Good Mondays, all! Come in, come in.
I’ve made a pledge to myself to get my blog updated on a far more regular basis, so I’m going to try and place something on the site every weekday. Normally that will be some interesting scrap from my journalistic history, but every so often, always on a Monday, I’ve decided to post short stories until I run out of them, and then I might write some more. As I go along, I’ll also be adding them to the “short story” section of the “fiction” menu up the top there also, so they are easy to find. If you like them, there are some more by me for sale at the Robot Trading Company, for your ebook of choice.
First is “Outside”, a horror tale. Originally written for our short story group in 2009, “Outside” was eventually rewritten and published in the late, great Colin Harvey’s Wessex-themed anthology Dark Spires in 2010. I very much enjoyed our back and forth email conversation that shepherded this story to its current form, and I was very shocked to hear of his early death in 2011.
Dark Spires is still available from Wizard’s Tower publications as an ebook, for £2.99.
A man sits in a dark room. He is wearing a heavy coat and two sweaters and fingerless gloves. His hair is lank. His beard is into its second week of growth. His clothes are dirty. The slow whir of a ballpoint pen across paper is the only sound in the room. A bottle of whisky stands, half empty and open, close to hand, its glass is smeared and greasy. The occasional bang from outside or a scrape across the roof makes him look up once or twice. His breath plumes a little quicker in the candlelight, but he does not reach for his gun. Instead, he waits then continues to write, stopping from time to time to rub the biro between his palms, or to blow upon his naked fingertips. Otherwise he is absorbed in his task. This is what he has to say:
“This is hard for me. But I have to do something. Sitting around in the dark, it makes being alone worse. I’ve been here ten days now since it happened. I don’t know what to call it. There’s a lot I don’t know. I doubt anyone will ever read this, but it might help me get things straight if I get it down. If you’re out there, if there’s anyone left after this, perhaps it will help you. If not, it will help me, talking to myself is better than talking to no one at all.
“This is my day. The first thing I do, every day, is to check the seals: the doors, the windows, the chimney, round the soil pipe leading from the toilet in Maisie‘s bathroom into the outside. I found a gap there a week ago. One of the hagfish was trying to get in. I spotted it wriggling about on the floor, but I was lucky. It had not got all the way through. I was able to beat it to death with the shotgun butt. Saving ammunition – that and I did not want a hole in the bathroom floor. I still have standards.” He swigs directly from the bottle, bares his teeth at the burn.
“I think I get ahead of myself. I am not used to writing in longhand. I forget the basics of my trade. Important detail first, then the who, the what, the where. I might redraft this, I might not. I only have two pens, and precious little paper, and I will not find more. I do not want to go outside.
“First: me. I am, or was Joe Stevens. I was a journalist, nothing fancy – the Swinhill Examiner, a local paper, one of the last of a dying breed. In fact, nearly dead. Two months before all this happened it cut its staff and went from daily to weekly; if you know the business, you know what that means. Not enough ads for carpets and second hand caravans to make it pay. Not enough readers interested in school quizzes and bakers making novelty biscuits. We were the last in Wiltshire, but the internet got us in the end, just like it got everyone else, the way the computers got the printers and the layout men before. One man doing ten men’s jobs. Too much, too much.” He stops, he is digressing. He must be concise.
“Secondly, the hagfish are not hagfish. I pray to God they are gone from your world, whoever you might be, as quickly as they came into mine.
“Dead whales. They fall into the ocean and lie there in the deep blackness, slowly rotting, whalefall they call it, fed on by things that never see the light. Hagfish are the most revolting of all; long slimy bodies, rudimentary eyes.
“These things, the things that are eating the world, they look like hagfish so I call them that. Except for the fins… not fins, too primitive.” He pauses to think, waiting for a word. “Cilia, I think, that is the name, near the front, though they do not use these to move, at least, not in the air. Perhaps in their native environment? They are horrible, horrible creatures. They make me shudder to look at them. That one I saw in the bathroom, it must have found a crack in the mortar outside. Maybe the plumber had been a cowboy,” a scratch, a scribble, his sentence is destroyed, unfair, he thinks, unfair. At least he was working. At least he wasn’t on the scrounge. “They only need a tiny hole. The sun and rain on cement will eventually give you that. They have no bones, not any that I have seen, and can flatten themselves out. The ridiculous thing is, tape stops them, it does not have to be strong, it is unfeasibly flimsy, if you think about it.
