's probably wondering how Aubrey knew about the coffee. Maybe, he's wondering if the boy knows about the sardine sandwiches too.
It's time for the boy to move. He's made up his mind to try. He'll catch him when he comes out of the lift on the first floor. If he leaves now, she won't realise that he's gone. She won't be able to make him stay. She doesn't like him to talk to strangers. But Mr Bell-O-Que isn't a stranger anymore. They know about Mr Bell-O-Que now.
Mister Nobody tells Aubrey he'll have to hurry. He'll need to change. The basement is dusty and she'll know where he's been and probably guess why. She'll be thinking about having The Hollow repaired so that her next visitor won't see the naked man. Aubrey can be back and changed and in his room before she comes to check that he's out of sight when her next 'old friend' arrives.
* * *
The noise from the Nodding Donkey is louder on the first floor. The heavy grinding and clanking sounds that accompany the descending lift almost drown out Mr Bell-O-Que's complaints. He's talking on his Skype-phone. Things are already looking good for Aubrey.
Mister Nobody is hanging by an arm. They're behind the pillar, out of the eye-line of the Concierge. Doberman, the Day Security, has his back to them in the central block of armchairs.
The Hollow repairman opens the lift doors on the third attempt. He slams them closed. They cut off his complaints. The Concierge looks up and makes a remark that only he finds amusing. Doberman doesn't stir. He's probably sleeping. He's also Night Security for the neighbouring block.
Aubrey catches hold of Mr Bell-O-Que's toolbag and wrestles it out of his hands, explaining that he'll need his hands free because the spiral staircase can be tricky -- it's the reason no one goes into the basement except for that one time the maintenance men put their carpet into storage.
Aubrey had been away. Mister Nobody told Aubrey all about it. They don't talk about that time. It was when his father disappeared and never returned. The carpet holds some painful memories for Aubrey.
He's been in the basement since that time. It makes him feel sick. This time, he'll ignore it.
He didn't want Mister Nobody to come down. He can be unpredictable, say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Aubrey thinks there must be a special word for this. He can't think what it might be. Aubrey has made Mister Nobody promise he won't say anything. Mister Nobody agreed to only speak if the repairman needed his help. This made Aubrey laugh.
* * *
'Why would you want to come down here? It's creepy. Ain't you afraid?' says Auguste Belloque.
'I've got Mister Nobody to keep me company. He's not afraid of the Creepy. He can't smell because he's a teddy bear. If I get scared, I shut my eyes tight. Mister Nobody can't shut his eyes, so he's not afraid of the dark.' Then Aubrey says, 'Will you help me find my Daddy?'
'Who's looking for him? Your mother would be the best person to help.'
'I'm not allowed in the basement.'
'She's simply looking out for you.'
'I come here to be close to my Daddy.'
'Was this your special place?'
'He left just before they put the carpet down here.'
'It's a very useful storage space, isn't it.'
'Mister Nobody says the basement is haunted. There are evil spirits.'
'That probably accounts for the smell.'
'Genies use Magic Carpets to carry folks away to their wicked castles on the other side of midnight,'
'I thought genies were helpful -- gave you three wishes and granted long life and happy-ever-afters.'
'Genies are wicked people! They only pretend to be your friend. The flies are their evil messengers. Agents! They carry germs and diseases and messages.'
'Perhaps, you could send your Daddy a message -- tie it on a pigeon's leg -- send it on a mission to find your Daddy.'
'Perhaps, we could have a séance -- send a ghost to find him -- they can travel through walls -- places where you can't get a reception on your phone.'
'I think you have to be dead to get a message from a ghost. I think you have to believe in them, or am I thinking about fairies?' The Hollow repairman says, 'What do you remember most about your Daddy?'
'Most? I remember his smell. Best? I remember his ears and his make-up.'
'If he's an actor, he won't go far without his make-up. A man never goes anywhere without the tools of his trade. Look up his name in plays and things.'
Then the repairman says, 'I think someone forgot to empty the deep freeze when they moved out or perhaps an animal came down here and died. That's must be what the smell is.'
