“ FIVE MINUTES TO THREE”
by John Simmonds
You open your eyes and realise there’s a gag around your mouth. Seated on a wooden chair, ropes bind your hands and feet. The rope is thick, the sort you’d use to hang yourself with. Calves tied to the legs of the chair, it feels that if you struggle, you may topple over. Wriggling your jaw backwards and forwards, you try to loosen the gag, but it makes no difference. You can hear your breathing through your nose, fffffffff-fffffffff, and the sound seems to be amplified by having the gag over your mouth. You look around at your surroundings. It’s dark–there’s a small pane of glass set in the ceiling, which provides enough light to surmise that you’re in an attic of some sort. As your eyes grow accustomed, you make out some features in the room. There’s some piled-up cardboard boxes in the corner and what appears to be an old gramophone player close to your right leg. A tailor’s dummy lies sideways on the floor near to your feet. The air is dry, and the sunlight from the window is catching the motes of dust that swirl gently in the air. The outline of an entry hatch in the floor is visible a couple of metres away from you. You have no recollection of what has occurred or why you are here. Your head is throbbing as though something has hit you and as you focus on the pain you get a flashback, like a flickering film running at the edge of your mind’s eye. You can remember something striking the side of your head, but the memory is too indistinct for you to picture what’s happened. There’s an unfamiliar odour in the air, and a taste of something bitter in your mouth-something with a metallic, chemical flavour, nothing natural, not blood anyway. You try to shout for help but it’s impossible because of the gag and all that emerges is a muffled grunt.
You glance at your hands and notice your watch, which is adjacent to the rope around your wrists. It’s eleven in the morning. The room seems familiar, but you’re not sure why. The rope is biting into your hands so you flex and relax them in an effort to loosen the knot. A bead of sweat appears on your forehead and rolls down across your eye to the bridge of your nose. The itching as it courses its tranquil way down your face makes you forget the pain in your head for a moment, and the sensation becomes maddening as the droplet passes by your nose and on to the top of your lip. You want to lick it off your face, but the gag stops you. You try to clear your thoughts and the memory of something swinging towards your head becomes a little clearer. You decide it is just a question of time until you recall exactly what’s happened. Whoever tied these ropes knew what they were doing, because the knots don't seem to be loosening despite all of your straining efforts to extricate yourself. After what seems an age, you try something different and start rocking the chair back and forwards. If you topple the chair, you think you may be able to loosen the binding on your legs- perhaps the chair will break and let you free yourself that way. The chair has to fall backwards though, otherwise you may land on your face and break your nose. The act of breathing through your mouth is already difficult, so blocking your nose up with blood would be a very bad idea. You rock forward a little to gain some momentum then force your whole body backwards so the chair starts to topple. You brace yourself for the blow to the back of your head that will surely follow.
When you awake again, you’re facing the roof and your head is screaming blue murder at you. The fall must have knocked you unconscious - but for how long? The sun’s rays through the window are almost directly overhead now, so a substantial period of time must have passed. You twist your head to the side and try to look at your watch, but your hand has rotated under the binding and you can’t quite see its face. The rope around your wrist has loosened a little and with an effort you move your arm enough to see. Two thirty. You try moving your hand again and, aided by the lubrication of the sweat running down your arm, undo the knot a little more. Twenty minutes later, you pull your hand free. Five minutes to three. You push yourself up onto your elbow and work at the knot on your left hand. As it loosens, you see the hatch on the floor of the attic open upwards and a figure enters.
At eleven o’clock he finishes clearing away the breakfast things. The table is now empty; cups, plates, cutlery all back in their places. He takes the broom from the cupboard and gives the floor a sweep, pushing dust and detritus into a small pile by his feet. Nestling in this ragged pile of sweepings is a small piece of coloured glass. He bends down to pick it up, but as his fingers close around it, a jagged edge cuts into his thumb. He examines this sharp intruder. Thinking of no reason why this should be here, he gingerly places it onto the table and examines his thumb. A small pearl of blood has appeared where the glass has penetrated the skin. He holds his hand to his mouth and sucks it away. It tastes of nothing, as if he is bleeding crimson water. He sighs and sits down on the chair next to the table. Examining the shard again, he wonders once more as to its origin. For some reason, he feels exhausted, so he momentarily closes his eyes.
At twelve o’clock, he wakes. A noise disturbed him, he thinks, but he can’t be sure. An hour lost. No matter. He stands up, his back protesting as he unfurls himself. The kitchen clock ticks to a minute past twelve. If he had looked in the mirror, he would have noticed a spot of blood on his chin, just below his bottom lip. His eyes are shining as if he is about to cry. He smiles–it’s almost a mechanical action, as if proving to himself that he could. If anyone would have seen his face then they would have thought his look fearsome, even grotesque. He whispers a word to himself but doesn’t understand what it means, or why he has said it.
It hangs in the air like a corrupt smell.
At one o’clock he climbs the stairs. He opens the door to the bathroom and walks in, placing his feet carefully on the floor so as not to make a sound. The room is untidy, with discarded clothes on the floor, and a woman’s scarf lying in the bath. The washbasin looks up at him, its white ceramic surface shining in the ambient light. In front of him, a mirror struggles to reflect his face. He takes a cut-throat razor from the drawer and examines the blade. It is sharp enough. Wetting his face, he applies some shaving cream and massages it into his cheeks and chin. With long careful strokes, he cuts through the bristle and foam. When he has finished shaving, he stops and examines his face again. On a whim, he runs the razor across the top of his head. The blade tugs and protests as it cuts through this unfamiliar territory. He shaves the thinning grey hair from his scalp, leaving a trail of cuts where the blade catches and digs in. After he finishes, he splashes water across his face and head. He grimaces as the water stings. He looks in the mirror once more. Blood trickles from a few cuts at the top of his scalp. The face that looks back at him is unfamiliar now, which somehow makes him feel more comfortable with what he is about to do.
He says the word again. He realises that he does know what it means and smiles again.
At two o’clock he walks in his stockinged feet to the master bedroom, noticing on his way that the light is on in the child’s room. He flicks the switch off. He walks the few steps to the bedroom window and pulls the curtain shut. The drapes are yellow and don’t quite reach the windowsill. Opening the wardrobe, he takes out the blue boiler suit that is hanging there. A dribble of blood runs down his scalp and into his eye. Without thinking, he brushes it away with his thumb, smearing it across his cheek as if he were donning war paint.
He slips off his trousers and shirt and puts on the boiler suit. Once he has it zipped up, he goes to the bedside cabinet and takes something out. Upon closer inspection, you will see it is a steel claw-hammer.
At five minutes to three, he climbs the ladder into the attic.