“I do not like to think about it.
“I plugged the gap with paper and glue and tape after I killed it.
“I can hear them now, wriggling all over the building. I have blocked out the windows with cardboard. I do not think they are aware that I am here, and I want it to remain that way. I cannot abide to look at their black bodies pressing on the glass, the teeth-ringed holes they have for mouths working against the window fittings.
“Most of the windows here are uPVC, with rubber seals, plastic yellow with age. Ten years, that’s how long they last. You’ll get a century from wood. Nothing lasts these days, nothing. If you lock off the vent at the top of the window there are no gaps for them to get in. This place has a flat roof. Nowhere for them to creep between the slates or up under the eaves. It is sealed with tar. It is insane how many holes there are in most houses. Just boxes to hide the dirt we squat on. I know that now.
“It is not a house. Here, where I am now. It is a flat over a shop, strictly three flats over three shops. Maisie, Beryl and Enid I call them, names of aunts, long dead. I’ve knocked holes through into the other two. The flats, I mean, not the shops. I will try and be clear. You would not know I had worked on a paper for all my life before it happened. But my nerves are shot, I am tired and cold and alone and I have not slept for four days. For all I know I am the last man alive. Forgive me.
“I will tell you about the shop. I planned this for a while, from the moment I first saw the hagfish. That’s when I started thinking about it. These places have been empty for months, condemned to make way for the new development, a new development on top of a new development that swept away the town I knew. Nothing lasts, concrete boxes stained with rain and piss. It was brick before, part of the railway workers’ village, torn down on a whim after Beeching did for the railways. Lonely, empty, vandalised. Only kids came up here before the end, to destroy. They are almost as bad as the hagfish, they deserve each other. You could dig out my reports in the library. I have been writing about it for years, before ASBOs and victimhood for hooligans; when there was work, when there were houses, it wasn’t so bad. It would have only got worse, if it weren’t for them. It makes me so mad, but it really is quite boring. I defy you to read through a whole article without feeling your eyelids droop. Imagine how I felt, then, sitting in council chambers either too hot or too cold, listening to pompous old men waste their breath. Droning on, debating nothing, rubber stamping. But still I wrote about them, for twenty years I did.” He stops, and stares at the paper for a long time. When he starts again, he writes more slowly, his anger filling the pages with mechanical efficiency.
“I thought I would cover Beirut or Africa, but the big break never came. My whole professional life was factory closures, shopping developments, planning meetings, on piss all pay. I wanted to bring the news to the people. I should have done something else. For all that, now I have lived through these interesting times,” he smiles at this employment of his small stock of knowledge. “I am not sure I would have wanted to report on such a story as the end of the world.” He laughs again. It seems ludicrous to him. He bites it back.
“All the buildings round here are empty, and where there are few people, there are fewer of the hagfish. The flat roofs helped me choose, they’re safe, they can’t get in, but the end shop was the deciding factor. It was a food shop, one of those little places, a Happy Shopper type affair, but less grand, if you can believe it. They left all the fridges behind, big things. I snuck in a generator, a quiet one so the hagfish would not notice, and filled them, all while the things came in greater numbers. Until, last week, there were so many, I brought Tara and Michelle here. I had to trick them, they were blind, they insisted to the end that they could not see them. But now…”
He stops, and closes his eyes, and rubs at them, tears threaten. He abandons the sentence, turns a page, and starts again.
“I could live here for a very long time, and never need to go outside. I do not want to go outside. I have broken a hole into the shop from the end flat. I do not go down there often. Not unless I need supplies.
“The other two, a Post Office and a launderette, I go in rarely, then only to make sure the seals are good.
“I have lost my train of thought again. uPVC – all of it except the door at the bottom of the stairs, to the outside, which is wooden. I am almost sure they cannot get round that, but I am taking no chances. All it takes is tape. Michelle did not believe me, neither did Tara, she always agrees with her mother. But it works, none got in, not…”
Another pause. Another page.
“Gaps under the eaves, the airbricks – that took a while to work out, I had to watch the hagfish for three weeks. I think most people would not have taken these things into account, but I did. Builders and surveyors and DIY enthusiasts might know this. Maybe they are alive too. Good luck to them.
