Extract > The Death of Mr Punch
George stood outside Perry’s room gathering his thoughts. He’d taken off the striped hat with the bell on the end and stuck it in a drawer. He was now clutching two pens, which would double as a makeshift crucifix, plus a mug of ‘holy water’ – half tap, half urine. He knocked on the door. The hall now smelt of mildew, which was better than the usual food-driven fetor. He could hear Perry on the other side, mumbling to himself and undoing the latch. After a few moments the door opened a few inches and Perry’s leering face appeared. ‘Heeere’s Georgie,’ he said, before finally waving him into the room. ‘I knew you wouldn’t desert me, old boy.’
‘At your service, sir,’ said George.
‘Lovely jubbly,’ said Perry, miming firing a gun. He seemed very tense.
George stopped and looked around the room. ‘So what exactly seems to be the trouble?’
Perry sighed. ‘Well, by all accounts, George, we seem to have an overenthusiastic magazine fan on our hands. A poltergeist with a fixation on Railway Modeller. Particularly the early and now rare issues.’
‘Have you tried telling this entity to pick on more recent editions?’ asked George.
‘No. Hadn’t thought of that,’ said Perry, studying the mug and pens in George’s hand. ‘I see you’ve come prepared. Looks like a fine white vintage wine in there.’
George offered him the mug. ‘Please feel free to try some. It’s holy water.’
‘Er, smells a little fruity if I’m honest,’ said Perry, grimacing and waving the mug away.
George paused to look around the room in fake solemnity. It was stuffed full of paraphernalia. If it wasn’t in a glass cabinet it was framed in a box on the wall or on a shelf or spilling out from under the bed. model cars, planes and trains, small plastic figures, magazines and more magazines.
‘Lots of kit, I think you’ll agree, eh, George?’
‘Definitely plenty to throw around …’ said George, spying an official-looking badge on the mantelpiece.
‘Aha, well spotted.’ Perry went over to the mantelpiece and took the badge in his hand. ‘I used to be a community police officer, you know. I keep this badge. Can’t use it any more. Just a souvenir. That’s the worrying thing, really. So far magazines seem to be the favourites to throw around, but all of these other treasures – as you can see – are at risk, too. And I wouldn’t want to get in the way of one of these things flying across the room.’
George nodded sagely. ‘Well, let’s see what we can do then.’
He placed the mug of watered-down urine on a shelf near by, then adopted a theatrical pose with his hands, touching the tip of each thumb to the tip of each index finger.
‘This is the guyan mudra position,’ he said, standing in the middle of the room. ‘It brings calm and opens doors. The index finger is Jupiter, and the thumb is the ego.’
Perry nodded sheepishly and backed away into a corner.
After a few moments George took the two pens from his pocket and held them aloft. ‘Biros,’ he said, taking a deep breath and pretending to close his eyes. ‘Now, please be silent.’ He was actually squinting at the window to keep his balance as he held up the crucifix pens. After a while he spoke. ‘Hmm,’ he said in a numb voice, ‘I’m getting something … magazines. Glossy pictures, yes. Old ones, too.’
‘Railway Modelling Monthly by any chance?’ ventured Perry from his corner.
‘Yes. That’s the one. Rails. Wheels …’
‘Steam Railway? That’s monthly, too.’
‘Yes, yes, Steam Railway. It’s all coming to me … Chug, chug. You like throwing things, don’t you? Clickety-clack. Oh yes. Throwing things …’
George held the pens aloft now and slowly made the shape of a cross.
‘Goodness. You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’
‘mmm.’ George raised his hand in another theatrical gesture. ‘I can definitely feel a presence … Do you like model trains and railways? Well, do you? Yes? Aha, well, throwing is bad. No more magazine throwing, please.’
All it needed was another couple of minutes of this pantomime, followed by some incantations.
‘You must stop it. Stop it now, I say … Now go to the light. The light, I say …’
‘Ooh, I’m coming over all tingly,’ said Perry. ‘That’s the spirit, eh?’
‘Now is not the time for bad jokes,’ said George, as an aside. ‘Unless, of course, you want it to start on the glass cabinets. Demons thrive on bad jokes.’
George opened his eyes and solemnly put down the pens, then he held up the mug of odorous unholy water to the window. It was slightly warm. ‘Be gone,’ he said, tipping the mug and pouring some of the diluted urine over the carpet.
‘Steady on, old chap. I only had that cleaned last month.’
