Authors: Jason Arnopp
First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Orbit
Copyright © 2016 by Jason Arnopp
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
An imprint of
Little, Brown Book Group
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
An Hachette UK Company
For my mum and dad,
who never told me to get a proper job
If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit.
Robert Anton Wilson
At the centre of the house in which my late brother Jacob and I grew up, there was a black hole.
That’s what we called it. In reality, it was a small room born of inexplicable architectural design. A roughly square space, right in the middle of a suburban Suffolk bungalow. No lights, windows or ventilation. No bigger than two department store changing rooms pushed together. Three doors led in and out.
Our mother made a virtue of this pointless junction box, as was her way, and hammered a coat rack to one of the walls in there. So it became the cloakroom.
Jacob, who would rise to fame and infamy as Jack Sparks, shared my instinctive fear of the word ‘cloak’. Cloaks covered people, rendering them sinister, and so our dread of that room deepened. Calling it ‘the black hole’ had actually made it less intimidating. Something science could explain.
The cloakroom was a place we took special measures to avoid. We would take the long route around every time – anything rather than having to enter that stale pocket of black. As you hurried through, your pulse would gallop. You’d gasp or even cry out as you mistook a prickle on the nape of your neck for the cold breath of the dead and gone.
The incident happened one Saturday in the summer of 1983, when Jacob was aged five, four years my junior. As with all siblings, there was some rivalry between us, but brotherly harmony was the norm. We would climb trees, ride bikes, play football. Then we would lean against each other as we limped home, after accidents that tended to involve trees, bikes or football.
This incident was born of pure childish innocence, but feels unexpectedly relevant here, in a book to which I never dreamt I would contribute. I really feel it sheds light on my brother’s nature and, I’m sorry to say, his severe downward spiral.
Most of the windows were open that day. Outside, hot air rippled. Our mother was in the garden, stretched out on a reclining lounger that occasionally broke and made her swear so loudly that our neighbours complained. She had one of her suspense novels, a pack of Silk Cut and her usual lack of suncream.
Jacob was absorbed with a toy car, whooshing it across the dining room floor, his face flushed. Seizing my chance for a bit of mutual fun, I stalked around the house and jammed all but one of the cloakroom’s doors shut, dragging furniture to create blockades. The architect had at least thought to make these doors open outwards.
I peered out through the kitchen window and saw Mum dozing, the book splayed on her belly. Then I told Jacob we were going to play a game.
He, I explained, would be a ghost-hunter. And I would be a ghost, chasing him. The rules of the game were simple. I would pursue him around the house. He had to try and pass through the black hole three times without being grabbed and turned into a ghost himself.
Jacob looked uncertain. ‘If I’m a ghost-hunter, why am I running?’
‘’Cause you’ve met
,’ I told him. ‘I’m a ghost that’s too big and evil to deal with.’
He thought this over, then to my relief accepted it. The trap was set.
Jacob ran whooping ahead of me as I waved my arms about and made spooky noises, restricting my speed so as not to catch him. Making a beeline for the exact cloakroom door I’d planned, he raced across the length of the dining room and bolted into the black.
Sprinting to catch up, almost slipping over, I slammed the door shut on him. Then I gripped the handle tightly with both hands, the muscles in my arms taut with anticipation.
There was a muffled thump as Jacob tried to exit through one of the other doors, only to find it impossible. His voice was indistinct, as if piped down a bad phone line.
‘Hey! It won’t . . .’
His voice trailed away as he tried another door. Another thump, and this time just a bewildered cry.
The blood thundered in my head as I squeezed that door handle, ready for the assault, which began in seconds. When Jacob wrenched it, only to encounter the perceptibly imperfect force of human resistance, his voice became charged with fear.
‘Ali, stop it! Ali!’
There was no chance of our mother hearing, and yet Jacob’s pitch rose along with his volume. Sometimes he would abandon his vain attempts to open the door, only to suddenly try again in the hope of surprising me. Or I would hear the
as he slammed himself against one of the other doors, yelling for Mum. Still I did not relent. Since he didn’t sound terrified and was not crying, I felt confident he too would see the funny side when I released him.
Then those calls from inside the cloakroom stopped dead.
Biceps burning, I twisted around and leant heavily back against the door. While watching flies chase each other, I listened hard.
I listened for what felt like a long time.
The sense of fun began to fade.
‘Don’t worry,’ I called through the thick wood. ‘I’ll let you out now, okay?’ I laughed, lightly.
There was no reply.
Despite standing in a room flooded with sunlight, I began to feel uneasy.
A sly, arcane image snuck unbidden into my mind.
I pictured Jacob transformed, inside that room.
In my head, he now stood wearing a cloak, with hollow darkness where his face should be.
I became convinced that this spectral monk who was once my brother now stood silently waiting for me to see him. When I opened the door, I decided, he would lurch out of the room. He would tear off my limbs, one by one, laughing as he did so.
‘Jakey?’ I called out.
My heart, which had thumped so excitedly only moments beforehand, now felt like it was banging on a door, wanting out.
I felt sick with worry about what had happened to my brother.
About what he had become in that unknowable space.
Seconds later, I saw it all coming out from under the door.
The purpose of my anecdote is certainly not to lend further ammunition to my online trolls, who nonsensically hold me responsible for the direction Jacob’s life took. I merely seek to offer a glimpse of his formative years, as a child who reacted in an unusually extreme manner to an otherwise harmless prank. On that front, at least, my conscience is clear. I also felt it prudent to present my side of the story, given that my brother also includes it in this book. He will pick up the story later, but sadly tells an exaggerated version, employing far less honesty than I.
Despite the suffocating media coverage that followed my brother’s untimely death at the age of thirty-six, the casual reader may be unaware of his achievements.
As a child, I had wanted to work in entertainment, but became a scientist. Conversely, Jacob had often spoken of ambitions within science, but of course became a writer and media personality. His first step along that road was a work experience placement at the
New Musical Express
in 1996. I still smile when I think of the phone call I received from this cocky eighteen-year-old upstart, telling me, ‘I’m in!’ The
had commissioned him to write his first published record review. Jack knew his music, even if it wasn’t to my taste. Come our teens, it would be the Sex Pistols, Motörhead and The Sisters of Mercy blaring out of his den, while mine played host to a bit of Pet Shop Boys.
He quickly changed his name, thinking Jack Sparks cooler. I was snowed under with my degree in biochemistry, but was pleased that my brother was showing signs of fulfilling my own earlier dream.
From work experience onwards, Jack left Mum and myself in Suffolk to move to London’s Camden Town, burrowing tenaciously into the business. During his twenties, he excelled himself, hopping back and forth across the Atlantic. While unable to catch many issues of the
at the time – although I often asked Jack for copies – I gathered that his direct interviewing technique and unflinching opinions generated debate among readers. This polarising effect would continue when he sought horizons beyond the musical ghetto.
His first non-fiction book,
Jack Sparks on a Pogo Stick
(Erubis Books, 2010), seemed ostensibly light-hearted, as he travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats on the titular device. But since he was unable to use motorways during his journey, it was also a fascinating study of the bygone curiosities to be found on British roads less travelled.