By Sophie Green
‘She pleaded with him not to go home, but he insisted. As soon as his foot touched the ground, all the years that had passed fell on him at once, and he became an old man. Everyone he had known was long dead.’
(From ‘The Little People’ by Neil Philip)
The bottom of the garden was out of bounds. Even the kids didn’t play past the lime trees, where the ivy started to thicken and coil and the mushrooms sprouted like small white fists. No one would have gone down there at all if it wasn’t for the howling, the unearthly frantic wailing which spiralled out into the darkness.
In that neighbourhood cries heard at night were usually ignored, but the people who lived in the flats said these didn’t even sound human. Everyone on Lime Walk turned down their televisions and listened, transfixed, waiting for the sound to stop.
The sound travelled down the deserted road like a wraith, bouncing off the sheet metal that boarded up the large windows, whistling up the chimneys and blowing out of the empty fireplaces.
When the police arrived the figures at the windows overlooking the garden closed their curtains and turned their lights back on. The police took one look at the old man and called Social Services. They sent him straight here.
When I arrived for the morning shift everyone was talking about it. From the staffroom to the locker room, while I was changing into my work clothes, using the bathroom, reading the handover notes. Everyone was talking about it except him. He wasn’t talking at all.
They brought him in just before midnight. They said his clothes were hanging off him like old rags. His hair was down to his knees and a stringy grey beard reached his belly button. His finger and toenails curled like rams horns into hard yellow spirals. After the night shift hosed him down they cut his hair back and clipped off his nails, so I don’t know if that part was true.
They said the only thing he had on him was a small blanket of blue flannelette. He was clutching it when they found him and he wouldn’t let it go for anything. Someone tried to take it off him and he started screaming again so they let him keep it. I know that bit’s true because he was still holding it the first time I saw him.
He was in bed curled up in a ball and shivering. Most of his head was buried under the bedclothes but I could see a tuft of silky grey hair, sticking uplike tail feathers and the shell-like curve of one of his huge pink ears. A corner of the blue blanket was poking out from between the sheets. I asked him if he wanted anything to eat but he didn’t reply.
On the second day the social workers came. The old man sat in a high wing-backed chair with his back to them. A beige dressing gown covered the worst of an ill-fitting pair of yellow and burgundy pyjamas. His hair had been cut properly, short back and sides, plastered down on top but sticking up around his crown like he’d been sleeping on it. A bulbous nose overshadowed hiss little chin. Grey frosted hairs curled off his brow, almost touching his eye lashes, thin white strands wound out of his ears and from his nostrils.
He still had his own teeth, they looked large and square in his mouth, perfectly milk-coloured. His skin was pink and soft-looking. No age spots, no scars. I remember thinking, if an old man could be grown from scratch in a Petri dish he would have looked like that.
He called himself Sheridan Mull, and gave his address as the house onLime Walk, where they found him.
The Social worker asked,
‘Do you have any children?’
Mull sniggered and sank his head into the neck of his borrowed pyjamas.
‘You’re not married?’
He shook his head, blushing, his dark eyes rested on something just beyond the window. He asked them to bring his mother.
The doctor came in to check on him afterwards, and Mull asked her thesame thing. The doctor said she would try and ordered a psychiatric evaluation. She asked him if he was worried about anything. He held out his hands to her, and turned them over. He looked terrified.
He wouldn’t drink tea so I brought him a glass of milk at bedtime. He asked me if he could go home.
‘No one knows where you live.’
‘I told them where.’
I don’t know what drugs they were giving him but when he turned to look at me I saw that his pupils were huge and dark, they swam with an inky blue cloud that spread out across the iris.
‘They don’t know you there. No one has heard of a Sheridan Mull.’
‘I’m Sheridan.’ He started crying.
He asked me to find his mother.
‘She knows me.’
I told him his mother was dead.
