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June 10, 2017




The house was an old merchant townhouse. Set on top of the hill it looked over the town as it had for the past two hundred years.The third floor was the top of the house. From there he looked down at the grey stone buildings that stretched before him. His back tooth ached and he flicked at it with his tongue until it, too, was raw and copper tasting. He looked up at the pale, featureless sky and imagined the people moving in the streets below it.

The town below was as drawn and grey as the sky. It was the grey of soaped over windows. It was the pallor of figures that wandered like lambs lost in the fog. Grey had once been the colour of prosperity; of grist, gravel and iron. Now its colour remained only in the buildings and the townspeople. In what was left. Soon he would have to walk out among them once more. The food was beginning to run out.

He heard his father coming out of his bedroom on the second floor. The thin, sound of music played on old vinyl floated up the stairs. He turned away from the window and listened. He heard the shuffling of papers in the study. Going out onto the landing and looking down over the banister he saw his father stood on the landing, leafing through photographs. Faded prints of people neither of them had ever met. Pictures of the long dead relatives of the house’s previous occupants.

His father wore his faded wine dressing gown. Where his hair was not white it was grey. Where it was not bald it hung in wispy strands to his shoulders. Hearing the noise on the landing, his father looked up. The eyes were dim, damp lamps set in the loose folds of pocked rind that made up the skin of his face, as well as anywhere else the threadbare gown could not cover. He looked away and went back into his room clutching the ream of photographs.

His heart racing and weak in the chest, he returned to his own room. He could not bear that gaze. The distrust. The disappointment. The strange, nameless longing. He went back to the window and, rubbing the condensation from the frigid pane, looked down at the town once more. It did nothing to pare back his racing pulse.

He went to the bed, picked up the blanket and wrapped it about him. The dust smeared mirror was pushed into the corner of the room, half buried behind stacks of cloth bound books. Catching his reflection in it, he grimaced. This is what the townspeople saw, what he imagined they whispered about after he had passed them in the street.

An irregularly shaped head, shaved down to the scalp. Skin that was a dour and sickly white. A frame that was wasted; the muscle, water thin, turned to soft fat that slopped and wobbled on the bone. He shuddered.

Taking a book he climbed up and onto the bed and arranged the blanket around him. The book fell open in his lap releasing its calming smell, somewhere between dust and the damp woods. The book was old. Not so old as to be antique. Only old enough to possess that arcane quality of things not long forgotten. He had never heard the author’s name but the quotes on the inside pages spoke of “another stellar work” from them. The room was full of books which, like most items of entertainment or utility in the house, had been abandoned by the previous occupant.

His father had bought the house cheaply on account of its disarray and disrepair. Considering this a concession rather than an opportunity for profit, had let the rot that had already set in, settle and expand. Sagging brown boxes littered the hallways and room holding plates, curtains, cutlery, documents; all that had been left behind. He had built himself a library of forgotten books. His father had crate upon crate of old photographs along with the scratchy records of eerie, slightly discordant, music.

He lay in bed with his book and worried the cavity in his tooth. A vague restlessness was on him but he buried it away. Ignoring the clock’s tutting and ticking, he let time’s petty wave of insect bites pass over him, unfelt.

He awoke as the dark of gloaming began to blanket the room. The amber from the streetlight’s sad, sodium glow caught in the condensation on the window. He picked up the book from the floor where it was splayed and went to place it on the bedside table. There was a soft knock at the door and he dropped the book in fright. His father pushed open the door.

“Are you going to the town tomorrow?” his father said.

“Wait a minute” he replied, reaching behind the table and flicking on the lamp. “What did you say?” he asked.

“Are you going into town tomorrow? We need things” his father asked, squinting in the new light.

“Probably” he said.

“You need to go” his father said “we need food”.

“I know we do” he said.

“You were supposed to go today” said his father.

“I’m going to go tomorrow” he replied, pulling the blanket up around his throat.

“You can’t just lay in bed all day” said his father.

“I know. I’m not going to”.

“You have to go into town tomorrow” said his father.

“I know, I’m going to!”

He hadn’t meant to raise his voice. Every sound seemed amplified in the still air of the house.

