You describe it as looking out from the grotto. I imagine a bright aperture piercing the shadows and revealing a glimpse of urban ruin: car bodies, broken bottles, stained mattresses. The landscape of your memory is roughly hewn, a dirt track engraved by bike wheels and bare feet. Discarded signs litter this panorama, barking code in metal, paper and cardboard: John’s Boat Repairs, Fiery End for Family of Nine, Grisly Find in Unknown Hotspot, African Goods. Some signs are torn, and slur: thrill killer, mists of time, Double Dutch. The dull weight of language is harder to bear in this place. When it’s dusk you can see the suburbs’ dirty glow.
You only remember details of your old street. There’s that bloodstain on the road, this boarded window, the brown brick apartment block haunted by a niggling odour. Your recollection compresses events, places, time. You see speeding shadows slice the houses and for an instant, on an alleyway’s asbestos fence, they trace the silhouette of a man, then an ape, and then melt away.
The threat of the bomb is ever present. At every window, curtain twitchers monitor your movements. They’ve rigged up tiny microphones. You can sense them breathing quietly beneath your floorboards. You’ll survive the blast but your skin will peel and your teeth will drop out. It might happen in Phys Ed or detention.
You’ve been held back and Mr Henderson is marking at his desk, pretending to ignore you, his nose whistling every time he exhales. His eyes flicker between the page and the vision of you hunched over your task. You are feverishly assembling a model molecule. Your grasp of chemistry is weak so you are guided by pure intuition; this raw dowel to this coloured ball. The wood is grimy from years of continual handling. This molecule will exist in the future. It will unlock all of the secrets that we, in the past, can only dimly perceive. This is the molecule that will kill you. This would be an excellent time for the bomb to hit. But it never does.
Henderson releases you at 4:15pm. You’re not ready to go home so you ride your bike to the park. As usual, you’re drawn to the pond. Mosquito larva forms a skin on its surface that is sliced through by waterfowl in pursuit of food scraps. The birds take refuge on small islands thick with vegetation; pinpricks of wilderness in the midst of cultivated gardens and rusting playground equipment. It’s not possible to penetrate the thicket with the eye; small glimpses flash into sight when the wind picks up. You catch a glimpse of something through the swaying vegetation: the sandy hair of a small boy, maybe five years old. He’s crying.
The pond is peppered by alarming signage instructing you not to swim because the water will make you sick, and if you see one of these feral turtles, tell the council, and they will kill it. Green and brown plumes unfurl beneath the water’s scummy surface. The boy on the island is frantic. You call but he can’t hear you. Take off your shoes and socks, launch onto the sucking mud and into the khaki waters beyond.
Some cockheads drinking by the swings have noticed, they tell you not to drown and then they laugh. As you approach the island the water deepens, swallowing you up to the armpits. Fuck it’s cold. You hoist yourself onto land with a low branch, dripping toxic water and facing a solid wall of rushes. Inching into the wilderness, your legs are sliced and your bare feet are pricked. It’s cooler and darker here, and strangely silent. Trees shudder with the knowledge of your trespass. You call to the boy and he returns in a small voice, “Over here”.
You push through scrub, legs bleeding, clothes cold and heavy. The boy is crouching by the prostrate body of an adolescent a little older than you, shirtless, his back shot with acne. In the island’s half-light his unmoving body is luminous white. You feel faint, summoned to touch this unearthly flesh. Grip his shoulder and roll him over. An anaemic blue eye swivels towards you and closes. Mud and pulpy vomit cling to cheek and nose. He stinks. “He fell,” the boy whispers. You laugh, relieved. He’s maggoted. Screwing up his face, he pushes your arm away and tells you to fuck off. He rolls over.
You turn and trample back through the thicket, ignoring new lacerations on your skin and a blooming sense of something, embarrassment maybe. Back in the water your slow feet encounter sticks and rolling cans; a prickling anxiety reminds you that you’ve seen syringes here before, and didn’t they find a body one time? You remember the adolescent’s pale skin, his dead weight. You face a long ride home, damp clothes whipped by the wind, the stench of the water traveling with you.
Back on your old street, there’s that stain on the road, tracing a rusty line all the way behind a parked car in a driveway. You follow it, expecting to find a dead animal, but there’s nothing there. You know this house. Greg.
Greg died on the toilet with his cheek pressed against the tiled wall. When they found him during a ‘welfare check’ that side of his face had rotted right off; your brother told you. Greg was a hoarder; he lived among boxes, magazines, food scraps, rats. Your mum works for Silver Chain so she went over to clean and let you tag along. Greg collected everything, with no discernment for value or taste. Some things still bore the faded tag from this auction or that deceased estate. He had countless biscuit tins containing photographs of strangers, probably unclaimed from the chemist’s where he worked, before he got sacked. Some were obscene, others simply intriguing. There was one of a naked man reflected in a mirror, cradling the camera, a towel draped over his head to conceal his face. Another showed an overweight tabby in baby clothes, gripped by hairy hands. You didn’t show your mum, you came back in the night and buried three tins in black garbage bags behind Greg’s shed. You never went back for them—a family lives there now—but no matter, those images are etched deep into your consciousness, isolated and persistent, returning in dreams.
You caught Greg’s disease; now you too collect images, objects, texts that arrest you with their pregnant weight. Plastic tubs stuffed with newspaper clippings teeter atop mounds of papers and disparate objects—tubular steel, walking frames, photographic negatives. You are at home amongst these materials. It almost seems a shame to use them, to deprive them of their raw potential. But as comforting as your grotto feels, you are driven to escape, to purge yourself of this useless detritus, to exorcise the nameless things that grip you.
Your grotto has fuzzy boundaries, existing both within and outside of your memory, layered like prosthesis and phantom limb. You speak from beyond the grotto, transmitting coded messages through image, object and text. These things, unleashed, take root in another’s mind, colonising its landscape with alien islands. You are submerged in the grotto, looking out. When you step outside it takes some time before your eyes adjust to the light.
Dr Thea Costantino
All works and texts copyright Matthew Hunt or the appropriate Author.