When the phone rang at 3 a.m., John knew it was the Minotaur. He turned over in his bed but Alison nudged him in the ribs.
“It could be important,” she said. “Someone might have died.”
No one had died. At the most, maybe some one was hurt. But John knew that whenever the phone rang this late it meant the Minotaur either had been in a fight or had broken up with his current girlfriend, whoever that was.
“John,” pleaded his wife.
John labored a sigh before picking up the receiver. On the other end he heard the unmistakeable noise of the Minotaur’s breathing.
“So which have you had broken?” asked John. “Your nose or your heart?”
From the other end of the phone, the Minotaur spoke. “Neither,” he said. “I’m scared.”
John had known the Minotaur since they were kids, and in that time he’d never seen him scared of everyone or anything. The Minotaur’s family moved to John’s street in the summer of 1977. It was the day of the Queen’s Jubilee and all the neighbors had dragged out tables and lined them in the middle of the road. Union Jack bunting traversed from gutter to gutter, and when the wind blew, the sound of a hundred rattlesnake tails filled the sky. People wore blue, white, and red hats and waved flags and all the women baked cakes and made sandwiches. Everyone was happy and laughing, except for John. He didn’t see what all the fuss was about. From what he could gather the Queen was rich and didn’t do much except look down on people who were poor. She lived in a big house in London whereas John and his family lived in a little damp two-up-two-down terrace with an outside toilet.
John was about to go back in his home when a small van with wood on its sides, like a Tudor house but on wheels, stopped at the end of the street. The man behind the wheel sounded his horn and people pointed at the tables and shook their head. When no one moved, the back doors to the van opened and the Minotaur got out. He was only six years old at the time but he was at least five feet tall, and, with his horns, you could add another six inches. He had a broad chest covered with course brown hair, arms that were thick and muscular, like his legs, and each hand was big enough to crush a human skull. Everyone stopped laughing and looked on in shock as the Minotaur dragged the heavy tables to one side so that the van could pass.
John found the Minotaur behind his house a few days later pouring lighter fluid in a long line near an ant’s nest. He watched John approach and didn’t think much of him.
“What’yadoin?” asked John.
“Killing stuff,” replied the Minotaur, indifferently.
The Minotaur reached into his pocket, brought out two green leaves, and tore them up between sausage fingers. He sprinkled the leaves along the line, leant down, and waited. After a minute, a black ant emerged from the crack in the earth.
“This ‘ere’s a worker,” said the Minotaur. “It’s a worker’s job to protect the queen and bring her stuff. In a minute there’s gonna be loads of ‘em, you watch.”
And John did just that. He knelt beside the Minotaur, consumed by his vast shadow. There he waited in the cool shade for all the tiny worker ants to leave the nest and pick up the tiny pieces of leaf with their pincers. To help coax them out, the Minotaur slammed his huge fist near to the gap and more ants came scurrying out, running around in a frenzy. The Minotaur then pulled out a match from his pocket, struck it on the wall, and threw it on the ground. What ants weren’t burnt to death in the blaze, the Minotaur stomped with his foot.
John asked, “Whya’killin ‘em?”
The Minotaur grunted and replied, “Cos, I hate royalty.”
The Minotaur moved into a terraced house, similar to the one John grew up in. He rented it from a Greek guy. John told him how nice the Greeks were when he and Alison spent their honeymoon on the little island of Zakyhthos, and the Minotaur said his landlord was nothing but a rich, fat bastard that lorded it up like he was the king of Greece.
John arrived at the house at 4 a.m. He knocked on the door and the Minotaur opened it with a look of relief on his face. Lit by the sodium hue from the street lamps, the two friends saw the little changes time had assigned to them. John had put on a little more weight around his face, which he put down to Alison’s home cooking, and the Minotaur’s left ear was missing. He also had a nasty scar running through the tip of his noise, probably due to fighting. The Minotaur showed John into the front room where big boxes were stacked on each other and newspaper, scrunched into tiny rock shapes, scattered the floor. There was a peculiar smell in the air that the Minotaur assumed was the remnants of the last occupants, but it reminded John of the day he went to see his grandfather in the chapel of the rest, a mix of chemicals and cheap air freshener.
“So what’s going on?” asked John.
