front page Horror Reanimated: Echoes
Joseph Dâ€™Lacey, Bill Hussey and Mathew F. Riley
HORROR REANIMATED: ECHOES This is the first Horror Reanimated publication. The stories within are works of fiction. All characters and events portrayed within are fictitious, and any resemblance to people or events is coincidental. Although they do say some writers write from experience... First, and only printing. Horror Reanimated 2009. Rhiannon’s Reach copyright © Joseph D’Lacey, 2009 Previously published at tqrstories.com Illustration copyright © Paul Mist, 2009 A Room Thus Stained copyright © Bill Hussey, 2009 Previously unpublished Illustration copyright © Paul Bower, 2009 Part of the Landscape copyright © Mathew F. Riley, 2009 Previously unpublished Photographs copyright © Mathew F. Riley, 2009 Cover art and book design by Lee Casey With thanks to Simon Appleby, Lee Casey, Paul Mist, Paul Bower and Owen Priestley All rights reserved.
HORRORREANIMATED.COM Blogging is hell
JOSEPH D’LACEY BILL HUSSEY MATHEW F. RILEY Limited to 200 copies Horror Reanimated 2009
RHIANNONS REACH By Joseph D’Lacey Illustrated by Paul Mist
A ROOM THUS STAINED
PART OF THE LANDSCAPE
By Bill Hussey Illustrated by Paul Bower
By Mathew F. Riley Photographs by the author
RHIANNONS REACH Joseph D’Lacey
The first time I used scuba gear in open water, I drowned. I was twenty years old. At ten metres, and five minutes into the dive, my ‘buddy’ - a German fish tourist called Hans - saw a leopard ray and swam off after it. I was watching two clownfish playing in an anemone and didn’t realise he was gone until I needed him. A jet of bubbles shot up behind me. I turned my head as far as I could but I couldn’t see the problem. Had I been more experienced, I’d have known that the O-ring between my tank and breathing gear had failed. I looked up and my precious air was already bursting at the surface. I really did try not to panic. Looking at the gauge I saw my remaining air was already below fifty bar. When we hit the water I’d had over two hundred bar in the tank. The needle was plunging as I watched. I tried to remember the emergency procedure in case of no more air. My so-called buddy should have been there to share his tank with me. I couldn’t see him or any of the other dozen divers that had descended with us. Thirty feet below the waves. Air at twenty bar. Too much time wasted thinking and not acting. I could see the bottom of the boat and the anchor line. The hell with decompression sickness, I had to get to the surface. To survive, I
had to risk the bends. I braced my feet on the coral, a big eco no-no, and kicked out with all my strength. It was so stupid. All I’d done was catch my left fin under a step in the coral. One careful movement and I’d have been free. That was the moment my tank went dry. I sucked on my regulator and it sucked back. My last breath was already wobbling its way upwards in a silvery bubble race. I panicked and kicked out again, wrenching my ankle badly. I gasped at the pain. Except I couldn’t gasp. There was no air in me and none in the tank. I looked up. The hull of the boat mocked me. Strange things go through your mind when you realise you’re going to die. Strange because they’re so ordinary. You see that they’re ordinary as you think those last thoughts and they strike you as both funny and sad. You piss yourself in cold dread and still have time to feel ashamed of it. As is always the way when you’re in pain or things are going badly, time stretches out and yawns because if you’re going to die you might as well take your time and appreciate every agonised microsecond of it. A person can survive for forty days or more without food. A few days without water. Without air a few minutes is the limit. The urge to live, to continue breathing, is far too strong to resist. I had to breathe something. I know it’ll sound stupid but I tore the regulator from my mouth and tried to breathe the sea, tried to catch one of those fleeing bubbles above me. I cried my own mini-ocean behind my facemask as the strength went out of my muscles. ◊ I woke up on the boat under a ring of dripping faces with an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. Hans was saying, “Ja, see? I told you he vould make it. Zat vill teach you to go off visout your buddy, Ja?” That was nineteen years ago. ◊
Land is life. The ocean is death. Between them lies the beach, a world between the worlds. The land is solid, honest. The sea is fluid, untrustworthy. The beach is neither and a little of both. A bleached white ribbon of ancient dust, some damp, some desert-dry. Death laps at life, shoulders it, massages it, tempers it, smoothes it, sooths it, wears it away. Defeats it. The sea is stronger, the sea always wins. The sea is the woman, the shore, the man. And ever he dies into her arms. Form and un-form. One dancing, the other still. Between them, this demimonde, this moulded place: the beach. It is a place of crossing over. The haunt of Rhiannon, a dry Styx. ◊ The dream is always the same. You tread water, just managing to keep your head above the surface, though the strength in your limbs is waning. The swell is average; a metre or more, but when you dip between waves, the sea is like walls around you. The sun is falling towards the horizon. You lose sight of it for longer with each trough you slip into. The water is chilly and you are naked. There’s the beginning of numbness in your toes and fingers. When you try to flex them, it’s as though your joints are filled with treacle. A larger wave catches you by surprise, breaking over your head. You breathe in a mist of seawater. You cough, then choke. Panic rises though you’ve tried hard to hold it down. The sea is so salty it makes you retch even as you try to catch your breath. You hack and splutter, finally clearing your airways. Your throat is brine-raw. You cannot see land. Even at the zenith of the largest wave, there is nothing around you but water. Cold, darkening water. The sky is changing colour and you are magnetised by its beauty. High ethereal clouds reflect the sun below them and shimmer in pearl ridges. Shades deepen, becoming orange and red. It’s happening too quickly. You should be watching this sunset from a balcony or a pier. You should be expecting to watch the sun rising again the following morning. Instead you’re treading water as a black as liquid calcite beneath a
purpling sky. Darkness. The sea does not sleep. The clouds have thickened and there is no moon. No stars reaching down to you. The waves have an unfathomable rhythm that makes no sense. All you know is that the sea is aware. That it is vast below you. You are a morsel to the leviathans that inhabit this immense drowning midnight. It would be better to freeze but the water is not quite cold enough. It would be better to drown but you don’t have the courage to let yourself sink. There’s a surge of current from beneath you. Unseen and gigantic, something rises. ◊ Dawn comes like breath to the strangled. I breathe in deep and don’t let go. The sea is the night world; the land is a beautiful day. I can’t stop thinking about it like this. It’s impossible not to make connections. It’s my obsession. There’s plenty of time to walk from my place to Sandy Point and back before work. And there’s no finer place on this earth than Pentrethern Beach at sunrise. The beach house is tiny, nothing more than a fixed-up fisherman’s cottage. I bought it for a song and it’s home. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than supported by these ancient wooden pilings with their seaweed beards and barnacle acne. In storm season the water sometimes reaches a couple of feet below the floor. Last time that happened was years ago when I bought the place. I got wet that year but only because I hadn’t finished repairing the roof when the rains came. The side door of the house opens out from the kitchen straight onto the dunes. From there it’s a few steps down a loose slope to the beach and uncommon liberty. A wider horizon or a broader sky there cannot be. Perhaps it’s a quirk of the light here, something to do with particles of seawater in the air, but the size of the world is magnified and I am gratefully tiny. I amble to the drift line where the tide has discarded its trinkets and keep walking until my bare feet touch the wetter sand. Here the beach is a little firmer,
the going easier. I make a stiff pace for the two miles to Sandy Point and take my time scanning the drift line on the way back. Breakfast is scrambled eggs, toast and coffee - then work: I show and sell some of the finest homes along this stretch of the pacific coastline; mansions for stars, estates for gangsters and castles for the licensed thieves that call themselves businessmen. None of the properties have what my place has. None of them has the magic of Rhiannon’s Reach. ◊ It isn’t drowning that frightens me - I’m a good swimmer. Strong over long distances and fast over short ones. I’ve still got the college trophies that prove it. No, drowning is easy. Darker fates await us at sea. To die in the ocean is to leave no trace of yourself, no account of what happened. When I think of the thousands, the millions that have lost their lives in the deep, my kidneys turn to water. None of them can say what killed them - sharks or orcas devouring them in minutes, barracudas tearing off a piece at a time, solitary leaden despair. Sure, that’s all bad. But there are worse things out there in the night-black water. Things no one survives to tell of. That’s what scares me. Think of this: all but a single percent of the entire planet’s living space is in the ocean. Humans have explored less than a tenth of it. There are creatures down there we know nothing about. They come to me every time I sleep. Yet the ocean is the most captivating and beautiful thing on this earth. It is never far from my thoughts. I am both cowed and drawn by it. It’s why I came here. ◊ We could have been standing in heaven’s lobby, the sun stencilling angled shadows from the giant window frames across a white marble floor. From where we stood all you could see was ocean. An expanse of blue purity frothing in silent slow motion beyond the glass. It would have been hot as hell in there, but I’d arrived an hour early and turned on the air conditioning. Now the room was
surgically cool. “The glass is bullet-proof - the previous owners had a thing about home security - and you operate the electric blinds with this remote.” I clicked a rubber toggle on a slim shard of grey plastic and the blinds descended. The guy, his hair lethally spiked, ignored my display saying: “Tell you what I want, babe. I want those windows that darken on voice command. Like in that movie.” Babe said: “They do those, Stevie? For real?” Stevie shot a look at her like he’d throttle her. Don’t show me up, bitch his eyes said. “Let’s take a look at the kitchen,” I turned away so that they could mime and lip behind me. The kitchen was part of the dining room, which was part of the living room that we stood in. One huge open space. Cylindrical white columns supported the ceiling twenty feet over our heads. I gestured in various directions. “Eight-ring halogen range, restaurant strength extractor unit, double-door fridge, double-door freezer, microwave and two conventional ovens, black granite surfaces, black granite preparation and storage island. Lots of space. Dishwasher. Double sink unit with mixer faucets. Chef ’s paradise.” “I don’t cook,” said Stevie. “She definitely don’t cook.” “Stevie. I do great pizza.” “Right. Out of a box. And you dial Domino’s like pro.” Her silence was full and hot in the cool air. In the bedroom, another vast arena for vast egos, it was all forgotten. They touched fingers, pressed their hips together - I thought they’d drop and fuck right there on the floor. It was beyond me. I looked at the whitecaps through the expanse of glass. Romantics might have compared their relationship to the sea. Bullshit. These people had no depth. They had no meaning. The sea demanded to be understood and obeyed. The sea had purpose and presence. Stevie and his babe were litter, degradable and useless. When they called the office later that day to say they wanted to buy The Outlook I had to revise my judgement. They were the kind of degradable, useless
litter that paid my commissions. Perhaps there was meaning in that. ◊ Sandy Point Dive Centre is on the other side of the spot I walk to each morning. Between them is a headland of smooth granite boulders, some as big as houses. Where the sea touches these huge rocks they are scored with vertical ridges and ruts. It looks like someone has run a giant ice cream scoop down their faces in parallel strokes. But these rocks are almost diamond hard and it’s the sea that has made these weird grooves in them over millions of years. Climbing the rocks is fun but hazardous. The easiest way to reach the dive centre is by car. Usually takes me five minutes on the coast road. The north shore of the Pentrethern peninsula is where I spend most of my weekends. The area isn’t well known to regular tourists but it attracts divers from all over the world. There’s a string of small hotels and backpacker stations along that part of the coastline and they’re pretty full for most of the summer. On my side of the peninsula, the south side, it’s fairly deserted. Most people can’t stand the incessant wind that comes straight off the ocean. Where the finger of Pentrethern joins the mainland and south from that point is where the wealthy want to live. The Outlook is about three miles down the coast from me. With decent binoculars, I can probably Stevie and his girlfriend’s balcony from mine. ◊ “What do we have for today, Reggie?” “Uh, let’s see…” Reggie Skinner ran a finger down the wall chart. “Yeah, this morning we’re going to Parrot Reef and this afternoon it’s The Abyss. Weather permitting.” “Expecting foul seas?” “Nah. Not really. Just a patch of cloud on the satellite image. Doubt it will be there in an hour but I’ll keep an eye on it anyways.” “Full boat?” “Yeah. Both trips.” “The season begins…”
“I guess. Got wrecks and night dives all next week. The week after that I got two big groups taking Open Water Diver on top of the usual trips. From where I’m standing, I can’t see the end of summer.” I laughed. Reggie drove to work in a dented Ford pickup but I knew he had a Porsche and a Mercedes in separate garages at home. Around the dive centre he wore cut off jeans, stained tee shirts and grimy deck shoes. His beard made him look like a beachcomber but his house was one of the big beauties south of the peninsula. I knew because I’d sold it to him. “Least you won’t starve,” I said. Reggie winked. “Your gear’s on the jetty. Get outta my face.” I’m always first to the dive centre. I’ve got a thing about checking my gear myself. I’m particularly finicky about perished o-rings and carry a little Ziploc baggy full of spares. By the time the other divers have arrived, I’ve been over my stuff three times. I’ve plenty of qualifications now - Advanced Open Water, Dive Master, Rescue Diver, Adventure Diver - but that doesn’t take the fear away. I couldn’t possibly not dive, though. If I gave in to the fear, I might as well stop living. ◊ Bluecheese, the skipper - we live in fear of the day he removes his sneakers took us out to Parrot Reef. There were thirteen aboard Mable Pipebrush, the dive boat: Nancy and Greg - Reggie’s two full time Dive Masters - and a bunch of others I didn’t know. They’d dive here for a day or a week and then they’d be gone. I tried not to talk to them too much. I’ve dived the Parrot maybe fifty, sixty times. It’s a small, almost circular reef about a hundred metres across and it’s grown about five metres off the bottom. The top of the reef is twelve metres down and there’s nothing deeper than about seventeen. It’s always a good dive to start the day with. Bluecheese anchored a little way off so as not to damage the coral. The boat nodded lazily against its tether. There was almost no wind and the sky was clear from horizon to horizon. Looking over the side, I could see the bottom and the blurred edge where the reef began. It was perfect diving weather and I knew before I touched the water the visibility would be excellent.
