I Will Surround You: Table of Contents

Coming soon from Undertow Publications…

I Will Surround You
Stories by Conrad Williams

Manners
Trash Polka *
The Closure
f/8
The Jungle
The Devil’s Interval
The Hag Stone
The Offing
The Fox
Shaddertown
Raptors
Cwtch *
Rain

* Original to this collection

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I Will Surround You

iwsy-2

My third collection of short stories, I Will Surround You, is to be released by Undertow Publications in October this year. The collection will include short stories published in recent years and will feature such award-shortlisted fiction as Rain, The Fox and Raptors. There will be two original stories especially written for the book: Cwtch and Trash Polka. Until then, feast your eyes on this gorgeous cover by artist Mikio Murakami.

British Fantasy Awards

Dead Letters cover - FINAL

News hot off the presses: Dead Letters, published by Titan Books, has been shortlisted for the 2017 British Fantasy Awards (Best Anthology). I couldn’t have had a happier time editing this book. All of the contributors were a pleasure to work with and their stories were outstanding. I’m thrilled their collective efforts have led to this recognition.

The winners will be announced on the weekend of September 29th. Good luck to all the nominees!

Dead Letters is alive!

DeadLetters

It’s always a thrill to receive a box of books in the post. And it was especially satisfying to open this parcel, if only because it meant it hadn’t gone missing (which I was convinced was going to happen). The books are lovely; Titan have done a beautiful job. It seems like such a long time ago that I first came up with the concept, but all the hard work was done by others: eighteen ridiculously-talented writers (and each one a pleasure to deal with) contributed wonderful stories. I was thinking with some sadness that the project was over, but really, with the book’s publication, it’s only just started. Because now you lovely readers get involved. I hope you love this anthology as much as I do.

Advent Stories #10

A DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES

As Muntin walked by the abandoned shop, its door opened. Nobody came out. He walked this road, Lyndon Lane, every day yet had only cursorily been aware of the building into which the door was set. Now he studied it afresh. The awning was a plastic affair, painted to look like canvas. It was sun-bleached and pocked with scars though a name, Boughey’s, was just legible; there was nothing else to suggest what goods the shop had once sold, or what services it might have provided. Boards of wood concealed the windows.

door

The oblong of black between the shutting stile and the architrave had a depthless quality; Muntin felt that if he went to check, the gap would be an illusion: paint on chipboard, like the false tunnels Bugs Bunny drew for Elmer Fudd in the cartoons. His stride didn’t falter and, whether it was because of his lack of imagination or the fact that he was ten minutes late, he hurried on, joining the stream of suits and overalls as they filed into the factory.

Muntin worked through lunch, overseeing the delivery of a new batch of kitchen unit separates to the warehouse and processing the subsequent paperwork. His desk was tidy to the point of being antiseptic. Indeed, a bottle of Dettox sat with other cleaning supplies in a cardboard box by his chair in case of spillages. His IN tray was used more to fresh air than paper; the OUT tray looked as though it contained a couple of Tom Clancy manuscripts.

As always, twenty minutes before clocking off, Muntin called his wife, Caroline — who worked at the town’s plastic recycling plant — to arrange their evening meeting at a pub nearby.

‘Can we make it half an hour later tonight, Car? We’ve got a late delivery from Bootle. The cabbie just rang to say he’s had a flat on the M62.’

‘Fine,’ Caroline said. ‘It’ll give me time to buy something for dinner. I forgot to take the chops out of the freezer.’

Muntin put the phone down and straightened his tie. He had never lied to his wife before — of course there had been the occasional pale deception, usually connected to something mundane: driving while slightly over the limit; buying groceries at Iceland instead of Waitrose so he could put a fiver on Autaler in the 3.20 at Haydock Park — and now this felt as though he were cheating on her. The compulsion to request an extra thirty minutes had seemingly come from nowhere, but at the moment of uttering he had, in a manner of speaking, been shown the door. It swung in his mind, creaking on its gritty hinges, dragging on the glass teeth that were scattered across the floor. Was his life really so dull that he craved an escape across the threshold of some decaying shop?

He snorted contemptuously, an act that brought a raised eyebrow from Tesla as she fed letters through a franking machine. Muntin scampered around the office and the adjoining warehouse, shooing people out. He locked up early and sank a steel-giving Absolut at The Minotaur. Back on the street at five minutes shy of the hour, he headed straight for Lyndon Lane.

The door was firmly closed.

Perhaps a policeman had secured it, to prevent children from entering and causing themselves injury. Perhaps children had found the door ajar and were now inside, playing among the ruins. Perhaps a gust had shut it.

However, once he came abreast of the door, and twelve feet away, it opened, with its wood-split shriek. Again, it jarred to a standstill after unhinging a few inches. The dark it created was a giant staple — its tines bent inward — fastening him to the moment. Muntin ached to see what lay beyond.

He checked the street, north and south, but apart from the cars that topped the thoroughfare, snarling in the rush hour traffic, there was nobody around. In five strides, before he could muster any of a million reasons why he should not finish the job that the door had begun, his hand was on the panelling of the door and had forced it into the shop.

A breath of mummified vegetation whispered over him, followed by the sour creep of piss as he swung the door back into place. The darkness was not so great that he couldn’t see details. Emerging from the grey he could pick out the floor, a miasma of fallen plaster, desiccated excrement and tiny pebbles of reinforced glass. A large rent gaped at him: the ground fell away with a sickening sheerness here. On the wall, a calendar from 1982 showed a semi-clad Patrick Nagel female, her face a riot of cherry and black. An ancient wrist-buster till sat on the counter, its empty tongue out as if to deride would-be thieves.

A greased rat with a dribbling tumour behind one ear listed across the linoleum as though the shop were a ship labouring at sea.

Still, despite the inevitable rot, the shop pulled at something within him. For a brief, sickening moment, Muntin feared that this was no mirage, that the only common ground he shared with this place was its deadness. But he banished the notion. Maybe the shop was calling for him to pack in his job and strike out in a fresh direction.

The seed germinated and bloomed. A second door, no doubt leading up to living quarters, beckoned, but so did the fracture in the floor. And ditto the second hand of his watch. Caroline’s patience was as flimsy as the plaster on the ceiling. He did not want to see any cracks appearing in it.

He made to reach out for the doorknob but tripped and fell heavily against it. Instead of breaking his fall, the door leapt away, tipping him into the street. Muntin recovered and brushed himself down. It felt as though, in skidding across the pavement, he had taken off a strip of skin from his back. Slow heat rippled up his body from heels to hackles. A glance at the shop (the door was firmly in place – had that scar in the ground shivered with a pale blue light as he stumbled out? Surely not…) and Muntin hobbled away, already padding out the lie he had given to his wife. She would be expecting details.

*

‘Ashley, you’re late. I had to buy my own drink. You should have seen the looks I got.’

‘Five minutes, Car. Only five minutes.’

‘A lot can happen in five minutes.’

‘And what is that supposed to mean?’

Caroline Muntin gave her husband an arched eyebrow moment, something she had learned from long hours of studying Ava Gardner. She liked to think she resembled Ava, right down to the sexy cleft chin. Muntin privately fancied she bore more of a likeness to Kirk Douglas. Circa now.

He bought himself a pint of bitter and they sat next to each other in silence, watching punters slowly drain their glasses and the young barman as he added smears of grime to the counter with a rag. He tried to remember how the door had opened. Surely he had pushed it to let him in. So how could it have swung outward when he left? It was a solid, old-fashioned door and it would have been hinged to prevent movement one way or the other. He wished now, with his head pounding, that his mind had been designed the same way.

‘What have you done to the back of your head, Ashley?’ Caroline asked, as he leaned forwards to select a peanut from the torn bag on the table.

He cupped the back of his head with his hand and winced when he felt how crisp his hair was, like a tangle of spiders’ legs. Some of it fell away into his palm. The skin beneath the hair was tender. His neck too was affected and now he could feel heat spill across his back muscles, his buttocks and calves.

‘I’ve no idea,’ he said. ‘Sunburn?’ He imagined his sudden nausea as a fat sac of sludge slowly splitting open in his gut. He pushed his pint away.

‘Don’t be so stupid. It’s October.’

‘But it feels like sunburn. The sun is more powerful than we think. I’ve heard of people putting on sun block as late as December.’

Her lips thinned as she gently prodded the raw area of his scalp. ‘In the Australian outback, maybe,’ she said.

‘Actually,’ he moaned, ‘I don’t feel too excellent.’

*

Later, in bed, an untouched bowl of onion soup balanced on his chest, he repeated the words.

‘Still?’ Caroline asked. ‘You look a bit better.’

‘I feel better. I do. But I wasn’t talking about the burn, or whatever it is.’

Once home, Caroline had shooed him into the bath and gently washed the affected areas of his body before applying antiseptic cream and cool dressings. She was all for calling out the doctor but Muntin had reassured her, blaming his condition on a reaction he might have had to the insect spray with which Tesla had doused his office. She had a pathological fear of creepy-crawlies, apparently. There. Another lie. Easy.

‘What are you talking about, then?’ asked Caroline, as she undressed.

Muntin tried to keep his eyes from the white shudder of her flesh as she unclasped and unbuttoned and unzipped. ‘I’m talking about my life. I want a fresh start. It hit me yesterday, as I was coming from the office.’

‘All a bit sudden, isn’t it, Ashley? Am I included in this spring clean?’ She said it with a little bit of tease in her voice, an Ava curl to her mouth.

‘God, no,’ his voice blurted, despite the desire of his lips to form something else. ‘I want… I want to open a shop. Strike out on my own. Opt in to this small business thing. Everyone’s doing it.’

During this outburst Caroline’s face warped from gentle humour to incredulousness to pallid indignation. ‘And where do you think we’re going to find the capital to fund this insanity?’

‘It’s not insanity. It’s what I want to do. I have never given in to a moment of spontaneity in my life. And if what I felt today is spontaneity knocking on my door, then I’m bloody well going to open that door and let it in!’

‘“Spontaneity is only a term for man’s ignorance of the gods”,’ Caroline said, loftily. ‘I read that in the Digest.’

‘Your point being?’ The onion soup was splashing on the duvet, discolouring the sunflowers that patterned it.

‘My point being that you can do what you like.’ Caroline had started putting her clothes back on. ‘But I don’t want to know. Once you’ve failed, you can call me at Dad’s and I’ll arrange a hospital appointment for you to get your tail extracted from between your legs.’

The spoon rattled in the bowl as Muntin forced himself upright. More soup slopped on to the mushroom carpet. ‘Thanks for your support,’ he snapped. Inside he was as placid as he had felt in years. Why hadn’t he done this sooner? ‘It’s thanks to people like you that our economy sucks up to everyone else’s.’

‘I’m grateful for the lesson, Chancellor of the Exchequer. That high school certificate in Woodwork will stand you in good stead, no doubt.’

With that she caromed out of the room and down the stairs. The slam of the door made the windows quake.

‘You’re all surface,’ he called out to her, quietly. ‘There’s no depth to you at all.’

*

The door. Muntin’s door. His way in. His way out.

Before him, in a dark powdered lightly by the streetlamp at the far end of Lyndon Lane, the door sagged in its frame. Blistered, colourless paint was a leprous skin revealing the ruin of the wood beneath. The lock rail was scarred with red spray paint: BERNERD’S A BASTID. The doorknob, a blatant jut of a come on, had been burnished with time and the salts deposited by a million palms. Muntin imagined the ceremony of turning a key in its lock, listening to the satisfying clunks and scrapes as the tongues and grooves of the mortise meshed. He imagined the spatter of post on the lino as it poured through the letterbox, like the sudden glut of fish freed from a net. He imagined himself at the till —

He clearly heard the ‘ding’ of its bell.

Muntin hunched himself deeper into his coat and slipped across the street, bowing before the skeins of drizzle slanting into him from the overpass. The sound might have been some freakish deception made by the weather and the occasional sweep of traffic, but Muntin doubted that. Someone was in his shop.

At the door, fearful it might spring open and expose him, he rested his hand on the doorknob and bent to gently push open the flap on the letterbox. He was in time to see the intruder’s shadowy head vanish through the gash in the floor. Now Muntin applied pressure to the door, but it was firmly locked. Furious, he hurried off in search of a phone box. He called the emergency services and asked the operator to patch him through to the police.

‘There’s a burglar. I watched him break into my… into a shop,’ he heard himself say, when a voice materialised.

‘Where did you see this happen, sir?’

‘Lyndon Lane. It’s the shop that’s closed down. Dilapidated building with boards on the windows. Boughey’s, it’s called. If you hurry you’ll catch him. He went upstairs.’

‘Are you in the shop, sir?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Then how do you know where the burglar is now?’

Muntin bit his lip, involuntarily. Through the sharp squirt of pain he said: ‘I live in the flats opposite. I saw a shape in the upstairs window.’

‘The number you are calling from indicates a public phone box, sir.’

‘Yes. Yes. Well? What of it? I don’t have a phone. Some of us don’t, you know? Look, why don’t you come around here and arrest me. I’ve never been treated with so much suspicion in my — ’

‘That’s quite all right, sir. A squad car has been dispatched. It’s just that we get so many bogus calls, you understand.’

‘Well I can assure you this isn’t bogus. But you’ve messed about so much he’ll be gone by the time you get here and you’ll think it was a bogus call.’

‘Name sir?’

‘How am I supposed to know what his — oh, I see. Umm, Bernard. Bernard Bastard.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Bastin. Bernard Bastin.’

‘Address?’

Muntin gave an address on Lyndon Lane and prayed that the receptionist couldn’t check up on it immediately.

‘One of the investigating officers will call in on you once they’ve checked the area, Mr Bastin, to give you peace of mind. Thank you very much for reporting it.’

‘Yes, well,’ said Muntin, and put the phone down.

He retraced his steps and found a little gulley from which he had an unspoilt view of the street. A couple of minutes later, a police Astra swung into the top end of Lyndon Lane and parked a short distance away from the shop. Two officers stepped out with torches. One of them moved around the back of the terrace in which Boughey’s stood while the other approached the front door.

