9.37 Francis Leifhead
The next few blogs will be transcripts of the fourth season of Storytime with Paul Dore. This season is based on my latest novel Dreams of Being a Kiwi. Each episode/transcript will contain excerpts from the book, as well as an introduction to some of the characters.
Dreams of Being a Kiwi was the first novel I wrote a long time ago. It’s a story I continually return to and am finally getting it into print and on the podcast. The book is about a young man who suffers from a mental illness and how he navigates his way to find peace.
The next day I walked over to the hostel, sat on a bench across the street, watched the entrance. I saw Marshall working at the front desk. No Helen. Sat watching for an hour. In the hostel lobby, Marshall was filling out some forms. He looked up, smiled at me, walked around the desk, hugged me. I wanted to stay in longer, but he pulled away. He asked, “What can I do for you?” I asked him if I could have a room, he thought I was joking, I was not. I asked him, “Can I have the room that Francis Leifhead stayed in?” He told me, “We haven’t rented it out since the accident.”
Standing on the landing of the second floor, I looked at the key to double check the room number. Found the door, put the key in the lock, unlocked the door. Air came out of the keyhole like the room sighed. Pushed the door open, the light from the hallway illuminated a rectangular line of yellow into the room.
Inside, I closed the door behind me. Stood in the dark, I felt a presence, felt like someone was here with me. It was not the voice over my shoulder, this was something else. I flipped the light switch expecting someone to be sitting on the bed looking at me. I was alone in the room. Dropped my bag on the floor, opened the window. A gust of wind swirled into the room. I sat in the bed, inspected the room. The small bed was against the wall on one side. A wooden chair, a small side table beside the chair, a closet with a mirror on the door.
A picture hung on the wall over the table. The picture was of a man running along a beach. The sand yellow, the ocean bluer than in real life. The man had a determined look on his face. The room must have been cleaned up after the accident. The bed was made. A shirt hung in the closet.
I wondered if this was Francis Leifhead’s shirt? I took it off the hanger, smelt it. Musty. I took off my shirt, put this one on. Under the bed there was nothing but cobwebs in the corners. I turned off the light, lay down on the bed. The presence came back in the dark. It lay down beside me. I asked it what it was, but for now it was silent.
I thought back to the first time I was in Greymouth. Pictured it in my mind, tried to remember if I was in this room before, if there was something familiar. I could not find anything. I wanted to fall asleep but there was a pressure in the room around me that grew with the darkness. It pressed against my body, kept me alert, kept me wondering, what happened? Who was Francis Leifhead? Was he someone that I knew? Maybe someone that needed my help? A call from the darkness that I ignored? Was I not ready to hear again? Maybe I was scared to step into that darkness again? Maybe this time I would not be able to get out of it? I finally drifted off, dreamt of the tightness, the rope around my neck. I could not see who the people were that pulled on either sides of the rope. They were careful not to show themselves. Woke up sweating, short of breath. It was morning, the room looked different.
Over at the grocery store, I asked for the owner of the store. Her name was Greta. Asked her if there were any jobs, she said, “It is your lucky day, I need help part time around the store cleaning up and to make the odd delivery. Can you start tomorrow?”
Forced myself to go for a run, ran along the beach. My beach. The one where I discovered so much. It felt different. My mind was not here. Swam in the ocean, tasted the salt in my mouth. The salt tasted different.
Continued running. Ran out to Francis Leifhead’s house. The long grass was still there, nothing had changed since the last time I was here. Nothing had changed since the photograph in the newspaper article. It looked deserted but I knew he was in there. I wondered if he watched out the window, looking at me, had been waiting for me to return? Maybe he had no idea who I was? Did not care who I was?
I lay down on the bed, the presence snuggled next to me. It scared me because it was a different kind of darkness, one I felt comfortable with, one that welcomed me into its arms. A comfort that I could get lost in. The darkness I’d been used to for most of my life, a darkness that fought with me, drew me into constant conflict with myself, threatened to rip apart the connection between my mind and my heart. My next step? I did not know. What was I doing? Why could I not just drop all this? Move on, move forward with my life.
There was a shadow over me. I felt it on my body. I opened my eyes expecting Francis Leifhead telling me to leave him alone, to take his shirt off, stop bothering his father. Instead, Helen stood over me, watched me, did not say anything even when she saw my eyes open. She just sighed, sat down in the chair. I sat up, we faced each other in the small room. We did not say anything for a long time, I did not know what to say.