My buddy was Yvette, a stockbroker from Paris. After the briefing, we followed the anchor line down to the coral and began an anticlockwise sweep. I was able to show Yvette the holes where the morays lay in wait for prey. When no one was looking, I fed some turkey meat to Neil the eel - my favourite moray at the Parrot. I could sense Yvette’s nervousness as I put my hand near Neil’s mouth, but he knew me pretty well. I trusted him not to be greedy and take a finger. Visibility was twenty metres or more and the dive was over way too quickly. We made a short decompression stop at five metres and were lucky to see a shoal of seven sunfish drift by. One of them was about the size of Yvette. She’d never seen one before and hid behind me as they swum past. I don’t know why they’re called sunfish; they look more like pale moons with dorsal and pectoral fins added on as an afterthought. No one else saw them. ◊ The afternoon dive was a longer ride. Due west of Sandy Point is the drop-off, the underwater equivalent of a sheer cliff. Beyond it, the ocean geography is like the Grand Canyon; close to shore it’s about a mile deep. Head out to sea a few more minutes and suddenly the bottom is three miles below you. I tried not to think about it. From the boat on a sunny day like that, you could see the line in the ocean where the aquamarine water turns black. There was a definite sense of sobriety from the divers as we approached, even the ones that have dived a drop-off before stopped joking around and telling stories. Bluecheese dropped the anchor and got everyone’s attention. “Okay everyone, listen in, please. This afternoon’s dive is affectionately known as The Abyss but don’t expect to see any aliens down there. This is strictly fish territory - and some of the best you’ll see on the west coast. This side of the drop-off the depth is about twenty-two metres. The other side ain’t worth thinking about. You’ll be able to fin along the top of the cliff face and look into all the cracks and crevices. You’ll see some beautiful coral fans - be careful not to touch them because they’re fragile. Look out for turtles, yellow tail tuna, whitetips and reef sharks. I saw an eight foot grouper down here one time so keep an eye open for him…”
While Bluecheese lectured I noticed clouds bunching on the horizon. There’d been no word from Reggie on the radio so I assumed they must still be far enough away as to make no difference to the dive. Because it was a deep dive, we wouldn’t be staying down long anyway. The swell was larger here than at the Parrot so the boat rocked and tugged hard at its line. Even though Bluecheese had anchored over the shallower water, the boat had swung out towards the edge of the drop-off. One side of us was turquoise, the other side onyx. “…currents can be a little capricious here so if you start to drift, don’t panic and don’t try to swim back to the boat when you surface. Inflate your markers, relax and Uncle Bluecheese will come to collect you. We dive for twenty-five minutes or until you reach fifty bar. Enjoy.” Bluecheese made a head count and checked his clipboard before handing out the weight belts. About that time I heard a powerful engine noise. Coming straight towards us from the shore was a motor launch. She was riding high on her bow wave and chewing up the knots. Had to be an expensive piece of equipment. Bluecheese stepped to the port side of the dive boat and waited. The launch cut its engines and the bow relaxed into the water. The launch’s helm was on the higher of two levels and as it turned and stopped beside us, twin outboards idling, I saw shades and a head that looked like a medieval mace. Beside the man stood the tanned, slim creature that cooked great pizza. Stevie waved. “Prepare to be boarded,” he yelled, showing two rows of expensive dentistry. Bluecheese said nothing. “Reggie said you’d be out here. Thought we’d tag along.” “This is a private, paying dive party,” Bluecheese said after a while. “I can’t stop you diving here but you can’t be counted in the group. Sorry.” “Yeah, that’s about what Reggie said too. Didn’t take it for a ‘no’ though. See you subsurface, dudes.” Stevie slid sailor-style down the ladder from the helm and started pulling on his gear. I wondered if he had any experience outside a training pool. My buddy for the dive was Yvette again. I hadn’t rigged it; it was the luck of the draw. And I did feel lucky. She was pale as a statue and under the water her skin was like living porcelain. Her legs were slim and coltish and her breasts petite. When she looked at me I found it hard to talk.
I was like this with every girl I dived with, though. I’d been on my own for as long as I could remember and it was hurting. I could buddy the county dumpster and still find something attractive about her. Diving with guys just pissed me off. Swimming with a woman several metres below the surface of the ocean, you feel right. Like you were meant to be together. Like you’re destined to spend eternity in that cool, all-encompassing intimacy. Nothing’s more obvious than a hard-on in a wetsuit, however, so I try to keep my mind on the fish. Scuba diving is all about minimising physical effort. Tiring yourself out is dangerous and shortens dive time because you use up your air. Relaxation is the key, as it is with all sports. You can tell a novice diver in a few moments. They spend a long time equalising on the way down, repeatedly adjust their buoyancy and often need to correct their swimming position because they tend to keel from one side to another. They also constantly check their air. None of these things are bad; they merely mean a person is getting to grips with life under water. In time, they glide along as effortlessly as the fish. Yvette, it turned out, had only done ten dives in three years. I’d kept a close eye on her that morning and had a great excuse to lend a steadying hand from time to time. I looked forward to doing it again. Greg and Nancy made it clear they wanted everyone to stick to the dive plan and ignore Stevie and his girlfriend. The two hangers-on would benefit from the dive masters’ knowledge of this area of the drop-off. I thought of remora - the sucker fish that clamp themselves to larger fish and live on their leavings. As we sat on the edge of the boat with our masks held firm over our eyes, I looked to my left and saw a tense face. “You okay, Yvette?” I asked. There would only be hand signals once we were in the water. If she had a real problem, I needed to know then. “I am fine,” she said. But her smile was uncertain. “A little nervous, perhaps.” I reached over and squeezed her hand. “Stay close to me. You’ll be fine. If you need to surface, just signal. Okay?” “Yes.” She nodded. “Okay.” The smile lightened. “Let’s go,” I said and we both leaned back over the edge.
◊ The water sealed over our heads. We belonged to the ocean. At the surface the water was warm but I suspected we’d be glad of our wetsuits later in the dive. I let the air out of my BCD but stayed upright watching Yvette as I sank. It wasn’t long before she was having difficulties. Three or four metres down she screwed her face up and pinched her nose through her mask trying to equalise. The pressure was hurting her. The only places in the body where there are air spaces are the sinuses and the ears. While descending, it’s essential to close the nose with your fingers and blow to equalise the pressure. Otherwise the weight of the sea becomes like a vice around your head and needles of pain shoot through your skull as the airspaces are crushed. I finned up to Yvette and signalled for her to watch my face. I then made exaggerated chewing movements with my jaw and nodded for her to do the same. After a few seconds I saw the lines on her face clear. She made an O shape with her thumb and forefinger to signal she was okay and we continued downwards. Before we reached twenty metres, she’d stopped to equalise three times. I looked down. The other divers, including Stevie and his girlfriend, were ahead of us, already moving along the top of the drop off. The visibility wasn’t as good as it had been at the Parrot so I lost sight of the party quickly. I knew I wouldn’t be likely to see them again until we were back on the boat. I sighed releasing a bigger crop of bubbles - and kept a close eye on Yvette. She was my responsibility and that was far more important than a twenty-five minute fish safari. There would be other dives. When you first get under the surface, you feel like you’re deaf. After a while, though, you realise you’re still hearing things but in a different way. The slap of the waves against the hull of the boat is a thud. The loudest noise is your breathing which sounds kind of ‘twhooooo’ ‘hoooooo’ because of the valve inside your regulator. You can hear boat engines from a long way off but you have no idea which direction the sound is coming from. When you’re near coral you can hear pops and crackles of tiny creatures moving, breathing and eating. It sounds like underwater rice crispies. Overall, though, the sense is that you’re in a much quieter place where things happen more slowly owing to the density of the medium. Then you see a tuna or a reef shark and realise the only slow thing
in the water is you. Yvette and I reached the drop off but she stayed behind me all the way. Even through the darker, murkier water I could see the trepidation in her eyes. I understood it too. As we reached the edge, the rock dropped away beyond sight. No gentle hillside. Just a sheer descent into God knew what. Of course, we were suspended above this precipice and could look out into the water that was above and all around us too. On the drop-off side that water was black and never ending. It was easy to imagine something looming out of the darkness and coming after you, but when you dive in a group, things like that rarely, if ever, happen. Shark attacks are seldom unprovoked and the ones that aren’t are usually caused by stupidity or ignorance. I noticed we were moving along the edge of the cliff without needing to fin at all, which meant there was a gentle current. All we had to do was drift and watch the wall go by. It was colder down there, as I’d expected, and I could see the goose bumps on Yvette’s calves and forearms where they stuck out of her ‘shortie’ wetsuit. I waved her closer and pointed to the coral fans that stuck straight out from the wall. They were white and pink and blue and waved like two-dimensional trees in the water’s flux. Some of them were as broad as cars. She relaxed a little then and began to notice other things living in the rock face as we floated past. Ahead of us there was no sign of the other divers. Yvette took my hand. We smiled through our masks. The sensation is a little like flying or weightlessness, I suppose. You could imagine doing either. We were gliding above a chasm so profound that we couldn’t see the bottom and all the time we surveyed in silent awe the plants and animals that lived along the face of that canyon. Stripy-maned lionfish hovered below branches of coral. Eels, much larger than the ones at Parrot Reef, worked their jaws and watched us through dead eyes. Groupers huddled in the shadow of boulders on the top of the drop-off. Shoals of tiny yellow, orange and green fish darted away at our approach. I saw a large shape below us and pointed out the thick lipped, bulbous headed giant wrasse that watched us drift over it. It passed out of sight almost before Yvette got to see it. The current was getting stronger. Yvette kept herself oriented towards the rock face, not noticing the speed we’d picked up. I felt pressure on my eardrums and checked my depth, alarmed to discover we had sunk to twenty-eight metres without me noticing. Gently, so as not to startle
Yvette, I put my head up and finned us back to twenty-five. Yvette was so engrossed she hadn’t felt the change of pressure. The water turned colder then, as though we’d passed from sun into shadow on an autumn day. The current picked up still more and finally Yvette realised the rate we were flying along the face of the wall. She looked at me, wide-eyed, and waved her hand past her face a couple of times to indicate our speed. I nodded and then gave her the okay sign. Things are fine, Yvette, I said inside my head and smiled to let her know I was relaxed. I pointed to her and then to me and brought my two index fingers parallel and touching each other. My inference: we stick together. I turned us into the current and tried finning against it. It was impossible. I barely slowed down. Whatever happened, there was no going back the way we’d come. I remembered Bluecheese’s words ‘don’t panic, don’t swim back, relax’. There was nothing else we could do. In the rock face, all the fish were sheltering. I saw a sea turtle jammed into a crevice, a ray peeped from a ledge. Then we passed six white tips sharks mulling in a cavern. The humans were the only ones in the current; all the other fish were holed up. There was one thing we could do and that was fin with the current and try to catch up with the rest of the group. I signalled my intent to Yvette and we both kicked out in their direction. To our left, the rock wall passed by even quicker. The giant fans reached out toward us and from time to time we had to evade them. Yvette, not so nimble in the water, crashed straight through one tearing away its fronds in a slow motion explosion. She looked at me and I shook my head and shrugged. There was nothing she could have done. We had to make sure we stayed close enough to the wall not to lose sight of it and far enough away that we didn’t catch ourselves on the rocks as we passed. The visibility worsened because of all the stirred up particles in the water. We could only see about five metres by then. We were fifteen minutes into the dive and there was always the option of surfacing early. But if everyone else stayed down and inflated their markers at the end, there was no way to gauge how far we’d be from where Bluecheese picked them up. With a current like this we might find ourselves a mile or more from everyone else. I decided we should stay down. I knew I was frightened, though: Fear makes surfacing very attractive.
