An extract from the story Bradley's Message

 

  

The first symptoms appeared in the late Spring of Bradley Armstrong's seventeenth year. The illness took the form of a slow, wasting lethargy that invaded his body in the way that Nature reclaims an abandoned house: at first there is only a damp nuance in the air or a chill in certain rooms, easy enough to ignore until the first patch of mould forms at the corner of a ceiling or the base of a wall, which neglected and forgotten about for a few weeks bursts out suddenly in a proliferating infestation that in no time at all has eaten away the plasterwork, cracked the lintels, dislodged the roof slates, undermined the foundations and filled the air with the pestilential stink of decay. Assailed by his illness Armstrong resembled the helpless inhabitant of such a house, imprisoned in a body that was no longer fit for habitation.

Despite many lengthy investigations the specialists assigned to his case were unable to identify the cause of his illness. In general they agreed a chemical disorder of the blood, or even something neurological lay at the heart of the problem but a more specific diagnosis, let alone a treatment, were beyond their capabilities to perform.

This reversal in the boy's fortunes came as a cruel blow to his father, Malcolm Armstrong for whom any kind of physical weakness in members of his family was an unwarranted slap in the face. Malcolm would have forgiven his son almost anything, illegitimate children, criminality, bankruptcy, even sexual deviancy, but his squeamishness about anything to do with illness, or the implication that life, particularly his own life, had a finite span, was too awful to contemplate.

Once discharged from the hospital's care a strict regime of medication was prescribed to relieve the boy's remaining symptoms. The long-term prognosis was unclear however and after months of lonely incarceration at home, under trhe devoted care of the housekeeper, Mrs Church, Bradley's consultant  paid one of his routine visits to the house. While  there he took Malcolm Amstrong aside and explained with a long face that although the long-term prognosis for the boy was unclear the activity of dying slowly but inexorably would in all probability occupy the remaning years of his son's life. Bradley's mother, a former opera singer, assumed the role of nurse to her son, content to pay for whatever treatements her medical investigations suggested might help relieve the boy's condition, from that year onwards Malcolm Armstrong could no longer abide five minutes of his son's company before being overcome with the need to rush away and perform some brisk, life-enhancing aerobic exercise to purge himself of the contamination arising from their brief contact.

Even the name itself came to seem like a mockery; the name 'Armstrong' had a Teutonic ring of robust vitality about it; on hearing such a name a stranger might envisage a sportsman, lantern-jawed and muscular, bristling with the moral rectitude that only a sound physical constitution can bestow on a person. Whenever came to the house, Bradley would hide away in his room, or if unable to avoid their company, shrink back into the corner of a sofa like a criminal fearfully awaiting interrogation. Whenever his parents introduced a stranger into the house Armstrong imagined that he could see their faces fall in dismay as their glance passed from his father's face to his own: that collapse of optimistic anticipation into disappointment, even confusion at the sight of the scrawny, ectomorphic changeling whose eyes flickered nervously out at them from beneath hooded lids. "But what happened to. . . ?" an old friend of the family would begin, having set eyes on the boy for the first time in years; then, having observed Malcolm's glance of warning, they quickly brushed over their inquiry and brought the conversation to a halt. Bradley knew they were about to inquire after the Armstrongs' other son, the child they'd known from before, the one whose chair this unrecognisable creature now occupied.

By June Armstrong could no longer climb to the shops at the top of the hill, in August he was barely able to summon the energy to kick his rugby ball, and by October, in the very week he had been due to set off for University, he passed his days confined to a chair in his bedroom. When he did manage a few minutes out of doors he could barely walk the length of the garden.

ii

For many years the Armstrong family had attended a little Anglican church in whose graveyard several generations of Armstrongs had been interred. From an early age Bradley had sung in the children's choir and since reaching the age of nine been allowed to ring the bell for Sunday Matins. Along with the other children of the parish he had helped decorate the church for the Thanksgiving service, arranging the hand-woven baskets of flowers and fruit on the altar while the minister's wife hurried back and forth issuing commands and cries of encouragement in a high-pitched cluck.

Sunday service now became the only occasion during the week when the family could be seen together in public. When Armstrong first returned home Malcolm insisted the boy should remain at home on Sunday but Isabella demurred and they continued to attend as a family, applying some sort of pressure to ensure his compliance. Nevertheless, the moment the service was finished Malcolm would be the first out of his pew, hurrying along, hot on the minister's heels to the door and rush out into the air, like a man fleeing a burning building.

On behalf of her son Isabella requested an interview with the minister. She had herself turned to the clergyman for guidance after the collapse of her singing career. This wise man had persuaded her to take on the role of choir mistress in the church and it occurred to her that he might be able to persuade her son of the compensatory aspects of his illness. The Revered Smythe was happy to oblige and arranged to speak with Armstrong on the matter following the service.

The Reverend Smythe was something of a celebrity in the city's ecclesiastical circles, renowned for his erudition, wisdom, extraordinary height and an almost saintly kindness, all qualities that achieved full and equal expression in his long, mellifluous sermons.

