'For that which is born death is certain,
and for the dead birth is certain.′
The overweight young man tiptoeing across the bare wood floor ducked to lift a pile of empty Tupperware and a bag of dirty washing from the tattered Ottoman alongside the front door, the money he had just stolen (a pittance from the old man’s coin jar, no more than a few pounds and a small enough amount to go unnoticed) feeling like a solid weight in the back pocket of his jeans, the slight jingling of the coins like the rattling of chains to his nervous ears.
The slogan on his yellow polo shirt (stained in half a dozen places with a mix of that morning’s breakfast and yesterday’s dinner) read HOME HELP in vibrant red letters, a smiley-face logo taking place of the O. His name – Henry – was stitched above his heart in Barbie pink letters at jaunty angles. His managers at the charity had ensured that he returned the trio of shirts issued to him when he had started his employment eighteen months before (the accusations of theft levelled at Henry enough to see him out the door without any real evidence to back it up) but he had arranged to have a few of his own made as his plan stewed in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal, an old friend being a dab hand with a sewing machine and seeing no reason to doubt Henry’s reasons for having the shirt made, buying the tale that he simply wished for a higher quality item than the ones he had been given. The differences between this replica and the originals were plain enough for Henry to see but none of the old fools suspected anything, and nor would they.
Henry had the act they needed to see down to a T.
He appraised himself in the mirror for a moment as he calmed his breathing, barely able to draw a smile. Henry knew the gaudy colours didn’t suit him, only serving to draw attention to his thinning ginger hair and the pale scars of old acne spread across his cheeks, the look of some seedy children’s entertainer about him he had often thought as he looked upon his dismal reflection in the early hours of the morning, only a few hours out of the bars and dreading another day of wiping dribble and shit, listening to their inane ramblings for hours on end, wondering as he always did how all the hopes and dreams his parents had nurtured when they had shipped their only child off to that posh school had led to the sick joke that was his existence.
The sorry thing was that he had made a rod for his own back. He had outwitted his managers before the final axe fell, the plan he had been working on for a while forced into its final stages. A contact in the Administration Department had owed him big and had not questioned Henry’s intentions when asked for the favour to be returned, the secrets (dark ones all) Henry knew about the man’s private life being enough to ensure his cooperation and make sure he kept hold of that fancy little plastic wife of his. Removing a few names from their systems, marking a few files as D for Deceased, others as NH for Nursing Home or OOC for Out Of County – these were trivial acts for the contact to undertake in order to pay for Henry’s continued silence.
As he tucked the boxes under one arm and made to stand he faltered. Christ, he thought, a flush of colour coming to his acne-scarred cheeks. I’m always forgetting.
The building had four flats, and three of them were occupied by strangers, people outside of Henry’s little game. The most important thing was that no one should know he was here, that if anyone was to see him, they would have no chance of recognising him if the time ever came when the investigating officer flashed Henry’s photo in front of them.
Turning to the row of pegs by the front door he pulled on his heavy trench coat and removed the latex mask from his pocket, sliding it over his head and flattening it across his features then pulling on a plain black woollen hat before turning to the mirror to appraise the result. The latex was a snug fit and had been painted well, as close to a real face as was enough for any eye that happened to pass across it, the tattoos painted across the neck a nice touch. Its lie would fall asunder with any real study but Henry had always been one of those people who seemed invisible to passers-by and had – thus far – not even come close to being uncovered. Satisfied that he would not be recognised on the short walk to the car park (unmanned and free of security cameras) he flicked the deadlock and jigged the heavy door open with an outstretched foot, the shaking of his clammy hands (with him all day; poorly hidden) making the task that much harder and threatening to send everything – his calm included – spilling.
He took a few deep breaths as he cleaned his fingerprints from the deadlock and fiddled with the tight lips of the mask in preparation to speak. Happy that he was ready he cleared his throat, the action designed merely to draw attention, to announce his presence.
“I’m heading off now, Tom,” he shouted back through the open door beyond the narrow hallway, keeping his voice steady, a warmth to the words as there always was, playing the role of the doting grandson. “I’ll be back in to see you around lunchtime tomorrow. You make sure and keep yourself warm tonight. You’ve got the phone I bought you if you need me for anything. Just press one and I’ll be over in a jiffy.”
There was no reply from inside the front room but he hadn’t expected one, the old man having been close to dozing off a few minutes previously, his daily quota of one whiskey having all but done him in. Even without the whiskey (topped up with half a sleeping pill at Henry’s whim), the old man was in a foul mood after their argument of the previous afternoon and probably would’ve ignored him anyway. If he remembered it, of course.
The tension between them was still there even with Henry’s placating words and apologies of earlier. The old man hadn’t really told him what had caused his outburst, but they had agreed in sparse words to put it behind them and Henry supposed it might be best to let the old man stew for a while, figuring whatever was bothering him would drop out of his thoughts soon enough, just like everything else did. As long as Henry could keep him happy for a few more weeks, everything would work out just as planned.
He closed the door quietly behind him as he stepped out into the cool of the communal stairwell, exhaling deeply as if a pressure valve had been released, adjusting the latex mask whose underside was already slick with sweat as he moved off down the narrow stairs.
