70 Stories

#17 The Keeper of the Keys

‘I escape down a cobbled alley where graffiti artists have practised their art in pyrotechnic snarls.’

Ewan Gault’s evocative short story was one of the shortlisted entries in this year’s SMHAF writing competition. All of this year’s shortlisted entries feature in our Writing Awards e-Book which you can download here.

The parks are locked at dark. The churches are locked all day. The supermarket is open 24 hours, but they’ve ushered me out of there. The locked cafe keeps soft drinks in a refrigerator a few degrees warmer than here. Locked inside every car is a windless, rainless bubble, an unsodden soft seat. Whiteboards covered in yesterday’s lessons are locked in classrooms, in schools, in minds. On the railings of the footbridge over the river, teenage couples have attached padlocks, their initials tippexed in hearts, the keys thrown into the water. Prisoners are curled up, tucked up, banged up in the big building full of battered doors. Even the dead are buried snug in graveyards surrounded by spiked fences and heavily chained gates.

The underwater burble of voices and the fruit machine glow of the late night lock in. A world away without the right face, the right knock, the money in your pocket.

You are asleep under a duck down duvet, in a curtained bedroom, behind one, two, three locked doors. How then can I reach you?

An elderly dog walker stuffed deep in hooded, quilted clothes walks towards me. I clench the huge bunch of keys in my pocket. His dog scurries round the empire of smells.   I start moving the keys. People don’t like to be startled, not at this time of night, not by someone like me. Rattle, like a charity worker collecting change. Rattle, like a convict in chains. Rattle, like a snake before it strikes.

The man looks up. Sometimes they ask, “Time, do you have the time?” or “Light, do you have a light?” as if I walked the night carrying these things. I escape down a cobbled alley where graffiti artists have practised their art in pyrotechnic snarls. My fingers run down the keys’ shafts, bows, bittings! There is something satisfying about their weight. On night time ramblings, I collect dropped keys and add them to the bunch. Over the years, or the months, or weeks, I have collected hundreds of them. One day I will have the key to every house, car and safe in this city and at that point it won’t matter that I don’t know which key fits which door. But, I am not someone you have to change your locks for. I have stood at the edge of vast car parks knowing that were I to press all the car keys in my collection, at least one vehicle would flash its lights. But what use would that be to me? I am not interested in theft, just in the feeling that when my time comes I will have the right key for the right door.

Dragging a new piece of chalk along the wall, I slip out of light and time. The chalk lines are the only way to know where I’ve been, to ensure I don’t repeat the same steps again. These dead ends and crescents and concentric circles. It is not like the centre with its neat grid. But in this city where the rain does not so much fall from the sky as seep from the sandstone tenements, slicken the roads, and slake the drains, how can I be sure that the lines are not washed off, that I have not walked this way before?

The streets have names and there are patterns. Parsonage Square, Blackfriars Road and Cathedral Street. Cochrane, Glassford and Buchanan Street. Virginia, Jamaica and St Vincent Street. The street names are bolted onto buildings, as if they might forget who they are. And I have torn my own clothes off in search of a name tag sewn in a seam, initials inked onto a label. But I am not a lost dog or a careless child. And who knows if these clothes are even mine? They smell like me, but the coat is too large and even with the buttons fastened the wind and cold sneak in. I have started at the beginning of the alphabet and gone through every name I can remember. I walk the aisles of libraries in search of a name that fits, that clicks. If I can’t remember what I’m called, or why the streets have their names, how can I find where you live?

Sometimes the keys are held together by personalised key rings – a wooden ladybird, plastic Eiffel Tower, a beaded red chili. I throw these things away. I don’t want to be reminded that these keys had other owners. The keys come in useful though. Nothing confers respect like a massive bunch of keys. Clumping them down on counters when searching for change can stifle the sighs of the most suspicious shop assistants. And when backed into a corner and with nowhere to run, they are second to none

In the tenements a bathroom light is turned on. The motorway murmurs morning to the city, but the city slumbers on. In a few hours, the glass house will be opened and I will sit in the humid air amidst the smell of compost and vegetation, hidden by Jurassic-sized ferns, surrounded by statues the moist air condensing in the clefts of their cold, nude bodies. Sometimes I speak to a woman who tends the plants. By speak I mean she asks me questions and I try to answer them. It doesn’t seem to matter what I say, busy as she is with her planting and weeding and seeding and sowing. At other times, I take off my boots and slip into the goldfish pond, to clean my feet, to feel alive, to steal the coins that people had made wishes on.