Kicking in the direction of the drift, our speed was dangerous but it felt good to be doing something about our situation. I squeezed Yvette’s hand and she squeezed back. In the gloom up ahead, figures began to take shape. I could make out Greg’s red wetsuit and Nancy’s fluorescent yellow fins, but the colours were muted. The water was getting darker. I pointed to make sure Yvette would see them too. Seconds later we were amongst them. Everyone gave each other an okay signal but I could see the anxious faces. All except for Stevie’s, whose hair was still spiked, as though held with glue. His expression was manic. He made eye contact with me, shook his fist and nodded exaggeratedly: This rocks. He grinned, his crowns far too white. His girlfriend, who I still only knew as ‘Babe’, looked like she was crying. I made a head count; we were all there. No reason not to surface now. I signalled Greg and Nancy with a thumbs-up and an enquiring look. Should we surface? They looked at each other, taking a moment to decide. At that moment I felt the pressure in my ears build up again, this time suddenly. I glanced at my depth gauge and as I did so, I noticed that the rock wall seemed to be going up as well as past. My head hurt. Somehow, we’d been pushed to thirty-five metres. I tried to fin straight upwards and made a metre or two but the current increased. We were all being forced into The Abyss. To my left and right everyone was struggling to fin upwards. It wasn’t working. Just then Yvette let go of my hand. I looked down and saw how hard she was kicking to stay with us against the current. Then the answer hit me. I couldn’t believe I’d been so goddamned stupid for so many valuable seconds. All we needed to do was control buoyancy with the air in our tanks. I made a fork shape with my two first fingers and pointed them at myself to get Yvette to keep watching me and then used the button on my BCD to push air into my jacket. Immediately I began to rise. Yvette was exhausted by the effort of kicking and I saw her left leg buckle - a huge cramp bending her leg in half. There was pain all over her face from the pressure in her head and the agony of her knotted hamstring. She was getting farther away. I showed her and showed her, pointed to the air filler. She held out both her hands to me. Her eyes pleaded, long chains of bubbles accompanying her silent screams until she faded out of sight. She wasn’t the only one. At least half the other divers were following her
down under the weight of the enormous current. Everyone else was inflating their BCDs and floating up out of danger. My depth gauge recorded that I’d been down to forty metres. Christ, I thought, how do you calculate a decompression stop for that kind of reading? I’d used a hell of a lot of air because of the depth and because I’d hyperventilated. On the way up we’d all have to stop at five metres until our air supply was all but gone. There might be a chance that none of us got the bends. Just a chance. There was shock on everyone’s faces. There was guilty relief there too. They had not been the ones to plunge into the deep and be crushed in the blackness. Stevie was still with us. So was Babe. How the hell could the ocean take a beautiful, intelligent, innocent girl like Yvette and leave a dumb bimbo like her? How the hell had the idiot Stevie survived? It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t accept Yvette wasn’t coming back at that stage. She’d work out how to inflate her jacket and she’d float back up to join us. Sure, she’d get decompression sickness and would be hospitalised but she wasn’t gone. She wasn’t dead. I knew for certain that even if she wasn’t coming back, she and all the others still had air in their tanks and were still alive as they sank into oblivion. I cried for them. I know what it is to lose yourself at sea. ◊ At five metres there were no currents. We waited there for as long as we could. One by one we ascended when our tanks ran dry. I managed eight minutes breathing as slowly as possible before I had to go up. I hoped it was enough to stop me getting sick. It was a different world to the one we’d left. The clouds that had been on the horizon were above us. The sun was gone and a cold wind was pulling the surface into ugly peaks. When Bluecheese caught up with us, getting back into the boat was going to be a struggle. Babe and a couple of other women were crying. The men were trying to hide it or were still too shocked to understand what had just happened. Some of these people had just lost friends or lovers, maybe husbands and wives. For a few moments, no one spoke. They just inflated their markers as instructed. Soon we were a group of heads and thin red balloons. “Everyone drop your weight belts,” Greg said. “Your BCDs are now your
life vests. Inflate them with whatever air you have left or do it with your own breath.” Stevie began to laugh. Weird, chittery giggles. “Sorry,” he said, between spasms. “This is just way too fucked.” But the laughter wouldn’t stop. “Jesus…Jesus…I can’t fucking…Jesus Christ.” The giggles turned to sobs and Stevie the rock star or actor or whatever the hell he was, melted into a little boy in front of all of us. Even Babe stopped crying as she watched it happen. The waves were two metres high by then and the wind was blowing the crests off every one of them. Above us, all was grey and the rain began to fall in warm pregnant drops. Each time a wave lifted me up I looked for Bluecheese in the dive boat. There was nothing out there with us not even the gleaming helm of Stevie’s gin palace. There was no telling how far we’d drifted. I knew Reggie could see the satellite map of where we were and what was out here. I knew that he and Bluecheese would be in radio contact and that the lifeboat and helicopters would come looking for us within an hour if Bluecheese couldn’t find us. All we had to do was stay calm until then. What scared me was knowing that our feet were dangling above three miles or more of unknowable water. The suspicion that there was something down there, something huge biding its time, made it hard for me to concentrate on the good. That and the slow realisation that five of the dive party had by now probably reached the darkest part of the ocean and that the creatures there would be taking an interest in their flesh. Yvette’s imploring eyes, her hands stretching out to me, the way her features grew dim in the poor visibility, all this began to play itself back through my mind as I watched the shock settle onto every face. Nancy took charge. “Anyone hurt?” She looked from face to face. “Sick?” No one spoke. “Good. If anyone feels unwell, I need to know straight away. We were a long way down and we have to face the possibility of the bends. Keep me informed. Meanwhile, everyone stay close together. Worst-case scenario is that the boat can’t find us in this weather. It doesn’t matter. Enough about our position is known that we’ll be found within a couple of hours tops. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” One of the divers, I didn’t know his name, said:
“What about Jennifer? How are we going to find her?” Nancy and Greg looked at each other and then at me. The guy said: “She’s out here with us somewhere, right? I mean, she’ll have surfaced by now and she’ll be frightened out here on her own. We should shout for her so she knows where we are.” Babe surprised me then. She swum over to the guy and put her arm around him. He got a stupid look on his face like, that’s-nice-but-I’m-fine-reallyJennifer’s-coming-right-back. Stevie was weeping quietly to himself, his black hair spikes counting for nothing out there in the middle of the ocean, a long way from his boat and his house and his fans. That seemed perfectly correct to me. This was what the ocean did to people - it humbled them, held a mirror up to them, silenced them with its breadth and power. “Maybe we should start finning towards the shore,” said one of the women. She was a doctor or surgeon - I’d overheard her talking on the boat ride. “No,” said Greg. “We’d be exhausted long before we got there. We don’t know what the currents are doing either. We could fin towards shore and still end up going further out to sea without even knowing it. Better to go with it, save our strength.” The rain fell harder, as if hurled. Clouds lit up from the inside with sheet lighting. Thunder rocked and echoed overhead and the afternoon light became a storm’s dusk. The swell grew. There were only two things I wanted to hear: the spiral air-hack of rotor blades or the phlegmy rumble of powerful outboards. I listened and listened. ◊ I checked my watch again. It was five o’clock - way too early for night to fall. But the sky was purple and churning. Alternately the waves tossed us up towards the sky on pyramids of black water and dropped us into valley-deep nadirs. Staying together was becoming difficult. Lightning flickered and blazed so often that the thunder stopped us talking. We’d been on the surface for two hours. I wondered whether they’d scramble choppers or send lifeboats into this
kind of weather and I thought I knew the answer. ◊ I began to tire. Darkness really was falling by then - my watch said it was seventhirty. In the gloom I saw shapes in the water and couldn’t tell if they were real. Solid forms seemed to break the surface and then disappear before I could work out what I was seeing. Sometimes these forms were huge, like parts of a whale perhaps - a flank or part of an enormous fin. Then the sea would resolve itself into carved, jagged waves and ridges once again and I would think that all I’d seen was an unnerving quirk of light and shadow. It happened again and again. Every face was pale and fearful, the brightest objects in our constantly moving world. “We should link arms,” Greg said. “Stay together.” Everyone kicked closer to each other and hooked elbows to form a ring. There was some comfort in that closeness no but no warmth. Even with our wetsuits on we’d all been in the water for too long. We were losing body heat and energy rapidly. A circle of seven faces. Everyone kept their masks on because it kept the salt water out of our eyes and made being hit by waves less disorienting. Stevie wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone but Babe caught my glance and smiled at me. Out here she seemed far more real and genuine than she had on land. Maybe this was changing her. Or maybe I just wanted to believe that the power of the sea had done something good for these people - wrought some change that would make our suffering and terror mean something. ◊ When darkness fell, the fear of what might circle below was infectious. Unable to see each other, the linking of arms gave us a small tactile security. Tentatively, embarrassed to start with, we began to tell stories. There was no judgement on the merit of our tales. Some people told jokes. Others related incidents from their childhoods. Babe sang some awful rendering of a half-remembered tune her mother used to sing. She couldn’t remember all the words and kept repeating some of the lines. Babe couldn’t sing but it was good
to hear her try. The lightning stopped not long after the sun went down. When we might have had the comfort of seeing brief flashes of each others’ faces, we had nothing but the contact of each other’s arms. The occasional meeting of legs under the surface made everyone recoil, not knowing whether it really was their neighbour or something far worse. The rain continued and the wind with it. I prayed it would let up and give the rescue teams a chance to find us. Listening to the stories was comforting but I was exhausted. Time and again my head lolled backwards into the water as I momentarily lost consciousness and then jerked awake. I felt the human ring we’d formed slide up the sides of waves the height of houses and then plummet down the other side. Several people had vomited their stomachs dry and still retched with the gut-lurching motion of the sea. ◊ I woke up and couldn’t tell if I had my eyes open or not at first. I blinked and realised that I couldn’t see because it was ink dark all around. I was still in the water and I was very cold. My throat was salt-dry. Though tempted to let a little of the cold wetness sooth my tongue, I was still alert enough to realise the seawater would only make it worse. Unlike the others, I hadn’t been sick but swallowing seawater would cause me to vomit what little fluids I had left in my stomach. I couldn’t take that risk. I flexed my fingers against the cold and stretched my body out in the water to keep myself mobile. It was then I realised that I wasn’t hanging on to anyone else any more. Goddammit, how could I have been so stupid as to fall asleep? “Nancy? Greg?” My voice sounded ridiculous to me in all that black space. It didn’t stop me shouting. “Hey! Anyone! Stevie? Babe? Who’s out here?” I started screaming. And after a while stopped. Somehow, I could see myself from high above - a dark speck, twenty miles off the pacific coast, yelling into the deaf ears of the sea and the night. I’d lost everyone.
I was totally alone. I remembered the dream. ◊
The tears I cried reminded me of the tears I’d cried when I drowned. I could smell them inside my mask and they had the same tang. It was the aroma of defeat and resignation. The pathetic human brine of mortality. My ego was obliterated by the mass of the ocean and my own powerlessness. I was nothing. Yet, even without any sense of self worth, my terror persisted. I was a point of focus abroad on the screen of the sea and anything watching from below would know me for what I was. ◊ The rain stopped. The wind took an arrow in the heart. The ocean calmed. Dawn. Luminescent grey at first. The pink tendrils of dilute, bloody light becoming redder, infusing the sky with life. The unfolding, and inflating of the day. And with it, hope. Stupid, misplaced hope. ◊ Whatever I’d imagined out there with me, reality came calling that morning. I began to think I’d seen a grey fin part the water and disappear. Then I thought I’d seen two or three. Dolphins. For God’s sake let them be dolphins. They weren’t dolphins. I hadn’t imagined anything. ◊ I didn’t want to count them but I couldn’t help it. Somewhere in the region of thirty dorsal fins were circling me at a distance of twenty metres or so. There
would be more below. When it came, that was where the first attack would originate. I couldn’t help it, now that it was full light; I put my face into the water and looked down. The visibility was good, even looking straight below myself. I turned slowly around in the water using my hands as fins. I was in the middle of a huge school of hammerheads. The numbers at the surface were a small fraction of what was below. My head out of the water, I gasped, drew my legs up foetally and was still. All around me, the grey blades of their backs severed the water and the air then disappeared to be replaced by others. They swum anticlockwise and I felt that I was turning slightly with them. So many sharks circling me that they were stirring the ocean into a gentle vortex and I was the bubble at the centre of it. I prayed for motors and rotors and heard nothing. ◊ I cursed myself then. Why had I come to Rhiannon’s Reach and forced myself to go diving every weekend? Why had it been so important that I live within sight of this terrifying, mysterious ocean? I could have gone anywhere. Anywhere but here. The circle of fins was shrinking. None of the sharks were more than ten metres away from me. There was no point looking into the water again; I knew what I would see down there. The spin of the whirlpool became faster and I could see that there was a definite downward slope to my point in the centre of all the sharks. This, I assumed, was how they hunted smaller fish and turned them into swirling, silver bait-balls. Any moment the first attack would come. Above me there was a throaty birdcall. It took all my attention for just a few short moments. Crrrronnnnkk. Overhead, following the movement of the sharks, was a huge black crow or raven. It was so low I could see the glittering of its obsidian eye. But that was crazy. Crows never came this far out to sea. Did they? Maybe I wasn’t as far from land as I thought. Crrrooonnnnkkkkk! It sounded like laughter. I’d have been laughing if I was that crow. God, how I wished then that I
could glide above all this water and death and find my way back to dry land and Rhiannon’s Reach. I’d set down on Pentrethern Beach and never leave the shore again. Not even a toe in the water. Cronnk, Crrrroonnkkkk! The crow made a final loop and soared away. I span faster at the centre of my spiralling concavity of ocean. I could feel the sea beginning to pull me down. I used the toggle on my BCD and pumped it full of air. There was a second or two of audible inflation and then the tank ran truly dry - not a molecule of air left within it. I fixed my eye on one grey fin and found I was turning in unison with it. The walls of the vortex steepened and lengthened until I was looking up out of the broad end of a narrowing funnel. The whirlpool was huge. Only my head remained above the surface as I span. Above me, broad dorsal fins of dozens of hammerhead sharks passed in tighter and tighter circles around the inside of a vertical tube of sea. All I wanted was to be out in the light and air. The sea took me down. ◊ I was on the deck of a boat, still rocking with the movement of the sea but out of the water. A circle of faces peered down at me. I tried to smile, to speak. I was unable to move. Cool gas chilled my lips and open mouth but I couldn’t taste it or feel it inside my chest. Someone said, “Hey, kid, stay vis us, okay? You’re going to make it. Don’t give up.” ◊ I saw myself floating in the water from high above. My head lolled back against the empty tank. Sharks, hundreds of sharks, circled me closer and closer. I followed their movement, descending. I called out to the floating, sleeping me. Crrronnnkkk. ◊
From the deep I sense a tiny figure far above me. A cumbersome creature from the land is dying in the water. It hangs there at the surface, limp and over-laden. It should not have come here to the sea. To my realm. The legged, air breathers would do well to remember that the land is where they belong. But this one has not made a mistake. It has come to me for a reason. ◊ My fins and booties are gone. I find myself struggling to my feet on a very recognizable stretch of sand. I am weak and can barely hold myself straight up. Being on land is like having platinum bones and mercury for blood. Putting one foot in front of the other is a major campaign. Then I remember my tank, which weighs several kilos. I unstrap my BCD and let the whole lot fall behind me onto the damp, yielding sand with a hollow thump. I want to be dry now that I am free of the ocean. I strip off my sodden wetsuit and leave it where it drops. Let the tide take it. Let the sea have it all. Wearing only trunks, the breeze off the water is too cold to ignore. It dries me quickly, though, and I feel slightly refreshed albeit on the point of exhaustion. The way my mind is messing with me, I could be in shock, suffering from hypothermia, hallucinating or worse. I need to find shelter and food. I need to drink a gallon of sweet, fresh water. This is enough to keep me walking. There’s debris on the beach. A lot of it is diving equipment - battered air tanks, ripped wetsuits, a snorkel and mask. There’s worse too: pieces of wreckage that I recognise as fragments of the Mable Pipebrush. Several of her lifejackets and buoys are tangled up together in a fluorescent orange heap. Two of the planks that formed her benches, and her grappling hook lie abandoned along the drift line. The beach is different. Rocks I’ve never seen before poke up though the sand like volcanic spikes. It’s as though the waves came and dragged the sand out to sea. Looking at the dunes I realise I must be a couple of metres below the level I’d normally walk. The storm has changed everything. I feel dread in spite of my relative safety. In spite of my deliverance from the deep. The daylight is uniformly grey, the sky
close and dense. I walk a little faster towards Rhiannon’s Reach. It takes longer than it used to. I find I’m having to climb over sharp rocks in bare feet between the stretches of sand. At times, I wonder what the point of continuing is. Then the worst of the rocks are behind me and I can see my home. At least, I can see what’s left of it. I walk until I’m just a few paces away and I find I’m looking at less than I found when I first bought the place. All that remains is the floor and the ancient wooden pilings. They must have been driven so very deep to have survived the storm. There they still stand like wise, resolute sentinels, looking out to the ocean and waiting silently as they always have. Rhiannon’s Reach now looks like nothing more than a squat jetty. It’s tempting to give up. I see the glint of something in the sand beside one of the pilings and go to pick it up. At first I think it’s the bottom of a bottle. I brush away some sand and find my binoculars half buried there. I take them down to the water’s edge and rinse them off. With my feet lapped by unusually small, gentle waves, I look south to where the rich folks live and see what has become of some of my properties. The Outlook is gone and below it, embedded in the sand, huge shards of plate glass are reflecting the sombre light of the day. They look like vampiric glass teeth or crystals that have grown up through the beach overnight. All the other mansions and houses are destroyed. The sea has hurled itself into them and they could not match it. Even the concrete foundations of some of them have been eaten away by the force of the water. And now the ocean is almost flat, almost sleeping as it reflects the ash grey sky. ◊ I sit on the wet sand and listen. The waves are so small they might be rippling in from a lake on a still day. The wind that was blowing when I found myself ashore has gone and the water does nothing more than stroke the beach and whisper in its dreaming. How long have I spent here in this place of crossing over? How long have I waited for someone to carry me across? I don’t remember. I know I could stay
on this beach forever if I wanted to but the sea has come and taken everything I have built away. It wants to set me free. The sea has shown me its vastness and majesty. It has humbled me and made me see myself truly. The sea has taught me its lesson and I have learned it well. I stand up and take off my trunks. The sea is like hammered steel, dimpled but mirrored. I’ve never seen anything so tranquil or alluring. My steps take me into the shallows where I wade out shin-deep for a long time. The water deepens. I have a moment of fear as it reaches my waist. I won’t cry this time, though. I won’t. From the horizon I see a single wave whipped up into a white cap as it approaches the beach. This is my ride. The wave gallops shoreward, tossing its mane as it comes. High above, the crow circles, silent now. Rhiannon’s white mare rumbles towards the beach, the ocean frothing below her. I have waited for this. I have left it too long. I hear the thundering of her watery hooves upon the surf as she comes for me, and I have the courage to wade deeper.