‘I already did that,’ muttered Muntin as the officer tried the knob and peered through the letterbox. The officer rang the bell, waited a few seconds, then backed into the centre of the road and directed the beam of his torch on to the upstairs window. His partner reappeared from the other side of the alley and shook his head.

‘He’s still in there, you idiots,’ Muntin hissed. The two of them strolled across to the opposite side of the road and tried one of the buzzers. A woman in curlers poked her head out of the window and told them to bugger off.

‘Does a Bernard Bastin live with you?’ Muntin heard.

‘No he doesn’t. But a bloody big Alsatian does and I’ll have him on to your cods if you don’t bugger off. And sharpish.’

Muntin heard the officers chuckling on their way back to the patrol car. A minute later and the street was as empty as it had been when he had arrived.

‘Fools. Bloody fools,’ he cursed as he straightened. What now? He briefly considered, as he stealthily returned to the shop front, setting fire to the awning and drawing further attention to the street, but worried that the place might have burned down by the time the fire brigade arrived. They might not even bother trying to save it, as the terrace didn’t appear to have a single healthy building in it.

Tomorrow he would talk to the council and make inroads into his purchase of the property. He saw himself as the vanguard of Lyndon Lane’s redevelopment. His shop would be at the hub of a vibrant new drive of small-time entrepreneurs. Muntin’s Deli, he would call his shop. He would sell stuffed vine leaves, stuffed olives, stuffed peppers and stuff Caroline if she didn’t want a part of it. Guardian readers would sit outside in the sunshine and drink frapaccini and smoothies; nibble on halva or ciabatta loaded with summer vegetables roasted in olive oil.

Muntin smacked his chops. ‘You ought to know better,’ he gently called to the intruder. ‘What kind of a burglar breaks into a shop with nothing in it? And then crawls through the floor? Pah! You’re a bigger dunderhead than those policemen.’

A step away and a creak froze him. Turning, he saw that the door had opened.

Half-expecting the thief to come bursting into the road, Muntin gingerly returned to the entrance. The door opened wider: a lover’s mouth anticipating the press of another. Squeezing through the gap, taking care not to step on any of the explosive nuggets of glass, Muntin shifted towards the rent in the linoleum. He could not hear any sounds of movement above him. It was feasible that the burglar had scarpered through one of the upstairs windows and was now skimming across the rooftops to safety. Muntin, however, was beginning to doubt what he thought he had seen. Had he conjured the shape as a check on his ambition? Perhaps the figure was merely an internal thief, a flaw in his thoughts bent on spoiling his plans by stirring up some doubts. But he desperately didn’t want this freshness in his life to turn stale. The thought of returning to the warehouse for the rest of his working life bowed his shoulders.

Beyond the lips of the shaft, soil glistened. He called hello once, and, taking the silence that returned as a cue, eased himself down.

*

Time.

It was not something Caroline had thought of before with any great conviction, but alone, the bed seemingly spreading out around her in the cold room, it pressed into her mind like a budding tumour. Sixty seconds sounded longer to her than a minute; sixty minutes a far greater span than an hour. Why then, should fourteen days, a fortnight, two weeks all possess the same impact? She wondered if he might have changed at all in that time. It was an ample period in which to sprout a moustache or beard. He might have had his hair trimmed or even dyed; anything to ease his separation from her. The knowledge that they had never before spent that much time apart bit deep into her and she moaned in the darkness. Her mother was long dead, her father’s Parkinson’s so far advanced that he was barely aware of her. Loneliness was a word that sounded much softer, less damaging, than it did when being lived.

Her desperation had a head start on her consciousness. She was half-dressed before she realised what she meant to do. In the street, frost had collected on the pavements. Each roof was a whiteboard waiting for a terrible message to be loaded upon it. Streetlamps pegged back the dark only a little. The sky soaked up the light and turned it into something dense and stale. As she made her way up the street, Caroline had to struggle for a grip on her fear. She felt stifled. Buried alive. But didn’t that have as much to do with the way her husband was treating her? Hadn’t he always behaved this way? To observers, it might appear that she was the dynamic half; overbearing, even. But she knew better. Ashley’s violence was subtle, non-physical, but destructive all the same. Her hair was greying at the temples; the colour she had to rejuvenate with bottles and bleaches. Ashley layered his violence like coats of paint. He left her stewing over an argument for a while before coming back to reapply the pain. He didn’t leave an area of conflict alone but kept returning to it until she was exhausted. Nothing was resolved. No apologies were offered. Suddenly he would turn and be friendly, loveable even, when she had been worn down to the brink of tears, or worse.

She caught sight of herself in a dark window. The glass must be warped to make her face ripple like that. Nevertheless, she raised a hand to touch the stiff, cold flesh. Once this mouth had laughed often. Once this skin had been elastic with warmth and youth. Men had liked her. Then why am I going after him? she thought.

When she saw the old shop, she felt her resolve melt away. The matches in her pocket rattled, telling her how cold she was. She didn’t remember the shop, even though she had lived in this town all her life. Working her memory helped to distract her from her intention, which wavered like the rags of grey net in the windows. She kept the matches in her pocket and walked on. The building was in more parlous a state than she had expected. Fear had drawn her on to the streets tonight, but now she saw how misplaced it was. She had been scared that perhaps her husband would succeed in his impetuous dream, but the building was a write-off. It would be cheaper to build a new shop from scratch than renovate this dinosaur. She must keep faith in her belief that he would come back to her. She must allow him this distance. At least it was a manageable crisis that did not involve another woman. Another week, she estimated. Another week before he recognised his folly and worked this silliness out of his system.

She crossed the road and looked back as she did so, at the shop’s naked windows, webbed with cracks. The camber of the road drew her reflection downwards. For one panicky moment, she saw hundreds of Carolines and all of them were sinking.

*

‘Good morning, Mrs Dilks.’

‘Ashley, hello. You’re looking well.’

‘All the better for having you in the shop today.’

‘Oh now stop it, you botherer. I’ll have a quarter of Ardennes paté and a jar of those preserved artichoke hearts. The bagels. Are they fresh?’

‘Are they fresh? What is wrong with you woman? Have all the peas fallen out of your pod?’

‘I beg your – ’

‘Of course the fucking bagels are fucking fresh. Fresher than the whiff of rot that follows in the wake of your bigfatfucking arse, that’s for certain…’

‘No!’

*

No.

The dream moved stickily away from him as he surfaced from sleep, as though it were attached in some way and would come screaming back should he drift off again.

He shifted in the dark and felt the soil coming away from the sides of the wall, trickling across his mackintosh. He licked his lips; his saliva was gummy and stank of undigested alcohol. His flailing foot sent something glass spinning across the floor.

It was safer down here.

He had been up to the top of the house, where the living quarters must once have been, and had a bit of a fright on the stairs, which had partially collapsed under his weight. There were only two rooms at the top, plus a bathroom. He could see the attic through the ceiling, which was cratered like a battleground, great staves of wood peeking through the plaster. Something scuffled and skittered up there. Pigeons maybe. The place certainly stank of pigeon shit, which decorated the walls, and plenty of feathers were strewn about, falling gently from the exposed eaves like strange snow.

The rooms had been filled with junk. Tea-chests brimmed with folders containing receipts and hand-written invoices from long ago. Piles of newspapers with front pages devoted to jingoistic reportage of the Gulf War vied for space with shelving stacked against the walls. A broken table. A box of chipped crockery. An unfinished pack of tinder-dry cigarettes had been left on the windowsill, along with an empty bottle of pale ale. The carpets had been worn down to the underfelt. The floorboards creaked and splintered as he walked them.

Boughey’s was a dead space, a rotten tooth whose roots had withered. It would collapse by itself soon if it wasn’t helped along by the demolition ball and the JCBs.

Down here it was much more secure. Once the shop was purchased, he could set to work building a wine cellar that he would stock with outstanding wines from around the world. He would have tastings in the evening for his most valued customers. Perhaps he would start a special club. Discounts for bulk buying. Loyalty bonuses. That sort of thing.

He rubbed his hands in the dark.

‘I’ve got a bottle here,’ came the voice. ‘Something left behind from when I owned the shop. Want to try some?’

Muntin said, ‘I could manage a glass, I’m sure.’

He heard a cork being pulled, then the glug of liquid poured into two glasses. Out of the wedge of shade at the far end of the cave, a flute filled with wine was pushed along the floor. It gritted and squealed on the rubble. Muntin thought that it was one of the most beautiful sounds he had ever heard.

‘When I ran this shop,’ continued the voice, ‘there was a school nearby. We used to get dozens of shrieking kids come in here, buying biscuits and sweets and lemonade. Their noise filled the shop. It seemed to stick to the walls and exist long after they had gone back to their classrooms.’

‘I can almost hear them,’ Muntin said. ‘I should go home.’

‘This is your home.’

‘This was your home,’ Muntin countered.

‘Well, yes,’ the voice reasoned softly. ‘But we move on don’t we? We’re none of us around for ever.’

‘You died.’

‘We all die, son.’

Muntin rubbed at his face. It was dry with caked soil. The glass he was holding was broken and powdery with age. He twirled the stem between his fingers and breathed.

‘Are you still there?’

But of course, there was nobody there.

Dampness from the cellar seeped through his trousers. His left leg was beginning to feel sore. He sat and waited and breathed. There was little else to do.

*

Caroline tried to remember what she could about old Boughey. It must have been fifteen years since she last went into that shop of his. In her final year at school Mary Henderson and Tamara Craig accompanied her there during lunch times to buy cigarettes and, on a Friday, maybe a bottle of wine that they would drink down by the river instead of sitting through those interminable Mathematics classes with a teacher – Mr Sankey? Mr Sinderby? – whose face looked like a slipper that has been chewed by a dog.

It seemed incredible that she should not have been past that shop in the intervening years until tonight. Not once. But then, she supposed, that was what growing up sometimes did. It opened certain avenues to you and closed off others, often for good. Friends she had for so long fell by the wayside as she matured; people she supposed she would take into her old age suddenly became different, or veered off into new lives. Wasn’t that happening now, with Ashley? Thinking of him made her chest ache. She missed him, despite the unpleasantness that had soiled their last moment together. Might it be that that had been the flashpoint for a slow disaffection that had set in to their marriage over the years?

The arms of the chair she was sitting in felt cold and hard under her own. A comfortable room that you knew well became something completely different deep in the night, when there were no television noises or footsteps on the stairs. No minor clashes of crockery as somebody washed dishes in the kitchen. It might well have been the armchair and Caroline, nothing else: the dark interstices between the furniture felt as depthless as the unimaginable miles between stars. The absolute stillness of her body, of her surroundings, provoked in her a weird sense of rushing, as if the world outside her window were travelling by at the speed of light. Seeing the old shop again had been like smelling the after shave of the first man she had ever loved: it was the tap on the deep drain that sucked memory out of the core of her mind. She delved for things lost to time while her fingers clawed at the threadbare arms of the chair. She couldn’t remember anything about Boughey, other than the fact they had referred to him as ‘Moneybags’. Why was that? She could remember his wife, a wizened thing with a chinful of wiry whiskers and a voice that would have done well at the Dalek auditions. They had sold biscuits at the shop that, when you got them home, were soft and stale. The Bougheys would stamp the prices over the sell by dates. Nobody bothered going back to complain. As she recalled, she never went into that shop by herself. It was dark and smelled unpleasantly. She didn’t like the way she felt scrutinised whenever she went in the shop, as if the owners thought she might be about to steal something: she felt their eyes on her when she scanned the shelves for something to buy. Once a competitor came to the area and opened up a shop nearby, she chose to patronise them instead. Perhaps this was why she could not remember much.

She thought of her reflection in the shop window. That precise angle she was in at the moment she had chosen to look back over her shoulder, it plucked at her with the tenacity of a mantis trying to pry a grub from a leaf. But the reason for the memory sticking with her was unfathomable. She realised that if she were to unravel the knots that had tied themselves imperceptibly around the centre of her frustration, she must turn to old friends after all. And, in the dark, the tension of night fastening her to the chair like guy ropes on steadfast tent, she understood that a week would be too long to wait.

*

Sometimes he emerged from the pit to sweep up the dust or attempt to clean the windows, but no matter how hard he worked, the dust merely seemed to move from one side of the shop floor to the other and no amount of effort could shift the stains from the fractured glass. Still his vision could not be shaken. He saw glimpses of how the shop would be. An indoor rack of fresh organic fruit and vegetables would lend colour to the interior. He would employ an assistant or two; young, attractive things who knew about hard work and good manners.

Upstairs he caught sight of himself in a foxed mirror, half concealed by a large piece of worn blanket. The warp in the glass gave his eye a heavy-lidded look, that side of his face seemed to have collapsed, as if he had suffered a stroke. The pain in his hips he put down to sleeping in the cellar; the wet and the cold were getting to him.

He was finding it hard to think straight. Sometimes, especially as night’s colour began to seep into the pallid wintry streets, he would stand at the window and watch men and women drift home, their faces inscrutable, their clothes in differing shades of grey. He would wonder about himself, ask whether he too had once had a job like that, with many people who were vomited out into the evening at the same time. But then he would feel the shop around him, like the protective capsule that sustains an astronaut, and he would know that he had been here all the time. He had always been the shopkeeper.

A gang of children sauntered past the shop: two boys and a girl, early teens. The boys were competing casually for the girl’s attention. He moved to the edge of the window to watch, his breath tightening in his throat. He felt confused and excited; through the cracked glass he could hear their volleys of speech. It was hard to keep up with what they were talking about. It was as if they had developed a new language. He watched the girl slope off into the shadows, flanked by her prospective boyfriends. She wore a black skirt, very tight, and in the light from the streetlamps, he could see her cotton knickers underneath the material, a ghostly wedge of white. One of the boys aimed a kung-fu kick at the door of the shop. Its rattle made the floor under Muntin’s feet quake and he was able to withdraw from the pocket of intensity that had enclosed him. His breath would not relax until he had hurried down the stairs and slipped and slithered to the bottom of the crack in the floor. Down here, amid the dirt and the wooden crates, he was able to find himself again, and hold on to what he was, what he thought he was, or what he had once been.