But I am tired now and there are hours to go until the glass house opens. It seems likely that the Half-way House is a mile from here – set amidst a derelict desert of shattered carry outs; scorched earth, blackened shopping trollies, the melted remains of scrap that harboured salvageable metal. The building is no less apocalyptic. Wire-mesh windows, sentinels stationed permanently by the door, wreathed in smoke, as reliable as wax works. But even they won’t let me in. Not for an hour or two. And I can’t remember what the Half-way house is half way between.

Although my shoulders are wrapped up around my ears and it’s cold enough to freeze in your sleep, there is an abandoned sofa in this ally way that promises comfort. The sofa isn’t burst or stained or torn, but its florid fabric is unfashionable and worn. There are dents where a tired body sank after work. I consider hoisting my feet up but keep them on the ground out of respect for things once treasured that are now trash. Soon it will be used as a trampoline or a urinal but for this last moment it is still a sofa. The body that rested here was larger than mine and I feel myself sink into someone else’s resting place. I sniff the cushioned material. Sofas soak up the smell of home. All the curries and fry-ups, air fresheners and damp dogs, couplings and spilt wine.

From behind a steamed-up window a man’s voice, sonorous yet searing, sings sadly. It’s the kind of song we can only indulge ourselves with when we are sure no one is listening. Although the words are in a language I don’t understand, I feel that I am intruding and walk on, tears budding in my eyes.

Further down the alley there is a shed in which an old man keeps budgies, parquets and parrots. How do I know this? A cat lounges on its roof, and I remember that there are always cats prowling around the shed’s wire-mesh grills. Like window shoppers they don’t seem frustrated by what they cannot get, but are instead fascinated by the hysterical flashes of colour inside. I have watched this before: the cats’ apparent patience, the birds’ apparent terror. I know the smell of their shit and seeds and the warmed chipboard.

I look around for something else familiar and pull the keys from my pocket. I bounce the bunch in my hands. Nothing. A woman washes breakfast dishes talking to an invisible person over her shoulder. For a second I am sure that she is staring at me, but then I realise she is talking to her ghost reflection in the window. Rooms padded with heavy books, soft curtains and well watered plants are lit up. It is time to move on.

Next to the bird-shed, I see an upright piano, an abandoned mattress slumped over it like some closing-time drunk. The piano looks in good condition and the case has been closed over to protect it from the elements. My fingertips’ fascination with the jagged teeth of the keys in my pocket stop.   Pulling out the bunch, I select a small silver key. That feeling, when a key slips into the lock that it was made for. With a faint metallic click the case opens. The white piano keys are discoloured but intact. I look around and find a mahogany stool with a red leather seat. It is heavy, but I expected that. Once the stool is in place, I sit on it and rest the tips of my fingers on the keys and my toes on the pedals. My back straightens and I take the deepest breath. Strange, but I haven’t thought about breathing for years. I feel terrified, but what can be wrong with an upright man playing an upright piano? I listen to my heart and wait until, like a metronome, it is ticking at the correct beat. I play an arpeggio with my right hand. Some of the keys make a sound like a distant muffled bell. I begin to play, and hear snatches of harmony lost amongst a discordant polka. I tap my feet and try to keep time. I close my eyes and try again, but my fingers refuse to remember.

I stand up. The piano stool is heavy because it is full of music. The seat does not lift. Taking out my keys, I rattle one after the other into the lock. Some are obviously too big. Some fit but don’t turn, some turn but don’t click. The keys are slick with tears and I can’t remember which I have tried and which I have not. I let them drop to the ground.

Back on the stool, I arch my back, which has become stooped from the cold nights of walking. The stool is the perfect height and my forearms are parallel to the ground. My fingers itch to play music, to cover the muffled moans of the motorway, but I am left marveling at my numbed and gnarled fingers, the nails so long and filthy. Looking to the heavens, I see a staccato of starlings on a stave of telephone wires. I play their tune and though I am out of keys, I am not out of key. On the brick wall in front of me, crotchets of lichen grow on bricks and in the cemented lines between them. I add trills and grace notes to their melody. I keep time. The jagged glass on top of the wall catches the alleyway’s sodium light in a double ff for fortissimo.

Curtains are opened and heads appear at tenement windows. These too I can read as easily as sheet music. My left hand rests on the keys and improvises a bass line accompaniment. My feet push up and down on the peddles and I howl with joy because the music inside the piano stool is inside me.

The woman in the tenement stops washing the dishes. She opens the window and looks like she will sing along, for she knows the tune that I am playing.

70 Stories is an online project curated by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mental Health Foundation. The project connects stories from our Writing Competition, stories from SMHAF participants, and more in a compelling portrait of mental health in 2019.

Keep an eye on mhfestival.com/70stories for new entries in the series. If you are connected in some way to SMHAF or the Mental Health Foundation and would like to contribute a piece of writing to this project, please contact aeaton-lewis@mentalhealth.org.uk.