Writing: The Building

The Building

Mr Nak lived on the fourth floor of a brittle building, in a filthy flat. An acrid stench escaped from beneath his front door even though he didn't keep cars, and an old-fashioned alarm clock could be heard chiming its bell with consistent irregularity throughout the day, resonating all the way down the stairwell. Mr Nak was very short, which meant that people were always looking down at him. He still had a full head of hair, which he swept into place with the sweat from his brow, removing the thick spectacles that obscured his beautiful green eyes, each time he did so. Mr Nak was forever wet, his whole body, a fountain of alcoholic refuse that seeped through his clothing despite the many layers he kept on his back. He suffered from the cold, and his teeth chattered whether sun, rain or snow, which didn't help his stutter, nor the flow of spittle that spurt from his mouth whenever he spoke. Mr Nak was shunned by his neighbours who referred to him as "That dirty old man", but he never showed he cared, choosing to cry his lonely eyes out in the sole presence of his beloved reptile.

Mr Nak kept a chameleon. He had decided to purchase one after seeing a television programme on insect eaters, when he had become fascinated by their extraordinary ability to adapt to different surroundings. He took the bus into town that very afternoon after looking up a dealer in the yellow pages, and parted with a large sum of money for a relatively small pet. He called it Charlie, because it looked like a Charlie; all smiley and cosy with big bulbous eyes. The booklet he was handed didn't say much so he got off the bus and caught another one that was going past the library. In "The encyclopedia of birds, animals and reptiles", he read that chameleons were extremely fragile and highly sensitive, requiring absolute attention if living in a domestic environment, where they usually died after a few months. Chameleons made very bad pets. He wished for a while that he'd reversed the situation and gone to the library first, but when he looked into his picket and saw those friendly eyes, he made a promise to make Charlie the oldest and best fed Chameleon in town.

The cracks in the wall became the first breeding place for the bugs, followed by the gaps in between the floorboards where the crumbs conveniently fell. It was strange to think that food for insects was dirt for others, anyway, Mr Nak had no choice but to spread grime if Charlie was to be fed. At first, he thought it would be so easy; no more vacuuming, scrubbing nor dusting, no more menial tasks one did to remind one's self one existed, no more cleaning the toilet. He rapidly learnt that rearing bugs necessitated total control over the location of their nests and strategic information on the whereabouts of their potential expansion. He spent hours depositing dirt in engrossingly complex configurations planning the multiplication of bugs. It was important that his bedroom remain bug-free, but because Charlie slept with him, he had to put up with the odd dead one.

Mr Nak had led a very sad life because he had fallen in love with an English Rose who had been swallowed up by the passionate ocean in which they had bathed on their wedding night. No one in the building knew this. Mr Nak had lived in the building since anyone could remember, he was part of its decrepit walls. One day, one of the walls in one of the flats crumbled, killing a young couple and damaging their baby. The council said they were very sorry and patched up the damp patch that had caused it. Luckily the baby had grand-parents who lived on the floor below. Mr Nak lived on the floor above and they tried to blame him as being the perpetrator of the damp patch. He received a letter from the council requesting access to his bathroom with he denied them because the butterflies lived there. The building claimed two more victims when the floor in the flat next door to Mr Nak's collapsed underneath Betty Bulger's bed, taking her and Eddie Foster with it. People started talking in whispers except for Eddie's wife who wailed at the thought of bringing up her kids alone.

Mr Nak's alarm clock went off and he struggled out of his slumber's embrace to see to Charlie. He had got used to the intervening comings and goings between dreams and reality when he was on night duty which was every night. When the alarm clock went off in the day it was nonetheless less intrusive. He slipped on his dressing gown, taking care to make a comfortable knot, and pulled on his woolly hat. Charlie's eyes opened to reveal hungry, rotating spheres that watched Mr Nak's every move. It followed him out of the bedroom, like a monkey, clinging onto any ledge on its path it could grip its claws into, curling its tail around racks and hangers, making its way as economically as possible to its feeding ground. Mr Nak was squatting down choosing fat and juicy grubs that he flung, one by one, into the air. He loved the way Charlie's eyes could follow the prey whatever its course of flight, and he chuckled, clapping his hands, each time one landed on Charlie's perfectly positioned tongue. Each meal lasted about twenty minutes and was planned with reference to the previous one which meant that Mr Nak's timetable was never the same each day. Charlie had a voracious appetite but he also had an insatiable thirst which meant that after feeding him, Mr Nak did a tour of the entire flat, replenishing the bowls of water that lay scattered wherever a convenient surface for Charlie to drink from happened to be. Mr Nak would then retire to his bedroom to pour himself a drink, leaving the door ajar so that Charlie could come and go as he pleased. At times, Mr Nak was so busy, he didn't have time to go shopping, so when the food ran out, he'd rummage in the dustbins at the back of the building, retrieving rotting carcasses and any protein residue he thought might nourish the insects. In his haste to get home unobserved, he'd often leave a trail of slime all the way to his front door. The caretaker moaned to anyone who could be bothered to listen, about her constant battle to keep the entrance of the building and its staircase clean, and cursed Mr Nak whom everyone agreed was a disgusting drunken weirdo.