'Perhaps, it's a river of sewage and the Nodding Donkey is pumping out the smell.'
'Perhaps, it's where tramps come for a picnic.'
'Or they keep all the dead signals,' says Aubrey.
'How do you mean?'
'When the signals come into the building, they get booted upstairs for The Hollow. When they get used up, they die. You've got to keep the dead signals somewhere -- like a signal graveyard -- the basement -- the smell, right?'
'The hologram uses the electricity but it doesn't use it up like gasoline. It goes off to the next thing. It doesn't die. It goes off.'
'It goes off like milk and smells, you mean?'
'The smell attracts the flies.'
'Or makes the flies. When the signal comes on, will you send it on to my Daddy and tell him I'm still waiting? He made me a promise. He said a man must always make good on his promise. The best good he could make would be to come and get me.'
'Why don't you talk to your mother. Tell her you miss your Daddy. Ask her to contact him so that you can see each other.'
'She's not my mother. She's the Touch-Me-Not Wife. I come down here because she told me I couldn't. She doesn't come down here because of the carpet and the flies and the smell. It's where I come to be near my Daddy. I'm keeping his theatre make-up safe. That's my good.'
'I think it would be a good idea for you not to come down to the basement any more. I don't think it's a healthy place for you or Mister Nobody. What does he have to say on the subject?'
'Mister Nobody doesn't have anything to say. He's a teddy bear, Mr Bell-O-Que, a toy. If he did talk, he'd tell you to find my Daddy and tell him I'm still waiting.'
* * *
The basement, for Aubrey, Mister Nobody too, is a dragon's den. At one end of a long corridor, there's a storage room where old furniture has been deposited but forgotten, a convenient place to hide away unsightly pieces. Against the furthest wall, under a long ventilation window is the carpet that once took pride of place in the apartment on the sixth floor. It's a long roll, tightly bound with garden rope, old dressing gown ties, curtain cords, trouser belts and the like. On the outside is a coarse material that gives no clue to what's inside.
Aubrey often stands at the entrance of that far room. He doesn't like to venture inside. It's not just the smell. He doesn't know why. It could be the room itself but Mister Nobody says it's the roll of carpet. Mister Nobody has tried to coax Aubrey into exploring the room, daring him. So far, unsuccessfully. Although, recently, Mister Nobody has detected a change; a morbid, ghoulish fascination from Aubrey.
Aubrey's watching The Hollow repairman, watching and waiting for the right moment. He wants to talk about the room at the end of the corridor as much as he wants to talk about finding his Daddy.
He doesn't know what to say. Mister Nobody knows what to say. That's why Aubrey doesn't want Mister Nobody to say anything.
'Would you like me to show you the room at the back?' asks Aubrey, or rather, asks Mister Nobody. Aubrey is cross. He pinches his lips together and shakes the teddy bear hanging by his arm to stop him giggling. For two pins, Aubrey would drop Mister Nobody on the cold, concrete ground and kick him under the chest of drawers the Hollow repairman, Mr Bell-O-Que, had to manhandle to get at the cupboard where the router box is mounted against the brick wall.
'I'll be done in ten minutes,' says the Hollow repairman.
'There's a dragon in there,' says Aubrey, hoping it'll make a difference. Mr Bell-O-Que laughs. He doesn't say if the idea of a resident dragon is an attraction or a deterrent. Aubrey wonders if the room at the far end will have the same effect on him, make him want to go to the toilet too.
Aubrey watches the man at work. He doesn't know how to do the job as well as his Daddy. He'd have flicked a couple of switches then sat with his back against the wall until the unit had finished going through its logarithmic winding down, then firing up again. It usually took about ten minutes.
Aubrey hopes it'll take longer this time. There's a lot he wants to say, lots of questions to ask.
He knows he'll have to let Mister Nobody speak at some point. Mister Nobody knows it too. Aubrey can hear him giggling to himself, knowing that he's holding the trump card, knowing there won't be another opportunity like this.
Aubrey sighs. Mister Nobody can be like some of the mean boys at school sometimes.
'I'm little, you see,' says Aubrey.
