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When the Caged Canary Sings

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Isolated in the bleak mid-winter snow, Jackary Murphle, conceals himself from the harsh image of the world at Toad House, a country manor inherited after the tragic deaths of his parents. He believes that he has no place in the world, and his confidence in his creative abilities stunts his ambitions. He is the image of stagnancy, a formerly ambitious newspaper contributor, has become transformed into ‘some grotesque hermit-like creature,’ a man diminished to little self-worth, his appearance repulses even himself as he obsesses ‘over the endless creases, and grooves that had appeared within his skin, his skin of a tissue paper thinness.’ His reclusive way of life has contributed to the unravelling of his appearance, and as he becomes a ghoulish presence, a permanent fixture of the old family home. With the family business of burying the dead, dead and buried along with the passing of his parents, he becomes reliant upon the income of his brother who has taken a labouring job in the nearby village buried in the nook of the valley, at the foot of the moors. With various ‘stomachs hungry for animation’ the house becomes a fruitless anchor for the two brothers as they struggle to keep the house going for the sake of their parent’s memory. The ‘penniless poet’ thirsts for some form of literary recognition but wishes often fail us.

Thriller / Horror
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Looking down from the murky, single pane window of his squalid lodgings, Jack Murphy picked at a thin line of dirt beneath a finger nail. His lodgings were little considering the prodigious size of the house that he inhabited along with his brother. The room was small and minimally furnished. Four plaster brown walls that ran at about five feet either way connecting the sides of a perfectly carved square, bland and soulless, no canvasses hung there. Against the wall furthest back from the window, a single four post bed stretched out along it uninvitingly. The single pillow tinged a murky nicotine yellow, and damp with perspiration. The blanket torn back, as though some nightmarish wakening had disrupted it.

At its feet stood a narrow two box chest of drawers, a rickety vacant structure, with paint flaking like torn skin down the one side. He had removed the one drawer to create legroom, and drawers that were housed within the body of it, offered little in the way of storage, and appeared to overflow, a sheet peeking from within its wooden cove like a bleached white tongue. Jack frequently kept his most important documents in the top, relating of course to his poetry and letter writing which he often confessed contained his inner torment. It was in this ancient art form, that he attempted to peel back the lower layers of his psyche. “The typewriter,” he formerly said. “Was the best of counsellors” and this was positioned upon the top of it. This was the closest he could find to office space within the stomach of Toad House, nowhere else had seemed suitable. A chair of distressed leather was efficiently pulled up against it, so that he could sit and pour his soul out upon the top of this familiar wooden fixture that had been there long before he had arrived.

The age of the house often groaned as he moved around the room. He had squandered so much time within its various stomachs that his knowledge of it spread to each and every loose floorboard that ran the length and breadth of it. One particular board, a short plank of oak often wailed like a crying child whenever Jack turned to place his feet down out of the bed. It was often a scream that encountered him if he were to wake in the night with some bursting inspiration, which admittedly didn’t rear its head often, hence the origins of his self-contained madness. Often he would be greeted with the itchy cry if he were to find his seat and smoke, and analyse himself in the deathly stillness of the night.

For warmth, the room was inadequately equipped. A coarse patterned rug that reached for the skirting boards with a desperation falling short of a carpet, lay flat in the centre. An old grate fire was pressed against one wall, although this was never lit, not even in the harshest of frosts. The open chimney that tunnelled its way through the spine of the house had not for a long time tasted the delights of smoke or had the opportunity to spit the black sooty smog that it had been intended for up and over the sky line and over the hills. So destitute, this Gothic cast iron structure, had fallen into complete disrepair and Jack daren’t light it again as he believed one of the street pigeons, he had so often seen in town squares as a child, now roosted there. Not that the clogging mass, of ash and remnants of old unburnt chips of beech wood would allow it anyway.

This room, that he frequently occupied, hoping for a lack of disturbance as he dreamt within his self-informed genius, was buried towards the back of the house and propped above a south facing canopy overlooking the silent side street below.

Jack paused for a moment, delighted in his removing of filth from beneath his finger nail and continued to observe the minor happenings beyond the confines of the window space. Beneath it from the outside, the smooth canopy, a ledge of about two feet across and lurched out a foot farther. Jack imagined the balconies of principal theatres, and at once felt as a king looking over his domain. He had not before ventured beyond the window to sit out beneath the stars that once glittered and now all at once seemed to be choking upon the blackness. He stared into it, hoping for something, something to light up his meaningless existence within the confines of the room space in Toad House but there was little there. Only the broad face of the pale moon provided a form of comfort as it hung ripe as a peach upon a tempestuous winter storm that had begun to creep in from well up and over the moorland surrounding their inherited homestead.