“You’re going tomorrow, then?” said his father, appraising the stacks of books, the dirty mirror and the drawing night beyond the window.

“Yes. I’m going tomorrow”.

“Make sure that you do” said his father, and stepped out into the dark hallway, leaving the door ajar.

He got out of bed immediately and went to close it. He watched his father shuffling down the stairs, back to his room. Their eyes met. Nothing was said. Still air echoed in each nook of the house.


It was midnight and he was sat on the windowsill, rolling a cigarette. The dry tobacco slid inside the paper as his trembling fingers tried to gather the two. Finally, he put a match to his creation and, as the flame caught, he sucked in the biting smoke and released it with a sigh.

He looked at the suit that hung on the wardrobe door. Found amongst the boxes of abandoned ephemera that littered the house it had become the uniform he donned when he needed to visit the town. The house clothes weren’t fit for that. The suit was worn specially, sparingly, for that purpose. “His going out suit”. Its limp folds cast sad shadows on the carpet.

He crushed the cigarette in a bone china cup and it collapsed into embers and singed tobacco. He looked out of the window at the dark rooftops of the town below. He picked the butt from out of the pile, emptied the spent tobacco into another paper and rolled another cigarette.

He read until 5 am and, deciding that no sleep would benefit him more than little sleep, he got out of bed and went to make a coffee. Rinsing his cup under cold water in the cluttered kitchen, the sound of water boiling made the hackles raise on the back of his neck. As he poured it the burnt smell of the granules mingled with the damp, sour smell that rose from the sink. He looked in the cupboard. A few tins of vegetables, a few bags of rice, some soup, some sardines and some marmalade. It made for a paltry stock of nourishment. His feet were going numb on the stone tiles. He turned out the light and climbed the stair.

As he reached the second floor he heard his father stir, the mattress groaning as he turned in his sleep. The breath caught in his throat and the coffee spattered on the carpet. He rubbed it in with his toes.

Back in his room, where what heat there was rose and was held under the roof, he sat, again, by the window and watched the hands of the clock move jerkily around the face. Outside, the birds twittered and sang on the slack telephone wires.

He felt good here, with his coffee, amongst his books, in the time just before the dawn. It was a time of great possibility. One could dream; the trial and the failure still belonged to a future hour, just out of reach. Equidistant from ideals and expectations. The null hour of the Nth day of naught naught never never. He smiled to himself. The clock’s hands lurched forward another fraction.

The morning had broken. Thumbing at the tarnished buttons, he appraised the besuited figure in the mirror. The cloth hung in ugly folds, shining along each crease. His heart beat in his throat as he considered stepping out into the daylight. He slumped in his armchair and made a cigarette. His feet hammered inside the uncomfortable shoes as he smoked in short, violent draws. At this point there was nothing to turn him back, no matter how he offered himself as a martyr to fate. No falling plane. No rain of bombs. No tidal wave or soldiers at the gate. Tomorrow would not take, even with interest offered, what had to be suffered today. He looked out of the window. A fine rain was blowing against the glass. He would wait just a little longer. Just until the weather had passed. He went to sit on the bed and when, later, he pulled the duvet over himself, it barely even felt like weakness.


In his dream he stood before the dusty mirror in his bedroom, but there was no reflection in the glass. He searched its surface but all he found was the image of the window behind him, through which was thrown a brilliant light, so dazzling that nothing beyond it could be seen. He was puzzling over this peculiar failure in the mirror’s ability when he heard the noise on the stair. It was a shuffling sound, as if of something being dragged, accompanied by a low and laboured wheezing. The noise unsettled him and he returned his attention to the barren mirror. But the noise would not stop. A slow, clumsy rustling noise on the carpets. Staggering gasps. When he heard it on the landing he stepped away from the mirror.

Stood in the middle of the room he glanced frantically about the room for a weapon as whatever was outside began to bang on the door. The sound was like wet cloth being slapped against rocks. The door rattled on its hinges with each assault. He, again, scanned the room for some means by which to defend himself. Glancing nervously to the door he was horrified to find that it was wide open though nothing stood beyond the frame. He stumbled towards it, his feet seeming to sink into the carpet, but as he reached the door he found it closed once again.

