Image by Christine Renney
As a boy I would daydream about having special powers. Super strength or x-ray vision, the ability to shift shape and form at will or to stretch my limbs and torso in order to reach far into the distance. Of them all it was the last that I would eventually find myself capable of. Not the coolest nor, as I discovered, the most practical and, over the years, I have contemplated long and hard as to why, of the special powers I conjured and pondered in my youth, this one was to be my gift, my burden.
I have always been tall and thin, freakishly so. I was bullied at school and had to endure a barrage of embarrassingly unoriginal taunts. Name calling mostly. Olive – that was the one that stuck – after Olive Oyl. I learned to live with it. I had to, but even after so long it still manages, on occasion, to cut me. Despite the fact that I excelled at all sports and was chosen for the football team and represented the school in the long jump and cross country, I dreaded Physical Education and having to undress in front of the others. They would gather around me, flicking with their towels, poking and prodding at my skinny frame, pinching and pulling at my skin.
In spite of my unnatural ability and incredible agility, after leaving school I never again participated in a team event or took part in competitive sport of any kind. I did continue to run, mostly keeping to the city. I pounded the pavements before and after work but at the weekends I would drive out into the countryside, taking to the footpaths and bridleways. I could push myself harder there, running for longer and further but I couldn’t counter the restlessness that, as a young man, I carried like an empty wallet.
When running I felt as if I were fleeing and I didn’t for a second feel that I was awkward and ungainly. In the city I held back, I had to, but at weekends I could let myself go although it wasn’t enough.
In hindsight I realise that something extraordinary was happening and that I had squandered my youth and all of my twenties. For more than a decade, clumsy and shy, I tried my best to hide away when in all probability I had been the fastest man on the planet. In middle age I brooded far too deeply on this but by then my life couldn’t have been more complicated and I had long since dispensed with any delusions as to whether running could ever be enough. But I am getting ahead of myself and need to backup a little.
After leaving school without the relevant qualifications to continue with a formal education I set out to find my way in the world. I didn’t have any trouble finding a job in the accounts department of a company which manufactured cardboard boxes. I had a propensity for numbers and became indispensable. I was a cog in their machine and best of all I was left alone. I found a corner in which to hide and I had a desk with a window above which looked out across the roof of the adjoining warehouse. I worked diligently with my back toward the world or at least to the rest of the office. I spoke when spoken to or not at all.
Then, miraculously, I was noticed by a woman, one of the many who over the years worked fleetingly in the office before moving on for pastures new. Remarkably, this young woman set out to ensnare me and happily I allowed myself to be snared. Suddenly my life turned around and I had it all. A loving wife and a happy home, the suburban dream, domestic bliss and then I started to stretch.
It happened without fanfare. We were having breakfast and I couldn’t reach something on the other side of the table. I don’t remember what it was but I didn’t ask my wife to pass it to me or push it closer. Instead I extended my arm the extra distance necessary and, after taking hold of it, let my arm slip back to its usual length, its normal length. My wife didn’t notice. I had been much too fast but I could have held my arm there or I could have extended it further still. I could have sent her screaming into the street in her nightgown.
I didn’t stretch again until I was alone. First one arm and then the other. Likewise my legs. I lay on my back, stretching both arms and legs together but when I felt my torso beginning to flex I restrained myself. The room wasn’t big enough. I needed more space.
Finding that space wasn’t ever an issue. There was the warehouse at work. I had the keys and it was deserted in the evenings and on Sundays and there was space aplenty but I delayed. Although I needed to stretch I was terrified of what I might find myself capable. At first I kept to the house and its cluttered rooms and for a while that was where I nursed my secret.
I did continue stretching in front of my wife in order to reach or kick something aside. As I have already explained I was fast and I was becoming ever more adept at cloaking it. Nevertheless, I limited myself to no more than doubling my arms’ length and it wasn’t long before I was stretching like this in front of my colleagues at the office, then the supermarket, in the streets, everywhere.
Unsurprisingly, in the end I hadn’t any choice and it was out of necessity that on a cold and blustery Sunday morning I let myself into the warehouse. The rain pelted against the roof, all encompassing and discordant it rang in the grimy half light as I stripped off my clothes and prepared to stretch myself fully for the first time.
I was in pain, had been for months, my every muscle and sinew aching, my body screaming for mercy and so raising my arms I stretched toward the roof. Thereafter, I visited the warehouse once a week without fail. Although I was always stealthy and swift those fifteen minutes each week were unceasingly traumatic for me and I was constantly concerned that I might be discovered hanging from the rafters. But I survived. I made it through undiscovered and unscathed. In fact, I have outlived them all, everyone I once, knew including my wife. Of course I am alone again, have been for more years than I now care to contemplate.
Whatever my circumstances at any given time, somehow I have always succeeded in finding a way but it was never as simple as it is here, in this rest home. At this place for the elderly I need only to step outside the door to my room and into the narrow and lengthy corridor beyond.
I have taken to laying out here after dark. On the plush carpet I can lose myself at last. Although I am long since past my prime, I am sure if I live just a little longer I will manage to reach and touch the doors at either end.
Image by Christine Renney
Talking the same script
They wear it like a mask
A deadpan ‘I won’t be affected’ fit
Image by Christine Renney
I follow the other travellers across the car park and toward the rest area. They reach the doors and they push their way through but I stop and hover in front of the entrance, where people step around me, hardly seeing I am there so intent are they on getting inside.
I move close to the plate glass and peer in at them under the bright lights and although what they can do in there is limited, so very, very limited, they falter. It is fleeting but they are disoriented and unsure, if only for a few seconds and then they are able to re-focus and move again. It is a glitch and I realise that this is how I feel, that I am unsure, but for me it isn’t a glitch.
