The first time it happens it is only his hand. Our Boy is at home. There is food on the table. It is an ordinary Tuesday night.
“I don’t know why they have to make such a big deal of it, that’s all,” His Father says, picking something out of his teeth. “It’s just a bit of fun.”
His Mother pecks out angry hisses as His Father keeps talking, her jaw tightening with each attempt to interject. But. Now. Not. She snaps her fingers at Our Boy for him to pass her his plate, tumbles out an apology in between His Father’s noise.
“Sorry love, you don’t need to hear all this fuss.”
His Father folds his arms. “Fuss is it? I might lose my job.”
“You won’t lose your job Frank. Just say sorry.”
“I will not.” Spit clicks in his teeth as he goes and goes. Where’s the harm? Boys will be boys. Bunch of prudes. His jowls shake with the force of his opinions. “Next thing there’ll be complaints about me holding the door open for Judith, or telling what’s her name, Roger’s girl, that she looks good in her sweater with the stripes on it. Well I won’t change, they can’t make me. Ludicrous. The lot of them.”
Our Boy watches His Mother, her mouth a thin line as she washes plates in the sink, marigolds protecting her skin from the suds. He turns his fork over on the table, tine to tip, pressing the sharp points into the wood, stopping before they make an indelible mark. He takes his plate over to her. A smile turns in the corner of her lips.
“Don’t worry about him,” she says, plunging the plate into the hot water. “It’s better to just leave him be.”
She hunches over the bowl, runs the dishcloth in circles to remove ketchup streaks and grease stains. She looks tired. Our Boy glances back at His Father now blue-lit in front of the television, his whole body a tightened fist. He is so much stronger than her.
”Can I get you anything love?” His Mother says to him, brushing hair from his face, a trail of soap bubbles clinging to his skin. He shrugs.
“Anything you need love?” she shouts to His Father in the living room.
Between the sink and the sofa the silence hangs like wet clothes on a line, pegged between bit lips, tucked under folded arms. Our Boy rolls his eyes and sits back down at the table. He shifts uncomfortably, begins to swing his chair. He puts all his weight on its back two legs and lifts his arms away from the table, palms up, body still. He hangs there for a moment, suspended in an impossible feat of balance. The thinnest edges of the chair’s feet are the only thing preventing him from falling backwards.
He looks at His Mother and Father again. Time contracts around them. The chair teeters, he starts to drop. He flings his arms back, beating them around in circles to try and find stability, then, realizing he can’t, he scrabbles for the wall to stop his fall. Hands flat. Fingers spread. In he comes.
His left hand slips inside before he’s even has a chance to notice. Fingertips, heel of the palm, joint of the wrist. He’s quicker with the right, swinging it back up to grip the table edge before it is sucked in too.
Vibrating through the brickwork we feel the frantic beat of his pulse, the flit of his thoughts. Fear. Disbelief. Panic. I’m stuck in the wall. My hand is stuck in the wall. He pulls, hard. Harder. The chair scrapes and stutters on the floor.
“You okay love?” His Mother says.
He freezes, eyes dart left, right, searching for something to say.
She doesn’t turn around. He eases himself off his seat and stands up awkwardly, catching the chair with his free hand as it tips back onto the ground. He pushes it under the table as quietly as he can and steps backward until his body is right up against the wall, obscuring where his hand is trapped, inside.
“I’m going upstairs. Tell your father there’s leftover crumble if he wants it. In the fridge.” His Mother scrunches a tea towel up on the side and leaves the kitchen.
He thinks about calling her back, telling her what’s happened, asking for her help. But he doesn’t want His Father to hear. Instead, he tries to calm himself down, catch his breath, his heart. Consider his options. Will he be here forever? How will he get out? Has this ever happened to anyone else? We weave the answers through him like a seam of copper. And it works. His pulse slows. His breathing evens out. He stops pulling, starts flexing, begins to wonder. He stretches his hand to its full span, tests where the pressure builds and yields. He curls and bends his fingers like he’s mimicking a wave, or drawing his name in the air. With every movement, dust trickles down over the magnolia painted woodchip and piles up on the lip of the skirting board. Despite himself he begins to like how it feels. The tightness of it, the fullness not just surrounding his hand but becoming it, mineral into animal, cutting with his biology. With every twist and turn, his skin rubs against the raw plaster around his wrist. A red mark begins to form. A reminder to trace over later, mind whirring as he lies quietly in his room waiting for dawn.