*

It was more difficult than Caroline had expected, tracking down the people with whom she had shared those intractable hours behind desks in classrooms filled with mocking sunlight and chalk dust. None of the names she remembered from registration periods existed in the phone book but that might be because all of her friends were married now and had taken their husbands’ names. Her closest allies, Mary Henderson and Tamara Craig, had both been very attractive, and hellbent on starting families as soon as possible.

She was reluctant to check the listings for the boys in her class because she had been shy and had not got on well with them. What she couldn’t bring herself to admit was that she abhorred the thought of them seeing her now. If she wasn’t much to look at during the years she spent sitting alongside them while a teacher scratched facts on a blackboard, then now she might inspire retching fits. She had gone to seed, she felt. Her thighs wobbled with the shocking viscosity of setting custard and her face had developed more crinkles than a map of Norway.

She was about to swallow her pride and call a boy called Malcolm – somebody who had been as shy as she was – when she remembered another girl in her class, a girl who had been more stricken by self-doubt than she had. Wendy, her name was. Wendy — Caroline rubbed at her forehead, trying to massage the surname out of her brain. It had been a name for which they ragged her mercilessly. Wendy Dick. That was it.

There were plenty of Dicks in the phone book, but only three that she needed to bother ringing. She dialled from her kitchen, watching an early morning mist send quick tongues of uncertainty into the deepest cracks of the street. It folded towards her, blotting out what was real until it broke against the panes, ghost kisses, a nothing that trapped the world.

‘Hello? Is that Jerry? It had better be! I want this consignment delivered by four and if — ’

She hung up on the gruff voice and moved her fingernail a millimetre further down the page.

‘This is Will and Frances Dick. We can’t come to the phone at the moment, but if you — ’

She had not fully considered what she might ask of Wendy. There was the possibility that she would not remember who Caroline was. A phone at the other end of the line purred and crackled softly, three, four, five times. She was about to replace the receiver, thinking that she should maybe take a trip round to the address, when a brittle voice said hello.

It cast her back fifteen years. It was all she could do to stop herself from singing the old cruelty: ‘So, Miss Dick, do you really Miss Dick? Or is it more a case of never having had any dick in the first place?’

‘Wendy,’ she began, and burst into tears.

*

He didn’t know what day it was. But he could no longer get annoyed about that. What did it really matter, if it was Monday or Friday? He opened every day of the week, eight till late. That was a mark of his determination and professionalism. That was what had made him such an important fixture in the neighbourhood for so many years.

The stool would not stay still, the legs, unbalanced, rocking him this way and that as he waited behind the till, but he would not be distracted. Let the other shopkeepers be distracted by trivial things. Not him. If he took his eye off those little bastards for a second, they’d be away with a couple of pounds worth of produce.

It had been a good idea of his to get one of those convex mirrors installed in the corner of the shop. He could watch them without being too obvious about it as they sidled up to the packets of kettle chips and Maryland cookies. His hand tightened around the copper pipe.

One of them, the decoy no doubt, brought a bottle of juice to the counter and began shedding pennies with which to pay for it. Muntin didn’t blink, didn’t take his eyes off his partner, who was opening his coat and shoving packets of Jammie Dodgers into the lining.

Got you. You little bastard.

He swiped the coins off the counter and showed the first boy the length of piping. ‘Leave,’ Muntin said flatly. ‘Leave. Now.’

Muntin followed the boy to the door as his shoplifter friend attempted to join him. He stepped between the two boys and closed the door on the first. Muntin stared at the him in the middle of the pavement, as he waited nervously for his friend to emerge. Muntin smiled. The boy smiled back, uncertainly.

He turned the sign in the door so that the word CLOSED faced outward. Then he pulled down the shutters.

*

Wendy Dick lived in a small tenement on the eastern edge of the town. Cars in various shades of rust lined up along the street, not all of them possessing the requisite number of wheels. Dogs strutted pompously in the road and children stopped playing football to watch Caroline as she parked her Celica in front of the correct entry arch.

She made a show of locking the car and activating the alarm before popping the keys in her handbag. She made a point too of meeting the eyes of the youths slouched against the wall as she walked past. One of them spat in her path. She ignored it but once she was inside, she found she had not breathed since turning into the street. The stench and the silence of the stairwell rushed into her lungs. A door opened at the top of the first flight. An old woman’s face peered over the bannister. She beckoned quickly to her.

‘Wendy Dick,’ Caroline gasped. ‘Do you know where she lives?’

‘Inside,’ came the voice, one that Caroline recognised from across the years.

The door shut, Wendy returned to the single electric hob which was heating a kettle. Two chipped mugs and a bowl of semi-solid sugar were on a sticky tray. Caroline saw none of these things. She was watching her old classmate as she moved – tried to move – around her flat. Wendy seemed twice the age she was. Her hair was brittle and grey, scraped viciously back from a face which had dwindled within sags of flesh that hung at its exterior. The centre of Wendy’s face seemed a plughole that was sucking its features into it. Caroline’s scrutiny did not go unnoticed.

‘I’ve got ME,’ she explained, as she poured boiling water into a brown teapot. ‘I haven’t worked for seven years and I need crutches to get around. I have a boy in the flat upstairs who does my shopping for me. I give him a few pounds, he steals my best silver, a piece at a time but I think I do well out of the deal. I mean, what on earth do I need my best silver for? How else am I going to get my weekly shop done?’

‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ Caroline said, hoping Wendy would know the sympathy was meant for her disease as opposed to her diminishing collection of silver.

‘I was glad to get your call,’ she said. ‘I’ve often wondered, over the years, what happened to you, and all the others. How you got on, whether or not you settled, that sort of thing.’

‘Me too,’ Caroline lied.

‘I heard some things,’ Wendy said. Caroline went to her as she was trying to lift the tray and took it from her gnarled fingers. ‘Thank you dear. As I was saying, well, Michelle Cragg has just had her fourth child, a boy. And poor Lorraine Bowden, well she died when she was seventeen. She had leukaemia but she killed herself with pills. Helen Paget is into her third marriage, but she was always playing around, teasing other men, even at school.’

Caroline cut in. ‘Do you remember the shop? The shopkeeper. The old man?’

Wendy’s face clouded over. She stumbled over the words she was saying. Something about Madeleine Kenyon becoming a teacher, after all the detentions she received.

‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’ Wendy continued, ‘how old school acquaintances will immediately turn to the past, as if they could never exist at any other point in time together. As if life somehow ended, or was put on hold. As if nothing else mattered.’

Caroline wondered if she should offer to make tea, or try to salve the breach between them in some other way, but all she could say was: ‘I need to talk to you about the shopkeeper.’

Wendy nodded, sadly.

‘I don’t… I can’t picture him,’ Caroline said. ‘And I used to go into his shop every day.’

Wendy, very clearly and in monotone, as if she was reading from an autocue, said: ‘Henry Boughey was shot dead in his shop by the father of one of the children he killed. Over a five-year stretch, Henry abducted seventeen girls. Eighteen if you count the last one, the one who survived. Once he had sexually abused them, he strangled them with razor wire. Then he buried them in the earth beneath his cellar.’

‘I don’t remember,’ Caroline said. ‘All I remember is the kids’ specials he used to put on offer. The bags of sweets that were cheaper than anywhere else. I just don’t remember.’ The words couched in a gale of shocked laughter.

Wendy looked up at her with sad eyes, perhaps knowing that in a short while she would be alone again, that these final words could not be synonymous with any kind of lasting friendship. ‘That’s because you were the eighteenth victim,’ she said.

*

He closed the shop early and took the path that would lead him alongside the overpass to the junction where the train station sat, a large canopy of curved, pale concrete spattered with pigeon shit. A tramp sitting on the entry gangway was trying to sell empty whisky bottles as novelty vases.

Boughey’s mind was filled with thoughts of seasons on the wane. There was still light in the sky but out of direct contact a chill could be detected Summer would not remain for much longer: He would need to start thinking about new stock. Perhaps he would concoct soups and casseroles, something earthy and unctuous for the darker nights. If he bought a fridge he could sell them in Tupperware. His thoughts of lamb and beans were so distracting, he did not register that he had dropped off the main thoroughfare and was now tramping down a litter-strewn path behind the railway car park. At a fence that was not worthy of the name, he pushed his way through to a narrow patch of wasteland that ran parallel to the railway and on to the rear of the industrial estate that stretched the length of Bewsey Street. Boughey sauntered along, picking his way through the rubbish that had been tipped here. The embankment was a riot of old cc-TV monitors, scarred mannequins and dead rolls of adhesive tape.

A dog chewing on a pallet in the great piles of dock and dandelion eyed him nervously as he walked by, its teeth never leaving the corner of the wood. At the end of the path, Boughey stopped and lifted his chin as though to better smell the evening’s perfume: the camomile and undiscovered blackberries growing fat on their brambles, the diesel on the tracks, the distant whiff of exhaust fumes and fried food.

But he wasn’t interested in smells. He could hear laughter, children’s laughter. It filled him with satisfaction, as immediately and completely as a cigarette. Across the fence, over which he now unsubtly clambered, the land was overtaken by paving and lamps: another car park which served the school. There was nobody on the adjacent field apart from a couple of magpies. Goalposts marked out a pitch. Corner flags wagged, ragged and limp, drained of any colour they might have once had.

An out-building abutted the school proper. From inside he heard the sound of children again. And music. An end of term disco, he surmised. As he poked his head around the entrance, he saw that his hunch was backed up by a piece of coloured paper tacked to the wall, laser-printed with those very words. Through the swing doors into what looked like a gymnasium, he saw flashes of light and children – no older than twelve – running across the dance floor. Boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the arena in pockets, sending glances at each other. Two teachers stood a little way off, arms folded. One of them looked Boughey’s way and began to move towards him; Boughey quickly retreated.

They didn’t follow him outside to make sure he had left the grounds. That would be their mistake. He knew how to wait. He waited now. Two hours later, the twilight having deepened, a boy and a girl came out through the swing doors and hurried, giggling, around the building to the narrow alleyway between it and the wall of the school canteen.

Boughey pushed away from the car he had been leaning against, brushed himself down, and followed them, checking in his pocket for what he needed most.

*

What mattered most, she thought, was to make herself as external as possible, to push the focus of her entire body to the surface so that she couldn’t for a moment dwell upon anything that needed urgent attention deep within her.

It almost worked.

As she pressed through the crowds of early evening drinkers already celebrating the weekend, she quelled the black curiosity that wanted to know why she had not been able to squeeze through the bars of her memories to that no-man’s land of a time with Boughey. And further, to staunch the perverse wish to study those actual recollections themselves, to know her own rotten centre, the nadir of experience. But considering the whys and wherefores surrounding her brain’s security system allowed the other stuff to dribble through. Her memory was mending itself, flashing her pictures of the past like a child showing off, oblivious to the pain that accompanied it.

She remembered now how she had gone into the shop one Friday afternoon without Mary or Tamara. Mr Boughey had been sitting in his customary place, behind the counter on his stool, a tabloid newspaper spread out before him. She had taken a drink from the refrigerator and offered him her handful of pennies.

‘I might have only married once, if I’d met someone as pretty as you.’ He said that, didn’t he?

‘Where’s your wife?’ she had asked.

‘Dead. Long dead. I never bothered again. Who would want a man like me?’

‘How much for the drink?’

‘Let me show you a picture of her. She was very beautiful.’

‘How much?’

‘It’s free. If you’ll come and look.’

Behind a length of curtain leading deeper into the shop he had taken her hand gently and she had felt him shivering. His other hand disappeared into the off-white overalls he always wore, and came out holding something that shone dully. It kept her still when he leant in to kiss her throat. His jowls were rough as sandpaper and he had a smell on him that reminded her of a rat she and her father had cornered once, in their back garden: fear and aggression, a sour mix.

‘You smell of fruit,’ he said eagerly, as though such a thing must be impossible.

He kept her in the shop all that afternoon, and for most of the weekend. Even now, when she could remember the label of the drink she wanted to buy, and its price, even when she could remember the brand name etched on the grimy edge of the knife he held, she was unable to recall how he had used her, only that he had used her and that it was cold and he did not let her put her clothes back on at any time. It seemed insane now that she should want to get to Ashley to stop him from wanting to buy Boughey’s shop, but if she didn’t, how could she expect to salvage anything from their marriage? She couldn’t be with a man who owned the shop where she had so very nearly met her end.

Had he touched her? He might have done, she thought. Just a little; she wasn’t sure, it was too uncomfortable to allow the memories to settle even for a few seconds. Stroked her hair, placed his hand on her thigh. Leaned close so he could smell the fear coming off her skin. If she allowed any more through, she thought she might go mad.

Seeing the shop suddenly emerge out of the evening was a shock, like a dream that comes true. Her thoughts had solidified in front of her, and, but for the decay the shop had suffered, she might well have been strolling here from school, intent on ice pops or Coke or a carton of orange juice.

There was nobody there. Although she had had to steel herself to try the door and knock on the windows, she felt as if this would be the outcome anyway. Doing these things seemed more important to her than eliciting some kind of response for what might exist within.

She was considering trying to break into the shop, just to see if there was any evidence that Ashley was living here, when she heard the sirens. She turned to watch the blue flash of police cars surge into the road and roar past her. Opposite, two women hurried out of the shadows of the underpass. One of them was weeping while the other tried her best to pacify her friend and keep her mouth clamped shut on her emotions. Her face was red and puffed out like the chest of a frightened bird.

‘Dirty!’ she spat, suddenly. ‘Dirty, dirty bastard!’ She caught sight of Caroline and jerked a thumb in the opposite direction to which they were travelling. ‘He’s only gone and killed him. He was only a boy. We’re off home, love. It won’t do to be on the streets.’

