We have been working for less than an hour when Jake sets light to the kitchen blind. It’s some tattered, synthetic thing. I smell its toxic beige-ness and I know it is him. He’s still in the kitchen when I get there, mesmerised by the flames, poisoning his own lungs. I open cupboard doors and drag out saucepans. We haven’t trashed the plumbing yet so there’s water in the tap to fill them. I slosh half the pan on the burning blind and the other half in Jake’s face.
‘It’s the quickest way to do what you want,’ he scowls. ‘Why are we fucking around? Let’s just burn this shit down.’
This shows how little Jake knows what I want. I would knuckle his head, but violence isn’t my thing. ‘Anyone can set a house on fire.’
He scowls again, which means he doesn’t understand well enough to argue with me. He resists passively, not in any grand sense, but by making me set him to task again. I find the hammer on the draining board, put it back in his hand, and point to the tiled splashback. Old tiles. Mould in the grout. I’ve found it doesn’t matter, though. Old, new, clean or not. It doesn’t matter to me.
I return to the bedroom. They’ve all been following the plan, working from the top down. To destroy something, it’s necessary to ask what its purpose is. So the white paintwork on the ceiling is red with aerosol gashes. The glass light shade is reduced to jagged fragments, the bulb socket hammered out of shape. Later we will cut the wires. The red spray spills down the walls, my own work. I made it loop and sweep and point, to look something like words, so that he will waste time looking for a message in it. A reason. But he will find nothing to console him. Nothing to incriminate me.
I take a scalpel to the curtains while they’re still hanging, and shred them into uneven strips. They are ugly, but like the dirty tiles, it makes no difference. With a hammer and chisel, I go at the plaster where the brackets hold the rail to the wall, until its ends clatter down in a small rain of dust. Now I sit on the bed to unpick all the fiddly, motherfucking curtain hooks, one by one. It’s the only way to make sure it’s done as it should be. There are times when thorough destruction requires delicate attention. While I work, I listen to the noises coming from other rooms and try to guess their source. Glass breaking. Upholstery tearing. Carpet fibres snapping. There’s dark laughter, too, a shout now and then, and brutal, busy feet. Loud accidents. The others are orgiastic, but that gets it done. I’m the one who pays attention. I have the vision.
If the devil’s in the details, then I’m the devil.
Each curtain hook meets its fate between the hammer and the concrete of the back step. The rail itself is flimsy. I bend it under my boot in three places, twist it until the hollow metal puckers and splits.
On my way back to the bedroom, I check on Jake. He’s finished with the tiles, or at least he thinks he has; there are four he’s missed. When I have smashed them with my own hammer I see that he is watching me. He does not say anything; it’s all in his face. But I don’t care what his face says, as long as I don’t have to listen to him speak.
When I have left the room I hear him kicking in the glass door of the oven, grunting some nameless curse. No control. A pinhole of light, and he’s reckless. Over winter he gets lean and hungry, like a dog. Then it takes one blast of the incurable sun and whatever ticks over in an animal’s brain, telling them to wake up, start eating, start fucking, ticks over in Jake’s. A pinhole of light, and he’s howling at the moon. It’s what makes him want to be here, gives him the energy for it, but it makes him a liability, too.
The bedroom’s at the front of the house. Through the naked window I can see Ashling at the end of the drive. She has something in her hands, something she is not meant to have. I can tell it is something forbidden from the way she bends her neck over it, hands close to her face, a squirrel with a nut.
I start down the drive towards the small, magpie figure. She sees me coming all right. I see her think about whether to hide the treasure. She’s always been smarter than her father. It only takes her a few seconds to consider the likely reasons for my march all the way down that long, rutted drive. And when I reach her, she’s still holding it. Hedging her bets, perhaps.
She stops toeing her football when I reach her. Looks at me out of a dusty face. Lets her dimples surface without properly smiling. She’s a master.
‘What’ve you got there?’
She knows it’s over – hands it to me straight away. It’s an iPod, heavy and outdated, probably why his lot didn’t take it on holiday. All the same.
‘Did you get this inside?’
Ashling tips herself against the mailbox and looks at the road. Kicks the dirt.
‘I told you, we’re not stealing anything today.’ She takes advantage of the fact it’s not a question, and doesn’t answer. ‘Any traffic?’
‘Nuh.’ She’s bouncing, squatting, lunging, doing that strange dance that hyper kids can’t help doing in place of standing still.
‘All right. Well.’ I turn towards the house, and when I glance back after a few metres, she’s just a child again, playing on a country road with a ball; our decoy, our lookout.
If anything in the house survives today, or disappears, we have failed. We cannot mix the message. But it will only be me who feels the failure. The burden of vision. The others just want to finish here, and sleep. Perhaps I shouldn’t have kept them up all night. I did it to dull them, make them grateful for stupid things. As for me: I’m not pathological. A good night’s sleep makes me vulnerable to compassion.
On my way past the kitchen, I lean in and toss the iPod onto the bench. ‘Kill that too, will you? Ashling tried to nick it.’
Jake’s on his knees, gouging at the lino with a knife. He ignores me. He’s been at the cupboard doors with an axe, left a hole in each one, but the handles are still intact.
