Just beneath the surface of an ordinary lake, a monster was lost to a dreamless sleep. Every night just before dawn, the monster would dive off the Moon and land without splash or witness aroused to fall peacefully and completely asleep. With the first touch of dusk, the monster would wake, stretch its body and sharpen its teeth then rocket back up to the Moon. For the Moon was where other more hateful monsters came, those from far away that coveted the Earth as a home. All had a plan to invade, to steal this earthly realm, to pack it tight with a new breed of beast one formed in the cold black of space, a horrible, crazy mutated thing that could only be nice to its own.
The Moon, to them, was a stepping stone, 'one giant leap for monsterkind,' they would howl, 'one final step for man!' They lurked in the shadows on the edge of the dark side and spied on the people below. 'Earthlings,' they laughed, 'how ripe they are to serve and submit as slaves to a higher, monsterkind!
But the monster from the lake was fearsome and savage and scared these creatures away. Thankfully, it had signed a pact: to defend and protect the Earth, to ward off all invading monsters who desired the Earth for a home - and its people as dogs and feast day food. However, the only boy on the Earth who understood this was a sad, lonely boy called Ben.
Ben knew he had broken the law. He had violated The Treaty Of Earth Monsters, People and Chimps. His crime, to break 'clause 153z', which states: 'No boy shall ever disturb an Earth protecting monster that has fallen peacefully and rightfully asleep. If they do, whether knowingly or not, the monster may recall its true, savage nature and in an instant become the type of monster seen in the darkest nightmares of boys, girls, women and men and may, without hesitation or fear of punishment, consume the guilty boy as meat; or worse, may pickle the guilty boy to keep him alive as a snack for another, far away, day; or double worse, may slowly starve the guilty boy to skin and bone then use what is left to carve and fashion something that is utterly useless, something that means nothing to and is liked by no one: monster, man or even chimp. In fact, something so shockingly ugly and pointless, the first person to see it would feel compelled to smash it into a million pieces, to turn it into nothing more than dust then vanish it as waste into the air forever.'
Now this was the fate that awaited Ben, but fortunately Ben was quick to fear so when a strange noise made him jump as he stood by the lake throwing in stones with an angry, hurtful force resenting how quickly the water healed to become calm and still again, his instincts drove him fast away. And when, and only when, he had fled far beyond the noise and was hidden amongst a cluster of trees did he dare look back towards the lake. It appeared to him so real and true it would forever haunt his dreams; the monster from the lake sniffed the air with a ravenous need to find the scent of its prey - one small boy called Ben.
Fear filled Ben's limbs; he became as stiff as the tree trunks that hid him. This monster, this strange rocket shaped thing, part machine, part serpent, was seeking the joy of justice. Its long, thin metallic body was twisting to find then pounce upon the boy who had disturbed its well-earned sleep. Its mouth, a mass of irregular teeth like torn and ripped metal – deadly to rock let alone the flesh and bone of a boy aged just ten years old - snapped open and released a deranged scream of rage that sounded like a thousand jet planes tearing through the sky. Flames poured from its tail, and it hovered above the lake and land.
Ben closed his eyes and tried to imagine nothing, to hide behind a shield of inner darkness. Can you imagine nothing, nothing but darkness and silence? Ben could; it took no effort for him to burrow beyond the light, to find a place where at least he could imagine nothing came to do him harm.
When he finally opened his eyes, the darkness has spread outside, the night had come to Bromlow Wood, peace and quiet too. He looked towards the lake moonlight skimmed its surface. Nothing there disturbed the night; the monster had returned to the Moon.
The peace was superficial, it could never calm his fears. He knew, too well, that other monsters filled the wood. And yes, at night, these monsters were banned from hurting any boy - that they could do in the day when the boy could better see to run away - but they still had the right to tease and scare and play tricks. They would make distance suddenly expand so that no point in the distance ever seemed near or reachable. Propelled by terror, their victims would run as fast as they could only to inch pathetically forward. For fun, these monsters would trap a boy in a moment of time and make him feel so small and alone that the boy would feel as good as vanished.