A voice in the back of his mind whispered that he was dreaming and he laid his forehead on the wood. It was then, by his feet, he saw the first part of the horror begin to slide beneath the sill.

Standing aghast in the middle of the bedroom he watched in mute terror as the strange intruder began to emerge from under the door. A mass of pasty, rubbery skin, it heaved itself through the tiny aperture, rasping breathing accompanying its painful looking exertions. As more of its form came into the room it began to regain some of the shape that had been eroded by it intrusion through such an inimical passage. It was a pelt of human skin. Though devoid of muscle or bone it was clearly still animated. The flapping tentacle-like folds that were its fingers were grasping at the carpet to aid its ingress. The pained gasping sounds certainly came from some conscious and motivated core.

Stepping away from the desperate thing, though unable to turn his back to it, he moved towards the window. Now halfway through the gap, the thing propped itself up on its arms as it hauled its back end through. Its face was a horrific, half inflated mass of skin with leaking, milky eyes that betrayed no sign of recognition or purpose. Still, it appeared to stare directly at him. Its mouth twisted and flexed in rhythmic pulses as it moaned softly. He felt tears pricking his eyes as the thing, a disgusting chimera of the human and the chthonic, wormed its way in, blind and ravenous. Now free from the door it lay wailing on the floor in a heap of tortured flesh. It began regaining its shape through sickening, intestine-like contractions. He stood frozen and watched as it raised itself up (or was raised from above, as if a marionette on strings) on legs like strands of raw translucent jelly. It screeched like a rodent and its form shivered in reply.

He struck out at it blindly, his blows landing with the pitiable weakness that mocks one in sleep. Each strike only seemed to cause him to entangle himself more with the gross, greasy skin that made up the creature. The more he struggled the more his attacks were attenuated by the bindings of skin wrapped around him. He was beginning to scream, as much as his constricted lungs would allow, when, groaning malignantly, the thing began to blindly wrap around his face like a caul.


He awoke with a jolt. There was a sound on the stair. In that dim borderland between dreaming and wakefulness it was hard to discern from which side of the void his anxiety stemmed. His father’s shout tore away the veil.

“Are you still here!?” his father’s voice demanded.

He jumped out of bed. Outside, the rain was still blowing against the window and the sky was beginning to darken. He was glancing at the clock as the door began to open.

“What are you doing?”,his father asked.

“Nothing”, he replied.

“Have you been out?”.

“No, I…”.

“You’ve slept all day? You were supposed to go into town”, his father interrupted.

“I know”.

“Do you understand what will happen if you don’t go?”

“I know. I’m going to go in tomorrow. I didn’t feel well”.

“But you’ll feel well enough to stay up all night poring over those books, I suppose?”.

“Look, I didn’t feel well, I told you. I’ll go in tomorrow”.

His father began to turn and step out into the hall.

“I’m going to come up here first thing in the morning and I want you to be ready to go”, he said.

“What time? I wasn’t going out til the afternoon”.

“You’ll go first thing”, his father said.


But his father was already heading down the stair.

His back tooth ached interminably. He worried it with his tongue which, in turn, began to sting from being run over the tattered edge of the tooth. A headache was writhing behind his eyes like a cobra, swaying sick and silent. He swallowed and tasted blood.

A large patch of scar tissue was on his upper thigh. When he had been very young he had fallen from a tree in the woods behind the house. When his father had followed the wailing and found him at the base of the tree, his leg badly gouged from the branches, he had picked him up in his arms and carried him back into the house and rung an ambulance. He spent the glorious summer in his room with his leg in a cast and his father bringing him soup, magazines and medicines. The yellow, blushing scar itched frequently and he found himself now, again, violently scratching at the numb, desiccated tissue.

Around 2am he heard his father get up. The sound of him moving around downstairs made his skin crawl and he went back to the book that he was reading. Eventually, he became conscious that he had not heard his father having gone back into his room. He put down his book and stepped out onto the hallway, training his ear to the floor below. There was nothing. Gingerly he began down the stairs. From the second floor he heard his father moving around in the kitchen. He passed the study and caught the smells of dust and cloth that emanated from within. He moved halfway down the stairs and stopped, listening over the banister. He heard the clanking of pans in the kitchen as his father moved around inside. He took the rest of the stairs and turned the newell post. He tiptoed towards the damp smelling kitchen and stopped on the threshold.

