He didn't want to be there.
He didn't want to have bills to pay, he didn't want to not have enough bread, or beans, or booze, but there it was; and so here he was, with the sound of breaking glass still in his ears and the brick still in his hand. His throat was closed over with fear and his head was spinning, but nobody came, nobody had heard. His friend Eric had made it sound so easy- just knock the pane in and stick your hand through, turn the handle, boom- who needs keys, right?
But his friend wasn't here, and anyway, was he really his friend? Well, if he was, he was a friend who was happy to give advice on breaking into a house, but wasn't quite friend enough to join in. Eric had always been good at giving advice that he wasn't going to take himself. In the daylight hours it had always been one of his charms, but, here and now, in a dark and broken-into house with his heart going ten times faster than it ought, Eric didn't seem very charming at all.
Certainly, the appeal of whatever reward was hidden in this dark and broken-into house was waning fast, and really, looking around, what was there here that could be considered a reward? Photographs on the shelf (of the people who owned this house), books (that had been read by the people who owned this house), an old video game console that wouldn't fetch ten pounds in the pub (the patrons of which would not care that it had been played and loved and laughed over by the people who owned this house).
Putting down the object that could have been a valuable enamel trinket from a distance- but turned out to be an ancient and poorly made school project- the man who was now a burglar sighed and scratched at the neck of his balaclava. That was what they wore in movies, wasn't it? Something to protect their identity? Philosophy had never been the man's (now burglar's) strong suit, but even so there was something of a question about what his identity was at the moment, and how much he cared for it. Probably not a lot.
Cops and robbers... He'd played that at school with Eric, hadn't he? He'd always been the cop. Even bought one of those fake plastic badges from the corner shop one time, but he lost it down a drain. They'd watched those kinds of movies together too, with their big chase scenes and whining sirens and flashing lights. It had lit a fire in him, seeing the good guys hounding down the bad guys, and of course the good guys had always won... perhaps that was why he was so afraid of hearing those sirens now, of seeing those flashing lights, maybe from through that dusky window there with its lace curtains. His Gran had curtains like that.
No, not the time for guilt. This isn't your fault, burglar-man. Not your fault. Not your fault there's no jobs, or that the job that you had was taken away from you. “Stream-lining”, they called it... more like pocket-lining for the top brass. They're the real robbers. Yeah. Cops and robbers. So if they're the robbers, that means you're... an undercover cop now, yeah. Down on his luck. Working against the man to catch the villains at the top- just like in the movies, yeah. Those hard-boiled good guys, they always ended up in situations like this, didn't they? Getting framed for things they didn't do, getting pressure from the top for trying to find the uncomfortable truth, right? Right.
But they didn't usually break into someones house to nick a stereo, did they?
Burglar-man decided that this line of thought was not as comforting as he'd hoped.
The question of his grey morality wasn't answered by the creaking floorboards, which he hushed, despite knowing that nobody was there to hear it. Probably. He was pretty certain, anyway. Lights had been off in the house for the past three days and the car wasn't in the drive, and the newspaper lad had said they were on holiday. Probably somewhere nice, like Barbados, or Florida- one of those big, sunny places he'd never seen, anyway. Never would either, most likely.
The feeble dot of light from the torch flicked up to the wallpaper on his right (rubbish torch, but it had only cost a pound, get what you pay for-), the pattern seeming to zig-zag and dance in the limited glow. One of those fiddly sorts of wallpaper, what was it- Victorian? He had no idea. Lots of frills and curly bits anyway. Kind of like the stuff you saw in Sherlock Holmes, you know; classy.
The top floor was even less inspiring than the ground level. Ikea furniture, a couple of old toys and ornaments, but nothing that the Antiques Roadshow would take a second glance at. A sigh, as burglar-man sat on a neatly-made, unoccupied bed. Whoever lived here wasn't exactly in the higher echelons of society, even if they had fancy wallpaper, although it was pretty old-looking; must have been put up a long time ago. There was more of it in here. Hard to tell what colour it was in the speck of torch-light; maybe green? Probably green. Seemed the right sort of colour for a bedroom like this. There was a variegated spider-plant in the corner. A small smile rewarded this knowledge; learned that from Gardener's World, he had, over at Gran's.
Hadn't there been some sort of poem Gran had told him about walls, when he was small? Gran was full of stories- said that was why she'd lived so long, 'matter of fact. He didn't believe that, of course. Silly idea. Still, he did love those stories, even if some of them were a bit spooky, and not all of them ended properly. He chuckled to himself as he rifled through an uninteresting drawer; he'd told her off for that once.
“But- we don't know what happened! There wasn't a proper ending!” He'd said.
“Of course not,” she'd tutted, giving him a clip around the ear for his cheek- she was often doing that, even to the adults. “What sort of story just up and ends, all in one piece? Why, would you like that? To up and end all at once?”
“Well, I'm gonna some day.” He'd muttered, rebelliously.
“Oh, will you now?” Gran had had many qualities, but mischief was one for which she was famous. Even so, mischievous as it was, there was a little bit too much serious in that reply for him to have forgotten it. Why else would he be thinking of such a ridiculous thing here, in the dark, looking through a stranger's private property in stranger's set of drawers in a stranger's house?
It was very strange. Too strange. Nothing here, get on with it. Get on.
He shut the drawer.
What was that story about the walls?
He moved over to the other side of the room to have a better look at the box under the spider-plant; it didn't match the other furniture. Old, this thing, big and heavy too. What would you call it, a trunk? Spanish Chest? Something told him he'd read a story about one of those before and all. He moved the plant onto the floor and took off the balaclava- there was nobody here to see 'his identity', whatever that was- and anyway, it itched.