Sighing, he turned towards the typewriter, where a packet of cigarettes lay invitingly upon its surface. He took his seat as he habitually did and rooted around the confines of his pockets for a lighter. A sense of panic and alarm began growing within him as his deft fingers struggled to locate it.

He sat idle, defeated. Staring at the brown plaster wall intently when a realisation struck him and his craving for cigarette smoke was at once again reignited. Clambering awkwardly back to the window in search again for the lighter, cigarette now pressed between his teeth.

He moved like some grotesque hermit-like creature, slowly despite his feverish desire to quench his itchy cravings. His frame was wiry, and brittle looking, bones jutting from beneath the skin in unconcealed places. His shoulders slumped and rounded suggesting an age far beyond his actual years, and his shoulder length hair was sopping with an organic unwashed grease which seemed not to move with him as it was pressed down flat against his skull. With graceless step, his feet fell with little coordination, heavily against the supple boards. The fragile timber wailed and howled beneath him, up and over the coarse weave of the rug that scratched furiously at the naked soles of his feet. This quickened his step, and he reached the window pane once again with an eager leap.

As he rummaged around the numerous odds and ends that cluttered the sill, a sense of anticipation grew, quickening the breath. He stopped a moment, placed a cold hand upon the naked surface of the window pane, stretching his gaze down to the foot of the birch trees, that whipped themselves around in the frenzied gale. The pale moonlight seemed to produce odd shapes.

As a boy he often felt as though these shapes were not the shadowy coincidence that his mother implied when trying to comfort him. His infant imagination often spun the haunting strands into monstrous faces that appeared to taunt him from beyond the natural world around him.

He paused a moment and tried to fathom the tall, haunting silhouette of a man, who at first appeared as though he were leaning against the trunk of the tree furthest right. The head of which, seemed to dome like a bowl and kick out at the edges. A tight rib of bone wrapped tightly to the base of its skull. This he presumed was the man’s trilby hat, but it lopped a little to the left, lacking the libertine projection embodied within it. He stood like an extension, a grotesque growth undisturbed by the busy wind. He rubbed his eyes, astonished by his imagination’s ability to reflex immature conjurings born out of childhood. He fidgeted a little more until he, at last, discovered the whereabouts of his lighter.

A little flutter arose within the confines of his chest at the delight in finding the lighting instrument pressed down behind a row of books at the remote end of the sill. Although lined up, they fell against each other lazily: Bukowski against Ginsberg against Burroughs. The filter tip was now wet within his mouth, but he possessed not the energy to return to the wooden structure where his typewriter and his cigarettes were often found to replace it. He ran a sharply pointed finger nail over the abrasive flint wheel and at once the miracle of fire brightened the room around him. One flash of hot white light that caused him to mark the dishevelled appearance of a man he struggled to recognise form upon the murky glass sheet. The tobacco crackled and darkness once again took hold and shrouded him. One laser red beam dancing like a fire red cherry upon the sweating condensation.

He dared to flick it again, but with the purpose of holding the light there for a little longer. He now scrutinised the face that stared back at him… his face. He ran his gaze over the endless creases, and grooves that had appeared within his skin, his skin of a tissue paper thinness. He explored the blotchy redness that he remembered often filling the shining tip of his nose during these bleak winters. His skin was stretched and ill fitting, as though his skull was too large to be housed within it and the lack of exposure to natural light was clearly written there in the palest of shades. This only emphasised the deep, inky black pits that embedded his eyes, the two grim orbs that helplessly lay there drowning within his own exhaustion. He pulled gently at the two awkwardly shaped bags, consequentially gathering his profile into an unnatural slump.

He stared a little longer, as though this use of his time would generate the changes he so desired. Pulling at his puckering lips, he hoped to find some hygiene there. However, his urgent curiosity led only, to a further demise in self-appreciation. The inner mouth was a rotting cavern, a cemetery for his own words that often died upon the tip of his tongue. The pale and retracting gums were populated by rows of discoloured teeth that appeared cramped and pushed for space within their fleshy tombs. Running his hand through the greasy, shoulder length locks of hair he locked eyes with the intruder that had crept up to the window, staring…

He let out a pathetic yelp, releasing his finger from the gas supply. He attempted rubbing the soreness of his thumb tip against his trouser leg in a desperation to cure it. The grease had given little protection from the swollen heat he had held in his hands.

He felt no desire to re-light the room. He feared that this man, this doppelgänger, had been watching him. The feeling of being observed, in a house situated a steady walk from the main village, isolated upon the hillside, the fear, chill as it was, seemed to turn his naked feet to roots. His eyes transfixed upon the window pane again the baron gardens, and the row of birch trees restored within it and he flashed a glance once again to the foot of the tree on the furthest right.