His father was wrapped in his tattered dressing gown. His figure threw pathetic shadows in the jaundiced light of the bare bulb that swung almost imperceptibly against the draft from the cracked, mossy windows. He stood hunched over the stove, piling various of their limited foodstuffs into a pan from which steam rose in slim wisps. His fatherstirred the pot with a wooden spoon that was black with age, dipped it into the food and then brought it to his lips.

Creeping backwards from the doorway, his eyes never off his father, he turned into the hall and stepped into the darkened living room. From here he planned to wait until his father had returned to his room, assuming that this is what he would do. Hunkered down amongst the clutter that riddled the living room he was surprised to see his father hesitate at the bottom of the stair, the steaming pan in his hand. Indeed, instead of climbing the stair he wove his way through the junk into the gloomy living room. The smell that came from the pot was strange, representing all and none of the esoteric mix of ingredients that had been combined. He pulled himself down further into the shadow as he heard his father move aside a stack of boxes and open the door that led into the dining room.

The dining room was named only for the great oak table that now heaved under the crates of books and photos that sat atop it. The room was a storage room, in practice, never used and wall to wall with furniture and junk. The smell of mildew and damp wood reached him in long, thin tendrils as he watched his father step into the room. He heard the rattle​ of wood against wood and low, unintelligible muttering and cursing as his father moved about inside the room. He crept over to the doorway and strained his hearing into the darkened room.

There was the sound of teeth grinding, sucking and a low muttering. As his eyes grew accustomed to the shadow he saw, amongst the decades of clutter, the dark figure of his father hunkered in the corner. The figure was clawing handfuls of the mixture in the pan and stuffing them into its face. The figure was talking in a low, babbling voice to itself. The words did not sound human. He saw his father lashing out at invisible figures in the dark and greedily wrap his arms around the pot. He stepped back out of the doorway of the dining room. The moon had come from behind a cloud and the window pane was glowing the eerie blue of snow beneath a clear night sky. He listened to the faint murmuring and growling that came from the dining room and his stomach grew heavy.

He climbed the stair back to his room and made a cigarette. His hand shook as he attempted to light it and the match singed his finger. It fell to the carpet and, in a daze, he watched it begin to catch and smoke. Eventually he ground the flame under his foot.


He did not sleep that night. He had heard his father climb the stair at around 3 am and go back into his room and, since then, he had sat at the window smoking and tearing at his nails. As the sky was beginning to lighten he had heard voices outside speaking in loud, drunken incoherence. He looked down as a couple came into view in the alley below. They stumbled along, affectionately falling over one another and laughing. The woman fell against one wall and the man fell atop her and kissed her. She kissed him back. The man’s hand began to slide up her thigh and under her skirt. She batted it away playfully and, pecking him on the cheek, ran on, her high heels in her hands. The man chased after her, grinning. He heard their laughing, singing voices grow faint.

Later, his father came into his room and he was ready. He had planned for it. He had spent the remainder of the night formulating what he would say. Honing his rebuttals and recriminations to razor sharp points amongst the clouds of stale smoke. But when his father opened his mouth and spoke there was nothing to return with. His tongue was a cracked root that shrank back into the hollow of his dry throat.

“You need to get ready” his father said.

“I’m going this afternoon, I need to air out the suit” he said, with a forcefulness he did not feel he would be able to maintain.

His father looked at the suit hanging on the mirror and then to the window.

“You’ll need the window open”.

“I forgot” he said, “I’ll go as soon as it’s done”.

His father scoffed.

“Do you know what’ll happen to us if you don’t go? Do you have any idea?”, he said.

“I know…”.

“I don’t think you do. I don’t think you know how serious it is”.

“Of course I do!”.

“Then why don’t you do something!?”.

To which there was nothing that could be said.