The thought had been pestering him like a terrier all morning: something more than a simple mood was wrong with Tom, some change he’d noticed in the days leading up to their argument, a hint of distrust which hadn’t been there before, a certain something in his eyes when they talked. The old man couldn’t know, could he? A part of him wondered if it was all the pills Tom was taking, the worsening of his dementia perhaps. Henry had seen evidence of the latter plenty of times. The deterioration of Tom’s mind in old age seemed the likeliest culprit yet Henry, ever-nervous, couldn’t let go of the idea that there was something else at play, that the old soldier knew more than he was letting on.
If that was so, if Tom had rumbled Henry’s carefully-conceived plan or even suspected something foul was at play, the question was: how?
Inside the small front room, huddled in an overstuffed and beaten leather armchair beside the hazy gas fire, sat the Tom in question: Lance Corporal Thomas Nathaniel Huxley, less than a week from his ninety-fifth birthday and looking like a man who had lived every single day of it.
He was dressed in thick tweeds whose greys and browns matched his aged skin in tone and hue, appearing like some country gent preparing to watch the hunt, a relic of another age. The sad truth of it was that he was going nowhere; the stairs leading to the front door were well beyond him and it was half a year and more since he had dared to attempt them by himself, the few rooms of the flat being – in effect – his prison cell. His once strong blue eyes were drooped and sagged, all-but-lost within the folds of skin cragged around them, eyes befitting more of some tired pack-dog than any man. He cocked an ear to listen (though his hearing was all but gone now, a low purr of white noise behind everything) as young Henry headed out into the world and felt the tension leave his shoulders as he heard the familiar sound of the heavy door at the bottom of the stairwell slamming shut, sealing him in with his troubles.
For now – much as he wished it were not so – it was best to be alone, safer that way.
He pulled the heavy blankets closer as though the rectangles of worn cloth could afford him some protection from the dark and impossible thing he had promised himself he would not think about, but his promise had been a weak lie and he could not keep it from his thoughts for long. As he reached out to turn on another bar on the gas fire his eyes darted to the shadows in the corners of the room, drawn by the suggestion of movement there beyond the pool of light. Had he really seen it lurking there, pulling from the darkness? Would it even dare to try such a thing? He told himself it would not: it was nothing but his imagination running wild again, seeing things only because some part of him expected to see them. The truth was, the more time that passed, the less sure he became of any of it.
Despite his assertion that the room was a place of safety his heart thudded like a great muffled bell as he squinted to peer deeper into the corners, unsure of what he expected to see amongst those plain, familiar places whose daylight lines were known to him and held nothing to cause the reaction he so viscerally felt, right down to the tingling in his work-worn fingers and the roiling motion in the pit of his gut. He pulled his thoughts from the shadows, denying them their power, turning to look upon the first of the silver photograph frames propped against the bare wall on the dusty mantle beside him. It was a sepia print of a young woman on some sunny beach, the wind ruffling her long dark hair as gentle waves slopped upon the shore behind her, her hand rising to move a strand trailing across her eyes.
Dolores, he mouthed as he ran a calloused fingertip across the smeared glass, tear ducts grown dry some years back offering no outlet for his grief. My beautiful Dolores.
The photograph had been taken by Thomas himself and it was one of the few he still had left of her that hadn’t been leached of its colour or been lost across the years. That particular holiday was a summer sixty-five years ago or close enough as to make no difference; a day trip with their winnings from the pools, to Brighton or Blackpool or maybe Bournemouth, somewhere on the coast, somewhere with a B. They had eaten cones of vanilla ice cream with honeycomb sprinkles on the promenade and walked along a bustling pier, dodging eager seagulls and laughing children as they went, watching the sun set far out across the frothy sea as the waves broke beneath them and the world went about its business at their backs.
The sad truth was that this day was one of the few solid memories he had of those early years, and even then he supposed it had stayed fresh in his mind only because of the photograph and his constant reappraisals of it. Most of the details of their long lives together had slipped away (those remaining being of the weeks and months near the end, memories he wished he could jettison with the same ease with which all the others left him), but he had made it his sole purpose in whatever time he had left to ensure he would not forget her as she had been then, however frequently his traitor mind sought to wrest the pieces from him.
He could no longer deny it: his memory had been deteriorating rapidly since Dolores passed away (six months next Friday), whole passages of his life being little more than storybook flickers now, names and faces and precious times lost beyond all hope of retrieval. Sometimes he couldn’t remember what day it was, what he had eaten for dinner the previous evening, when he had last visited the bathroom. A rainy afternoon spent alone last week had been filled with clawing terror as he had forgotten his name for close to an hour, the wave of relief when he found a prescription bottle with his details on it nearly bringing him to his knees. Sometimes he forgot to eat, or convinced himself he had already eaten, and wondered hours later why he felt so terribly hungry when the time came to drag his aching body to bed, there to lie awake for untold hours like some listless golem, thoughts circling like lost birds.