“Noises,” said the Minotaur.
“What kind of noises?”
“Sounded like something trapped under the floorboards, a rat, or something bigger than a rat.”
John looked over to the other side of the living room. A large area had been cleared of boxes and the floorboards had been removed leaving a big dark hole that reminded John of a trendy black rug.
“You’ve probably lost your deposit,” said John.
“Did you find anything?”
“Pipes mostly, and a few wires. I laid some traps and threw down some rat poison the other day, but it made no difference.”
“Why not call pest control, get the job done properly.”
Awkwardness descended between them, one that stopped the Minotaur from saying, Don’t you think I thought of that. Instead, he grunted and asked John to follow him.
“Where we going?” asked John.
“To the basement,” replied the Minotaur.
John and the Minotaur didn’t see too much of each other once school finished. John’s grades assured him a place at a university far from his home, which meant he had to stay in the halls of residence. The Minotaur got a job on a local building site as an odd carrier and general laborer. When John left university, he and the Minotaur rented a small flat together. John received housing benefit, which paid for his share of the rent. The Minotaur paid the rest from doing foreigners. It was great at the start and John enjoyed the company of his old friend. The honeymoon period ended in the third month. Cordial and wistful conversations turned serious, focussing less on fun and more on the practicalities of life. John was getting depressed because he couldn’t find a job and had no money, and the Minotaur was getting annoyed because he was working his fingers to the bone just to keep them both in food and booze.
One evening the Minotaur took John to a pub on the other side of town to cheer him up. At the end of the night they were outside waiting for a taxi and a man kept looking at John. The man was swaying like barley, eyes wilting under the strain of staying vertical. An attractive woman joined the man, and, when she passed, the Minotaur wolf-whistled. In an instant the man’s indolent state ignited with rage and he ran like a bull toward John, grabbing hold of his coat and throwing his fist toward his head. The Minotaur appeared and grabbed the man’s fist in time. Unconcerned about the Minotaur’s size, the drunken man turned on him and both began to fight. John heard the thunder crack of fist pummelling bone, and the tearing of ligaments. He ran into the pub and told the barman to phone the police because someone was going to be killed, but by the time they both went out, the drunken man had gone, and the Minotaur was sat on the floor, blood dripping from his nose. In the taxi on the way home, John didn’t say a word, and when he got home he went straight to bed.
The next evening John and the Minotaur went out again for a drink. Nothing much was said about what had happened, both opting to sit in quiet reflection. John consumed a lot more than usually and toward the end of the night purposely knocked into an older man at the end of the bar. With furrowed brow, John clenched his teeth together and squeezed his fists into tight little balls. He lent his face into the older man’s, goading him to throw a punch, but the older man was not concerned and apologised for bumping into him. John began shoving him, and then a few other people at the bar got involved. The Minotaur came over and grabbed John by the shoulder, apologised to the older man and tried to move John away. But John was adamant he wanted a fight, if not to prove to the Minotaur he could fight, he needed to prove to himself he wasn’t scared. At that moment a beer mat struck the Minotaur’s head and from afar a voice called him a freak. For the first time ever, both John and the Minotaur were united in their rage.
The whole scene played out in slow motion; limbs were ripped off torsos like crab claws at a seafood restaurant. Blood sprayed in jets up the walls and across the optics. Carnage lain in their wake, and when they walked back to the house, both the Minotaur and John laughed, replaying every moment as if it was a scene from their favourite film, Star Wars.
In the basement, the Minotaur switched on his torch, the light lurching toward the far side of the room where darkness crawled the walls like a thousand tiny spiders. As he panned the beam, the batteries rattled in the casing, shorting out the light so the room flared momentarily in eerie apparition. The air was dank, and the temperature had dropped enough for John to feel his skin tighten. Various tools were strewn across the basement floor. The nearest to him was a screwdriver and, next, a hammer. The closer it got to the hem of darkness the larger the tools became: a saw, mallet, sledgehammer. Thick rusted screws lay on their sides, bent and twisted like toasted maggots. The Minotaur grabbed John’s sleeve and pulled him close.
“It’s in there,” said the Minotaur.
“What’s in there?” asked John hesitantly.
“Whatever’s been calling me.”