Days passed. He was in the kitchen. It was midnight and he could see his breath in the frigid air. He was still wearing the suit but it did little to keep out the chill. He held his hands over the water that boiled in the pan atop the stove. The heat made the gnawed skin at his fingertips ache. Into the pan he dumped a cup of rice. A sickly, earthy smell rose with the steam. He looked at the mess his father had made on the counter earlier in the evening. He tried to gauge what amount of food must have been used. He kept an ear open for his father coming down the stairs but it was only an instinctual reaction. They had become ships that pass in the night. His father spent his days listening to records whilst he himself slept. At night he read books in his room whilst his father slept.

When the rice was ready he went to take it upstairs. He stopped in the doorway. Looking back at the countertop he noticed a can of tomatoes, half empty, behind the kettle. He presumed his father must have abandoned it and he considered whether this had been a conscious act. Holding his breath he went and picked up the can and took it, along with the rice, up to his room.

Later, laying in bed and only half roused from sleep he felt the weak warmth of the sun on his back. He felt the presence of his father in the room before he heard him. He stayed quite still. Hearing his father shuffle around in the room his heart rattled inside his chest. He opened his eyes and saw his father’s dim shadow on the wall before him. He squeezed his eyes shut and listened to his father rummaging amongst his belongings. His blood simmered with a mixture of anxiety, panic and searing hatred. His father was pushing aside the towers of books and papers that littered the floor. He was searching for something. He pantomimed sleep through the cacophony and, as a heap of books collapsed with a crash through which no person would sleep, his skin chilled in shame at the charade that was being perpetuated. He felt the mattress sag as his father rested a hand on it to look under the bed. He smelled the stale smell of his father’s skin. His father pulled the can of tomatoes from under the bed and went out of the room.

After several more days; there was nothing left. Going down one night to the kitchen he found all of the stained plates and pans on the sideboard and the cupboard doors wide open. Empty bags that once held rice or dry pasta were tossed amongst the clutter. Some scraps of the contents remained, scattered amongst the the grime and debris on the countertop. He gathered it all together and emptied it into a china cup. It barely filled it to the rim. He filled a pot at the tap and put it on to boil.

He sat in his room. The clock was off the wall and, though it still kept a time, there was no way to know whether it was keeping the right one. He watched its spindly hand count off the seconds from where it lay on the floor. The seconds seemed too long. He wondered whether its mechanism was broken. He wondered whether it stopped and started when he wasn’t watching, whether it sped up or slowed down. He tried to calculate whether a malfunctioning clock would be right more or less times in a year than a clock that had stopped. He swallowed hard. The sound of his father’s scratchy, lilting, staccato records came floating up the stairs. They had been playing non-stop for several days now. He could not concentrate on his books. The sound of the music frayed his nerves. He would open his door and shout down at his father to keep the noise down. His father would turn down the volume but within half an hour it would have returned to a level that set his teeth on edge.

He bit at the torn skin around his cuticles, pulling a thread of which down to the first knuckle and away. It sang with a small but sharp pain. He stood up and paced the room. He still wore the suit and, in places, it clung to his skin with a horrible greasy, coolness. The mirror lay on the floor exposing its scuffed back. He sat in the chair and drummed his fingers on the arm. He got up again and pulled off the cushion. He picked up a packet of tobacco he found there and peeled it open. It was empty. He gnawed at a fingernail. He repaired the chair. He sat down. He bit the torn nail to shreds and swallowed. His stomach roiled and clenched against a wave of sour acid. He heard his father changing the record downstairs.

A small black spider was building a web in the corner of the window frame. For a second, no longer, he felt the warm, unburdening feeling of a tears building behind his eyes. He went over to the window, got down on his knees and watched the spider construct its web.


The sky was still dark and he stood by the front door looking out through the frosted glass. He reasoned with himself. I can be there first thing, when the shops open. The streets will be less crowded. If I’m already outside when the sun comes up and the doors open I’ll have no other excuse. He repeated to himself; This time. He opened the door and stepped out into the cool morning air.

As he walked the cobbled alley that led down the hill and into the town he looked up. It was going to be a beautiful day. His palms were sweating and he jammed them into the pockets of the suit jacket. Birds sang their blithe hymns to the morning on the wires above. Everything had the soft outlines and shimmering cores that are seen through sleep starved eyes. He squeezed the coins in his pocket and imagined he could smell the hot, copper smell coming off them as they warmed between his fingers. He always felt under the eye of the world when he went out into the town and, perhaps, this is why he did not feel it. But, had he turned and gazed up, he would have seen his father, stood in the window, watching him walk away.