A ROOM THUS STAINED Bill Hussey
9th November 1888. A Houndsditch garret. The sun was setting across broken-backed rooftops. It dazzled against the dormer window of the garret and then was lost in the smog of a thousand chimneys. As darkness grew out of the shadows around him, Bram Jago stirred. He slid back the panel of his dark lantern, allowing a finger of light to flex across the garret. He had not mistaken the stillness. The monster had ceased its twitching. It dangled from the crossbeam, swinging in slow circles as the rope righted itself. Bram snatched back his hand from the lantern. An absurd fear rattled through him. He wondered if, by lighting the scene, he might accidentally reawaken the monster. Could it be that the thing was only sleeping? That it would stir at any minute and resume its death-dance? He could not bear that. Not after the eternity that it had taken for the creature to die. An eternity during which, inside the mind of Bram Jago, a voice had spoken madness: perhaps it could not die. Perhaps, by its recent actions, it had passed beyond the laws of God and Man. Sweat lathered Bramâ€™s face, trickled down his spine, soaked his shirt. He must be sure. He rose and crossed the room. The groan of the
floorboards set mice skittering behind the walls. Bram waited for both the mice and his nerves to settle. Then he moved forward again until he stood beneath the makeshift gallows. The light from the lantern threw Bram’s darkness over the dead man’s face. He reached up until his fingertips were level with a pair of blood-heavy eyes. They neither moved nor focused. It was over. ◊ The monster - the murderer - the man - had been given many names. In these last months every quarter of London, from Highbury to Lambeth, from Grosvenor Square to Mile End, had baptized him. Even the blandest of these monikers, the least imaginative, possessed a certain force, for each was shorthand for a faceless menace, a thing of rumour and intrigue that slipped unchallenged through twilight streets. Though it had many names, it was from its anonymity that the monster took its power. Even before its work was complete, it had become legend. Talk of its deeds even bridged the Atlantic, where journalists compared the scenes of its barbarity to those bloody chambers of Mr Poe’s fictions. As for British newspapers, they dubbed the creature ‘a second Hyde’ coming, as he had, out of nowhere and roaring into existence like the monster from Stevenson’s Calvinist parable. Throughout the autumn of 1888, and for decades to come, it was the fashionable gossip between lightermen and lords, nightsoilmen and knights, roadsweepers and royalty. In his way, this new ‘Hyde’ became a great leveller, achieving as much with his blade as Lilburne and Walwyn ever had with their rhetoric and printing press. Every man could, and most did, have a pet theory as to his identity. This was to be the secret of his longevity. But his incognito was not complete. His real name was known to one man. ◊ Abraham Jago, ‘Boss-man Bram’ to those spectacles and curiosities who numbered themselves among his friends, had read the name in a pawnbroker’s ledger. The entry, innocuous among page after page of names and tabulations, had tallied with a receipt for a ‘14 carat yellow gold locket with cabochon face. Lock of
hair imbedded. Memento mori. Good condition’. Bram found the receipt in a little room off Dorset Street - a room in which the walls had run red with blood. Beside the name, scratched in pencil on the tissue-thin leaves of the ledger, had been an address. Ignoring the pawnbroker’s protestations, Bram had torn the page from the book and left the shop. Stalking westwards, he had tried to block out the cries of the newsboys and the chapmen, each detailing with varying accuracy the latest Whitechapel outrage. By the time Bram reached the house in Houndsditch his lungs were dusty from the dirt kicked up by a hundred hansom cabs. The ledger page had been pulped in his fist so that the name was now unreadable. It did not matter. The man’s real name had been important only as a clue - a means by which to find him. In any case, Bram could only think of him by the name that Mary had used not twenty hours before. Sweet, sharp-tongued Mary Jane, whose face had been torn from the world and from his memory. She had called the monster ‘Jonesy’. His fingers trembled as Bram rang the bell. Moments later he was admitted to the house. The next hour passed in a blur of action but few words. Now, his work done, Bram stood in the airless attic. Stood before his handiwork and felt his soul shrink from it. The man called Jonesy, his mouth gaping, hung from the rope like a giant fish displayed on a quayside gibbet. As he swayed, his movements were reflected in the amber fluid of the specimen jars that crowded every surface. It was as if tiny versions of the dead man had been caught within those glass prisons, floating there in the company of the organs and viscera that he had taken from his victims. Floating silently now, thank God. It had been a strange death, Bram thought - not one of quiet submission as condemned man and executioner had anticipated. Instead, the life had been wrenched out of Jonesy, gasp by agonized gasp. As the noose pulled ever tighter, something must have changed in the man. That lust that had driven him these last months must have awoken in his breast; must have willed him to fight against the closing world. Now Bram stepped back and looked into Jonesy’s eyes. Was it his imagination or was there a purpose that could be read there, preserved even after death? Perhaps a yearning to survive and to set once more about his labours? Bram followed the focus of the death-stare to the point overhead where the rope lashed the crossbeam. Had Jonesy, by force of will alone, been striving to unpick
those knots? If so, then his struggle to live belied his earlier agreement with Bram that he must die. This is the end and I accept it gladly, Jonesy had said, leading Bram up to the garret room. What else is left to me now? Last night, in that squalid room, through the medium of a whore, I achieved perfection. I am transmuted. Changed. I took apart the work of God, as a lowly watchmaker might disassemble the innards of a great timepiece. And, with it laid out before me, I comprehended its design. Within it, within each of us, lies the secret of the universe. Now dimensions quake at my touch and only one adventure is left to me. It is providence that you came, my friend. Opening the attic door, Jonesy had laid white, quivering fingers against Bram’s cheek. The fairground showman slapped the hand away. You may think that you judge me, Jonesy smiled, but I am now beyond the judgment of Man. You are here, not through any cleverness of your own, but by my design. Your fury, your desire for revenge, is illusory. You feel it because I wish you to, because the vengeance you shall wreak in this place is all to my purpose. You don’t believe me? Silly boy. I could reach into you, as I reached into those pinchpricks, and show you the strings which I alone manipulate... Now, my friend, go to your purpose… Yes, that’s right, hitch the knots tight. Make the drop short. I won’t struggle. Death has been at my side these last months. I have shown Him things that He has seldom seen. I want our last journey together to be a lingering one. I want to feel every particle of life as it leaves me. I want to sense every atom of my being burn out. I want to know, by slow degrees, the darkness that will engulf me. I tell you now that I will die slowly for I believe that God is afraid to meet me. He had envisaged a death of sublime contemplation, of detached and clinical interest. There had been no tremor of the lips, no sudden calls for mercy as Bram led him to the crossbeam gibbet. No hint of terror at the fate that he had agreed must be his. All that had changed, however, in the instant the chair was kicked away. The noose snatched at Jonesy’s throat and the fight began. Kicking and clutching, struggling and gagging, he fought. Finally, the capillaries flaming his irises burst, his eyes sagged with blood and the fury was wrung out of him. His feet ceased to twitch and pointed downward, like the toes of a ballerina. During the death throes, Bram did not stir from his chair. He did not flinch, did not falter. Only his hands, laid upon his lap, trembled. Now, as he reached out and caught at Jonesy’s legs, steadying the corpse, his jaw locked and
tears shimmered in his eyes. The tears were for her, for himself, perhaps even for the ruined mind of the monster. With a little effort, Bram mastered himself. He must cut the body down. Fishing in his pocket, he found his knife and exposed the blade. Blood had dried on the shaft. He wiped the flat sides against his leg, smearing coppery stains across his trousers. He stared at those slashes for a moment and his mind shifted. The garret and the hanging man fell away and a new, more terrible scene rose up around him… ◊ Troubled dreams had roused the showman early. Their shadows stretched into the waking world, driving him from his bed and into the gas-lit streets. He did not stop to lock the door of the penny show behind him. There was no need. Doorman Lug and his lead pipe, known affectionately as ‘Ol’ Brainer’, lay in wait for anyone foolish enough to step into ‘Jago’s Emporium of Oddities and Wonders’ uninvited. Bram hurried past bolted doors and curtained windows, his footfalls echoing without, his dreams echoing within. He must speak to her - must tell her what had woken him. She would calm him with smiles and songs, just like his sister had when he’d been a boy. So like the sister that consumption had claimed a dozen years ago… They were just dreams, she would say, they can’t hurt you. Bad dreams pursued Bram Jago through the sleepless streets of Whitechapel. It was at Dorset Street that they overtook him. Scurrying beneath a dank, dripping passageway, they laid out a nightmare for him to find. At his knock, the door of number 13 Miller’s Court creaked open. The first thing to register was the smell. Later, when lice and fleas were feasting, there would be the stink of rotting flesh. Now it was the clean aroma of fresh meat that assailed the newcomer. A shudder ran through Bram, making his stomach clench. He closed his eyes. Not her, he pleaded, please, don’t say that he has come here. Don’t say that he has found her. Shaking his head against what he knew must be waiting for him, he stepped inside the little room. His shadow loomed long against the far wall of the lodging. The morning was dark and so it was by the gas lamp of the building opposite, rather than by any natural light, that Bram saw what had been wrought within these walls. Not a corner had escaped unsullied. The man staggered against the door jamb. He
remembered sitting in this room not eight hours before, laughing and joking with its occupant. She had visited his penny show on the High Street earlier that day, talked to the Skeleton Man and the Electric Lady, the Fat Boy of Peckham and Tiny Tina, The Living Doll. She had admired the duffs, those exhibits like The Ceylonese Mermaid which had been ‘got-up’ by fixing the top half of a stuffed monkey to a dolphin’s tail. She laughed as he gave the patter to the punters and helped out by collecting up the door money. The woman had had an artist’s eye, and had promised that one day she would paint him a striking gag card, guaranteed to pull in the crowds. As a down payment upon the card he’d bought her a meal of fish and potatoes. Bram expected nothing in return; his intentions towards her were only ever brotherly. Mary had even called him brother. Rain dripped from the lintel and streaked his face. To an onlooker it might appear that he was crying but Bram would not give way. Not here. Later, when was alone again, then he would cry. He would hold himself long into the night, remembering the pretty whore that he had befriended outside the Ten Bells. Life had tried so hard to destroy her, yet it had won few battles. Her spirit, her defiance had called to Bram, reminding him of that other young woman that had been dear to him. Now both were dead - one murdered by man, the other by God. In the end it amounted to the same thing. Bram looked up and down the court, checking the windows. The door to the privy, hanging on for dear life, whined on its hinges. The hand-pump in the corner gurgled and vomited tobacco-brown water into a bucket. A dog, dreaming beneath a pile of rubbish, growled in its sleep. Nothing else stirred. Bram closed the door of Number 13 behind him. He used the bedside table to barricade the door. To his immediate right, the dead woman swam in his peripheral vision: an indistinct form of red and white. Bram turned and looked down. He had seen many horrors in his life, had even exhibited a few, both real and manufactured. Nothing had prepared him for what lay upon the bed. Silent screams caught in his throat. His legs gave way and bile burnt a passage into his mouth and nose. “No. That’s not her. Lord Christ, it’s not her…” It was her. Although her face had been flayed from her skull, Bram knew that it was sweet, sharp-tongued Mary Jane that lay devastated before him. He forced himself to look, to drink in the horror of it. Strangely, the enormity of
the sight stifled his grief. There was nothing left to mourn. Only the odd clue, like the strands of red hair upon the pillow, told him that this thing had once been the woman he’d loved. Bram took it all in. Such a fate must be remembered, he thought, for it is a statement upon the world. As the first true hint of dawn beaded the tattered coat that served as a curtain, Bram stirred. “I have to leave you now, Mary Jane.” He kissed his fingers and put them to lips touched by a hungry blade. Lips that he remembered, parting, pouting, singing to him. Bram whispered to her: “’Tis all for the loss of my bonny Irish lass; That my heart is breaking forever.” His voice was rough from a lifetime of barking the spiel. Even in drink, when her character sometimes darkened, her voice was always a Celtic melody. Bram turned away from the bed. His heart steadied and hardened. Taking Mary’s key from the windowsill, he cleared the doorway. It was as he was replacing the table that his sharp, showman’s eyes - eyes that could pick out a punter from a mile away and assess the man’s wealth from the bulge in his breast pocket fell upon the pawnbroker’s ticket. The square of paper, sticky with blood, lay between two floorboards. Mary had told him, not two days ago, that she had nothing left to pawn. He’d given her a sovereign and told her not to spend it on drink. Bram took out his pocketknife and teased the ticket free. He locked the door behind him. Ensuring that he had not been observed, Bram slipped out of the passageway. A few men emerged bleary-eyed from Crossingham’s doss house while, across the street, a ragman haggled the price of his breakfast at a coffee stall. The only other possible witness to his coming and going was the legendary fat woman of Dorset Street. She was always there, keeping vigil in her window; a woman grown so large that she could no longer leave her room. Before the Fat Boy of Peckham came to work for him, Bram had offered the woman employment in his show. She had turned him down flat (‘I’m a respec’able lady, I’ll ’ave you know. I don’t have doin’s with Showpeople’). Bram looked up and thanked God that, for once, the gorgon was sleeping. Mary may not be discovered for some time yet, he thought. Even then the police would need to break down the door, causing them further delay. Should they then discover some clue that he had missed, Bram would have a good head start on them. A few hours in which he would trawl the pawnbrokers of
Whitechapel and Bow until he found a ledger that corresponded with the ticket. If he was lucky, this would give him an address and a name. He strode out of Dorset Street and into a quick-waking hubbub. Here was Commercial Street with its trail of dollyshops. He would scour these emporiums one by one. In so doing, through mounting frustration and the memory of what he had left behind in Miller’s Court, the showman would leave something of himself at each of the shops he visited. Shreds of his humanity that were given neither valuation nor ticket so that they might one day be redeemed. ◊ At the sound of the voice, Bram was brought out of his memories and returned to the knife and the garret. “We live in Houndsditch. Do you know Houndsditch at all, young man?” Jonesy’s mother, rocking in her chair, looked at him as if for the first time. During the preparations for the hanging, she had sat with Jonesy exchanging bland pleasantries. She’ll be as quiet as a mouse, Jonesy had assured his executioner, and I insist on her being present. I will not comply unless it is so. I don’t need your compliance, Bram had muttered. I’m aware of that. What a strong boy you are. A sailor, I would hazard. A fairground man. Ah! I should have known it. Your kind is noted for its quick wits and quick eyes. But back to the matter in hand: I am aware that you are quite capable of killing me where I stand. Indeed, I believe that part of you would relish the opportunity to beat me to death rather than simply watch me hang. But you are tired and careworn, Mr Showman. What you saw this morning in that little room - my great and terrible work - it has sapped your spirit. How much easier for you if I willingly submit? And I will, if my mother is allowed to watch. She won’t interfere. She won’t even know what’s going on. Then, winking at Bram, he added, Poor dear, she’s quite mad, you know. When the time came, Jonesy had risen dutifully to his feet and kissed the old woman on the forehead. As the noose was fitted around her son’s neck, the mother rocked gently in her chair, humming to herself. The sound of her bare feet padding the floorboards - pat-pat-pat - made Bram’s hands tremble violently.
