Jake Mutant - Chapter Four
By Jane Hyphen
Jake had been too tired to watch the stars or even close the curtains that night, his calves had ached and his ears had rung with all of Toby’s chatter. He woke the next morning to the sound of a train horn and lay for a few minutes wondering why it had sounded on a single line track. Who was it warning, were there sheep on the track?
The room was bright. He leaned over and unhooked the window, it banged open on the stone wall outside. Barbara had returned to her corner, she hung there looking quite unaware of the rest of the world. Quite unconsciously Jake counted her legs; you’ve lost a leg, he said and searched the window sill for it, then wondered what he would do with it should it be there. It was going to be another day of sunshine and wind. The black cows he’d seen on the walk to the beach had moved into another field and were now visible as black dots at the base of the mountain in the distance. There was something else in their field, he grabbed the binoculars and saw a red tractor moving very slowly.
Bristol was very tired and didn’t even come upstairs to greet him. After breakfast Grandad got his lawnmower out and began to tinker with it; tightening nuts and bolts with his spanner and scraping out all the old thatch which was clogging the blades. ‘I’m going to have a big tidy up today,’ he said, his white hair flying around in the breeze.
‘Grandad why did they block the lane opposite the Gordon’s house?’
‘Oh, the lane, yes, that used to be our standard way of getting to the beach, now you have to drive all the way round to the village and use the beach carpark. It’s been shut for a while, there was a problem with boys on motorbikes whizzing up and down at night, yes I used to hear them. It didn’t bother me much but it would have been worse for the Gordons of course, their house being opposite. The farmer didn’t like it either, I think it’s his land so he blocked the entrance.’
Jake nodded then headed off into the wood with Bristol trotting just ahead of him. He wasn’t in the mood for talking since Toby had filled his brain with unnecessary information. The wood was less peaceful today with the wind shaking the treetops but nonetheless lively and beautiful. A fresh drop of twigs scattered the ground, making it more difficult to achieve the silent treading which Jake so liked to master.
The brook was quite magical, it danced with little sparks of light as the water flowed, bubbling over smooth pebbles. He knelt at the water’s edge and stooped to get a close look at the life under the surface. There were long green strings of plant life flailing in the current, small creatures with long legs which scurried around with impossible speed - but were they just bits of leaf or debris? It was difficult to tell and the longer Jake gazed into the water the more his imagination filled in the gaps between reality and fiction. Downy seedheads from dandelion and thistle flew around, carried on the wind like fairies. He reckoned he caught a glimpse of the brown, deer-like creature on the Gordon’s side of the fence but he didn’t dwell on it. At home he very rarely got to venture into such deserted woodland and no tricks of the mind were going to spoil it.
He ran back to the house to fetch a drinking glass and returned to scoop up a sample of water from the brook. The light under the trees was too poor to see it properly so he walked to a clearing and held it up to the sky. He saw some sort lava and lots of tiny particles, some seemed lifeless but others appeared to be propelling themselves around the jar. I wish I had a microscope, thought Jake. There were so many things he needed; a microscope, a telescope, a dog of his own, more time with his dad, to grow up, buy a house of his own with an observatory and have everything in nice even numbers. A desperate feeling stirred his stomach. It occurred to him that the tiny creatures in the glass seemed quite happy, satisfied in their watery home or perhaps they were anxious to reach something else, something better, to get to the river or emerge from their lava, open their wings and fly away.
He put the sample back carefully and got another, this appeared to contain nothing more than a barely visible flake of something, alive or not he couldn’t tell, he fetched another and another. Each was slightly different, one contained a very fast moving spider but there were no fish. Perhaps Grandad was seeing things as well as hearing them, but was he really hearing them? Jake had certainly detected his Grandma’s voice as the water gushed out of the bath taps even if he hadn’t been able to make out what she was saying. He stopped and frowned hard, his eyes glazing over as he remembered the comfort on Grandad’s face as they’d listened to her. All the times Jake had previously run those taps alone he’d heard nothing except water hitting water.
Bored now with the brook he found a tree to climb and perched on a stout branch to get an elevated view of the wood. It was sort of exciting, the rough bark scratching his legs and the wind gusting around his ears. He got higher and higher until he was above most of the other treetops.. The air seemed so fresh and clean here, just breathing was a pleasure. Grandad was pushing the mower now, round and round, up and down, criss-crossing the grass in a very chaotic manner. Bristol cried for a few minutes at the base of the tree trunk then gave up and skulked back to the house. If Jake stood up carefully he could see into the Gordon’s garden in the distance. There was a large trampoline and what looked like a brown log in the middle of the lawn, it moved, Sorry lying in the sun? Then a football flew through the air and a gangly boy raced after it. Jake crouched down again, trying not to disturb the canopy too much. Toby was a very vigilent boy and was bound to see his head peeping above the leaves and beckon him to come over so that they could go ghostwatching at Rhuddmont coal mine.
