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House of Cards
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House of Cards

by Anthony Ferguson

I woke to find another brick gone this morning. That made six in the past month. Maureen didn’t notice of course. The light was shining right in my eyes through the hole where the brick should have been. She looked at me like I was mad, as she usually does.

But as I had told her insistently, this had been happening for some time. I put it down to the wayward youths who always seemed to be hanging around our street. I was sure they were doing it. I would watch them through the curtains in the evening, while Maureen tut-tutted at me, flicking through the television stations with the remote.

Why do they have to loiter out there all night? Don’t parents discipline their kids anymore? Don’t they care where they go, what they do? It was frustrating to me. When I was their age, my old man wanted to know everything I was up to. He’d always find out too, and wallop! I’d get it, a back-hander right across the face. But at least I knew who I was.

I made my way down the hallway, treading carefully to avoid the mounds of old newspaper and sundry other obstacles. That woman was getting very lax in her housework I thought. I must speak to her about it. There were more bricks gone from here too, and in the lounge. You could see right out into the road through some of the cracks now, and the wind moving through them made an eerie whistling noise. Like the house was making its own protest at the neglect. A family needs its privacy, this wasn’t right.

I thought I heard the boy pottering in his room. I made to knock lightly on the door, but thought better of it. He wouldn’t back me up either, he never does. I still remember when he was a kid. I built this big sandpit out front of the house for him to play with his Matchbox toys in. Every day when I came in from work, he’d be there in that sandpit, racing the cars around the little tracks he’d made. But never once did he acknowledge me. Not once. It was supposed to be like the movies, where the boy sees his dad coming up the street and he runs up squealing with joy to give him a hug, “Daddy, Daddy! You’re home.” But not him, he was always a strange one that kid. So quiet and morose. It really hurt me, made me angry.

I used to buy him these little chocolate cars wrapped in bright crinkled paper I remember. They only cost a few cents and it was worth it just to see the expression on his face. The chocolate had raisins in it. It was always a dilemma whether you’d keep the car in its wrapper and play with it, or unwrap it and eat it. You had to peel the gaily-coloured paper really carefully or else you’d rip it. You could see his mind working over as he studied them. Those were the only times we were truly together, me, Maureen, the boy, walking around the shops and laughing, every Friday evening, on payday.

I got into the car and stared out through the drizzle from the carport. Winter was coming on again. Got to get those holes fixed. I pulled out of the driveway warily and scanned the road for any sign of those damn kids, but they probably wouldn’t be out yet. Too early for them, they mostly come out at night.

I parked it out back and climbed the short stairwell to the lift and my office, which stood on the third floor of a dilapidated brownstone on the old side of town. Out the window, the few remaining employees of the once mighty merchant companies scuttled around the decaying edifices as the pounding and clanging of heavy equipment sounded a death knell for somebody. The whole thing seemed to be held together by grime. I swear it often felt like a good puff of wind would bring it all tumbling down.

On certain days you could almost see the ghosts of old buildings that were no longer there. Sometimes, stone and mortar can be as fragile as memory. Once something has gone, we forget all too easily.

Old Bill Johnson shuddered involuntarily at the sight of a nearby tenement imploding noiselessly before him through the rain-spattered window. For as long as I could remember now the company appeared to consist of him and me. The others had just faded away over the years. It didn’t faze me. I was always better suited to working alone I reckoned.

He stood before me briefly and I looked up into his watery pale blue eyes. Those eyes spoke to me of loss. I figured Johnson suffered the kind of loneliness prevalent among the elderly, having watched the life slowly drain out of those they loved.

“Should have sold up and taken their money when I had the chance.” He gesticulated toward the clouded pane, his frail presence almost tactile as he brushed beside me, footsteps leaving an insignificant trail in the dust on the floor.

Dusk was starting to fall as I pulled into the driveway and with consternation I noticed some of them gathering in the lengthening shadows. I had begun to regret the time the previous week when I had reproached them, asked them what they were doing on the streets after dark. Now they seemed to be following me, watching every move I made. Maybe I was over reacting. Perhaps it was just a generation thing. All the same I found it hard to ease my suspicions.

I counted the number of missing bricks as I put the key in the door. Was it six or seven now? I had lost track again. Maureen looked at me strangely as I peered through a crack in the curtains. “They’re out there again.” I warned. She didn’t seem to care. Just carried on with what she was doing.

Maureen never wanted to have a second child. Not after what I went through the first time she said. I wouldn’t have minded, but never pushed the issue. Best let her have it her way. But I often wondered if the patter of a child’s voice around the house might have brought her back from wherever it was the woman I married had gone.

She was getting worse lately. I figured she was going through the change that all women experience, and sadly, the encounter seemed to have drained her of all vitality. Now every minor task seemed to vex her, and nothing could alleviate the pall of gloom that had descended on the house.

I had a terrible fright on the way home the following evening. A group of them surrounded the car as I slowed to pull into the driveway. They gripped the chassis and began rocking it up and down. They were all around me, glaring malevolently through the windows. Yet they never said a word. It’s the darkness that makes them bolder. Thankfully, they appeared to tire of it after a while and went away, but I was shaken nonetheless.

Maureen seemed particularly miserable, even more than usual. It must be very boring, stuck in this house all day. I had often asked her why she didn’t get out and find herself a job. Something appropriate, a position in a typing pool perhaps.

A sudden rustling sound made me jump, and I took a precursory glance through the blinds. I’m sure I saw them moving in the twilight out there. Then the sound came again, and I was relieved to discover it was just the wind echoing through the cracks in the wall. There were more of them now.

Had trouble starting the car this morning. No doubt those kids had been tampering with it. I made a mental note to give it a thorough check when I got home, but it eventually fired up okay so I made it into work. As soon as I reached the stairs however, I had another shock.

The builders had finally encroached upon our doorstep, and now they’d roped our entire building off with yellow tape. There was a sign attached to the wall which read ‘Demolition site. Keep clear’. This didn’t make sense. I tried the lift but it wasn’t working. Any further ingress halted by a locked door.

I stepped back onto the street and yelled up at the darkened window for Bill. He didn’t respond. He was getting a little deaf I recalled. A sense of impending panic overtook me and I hammered on the door, dislodging a pall of dust from the faded lettering of the company sign. Someone had put a rock through one of the lower panes. More vandals I’ll bet.

I went back to the car in a trance.

When I got home, the front door was wide open. There was a van pulled up to the kerb outside. I walked in slowly. There were people inside, but Maureen wasn’t there. They were moving things, putting them in the truck. Someone was asking me if I was alright, a young woman.

A man put his arm around my shoulder and guided me toward the door. I was asking them what they had done with my wife. I had this memory of an argument, Maureen rushing at me and pummeling me on the chest. She was screaming at me, her eyes teary and wild. “You drove him away. You never loved him.” She said it over and over. She clawed at my face.

They had to cut him free from the wreckage, the boy. They had to prise the mangled steel open delicately, like they were unwrapping something precious. I remembered it now. It was on the six o’clock news. Then I broke free from their grip and ran back across the threshold, into the house. They followed me into the boy’s room, coaxing me gently. On the shelf by the bed I picked them up and held them, the little chocolate cars wrapped in tinfoil, one for every year he’d been away.

Copyright Anthony Ferguson 2005

Anthony Ferguson is a public servant whose work has previously appeared in the ezines Suspect Thoughts and Camp Horror. He holds a BA and a Masters degree in Literature and Australian History.

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