Caroline felt her body slump like something freshly de-boned. She followed the clamour along Bewsey Street. At the crest of a small hill, a little school, painted brilliant white, was surrounded by police cars. Onlookers had been forced to stand on the other side of the street; two policemen, arms folded, made sure they got no closer. From here, a good hundred metres away from the scene, Caroline could see some armed officers in bulky body armour prowling the outside of one of the buildings.

He isn’t there any more, she thought. He’s old, he’s overweight, but he’s no fool.

As if in agreement with this theory, she heard a muffled cry from behind the printing offices on her right. A train followed almost immediately, belittling the sound. Caroline considered alerting the police for maybe half a second. But she didn’t want Boughey dead. Not just yet.

*

He had forgotten how much they wriggled and squirmed, like eels given arms and legs. Boughey didn’t have a free hand to raise to wipe away the sweat that was gathering on his face. He half carried, half dragged the girl through the brambles and nettles, glad now that the sky was bruising sufficiently for him not to be seen. This was the best time of the day, a murk that was not yet dark enough to deserve streetlamps, but light enough to navigate by.

Before he reached the fence by the train station, he shed his apron, which was slick with the boy’s blood. Boughey had forgotten just how easy it was to drain a teenager and had stepped back a little too late to avoid the first geyser as his neck parted under the expert swing of his knife. The girl, in the act of kissing him, was half-choked by the shock of blood, but that was good. It took her a few minutes to blink and cough the mess from her face, by which time he had her on the path by the embankment, too shell-shocked, for a little while, to do anything but allow herself to be led away.

He hit her twice, hard, at the fence, breaking a tooth but sending her into a controllable daze. An old man walking his dog on the other side of the street watched them as they danced their drunken dance along the road, but he moved away, unimpressed. The town had a reputation as being a drinker’s town. A father frog-marching his intoxicated daughter home from a party, or a bar, was not an unusual sight.

When the shop came into view, he paused. Such instinct had served him well in the past. Invariably, it is when the rabbit is close to its home that the fox strikes. He watched the streets from the shadows for a full minute before shambling across to the awning, the girl’s heels – one show had come off on the journey home – dragging on the Tarmac. Focused on the door, the potential of its hinges burning with promise, its latent motion nothing but a symbol of opportunity, he unlocked it and forced his way in.

*

What have you done?

He closed his eyes, shook his head. There. That was better. Well, a little better. His head had been filled with faint buzzing, like summer midges in a field, for, oh, the best part of a week now. Tinnitus, was it? He didn’t know, but it hadn’t been so bad as to distract him from the hard work that he knew he must undertake if he was to make a go of this.

He stood back for a moment and surveyed the shop. His shop. It was dark, but somehow, in the darkness, it became easier for him to see. The girl did not struggle. She blinked owlishly, her free hand rubbing at the blood on her blouse.

‘Your name,’ he said.

‘Pamela.’

He wanted to comfort her in some way, but the only way he knew made her recoil. Sirens criss-crossed in the street but none of the cars stopped outside his shop. It would be time to send her home soon. He needed to clean up for dinner; he couldn’t just leave her here in the shop to run amok or steal what she wanted. He gazed at her sitting on the stool, her mouth having vanished into a thin line, the same mouth that had been hungrily searching her boyfriend’s mouth, as if for food. She hadn’t yet offered any thanks for what he had saved her from, but perhaps that had something to do with the way in which he’s gone about it. He wasn’t sure, but using his knife like that and hanging the piece of flesh that included his mouth from the barbed wire might not have been what she expected. Still, she didn’t make a peep. He’d take that for gratitude, for the time being.

‘Where will you go?’ he asked her, unbuttoning his shirt. There were bloodstains on the cuffs and a little on the breast pocket. It wouldn’t do to be seen serving customers in such a shoddy fashion.

‘Go?’ she asked, her mouth surprised enough by the question to empty about an egg-cup full of drool across her chin.

‘Well, it’s getting late. And I can’t sit here looking after you all night.’

The girl started shaking her head. ‘I don’t understand. You… you forced me here – ’

Boughey held up his hand. ‘I won’t hear any of that. I rescued you from someone who was going to take your maidenhead.’

‘That was Roddy. My boyfriend. Did you kill him?’

All of the air went out of her when she reached the last few words, but Boughey wasn’t listening anyway. He had stripped off his shirt and moved away from the counter, gut jiggling under a tight white vest. ‘There’s nothing for it,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to give you a bed downstairs. Until tomorrow. Do you mind sharing?’

‘Who with?’

‘Come on, I’ll show you. They’d love to meet you.’

He led her down the wooden steps. He said: ‘Something I could do for you, to stop your pain for ever.’

She started whimpering when he switched on the naked bulb and she saw the rows of burial mounds. There were some that had been disturbed. One grave had been exhumed to reveal the ulna and radius of a girl: a pink plastic bracelet encircled what had once been her wrist. He gripped Pamela hard around the throat to shut her up. And that was when he heard the glass in the window upstairs shatter.

*

Caroline could walk no further. She wasn’t sure where she was walking, only that she had a sudden appetite for distance. Her surroundings seemed to solidify around her, giving her some idea of where she was, although she did not recognise the locale. Only her feet had been in focus until now as she marched head down away from everything that had conspired to shape her life thus far: the town, her job, Ashley. Mr Boughey. That she should still afford him the courtesy of his title told of the denial that remained in her marrow. Externally she bore no evidence of the episode in his shop. Only her mind carried the echoes, and those were being picked up weakly and piecemeal, as though originating from a stammering emphysema sufferer who had bleated his message in a canyon. She didn’t trust her mind. Her mind had told her that Ashley loved her, that he would come back to her and nothing of the kind had occurred. Her mind had told her that he had nothing to do with the three disappearances over the last fortnight: pubescent schoolgirls walking home alone. Her hands sought her pocket again, but she must not allow her fingers inside. To do that was to fail and she would not be able to walk another pace. The police would find her slumped here and they’d ask her questions that she could not answer. She turned her thoughts inward, knowing what she would see, but unable to stop herself. It was like the tired mansion in a cheap horror film watched by a child. It didn’t matter how bad the acting, how poor the sets: a horror film was an Oscar-winner in every child’s head. It came alive.

The shop seemed to have rallied in its rank terrace, like a tooth that has been polished while its neighbours have been allowed to die. However, there had been no obvious improvements made to the exterior. The name on the awning – BOUGHEY’S – boasted perhaps a little more lustre than usual. Ashley must have cleaned it.

At first it seemed that the shop was talking to her, through the clenched teeth of its cracked main window. A whispery voice summoned from the sour lungs of its cellar, suggestive and diseased, that made her guts writhe. But then she saw how the voice must belong to Ashley and she remembered the women staggering across the road. The dirty bastard. The sirens looped distantly through the air like the desperate call of bereaved lovebirds. She heard words, clearly: … to stop your pain for ever.

The door was locked, but there was plenty of rubble lying around: the skins sloughed off most of the dead bodies in this terrace. She didn’t have to hurl the housebrick too hard at the glass for it to shatter in its frame. Once inside, dust falling like strange rain, obscuring the view, she edged towards the hole in the ground and saw that Ashley had fitted some wooden steps that the dark severed beyond the third riser.

‘Ashley?’ she called, and her voice was the tweet of a bird in a cave. There was nothing but the sound of dirt shifting, like someone panning for gold. She went down three steps, watching her foot grow indistinct, and called again. A hand came out of the shadows and gripped her leg. It was so slow, so ineffectual, that she had time to dispel the breath she had snatched into her lungs for a scream. It sounded like disappointment. Kicking the hand away, she retreated from the mouth of the hole and Muntin followed her, his face shiny with sweat. Her first compulsion was to reach out to her husband; pale as white chocolate, his eyes sloped with fatigue, he must be sick. But then she saw the blood on his fingers and the desperate red prints, from someone much smaller than he, on his grimy apron.

‘Hello,’ she said. It was all she could say.

He seemed uncertain, for a moment, as if he did not recognise the name. He drew a shockingly long blade from his pocket and turned it in his palm, this way and that, but any light it might have played with was defeated by what was coagulating on the steel.

‘Where is she?’ she asked, softly. ‘Tell me you haven’t done anything.’

He turned away from her, clumsily looking back down the throat of the hole. He wore the expression of a dog who doesn’t know which master to run to. She moved to him and reached out a hand; he did not flinch when she took the knife from his fingers, pressed her cool forehead against his fevered brow.

She kissed him, a slight brushing of her lips against his cheek. She closed her eyes and inhaled a scent she thought had been lost to the decades. ‘You’ve done wonders with this place, darling. Now clean yourself up.’ Caroline descended, her shoes scuffing against the risers, sending empty wooden echoes into the deeps. Walking to the shop, the last of the little doors to her memory had opened and she realised something about Mr Boughey that his behaviour ought never to have elicited. She missed him. This shop was her favourite and its owner, all the years she had palmed change from his soft fingertips and looked into his ageing, puffy eyes, was like love made real. Ashley was in him and of him. And that was good.

‘Clean up, love,’ she said, but she wasn’t aware of the words anymore, they were just a reassuring noise – but for whom? For him, certainly, who needed her more than anything now. For herself perhaps, sinking into his gloom while the weight of all that had gone before dragged at her bones. But not for what waited for her in the cellar. She held out the knife and felt the heat, smelled the sick whiff of fear.

‘Clean up,’ she said, inaudibly. ‘While I clean up down here.’

 

Advent Stories #8

OUTFANGTHIEF

At the moment the car slid out of control, Sarah Running had been trying to find a radio station that might carry some news of her crime. She had been driving for hours, risking the M6 all the way from Preston. Though she had seen a number of police vehicles, the traffic had been sufficiently busy to allow her to blend in and anyway, Manser would hardly have guessed she would take her ex-husband’s car. Michael was away on business in Stockholm and would not know of the theft for at least another week.

But Manser was not stupid. It would not be long before he latched on to her deceit.

As the traffic thinned, and night closed in on the motorway, Sarah’s panic grew. She was convinced that her disappearance had been reported and she would be brought to book. When a police Range Rover tailed her from Walsall to the M42 turn off, she almost sent her own car into the crash barriers at the centre of the road.

Desperate for cover, she followed the signs for the A14. Perhaps she could make the 130 miles to Felixstowe tonight and sell the car, try to find passage on a boat, lose herself and her daughter on the continent. In a day they could be in Dresden, where her grandmother had lived; a battered city that would recognise some of its own and allow them some anonymity.

‘Are you all right back there, Laura?’

In the rear view mirror, her daughter might well have been a mannequin. Her features were glacial; her sunglasses formed tiny screens of animation as the sodium lights fizzed off them. A slight flattening of the lips was the only indication that all was well. Sarah bore down on her frustration. Did she understand what she had been rescued from? Sarah tried to remember what things had been like for herself as a child, but reasoned that her own relationship with her mother had not been fraught with the same problems.

‘It’s all okay, Laura. We’ll not have any more worries in this family. I promise you.’

All that before she spotted the flashing blue and red lights of three police vehicles blocking her progress east. She turned left on to another A road bound for Leicester. There must have been an accident; they wouldn’t go to the lengths of forming a roadblock for her, would they? The road sucked her deep into darkness, on either side wild hedgerows and vast oily swells of countryside muscled into them. Headlamps on full beam, she could pick nothing out beyond the winding road apart from the ghostly dusting of insects attracted by the light. Sarah, though, felt anything but alone. She could see, in the corner of her eye, something blurred by speed, keeping pace with the car as it fled the police cordon. She took occasional glances to her right, but could not define their fellow traveller for the dense tangle of vegetation that bordered the road.

‘Can you see that, Laura?’ she asked. ‘What is it?’

It could have been a trick of the light, or something silver reflecting the shape of their car. Maybe it was the police. The needle on the speedometer edged up to 80. They would have to dump the car somewhere soon, if the police were closing in on them.

‘Keep a look out for a B&B, okay?’ She checked in the mirror; Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently.

Sarah fumbled with the radio button. Static filled the car at an excruciating volume. Peering into the dashboard of the unfamiliar car, trying to locate the volume control, she perceived a darkening in the cone of light ahead. When she looked up, the car was drifting off the road, aiming for a tree. Righting the swerve only took the car more violently in the other direction. They were still on the road, but only just, as the wheels began to rise on the passenger side.

but i wasn’t drifting off the road, was i?

Sarah caught sight of Laura, expressionless, as she was jerked from one side of the car to the other and hoped the crack she heard was not caused by her head slamming against the window.

i thought it was a tree big and black it looked just like a tree but but but

And then she couldn’t see much because the car went into a roll and everything became part of a violent, circular blur and at the centre of it were the misted, friendly eyes of a woman dipping into her field of view.

but but but how can a tree have a face?

*

She was conscious of the cold and the darkness. There was the hiss of traffic from the motorway, soughing over the fields. Her face was sticky and at first she thought it was blood, but now she smelled a lime tree and knew it was its sap being sweated on to her. Forty metres away, the road she had just left glistened with dew. She tried to move and blacked out.

*

Fingers sought her face. She tried to bat them away but there were many fingers, many hands. She feared they might try to pluck her eyes out and opened her mouth to scream and that was when a rat was pushed deep into her throat.

Sarah came out of the dream, smothering on the sodden jumper of her daughter, who had tipped over the driver’s seat and was pressed against her mother. The flavour of blood filled her mouth. The dead weight of the child carried an inflexibility about it that shocked her. She tried to move away from the crushing bulk and the pain drew gray veils across her eyes. She gritted her teeth, knowing that to succumb now was to die, and worked at unbuckling the seatbelt that had saved her life. Once free, she slumped to her left and her daughter filled the space she had occupied. Able to breathe again, she was pondering the position in which the car had come to rest, and trying to reach Laura’s hand, when she heard footsteps.

When she saw Manser lean over, his big, toothy grin seeming to fill the shattered window frame, she wished she had not dodged the police; they were preferable to this monster. But then she saw how this wasn’t Manser after all. She couldn’t understand how she had made the mistake. Manser was a stunted, dark man with a face like chewed tobacco. This face was smooth as soapstone and framed by thick, red tresses; a woman’s face.