All this slipping away from him yet he could recall the most inane things from decades past – a long and contrived joke about a man lost in the desert that took close to ten minutes in the telling; slipping on his backside down a hill on a hike with his brother-in-law in the Yorkshire Dales in the early 1960s; watching an Attenborough wildlife show about mountain gorillas in the summer of 1979; the number plate (the bloody number plate!) on his first car, a third-hand eggshell blue Morris Minor he’d bought not long after his twenty-first birthday and less than a month before his regiment was shipped out to Libya to join the North African campaign.
Whichever power was deciding which of his memories were worthy and which were worthless, it was doing a terrible job of it.
It was the loneliness more than anything else that made the worst of it, he thought; the abject boredom, all those grief-filled hours and days with nothing to do and no one to talk to, trapped behind these drab walls with the world outside being, to all intents and purposes, some other world, a world unrelated and unknown to him. It was perhaps a blessing of sorts that he had been forced to sell their marital home of fifty years in order to pay for Dolores’ care in those final months, for the emptiness of that place without her in the aftermath would, he knew, have been too much to bear, might well have sent him to the grave before his allotted time.
Sometimes, he wasn’t sure if removing himself from that eventuality was a bad or a good thing.
Sometimes all he wanted was to join her.
Pushing away the dark thoughts he turned to the second photograph. The image showed two British soldiers and one American gathered around a radio on a tuft of crabgrass at the southern end of Gold Beach at Ver sur Mer, a Sexton self-propelled gun half-buried in the sand behind them. The radio could no longer be seen on the sun-bleached paper and the faces of the men were little more than ghosts, but Thomas remembered that day well enough even if he couldn’t recall the names of the two with him.
The very same afternoon he had taken the brunt of a shrapnel blast on a patrol of the coast road towards Saint-Côme-de-Fresné. The tale of his near-destruction played out in his memory in three distinct moments, three moments joined in a seamless narrative. Firstly, he had been walking across a muddied field with half a dozen others, laughing at some bawdy joke one of the Americans had made; secondly, the world was taken away from him, his every atom filled with blackness for a spell outside of time; finally, waking amongst the starched sheets of a hospital bed with tubes down his throat and slotted into the veins in the crook of his arm, a thick bandage wrapped tight around his head so that he felt encased, machines whirring and clicking out of sight.
The shrapnel blast whose livid scars still traced across his brow and the top of his torso had ended the war for him and almost ended his life, that moment of blackness he recalled amongst the three-frame narrative being, in truth, close to three weeks in a deep coma, four pints of blood lost, a dozen major bones broken, a few hundred stitches. All in all, he considered himself lucky to walk away as (by and large) the same man who had started the war.
The rest of his boys from the 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division – like the faces in the photograph – were little more than washed out fascias now, their features worn away by time alone, uniform in their blankness like pebbles smoothed beneath a river. They had pushed on to Caen and Bayeux and Arromanches whilst Thomas rested in darkness, some of them finding the end of their lives in those foreign fields, some of them fighting and dying weeks later in Nijmegen and Eindhoven, very few of them having (as Thomas saw) as lucky a time of it as he, the terrors witnessed by those who were lucky enough to come out the other side alive surely much greater than his own.
All the names but a few had dropped from his grasp across the years. He had been writing them down as they came to him (nicknames, surnames, forenames; each of them possible, none of them certain) but had misplaced the damned notebook somewhere this past few weeks. Of the twenty or so men who had been with him throughout the campaigns, he could picture only six or seven of the faces and had recalled only three of the names, one of which he had thought might have been a character in an old film, Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart perhaps.
He inched forward to the edge of the seat and wrapped his bony fingers around the brass handles of his walking sticks as he attempted to stand erect, wanting to be away from the photographs for a moment, the truth of how little he recalled of the instances they depicted seeming to mock him like never before. They could be both a source of strength and a source of such aching loss, and at that moment he had no wish to be reminded of the sheer scale of all he had forgotten.
He had spent the previous days gripped with the fear that he was finally losing his mind and had wanted more than anything to say something to young Henry who had been looking after him since Dolores passed, or to someone at the Social Services, maybe even someone at the local church, but he knew in his heart of hearts that no-one would listen, no-one would believe his words, for the picture they painted was impossible. It was a stark thing to realise there was not a single person in the world who he felt he could confide in.
On the previous night he had gathered his thoughts and written down some of what had happened but when he read it back to himself afterwards he knew there was no choice but to destroy the pages, for no casual eye which happened upon the words could come to any other conclusion but that their writer was suffering from some mental sickness. He had tried to photograph it too, though it had tinged him with disgust as he focused the lens upon it, and it had taken all his concentration to press the button as the sound rose up. It would be tomorrow at the earliest before Henry brought the developed prints back, though Thomas feared his shaking hands had spoiled any proof he sought to capture, that the frozen moments would not convey the truth of what he had seen, or worse, that they would show nothing at all. To face the fact that this might exist in his mind alone was an awakening he was not yet ready to rush towards, for it would mean he was no longer in control.
With a gritting of teeth he made it to his feet and edged over to the window seat, collapsing into the hard oak chair with great exertion like he had so many times these past days, the few yards having felt like so many more. His heartbeat was escalating as he pulled back the curtain a few inches and peered over the well-worn sill, and he was sorely tempted to close his eyes as if to deny it, go back to his soft chair by the electric fire and the mantle where everything was simple and everything made sense, hoping that if he did not think about it for long enough it would disappear, go back to whatever foul underworld it had come from without the power of acknowledgement it so clearly craved.
