Why me? Because I am what I am. We all are, whether we wish it or not. We are predestined to tread our path through this mortal world, stumbling and tripping, occasionally convincing ourselves that we have made a choice when, in reality, we have done nothing of the sort.
Who was it that first expounded the theory that Man was in charge of his own destiny, that we all had free will, that it was our choices that defined us? I have no idea, but whoever it was knew nothing of the true malignancy of the ultimate power that rules us all. Our path is destruction and our destiny perdition. That is how it is, that is how it was, that is how it always will be, and there is nothing that you can do about it, dear reader.
The gloom of the house envelopes me like a cocoon, shielding me from the baleful sun as it scores a ragged scar through the firmament and sears the cooling earth in its passage. Now it has gone and a limpid moon sails serenely above light cloud, bathing the land in soft milk.
It is time.
I rise from my secret bed and climb the creaking wooden steps to the trapdoor. It is bolted, as always when I rest, but I keep it oiled and have it open in a trice. Standing in the cold kitchen, I check around. Everything is at it should be. The meal is set for me, Mrs. Perkins having cleaned the house and cooked for me while I slept. I heard her leave more than an hour ago. I cross to the table, pick up the plate laden with chops, mashed potatoes and peas, and tip it into the waste disposal, listening to it grind itself into nothingness. I stack the dirty plate in the dishwasher and select a cereal bowl from the rack above the dresser. I fill it with corn flakes, add sugar and milk, plus a spoon, and tip it down the waste disposal as well. The bowl and spoon join the plate and other cutlery in the dishwasher. Finally, I fill the kettle and turn it on. Reaching for a jar of coffee and more milk and sugar, I make two mugs of strong coffee. These I leave on the bench to cool a little. That is very important. Hot coffee leaves virtually no mark on the china.
I use the time by releasing Pustule and Blister from their cellar, where they also have been sheltering from the rage of the sun. They come with tails wagging, the quiet light glowing dull red in their eyes, their sharp fangs glittering in the gloom. They are eager to be abroad, to gambol and frolic on the common; to hunt, to find prey and to taste the true nutrition of our kind.
I fill two bowls with some proprietary brand of animal fodder, but they show no interest. These I also tip down the waste disposal and listen as the food disintegrates. Finally the mugs of coffee are emptied into the sink and water run to cleanse it. These, too, join the other things in the dishwasher, a tablet is added and the machine started. When Mrs. Perkins returns in the morning, she will find all as it should be.
The hour has come.
I walk through to the passageway, the hounds padding noiselessly at my heels, I take down my greatcoat and hat, shrouding myself in sable, and put them on their leashes.
The great door creaks as we pass through, and closes behind us with an echoing thud, resounding through the unused emptiness of the great house, all meticulously clean and neat, thanks to Mrs. Perkins’ ministrations. All save my bedchamber, which she may never enter. She believes that I clean it myself, and I am content to allow her that misapprehension. I cannot remember the last time I slept in that bed. All is decay and cobwebs now, and I care not a jot.
The velvety light of the moon caresses my skin. I breathe in the night air as I slip through the great gates, across the road and onto the common where the springy grass shrouds my boots. The blood thrills within my veins. I feel alive, potent. And hungry.
I can see the building ahead of me, black and jagged against the stars. They will be waiting at the door, waiting and muttering, checking their watches, moaning about my punctuality. Let them wait. They are but a tedious precursor to this night’s true adventure. I will join them soon enough.
The spinney looms out of the darkness to my right. I pause. Pustule and Blister freeze in their hunting attitudes, snuffing the air softly, for a new scent has wafted our way. They recognise it as nothing natural, but I know it for what it is. Gardenia with a hint of sandalwood. The smell of a woman. I hear her cry, a high-pitched giggle, and immediately I know who it is. Milly Trevaskis, village slut, available to any farm boy for the price of a rum and black and a stroll on the common.
I can see her now, silhouetted against the distant village lights, skirt barely existent, arm in arm with a strapping young fellow in shirt sleeves. As the moonlight falls on their faces, I recognise him: Liam Gaunt from Treadwell Farm. Both stop uncertainly when they see me, for I present but a dark shadow in the gloom in my greatcoat.
Not wishing to alarm her yet, I raise my hat so that the moonlight falls on my face and click on my most avuncular smile.
“Good evening, Milly,” I greet her with my friendliest tone. “It’s a fair night for a walk on the common, isn’t it?”
She knows me now, and relaxes, her wonderful smile breaking out on her face. Her teeth, so white and even, set my own slavering. “Oh, hello, I didn’t see you there.” It is a pity, indeed, that her beauty does not extend to her voice, which replicates the sound a cat would make on being passed through a mangle quite effectively. “It’s your busy night tonight, isn’t it?”