Before such a monster could strike, Ben bolted. He ran as fast as his weak, undernourished body could take him, and as far as he could manage before he had to stop and violently cough. He coughed so hard he could hardly breathe, but this caused him no fear. He was used to his cough, as he was the wheezing and the tightness that would strangle his chest. In many ways he was fond of his cough; it made people weary, kept them away. His cough was a friend, some sort of weapon, a voice to shout, to warn and scare.
The lake was where the monster slept. If left undisturbed, it would cause you no harm, but to wake it unduly was to unleash a beast. Ben knew this, but the boys at his school all refused to believe, so when they played by the lake, when they dared each other to run across a path of stepping stones, Ben never joined in. The danger for him was far too real, the teeth that could slice through rock too vivid a memory. The other boys all laughed at him and called him a coward, a gutless wonder. He tried to explain; their words became harder, as did a fist and even a kick. Ben, however, never joined in.
If only football had been their challenge. He so desperately wanted to play, to join one of the games that formed, as naturally as any ocean wave, from running boys freed from school. He, however, was never asked. The collective swell of enthusiasm and excitement was not a current he was allowed to join. Even when the numbers were odd, or thin-on-the-ground, he was left out at sea to watch and wonder why.
If only they would give him a chance. He told himself he could cope with the coughing and the wheezing, for the first half at least. He would even play in goal, which was not his position of choice, but if asked, he would gladly take his turn. He would serve his apprenticeship between the goalposts before earning the right to attack and score. He did, after all, have pedigree: his Dad had been a professional football player and had captained the local team. Football, Ben believed, was in his blood. How could it not be? His blood was his Dad's blood; it ran through his veins to inspire his dreams. Every drop was something shared, a touch beyond the grave. His Dad, before conscription, had volunteered to join the Army. At the time, the Second World War had just began; his Dad, would never see it end.
Ben felt he had a duty, a need to make a connection. His Dad was a hero who had fought with a fearless spirit and who had died saving the life of another man - another act of bravery, another shiny medal. One more for Ben to pin to the breast of an empty football shirt or folded army jacket - if such items ever became his to hold.
Ben had told the other boys of the danger lurking just beneath the surface of the lake on which they played. So what now could he do? What choice did he have? He had told the boys of the danger; he had warned them, and vividly. So that afternoon, fresh from school, with nowhere to go but slowly home - the longest route he knew, walked as fast as he could through the sharp, shivering air - what could he do? He was the hidden witness. The boys he knew from school. He watched them play a dare, to cross the stepping stones. What could he do as they raced away one after the other, their scuffed and frayed, oversized shoes barely able to grip the frosted stones, and the first touch of dusk an hour away? What could he do when the first boy slipped and for a brief, hopeful moment teetered on the brink of regaining his balance? What could he do when the second boy failed to stop and so shunted the first boy forward knocking them both off balance? What could he do as they plunged into and beneath the water, the shock and the threat from the all-consuming cold failing to silence their screams? He knew the monster would wake, roused and savage. What could he do but run away, scared and frightened, repulsed and confused by the panic? And so he did, he ran away as far as his cough and crushing lungs would allow, and when he could run no more, he staggered across deserted country lanes desperate to reach his hiding place, the one place on Earth he could tentatively call a home.
This one place, a single room, was where Ben loved to be; a house, not his own, had captured him. One Sunday afternoon, while playing alone, he had raced the wind and won. No people witnessed his victory. The hilly land bore no crop. The scattered trees had cast their leaves and were readying to sleep. He stood alone; the prize was his. A once fine manor house - neglected by man but desired by nature, which was rapidly swallowing it whole - stood just beyond the finishing line.
The owner of the house was a man known to all in Ben's village as The Objector – and a weaselly coward of the very worst kind. He had refused to fight in the War; he had refused to defend the freedom and the honour of his country. When served his conscription papers, he vanished. He ran away from his duty as only a coward would do.
When Ben saw the house he made a pact: if he dared to enter the grounds, to run to and touch the front door, and if he showed bravery in achieving these goals, then a connection with his Dad would be made. Somewhere, somehow, his Dad would know of his deed, and for a brief but real moment they would be as one. But what bravery does it take to breach the garden of a house that stands empty and forgotten? None, it may be thought; however, Ben knew no space remained empty for long: when people leave, monsters, creatures and things invade the space with a ruthless ease. Whether ancient ruins or unused rooms, deserted towns or gardens left to waste, monsters will come to creep around and lurk inside. The emptiness gives them power. The memories left by people that echo and loop ghost-like are mocked and chased away. If any human dares to return, all is done to repel them viciously.