He closes his eyes, tilts his head back, neck at full stretch until it’s hard to swallow. He loses himself to it a little.
“Isn’t it time you went to bed?” His Father is staring at him from the sofa.
We feel Our Boy’s fingers clench.
“In a minute,” he stutters slowly lowering his chin back to his chest.
“Now.” His Father groans as he stands up and pads from the lounge into the kitchen. He takes a pint glass from the shelf, fills it with water.
“What are you doing?” His lip curls. “Why are you standing there?”
Our Boy says nothing.
“Time to stop fooling around son.” He takes a huge gulp like it’s a beer at closing time, holds in a belch. “You’re not a kid anymore.”
He puts down his empty glass and knocks his knuckle on the table as he leaves.
Once he’s alone, we let Our Boy’s hand slip out of the wall; a baby being born. It is blueish purple from the forearm down, like a tourniquet has cut off the blood supply. It hangs limp by his side. He is released, but he does not go anywhere.
Walls are peculiar things. They are singular and they are many. They can separate you or keep you together, make you feel one way or another. Safe. Surrounded. Sound. Insane. Once you’ve been part of that, on the inside, everything changes.
* * *
“Are you going to be okay today?”
They are parked on the one way street by the school football field. It’s quarter-to-nine. His Mother reaches into the back seat and grabs Our Boy’s rucksack, patting it before she passes it to him.
“I put an extra Kit Kat in there for you today.”
“No one has two Kit Kats Mum.”
“It’s a treat.”
He leaves the bag hanging between them until her arm can’t stand the weight of it any more. She puts it down on top of the handbrake.
“I thought it would make you happy.”
“Well it doesn’t.”
They sit. She taps the steering wheel. He stares at the window and watches his breath fill up, then fade from the glass. He notices his reflection, grimaces. It took him four days to realize they wear their ties differently here. Fat side out, thin end tucked through the buttons. His Mother told him he looked silly when he came down this morning. He told her she didn’t understand.
“Why don’t you go in?” She reaches for Our Boy’s arm, gives it a squeeze. He pulls away.
“It’s too early.”
“It’s only ten minutes until the bell.”
“It’s too early.”
She sighs, turns the key in the ignition, flicks through radio stations for a song she thinks he will like.
“Turn it off Mum, God.”
He grips the padded sleeve of his winter coat and presses his thumb in hard, searching through the thick wad of fabric for the spot underneath where the red mark from last night shines like oil on water.
“It’ll be okay today, love,” His Mother nudges him in the ribs gently, leans across and looks up at him under the hair covering his eyes. “You’ll be okay.”
He clamps his teeth together, zips up his coat, opens the door.
“It’s just like a four-finger Kit Kat,” she calls after him as he gets out of the car. “Think of it that way. Grown-ups have four-finger Kit Kats all the time.”
“It’s fucking weird Mum. I’ll look fucking weird with two Kit Kats.”
He grabs the bag and slams the door on her voice trailing behind him as she shouts to have a good day and see him at three-thirty and she loves him, okay?
The playground is full. Pullovers for goalposts and painted yellow lines mark out spaces where schoolkids gather in cliques, arms linked, breath puffing up in hot clouds. Cracked black tarmac crunches frosty under his feet. He almost slips. Someone laughs. A chewed nugget of gum fires onto the ground next to him. It steams. He finds a corner to sit, by the fire exit for the gymnasium. He leans up against its tall red brick wall, wraps his arms around his rucksack and prays for the bell to ring.
At the opposite edge of the playground, he watches a group of girls line up along the chicken wire fence. They sit on the metal railing, their mouths clicking as they chew, all smiles and teeth. Their skirts are short, their makeup thick, foundation cresting their pimples and deep black eyeliner under their lashes. They throw their heads back and whip their curls. Their cackles charge the whole playground with electricity.
One of the girls sees him looking. She cocks her head, top knot wobbling. He looks down at his hands and counts faster, concentrates on working at the grit under his nails. When he lifts his head he sees her coming over, her stubby tie bouncing on the beat of her stride.
“What you looking at new boy?” She glowers.