Had it been a story about walls, or had it been a poem? It was just biting the edges of his memory now, and, well, breaking into this chest was going to take a bit of work. No real problem in wondering about it at the same time. He pulled the thin crow-bar that he'd bought from Eric out from under his coat. Hadn't asked where he'd got it from. Didn't want to know.
Once upon a time...? No, it hadn't been one of those.
He put the end of the crowbar under the edge of the box's lid.
The walls... the walls? Yes! That was how it started, of course. It had been a poem.
The box did not give. He tried prying the lid from the corner. It lifted slightly, but the effort pushed the opposite corner of the box up against the wallpaper and tore a little bit off. He held the flake of paper under the torch-light; it was definitely green. He felt guilty.
He set back to work on the lid, and remembering the poem.
The walls, the walls, the walls have ears.
They know your thoughts, and know your fears!
Ah yes, of course it had been a spooky one. Probably why he couldn't remember it straight away. He never much liked those ones... although he told gran that he did. Didn't want her to think he was a coward or anything.
The walls, the walls, the walls have eyes.
They see your truth, and see your lies!
The lid creaked open a fraction more- he shoved the crowbar as far into it as he could and pressed down hard.
The walls don't speak, the walls don't sleep,
but walls all of your secrets keep.
Something had moved. It had not been the box.
He stopped, the little dot of light blurring into two as he flashed it in the direction he'd thought he'd seen... what? A spider? Moth? A mote of dust? Nothing that was there any more, anyway. Just that fancy wallpaper and the tiny fragment that was missing from it. What were those designs even meant to be, anyway? Scrolling feathers, or were they leaves? Suddenly something about the pattern seemed a bit too aggressive. It was too busy, and oppressive, and... what was that word, ornate?
Whatever. It was stupid wallpaper, anyway.
He put both hands on the crowbar, leaving the torch on the floor.
Inside the walls, inside the walls,
that is the place where secrets fall...
Something moved; it was the box. The lid flew open with an ugly crunching sound, the crowbar bending slightly in the process. He put it aside and tried to ignore the mixed sensation of success and jangling alarm that had resulted.
Something else had moved, but he wasn't looking. He stopped trying to remember the poem.
The contents of the box were not as exciting as a golden hoard of pirate's treasure, or the diamond-stuffed safe of some American mountebank, but it was better than the rest of the house had promised. It was a collection of gowns- glittering, shimmering, silken gowns and dresses and gloves and a pair of boots that he was sure he'd only seen the like of in the V and A. Burglar-man or not, he knew these were special clothes. Old clothes. Valuable clothes. Clothes that he could wrap up in a blanket and easily carry out of the house; much lighter than pirate treasure, for sure.
Plunging his hands into the layers of satin and embroidery, at first he thought that the tug on his left sleeve was some stray length of fabric that had snagged against his leather jacket. Not wanting to damage the prize, he let go of the contents to untangle himself- only to find that there was more of a tangle than there had any right to be.
It was not fabric.
It was green.
It was curling and whirling and flourishing patterns and pigments and paper, it was scrolling feathers and leaves, and it was green.
The burglar-man made no yelp, or scream, or any sort of noise, despite how very dearly he wanted to make some. He would have felt that joyful fire at the sound of sirens, or the flashing lights, and he would have been so happy to see a police officer break down the door with a pair of handcuffs he might well have kissed them, but there was no blue of the metropolitan police, only the green. It didn't hurt, but it stuck, and it hugged, and it pulled and pulled and pulled him towards that tiny tear in the wallpaper which he had made. He hadn't meant to, he didn't want to, he didn't want to be here- he'd never wanted to be here! It wasn't his fault. He wasn't a bad man. Was he a bad man? He didn't want to be a bad man- not a person without an ending, who just stopped, because that was what happened to the robbers in stories, wasn't it? You heard about the cop getting his own back, about the cop who saved the day, who got away, who lived happily ever after, but the robber-? Who ever heard of what happened to them?
Though the vines and curls and flourishes were still smearing themselves over his face like a venetian mask, he finally managed to get his voice to work, croaking and fearful though it was.
The wall did not speak.
“I- I didn't mean to- didn't want to... I don't want to end all at once! Please...”
The wall did not speak.
The wall never spoke, in fact, just as much as it had never slept. The burglar-man dug in his heels. It had watched, it had known, and surely now, it had heard? Surely it understood? Surely...
How had that poem ended?
His nose was an inch away from the tear in the paper. Why was Gran always so right about everything? Why was he here? Why was she not? Why had she had to leave that big hole, with nobody to fill it? Why had her story ended, only partway through his? She'd said that stories didn't end, so why-
His eyes had been scrunched up tight with the effort and the sadness and the big ball of confusion that was everything and everywhere but nothing really seemed to be stopping apart from him, and if he was ending here, then he might as well know where here was... so he opened them. He opened his eyes, and looked through the hole in the paper- he looked, and he saw.
He saw what was inside the wall.
And, if your heart the secret knows;
inside the walls, you too, shall go.
Everything was green, and then- it was not.
The following week a couple reported a break-in after having returned to their home after a holiday in Brighton. On further investigation it seemed that nothing had been taken, although there was some property damage and a balaclava left behind. At the same time, a missing persons report was filled out by a young man called Eric, but nothing ever came of the search. Not that he'd had any faith in the cops in the first place- 'bit annoying he never got to find out what had happened, but some things just end up that way, he supposed. Probably got himself into trouble with that crowbar; always was too easily influenced, that kid. Suggestible, you know- believed anything you told him.
Must have met up with a bad ending.