“It is, indeed,” I smiled in return, “and I must make haste, for they will be waiting for me. Enjoy your walk, Milly, Liam.”
I replaced my hat with a nod and passed on into the night towards the jagged building. As I left, “I heard her giggle again and the whispered words, “Harmless old duffer,” pass between them. I smiled to myself, for I knew she was ignorant of the acuteness of my hearing, or my sense of smell, or eyesight — or, indeed, of my power.
They would still be there when I returned, fumbling and giggling in the shadows beneath the trees, her make-up smeared and her underwear around her ankles. They would not see me coming. Pustule and Blister could have the boy. He was of no interest to me. Milly would be mine, to claim, to conquer. I would feel her submission and I would watch the light dim in her eyes. I would taste her this night.
The hated building loomed up before me at last, its needle-like top spearing to the stars. They were waiting for me at the door, muttering to each other like they always did. I fished in my pocket for the key that would let them in. The eldest, portly Gerald Proudlock with his moustache and plus-fours, stepped forward to greet me, like he did every Tuesday night. The words were invariably the same.
“Evening Reverend,” he said, “pleasant night for choir practice.”
A WINTER’S TALE
There is scum on the water. The dying sun casts its final lingering beams diagonally across the surface as it sinks, exhausted, behind the gasworks. The fading light lends the dock an oily, greasy sheen, dimming at last to a forbidding blackness as gloom enshrouds the abandoned wharf and stabs its frozen fingers into my soul. Can fish swim in oil?
I used to play here as a boy. How ironic is that? My mother would have killed me had she ever found out. For the same reason, I never allowed my children anywhere near the place. Much too dangerous. “You’ll fall in and drown,” I told them. “I don’t care that you can swim. You’ll freeze to death before you can get back to safety. It isn’t a swimming pool!”
The breeze swells into a wet wind that cuts straight through my coat. It has sharpened its rough blade on endless ranges of northern slopes before cloaking my life in ice. I told them not to come here. Both of them. “It’s for your own good… er…” What was her name? “And your brother… Thingy.”
Maybe I should have let my mother find out. Give her the chance to kill me while she could. None of this would have happened. Whatsit and Thingy would never have been born. I would never have met… well, her.
All gone now. My life swept away. Four days of shambling through desolate streets, watching the sleet slice down and feeling my suit cling ever wetter about me. I will never be warm again.
They say empty cardboard boxes make good bedding if you can’t find anything better. Warm, at least. That’s if you can find a dry one. The skips behind the Retail Park are a battlefield after dark when the cast-offs of an uncaring consumer society emerge from their drains and shadows to fight over any scrap to keep the ice from spearing their hearts. Meals are what can be scavenged. You soon learn where the soup kitchens are. You place yourself where the kindly, or those with a guilty conscience, can find you. There is always the Spike. It’s down on Blenheim Street, apparently — a bowl of soup and a bed for the night — in theory. Until you see it. but I’m not ready for that yet. My nose still works properly. I can’t face my coat being ripped away from me just because it’s a coat. And cockroaches don’t care who they sleep with.
In this war of attrition, I am a raw recruit. I am bottom of a pecking order I had barely known existed. Down and outs were things you saw on the television: shambling, filthy semi-humans who lived on rubbish dumps, spied on in sober-faced documentaries that pointed an admonishing finger at the affluent and warned them that there but for the grace of… Did God really have anything to do with it?
I can debate such things now, for what else am I to do?
In four days, my life has disappeared. My job: repossessed. My car: repossessed. My home: repossessed. My wife… My children… They call the new owner of my car Daddy now — and he calls her Darling.
There is scum on the water. The oily sheen has vanished, extinguished by the death of the sun, but a greasy slickness still spreads across the surface and inhibits investigation. It is the only thing colder than the air.
A snowflake drifts past my nose. Then another. Then another. Soon it is snowing freely and the squalor of the dock is swallowed up in a fluffy white blanket. A pale moon rises beyond the derelict warehouses and spills its light over a scene that has acquired a beauty that is never revealed by day. My mind drifts back to childhood Christmases when I marvelled at cards of snowy Alpine villages at night, and wondered at the tranquility they displayed. Even that had been an illusion. When my burgeoning salary could fund it, I had gone to check it out for myself and found it to be soiled by hooray henries and their bleached consorts who came only for the apres-ski and cared nothing for the peace.
At least they will never come here. There is no fondue and schnapps on offer on this dock; no noisy body-grinding on a disco floor, followed by matching sweaty antics in a wooden Tyrolean bed.