Mull looked at me, his eyes wide. He started sobbing. Deflating with each breath he seemed to melt before me, sinking into his hollow chest. He reached for the stinky old blanket he came in with and then he put it over his head. He didn’t speak to me for a couple of days after that.
Mull had nothing of his own, not even a real name, nothing except the blue rag. I asked if he wore glasses, he didn’t know, so I gave him some. I brought him some clothes; there are always clothes at the nursing home - clothes no one will miss. I dressed him; he sat on the edge of his bed, in his vest and pants, shoulders sagging. I brushed his hair and gave him some breakfast.
On the fourth day I gave him a shave. Mull kept scratching at his beard anxiously. I trimmed it with the electric razor while he squirmed about in the chair‘
Don’t you want to look smart? For when your family comes to see you.’
‘I don’t know. Whoever they can find.
’When I’d finished he touched his face cautiously.
I held a mirror up. When he saw himself he laughed, when the man in the mirror laughed back at him his face changed, clouded over. He sat lookingat himself as one might look at a stranger, touching his chin, his large ears and nose with his soft pink hands trembling as they moved over his face pushing at it.
He was sick all down his pullover. He squashed the blue rag into his eye sockets as though he was trying to rub away what he’d seen. Then he started crying again.
No, not crying, wailing, sobbing, his face was red and wet with tears.
I left him to calm down for a couple of hours and when I came back he’d gone quiet again so I put the TV on to absorb some of the silence out of the room.
Later that night I was putting Vernon, one of the old men, to bed. He wouldn’t lie flat, kept trying to prop himself up on his elbows. He put out a hand and tugged at my sleeve.
‘I remember Sheridan Mull,’ he said, nodding sagely.
‘You know him?’ I nod towards the unseen room further up the corridor.
‘Not him. I remember the boy, Sheridan Mull, back in the old days.’ His breath was staccato, heaving between sentences. ‘My mother used to clean for the family. They had some money.
’We struggle silently as I try to tuck him in, pinning him down with the blanket as he tries to sit up, his watery blue eyes sparking with un-imparted gossip.
‘When he went missing it was in the papers. A lot of fuss there was about it, at the time. We weren’t allowed to play outside; they thought he’d been snatched.’ Vernon wheezed gleefully at me, pulling me closer. ‘He came back a few days later, sickly-looking, but not a scratch on him.’
He wriggled his false teeth free and let them fall into my hand and I dropped them into the plastic tub of slimy water that sat on his bedside table. Iunhooked his fingers from my arm and tucked his hand back under the coversbut it shot out again, snake-like, and seized my wrist. He gripped me shakily, his hairless eyebrows twitching as he puckered his small toothless mouth.
‘It’s not him,’ he whispered. ‘That boy died.’
I found a picture of the boy, Sheridan Mull, in a digital newspaper archive.
‘Look what I’ve got.’
He snatched the print-out and stared at it the picture intently, running his index finger over the faces of the family group. A mother sitting on a wooden backed settee; her hair pinned up over her high collar. She was holding a baby on her knee; its face blurred where it had moved as the picturewas taken. Beside them stood her eldest son and in front of him on a small foot stool sat Sheridan, one hand hidden behind his back concealing the blanket that hung down, its tip just visible between the stool legs. Both boys wore lace collars and shorts, white socks and sandals. The whole family was looking slightly off camera, watching for someone.
Beneath it said, five year old Sheridan Mull, pictured here seated.
‘BOY OF FIVE MISSING.’ He read aloud slowly, drawing out every word uncertainly. ‘That’s me.’
‘No,’ I told him, as I wrestled the shirt over his head, his elbows got all bent up and one caught in the armhole, ‘it’s not.’
He ignored me, giving the picture an approving nod. ‘That’s me.’
I shook my head at him and pulled the pyjama shirt on over his vest. ‘No, it isn’t.’
A buzzer was going off down the hall. I held up a finger to my lips and waited quietly for someone else to go. I heard them outside, looking for me, asking each other where I was. Then finally someone else went.
‘That boy died,’ I told him.