“My secret: I saw the things first, three months ago; one or two, drifting through the air, wriggling as if they were swimming in it. Not long after they turned on the Atacama particle accelerator. Maybe that has something to do with it? Sub-atomic particles, gluons and quarks, spinning out so fast. Maybe this shrapnel made a hole between here and where they come from? They can squeeze in through the smallest of holes. Maybe it’s sunspots, or global warming, or a fucking supernova blasting holes in space and time,” he stops. He won’t let his fingers run the pen over the words. They try. He wins, this time. He breathes hard, shuddering, at war with himself. He thinks about a drink. He takes one. “I don’t know. There is a lot I don’t know.” He underlines ‘don’t’.
“What I do know was there was the smell in the air, dry and dusty, a cast to the light, like the green before a storm, only this was different, a bruised purple like old blood. That was after my job went, the day the suits told us, before I saw them, I thought nothing of that light, that smell, until I did. When they came, I thought: Ribbons drifting in the sky. Then I saw what they really were. Like hagfish in the water, tying knots in themselves, tumbling to the ground. I watched them drift toward houses, toward offices. I saw them squirm across the walls then slip inside. They can squeeze in through the smallest of holes.” He realizes he is repeating himself. He re-reads, but does not scratch anything out. “I am sorry. I am tired.
“I did not say anything. No-one else seemed to notice. I did not want them to think me mad. I was a coward, and now it is too late.”
There are sounds, then, outside. Slapping, like rubber soles on concrete. The creatures, he is sure, against the building. Thumping on glass; then something breaking. The man, Joe, lays his pen down. He has another pull of the whisky. He takes up the shotgun leaning against the table. He goes from room to room in Maisie, checking the windows. He climbs through the holes he has smashed through plasterboard and brittle concrete blocks into Beryl and Enid either side. He curses quietly as he bashes his head on the ragged gap to Enid. Each room he enters he finds clear, but this works against him, for each room eliminated increases the chances that the next has been compromised. His hands are sweating by the time he gets to the room where Michelle and Tara lie. It doesn’t feel right to go in, feels like he is trespassing. He does not like what is inside. He does not like to think about it.
There is a lock on the door. He regrets that.
A memory chases itself across his mind when he touches the key: his wife Michelle shouting, her fingers plucking at tape, her hands on the window handle. The gun. A circle of ruin.
He has to be sure. He squeezes his eyes shut before turning the doorknob. There is nothing there, the windows are as he left them, plywood taped over broken panes. He ignores the shapes under the duvet and walks out. The cold keeps the smell to a minimum.
He goes out of Enid’s front door, down the communal stairway, to check the street entrance. Then from room to room in every flat again to check the seals, running his finger round the tape and pressing it down hard. He does this four times, wipes his fingers upon his coat, up, down, up, down, then does it four more times again. He swears as he does so, cursing his hands, they refuse to obey his commands.
Reluctantly he heads to the living room in Beryl. He unpicks the duct tape pinning a square of carpet over the hole he has cut through the floor. He snatches up a torch and shines a weak circle of light into the store below. It picks out no movement. He sits back and sucks in a long breath. He will have to go downstairs. He does not like to think about downstairs. It takes a while for him to be ready.
Later, it might be night, he does not know, he writes again.
“It is the noise. That is what I cannot stand. The endless rustling, I can hear them against the roof, the scrape of their fixed teeth against the tarpaper. But it is not the worst. Today I had to go downstairs. Today I had to go into Michelle and Tara’s room.” He writes over ‘worst’, over and over in the same spot, boring a hole through the paper. It is hard for him to stop. He manages, eventually.
“Today, I had to go downstairs. There were noises outside, then a bang, I had to see. I do not like it. There is no way to block out the big window. I tried carpet, but it is too heavy and the tape will not hold it. There is nothing between me and them but a sheet of glass. They press against it, writhing like worms. They are so thick it is hard to tell if it is night or day, or if there is still a difference. Seeing them makes the noise worse. It gets into your head and makes your skin crawl. They had damaged the window, there was a spider web of cracks. I do not know how they did it. They are so weak tape stops them!” He underlines tape repeatedly. “I think they suspect someone is in here. I was careful, I do not think they saw me. Their sight is poor, and they cannot smell me through the glass. But they have a new trick. Through the window, I could hear people, swearing, high-pitched and laughing like boys, then shouting as I began my repairs, then many, many voices, jumbled up into one.” He does not write that Tara’s scream underpinned it all. Thinking of it brings the noise back. He slaps at his temple with the heel of his hand until it goes away. After a time, he writes again. “They did not trick me, and it soon stopped. It cannot be people. Nothing could live out there, nothing but them. They have learned to use our voices. I had better be more vigilant.