On the day of the appointment Armstrong sat in his pew, stood up, knelt, prayed and sang when appropriate, as he had done for much of his childhood years. During the sermon, lulled by the rich drone of the minister's voice, he let his thoughts wander amongst the congregation. It seemed to him that many of them were distracted, some perhaps, not unlike himself, thinking about the lunch they would enjoy when they returned home, others struggling to hear what was being said, a minority giving serious consideration to the sermon. However, in addition to these impressions he became aware of an unmistakeable glow of rapture on several cheeks and the fire of inspiration burning in a number of eyes. What were these people experiencing, he wondered? What could they see? And for a moment or two he conjured with the idea of an entirely different ceremony in which the minister in his role as representative on earth of the incomprehensible deity worshiped in these premises, was driven to his knees inside the pulpit by protesting, grief-maddened parishioners hurling refuse and crying out for an explanation for the senseless misery and frustration of their lives, not to mention the lives of others even more unfortunate than themselves, scattered in every corner of the world . What, he wondered, was the point of religious observances if not to provide these poor benighted people with the opportunity to call their deity to account for all those centuries of cruel neglect?

When the service was over Bradley waited with his mother in the porch as the minister exchanged pleasantries with the departing congregation. The faint ripple of water rushing between the banks of the nearby river echoed against the stone walls. A cool, autumnal wind rustled amongst the poplar trees and the cries of circling crows mingled with the squeaking of the rusty, wind-blasted weathervane on the tower. The voices of one or two school friends passed him by and hurried away. These sounds filled Armstrong with loneliness. It seemed as if every breath of human warmth was evaporating from the world. In the stillness of the overcast afternoon it struck him with desolating clarity that at some not very great distance in time he would come to an impenetrable door, which despite any exertion of longing, cunning, or intelligence he would be unable to open.

Finally the Reverend Smythe shook the last parishioner's hand and waved them and their family on their way through the churchyard gate. He stood back, rested his hand on the young man's shoulder and led him back through the church into his office in the sacristy.

The leaded windows of the little room reduced the late afternoon light to a few diffused rays; shadows swarmed in corners, over the bookcases and across Smythe's pale, benign face so that every nook and feature of his skin seemed to have been etched in ink and highlighted with chalk.

The air of the room was rich with the dusty fragrances of dried roses, old wood, frankincense and furniture wax, all of which,, combined with the still coolness of stone walls, seemed to create a tranquil interstice in the course of worldly events. For a few moments Armstrong found himself aware of a kind of spiritual peace. Instead, he simply let his eyes and his mind wander aimlessly about the room, like a trapped fly buzzing against a windowpane.

Finally, the minister looked up, smiled, folded his hands on the desk, and spoke:

"Bradley, my boy," he began, "I've known you all your life. As you are no longer a child I'll spare you the insult of sweetening the bitter pill you've had to swallow. There's little point in offering you homilies or false comfort. You can be sure you will never again know what it is like to be free of care. No doubt you have already reached this conclusion yourself. Whatever happiness you may experience in your future life (whatever that strangely malleable word might mean) will be accompanied by a sobering recollection of your physical impermanence. This is the natural consequence of coming face to face with your mortality. Be assured, some men don't even reach this understanding until they find themselves, as if by an incomprehensible accident, on their deathbeds. And let me tell you, that is a truly pitiful sight. The dawning on a man at the very last moment that his life is at an end. "

The minister leaned back in his chair and rested his long, burly arm on the desk. After a few moments of reflection, he leaned forward and regarded Armstrong with his most intense and penetrating gaze.

"But, Bradley, what if I were to suggest to you that, far from being the affliction you might have thought this setback of yours has a divine provenance? That rather than falling into the trap of self-pity you should congratulate yourself on receiving this sublime gift, give up thanks for it, begin each day of your life by recollecting the limitless benefits that will accrue from it? That, I expect, would seem nonsensical to you.

"Then why should I suggest it? Why should I believe that this illness of yours is nothing other than a divine message? You will no doubt have noticed, in your few short years on earth, that besides love and beauty and friendship and many other extraordinary blessings the world is a cesspit of sickness and sorrow and pain. It's not enough that Nature on its own provides ample means and opportunities to drag human beings to their knees but we humans ourselves are only too happy to pitch in and add our weight to the sum. Why is that? Why do so many of us leap up to volunteer our services in any and every act of oppression or cruelty and yet find it so hard to arouse compassion for others? The answer is, surely, ridiculously simple. Look at the example of our own faith, and not only our faith. Prosperity is simply poor soil in which to cultivate understanding.

"You may consider that understanding is not worth the price. You would prefer to hold on to your youth, to have your bright future restored to you. In that you resemble every other man and woman on the face of the earth. Have I not myself, from time to time, found myself mired in despondency as the vigour and optimism of my own youth slips between my fingers and vanishes like yesterday's snow? Unfortunately, we human beings are subject to laws that unfold beyond the operation of our wills. Nothing I can say will change that. Neither can I change the way you think about it. In the final analysis each of us is condemned to draw his own conclusions. Tto come to terms with life, as it is, or not, as the case may be.