Ben knew that to be successful he would have to run, twist and dodge - no different to the gauntlet he was sometimes forced to run when coming home from school. Hands would grab, push and slap but through skill, instinct and lavish bursts of speed he would slip free of the attack to reach the house and victory.
The first line of defense was a large stone wall that continued to stand proudly against the ruin of nature. It stood twice as tall as Ben and sealed the house in from the outside world. However, a rotting wooden door, which had long ceased to guard against even the weakest of creatures, promised quick and easy entry.
With one hand poised to open the door, Ben closed his eyes, held his breath and even pinched his nose. Ready to take the plunge, he pushed the door open, dashed forward three steps then stopped and opened his eyes. He wondered aloud, 'What else is here trespassing with me?’ The garden he stood in was wild and dense. Trees, bushes and vines ruled this land, many were winter bare and woven together net-like. Ben pictured them as devices designed to catch a boy then feed him slowly into the earth. The stripped branches that instantly surrounded him were like deformed, boney fingers – hands covering eyes, fingers spread to allow the thinnest of views – through which a vision of the large, once stately house slowly crept. Its grey brick walls and slated roof merged with the colourless day. Its eight large windows stood out like black sunken holes and possessed a strange, beguiling force: Ben felt pulled towards them; however, these punctures allowed nothing of the inside to escape beyond the glass.
Ben stood perfectly still; desperate for silence, he barely shed a breath. He strained to listen, to catch all sound. Even the wind, it seemed, feared to enter. All was silent and still. The smell of decaying leaves, a thick mush beneath his feet, scarred the damp, cold air.
Was this a trap? Was he meant to sink, deep alone? He suddenly looked up; a grey, birdless sky leered down from above. Had all life ceased to be? All that moved was his frosted breath, which fled quickly up and out of reach. All that was green looked black. The ivy leaves were bruised and tarnished, robbed of their luster. Did normal rules apply? Monsters, what rules could they break while at the house of The Objector – a man who himself had broken the rules?
Nature must know; nature must watch. It follows the seasons and settles at night. Ben knew this, and he knew that nature now watched him. He heard its call, sensed the wilds become alert and fix their focus on him. He was the berry, ripe and exposed, ready to be plucked away.
He thought of his Dad, how fearless he was, but his Dad fought only men not monsters, creatures and things. He thought of his Dad and took one slow step forward. All around him remained stalker still, but then a sharp breath of air filled his lungs and provoked his cough to spit and rage. Chaos and noise began to spiral around him - bushes shivered, trees shook, the wind had heard the call. Ben felt as all saw him a feeble boy too weak to stand, to take the cold, damp air. Now the monsters were ready, primed and willing to strike.
He could run, he thought, go, flee, but the thought of his Dad gave weight to his thin, trembling limbs. He stood, readying himself to fight. Forward, charge, he silently called. The remnants of a footpath his only guide. Hands grabbed, pushed and slapped. Branches tried to snare him. Nettles shrieked as they stung him. Brambles laughed as they clawed his trousers, knowing the rips would enrage his Aunt. He pushed-on-through with his eyes half closed until tripped and driven into the ground. His hands plunged into the leafy ooze. What thing hidden beneath these leaves will now grab and pull him down? What creature will strike from the air? He cowered, briefly, then scrambled to his feet rushing forward, hard and fast, twisting his body to dodge the airborne attack. Soon the front door stood before him, solid and blank. A friend or foe? All he had to do was touch it, but fear drove him on, he lunged for the handle, grabbing it and mauling it with both his hands. The door gave way; he slipped inside and slammed the door shut. As it rattled the frame he wondered, had he escaped or had he imprisoned himself?
Silence. The dark grey of forgotten space, the ugly taste of stagnant air. Ben turned from the door. He feared himself alone; he feared himself surrounded. A single, brief sound - a lazy, teasing thud - startled him. He snapped his head around desperate to find the source, but darkness blocked his sight. The space felt massive, too big, too consuming; he felt unknown and empty. This was a room made of cracks and underbellies in which the rotten end of life festered.