She’d looked over at him, nodding and smiling, as if they were acquaintances who happened to have booked adjoining seats at a play. Now Bram laid his knife on the sideboard behind Jonesy and went to her. His chest tightened. Tears coursed down his cheeks and a cry tore its way out of him. The scream rebounded off the pitched walls of the garret, finding space to echo in the spartan room. Bram felt a hand on his shoulder. The mother cooed in his ear and, putting her arm around him, led him to her chair. Like a fearful child, he knelt beside her and felt her fingers rake his hair. “Now now, dry your tears and I shall tell you stories.” She smiled at him, her mouth full of stumped, square teeth. Even the canines had been robbed of their points. There was something dehumanizing in the effect. Bram drew back. “Do you not like my teeth?” she asked. “My son insists I file them down. It hurts like billy-o but I do it to please him. He has his whims, don’t you, dear?” She shook her head at the motionless Jonesy. “He’s not speaking to me today. I must have upset him. Now, what was I saying? Ah yes, we live in Houndsditch, my son and I. Always have. Since before the time of the mad king. Since before the orange king and the orange queen, since before the headless king and bastard queen, before the wife-killer king and the crookback king and the soldier king and, oh, back even before the conqueror king. We have always been here. We were here when the old city wall was built and all this hereabouts was moat. That’s how Houndsditch got its name, from all the dead doggies thrown into the water. A murderer, I forgets his name, was thrown in too, on the orders of old Canute. Drawn here first he was, by horses, from a castle miles away. Skinless when they brought him, speckled with horse spit. Then tortured with fire. Then hung upon the wall ’til his belly gave way and his bowels fell out. Spiders made their home inside him. Then later, when the plague came, another ditch was dug out and a thousand souls were cast in and covered over. I used to tell my son these stories when he was a young ’un. Nightmares it gave him!” Her cackle was like desiccated peas rattled in a tin. “He used to think the ditches opened of a night, that the dead and the doggies and the murderers with their bellies full of spiders would crawl out,” the mother continued. “Such thoughts he had. Such dreams. But he’s a good boy
really, wouldn’t hurt a…” Bram’s heart jarred in his chest. His head snapped in the direction of the rattling. It was Jonesy. The dead man’s heels danced against the sideboard. The formaldehyde jars arranged there crashed to the floor. Human offal spilled out like a dark sacrifice placed beneath a resurrected god. “Darling, how lovely,” the mother cooed, “you’re awake.” Jonesy wrenched at the rope around his neck. As he did so, his bowels and bladder vacated. The stench bowled through the room, causing Bram to vomit into his cupped hands. Through streaming eyes, he watched as Jonesy’s mouth snatched at the air. Above the stranglehold of the rope veins throbbed in fit-toburst cords. “What a show!” the mother squeaked. “My boy would have made a fine actor!” There was a sound like the tearing of coarse sackcloth. In one clean rend the rope had cut through Jonesy’s neck, exposing raw bone and ligature. Still he struggled, still he fought. Bram wiped the vomit from his chin. Leaving the old woman giggling and clapping, he made for the sideboard. A blood-drowned eye rolled over him as he reached for the pocketknife. Like the specimen jars, it too had been thrown to the floor and sat now in a pool of piss and excrement. Broken glass cut his fingers as Bram retrieved the knife. This time he did not wait to clean the blade. He thrust it into the dying man’s neck and, in one smooth motion, tore out his throat. At last Jonesy’s fingers ceased to catch at the hemp. His hands, twitching once, twice, then no more, came to rest at his sides. Dead now, Bram thought, please, God, be dead now. Bram made quick work of cutting the body down. Taking a few rags from a heap piled under the mother’s bed, he sponged the cuts made by the rope and his knife. The wounds began to dry and congeal. Then he moped up the blood and waste and, trying not to give way as he did so, he collected the organs from the shattered jars. These he placed in an old potato sack he had brought with him. Later, calling in a favour from the caretaker of a North London crematorium, he would sit and watch through the grate as the furnace engulfed the trophies that Jonesy had claimed from his five victims. Prior to hanging the man, Bram had taken a sizeable rug from the sitting room downstairs and hefted it up to the garret. Now he rolled Jonesy up in the
rug and tied off both ends. He wiped sweat from his brow and went to retrieve his bag from the corridor. From a kit of tools he selected a soft Swiss-pattern file. His movements were mechanical now. For a time, his conscious mind played elsewhere, striving against the horror of the present it found temporary solace in childhood memories. As he lugged the sideboard away from the wall, jumped onto it and began smoothing away the marks where the rope had burned the crossbeam, he thought of his sister and the games they had played in golden summers long ago. And, as he worked, he imagined that he heard Jonesy behind him, singing songs and nursery rhymes, stumbling over simple verses. “Jack and Jill went up the hill… Jack fell down… Jack broke his crown… Jack be nimble, Jack be quick…” Wind rattled the dormer and rain streaked the pane. The new moon, on the fourth day of its cycle, stole over the rooftops. It was time Bram was on his way. He stepped lightly off the sideboard and ferreted under the rug. Testing the weight, he loaded it easily onto his shoulder. Before he picked up his bag, he took all the money he had from his pocket and offered it to the old woman. She snatched it, thrusting the notes between her legs. “So kind, so kind. You really must come again, dear. It’s a pity you missed my son. He’s away at the moment, tending the sick and needy. He’s a doctor, you know. He brings peace to so many.” Bram kicked open the garret door. Moonlight flashed across the stairwell, putting a sheen on the dusty balustrade and jewelling the webs that hung from the ceiling like punkah fans. Rats, huddled on every landing, watched him go, silent witnesses to his passage through the house. Once outside, he stopped for a moment, his senses straining. Houndsditch was largely deserted. The rain had swept the street clear of nighttime stragglers. Only a lamplighter in far distance, standing in the halo of his labour, noticed Bram. Perhaps guessing at the true properties of the rug, and choosing to avoid trouble, the man turned on his heel and left the rest of the street to darkness. Job had not shifted a hoof from the spot where he had been left two hours before. Taking the ancient pony and ramshackle trap on this venture had been pre-planned. Bram knew that both the trap and Job, too arthritic to move anywhere unless impelled to do so, would be shunned by even the least discriminating of thieves. Easing the rug and its contents into the footwell, Bram climbed onto the box. A gentle word and Job turned westward.
With steady pace, the pony, the man and the murderer made their way to Westminster and the Victoria Embankment. There, in the open foundations of the new Scotland Yard building, Bram Jago would bury the monster. ‘… the Whitechapel murderer, in all probability, put an end to himself soon after the Dorset Street affair in November 1888…’ Melville Leslie Macnaghten (Assistant Chief Constable of the London Metropolitan Police, 1889) from Days of My Years
‘The sight of a room thus stained will not easily fade from my memory…’ Sir Robert Anderson (Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, 1888-1901) from The Gospel and its Ministry This story is for my Dad - my showman hero
PART OF THE LANDSCAPE Mathew F. Riley
“I expect a landscape to speak to me and to ask questions – or rather to pose problems, which merely pretty scenery does not.” Professor William G. Hoskins, (1908 –1992) The Estate The big toe on Howard’s right foot was proud and naked: time to hit Marks & Sparks this lunchtime. Joy. Bags for eyes, a constant sniffle, shoulders that slumped, an aching back, (and it wasn’t as if he’d been out beering it up the night before, rather, a gentle, slightly monotonous evening of television, bath and bed): everything about him was tired today, even his socks. God, I’m so damn Bored. He had nothing in for breakfast, and nothing to look forward to. Minutes later, with the recognition his boredom was evolving into an allenveloping weariness, or was it the other way round, Howard closed the door of his shared house, wishing he were still in bed, like his housemate Sophie, wishing he was in bed with her, and having a lie in, that’d be just fine. A sicky? Today? But you know I‘ve got that meeting… you’ll make it worth my while? Hmm…what the hell… Not a hope in hell.
Sophie had to be at work by 10am and caught a bus from outside the house - only a fifteen-minute journey for her. Howard calculated she could get up at 9.15am if she wanted to, (if she were a bloke). His work was located in a district that took as long to walk to as it did to catch a couple of buses, (two waits), or change on the Tube three times, (four waits). These were the things you measured your life by. To some, happiness and success were a short commute, (no waits). He was tired of everything today, and everything, and everyone is most probably tired of me. Logic told him weeks of walking the same streets to the same workplace, in the same amount of time and in the same head-down manner, followed by eight hours of the same work, must be cumulatively contributing to today’s ennui. Perhaps he should try walking the route with his eyes closed, see if it made any difference - you know it won’t. You may as well be doing that anyway. As he watched his breath precede him, Howard reminded himself he enjoyed walking. The fact that he could walk to work was surely something? (No waits, in control, in your own time). The only drawback to these undeniable positives was his destination: work, with the same faces, colleagues not friends, an undesirable journey’s end at the best of times. So at the end of his road, Howard surprised himself when he turned left instead of right. Taking the next right he found this new route took him through a single street from another century: tall, three and four story period houses were set around a square of black iron railings, shadowy evergreen trees and shrubbery within. A church dominated each end of the street, cobblestones not tarmac, and very little litter. Howard couldn’t remember seeing the twin spires before. Both churches now served a residential congregation, split into several flats if the numerous names and bells were anything to go by. He imagined the residents’ weekend community spirit: hey everybody! Let’s make an event of clearing up the shit! I’ll make us all some sandwiches! He sensed their shared self-satisfaction with their own little environment, or was it his own envious resentment? City landscapes change quicker than any environment on earth, so walk to the end of this street and turn the corner; head south for five minutes and Howard entered a half-derelict estate. A blast of wind welcomed him, penetrating his clothes, skin, icing behind his eyeballs, settling in his bones. Blocks of flats forced themselves upward, monstrous brick and beanstalks with black holes for windows; he couldn’t tell if there was glass in the frames,
too high, the light gloomy this early autumn morning. On a balcony halfway up, three high-rises away, a wind he could not feel blew someone’s washing dry with someone else’s dirt. Had a figure stepped back from a window, hole, up there? A plastic carrier bag wafted into his view, moving swiftly at head-height, a substance dripping from the flapping edges. Again he felt no breeze. He stopped and watched the bag’s silent progress: miraculously it avoided obstruction and drifted into the distance. Perhaps someone would meet it headfirst as it flew around a corner, picking up pace, escaping the estate. He became aware of the estate’s acoustics, temperature. It was a raw place: the air turbulent but secretive; wind whistled around corners, bringing hip-hop music, (at 7am?), on unseen currents that also carried tainted moisture from the nearby canal. A dull thud: somewhere close someone kicked over a half-full can of something. The thud was followed by a yelp, or was it a bark? Startled, he looked around, nobody about that he could see; on an estate like this the sound of a can being kicked was like a battle cry. He was sure curtains were twitching up and down the rows of windows that surrounded him. Was it the wind again, a wind inside buildings? Streetlamps winked off one-by-one as the morning grew. The buildings looked uncomfortable, embedded on gradually disintegrating foundations of mouldy brick. Litter scraped and crawled across the cracked concrete, pinning itself against pointless knee-high fences of thin wood protecting muddy, well-trodden verges and patches of thinning, unhealthy grass. A muscular dog pissed against a wall, looked over, smiled, waddled off, claws skittering on the pavement like teeth. Steaming terrier urine puddled in a shallow hollow, not enough volume to reach a nearby drain. Howard wondered if the dog used the same place as a toilet every day, eroding both the wall and pavement - all those dogs, all that piss. There was a prodding at his ankles; he was forced to wade through a mound of fast food boxes. He hadn’t noticed them earlier; urban cardboard tumbleweed blown across the City, waiting for the next pedestrian to trip over them then moving on. Their bright red and white packaging was a shock to his monotone-accustomed eyes; but it wouldn’t be long before the elements drained the colouring into the uneven pavement, like the entire estate, that dog’s piss. The whole City is bleaching into the ground. Fucking dump. He wouldn’t miss this City if it fell off the face of the planet, nor any of the people in it.
