Henry sat one night with his four housemates on broken sofas in the low-ceilinged basement of 7 Tyndale Street. The table was crowded with items, such as beer bottles, cream charger canisters, long silver cigarette papers, and Tom Beardmore's mum's pill cutter. The damp air hung close.
"Did you guys know that this is the house where Richard Sabnis died?" said Tom Beardmore. There was a chorus of no ways and reallys. Richard Sabnis had been a Maths student in the year above until he had died two years ago. Versions of events were many and various.
"I heard he died of a drug overdose or something," said Hugh Foster.
"Well, College hushed the whole thing up, but I heard the story from one of the fourth-years who was living here and was friends with him. He said he and all his housemates were down here that night. Richard lived in one of the houses across the street and he came round one evening with a stack of cans about as high as himself. So they were just down here, drinking, taking drugs -"
"Much like we're doing," said Henry, but nobody seemed to hear.
"– But drugs and drink didn't have anything to do with it, at least not on his end. Like, I met the guy a few times, and he drank all the time – in the library, in the shower, wherever he was. He was clearly a raging alcoholic. But he never got properly pissed. He would just be at a sort of mellow and cheery level, the whole time. The others were taking some stronger stuff that night but…" said Tom, trailing off with a shrug.
"So we could do a re-enactment of it right now," said Vikram, with a devilish grin at Henry. "We've got all of the right substances and participants."
This raised a general chuckle, but Henry's ex-girlfriend, Eleanor, really burst out laughing, slapping her thighs, her eyes watering. He wished he could have made her laugh like that. He took another swig from his home-made bottle of orange squash and vodka. He himself was quite far along the path to, or rather, of, alcoholism - far enough that social drinking was just another form of solitary drinking.
"Yeah, well, anyway," said Tom. "Apparently they discovered the coal chute."
"Wait, what's the coal chute?" said Hugh Foster.
"Right, I'll show you," said Tom, getting up. He went over to the wall, where there was a small square of a door, about two feet by two, at about head height. "This neighbourhood was built about a hundred years ago, and back then everyone used coal to heat their houses. Next time you come up the front path, look for a little circular hole in the ground. It's got a grille on it. When the coal was delivered, they used to pour it down the hole, and it ended up in here." Tom unlatched the door and pushed it inwards. They all came over to look inside, Henry first. He was fascinated by old buildings and secret places.
The weak light from the basement did not penetrate far, but Henry could see that it was a dirty space not quite large enough to be called a room. The floor was covered in old cardboard boxes and packaging, piled up nearly to the height of the door. The brick walls were rough, unpainted, and dripping with moisture, and uneven, like crinkled paper. Their angles cast deep shadows, making it look as if the coal chute widened to the left and right, leading to tunnels just beyond the reach of the light. There was an earthy, almost biological smell in the air, like spoiled food. He supposed rats could get in here easily enough.
"The fourth-year I was talking to said it was easy enough to get Richard to climb in there," Tom continued. "They found it pretty hilarious, the way he did it. Apparently, he'd pull himself up into the opening, and would sort of perch in it – feet on the lip, all the way off the ground, his bum and back facing into the chute, and his head in the room. And he was a tall guy, mind you, like a stick-insect. Then he'd do this sort of backwards leap and land on all the boxes and stuff. They also said he'd happily stand in there drinking and chat with the others through the opening."
"I met him a couple of times as well," said Eleanor in a small voice. "He was really nice." Henry took a deep breath, frowning.
"So the fourth years said that he was doing that a lot that night and that it was generally an evening of heavy, heavy drinking, and quite a lot more as well," Tom continued. "But that's about as much of what happened as they know for certain. They all drifted off to bed, one by one, and went home for Christmas the next day. Unless it's your family, you don't really keep close tabs on the people you're living with. Anyway, spring term comes around, and nobody has heard from Richard all Christmas. Not much of a concern yet, since Richard was always a see-you-when-I-see-you kind of guy. But everyone got worried when he didn't show up for the start-of-term exams, College included, since he'd never missed one of those for anything. So College calls his parents, who say they've been away in Scotland all Christmas and that Richard had planned to spend the holidays at the university, studying. Yeah, I don't get the impression he was particularly close to his parents. So College calls the Police, and some officers go round to the house Richard was living in, across the street from here. The first thing they ask his housemates is 'Where did you last see him?', followed closely by 'What was he doing?'. So then the police come over here and talk to the guys living here who were with him that night. The thing is, no-one had been in the basement yet. Maybe they just didn't hang out in here as much as we do, but I reckon it was something, I don't know, in their collective subconscious, telling them not to come down here."
