It’s been so long since I’ve written to you I guess you’ve already figured out something must be wrong. Well, I’ll tell it to you straight, though I wish to God I could dress it up a little better - Kenny’s dead. I realise this’ll come as a hell of a shock, I still can’t believe it myself, especially so soon after Scotty. I was with Kenny at the end but I wasn’t prepared. I’m writing you this letter so that you will be.
I’m so sorry I haven’t kept in touch, really I am; the number of times I’ve had the phone in my hand ready to call, but I think the sound of your voice after all this time would break my heart.
It’s an awful thing to say, but I was looking forward to Scotty’s funeral just to see you. I couldn’t face it in the end, and Kenny told me you didn’t go either. I can understand that, but I’d bet everything I own that you spent that whole day thinking about the four of us, thinking about the old house. I’ve felt so close to you lately. As close as when we were kids.
Do you remember that game we used to play?
We’d be in the pines at the back of the playing fields, or the ruins in the orchard, anywhere away from the crowd. It was the old house though wasn’t it? That’s where it started, where it really worked. That place always scared the crap out of us; except you of course, you were never scared.
I can see it so vividly as I write this, a skeleton with half a roof and a hell of a reputation. I would never have set foot near it by myself, not even in daylight, but it was different when we were all together. It was an evil place, or so Scotty always said, and it was easy to believe all the stories once you were inside listening to the dry crackle of its crumbling walls. It was the greatest ghost train ride I’ve ever been on.
It smelt of piss and wine and vomit, but those were good smells then; the smells of the weekend. Sometimes, climbing through the hedge to meet you guys with a carry out banging against my knees, I’d hear your voice and my heart would stop banging and start singing. Even though I didn’t stand a chance with you, it was enough to be around you.
We left the old house behind so long ago Claire, but it haunts me still.
When we’d filled ourselves with drink, our brains sodden enough to merge with the damp on the floor, we’d play the game. Scotty, always the Am-Dram queen, would add a little extra flourish. Do you remember the time he rolled us all cigarettes out of bible pages? I used to think he was crazy. Now I’m not so sure.
We’d sit in a circle facing each other, and in my mind’s eye there’s a makeshift fire between us and our clothes would stink of wood smoke all week. Kenny would have his ghetto blaster pumping out Dio or Sabbath, and our shadows would dance over the crude pentagrams carved in the leprous staircase.
Can you see them now like I can? Kenny’s big smiley face, not a bone in that big ball of flesh, facing Scotty who always took the game so seriously.
And me, facing you.
You knew I loved you didn’t you? Loved you heart deep and soul wide. Still do. I think I loved you even more because you never mentioned it, never acted strange around me. But of course you knew. We knew everything then.
We’d sit awhile staring into each others eyes until it started to feel right. I’d watch the embers reflected in your eyes; I thought it was your soul laughing. Jesus, I feel like John Boy Walton without the voiceover here! But I learnt something looking at you. I learnt it is a vain pursuit to search inside yourself for a soul; look in others, that’s where you’ll find it.
Then, after we were quiet for a bit, Scotty would say ‘What am I thinking?’. Scotty was the first to realise that we were more than just a gang of losers, that there was something special between us and always would be.
‘What am I thinking?’ Kenny would say ‘You’re wondering what my tongue would feel like in your mouth,’ and we’d all laugh and Scotty would get angry and say ‘Play the fucking game!’ and we would, we all would, because the tension would be gone. No matter how outlandish or outrageous our thoughts, no matter how hard we tried to catch each other out, we always guessed right. We had one mind, a group mind.
But did you ever feel it wasn’t ours?
Maybe when people have a connection as strong as that they can tune into each other. It was like we all were transmitting a signal that only we could receive. Kenny always tried to grope you afterwards; ‘We’re so close Claire, cheese and crackers.’
Ah Claire, but he was so right.
The worst thing about death and suffering is that the pain is not your own; everyone shares it, goes through it. Even your own pain is not truly your own. But there was something between us that was ours and ours alone. I used to think that was a good thing.
God, how did it come to this? After we left school we all just drifted apart. Kenny began hanging with the wine team round the shops tapping cigarettes and spare change. Scotty got a job at Tenshift making bin liners twelve hours a day. We’d see him once a week, then once a fortnight, then once a month. It was like we were weaning each other out of our lives.
I started seeing Jenny round that time. You hated her, I always knew that, I think that’s why I went out with her, to get a reaction out of you. It didn’t last. I met another girl, Sarah, and we got married. That didn’t last either. I guess the chains we forge in childhood are stronger than those we forge when we grow up for I never think of Sarah at all now, but I can’t get you out of my dreams.
I know you’re married.
My mum told me she saw you pushing a pram down town. I hope you’re happy Claire, honest I do. Everyone’s lights were always brighter than mine; I hope he shines for you the way I never could.
I was down the Washington one night when I overheard a couple of guys playing pool say, ‘Did you hear about Graham Scott?’ My ears pricked up at the name, it had been so long since I’d heard it. ‘They found him up at that old derelict house by the orchard.’
I knew it was our Scotty before I heard the details. At the mention of his name I felt a burst of joy, like I’d found something precious that I hadn’t realised I’d lost; then it fell from me, lost forever. I went looking for Kenny and he told me things I’m only beginning to believe now.
Are you scared? Fear is like a biscuit in your tea, you drink it right to the end. Ken told me childhood bonds can never be broken no matter how far you stretch them, and though in our youth it’s just baby chains that bind us, they grow tighter with age. And we were always connected, tight.
Can you tell what I’m thinking even now? We were scared of the devil in that old house, of childhood monsters; I think we were right to be.
