author & illustrator
* Your Narrator
1. The Meeting
2. The High House
3. The Four
4. A Letter
5. Small Scarp
8. Dry Marsh
I suppose I should make some effort to introduce myself. I am the teller of this tale, in which I also play a modest role. The strange events that follow happened, as they say, before my very eyes and these ill-tidings came exclusively to my ears.
I'm a sort of academic : a philosopher who finds herself without thoughtful employment.
I'm a wistful player, to whom life has dealt some poor cards and if you read on, you will uncover a sorry hand indeed.
Lately, I have endeavoured to set down my ideas on the problems of modern life. My goal was to develop a theory which could help the degenerates and delinquents of our society. The knowledge that I might assist some wayward youngster to find a straighter path did much to compensate for my solitary existence.
Privately though, I must tell you that I have failed.
One tries to be optimistic and stay in good spirits. Yet, being alone, I often find myself assailed by anxiety, by frights and even the occasional nightmare. Our story is also marked by these sorry characteristics.
Consider a game of Snap. Do we see all the cards at once? No. Some hearts seem to be shy. Some diamonds appear with a flourish. In the end, is there any card which we can call the winner? None, I assure you.
Reader. I would suggest that chance plays a part in the crazy scenario which follows. However, only a madman would be likely to predict its peculiar outcome. I am ageing, it is true – and a mite slow – but I've been run breathless chasing this sinister trail. You may indulge at your own sweet pace.
So, if you do intend to read these cards, break the seal, shuffle the deck and deal. Look out for the joker though!
And me? I'll just remain anon. I ask you only to watch and listen.
It was a cold day in November. The pavements were bleak and treacherous. They waited in silence for the unwary feet of elderly passers-by. The sky was grey and bleary.
I turned out of the city high street into a narrow road lined with tall buildings and entered at the appointed address. I was to attend an interview. Dolefully, I ascended the hollow, echoing, concrete stairwell and pondered on what I might find in store. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the somewhat suspect titles on the doors at each level.
The notice which announced the top floor to be occupied by an educational organisation seemed less counterfeit, but only slightly so. I had read the advertisement in the local newspaper with interest. I remembered the wording: 'person with stable academic background required'! Surely I fulfilled these qualities and it was with some confidence that I anticipated meeting my prospective chief.
Yet, I simplify. As always on these occasions, there is a little doubt in one's mind: an uneasiness unspoken.
In this confused frame of mind, I rounded the partition that separated the landing from the waiting room and saw there, standing as if at my immediate service – a solid, grinning youth.
"Hello!" he called out.
Certainly I had no time to adopt an attitude to the situation. I was struck by his long, grey overcoat. It was far too big for a person of such small stature.
"Do come in, Madam," he said with mock formality.
His boots also rapped my senses: great black, dusky things, most unsuitable for an interview.
It was difficult to assess his age. Anywhere between eighteen and twenty-five at a guess. Not a handsome youth in the classical manner, nor was he quite what you'd call the rugged workman. He was just plain blunt.
I wondered if my interview might be with him and took it that he must be a rather ragged member of staff. The waiting room was also shabby, with yellowish walls, and there were a few motley posters, their colours faded under dust. They alluded to such vital issues of the day as to how to use a pedestrian crossing or the whereabouts of the nearest post office.
The young man's brow knitted. His eyebrows shot together. All of a sudden, he looked very tough. Then he broke the silence. He explained that he had been interviewed earlier and at once, any sense of aggravation between us was dispersed.
We moved about the room, on survey. We strolled cautiously, hands behind back. It was a comic mime in which each unconsciously parodied the movements of the other. When he was not watching me, I watched him.
He had a bright face, sometimes like the moon, other times like the sun. Then, in another way, it was dogged and dog-like. When this boy smiled at you, he showed a full set of teeth, square and grinning. His whole mouth spread across his face in such an agreeable manner that I could only smile back.
His nose was largish with a slight arch and a heavy, rounded tip. Large dark blue eyes, spaced far apart, contributed to the openess of his brow, which was wide and high enough to suggest a degree of intelligence.
All in all, those eyes and that smile combined to exhibit an undoubted generosity of character. Yet, there was something devilish in them too. Something malevolent and ruthless. For an instant, as a cloud passed the window, I saw him bare his molars.
Now let me describe a curious phenomenom concerning the boy's head. Around the eye sockets and those rounded cheeks there was a smooth contour. Yet it rested upon a strange angularity of the bone. In an uncanny way, it was the mere mask of youth. It was like a fleshy pink membrane pulled tight over the skull of an old pooch.
"It was selling," he said.
Books, paper, pens – school stuff. It was a very smooth lady who did all the interviewing. According to him, she was all stripes and red lip rouge. Spoke her lines by rote.