Blood rises in Our Boy’s chest, creeps up under his collar, into his ears. She smirks, looks over her shoulder to her friends, a silent laugh dropping her jaw wide. She turns back. He can smell her hairspray, the spearmint on her breath. She moves her sticky cherry-glossed lips into a cushiony ‘o’ ready to say something and he backs up as far as he can, pressing all of his body into the brick of the wall. His spine, the side of his face, his hands all pushing. He screws his eyes tight, bracing for the impact of her words. He asks us to do it. Begs us. So we do it.
He disappears in one smooth movement, the perfect trajectory of a rock into a lake, no splash, no ripple. There. Gone. The girl’s gum flashes white, clumped in her molars. She looks at her friends for confirmation of what just happened, back at the wall, at her friends again. But they are somewhere else, caught up in gossip, in the pace of the ball, in the winks and waves. She runs her hands over her hair, hovering above her bun as she thinks. Then she resets her expression, raises her chin up and bounces back over to the other side of the yard.
Inside with us, Our Boy feels safe. We invite the gaps between the gaps in him to widen, filling them with stone, cement, plaster. We muddy the boundaries of what is him and what is in between. His cells split like plums. Flesh thickens. He feels the damp of the rain and the warmth of the sun. He feels all the backs that have leaned here, the graft of every brick as it has been laid and the tiny fissures that have spread as time has shifted on its journey. We are together, with him, in here. He is comforted.
After a minute we let him go. He falls out onto the gymnasium floor. His belly sucks in and his lungs cling to any air they can find. He looks up at the wall he has just passed through. There’s no mark. He grabs at his body, patting every limb down but there’s no pain, no damage. Instead passing through the wall has left him only with a tighter sense of himself and what he’s made of. He breathes again, deep and firm, dusts off his shoulders, leaves.
His feet connect more firmly with the ground walking to registration. When the bell rings between lessons and everyone trudges down the corridors he doesn’t shuffle or look down as his shoes. He moves with purpose, sits in the sunshine, kicks about with the others when they ask. Climbing into His Mother’s car at the end of the day, she asks him, “So, how was it?” She smiles. He smiles too.
At home, he tries to find his way inside with us again. His preparations are naïve, sweet; pulling down posters down from his bedroom wall, piling them neatly on the floor, taking off his shoes. He stands with his socked toes a meter away from the wall, as if he plans to take a running leap. His arms swing back and forth, clapping in front of his body, counting down. His palms sweat. He stops before he gets to one.
“This is ridiculous,” he says, daring himself to try again. He closes his eyes.
“Three, two, one–”
He moves through the wall clean and fast. Out onto the landing in an instant. He waits for the sensation he felt after the gymnasium but it does not come. A thin partition wall like this, a teenage, white-socked experiment before tea time, what does he expect? Try again, we tell him, as he passes back into his bedroom. Find somewhere better. Keep trying.
“You look different,” His Father says at dinner. “Have you done something?”
“He had a good day at school, didn’t you?” His Mother spoons out the mash.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” His Father says.
Our Boy wipes his mouth. Grit comes away on his sleeve.
* * *
He learns quickly.
1. Some walls are faster than others. Prefabs take seconds and he gets little from the passage, less still from the time inside. Houses from the mid-century and earlier are better. Not so many cavity walls. Granite can go for hours. He starts dreaming in granite, its ore glistening to him in the deep dark.
2. The more he comes to us, the more he wants to. Our effects are cumulative. His time inside gives deeper meaning to his time out, offers explanation for what he sees around him. He lingers in each wall for longer. A minute, a few minutes, almost an hour in the church by the bypass. We had a lot to tell him there, so much to give.
His take on life becomes more concrete. He stops worrying about what people think. What are any of them compared to him? He has elements in his blood now. He knows things. The clarity we give him can be seen. It layers up in him like silt in a lake. He is heavier, stronger, sturdier. People gravitate towards him, listen when he talks, laugh when he laughs.
“I’m proud of you,” His Father says. “You’re my son, all right.”
His Mother nods but her smile is not as wide and her lips are pressed firmly together.
3. He starts to realize there must be others. Those who walk the same and glance the same and think the same. The PE teacher whose chin is always held high. The shelf stacker in the supermarket who looks like he owns the place. His Father, His Father maybe, sitting down at night, when they’ve all gone to bed, emptying stones out of his shoes. He wants to take each of them aside and whisper to them, to ask if they see it too. How different the world could be if everyone felt full as a building, knew right down to their marrow they had the power to hold up roofs.