“Thankfully, the glass had held. I patched it up with tape, lots of tape, and left quickly. I am not sure it is safe to go back in there. I got all the food I could. The generator is nearly out of petrol in any case. Tonight I will have a little feast. Better be careful I do not gas myself; I blocked the chimney; nowhere for the carbon monoxide to go as I cook. I am not a fool.”
The days pass, he writes little more. His frozen food, cooked on a small camping stove, takes a while to dwindle in the cold, but it goes. All he has left are his cans – canned soup, canned fish, canned fruit. When he eats, he eats them cold. When he does not eat, he drinks. He does not eat often. Every so often he checks the carpet over Enid’s hole leading into the shop. He does not lift it, unsure if the window will have held, unsure if they have got in. He moves slowly, but hurries past the room where Michelle and Tara lie. He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the carpet. He hates the pattern. He hates the carpets in all three flats. They are all different, but all the same. Old lady carpets of blocky acanthus. Each flat has a spot where an electric fire has discoloured the artificial fibres a sorry yellow. They are flats that in happy times smelt of Sara Lee and pink wafers and grandchildren and shopworn joy, but always underneath it was the stench of piss and lavender and loneliness. He can smell it now.
He rouses himself when he thinks this. He has a theory.
“The door and widows have become numbing to the touch, ice has started to form in the corners of the glass. Whether that is the hagfish or what has happened to the world I do not know. I do not know much, do I? But I do know this: These things are attracted by emotion. I became sure of it the day I saw four wriggling round a crying woman. They looped over one another, like they were fighting. They sniffed around her, over her hair, up her skirt. Disgusting. Then one fixed itself to her face and hung there, pulsing. She did not seem to notice, did not even look like she felt it at all, even as it sucked the life out of her. But I could clearly see her eyes sink, her flesh wither, and she did not know,” he underlines this repeatedly, again wearing the paper thin. “She was a corpse, but she kept on going, brown and creaking, for twenty yards, as if nothing had happened. I could not stop watching, I had to keep looking. I could not do anything. Such power they have, to kill and move the dead! Then she collapsed, only then did others notice she was not breathing.
“There was the man that was angry. Flabby. He had seven on him. His trousers fell off with his fat, and he still he walked. The creatures drifted away. The paramedic said heart attack. He could not see the brown husk they left behind, he could not see what had truly happened. How do they stop people seeing what I see?
“The window, dirty. I counted forty there or so. There was a bear in the window. A child’s room? God knows what they wanted there. I do not like to think about it.
“Perhaps I made a mistake. These are sad flats, death flats. I think the creatures can smell it, that is why they cluster round the windows. Idiot, Joe, fucking idiot.
“Staying warm is getting hard. I had to stuff up the chimneys. They are all gas flues, anyway, and there is no gas now. I did think about ripping one of the fires out and lighting some of the furniture that was left behind. The hagfish do not like fire, but I would have to keep it going all the time, and I would soon run out of wood to burn, and then I would be in danger. So I wear more clothes. There are blankets in the room where Michelle and Tara are, but I do not go in there. I do not like to. My hands are so cold it is hard to grip the pen, and I stink. I would kill for a hot shower, I would. I mean it. I would use my gun.
