Monday, August 24, 2009

The Other Fourth Wall

Something flew past the taller of the room’s two windows, sending a swift black pulse across the bands of light that blanketed the space below. At either end of a chipped and threadbare wooden cot, two men lay tightly curled, arms wrapped around their knees, quotation marks with nothing to say. The sudden shift in light as, what was most likely, a bird had disturbed the early morning’s grudging sunlight through the bars of the high window, caused one of the men to raise himself from his half slumber.

He rolled softly off the bed, not wishing to disturb his companion, and stretched almost to his full height, but barely able to raise his head much above downcast. He walked slowly and carefully across the damp greasy floor, one leg dragging stiffly, to the second low window, idly scratching through thin brown fabric at his hollow chest and empty belly. On reaching the lower window, he pushed one hand past the bars and inched it alongside the coarse, dried-blood coloured bricks that had blocked out the view for many years. When he had almost three quarters of his forearm squeezed between bars and brick, he was able to wrap his fist around the third bar along, and with his good leg planted against the wall allow himself to hang, freely.

He hung there for less than a minute. eyes closed, feeling his shoulders, neck, and upper back loosen, before letting slip a low moan that startled him from his reverie. Hurriedly, he pulled himself upright, untangled his arm, and turning, saw that his companion was awake. A big, squat creature with barrel chest, and a cannonball head, his room-mate aimed an angry, disgruntled look at the smaller man. His broad jaw worked behind closed lips, loose skinned jowls flapping slightly, as though he was thoroughly masticating whatever curt phrase he was about to throw at the fool who had woken him.

The smaller man, turned back to the window, his left hand pushing through his thinning nest of ginger hair, his right arm raised to rest upon the narrow sill before the dewy bars. He gazed at the bricks for just a moment. “Devilish warm, Lady Hottersmith, what?” he said, his breath misting the air. He was motionless, the silence dragging for several seconds.

“My physician demands that we come here. He insists it’s good for me, as though he knows what he’s talking about.” The big man’s voice was high and reedy, but loud and with a rough rumble he could not quite disguise. “I would much prefer to winter in Brighton. We keep a cottage there, little more than a rabbit hutch. There’s barely room for me, several acquaintances and fewer than a dozen staff. And my niece, of course.”

The small, red-haired, man turned and looked at his large companion. He cocked his head slightly. “Ah, and how is your beautiful young niece this afternoon?”

“I’ll thank you not to take an interest in my niece, Branham! It’s bad enough that the fool girl is chasing around after that miserable painter.” The big man swung his legs off the bed, his abnormally short legs just touching the floor, his feet wrapped in layer after layer of dirty gray bandages. “What sort of man seeks to make a living as a painter? A living? Ridiculous.”

“A living appears to be sufficient for many men, Lady Hottersmith.”

“Geese and goats make a living, Lord Branham. The foolish child should allow that a man of breeding and substance takes a fancy to her, not some pauper that has to make a living. Tell me, do you know this painter? His name is-”

A loud clang, followed by a screeching metallic skirl came from beyond the great green door that bulwarked the room. The ginger-haired man bee-lined for the door, with a shuffling, lop-sided gait, and pressed his head against the cold painted steel. After a moment, he lifted his head away and pressed both hands against the door, but it would not budge. Again, he pressed the side of his face against the metal, listening intently. The big man started to speak but the smaller shushed him to silence with frantic waving of his hand, not even turning to look. The small man held himself there for several minutes, until his ear was numb, then with a slight shake of his head and a final half-hearted test of the doors obstinacy, he turned back in to the room.

He could see his big companion’s eyes screwed up and his jaw clamped. Both his meaty fists were buried in the tattered mattress on which he sat, and his powerful upper body quivered with barely restrained rage.

"Branham, Lady Hottersmith, my ears are positively aflame." a third voice drifted from the shadowed corner of the cell, and the two men stiffened convulsively.

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