It’s the particular metallic rattle of the football slamming the garage door that is like a nail driven into Chester Barnes forehead. Slap badoom, slap badoom: that he can cope with. His hearing has adjusted to that long habituation of the rhythm of wall-to-foot-to-ball-to-wall. Slap baclang. With a resonating twang of internal springs in the door mechanism. Slap baclang buzz. Behind his head where he can’t see it. But the biggest torment is that he never knows when it is going to happen. A rhythm, a regular beat, you can adjust to that: The random slam of ball kicked hard into garage door is always a surprise, a jolt you can never prepare for.
The bang of ball against door is so loud it rattles the bay window. Chester Barnes throws down his paper and is on his feet, standing tip-toe in his slippers to try to catch sight of the perpetrators through the overgrown privet. Another rattling bang, the loudest yet. A ragged cheer from the street. Chester is out the front door in a thought.
“Right, you little buggers, I had enough of that. You’ve been told umpteen times; look at that garage door, the bottom’s all bowed in, the paint’s flaking off, you’re nothing but vandals. I know your parents, though what kind of parents they are letting you play on the street like urchins I don’t know. This is a residential area!”
The oldest boy cradles the football in his arm. The other boys stand red faced and embarrassed. The girl is about to cry.
“I know you!” Chester Barnes shouts and slams the door.
“Chester, they’re nine years old,” the woman’s voice call from the kitchen. “And the wee one, she’s only six.”
“I don’t care.” Back in the living room again, Chester Barnes watches the five children slink shamefacedly down the street and around the corner. The little girl is in tears. “This is a quiet street for quiet people.” He settles in his chair and picks up his paper.
Doreen has balanced the tea tray on the top of her walker and pushes the whole pajandrum into the living. Chester leaps to assist, sweeping up the precarious tray and setting it down on the old brass Benares tables.
“Now you know I don’t want you doing that, it could fall as easily as anything, you could get scalded.”
“Well, then you’d just have to save me, wouldn’t you?”
There is tea, and a fondant fancy, and a German biscuit.
“Those chocolate things are nice,” Chester says. “Where did you get them?”
“Lidl,” Doreen says. “They’ve a lot of good stuff. Very good for jam. You never think of Germans having a penchant for jam. Is it in again?”
“You know. The ad. I can see the paper, you’ve left it open at the classifieds.”
“It’s in again.”
“What does it say this time?”
“Dr. Nightshade to Captain Miracle.”
“Are you going to reply?”
“With what? It’s nothing. I’ll bet you it’s not even him. It’s kids, something like that. Or fans. Stick on the telly, we’re missing Countdown.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t like that new girl. It hasn’t been the same since Carol left.”
“It hasn’t been the same since Richard Whitely died,” Chester says. They watch Countdown. Chester’s longest word score is a seven. Doreen has two eights, and gets the numbers games and today’s Countdown Conundrum. Doreen gets up to go and read in the backyard, as she doesn’t like Deal or No Deal. “It’s just a glorified guessing game,” she says. Not for me it’s not, Chester Barnes says. As she advances her walking frame through the living room door she call back to Chester, “Oh, I almost forgot. Head like a sieve. The community nurse is coming round tomorrow.”
“Well, I hope it’s after Deal or No Deal.’
Doreen closes the door after her. When the creak of her walking frame has disappeared down the hall, Chester Barnes picks up the newspaper again. Dr Nightshade to Captain Miracle. A rising racket on the screen distracts him. Noel Edmonds is whipping the audience up into a frenzy behind a contestant reluctant to choose between the sealed prize boxes.
“Twenty-seven, pick number twenty-seven, you blithering idiot!” he shouts at the screen. “It’s got the ten pounds in it! Are you blind? No, not box twelve! That’s got the fifty thousand! Oh for God’s sake, woman!”
Nurse Aine is short and plump and has very glossy black hair and very caked make-up. She can’t be more than twenty-two. She radiates the rude self-confidence of the medical.
“You’re not Nurse Morag,” Chester Barnes says.
“No flies on you, Chester.”
“Nurse Morag calls me Mr. Barnes. Where is she anyway?”
“Nurse Morag has moved on to Sydenham, Belmont and Glenmachan. I’ll be your district nurse from now on. Now, how are we, Mr. Barnes? Fair enough fettle? Are you taking your half aspirin?”
