The Last Days of Jack Sparks - Jason Arnopp


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 me,’ 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