By the time this post is published I will have deserted the gloomy shores of the UK to enjoy some respite from the wintery weather and the wintery political climate in the sunny Caribbean. While the West Indies is a fine and inspirational place for writing my budget does not stretch to the huge sums needed for internet use. Hence the next 2 posts are a BRAND NEW short story, which begins today and concludes with Part 2, next Sunday…
Lewis’s Basement Herbs
The first time was spooky. From the top of the last flight down the steps an eerie glow radiated from a line around the metal door and a soft hum throbbed from whatever was inside. Lewis had been both intrigued and nervous as he edged down the last few concrete treads and stood listening, riveted to the soft line of light.
He knew nobody lived down here in the basement because the numbers on the ground floor flats began upstairs where the lift stopped. He’d been subjected to repeated warnings from his mother not to come downstairs to the basement; warnings that whetted his curiosity, seducing him down into the bowels of the block even as she was glancing at the clock in their cramped kitchenette and preparing to summon him to supper.
He wasn’t supposed to wander off, although he was allowed to venture down to the lobby floor and outside to the bleak, graffitied playground as long as there were no teenagers there to intimidate or indoctrinate him. But the play area held few pleasures for Lewis, who was an introverted, solitary child, small for his nine years and not easily able to make new friends. The dark basement with its narrow shaft of light, its smooth concrete walls and gentle hum had a womb-like comfort that soothed him after the rigours of a tumultuous school day and kept him from his mother’s irritable nagging over chores and homework. He began regular descents to what he considered to be his own, private retreat, sometimes bringing his tiny games console or a notebook and pen and after a few visits he’d managed to sneak a small cushion out of the flat to make the concrete step where he sat more comfortable.
One late afternoon he was ensconced on his cushion and engaged in drawing a monster in his notebook when he heard some quick, light footsteps approaching the basement door above him. He closed the notebook, pocketed the pencil and, taking his cushion crept around the corner of the steps into the dark alcove behind them where he crouched, making himself as small as possible while the mouse-like steps pattered down.
A short, slight figure, silhouetted in the shaft of light stood at the metal door fiddling with its padlock, which Lewis already knew to have a combination like the ones on the bikes in the racks at school. The door sighed opened with a rasp, flooding the small space at the base of the steps with white light. Holding his breath, Lewis edged back tight into the shadow but caught a momentary glimpse of the interior before the door was pulled to; what appeared to be a still, silent row of slender, dark structures, their base a glinting, reflective surface like the Christmas decorations in the city centre. He could hear the person inside bustling about and see her-he was sure the figure was female-flitting backwards and forwards across the narrow gap in the doorway. Supposing she was busy on some task, he crept from his corner and across the passageway towards the metal door, where the combination lock lay open. He looked at the barrel of the lock. There was enough light to see the numbers along the shaft opening: 6628.
By the time the girl came out of the room he was back behind the steps, having written the number in his notebook. He watched as she clicked the lock together before pattering back up the stairs and opening the basement door, leaving him once again alone in his den.
Lewis was thrilled. He felt like a detective looking into a mysterious incident, except that no crime was being committed. He was determined to investigate the basement room further but would have to try tomorrow as his grumbling tummy told him his tea must be ready by now. He gauged that the woman would be clear of the ground floor and went up the steps to the lift.
As he exited the basement door a voice assailed him.
“Whoa! What you at, fella?”
Lewis flattened himself against the door as the tall, rangy figure of Desi loomed up against him. Desi was a member of the notorious Bunja gang whose antics terrorised the inhabitants of the block and who Lewis’s mother had instructed him to avoid. Now he was trapped, his mouth dry, his throat constricted as though strangled, unable to utter so much as a squeak. But Desi persisted.
“What you doin’ down there, eh?” The tall youth jerked his head at the closed door behind Lewis and stepped forward so that he squashed the smaller boy, his tobacco breath hot and nauseous.
Lewis made a frantic effort to think of a reason for being in the basement. A lost cat? But tenants were not allowed pets. An errand for his mother? But he couldn’t think of anything. A game? But there were no other kids around. He held his breath.
Across the lobby a voice echoed. “Eh Desi! Time to go! C’mon!”
Desi gave the boy a hard shove against the door before turning and loping off to join his companion and Lewis slumped forward, exhaling with closed eyes as the two Bunja gang members disappeared out of the building.
Next day was Saturday and he was obliged to help out with going to the launderette, tidying his bedroom and accompanying his mother to the shops and back, carrying his share of bags. After tea and washing up he asked if he might go out to play, as it was still light and after some hesitation his mother agreed, although she stipulated that he must be in again by seven thirty.
He was careful to look around before opening the basement door. This time he’d brought a tiny torch he kept in his bedroom. He was breathless as he swivelled the numbers on the barrel into position and breathed out as the barrel unclipped, freeing the padlock, allowing him to grasp the handle and push gently, whereupon he was bathed in the white light of the compact room and stepped in, mouth agape.
The structures in rows were dark green, spiky plants, all the same, their bases encased in silver foil like his mother used for lining the roasting tin. There were bright, white lights directed at the rows and the entire room was warm and damp like the launderette on a busy morning. But the smell was not at all like the launderette. It was fragrant and herb-like. Lewis walked up and down the rows for a few minutes then he realised. Of course! This must be a herb garden. They had one at school in a raised bed outside in the playground; only this one was indoors and this one had only one type of herb, not the mixture they’d grown at school.
He sat down on a box in the corner, enjoying the warmth and the cosy, aromatic atmosphere and forgetting how long he’d been there. At last he remembered he should not stay too long in case the girl came back so stood to leave. He stepped away from the cardboard box he’d been sitting on and looked at it. It was not sealed. He pulled up the flap and peered inside. It was full of small plastic bags containing what looked like tea leaves. He knew about tea leaves because his mother was fussy and refused to buy tea bags, preferring to spoon tea into a pot. After a moment’s hesitation he pocketed one bag, replaced the flap and crept from the room, giving the door a gentle push and locking the combination. He hoped the girl wouldn’t notice that the numbers, when he swivelled them around were different but he guessed she wouldn’t look too closely as long as it was locked.
It was later than he realised. As he ran to the lift he glanced at his watch. It was seven fifty. The lift, when it sank into place contained one person: his mother, coming to look for him.
Lewis was grounded for the next three days. His mother gave him chores and stood over him while he learned spellings and times tables. He was sent to tidy his room each day after school and was denied TV. Seeking to sweeten her up a little, on the third day Lewis offered to make his mum a cup of tea while she watched Coronation Street, a proposal that led to a narrowing of her eyes in suspicion but an acceptance. He filled the kettle and took down the tea caddy. When he glanced into their narrow living-room he could see that she was engrossed in the programme so he withdrew the plastic bag of dried herbs from his pocket and mixed them in with the tea leaves in the caddy, augmenting the amount by about one third. His mother was always moaning about aches and pains. They had learned at school that people used herbs to treat illnesses. Maybe the herbs would help. He took her a cup of tea and sat down next to her while she sipped it and watched her programme…
Check in next Sunday to find out how the ‘herbs’ affected Lewis’s mother and what happened next…