If one link breaks in a chain like that then the whole thing comes apart. You know the old saying - if you go to one funeral you’ll go to three - there’s truth in that. Kenny talked about you a lot and I couldn’t begin to write the half of it down without blushing. Remember how he’d always stare at you and say something like ‘I’ve just spun a web in my pants’? He said the only reason a beautiful girl like you would hang with us was because you were chained. There’s truth in that too.
He didn’t seem sad, though the drink had taken its toll, he was still the same old Kenny with the big goofy grin. I hope you’re thinking of him as you read this and smiling too. It was never my intention to upset you but I have to tell you what Kenny told me because it’s all coming true.
He said Scotty was bitter at the end, cursing us all but you especially, he said you were the worst of us, that the packaging was nice but the inside was filled with poison like an asbestos Easter egg. It’s typical of Scotty to say something like that, something odd and hurtful. He always used to say ‘It’s not the jokes that make me funny, it’s the lines’, as if that somehow explained it all. I wouldn’t take it to heart though, you know what his moods were like, changeable as a child’s ass.
He went too far that last night we were all together, I know that know and I knew it then. Kenny had gone to buy us all chips out of his first, and probably last, pay-packet; he made such a big deal about getting everyone battered mushrooms too. Scotty was acting strange that night, well, stranger than usual; crazy little bastard could howl with the best of them.
He had bitten off the neck of a bottle of Smirnoff, crunched it all up without cutting himself. Later on I found the bottle resting against the outside wall where we always took a whiz and it was still full. What I’m saying is he wasn’t drunk when he did that; I don’t think he drank anything that night.
I heard him praying on the other side of the wall and I sneaked up to watch him through the broken window. There he was, kneeling down to the wonky painting of Satan daubed above the fireplace, and I laughed thinking , here goes mad Scotty, but when I looked at him he was so intense, so into it, I got goosebumps.
He was praying for all sorts of weird shit. By the end he kept saying ‘You can have my soul if I can have her’, over and over. There was blood in his mouth then, running down his chin and over his entwined fingers. I felt genuinely sorry for him, all his macho bravado stripped away to reveal a pathetic little boy.
Then I saw you watching him from the other window and when he said ‘One night with her’ you walked away. I think that was the moment when the key was put in, when the door was opened.
We never saw each other again, at least not all together, and I’ve always blamed Scotty for that. That was the last time the four of us were in the one place at the one time, before the four corners were blown to the wind; take one away and the whole house comes down. You see, I’ve started to think we were the old house, forbidding, unwelcoming to the outside world but really just sad and crumbling, trying to hold ourselves together.
I don’t know which haunts me more, that house or the fact I was never honest with you about how I felt. I’m trying to make up for that now.
Kenny told me Scotty had ran away from home and moved in up there. Staggering home one morning from God knows where, Kenny saw him sprinting past with a tape recorder in one hand and a suitcase in the other. He ran after him, said it took all his strength just to keep him in sight, and by the time he caught up with him Scotty had lit a fire just like the old days.
He was crying. I don’t have to tell you how often Scotty’s dad beat on him but this one must’ve been a real clinker because he was covered in welts across his face and arms. He told Kenny he’d been hit with a poker, and for the longest time that’s all he could get out of him.
Kenny sat with him, listening to Holy Diver for the millionth time, hoping a plan dawned on him before the sun. Then it got cold and the face above the fireplace began to glow and Scotty stopped yapping and started laughing and Kenny said his balls tried to crawl up his gut at the sound of it.
‘You know she never loved me.’
‘Who?’ Kenny asked him.
‘Claire. She never loved me. Never loved any of us.’
‘Yeah she did, just not like that. We were mates.’
‘Were,’ said Scotty and started crying again.
‘What’s going on Scotty? What’s this all about?’
‘I’m dying.’ Blunt as you like.
Ken slumped down beside him, put his arm around him. He knew he wasn’t joking, said he knew it, felt it, before Scotty opened his mouth; the way it used to be.
‘Doesn’t matter Ken. The chain’s tightening. Do you think we were so close by chance? Do you think we fluked it? Those voices we used to hear, they weren’t ours. We thought they were, but they weren’t ours at all.’
‘What are you talking about now? You’re not making any sense.’ But Kenny said he knew exactly what he meant, said he heard the whispers as he held him.
‘I bought it. I bought it for all of us. Now I have to pay. Thing is, I can’t afford it. Come morning I’ll be dead and then you’ll be able to go home and stop worrying about me. See, I still know what you’re thinking. They’ll keep telling me right up until the end.’
‘Scotty, I think maybe your dad’s hit you round the head once too often.’
Scotty smiled. ‘I’m glad you’re here. I get to tell you I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry for what?’
‘For leaving you my debt. In a few weeks you’ll be dead too, but before you go tell the others, though something tells me they’ll find out for themselves.’
They sat in silence, and as the fire burnt down so did Scotty. He died in Kenny’s arms the way he died in mine. As his last breath rattled in his throat the rotten staircase finally gave way. That’s all I have to tell you, except nothing is ever all Claire and we both know it.
Maybe Scotty was crazy at the end, but maybe not, maybe we had tuned into something bigger after all. Kenny swore he heard those voices and I believe him. I can hear them too.
They buzz and crackle in my head as I write this, stabbing my brain with their needle whispers. They say they have travelled such a long, long way to answer our call. But they don’t speak of my death, not yet; I seem to be on a different wavelength.
They tell me to go and visit you and your little family; they want me to visit soon.
Can you tell what they are thinking?
We were always so close, cheese and crackers, so I wanted to write and warn you. Warn you that I’m going to snap the baby chains that bind us, for they told me that is how I will survive.
And they have told me of stronger fetters to keep you close.