“What makes you think you can talk to me like that?” His Mother says when she asks him to help her tidy up and he swears at her as he flops on the sofa.
“Dad?” Our Boy asks, hoping His Father will answer for him. Maggie, if you had the very foundations of this house under your skin like we do, you’d see there are far more important things in the world than washing up.
“Leave him alone,” is all His Father says. He winks at Our Boy.
It is enough for him.
After dinner that night, Our Boy goes to the park. A group of kids from his year group are there, huddled together on the bandstand. They sit in a circle, arms touching. They pass around a two-liter bottle of Frosty Jack’s. Someone gets out a pouch of weed and starts to skin up.
The girl with the top knot beckons him over, grins at him, highlighter so heavy her cheeks look like headlights on full beam. She passes him the cider. He swigs from the bottle, spits into it a little and passes it back. He enjoys watching her drink it down.
He makes a joke. She laughs first, then the rest follow, a Mexican wave through the night air.
“You’re all right, you know that?” a boy with an undercut says, jerking his chin at him in approval as he holds out the spliff.
Our Boy takes it, drags on it hard, lets the smoke fill his mouth. It catches in his throat. He splutters.
Another laugh ripples through the group. He shrinks his neck into his coat so they don’t see his ears turning red. His head begins to blur.
There’s talk about school, whose getting off with who, which teachers they would fuck, if they had to. The girl with the top knot’s legs are bare and goosebumping with the cold. She blows down the sleeves of her coat to keep warm, but that does not stop her knees turning blue. He wants to reach out and stroke them, feel the static tickle of her downy hairs brush back against his palm as he warms her up, hand running a little higher, a littler higher.
He passes her the spliff and she drags on it, passes it on before swigging another gulp of cider, wet lips tight around the bottle’s neck.
He puts his palm on her thigh.
His face stings with the swing of her hand. “Fuck off, new boy,” she yelps, leaping up. “You total perv.”
They all turn to look, eyes white and wide. He feels the burn flood his cheeks too fast to hide.
“What d’ya do perv?” laughs the boy with the undercut. “Trying to get a finger in?”
“Fuck off Gary,” the girl says to him, but she’s smiling again and sitting back down as Our Boy rushes off into the dark.
He hurls himself at the first wall he finds. A derelict house on the edge of the park. It’s old, windows boarded up, gutters leaking. His fists clench, fingers claw and scrape, knuckles mulch against the brickwork until they are a fleshy mess. He pounds the wall demanding we let him in.
When we choose to take him, his gratitude is overwhelming. It floods from corner to corner, fills cracks, seeps through where the plaster is blown out. It aches in him and we let it. We give him time. We listen. We ease. We wear his anger away to a fine dust, replace it with our own rhyme and reason. Ignore them, ignore all that, it does not matter. Nothing else matters. He opens wide and swallows it down. He wants us to fill him, inside out. So. We. Do. He does not leave until sunrise.
* * *
The next day his fingers turn to stone. White like alabaster. Cold like marble.
“Dead man’s fingers,” His Mother says at breakfast, frowning. “Your Uncle had them.”
“I did too for a while,” His Father adds, not looking up from his paper. “Runs in the family.”
His Mother holds Our Boy’s hand and presses the pad of each fingertip onto the table, waiting for the colour to bleed in from the edges until they are fleshy and pink again.
“Feel that?” she asks. “Feel that?”
He snatches his hand away. The front door rattles in its frame as he slams his way out. He comes back to us at the old house again, to swallow up his anger. We do what we can.
She makes him see a doctor, who presses the pads of his fingers too, asks him to take his socks off so she can see his toes.
“Raynaud’s syndrome,” she says typing into her computer.
“What causes it? His Mother asks.
“Depends. Stress, extreme pressure or temperature, sometimes just growing up. He’s tall for his age isn’t he? It could be related to that. Perhaps your feet are too far away from your heart—can’t be bothered to get the blood down there.”
She laughs. His Mother laughs with her.
The doctor gives him a prescription for medicine to dilate his blood vessels. He leaves it inside the wall with us that afternoon on his way back to school.
The next week, he doesn’t go to school at all. He comes to us in the morning, stays until it’s time to go home. His body is so full when he walks down the street he can hardly lift his feet off the ground.