"However, this communication, this dark blessing, if I may call it that, can show you your destiny in ways that simple happiness never could. The understanding that suffering brings in its wake is the knowledge that all of us are bound inextricably together; that suffering, above all other things, is the glue which holds the human race together. And we can only fulfil our best possibilities by taking responsibility for, and embracing, that connection with others. Otherwise, we succumb to despair, and that, as I'm sure you are aware, is the worst sin of all.

The minister paused, laid his hand flat on the polished oak surface of the desk and rubbed it slowly back and forth. Armstrong's fingers had become entwined together in his lap. When he looked down at them they seemed foreign, alien, as if they belonged to some other creature, inexplicable in their complexity, capable of activities and skills he would never have the capacity or intelligence to perform. It was as if someone had placed in his hands a selection of elaborate tools, designed for the most intricate operations, with an assumption that he should instinctively understand their use.

"So, what does this mean?" the minister continued. "If it is so, then what is your particular responsibility? You, who've stepped at an early age into the fray of life? In a nutshell, Bradley, the answer is simply to show courage. You must recognise that many other people live in fear of the very thing that has happened to you. Illness, ageing, death cast their shadows over all our lives. These things appal us, terrify us, disgust us, yet you, Armstrong, have been placed in the privileged position, like the captain of a ship, about to embark on a voyage of exploration, chosen to go ahead, with eyes wide open, into that terrible future that awaits us all. How I envy you! Congregations may flock to hear my weekly words of comfort but the entire world will be your pulpit and your example a teaching for all. Your fortitude, Armstrong, will be your gift to the world. I assure you this is a challenge you are equipped to face. As the Apostle himself asserted with such eloquence in the tenth chapter of Corinthians, God never tests us beyond our limits. A single reading of the passage should allay any fears you might have on that score. You have received an immeasurable gift, my boy. And this is why I say to you, from the bottom of my heart, that I, a frail servant, burdened by undeserved good fortune, can only envy you your extraordinary opportunity."

When Armstrong emerged into the outside world dusk was falling. Isabella had left after the service to prepare the dinner. He stumbled alone along the deserted road to his home and for a while his thoughts wandered over the minister's admonitions. Soon, however, his reflections were interrupted by a burst of birdsong tumbling down from the dark branches overhead, and the low rippling of water coming from the direction of the river. His gaze wandered over the surface of the pebble-dashed tar of the road and up into the sky where the first stars were flickering and it seemed for those few minutes that the world was gathering about him, sheltering him, breathing into him a deep, reasoning confidence. As the breezes stirred in the hedgerows by the road and the last call of a crow echoed across the darkening sky, he let his mind relax its tireless grip on ambition and loss and simply heard and saw and smelt every impression coming to him from the night. For those few minutes the superstition of purpose, the belief that life demanded something from him, evaporated, and the world opened up into something electric, infinitely mysterious, as if he had been connected to a vast, interconnected grid of pure energy.

Isabella met him at the door when he arrived at the house and together they walked through to the dining room. Malcolm rose from his place at the head of the table, nodded to his son and left the room. Isabella followed him and returned with Armstrong's dinner.

"So. What did he say?"

"Nothing much," Armstrong said. He thought for a moment. He liked the Reverend Smythe, and there was nothing objectionable in what he had said. "Just what you'd expect."

iii

Despite his reticence on the subject of his talk with the minister from that day Armstrong's attitude to his illness did appear to change. He would arrive at the dining table in the morning with a cheerful smile on his face, and as far as possible attempted to simulate the appearance of physical vitality, even if, once the meal was finished and his parents had departed he would lie down on the nearest sofa for a long, restorative nap. Once he'd recovered he would spend the morning reading. He volunteered for an afternoon each week in the local hospital, dispensing tea and biscuits in the wards from a rickety metal trolley. The reverend Smythe visited Japan and brought back with him the rudiments of meditation technique that he passed on to the small number of parishioners who were interested, Armstrong among them. He also began to take particular care with his personal appearance. When visitors came to the house - Armstrong attended few social engagements - he greeted them with a kind of incongruous dignity and perfected a curious, stately way of walking, and a manner of speaking as if he were the guardian of a sacred grove in which any hint of frivolity had to be discouraged.

Many of his family's friends noted with satisfaction these alterations in his character. Whereas in his early years Armstrong had been known for acerbity and a tendency to ridicule his less intelligent school friends, he now conducted himself with pleasing humility. Some less charitable friends suspected his motives might have derived from pragmatism rather than intelligence. After all, they agreed, given his permanent fatigue and the resulting debilitation of his wits, as well as his material dependence on his parents and the good wil of his few remaining friends he was no longer in a position to continue making light of other people.