He came onto the end of the alley where it met the main street of the town. It was still more dark than light. He wandered amongst the alleys and yards of the quiet town waiting for the sun to break. He found himself out on the main street and, though he had thought the town would be quiet, the streets were, in fact, quite busy. The throngs shuffled their way to work, heads down and coffees in hand. They pulled shutters up halfway and ducked underneath them. His stomach heaved as he went past them at a stride. He felt like a fugitive and each eye that fell upon him set his pulse racing. He imagined their intrigue; “there goes the strange boy who lives on the house on the hill”.

Shame, guilt and frustration choked him like a wire slipped about his neck. He headed past the small, quiet shop where he had aimed to buy his supplies. The old lady who ran it was putting her key into the lock and looked absently at the figure who passed. It was only the fear of bringing further attention upon him that held his legs from breaking into a sprint.

He found himself at the foot of the stairs that led up to the library. It’s community board proposed coffee mornings, harvest festivals and reading groups via pastel coloured leaflets. Bicycles chained to the railings bore tartan saddle bags and reflectors woven amongst their spokes. Pigeons shuffled on the guttering, ruffling their feathers. He went up the steps and into the lobby. A mother and her child were coming the other way. The child slowed and stared as they passed, the mother tugged its hand without looking back. He stood by the librarian’s desk and they, too, slowed and stared, looking him up and down with their ink stamps hanging in the air.

He walked amongst the rows of shelves; paperbacks and popular fiction. He could see none of the names who had authored the cloth bound works that littered his room. As other browsers passed him he pressed himself tightly against the shelves. The choice was overwhelming, he had no frame of reference by which to select. He watched what others picked up and turned over to appraise. He was lost. But these people were not like the people in the street, he thought. They were warmer, kinder. Books made one warm and kind. Though his heart was thumping in his chest he went over to the librarian’s desk.   

“Hello” said the librarian “Can I help?”.

“I’m looking for a book” he said.

Her eyes went to her computer screen.

“What’s the author’s name?” the librarian asked.

“I was hoping you could recommend something?” he said.

She looked back at him, up and down, like the readers amongst the rows of books scrutinizing spines and blurbs.

“I’m not a member,” he said “does that matter?”.

She stared back at him and he shuffled nervously.

“I was when I was a child. I haven’t my card anymore though; perhaps I’m still in your records?” he murmured.

“Are you going to check out the book?”, she asked.

“No, only read it here. Just for a little while. Maybe something short”, he added “something I could finish by this evening?”.

Another librarian was watching now and he caught her furtive eyes flick from him to her colleague. His palms were sweating.

The first librarian began to open her mouth, though it was clear by her eyes that she was struggling for words. He had a very terrible feeling that by bothering these people he was testing their tolerance for him and that he might be invited to leave. His tongue became a gruesome knot and he stammered out that he was sorry to bother them and that he would find his own works to read. Turning away he knocked into a trolley of books by the desk and stumbled away with his hands thrust into his jacket pockets.

He went to the furthest shelves that he could find from the librarian’s desk and browsed there. The works were non-fiction and he was more lost than ever in choosing. As he rifled through the books he could see the librarian’s glancing over and whispering to each other. He quickly pulled down a book and took it to one of the reading tables. The book was on carpentry and he pulled at the pages listlessly. Putting up shelves, building cabinets and birdhouses. He could not invest himself in it at all. Distracted by the curdled looks he imagined the librarians were giving him, his skin was hot and dry. He bothered his aching tooth as he wrung his hands.

As the clock on the wall hit 12 his stomach was beginning to pain him. He was tearing at his cuticles when he saw the girl, sitting on the table opposite his. Her hair fell in dry strands of tight, mousy curls. She wore a thin cardigan which she periodically pulled across her narrow chest in a ritualistic way. Her eyes were huge with tiny, unadorned lashes and she fretted with her free hand as she turned the pages of the book in front of her.

