In the summer my friends and I would bike along the canal path, industrial architecture of red brick reflecting on the water’s surface, all the way to the House of the Beatnik.
It was a decrepit old place, with rotting wood and missing tiles; something out of a Stephen King novel. But to us it was one big toy. We’d throw stones through its windows, listening for breakages inside. We’d knock on the door and scream when it swung open at our touch. We risked rusty nails and tetanus by hanging from the protruding planks in the porch roof. And yes, despite our parents’ warnings to avoid him, we wouldn’t run when the beatnik came out to speak with us.
“Life is all about paying attention, little brothers. You’ve got to stop thinking about what’s coming up and what’s gone. Give up the cravings! Tune into what your ears and eyes are feeling, you see? Become one with the moment.”
The beatnik would stand on the porch smoking a strange smelling cigarette, and we’d sit on our bikes down the steps listening to his strange words.
“I’m telling you boys because there’s still a chance for you to get it. Yes, yes, yes. You’re adventurers. Nobody else wants anything to do with this place, but you kids are curious. Hungry minds. Yes! I love seeing it.”
“You smell funny,” one of us said, and we laughed at his expense. He laughed too.
“Maybe I should wash more. Maybe you’re right. But I’m not going to clean myself just for presentation, you see? I learned long ago that presentation and pretence ain’t conducive to living your best life. Understand?”
I wasn’t as confident teasing the beatnik as my friends, but said in response, “Then you should jump in the canal to clean yourself!” and received plenty of laughs and pats on the back.
“Right on, little brother. Right on.”
The beatnik moved down the steps and we scattered, two bikes fleeing leftward, three going right. From the safety of fifteen feet, we watched him step into the canal as if taking a step onto solid ground. We laughed and screeched when he disappeared underneath with a splash and ripple.
He emerged soon after, spat water like a fountain, and climbed back onto the path. His clothes hung from his scrawny body. His shoulder-length afro curls dripped. For some reason, somehow, I noticed the thumb on his left hand. The thumbnail was missing.
The beatnik trudged towards us and my friends squealed and cycled away. I waited. Dark water marks on the concrete trailed him. He presented his left hand to me.
“Thumbnail just disappeared one night, little brother. Vanished. Poof!”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“It wasn’t pulled out, little brother. It vanished, like I said. Means I’m getting closer. Or it’s getting closer to me.”
I was afraid standing so close to him. His breath smelt of his strange cigarettes. The ground around him darkened as he continued to drip, drip, drip.
“What’s getting closer?”
He muttered to himself. The way he often did. The way that made most of our parents think him mad and dangerous. He nodded, deciding something, then reached into his khaki jacket. Out came a brass key. He placed it in my palm.
“I’m going travelling for a while,” he told me. “I need you to look after this for me.”
“But what is it for?”
The beatnik turned and moved towards the House of the Beatnik. “You won’t need it anytime soon,” he called to me when he reached the porch steps. “Hold onto it, little brother. You hold onto it. Until the time is right.”
The beatnik wasn’t lying. He must have gone travelling, for he was not seen again that summer.
We became braver with our games around the House of the Beatnik when we realised he was gone. We didn’t go inside. Half of us, including me, still believed it was his home, as opposed to a place for him to squat. But we ran down the alley between the house and the abattoir next door, climbed on each other’s shoulders and jumped into the House of the Beatnik’s garden.
Surrounded by brick wall on all sides, suffocated by vines and moss, this garden became a special place for us. Rats scurried in the undergrowth, making the ground of tangled weeds look like it was pulsating, alive. We’d play imagination games in this hidden grotto; throw stones; fight and run around. The weather was always warm, but in the shadow of the factories that lined the canal it never became too hot. This was the height of our summer fun.
Stealing a moment away from the others, I once tried the key in the front door of the House of the Beatnik . It didn’t fit the lock, and the door was left open anyway. I returned the key to the pocket where I always kept it, and thought of the beatnik, his missing thumbnail, wondering where in the world he was. My friends called my name from the garden.
“You’ve got to come see this!”
I climbed over the wall in the alley (difficult job without a leg-up) and found them staring through one of the House of the Beatnik’s cracked bottom floor windows that faced out to the garden.
“The beatnik must have done it. Come look,” my friend instructed, and I joined the huddle to peer inside.