In private, however, things were not as they seemed. Bradley's body and mind became a battle site where Weariness and Anxiety waged a tireless conflict. When Weariness had the upper hand Armstrong lay in his room, or if the house was empty on a sofa by the window in the drawing room, gazing vacantly into the garden, his head filled with recollections and barely articulated plans for the future. Anxiety, on the other hand, woke him early and drove him from his bed in pursuit of activity. When in its grip he would rush about, performing as many tasks as he could before Weariness reclaimed him. Besides tormenting him by day these contending forces continued their struggle by night and his dreams would leave him in a state of such nervous debilitation that for the first few hours of each morning he was frequently tempted by thoughts of doing away with himself. Even on the finest mornings, when the first rays of sunlight crept across the oak floor and the chatter of house martins shivered down from the eves above his window this hangover would endure for hours afterwards, his head was filled with anxiety and sorrow.

Armstrong frequently speculated on the death of his parents and it may seem strange perhaps that these speculations did offer him amusement and comfort. Invariably, when he bid Malcom and Isabella goodnight at the end of the day the idea that this would be the last time he would ever see them alive would plague his thoughts. In fact, this sense of finality permeated all his farewells. It was as if the entire world would be swept away the moment he turned his back or fell asleep. His preoccupation with his parents manifested in a good deal of dwelling on how and when they would die and how he would respond when they did. He pictured a long-faced Reverend Smythe, perhaps, or Mr Josephs, his father's lawyer, hurtling through the front door with the news, or he would imagine learning of their deaths from a paper or a news broadcast before anyone had had a chance to tell him. He knew from watching television that such things happened.

As to the means, this provided the young man with hours of sombre speculation. Some methods seemed more likely than others. He imagined his mother struck down by an virulent, lingering malignancy, reduced to a screaming, flailing madwoman, subdued only by vast infusions of morphine. He pictured his father thrown from a horse or impaled on some item of nautical equipment whilst sailing, or brought to his knees by an aneurysm or a violent paroxysm, or even done to death by a blunt implement in the hands of a business rival or a spurned lover.

As far as his own reaction to these losses was concerned Armstrong invariably pictured himself stupefied by inconsolable grief, which he would bear with silent, stoical dignity. In his mind's eye he saw himself at the funerals, standing at the door of the church, the reverend Smythe at his elbow, receiving the expressions of sympathy with gracious and dignified detachment that would inspire those who witnessed it with the maturity of his conduct, quite unexpected for one of such tender years.

It was ironic then, that the news came one cold Wednesday morning in early January, a day on which his spirits had been cheered by a winter shower that had covered the garden with a blanket of glittering, crystalline snow. His parents were expected back that morning after a weekend of sailing and he had been entertaining himself by constructing a small snowman on the lawn, while birds chirruped in the snow filled branches of the trees. In fact he had been so preoccupied that he hadn't even noticed he was no longer alone until he looked up from his labours and came face to face with a young motorcycle policeman in a luminous yellow gilet.

"I rang the bell," the policeman explained. "No one answered."

"Oh yes. I was just . . ."

The two men stood for a moment in silence. Armstrong leaned down and added another mittful of snow to the snowman's head.

"There's been an accident," the policeman said finally.

Armstrong brushed the snow from his mitts and paused.

"An accident?"

"Yes." He turned his head and gazed for a moment down to the river. "Perhaps we could go inside."

He followed Armstrong through the French windows and into the drawing room and watched as his host lowered himself into a chair by the fireplace.

It wasn't the first time the constable had been in this position. It was a duty he detested and it took him some moments to come to the point. He gave Armstrong the news with the minimum possible ornamentation. He refrained from adding that the fatalities had occurred in a manner that had become familiar to him during the eighteen months he'd been on patrol on that particular stretch of road -- a lonely two-lane switchback that snaked over moorland from the coast - well-known for the black ice that glazed the tarmac the moment the sun fell behind the surrounding hills. The place had been the scene of several other collisions over the preceding four or five years, mostly involving drivers, who, having become waylaid behind timid drivers or crawling trucks, had lost patience and, ignoring the terrified protests of their passengers, pulled out into oncoming traffic. Death by stupidity, the policeman thought. The resulting collisions often left car parts (not to mention, body parts) scattered willy-nilly all about the moor, and it could take days to reassemble those involved. He had himself passed several dispiriting afternoons searching for bloody detritus in the meagre grey light of the moor following such accidents, although he did not of course mention any of this to Armstrong. Instead he contented himself with advising him that both his parents appeared to have died instantly. The occupants of the other car had survived, he added, when Armstrong inquired, although it seemed unlikely they would recover completely from their injuries.

In the silence that followed, the constable's gaze wandered over the lacquered oriental screens, the grand piano with its lid raised like the gaping maw of some exotic sea creature, the spray of great white lilies in a Chinese vase by the French windows, the gleaming walnut prie dieux and the mahogany davenport, over the paintings along the walls and the curious Indian brass fire surround with its row of spear bearers. He breathed in the accumulation of patinas and fragrances, polishes and spilled wines, the scents of dried roses and autumn fires, the intoxicating cocktail of money taken for granted, and he felt for a moment like a man who has stumbled by accident into history and glanced, perhaps for the only time in his life, a world devoid of novelty, in which everything but eternity had been stripped away. His host continued to sit, oblivious to the medium, having grown entirely accustomed to it, breathing softly, by the open hearth of the fireplace, where logs, kindling and rolled up newspaper waited to be set alight.