He clenched his fists tightly as the arc of his vision moved slowly down the grimy exterior of the building opposite and onto the paved walkway below, a bolt of cold lancing through him as his eyes fell upon it and his hopes of before were sent scuttling away.
It was still there, and it had grown again.
A circular hole fully four feet wide lay across the centre of the path, its depths as black as a tar pit, a bottomless place if ever he had seen one. Its diameter had grown again since the last time he had looked upon it only a few hours previous, its relative silence whilst Henry was here evidence enough of its foul purpose, the gentle thrum rising up again as his gaze sought out its pitchy heart. The edges were crisp and clean as if cut by a master sculptor’s hand, the cuts against the cobbles too smooth, Thomas knew, for nature to have produced, so definite and distinct even to his rheumy eyes that he was certain it could not be the cause of crumbling sewer pipes or a subterranean explosion, a sinkhole or old well or any of the other suggestions which had sprung to mind since first it had come. To all intents and purposes it was an absence, a thing that did not exist.
The inside walls appeared like jet flesh and the cloudy orb of the sodium alley light was swallowed into the depths, as though the light of this world could not hope to reach such a place. Thomas’ head swam with every passing second that his gaze spent trying to pierce that absence, the thrum of motion inducing a sickening vertigo that clawed at the walls of his stomach and sent cold pinpricks of fear dancing across his wispy scalp. He pushed himself away from the window for perhaps the hundredth time that day, tugging the flimsy curtain across as though it afforded him some kind of protection.
Protection from what? he wondered as the impossibility of all he had seen struck him again. Protection from what?
He had no answer for it and had nothing to do but go back to the one place in the world that felt like it held a modicum of safety – his beaten chair by the glow of the fire, there to drift amongst the hazy heat whilst the sleeping pill Henry had slipped into his drink worked its magic and led him inexorably onto dreams of Dolores, that – in turn – would lead to dreams of the hole.
The hole had appeared on the path early in the morning on the previous day and had been growing steadily ever since, expanding its edges silently across the concrete, a fluid and progressive motion glimpsed across the passage of hours, a motion that (though Thomas didn’t like to consider such things) hinted at life or some close approximation, perhaps even consciousness.
He had been sitting in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil not long after the early morning news had finished, listening to an old rerun of some Abbott and Costello show on the radio and thinking about a boyhood memory of running alongside a steam train when he was seven or eight years of age which had somehow survived the scourge, when a high-pitched frequency blasted out from the speakers right at the start of the chorus of Girls, Girls, Girls, the harsh interference startling him from the daydream he had slipped into, the sound and the chill air it seemed to carry with it causing the hairs on his nape and forearms to stand to attention.
The voices of the duo had grown warbled and distant as though all the air in the room had suddenly become water, alive with some odd current that played across him like so many prickling fingers. The backing music crackled and spat as Thomas turned to stare at the device, before the radio died completely with an audible pop and he felt the static current in the air ebb away like some invisible tide.
The whistling of the kettle echoed through the kitchen as he stared at the malfunctioning radio and wondered at the somehow heightened and vivid experience of those sparse seconds, a tiny part of him aware that some unknown force had moved into his world, even as he had shaken his head and let the thought go, counting the short spell as nothing but a bout of headrush, not enough oxygen getting to where it was needed.
Though the whistling of the kettle had stopped the moment he removed it from the ring, something else which had been hidden beneath – a high-pitched whine that seemed to fluctuate like a beating heart, to pulse like the repetitive pattern of breathing – had continued, its origin not at all clear. For a second he had thought it was his tinnitus playing up as it did sometimes, a relic of the shrapnel blast back in ’44, but the sound had soon revealed itself to be emanating from a fixed point somewhere beyond the window, from the narrow alley which ran behind the building.
Leaning over the counter-top and levering the grubby kitchen window open to get a better look, he had witnessed the instant he now thought of as the birth of the hole, the moment it had popped into existence. The keening sound (a call, that high-pitched warble; surely a call) had fallen away to nothing as his eyes found the entirely unspectacular place where it was birthing, his sight having a sudden clarity it had not known in decades as the tiny blot of cobble and concrete bubbled and swirled for a few moments, settling again as solid things were wont to do, leaving the hole in its stilling wake: no fire and brimstone, no shaking of buildings or thundering of the sky, only the hole, an insignificant disc of black no more than a few inches across, as though one of the cobbles had punched a hole deep into the earth.
Beneath his feet, vibrating through the soles of his slippers, he had felt a thrum; a huge freight train moving in some subterranean tunnel or some vast engine bursting into motion in a secret room far below the earth. Whatever his mind thought it felt like, whatever links it made, Thomas knew as surely as he knew anything that it was the hole.