An unusual quality of the boy's account was its tone. It wasn't told in a mood of hostility or complaint. His voice remained soft and even throughout, like that of a sleeping puss. All breathing through the nostrils and with the occasional short sigh. Certainly never rising above a satisfied purr.
I noticed a door creak on the landing. It was time for me to go in. I was nervous and a little embarrassed. We were forced into a curious, almost clandestine intimacy. His face was just a few inches from my own. His breath, ice-cold, brushed my burning cheek.
Summoning all the deadly seriousness of a secret alliance between chums, he told me the interview would be a farce.
"What is your name?" I asked.
The expression in his eyes became grave.
"My name is K'no!" he whispered.
The High House
We had agreed to meet on the afternoon of the following day. He stayed with friends, I alone. His house was in a fashionable part of town. One had to ascend a series of hills in order to get there, positioned as it was, on high ground near the Downs. Walking, for the best part of an hour, I watched the homes change in style and order of social precedence.
The weather was colder still. Ice had melted into smooth pools, then hardened again to form flawless, miniature rinks. It was a recipe for disaster.
Across the road, I watched a crotchety old man slip and fall. His outstretched arm took all the shock and he must have broken his collar bone. A crowd gathered around him, all eager with sanctimonious consideration.
At that instant, the old man's face caught mine. He was pallid and there was blood on his chin. He couldn't tell what had hit him. Yet, he needed to blame someone.
Even though the temperature was below zero, the sky was bright and clear. It was the kind of winter sunshine that makes you feel warm and as I came closer to my destination, I was able to shake-off the dreariness of the lower city. Pigeons clattered from the beech trees overhead and into a section of parkland. There was a mechanical, whirring noise as they beat their wings soundly away, over the frosty lawns.
The area was pleasant and it seemed that K'no had chosen a fine location. The little mansion was one of those pre-war affairs, all white-washed stone. There was a feeling of lightness and mock masonry about it, even a touch of pebble-stucco beneath the windows.
I pressed the electric bell-button at the front door. After a brief wait, there was a frenzied clumping of boots rushing downstairs and sudden crazed image could be seen behind the textured glass panel. No crashing monster opened the door. It was K'no himself, standing there with his customary grin.
"Entrez a'vou…" He completed the improvised greeting with a wave of his hand and a decorous bow. Then I was ushered along a grand stairway to the top floor.
The room we entered was large and airy, with cream coloured wallpaper. Glazed double doors led on to a small balcony at the western side of the building.
There was a round sofa. K'no sat there as if it might be his favourite spot. I fancied it did not suit his style though, squatting as he was with legs crossed and arms akimbo.
He was in fine fettle, keen to know how I faired since my arrival in the city. His eyes shone and sparkled in the late sunbeams that came across the balcony. He looked healthy, much more so than on the previous day. I told him that I had discarded any plans for regular work and intended to gamble my way in the world as an itinerant scholar. K'no, smiling again, seemed to warm to my comments. He implored me to show him the contents of a thin folder I had brought along.
I took out some prints. Copies of famous Renaissance paintings, to which I had added a few glib notes, hoping that these would provide a springboard for our conversation. To my great joy, he accepted them with enthusiasm. Holding the papers lightly in his boney hands, he pointed an index finger to this or that fine detail. Why this cast shadow so darkly phrased? Whence this paradoxical blue? To such complex questions, he sought a simple response.
After a while though, he cast the material aside. Perhaps he was more interested in worldly matters or even turning a shovel. His sudden distaste made me think of worms appraising gritty soil.
I give you these details to show the type of intellect I was dealing with in this young man. His was a mind that perceived the immediate reality of things, free from category or context. The least known plumber would receive his full attention. He was the ideal observer.
K'no was no pie-in-the-sky dreamer. I found in him an intelligent brain and a special perception. However, these were not the tools of a cleric but the steely armaments of a warrior.
The day was wearing on. A scudding cloud crossed the sun, which was now reddening beyond the balcony window. The room became suffused with cool shadow and embers. Another cloud passed and the shadows darkened to green. It was early evening. Our attitudes changed and changed again.
Suddenly, K'no jumped to his feet and skipped across the room. His mood was so quickly re-tuned that I was quite shaken. He stood before the balcony and framed against the western sky, gave a slight bow towards me. Then, with considerable strength, he managed to wrench one of the great, long, silken curtains from its fitting.
Using this material as a special device, he began to enact a bizarre and witty form of dance. His sprightly movements combined both grace and mimicry. The flowing cloth was merged into the sunset light. It glowed violet, purple and quick-blue. By deft of hand, he caused it to billow up and out; to funnel down and ripple like a vibrant stream.
As he wheeled and leapt, vast portions of the cloth sank into the shadows of the room. In the space of a few minutes, the drape assumed a hundred guises. It was a slim girl couched in his arms and then a marine creature set to engulf him. It became a formless, white presence until, suspended oblong from his forearm, it rendered his body invisible and blank.