John felt the Minotaur’s breath fall on his arm in rapid concession. He was preparing himself, bracing ever part of his bulk for whatever lay within the dark. The torch gave out again, and the Minotaur shook the casing. John turned, and in the brief yellowy light that shifted the shadows, he saw another door, one forged from solid steel. Its edges had been struck with force the head of the sledgehammer, leaving behind noodle-bowl-sized dents in its stubborn veneer.
“It took me the best part of a week to remove all the exterior bolts, but I think I’ve finally weakened the inner locks.”
John stepped back. He didn’t want to know what lay beyond that door. It had no influence on his life with Alison. If he never found out what was in there, it wouldn’t concern him. Some things are best left that way. And in that one moment he thought of Alison lying in bed. Before he left the house, she had kissed him on the cheek and said that the Minotaur was lucky to have such a good friend as he. Now all John wanted to do was leave the Minotaur and slip back into bed with Alison, a place where he always felt safe and loved. But she was right. Friends have to help each other, regardless of their own fears and reservations.
John had met Alison while in a library searching for jobs. She was reading The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period by Carter Lindberg, a heavy read that intimidated him. To strike up conversation, he asked the librarian for the same book, who made a point of raising her voice to tell him it was currently being read. Alison looked up from the book and that was enough for John to approach her. They talked quietly for over an hour. John discovered that they both enjoyed history. Alison had a lovely smile and when she spoke about Henry VIII, John didn’t hear a word because the world around him had dissolved away and all that existed was her smile. They exchanged numbers and John rang her that night asking questions that made her more endearing, damaged, wistful, tragic, and perfect. Alison was studying history at the local university and hoped that one day she’d be a teacher. John said he had a teaching degree and wanted to be a teacher too, and when she asked why he wasn’t, he told her a Minotaur had got in the way. Alison promised John she’d help him find his way to teaching, and she did.
When the Minotaur found out John had a girlfriend, he asked if she was good in bed. It had been two weeks and John did not want to rush Alison. He enjoyed her company, and that was more important to him than sex. He told the Minotaur this and he replied, “Dick tease, then?”
And one can only guess that all the years of living in the Minotaur’s huge shadow, of being the one who needed looking after, protecting, finally turned into anger. John threw back his fist and hit the Minotaur’s long, solid head. The pain was immense as the bones shook and splintered in his hand. The strike was not expected and the Minotaur stumbled on his hooves. A red veil descended, the world muted by a crimson hue. John launched another attack on the Minotaur, knocking him to the floor, and there he beat his face until those fearless large brown eyes closed. Not once did the Minotaur strike back.
The Minotaur grabbed John’s hand.
“Bit late in the day to tell me you’re gay,” said John, hoping the joke might lift some of the gravity that was pushing down on his shoulders.
The Minotaur pried open John’s hand and there he placed a cold metal object. The chill went some way to tempering the heat burning up John’s palm.
“Take this sword,” said the Minotaur. “It’s the Greek’s. I found it down here.”
John looked down at the sword. It was old, and the edge of the blade had rusted.
“What do you expect me to do with this?”
“Protect me,” said the Minotaur, and with that he picked up the sledgehammer with his spare hand and swung it at the door. The earth could have split in two and it wouldn’t have made a louder and terrifying noise as each strike of that sledgehammer. The Minotaur huffed and growled with every beat. John considered how much time would pass before the police arrived. The torch flickered on and off as the sledgehammer made contact, throwing fleeting shadows across the Minotaur’s broad and muscular back. The damage to the door was minimal and John was about to stop the Minotaur when an unworldly groan rang out and the door collapsed to the ground. The only noise John could hear was the sound of the Minotaur’s breath, and his own heart throwing itself against his chest. The Minotaur crossed its divide and entered the room, the light from the torch consumed by the thick cloak of gloom that lay within.
John cried out, “What’s in there?” but the Minotaur said nothing. He edged forward, tentatively, dragging the sword behind him and repeated the question, but no word of reassurance returned. John was almost at the entrance when the Minotaur rushed out, forcing John to reel back on his heels.
“Jesus! You scared the crap out of me.”