It was a humble scene of destitution; the rotting remains of a living room. In the gloom I made out a long, ornate sofa, tin cans and food wrappings littered around its legs. Yellowed newspapers lined the floor and tendrils of dust and filth hung from the ceiling like stalactites. A smell of must seeped outwards like a bad case of body odour.
But it was the back wall that drew our interest. There, only just visible from the light of the garden, was a drawing. Or four drawings, to be exact. The first, large and in red paint (“it was blood!” one friend insisted later), was a stick figure woman. She placed her crude line arms onto her knees and keeled over, vomiting scarlet sick. The stick figure to her right was an old man, hunchbacked with a walking stick and long beard made of a hundred thin brush strokes. He looked weary, done with life. Next to him, not a person but a grave. A round headstone jutting out of a wiggly line representing the earth. Last, the one figure that did not instil in me a feeling of dread or despair or worry: a happy stick man, a bindle in one hand, a key in the other.
My friends exploded with chatter.
“Why did the beatnik draw this?”
“He’s not a very good painter.”
“I dare someone to go in.”
I didn’t say a thing, refused to share the secret of the key with anyone else. My friends soon lost interest and moved away to play spy games, but my mind and heart stayed right there, staring through that window all summer.
Autumn reds, browns and oranges rolled through until winter took over in a snap. A biting, grey winter that gave us ice and sleet but not an inkling of snow. The beatnik was not seen. We stopped hanging around the House of the Beatnik. Partly because of the weather, partly because of the fickle fancies of childhood. Some of us took up sport, others video games. Two friends found a new group and started palling around without us.
The key moved from my pocket to the back of my sock drawer, hidden in bundles of odd-coloured cotton. I still thought of the beatnik, but two seasons felt like a lifetime back then. As far as I knew he was gone, and he was never coming back.
Until, there he was.
It was cold and raining, and the beatnik walked through the city centre in his usual khaki jacket, both his clothes and physique too thin for the weather. He muttered with his head bowed, looked up to smile and speak with confused strangers, checked bins and threw what little pennies he had into charity buckets.
“There’s the beatnik!” I said to my father, pointing him out through the drizzle. “Look, he’s back from his journeys.”
My father, shopping bags in-hand, gave me a look I never worked out. After studying the beatnik, he said, “The yank looks ill.”
He moved on through the crowds and past the high street shops. I took a brief pause, examining the beatnik.
He stood by a series of benches, staring up at the dark clouds, and I realised my father was right. The beatnik looked on the edge of death. His skin was taut against his bones, thin like tracing paper. He was without facial hair and his face was cast in hanging shadow, as if he were wearing some invisible hood. With an almighty pump of adrenaline, I noticed his thumbs and fingers. All of them bar one, the middle finger on his left hand, were missing nails.
“Come on, you. Still a few places to hit before we can go home.”
I caught up with my father and we left the beatnik standing there, a ghostly figure enjoying the rain.
In school, I told my friends of the beatnik’s return. Even the two who no longer hung around with us were interested.
“We should go visit the House of the Beatnik,” I said. “Ask the beatnik about his travels.”
Their link to that old place and the man who squatted inside paled in comparison to mine, so they were hesitant. But, one by one, all four of them agreed. On a cold, blue-skied Saturday afternoon, we cycled the canal path to the House of the Beatnik. We leant out bikes against the porch railings and sat on the porch steps. It was up to me to knock on the door. It was up to me to shout for him. But the beatnik did not come.
“Let’s just go. He’s not in,” said a friend.
“Just wait,” I replied. “He’ll turn up and he’ll have some crazy story for us.”
Our shadows grew long on the path. The golden light ebbed, and pink patterns weaved in and out of the clouds. Darkness crept up on the day like a predator, dulling my eyesight. I convinced my friends to hold on for just a little longer. They entertained themselves by throwing stones into a hole in the porch that a rat had scurried through. It stayed hidden for some time, then, taking a chance, exploded out, sprinting towards the canal. My friends laughed and stomped and flung pebbles its way. Like the beatnik the summer before, the rat disappeared under the green canal waters.
“Why would you want to treat the rat that way, little brothers?”
Our heads spun. The door to the House of the Beatnik was wide open, the doorway was black, and the beatnik’s voice spoke from within.