“And my glass of red wine. Sometimes more than a glass.”
“Bit of a secret binge drinker, are we, Mr. Barnes?”
“Miss, I have many secrets, but alcohol dependency is not one of them.”
Nurse Aine is busy in her bag, pulling on gloves, unwrapping a syringe, fitting a needle. She readies a dosing bottle, pierces the seal.
“If you’d just roll your wee sleeve up there, Ches . . . Mr. Barnes.”
“What’s this about?” Chester says suspiciously.
“Nasty wee summer flu going around.”
“I don’t want it. I don’t get the flu.”
“Well, with a dose of this you certainly won’t.”
“Wait, Miss, you don’t understand.”
Plump Nurse Aine’s latex hands are quick and strong. She has Chester’s arm in a grip, and the needle coming down. She checks.
“Oh. I’m having a wee bit of a problem finding a vein. Chester, you’ve obviously no career as a heroin addict.”
“Miss, I don’t . . .”
Nurse Aine comes in again, determination set on her red lips. “Let’s try it again. You may feel a little prick.”
“Miss, I won’t . . .”
“Oh. Wow.” Nurse Aine sits back.
“What is it?” Chester asks.
She holds up the syringe. The needle is bent into a horseshoe.
“I’ve heard of hard arteries . . . I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like this before. Mr. Barnes . . .”
The living room door opens. The walker’s rubber toes enter first, then Doreen’s low slippers.
“Suppositories,” Doreen says. “My husband gets all his medication by suppository.”
“It’s not in my case notes,” Nurse Aine protests.
“My husband is a special case.”
The rattle of the letter box disturbs Nurse Aine’s departure.
“There’s your paper, Chester.” She hands him the Telegraph as the paperboy nonchalantly swings his leg over the fence to Number 27 next door. Chester waves it after her as she goes down the path—daintily for her size, Chester thinks—to her small green Peugeot 305.
“Mr. Barnes!” he calls. But the kids are hovering around the garage door again, casting glances at him, trying to block the football from his view with their bodies.
In the living room Doreen sits on the unused seat beside Chester’s big armchair in the window bay rather than her wingback chair with the booster cushion by the door.
“I am not hovering, I’m perching. So is it in?”
“Is what in?”
“Don’t come that with me, Chester Barnes. Turn to the small ads right now.”
They flip through the pages together. Their fingers race each other down the columns and sections, stop simultaneously on bold print.
Dr. Nightshade to Captain Miracle. Ormeau Park.
“Ormeau Park. He’s close. Where do you think he is?”
“I heard Spain, on the Costa, with the rest of them.”
“What do you think he wants?”
“I don’t know.”
“Chester, I’m concerned.”
“I’ll look after you, don’t you ever worry. Nothing will ever harm you.”
Doreen lays her hand on her husband’s.
“If only you could do that.”
Then with a slap baclang! like a steel avalanche descending into Haypark Avenue, the first goals hits the metal garage door.
Old men wake easily in the night. A bulge of the bladder, the creak of something that might be an intruder, the gurgle of water in the pipes, a night plane, the lumber of a big slow truck making deliveries to Tesco, the sudden start of a dream, or a nightmare, or that edge-of-sleep-plummet into nothingness that is much too much like death. Anything at all, and they’re awake and staring at the ceiling. And no amount of lying and turning and punching up the pillow to try to make it comfortable or flicking the blankets in under your feet will send you off again. Doreen sleeps sound as a child, her mouth open, her eyes crinkled up in a private, slumbering smile. Every insomniac knows the rule that a partner steals the sleep from you.
Chester waddles out to the toilet and pisses long and appreciatively. Still a good pressure there. On the landing he looks up through the skylight. He never puts the main light on because if anything is guaranteed to banish all hope of sleep it is harsh centralised lighting. Beyond the yellow city glow stand the brighter stars. A constellation of fast lights crosses the rectangle of night. Chester Barnes holds his breath, thrilled by a wonder he feared he had forgotten.
“Away, avaunt!” he breathes. “Plays gip with City Airport Air Traffic Control, my arse. They always were bloody jealous dogs.” Then he hears the high rumble of jets. A lesser wonder.