The Minotaur handed John the torch, told him to wait and then ran up the stairs. Light touched the sides of the wall surrounding the door, leaving a perfect rectangle of black at the entrance. Beyond there was nothingness filled with terrifying visions of monsters lurking within, an abyss of nightmare and paranoia. He edged further and further back, sword held out in front, and by the time he reached the stairs leading into the room, the Minotaur returned.
“Here,” he said, out of breath. The Minotaur unfastened one end of a large bobbin of twine. He made a loop with one end, and placed it over John’s hand, typing it around his wrist. He then placed the bobbin on a spike that was jutting from the wall.
“What’s this for?” asked John.
“It’s so you don’t get lost,” replied the Minotaur.
“Get lost? What the hell is in there?”
The Minotaur leaned in toward John and replied, “It’s a labyrinth.”
On the eve of John and Alison’s wedding day, guilt collided with John’s conscious. It had been so long since he and the Minotaur had been in the fight and John wanted to enter his new life with no bad feelings hanging over him. He rang the Minotaur one Friday afternoon and after a long pause, the Minotaur spoke.
“Hey,” said John.
The Minotaur remained mute, save for his breathing.
“Wanted you to know, I’m getting married tomorrow.”
There was a pause. “That same girl?”
“Her name is Alison, and yes.”
“Huh…I’m happy for you both, I guess.”
John could tell the Minotaur had been drinking, or was still drunk from the previous night.
“Been up to much?”
“You know me. Met a girl myself.”
“Her name’s Destiny. Tits like boulders.”
“I think her real name is Claire, but I don’t know her well enough yet to ask.”
“You still living at the flat?”
The Minotaur’s mood changed. “What do you want, John?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just wanted to rub my face in it, huh?”
“No, not at all. I just…”
“I called to tell you I’m getting married.”
John didn’t want to upset the Minotaur even more so he let enough time pass before replying.
“I guess I wanted to say…”
John felt the word perched on his tongue, one that had lay dormant for nearly two years and now rose like bile through his throat, burning and making his eyes water. Fortunately, he didn’t need to say it.
“Star Wars is on TV next week,” said the Minotaur. “It’s the version with all the CGI crap, but I was thinking of getting a few beers in and watching it.”
The Minotaur never went to John and Alison’s wedding. And John never watched Star Wars with the Minotaur because he was on his honeymoon in Greece. But when he returned he rang his old friend and they would talk for hours about what they were doing. Mostly John spoke about his future and how Alison was nagging at him to start a family, something he wasn’t too sure he wanted to do until they had enough money. And the Minotaur always spoke about the past, and what they used to get up to. Sometimes the Minotaur would ring John late at night, drunk, and tell him that the girl he was seeing had dumped him for some normal bloke, and that he’d beat up a random guy to feel better. The next week, the Minotaur had another girlfriend and he’d be happy again.
The labyrinth held the smell of loam. It reminded John of the time before the Minotaur and he were friends, when the boys at school would push his face into the dirt and pile on his back until their combined load robbed him of breath. Now, instead of his face being pressed into the ground, and the weight of half a dozen children on his back, his chest was being crushed by the dark mass that encircled both he and the Minotaur. The second thing John noticed was the Minotaur seemed to have a clear idea of where he was going. He walked with a determined step, and when they arrived at a large wall that blocked them from going any further, the Minotaur instantly turned left or right.
“Do you think the Greek knows about this place?”
“I don’t think you can have something this big in your home and not know,” replied the Minotaur.
John thought about what the Minotaur said and realised they had been walking through the network of narrow corridors for a good five minutes. He equated the distance to be at least a hundred metres. Either they were walking in circles, or the labyrinth stretched beyond the boundaries of the house.
“This can’t be possible,” said John. “We must be lost.”
“Isn’t that the point?” asked the Minotaur.
John stopped and grabbed the Minotaur’s huge arm. “I thought we were here so you could find out what was making the noises; you telling me you came in here to get us lost?”
The Minotaur turned and pointed the torch along the corridor. There was no sign of an end.
“I think we should head back,” said John. “Get a better torch, something industrial that will light this place up. We’ll come back better prepared. Maybe even bring a few cold beers and a sandwich. What do you say?”
The Minotaur was facing away from John, his gaze firmly fixed to the distance. “Did you hear that?” asked the Minotaur.
