Sitting with his family at the breakfast table, Tom knew he ought to feel contented. He had a beautiful wife and baby daughter. But he felt the shadows closing in once again. Darkness crept into the corner of his eye like a slinking black cat.
“Loser,” whispered the voice in his head. “Failure.”
“I need to go for a run,” he muttered. “Clear my head.”
“Get some more nappies while you’re out, honey,” said Grace. “And the Job Centre opens at 9.30.”
“Be a man,” whispered the voice. “Do something useful.”
Tom picked up his daughter Lauren, nuzzling her into his neck, inhaling her warmth and baby smell. He blew raspberries on her cheeks and she gurgled with pleasure.
“I’m going to the gym this afternoon, remember,” said Grace. “Make sure you’re back by two.”
Five minutes later Tom ran past the Catholic Church and stared up at the gargoyles. They goggled back, pulling grotesque faces. Tom stuck his tongue out at them. He loved the gargoyles. They were like ugly guardian angels, warding off evil spirits. Whenever he saw them he felt better. They turned off the voice in his head.
But by the time he reached the river it was back:
“Run, run, as fast as you can
you still can’t escape,
you weak little man.”
Tom turned up the volume on his iPod (la, la, la, not listening) and started singing along too loudly to the Arctic Monkeys. A terrier yapped at his heels and its owner gave him a funny look.
In the Job Centre sweat trickled down his neck as he read the vacancies:
Cleaner, Shop Assistant, Chef, Labourer …
“I used to be a Care Assistant at the hospital,” he said to the woman at the desk. “Anything new come in like that?”
“Well …” the woman tapped her keyboard and squinted at her screen, “if you’ve got people skills, how about Trainee Undertaker?”
“Take it,” whispered the voice.
“No,” said Tom abruptly, knocking his chair over as he stood up too quickly. “Sorry- it’s just … I’m not very good with dead people.”
“Wusss,” came the whisper.
On his way back the wind had picked up, sending the treetops on Jesus Green swaying like drunken dads at a disco. There was a storm coming that evening, the weather forecast said.
The faces Tom ran past were worried, with tight mouths and downcast eyes. He tuned into their distress. If only he could do something to help. Something big. But he had enough trouble fighting his own demons.
Tom was 12 when he first heard the voice in his head. At school a Maths teacher called Mr Burke used to stalk the classroom, eyes like a hawk, ready to pounce on uncertainty and error: “Wrong!” he would boom. Or, when a poor answer particularly offended him, “idiot boy!” or “gormless girl.”
After a few weeks of ‘The Berk’, Tom started to hear an echo in his head every time he messed up: Wrong!
In those days the voice was playful and mocking. But recently it had become the sinister whisper of a sadistic bully. It was as though a computer virus had got past his filters and was corrupting his operating system. Tom needed an upgrade.
He had tried therapy and counselling. They were fine as far as they went. But Tom found running helped the most. Displacement activity. Recently he had made friends with a group of freerunners and together they explored the nooks and crannies of Cambridge.
Tom paused at the traffic lights, running on the spot. Was there any point in going home empty-handed?
“Run back home to wifey,” whispered the voice.
“Shut up,” said Tom.
He jogged down Lensfield Road and turned right into Tennis Court Road.
“Coward,” whispered the voice.
Tom had got into the habit of looking upwards when he was out, raising his eyes above street level. There was an unexplored world up there which most people missed because they were too busy looking down at their phones.
When he was growing up he remembered a little booklet on the shelves of the family home: Look Up in Cambridge. Good advice. There was plenty to see. And now, with the skyline changing so rapidly, there was plenty more.
Tom preferred the old buildings. They were less likely to be ‘spiked’. Every new ledge and surface which could be climbed or used as a playground was now hedgehogged with long thin metal spikes. They were trying to take the risk out of life with their Health and Safety. Tom, though, was still open to adventure, even with a baby to look after.
But he felt guilty about some of the dangerous things he did – ‘bridging’ gaps on building sites at night, racing over car bonnets in multi-storey car parks.
“You muppet,” came the voice. “Still running around like a teenager.”
Tom vaulted some iron railings and entered Downing Site, seeking out the warren of walkways which led to the museums.
A figure leapt off a Portakabin roof and thudded onto the concrete, before somersaulting into his path.
“Hey, Zak,” said Tom. They bumped fists.
“You want to join us?” Zak gestured towards the buildings behind him, where moving body parts could be glimpsed intermittently against the slate grey sky.
For the next hour Tom and his freerunning friends challenged themselves – jumping, grasping, pulling up, kicking off, testing surfaces and gravity. Pushing their limits.