A wave of warmth and laundry-fresh fabric conditioner spills over him as he opens the hot-press. Socks, shirts—Doreen still irons his underwear. Chester thinks that one of the greatest tokens of love anyone can show. Sheets, towels. To the top shelf, where everything is piled along the front because Doreen can’t reach any higher. Chester takes down the shoe box. Inside are the press clippings, yellowed and redolent of age and laundry, and the comics. Chester lifts the comic out, then sets it back, replaces the lid. A confidential, matey tap.
The Bushmills bottle is at the back of the kitchen cabinet for the same reason that the top shelf laundry is at the front. Not that Doreen would object; it’s that it would be too easy, over Deal or No Deal, or the documentaries he likes on the History Channel. Chester Barnes still has an image, still has pride. When he opens the mock leather lid of the Dansette record player, the smell of old vinyls and glues and plastics whirls him back through years and decades. It’s a dreadful tinny box and he can’t find as decent replacement for the stylus, but it’s like valve sound. The 45s only sound right on it. He takes them out of the shelf of the old radiogram, stacked them up on the ling spindle, settles back in to his chair with the Bush and the comic. Always the dread, as the latch moves in, that more than one disc will fall at once. The Dansette doesn’t fail him tonight. Billy Holliday. God Bless the Child. Except the ones who bang that bloody ball off the bloody garage door. No. God bless the child and God bless you, Lady Day. He opens the comic. Captain Miracle, issue 17.
The set up is rubbish; the writer never was any good. It’s the one with Dr. Nightshade’s Malevolent Meteor Machine, and the usual superhero dilemma; save the girl or save the city from destruction. The true hero must do both, in a method that surprises but is consistent, different enough from last month’s instalment, and returns all the balls in play to their original triangle on the table. Nothing must change in the world of comic book superheroes, unlike real superheroes.
So Captain Miracle, decide. The woman you love, or two million people in Belfast.
Cobblers. There weren’t even that many people in the whole of the North. Chester Barnes smiles. Good panels of Captain Miracle flying into the meteor storm, plunging down through the upper atmosphere haloed in plasma. Kick two into each other, send a third into the Irish Sea just off Dublin where it swamps Blackrock (It’s PR, the Northern Ireland Office management team had said), fry one with laser vision, swing one by its tail, get underneath the big one bearing down on the city (the artist was an American, no idea about what Belfast looked like: a shipyard and the City Hall surrounded by miles of thatched cottages) and struggle and strain until the people in the streets were pointing and staring, before heaving it on his shoulders back up into orbit again. And of course, leaving one last, unseen straggler to bear down on innocent Belfast, before grabbing it and booting it back into orbit as sweet as any drop goal at Ravenhill.
“I’d’ve been good at rugby,” Chester Barnes says. “Ach, too good. It would’ve been no game at all.”
Then screaming fist-forward back down to Dr. Nightshade’s Castle of Evil, which was based on the real Tandragee Castle where they made the potato crisps, which Chester Barnes always found stranger than any Northern Ireland Superhero comic. Intercepting the deadly grav-beam, with which Dr. Nightshade had hauled the meteors from the sky and with which, on full intensity, he would collapse his hapless prisoner into a black hole. Pushing the ray back, back, with both his hands, until grav-beam projector, power unit, control room and the abominable Dr. Nightshade himself all collapsed into eternal oblivion. Until he extricated himself in the next episode.
I’ve got you, Doreen. Soaring up from the singularity, his love in his arms.
“Away, avaunt,” Chester Barnes whispers. Dean Martin now; good old Dino.
They’re PR material, the NIO Department for Nonconventional Individuals had insisted. He has every issue of Captain Miracle, from Number One in 1972 to the final issue in 1979.
It’s not really making any difference, is it, Chester? But it couldn’t, that was always understood. Now Chester lifts out the press cuttings. Robbers thwarted. Passengers rescued from sinking car ferries. Fires put out. Car bombs lifted and hurled into Belfast Lough. It was always impressive when they exploded in mid-air, until people started putting claims in about damage to roofs. Freed hostages. Masked villain apprehended: SuperVillain for our Superhero? Here he could make a difference. Here were things a hero could do. Against politics, against sectarianism, against murders and no warning bombs and incendiaries slipped into pockets of clothes on racks, there is nothing super to be done.