The remainder of the day had been spent watching it through the crack in his curtains like some frightened child peering from beneath the bed sheets, a wondrous fear filling him. No more than a few inches wide on that first morning, it had grown to the size of a dinner plate by mid-afternoon and was larger than a manhole cover by sundown; there was no falling debris as it ate up the solid ground, no cracking of concrete or crumbling of stone – the truth of it was that it seemed to exist outside of the laws of nature, a shadow of a shadow reaching out from some other place. Its depths were furious with motion and that strange purring vibration in the air reached him when he gazed into its murky body, a sound on the very extremity of his hearing, coming each time he probed as though it was aware of his presence and was sending out some foul signal to turn his thoughts away or drag them closer. Neither option seemed like one he wished to know yet he had held his place in spite of his unease, the need to know overriding any sense of self-preservation.
Each time the purring rose to uncomfortable heights he would move his gaze away, the sounds receding like a tide whilst his buzzing senses settled, building himself up to look back again seconds or minutes later, the rise and fall of the thrum like some soundtrack to their peculiar battle.
At almost ten in the evening, the sun long-since descended and the pale lights of the streetlights painting shards on the concrete below, a group of rowdy men had made their way down the alley in search of a short-cut to the pub, the echoes of their banter careening up and down the walls as a few of them stopped to urinate against the graffitied garage door fifteen feet below, adding to the already strong stench that wafted in through the back window on warmer days, the alley apparently serving as a public toilet as well as a short-cut.
In the moments after their finishing the bottom had fallen out of Thomas’ world, everything he knew or thought he knew suddenly shrinking away to nothing.
As he watched two of the men had walked directly over the hole, placing their feet square in its centre without even a hint of trouble, chatting animatedly about last night’s football match, the calm in their echoing voices evidence enough that they were completely oblivious to the dark presence throbbing below them.
The third man – still doing up his belt a few dozen steps behind the others – had halted a foot before the hole’s edge, pausing for just a moment as he glanced to the ground. Thomas had hoped then that the man had seen it, that in doing so he would find himself no longer alone in this madness, but the momentary spell cast on the man was broken as his companions had called out for him from the alley’s end. A last glance thrown over his shoulder by the man before the darkness swallowed him was enough to make Thomas certain that the man – Charlie, if the shouts of the others were true – had seen it, if only for a moment.
A figment of his own mind was a foe he could hope to best but it was clear the hole was no such thing. It stood to reason that neither Charlie nor anyone else for that matter was in the habit of tuning in on Thomas’ personal terrors. The fact (which it had surely become) that this Charlie had made some kind of contact, however fleetingly, with the hole made it seem suddenly dangerous, grown into some solid force. Would it continue to grow, Thomas wondered, take the alley and the street and the whole town and everything else down into its formless heart? Or would something come from that place, some unholy thing no eye was meant to see?
He had removed himself from the madness, pulling the curtains tight and turning away, dreading the silence that would come when the men departed, the silence which was no true silence at all but which was the all-pervading call of that impossibility below, pained by the knowledge that he would – in the end – have nothing to do but return to the window like a penitent, pull back the curtains and look upon the awful and impossible form of the hole once again, searching for some way to understand it, or better still, some way to renounce the truth of it, to deny what his eyes – old and weakened as they were – knew to be so: that the hole wanted something of him.
He had slept fitfully for no more than three or four hours that night, worrying that he was losing his grip on things as he tossed and turned with balls of cotton wedged deep into his ears until the purring reduced to the barest hum, thinking of Dolores and the life they had shared, hoping he would wake in the morning feeling fresh and happy with the memories of these strange hours wiped away instead of those of other times which he would rather hold on to. Henry had arrived not long after Thomas had eaten his breakfast for a quick visit, letting himself in and immediately shrinking back from the cloud of smoke that raced towards the open air. One look at Thomas was enough to tell Henry something was wrong.
“It’s nothing,” Thomas had lied when Henry asked what the matter was, yawning as he rubbed at his eyes with forefinger and thumb. He had only just realised that Henry had arrived when the young man spoke. He had been thinking about the hole since the moment his eyes opened. “I just didn’t sleep at all well last night. A lot running through my mind is all, but it’s nothing, really. You needn’t worry.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be worrying yourself. if you need anything at all, any time, just ask. Remember, that’s what I’m here for – I’m here to look after you. One of my friends is a doctor. I could get him to pop over and see you if you like.”
Thomas hadn’t relished the prospect of a health professional giving him an appraisal. “Really, I’m fine.” He had cleared his throat, unwanted butterflies fluttering in his gut as though he were some nervous boy about to ask a girl for his first kiss. “I suppose you could make some tea and maybe open the windows for me. We can get this place aired a bit while you’re here. I think I heard some kids causing mischief and breaking bottles out there in the alley earlier on. Will you check it for me? I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt and me to have said nothing.”
Henry had walked into the kitchen and out of sight, saying something Thomas couldn’t hear. What Thomas had heard was the clattering of the window bars and the aged creak as the heavy frame swung open. There had been no gasp from the young man when he peered out to give the alley a cursory glance, no shocked exhalation or muttered question to god’s name, and when Henry had come back into the room moments later, the lack of confusion or terror on his face had been evidence enough. Henry hadn’t seen the hole, the one certainty being that neither Henry nor the drunken men had seen it because it simply was not so.