The performance was ended with consummate grace. By a sharp tug of his wrist, he wrestled the imaginary creature's head from its body. The silk tore briskly at its weakest point and a firm stamp of his left foot quelled the tail.
K'no stood stock still. His eyes watched the parting threads. His upturned palms attracted modest attention. The silk drifted downward. It was finished.
At the climax of this entertainment, something about K'no caught my senses. In the glinting, ruddy light, I saw a clumsy ornament tied around his neck.
It was a leaden, tarnished medallion. The shape was uncommon. The design was certainly unique. After a few moments of staring at it, the object caused me the deepest revulsion and it made me shudder.
K'no stood squarely, but with one arm casually stretched. His heavy masculine hand gently caressed the surface of the wall to his right. Some time had passed since his nifty show.
He was in a kind of alcove which led on to the balcony. The continuing passage of clouds threw strange flowing patterns across the floor. Whirlpools of red and amber, diamonds of shade, sped through the fretwork of tiny window-panes.
His hand caught the light. The serpent palm moved relentlessly. Garish colours affected its shape and gave it life. Then, quickly, the hand recoiled into the shade of his torso. He was a silhouette with glinting eyes. They shone like a cat's.
I had hoped to renew our conversation: to ask for his views on religion, but this change in his demeanour had thrown me off. I could not phrase the question or even put the words in their correct order. Those two pin-points, blueish and bitter white, held me back. They were like the eyes of some wild animal at dusk, waiting by a stream and drawing power from the misty life of the water.
We stared in silence for ages. He stood slow and still, with the heavy solidity of a tree. The dark outline of his head was like an oak at nightfall, his tense muscles like the twisting boughs. His hair radiated like the finer twigs. Here and there, his hair was touched with gold from the falling sun. His shape was as clear as a pressed leaf, damp and green, so that it was printed on to the azure of the evening sky. That sky would be darkened within minutes, from the east.
I managed to regain my confidence but noticed a tinge of grey in his young locks. I wondered about his opinion in spiritual matters. Did he hold any notion of a supreme being?
There wasn't any need for me to speak. His answer came in a new tone. The voice was now cracked and hesitant, devoid of emotion and like that of man tired of his years.
"Well everything dies in the end…every little sod fades," he whispered.
And there was the rub. No mercy in his comment. No human quality.
"Everything fades," he murmured again - and the sound was disturbing to the ear. It was oddly similar to the far away threshing of crops.
Some hours must have gone by. It had become quite dark and the rising moon had turned the house into a dusky, grey hulk. I might have dozed. At any rate, I cannot reasonably account for the strange events and images that were about to sully my mind.
I was going to ask K'no what he was up to, when he seemed to glide across the room to where I sat. He moved so fast that a cool draught of air came in his wake. It was as if a large black bird approached, its wings rustling and shimmering. In an unlikely gesture, K'no perched directly behind me, placed his fingers round my shoulders and caw-cawed something harsh in my ear.
"My father is dead," he screetched. "My father has abandoned me! How shall I travel the roads alone?"
I was stricken and could do nothing to assist his plight. His hands gripped me tighter. Drawing cold breath, he attempted to speak again. The words were forced out and so distorted with rage that I doubted they sprang from those same smiling lips. I was unsure if what I heard were words at all. They were brittle, hopeless tremors of the larynx.
K'no lit a lamp near the door. There were clumping noises on the stairs. The interruption was caused by his mutual tenants. They entered, the four of them, in a walking heap and I thought I knew, just by looking at them, that they were salt of the earth, good chaps.
The Four fell into an immediate and intense conversation. Their voices were very low and quiet. All were pretty much of a muchness. All had beards. One beard was ginger. One was black. One was brown and one was silver-blonde. Their beards were full-set, thick and short-clipped. They all had shortish length hair which hung just over their collars at the back and just above their ears at the sides. They all had rather large ears and small heads.
One of them looked timidly at K'no and muttered something. The others mouthed the instruction silently, without uttering a peep. K'no duly walked to the kitchen. There was the clacking of crockery. He was making tea!
After a short time, he reappeared solemnly with a tray of cups and a pot. He set it at the centre of his friends' table, completing the menial task and showing no trace of resentment.Then the oddest thing of all transpired.
Before consuming their tea, each placed his palms together in an attitude of prayer and with one accord they began to sing!
They sang in low, groaning voices while K'no looked on passively. There was no emotion as they sang. No sign or expression passed between them. This weird ritual was performed purely for his satisfaction. It was like a well-known hymn, all mixed-up.
"Me-las-u-rej, me-las-u-rej!" they chanted in long, sustained refrains that sounded like 'Jerusalem' back to front.
Afterwards, they raised their cups in unison and began to drink. They drank in a curious manner, by sucking at the edge of the cup and tediously sieving the liquid through their teeth. This seemed very childish and took a great deal of time. Between each bout they lowered and raised their beverages like a line of troops presenting arms. Each checked the other with suspicious darting eyes.