Other faces, less defined, swept across her vision. Everyone seemed to be moving very fast.

She said, falteringly: ‘Ambulance?’ But they ignored her.

They lifted Laura out of the window to a cacophony of whistles and cheers. There must have been a hundred people. At least they had been rescued. Sarah would take her chances with the police. Anything was better than going home.

The faces retreated. Only the night stared in on her now, through the various rents in the car. It was cold, lonely and painful. Her face in the rear view mirror: all smiles.

*

He closed the door and locked it. Cocked his head against the jamb, listened for a few seconds. Still breathing.

Downstairs, he read the newspaper, ringing a few horses for the afternoon races. He placed thousand pound bets with his bookies. In the ground floor wash room, he took a scalding shower followed by an ice cold one, just like James Bond. Rolex Oyster, Turnbull & Asser shirt, Armani. He made four more phone calls: Jez Knowlden, his driver, to drop by in the Jag in twenty minutes; Pamela, his wife, to say that he would be away for the weekend; Jade, his mistress, to ask her if she’d meet him in London. And then Chandos, his police mole, to see if that cunt Sarah Running had been found yet.

*

Sarah dragged herself out of the car just as dawn was turning the skyline milky. She had drifted in and out of consciousness all night, but the sleet that had arrived within the last half hour was the spur she needed to try to escape. She sat a few feet away from the car, taking care not to make any extreme movements, and began to assess the damage to herself. A deep wound in her shoulder had caused most of the bleeding. Other than that, which would need stitches, she had got away with pretty superficial injuries. Her head was pounding, and dried blood formed a crust above her left eyebrow, but nothing seemed to be broken.

After quelling a moment of nausea when she tried to stand, Sarah breathed deeply of the chill morning air and looked around her. A farmhouse nestled within a crowd of trees seemed the best bet; it was too early for road users. Cautiously at first, but with gathering confidence, she trudged across the muddy, furrowed field towards the house, staring all the while at its black, arched windows, for all the world like a series of open mouths, shocked by the coming of the sun.

*

She had met Andrew in 1985, in the Preston library they both shared. A relationship had started, more or less, on their hands bumping each other while reaching for the same book. They had married a year later and Sarah gave birth to Laura then, too. Both of them had steady, if unspectacular work. Andrew was a security guard and she cleaned at the local school and for a few favoured neighbours. They eventually took out a mortgage on their council house on the right-to-buy scheme and bought a car, a washing machine and a television on the never-never. Then they both lost their jobs within weeks of each other. They owed £17,000. When the law centre they depended on heavily for advice lost its funding and closed down, Sarah had to go to hospital when she began laughing so hysterically, she could not catch her breath. It was as Andrew drove her back from the hospital that they met Malcolm Manser for the first time.

His back to them, he stepped out in front of their car at a set of traffic lights and did not move when they changed in Andrew’s favour. When Andrew sounded the horn, Manser turned around. He was wearing a long, newbuck trenchcoat, black Levi’s, black boots and a black T-shirt without an inch of give in it. His hair was black save for wild slashes of gray above his temples. His sunglasses appeared to be sculpted from his face, so seamlessly did they sit on his nose. From the trenchcoat he pulled a car jack and proceeded to smash every piece of glass and dent every panel on the car. It took about twenty seconds.

‘Mind if I talk to you for a sec?’ he asked, genially, leaning against the crumbled remains of the driver’s side window. Andrew was too shocked to say anything. His mouth was very wet. Tiny cubes of glass glittered in his hair. Sarah was whimpering, trying to open her door, which was sealed shut by the warp of metal.

Manser went on: ‘You have 206 pieces of bone in your body, fine sir. If my client, Mr Anders, does not receive seventeen grand, plus interest at ten per cent a day — which is pretty bloody generous if you ask me — by the end of the week, I will guarantee that after half an hour with me, your bone tally will be double that. And that yummy piece of bitch you’ve got ripening back home. Laura? I’ll have her. You test me. I dare you.’

He walked away, magicking the car jack in to the jacket and giving them an insouciant wave.

A week later, Andrew set himself on fire in the car which he had locked inside the garage. By the time the fire services got to him, he was a black shape, thrashing in the back seat. Set himself on fire. Sarah refused to believe that. She was sure that Manser had murdered him. Despite their onerous circumstances, Andrew was not the suicidal type. Laura was everything to him; he’d not leave this world without securing a little piece of it for her.

What then? A nightmare time. A series of safe houses that were anything but. Early morning flits from dingy addresses in Bradford, Cardiff, Bristol and Walsall. He was stickier than anything Bostik might produce. ‘Bug out,’ they’d tell her, these kind old men and women, having settled on a code once used by soldiers in some war or another. ‘Bug out.’ Manser had contacts everywhere. Arriving in a town that seemed too sleepy to even acknowledge her presence, she’d notice someone out of whack with the place, someone who patently did not fit in but had been planted to watch out for her. Was she so transparent? Her migrations had been random; there was no pattern to unpick. And yet she had stayed no longer than two days in any of these towns. Sarah had hoped that returning to Preston might work for her in a number of ways. Manser wouldn’t be expecting it for one thing; for another, Michael, her ex-husband, might be of some help. When she went to visit him though, he paid her short shrift.

‘You still owe me fifteen hundred quid,’ he barked at her. ‘Pay that off before you come grovelling at my door.’ She asked if he could use his toilet and passed any number of photographs of Gabrielle, his new squeeze. On the way, she stole from a hook on the wall the spare set of keys to his Alfa Romeo.

*

It took twenty minutes to negotiate the treacherous field. A light frost had hardened some of the furrows while other grooves were boggy. Sarah scuffed and skidded as best she could, clambering over the token fence that bordered an overgrown garden someone had used as an unauthorised tipping area. She picked her way through sofa skeletons, shattered TV sets, collapsed flat-pack wardrobes and decaying, pungent black bin bags.

It was obvious that nobody was living here.

Nevertheless, she stabbed the doorbell with a bloody finger. Nothing appeared to ring from within the building. She rapped on the door with her knuckles, but half-heartedly. Already she was scrutinising the windows, looking for another way in. A narrow path strangled by brambles led around the edge of the house to a woefully neglected rear garden. Scorched colours bled into each other, thorns and convulvulus savaged her ankles as she pushed her way through the tangle. All of the windows at the back of the house had been broken, probably by thrown stones. A yellow spray of paint on a set of storm doors that presumably led directly into the cellar picked out a word she didn’t understand: scheintod. What was that? German? She cursed herself for not knowing the language of her elders, not that it mattered. Someone had tried to obscure the word, scratching it out of the wood with a knife, but the paint was reluctant. She tried the door but it was locked.

Sarah finally gained access via a tiny window that she had to squeeze through. The bruises and gashes on her body cried out as she toppled into a gloomy larder. Mingled into the dust was an acrid, spicy smell; racks of ancient jars and pots were labelled in an extravagant hand: cumin, coriander, harissa, chilli powder. There were packs of flour and malt that had been ravaged by vermin. Dried herbs dusted her with a strange, slow rain as she brushed past them. Pickling jars held back their pale secrets within dull, lustreless glass.

She moved through the larder, arms outstretched, her eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom. Something arrested the door as she swung it outwards. A dead dog, its fur shaved from its body, lay stiffly in the hallway. At first she thought it was covered in insects, but the black beads were unmoving. They were nicks and slashes in the flesh. The poor thing had been drained. Sarah recoiled from the corpse and staggered further along the corridor. Evidence of squatters lay around her in the shape of fast food packets, cigarette ends, beer cans and names signed in the ceiling by the sooty flames of candles. A rising stairwell vanished into darkness. Her shoes crunched and squealed on plaster fallen from the bare walls.

‘Hello?’ she said, querulously. Her voice made as much impact on the house as a candyfloss mallet. It died on the walls, absorbed so swiftly it was as if the house was sucking her in, having been starved of human company for so long. She ascended to the first floor. The carpet that hugged the risers near the bottom gave way to bare wood. Her heels sent dull echoes ringing through the house. If anyone lived here, they would know they were not alone now. The doors opened on to still bedrooms shrouded by dust. There was nothing up here.

‘Laura?’ And then more stridently, as if volume alone could lend her more spine: ‘Laura!

Downstairs she found a cosy living room with a hearth filled with ashes. She peeled back a dust cover from one of the sofas and lay down. Her head pounded with delayed shock from the crash and the mustiness of her surroundings. She thought of her baby.

*

It didn’t help that Laura seemed to be going off the rails at the time of their crisis. Also, her inability, or reluctance to talk of her father’s death worried Sarah almost as much as the evidence of booze and drug use. At each of the safe houses, it seemed there was a Laura trap in the shape of a young misfit, eager to drag someone down with him or her. Laura gave herself to them all, as if glad of a mate to hasten her downward spiral. There had been one boy in particular, Edgar – a difficult name to forget – whose influence had been particularly invidious. They had been holed up in a Toxteth bedsit. Sarah had been listening to City FM. A talkshow full of languid, catarrhal Liverpool accents that was making her drowsy. The sound of a window smashing had dragged her from slumber. She caught the boy trying to drag her daughter through the glass. She had shrieked at him and hauled him into the room. He could have been no older than ten or eleven. His eyes were rifle green and would not stay still. They darted around like steel bearings in a bagatelle game. Sarah had drilled him, asking him if he had been sent from Manser. Panicked, she had also been firing off instructions to Laura, that they must pack immediately and be ready to go within the hour. It was no longer safe. And then:

Laura, crawling across the floor, holding on to Edgar’s leg, pulling herself up, her eyes fogged with what could only be ecstasy. Burying her face in Edgar’s crotch. Sarah had shrank from her daughter, horrified. She watched as Laura’s free hand travelled beneath her skirt and began to massage at the gusset of her knickers while animal sounds came from her throat. Edgar had grinned at her, showing off a range of tiny, brilliant white teeth. Then he had bent low, whispering something in Laura’s ear before charging out of the window with a speed that Sarah thought could only end in tragedy. But when she rushed to the opening, she couldn’t see him anywhere.

It had been the Devil’s own job trying to get her ready to flee Liverpool. She had grown wan and weak and couldn’t keep her eyes off the window. Dragging her on to a dawn coach from Mount Pleasant, Laura had been unable to stop crying and as the day wore on, complained of terrible thirst and unbearable pain behind her eyes. She vomited twice and the driver threatened to throw them off the coach unless Laura calmed down. Somehow, Sarah was able to pacify her. She found that shading her from the sunlight helped. A little later, slumped under the seat, Laura fell asleep.

Sarah had begun to question ever leaving Preston in the first place. At least there she had the strength that comes with knowing your environment. Manser had been a problem in Preston but the trouble was that he remained a problem. At least back there, it was just him that she needed to be wary of. Now it seemed Laura’s adolescence was going to cause her more of a problem than she believed could be possible. But at the back of her mind, Sarah knew she could never have stayed in her home town. What Manser had proposed, sidling up to her at Andrew’s funeral, was that she allow Laura to work for him, whoring. He guaranteed an excellent price for such a perfectly toned, tight bit of girl.

‘Men go for that,’ he’d whispered, as she tossed a fistful of soil on to her husband’s coffin. ‘She’s got cracking tits for a thirteen-year-old. High. Firm. Nipples up top. Quids in, I promise you. You could have your debt sorted out in a couple of years. And I’ll break her in for you. Just so’s you know it won’t be some stranger nicking her cherry.’

That night, they were out of their house, a suitcase full of clothes between them.

*

‘You fucking beauty.’

Manser depressed the call end button on his Motorola and slipped the phone into his jacket. Leaning forward, he tapped his driver on the shoulder. ‘Jez. Get this. Cops found the bitch’s car in a fucking field outside Leicester. She’d totalled it.’

He slumped back in his seat. The radio masts at Rugby swung by on his left, lights glinting through a thin fog. ‘Fuck London. You want the A5199. Warp Factor two. And when we catch the minging little tart, we’ll show her how to have a road accident. Do the job properly for her. Laura though, Laura comes with us. Nothing happens to Laura. Got it?’

At Knowlden’s assent, Manser closed his eyes. This year’s number 3 had died just before he left home. It had been a pity. He liked that one. The sutures on her legs had healed in such a way as to chafe his thigh as he thrust into her. But there had been an infection that he couldn’t treat. Pouring antibiotics down her hadn’t done an awful lot of good. Gangrene set in. Maybe Laura could be his number 4. Once Dr Losh had done his bit, he would ask him the best way to prevent infection. He knew what Losh’s response would be: let it heal. But he liked his meat so very rare when he was fucking it. He liked to see a little blood.

*

Sarah woke up to find that her right eye had puffed closed. She caught sight of herself in a shard of broken mirror on the wall. Blood caked half her face and the other half was black with bruises. Her hair was matted. Not for the first time, she wondered if her conviction that Laura had died was misplaced. Yet in the same breath, she couldn’t bear to think that she might now be suffering with similar, or worse, injuries. Her thoughts turned to her saviours – if that was what they were. And if so, then why hadn’t she been rescued?

She relived the warmth and protection that had enveloped her when those willowy figures had reached inside the car and plucked out her child. Her panic at the thought of Laura either dead or as good as had been ironed flat. She felt safe and, inexplicably, had not raged at this outrageous kidnap; indeed, she had virtually sanctioned it. Perhaps it had been the craziness inspired by the accident, or endorphins stifling her pain that had brought about her indifference. Still, what should have been anger and guilt was neutralised by the compulsion that Laura was in safe hands. What she didn’t want to examine too minutely was the feeling that she missed the rescue party more than she did her own daughter.

Refreshed a little by her sleep, but appalled at the catalogue of new aches and pains that jarred each movement, Sarah made her way back to the larder where she found some crackers in an airtight tin. Chewing on these, she revisited the hallway and dragged open the heavy curtains, allowing some of the late afternoon light to invade. Almost immediately she saw the door under the stairs. She saw how she had missed it earlier; it was hewn from the same dark wood and there was no door handle as such, just a little recess to hook your fingers into. She tried it but it wouldn’t budge. Which meant it was locked from the inside. Which meant that somebody must be down there.