'So I see,' says Auguste, wishing the boy hadn't brought up the subject. 'It must be an advantage when you're playing Hide 'n' Seek -- being little and all.' He fumbles through the toolbag needlessly.
Aubrey knows when someone feels uncomfortable about his size. It's one of the reasons that he doesn't mind not going to school. The Headteacher calls it, bullying, but Aubrey doesn't see it that way. 'Now, if you have any trouble with the boys,' he told Aubrey on his first day, 'you come and tell me -- can't have bullying here in my school just because you're ...' It's always the same, thinks Aubrey, they can't say it.
Mostly, the boys have a lot of questions. It has nothing to do with bullying. It's curiosity. 'Will you ever grow tall?'
'Do you have a special bed, special chair, like in The Three Bears house with Goldilocks? Of course, who they mean is Snow White, not Goldilocks.
The only teasing Aubrey experiences was when the big boys make jokes about him falling into the toilet. He thinks it's pretty funny too. He's got a good joke when this comes up: Why does Tigger spend all day looking into the toilet? He's looking for Pooh.
The only person who never felt uncomfortable around him was his Daddy. The Touch-Me-Not wife is never comfortable around him.
Aubrey passes Mr Bell-O-Que a screwdriver. He'll need it to take the cover off the panel. 'It's pronounced, Belloque -- bell with a lock -- Belloque. It's French. You can call me Auguste if you like.'
'Like the month?' says Aubrey.
'Yes, ' laughs Auguste, as if it's the first time he's ever been asked.
Mister Nobody has got an idea. Aubrey doesn't like it. He tells him Mr Bell-O-que won't want to play a game. 'Auguste!' corrects Mister Nobody. 'You've got to do it -- do it now while he's feeling sorry for you. He'll do it because he feels guilty about all those thoughts he's having.
'Do it!' insists Mister Nobody. 'Do it while he's thinking about telling his pals in the pub -- I had a game of Hide 'n' Seek with a dwarf kid today. Then I helped him find his lost Daddy.
'If you don't do it now you'll never know ... not for sure, anyway! I'll make him do it if you won't!'
'I'm sorry, Boy. I ain't got the time,' says Auguste. 'I've still got a few calls to make. I think you should go back upstairs before your mother misses you. I don't think she'll take too kindly to you being down in the basement with me.'
'What he means ... ' says Mister Nobody, who's now sitting on Auguste's toolbag. 'she won't take too kindly to him being down here alone with you -- pervert! Peado! Aubrey joins in, 'Pervert! Pervert! Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!' He likes shouting rude words in his head knowing that nobody can hear him -- Mister Nobody.
'I won't tell the Touch-Me-Not wife you were in the basement alone with me if you promise to video-phone my Daddy and tell him I'm still waiting,' says Aubrey.
He's furious with Mister Nobody for making him say it. He flicks him hard with the back of his hand. He can hear his wicked giggles coming from inside Auguste's toolbag now. 'Go on do it! Do it while he's looking so frightened.' Mister Nobody's voice is muffled inside the toolbag.
'You've got to do it, Mr Bell-O-Que -- you gotta or I'll never find out. I'll never be free!' shouts Aubrey as he runs down the passage towards the room at the far end -- the Dragon's Lair -- the source of the Devil's stink. 'You gotta do it!'
Aubrey skids to a halt, his hands on either side of the entrance, stopping him from running pell-mell into the gloom. The light is lying along the roll of carpet. It's lumpy and bumpy. It looks like it's heaving -- like a dying, decaying creature.
Now everything is getting smaller; Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. Or, perhaps, the room is getting bigger. It looks like an aircraft hanger. His hands feel like two balloons, his fingers like sausages, his head a bag of wet laundry ...
The roll of carpet is becoming insistent. The room is heaving now. Pulsating slowly with staggered heavy wheezes; old men on top of the Touch-Me-Not wife.
Aubrey wonders how long it'll take to cross the room. Will he be crushed by the inside-out bellows before he gets to the carpet? He knows he's got to hide behind the roll. It's the only place to be in this awful game of Hide 'n' Seek -- the only place he can be found when the Hollow repairman comes looking -- and look he must. The Touch-Me-Not wife will eat him alive with those lipstick-smeared teeth if he tells her he'd left the dwarf in the basement.