It’s four thirty. The stack of singles has played out. The bottle of Bush is half-empty. Chester Barnes refills the shoe box and climbs the stairs. Beyond the skylight there’s a glimmer of dawn.
Together they paw over the Belfast Telegraph, so eager they tear the sheets. Forefingers race each other down the small ads.
“What’s it under?” Doreen asks.
“Prayers and novenas,” Chester Barnes says.
Their digits arrive simultaneously on the message. In bold: Dr. Nightshade to Captain Miracle. Ormeau Park. Tonight . . .
“Does that dot dot dot mean there’s something more?” Doreen asks. “Maybe the rest of it’s in the late edition.”
“Him, pay for two small ads?” Chester Barnes says. “That wouldn’t be like him.”
“Are you going to go?”
“Of course not.”
There’s a pounding all along the right side of Chester Barnes’s head, from behind his eye to just above his ear, a steady pulsing beat, a painful throb. A headache. He never gets headaches, unless they’re tension headaches. Then he realises that his brain is thumping in time to the thudding of the ball, that ball, that bloody ball off the garage door. Slap baclang. He had been so intent on the message from his former nemesis that he hadn’t noticed the little voices outside, the cries, the ringing smack of football on the pavement.
“Bloody kids!” Chester Barnes shouts, sitting bolt upright, trying to scrub the hammering out of his head. “Will they never, ever, never go away and do something else and leave me in peace?”
And now Doreen is saying that she’s worried, what’s it all about, why has he come back and what does he want with Chester, are they safe? But all Chester can hear is the slap baclang of the ball and then a different noise, a change in tone of the voices, alarm, fear. He rises from his seat and turns round as the football comes looping in through the front window in a smash and shower of shards, great spears hanging from the frame, fangs of glass poking up from the sash, splinters flying around him and Doreen as he covers her. No flying glass, from a window or a blast, could ever harm him. Chester seizes the ball and storms out on to the street where the children still stand, frozen in horror. They are very small. But months and years of the rage and frustration of a man able to do anything but allowed to do nothing bursts inside him like a boil.
“You little bastards, you could have hurt my wife, all that flying glass, do you ever think of anyone but yourselves? Of course not, it’s the way your parents bring you up; you’re all selfish bastards, no sense of gratitude for anything, it’s all me me me.” The children stand shaking with fear. Chester Barnes throws the ball into the air. He throws it far and hard. It loops so high it is almost out of sight, but as it drops down he looks at it, looks at it long and hard, like he looks at the boxes on Deal or No Deal, looks with all his power. The football explodes in a deafening boom. Scraps of vinyl rain down but the children are already running and every door on Haypark Avenue is open and the people staring.
“Selfish, the lot of you!” Chester Barnes shouts. “None of you ever said thanks, not one. Ever.”
Then he slams the door and goes in to sit on his glass-strewn chair and pretends to watch Countdown.
Officer Ruth Delargy is very fresh and smart and every inch the majesty of the law in her crisp white shirt and cap that shades her eyes and makes her remote, authoritative, just. She is the community officer from Ballynafeigh PSNI Station. She sits in the living room of Number 27 in Doreen’s chair, but Chester thinks it better not to complain. The glass has been swept up, the window patched with cardboard and parcel tape. The glazer can’t make it until the end of the week. Three of his Poles have suddenly announced they’ve had enough of Northern Ireland and are going home.
“The situation, Mr. Barnes, is that where children are concerned, we have no option but to investigate. It’s a statutory duty. Now, from what I’ve heard, this isn’t the first time you’ve had issues with the McAusland children.”
“Is that what they’re called? McAusland?”
“Yes, Mr. Barnes. Do you not know your neighbours?”
“Did they bring the complaint?”
“I can’t tell you that, Mr. Barnes, under the Data Protection Act. It is the sort of thing we would try to resolve at a community level through a mediated meeting between yourself and the McAuslands and we wouldn’t want to invoke anything as heavy handed as an Anti-Social Behaviour Order . . .”
“An ASBO? You’d try and give me an ASBO?”