This terror, it seemed, was for Thomas alone.
Henry’s words had been of little comfort.
“If there was any bottle breaking it’s been cleaned up already. You’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ll boil us up a nice pot of tea and then we can have a sit down and I’ll fill in your forms, see if we can’t get things moving along for you.”
Thomas had smiled politely for there was nothing else to do, wondering why a particular name was flaring up in his thoughts, unable to recall where it had come from or why this name should be in his thoughts at all.
Charlie, he had thought as his brow wrinkled in puzzlement, turning to the mantle and wondering if perhaps Charlie was one of the Americans who had been with him on the beach on the day he nearly died.
Everything that had happened in the few days previous seemed like some drug-addled dream and Thomas was no longer entirely sure what was real and what was not when he looked back on it. Everything seemed real and true at the time. It was only with looking back that the doubts and worries came rushing in from all sides.
A few hours after the half sleeping pill Henry had mixed in his drink had worn off, Thomas – exhausted by all the paperwork (doctors and landlords and the home help, the print on all of them too small to read) and feeling like sleep was something that would inevitably be denied to him – returned to his space by the window with a well-sugared flask of tea, a plate of ginger biscuits and the mobile phone Henry had given him, readying to hold his place for as long as was needed, remembering as he pulled the curtain back (the memory of the movement striking some chord) who exactly this Charlie who had popped into his thoughts half a dozen times since yesterday was. The incident was less than a day old and already it had almost slipped away, thoughts of the hole and only the hole seeking to drive everything else out.
He removed a ballpoint pen from his jacket pocket and scrawled the name on the back of his hand as the gentle thrum sought its way through floor and air, hoping to remind himself if the memory should flee that he was not necessarily alone in this.
He could not remember going to bed that night, could in fact remember little of the long hours between writing Charlie’s name on his hand and his waking in his bed to the cawing of seagulls at the dawn. Those long hours seemed to be one memory, a timeless instant, the hole having drawn him in and held him in its thrall whilst he slept, his dreams being little more than a reflection of his waking hours. He could not tell if the memories were nightmare or truth, but his harried mind was in no state to consider such things, consumed as it was by a sudden sense upon waking that something had changed, a weighty feeling in the pit of his stomach like he always felt when there was something he was straining to remember but which would not come back to him.
There must, he was certain, have been something other than the hole in all those hours.
When he made it to the oft-visited window a few minutes later and pulled back the curtain, he was met with a curious sight on the concrete below – a large white tent pitched above the hole, square in shape and a dozen feet across, fluorescent yellow tape marking the borders a few feet beyond its edges. It was clear to Thomas that he was looking at a crime scene, and the more he thought about it, the more he was certain he had heard some disturbance or other during the night, had perhaps even seen the blue lights dancing across the walls as his drowsy eyelids flitted open for a moment.
A few figures dressed head-to-toe in white could be glimpsed moving through the partially open entrance to the tent. Half a dozen uniformed officers ambled about beyond the line of tape, one of them questioning some unlucky vagrant who had been sleeping amongst a pile of cardboard boxes at the head of the alley, a poor sod who Thomas was certain had killed no one, the truth being clear to Thomas that, whoever was lying inside that tent, the hole had surely ended him. Still, murder or no murder, if the hole was under that tent he would certainly have expected to see a lot more clamour below from the police than was currently evident. The fact that the scene seemed relatively calm told Thomas that all present – like Henry, like the pub-bound men – could not see it.
An officer had called at the door some minutes later whilst Thomas watched two men carrying the body bag in its stretcher from the tent and out of sight, Thomas feeling somehow nervous as he shuffled over to the door and welcomed the young man in, feeling (daft as it seemed) somehow complicit in whatever had happened, as though the few flashes he remembered from the night before (a shout; coloured lights) were mere traces of whatever else he had forgotten. The officer had declined the offer of tea and promised he would be as quick as possible, half-supposing Thomas could be of little help as he ran through the preamble. The expected questions followed: had Thomas been at home all night? Was there anyone else who lived with him? Had he heard anything out of the ordinary during the night – shouts, arguing? Had he noticed anything at all in the previous days that might shed some light on what had happened?
Thomas had offered simple yes and no answers until the young man’s final question, the officer removing a card from his pocket and holding it close in front of Thomas’ face.
“Have you seen this man before?”
“What is his name?” Thomas asked as he squinted at the driver’s license, the pale, blurred face set in the corner not ringing any bells. “I can’t see very well.”
He did not know how to feel when the officer gave his response.
“Charles. Charles Forsythe.”
Thomas moved one hand almost imperceptibly across the other, covering the scrawled inking with a paper-dry palm. There was every chance it was a silly coincidence but Thomas doubted it. Charlie, he thought. The name of the dead man is written on the back of my hand.
To the officer he merely shook his head and sighed, said he was sorry he couldn’t be of more help. The officer thanked Thomas for his time and left a few moments later, telling Thomas to call the station if anything sprung to mind. When the front door closed, Thomas let out a deep breath, waiting for the telling thrum of the hole transmitting through his bones as if to mock him.