John didn’t hear anything, and was about to tell the Minotaur the very same when the torch cut out.
“Stop messing about,” said John to the void. “Turn the light back on.”
The air turned mute. The breathing John could hear was only his own. He reached out his hand and touched only dank silence. He tried walking a few steps in front and felt like he was about to walk off a cliff. To ease his own panic, he announced that he’d had enough and was heading back.
“When you’ve stopped being an arse, I’ll meet you back in the kitchen!”
John turned and found the end of the twine looped to his wrist. With the hand not holding the sword, he began to gather up the slack, retracing his steps.
“I’m off then,” he called out behind him. “If you want to make it back before dawn, I suggest you come with me.”
Without the torch, steps were cautious and exaggerated. Every damp wall he arrived at felt like the one he had just left. Had it not been for the twine guiding him toward the entrance, he would have been convinced he was moving in circles.
The spirit of the labyrinth’s exit drew the twine taught, and for the first time John saw a faint light pierce the sheet of black before him. His breath faltered only for a moment, but it was enough to allow a noise like that of two heavy stone slabs shifting against each other to gather its rhythm once again. He stopped and turned around, as if the act of facing the direction of the noise would enable him to hear it better. A profound bellow rose in the distance, then a collapse of mass, as if the whole room had been awoke from a deep sleep. The composition of mortar and lime had perished due to the damp, and his hand, pressing up against each one, had altered their position somehow. One by one, each wall that made up narrow corridors to the labyrinth were now crumbling, and, as one fell, it caused another to weaken creating a domino effect.
Unexpectedly, the noise changed. The shifting of stone was replaced with the sound of an animal wailing in agony. John considered the possibility that the weight of the crumbling walls had trapped the Minotaur. John called out, but what came back forced him to raise the sword. The animal was not trapped, but moving toward him. From the deepest recess of the abyss came a rolling growl that travelled through the ground rather than the air. The soles of his feet shook as the monster gathered stride, dust falling from the structure that clung together precariously around John. A foul stench rooted in all evil announced the monster’s immediate presence, and with a trembling hand, John dug his heel into the ground and placed his weight behind that Greek king’s sword, thrusting it into sinewy muscle and rancid flesh before him. As the monster cried out its final piercing shrill, John’s legs gave way and he fell upon its stinking carcass. Chest beat out with waves of adrenalin as the beast’s heart retreated into a timeless rest. In the stale air that was now absorbing the vestiges of life leaving the slain monster, John called out once more to his friend. Among the dirt and the warm tail of blood, his hand found the torch. A shaft of light drifted toward the nothingness. Dust particles fell before the beam like a thousand mayflies dancing above a fetid brook, and what was once brutal and unyielding remained still and silent. The Minotaur’s final words stirred the quintessence of dust for the final time. “We are all men of blood,” he said.
The sword remained with the Minotaur in the labyrinth. The tools left on the floor helped fix the buckled bolts with twisted screws. John ascended the steps and went into the living room where all the unpacked boxes remained. The room had no signs that indicated someone was living there. The walls were stripped bare, the shelves empty, as was the mantelpiece above the electric fireplace. The only sign of human existence was a small postcard pinned to one of the cupboards in the kitchen. It was of the Acropolis in Athens, and it had no inscription on the back.
The last of the Minotaur’s words accompanied John on his return back home. “We are all men of blood,” whispered John repeatedly, hoping that to hear them aloud might bring new meaning to each. When he arrived home, the dawn sun had blistered the night’s cold skin, leaving it yellow and red. Though his sleep had been disturbed, he didn’t feel tired, but instead lighter and more content. He checked his watch: an hour remained before he would have to get ready for work. John spent that time in the car, looking out toward the sky. He turned on the radio, and with perfect timing the Sex Pistols came on singing, “God Save the Queen.”
“Men of Blood” appears in the short story collection, Quintessence of Dust.
CRAIG WALLWORK is the Pushcart nominated writer of the novels To Die Upon a Kiss, The Sound of Loneliness, and the short story collection Quintessence of Dust. His stories have featured in many journals, magazines, and anthologies in the US and the UK. He lives in West Yorkshire with his wife and daughter. Rarely does he venture out of the North of England.