Through a doorway he glimpsed a figure flitting from right to left in the half-light, crouching at low-level, from one high-rise to another: a paperboy, perhaps. He quickened his pace and walked towards the little humpback bridge that traversed the canal, marking the end of the estate. He wanted to check over his shoulder, the squat figure’s twisted gait had unsettled him, but he wouldn’t let himself. His tired mind was working overtime in an attempt to avert apathy. He passed several sorry benches on his approach to the canal. Of course they were unoccupied at this time of day, broken-backed and empty with a thick coating of graffiti, or bird shit, or both. Their emptiness seemed appropriate; this route was too quiet, eerie. At least there were people on his usual walk to work. Like that old man who sat on the bench; he was slightly more animated than the gaunt buildings in this part of the City, casting their heavy shadows that made Howard stoop unconsciously whenever he was out and about, but certainly less so than the streamers of rubbish that twisted in the wake of countless cars: paper, chicken bones, sticky messes curling and choking, cooking in exhaust fumes. The water in the canal was heavily coated with an oily grey-white weed. A shopping trolley protruded from the mixture, the weed thick enough to prevent it sinking to the canal’s bed. Polystyrene chunks and several pieces of wood adhered to the crust like croutons. This City’s soup was sluggish, almost stagnant and rich in flavour and odour. The surface undulated imperceptibly. Howard waited for a minute or so, but nothing broke through the weed. He wouldn’t come this way again. Visualisation Howard took his usual route home that evening. A sky filled with thoughts smudged into dusk, the people of the City withered to silhouettes. The pavement stretched away from him, straight and level. This was the best place to do this, the one main road on his route. Making sure he was in the middle of the pavement and that nobody was near, he closed his eyes. He walked forward, listening intently, trying to feel not imagine the monotonous pattern of the concrete paving slabs through his trainers. He concentrated on walking slowly and deliberately in a straight line, confident he wouldn’t bump into any of the lampposts but unable to rid himself of an
anxiousness to open his eyes. He defied his arms, sensing them trying to raise themselves, automatically protecting him, probing for potential obstructions despite his knowing there were none. He pictured named and where necessary, corrected the spelling of each of the shops on the other side of the road; a postbox about ten paces away, casting a hunched, human-shaped shadow on the wall, a crack in the pavement, just there. To his left two long-abandoned frames were manacled to a rusting bicycle rack. Howard followed his own back, watching himself as he stepped over a bulging plastic bag, its handles tied together, a fatty substance oozing onto the pavement from within. The streets echoed in insipid illumination. Overhead, lamps popped on one after the other, catching him up, jealous of his progress. Multiple rustlings in patches of dead grass adjoining whitening walls of brick and concrete: the City’s litter continued to chase its own tail, and those of others. Ripped crisp bags and chocolate bar wrappers skimmed the City’s surfaces, half-empty Coke cups rolled and sloshed up and over curbs, tracking the City’s inhabitants to their homes, crawling up the sides of houses, flats, blocking drains, vents and peering in windows. Amid the low drones of high planes, layers upon layers of traffic, the carhorns punctuating the endless conversations of the City at twilight, another roaring gradually came to the fore: a clashing of waves upon a shore, driven by wind, saltwater sinking into sandstone: his own damp, apprehensive breathing. Now, a bird’s eye perspective: he soared above the City taking in the panorama of different weathers in different places on different levels: squares of green, surrounding concrete. Memory shades of mountains and forests covering this once wild land, textures and tastes remembered by the waters of the City’s sickly rivers. Millions of people inside their homes, walking the streets; more than millions of animals, creatures and insects crawling and sneaking out existences hidden to the people of the City, but always so close. And then, back through the great fume cloud above the City, the dust that is dead skin, air that is not, he dove, aware that he had been seen; the old man was probably watching him from the bench. A burst of nearby laughter interrupted his thoughts, sharp against the artificial ambience of the City. Not a friendly cheerfulness, but a dark amusement, is somebody laughing at me? Howard opened his eyes, dizzy, suddenly embarrassed. The roaring stopped abruptly. He was at the old man’s bench, which was empty. Here, a
detail: where once might have been an inscription carved into the back of the seat was scarring. He took a deep breath, holding it within his lungs, waiting for his senses to settle down, to become unnoticeable to him again. He’d stifled his body’s automatic reactions to losing its sense of sight so successfully he found he’d walked several hundred yards. Had he been hallucinating? Had what he’d seen been from his own memory? Possible, but in what seemed like a tiny amount of time he’d become aware of the myriad details of this section of the street, its surrounding buildings and adjoining roads; other parts of the City too, linked to this street somehow, not only by signs, corners and tarmac. And, had he seen something run across the road, an animal of some sort maybe, something that paused to look up at him, and quickly went on its scrabbling way? Had he made that up, his imagination silently circling recent recollections? Patterns loosed themselves from the edge of a wall. From a withered tree embedded in a small square of barren earth, early evening not-quite-dark undulated towards the bench. A fluid-not-oil welled up from the cracks in the concrete, flowing up the bench’s legs to form a presence. An almost human shape undulated in the place where the old man always sat. Howard watched the play of the not-quite-liquid layers in the silvery lamplight as they rippled gently on the ever-damp wood, unsure of what he was looking at. Was it the old man? Had he died and this was his ghost? When had he last seen him? He couldn’t recall. The old man was a blur across time. Howard had grown so accustomed to the sight of him sitting quietly on the bench, that he noticed the pensioner only by his absence on his new route. How long had he been sitting there? Certainly long before Howard had finally decided to walk to work. He’d spent weeks spent weighing up the pros of bus travel, (clogged roads, unable to get off unless you were at a bus stop - on a good day) versus the cons of the Tubes, (sweltering underground, the nauseating stink of strangers - on a good day). Had he passed him every time he’d walked to and from work? He hadn’t so much as acknowledged the occupant of the bench, let alone said hello; and although it was nonsense to even entertain the idea, he felt strangely guilty about this. On the other hand, why should he give him the time of day anyway? The bloke had had just as much of an opportunity to be polite too. Why was he even thinking about this so much? The old man was just another part of this City’s
dreary landscape: unremarkable, and probably more tired than he was. Hungry, impatient to be home, and not a little spooked, Howard moved on, looking over his shoulders, up at the sky. The Square Howard watched, enthralled, as a fox dashed across the end of his street and into the road he’d walked for the first time yesterday. He detoured, assuming the fox had run into the square that sat between the two converted churches. The rusty streak had disappeared by the time he passed through the black entrance gates. He figured the fox liked it that way: nothing more than a flash of colour to the busy commuter. Only children would go after it, it wasn’t a pest to them, rather a true wild animal to be chased; but dangerous and never, ever to be approached, their parents would advise them.
Dedicated to the memory of Simon Cross, 1969 – 1999 He loved this place
Howard read the bench’s inscription, wondering for an instant why the man had died so young, then sat down. He felt energised for some reason; his lethargy not forgotten, but certainly a little diminished today. He’d slept pretty well, despite the weirdness of yesterday. This City was getting more… interesting. He calculated he had some time before he was due at work, and he wouldn’t be missed for thirty minutes or so if he were late. Maybe he’d just sit here for a while, see if that fox showed itself. He was beginning to understand the appeal of places like this, why people came to sit and watch, to think, to give themselves a minute. Was that what the old man was doing? Watching the busy people, his way of keeping in touch now that he’d retired? He almost envied the old chap: a bit of breakfast, the paper, then out to observe the hectic goings-on around him, his own life lacking the urgency and stress of others. A hint of movement in his peripheral vision made him look up. Directly in front of him at the opposite end of the square someone was sitting on a bench, partially engulfed by the foliage behind him, returning his stare. Howard experienced a sudden chill and his stomach flipped. Impossible! It couldn’t be,
he was looking back at himself! He placed his left hand on the bench beside him but the figure remained still. Not him, not me. The figure was an old man, but not the fellow who had repeatedly sneaked into his thoughts since yesterday. This chap had a bit of a mad-professor look about him, a shock of thick brown messy hair and a suit to match. It was as if he’d seen what that man was seeing – himself at the other end of the square. Self-consciously Howard glanced toward his feet, grabbed the edge of the bench with both hands, ready to stand up, to leave this place, better to be at work than scare himself. He looked up. The bench at the other end of the square was empty. He hadn’t seen the man leave. How unnaturally fast and silent must he have been, to have left the square unnoticed? Howard shivered. The bushes behind him shook; he stood up and turned to face the noise. Something growled, snapped at him from within the deep greenery, the fox? Was that a face he could see in the leafy shadows back there? Yellow eyes glared at him, intense, feral. He heard a light yipping, then a chuckling, as if filthy grey ice water were dribbling down a mud-clogged drain, water as piercingly cold as the tendrils now dripping down and across his spine. The amused gurgling ceased as quickly as it had begun. His hair stood on end as he felt feathers touch the back of his neck. We see you. Unable to speak, but very able to move, Howard backed away and left the square, trying not to trip over himself in his haste, leaving an observation circling above the bench. That… is not a fox. The Occupant of the Bench He, (it?), fucking barked at me! Howard’s thoughts were a dazed drizzle dampening his walk to work. He was wet from the inside out. Cold sweat coated the inside of his clothes, his head; his burgeoning peace of mind altered in an instant by the unsettling encounter. Surely that must have been a mad homeless person, an uncared-for-care-in-thecommunity patient, or was it something else entirely?
Don’t be an idiot. He spoke to you, laughed at you, so it must be a person! He didn’t particularly want to go straight to work. He wasn’t sure he was ready to spend eight hours at a desk today. He felt his mind wandering, knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate. So unsettled did he feel he hoped the old man would be there. He’d say hello, maybe have a conversation, waste a bit of time. Just talking to someone new would be nice. He remembered the whisper, responded belatedly, not quite sure what he was doing. And I saw you, whoever or whatever you are. His very own route stretched before him, one he’d always be able to identify: he’d travelled this path so many times it was now part of the City, the very roads he crossed and the pavements he walked. It was part of him: for the City, this walk, had changed for him now. He had changed, was changing. He understood little but the composition of this place, the concrete and grass, the life on it and in it, was becoming more accessible to him. Howard paused, closed his eyes, and tried to see more. This street, those adjoining, and others out of sight blossomed into a momentary map of memory, odour and flavour. Pathways, ingrained and enriched with a flow of instinctual information, opened themselves to him. The City’s animal residents left their marks here too: scents strong and deep, their signatures more varied than those of humans: livid reds, earthen browns and verdant greens outshone drifting greyish hues, ghosts in comparison. Some of these paths were wiry streaks of yellow and white hovering above the pavements, the after-burn of a lit torch waved quickly against the waking dawn; others were thin misty clouds falling then rising; still others appeared thick and solid, plant-like, an ethereal creeper over pavements and walls. So many well-trodden paths criss-crossed this City, written indelibly in molecular memory, constantly revisited and remembered: hidden thoughts and feelings, histories that compel and cajole animals onward into the world of humans and machines, perhaps even reassuring them on their way: Follow where I once trod! This path is safe! Howard understood this was an intimate knowledge he was privy to, but also that it would be blinding in its beauty if he weren’t careful. He let himself come back into focus, a little dizzy again. Thoughts settling into some kind of order, he walked onwards, sensing activity. A gang of hoodies milled around the bench, voices muffled beneath the black hoods of their baggy attire. He quickened his pace, afraid for the old man.
His worry turned to anger, mixed with relief: the bench was empty, but one of the gang members was gouging out the wood on the back seat of the bench. He was unsure what to do. That was a knife. It would be stupid to get involved for the sake of some wood, but… this was more than thoughtless vandalism, more than just wood. It was a chosen place, somewhere to remember someone by: I will not forget you, and: I was here for a while, and now I’m gone. I was, and still am, important to someone. It was the obliteration of memory, of a person. He stood over the scene unfolding before him, taller than the kids gathered around the bench. He readied himself to confront them, took a deep breath and forced out a “Hey! …” Some of the kids wheeled around to face him, shocked by his intrusion: a face, mouth agape, a snarl of rage, teeth bright within the shadowy hood… behind the bench the branch of a tree flicked up and down as if a heavy bird had taken flight… the grimacing face thinned, its aggressiveness becoming insubstantial. He looked up and down the street; the kids were nowhere to be seen. His legs were weak, he felt sick. He knew the bench had already been vandalised when he’d passed it yesterday, so why, and how, had he seen those kids? “You alright lad?” The old man was sitting on the bench in his usual place at one end, looking up at him. Howard held the man’s gaze, it was like peering into deep water; things swam there that weren’t cataracts. He felt himself swaying a little, drawn in, but indicated he was fine. How had the old man sat down without him noticing? “Did, did they have a go at you?” Howard stuttered. “Sorry, I’m a bit confused, I thought…” He didn’t know what to think. The old man smiled, slightly. “Nah, ta for asking lad, but kids don’t notice us old folks most of the time, too busy wasting it. I’ve seen off worse than them. They were after the wood anyway. Do you want to sit down?” He patted the bench beside him, so lightly there was no sound. The old man reached into his coat pocket. Howard was reminded of those heavy long coats the army wore in the First World War. This one was a dull green, wellworn, muddy too, as if he’d been in the trenches recently. “Would you like a Werther’s Original? They’re all I can eat these days. I need the sugar, helps keep me sharp.” Howard accepted, watching as the old man dug the sweet up from the
packet with his thumb and allowed it to drop into his palm. “Thanks, I’m Howard, by the way.” Howard took the sweet from the open hand, unwrapped it was cold as if it’d just been removed from a fridge. “Yep. Takes a time to finish one of those. But I got plenty of that. I like to watch you lot running around like headless chickens. Werther’s keep me company.” Howard wanted to start a conversation, although quite how he would bring up what was on his mind was beyond him. It seemed polite to wait until they’d eaten their sweets, so he sat in silence, his work feeling distant and unimportant, observing the traffic, people, and a few birds overhead. All birds look thin outlined against the sky, he crunched down on his Werther’s. Had the old man winced then? Howard hoped he hadn’t inadvertently broken a Werther’s taboo shared by old people across the land: thou shalt not crunch Werther’s; thou shalt suck Werther’s. The old man chuckled, and settled further back into the bench, making himself comfortable if that were possible. Howard studied his profile: a lean face, badly shaven, patches of growth under his lips and chin, or was that just shadow? It must be difficult to get a clean shave at that age, all those wrinkles. But he had a full head of hair, grey and raggedly cut; maybe he’d done it himself. He felt comfortable sitting next to this stranger, who obviously had no intention of telling him his name. “She’s the one did this” the old man indicated the gouges between them “she was a bit younger then though.” He was following the progress of a woman pushing a pram with thick rubbery wheels. She was dressed in a pink tracksuit, yellowing like nicotine skin; it was obviously being worn to death. She shuffled forward slowly, nudging the pram before her with her belly. Howard couldn’t tell if she was pregnant, or overweight. Her hands were occupied opening a can of Coke. His confusion grew. “I, I saw her vandalizing your bench, she was much younger… I was there, and then here, in the same place all the time.” “Very observant of you lad,” the old man said in a friendly tone, barely concealing his mirth. “You just saw something that happened a while ago. That girl, sad one she is, lost her baby but won’t accept it. She’s forgotten what she did to the bench, even though she walks past here every day. But, we haven’t forgotten. She doesn’t know I’ve been sitting here nearly every day. And that’s all