Another sound, a single drop of water, echoed off the walls and through him. It pinned him still.
Can shadows move, can they dance with light? If not, then what was that that shuffled and fidgeted all around him? What fix did they crave?
Can space be sucked ever small until solidly shut? If not, why did the darkness move ever near? To trap him forever? To imprison him in a dark, shrinking cell?
His breathing became tight. Are they pulling the air from the space around him? The sound of doors creaking open. What moved, positioned itself ready to strike? Ahead of him, a staircase led to black. Behind him, the door beckoned the wind inside. He ran, just went, as fast as he could go, up the stairs, his hands and feet propelled him forward, the darkness shouldered aside. Something, he knew, then touched him, something he knew, chased to grab his ankle. He saw it in his mind, a hand that was grey and bloodied, human once, now starved and beaten into another form. The stairs became a galleried landing. A murky, dirty light teased him with vision. Doors, all closed, confused his decision until one with a sign, ‘Keep Out’ pulled him forward. He ran to it, crashed through it into a room that offered only darkness.
The door, which he had pushed, swung to close shut. His fate was sealed; trapped in black, he was theirs to snatch. Bang, went the door, a sound that felt so final. His eyes snapped shut. A burst of light shocked them open and flushed the darkness out.
Startled he span round to face the room that had trapped him. His pounding heart felt sickly in his throat; fear continued to swirl inside him. A soft, warm glow enveloped him and slowed him. Two elegant chandeliers, which appeared like halos floating just below the ceiling, lit the room with an easygoing orange light.
Immediately, Ben thought the air was easier to breathe. It was cleaner, had less dust, and was marked with the scent of polish and wood - much like the air at his school only somehow friendlier. Recessed dark oak shelves lined every wall, and books filled every shelf. The amount of books overwhelmed him. So many books, he thought, too many to count, too many to read, their spines lined up in rows like the medal ribbons he believed would adorn his Dad's Army Jacket.
Could all these books be different? Why would any person, or indeed the world, need this many books? Ben struggled to understand. Was this all the information known to people? Were all the stories that had ever written stored in this room? Was this everything? Was this every scrap of knowledge, the history of everything that had ever been done plus a little extra just to be smug?
A clock - one bigger than Ben, bigger than any he had ever seen, industrial in size and design, with muscular iron hands and an exposed working mechanism - clung to the only section of wall that was not lined with a bookshelf.
Ben wondered who or what used this room. Someone, or thing, with a massive head for a massive brain but with eyes that were strangely small: the head of a giant, with the eyes of a mouse on the body of a normal man.
And who had saved him, who had given him this shelter? His fear was thawing; he was alone and starting to feel safe. The room felt used and protected, a place someone loved to be. Had he found a space, a single room, that the monsters feared to enter?
In the centre of the room stood a plain wooden table and a well-used leather armchair. The chandeliers seemed several classes above, like a bejeweled king and queen looking down on their humble, lowly subjects.
Ben continued to stand, still and silent. The only sound was the ticking of the clock - a silky, continuous rhythm that seemed to race ahead of normal time. Finally, he crept forwards towards the table. The plush, soft carpet beneath his feet held his silence intact. When he reached the table, he found the answer to the question why, why he now felt safe and protected from all that festered in the world outside.
A newspaper, The Shropshire Star, was laid flat on the table. The front page headline screamed, ‘Britain At War With Germany’. He knew the date for this; the moment history had turned. It was the 3rd September 1939, the day after his Dad had volunteered to join the Army. He knew this as fact as his Aunt had once let it slip - a one-off crack in her iron facade that quickly rusted over never to appear again.
He snatched the newspaper from the table; a chill raced down his spine. Had they fooled him, tricked him into feeling safe? He hated the War; the War to him was all that pain could be. He refused to celebrate the Allied Victory, to even play soldiers with the other boys. He was laughed at and labeled a coward, and soon became the boy that was never picked to play football, or any other game or sport. But still, not once did he yield, not once did he conform and play their games of war. The war could never mean play to him: it was far too real, too sad, too dour, too damaging.
