Remember to Forget (Part 3)
Aaron sits in his attic office, clearing emails, eager to wrap things up so he can enjoy a lazy Friday evening with Oliver and Elizabeth. For the past few days, he’s bunkered himself against recent disturbances, pushing away thoughts about flies or the thing at the fair or the gap in his memories. His appointment with Dr Timson on Wednesday came and went, as did the follow up calls from her office, asking why he didn’t attend.
Instead, he’s found solace in the routine tasks of family life: tidying the kitchen, making Oliver his favourite meal of fish and chips or taking the dog for a walk. Fulfilling these responsibilities define him now, not a series of random events which spiralled out of control twenty years ago.
So, at 4PM, work complete, he smiles, closes the laptop, and starts off downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Oliver will be home from school soon. Aaron looks forward to quizzing him about his day, talking about teachers and friends and playground games.
He flicks the switch on the kettle, and his phone buzzes, the screen declaring ‘number unknown’. Aaron answers.
“It’s Janet Mills, Oliver’s teacher.”
He frowns. “Hi. Is everything all right?”
“Oliver is fine. He’s here with me now. It’s just, I’d like you to come to the school, please, if that’s possible. To talk something over.”
“Sure. What’s it all about?” he asks.
“There‘s been an incident.”
“Yes, I’ll explain when you get here. I think it will be better to talk in person.”
“Okay.” Aaron ends the call, a knot of worry forming in the pit of his stomach. He throws on a coat and hurries out of the house, making the short walk to the primary school in just a few minutes. He enters the
When he arrives at reception, he’s he is surprised to be told to go to the headteacher’s office, deepening his concern. He knocks and enters all in one movement and finds. his son sat in front of the desk, Janet Mills and the headteacher, talking conspiratorially in the corner of the room. They both hurry over to take their places on the other side of the desk. The headteacher, a usually friendly grey-haired woman he usually sees at the school gate, pursing her lips and gesturing for him to sit down. The room is suspended in silence.
Aaron expects them to begin, but both the teachers seem lost for words.
“What’s happened?” Aaron prompts.
Janet Mills points to an object on the headteacher’s desk. Aaron had not noticed it before. A large, glass jar with a screw-top. The kind found on the counter in a fish n chip shop or, once upon a time, on the bar in a pub, for pickled onions or hard-boiled eggs. The thought of it leaves a sour taste at the tip of Aaron’s tongue.
“This happened, Mr Matthews.” Janet Mills says.
“I don’t understand.”
Mrs Tolworth, the headteacher, raises a palm to Ms Mills, a signal that she will take over now. “Oliver brought that jar into class.”
“Okay.” Aaron looks over to his son, who is gripping the arms of his chair and staring down at his shoes.
Tolworth continues, “It was filled to the brim with flies. Horrible, disgusting houseflies. Thousands and thousands of them. He brought it into his classroom, opened the lid and released them, among his classmates.”
Aaron’s eyes go wide. His mouth drops open.
“Ms Mills tells me it was pandemonium. Children screaming. Running out of the room in terror. She acted quickly, got them out of there and shut the doors containing the problem. We’ve had to call in an emergency pest control company, at great expense.”
Janet Mills cannot contain herself. She lets out a whimper. “They were crawling all over our faces.”
“We are going to have to write to the other parents. There will be health concerns, demands to know how this happened.”
Aaron picks up his mobile phone and sees the screen. It is lit up with new messages coming in every seconds on the class parents’ whattapp group.
He looks across to Oliver again. “Is this true, Olly? Is this what you did?”
The boy looks up at his father, bottom lip quivering, and bursts into tears. “I had to, Daddy! I had to!”
Aaron pulls the boy close to him, knowing already that, somehow, it is he who should be making amends, not his son. “What do you mean, you had to?”
“He called me over to the fence during play-time, gave me the jar. I didn’t want to take it, but he made me promise. Said that he would hurt you and Mummy if I didn’t.”
“What did he look like, Oliver? The man.”
“He was the man from the fairground. The old man with the dirty clothes.”
Mist-ridden pathways arc in every direction, arteries of a solemn, grey-green beast. Peckham Rye swallows his thoughts, hungry for dreams.
Aaron takes a muddy desire-line from east to west, hunched as he walks, hands shoved into his coat pocket against the November cold. At the western perimeter, he turns and follows the road south, up Forest Hill, the same path he took with Jennifer and Toby on that near-forgotten night, long ago.
He moves automatically, trudging forwards, head down. Aaron did not tell Angela or Oliver he was going out. Lying in bed at 5AM this morning, wide awake after another sleepless night, he decided this was the only option left.
It should be tricky to find his intended destination, but when he reaches the back streets at the top of the hill, Aaron has no trouble selecting turns. Round and round he goes, Friern Road, Underhill Road, back to Friern. He takes the same left at the same junction twice, then a third time, eventually emerging onto the street with the pub.
Little has changed since the night with Toby and Jennifer. The decay is palpable, the homes near derelict, abandoned.
A wooden scaffold proffers the pub sign, dangling over the pavement, like cheese in a mousetrap. Aaron approaches, slowly, and sees the image on the sign denied to him in hypnosis. He grimaces and recoils, but is compelled to look again.