After a brief interval the policeman inquired if Armstrong would like him to phone a relative or a friend. He had other things to be doing but it was his practice to offer whatever practical help he could in these situations. There was the question of identification that needed to be settled and perhaps, he suggested, Armstrong might prefer to have someone with him when he performed this duty. Armstrong had said almost nothing since receiving the news and the constable naturally assumed his host was in shock.

And it was true that Armstrong had received a shock, but not the shock he had anticipated.

For as he sat, hands clasped over his knees, the policeman standing some feet away, he found himself overwhelmed by a feeling of intense relief, as if a vast burden had been lifted from his shoulders. This was not grief as he had imagined it in the past but a heart-stopping glimpse of freedom. An entire history of accumulated tensions, fears and anxieties seemed to drain from his body. 'At last!' it seemed to be saying to itself. 'At last!'

iv

The absence of his parents changed everything. He no longer wished anyone to visit him. He gave Alec and Miss Church their notice. Miss Church left the house in tears as Armstrong stood in the room that overlooked the driveway, a sort of large parlour the family had only used when the house was full of people, and followed her progress to the end of the driveway. There was definitely something anachronistic about her, he thought. How was it he'd never noticed before? The heavy denier stockings, the navy suit with the pencil skirt, the genuine leather case that she was forced to carry using both hands and which banged against her thigh with every step. He imagined passers by turning to stare at her as she walked out on to the pavement, as if having just caught sight of a refugee from another era. Armstrong had known Miss Church since he was a small child. As he watched McGregor leapt up on to a little piecrust table by the window and rubbed himself against Armstrong's hand. Armstrong squeezed the collar of skin and fur about the animal's neck and listened to him purr, his thoughts wandering. He realised that there was something about Miss Church's departure that puzzled him. Sending the woman away had actually caused him pain, like the flaring up of an old wound in damp weather, and yet it was a pain that for reasons he did not understand, he desired. It was as if, no matter the cost, he had to tear away every attachment simply to purify himself, even if that tearing was as agonising as ripping away of skin. Throughout his life, ever since he was a child, he had worn this garment of familial affection, it has become part of him, and unless he tore it away and discarded it, he would never He left the window and watched the cat as it leapt down from the table and ran away through the open door. This pain was a necessity perhaps, an inoculation against the promise of happiness. As long as he could feel that sinking loss of faith, kept it with him, a part of his everyday moment-by-moment awareness, he would be free of all further self-delusion; his capacity for wishful thinking would be cauterised and extinguished. He went out into the hall, opened the rickety wooden door to the kitchen stairs, pulled it shut behind him and went down.

He took to wandering. Once a week he would walk across the city to the bus station and catch whichever bus was leaving when he arrived. Sometimes he found himself traveling a circular route around the city, at other times crossing the country. As the bus crawled through the streets of a town or distant city he would look up into the windows of the passing terraces and imagine himself, arriving at the front doors, knocking, entering with his suitcase, climbing carpeted stairs, setting his case down on the freshly made bed, walking to the window as the door closed behind him, running his hand over the polished surface of a dresser, placing his toothbrush on the shelf above the washbasin, undressing, climbing in between the cool sheets, sleeping and waking, dressing again, returning downstairs and out into the unfamiliar streets at the beginning of an entirely new life.

If he should happen to find himself on a long distance journey he would gaze out of the window as the bus passed through stretches of countryside and imagine himself set down there for no reason, in bare, wintry woodland, or in an open field or a patch of scrubby wasteland behind a factory or a warehouse, searching like a feral animal for a place to sleep or build a fire. A single question constantly pressed at his mind: Supposing I found myself wandering these streets? Out in this wild country in the winter? Who would take me in? How would I provide for myself?

v

And then, one night, some months later, he woke up from the depths of a dream and heard the rhythm of anxious breathing coming from the far side of his room. Slowly parting his eyelids and squinting into the dark he caught sight of a flicker of movement, a vague dark shape in the shadows. For a moment the breathing halted, then recommenced more rapidly, as if whoever it was had fallen behind with their respirations and was now hurrying to catch up. Armstrong peered over the edge of the counterpane. The door was open, just as he'd left it. A thin glimmer of moonlight from the French windows at the end of the hallway glazed the oak floor with a dull sheen. The stately tick of the pendulum in the long case clock in the hallway resonated like a robotic pulse.

Every nerve in his body clamoured in alarm. His terror was immediate, total, paralysing. The mad traffic of chemicals, hormones, electrical impulses coursed through flesh and muscle. He began a frantic search for a refuge within himself, a point of absolute invisibility. Yet with every attempt to shrink into himself the more his body seemed to grow and fill the room. He reached his hand down to the place on the counterpane where his cat, McGregor, had been sleeping. The depression in the covers was still warm.