At dinner his whole hand goes, then his arms, both up to the elbow. Grey fading to white, with black veining that glints in the light.
“I don’t know why the pills aren’t working,” His Mother says, her cheeks wet. “Are you taking the right dose?”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” he says. His arms hang like old meat in a butcher’s window.
She changes the family’s diet. Cuts out cheese, replaces milk with soya. She leaves pamphlets lying around about intolerances and starts saying things like, “It’s amazing really, what we put in our body and still expect it to behave normally.” His Father buys square slabs of processed cheese from the petrol station on his way home from work and slides them under Our Boy’s door.
“Growing lad,” he whispers before his footsteps fade down the hall.
One night, returning home from an evening inside with us, he sees His Mother’s laptop open on the table. He punches in the password and purple-tinged links betray where she has been.
There’s an article about a boy, two boys—he scans down—four, who had it too. They all ended up in hospital. The tumors began in their joints. Solid mineral deposits clustering in air pockets, restricting their movements and making lateral rotation impossible. Calcification was the initial prognosis. They were admitted. Hooked up. Monitored during the day. Left alone at night. Specialists watched as they got quieter and denser. With each of them, their breathing was the last thing to go. Lungs, it seems, take the longest to turn because of their complexity. “Their families wanted to cremate them” the article concludes, “but for obvious reasons they had to be buried.”
That night Our Boy stays at home. The next day too.
At six-o-clock in the evening, His Mother comes in to wake him. She sits on the bed and reaches out for his hand. His bones crack as he rolls away from her.
“You’re cold as ice,” she says, touching his forehead. She leaves the room and comes back with three hot water bottles, places them all around him. She puts hot tea on the bedside table, sits with him, talks. He can hardly hear her.
From his bed, Our Boy can see the leaves on the trees across the road from the house. They turn through the wind, flashes of white-green dancing as their undersides flip up for a second then disappear. It’s a flock of birds, a school of fish, a cloud of swarming insects. In the rush of the wind it does not look like a tree at all.
“Do you remember when we went to the place in London, with the dinosaurs?” he whispers as His Mother gets up to go.
She pauses with her hand on the door handle, speaks slowly. “The Natural History Museum? Yes, why do you ask?”
“By the staircase there was a tree trunk we looked at. The sign said it was petrified. What does it mean–”
“No, what does it mean, for people?”
She shakes her head.
His throat crunches like boots on gravel as he tries to speak. “The sign said that petrified means minerals replacing organic material. Silicates, carbonates, iron. It means turning from one thing into another. From flesh into stone.”
“That isn’t you Daniel,” His Mother says. She wipes the tears from her face with her sleeve.
Outside, the wind in the leaves sounds like the ocean smashing into a sea wall.
* * *
It is a nasty night. Pitch black, thick cloud, searing rods of rain. The roof in the old house by the park leaks. The floor is slick with water. What’s left of the door swings wide on its hinges. Our Boy is here. In the doorway, wheezing hard. His hair is plastered across his whitewashed face. He leans, head hanging, a dead weight. He stops fighting the earth’s pull on his body. His ankles go. His knees go. He drops to the floor, his hands sliding on the damp rot of wood as he shuffles his palms forward. His back breaks with every movement, stretching his arms slowly, straining for cupboards, sideboards, window ledges to haul himself up. Sand grinds in his teeth. Piles in his footprints.
His breath is short and sharp, his chest juddering with each attempt for air. In. Out. In. He turns his head to look back through the open door, the frictioned grate of flint and grit. Past the park, down the road, around the corner his family lies asleep. The whole world is sleeping.
Using the last of his strength he raises his hands up to the wall in front of him and spreads his fingers. A little wider. A little further. He slips away.
Clare Howdle lives in Cornwall, UK, where she works as a copywriter, editor and brand strategist. Through her day job she’s written travel guides, interviewed Hollywood directors, got under the skin of supercomputers and explored the worlds of everything from mythical beasts to burlesque. But at dawn and dusk she turns to fiction. Her short stories have been published in The Sunday Times, Cornish Short Stories and Popshot magazine among others. In 2019 and 2020 she was longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Mslexia Short Story Competition, won the Word Factory apprenticeship and was shortlisted for the Grindstone Literary Short Story Prize. She’s currently working on her first novel – a study of freedom, control and the power dynamics of relationships set in Cornwall and the shadows of colonial Zimbabwe.