Later, I was to discover the wicked purpose of all this conformity. It was a routine strictly designed for K'no.
When next aroused, the room had become ashen. It was that still, nocturnal time before the sluggish dawn. A time when stalwart beings are made semi-dead with rippling serum, when forgotten characters briefly visit the mind. The sun waited, drifting those last minutes in space and daring the darkness to burgle his power.
There were no lamps outside. Only the moon-planet shone weirdly through the curtains. The house was a dusty cave.
K'no leaned casually against a wall. His clothes seemed like tattered cobwebs but fitted tightly over his musculature. His face and arms were darker; powdered with a dusky, aboriginal grey. He seemed even stronger now, bulging with menace. There was mischief in his eyes. He was grinning mercilessly and not even a sigh passed his lips.
His gaze suddenly switched to the single remaining curtain. I saw a chink appear and the moon's whiteness was instantly reflected in his retina. It was a trick, a blatant morbid signal. With one aim, the Four turned their heads to me. I tell you no lie. Those English men, once strong and true, now had eyes of shining jet!
Foolishly, I scanned the room for K'no. I needn't have done so, since his supremacy was obvious. He dominated the table, joined in communion with his sychophants. Their eyes were blackened. His burned inwardly with the hotness of blinding, white metal.
Stricken again, I managed to raise myself from my chair. I staggered fast, looking for a way out but the Four turned as if on castor-wheels. They were fixed on me. I made no 'by-your-leave' or 'cheerio'. My experience with K'no and now this odd meeting with his cronies had unnerved and upset me. Yet, here is the strangest part. Even when I had fled downstairs and into the brightness of the new day, a perverse compunction overcame me. I felt compelled to go back and apologize for leaving without a word.
All around, were the faint signs of ordinary life. A trace of smoke, a gushing tap and in the distance, a flapping white sheet that was raised like a flag on the line. Great, stupid tears welled up. I felt remorse that I should have reacted so madly to my own sleepiness or perhaps just a clever trick. Surely it was just Kno's little trick.
My index finger moved towards the door-bell again. Then, millimetres away, I stopped. Dimly, within the house, I heard laughter. Soft laughter, growing acute. It was very short, like the laughter of a sick boy. Brave and unshackled from the chest, it died away in seconds.
After it came another noise, monstrous and from the same throat. A sort of cackling that sprang from one of a pack - or from a rabid flock. A sort of jokes-on-her laughter; cut deep and quick, until we get to the gristle and so insidiously evil that I ran away like a frightened child.
I ran full-pelt along the marbled street and beyond into the cradle of the city.
Some months later, I was surprised to receive a note from K'no, stating that he wished to see me urgently. There was some problem in which I might be able to help him, though he failed to specify its nature.
He made no mention of those strange events which had marred my last visit. Instead, he enclosed a lengthy essay which detailed his practical philosophy of life. The words were scribbled down on rough paper. Still, they formed the perfect compliment to our previous ramblings.
Here were his forthright opinions on everything from sculpture to astrology and his doubts, concerning organised religion. Some of his assertions were a bit extreme but I was impressed with the boy's tenacity and enthusiasm.
I was reluctant to have any contact at all, considering his recent behaviour. Yet, after a few days, I found myself posting a reasoned letter in reply and making tentative preparations for a journey. Perhaps he was inclined to play the occasional joke and my slumbers had made it all the more effective. Perhaps he was clever. Perhaps he was the finest fellow after all.
A soft old lady may take a week to make up her mind but within twenty-four hours, I was travelling to the fateful city.
K'no had moved to a poorer part of town, a festered remainder of the industrial revolution, typified by row upon row of terraced red-brick homes with doorways leading directly on to the street. It had far more character than most modern housing developments.
Generations of human habitation, of birth, death and maternal stoicism had endowed the locality with an unwritten, unspoken law. The male devil had been quelled by so many years of toil at the furnace.
Caribbeans and migrant Europeans fell with scarcely a ripple into this feminine spirit. They were made drowsy in its mystery. Each man pulled the beat of his existence to meet its rhythm. The callous step of youth was slowed to an aged but vivid dance.
A flower garden, a vegetable patch, the spell was cast, the scene complete.
I moved through the quiet streets in a dream. During my school days, areas like this would have provided the familiar abode of uncles and aunts, the feared hideaways of rough-necks and bully-boys who crouched in ambush at the next back-alley.
I was completely lost, owing to the scant directions that K'no had sent. He had indicated the general area and mentioned that his lodging nestled on a rugged escarpment but the geography was unusual. A broad urban vista, well-drained, swept down maybe two miles into a wide, marine estuary. The bed rock was pale, somewhere between a sandstone and a brittle chalk. The sub-soil was glacial clay, packed smooth and deep in places; mainly suitable for building but sometimes perilous; festooned with ferns, brackish, sunken and carboniferous. It was a primeval scape, ideal on sunny days for the sabre-tooth strategies of children on warrior campaign and in drizzle for the unexpected sighting of a pterodactyl.
