By Dominic Conneely Hughes
Jack was beginning to dream about his father again. The dreams drifted over from across the street where his father’s bookshop, which was now his, had been for sixty years. His father never appeared in a solid form that could be reached out to and touched. Instead, every night, he sat on the edge of the prism through which Jack’s dreams would bleed through, holding his hand out, and tracing his youthful fingertips through the light. In his dreams, his father was always a young man, though Jack never knew him as one. At the age when he had opened his bookshop. The beginning of a notable life.
Jack’s mornings were usually soothed by the sounds of his children and the chit-chat from the radio, but today they did not help. He lay in bed, tired from his night’s sleep, until he got up and got dressed, and walked across the street to open up.
It was a two-storey red brick, lovingly kept despite its unpainted frontage, with two waist-to-head-high windows sitting on either side of the door. Inside it had large and long oak shelves that Jack had wormed between as a child, without siblings, chased by the dragons that breathed fire in his books. He liked to be scared when he read, but his father had one rule. Before bed, Jack must read good stories. Stories were the front door to how you lived at night and if we were encouraged to keep a tidy porch, then we should want to hear tales of honourable people.
Quickly, Jack had exhausted everything his father could find. He understood that he needed to supply stories to his son at a rate faster than they could come off the printing press. So, in the hours sat behind the counter, Jack’s father would write. From that shop came the books that consumed first Jack’s life, then those of his friends. Soon people would come into the shop not for the works in the window but for what he had behind the counter. By the time Jack had grown up, his father was the most famous writer as far as their language was spoken.
That morning, now a grown man, Jack turned on all the lights and undid all the locks. He deposited a healthy number of coins and notes into the till so that if someone needed the correct change he could supply it. He made himself a tea and settled onto the stool behind the counter where his father had sat, and read the same few lines that he had read every morning since the day after his father’s funeral. The day Jack had taken over as the bookshop’s bookseller.
They were the opening lines of Steeple Jack & Friends. The first book his father ever wrote for him.
Steeple Jack picked up his tool bag and walked out through his front door. He waved goodbye to his family and set out for the day, his belly full of breakfast. On his way to his first job, he passed Milkman Mike.
Milkman Mike kindly offered him a pint of milk as a thank-you for the work Steeple Jack had done the week before.
"You can keep the milk," said Steeple Jack, "that’s just what neighbours do".
If there were a bell, it would have rung. Instead, Jack had inherited his father’s skill and could feel the air move in that old shop as the door opened and closed. There were two sets of footsteps, but instead of the usual cobbled shoes on wooden boards, they were muffled, like the wearers didn’t want you to know they were coming.
Two tall figures passed the last shelf and appeared before Jack sat on his stool. A man and a woman, with no difference in how they were dressed. Dressed unlike anyone Jack had ever seen before. Their clothes were not of a soft fabric and natural materials like leather were absent from their shoes and belts. What they wore was shiny, repelling rain and dirt and light itself.
Jack scratched at the spot above his knee, feeling his nails as they scraped through the cotton.
"Good morning", said Jack, in the tone he used for everyone every day.
The couple’s expressions never changed as they considered the question, breaking down its components and evaluating the worth of each syllable. Their reply was strained but mundane in content.
"Good morning", they uttered in unison.
The smiles were like their clothes, alien to Jack and hiding something.
Steeple Jack took his hammer from his tool bag and used it to bang the nail through the soft wooden outer beam. He laid the final strip of shingle tiles to Mrs Uphill’s roof. With his back foot resting on the support above the gutter and his front foot leaning forward onto the tiles above, he straightened his back and took in the view.
All of the town lay below him. Steeple Jack could even trace the smoke from chimney stacks belonging to the people he knew and the roofs he had worked on.
That view was the reason why he did what he did for a living. Why he thought himself the luckiest man in the world.
Jack locked the door of the bookshop behind him. In one of those moments when the body is no longer a vessel for the mind, he turned not towards his house, but away. Down the street. His feet carrying his thoughts.
An offer to buy the bookshop, and his father’s books with it, had been made on the spot. In their sales pitch the two figures had used terms like "intellectual property" and "franchise". Jack had screwed his face up at the mention of an "expanded universe”.
There was no clue as to Jack’s role in any of this. Money was on the table. A lot of money.
The beginnings of an infernal debate formed inside Jack, wandering the cobbled lanes that he had stampeded through as a youth. On either side of him were proud reddish brown tenement houses, unimpressive in size. Each one belonged to a family he knew, the living rooms the same but the families themselves different.
