My uncle was there. He was angry.
“Look at yourself,” he said, punctuating his words with his finger. “Pathetic. Grown man, fooling around with kids’ stuff. House looks like a bomb site. You’ll never get a woman in a dump like this, boy.”
I sat squarely in the straight-backed chair, feet planted, shoulders pressed against the wooden slats. Chin up, eyes front, not moving a muscle. I stared at the volume control on the stereo. In my mind it turned slowly anticlockwise, and his voice diminished to a grumble, then a whisper. Discipline, that’s what it was about. At least I had this to thank him for. Show no mercy, show no fear. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. The slogans of childhood.
“Les tells me you haven’t been to practice for a month. And by the look of you, you haven’t been to the gym either. You’re getting soft, boy. Where’s your self-respect? You’re not on drugs, are you?”
I concentrated on breathing. In through the mouth, out through the nose. In. Out. In. Out. He had no idea. My body may be flabby, but my mind was a diamond.
“What sort of life do you call this?”
My gaze shifted sideways to the second knob. It resisted at first, but I forced it to the right as far as it would go. The timbre of his voice changed, becoming a tinny treble which echoed off the ceiling. Then the third dial sent it down to an indecipherable bass growl. Up. Down. Up. Down. My uncle, smiter of dragons, slayer of the unrighteous, with as little vocal control as a gawky adolescent.
I thought he was going to hit me. His hands came up, elbows tucked, left leg forward. But then he spun on his heel and stalked out, snarling over his shoulder.
I listened to his departure. The judder of the door as he failed to slam it behind him, the stamp of his boots on the path, the peevish whine of his car engine. Then silence. I remained sitting a long time, loosening my muscles. Feet first, then calves, thighs. Relax. Relax. Like a mantra. Finally, I unclenched my jaw and surveyed my work. This calmed me. It always did.
There were nine jigsaw puzzles. Nine sheets of hardboard laid out on the carpet, with a bare six inches between them. Just a path from the hall and a triangle in the middle, enough space for my chair and the brown rubbish bag. I stared at Big Ben. It was lagging a bit, just three sides and a patch of cloud.
There were rules, of course. Without rules, life has no meaning. Once removed from the bag, a piece could not be replaced. Fragments which seemed completely random went on the bench between the kitchen and dining room, and then along the ledges of bookshelves. I’d improved with practice. Now, I could usually make a reasonable guess, based on color, shape or texture, as to where each bit belonged. By some odd quirk, the Indian sky and the Mediterranean Sea were almost identical.
I had the Taj Mahal, a lighthouse, some others. Doesn’t matter what they were called. Naming something doesn’t help you solve it. I used to think otherwise, used to keep the lids propped against the wall, a row of cardboard oracles ready for instant reference. Gradually, however, I came to realize that this was unrealistic, a kind of cheating, almost. Now they were at the back of the wardrobe in the spare room.
Pride of place went to the magnificent cathedral in front of the fireplace, a profusion of colored brick and twisted cupolas. There was a room there, right at the tip of the north spire. A hidden room. The workmen who built it had their throats cut by the Tsar’s secret police. What its original purpose was I didn’t know – maybe it never had one. All I knew was that knowledge of the circular lair died with him, and for more than four hundred years no one dreamed of its existence.
But I found it. I found the switch in the carved wooden rose, the cunning contrivance of pulleys and counterweights to open the panel in the sacristy. I crept gingerly on hands and knees up the spiral staircase within the walls. I wrestled with the rusted bolt before heaving open the trapdoor and clambering into the eyrie high above the square. Sitting in the ornate oak chair, I watched the dust motes dance in the narrow beams of sunlight. I eavesdropped on the echoes of conversations from centuries before. I lay on my belly and peered through the cracks at the people below. I reveled in my solitude, in my anonymity, in my invisibility.
It was the only one that was finished.
My toast was cold, a dry wad in my mouth. I chewed for the count of fifty, forced myself to swallow, then washed it down with coffee. That too was lukewarm, and salty. Briefly, I considered throwing the rest of my breakfast in the bin.
I raised my head and dilated my nostrils. A long breath, feeling my ribs expand, then my chest. The room smelled of old wood, the tang of mouse urine, the comforting warmth of varnish. Something modern, diesel fumes, perhaps. And finally, the scent of a lady’s powder, an elusive flower coming and going on the breeze. I inhaled once more, searching. There it was again, just for an instant.
One bite. One swallow.
At first there was silence. Then the beams contracted with a sudden tick. A scratching and fluttering under the eaves. A siren wailing in the distance, the confused murmur of the city. I leaned forward as the tentative notes of a harpsichord entered my ears, straining to make out the tune.
Bite. Chew. Swallow.
The seat was rough beneath my thighs and a ridge of wood dug into my spine. The crust slipped off the edge of my plate, scattering crumbs across the carpet. I knelt down and retrieved as many as I could, emptied the scraps into the bucket under the sink. Then I fetched the brush and pan and cautiously swept the center of the room.