Turning at the first promising side street, I started to walk downhill. The valley seemed to act as a gigantic, upturned megaphone. Below and far away, I heard infant battle cries. The sounds fell innocently enough but were quickly lost in the residual growl and boom of the city.
At the foot of the hill there was a junction from which five streets radiated at differing angles and elevations. This junction was an intimate little focus of activity. There was a shop on one corner. It was a blunt projection constructed between roads that were no more than thirty degrees apart. The bashed old advertising signs, painted in midnight blue and gloss green, on zinc, flickered occasionally in the afternoon sunlight. The shop was higher on one side, so people entered flush, descended steps and appeared several minutes later, laden with the glum cares of an empty purse. Anyway, it was fine weather and there were more smiles than gloomy faces.
A musician stood outside, smartly playing the spoons. A group of braggart teenagers had gathered round him. They watched him tap his knee with vigour. For a while, their brashness was cowed and they saw his small, inward vitality. They were entranced by his quick sharpness. He played as a man would woo a woman. His smile assured the audience of his good nature.
The youths slouched in a rough semi-circle. Much of the footpath was taken up. There were ten or twelve of them. They warmed to him for a time, these bluster boys. They spurred him on.
The rhythm was speeding up. The old man was giving them a show. He began to strike his elbows, his shoulders, his heel and toe, wheeling jerkily as he played one spoon against another. It all became a sort of frenetic dance. The crowd of youths were driving him on to a pitch. They moved a little and lost their looseness of limb. A hardly discernible sway of the hip, a callous shake of the femur. The excitement of the group was rippling through them. A flash of teeth, a dazzled white eye. They angled a capricious bait and just like the sloe-berry to the silver chub-fish, they would see him quiver.
And then it struck me. They were laughing at him! The modern boys were laughing. It was barely audible at first. The music of the spoons was too loud and penetrating. One could see it in their faces though, plain as day and in their throats. It was guttural laughter, cruel and quite intentional. The mood of the crowd had changed.
Suddenly, the old musician was crumbling. He could see it too. His modest dream was shattered. His small, intense heart couldn't bear it. He began to shudder. The short-lived steps of his dance faltered. His knees stiffened and shook. His right hand searched blindly for support. His spoons fell abruptly, as if wrenched from his hands. The music ceased.
A choppy sea of chatter and ridicule had brought him down. A barrage of sniggering abuse interspersed with malicious hoots.
Yet there was also some familiar element in the crowd, something fearful glimpsed from the corner of my eye. Those four bearded idiots I had met at the high house! They were sat there in line, on a low brick wall. It was the Four who instigated this malapert behaviour. Only they, stayed silent and stared all the while, right through the old man.
He was an oldie. He should bide his time. He drew too much excitement. He brought out the bad side of these boys and roused them into a fervour. The Four played on this. They were brooding, insolent characters, each with a heavy brow, filled to the brim with hatred. They were land-locked and they were oafish.
It seemed as though the drama was over. A few of the youngsters knelt to assist the spoon player. When I looked up again, those four dotards were nowhere to be seen. However, standing exactly where they had appeared, there was another lack-a-day prankster. Leaning on his hip and gently tapping one foot, emanating a devilish air of confidence, was K'no!
He was gone quickly as a saw him. Dashing away up the narrowest street: a dark shape running wild beneath the deep blue of the late afternoon sky.
It was quite a long street too, with a slight incline and a slight concavity which distorted the perspective. Absurdly, the more distant shadows appeared to be the longest. The shadows were growing down the street towards me and each time the running figure came to a shadow, he was absorbed into it. At the mearest projection, a doorstep or lintel, K'no would disappear for several seconds. He looked as if he was scurrying from one nook to the next. In reality though, his flight was continuous and accelerating; a considerable feat of sprint, spirit and stamina.
Soon, he was nearing the top of the hill. There, the converging lines of the terraced houses ended abruptly. The road opened for a stretch to the sky and then dipped out of view into the outskirts of the city.
The speed of his escape prevented me from following him. I saw K'no reach the crest of the hill, then wreaths of white chimney smoke obscured the spot.
I was left in a daze. Wandering along the pavement in a state of mild exhaustion and hoping that someone would assist me, I tried knocking on a door at random. The little house was quiet for several minutes. Then movement could be sensed within. There was no preparatory footstep. Whoever was inside, approached with a sly grace.
The door opened nine inches. A face cautiously peeped and pressed its poorly cheek against the jam. The face was well-worn but the skin was moist.
It was a woman, perhaps forty or a little older. She wore a pale blue dress. Her shoulder straps grazed the wall and her neck twisted reptilian. The flesh was erotically soft and damply creased.