‘And you need to unscrew those. Take them outside, and use the cutter.’
He flings down his knife and snatches the iPod from the bench. Glares at me to go. I go, a smile on my lips. At least when Jake’s angry he works faster.
Outside the kitchen, I hear a howl, and tortured swearing. ‘Fuck! Oh fuck!’ Then Sharon’s pounding past me down the hall, grasping one hand with the other as though that’s the only thing keeping her intact. Hands glossy with blood. The blood is splashing to the floor.
I follow Sharon outside. What makes injured animals run for open air like this? The speed of blood. It’s faster than the brain. Now the blood’s all over the hall, the back step, the yard. She should have stayed put. She’s stopped now, too late, kneeling on the lawn. She only had one idea, to get outside, and now she’s here, but her hand is still erupting blood, and all she can do is stare. I take off my t-shirt and squat down, wrap it tight around the cut. There’s so much blood I can’t see how bad the cut is, but Sharon’s pale and shaky. She looks at me as though I have just saved her life.
This is what I mean by stupid gratitude; she thinks I am being heroic, sacrificing the very shirt off my back for her welfare, but I am thinking about the blood, and how to stop it, about those vivid droplets in the hall holding the DNA that could lead the police to her, and then to me. Glossy red stepping stones. I have other shirts.
‘Frigging picture frames,’ says Sharon. She’s gathered herself.
‘Ok,’ I say. ‘Get some water. The shirt will have to do til we leave. Where are the picture frames?’
‘Lounge.’ She winces.
In the kitchen, I tell Jake that I need his shirt. I need something that doesn’t belong here to clean up the blood on the floor. Something we can take with us.
Jake looks incredulous, but with me standing there shirtless it’s harder for him to refuse. The day’s warming, anyway, and demolition is sweaty work.
Back in the yard, I lead Sharon to the outdoor tap. I start with her unbound hand. I’m using bleach, but she’ll just have to live with it. The soles of her shoes are next, where she ran through her own trail of blood. I send her back inside via the front door, tell her to keep everyone out of the hall. When I’ve mopped up in there, I follow the red drops through the lounge to the shards of picture glass. There’s a mess of blood and glass on the floor. I stuff Jake’s bloody shirt in my pocket, find a bucket in the laundry, collect the fragments, and wash them in bleach and water. I tip away the water and tip the glass fragments back onto the floor where I found them. I wash out the bucket, and my hands, and the bleach bottle, with more bleach. Then I stomp on the bucket on the tiled laundry floor until it cracks and mangles. Cheap piece of shit.
I resist the urge to weigh the hammer in my hand, and enter one of the children’s rooms.
We’ve lost time. Sharon’s plodding now, she’s lost her sting. I sit her down with a box of photos and instruct her to tear each and every one in half. He will come home tomorrow; we have to finish today what we came here to do, and then we can never come back. We must finish before dark. The day lengthens and the others are tiring. But Jake seems to work with ever greater intensity, as though he has found some new purpose in our task that he failed to see before. Since Sharon’s mishap, he has even stopped wasting his energy on rancour towards me, and pours it instead into whatever labour I suggest. Perhaps he, too, mistook my fastidiousness for heroics. It galls me to admit it, but if I am triumphant at the day’s end, it’s Jake I will have to thank.
The power and the water are last on the list. You need specialist knowledge to wreck those systems, and here is the reason I’ve stuck with Jake. While he gets started, I pick my way from room to room, checking for anything left whole. What was his life crunches under my feet, and the entirety of its destruction lifts me in a helium rush. The sun is going down, but I am floating – we are floating, Jake and I, our drained bodies below us, masked by shrouds of dust.
Rag-tag, we draw home like warm, brown shadows, on lilting feet. Our uneven silhouette complements the ghost trees shining overhead, as long as we walk together. I am taking everyone to where I can give them sleep. I gave him a gift, too, though he is unlikely to appreciate it: I have made him extraordinary. I have re-written his story.
I lead the group and Jake follows at the rear. It’s not a sign of his lowly status but of his new elevation. Jake, my shadow-visionary. Together we enfold the others, herd them to safety. If they are safe, then we are safe. It is one reason I am floating a few centimetres above the ground rather than walking. The other is perfection. Perfection is not a matter of opinion, or degree. Today, in a place far behind us now, a place we will never see again, I created it.
The small figure darts in front of me, a thread unravelled from our bundle. It moves its legs quickly to keep ahead; as I focus on it, my feet drift down to touch the ground. It is Ashling. I relax – it’s to be expected; she is attached to adults by a long, invisible, ever-elastic band. She likes to show that she can leave, but she won’t go far.
She is carrying a light. What is it? Hard to make out, as she bobs and scurries along with her back to me. It is not a torch. It is a square of light. In any case, she is not using it to light her way, but peering into it, like an oracle.
When I realise what she is holding, I break into a run. But even as my feet fall, my mind cries it’s too late, it’s too late.
Ashling runs clear of my grasp and loops back around the group, coming to a stop at Jake’s side. Everyone stops, in time, letting their feet rest first and then looking around them for a reason. Jake and Ashling look at me. Jake nuzzles the girl’s hair, his hide striped with dirt and moonlight. She lets her teeth show, without properly smiling.