Henry arrived an hour or so later having heard on the local news that a body had been found in the alleyway. He had bounded into the flat like a man on the last few feet of a marathon, calling for Thomas as he came through the doorway all drenched in sweat. By that time Thomas was already on his third whiskey of the day and in no fit state to interact with anyone, the happenings since the hole had first made its presence known weighing down upon him with such force that he felt the need to seek to numb himself, find a way to force it from his mind.
After five minutes of questions from Henry, Thomas was beginning to feel drained: he was not of a disposition for all this babble. He had excused himself to perform his ablutions as Henry set to tidying the flat, Thomas washing the drunkenness away in case he might suffer some slip of the tongue, mention something of the hole and what it had done. The eyes staring back from the mirror as he worked the razor over his wiry patches of stubble seemed the eyes of a broken man, a man beyond help. Thomas could not deny the truth of the reflection. His mind could trick him but the glass would not lie.
As they sat down to a lunch of bacon sandwiches Henry had explained how he was going to arrange to get Thomas moved into a new flat, something on the outskirts of the city, something closer to the hospital. He had one property in particular in mind – a ground floor flat with wheelchair access and a small garden. If everything went as planned it would be ready in less than a month; all they would need from Thomas was a small deposit to retain it and signatures on some post-dated tenancy documents, a friend of Henry’s promising he would be able to speed the process along. It wasn’t the done thing to go outside the system like this, Henry said, but as far as he was concerned, Thomas deserved it and Henry would do whatever he could to help.
Whilst Thomas squinted at the half dozen photos of the property someone knocked on the front door. Thomas supposed it was one of the police officers who had perhaps seen Henry and figured him to be a tenant they hadn’t yet spoken with. He rubbed the crumbs from his lap and straightened in his seat in expectation of another ten minutes of questions, but the figure following Henry through the doorway was – Thomas knew instantly – no police officer.
Thomas squinted and mumbled a hello to the tall, dark-skinned man as he was introduced, sitting forward on his armchair in order to make out the features better.
When Henry spoke he was uncharacteristically formal.
“Mr. Huxley, this is my very good friend, Dr. Black. He’s a GP and he also works as an advisor for the council on the new housing initiative I was telling you about. He can help you get into the flat I’ve been showing you.”
The lean and swarthy man took Thomas’ hand in his own (a cold hand, Thomas thought; cold and paper-dry) and smiled. There was nothing in either gesture to cause Thomas to feel the way he did, but something urged him towards an instant mistrust of the man, a certain darkness in his eyes that led Thomas’ thoughts inexorably back to the hole, as though this newcomer and the impossible void were linked in some way, this supposed friend of Henry’s some acolyte perhaps. He pulled his hand away as the man took a seat, looking to Henry as he wondered if the boy was also part of the hole’s foul scheme. Could it be any other way?
The doctor started speaking but the words were lost to Thomas as the purring of the hole rose up, all his attention focused on the eyes that seemed now to scream their blatant affinity with the bane of his thoughts. There was no doubt in Thomas’ mind what he must do, if only to save himself from whatever horror was to come.
Henry was making tea in the kitchen and straining to still his racing heartbeat when he heard Thomas’ first shout: “Out!” the old man bellowed with a power Henry would not have thought possible. “Get out of here!”
“What are you doing?” Henry shouted as he ran in from the kitchen to find Thomas wielding one of his walking sticks like a sword, papers spilled from the desk all over the floor, the dark-eyed doctor standing in the doorway gazing at Thomas with wide eyes.
They were not startled eyes, Thomas noted as he swung the stick through the empty air to his front; the calculating viciousness there was clear as day.
“I want him out of here, Henry,” Thomas said calmly, never breaking the stranger’s gaze. “I want him out of here this instant.”
Henry gave a strange little laugh, as though the request was part of some joke he had missed in his few moments away.
“What is this, Thomas. We’re here to…”
“Now!” Thomas interrupted, gritting his teeth as though he might start screaming and never stop. Then softer: “Please, Henry. Now.”
Henry looked to the doctor to Thomas and back again, the slight nod of the doctor’s head telling him to do what the old man wanted, that now was not the time.
“OK, Thomas. We’ll go.”
Henry and the doctor left soon afterwards, Henry casting worried glances back at Thomas as he did so yet the worry evidently not enough to cause him to question the outburst. To Thomas it felt as though Henry’s actions branded him as complicit it whatever was happening. He had tried to listen to them as they whispered in the hallway, and though he was unable to hear, he was certain they were talking about him, making their plans.
As the front door closed and he was left alone he couldn’t help but wonder if his outburst had done anything but drive the first nail into his coffin. Someone would be coming for him soon, that much was certain.
He had spent the remainder of the day without straying too far from the window, waiting for the tent to be removed to see if the hole had grown again, the life it had taken increasing its power. A heavy rainstorm blew in during the late afternoon and halted the work below. The tent was closed off as darkness fell and the majority of those below disappeared from sight, only two officers left sitting in their patrol car waiting for the rain to pass, the flares of their cigarettes the only sign of their presence once their headlights were switched off. Thomas managed the vigil with them for a few hours but had given up when the storm thickened around midnight and with the caffeine from his tea failing to keep the tiredness at bay, figuring the bad spell might very well be with them until the morning.