Catching my breath, I uttered a few clipped words to explain that I had lost my way.
"You'd better come in," she said in a low, northern voice. She swung the door wide in a rather masculine fashion and without further ceremony, turned and walked down the narrow, ill-lit entrance passage. She moved like an archer, loose-limbed but with an assured kick of her heel. Her hands were lodged in the pockets of her skirt, though only to the knuckle. There was a little tension in that knuckle on the hip, so that her elbows lolled back and forth as she strolled. The shoulder blades swung freely beneath her clothing.
At the far end of the hallway, we came to a room decorated with peeling, flowered, old wallpaper, in green and yellow. The woman invited me in with an indifferent gesture. Armchairs, upholstered in leather which was brown and cracked, filled the corners. The carpet was worn, its pattern vaguely oriental. Part geometry and part botany, its darkness seemed to cover the floor in low-lying forest growths. The scene was dimly illuminated by a pearly lamp in the ceiling.
Placed on shelves, all around, there were an extraordinary number of caged pets. There were small rodents, budgerigars, canaries and the like. It appeared to be some kind of household fetish. A gerbil, perched on its hind legs and scanned the room with large, quivering ears. The animal's fusty nose wiggled between the bars. Parakeets, couped, idle and bored, perched with their heads cocked disconsolately to one side. Each watched his mate's secret, wrinkled membrane cover the eye. Yet, within these mean, shadowy cells, there sprang not a single chirrup, cheep, squawk or scuffle. The room was silent. Every creature was mutely attuned to the whim of some injudicious keeper.
To fulfill this role, there amongst the bric-a-brac of tropical victoriana, beside the willow- pattern crockery and the mahogany Rama, meekly waiting, was the other woman. She was a small, dry person with a pale, powdery face. She sat with her hands folded neatly and with her feet placed primly together. She was older and tense, yet apparently harmless, even timid.
The house remained still and nothing was said. After a while, the tall woman also seated herself, then lounged back and crossed her legs voluptuously. She lit a cigarette. The thing twitched nervously between the very tips of her fingers.
I was about give my excuses for arriving uninvited at their home when the taller one interrupted.
"My name is Spur," she announced suddenly. "… and this lady is Minus Riggs." She cast her hand about the place. "As you can see, we keep ourselves to ourselves…. and our pets. We have little knowledge of this neighbourhood."
It was hardy an answer to my dilemma.
Minus Riggs made no comment. Her mouth stayed stiff and mawkish. She was like a stone, hunched and quietly gripping her own wrists.
Spur strode about the room, running her hand along the thin wire cages, so that they rang with a distant, hollow tingle. Sometimes she would softly fondle a bolt or latch, resting it upon her index finger and pretending to lift. A lusty caress of the air was enough to elicit the response she desired.
For, as she passed each inmate, there would arise some sign of grovelling recognition. A polecat began squealing. A sparrow, its feathers ruffled, chirped hearty praise. An obese rheumy-eyed jackdaw squawked its bellicose gratitude. A miasma of beastial sound welled-up like an ugly symphony, performed at some obscene, fairground display.
Spur returned and loomed above me. A broad, slit smile crossed her jaw. It spiked, puffing out the flesh around her lips. The lamp was directly above and the frazzled wire element shed a greenish hue, turning every pore of her skin into a crater. Her brow lengthened into skullduggery.
The turmoil from the cages had now risen to battle pitch. The motley assortment of shrieks and war-cries, the ghastly moaning and rattling, threatened a riot. Spur seemed windblown. Her cheeks ruffled spasmodically in anger. When she spoke, she leaded each word, as if it were a pirate salvo.
"Would you care to see the rest of our dwelling?"
I nodded stupidly.
The roaring cacophony of the animals drilled into my brain like a grinding, whirring machine. I wanted to get out but Spur was magnetic.
She took a bunch of mortice keys from her waist and by way of explanation, told me that they kept more freaks of nature on the first floor. As we set off, the diminutive Minus Riggs rose from her chair. At that instant, and without a single exception, the unruly protest died away.
In the darkness of the hallway, we entered a tiny space at the bottom of a narrow flight of stone steps. It was muggy. Cold air, drawn by some difference in pressure, flowed down the staircase. It came from the upper storey of the house like a smooth fall of water.
Spur began to ascend. There was so little light, I could scarcely see her. A faint halo capped the topmost step, sending a grey phosphorescence down towards us. She was slightly ahead of me and as she got closer to the summit, I could see the outline of her body. Her nimble shoulders were clear-cut, as if beaten from anvilled iron.
By the time Spur reached the landing, the upper floor was at the level of my eye, affording me an ample view of all that transpired. A musty tortoiseshell rug extended for several yards, only to disappear under a small door at the dead end. Presumably, this was the high point of their sorry little zoo.