If you were brave enough, Tom found, if you really got yourself in the zone, concrete felt like rubber and your body was capable of doing extraordinary things. It adapted to its environment. This felt like special training for whatever life could throw at him. And it shut the voice right up.
Afterwards they lay on their backs and watched the clouds scudding across the sky.
“Tonight should be epic,” said Zak. “The storm’ll be wild. Nice weather for a climb. Scaffolding’s up at the Catholic Church. You fancy it?”
“I’m not sure,” said Tom.
“Wimp,” whispered the voice.
When Tom got home Grace was feeding Lauren in her high-chair, expertly scooping mashed banana from her chin. She looked like a barber giving a customer a close shave.
Lauren beamed at him and banana oozed from the corners of her mouth.
Grace looked drained. “How did it go?” she asked. “Did you get the nappies?”
“Oh no, I … “
“You Berk,” whispered the voice.
“… but I’ve got an interview tomorrow,” blurted Tom. He desperately wanted to give Grace some hope. “Trainee Undertaker at Co-op Funeralcare.”
“Liar,” came the whisper.
Grace’s face lit up. “Tom! That’s great.”
She gave him a banana-flavoured kiss.
“Daddy’s gonna look cool in a smart suit,” she told Lauren. “Just like the MenInBlack.”
In the afternoon Tom looked after Lauren while Grace worked out at the gym. They played Peek-a-boo, Round and Round the Garden and This is the Way the Lady Rides. He read her picture books and they watched Peppa Pig and Shaun the Sheep. When she cried he pulled funny faces and put on silly voices (“Fool,” whispered the voice, “Clown”). He let her roll around in her UFO baby walker while he sterilised bottles and made up formula milk. Then he fed her, winded her and took her out to buy nappies.
Lauren’s eyes grew wide in the strong wind. She shivered and wobbled as if she had just sucked a lemon. But the rhythm and motion of the buggy soon sent her to sleep, as Tom knew it would.
He opened the door to the flat as the first drops of rain began to fall, fat drops that bounced off the cars and concrete. He parked Lauren in the hall and listened to the storm. The noise of the rain was like hissing radio static. Thunder began to rumble in the distance. The wind moaned and whined at the windows.
Later that evening, when the call came, they were all asleep on the sofa.
Tom’s mobile buzzed in his pocket and he was suddenly wide awake.
A text from Zak: its on come now.
Lightning flashed in the dark outside as he gazed at Grace and Lauren, snuggled up together. They looked so lovely.
But then darkness spread like a stain into the corner of Tom’s eye and their faces began to look like gargoyles.
“Leave them,” whispered the voice.
He shook his head and stared out of the window at the church spire.
When he looked back at his family their faces were normal again.
Then an idea struck him, a bolt of lightning out of the raging sky. Why hadn’t he thought of it before?
Now he knew quite clearly what he had to do to change his world. It was risky, but if it worked it would set them all free.
He sneaked out of the flat like a burglar. Outside the weather overwhelmed his senses. He splashed the short distance to the Catholic Church, dancing from pavement to gutter like Gene Kelly.
“Always running away,” whispered the voice.
The planks of scaffolding rattled, swayed and creaked; its metal poles sang and clanged as Tom and his freerunning friends climbed them. This was the easy bit. The rain lashed Tom’s drenched clothes and gusts of wind buffeted him as he moved slowly up the outside of the church.
“No,” said the voice in his head. “You can’t do this.” It had a panicky edge that spurred Tom on. He needed all his strength and agility to cling onto the rock, to move from handhold to foothold until he was up where he wanted to be, next to the gargoyles.
Rain water gushed from their water spouts and cascaded in torrents onto the ground below.
“No! NO! NO !” shouted the voice.
“YESSSS !” yelled Tom.
He squatted on the ledge, enjoying the view. Forked lightning lit up Parker’s Piece. A thousand blurred points of light winked up at him. In the noise of the storm he could barely hear the sirens of fire engines as they left the new station.
Tom became a gargoyle. He pulled a hideous face, mad staring eyes bulging out of their sockets, mouth gaping open, tongue lolling like a panting dog.
The voice inside his head screamed as it left him, dying out as it joined the falling rain in the gutter.
Tom watched over the city, keeping it safe from evil spirits. In his mind’s eye he saw Grace and Lauren, frowning in their sleep. As he watched over them their faces became peaceful and serene.
Everything would be all right from now on. Tomorrow he would go to the Job Centre and sign up to become a Trainee Undertaker. Now Tom had killed the voice he could handle death.
Life was looking up.
© Nick Walker 2013