Here there is peace. Peace, dereliction and death, for what else can I seek? How do you rebuild your life from zero? My bank account is as repossessed as everything else I once called my own. What was that Shirley Bassey song? ‘I Who have Nothing’. That’s not what she meant.
I am not ready yet. That greasy water doesn’t look inviting enough, but it will soon. I need somewhere high. The fall must knock me out at least. There mustn’t be the slightest chance that I will swim.
The snow gathers around my ankles. My feet are frozen and my fingertips are turning blue. Dear God, I don’t want to freeze to death! They say you don’t get cold in Hell — its one saving grace — but how would they know? It’s like asking a man if it hurts to be beheaded. What if Hell is one eternal glacier?
I need warmth. No hearth and home for me and all the dry cardboard boxes are taken. The Spike is full. The soup kitchen. It has to be. I am not meeting my Maker on an empty stomach.
I can hear singing from behind me. A choir. Their sweet voices carry softly on the arctic air. It has started.
I turn my head. The dazzling lights of the High Street show in a brilliant slice of colour between the gloom of two warehouse walls. There is the noise of traffic, of melodious voices raised in greeting and song — the sounds of happiness.
Instinctively, my feet begin to shuffle towards the noise. I will be shunned if I show myself in the High Street, as are all of my kind — shunned as I once shunned them myself. I will not go all the way in. There is no need. The soup kitchen is carefully located so that those with coins in their purses need not look upon those who barely exist. Instead, I will hug the shadows and observe the joys that others feel, and that I once thought I felt myself until I realised that it was all illusion and my whole life, its triumphs and joys, had led up to a deserted midwinter dock with scummy water.
The soup kitchen is before me, softly lit so as not to attract too much attention from the happy folk only yards away. I am fourth in line. No one shoves or tries to push in here, for to do so would mean no soup. They are very strict and keep us in line with their uniforms and hats. But they are also kind. Nobody else does anything for us.
My turn has come. A cheery ruddy-cheeked face beams down at me as she hands me a polystyrene mug full of vegetable soup and a bread roll. The heat threatens to blister my fingers, but the smell is intoxicating.
“Here you are, my darling,” she says. Leaning towards me with a conspiratorial look, she adds in a soft voice, “If you’ve got nowhere else, the chapel is open and the stove will be burning all night. Merry Christmas.”
OUT OF THE ASHES
The soup is hot in my hands. I can feel its incendiary glow biting into my frozen fingers as I move away from the stall. The queue shambles up one step further to replace me.
God, what a pathetic, listless mess they look: matted, lifeless hair everywhere, ill-fitting, stained and ripped clothing and their skin a dried-up cadaverous shade of dirty grey. All this topped off with their peculiar stooped, shuffling gait — a movement that can only have been adopted to excite revulsion in any self-respecting eyes and turn them in another direction.
Do I look like that?
My shoes were once polished, but now they are a dull matte, slushy dun colour. I still wear my suit, but it hugs my frame in sodden wrinkles, its pinstriped splendour a hollow echo. My face is bristly and feels stretched. My scalp itches.
The soup is hot. I can feel it burning its way through my vitals, setting a briefly lingering fire in the cavernous hole within me. This will not last. It serves only to remind me how hungry I am. Desperately, I bite into the bread roll. It is warm too. The divine aroma of hot bread invades my nostrils. Hot bread! Warm, dry socks! The luxuries forever denied to the likes of me, save by charity. Its crust scrapes some of the scum from my teeth.
I have reached a turning point. The soup kitchen is no longer in sight. The chapel is across the road, illuminated by a single lamp outside a permanently open door. Lights are burning softly within. This, I realise finally, is the source of the singing. I had been hearing it ever since my sojourn by the dock. Down-and-outs traipse through the door, heads down, shoulders hunched, inching their way hopelessly towards the warmth.
There must be a choir in there, for they are singing in tune. Silent Night. As a child, I had learned it at my mother’s knee in its original German: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, Alles schläft, Einsam Wacht. It sounded so much better in German. Two minutes of absolute heaven distilled from the minds of an Austrian priest and his friend. I pause. What would I know of heaven? No-one from the streets ever sings in more than a muttering monotone. We are the damned. We have fallen through the trapdoor in the scaffold of humanity, and there is no way back. The knot is already tightening.
I drink the last of my soup and stuff the final shred of bread into my mouth, discarding the cup on the slushy pavement and turning away from the chapel.
The dock beckons.
The moon has disappeared behind cloud and it has started to snow again. The lank water is as scummy as ever, and as still. How many bodies lay in its depths already?
I stand on the brink and raise my head for the last time. I would see the moon before I go, but the moon does not want to be seen. Even she has deserted me.