My head entered a weird stratosphere of airborne mist which released a mild electrical charge on contact. Spur was bothered by none of this but I shrunk closer to the wall, my attention fixed on every detail of her actions. There was a chinking of metal as she selected the biggest key. It was old-fashioned and tarnished, rounded in the barrel, with several, strong, blunt teeth. It sparkled for a second, retaining dew and Spur turned the lock. Dimples of mischievous pleasure appeared in her face as she vanished into the side shadows. The door swung open.
Beyond, was a cubicle. A cramped space four feet square and eight high. The dull source of light, a disc unexplained, be it sun or moon, lay shrouded on the far side. It was difficult to obtain any sensible estimate of its distance. The disc was like water high up, a pool which defied gravity, limpid and pendulous.
Quite abruptly, a large irregular shape occupied the cubicle. It moved in an erratic manner, its ragged outline barely discernible in the fog. A murky cloud settled about it. The area was like a marsh on high, a marsh draining dry and centered in it, this poor haphazzard spectre.
I guessed that the shape belonged to a domestic mammal but it was difficult to determine the species. Moisture, dimness and wild imagination conspired to produce a creature of monstrous and sinister proportions: a surgeon's nightmare jigsaw, a rebuilt cadaver with a craning birdish neck, squat torso and clawed spider limbs.
Spur held firm in the corridor but a fierce, ghastly new light touched the corner of my vision. The cubicle had been flooded with a bright greenish glow.
On the far wall, in the disc stationed above the creature, was the crystal image of a small, mean lady. Her eyes were now craven and her soul parched with desiccant malice. A single ray had singed my temple as it sliced up from the room on the ground floor. Minus Riggs stood on the stairs behind me. The image reflected in the disc-shaped mirror was hers. She gloated, filled with some notion of smug prosperity. She straddled the fence to chew the cud. Yet, only her eyes feasted.
As she looked down, with fastidious pleasure, there crouching directly beneath the mirror, was a prisoner.
For a time, the captive below became a figure of extravagant beauty, a strange being, dappled in golden glade light. However, this was only a passing fantasy, a vague ikon fabricated within the lady-eye; summoned forth by her attraction for the gaudy, the waspish and the grotesque.
The mirror hung at an angle. So any light that caught it was projected down on to the creature. The harsh ray from downstairs split the cubicle vertically. It poured down mercilessly on to the animal's head. Ripples, like vibrant pea shoots, curled around the sinewed limbs of the figure and clung to its breast. Broader bands of light moved, like ice, across the shoulders.
A moment later and there was the suggestion of an insect existence. Bright colours shifted across the neck and sternum. Then as caterpillar turned to grub, I took in the wizened face of the creature. It was sallow and cavernous, the bead eyes rolled back and the chin lifted in admiration. The expression was pleading and servile. The head was like a dried pale fruit or button mushroom which sprouted a few straggled remnants of hair.
In that cold electric shaft of light, there were two heads. The flesh of both was pinched in concentration but while the face in the mirror conveyed a pert tyranny, in the lower there was only a wasted and sacrificial conceit. To think of hope was fanciful. This was a spirit devoted to its own incarceration.
At one side of the cubicle there was another passageway. This one was tiny, yet it was sufficient for one who progressed on all fours!
The woman above began to cry. Droplets of salt water appeared in the glassy peepers of Minus Riggs. They fell freely from the mirror! To the creature, it was as if his prayers had been answered. Slowly, his frozen body began to thaw. Bones creaked in their sockets. Crepitus lungs drew in air. There was a stylized stiffening and then flexion of the torso. The creature held something in his claws: a book. The tears now fell aplenty and dissolved the italic script. The ink left spots on the wet carpet, each one a minute squadron of bacteria on the surface of a moulding pond.
The sluggish fawning continued. The spine was doubled-up, notch by notch. The mantis shoulders inched higher. The chin stretched back a fraction more. The tension reached pitch. In a lightning spasm his body snapped and recoiled forward. A short cloak fell in loose pleats from behind his back. As the folds settled and arranged themselves, I could see that they were a display of feathers. They drooped, purple and sodden.
The wiltering slog went on. He was like a prancing mule. As his rib-cage boasted outwards, I saw a familiar item glint. It was of mechanic design, tensile and braced into a cross. Eight little pieces of sprung steel, assembled symmetrically and forced inwards, exerted a clutching pressure.
Teased down to optimum stress, made firm at that critical point between stability and dissolution, a single careless twist of its screw might reduce the structure to a thousand fragments. It was a gunmetal trinket that hung on a thin chain around his neck. The medallion was a signature, a selfish brooding talisman which instantly identified the wearer.
Wrinkled and withered, almost shrunken past recognition, the creature was K'no!
The great book in K'no's hands tilted and swelled like a raft in a storm. The pages swam with dank sloppiness. The slovenly lines of text drifted and swirled.
Every so often, a particular sentence or phrase would assert itself. The words were like an ill-disciplined detachment of soldiers, drunk on parade. I knew them all.
