A hole in the kitchen
It was chasing that damned mouse that had him rummaging beneath the kitchen cupboards, removing the boards and shining the light from his mobile phone into the darkness, revealing the small hole in the tiled floor, and the small chain protruding from that hole, its last link looped over a thin nail hammered into the flooring to stop it slipping down. Fluff and mouse poo adhered to the links, accrued over donkeys' years of dereliction behind the newly painted façade of the boards, suggesting the chain might be greased. Upon its discovery he’d forgotten about the mouse, but now recalling the purpose behind his incursion into the hidden reaches of the kitchen he assumed he’d uncovered its bolthole, having already blocked up every other crevice, crack and gap in the kitchen with wire wool. So, he should fill this last, peculiar hole.
But not without pulling on that chain first. For what else is a chain for, if not for pulling?
There was just room enough to reach in, stretching up to his elbow to seize the chain, make a fist around it, and lift it off the nail, and then retract his arm. Memories of abortive childhood fishing trips came to mind. He’d never caught anything so never got the taste for it, but gripping the end of this chain that slipped down into the darkness reminded him of the wet afternoons sitting by the black waters of the old canal.
There was little give in the chain, it soon pulled taught. He didn’t want to snap it, god knows how old it was, so rather than give a good hard tug, he braced a knee against the cupboard and leaned back, increasing the pressure gradually. There was a click, a grinding he could sense vibrating up the chain as it began to move, albeit still with resistance. More little jumps, clicks, stalls and starts, all felt through the links, as if some centuries-dormant mechanism was stirring, stiff but not seized, still greased although undoubtedly clogged like the chain with the dust and fluff of ages. And mouse poo.
But then, the cogs and levers of whatever mechanism that lay beneath seemed to reach the end of their sequence and seized up. He pulled hard, one last tug. The chain moved again, seemed to reach a tipping point, jolted, and locked up with a clunk that reverberated under the floorboard and rattled his old cooker. That was it. No more give. In the anti-climax following the chain’s refusal to budge he realised he’d been fantasising about floors dropping away, walls tipping, holes appearing, into which he would peer down into an abyss of wonders.
Something more exciting than the poorly painted décor, his peeling lino and his old pots and pans.
The moment passed. He made a tea, and considered the mouse.
Later that afternoon, before it got dark, for Autumn was upon the land, he left the house to smoke his French cigarettes. It was his dear old mother who had always insisted that smoking French cigarettes was an outside hobby. In the first few weeks after she’d snuffed it he’d smoked a packet a day with the windows shut, choosing a different room for each cigarette, but after a month or so his opinion of her softened and he decided that she’d been right all along. So he took himself off, walking to the nearby common – only a street away - where he’d park himself on a bench, and smoke one, or maybe two, depending on the weather.
There’d always be a few dog walkers, hand-holding lovers, other smokers and what-have-you, this being a rare green space in the city, but he was guaranteed some space – and a bench – of his own. But on that something had drawn a crowd. He was more put out than intrigued, but the oohs and aahs and the arrival of a police car onto the grass piqued his interest and he finished his first cigarette and wandered over to see what they might all be gawping at.
Most of the crown had formed a semi-circle around the far corner of the common, not far from the main road, where a dense clump of hawthorn bushes had grown. He weaved and pushed his way to the front of the throng to find himself staring at... or into... a hole.
To be fair it was a big hole. Enormous even. Big enough to walk into. And that was just what one was supposed to do, it seemed, for on closer inspection he saw there were stone steps descending into the depths. The steps were slimed green with lichen, and after going down a they took a turn to the left - as did the hole – and disappeared from view. He leaned in, smelled the rot and mould, and thought he could just discern a faint light emanating from below, illuminating those last steps before they turned. He wasn’t the adventurous type, he took his holidays in Ramsgate, but he was sorely tempted to venture down. He toyed with the idea. Placed a brogued foot onto the first step.
A hand on his shoulder.
He turned to face a youngish man, well-groomed, a smart black raincoat over a smart black suit. He was flanked by two uniformed coppers.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to step back sir.”
Another policeman was busying himself with winding out that yellow police tape across the front of the hole.
“What is it then?” asked Mr Ronson.
“Can't say,” said the plain-clothes plod.