I spread my arms wide. The moment has come.
A massive jerk on my collar and I am flat on my back in the snow, winded. I have hit the concrete of the dock like a collapsing building and the crack on my head jars my teeth and draws a stream of fresh blood from my tongue.
I try to cry, “No, don’t save me!” but no word will come. I have no breath.
The face does not want to save me. The face is bestial, contorted with rage and hatred. Its bloodshot eyes spit venom at me and I can see rotten teeth jutting through sickly gums, isolated rocks in a carmine wave, as it curses me and dribbles spittle on my chin.
“I want yer coat!” it snarls, shoving me onto my side and tearing my jacket from my back. A moment later, it is off and the biting cold sears through me afresh. He grabs my tie and pulls my face to within an inch of his. He is strangling me.
“Die!” he growls, releasing the tie so that my head smacks back on the dock and my vision swims.
A moment later, a vicious kick to my kidneys rolls me over onto my front and a black pool engulfs me.
I do not know how long I lie there. When my eyes finally flicker open, I am covered in snow — a white mound on a murderous dock. Only some of the whiteness is red. There is a vague pounding in my head, a pounding that takes an age to resolve itself into glad, but distant, voices. “Hosannah in excelsis!” they sing.
If only they knew.
Bitter tears well up inside me and dissolve the snow round my eyes. I can taste the blood in my mouth. I try to move and a sheet of agony shoots through my lower back, locking me rigid, a yelp of pain escaping my lips. I don’t think I can move my legs. I don’t need to move my legs. The water is close. I can drag myself.
“Oh, you poor thing! What has happened to you?”
Another face is there, but this one is not bestial. A soft hand caresses my cheek and warm eyes search my visage for signs of life. They search, and then they widen in recognition.
She knows me.
“Peter?” Her eyes widen further. “Peter, is it really you? What happened? Have you been mugged?”
Golden memories flood back, memories from years back before greed and advancement had taken over my life. It is Amanda. Lovely Amanda! Amanda of the soft smile and gentle touch. Amanda who loved me unconditionally… Amanda who I threw over and left in tears when that bitch lured me away with her lip gloss and pout. That bitch who spawned the children who no longer acknowledge me, who don’t even resemble me. The bitch who now drives my car, occupies my house and calls my tooth-flossed replacement, ‘Darling.’
“Amanda?” My voice comes out as a strangled croak. I cannot believe my eyes. “Amanda…”
“What happened?” Her eyes overflow with warmth. “Were you attacked?”
“I’m so sorry,” I croak. “I was blind. I couldn’t see beyond the big house and the bank balance. I never gave you a thought… and I should have.” The tears leak anew.
Her face is solemn now. “What happened, Peter?” she asks cautiously. She is supporting me with one arm and her face is very close.
I manage to drag myself up painfully until I rest on one raw elbow. “I lost everything: wife, kids, house, car. I was stupid. All gone. Now I am nothing.”
I can see realisation dawning in her face. Slowly, she looks around at the freezing dock and its scummy, slushy water. Then she looks sharply back.
“Don’t you dare!” she says. “Not today. Not here.” She wraps both arms around me and hauls me up into a seated position. “You’re heavy,” she gasps, “I can’t lift you by myself. Do you think you can stand if I help you?”
“No…” the word comes out as an incoherent murmur and my hands flail ineffectually in icy air, but my legs seem to have recovered their ability to move and they are positioning themselves under me, ready to push me up. Whatever else happens, they aren’t going to let me finish it. Do my legs really belong to me?
Whether they do or not, I am standing and she has her arms around me. I can feel the warmth of her body penetrating the frozen wetness of my shirt. My head is swimming. I cannot understand anything.
“Amanda… why?” I ask pathetically.
“Listen to me, Peter,” she says softly, her eyes glowing. “You are not the only loser here. I lost two men, and the first of them was you. I have a little flat close by. It isn’t much, but it’s warm and comfortable. I have a fridge full of food and a cooker that works. I have a bath and hot water, soap and towels. My ex preferred a temp with a wiggly bum and plastic tits. He loves her curves, and she loves his bank balance.” Suddenly her face is solemn again. “We are both at rock bottom, Peter.”
“Ding dong, merrily on high,” the choir has started up again. I can feel life stirring within me. My blood has begun to flow once more.
“I lost you once, Peter,” she says softly. “Don’t let me lose you again.”
David Waine is an Englishman of combined Welsh (from his grandmother), English (from his grandfather) and Irish (from his mother) descent. No Scottish at all. He likes to write fantasy, crime thrillers and comedy, not to mention a short story or two.