There was a shared moment of silence where we drew on all the courage we could muster, then a friend replied: “It’s only a rat!”
The beatnik’s voice emerged again: “But what about it exactly?”
“It’s stupid,” another friend supplied.
“Would you treat a stupid human that way?”
“So what else about the rat?”
Silence. Then laughter. From the beatnik alone. “A lesson for another time,” he said. “Come on in, little brothers. Come on in.”
“But where are you?” I asked.
“I’m here, little brother. I’m here.”
And with my question asked and answered, we climbed the porch steps and entered the House of the Beatnik.
Some kind of silhouette, a vague shape of a man led the way. It stuck to the shadows so we could not make it out. Down the twisted hall piled with leaves, past the steep staircase with its uneven steps and black railing, all the way to the ‘living room’. The room with the four drawings, facing the House of the Beatnik’s garden.
We sat, cramped, on the sofa, feet dangling by the beatnik’s litter. Somewhere in the far corner’s shadow he stood. I felt my friend’s leg shaking. We were all scared. But entering the house somehow felt like the right thing to do. A cool draft blew through the building.
“Where have you been, beatnik?” asked one of us.
“All over,” came the beatnik’s voice. “In America, mostly.”
We waited for more. The beatnik asked: “Do you still have the key?”
“The key to what?”
“Is this one of his stories?”
“Yes,” I said. My friends fell silent and their heads turned my way. “I brought it with me today.”
I slipped the brass key from my jean pockets and held it in my open palm. The draft whistled as it bounced from wall to wall.
“Excellent,” said the beatnik. And when he stepped forwards it was like some other-worldly apparition stepping through the veil of life and death. He was an outline of his former body and nothing more.
The others screamed.
“He’s a ghost!”
They sprung to their feet and stampeded out the room, the front door of the house slamming open and closed, open and closed in their wake. I sat still. It was dark outside now. My heart beat so fast that it didn’t seem to beat at all, instead stuck and pressed up against my chest, emanating a constant and steady pressure.
“You’re not a ghost, are you?” I asked.
“What do you think?”
My eyes had just about adjusted to the darkness and I looked at the outlines of the four drawings on the wall: the sick woman, the old man, the grave, the traveller with the key.
“Maybe,” I said.
“I’ll tell you for free, little brother,” said the beatnik. “I’m not dead. And I haven’t overcome death. Death is inevitable, sorry to say.”
I looked at him, or whatever was left of him, and realised.
“You’re vanishing. First your thumbnail then the rest of you!”
“Yes,” he confirmed. And I thought to myself that he had clearly found some kind of peace in his vanishing.
“Your vanishing is a good thing,” I said, half question, half statement.
“The best,” he confirmed.
“And the key?”
“Upstairs at the end of the corridor there is a room with a padlock,” he told me. “There is something in there that might start you on your own journey. Call it a gift, little brother.”
My head bowed and when I looked up my voice wavered. “But I’m not sure I want to vanish.”
“It’s completely your choice, little brother,” the beatnik replied, and I noticed his voice sounded almost distant, as if he were speaking to me from the other side of a tunnel. “If you don’t want to use the key, feel free to throw it into the canal, or pass it on to someone else, or leave it at the back of your sock drawer. No judgement here, little brother. Just love and kindness and desire for you to wake up to the moment.”
I took a moment then, I can’t remember how long, just turning the key over in my hands. At some point the sounds of the world, which I hadn’t noticed leave, returned: the animals scratching through the garden undergrowth, the creaking sigh of the House of the Beatnik, the distant traffic of the city. And I noticed my feelings: freezing fear, the rising timpani roll of anticipation. And I noticed myself notice my feelings. And in the briefest of flashes subject was object and object was subject.
And I was alone in the room. The beatnik had vanished.
This post is brought to you by
How to Stop the Burning
by Zubaida Bello
In How to Stop the Burning, Zubaida Bello’s poetry focuses on themes of womanhood and inheritance, offering the audience an intimate portrait of herself through her words.
About The Author
Sam Dawson is an emerging fiction writer based in Leicestershire. He is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and his career background is in grant writing. His work is upcoming in numerous places, including in Audio Arcadia’s anthology, Lockdown Number 2.
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