It was no good. My sanctum was no longer inviolate. Because the man was always there, watching.
Three weeks ago, the day of the storm, I noticed him. Nondescript trousers, green jacket, hair that was maybe brown and maybe black. He was standing in the middle of Red Square below, camcorder jammed against his cheek, pretending a complete lack of interest in St. Basil’s Cathedral. But the angle of his head, the turn of his shoulders, the frozen attitude, they all shouted awareness. One hand pointed behind him, wrist bent, a signal to an unseen accomplice.
I watched him all day. He didn’t move. Neither did I. I admired his self-control, even as I resented the intrusion. I thought of statues, of gargoyles. My foot cramped and surreptitiously I flexed my toes, ignoring the threads of pain. But by late afternoon the pressure of my bladder was unbearable. My leg was a dead weight as I hopped and stumbled to the bathroom, fumbling with my fly. Bitterly, I imagined his triumph, his luxuriant stretch. His partner, an athletic blonde, massaged his neck and fed him coffee in a paper cup.
On my return, something had changed. The more I stared, the more convinced I became that he’d switched. Same position but a mirror image. The camera, now in his left hand, had surely been in his right. Or perhaps it was my imagination. Peering down from above it was hard to be sure, but I thought I detected a smirk.
I watched him until dusk, until the shadows lengthened and my vision blurred. Eventually the room chilled, and I huddled in the half-darkness. When the clouds covered the moon, even the faintest of silhouettes disappeared. The fridge was bare, so I ate some crackers and went to bed hungry.
Next morning, when he was still there, I knew it was time to leave.
At eleven o’clock, cross-legged on the floor, I started sorting masonry. Three times I picked up one piece, slate grey with a distinctive crimson dot, checking it against the columns of the Giant’s Causeway. Then I moved it beside the toaster, thinking that maybe it wasn’t building at all, but cobblestone. A minute later I retrieved it. The shade was similar, but the pattern was far too large. Finally, I just rested it on my knee and gazed out at the street.
When the woman in the windbreaker stopped outside and dug into the carrier bag strapped to her handlebars, I suppressed a shiver. She kicked her bike forward and disappeared behind the cypress, but I forced myself to wait, eyes fixed on the alarm clock on the mantelpiece, watching the impassive march of the second hand. One minute, two.
Then I placed the scarlet speck in the Greek fishing village, with its mass of poppies, climbed to my feet and headed to the bedroom. Swapped my shorts for a pair of black trousers, slipped on a shirt, socks and shoes. Sucked in my stomach, pulled my shoulders back and unhooked the front door. Appearance. Ritual. Respect.
I strode down the steps and along the path, gently opened the flap of the letter box. Two envelopes, one white and one brown, and a large parcel wedged on the diagonal. I returned at the same measured pace, balanced the parcel against the fireplace as I changed clothes again. In the bathroom I waited until the water ran hot, soaped and rinsed my hands three times, dried them thoroughly on the bath towel.
It was time. I lifted the church, board and all. The shape made it awkward to carry, so I had to tilt it to fit through the door. For a panicky second, I thought it was going to slide off and crumple. In the hall I lowered it to the floor and pushed it in front of me like a sled. As I maneuvered it under the spare bed, I glanced down at Red Square. The man was gone.
The package rattled when I shook it. With a paring knife from the kitchen, I sliced it open and removed the box. The paper, smoothed and folded, went in the linen cupboard. Two more flicks to cut the tape securing the lid. Ceremoniously, I spread the mouth of the sack and poured the new puzzle pieces in a thin stream before stirring them with my fingers. Then I measured two teaspoons of coffee into a mug and did sixty gentle neck rotations as I waited for the jug to boil.
It was beautiful. In the foreground stood a farmhouse of hewn planks, the overgrown path lending it an air of neglect. I stretched out in the sun and gazed at the road that meandered down the valley. Later I strolled around outside, marveling at the intricacy of the shingles. The barn door was fastened with a heavy padlock. Well out of reach above my head, the shutters of the loft, blackened by the elements, stood slightly ajar.
I started sorting through the pieces in the sack, one by one. Straight edges first, and corners. The method was vital. A faulty diagnosis, a bollard wrongly identified as a streetlamp, could cause hours of frustration. My hips ached from constant sitting and standing. As an unexpected bonus, I completed the clock face which had baffled me for days.
It was slow work, but infinitely satisfying. Gradually it took shape. Pasture linked to forest, forest linked to rock and rock to sky. Islands formed within the broken rectangle, irregular patches of wall and field. A mountain grew before my eyes, a soaring pinnacle of snow. And there, just above the treeline, was the cave.
It was hard to spot, just a faint shadow against the schist. But with each piece that slotted into place, the image became clearer. A ledge halfway up an almost sheer slope, an incongruously large boulder concealing the entrance. A few stunted pines, patches of tussock and ground-hugging alpine daisies. Access was difficult, clambering up the loose scree, but not impossible.