And so he withdrew, leaving the crowd to gawp at the police, the tape and the hole with the steps going down, and returned home, smoking another cheeky cigarette whilst on the hoof. He regarded ambulatory smoking as bad form and enjoyed the frisson from this flouting of etiquette.
And as the sun dropped behind the terraced houses of the adjacent street, so it became almost too dark to read but didn’t quite warrant turning on the lamps, there came a tap at the front door. Not a knock, for he had a knocker, and a perfectly serviceable bell. No, this was a tappity tap at the door with something hard. Mr. Ronson ignored it, as he ignored most first knockings, and he wasn’t about to be summoned forth by a common rapping. But there it was again, and he somehow knew it would persist.
He marched up the hallway in his socks and opened the front door.
There stood a small man, bowler-hatted and bespectacled, besuited, with a furled umbrella in his hand.
There was something odd about him, Mr Ronson decided. Something theatrical. That would be the bowler hat. A studied look. Out of time and place.
“Good afternoon Mr Ronson. Or is it evening already? My name is Mr Gwydion. I’m from the Ministry. I believe you may have an... aperture... on your property.”
“Whitehall. Where all the best ones are kept.”
“I have a what?”
“An aperture. A breach?”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve come to have a look. And a chat. There has been a change? To your property?”
“How would you know?”
“I am from the ministry.”
“We felt the tremors.”
“When it opened. You do have one? An opening? A chasm? A breach?
A hole? In the floor?”
“Yes I do.” He saw no reason to lie.
“Please Mr Ronson. May I come in?”
Mr Ronson relented.
In the kitchen, Mr Gwydion pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and parked himself upon it, all without an invitation to sit. He also neglected to remove his bowler hat. He sat bolt upright, his knees together, his umbrella balanced across them.
“Down to brass tacks, Mr Ronson, the light is fading. Have you had an inclination to pull the chain again?”
Mr Ronson wondered what the fading light had to do with anything.
“No,” he said, “I haven't.” Because it’s stuck, he added to himself.
“We’d rather hope you’d leave it alone,” said Mr Gwydion, “We wouldn’t want another occurrence.”
“But we’d prefer to disabuse you of any such notion entering your head. I’m sure it wouldn’t but I’m here to make sure. There can be no more revelation. It reached a natural end, you see? It needs to be reset.”
“Mr Gwydion I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about,” said Mr Ronson as he reached for the light switch – it really was getting quite gloomy in that kitchen.
“Don’t put that light on, Mr Ronson.”
“Please. I have an eye condition.”
Considering he’d rolled up in the last of the daylight, bold as brass, Mr Ronson wondered just what sort of eye condition this might be. It was rude to ask.
“OK then,” he said. “But you’re being very cryptic.”
Mr Gwydion considered this. Drummed his fingers on his umbrella. Wiggled his feet in the air. It was only then that Mr Ronson realised that his guest’s feet didn’t quite reach the floor. Although he had to squint in the fading light.
He’s shorter than he seemed, Mr Ronson mused.
“You’re not one of us, are you?” said Mr Gwydion, at last.
“One of what?”
“Well that answers it. It’s a pure fluke then. An accident. An oversight, even.”
“Please Mr Gwydion. I’ll ask you again. Please stop being cryptic. State your leave.”
“OK Mr Ronson. I’ll tell you what I can. In the short time before the moon is up. Cycles of time in a pithy sentence or two.” And as he spoke, he dropped the umbrella, letting it clatter to the floor; his little hands could no longer hold onto it.
“Let’s begin at the beginning,” he said, as he hopped down from the chair.
And the local papers later that week were full of the story of the hole that appeared up on the common, only to close again without a trace, no matter how much scientists and volunteers from the local university poked and scanned.
Mr Ronson didn’t bother to read any of it – distracted, bothered and disturbed as he was by other stories, of time and things before history, before roads and cars and towns, and forts and battles and all the comings and goings of all the people. Stories of those who’d always been there, who could fit themselves into a space only a mouse could squeeze into, of those that could pick up mountains and hurl them into the sea, and those that could leave by a small hole beneath the kitchen cupboards, leaving behind no word. No hole.
Just an umbrella.
Mr Ronson smoked his last French cigarette.