right, because we’re not here to be noticed by the likes of her. We old folks just watch and listen, and remember. We’re too tired to do anything else.” The woman paused, dropped the ring-pull, glugged from the can and trundled onwards, no sign of life within the pram. The ring-pull rolled, as best it could, off the pavement and into the gutter where it continued unevenly in the opposite direction, as far away from the woman as possible. “Weird isn’t it?” The old man’s voice filtered through the numerous questions forming in Howard’s mind. He was mesmerised by the ring-pull’s impossible journey. Where was it going? “Doesn’t appear to spook you out, does it lad?” “Can you see that too?” Howard replied, “Fucking hell. You must have seen it?” The ring-pull rolled into a drain. “Oh. Well it was there.” Who was this old guy? “Don’t worry yourself. I know what it’s like. I can see you’re fed up. I was the same, long time ago. No bird, no sense of where I was going with things. Rude too. Took the first job I could get: upholsterer by trade. Took me ages to get them to let me work on a chair. Love the feel of wood. Didn’t really have much ambition, just wanted to be happy.” “That’s pretty ambitious these days, I guess.” Howard was struggling to accept what he was seeing and hearing, unsure whether to be offended by the old man’s insightful comments or his refusal to acknowledge what they’d both just witnessed, a refusal that bordered on indifference. That girl had aged several years, had a kid! Lost a kid. He finally had a question worth asking, and there seemed nobody better to address it to than this meandering, mad old man: “What the fuck’s happening to me?” The old man clucked. Howard thought his Werther’s might be causing him grief, stuck between his dentures and his palette. “Now, now lad. Can’t specifically say. I can tell you a bit of what happened to me though, so listen up. I loved me job, never wanted to do anything but fix furniture. When the factory shut I lost everything, including me bird, so I just wandered around for a while. I took jobs here and there, a labourer, driver that sort of thing. Soon tired of that. I had nothing to do that made me happy, and that opened me up to something. It was like I had space in my head for new things all of a sudden. I started to see stuff, things that I couldn’t make sense of,
in the corner of my eye. Over time, those things began to add up. Couldn’t tell you how though. Just did. “I’ve been helping you see all this stuff. But you’ve seen more than you should have done: layers upon layers of it. And you are seeing more all the time aren’t you? No lad, don’t answer. I know, we know, because we’re seeing what you see. And you’re seeing little bits of what we see. Remember how you felt yesterday? All those things you noticed for the first time, they’ve been here all along. You already know that though. Remember how you missed me? That means you’ve been seeing me all along. I’ve been here for years, lad, and nobody’s noticed me in all that time. Only you. That makes you one of us, and you’re the youngest yet.” “One of you? Who are you?” Howard watched the passers-by, keen to see if anything else strange would make itself known to him. “Us old folks. We’ve been here, in one way or another, far longer than most of us can remember. You’ll probably see more of us around from now on. We take turns doing this. We remember stuff, store it up, talk to each other about the things we’ve seen and heard. We help each other. We see and remember things that we couldn’t possibly know about. No one seems to have the time to do that nowadays, so we do it for them. Life generates so much rubbish, so much noise, makes it difficult to hold on to things, place importance on them; but every now and then something comes along, like a memory or an idea, and we pass it around, up and down. It’s a bit like storytelling, I suppose. And there are some old, old stories. “It’s different for each of us, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Me mate, Stan, it wasn’t for him. You’ve bumped into him so he tells us. He doesn’t like people getting too near. He hides out in the parks around here, anywhere with hedges really. Not too sure what happened to him. We don’t see everything, and he’s not telling.” Howard was lost in the fog of the old man’s words, or was it the thick mist of his own thoughts? Tiredness? Plain apathy? His reluctance to accept what he was seeing and what the old man was saying? Not that he was making much sense: the old man was either being deliberately vague, or he was unable to explain. “Don’t deny it, lad. Give yourself, and us, a chance. Little things happen around us all the time. You’ve just got to get used to seeing them. We see it like
this because that’s how it’s shown to us, and so we reckon this must be how it is. We, people, leave a mark, lad. We’re all of us more than just here and now; animals too, in a different way.” “So, just when did you start seeing all this going on around us? What’s it called, and, why me?” “Dunno, lad. Hasn’t got a name as far as I know. It’s older and bigger than all of us put together, and those that went before us; it’s older than this City in all of its incarnations. Part of nature I suppose. None of us question it anymore. We watch, it watches too, the world goes on. Just let it happen and you’ll find out if it’s right for you. You’ll be okay, Stan’s keeping an eye on you - you’re not alone, lad.” He yawned, then a sigh of satisfaction “Finished me Werther’s, tasty as always.” When Howard turned to face him, the old man had gone. It was his turn to sigh, course you have… The Upholstery Factory Upholster by trade. Howard passed the building every day, as he had the old man. He thought he would have noticed its presence at least once, but he had no recollection of it. The factory’s stony skeleton dominated the road around the corner from his office, and as is usually the nature of skeletons, it was unused and empty. He stood facing the gutted building on the opposite side of the road. It was in fact, two buildings. Two burnt out businesses. The building on the right was the taller of the two by one story. To his right on the top floor, fading broken black letters, incomplete words on torn mustard yellow backgrounds: Tarpacturers, Ropes ETC. On the middle floor: Upholsterers’ Sundries. On the ground floor, hidden in the grime of the street: Salins Ltd, Upholsterers’ Sundries, Platform Cloths. Next to this on the right, a completely different business perhaps: Priestley & Moore of Valiant House, this sign in black words on a white background. This building had four floors and appeared to have suffered more of the fire. How long ago had the businesses been shut down? Had the fire forced the businesses to close? The old man’s words suggested that was the case. He had spent most of his working life there by the sounds of it. How old was he?
Seventy plus? That’d make the buildings, oh easily eighty years old at least. In today’s climate of change he was surprised the derelict shells or land hadn’t been sold or claimed for redevelopment. Nothing lay dormant for more than a few months around here, not unless there was something seriously wrong with the place. The ground floor of the factory was boarded up, corrugated iron riveted over the doors and some of the windows. He could just make out soot-coated interiors through cracked glass wobbling in thin wooden window frames on the upper floors. Howard scanned the front of the buildings; underneath the grime were white and brown bricks. Windows half-open and others closed, some with glass, some without; tired curtains draped inside each frame, tickled by the outside air. Offices just didn’t have curtains any more, and he didn’t think they built them with bricks either. Filthy posters advertising the latest bands and comedians peppered the ground floor windows and doors, anywhere that had been boarded up. Curiously, a little respect appeared to have been shown to the building itself: its dull brickwork was surprisingly free of graffiti and unwanted announcements. Further to the right, adjoining Valiant House, a fifteen-foot tall fence interspersed with the same stained white brick columns, ran for about twenty feet along the pavement before following the curve of the road and out of his range of vision. Above this fence, Howard spied the very top of a tree. He crossed the road for a closer look, work forgotten. The fence was painted black, thick planks of wood supported each other on the main road, but around the corner this solidity crumbled. The fence was broken in several places, mostly breaches too small to allow anything bigger than a dog to squeeze through at ground level. A few feet further however, and Howard came to a larger hole, this time in the top-half of the fence. He peered into the gap, holding the wood on either side to obtain a better view. The ground dropped away beneath him. A third building had obviously stood here once; perhaps this one had suffered so much at the hands of the fire it had to be demolished. Now there was open ground, exposed to basement level a single story beneath the street. The entire area was filled with dense foliage; several trees grew up from that low level. He’d seen the tallest from the main road, a branch or two grown too high, the trees fighting an instinct to reach for the sun, hiding within this sunken garden. Lush undergrowth and thick creepers
of ivy tangled upwards and along the insides of the fence, the brick and earthen foundations. This place was a wound in the concrete skin of the City, the flesh of the planet exposed beneath, the hectic plant life let loose, mending the wound in nature’s way. There was movement at his feet; something cold crawled over the back of his right hand. Howard recoiled automatically, whipping his hand away, and several pennies tumbled to the pavement. The dull coins rolled away from his feet to join a line of small change edging slowly up the fence, disappearing through several gaps. He giggled inside: did different denominations use appropriately sized holes? Paper clouds drifted over the top of the fence, catching on the branches of the trees. Swarms of ash and brown tobacco gathered at several holes generated by the friction of uncountable cigarette butts squeezing through the jagged orifices. The old man hadn’t even hinted at such a process. Was this some sort of cleansing? Despite what he was going through, Howard was incredulous, unable to deny his rising curiosity. Were these secret activities going on all the time, out of sight to most of us? Are we, am I, even supposed to see such things? Yes, these are some of the other layers, the thought was unbidden, and maybe not even his own. Howard leant back into the gap. Around him, forgotten coins, mislaid pens, and twisted nails dropped into the shadows, their many impacts muffled. He looked more closely: this place was obviously no secret to some who lived near here. The ground was littered with rubbish: old chairs, a television, charred remains of a campfire, glass and plastic. The bushes down there moved. A figure emerged carrying a white holdall. Bent over, its face to the ground, one hand raked the earth as a prospector would search for gold nuggets in watery mud; picking up things Howard couldn’t make out from this distance, putting whatever they were into the bag. The figure paused, looked up at him. It was the man from the square; Howard presumed it was the ‘friend’ the old man had referred to. What was his name, Stan? Howard thought he grinned up at him, but it was difficult to tell, maybe it was a silent growl. The man shuffled off, hidden from view beneath the trees. Am I supposed to follow him? It looked a long way down, but Howard pushed himself onto the fence and hung there above the trees. His hands gripping the fence posts for support, his feet balanced on a cross-section of wood, he maneuvered slowly so that
his back was facing the overgrown environment beneath him. As he prepared to descend, a shadow passed over his face. Someone had walked past on the other side of the fence. Another person passed, then another. Nobody looked into the gap. It was like watching people through a window. Perhaps time was slower in here: more and more people walked into and out of the frame in front of him. He couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t see him. And if they had looked in he understood he’d remain unseen. Howard felt momentarily trapped. From the opposite pavement he saw himself looking out through an invisible, impenetrable barrier, unnoticed and quickly forgotten by the outside world. A sudden loneliness surged within him, a familiar feeling. Always outside, looking in. Was this how some old people felt, those with no families and nobody to turn to? Not far from ghosts. Whilst climbing into the gap, he’d crossed over, but to where? Was he on his way to becoming a ghost? If so, he had no urge to turn back now. Howard descended hand over hand, forcing his feet into gaps in the wood, any ledge he could locate. His forearms were screaming for relief, straining to support him. He was so weak! He looked down and finally let himself go a few feet above the ground. He landed with a crunch and fell to his knees. The first thing he noticed was the air, so warm down here, as if a great furnace smoldered in the earth beneath his feet. The smell of this place was overpowering, almost tropical in its potency, and tinged with bitterness. There was movement all around. Disturbed by his presence, fallen leaves lifted and whirled around his face. Thousands of tiny skulls, mixed with the everyday detritus from above, rolled and broke and moved on in coiling swirls across the ground, each skull following the one before, in and out of trees, across stone, and through the hollow television, across his feet. The ground was streaked with fur and flesh; ants swarmed and ate, stripping the skulls. Rat skulls? Squirrels? Where were the rest of the remains? The general movement was in the direction Stan had taken, away from the main road, so Howard followed, unsure what else to do, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the writhing layers underfoot. The air was filled with the constant crackling of microscopic munching, bone on stone, bronze and plastic on wood, amplified by the canopy of trees and enclosing walls. In the near corner, piled high up the wall, rotting fattened plastic bags leaked a yellowish substance that bleached the earth. A shallow puddle of half-consumed liquids surrounded mounds of aluminum cans: Coke,
Tizer, orange, cider and beer, e-numbers and artificial flavours evaporating into the already heady atmosphere. Stan was nowhere to be seen. Howard refused to think about the things the strange man had been collecting. He forced his way forwards, half-expecting the syrupy artifacts and insects to climb his legs. The crackling heightened the impression that he was lost in a tropical clime, approaching an unseen waterfall in flood. There was more land down here than should be possible. This patch of greenery should only take a few seconds to cross, but he was sure minutes were ticking by. Pushing aside a branch that resembled, far too closely, a brown shriveled forearm, he came to a standstill. The coiling mass of life, death and unwanted items coagulated here, at the entrance of what appeared to be a tunnel. Leaves flicked at his hair, nicked at his skin, seemingly eager to be past him, hurling their fragility into the waiting darkness. The mulch crawled into the arched doorway. Dark streams trickled down from above: insects converged on this sunken place. The end wall of Valiant House was a livid wallpaper of carapace and exoskeletons, all carrying their little treasures taken from the bins and gutters of the City, all the time heading for the tunnel. From within, a pair of yellow eyes stared at him then blinked, out. A rusted tail lost itself as leaves filled the entrance. Were they waiting for him now? Howard looked to the gap in the fence, but the looming trees, angry leaves and roiling paper blocked his view. It would be almost impossible to get back up there. He wouldnâ€™t be able to leave, even if he wanted to. Perhaps sensing a decision, or attempting to influence it, the leaves at the entrance to the tunnel stilled then parted for him, inviting him inside. The Dry Tunnel Howard told himself he would continue until the light from outside no longer lit his path. Then heâ€™d turn back and try to find a way out of here, if this place lets me. He was sweating heavily already, as was the tunnel. The movement of insects, filth and bones generated a deep heat in the enclosed space. He tried not to breathe in through his mouth; he hated the feel of warm air in his throat. The floor sloped steadily away from him. He stared into darkness, two shades of black. The tunnel forked here, but there was no choice to be made.