“It is funny. Look at me, complaining. But maybe my life would have been like this often if I had have got that job in ‘88. My big chance, but I blew it. Too sharp, too pushy. I wanted it once, the adventure. That is what they all say, bringing the news to the people, seeing new places, but I think we can all be honest now,” he laughs at the irony of his statement, “and say that what they really want is the acclaim. All you fucking budding John Simpsons and Orla Guerrins. You just want someone to notice you and kiss your arse, you do not give a fuck about the news. I did. I did. Well, let me tell you, perhaps this will penetrate your thick skulls, blast the celebrity lust from your minds: for most it is going to be £9,000 a year reporting on retarded groundskeepers having a new mower bought for them by the rotary club. For twenty years, and then they fire you and your wife will despise you. How could they do that? Seven days of news. Twenty years of work. All gone, like the engine shops I remember when you could leave your door unlocked, when the smell of hot oil and steam and unwashed men made ripe with proper labour hung in the air. All gone, all the industry and the hope and the happiness, swept up and thrown out with the rubbish, internet and crummy shopping arcades in its place, selling cheap shit to fat morons hooked on bad TV. Bread and circuses! How could you? They always think they know best, men with fancy degrees and big ideas. Tear down the streets, throw up some flats, shut the factories then fuck off to your Georgian mansions while the rest of us burst with burger fat and despair.” He stops, lest he break his pen. He waits until his fingers unclench themselves.
“My dad, he lived and worked and laughed and died here. What’s there now, where I sat at his knee? A fucking roundabout on a roundabout on a roundabout, a Next squats on our old allotment. And then my job went too, cut along with six days worth of news. Go look for fame, I hope you fucking enjoy it.”
He is angry. His theory begins to dog him. He thinks of how he feels. He does not feel good. He feels guilt. He worries they will smell it. He worries they will guess he is inside. He stops writing, and sleeps.
“Things have become worse. The voices come more often. They are out there now. They call me to come out. They pretend to be my friends, they pretend to be police, they pretend they want to help me. They are my mother and my father and my poor dear Tara. That nearly had me. I was going to go outside, but I lifted a corner of card and there was nothing out there but them, black on the window. There are more of them now, and they move the faster. They know I am in here. They are excited. I tried to hide, but they have found me. They will not trick me. I will not go outside. I will die in here, but they will not get me.
“Yesterday was Christmas. I set up a few decorations, lit more candles. I tried to sing but it sounded intrusive, wrong, so I stopped. I said a prayer instead, for Michelle and Tara. It would have been Tara’s tenth Christmas. She was looking forward to it so much. I love you. I am sorry.”
“Merry Christmas,” he writes, then writes no more.
The voices call and call again. He screws up his eyes, underneath the babble of voices known and unknown projected by the hagfish, underneath the rising-falling-rising of Tara’s scream, someone shouts, voice amplified. They tell him it will be all right, they tell him to come outside.
He sits, shaking, unsure of what to do. He drains a third-bottle of whisky in three mouthfuls, sets it down amid the other empties cluttering the desk. It was always a problem for him, the drink. Too many long lunches, too many late nights.
The voice comes again, beseeching him.
He makes a decision, picks up his gun, and leaves the room. He goes out of the flat, out of its front door, and down the stairs. The stairwell is dark, the windows, thin glass in steel frames thick with paint, are blocked with tape. Tape on tape on tape. Try as he might, he cannot wipe away the memory of the things outside, no matter what he lays over the glass. He looks at the windows. Like the town, like the developers, like time, he thinks, they can’t wipe away entirely what was there before. The shells of the engine sheds still stand. The street names are the same, will always be the same. There will always be traces. It comforts him, briefly, it comforts him.
He reaches the door. He runs his hand down it, just the once. Today, his hands are his own.
Outside, the door muffled voices cry. He can barely understand them. The other voices have become a roar. The hagfish are agitated. He strains to hear. The new voices call for him to come out, slowly, to leave his gun behind.
Outside, there is a banging on the door.
He reaches out for the handle, his other arm moving without volition, taking the gun away from him to the speckled composite floor.
He stops. It is what they want. Them. Without the gun, without the door, he will be defenceless, nothing to keep their rings of hooked teeth from rasping the flesh from his bones, sucking him dry.
There is a hissing noise, something cracks into the window, it breaks the glass but cannot penetrate the tape.
The tape always stops them.
He steps back, shaking his head, feet tapping one on the other: heel to toe, heel to toe, four times. Four times is the magic number.
The door vibrates to the impact of something against it. Again. The planks he has nailed over it judder. Tape springs free round the edges, letting in small draughts.
They are trying to get in.
He raises the gun, sets the stock to his shoulder, points it at the door.
Outside, they are waiting for him.
Outside, they say, come outside.
He does not want to go outside.