A sense of warm relief seeped into his strained shoulders, at finding little but the absence of his midnight visitor.

A shock of fire red and a glint of intelligent cool eyes lit up in the pools of blackness. A solitary wily fox that stealthily traversed a low brick wall and out of sight.

An accumulation of gloop in the corner of his eye wept as does a wound, and he extended his yellowing finger across it, the hope all but drained by this single apparition in the dead of night.

He traced the delicate feet of it with his eyes, then traversed the wall with it, in the hope of some ignition, but the flames of his inspiration were not dry, and he sat dampness clawing within him. Alone but for the muffled ticking of a carriage clock on the bedside table, an initiation gift given to him, some ten years back, by the local newspaper company that he had given so many of his hours to while his parents still owned his abode.

In these most daunting moments, where the ability to write as brilliantly as he had once done eluded him at all costs, he would find little comfort in resigning himself to writing nothing at all. The typewriter upon the top of the chest had become disused, falling into a pit of uninspired misery, and dressed in the silk of random encounters with the abundant spiders that lived within the confines of the house.

His typewriter, a gift from a previous lover, in those ancient and cherished days of bohemian wonderment, was only ever to be used when true inspiration engulfed him. Otherwise his ideas and craft were demoted to scrap pieces of paper and biro pen, the piles of which were continuing to grow into paper beasts of illegible scribble and unintelligible barking. They went often unread, he feared the lack of appreciation for himself that he would inevitably find there. Instead, he allowed them to overflow from the drawers within the wood structure, to spill out from within the darkness beneath his bed, and to clog the side table, the carriage clock barely visible now, save for a slither of its pale face glimmering beneath the moonlight.

The darkness consumed him with a feverish quickness, that filled him with an unfathomable chill. Beneath the mattress he plucked a single pole of wax that he had kept in a wooden box amongst the madness of papers and scribblings. He lit it and placed it on the desk top as a deterrent for the ghouls that seemed to be all about him.

The orange explosion of light quickly reminded him of the stealthy animal that had carried with him some inspiration, and he felt the familiar whirring of the creative mind, when comparisons are drawn, and metaphors mature.

All at once, he grew animated with the prosperity of producing something that would be his subsequent masterpiece. He grew animated and flapped his way around the room, like a caged raven driven mad by his imprisonment. He sought through the array of papers hurling them viciously around and digging through them with the instincts of a dog so that the room became transformed with flying pieces of paper, their frayed wings falling like a thousand moths flying into the heart of the sun. He laid hands on a piece that afforded some writing space.

He tore with quickness from the carriage clock, that now ticked more clearly, to the chest of drawers and shifted his chair in tight to the surface. In the height of this mad outpouring, his head was bent close to the paper so that his nose almost grazed it with the passing of every word. The pen scratched but little of worth was produced. He commented on the habits of the day, the cuisine he ate was often delivered upon a bicycle from the nearby village and merited no health benefits, except, of course, survival. This would be delivered and hidden away within the post-box he had instructed his brother to pin against the wall adjacent to the front door. This enabled him to achieve no communication with the courier. Or indeed anyone. He paid minimally through transactions that existed no further than the phone line and even this unnerved him. The freedom afforded by this outburst, caused him to remember the chicken and the noodles that he had ate within the sheets of his bed. The foil tray still nestled between the cover and pillow case and stained phosphorescent yellow.

Grease… moves like worms in the stomach. He wrote.

This piece of literature was all he had obtained from this hopping madness. His genius. As a conservative estimate he thought that this kind of criticism, aside from the sheer decrepit state of his lodgings, the diet of processed and greasy foods, and the ill fortune found in his appearance, that he had some humanity still left within him. He had forgotten, in his desperation to obtain some form of creativity living within him, about the wily fox whose sighting all at once had lit the touch paper.

He sat momentarily. As though this sudden out pouring of energy had caused him to crash.

His eyes wandered over to the portion of clock face from the newly unearthed carriage set that seemed to peep at him from beneath stray wings of paper.

It was almost striking One.

Alf would be home soon. For all the loneliness he had endured throughout the day, the thought of his brother returning for home to roost and spill his tales of the night’s work. This intimate and ancient tradition existing between storyteller and audience often thawed him. It made him feel as though belonged.

This madness, this flapping eruption continued through the rest of the night, along with the bitter swill of gin, which he took between outbursts at the typewriter. Words formed and became unformed under the stamping of his heavy hand, before the exertion drained him into a comatose sleep.

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