And then something happened, feelings I had been keeping from myself welled up inside, thoughts that I shoved way down into one of my boxes flooded my insides and I could not contain it anymore. There was just something about a real live person sitting here who wanted to be around me, who worried about me, wanted to get to know me better not because of anything else except for who I was.
Helen’s touch was not one out of pity, it was warm. It was putting our bodies in parallel, drawing strength from each other. There was something I could only refer to as love resonating off her body. The love enveloped mine, we intertwined our legs, I put my arms around her. The tears came, it was a rainstorm. The tears poured down my cheeks, the tears were different than ever before. Weeping, I could hardly breath. Tears flooded the bed beneath us, they were tears of happiness.
Happiness that I was here with her. They were also tears of absolute sadness that I was teetering on the edge of regressing back to my old self. They were tears telling me this was where I belonged, in the arms of this good woman. I cried because she listened to me, heard my story, and she did not care, had no commentary, no ideas on how I could get better, she just listened and accepted that I was ill, that I had problems.
Maybe she had problems she had not told me about? This was what I learned traveling all around the world, was that everyone had problems, everyone dealt with them in different ways. Maybe if we all just admitted that we were all a little crazy, that our hearts, our minds were disconnected, we could do something about it, we could fix the damage, restart the machines within each of us that had been broken. Only once I fixed myself, once I reconnected to myself, then I could reconnect to living, breathing people and leave the voices, the insecurities, the feelings of inferiority behind, move forward into a life that I deserved to be living.
I rushed to the grocery store the next day, apologized to the owner, told her I was sick, asked her if I had lost my job, she said, "Of course not, just get to it and can you make a delivery out to the Leifhead house?" The air went out of my lungs. She gave me the list, told me instructions, said to leave the bag on the front porch. There would be an envelope with money. Take the envelope, leave, do not ring the bell, do not knock on the door. I collected the items on the list from around the store.
The air changed the closer I got to the house. I thought that maybe these changes in air pressure were figments of my imagination. I tried not to think about that for the moment. Along the road, the grass grew longer. I paused at the end of the long gravel driveway. The house looked the same. My head was clear from last night, there was more room for thoughts to bounce around. I felt my thoughts ping ponging against the side of my skull. Took in a breath of fresh air, held it for as long as I could, let it out. At the same time, a fart escaped my backside.
I stepped off the road towards the house, stepped into some kind of vortex where the air was thicker, harder to breath, harder to walk, like I was under water. The long dead grass swayed on either side of the driveway. I felt like the grass was trying to tell me something but I heard nothing. I reached the house faster than I thought, faster then I hoped, wondered where this sense of fear was coming from after all of the things that have happened to me.
At the steps leading on to the porch, I inspected the house, tried to look in the windows. Nothing. The house was old. One of the front windows broken, the railing running along the stairs rotting. On the first step, I heard a voice. It startled me. I had quickly gotten used to hearing only one voice. Took my foot from off the step, the voice went silent. I stepped back on the step, the voice returned. I couldn’t make out what it said, the voice only mumbled. It was a young sounding voice, it was not telling me to do anything, it was just there. I stepped on the second step, another mumbling voice appeared, it sounded older than the first one. The voices were talking to each other, they talked about me for some reason, they calmed my fear. I did not feel they were here to hurt me, they were just here. Maybe I was better off, even happy that someone was here, someone besides the man that lived in this house.
I stood on the porch, the inside of the house was still, it had the feeling of someone trying to be quiet, trying not to be noticed. I put the bag of groceries beside the front door. There was the envelope resting between the screen door and the frame. I put my hand on the handle, sucked in air, held it there, put my other hand on the envelope. I opened the door, let the envelope fall into my hand. There was an influx of air. The front door was pushed open an inch by the breeze. Creaked.
If the silence could speak, it said, “Quiet!” I held the screen door still. Pushed out the air in my lungs. Moved the front door open another inch. The door did not creak as much. Looked through the crack in the door, saw a front hallway that led towards a dark room. Turned my head, there was a doorway into a hallway. I saw a living area, the arm of a couch. Something struck me right away: the house seemed empty. It also seemed incredibly clean on the inside like it had been taken care of, while the outside had fallen into complete neglect. I imagined that the owner wanted to create an image to his neighbours, presenting an individual that was unkempt, dirty, unreliable, when all the while on the inside he was immaculately disciplined in the art of cleanliness. I pushed the door open another inch, saw something in the darkness at the end of the hallway.