‘Laura?’ she called, tapping on the wood with her fingernails. ‘Laura, it’s mum. Are you in there?’

She listened hard, her ear flush against the crack of the jamb. All she could hear was the gust of subterranean breezes moving through what ought to be the cellar. She must check it out; Laura could be down there, bleeding her last.

Sarah hunted down the kitchen. A large pine table sat at one end of the room, a dried orange with a heart of mould at its centre. She found a stack of old newspapers bound up with twine from the early 1970s by a back door that was forbiddingly black and excessively padlocked. Ransacking the drawers and cupboards brought scant reward. She was about to give in when the suck of air from the last yanked cupboard door brought a small screwdriver rolling into view. She grabbed the tool and scurried back to the cellar door.

*

Manser stayed Knowlden with a finger curled around his lapel. ‘Are you carrying?’

Knowlden had parked the car off the road on the opposite side to the crash site. Now the two men were standing by the wreck of the Alfa. Knowlden had spotted the house and suggested they check it out. If Sarah and her daughter had survived the crash – and the empty car suggested that they had – then they might have found some neighbourly help.

‘I hope you fucking are,’ Manser warned.

‘I’m carrying okay. Don’t sweat it.’

Manser’s eyebrows went north. ‘Don’t tell me to not sweat it, pup. Or you’ll find yourself doing seventy back up the motorway without a fucking car underneath you.’

The sun sinking fast, they hurried across the field, constantly checking the road behind them as they did so. Happy that nobody had seen them, Manser nodded his head in the direction of the front door. ‘Kick the mud off your boots on that bastard,’ he said.

It was 5:14 p.m.

*

Sarah was halfway down the cellar stairs and wishing she had a torch with her when she heard the first blows raining down on the door. She was about to return to the hallway when she heard movement from below. A lot of movement. Creaks and whispers and hisses. There was a sound as of soot trickling down a flue. A chatter: teeth in the cold? A sigh.

‘Laura?’

A chuckle.

*

The door gave in just before Knowlden was about to. His face was greasy with sweat and hoops of dampness spoiled his otherwise pristine shirt.

‘Gun,’ Manser said, holding his hand out. Knowlden passed him the weapon, barely disguising his disdain for his boss. ‘You want to get some muesli down you, mate,’ Manser said. ‘Get yourself fit.’ He checked the piece was loaded and entered the house, muzzle pointing ahead of him, cocked horizontally. Something he’d done since seeing Brad Pitt do the same thing in Se7en.

‘Knock, knock,’ he called out. ‘Daddy’s home.’

*

Sarah heard, just before all hell broke loose, Laura’s voice firm and even, say: ‘Do not touch her.’ Then she was knocked back on the stairs by a flurry of black leather and she was aware only of bloody-eyed, pale-skinned figures flocking past her. And teeth. She saw each leering mouth as if in slow motion, dark lips peeled back to reveal teeth so white they might have been sculpted from ice.

She thought she saw Laura among them and tried to grab hold of her jumper but she was left clutching air as the scrum piled into the hallway, whooping and screaming like a gang of kids let out early from school. When the shooting started she couldn’t tell if the screaming had changed in pitch at all, whether it had become more panicked. But at the top of the stairs she realised she was responsible for most of it. There appeared to be some kind of stand-off. Manser, the fetid little sniffer dog of a man, was waving a gun around while his henchman clenched and unclenched his hands, eyeing up the opposition, which was substantial. Sarah studied them properly for the first time, these women who had rescued her baby and left her to die in the car. And yet proper examination was beyond her. There were four of them, she thought. Maybe five. They moved around and against each other so swiftly, so lissomely that she couldn’t be sure. They were like a flesh knot. Eyes fast on their enemy, they guarded each other with this mesmerising display. It was so seamless it could have been choreographed.

But now she saw that they were not just protecting each other. There was someone at the heart of the knot, appearing and disappearing in little ribbons and teasers of colour. Sarah need see only a portion of face to know they were wrapped around her daughter.

‘Laura,’ she said again.

Manser said, ‘Who the fuck are these clowns? Have we just walked into Goth night down the local student bar, or what?’

‘Laura,’ Sarah said again, ignoring her pursuer. ‘Come here.’

‘Everyone just stand back. I’m having the girl. And to show you I’m not just pissing in my paddling pool…’ Manser took aim and shot one of the women through the forehead.

Sarah covered her mouth as the woman dropped. The three others seemed to fade somewhat, as if their strength had been affected.

‘Jez,’ said Manser. ‘Get the girl.’

Sarah leapt at Knowlden as he strode into the pack but a stiff arm across her chest knocked her back against the wall, winding her. He extricated Laura from her guardians and dragged her kicking back to his boss.

Manser was nodding his head. ‘Nice work, Jez. You can have jelly for afters tonight. Get her outside.’

To Sarah he said: ‘Give her up.’ And then he was gone.

Slumped on the floor, Sarah tried to blink a fresh trickle of blood from her eyes. Through the fluid, she thought she could see the women crowding around their companion. She thought she could see them lifting her head as they positioned themselves around her. But no. No. She couldn’t accept that she was seeing what they began to do to her then.

*

Knowlden fell off the pace as they ran towards the car. Manser was half-dragging, half-carrying Laura who was thrashing around in his arms.

‘I’m nearly ready,’ she said. ‘I’ll bite you! I’ll bite you, I swear to God.’

‘And I’ll scratch your eyes out,’ Manser retorted. ‘Now shut the fuck up. Jesus, can’t you do what girls your age do in the movies? Faint, or something?’

At the car, he bundled her into the boot and locked it shut. Then he fell against the side of the car and tried to control his breathing. He could just see Knowlden plodding towards him in the dark. Manser could hear his squealing lungs even though he had another forty metres or so to cover.

‘Come on Jez, for fuck’s sake! I’ve seen mascara run faster than that.’

At thirty metres, Manser had a clearer view of his driver as he died.

One of the women they had left behind in the house was moving across the field at a speed that defied logic. Her hands were outstretched and her nails glinted like polished arrowheads. Manser moved quickly himself when he saw how she slammed into his chauffeur. He was in third gear before he realised he hadn’t taken the handbrake off and he was laughing harder than he had ever laughed in his life. Knowlden’s heart had been skewered on the end of her claws like a piece of meat on a kebab. He didn’t stop laughing until he hit the M1, southbound.

Knowlden was forgotten. All he had on his mind now was Laura, naked on the slab, her body marked out like the charts on a butcher’s wall.

*

Dazed, Sarah was helped to her feet. Their hands held her everywhere and nowhere, moving along her body as soft as silk. She tried to talk but whenever she opened her mouth, someone’s hand, cold and rank, slipped over it. She saw the pattern in the curtains travel by in a blur though she could not feel her feet on the floor. Then the night was upon them, and the frost in the air sang around her ears as she was swept into the sky, embedded at the centre of their slippery mesh of bodies, smelling their clothes and the scent of something ageless and black, lifting off the skin like forbidden perfume. Is she all right now? she wanted to ask, but her words wouldn’t form in the ceaseless blast of cold air. Sarah couldn’t count the women that cavorted around her. She drifted into unconsciousness thinking of how they had opened the veins in their chests for her, how the charge of fluid had engulfed her face, bubbling on her tongue and nostrils like dark wine. How her eyes had flicked open and rolled back into their sockets with the unspeakable rapture of it all.

*

Having phoned ahead, Manser parked the car at midnight on South Wharf Road, just by the junction with Praed Street. He was early, so instead of going directly to the dilapidated pub on the corner he sauntered to the bridge over Paddington Basin and stared up at the Westway, hoping for calm. The sounds emanating from that elevated sweep were anything but soothing. The mechanical sigh of speeding vehicles reminded him only of the way those witches’ mouths had breathed, snake-like jaws unhinged as though in readiness to swallow him whole. The hiss of tyres on rain-soaked Tarmac put him in mind of nothing but the wet air that had sped from Knowlden’s chest when he was torn open.

By the time he returned, he saw in the pub a low-wattage bulb turning the glass of an upstairs window milky. He went to the door and tapped on it with a coin in a pre-arranged code. Then he went back to the car and opened the boot. He wrestled with Laura and managed to clamp a hand over her mouth, which she bit, hard. Swearing, he dragged a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it in her mouth, punching her twice to get her still. The pain in his hand was mammoth. She had teeth like razors. Flaps of skin hung off his palm; he was bleeding badly. Woozy at the sight of the wound, he staggered with Laura to the door, which was now open. He went through it and kicked it shut, checking the street to make sure he hadn’t been seen. Upstairs, Losh was sitting in a chair containing more holes than stuffing.

‘This was a good boozer before it was closed down,’ Manser said, his excitement unfolding deep within him.

‘Was,’ Losh said, keeping his eyes on him. He wore a butcher’s apron that was slathered with blood. He smoked a cigarette, the end of which was patterned with bloody prints from his fingers. A comma of blood could be mistaken for a kiss-curl on his forehead. ‘Everything changes.’

‘You don’t,’ Manser said. ‘Christ. Don’t you ever wash?’

‘What’s the point? I’m a busy man.’

‘How many years you been struck off?’

Losh smiled. ‘Didn’t anybody ever warn you not to piss off the people you need help from?’

Manser swallowed his distaste of the smaller man. ‘Nobody warns me nothing,’ he spat. ‘Can’t we get on?’

Losh stood up and stretched. ‘Cash,’ he said, luxuriously.

Manser pulled a wad from his jacket. ‘There’s six grand there. As always.’

‘I believe you. I’d count it but the bank get a bit miffed if they get blood on their bills.’

‘Why don’t you wear gloves?’

‘The magic. It’s all in the fingers.’ Losh gestured towards Laura. ‘This the one?’

‘Of course.’

‘Pretty thing. Nice legs.’ Losh laughed. Manser closed his eyes. Losh said, ‘What you after?’

Manser said, ‘The works.’

Wide eyes from Losh. ‘Then let’s call it eight thou.’

A pause. Manser said, ‘I don’t have it with me. I can get it tomorrow. Keep the car tonight. As collateral.’

Losh said, ‘Done.’

 

The first incision. Blood squirted up the apron, much brighter than the stains already painted upon it. A coppery smell filled the room. The pockets of the pool table upon which Laura was spread were filled with beer towels.

‘Soft tissue?’

Manser’s voice was dry. He needed a drink. His cock was as hard as a house brick. ‘As much off as possible.’

‘She won’t last long,’ Losh said.

Manser stared at him. ‘She’ll last long enough.’

Losh said: ‘Got a number 5 in mind already?’

Manser didn’t say a word. Losh reached behind him and picked up a Samsonite suitcase. He opened it and pulled out a hacksaw. Its teeth entertained the light and flung it in every direction. At least Losh kept his tools clean.

*

The operation took four hours. Manser fell asleep at one point and dreamed of his hand overpowering the rest of his body, dragging him around the city while the mouth that slavered and snarled at the centre of his palm cupped itself around the stomachs of passers-by and devoured them.

He wakened, rimed with perspiration, to see Losh chewing an errant hangnail and tossing his instruments back into the suitcase. Laura was wrapped in white bath towels. They were crimson now.

‘Is she okay?’ Manser asked. Losh’s laughter in reply was infectious and soon he was at it too.

‘Do you want the off cuts?’ Losh asked, wiping his eyes and jerking a thumb at a bucket tastefully covered with a dishcloth.

‘You keep them,’ Manser said. ‘I’ve got to be off.’

Losh said, ‘Who opened the window?’

Nobody had opened the window; the lace curtains fluttering inward were being pushed by the bulge of glass. Losh tore them back just as the glass shattered in his face. He screamed and fell backwards, tripping on the bucket and sprawling on to the floor.

To Manser it seemed that strips of the night were pouring in through the broken window. They fastened themselves to Losh’s face and neck and munched through the flesh like a caterpillar at a leaf. His screams were low and already being disguised by blood as his throat filled. He began to choke but managed one last, hearty shriek as a major blood vessel parted, spraying colour all around the room with the abandon of an unmanned hosepipe.

How can they breathe with their heads so deep inside him? Manser thought, hypnotised by the violence. He felt something dripping on his brow. Touching his face with his fingers, he brought them away to find them awash with blood. He had time to register, as he looked up at the ceiling, the mouth as it yawned, dribbling with lymph, the head as it vibrated with unfettered anticipation. And then the woman dropped on him, ploughing her jaws through the meat of his throat and ripping clear. He saw his flesh disappear down her gullet with a spasm that was almost beautiful. But then his sight filled with red and he could understand no more.

*

She had been back home for a day. She couldn’t understand how she had got here. She remembered being born from the warmth of her companions and standing up to find both men little more than pink froth filling their suits. One of the men had blood on his hands and a cigarette smouldered between his fingers. The hand was on the other side of the room, though.

She saw the bloody, tiny mound of towels on the pool table. She saw the bucket; the dishcloth had shifted, revealing enough to tell her the game. Two toes was enough. She didn’t need to be drawn a picture.

And then somehow she found herself outside. And then on Edgware Road where a pretty young woman with dark hair and a woven shoulder bag gave her a couple of pounds so that she could get the tube to Euston. And then a man smelling of milk and boot polish she fucked in a shop doorway for her fare north. And then Preston, freezing around her in the early morning as if it were formed from winter itself. She had half expected Andrew to poke his head around the corner of their living room to say hello, the tea’s on, go and sit by the fire and I’ll bring some to you.

But the living room was cold and bare. She found sleep at the time she needed it most, just as her thoughts were about to coalesce around the broken image of her baby. She was crying because she couldn’t remember what her face looked like.

When she revived, it was dark again. It was as if daylight had forsaken her. She heard movement towards the back of the house. Outside, in the tiny, scruffy garden, a cardboard box, no bigger than the type used to store shoes, made a stark shape amid the surrounding frost. The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t.