"You," a voice said.

Beneath the covers Armstrong trembled like an abandoned baby.

"Get up."

A warm wetness spread from Armstrong's groin, soaking the legs of his pyjamas. He experienced an overpowering desire to cry. His body, weak and impotent at the best of times seemed now to have been drained of all its remaining energy. He was helpless, a defenceless, powerless invalid. The blood in his veins had turned to water. And it dawned on him that from the very beginning he had been of the same mind as his father. He utterly despised himself for having become ill. The word in-valid said it all. Condemned to depend for ever on whichever relations or friends assumed responsibility for his well-being, at least until such time as they tired of the obligation, with no power to free himself from the tyrrany of their kindness. Such a life was unnatural. If he were any other kind of animal he would be left to his fate. And wasn't that just as it should be? Was anything more just than Nature? Was anything more trustworthy?

"Get up!" the voice repeated, insistent, agitated.

The shape of a man appeared, swaying in the doorway. There was a creak of leather and a sliver of silver light. Armstrong slowly pulled back the cover. He sat up and stared towards the door. The intruder's hands were out of sight, in his pockets perhaps, or held behind his back, so it was not possible to see if he was carrying a weapon.

"What do you want?" Armstrong whispered finally, his voice shaking, rasping. And then, for a moment, the image flickered through his mind of an alternative Armstrong, galvanised by righteous anger and the energy of youth. This Armstrong threw back the covers, leapt from the bed, launched himself through the air with a violent cry, leg fully extended, caught the intruder full in the throat with his heel and brought him to his knees, where the interloper lay, gasping out a few sputtering breaths before expiring.

The real Armstrong, however, pulled back the covers and lowered a foot to the floor. His face reddened in the darkness as the smell of urine rose from between his parted legs.

He leaned over to the chair beside the bed and groped about for his dressing gown, caught a hem between finger and thumb and pulled, hurriedly wrapping the garment around his waist to conceal his shame.

"Quick," the voice said.

Armstrong rose to his feet and stood for a moment by the bed. The room was cold. He had never felt so alone in his life. As he stood there, shivering in his wet pyjamas, he remembered a night from his earliest childhood, when he awoke from a nightmare, alone in his room, not knowing who or where he was, or where to turn for help, certain only that were he to call out no one would come.

He bent over, swept his hands back and forth over the floor beneath the bed.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm looking for my slippers."

"Slippers?"

"Yes."

"You don't need your slippers."

Armstrong looked up. The doorway was empty, the voice retreating.

"Slippers," the voice repeated, incredulously.

Armstrong made his way across the room towards the framed oblong of moonlight and arrived at the doorway. The figure retreated step by step before him, backwards along the hall, past the door on the left which opened into the dining room and the door on the right which led to the back stairs. Armstrong followed, like a fish reeled in on an invisible line. As he stumbled along he felt as he had during his altercations with the demons of his nightmares: his legs almost paralysed, his breath so thick it was as if his chest was filled with felt, convinced that were he to cry out no sound would come and were he to attempt to run away the floor would fly away beneath him.

"Quickly! This way!"

The voice woke him from this reverie.

"I can't," Armstrong said, blushing as another enuretic discharge brought him to a halt. Nevertheless, despite hesitations, pauses and waves of terror he continued, step by timorous step, arriving finally at the drawing room. The room was bathed in moonlight. Outside the branches of the trees swayed in the night's unheard breeze. Shadows flickered over the walls like tongues of black flame. The Bosendorfer loomed in the corner like a condor flexing a great ebony wing. The brass soldiers of the fireguard, spears raised, stood to attention before the hearth as if awaiting orders. The furniture seemed to be coming to life, as if about to complain about the disturbance. "We're content to be motionless and silent by day, but by night this is our territory," they seemed to be saying. "Why are you here now, at this hour, upsetting the order of things?"

A shape moved from a dark corner behind a bookcase and stepped towards the fireplace. For the first time Armstrong saw his assailant in something approaching full light.

The man was no taller than he but sturdily built, black leather jacket with a little chrome chain dangling from one shoulder, shapeless woolen trousers, scarred walking boots with no laces. His face, hovering in and out of shadow, was pallid, creased with shadows and lines. His body seemed to be vibrating with the rapid nervousness of a captured bird.

"Water," the man said.

"What did you say?"

"Water. I need water."

"There's no water here. I'd have to go to the kitchen."

The man raised his trembling hand, wiped his forehead and looked around, as if hoping for inspiration. He retreated a step in the direction of the fireplace.

"I don't mind getting you water," Armstrong said.

"Let me think, cunt," the man replied.

The room fell silent. Armstrong took a step to his right. His face brushed against a spray of gladioli. He reached down and rested his hand on the little mahogany piecrust table. The ghostly white forms of half a dozen gladioli stems hovered in the moonlight above a tall, pale vase.

