By Jake Kale
Ben felt the pressure building in the base of his skull, where spine met cranium. His right hand was clenching open and shut, as if pining for something to hold onto. He had only discovered the letter late Saturday night on one of his rare trips to the front door. It had been lying under a not inconsiderable pile, and just the sight of that dreaded brown envelope had been enough to trigger a bulging sensation in the back of his neck. It really shouldn’t have surprised him that he’d only discover the letter when there was absolutely no opportunity to do anything about it. That was the way it always was. Sod’s Law, his mortal enemy. Always three steps ahead, and taking those steps backwards so it could laugh in his face as he raced to catch up.
It was just after 9:30 Monday morning, and he had been on the phone off and on since before 9:00, hoping he had enough credit left to get this problem sorted out. After chancing upon a ringing tone and enduring a litany of instructions from the feminine equivalent of Stephen Hawking he’d at last got through to one the Jobcentre’s typically disobliging operatives, a woman of what he judged to be quite advanced years who already seemed ready to give and go home. Doing his best to keep his pounding head from affecting his telephone manner, but not aided by her taking forever to find his details on the computer, he had asked her why, despite his circumstances remaining exactly the same, they had suddenly decided to stop his Incapacity Benefit. Her answer was mind-boggling.
“Because, based on the answers you gave on you renewal form, it was decided that you do not meet the qualifications.”
Ben felt his fingers dig into his palm. “I don’t understand. I filled that claim form in exactly the same as when I made my original claim last year. It was accepted then, so why am I being turned down now?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All I can tell you is that your current claim does not meet our criteria.”
Ben’s headache intensified, and he snapped his response before he had time to think better of it. “Why not? Jesus Christ, did you even read it?”
There was a pause, then the tinny voice came back, colder than before. “Mr. Barry, if you continue to speak to me in this manner I will end this call. The problem is you haven’t given a valid reason why you can’t go outside.”
“Please don’t make me say it,” Ben pleaded, massaging the imaginary lump on his neck in a futile effort to make the pain go away.
“I’m sorry, but we need an explanation beyond, ‘I can’t go outside,’” she said oh so matter-of-fucking-factly. “Why can’t you go outside?”
“Because . . . it’s not safe.”
“Why is it not safe? Mr. Barry, lots of people are agoraphobic. Lots of people don’t like crowds. That doesn’t stop them working.”
Goddamn it, why was she asking this of him? He couldn’t possibly tell her, because if he did he knew she wouldn’t believe him. Worse, she would most likely think he was mad, a first class nutcase. Then he would be just one scribbled doctor’s signature away from a padded cell. Desperate, he tried another tack. “If you stop my money I won’t be able to pay my bills or buy food—I’ll either freeze or starve to death!” He cursed her silently for making him resort to this, partly because he hated having to beg, but also because he knew it wouldn’t work.
And it didn’t. “Mr. Barry, you’re exaggerating . . .”
“I’m not exaggerating, I’m stating a fact!” he started to shout again before catching himself mid-sentence. His head felt like it was about to explode. “Look. I’m sorry, OK? I’m sorry for losing my temper. Just . . . please, don’t do this.”
He could tell from her tone that she’d had enough of him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barry, it’s not my decision. You can, of course, appeal . . .”
His face resting in his right palm, Ben gave in. “Would that help?”
“As long as you refuse to state your reasons for not wanting to go outside, probably not, no. Have you considered counselling . . ?”
Ben threw his mobile phone at the floor with enough force that the outer casing cracked. He sat fuming, his teeth grinding together so hard his jaw muscles ached. That bitch! That stupid, thoughtless, heartless fucking whore! How could she have listened to everything he’d just said and expect him to go outside? Didn’t it occur to her that if he thought it was safe to venture out the front door for even a moment he would have no need to claim benefits? Ben pressed his hands to his face, hard, his fingers poised as if about to dig into his eyeballs. His black eye ached, and he pressed harder to spite it. It doesn’t matter, his mind whispered to him. It doesn’t matter one bit. It’ll all be over soon. They’ll be dead, they’ll all be dead because they were too stupid, too self-involved to see it coming. Not you, though. You’ll survive it. They’ll all be dead but you’ll be alive.
Ben forced his hands away from his face and down to his lap, and now that there was no danger of blinding himself he allowed his fingers to contract, to interlock with each other the way they always did when he was stressed. The back of his neck still throbbed dully, and he forced himself to calm down. It was the anticipation, he knew. Knowing that it could happen at any instant, expecting it with every breath. It wore him down. He’d lived in fear for so long, for so many months, years if truth be told. Now, when it finally came, it would be a relief. The dreams were coming fast and furious now, on an almost nightly basis, and they were becoming increasingly lucid. Ben was fully aware throughout, he could see the events unfolding in real-time and actually hear the panic, the explosions, the screams. The final, total, endless silence. He knew this was a sign that it would happen soon. But, as in the dreams, he would be powerless to do anything about it. That was why he couldn’t go outside. Because it could, no, would happen at any instant. So he had to be prepared.