One of them swooped down and landed by the box. She nudged it forward with her hand, as a deer might coax a newborn to its feet. Sarah felt another burst of unconditional love and security fill the gap between them all. Then they were gone, whipping and twisting far into the sky, the consistency, the trickiness of smoke.

*

Sarah took the box into the living room with her and waited. Hours passed; she felt herself become more and more peaceful. She loved her daughter and she hoped Laura knew that. As dawn began to brush away the soot from the sky, Sarah leaned over and touched the lid. She wanted so much to open it and say a few words, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

In the end, she didn’t need to. Whatever remained inside the box managed to do it for her.

 

Advent Stories #7

f/8

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Up ahead, the trees gave way to a field edging the final row of cottages before the Derbyshire hills and the brittle January night took over. The road was visible for a little way but there was no moon. Behind him, the lights from Manchester formed a thin meniscus of pale orange. Tommy felt the pressure of the clouds; they seemed close enough to grasp. Like matted strips of iron they’d be, warm to the touch, buzzing with unknowable energy. He struggled with his backpack over the mud and stones. The flashlight secured to his headband ranged wildly around that final barrier of trees. Once he breached it, the darkness ahead deepened, as if the field had become flooded with oil. The trees had acted as a windbreak; now he was almost felled by the hard gusts whipping across the flat. He righted himself and moved on, feeling the hair on the back of his neck tingle. He closed his eyes to it for a moment and breathed deeply through his nose. There was a smell, he felt, of something organic and flawed, like the metallic edge that was present in a cancer ward, or a delivery room. The ruins were maybe sixty feet away. Tommy had rehearsed this walk in good weather and daylight, counting steps, ticking off landmarks. The headlight was for hazards only, really, although it was powerful enough to pick out the gleaming, broken spire of the church. Now Tommy felt the first, fat spots of rain.

He quickly made his way to the location he had chosen earlier, a corner of the field sheltered by an overhanging hawthorn tree, where he hunkered down against the drystone wall to assemble the tripod. Once his Nikon was attached to its head, he switched off his flashlight and drew up his hood; the rain was sheeting down now. Fingers of it stroked and restroked the same channels in his skin, reaching for his eyes and mouth. It patted against his waterproofs like some insistent knuckle at the door, demanding entry. He heard the voice of the storm, far away, but coming on. He made a few test exposures and decided to dial in a shutter speed of thirty seconds at f/8. Now it was just a case of waiting for the moment.

He knew about waiting. During the past month he had sat by two beds, waiting for his father to die and his son to be born. Neither had happened. He was unsure how he ought to feel and as a result felt nothing. Louis had eventually been removed, dead, from Jessica’s womb; his father had slipped into a coma. Rain drummed his hood. He stared at the dark green grass of the meadow. He thought about the terminology, the way the doctor had presented it to him, as if his father had decided to go for a relaxing swim in some deep, warm pool.

Jessica, his wife, deciding to spend a week with her parents had spurred his journey out here. She had looked through him, her eyes unfocused, soft, as if she was something newly hatched. He asked her questions and she grunted in reply, sometimes minutes later. It only dawned on him after she had gone that he was reacting in the same way. They were ghosts in the same house, only aware of each other long after they had vacated the rooms they’d inhabited. He watched her being driven away by her cement-faced father – Tommy’s not and never will be good enough for my girl – and worked his way diligently through the onlytwo bottles of alcohol in the kitchen: port and gin. He came to in the living room, an empty pizza box he couldn’t remember ordering, much less eating, on his lap; an album of photographs; the keys to the Jeep.

He showered and shaved and drank three cups of black coffee. He slotted a recharged battery into his Nikon and pulled out some maps. Keep busy. Fill your mind with other things. Don’t give it any space.

He couldn’t remember driving out here, or where exactly here was. The Jeep he’d parked in a public layby near to a farmhouse with one amber light burning in an upstairs window. Cloud massed behind it like something steeling itself for attack. It seemed he might play those last few days over and over in his mind; it was as if nothing he did from now on would possess enough acceleration to escape the restrictive atmosphere he was breathing. He swung his head up towards the sky and the rain fussed into it like a swarm of cold steel wasps. He regarded the camera on its tripod as if it were some kind of exotic farm animal ruminating by his side. Then there was a flash of lightning that corkscrewed out of the leaden ceiling, close enough for him to feel its heat. He felt his flesh draw in, as if instinctively trying to make itself as small a target as possible. He knew the risks. He knew the myths. Lightning could strike twice in the same place. Stay away from the trees. Make yourself flat on the ground.

Suddenly he was within the thickness of the storm. The wind punched him. The rain seemed more substantial than it ought to be; seamless, almost. It billowed and swirled like a sheet on a washing line. Tommy’s fingers sought the shutter release button and depressed it. He felt, rather than heard, the click of the mechanism. A thirty-second exposure. Nothing but the dark and the rain and the howling of the wind. He closed his eyes. He could feel a fizz in the air, a crackle of energy. It was all around him. It was right on top of him. But no great spark. He released the shutter again. This time, fifteen seconds into the exposure, the lightning came. Thunder surrounded him almost at the same moment. He jumped, lost his footing. He put out a hand to steady himself, but wrenched over to one side when he realised the exposure was not yet completed; if he touched the tripod the shot would be ruined. His foot sank in mud; he felt water turn his sock heavy and cold. A fresh barrage of rain. It was getting through his supposedly waterproof clothing: determined weather. There was a flask of coffee back at the Jeep. One more shot and he was gone.

He checked the camera settings and waited, his finger on the shutter release. The storm was moving on anyway; he could sense the belly was full. The dense heart of cloud had softened, reared away. Pale light was sifting through. He depressed the button. Twenty seconds. Twenty-five. He’d missed it. He’d —

(Max)

One hundred million volts entered Tommy’s body at the V of flesh where his thumb met the rest of his hand. He received an exit burn from the sole of his left foot. The contact temperature, in the 1/1000th of a second in which the lightning bolt travelled through his body, touched thirty thousand degrees centigrade. He lost consciousness immediately. It was another nineteen hours before he was found.

*

The first words he heard after the strike were delivered to him by a doctor at his bedside in Intensive Care. The doctor wore a Stockport County lanyard around his neck and a well-trimmed goatee as white as his coat. He said: You’re lucky to be alive, Mr Clare. You cheated death by a whisker, somehow.

The nurse helped him upright in order to drink water. Tommy heard the creak and whisper of what at first he believed to be the sheets, but it was his cindered flesh. He tried to speak but nothing travelled on the sirocco of his breath.

‘Shush, Mr Clare,’ his nurse said. ‘You need to be patient. It will all come back to you, in time.’

He lay on his back staring at the saline solution as it drained from its plastic sac into his arm. He felt too hot inside. He couldn’t hear properly. He was still unsure as to what had happened.

You cheated death.

He had a vision of someone with eyes blacker than boiling tar tearing up a betting slip in a shadowed corner, it blazing to ashes before touching the ground. He remembered the burnished chaos of the sky, and the trees, aghast. The worn edges of the ruins clung to the skin of the Earth. He seemed the only unattached thing for miles around. Tommy and his camera. He felt a deep stab of concern; what had happened to his camera?

He dreamed of his dead son. His wife was on the bed in the delivery room, sweat wicking off her, teeth clenched, eyes rolled back to whites. The anaesthetist was standing next to her with a needle the size of a baguette.

You want the epidural now? he kept asking, wagging the needle in her face. How’s your pain? Now? You want me to go in now?

The midwives were sitting still in plastic chairs, facing the wall. They wore red gowns with hoods. The hoods were too collapsed to suggest that anything as substantial as a skull lay beneath.

His wife had been induced. They had been told what to expect. Tommy had not wanted to be there, but he felt, because Jessica had no choice, then neither should he. A plastic tub lined with blue polythene lay at the foot of the operating table. There was a saw in it. Whenever Tommy asked the midwife what the saw was for, she giggled and told him to stop being so cheeky. She was coughing like a consumptive. Her words became a red surge against the cotton of her mask. Her eyes were shark-dead. She leaned into him, conspiratorially, and said: ‘I know how to joint a chicken like you would not believe.’

*

He snapped awake. His eyelids felt like scraps stuck to a barbecue grill. Over the months that followed, he suffered countless operations to enable his drawn-in limbs to extend once more. Plastic surgery wrapped him in tissue that was discoloured and alien. ‘Function over fashion, hey?’ the consultant said, on a drearily regular basis. Tommy’s hearing improved a little, but he was warned that it would never come back to the way it had been before. Occasionally, when he was drifting into sleep, he might be shocked awake by the sudden smell of vinegar, or hot oil, but nobody was cooking on the ward, nobody had brought in any takeaway food during visiting time. His senses wee still dealing with the insult of the strike, he was told. He ought to be prepared for lots of little surprises like that. How else had the lightning changed him? he wondered. In moments of rest, between skin grafts and sutures, he would close his eyes and watch the cosmos of his thoughts tumble in soothing, mordant colours. Ochre. Maroon. Carnelian. Into them frequently stepped a figure. Steeped in shadow, yet surrounded by a thin corona of crackling white light, its back always to Tommy, it would pulse in and out of true, as if being hunted by the automatic focusing system on a DSLR. Sometimes the head was a shaggy halo of loose, unkempt hair; sometimes it was smoothly combed back into a ponytail. Tommy became fascinated by this elusive figure. He wondered if he had created it, or if it was a memory of someone he no longer recognised. He began to look forward to periods of rest, when he could forget about the physiotherapy exercises and return to his pursuit of it.

He lay in the dark and touched the raw scar – arborescent, sprawling – that covered his entire chest. It was as if somebody had laid a network of branches against his skin and pressed down until their pattern was transferred into him. He listened to the faltering suck of his breath and understood what it was to be an old man. It had reduced him, this incident. He wondered how many years it had sheared from his span. Whatever it was, he decided, he was grateful. If things didn’t improve, he didn’t relish the thought of as much as four more decades of pain.

*

‘You’ve changed.’

‘That’s one way of putting it.’ The words tumbled out over the sandpaper of his tongue. He was always thirsty now, he found.

‘I’ve changed too.’

He nodded. Jessica’s face was bowed, trembling, knitted. What followed was quick, and full of the phrases he’d heard in any number of Hollywood break-ups, or read in novelised splits. I just thought… we’ve grown apart… best for both of us… fresh start… remain friends… keep in touch…

He didn’t even notice she’d gone; he thought she was still talking, but the voice was different. It struggled to be heard, and it was deeper, gravelly. It seemed to be rediscovering itself, little more than a mumble as he struggled to understand its rhythms and intonations. Closing his eyes helped. When he closed his eyes he could no longer see the fork of scar tissue on his chest. The figure seemed to step through a seam in his inner darkness, as if it were an actor just off stage, waiting for his cue. It trembled there in its lambent cocoon, perhaps waiting for a sign, or for Tommy to act. A word broke through the human static: South.

*

Tommy was allowed home a few days before his birthday at the end of May. His flat was stale, stuffy. There were no traces of his wife. She had removed the photographs of them together from their frames and left them in an envelope by the door. She didn’t want them, but she didn’t want them on show either, was the implicit message. He hobbled through the rooms, reacquainting himself with the layout, but it was as alien as his own body. It no longer felt like home. He didn’t know if that was because Jessica was no longer around, or that he himself felt that he had become someone else, a kind of imposter. It took a few moments to establish that the kitchen was not where he felt it should be, nor was the bedroom. It wouldn’t come back to him, his old life. His heart stuttered as if echoing his panic. He sat down on a sofa he could not remember buying and wished for a drink. There was an old yellow Selfridges bag on his desk chair. Inside it were the remains of his camera, and a note. This was found nearby when the emergency services picked you up. It’s a write-off… but I thought you’d need it for insurance purposes. J.

Tommy cradled the blasted remnants of the Nikon. The lens was cracked. The body of the camera had warped and opened, the plastic buttons melted and fused with their housings. All of it beyond repair. He turned the camera on its side and thumbed open the memory card slot. The card inside seemed to be intact, although the images it had stored were surely fried. He tried loading them anyway. He did not feel any pleasure or relief to find that all of his exposures uploaded without any sign of corruption. He stared at the final shot: the lightning that had passed directly through him. There were no jags in it. It was really quite beautiful. A viciously straight beam of blue-white light, turned to a soft, powdered explosion in the bottom left corner where the lens had flared. And where he had received it. He was about to turn away, sweating with the terror of the event’s documentation, when he noticed the little blue bar at the side of the application’s viewing window. There was space beneath it, indicating that this was not the final shot. He stared at the small gap, trying to understand how that could have happened, and resisting the force drawing his fingers to the mouse to reveal what his camera had recorded after the strike. Would he see himself lying in the grass, a smoking body swollen and ruptured within his clothes?

Turn it off. Dump the files. Grind the card to dust.

He swept the mouse across the mat until the cursor filled the gap. Click.

A translucent human shape: black, glistening rags hanging from its shoulders, hurrying away from the viewfinder, long hair whipping about it in the wind. The fist of meat at the centre of its chest glowing like an ember disturbed at the heart of a dying fire.

*

Later, after whisky, Tommy opened up his email accounts and read messages wishing him well. Before he knew what he was doing he was punching the word ‘lightning’ into his web browser. He read about what had almost killed him. It was as if he were witness to a car crash; he couldn’t look away. He read about the path of least resistance – something he had been a part of (wouldn’t Jessica have found that a hoot) – and the return stroke, which taught him that the nearest point of lightning to the ground – the stepped leader – built up a charge in whatever it was going to hit and that, at the last moment, an upward discharge flew out from that object to meet it. I embraced the killer, he thought. I might as well have flung open my arms to Death.

After much self-admonishment and coaxing, and a light meal, he felt better, well enough to think about the figure and the voice and what ‘South’ might mean. He wondered if this person might be the embodiment of his own spirit, here to jolly him along the long path to recovery. ‘South’ couldn’t mean death, in this case, which had been worrying him a little. He felt better, he was on the mend. The doctors had told him he was out of the danger zone and that it was up to him now, and how much work he wanted to put in to getting himself fit again.