‘It’s only a few drops,’ said George. ‘It’ll work wonders. I can feel a presence all over here. A child … A boy. Yes, a boy. Be gone, boy!’
Perry fell silent.
‘I know you are here in this room,’ said George, pausing for effect. ‘Am I right? knock once for yes and twice for no.’
There was a loud knock. Perry jumped.
‘Thank you, Tom,’ said George under his breath.
Knock, knock. Bang bang … THUMP.
‘Er, I said knock once for yes …’ said George.
Two more knocks followed. George cleared his throat. The room was now unusually cold, and he was beginning to feel uneasy.
‘Tom?’ he said. His voice was faltering. ‘Is that you?’
Suddenly one of the curtains was drawn swiftly along the rail.
George put down the mug of unholy water and picked up the pens. ‘Be gone,’ he said, nervously holding them up to the curtains in the shape of a cross.
‘What’s happening, George?’ asked Perry.
‘Keep calm. Tom, we need some help here.’
George could feel his skin tingling. He was looking at the silhouette of a small figure standing in the doorway of the windowless bathroom. It was dark, almost too dark to see, but it was definitely the profile of a young boy. He couldn’t see his face, but he could see that he had dark hair and that he was wearing shorts held up by little braces. George could feel his heart thumping as he slowly approached the child. He knelt down a few feet away. ‘Hello, little one,’ said George. ‘Do you know Tom? Is he your friend?’ The boy stood there stock-still. ‘Do you know where little Tom is?’ asked George, peering into the darkness. There was a long pause before the boy finally nodded.
‘Er, who are you talking to?’ said Perry.
‘Shh, please,’ said George. He moved a little closer to the boy, who backed away into the darkness. ‘Are you Ok? Do you want to tell me anything?’
‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake,’ said Perry.
‘Look, will you please be quiet for just one bloody minute,’ said George angrily. He looked at the boy and pretended to shoot Perry with a gun. He couldn’t see the boy’s face, but he heard a small laugh.
‘I saw that,’ said Perry. ‘I’ll put it down to demonic possession.
The boy now took a step forward into the room. He was still obscured, but George could see that he was pointing at the badge on the mantelpiece.
Suddenly the other curtain began to close, with the room becoming darker by the second, as if a long black cloud was filling up the sky.
‘Turn the light on, Perry,’ barked George. ‘Do it now!’
‘I’m trying,’ said Perry, pressing the light switch. ‘But it just won’t work.’
There was a loud thump. Then another. Bang bang … THUMP. It sounded like something was falling down the stairs. George stood up and tried turning on the light. Perry was right. Nothing worked. He tried a table lamp, but it was no use.
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ said Perry, marching over to the curtains and pulling them open again.
George looked around. The little boy had disappeared. He felt a sudden wave of sadness, mixed with guilt. Perry looked pale as he stood there by the window, as if he was about to pass out.
‘Look, old boy, I’m suddenly beginning to feel a bit off … I can’t thank you enough, but I think you should go now.’ He put his hand on George’s back. ‘Honestly, old man. You’ve gone beyond the call of duty.’
‘Ok,’ said George, taking his mug of unholy water from the table. ‘I’ll go. But just let me finish the job.’ He moved to the middle of the room, clutching the mug and the biros. ‘Be gone,’ he cried as if on stage, suddenly dropping the mug of diluted urine, pretending it had been wrenched out of his hand.
‘Bloody hell, George,’ said Perry. ‘It stinks!’
He was right. It did. And it would stain, too.
George feigned faint horror as if witnessing a vision. ‘Message for Perry. Get out of this dump. It’s doing you no good!’
Perry was now standing by the door. The fun was over.
‘I’d really like you to leave now, George, if you would. I’ll never forget what you’ve done here. Do please let me know how I can return the favour.’
George walked to the door. He could smell the mildew from the corridor, and he could still hear the boy’s laugh in his head.
‘I’ll let you know if I need any more help,’ said Perry. ‘Brighton here we come, eh? Nice to see you, to see you nice.’
Perry all but pushed George out into the corridor and closed the door behind him.
George stood there alone out in the hall, clutching the empty mug and the crucifix biros. He put his ear to Perry’s door.
For a while it was silent, then he heard him talking out loud. ‘Leave me alone,’ he was saying. ‘It wasn’t my fault. There was nothing I could do. For God’s sake, leave me alone, will you?’