He was enamoured; enraptured by her image. He was alive and he forgot. He was nowhere else and only there and entirely crushed by the release. He lived one thousand lives with his eyes never leaving her. He imagined walking from the library with her. Going with her to her home on the other side of the town. Leaving his father amongst the empty rooms of the house to rattle and roar like a beast. He imagined a life with her, free, until death.

When she looked up from her book and met his eye he felt as though he had been struck in the chest by a mortar. The air seemed to burn between them and his heart abandoned its course. He wondered what this girl, this girl who had been with him for one thousand lives, would say for her first words. But then she frowned and looked away and then back to her book. Then up at the clock. Then down to her bag. And then she stood and walked away. In confusion he returned to the book in front of him and, when evening fell and the warm lights were beginning to weigh on his eyes, he got up and walked out into the dark, cold town and followed the alley and climbed the hill and returned home, closing the door quietly behind him.


He climbed the stair and heard his father in his study on the first floor. Drawing a deep breath, he walked by the open door , staring straight ahead.

“You’ve been a long time”, said the voice.

He looked into the room. His father stood there, a ream of photographs in his hand. The room was in chaos. Many of the boxes were tipped over and the prints spilled across the floor. Some of the records had been broken and the black splinters littered the ground.  His other hand was stuffed inside his dressing gown. A strange lump bulged underneath. His father looked him up and down.

“Where is the food?”, his fathersaid, absently dropping the photos on the floor.

“I was robbed. The money’s gone. There is no food”, he replied.

“You were robbed?” his father scoffed.

“Yes; this morning, when I went out”.

“By who?”.

“Some man”.

“Some man?”.

The lump under his dressing gown moved in a slight but discomforting way.

“He took everything. I’ve been at the police station all morning”.

“All day you mean?”.


“And set them on the trail of some man?”.

“It wasn’t my fault”.

His father turned his back and walked two steps away. He groaned as he seemed to struggle with something inside his dressing gown. He hunched over and the sound of his back cracking only half covered another, stranger, noise. He turned back around.

“Just go. There’s nothing left to do”, his father said.

“What do you mean?”.

“You know what I mean”.

“It wasn’t my fault”, he repeated.

With his hand still tucked inside his dressing gown, his father stepped towards him. He came so close that he could smell the musty smell coming from the cloth and another smell underneath it, almost like bile. His father sighed and the hot, stinking air came to his nostrils across teeth the colour of jaundiced ivory.

“Nothing left”, said his father, “nothing whatever”.

And he went up to his room.

The room was turned over, the disarray worse than before. The mirror was cracked; its shards were scattered across the carpet. The clock was broken in two. His mattress and bed clothes were pulled from the bed and the chair was on its side, the fabric of its bottom slit open. Books lay everywhere, arching crushed spines amongst their own torn pages.

He righted the chair and sat down. Both of the windows were open for some reason and the he could see his breath. His stomach ached from hunger, his head ached from anxiety and the pain in his tooth was a constant throb. He put his head in his hands. Looking up he spied a packet of tobacco amongst the wreckage of the room. He got up and picked it up. It was old, it must have come from the insides of the chair. But it was half full. He winced as he straightened up; the blood rushing to his swollen temples. He sat and swiftly rolled a cigarette. Though dry it tasted as good as any he had ever smoked. He began on another.

Downstairs, the music started up. Louder than before. The disjointed, dissonant chords were further marred by the skipping of the records at regular intervals. He wondered whether his father had damaged the player. He heard him continue to rattle around and overturn boxes of the sepia photographs.

He smoked his cigarette. Though he had been outside of the house all day and had barely slept the night before, he did not feel tired. His mind was alert. His senses seemed to be operating beyond their usual capacity. The taste of the tobacco; the hint of blood in his mouth. The cold dirt smell that came from the dusty books. The hot scratch of the smoke in his throat. He felt eerily calm and unbearably close to breaking in fleeting, overlapping seconds. His consciousness wound through stricken dissociation and hyperreality.