One morning after a violent argument with her offspring, the caretaker swallowed one too many downers and fell down the stairs. She had forgotten that on the third floor there were tiles missing from some of the steps, and she tripped up on a loosed one which sent her, and her bucket of soapy water, flying. She broke the arm and wrist that broke her fall and suffered bad bruising on her ribcage which meant that the council had to give her sick pay for several months and pay someone else to replace her. Mr Nak received another letter, this time from the council's lawyers, claiming damages for irresponsible tenancy and demanding payment within the next sixty days. Mr Nak cried a lot that night. He didn't hear the alarm clock go off and Charlie had to come and tickle him to remind him that it was feeding time which made Mr Nak laugh.

When summer came Mr Nak had more time on his hands. It was incredible just how quickly the bugs multiplied in the heat, and his home to a swarming array of all variety of insects; winged ones, legged once, ones that popped out of cocoons, and others that could only wriggle because they were still larvae. Charlie had nothing to worry about, there was food a plenty and Mr Nak was proud that he had been able to keep his promise so far. He spent most of his time watching Charlie chase and catch the bugs. He never tired of Charlie who had become quite chubby since he had been given free run of the flat. "A little bit of fat never hurt anyone", his mother had always told him when he had been bullied at school, and indeed, Charlie certainly didn't look the worst for it, he thought.

Mr Nak spent less and less time reminiscing about his Rose. He no longer smelt her perfume on the pillow next to his at night, and the framed photograph of them holding hands on the beach had been locked away in a drawer so that Charlie didn't knock it over. Mr Nak didn't drink to drown his sorrows anymore, he just drank because he was used to it.

The council were in trouble. Betty Bulger's only daughter had a boyfriend who worked for the council, in the pest control department. He had revealed to her that the council had known that part of the building was infested by termites but because they couldn't afford to re-house its tenants for the period of time necessary in order to treat it, the building had been ignored and its problems with it. Betty Bulger's daughter sued. The council had killed her mother and she was determined to clear Betty's name, making a quick buck in the process. The council reacted unusually promptly - they sacked the boyfriend, then sent out the squad to commence defestation.

Mr Nak refused to open the door. They kept shouting that it was only a temporary move and that he would be back in no time but Mr Nak knew that time took on a different dimension when the council were involved - he had lived in the building long enough to know that. He was after all: "A part of its walls", and he refused vehemently. His cold sweat streamed onto the floor, and trickled through his toes, making him slip. They didn't know about his insects and if they found out, they would break the door down and zap them before zapping the termites. He didn't even rear termites but he was well aware that poison for termites was poison for any small creature. The impending genocide would me death for Charlie and Mr Nak had made a promise. The shouting eventually died down and they said: "We'll all be back soon", which meant Mr Nak had plenty of time to barricade himself in.

On the eighth day of his self-imposed confinement, Mr Nak ran out of alcohol. His stomach hadn't grumbled for lack of food, but it became increasingly unhappy at him being denied liquor. He weakened with the diarrhea and vomiting and when Charlie tickled him, he couldn't find the strength to laugh. Mr Nak knew that when they came back and didn't answer and they discovered that the door had been jammed deliberately, they would return, with the police if necessary, and that would be the end of it for Charlie. Mr Nak worried whilst he agonized on his bed. Charlie sensed something was up and remained by his side, which made no difference to its frenzied eating habits because the bedroom was no longer a no-go zone for the bugs who'd expanded their empire since Mr Nak had taken to bed. There was plenty of food for them to feed on, since no one came to clean the sheets and Mr Nak had long since abandoned using the lavatory. As Mr Nak died slowly for Charlie's sake, Charlie rapidly grew in size, returning the favour.

They did come back. Two men in rubber suits and helmets knocked the door down. They had forgotten to come back to rehouse Mr Nak and the building had been presumed empty for several months. An avalanche of insects tumbled out onto the landing. The men blessed their uniforms and waded into the flat: sitting on to of a moving human carcass, scooping bugs onto its tongue, was a giant iguana.

Anna Wildsmith

2010 I, Absentee