Grandad went indoors and prepared a lunch of cheese sandwiches and slices of apple. He brought them out onto the freshly cut lawn and Jake clambered down to join him. The bread was buttered a bit too thickly for his liking and the sandwiches tasted salty and a bit sickly. He ate half a round and a few bites of another then lay down and looked at the sky; a few white clouds raced across the blue sky, carried in the wind.
‘Aren’t you going to have some apple Jake?’
Jake wasn’t in the mood for fruit, he rarely was. ‘Have you heard of Rhuddmont coal mine Grandad?’ he said.
‘Rhuddmont, yes. That place has been shut for years, decades. Why do you ask?’
‘Oh just wondering.’
‘This part of the world used to full of coal mines, men and boys came home from work covered head to toe in black dust - and their lungs were coated too.’
Grandad collected the plates and put them on a nearby plastic chair then he walked over to the pyramid of junk and began chucking bits of wood around. He created a sort of hole in the centre then instructed Jake to go back into the wood and collect lots and lots of twigs. In an instant Jake decided that he would collect eighty two twigs, no more, no less. There were many scattered around but the problem lay in deciding when twigs were promoted to sticks. He threw them into a pile near the stonewall then ran to the workshop to fetch a wheelbarrow and laid them neatly inside, sixty so far.
‘I think that’ll do Jake,’ Grandad said as he grabbed them in piles and placed them into the hole he’d made. He was wearing thick black gloves now to protect his hands.
‘No Grandad, I’ve got more.’
Jake pushed the barrow back to the edge of the wood. The truth was he didn’t have more but he was compelled to walk deeper in towards the brook searching the ground. He found eight, nine - thirteen twigs but thirteen is unlucky, quick, where’s another? He reached up and snapped one off a low branch. Bristol appeared and started to remove twigs from the pile and chew them, breaking them into little pieces. Now Jake lost sight of how many were in the pile. He shouted at Bristol to push off and began counting again. Sixteen to find now. This was becoming stressful, tiny seeds of anxiety popped in his stomach, poisoning his thoughts, increasing his pulse.
The birds seemed to taunt him with their endless twittering. A smell of smoke wafted through the wood and Jake could hear the faint crackle of a bonfire near the house. Where were all the twigs when you needed them? He headed towards the boundary fence near the Gordon’s property and found two laying on the soft, brown earth so he walked back to the brook. Beyond the brook he could see many twigs and branches lying among last autumn’s leaf-fall. Jake took off his shoes and socks and walked through the cold, bubbling water. It cooled his blood and chilled his entire body. Back at the wheelbarrow he counted twenty three twigs. What to do with the spare one? He called out to Bristol but the dog was upset and wouldn’t come so he poked it into the ground, pushing it down with his foot until it snapped.
Grandad had a mad look about him now too, was it the wind making them both crazy? The fire was tall and lively and he rushed back and forth feeding it with old furniture and bits of wood. ‘I don’t think we need those now Jake, this breeze has dried everything out, look how quickly it burns.’
‘Can I just throw them in though?’
‘Yes, just don’t get too close will you.’
The fire was unpredictable, smoke blew in one direction then suddenly another, burning Jake’s eyes and making him cough. Grandad went into the house and came out with pile of newspapers which he hurled them into the flames. Then he strode into the workshop and fetched some loppers and a saw.
‘I might cut back some of these shrubs while we’re at it,’ he said and began to sever off branches and low growing limbs of surrounding trees.
This went on for close to an hour. Jake sat on a plastic chair and had another cheese sandwich, now a smoked cheese sandwich, the taste had improved. He stared into the flames; all the sparks and crackles, the glowing embers and little explosions captivated his mind fully and he became completely relaxed as if he were dreaming.
‘Oh look, that’s what we used to call a bat when I was a boy,’ Grandad said as the fire popped and a large sooty particle flew out.
‘Did anyone die at Rhuddmont mine Grandad?’
‘Yes. I’ve no doubt that they did.’
‘Yes, it’s a very dangerous business, digging underground with metal tools, carving out great holes in the pitch darkness with only little candles to light your way.’
Jake shivered. The pyramid was reduced to a hump now and had lost some of its searing heat. Grandad began to search around for more stuff to burn, pacing back and forth, in and out of the workshop. He disappeared into the house. Jake could hear him frantically banging around in the understairs cupboard, moving things out of his way and rustling in bags. Then he went upstairs to his bedroom and banged the wardrobe doors open and shut. About ten minutes later he returned with a bundle of women's clothes.