Jack drew his eyes up the houses and towards the pinkish sky that had begun to bloom. Taking in the line that separated each house from the heavens, he saw chimney stacks like fingers reaching towards the clouds, the way lovers reach for lovers. But between each chimney, there was a new mark on that dividing line. Sharp jutting spires with metal twigs that protruded from them. Every house had one. Rather than pointing up to the sky like a chimney, instead, these dug in. Whatever they collected was piped into each house. The excess, the bad bits. Once Jack saw one he saw two. And three. Four. Five. Once one metal spire had been seen you could hardly not see them all and suddenly every home in his town was being broken into from above. The sky's detritus plummeted to earth and administered.
Jack stopped, ladened by the heavy tome in his gut. Deciding that he had walked far enough, he turned on his heels and made his way home. His eyes on the ground. His back to the sky.
Steeple Jack was walking down Diamond Street, when out of nowhere a ball flew past his head.
He turned and saw a sheepish, guilty-looking boy standing in the middle of the street. Steeple Jack tried oh so hard to put on his sternest face and stare down at the boy.
"Sorry Mr Jack", whispered the boy.
After just a moment, the look on Steeple Jack’s face fell and he burst into laughter.
"That’s alright, Little Petey."
Steeple Jack hooked his foot around the ball and kicked it down the street for Little Petey to chase. The boy ran after it, whilst Steeple Jack strode off in the other direction, on his way to the second job of the day. The church steeple had been badly hit by a storm last week, and he knew he couldn’t put off fixing it any longer.
Sounds of familial warmth struck him as soon as he walked through the door. The outside world had darkened alongside his mood, but inside orange light filled his carpeted hallway. He could hear his children in the living room, and in the kitchen, his wife was whistling. She stopped as he walked in.
The look on his face gave everything away, as the events of the day were peeled from him unobstructed.
“I think it sounds like a great idea”, she urged. “Every night I can feel you dreaming of what you’re going to do the next morning. You stare at the bookshop with your eyes closed.”
“And what will we do with our time? For money?”
Jack spoke to her but he was really asking the vegetables he was chopping. The knife a tool for extracting answers.
“With what they’d pay for it? We can survive. And then we'll find something else. Is it really the money you’re worried about?”
Jack stopped chopping to physically comprehend the question, but in his mind he knew the answer. It wasn’t about the money. The dark path that he had seen before him on his walk had followed him into his brightly lit kitchen. The comfort of a known and steady existence managing what his father had bestowed upon him had given way a long time ago. To stay would be to maintain that adrift feeling. To sell was a radical shift, but to what?
Within the fog of those two options, there was one more feeling. That regardless of selling or not, a change was occurring in his world. It was a place unlike the one that had raised him, a village become a town morphed into a city, and he didn’t know what would come next. He didn’t know where his father’s bookshop, and his father's books, came into it, but he understood that nothing could survive unscathed in this new world.
“Are you alright?”
Folding her hands away, her thin silver bracelet caught the light and blinded him.
Jack’s eyes adjusted, then followed to where she was looking. His hand that had been holding the knife was now clutching at his trouser leg, the material scrunched up and balled in his fist.
“It’s just the money. That’s all I’m worried about.”
Jack turned and left the room before the lie in his heart could run through his veins and become the skin wearing his expression. The sounds of his children’s voices coming from the living room pulled him towards the door. Their beautiful ignorance, asking probing questions that might help him figure out what he ought to do, was the salve he sought. Opening the door, however, a strange feeling crept upon him, and by the time it was fully open and his children had turned, Jack was so terrified that his heartbeat made the doorknob in his sweaty palm throb.
The room hadn’t changed a bit since Jack was a boy. The trimmed taupe carpet stopped at the hallway’s floorboards, and the wallpaper’s dull floral pattern evoked little. Against one wall was a long bookshelf, of course, facing down onto a brown fabric settee and a high-backed armchair with a leather cover. It had been lovingly restored by Jack's father, but Jack himself could never get quite comfortable in it. In the corner behind the door was a glass drinks cabinet but opposite that, and in full view of Jack when he walked in, was the corner table that held the radio. Passed down through the generations, it was his father's guilty pleasure. A technological fire that the family would sit around listening to news of war in some faraway land. Or sometimes a tale told from a book in the voice of someone proud and sensitive. That night, when Jack opened the door, his children were sitting on the carpet, more still than any child he had ever seen. Their eyes focused on the spot above the table where the radio normally stood. But instead of a static obelisk, there was now a box, that spat life in flittering frames. Before where Jack's imagination filled in the blanks and created a world of infinite possibilities as catalysed by just a few words, now there were walls. Within those walls were lines and curves. The space between them filled with white and black, creating shapes that seared into his mind and meant the words from the radio which once evoked, now depicted.