Here were the contents of my letter to him, copied by a slavish and functional reprobate. My careful reasoning and my secret philosophy lay exposed to an unscrupulous hag. Minus Riggs had read me and was already making plans.
"He never gets out you know," she whispered softly in my ear.
I started forward, determined to take possession of my writings. When I reached the verge of the cubicle room, Spur called out to me. She had been watching from the shadows.
"Look up!" she cried.
In the mirror above, the remaining members of the conspiracy emerged like pallid stains. A row of boring male faces coalesced under Riggs. She embraced them and gave them breath in her calumny. They were silently mouthing and distorting the knowledge contained in the book. Soon, their idiotic mumblings would assume the guise of truth. So, this was the mindless and repetitive occupation of the Four.
Spur looked recalcitrant. She must have been trying to help but my attention was distracted. In that opportune moment, K'no raised his fingers to the curious trinket at his breast. I saw his teeth clench with malice. He wrenched the tiny screw at its base. With a single, hollow click the ornament shattered. The broken pieces collapsed, receding away, to become a hard-packed oval which tumbled eccentrically into space.
It was the last peg for stability. K'no reeled backwards. The mad mirror and its reflected players were jolted from the wall. They became a spinning, silvery ellipse to match the dark oval into which I was falling.
The cubicle room had vacated all principles of structure. Lines of symmetry, masonry and joints, lost cohesion. Objects became minute. Plane surfaces were released from corner and groove. They went unbounded and limitless in a groaning implosion.
The big book was reduced to a pocket diary. It whirled about me like a ghostly flitter-mouse. There was a flecking of quills and a frantic rustle of feathers, Kno's departing face, irridescent on blue - then nothing.
Nettles, a rich, dark, chlorophyll green, spangled the clear blue sky. Ageing, drying stems of wild grass, their heads broken and lolling, tickled my brow in the afternoon breeze. Above, sprang hawthorn and tall thistle in a barbed and intermittent corona. Over these, were ground alder and sycamore. It was a premonition, or perhaps a memory, of southern everglades and sullen alligators. A temperate haven, arboured by time.
There was water in the earth and the wind suggested a certain altitude. I lay on my back in a shallow, upland hollow. Flies buzzed about my dizzy head. Starlings chattered and chaffed in their endless squabbles. A willow warbler flitted by. My senses were sharpened. Far off, I heard the chimes of church bells. One, two..three…
I was in an old, marshy depression, situated within the confines of a ruined house. Piles of red bricks were strewn around. Years of frost had taken their toll and each brick was flaking into a thousand sheaves. A matrix of wooden beams were all that remained of the roof.
My deranged brain cells began to reassemble. The breeze freshened and revived me. Was it possible that I had slouched at this very spot and dreamt all those odd events of the last few hours?
A flash of sunlight touched a piece of glass lodged between two bricks. The image persisted as my eyelids fluttered. It might have been the mirror in the cubicle. A crow passed overhead. Perhaps, in its place, I had fabricated some mad invention as a result of my own anxieties, a gruesome approximation of the mercurial young man I had known.
I pulled myself up and reviewed the locale. This derelict building was the one interruption in a long billet of terraces. It had been in this state for years.
The wind was quite brisk now. Heavy air was gusting through the house. I peered westward down the long slanting road. This was just where I had delayed in my search for K'no earlier.
A storm was gathering over the city. A great mountain of nimbus cloud crept over the estuary, three miles away but coming on fast. I started down the hill. Rain was driving on, leaving a patchwork of leaden grey and sheen across the roof tops. Soon, I was running, losing my diligent years. A small group of people waited at far end of the street.
Still running, I opened my palm. A tiny sphere of paper sprang to attention and caught by the wind, flapped-out twixt my finger and thumb. It was the note I had received from K'no. My resolve was stronger. Here was proof. K'no was a living, breathing communicant!
By now, those people were just ahead of me. They were tightly-knit. I covered the last few yards in childish fashion, skipping and gamboling through the limpid pools of rainwater. At the approach of a stranger, they all looked up. They backed away like startled cattle. I searched each grimaced face, hoping to discover the cheerful, mocking features of K'no.
Wheeling clumsily, my toes tripped on a large, tender mass and my knees sank to the pavement. The crowd responded with bewilderment. Surely K'no would appear, stepping forward with a pleasant explanation - yet the fellow was absent.
A long communal and spontaneous sigh emerged from the circle of people. My hands fumbled anxiously over the thing on the ground. It was the form, lukewarm but growing colder, of a small, lithe man. His intense smile was pale and silent. The torrent from the sky had spattered over his candid walnut face, slithering through the folds in a macabre and sinuous pattern.
It was the once lively body of the old spoon-player. He lay exactly where he had fallen but he was quite dead. He had been killed stone dead.
© Paula Wichall 2015