At that moment Armstrong became aware of another presence in the room. From one of the dark corners a low, benevolent rumbling accompanied by the rhythmic pricking of claw against material. MacGregor! At the thought of the cat Armstrong felt a sudden outpouring of sentimental fondness for the animal. Since his parents' deaths MacGregor had been his closest, virtually his only, companion. He remembered the sensation of holding the cat in his arms, the thick ginger fur beneath his fingers, the animal's gormless smile, the sublime, subterranean rumble that seemed to rise from an inexhaustible wellspring of bliss, and as he did so he felt certain that in a world in which animals, even naturally vicious, pathological creatures such as cats, could establish relationships of mutual regard and concern with human beings there surely could be nothing to fear from another person. After all, Armstrong thought, he had never harmed a soul himself. His conscience was clear. Surely natural justice demanded reciprocation. Surely, there was an agreement of some sort in place. No harm, at least.

The intruder's hands appeared. In one was a scarf and in the other a short knife, perhaps a paring knife from the kitchen, Armstrong thought.

"Is there a cat in here?"

"A cat?"

"I hate cats."

"No. I don't have a cat." He took another step to the right and rested his hand on the table. "Anyway, how did you get in here?"

"Shut the fuck up."

The man was now standing with his back to the fireplace. He slid his right foot back over the rug and it rang against the andiron. He stopped and teetered briefly, on the brink of overbalancing into the hearth. For a moment Armstrong thought his visitor might have been drunk, and then it occurred to him the unsteadiness could have been due to fatigue or even hunger. He considered attempting to rush the man but every scenario that flashed through his mind dissuaded him; in each his assailant got the better of him after a short and pointless struggle.

"Someone is coming soon."

"Oh really?"

"Friends," Armstrong said, his voice weak.

"Friends?"

"Yes."

"Which friends are those? Which friends visit you at four in the morning?"

"It's true!"

"You think I'm an idiot?" the man said. He took a hesitant step forward, then another. Armstrong felt the warmth of his breath in the air by his cheek. Trails of perspiration slithered down his own face and arms. He tried to read the expression in the man's eyes. It seemed more quizzical than aggressive, as if he might simply want to examine Armstrong at closer range. Suddenly, the hand that rested on the sleek polished surface of the table slipped away beneath him and he stumbled back, his arm knocking against the vase. The gladioli swayed back and forth, the vase tipped and fell and crashed onto the bare oak floor, scattering stems and water. Uttering a cry Armstrong clutched at the table for support but it gave way. In the same moment, as he began to fall he heard a curse, an animal cry, and looking around as he followed the table to the floor he caught sight of the cat flashing in alarm across the room. The man threw up a leg to hit out at the animal but leaned too far, lost his balance and tumbled backwards into the fireplace, striking his head hard against the brickwork.

Silence descended. The man lay motionless, head on the hearth stones, one arm thrown back, resting on the fireguard, the other caught beneath him.

Armstrong kneeled down and regarded the intruder. He could hear MacGregor behind him sipping at the pool of spilled water on the carpet. The man appeared to be unconscious but Armstrong's mind raced as he considered his options. There was no sign of the knife. He hadn't heard it drop, so he assumed it was caught beneath the intruder's body. His instinct was to flee the house immediately. It was quite possible the stranger had only been dazed by the fall and would come to at any moment. There was a phone box by the shops at the top of the road. He could summon the police from there.

Yet he could not move. For one thing, he couldn't go out into the street in his pyjamas in their current state. He couldn't have anyone in the neighbourhood see him like this. He'd have to change into fresh clothes and that would mean leaving the man alone, at least for a minute or two. And there was no way of knowing how long he would remain unconscious. He would certainly be angry, Armstrong reasoned, if he did wake up.

A trill of birdsong and the first rays of dawn gold penetrated the room from outside. Through the fretwork silhouettes of the chestnut tree a veil of vermilion could be seen rising in the East. A strange peace descended, as for a few precious moments, the unconscious man, Armstrong and the cat, floated like care free clouds in a sky of immoveable stillness. As Armstrong looked towards the window at the rising, hope-filled dawn, and back down to the supine intruder, an unexpected idea took seed in his mind.

He leaned down, held his breath and rested his hand gently on the intruder's neck. A slow pulse beat beneath his fingertips. He tilted the head and looked hard at the face. As the new day's light dispelled the shadows in the room the face emerged from darkness and took on a quite different appearance, that of a man no more than five or six years Armstrong's senior, his skin pallid though furrowed and scarred with lines and patches of discolouration. Amongst his limited acquaintances Armstrong had never known such a face. He turned his attention away and began to examine the man's clothing. Beneath the leather jacket a stained and frayed T-shirt covered a thick neck, skin discoloured by dozens of tiny pockmarks and patches of feverish red. When Armstrong opened the jacket a smell of wood smoke and the chemical tang of solvent floated up and caught in his nostrils.

He sat astride the man, caught hold of his jacket and raised his head from the floor. Shifting his weight he pulled the body this way and that, inch by inch, laying it down and catching his breath after each burst of activity, until it lay in the position he wanted. The carpet had by now soaked up most of the water from the broken vase and MacGregor came over to join him. He settled himself on the intruder's chest, stretching out a paw and giving himself a long lick as Armstrong stroked him behind his ears. A few moments later the cat was asleep. Armstrong sat back and waited. He was afraid, but also excited, like a boy on Christmas morning.