'Hey, Kid! I'm nearly finished in here.'
Aubrey looks over his shoulder. He can feel his stomach tighten. He looks into the room. It almost looks back to normal. He gets that horrible discomfort in his bowels.
'Hey, Kid! Time to go!' Mr Bell-O-Que doesn't sound so confident this time. 'Hey, Kid -- Aubrey?' Mister Nobody must have told him my name, thinks Aubrey.
He lets go of one side of the entrance and slides into the room, his back flat against the wall. He fixes his eyes on the roll of carpet, trying to see if it's still breathing. He doesn't think so.
There's a space at one end, in the corner of the room. It's very small. It's very dark -- a place where something hideous could crouch, ready to turn and pounce when some little boy approaches.
It's a very small space. Aubrey is a very small boy. There'll be just enough room for him to squeeze in next to the creature while he waits for Mr Bell-O-Que to fulfil his part in this game of Extreme Hide 'n' Seek.
Aubrey doesn't want to hide in this room. He's got to be here. This is where Mr Bell-O-Que must come to find him, discover him quaking with fear; only then will he decide to phone his Daddy to tell him to come and rescue him. Aubrey knows he must cuddle up to his nightmare. There's no other way. Aubrey hasn't moved. He's not sure if he's holding his breath or if he's stopped breathing altogether.
'Listen! Aubrey? I have to go now. You can't stay down here by yourself.' Aubrey sucks himself into the corner. It's hard to breathe, harder to think. The stink of the carpet Dragon is making his stomach turn over like the dry heaves of an old car with a dead battery.
'I'm not messing about. We have to go. I'll leave you behind ...' Aubrey knows he won't.
He's coming down the passage now. 'Let's phone your Daddy together,'
'He's scared but he's coming.' It's Mister Nobody talking to him from inside the toolbag. Aubrey pulls his head into his shoulders. His two hands are on top of the carpet. At least, he thinks they are.
'Are you in here?' The words are muffled into the elbow of the Hollow repairman's thick, tweed jacket -- his favourite -- the one his wife won't let him wear inside the apartment.
'Why won't she let you into the apartment?' asks Aubrey.
'You are in here! Look, we've gotta go -- now! It's not healthy for you to be in here. You must come out. I don't like this game. Please, I can't see you. Where are you?'
'Behind the Dragon -- you gotta come and get me -- tell him! Tell him!' Aubrey is desperate. He tries to move when he feels the carpet shift -- just a little but it did move, he's certain of it. He thinks he hears himself let out a long fart. But it wasn't him. It was a fart -- a long one -- a long, smelly Dragon-fart that leaked out from the roll of carpet, the kind of gassy-fart that paralyses little kids.
'Auguste?' whispers Aubrey. 'Auguste?' He's already forgotten what he was going to say.
'I'm coming. We'll make a phone call when we get out of here ...' Suddenly, Aubrey doesn't believe him. Auguste is crossing the room as if he's on a narrow plank of wood from one rooftop to another. He looks as if he needs Aubrey's help.
'Don't look down,' says Aubrey.
'What is fearful to one person,' Aubrey's Daddy once told him, 'is comforting to another. You simply have to change the way you look at things.'
'Monsters live in corners,' Aubrey tells Auguste, 'for very good reasons. They live there because they're afraid. They're afraid of the dark. That's why half-light is scarier. What can't be seen must be imagined -- my Daddy told me that!'
Aubrey can see the Hollow repairman's bulging eyes; a frightened blacked-up shoeshine boy in a silent movie. He keeps talking for the sake of it.
'Don't look at the roll of carpet. It's only a roll of carpet.
'Don't ask why it's here when it should be upstairs.
'Don't ask for reasons you know she'll never give you.
'Remember ... you know she tells lies. Remember ... she doesn't love you because you're small and have got a big head. Remember ... she wants you to call her Jeannie because she doesn't want you to call her, Mummy. She doesn't want to be your mummy -- she doesn't want other people to know she's your mummy ...'