He ground his cigarette on the carpet and sat back. The music wailed downstairs. He bit his nails and, as he tore at them, he felt the edge of a tooth crumble. He spat the small shards into his palm and turned them over with the tip of a finger. He slid the pieces back into his mouth and ground them into dust between his molars. The hairs on his arms stood on end and he shivered as he felt bone destroy bone. He gripped the arms of the chair as his stomach convulsed and knotted itself with hunger.


He awoke from a shallow, fevered sleep sitting in the chair. It was dark outside. He shivered in the cool air. The music was still playing downstairs; thin recordings of a bizarre negro spiritual. He shrugged off the suit jacket. Somehow its oily fabric made him feel colder. He went down to the first floor. The door to his father’s room was closed as he passed it and he heard him within, breathing heavily. He went down to the ground floor and into the kitchen. It was in complete chaos. Smashed cutlery littered the floor and one of the cupboards was half hanging off the wall. He went to the sink. It was full to the weir with scummy, greasy water. He reached his hand inside and rummaged around. The loud clack of plates, even under the water, sent a nervous thrill down his neck. He pulled free a kitchen knife. Its tip was slightly bent. He plucked it with his fingertip and a tiny thread of his skin was pulled away.

He stood at the bottom of the stair and looked up, his head slightly cocked. He went into the living room and put his ear to the door that led into the dining room. He turned the knob and leaned gently on the door. He felt a worrying resistance but it was only some of the junk that had fallen against the inside of it. He squeezed through the gap, holding the knife out at the end of his outstretched arm.

The room smelled of oak and ashes. A faint orange light from the streetlight outside came through the curtain. He inched his way through the furniture and boxes trying to make his way to the corner of the room. Banging into a table, an upended chair fell and clattered against the other furniture. The sound, amongst the stillness of the night, was like a clap of thunder. He froze and tried to listen beyond the ringing in his ear and the sound of his pulse beating in his head. As it subsided he began again to move through the maze of clutter. He found himself in the corner where he had found his father hunched and muttering to himself. He knelt down on the stiff, dirty carpet and searched with his hands. He found dust so thick it matted and then crumbled to powder in his hands. Empty tins that stank of the sour remains within. His hand fell on something wiry and wet that gave slightly beneath his grasp. He whipped his hand away in disgust. As his sight grew conditioned to the darkness he caught the glitter of the amber light on a beady, black eye amongst a mess of fur. Bile rushed up his throat and stung his sinus. But he made no effort to move.

He was slumped on the floor with his back to the wall when he heard the footsteps coming down the stair. He had been in the darkness for hours, he supposed, and his eyes had become keen in the dark. The tins lay at his side in neat rows, the meagre contents scraped clean. He tasted rot and dust on his tongue. He ran his tongue over the cavity in his tooth and tasted blood, but only some of it was his. A coarse hair came free from his teeth and he plucked it out between tacky, reeking fingers. There was another taste in his mouth, something sweet and unctuous. He savoured it and rubbed the torn cloth of the trouser on his upper thigh. He picked up the knife and heard it drip on the carpet. The footsteps came closer and the door was pushed open a crack. A large shadow pushed its way into the room and stood in the silence.

In the darkness his knuckles were turning white as he gripped the knife ever tighter. He opened his mouth, his lips curled back and he took a ragged breath. The air rushing in stang the cavity in his tooth. The shadow in the doorway jerked as a guttural snarl from the black corner of the room echoed amongst the forgotten lives and the tiny, white bones entombed in the dust.


He sat in the chair in his room. The soft, grey light of early morning feathered the walls with its gentle glow. The music downstairs continued but the record had caught and a second was repeated over and over.  “my lord… my lord… my lord” juddered up the stair, sweet and maddening. He looked at the broken pieces of the clock and smiled. He took a sip from the steaming coffee that sat by his feet. His stomach no longer ached. His tooth no longer ached. His head was a warm haze. He tried to roll a cigarette but the papers stuck to his gummy fingers. He licked his fingertips and bit at his nails and, eventually, tried again. He looked at the broken clock again when he heard someone pass in the alley below. Time for the town to work. He took another sip of coffee, lit a match and put it to his cigarette. Cinders fell and sank into the carpet leaving tiny black marks. He lit another match and watched the fire creep down the wood and burn out between his fingers. He took the final match from the box and struck it until it caught.



From → Story

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