“Like I said, Mr. Barnes, we wouldn’t want to be that heavy-handed. That would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now, I’m prepared to overlook the criminal damage to the football, but I do think it would be good if I arranged a series of meetings with the McAuslands: I’ve seen this kind of thing before and you’ll be amazed how much better relationships are when people get to know each other.”
Chester Barnes sits back in his chair.
“Do you think they can get to know me?”
Officer Ruth frowns.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s just that some people, well, you think you know them but you don’t know anything at all. It’s just that some people, well, they’re not like you know. They’re different. They have their own rules. You see, it so happens that I know you. We’ve met before. It was a long time ago, you were very small, maybe four, five. It was Christmas. Now, they always say that Christmases blur into each other, but you might remember this one. You were in town with your parents, they took you to the Santa’s grotto, it was a good one, in the old Robb’s department store. It’s not there anymore, it was destroyed by incendiaries, back when they were doing a lot of that sort of thing. But they always had a very good Christmas grotto. You went on a ride first: Santa’s Super Sleigh. It didn’t actually go anywhere, it was set of seats that went up and down while the walls rolled past, and there were stuffed reindeer in the front bobbing up and down so you felt you were on a journey. You were on it when the firebombs went off. Do you remember? I’m sure you don’t remember all the details, you were very small and it must have been a terrible trauma for you. You got separated from the rest of your family, somehow, you slipped in under the mechanism and got trapped there. There was smoke everywhere, the fire had really caught. Then someone came through the fire. Someone pulled you out from the burning reindeer, someone took you in his arms and flew you out through the flames, down the stairwell. Someone flew you to safety, Officer Delargy. There was a hero there for you. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just vanity, but I like to think that because someone did right that day, that’s the reason you’re doing right today. And that’s more than I could hope, because we don’t have children, me and Doreen, it’s part of the whole super thing, apparently, but if someone does right because right was done to them, that’s as much children as I can hope for. So, I appreciate that there are rules, there have to be, but maybe you also appreciate now that the rules are different for some people.”
He watches her drive off when she has finished with her notes. The police are in Skodas now. They used to be in Rovers, but that was when Rovers were good cars and Skodas were joke cars. These claims, well, they’re so outlandish I don’t think anyone could really believe them, Community Officer Delargy had said before closing her electronic notebook. It will be quiet again. He can carry on in his life of everyday unsuperness.
“That was a bit naughty,” Doreen says, entering now that her rightful chair is hers again. A Tesco bag swings from the handles of her walker.
“Pulling rank like that.”
“I did remember her. It was real, it happened. And I think at the end she may have remembered me.”
“Chester, it was over thirty years ago.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Who else would it be for? Not that you deserve it; that was a horrid thing to do, you bad old goat. Here you are anyway.”
In the bag is a brown paper parcel tied with string. The rule with Doreen’s presents has always been no peeping. Chester does not break it now but it does smells of fabric conditioner, and the package is soft, springy to his touch. He tears open a corner. Crimson and gold spill out.
“I thought I’d thrown this out years ago.”
“You did. I threw it back in. Oh, I know I was so very afraid, every time you went out, and I know that’s why you got rid of it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t. It needed a damn good wash, and I’m afraid some of the stretch has gone. Go on. You have to go. You have to find out.”
Chester Barnes holds the paper parcel in his hands.
“I won’t leave you, Dor. I won’t ever do that.”
He thinks he may have strained something scrambling over the wall. A twinge in the lower back. Stupid stupid stupid, with just a thought he could have been over it, quicker and less conspicuously than climbing up the moss-smooth, faced stone. Chester Barnes pauses, stretches, one side then the other. Even superheroes need to warm up. He’s only a stone throw from the main road, the yellow streetlight glows through the tree branches and the traffic is a constant rumble, but the Ormeau Park seems far away from the concerns of Haypark Avenue. The night is warm and the flowering shrubs release a tremendous sweetness. Shaking out the muscle cramp, stepping out boldly along the deserted path, he feels hugely alive. Every breath empowers. Here is a secret heart in the city and tonight he is connected to it as he hasn’t felt in years. With the merest flicker of his powers, he can steer clear of the dog shite as well.
“So, Captain Miracle!” a voice booms from a rhododendron clump. Chester Barnes stops dead. For all his powers, he’s a little shocked.