It's not Aubrey talking. It's Mister Nobody. 'You can trust me on this.
'I'm your teddy bear, your favourite toy -- the most harmless, least dangerous, ever faithful, never hurtful, an always comforting companion that keeps you innocent and childlike until you're old enough to forget where you last left me and don't remember to look for me. Then, I'll go back to that smelly rubbish cart amidst all the other unloved ones that have been discarded and are no longer wanted but must be kept out of sight.
'Now we come to think of it,' says Mister Nobody, 'Why not leave me in this room at the far end of reason, where a passing cloud changes the half-light to make it appear that the roll of carpet is breathing. It's probably gas; the sounds are pockets of gas like Granny Lovecraft when she comes for Christmas dinner. She gets gas.
'Imagine it's Granny Lovecraft wrapped up for Christmas inside the carpet with gas. What's scary about someone wrapped up in a roll of carpet?' Aubrey wonders how he can hear Mister Nobody so clearly when he knows he fell into Mr Bell-O-Que's toolbag.
Aubrey puts up his arms as he used to when he wanted his Daddy to pick him up. Mr Bell-O-Que puts one foot on the roll of carpet to pick up Aubrey. He has a look of disgust on his face as if he's trodden in something smelly. He pulls Aubrey out of the space that seems to have fallen in on him. He puts him over his shoulder. When Aubrey closes his eyes, he can smell the Hollow repairman's neck, behind his ear.
It's not the smell he remembers but it's comforting. He can smell tomato plants, damp Autumn mornings, greenhouse and shed smells.
A chorus line of fairy dancers leaving the stage runs across the hairs on Aubrey's forearm. He tightens his grip around the old man's neck as he reaches down for his toolbag. He feels his quickening shuffle as he hurries down the corridor.
Mr Bell-O-Que puts Aubrey down at the bottom of the staps of the spiral staircase leading up to the first floor.
The oppressive smell is now behind them. The Repairman needs a minute to catch his breath. Aubrey watches his face to see what'll happen next. There are questions and all manner of confusing thoughts and ideas dancing in the old man's eyes. Aubrey has never seen a man of his age look frightened.
Now that he's away from the influence of the room with the rolled-up carpet, life has fallen back into place for him -- not Mr Bell-O-Que. His mouth is moving but there are no words. It'll probably be a while until he's calm enough for a sensible conversation, thinks Aubrey.
The Concierge looks up. It's nothing more than a meaningless glance.
Aubrey pulls open the lift door. The Hollow repairman pushes himself into the wire cage and drops the toolbag heavily onto the floor.
'You will remember to phone?' he says as the lift lurches its way up to the sixth floor. The Hollow repairman nods.
Aubrey hurries up the stairs. He must change and appear to be working in his room. He knows Auguste won't let him down. He can tell by the smell behind his ear. Aubrey can feel the smile on his face.
He stands on the window seat and struggles to push the window up enough to squeeze his head and shoulders through the gap. He leans out as far as he dares. It's a long drop to the pavement. He can see only the bottom step leading to the apartment block's front door. All he'll see is Auguste's head as he leaves. He's ready to wave even if he doesn't look up.
There he is! He puts his toolbag on the ground to find his Skype-phone and pulls out Mister Nobody. Aubrey had forgotten about Mister Nobody.
Auguste Belloque inspects the teddy bear and looks up to the sixth floor. Aubrey waves with great enthusiasm. The Hollow repairman holds up Mister Nobody and mimes that he'll leave him on the railings for Aubrey to collect. He takes out his phone and holds it up to show that he's making good on his promise.
Of course, Aubrey can't hear what the nice Mr Bell-O-Que is saying but he's pretty sure he knows.
'Hello, which service do you require?'
'Police. I'd like to report a dead body.'
Aubrey closes the window. The sound of the Nodding Donkey is dampened once more. Aubrey knows he'll never retrieve Mister Nobody. The Sanitary Engineers will remove him after dark. Then he'll be truly free.
Article © Christian McCulloch. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-11-04
Image(s) are public domain.