The image on the sign is obscene. The style, pastel coloured in pinks, greens and greys, reminds him of Victorian cartoons in Punch and London News, where grand figures sliced up the globe or dined off tables made of continents.
Instead of Gladstone or Disraeli or John Bull, it offers a figure with the bulbous, fatty appendages and the belly of an obese man. Flesh and skin are joined in places with a grey mottled substance. The basic arrangement of limbs is human, but the thing is divided into sections, alternating between grey-matter and flesh.
It stands, arms outstretched, unclothed, flaccid out-sized penis sprouting from the groin. The combination of brazen nakedness and Victorian ascetic jarring, transgressive. It makes Aaron think of indecent images scrawled on schoolboy’s toilet walls. In addition to its arms, there are pairs of appendages, stick-like limbs protruding from the shoulder, bent at unnatural angles. Near its mouth, thin white antennae grope for the night air.
Aaron spies the sign selectively, focussing only on small areas of the picture, never the whole. He avoids looking directly at the head and face entirely, only allowing it to settle in his peripheral vision. Somehow he knows looking at it would be difficult, distressing.
He clears his throat and moves beneath the sign, frowning, now regarding the exterior of the pub. Flaked red paint on the frames and boards over a window speak of neglect and abandonment. No sound escapes the interior, but why would it at 6AM?
He steps forward, reaches out to the handle and pushes. The door opens.
Stepping into this place, pressing down on this particular door handle, hearing the precise creak of the hinge, is part of him, bone deep. He has done this many many times before, willingly, happily. He has never resided here, never spent the night inside these walls, but it has been a home, a place he was supposed to be.
The pub is empty, dark and silent.
He presses the switch on the wall. Lights flicker, then die. Still, he can make out the bar, tables and chairs, some toppled, some upright. From deeper inside, he detects the sound of water dripping.
Aaron advances, floorboards groaning under each step. He leans on the bar because it feels natural, familiar. There are bottles of spirits clamped upside down on the back wall, and taps on the bar bearing the labels of long-lost ales: Hook Norton Pale. Pallister’s. Bankside Stout.
He moves away from the bar, picks a table, corrects a fallen chair and sits down. This is where he sat with Toby and Jennifer, the first time they came here. There is an ashtray in the centre of the table made of thick, heavy looking glass, filled to the brim with grey dust.
A movement from behind the bar: shuffling and the clinking of glass. A figure raises itself up and twists its neck left and right, back and forth. The silhouette is short, shrunken. He does not know its name or role, but even in the half-light, there is still a creeping familiarity to it.
It is the old man from the fair. “Canker” The name comes to Aaron like a butterfly suddenly deciding to rest in the palm of his hand.
“Welcome back fine sir, welcome back indeed.” The old man, Canker says, voice warbling, uneven, neither adult nor child.
“Who are you?” Aaron asks.
Canker laughs, a sneaky, unsavoury chuckle. “Brain like a sieve is it?”
Aaron presses his hands to his face, rubs his eyes. “I want to know what’s happening to me. I want you to leave my family alone.”
“Your hair is all gone.” The voice is suddenly casual, matter of fact. “You used to have such lovely hair. All the girlies liked it.”
Aaron sighs and shakes his head. “Tell me what’s going on, I dream of this place. I want to know…”
But he can’t finish because Canker on him without warning, jumping over the bar, pouncing at an impossible speed. Before Aaron even knows what is happening, there is a face pressed into his, rancid spittle flecking his cheeks. The sudden invasion of space leaves him breathless, reeling back from the mouth.
“We will not be spoken to like this. Is that clear? Left alone! That was not the deal, sonny Jim.”
Close up, the face is withered, belonging to a man who should not be this strong, this quick. He grips Aaron by the collar, knuckles forced into his neck, making it difficult for him to breath
“Who? Who is he?” Aaron is wheezing, his voice small, pathetic.
The old man squeals, and his snarl turns to pursed lips, as if he might kiss Aaron on the lips. Instead, he releases him and flops down onto a chair. “You don’t remember a thing? He will be pleased.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?”
The old man smiles like a child who knows where all the sweeties are hidden. “The top banana. His Lordship. He who must be obeyed!”
“I just want things to go back the way they were. I want to be left alone with my family, please.”
“You did a deal, Mr Man. You were his favourite. Did the best job for his lordship. That’s why he let you have you way for a while. Wife and kid. That’s what you said. You wanted a normal life for a while.
“But that’s over now.”
Aarons hands are shaking. He tries t make them stop, pressing them onto the table, but he can’t.
He could stand and walk out of the pub, find his way back to Peckham Rye and then home. He could hold his wife and son, eat breakfast with them, go for a walk in the park, go to the cinema. It would be the easiest thing in the world. But certain things are becoming clearer to him now.
Whoever this Canker is, whatever Aaron was doing during the missing years. It started here and it must be reckoned with before he can move on.
He looks at Canker, directly into his beady, distrusting eyes. “I need to know, now. Take me too him.”
Canker smiles and pats the back of Aarons hand. “His Lordship will be pleased.”
End of part 3