Jake looked up, he recognised the pale blue raincoat and the tweed skirts. ‘Aren’t they Grandma’s?’ he said gently.
‘Yes,’ Grandad’s voice was louder now, as if he was trying to drown out his own doubts. ‘She won’t be wearing them now will she. Might as well burn them, that way they’re got rid of aren’t they.’
Jake wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, he searched for something to say, something tactful - to put an end to it. ‘But a charity might want them Grandad.’
‘No,’ Grandad seemed a little out of control now. He’d removed his gloves and was checking the pockets of her clothes, bashing them with his potato hands. ‘I want to burn it all Jake,’ he said, ‘I’ve wanted to for a while and now you’re here with me, it doesn’t seem so daunting.’
At once Jake felt burdened with responsibility. I must stop this, he thought, otherwise mum will be upset and Grandad might regret his actions. He opened his mouth to say something but found himself unable to speak. Grandad returned to the house and came back out with more of his late wife’s things, a diary and some paintings she’d made, he dumped them next to the fire.
Jake felt heavy, paralysed by the gravity of the situation and unable to react. He recalled a horrible moment in school when he was waiting outside the head teacher’s office to do his time tables certificate. Isobel Gurney from the other class was approaching with the register and she dropped to the floor and began to fit. Nobody else was around and Jake knew what he needed to do because everyone knew what to do when Izzy had a fit; shout for help and get a teacher but instead he simply sat and watched, unable to move or speak. A school secretary had appeared and immediately called out for the school nurse. Later the secretary had described Jake’s passive response to his teacher by saying, ‘He just stood there like a frozen chicken.’ Jake had felt the serrated spoon stir his innards. For a week or so afterwards he barely said a word to anyone. This had been a bad moment in his life and he was traumatised, not by the sight of Izzy’s seizure by by his reaction to it, or rather his unreaction.
Jake shook his head and took a deep breath. I mustn’t be a frozen chicken, he thought. He felt very nervous and a tingling sensation in his lower back. ‘I think we should wait until Mum gets back from America,’ he said loudly.
Grandad removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. ‘I reckon I could burn it all Jake, the whole damn lot of it, the furniture, the pictures, all the ornaments and those little crosses she put on the wall. I don’t know why we moved here for me to rattle around on my own. I think I should get shot of it all on that hungry fire there and then I’m free. I can move to Spain or Italy, somewhere sunny.’
Jake got up and sat down on the ground next to him. Placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder he said, ‘There’s a gate between thoughts and actions Grandad, you don’t have to go through it.’
Grandad sort of collapsed onto the ground into a sitting position, his face slowly relaxed and he smiled. They both laughed and Grandad picked up the pale blue coat and smelled it. He sighed, went into the kitchen to fetch a plastic bag and started to shove the clothes into it. ‘Maybe I could drop these off at the charity shop in town Jake. Would you come along with me?’
‘Yes of course.’ Jake wondered why he couldn’t go to the charity shop alone. Perhaps he was frightened of getting rid of Grandma’s things and the fire would have given him less time to think about it. ‘But do you really want to move to Spain Grandad?’
‘I don’t know, sometimes I do. Bristol Rovers isn’t so keen though. Although he misses out on the beach these days. I never seem to go anymore, it just makes me sad.’
Jake became very animated. ‘I can take him,’ he said. ‘Toby goes all the time on his own, it’s no trouble.’
The mood was lighter now. Grandad went into the kitchen and fetched the metal shelf out of the oven, he placed it on two towers of bricks on the edge of the fire and built a sort of make-shift barbecue. They had sausages wrapped in slices of bread with tomato ketchup squirted inside, Bristol has one too. The wind died down the stars came out. They sat in plastic chairs staring at the sky. Jake fetched his binoculars. He identified the summer triangle as from there was able to map the various constellations. It felt good to him to have a connection with the universe beyond the confines of planet earth. Despite its vast size sometimes planet earth seemed very small and enclosed to Jake and he was reassured by the presence of the endless space in which it floated. It’s all relative, he thought, then his mind turned to the dark confines of Rhuddmont coal mine. The idea of it terrified him.
Grandad kept falling forward in his chair and every now and then his breathing turned to snoring. The fire was mostly ashes albeit glowing orange in places. Jake went up to his room. He refrained from turning on the light and felt his way along the bed to the window where he knelt for a while. It was possible to see the outline of the top of the mountain but not much else was visible except a tiny white light on the lane,a torch. Who's that? thought Jake, Mr Gordon walking Sorry, the farmer checking his flock? For a few moments he watched the light bobbing around but he became overcome with tiredness, rolled into bed and fell instantly asleep.