They were still standing in a semi-circle around the opening of the coal-chute. It looked to Henry like a gaping, toothless mouth, trying to suck them into a long, twisted gut that went all the way to nowhere. Eleanor was looking at Tom with wide eyes, and both Vikram and Hugh were breathing fast.
"The police get the guys living here to open up the basement and it's pretty much as they'd left it after the last night of term. All kinds of paraphernalia, I bet the guys were pretty red in the face when the police saw that. But police have seen all of that before; they don't care, and in this case, they were a lot more interested in the coal-chute. There was a pretty bad smell coming from it, and the door was kind of cracked. They open it up, and there's Richard. Some of them were throwing up at this point, one of the officers included; apparently opening the door unleashed this whole wave of whatever dead people smell like."
"Wouldn't a dead body stink up the whole house though?" said Vikram. "My uncle was a police officer and he said the smell is worse than anything you could possibly prepare yourself for, and that it stays in your clothes for days, weeks even."
"There are a couple of reasons for that," said Tom. "Firstly, the smell was probably directed up the chute and onto the street, and if their habits were anything like ours, there would have been about fifty bin bags out front, smelling pretty bad themselves. Before I tell you the next thing, let me just say this: the guy who told me all this was quite close to Richard's mum, and she'd have got all of the low-down from the pathologist. He was off his face when he told me, and I reckon he's pretty cut up about it still, and I don't blame him."
Tom swallowed and then spoke again, quickly.
"Richard had only been dead for three days or so. The police reckoned he'd fallen asleep, woken up again, and gone in there again, not realising everyone had gone to bed. Maybe he thought they'd all gone outside for a cigarette or something, and he'd give them a fright when they came back in. Only, they'd gone to bed. He must have fallen asleep again, and by the time he woke up again, they were gone for the holidays. Hours turned to days, days to weeks. He did give them a fright all right, only …"
Tom looked at his feet.
"They said it looked as if he'd been drinking the rainwater that came down the chute, collecting it in an empty beer can."
"So he starved to death?" said Eleanor, in little more than a whisper.
"I guess so," said Tom. "The guy I was talking to kept saying to me 'Goddammit Tom, if one of us had come back a week earlier we could have got him out. I was even considering coming back to revise for the start-of-term exams. He'd probably have chalked it up as banter'. He seemed seriously, seriously broken up."
"Why couldn't he get back out through the door, or even up the chute?" said Vikram in a thick voice.
"I guess it's ten feet or so up the chute and it has no footholds, and the grille must be pretty heavy, even if it isn't cemented down," said Tom. "As for the door, he damn well nearly did it. Remember I said it was cracked? They reckoned he had tried breaking it down. But the thing is - and it makes sense in a kind of terrible way – coal-chutes were generally designed to be nigh on impossible to open from the inside since it's an obvious way in for burglars otherwise. Do you know what the worst of it is for me? He must have been shouting and shouting for help, and no-one heard. I guess a lot of the houses on this street are empty, even more so during the holidays. I can't even begin to imagine how awful it must have been for him. I hope he's at peace now, wherever he is. He was a good lad, by all accounts." Tom let go of the door, which he had been holding open the whole time, and it swung shut with a click.
"Amen to that," said Hugh, who seemed to have developed an itch in both his eyes. Eleanor was in open tears.
While the others, on the other side of the room, set about repairing and resuming their evening after the shock of Tom's sad tale, Henry remained standing in front of the coal-chute door. He wondered how much space was in there, and whether Richard had found a comfortable spot to sit down. At the same moment that somebody - Vikram or perhaps Hugh – was suggesting putting some music on, Henry was putting his bottle of vodka-squash in his inside pocket and unlatching the square door of the coal-chute. At the same moment that Tom was volunteering to go upstairs and get his speakers, Henry was gripping the bottom edge of the doorframe and bending his knees, preparing to vault into the darkness. Perhaps Richard had lain himself down under the grille that opened onto the world above, watching the stars as he sipped his ice-cold beery rainwater. Did he cry? Henry pushed down on the sill and swung his legs up, and over. He almost made it in one. His left shoe, a couple of sizes too big for his feet, caught on the sill, and he went tumbling forwards into the void. He felt something brush his forehead, and then he was down.