That wasn’t to say that Ben didn’t miss the outside world. In fact he missed it more than anything, and would happily give anything for just one more moment in the open air. To be able to walk out the front door without a second thought—imagine that! To walk outside and take a casual stroll, and feel the breeze in his hair, the warm sunlight on his skin. Or something less clichéd, like make a short trip over the road to the shop for some decent food, and maybe some alcohol. But he just couldn’t take the chance. He hadn’t even looked out of a window in he didn’t know how long, in case he was watching when it happened. In some ways the visual isolation was worse than the physical isolation. One of the main selling points of this house had been the view of the park. His mother had loved that view, particularly after four miserable years in a two-bedroom flat that was nowhere near adequate for an adult with two teenage children. He had loved it too, and he missed it. He missed being able to observe the world. For the first time in weeks, Ben felt that if he couldn’t actually go outside, he should at least be able to look outside. Moreover, he realized he wanted to. Giving in to impulsion, he decided that he would. He would go to the window and take one last look at the world. Before everything turned upside down.
Carefully, Ben unbuckled the belts around his legs and waist and reached for the stainless steel handrail next to his chair. Gripping it firmly, he stood and attached the safety harness, then tentatively made his way towards the stairs that led up from the cellar to the ground floor of his terraced house. When he reached the stairs he detached the harness from the handrail and secured it to the stair rail. He felt an almost orgasmic rush of adrenaline. He was doing it! He was actually doing it! At the top of the stairs he undid the four locks he’d had installed when he was burgled three weeks ago and stepped into the hallway with the aid of a second handrail. He again reattached the harness and then, moving slowly, his heart repeatedly hurling itself against his ribcage, he turned right and made his way to what had once been his living room, mindful to hold the rail tightly with at least one hand at all times just in case—
—the roof was torn away, exposing the empty sky above—
He stopped himself quickly, blocking out that train of thought just in time. He’d gotten this far, he couldn’t afford to start thinking about what he was doing now. If he did he’d probably end up going straight back down the stairs.
Following the handrail, Ben warily entered the living room that faced out into his small driveway and Kittinger Street beyond. The room itself was as empty as the unseen driveway—he’d gotten rid of the furniture he didn’t need or couldn’t drag down to the cellar months ago, all graciously picked up and carted off to the tip by his sister’s ex-boyfriend, and had sold his car for a pittance shortly after. The room was dark as a cave due the drawn curtains, though he could still tell that his formally beige carpet was now a dirty grey and several millimetres taller. The stale, powdery air made his sinuses itch. Ben had never been a clean freak, but he’d always tried to keep the place reasonably tidy. He dreaded to think what the second floor must’ve looked like, but there was no way he could risk venturing further upstairs to find out. It risky enough coming this far. With each step he expected—
—the house to shake violently and his feet to suddenly leave the floor—
“Stop it!” he ordered himself out loud. “Just stop it right fucking now!” This was proving more difficult than he’d expected.
Concentrating on the task at hand, Ben continued to follow the handrail all the way around to stand in front of the curtains he’d drawn and vowed never to open again just weeks before. Then, after several rapid breaths, he made a grab with his left hand for the pulley that opened them, yanking it quickly but without too much force so as to avoid tearing the curtains down, just as he’d practiced before he’d drawn them for good. The room was suddenly ablaze, and Ben turned away, squinting, unable to handle the light. As his eyes adjusted he saw dust particles whirling and dancing in the golden streams that had penetrated the room, the light seeming to revitalize it, as if a form of photosynthesis had stirred after a long hibernation. The light bounced off pale bare walls unobstructed, making them appear luminescent and highlighting just how barren the room was. Ben found that immensely depressing, and now that his eyesight had recovered he turned away from the empty room and, for the first time in weeks, looked out of the window.
Outside, Ben saw a sunny and surprisingly warm looking early February morning. Perhaps that was the result of global warming, a menace that would soon pale into insignificance. Kittinger Street was unchanged from when he’d last looked out at it, and in a way seeing it felt like meeting up with an old friend. It was mostly residential, three-up, two-down sort of thing. Directly opposite he saw the petrol station where old Mr. Khayum most likely still worked, and the small park where Ben and his ex had picnicked regularly during previous summers next to it. The scene was both tranquil and incongruously threatening. There were so many people out there! Kittinger Street was an offshoot from a main road and shopping area so it had always been fairly busy, but it still seemed unusually well-trafficked today. He saw men and woman in suits on their way to work, pensioners sequestered within layers of unnecessary clothing, glum-faced children in uniform who were obviously late for school. He could make out people walking dogs in the park, and saw mums and dads toddling along with their little pre-schoolers heading for the nursery a few streets away. Ben felt an overwhelming sadness at the thought of those young lives that would soon be snatched away. All of these lives that would soon come to an end. Ben could only hope that it would be quick.
He thought of the last time he himself had gone outside—he’d been foolish to leave the house to begin with, let alone leave it unprepared. What if it had happened while he was in the bus shelter? How would he have survived there? Or, worse, what if it had happened when he was on the bus? He would have been helpless, adrift, the whole bus spinning wildly, out of control, bodies flying around him, the screams of terrified passengers filling the air, and with nothing secure to hold on to he would join them, rattling around like dice in a cup until the oxygen was stolen from his lungs and darkness descended from above—
Ben turned away—he’d seen enough. This was much more difficult than he’d expected, just the thought of it was too much. He closed the curtains again, this time for good, and stood weeping in the dark. Why do you do this to yourself? the voice in his head demanded now that he no longer had the wherewithal to block it out. What the hell were you expecting to achieve by coming up here? To conquer your demons? They can’t be conquered, idiot! Not now, not ever. Ben took in a lungful of musty air to try and stifle the sobs, then another, and risked removing one hand from the railing to clear his watery eyes, rubbing gingerly around the sore right socket. Coming up here had been an impulse, and a stupid one. He couldn’t afford to go gambling his life on an whim, not now.
It was time to leave.
Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.