“You know I can see right into that rhododendron,” he says.
“You know, would you ever, once, let me finish?” says a peevish, cigarette-thick voice from inside the shrubbery. “Just let me say it. So, Captain Miracle! Tonight!”
“Tonight what, old enemy?”
“Tonight . . . we fly!”
Dr. Nightshade, evil genius, Pasha of Crime, Tsar of Wrongdoing, steps from the rhododendron. He wears his purple cape and leotard; the Facility Belt has been let out at the waist and the mask sags over one eye. Chester doesn’t remember him so short.
“So you made it then, Chester.”
“Well, Sean, you made it hard to refuse.”
“Good to see you anyway,” says Dr. Nightshade. He extends a gloved hand. Chester Barnes takes and shakes it warily. “I don’t want to seem an ingrate, but I did kind of make an effort.” He indicates his costume. Chester Barnes steps back. With his two hands he takes his cardigan and tears it open. Golden yellow on scarlet shines forth: a glowing letter M.
“Give me two minutes.” Chester Barnes steps into the bushes. Dr. Nightshade averts his gaze. In less than the advertised time he steps back, a hero in scarlet and gold, creased at knee and elbow, loose across the chest and tight across the belly. Chester tugs at the cape.
“I could never get this bloody thing to sit right.”
“I never bothered,” Dr. Nightshade says. “Pain in the hoop, capes. Shall we, er?” He nods down the empty path. They walk together, hero and villain.
“It feels rather odd,” Chester says, tugging decorously at his crotch. “What if someone sees us?”
“I don’t know, it feels kind of free to me,” says Dr. Nightshade. “A bit mad and wild. And there’s much worse goes on in this park after dark.”
They stroll through the trees to the high point overlooking the football pitches. The grounds are closed up, someone has left a light on in the pavilion. Beyond the dark circle of the Ormeau Park, Belfast shines. Aircraft lights pass overhead.
“There’s no one else understands, you know,” Dr. Nightshade says.
“What about all those alumnus groups, the online forums, Heroes Reunited, all that?”
“Ach, who could be arsed with that? It’s all bloody talk, and a few wankers like to hog the forum. And anyway, it’s our thing, you know? A Belfast thing.”
“No heroes or villains here,” Chester says. “Only politics. I thought you went to Spain after you got out?”
“It was good until everyone started moving there and, well, to be honest, it’s expensive now. The pound’s weak as piss against the euro and I’ll let you into a wee super-villain secret; I was never that well off, thanks to you. Those Criminal Asset Recovery Boys; that’s a real superpower. It’s just, well, in the end, you understand more than anyone else.”
Traffic curves along the Ormeau Embankment. The river smells strongly tonight. The night smells merely strong. Chester Barnes looks up to the few stars bold enough to challenge Belfast’s amber airglow.
“Do you ever?” Chester asks. “Have you ever?”
“Oh, no. It doesn’t seem right. You?”
“No, never. But tonight . . .”
“Let’s see if we still can. One last time,” says Dr. Nightshade, suddenly fierce and passionate. “Just to show we bloody can!”
“Because we bloody can, yes!” shouts Chester Barnes. “Who’s like us? Who can do what we can do? They’re all too busy on their iPods to look up when they hear something go over their heads, too bloody busy texting to look up when they see a flash of light up there in the sun. Come on, we’ll not get another chance.” He punches a fist at the stars, then runs after it, down the hill, pell-mell, headlong, in golden boots over the dew-wet grass.
“Hey, wait for me, you bastard!” cries Dr. Nightshade and runs after his enemy, the only one who can ever understand him, but Captain Miracle is ahead and drawing away and Dr. Nightshade is panting, heaving, the breath shuddering in his chest. He stops on the centre of a spot of the football pitch, leaning on his thighs, fighting down nausea. Captain Miracle is far ahead, almost at the Ravenhill Road gates. Then he hears a strange cry and a peal of laughter, ringing out over the traffic and looks up to see a streak of gold and crimson arc up into the sky. The curve of light bends back over him, dips with a supersonic roar, then turns and climbs toward the lower stars with a faint, half-heard shout: “Away, Avaunt!”
© 2010 by Ian McDonald.
Originally published in Masked, edited by Lou Anders.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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