Henry was lying face down on the wet brick floor of the coal-chute. The darkness was total. Slowly, he picked himself up and turned around, meaning to pull himself back through the door and into the basement of the house. But where he expected to find the square of light that would lead him to his housemates – he didn't yet know if they were his friends – there was nothing. He held his hands out in front of him and started forward in what he supposed was the right direction. Then he was falling down the stairs, on his side, on his back, on his head. He had forgotten to ask Tom if coal-chutes even had stairs, but it was too late now. He was standing again, sparking his lighter again and again, and behind him, there were no stairs, only a brick wall. Ahead was a long tunnel made of the same sort of bricks that had lined the walls of the coal-chute. It went under the street. Before he followed it, he took a large draught of his vodka-squash, the largest he had ever taken, in fact, and it filled him with courage. Then he was climbing another set of steps on the other side, and then he was in the dust-covered hallway of a house similar to his own. It was dark inside 8 Tyndale Street because the windows were boarded up, but shards of bright sunlight found their way in among the gloom, creating a staccato pattern on the damp walls. The place had been empty since the death of Richard, who was, in fact, moving about upstairs. Henry was climbing the stairs, past a dark yellow stain on the carpet, and the smell of stale beer was growing stronger, and the rich scent of gravy, sweated out only by the hardest drinkers. There was another smell, too, underneath the others but stronger, of meat and flowers and shit.
Henry opened the door to the bedroom at the top of the house. "Richard?" he said.
Richard sat at the desk. He was terribly thin. Henry couldn't see his face, because of the bright sunlight coming in from the window behind the desk. He supposed that was a mercy. He could see Richard's hair by the sunlight that streamed through it. Henry knew it should have been a thick black – he had seen the boy walking around college, back when he was alive – but it was white. And though it was long, and needed cutting, it was thin, and Henry could see right through to the skin, which was rutted, and ruined. The smell was almost overpowering here, in Richard's room. He could hear the lazy buzzing of insects somewhere.
"Richard, is that you?"
"Yeah. Do you want a drink?" Richard seemed to be drinking a cocktail similar to Henry's own. His voice was very deep but broken like a teenager's.
Henry was about to say that he had brought a bottle of his own, but then realised it was empty. "I'd love one, Richard if you don't mind."
Down by Henry's right, there was a little table, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see a can of beer, cold and glistening – perfect on a hot and sunny day like this. Somehow, he didn't want to turn his back to Richard or even take his eyes off him, so he felt around, picked it up, and took a large draught. It was rainwater, and it tasted of cigarette ash and tuna-mayonnaise.
"Sorry Henry – it is Henry, isn't it? I forgot I'd opened that one. It was quite a while ago. I've got some unopened ones up on the shelf if you're interested. Help yourself."
"That would be great thanks," said Henry, before realising that getting a beer from the shelf would mean having to look at Richard's face. "Actually, I think I'll be alright".
"No worries. Listen, have you heard anything from College?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well it's just, I took some time out from my course a while ago, because I had some quite serious problems with drink, but I'm doing much better now," said Richard, taking a large gulp of his drink. "I was wondering if you'd heard anything from the tutors about when I'd be starting second year again."
"I'm sorry Richard, I haven't. I'd be happy to ask one of the Maths people in my year if you'd like."
"Don't worry about it. It was a long shot," said Richard. He was crying now. It was a pitiable, wet, grunting sound and Henry began to step backwards. "Before you go, could you give me a hug?"
Richard got up from his desk, his long arms outstretched, and Henry began to say, "Richard, we don't really even -" but then Richard's face came into view.
Tom, Eleanor, Vikram, and Hugh all heard the sharp crack of Henry's skull hitting the brick floor of the coal-chute. The door clicked shut, but within seconds they were across the room and Tom had yanked it back open. "Shit," he muttered.
Eleanor, masking her terror with the reassuring but unbending authority of the doctor she was training to become, called out in a clear voice. "Henry! Can you hear me? Don't try to move, but make a sound if you can hear me."
There was no answer from within the coal-chute.
"Henry!" came Eleanor's voice again.
From inside, Henry began, first, to groan, and then to scream.
"Hang on in there, Henry," said Tom. "We're going to get you out of there."