This story is by Matthew Delaney and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The door closes behind me—sealing me in. My cue to remove the blindfold. Sliding Neve’s woollen scarf down my face, I catch her sweetness mixed with the citrus warmth of her latest perfume. And I find a wall of solid black, as the darkness from behind the blindfold continues. An earthy, pungent air meets me in the crypt.
Wrapping the scarf around my neck, I focus on the room’s edges; on its rectangular dimensions—the ten-feet by fourteen that I’d gauged on the outside. Dimensions seem important in the confines of this game.
Reaching and shuffling, I follow my leading foot and feel the rise and fall of a bumpy floor. A cobbled-floor. Imperfect. Laid by hand. It slopes down and forms a shallow gutter that runs along the wall. A wall that’s damp; where moss grows in patches—pictured verdant green. My fingers catch in a roughened groove—a mortar trench—that holds the bricks to defy the storms—defy death even. I read things I will never see.
Sliding down the wall, I slip in loose debris, and jolt against an unforgiving floor. I clear small rocks from around me. I mark my place and feel life fighting in the small mushroom heads that shoot through cracks in a grimy, dirt-strewn floor. Life endures in the house of death. In the house of rot and decay. A house I must remain in for the next three-hours; in union with those who’ve made this place their eternal home. I bury into Neve’s scarf but even she cannot help me.
We had been walking home from a Lecture at Melbourne University—English Literature through the Ages. Neve had been discussing the tenets of William Wordsworth’s poetry when we had heard the voice of Charlie Hanson, aka The Neanderthal. Him and his mates had rushed upon us. The finer points of Romanticism lost to his past-tales of teenage escapades, where Charlie would open another chapter of a shared history.
The game was called Dungeon-cellar-crypt. It was a dare, essentially, that involved entering dark places—illegally for a set amount of time. Charlie’s record was two-and-a half-hours in a solitary confinement cell after breaking into a decommissioned jail.
Two-and-half hours, just me and the ghosts, he’d said. Thumbs in his pockets. Rocking on the balls of his feet. The way he’d looked at Neve. I’d wanted to punch him in the face. Then a tall, thin guy with acne scars and a mop of red-hair had boasted about creeping into his ex-girlfriend’s house and sneaking past her parents to their basement down the stairs. The girl’s father had been in the Special Forces too. Neve followed; reminiscing about her escape from The Alfred Hospital; of being chased by Security down the halls, after being found in the Cleaner’s Closet.
I’d always been aware of the eight-years between Neve and I, and of my attempts to traverse them. I’d always known I could never match her existential vitality, her well-spring of whimsy. But she had an old-soul’s wisdom and it was this part that compelled me. The playful aspect though had never threatened me. But standing there, near the wrought-iron gates of the Melbourne Cemetery, I had felt threatened. Threatened by something Neve and Charlie could share that I had no connection to.
The Winchester Family Crypt was the largest and oldest at Melbourne Cemetery. And as I’d stood at the top of its stairs, having accepted Charlie’s off-handed dare, I’d envisioned cutting the last ties of their adolescent bond. I’d envisioned weakening the mystique of their connection by joining their exclusive club. But the strength of my conviction had begun to falter at the sight of Charlie snapping the padlock, with practiced efficiency, and pulling on the heavy-oak doors.
I strain; but nothing lives outside the crypt. Neve is not there; nor is her singing. Just to hear her laugh, even at one of Charlie’s mindless jokes, would be something. But in here it’s just me and my systems; as heart-beats fill ears that can’t keep to their rhythm, or fall in time with deep sighs. But breathing means I’m still alive in the house of death.
Silence has a sound when you listen. Then, you can’t hear anything else. Silence hums. Vibrates. Scans. It reads minds, like fingers on a wall. It sows the seeds of endless thought. Encourages rampancy. Silence becomes a syndrome in the house of death.
I’m buried alive on a cold, hard ground. Buried in the night with death for company; in a different kind of darkness. Yes. There are different kinds of darkness. True darkness tells you this. Darkness as distinct from dimness; of evenings spent among candles, or lamp-lit rooms, with lovers or friends; of being under star-flecked skies with a campfire to offer warmth. Here. Here in the crypt where there’s nothing to turn to; nothing to bring the dawn to end the night. But true darkness is not without form.
Shapes. Scenes and moments in black-and-white. Become cast—projected—onto unseen walls. Men move amid a meeting of sorts in a gathering of talking heads. But I cannot hear them. I cannot see their faces, only profiles and silhouettes. Figures oblivious of me. A boy runs like the Devil’s on his tail. He weaves through them but the men do not see. They continue—their conference unbroken. They all wear business suits. The same business suit. The same man. He looks familiar. When I was still a boy my father had a wine-cellar. A rectangular cavity-like room. It merged with the sub-floor and became the foundations of our home. It was small, with air forever cold and musty, but it was the jewel in his crown. The symbol of his success. Its surplus spoke of distance from lesser beginnings. In the moistened bowel of the family home; it held the treasures he would never taste—never savour. My father isn’t here anymore.
He turns to face me. And his astute eyes regard me as they did in life. They lock onto me and I can’t look away.
His mouth is moving. But I cannot hear him.
He keeps talking.
There’s a growing weight in the distance between us. I’m not the man he had wanted me to be.
Panic resonates. Panic rebounds off the walls. It cuts with tailored precision.
My vision blurs as tears break tension and spill down my face. I strain to see him, but he is gone.
Dad! I’m sorry Dad. I’m sorry.
My back shudders against the wall. Knots of emotion, like blood-clots—break loose.
Come back Dad! Come back.
The darkness eats his eyes, his face. My father is dead again. As dead as the Winchester’s. As dead as their bones and clotted dust. But his ashes don’t have a house. His are adrift at sea. I scattered them across the water when I was still a boy. In another place and time.
There’s a hole in me.
I pound my thighs. Pound the floor. If my hands break, I wouldn’t know—wouldn’t care.
What the fuck do I do? Dad. What the fuck do I do?
‘Through the dark, comes the light,
Through the pain, comes the resurrection.’
Neve’s sweet-voice penetrates my mind.
I can’t do this, I said. Let me out! Let me out!
Standing. Stumbling. Reaching. I cannot find the door. But crash onto something wide and wooden. My forearms scrape on metal, as I pitch against the coffin and fall to the floor. Its contents shift inside; a sack of potatoes settling. And I’m drowning. I’m adrift. I’ve lost my safe patch of ground and can never return.
I can’t do this! I need you Dad!
‘In the end, you will hear the truth,
In the end, you will witness its manifestation.’
Shut up Neve! Get out of my head!
Clambering. Swaying. On my feet again, I stagger across the room. Willing damage. Pain. Destruction. To set fire to the world.
‘From the dark, comes the day,
From the pain, comes healing.’
My hands flail at the dark. My jaw clenches to burst. Inside becomes outside in the crypt. I become fire in the house of pain. A guttural scream—primal—from a slaughtered thing. A scream that’s not from me but burns my throat all the same. I collapse again and this time splay. The centre cannot hold.
I love you Dad.
‘When it’s time, you’ll see the dawn,
When it’s time, you’ll know its glory.’
A lightness comes to the dark. A hand touches me. It’s warm. It reaches around to embrace me. But I am not afraid.
Never mind. Are you ready now?