This piece was written for the Blog Battle challenge with the prompt word of ‘castle’.
The inevitable knock came. He opened the door swiftly, startling the middle-aged farmer in the high-viz jacket planted on the verandah, bearing a six-pack.
He closed the door again, just as swiftly. Mission accomplished. By this evening, the word would be around to not bother with that rude, ungrateful sod at the old Hamilton place out on Gully Rd.
Quinn had moved to the sparsely populated country district in retirement to get away from the city and the myriad forms of day to day violence and indifference that assaulted his senses. He’d inexorably been alienated by everything from cacophonous music in shopping centres, rage-filled drivers, screen-obsessed automatons, steroid-level entitlement and discourse that always seemed to end in abuse.
All he craved was silence and isolation since his wife’s death ended the only worthwhile conversation left in his universe. His modest savings stretched to a small acreage, with reasonable access to a small town that still had basic services. After the purchase of the small, solidly built weatherboard cottage on 12 acres (bugger hectares), he’d calculated that he had enough to last him into decrepitude without needing to entrap himself in the increasingly totalitarian welfare system. He had his castle and his solitude was his keep.
He would write, grow vegetables, chop wood and read until his silence became permanent. He would keep his social interactions to the minimum required to meet the necessities of existence but not meet the social contract to exchange meaningless drivel while he was doing so. No TV and no radio and no newspapers meant that he would be aware of Armageddon when it reached his doorstep.
He withdrew cash for his needs, using his passbook, at the post office. He had no computer and no email address, so most of the world had no idea he existed, let alone how to invade and steal his time and space.
He hoped the postal service would tarry through his remaining years, providing the conduit for his writing to reach the ever-diminishing audience for such anachronistic eccentricities. Yes, he would continue to speak but on his own terms. All mail except utility bills and rate notices would be marked ‘Return to Sender, No Longer At This Address’.
What he hadn’t reckoned on was the nights, when, as Claudius had bid, all of the poisons in the mud would hatch out. He’d tried drowning them in alcohol but they would simply wait until he sobered up in the early hours of the morning. He would wake up talking to whoever had invaded his mental castle, until he could drown again in exhaustion and wait for the light.
Every failing, every missed opportunity, every piece of cruelty, every deceit, every rationalisation of the unthinkable; each took their turn to torment him, especially those perpetrated against people now gone irretrievably, in one way or another. Every ‘would have, could have, should have’ mocked his verbal silence.
The Agency shrinks had told him this might happen, when he was debriefed before retiring and was assigned a new name and a new identity. Having slept soundly when safe to do so through every form of chaos and threat, he had no reason to believe them. But now, it seemed, that absence of the constant watchfulness that had crowded out anything irrelevant had left a massive hole for the past to come slithering in.
One morning, after he’d seen the local postman ride off on his red motorcycle, he ventured out to the mailbox. His nearest neighbour, seemingly opportunely but unlikely, pulled up in his ute and hailed him with a thunderous ‘good morning’, accompanied by a false-teeth grin reminiscent of Luna Park. Quinn turned away as if deaf and strode purposefully back to the castle.
As soon as he saw the envelope, he knew what it meant. It was the pre-arranged signal from The Agency to report in. He remembered Griffiths (if that was his real name) saying ‘you’ll be retired when you’re dead’ but he’d exited years ago and radio silence had been maintained.
He drove to the next large town, as the coded message instructed, and found one of the few public telephones left and by some miracle it was working. He rang the familiar number and was given the terse message to meet Griffiths at one of the local pubs.
In a crowded, noisy front bar, he made his way across sticky carpet to a bar stool next to Griffiths, who looked even more derelict than usual and practically fading into the smoke-brown wallpaper. He’d been prepared to simply sit, order a beer and wait for Griffiths to make the first move. Instead, Griffiths leapt from his stool, thrust forward his hand to be shaken and bellowed loudly ‘Well, if it isn’t me big brother. How ya goin’, ya old bastard? Let me get ya a beer.’
Years of training allowed Quinn to follow Griffiths’ lead without blinking, although he couldn’t begin to imagine what Griffiths was doing with this painfully bad impression of how working men talked. As per usual, the bar flies went back to their own worlds after the 30 seconds of novelty wore off. Griffiths was clearly on the verge of asking Quinn about his new life but those never-changing eyes he glanced up to extinguished the thought immediately.
‘You wrote’, said Quinn drily.
‘Yes. Someone in the Cayman Islands is buying up a lot of land in this area. We want to know who they are and why they want that land.’
‘To grow money trees, presumably.’
‘Don’t be a smart-arse, this is important.’
‘And you want me to do precisely what?’
‘Become a local, join the volunteer fire fighters, join the golf club. You know the drill. Just keep sniffing until you find something useful.’
‘And if I say no?’
‘Identity fraud’s a big problem these days. People can lose their life savings overnight. You want to be careful you don’t become a victim.’
Quinn knew that his castle was a ruin and his keep of silence a mere folly.
That night, he slept like a baby.