Tearing his eyes from the television, Jack looked at his children, looking up at him. In those once beautiful brown eyes, there were now four dark rectangular shapes, adding to the one in the corner of his living room. This quintet of cages overwhelmed Jack, and he crumbled to the floor in a heap of enveloping darkness.
At the top of the tower, Steeple Jack put down his tool bag and had that sip of water that he had been thinking about for 350 steps. There was a sliver of blue and white light that was peeking out from behind the clouds. He knew he was about to have a great afternoon.
Once he had set up the rope and anchor, he lowered himself down the side of the tall church tower, stepping one foot at a time. Halfway down, he stopped. Steeple Jack bent his legs and arched his back to bring himself closer to the wall. With one hand, he gripped the rope that was tied around his waist. With the other, he was able to replace the damaged brick in the wall.
Taking a moment, he straightened his legs and looked out across town. At this angle for so long, he felt as if he were standing upright, and it was the rest of the world that was at a strange angle. He could look out there forever, Steeple Jack thought to himself.
Bending his legs again, he felt the slightest give in his waist as he dropped an inch. Then two.
His hand holding the rope tightened. He stopped moving.
The rope went taut.
He bent his legs again to get closer to the wall and the rope slackened, dropping him a few more inches. His breaths went sharper and shorter.
Suddenly standing still was moot and Steeple Jack began to fall not by inches but by feet. Then yards. The rope at his waist was loose and he clawed at the gargoyles and the saints but in their deteriorated state he could only grasp crumbs and air. The ground of the town that he had always been above was now hurtling towards him and all Steeple Jack could do was close his eyes as he was thrown against it at great speed.
Only a few of the reddish brown houses were still there. You could see where neighbours had been considered part of the same dangerous gang and knocked down into identical piles. The few that remained were squeezed at the sides and leered at from above, by glass constructs whose multiple storeys had very few things to say.
Jack peered in the windows as he walked past but he saw nothing. Now everyone kept their curtains drawn. He wanted to judge the people who had stayed, wracking his memory for those he felt most likely, but all the silhouettes he could conjure were sad. Glimpses of people who were old when he was younger. Now they would be older, were they still here, and Jack could not pass sentence on the likely passed.
Turning the corner onto the road that had held his childhood, he saw it. He had seen photos and was expecting it, but the reaction in his bones that had been decided long ago made him turn away. For respite he looked opposite, at the house he had been born in, where his wife had given birth to their children, and he felt a glimmer of warmth. The red in the brick had faded to a dull rosacea, and the few paving slabs that constituted a front path had been hijacked by weeds. But it was still there. Jack’s hand reached down and clutched at the spot above his knee, his trouser’s shiny and tough material meaning that his skin felt no pleasing scrape. He knew he was going to turn around in a few seconds. He intended on enjoying them as best he could.
Jack finally looked at the bookshop. They had kept the door and the two windows, but the red brick around and between those features existed for just a few blocks before it abruptly ended. Around the rest of it a glass cage had been built, allowing the posters, statues, screens, figures, bunting, balloons, and a single bookshelf to be seen across all the myriad floors that it contained. With its singularly ancient entrance, the glass face appeared to have a smile of old teeth.
The teeth were the only part that Jack recognised.
They had gutted the rest. The books had been all they wanted and soon they were sold in every bookshop, in every town. Then they were reimagined and on people’s screens and on the clothes they wore. As part of the food they ate. Jack and his family had moved town but they had been unable to escape it. His children were now excited to read all about Steeple Jack & Friends, something he had been unable to do himself.
Jack walked towards the glass skull containing his father’s memory. His visit was impromptu and he came with no hopes to fulfil, but right there in the middle of the street, he stopped. Where the left eye would have been, the left for Jack, was a large screen showing figures from the series. There was Milkman Mike and Little Petey, trundling down a road like the one Jack stood on. Butcher Ben and Barbara, handing out cuts of meat. The Headmistress was handling a class of unruly children. The Miners and the Diggers were on their way to work and everyone thanked them for working so hard. Bakers and Grocers shared greens and broke bread so that everyone got what they needed. And the Fishmonger gave everyone their little bit of fish for Fridays. Jack watched all of this unfeeling, those characters now a part of his daily life, until from within the crowd walked out an old man, who looked just like you would imagine Jack would look in some years.
He held out his arms and handed out pages. The man made sure everyone in town had something to read, then he looked out of the screen to his son on the other side of the street. Jack tried to turn away but he couldn’t, so he stared back at his father, and in his mind, he was there with him, and he was able to hold him in a way that would last forever.