When night came, Tommy let it. He ignored the light switches and the curtains and allowed the moon to fill the rooms with its pallor. He found these to be the best conditions in which to entertain the figure, whom he realised he was beginning to rely upon, perhaps a little too much. There was no improvement in definition or sound, yet Tommy had come to prefer it this way. With clarity would come epiphany, he felt, and he liked the mystery. If the presence revealed itself as someone he knew, was even a younger version of himself, disappointment would follow. Now it shivered into view again, as if it had been waiting for the moment Tommy invoked it.

It moved a little easier this time, as if, like Tommy, it had been undergoing physiotherapy. There was less of a hunch in its posture. Less hesitation in the reconfiguring of limbs. It seemed looser, suppler, more at ease, with itself and Tommy too, perhaps. What’s your secret? Tommy willed at it. Show me how to improve.

It seemed to react to his imagined words. The glimmer of surrounding light broke into disconnected seeds as it turned its head, then rediscovered its uniformity. The struggle to hear what it mouthed at him; deafness had followed him into his daydreams, it seemed. A hiss and crackle of nonsense. Black clods fell from lips that seemed to have forgotten how to move properly. And then: Dead tree.

*

Headaches. The doctors had warned him about these, but nothing could prepare him for their severity. It was as if a little portion of lightning had become trapped inside him at the moment of the strike, and was jagging around his cranium, searching for a way out. Pills did not help. Tommy decided to go for a walk, hoping that the fresh air would scour the pain from his head. As he opened the main door to the block, though, his legs buckled and he felt sweat stripe his spine as if someone had painted it upon him. There was a bank of light cloud obscuring the sun, but no low pressure, no reason to fear the weather today. He realised, bar the struggle from the taxi to the front door on the day he returned from the hospital, he had not ventured outside. He wasn’t sure he could do it, but then the figure was there, behind his eyes, coaxing him, its arm outstretched, bathed in benign blue light. Tommy shuffled down the steps and across the gravel forecourt. He kept his head down, as far as the stiff, unresponsive meat of his body would allow. Sometimes he was convinced the strike had cooked him through, that he was a dense, overcooked joint of meat, moistureless and tough. Good for nothing but the bin.

He walked around the block, pausing often. He ached the following morning, but it was a recognisable pain, one he was used to. It almost, but not quite, took his mind away from the constant burn of his scars. He walked again that evening, the figure accompanying him once more. By the end of the week he was able to walk two miles. The soreness was inevitable, but he managed it with painkillers and by calling on the figure. Its presence dulled his discomfort. It was as if it took on the burden, so that Tommy could sleep.

He wakened in the middle of the night, after the longest walk yet, a three-mile hike that had taken him all afternoon to complete. He lay still, wondering what had roused him. It wasn’t the fallout from his exertions, and it wasn’t the figure. Well, not directly, he realised, as he sat up and swung his legs gingerly out of bed.

South, he thought. Dead tree.

He went to his filing cabinet and tugged open the top drawer. Inside were folders of contact sheets, indexed by location. He sighed and pulled out a handful. These photographs represented half a lifetime of endeavour, with little reward. He had won the odd competition, and seen a few of his shots from a trip to China used in a travel guide, but he had never made a living from his work. Perhaps that was down to his lack of direction. He wasn’t a specialist, in the way that, say, Joe Cornish focused on landscapes, or Steve Bloom worked in nature. He photographed what was there on the day, whether it be cars at an antique fair, portraits, macro work at a flower show or dawn seascapes during a spur-of-the moment weekend away at the coast. Here were thumbnails of ex-girlfriends in candid poses, long-dead pets, friends gurning for the camera, and shots he had taken at Manchester Airport’s aviation viewing park.747blur - 2007-04-24 at 11-36-16.jpgHe placed this last batch on a lightbox and gazed at each exposure through his loupe. The memories came flooding back; because they were of a time before his accident, they seemed somehow brighter, more colourful. They seemed close enough for him to reach in and become a part of again. He remembered he had a Nikon with him that day, but not the DSLR. He had been using a film camera, an old F-801s, so he hadn’t been able to check each shot after taking it. He clung to the old technology because it was getting cheaper now that that film –inconvenient, unforgivable film – was less desirable. It kept him sharp. You couldn’t just point and keep your finger depressed. You had to think carefully about composure and exposure, or risk wasting a frame. He had been confident in his shooting that day. There was some amazing light, low and bronze, which underscored swells of seemingly solid cloud. There were a lot of small intercontinental passenger jets coming in to land from the north on runway 2. After twenty minutes, Tommy had realised he would get a better shot if he positioned himself on land south of the runway when it was being used for take-offs, especially if one of the big jets that operated out of here – a Virgin Atlantic 747, an Emirates 777 or one of the China Airlines freight Jumbos – opened its throttles. From this vantage point he would only get a three-quarters profile of a take-off, and that from the rear. Not good.

He remembered getting on to the A538 and winging it. Head sticking out of the window, navigating by the sun and the trajectory of the jets and whichever road seemed to promise to take him closest to where he needed to be. He had abandoned the car on a lane by a small farm and clambered over a fence into a field. He saw the airport perimeter, and about sixty feet shy of it, a single, dead tree, utterly nude and pale and smooth, like polished stone. He got to the tree and it was perfect. Sunlight gave it the illusion of life; the colour of it might convince you there was blood in its roots. If he got down low enough, he could make the forbidding perimeter disappear. Then there was just that amazing welter of cloud, the tree, and whatever came roaring up off the tarmac. Tommy had attached a 24mm wide-angle lens to the camera body and waited.

He had used another two rolls until it became clear that there was a hiatus in the traffic. By then the sun was overhead and the clouds had assumed a flatter aspect, anathema to the photographer.

Now, in his study, the pain uncurling in his limbs like a frightened cat regaining its confidence, Tommy pored over those photographs again, surprised that he had not viewed them properly since getting the contact sheets developed. The lone tree was a cliché in photography. But there was something about its juxtaposition with those cuneiform monsters lifting from the runway that excited him. It was fate and hope in the same picture. Death was all over it. He studied the tree, trying to find some message in its branches that would open up the mystery of the figure to him, but there was nothing. He almost expected to see a human shadow thrown upon the field from behind the trunk. A face in the portholes of a fuselage. Pareidol in those rampant clouds.

He was about to file the pictures away when he did spot something. Off to the left of the tree, at the very edge of the frame. Something in the undergrowth that mirrored the exposed wood of the tree: sun-bleached, weather-sanded. A branch, perhaps, lopped off by strong winds. But there was something lacking the arbitrary in its shape. It possessed a form that suggested function, as opposed to the random reach of a tree’s limb.

Tommy went to the filing cabinet and extracted the corresponding negative. He scanned it into his computer and booted up the image manipulation software. He opened the file and magnified it to a point just before it would begin to pixellate. A little noise, a little fringing, but he could see more clearly now. A white hand.

*

The following morning Tommy went back to the field. Driving produced its own new set of agonies; the peculiar dipping of the clutch he felt all the way from his foot up the left side of his body. He was drenched in sweat by the end of that twenty-minute jaunt. The climb over the fence and the halting passage through briars and over the scuffs and dips of uneven ground translated every jarring inch through his body. A journey he had made without thought before, now it made him feel old, worn out.

He found the body almost immediately. He couldn’t understand how he had missed it previously; his brain had been no doubt addled by the fumes of aviation exhaust, and blinkered by the tunnel vision encouraged by that lens barrel. The body wore no clothes. Little soft tissue too. He wondered if scavengers, in digging for that, might be responsible for removing the other. Most of the flesh had been pilfered, or had disintegrated into the loam. Here was the fatal wound he had inflicted: a heavy blow with a blunt instrument

you know it was a cold chisel

just behind the left ear. Jets were still taking off, profanely, the hundreds of souls on board oblivious to what was being played out beneath them.

I did this, Tommy thought, and: I did not do this.

He went home, but did not remember the journey. He went to bed and slept for sixteen hours. The figure watched over him, baleful, intent, for every single minute.

*

The police were sympathetic, grateful even. They told Tommy that the girl, Molly Case, a 26-year-old waitress from Hyde, had been missing for two weeks and all their leads had dried up. Her boyfriend, Max Leinster (I knew that… I knew that… how did I know that?), 40, a Leeds musician, had vanished shortly after her disappearance and they had no idea where he was. South America, most likely. Either that or Molly’s hefty brothers had caught up with him and he was now slowly feeding the fish at the bottom of some lake. Perhaps they told Tommy that to assuage his fear that he’d be treated as a suspect. Clearly, as their barely concealed scrutiny of his ruined flesh suggested, there was no danger of that. They didn’t even want to know why he had been rooting around in the fields south of the airport. How dangerous could this shrivelled old man be?, he could read in their faces. He’d struggle to murder a salad.

But he had felt her squirm in the dirt under the weight of his hand pressing down. He’d held the chisel high, waiting for her to be still enough to enable him a clean impact. He just… hadn’t been there when it happened.

He took the bus home – the police’s goodwill had not extended to a lift – and wrangled with the contradiction. His heart beat slow, despite his agitation. It seemed to fill his chest. He had never really been aware of his heart before. He pressed his hand to his chest and felt its pulse beneath the new raised flesh of his scar. Sometimes he dreamed that the scar was real, a fire tree growing inside his body from a seed planted there by the lightning. The sense of something filling him up, something inhabiting him, or stripping him away from the inside out was a real and constant persuasion. The lightning seemed to have erased who he was, or thought himself to be, and magicked an intruder into the space he had once filled. He stared into the mirror and it was him, generally, in shape and height and physique, but there seemed to be nothing left in the face that spoke to his memory or his sense of recognition. ‘You could be anybody,’ he said.

He woke up and it was dark and his innocence screamed inside him, even as he felt the rough, dense weight of the chisel, and the meaty, repetitive smack of it at her head, vibrating through the marrow of his arm, causing his teeth to clack together and pinch the flesh of his inner cheek. He had dreamed of his own burial, an event he was sure ought to have happened. He had read about the victims of lightning strikes, how rare it was to survive them. And those that did live, well, ‘life’ wasn’t really a description for what they endured. Perhaps he was dead, and all of this he was experiencing now was the aftershock, the closing down of the brain, the random emission of data as synapses failed, as cells sparked out. But this was no normal graveyard service…

In the dream, he had been alive during the interment. No coffin. Just black bin bags. Nothing so grand as a coffin for something as worthless as him. He lay in the plastic listening to the skitter of grit across layers. No heartfelt platitudes of a vicar who had never met him. Just the grunt and toil of two men, matching the rhythm of their spadework with curses thrown his way. They’d stabbed him so many times there was little shape left to his body, but the fatal blow had not come till near the end of their assault. A knife that penetrated his sternum and tore a hole through the wall of his right ventricle. His pleural cavity had filled up with blood like a bladder. He had listened to his own wet breath in that cramped, pitch-black space, and felt the air turn warm from it. Panic gnawed, but he had withstood the urge to scrabble at the plastic, scream to be let out. He felt the pressure of tons of earth pushing in on his body, deforming it further. Cold descended. Time passed. Someone must come to find him. A man with a dog. An early morning jogger. It always happened.

Something else was coming, though. He could sense it, even here, locked underground. It signalled itself in the rise of individual hairs all over his body. It built up and built up, like the charge in a cell. Tremors of thunder. His senses so attuned that he heard the slither of earthworms as they moved against his wrapping, eager for depth. Here it came. Here it came.

He felt the lightning hit the earth as if in slow motion. Its heat reached through the cold soil like relentless, searching fingers. It entered the coffin and it entered him. It did not stop until it had penetrated his heart. He closed his eyes and the figure he had come to expect at such moments was no longer the hunched, long-haired spectre-within-a-halo he expected, but himself.

*

f/8 and be there. It was what the old pro photographers said whenever talk turned to the latest accessories, the flashguns and carbon fibre tripods, the fast zooms and software. You could have as many expensive add-ons as you liked; if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, it counted for nothing.

The place where he had almost lost his life seemed too tame without the bad weather to enhance it. The hill and the ruins were as inoffensive as anything found on a greetings card. Tommy had grown accustomed to the pain in his back and legs, had learned, if not to master it, then to accept it. He wondered if it was in fact lessening, but more likely his threshold had broadened. The weight of the spade in his hand felt good. It emboldened him, despite his suspicion that he would not be physically up to the task.

The area where the lightning had struck was still black. He found one of his shoes poking from the grass, a molten twist. He knew he was standing at the point where he had been hit without acknowledging the frisson that ran up his spine, like some ghostly aftershock of the event. Ignoring the complaint in his muscles, he began to dig.

It was getting dark by the time the blade hit a density that was not simply more soil. He fished his headlamp from his pocket and strapped it on. He knew he had been getting closer; the earth, where the lightning had passed through it, had created fulgurites, delicate glass tubes that carried within them visual echoes of its searing assault. Petrified lightning. He wiped his face with a sodden coat sleeve and worked at the soil, digging it away from the ragged edges of the bin bag coffin. He didn’t need to clear a path all around it: much of it was torn away. Rats. Worms. Christ. The despairing teeth of whatever lay inside? Tommy scooped handfuls of dirt away from the interior. He flinched when his hand met something that did not yield. Gently he swept it away from the face, wincing when his fingers became entangled in the long, lank hair. He positioned his head so that the beam of light would not pick out a single shred of the corpse and kept digging, wishing he had thought to bring some heavy duty gloves.

He found the chest and peeled away the cheap edges of the jacket that contained it. The ribcage had been blasted open. He smelled the faintest aroma of roasted bone. Tommy shut his eyes and reached inside the hole. He felt a waft of sour air caress him as the thing sighed, but it could not have been that. Just some pocket of foul air released by his digging, that was all. There was something here. It was small and hard, like a pebble. What he had mistakenly believed to be his own heart cried out in recognition.