‘No, I never died. I came back.
’The buzzer rang again.
Mull’s bottom lip quivered and he wiped his eyes and nose along the arm of his thin pyjamas.
The next day I wheeled Mull into the lounge and left him in the semi circle of chairs that surrounded the TV. I noticed him later, watching the other old folk fearfully out of the corners of his eyes, as if they might creep up on him if he turned his back.
He smiled at a little kid, somebody’s great-grandchild, who was playing with a toy car on the carpet. The kid brought it over to him and Mull accepted it shyly. He spun its wheels and opened and closed the little hinged doors. Then the dad came over shooed the child away, he took the car off Mull without saying anything and Mull sunk further down in his chair his face blotchy-red.
I got him a toy truck from lost property. He smiled at me for the first time and hid it in the pocket of his dressing gown with the soft blue rag.
As I left the nursing home that afternoon I saw him at his bedroom window, looking out over the patchwork metal roofs of the car park. I watched him in my rear view mirror as I pulled away, until his face was no more than a pale pin-prick behind the dark glass.
On the fifth morning when I went in to see him he had already begun getting himself dressed. He was carefully pulling on a clean vest. His body seemed thinner than before, domed bones were poking out of his wrists and ankles, his shoulder blades stuck out like wing stumps.
The Social workers were back, trying to get him to fill in forms.
‘Can you remember where home is yet?’ They asked him
He began reciting the address, on Lime Walk. They sighed.
‘They don’t know you there.’
Mull stuck out his lip. He took the pen and the form they held out to him.
‘Mr Mull, why don’t you tell us where you’ve been staying.’
‘They said not to tell.’
I went to say goodbye at two but he wasn’t in his room. I sat in my car, head aching, rubbing my eyes. The boiled kidney smell of the home clung to my clothes and skin.
Hands thumping at the window nearly gave me a heart attack. Before I knew what was happening Mull had the rear door open and was clambering into the back seat. I looked at him through the rear view mirror, his little tufty pink head, huge ears and nose; he looked like a goblin, a fairy tale man.
‘Home please,’ he said, staring blankly out of the window.
‘This is your home now. Get out of the car.’
‘I want to go home,’
‘I’m not allowed to take you out of here.’
‘Please. Just for one minute. One last time.’ He thread a sinewy arm clad in thin, saggy skin through the inside door handle and held on with a vice-like grip. ‘Please.’
‘Ok.’ I said, ‘We’ll go there, to look at it. Then we’re coming straight back.’
Mull nodded eagerly.
‘Put your belt on.’ He ignores me and sits fidgeting, his eyes burning hopeful holes in the windscreen.
As we turn on to Lime Walk Mull fidgets round in his seat, turning to look back down the road. He thinks I’ve gone the wrong way and shakes his head disapprovingly to himself.
I tell him, ‘It probably looks different to how you remember it.’
Mull purses his lips.
Lime Walk, so named for the row of sturdy naked trees that lined the roadside, had long since fallen from grace. The once grand three-story town houses were lifted from street level by steep hills of steps that bridged the damp chasms leading down to the cellars and coal stores and rose to the large front solid doors The houses were old, derelict, most had been divided into flats, some of them were squats.
We pulled up outside number 42. I kept the engine running as Mull looked over his old house; the house he thought was his, the one they found him at.
A few kids were arranged on the stone steps, passing a cigarette between them.
‘Do you remember the old guy they found at the bottom of the garden here?’ I asked.
They looked back at me, tight lipped, faces pale and stretched-looking, one of them shrugged.
‘It’s okay. He’s fine, he’s in the car.’ I nodded back to the car - which was empty. I scanned the street and saw the hem of Mull’s dressing gown disappear around the corner of the house. By the time I got there the iron gateat the back was still juddering on its hinges. I pushed it open and crept through into the garden.