I leaned in closer, it hit me, the door slammed shut, the voices pulled my head out of the doorway. I stumbled backwards, fell on my ass, the bolt in the door fell into place, it was not the wind that slammed the door, it was not the wind that twisted the bolt, it was Leifhead. He was standing on the other side of the door when I peeked into his house. He was standing on the other side of the door right now. Frozen, I stared at the door. There was a peep hole in the door, there was an eye looking out the peephole. It stared at me, I stared right back. I stood up slowly, never taking my eyes off his eyes. Neither one of us blinked. I was in some kind of stand off, I let him win this game, picked up the envelope, turned to step off the porch.
The door was thrust open, a big man with suspenders, a large belly and scraggly beard, engulfed the doorway. He was fast for a man of his girth. He lunged at me, grabbed me, threw me against the wall of the house. Picked me up again, threw me through the screen door. I broke the screen, landed in the hallway of the house. I was stunned but not stunned enough to realize I was inside. Leifhead headed towards me, ripped the remaining screen from the door.
I looked behind me at the darkness, I needed to know what it was that I saw at the end of the hallway. I picked up my aching bones, ran down the hallway, slid along the wood floor that looked like it was polished this morning, reached the end of the hallway, dived head first into the darkness. A solid object that I could only decipher was Leifhead’s fist thumped me at the base of my neck. I crashed to the floor, blacked out. Before I blacked out, I saw a shape in the darkness that had rounded edges, in the middle of the shape was a light. A light that I had been chasing for too long.
I came to, the back of my neck ached, my body ached, I opened my eyes, I was laying in the tall grass, the sun setting. The envelope with the money was taped to my chest. I sat up, I was at the edge of the driveway near the road. I stood up, regarded the house with a different perspective, something was pushing me away.
Walking on down the road in a daze, I reached the grocery store, gave the envelope to the owner, she asked what had I been doing all day. She got a better look at me, commented on my despondent look. I told her I was speaking to Mr. Leifhead, she told me I was not to speak to him. I asked her if I could go home, I needed to lay down, I was not feeling well.
I had nothing to do with Francis Leifhead shooting himself. I needed to stop, needed to find peace. How could I find peace when I did not know what it was? Woke with the sun shining on my body, into my eyes. Felt different today, lighter. Got up, decided to go for my run. Ran past the Leifhead house, saw no signs of the big man. I was not scared, I just did not care. The white light popped into my head, something I was not prepared to see.
The white light opened up, shone at me wherever and whenever the time was right, I knew it was in that house, I knew it. I should not sneak around through the yellow grass into the backyard but of course this was exactly what I did. There was a porch that was falling into the ground, it creaked when I stood on it. I looked in the window, the window covered except for a small slit in the corner. Tried to make out something, anything. There was no movement, in the corner lay a pile of wood. I picked a nice solid two-by-four that with a thump I should be able to take down the big man if he tried to tackle me again.
Opened the screen door, it fell off the hinges in my hand. Almost dropped it. Leaned it against the wall, turned the doorknob, pushed inwards. I got my two by four ready, opened the door, paused. No one slammed the door shut. I opened it an inch at a time until I could slip through the door. Stepped inside with one foot, the other foot joined it, my body snuck inside with the two-by-four by my side. The house was as clean as ever. No sound, nothing. I was in the room where the white light appeared. There was no sign of it. Stepped into the hallway, came to the living area. The big man sat on the couch, he was missing his head.
The voice followed me outside, as I ran from the house. I wanted to run away from all this. I felt the yellow grass on my arms, I did not feel the pressure of other times I was near this house. I wondered if it was that man, wondered if it was because he was dead his hold on this land was gone, his hold on the land was not absolute.
Looked back, imagined the grass all coming out of the ground. The dead yellow grass floating away from here, the house crumbling, the rotten wood giving way, the dirt crawling over top of the house. It looked now like a hill, a mound of dirt, the grass was cleared, new grass grew, green healthy grass on the dirt where the house used to be. Vegetables grew, fruit grew, things that gave life, that supported life. A giant tree extended to the sky, the earth waited for that man to die so it could grow again, so it could live again. It was a part of the world, not sectioned off vying for survival. Trying to stay alive.
The image disappeared, the yellow grass was back, the sad house was back, I felt this place changing already. Felt it moving away from what it once was. Francis would always be a part of me, but it was time to move on.