With mounting excitement, I concentrated solely on this area, ignoring extraneous fragments. Sea, grass and building I simply discarded on the nearest flat surface, at first in a single, tidy layer, but then piled two or three deep, even upside down. The most promising candidates went inside the frame to be re-examined after each addition. I sat for five minutes over one piece, deep green with a faint vertical line. In the end I created a third category, uncertain, on the sparkling minarets of the Taj Mahal.
The tunnel curved sharply to the right. I shuffled forwards, waving one arm in front of me like a blind man’s cane, tapping the floor to check for holes. The air was dry and still. I followed the left wall in a gradual ellipse until I was once again facing the narrow chink of light from outside. When I held my breath, the silence was total.
But one piece was missing. A rock, perhaps, or a waterfall. I was almost certain it was a waterfall. A trickle of melted snow, cold and pure, tumbling into a shallow basin before seeping through mysterious underground channels to the stream below. But the bag was empty and it wasn’t there. I searched the corners, turned it carefully inside out. The pale hardboard eye stared balefully at me.
I scurried back inside and lay down full length, listening to the ragged tempo of my heart. In my head I played the mournful tones of the funeral march, over and over, until my pulse slowed, and I could think. Reason. Logic. Self-control. The chances of it disappearing from the factory were virtually nil. Likewise, there was no way it could have been lost in the mail, as the wrapping was unbroken when it arrived. Therefore, it was here, and I had simply misplaced it.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could make out the ridges and whorls in the walls. A natural shelf of granite offered a spartan bed. After wriggling back along the passage, I crouched in the open space between the cave mouth and the boulder. Miles away, a railway line snaked around the base of the hills. A falcon rose sharply in an updraft before banking and swooping out of sight. A shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds and warmed my face.
I edged along on my knees, collecting all the loose pieces. I divided the room into squares, and then smaller squares, scanning the floor six inches at a time. As a final check, I brushed my hands across the carpet, once, twice. These methodical actions were reassuring. Only when I was positive that one grid was clear did I allow myself to move to the next.
Then I levered myself upright and circled the room again, sliding my fingers against the spines of books, peering into the tangle of wires behind the stereo. I looked with the eyes of the hawk, missing nothing. It took over an hour, but eventually I was sure that not a single bit had eluded me. I was ready. I fetched another rubbish bag from the laundry.
The gap was distinctive. Two tabs and two holes, placed at right angles rather than the usual opposition. One corner was tapered, like a deformed foot. I studied it, fixing the shape in my mind. One by one, I took the pieces from the sack and matched them against my mental image. Six out of seven I could discount immediately, and these went straight into the new bag. I tested those which looked even vaguely the right shape. I was calm. It was only a matter of time. I blocked all thoughts of the cave from my mind.
But as the minutes passed, as the pile grew smaller, I started to feel anxious. Once my concentration wavered, and I caught myself on the verge of dropping an untested double into the waste bag. Forcing myself to stop to regain some composure, I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. Almost immediately, though, I was back at my post, willing the next piece, and then the next, to be the one. I forgot about my template, setting each cardboard tile against the hole with trembling fingers. One slipped into place with a click, and I squashed it down firmly. A leadlight window. As I pried it out, several others were also dislodged, and I wasted valuable seconds repairing the damage.
The last piece. I thrust my arm into the bag again, prying into all the creases, then flapped it wildly. My face was hot and my teeth ached. My thoughts reeled and a whimper rose in my throat. Order. Precision. Clarity. Knuckles pressed against my temples, I repeated these words in my head.
A flash of blue from outside grabbed my attention. My uncle’s Corolla, doing a U-turn in the street. I locked the front door and scooted into the bathroom, the only room in the house where I couldn’t be seen. I lowered myself onto the toilet. A long push on the bell, which wasn’t working, so all I could hear was a faint buzzing. Then loud thuds against the wood.
“I know you’re in there. Stop playing silly buggers and open the door.”
I closed my eyes and listened to my breathing. Out to the count of four, wait a second, feeling the hollowness in my lungs, then breathe in for four more beats. Exhale, inhale. My shoulders were hunched, so I straightened my back, lifted my chin and forced the tension out of my body. Inhale, pause, exhale, pause.
“I’m going to bust this door down in a minute, and then I’m going to burn those bloody things, I swear.”
I reached out and touched the wall. Loose grains, not much bigger than dust, stuck to my palm. I rolled one between the soft pads of my thumb and forefinger. It was smooth. I rested my cheek on the rock. It smelled of glaciers and high mountain passes.
My uncle’s voice changed, became plaintive. I hadn’t heard him like that since Dad’s funeral.
“Come on, son, let me in. Your mother’s worried sick.”
I turned his voice down low, and after a while it disappeared. I waited until the light grew dim and the gleam from the entrance faded into shadow. The temperature dropped and the stone was cold against my skin. Still, I didn’t move. An owl called somewhere in the darkness. The wind made soothing whispers in the treetops below. And there, just on the edge of hearing, was the trickle of a mountain stream.
A waterfall. Surely that’s not too much to ask?