His panic, however, froze then melted fast away. The newspaper fell open to a random page from which a miracle leapt out: his Dad held, to him alive, in a photograph. Just twice had he seen an image of his Dad, just twice in ten years of life, but now, without doubt and without reading a word, he knew he looked at a man, his Dad.
"Blues Captain Enlists," and, "Captain of the blues defiant," he read the headlines then, a miracle to him, touched upon words his Dad had once spoken, "We must not appease Hitler or the Nazis. We must fight!"
This summed up his Dad, the captain of the Blues, a man who had joined the British Army before the rush of war had forced it upon him, and many millions more. He knew the war was coming; he knew he had to fight, to help defeat fascism.
‘I made it, Dad. I got here!’ Ben told him, proud of himself for the very first time. Ben knew he was going to cry, Dad would see it, but he did not care. He never cried when bullied or smacked or when hungry or even when feeling completely alone, so tears, he thought, were owed to him. Tears of happiness are always welcome. Now he felt victory as the connection between father and son was finally made.
He wanted to take the photo home but couldn’t take the risk. If his Aunt found it, she would take it and lock it way, for she was the wicked gatekeeper, the guard that imprisoned all that was rightfully his: photos, medals, trophies, uniform, kit and more, all the belongings his Dad had left behind. Ben, she claimed, had no right to her brother's possessions.
'What memories are they to you?!' she would scream.'You're not right to have them! He never knew you, not properly! In fact not at all! So they say blood is thicker than water, well let me tell you this, blood is thinned by distance and time. Yes, that's right, distance and time, which means the blood in you, the bond between you and him, is stranger thin! You may as well call daddy to some bloody foreigner, to some Eskimo chap from the bloody north pole!'
He would keep the photo in the library. With his Dad there to protect him, he would always be safe to enter. The library was now his shelter, a sanctuary from all the bad outside; a bunker beyond the time and space that existed outside. He thought of each book as a sentry standing guard. It made him feel safe, secure, insulated.
He took the page from the newspaper and folded it until all that showed was his Dad. In honour of the library, in tribute to what it had given him, he then scoured the shelves for a book, one, he thought, his Dad would like to read. What book to choose, he thought? So many, all desperate to be read: fiction, history, science and more, and all completely new to him.
'So Dad,' he said, 'I’m just going to have to guess.' He selected a random book then pulled it from the shelf. ‘Treasure Island, Dad!' He said, full of wonder as his eyes glanced upon the cover. ‘Wow! Look at the cover, a skull and cross bones. Pirates! Look at the guns. Look at the sword. I’d prefer to be shot. They wouldn’t get us, though, would they, Dad. They wouldn’t take our treasure. We’d fight ‘em off. Well, you would. Me, I’d do something, though. I’d surprise them. I’d take them by surprise, somehow.’
He opened the book delicately as if it really was a precious map made fragile with age that could lead the way to treasure. The opening words hooked him and fixed him instantly into the story.
He stood and read the book aloud. Time became invisible and rushed silently by. When he finally glanced at the clock, he was shocked to see how close to night it was. Afraid of the dark, and of his Aunt’s easily provoked temper, he rushed to get ready to leave.
‘I’ll be back, tomorrow, Dad. I’ve got to go. You finish the story, I’ll read it tomorrow. I’ve got to go but I’ll be back tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow. I promise. See you, Dad. See you tomorrow, Dad.’
He closed the book, his Dad nestled inside, then placed it back on the shelf, remembering exactly where, in this city of books, he had put it.
As he ran to the door, he thought of the waiting monsters, creatures and things. He knew they would be seething with anger, enraged at losing the chase. At the door, he paused; fear moved inside, but no, he thought, he must go, he must leave, he must prove to his Dad he will always return. He pulled the door open and rushed outside, back into the chill of dark, forgotten space. This bold, fearless action would take them all by surprise. Like a cannonball blasted into the air, he shot across the landing, down the stairs, out through the front door and into the garden. The wind, caught off-guard, raced to counter his charge but could only throw a feeble gust, which Ben shouldered away effortlessly.
Once free of the garden, he stopped to catch his breath. Through a fit of coughing, he gasped for air, which the wind tried to snatch away. He knew he had to hurry; he knew his Aunt would be waiting.