I step away from the entrance and begin to pace in front of the windows. Intermittently I raise my head and gaze into the cafeteria but I am unable to concentrate and I don’t really see them, they are just a blur.
Image by Christine Renney
The room was dirty. It hadn’t been cleaned, at least not properly. She wanted to complain but Pete was so exhausted he pleaded with her, tried to talk her down, convince her to let it slide.
He sat on the end of the bed. She hadn’t noticed the empty beer cans stowed beneath it and he realised of course that, if she did, they wouldn’t be sleeping in the room; probably wouldn’t be staying in this particular motel.
She slumped down beside him and, laying back, he heaved a very audible sigh.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘but I’m not getting inside the covers and I’m not taking off my clothes.’
Turning onto her side she groaned and Pete could tell she was just as tired as he and could no longer fight it. Reaching out he fumbled for the light switch and closed his eyes.
Pete awoke with a start. His arm was hanging over the edge of the bed and his hand brushed against something or something had brushed against it. Rolling over he peered down. Some of the cans had rolled from beneath the bed and Pete could see there was other trash scattered across the room. Fast food and sweet wrappers and empty crisp packets. Squinting in the half light he could see an old apple core and a mouldy banana skin.
Pete climbed quietly from the bed and crossed to the window. He was thankful that he hadn’t taken his shoes off. He parted the curtains a little, letting in the light from the street lamps. The rubbish was everywhere, the room was almost entirely covered.
Pete crouched down and closer to this carpet of mess, of leftovers, he felt nauseous. Looking away he swept his hands through it. The rubbish was sticky and old, the food stuff mixed amongst the paper and card was rotting. It seemed impossible to him that somebody had managed to cram so much underneath the bed. And unbelievable that neither she nor Pete had noticed. Standing, Pete gazed across at her. He realised that it was now time to complain. But she was sleeping so soundly and after the day they had had, after the night they had had, he didn’t want to disturb her. Pete wanted to leave her be, to let her rest.
He decided that he would clean up the mess himself. He had gloves in the car and some old carrier bags. Using these he could carry the rubbish across to the wheelie bins he had spotted at the far end of the car park. Working as quietly as he could Pete would make as many trips as were necessary and in the morning she would be none the wiser.
Pete stepped closer and he studied her for a few moments. Crouching again he lifted the faded eiderdown and peered. There was still a lot of rubbish beneath the bed. In fact it had been forced and crammed so tightly that the trash formed a solid block and it was pushing against the underside of the mattress.
But how could that be when so much had already spilled out into the room? Pete’s bewilderment suddenly turned to anger and in his rage he thrust his hands in, frantically clawing at it. He realised that she was standing beside him but she didn’t speak and kneeling she began to help.
Illustration by Christine Renney
Only a brief description of the Apartment Block will be necessary. How it is perceived by the Townspeople is far more interesting. By those who pass it each day to and from work and the shops, by those who walk in the park and feel they are imposing, trespassing even, within the grounds of some stately mansion. For it is here when they come to escape at lunchtime or on a summer’s evening; here when families gather at the weekend to picnic and play – this is when the Apartment Block antagonises them the most. From its vantage point at the edge of the park, with its black windows like hoodless eyes, it is all seeing and impossible to ignore.
The Townspeople are proud of their park and all have contributed to the restoration of its centrepiece, the Bandstand, now fully restored to its former glory, is a testament to their perseverance and dedication. To their hard work. But now, when they come here to bask in the sunshine, the Apartment Block casts its shadow from above, spoiling it for them. Its residents are constantly changing, an array of Young Professionals. It is rare that anyone stays here for more than a year but, to the Townspeople, they are indistinguishable in their fine clothes, with their impractical cars and well paid jobs in the City. Their lives are without commitment and seem, from afar, frivolous and their home is akin to the most modern of hotels. Its gardens, lovingly tended and painstakingly maintained are the Town’s parkland. The Bandstand is merely a trifle, a folly within the Apartment Block’s playground.
The Townspeople have not been colluding but all are moving in the same direction so of course it is inevitable they will converge. They gather in the bushes and watch the Apartment Block. Occasionally someone will emerge and each time the Townspeople become more agitated, moving involuntarily, eventually lurching forward, revealing themselves. An exiting couple, alarmed by the presence of the now all but motionless individuals littering the grass in front of them, move hastily along the path. They fail to notice the first of the Townspeople who, reaching the doors before they close behind them, slip into the building.
The Townspeople begin edging slowly forward and the couple, unaware of what has triggered this ungainly procession, are brought to an abrupt halt. Stranded on the path they cling to each other but are forgotten. The Townspeople, intent on the Apartment Block, keep on coming from out of the undergrowth, a veritable hoard moving toward and beyond the couple, who perhaps recklessly rush against the tide toward the exit.
Huddled beneath the Bandstand the young couple look back toward the Apartment Block. The crowd gathered, in front of the main entrance doors, appears as a leaden and lumpen mass. But it is thinning. Slowly the Townspeople are forcing their way through the doors and into the building.
‘Who are they?’ she asked.
Shaking his head he said nothing.
‘Where did they come from? What do they want?’ she shrieked.
Reaching out he placed his hands on her shoulders in an effort to still her.
‘I don’t know’ he said softly. ‘I have no idea.’
They began to pace, their footsteps beating against the shiny hardwood floor of the Bandstand. He began to wonder about their neighbours – how many of them were still at home, still in their apartments? Readying, as they had been just a few minutes before, for the day ahead?
They watched as the Strangers pushed across the threshold and the doors swung to behind them. Mesmerised, the young couple continued to watch and seemingly everything had returned to normal.
The Apartment Block glared back at them but the Park again was quiet, picture postcard perfect, until the faces began to appear at the windows. Everything then wasn’t so beautiful or quite so serene.