The gasman, a reluctant family man on a late emergency call, is surprised by the welcome he receives at the shop at the end of the alley.
Echoes | Masks
The row of fourteen grim faces seemed to float in the dark shadows just below the beams, under the stairs. The gasman had been called to fix the leak and had been heaving at the inlet valve when the lights flickered, dimmed and finally extinguished. He remembered the call he’d made to his wife, earlier that evening.
“Just one more call to make.”
“Wilbur dear, you’re not getting any younger. I know you think you’re superman, but you can’t go on all day and all night.” Her warm, loving tones purred from his phone.
“Come on sweetheart,” he sighed in the face of this familiar argument, “I’m not going to be all night, just this last job.”
“Ah, but we both know what that means. Your jobs can last five minutes or five hours.” His wife sounded regretful, resigned even. Did she know he slipped away sometimes to have a quiet drink before returning home, he wondered? He loved his wife, and his five children, but he was so tired at the end of the day he found the noise at his arrival, too much to bear. Every day.
He took every job they offered him, even the late ones, especially the late ones. Although he was tired, and near to retirement age he was still one of the strongest of the gas fitters, certainly the most experienced. All the younger fellows clocked-watched and rushed home to their young partners, grateful that Wilbur would always pick up the emergency jobs, the ones that arrived at the last minute and required a volunteer to take them. Fondly he remembered watching the time himself, checking off every minute until the end of the shift, but now the weary years of children, the clatter expectation, and love was almost too much to bear. Perhaps they had been wrong to have children so late.
Of course, he felt guilty, and berated himself for being disloyal. As he trudged down the alleyway to his last appointment, the lamplight casting longing glances at the full moon peaking over the high tenement walls he remembered, the arrival of the first of his exhausting five children.
Up to then Wilbur and Wilma had been the dynamic dubya, the WW, the wonder woman and her Wide-eyed Wonder, the heartbeat of every late night party, dancing and laughing, having a good time, the toast of the friends, the envy of their neighbours. That all changed with the children. And he did love them, he told himself, time and time again, to keep the perspective, to remember what a joy and blessing they were, and when he read to them, or hugged them, he always felt the warm glow of parenthood, as it should be, as it was written in all the manuals and magazines he and Wilma had read in the months before their first child had graced their home, before burning steadily through their bank account.
Indeed, he began to take more jobs, working late to earn the overtime to pay for the clothes and the packed lunches, the school trips and the birthdays. Wilma understood the need, and would have been pleased to earn herself, as she had before, a teacher in the local school. But the cost of childcare, and the niggling accusations of neglect kept her at home.
He didn’t resent this family that needed its father, but he saw it for what he thought it was, a succubus, feeding off the energies of his life, draining him to a husk, his brain crumpled like fragile, burnt ball of paper in the moment before it would expire in the exhaustion of its years.
And oh, they were very noisy. With the five of them he no longer had a little room of his own into which he could retire at the end of his day, just for a short half an hour of peace, a bridge into the relentlessness of being the father and the provider. Now the room had gone, with the fourth child, lilith, shoving him from his sanctum, like a cuckoo in the nest.
So, with these thoughts hurtling, as ever, in his head, he approached the shop at the end of the lane. It was early December with only the promise of snow, but the creep of early nights brought Christmas ever nearer. The alley seemed to narrow as he had approached the shop. When he looked back the walls behind him were unfeasible high, peering down on him, accusing him of neglect, they seemed to question his motives for taking this last job, on this day. He shrugged, turning his attention to the nondescript door in front of him.
He laid down his heavy bag of tools, then, using the ornate brass knocker tapped on the solid wooden portal. There was no immediate answer. He waited for a moment, wondering, as always, how long it was respectable to walk away in such a situation. His usual answer was to count to forty. There was no logic to it, but thirty was the number he employed for his press-ups when he was younger, and fifty seemed too long to be standing outside someone’s house without raising suspicion.
He had just decided to turn and leave when the door opened cautiously.
“Ah, the gasman. I’ve been so looking forward to seeing you.” That was an unusual welcome. Most people complained about how long they had to wait, or moaned about the problem that had prompted the need for the gasman.
“Yes. may I come in? This is my last call, and I’m hoping it won’t take too long.
“Oh, me too!” The old man entangled his bony fingers, disconcerting Wilbur who felt the old man’s eye linger on his face, a little longer than was comfortable.
“What seems to be the problem?”
“Well, as usual, as soon as the Winter comes, I turn on the boiler and does it work? Of course not.” The old man looked up at Wilbut with a kindly, expectant expression. “I have an important customer whose coming to my shop tonight, so I’m hoping you can help me quickly. I mustn’t let him down.”
“I see. Perhaps you could show me to the boiler, then?”
“Of course.” They walked through the house. On every wall, there were garish costumes, and posters, outlandish paintngs and sculptures, stuffed goats and rats.”
‘I run the joke shop, in case you’re wondering.” The old man gave such a look to Wilbur that it made him shiver with need to escape. “The customer I must meet tonight has a very particular requirement, so I hope you can solve my problem.”
“Uhuh.” Over the many years of repairing and maintaining the gas appliances Wilbur had visited many strange homes.
“It’s here.” The old man gestured to the door under the stairs.
“Of course.” Wilbur sighed. “I could have guessed that.”
“I don’t think it will take too long.” The old man smiled; it was almost a rictus.
Wilbur opened the door and saw immediately the gas connections snaking across the walls.
“Look, I’ll need to turn this off before I check the boiler.” He regarded at the old man and received a nod in return. In the tight space below the stairs he bent down and tried to find two of the most obvious wrenches for this sort of job. The door closed quietly, without him noticing, but he did see the masks hanging above his head, their phosphorescent pallor glowing subtly. Unconsciously he found himself count them. All fourteen were grim, their dark sockets awaiting human eyes to fulfill their purpose.
Then the lights cut out.
Wilbur looked up and saw the masks still illuminated eerily. He slipped, fell and crashed his head against the gas pipe behind him, knocking himself out.
The door opened swiftly. The old man appeared with a knife, and kneeling down, he held it to Wilbur’s face.
“My customer needs fifteen masks. I think you can help me!”[end]
Text, image, audio © 2014 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam, Elise Wells (for the end credits to podcast links for iTunes and Stitcher), Logic Pro, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, Apogee Condenser microphone, Rotring pens and inks, Daler Rowney acrylic ink, and Alfons Schmidt’s fantastic Notebook app.
More next week…
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