The left tunnel was blocked by a chest high accretion, a crackling hill of small skulls and skittering things, cockroaches probably; a mass that would continue to grow with the foul-smelling tide. Howard followed the sopping brickwork of the other tunnel, his right hand leading the way. The slope of the floor increased sharply, the crackling reduced to a barely audible rumble by a couple of twists in the tunnel’s path. He began to discern detail: seaweed-like algae crept across the brickwork with dripping tendrils. Growing up from beneath the level of the water it spread thinly providing him with enough illumination to continue. Howard was lost in exploration, beyond time. Was that writing, a mustard graffiti? This surely wasn’t a natural formation, but what appeared to be a manuscript, scrawled upon the freezing surface of crumbling brick, hidden amongst the plant. The closer he got the less recognizable it became, more of a pattern than a sentence, paragraph, or a page. Neither hieroglyphics nor letters of the alphabet, not a foreign language; rather, a continuous expanse of shapes resembling words at first glance, shapes forming descents and climbs. It came from nowhere: flowing across the walls of the tunnel and disappearing in the direction he’d come from, although he hadn’t noticed it back there. He tried to separate the shapes from the algae’s wide growth patterns, but there was just too much to take in. He saw repetition across and down the breadth and width of whatever message this was. Was this meant for someone? Howard traced the movement of the inscriptions with stiff fingers. A signature left behind perhaps, or, how on earth was he coming up with such thoughts, a secretion adhering to the walls left by the path of an animal? Lots of clever little snails! The shapes appeared carved into the brick and mortar, by hand or by an erosive process. Lichen or mould grew in the gouges, the source of the eerie light. This tunnel-traversing design must be the work of a greatly skilled individual, a craftsman. It was a living work of art; the lichen wasn’t sentient… but the non-words were, must be. He wondered about the artist, the author of this message - he couldn’t decide which. He could summon no face or features, just an impression that this person had moved on within these tunnels. Moved on physically too… into something: I know, a great, big fucking snail! But, that person’s thinking must have changed too, maybe because of something he or she had discovered down here. Could a step like that, an evolution of the mind and body, be made one without
the other? He didn’t think so. Still touching the brickwork, he followed the flow of the message deeper into the tunnel, wondering where his thoughts would take him. He paused as the pattern dipped below his reach. Someone was waiting for him down there, where the light and detail blurred. A figure stepped back, receding softly into the arched darkness that might be oil made air, so completely did it envelop and then hide the phantom. Was this the graffiti artist, the writer, the elusive Stan? Was he imagining he’d seen the person-shape; or had the dust innocently formed the shape for a second? Whoever or whatever it was, the brief sighting offered up nothing but an invitation to proceed. It came to him that he was open to suggestion, hypersensitive. The not-quite silent air was cooler here. If tunnels have a sound it is the dripping of unseen water, the precise echo of hollow chimes on half-submerged tin or metal: a cold rhythm. Behind this gentle percussion a drone beneath his feet, a Tube? The atmosphere wrapped itself about this almost physical resonance. He watched his breath form tiny clouds; he heard them creak, crinkle before dissipating. The delicate sound roused him from his listening. He’d let his eyes stray from the place where he’d seen the figure, but again, he felt nothing other than an impulse to move onward, deeper into this strange and wonderful environment. The tunnel turned here, the lichen’s illumination waning. The air changed again: arid, desert dry, but no warmer. His throat constricted. To his right he could make out a series of darker patches floating in the increasingly dense atmosphere. He felt his way towards them. Arched alcoves were built into the brickwork. He stepped back and faced the first alcove, bent down, leant forwards, peered in, straining to see. He extended his right hand in front of him. It was like dipping his hands into numbing black water as the darkness swirled across his hand and up his sleeve. He stretched his fingers and touched something like flesh. Something like a face rose through the never-settling motes. He reeled backwards on the balls of his feet and tried to scream, but his throat was too dry. His balance leaving him, Howard fell onto his backside. The face continued to rise. The face of an old man. Who had not moved at all; the man’s chest was still, no sign of breathing. Coughing lightly in nervous reaction, Howard understood his own panic
combined with the gloom had exaggerated the man’s mysterious presence. He had done all the moving, and there was no threat here, not for the moment. He wanted to put his hand onto the slumped shoulders, shake them, wake the man up, but the stillness of the body intimidated him. He’d never seen a dead body, but more than that, he felt he shouldn’t disturb whatever strange peace this man had attained. For there was peace of sorts down here, an atmosphere similar to the hollow calm he experienced whenever he found himself in a church, which was not very often, and not because he believed in anything or anyone in particular, but because churches seemed to be environments which resonated contemplation. He never questioned why, perhaps a sense of history, or simply the acoustics of such places. Was this corpse a homeless vagrant who’d come here for warmth and died in his sleep? Was he a murder victim, hidden? The man’s clothes were old and rotten, hanging off his shoulders, too big for him now, although at one time this would have been a smart suit. Small white lice crawled from behind the man’s head, circling the left ear. One or two appeared about to enter the orifice but thought better of it, disappearing at the back of the frozen neck; the muscles of which were taut, as if winding creepers grew from within the shredding shirt collar. Had the man had died in pain, tensed? Howard recalled an article he’d read about a creeper, or vine, that strangled trees, slowly wrapping them up in its own tight grip, leaching the nutrients and sunlight, suffocating the tree until it died. The Strangle-Fig, that’s what it was called. And when the dead tree had withered away, collapsed under its own weight, a hollow tree-shaped vine was left, the ghost of the tree trapped within. Okay, he’d made the last bit up, but it seemed apt. This man looked like he’d had the nutrients sucked from his body. Or maybe the man had been stretching his neck to look at something as he died? Howard leant back on his haunches, out of the alcove, staring left then right: nobody there. The only movement was the flickering of whatever grew upon the tunnel walls. And what about the silent figure he’d seen moments before? Where was it now? Watching him? Was it the ghost of this man? Howard dipped back into the alcove; it was so dry in here. He studied the face filling his entire view. Despite being only inches away from rubbing noses in greeting, it was difficult to make out any definite features as shadows curled into furrows and ridges of old skin. The hair was cropped short, probably balding, that’s
what he’d do the moment his began to thin: grade one or two all over. The exposed scalp was coated in mud and grime, streaked through with clearly marked tributaries of long-gone water or dried sweat. As these paths moved down onto the man’s forehead they became their opposites: meandering lines of mud, simple illustrations penciled onto skin, making thin tracks across the man’s closed eyelids. Patterns… yes, similar to the writing he’d traced on the tunnel walls. A single white louse neatly followed one of the inscriptions, up and around the letters of a word, then down the rest of the sentence that must continue beneath the man’s chin. Surely that louse must have been following by touch the sedimentary ridges and layers of dirt that had settled over the flesh? The delicate muddy patterns described character, suggested mystery, but not identity. How long had the man been here? Howard couldn’t tell if he’d been good-looking in his youth. He considered touching the face, but all at once the flesh looked soft and brown; hard as grey stone; a dimpled marble, collapsing in on itself. Lichen, or some similar mossy growth, hung from the nostrils. Whoever it was, he was certain it wasn’t the old man on the bench. Howard resisted an urge to prise apart the lips of the grimacing mouth. It would be akin to breaking open the rotting seal of a fetid tomb, grave-robbing. But he wanted to explore, climb this man’s eroding torso, shoulders and head. He would chip away at the rock as an archaeologist would, with a tiny hammer, then brush away the dust to expose something that hadn’t seen the sun recently enough to remember it; revealing something secret, but not forbidden, not to the right person. He watched as another louse weaved its way along an inscription, this one traversed those stony lips and dimpled chin before disappearing from view inside the graying shirt-collar. He followed its imaginary path towards the man’s waist. What was happening here? The man wasn’t sitting down in this alcove; he was standing in it, but buried to a level just above his waist. The hands were tucked tightly beside his body, tucked into the earth. The jacket tails reared up like the heavy leaves of an orchid where the man’s torso entered the earth. It was as if the man had been planted, or forced, no, was growing into the ground. The man opened his eyes. Shit! Howard instinctively pushed up and out with his feet in an effort to put more space between him and what he was seeing, but he only managed to fall forwards into the man’s chest, his two fists punching through the skin,
sinking up to his elbows in the ribcage, which crumpled like thin cardboard under the assault. He gasped as dry, fossil air enveloped his face, grit invading his lungs from the man’s exposed cavities. Gagging, Howard twisted his hands free and reared backwards falling onto his backside. He automatically drew a deep breath and was surprised to feel no discomfort or shortness of breath. His nasal passages, the backs of his eyes and lungs burned briefly then the sensation softened into a warm inner glow. He shook his hands free of the ashes and earth escaping the man’s body. Dust rose from the man’s sagging, unsupported head, ran like sand from the eye sockets, rained steadily down as two small waterfalls; light spray gathered and deepened in the open chest, pooled on the ground in small piles, silently growing then collapsing under their own weight, growing again as the dust continued to descend across and within the man’s corpse. Gradually regaining his composure, the din of his heart receding, Howard watched as the man’s shape became less distinct. His tattered clothes shifted, perhaps attempting to arrange themselves into some sort of final order, before crumpling, breaking up, settling. The creased remains of the elderly face looked up at him. Had the eyes opened due to the amount of dirt and dust within him? The release of such pressure must have caused this collapse. The memory of water, the white lice, the mottled growths, the natural decay, the subsequent movement, all gave the man a life down here in the dark: a different life. He was a dry riverbed, an exposed cliff, shaped and reduced by the flow of nature across his person. Weathered over an unimaginably long-time, his corpse was smoothing into something else, like the graffiti artist? Where does stone go when it’s been whittled away by the rain and wind? It becomes part of the elements themselves, the erosive process. Looking elsewhere, Howard noticed objects scattered about the alcove. No, not scattered, a briefcase had been placed to the man’s left, leather sagging to the ground. Next to this: a book. Howard picked it up, but the pages crumbled away before he could read the title, fragments of words and ideas drifted to the floor. A plastic torch, Howard flicked the switch, the battery was dead. The man had sat here and read. Waiting? Preparing? A breeze flowed around Howard’s neck. He froze as an ancient breath played inscriptions on his flesh. He shrugged his coat collar higher up his neck, but the whispers maintained their presence, wending their way across his
shoulders, down into his armpits. The cold deepened, spreading across his body, gaining access through his pores, replacing the manâ€™s inner warmth inhaled moments before. Chilled runners inched along the inside of his throat, followed his map of veins and arteries towards fingers and toes, curled within his colon, calmed him, reached his brain; his thoughts were soothed in spirals. Howard was aware he was being watched. He was unconcerned. Something saw him through the dry hollows of the manâ€™s eyes; smelled him through the lichen-encrusted nose, tasted him through a mouth whose lips were sealed with grime and silence; felt him through the brick of the walls, the earthen floor. A shadow dulled the alcove with its ephemeral influence. Someone was standing directly behind him. He turned around. Again, the tunnel was empty. He had no torch, but he could see. He wasnâ€™t even sure his eyes were open. Inside him: cold and warmth, patterns, inscriptions, something looked outwards. His mind recalled remains of details that were not his to remember: a shouting, scalding woman, feelings of bewilderment, a wish for peace, for silence, to be alone, but not lonely. A place where such peace was attained: a park, a square. A welcome from a like-minded soul; a secret stumbled upon, then shared. A mind, like his, filled with hesitation and awe, then a decision, which was soon acted upon. And now, down here, the man continued his watch, his own quiet and personal evolution. A decaying body also occupied the next alcove. Howard assumed this person had been here longer than the corpse in the first alcove, as only the head and shoulders protruded from the floor, facing away from him. Sepia photographs were propped up against the brickwork, preserved by the dryness of this place. He was careful not to touch them. Pictures: of a family, two dogs in front of a wooden house with a veranda; a man in uniform, a baby, and a pretty young woman. The third alcove contained only the very top of a head, a hairy bowl upside down on dry mud. The earth was tightly packed around the head, the ground apparently swallowing up the body of whoever this was like quicksand, reinforcing his initial feeling that these people were growing into the ground. The fourth alcove was empty. He checked for signs of a previous occupant: dust, hair, bones, holes, nothing. Howard sat down, his back to the cold wall at
the rear of the alcove. Chilled warmth mingled within him. His body heat passed into the bricks and earth, into the air, mixing with memories. These people had been ready for this strange next step. They’d lived their lives, worked, married, had children, and fought wars, told stories, made history. Like the old man on the bench, they’d accepted what they’d been seeing, and they’d come here to move on. Was the old man’s body down here, or was he still alive? Were there other places like this in the City, around the country, the world? How many old folks watched and remembered for the rest of us? What were we doing with our lives that made this necessary? He’d lived and worked in this City for ten years and had nothing to show for it. He wished he’d listened to his mum and dad all those years back, bought a place when prices were realistic, even though they hadn’t seemed that way to him. He thought he would have loads of opportunities to get on, but the years had flown and he hadn’t made any decisions or even recognized that he had any to make. He still rented, had lived in ten houses in ten years, had never settled in any one place, or in his head, but had not moved on. He had no plan. He had nobody to share his life with. And he had no stories to tell, nothing worth remembering. His lack of a life: that was the reason for his tiredness, his boredom. There must be loads of space in my head. So… am I ready for this? Yesterday, he’d made a decision, turned left rather than right, and look what had happened. Just look at what he’d been shown, what he had to think about. Now that he had something special in his life, albeit something pretty damn strange, he felt less lonely already. Hopefully he would be able to share whatever this was with these people, and they with him, even if they were fifty years older than him, and closer to ghosts, judging by the way the old man and his mate Stan were able to come and go. The daylight of the City seemed so far away, but he felt no compulsion to retrace his footsteps. He was sure there was plenty more to see down here, and for him, it was not dark. Perhaps he could not hope to ever understand the strange inscriptions that proliferated the surfaces of these tunnels, but given time he felt he might learn something from them. He needed to talk to the upholsterer again, but for the time being he would sit in this alcove and listen to the whispers of those he shared it with, the ones who’d come before him, growing here, in this dry tunnel.
For Crossy and family, And for my mother, V.H. Riley and my father, F.D. Riley
ABOUT THE AUTHORS Joseph Dâ€™Lacey is the author of MEAT, The Garbage Man and forthcoming novella, The Kill Crew. His short fiction has been widely published in print and electronic formats. He lives in Northamptonshire with his family and many invisible companions. Bill Hussey is the author of Through a Glass, Darkly and The Absence. He graduated from Sheffield University with a MA in Creative Writing and lives in a Kafkaesque town on the East Coast of England. His great-grandfather knew the Elephant Man. Mathew F. Rileyâ€™s short fiction has appeared or is appearing in All Hallows, Necrography, Dark Horizons and New Horizons. Winner of the 2008 British Fantasy Society short story award, he lives in Surrey, but plans to retreat into deep countryside and write fiction. Forever... Please visit mathewfriley.com for more information.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS Lee Casey can be contacted at motherleopard.com Paul Mist can be contacted at aislezero.co.uk Paul Bower is an urban designer for URBED in Manchester and lives with his beautiful girlfriend Lorenza Casini. He owns three bicycles and rides every day, come rain or shine. He can be contacted at email@example.com
HORROR REANIMATED: ECHOES This is the first Horror Reanimated publication. The stories within are works of fiction. All characters and events portrayed within are fictitious, and any resemblance to people or events is coincidental. Although they do say some writers write from experience... First, and only printing. Horror Reanimated 2009. Rhiannon’s Reach copyright © Joseph D’Lacey, 2009 Previously published at tqrstories.com Illustration copyright © Paul Mist, 2009 A Room Thus Stained copyright © Bill Hussey, 2009 Previously unpublished Illustration copyright © Paul Bower, 2009 Part of the Landscape copyright © Mathew F. Riley, 2009 Previously unpublished Photographs copyright © Mathew F. Riley, 2009 Cover art and book design by Lee Casey With thanks to Simon Appleby, Lee Casey, Paul Mist, Paul Bower and Owen Priestley All rights reserved.
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