Flakes of light snow fluttered down from the brightening sky and came to rest on the lawn, settling precariously on blades of grass, then slowly melting. A thrush pecked at the frosty ground under the chestnut tree. The murmur of the boiler rose from the kitchen.

A shudder ran through the man's body. His breathing became louder and more rapid. His free hand stirred on the carpet, the fingers flickering as if discharging electricity. Once again Armstrong gripped the jacket and pulled, lifting the head until it was level with his chest. His arms and back strained with effort, jolts of pain shuddered through his shoulders. He longed to release his burden but that was out of the question.

Slowly the man's eyes opened. Slowly he oriented himself. Gradually his eyes focused and his attention came to bear on Armstrong. A barely distinct, almost friendly smile appeared at his lips. Armstrong rested one hand gently on the intruder's forehead and stroked his skin, tenderly. This was the most intimate encounter he had ever had with another human being.

The man's mouth opened an inch. He ran his tongue over his dry lips, as if about to speak. Once again Armstrong gripped the man's jacket collar in both hands and leaned over until his mouth was almost touching his ear.

"I want you take a message for me," he said, "From Bradley Armstrong. It's important that you remember my name."

Mustering the last of his strength, he raised the man's head as far as he could from the floor, rested his hand on the forehead and with a gasp of exertion, shoved down, driving the head onto the fireguard. Smash! The man's body jumped, tensed and shivered as if struck by lightning, and other, subtle but fundamental displacements occurred, tiny seismic shifts in the integrity of his skull. The forehead and right eye floated up towards the cranium, the cheekbones drifted loose from their moorings, the tongue lolled from the open mouth like a sprung Jack-in-the Box.

Armstrong relaxed his grip on the jacket, leaned back and rested a hand on the carpet by his foot. A warm, sticky pool was already gathering beneath his fingers.

He looked down. The volume and momentum of the black viscous lake spreading across the carpet reminded him of an aerial view of migrating herds of buffalo or invading hoards sweeping over a Mongolian plain in a Holywood film. The air filled with a cloying fetor and sticky dampness seeped into the knees of his pyjamas. He stood up, a little too suddenly, so that for a moment his vision blackened and filled with little sparks of magnesium. He collected himself and looked about, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a desperate need for companionship, for the sound of his father's voice, the sight of one of his school friends, even the traffic policeman, who seemed in retrospect to have been a beacon of rationality in a world where everything defied understanding. The room opened up, the walls dissolving, expanding out and away from him, the enormous, empty house began to vibrate, like a vast resonating chamber or a monstrous machine of incarceration about to burst open and release its secrets.

He was brought to his senses by the cat brushing against his leg. Wiping his hand against the legs of his sodden pyjamas he rose slowly to his feet, walked across the room to the window and looked out. In the East, above the trees, a morning star was visible. The grass on the lawn glittered. Turning the key in the door of the French window he stepped through. The air was a crisp, cold shock against his cheek. He raised a hand and brushed the back of it against his cheek. He realised that his skin was feverishly hot. He leaned down and wiped his hands back and forth on the cold, damp grass, and then buried his face in his hands. The sensation was pleasant; he repeated the ablution several times, despite the numbing cold creeping up through his feet and groin. The cool, frosty dampness of the grass seemed imbued with sacramental clarity.

He stood up and walked across the grass until the river came into view. At the foot of the garden the branches of a weeping willow tree dangled in the water. The family skiff bumped up and down against a jetty. Armstrong stood on the bank and watched the water flying by. At this time of the year it seemed to have an air of celebration about it, a joyful exuberance. The snow was falling more heavily now and a flashes of white danced over the hurtling black water.

He stood beneath the willow, looked up into the gathering cloud and down into the river until there was no longer any sensation in his feet. He turned and walked back to the house, pushed through the French windows and stood, looking back at the garden, his body wracked with shivering, his toes aching with reviving blood.

He tried to remember the method his mother had taught him for removing bloodstains. At first he thought it might have been warm water and salt but then questioned himself as to whether that might have been the remedy for red wine stains. Was blood just cold water, by itself? Behind him he could hear MacGregor lapping and purring in deep, rhythmic bursts. He smiled, thinking about what a greedy animal he was and wondering why it was that greed in an animal could be quite an endearing quality? However, even MacGregor would eventually be sated and then Armstrong would have to clean up whatever was left. Right now though, he'd go upstairs to the airing cupboard and get himself a clean pair of pyjamas. Perhaps he could have a bath. In the old days Miss Church would have run one for him if he'd asked. However, just thinking about all that activity made him weary. Suddenly his body felt drained of all its strength. He sank to his knees and lay down on the carpet not far away from his victim. Without meaning to fall asleep he closed his eyes and the slow, liquid purring and lapping of the cat carried him into oblivion.