A stained mattress was propped up against the side wall, its springs jutting out from a jagged hole in the cover; long tufted grass grew up through discarded bikes and prams and the black-grey ash remains of fires spotted what was once the lawn, now yellowed and strewn with brown leaves from thetall trees that overshadowed it.
At the far end the grass disappeared into a sea of nettles and brambles. I saw Mull wading through them and into the dark wilderness at the back of the garden.
‘Mull!’ I hissed. ‘Get back here.’
I glanced up at the house, at the empty windows which overlooked the garden.
‘Come back.’ I called, stamping down the weeds, trudging a path I could follow Mull by.
The bottom of the garden was forbidding, dank and mouldy-smelling, choked by a tangle of ivy and slimy dead branches. Mull had disappeared intoits depths. I thought he was lost and then I heard him, panting and gibbering to himself.
‘Mull?’ He didn’t answer. I crouched down, peering through the grim network of vegetation and caught sight of his dressing gown. He was kneelingon the floor amongst a mush of brown trampled mushrooms, unearthing deathly white roots as he tore his way into the black earth.
I watched him for a moment, frantically digging away. Back at the house there were faces appearing at the windows.
‘Come out of there!’ My voice sounded unnaturally loud and Mull looked up at me suddenly fear stricken, then he tumbled face first into the earth.
Swearing, I pushed and pulled my way through the vegetation, Mull was kneeling beside his hole, his head buried in the dirt and I could hear a muffled sobbing. I took him by his tiny shoulders and pulled him back. He resisted me at first, but even as a dead weight he was very light. I shepherded him quickly across the lawn, hiding him as best as I could beneath his dressing gown. Hiding his face which was covered in the dark soil; in his eyesand between his teeth, and his fingers which were black from digging, the nails snagged and bloody.
We sat in the car, Mull was filthy. I shook my head at him but he just looked out of the window, not saying anything. Tears trickling through the dirt on his miserable cheeks.
‘Did you bury something there?’ I ask‘It’s gone,’ he sobbed. ‘It’s gone.’
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
He went quiet for a moment then, in a small voice, he said,
‘I just want to go back.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘You’re going.’
Washed, dried and dressed in his pyjamas Mull crept down under his covers, totally submerged in a sulk, tears beading the lower rims of his eyes; rivulets of slime slithered from his nose and hung off his chin in strings. He blinked at me, his mouth drooping.
‘I don’t want to be here,’ he said
‘No one wants to be here,’ I told him.
He tucked his bony, bald knees up to his chest and grizzled until he fell asleep.
After that day old age began to smother Sheridan Mull. The dark glint inhis eyes faded behind a rheumy mist. His limbs stiffened, the joints swollen. His head dropped until he was breathing into his own collar,
I fed him sickly-smelling squash through a straw and yoghurts that he didn’t even try and eat. I had to put the straw in his mouth and spoon feed himlike a baby.
On the last night I went in to see him he was tucked up, swaddled in sheets, with only his head poking out. His chest bubbled and his lips puffed out with every shallow breath. I reached behind him to push another pillow under his head and my hand brushed against some paper, wedged between the pillow and the sheet. I pulled out child’s drawing, a family group drawn in pen. It was smudged and softly wrinkled as if it had been held in damp hands.
Three small boys were stood in a line beside the mother figure. Each had a round potato head which sprouted thin straight legs ending in black bauble shoes. A baby floated ethereally, its body was long and dress-like. The family had huge round eyes and thin crescent mouths, all except for the smallest boy who stood slightly apart. His eyes had been filled in by the pen which had carved a spiral dent in the paper so that they appeared hollow and empty; his mouth was a single straight line.
‘Is this you?’ I held the picture up.
Mull didn’t move, his eyelids barely opened, the watery-grey jelly quivered behind them. Another breath and his chest rattled ominously. I put his blue blanket under his thin, knobbly fingers.
From somewhere down the hall a buzzer sounded. I waited for the sound of the next breath but the wheezing had stopped. I folded up the pictureand put it in my pocket and I waited for someone to come.