by Michael John Grist
I found him one mad marsh-walking night. I was out in the bogs, I don’t know why, crossing wet rivers and wading through peat mulberry patches, dashings of filth worming their way into the cuffs of my suit turn-ups, smidgeons of muck smudging up and under my fingernails. I must have trekked two thirds of a golf course and the circumference of a lengthways lake when I hit upon the road.
It was just an ordinary road.
It had double yellow parking lines and gutters and manhole covers, and it had curbs and sidewalks, and that central white line, dash dotted. It had lights too, tall curving streetlamps, blotching out yellow glow like a line of fairy lights in the dark of the fens.
It was an ordinary road, except it went nowhere. I could plainly see that, from my dell in the darkness. It began from nothing to my left, ran down for 4 streetlamps, arcing like bare back ribs from an all eaten feast, then it ended, a neat line, and back onto the marsh grass and stalky reeds of the night, lit up white like a front row of soldiers in a firing line, floodlit and waiting.
Image from here.
There were no cars and no people on the road. There were no houses, no train lines, no power lines, nothing. Not a thing. Just a road, out in the mad marshy night, and nothing more.
I ventured onto the pavement as if in a dream. I wandered the length and breadth seeking a clue to explain its existence, but nothing. In the end I sat on the curb and held my chin in my grubby hands and wept. I don’t know why. Perhaps I fell asleep.
When I woke there was a voice. The voice was saying: “Help me, for the love of God, help me!”
I turned and I saw eyes and outstretched fingers peeking up from a gutter in the side of the road. I reached down and touched the fingers, and they scrabbled at the grating.
“Help, help,” cried the voice. I leaned over, I could see shadows and stink, and I had the image of a very bent and withered old man, pressed up to the underside of the road, the gutter bars striped across his face, looking out at the world from his prison and seeing only the black sky, and me.
“What are you doing down there?” I asked.
“I’m prisoned,” he cried, “imprisoned, help me out, please do!”
“Imprisoned in a road?” I asked. “I never heard such a thing.”
“It’s true though,” he said, and I saw his scraggly teeth glinting yellow and brown in the sheltered yellow light. “It’s that woman’s doing, she found me, innocent little old me weaving trinkets from the elderberries, and she caught me up by the scruff of my beard and she chinned me one right on the nose. Next thing I woke up here and I’ve been living on the rats, see, the rats in this cell, and that’s it.”
He pressed a lump of white up against the bars. There was a pop, and it passed through. It was red and black with dried blood. It was indeed, the backbone of a rat.
“Who is she?” I asked. “Why did she imprison you here?”
“I don’t know a thing like that,” he said. “Me? Me? To know such as that?”and he laughed.
I took a step back, from the raving man in the road, and I looked the length of it, from the ferns in white to the brackish standing water reeds at the other end. And I saw nobody.
“Well there’s nobody else here,” I said. “Why don’t you just crawl on out?”
“Crawl on out?!” he scoffed. “Crawl on out?! You think I didn’t think of that myself?”
“Well, did you?”
“Yes,” he called, “yes, I did. But you think this is some special kind of prison with bars that are prone to be crawled on out of?”
“It’s just a gutter seal,” I said. “I’ll lift it off easily, look.”
And so I bent to it. I set my fingers round the diagonal gutter bars, and lifted. It sucked wetly free, trailing strands of moss.
I looked down on the pallid filthy man, squatting in the hole, but suddenly he was gone. There was nothing but a small sandy indent where the seal had been. No cavern. No cell. Nothing.
“Oi”, came his voice, next to my face. I jumped, dropped the gutter seal, and it rang like a bell on the tarry road, dancing along and striking soft sparks.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, and I could see his fingers poking through the bars still.
I walked over to it and looked down. There he was still. Lying in his hole, filthy, holding the bars, staring up at me.
“Help me out!” he said. “Please, help me out!”
I seized up the metal chunk and started shaking it. I shook it as hard as I could. After that I slammed it on the curb, and I even threw it half the length of the road, clankering and clattering through the pools of shadow and light.
It didn’t work. He didn’t come loose.
“Ouch,” was all he said.
So I took him home with me. Back through the wild and windy night. I gave him a shower, passing soap through the bars, made him clean up his hovel cell, and gave him some nice clothes, all folded neatly, and a set of pajamas.
I hung him on the wall. He peers out, and I’ve set up the mirrors in my house so now he can watch TV along with me. He calls me the gutterman now, which I find odd, but accept. Sometimes he still tries to crawl out of the gutter bars, but I simply remind him what happened the last time we tried that. Nothing. And then he soon gives up.
He scared all my friends away, and nobody comes round here anymore. So that’s good. Now when I look in the mirror, or when I look in the gutter hanging on the wall, I remember the road I found him on. Abandoned, way out in the wild middle of nowhere, coming from nothing, leading to nothing. I have long forgotten the reason I was out there at all, that wind-swept mad night on the moors. And as I watch him move, his movements beginning to mirror mine, such that even with the bars in place he comes to resemble me, I wonder, which of us is really the prisoner. Is it him, behind his bars from me, or is it me, behind these bars from him.
Sometimes I still find reminders of another person’s life in my house. I’m not sure where they came from, though they seem to have my old face in them. There are also pictures of a woman, and in some of the photos she is by my side. She seems pretty, but they are only photographs, and he doesn’t like them. He is afraid of them. I hold them to his face and he screams. So I have mostly burnt them now. They are not as important as the things that are real. The things that will never leave me. Like my gutterman, hanging on the wall.