George felt disturbed as he unlocked his door and entered his room. Who was the little boy? And where the hell was Tom? He almost regretted pouring the unholy water all over the carpet. The room was dark as he went inside. It should have been bright, but the curtains were closed. The weak little patches of daylight spilling out at either end of the window were the only sources of light. He stood there for a few moments, beginning to feel weak. Instinctively he slowly knelt to the floor, just as he had done in Perry’s room.
For some reason, kneeling always seemed to bring back memories. He could hear hysterical voices now beyond the curtains, as if a crowd were out on the forecourt. The sound seemed so familiar. He could hear a drum roll, too, followed by the crash of a cymbal. George was haunted by memories wherever he went. The Brighton trip would be fun, but it would be laden with thoughts of going there as a child, staying in a hotel with leaded windows. He remembered the lounge, filled with imported palms like clustered knives, with a sad-looking woman who sang into the evening for a fee. Cutlery clanking and plates as big as wheels. Out on the promenade there was a chill wind feeling up the market stalls, with traders bundled up against the cold like Captain Scott, short on change and itching for a sale. A sea of faces pushing past. He could already smell the fish and chips and the rain in the air and the man with the pan in the van serving sausages on serviettes. Every tiny thing referred to something else in George’s mind; the longer you live, the more complex living becomes. The older you get, the more there is to recollect.
He’d always been cursed by the ability to recall scenes in vivid detail. It was why he’d started drawing. That rush of thoughts, too copious to keep inside his head. And if it wasn’t drawing it was humming. This went through three phases: first, realization that he was doing it; second, embarrassment; third, not caring. All it took was a sound or a smell to take him back, as if a spell had been cast. Broken only when the so-called real world managed to press its way back into his consciousness. It wasn’t that he disliked the memories – indeed, he thrived on them – it was just that there were too many of them. All he could think of now, though, was the shy boy in the room next door hiding in the shadows.
He’d always seen ghosts, ever since he was a child. From an early age he had complained tearfully of the ‘coldness’ that the ‘other children’ brought to his playroom. ‘Seeing the gallery and not just the picture’ was what his mother used to call it. ‘Ghosts are ten a penny,’ she’d say, waving the problem away with her hand. ‘They grope you as they pass, without so much as a by your leave.’
George, though, had always been troubled by the apparitions that his mother seemed to take in her stride.
He stood up. His back felt stiff, as always. ‘Tom? Are you there?’
The room was silent. There was no sign of the boy anywhere.
George closed his eyes. In a moment he was back on the bombsite where Tom had met his end, strewn with weed-ridden rubble, pale and dusty like an old western …
He’d never quite come to terms with the guilt he felt about Tom’s untimely death. The two of them used to pass the ruined church together on a daily basis, and every time they did George promised little Tom that one day he’d be able to have a look inside. So when the council were about to pull it down and build a housing estate in its place, as was still common in the early 1970s, he let little Tom sneak inside. It was a simple, everyday decision, but one he would regret for the rest of his life. As George stood staring at the broken altar, Tom slipped and banged his head. His skull cracked with a sickening thump as it hit the rubble. George ran out into the street and screamed for help. Then he went back in and tried to move the body. He wept like never before as he stared down at the dark inky blood seeping out on to the pale stone. Help arrived by chance, in the form of a retired ambulance man, but it was all too late.
At first Tom came back to haunt him as a spirit full of rage, tormenting him and throwing things like a poltergeist, whispering half-formed words and growling in his ears like the wind. He remembered the first night it happened. It was only a few days after the accident. He’d been woken by thunder in the middle of the night, like demonic drums, and for some reason he felt drawn to get up and look out of the window. The sky grumbled as he looked out at the trees, like mascara brushes in the moonlight. He could hear a child’s voice in one of the gardens. It was cold. He went back to bed. The rain rattled on the window as he lay there curled up like a question mark. He could hear footfalls now near by. He did not dare close his eyes for fear of what he might see, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to look. A few nights later, though, there was a breakthrough. Driven to the edge by the nightly visits, George screamed back at the noises in his ears. He railed and screeched before sinking to his knees exhausted.
Gradually, over the next few nights, a shadow began to visit him. It was the boy’s spirit this time, not the over-emotional earthbound entity that had formed around his anger. It seemed even more scared than George, taking refuge in the corners of the room, knowing neither where it was nor how it had got there. Then slowly, one night, out of the darkness, the shadow came forth. It was the faintest outline at first, stepping forward cautiously as if expecting to be punished.
But George could only love him. And he had done so ever since.