He had taken the whiskey bottle to bed, draining the last few mouthfuls once he had undressed and climbed amongst the blankets, pressing the cotton wedges into his ear canals to blot out the steady purring. Half a dozen hours of heavy sleep later and with the rosy colour of dawn peeking through his window, Thomas woke with a slight headache and a decision ready-made – he was going to go outside and face the hole. Try as he might he could think of no reason he could give Henry beyond the truth as to why he wished to visit and inspect the alleyway, which left him with no other option but to make the journey (for a journey is what it truly would be) on his own. If the police had left, he figured, there was no time like the present. If they were still here, they would bear witness to anything that might happen, Thomas already fabricating some tale about how his spare key had been knocked from his windowsill earlier in the morning.
He pulled on his dressing gown over his pyjamas and made his way with one of his sticks to the bathroom to brush his teeth and inspect the dark bags that hung beneath his eyes like heavy bruises, taking time over the acts, knowing the hole surely wished for him to rush to meet it, sensing that need from it as though it was something in the fabric of the building or the air itself.
When he was ready he picked up his other stick from its place beside the sink and moved through the hallway towards the back window as quickly as his withered limbs would allow. Though he felt virile in his mind, ready for anything, his legs just weren’t able to cope with the pressure, aches and pains rising up as though he’d just had a long run without warming up. He collapsed into his armchair having only made it halfway across the living room, puffing and sweating, a coughing fit overtaking him.
When the bout of coughing had passed and he had caught his breath again, Thomas felt a pressure in his jawbone as he gathered himself to stand and realised he was grinding his teeth, so furious that the hole could bring him to such a state; furious at his weak limbs and weaker mind, doubly furious at the hole for taking over his life in such a way, like a new tenant who had taken up residence and who stared at him constantly but refused to speak. When he made it to the window and tore back the curtain to face his foe, expecting the patrol car and the tent to be just as he had last seen them, the dull wet paving of the alley stared back at him.
The hole was nowhere to be seen.
He held his breath and realised the omnipresent purring could not be heard.
Driven on by this unexpected turn of events, Thomas lifted himself to his feet like a man half his age and made for the front door, eager to verify what he had seen despite the fact that he hadn’t walked that far in the guts of a year, despite the fact he was as likely to climb the north face of the Eiger as make it down the stairs without Henry’s help. The sensible thing to do was to wait for Henry but he was in no mind to wait another second. If it bloody well killed him in doing it, he was going to make sure the blasted thing was gone.
The bulb in the lone ceiling light of the stairwell fizzled and popped as he stepped through the front door and flicked the switch in the hallway; it was an ill omen and the sudden darkness seemed to take on a sense of threat as it wrapped around him. The echo of his wordless yell skittered away as Thomas gathered himself, angry that he had let the hole (real or not) gall him so, that he had thought and was thinking even now to turn back so quickly. But, no; he would not run away, would not hide. That would be admitting weakness, giving in to fear.
He gripped the handrail and let the beam support his weight as he placed his walking stick onto the first step, realising with a gulp that the front door to the flat had swung shut behind him and that he had left his keys on the picture hook in the hallway. He cursed himself for his stupidity but didn’t pause to think what might happen next.
Slowly he made his way down towards the slight curve in the stairwell, sliding his feet along each step as though they were thin skins of ice that would shatter under a heavy touch, ignoring the cold fact that if he were to fall in this grasping darkness it would surely be the death of him. He had made it no more than a few steps and his hips were really beginning to ache when he felt the first gentle waves of purring vibrate through the soles of his feet, tickling his palms where they gripped the brass handle of his cane, and the sound that rose with it thrust a wave of fear across him, alone as he was in this darkened hallway with an approaching enemy (what else could it be?) that he knew nothing of and whose verity he could no longer doubt.
At that moment he hoped with all his worth that Henry – despite the coldness between them when the youngster had left yesterday – would decide to pop around early, that one of the occupants of the other flats would open the door below and fill the stairwell with welcome light. He had never before felt so vulnerable nor without reference and the rough banister was beginning to feel like some precarious hold high above a huge and fatal drop, the darkness thickening even as the call of the hole rose, as though they were one and the same.
As his eyes began to pierce the darkness he saw the hole, waiting for him below.
It had grown again and was covering the entrance hall to the building, square in shape now, an oily void that threatened to pull him in with its dark and impossible power, as though the space beyond the bottom step was some chasm that dropped all the way to god-knows-where. The hole pulsed with movement from within as if aware of his presence, the tone and pitch of its fell purring now rising and dropping at furious speed as he approached.
It’s communicating. It’s trying to talk to me, he thought with a chill, and some part of him felt a strange affinity with whatever dwelt in that dark place, an unspoken link, as if he had been here before, as if the texture of that layered black was all so terribly familiar, the truth of it beyond his broken memory.
Even as he cursed his memory a flood of long-forgotten images and sensations rushed across him, as real and crisp as though he were living them again, merging seamlessly from one to another, undoubtedly placed there by the hole: his father falling to an early death from the roof of Thomas’ childhood home as he attempted to mend a leaking gutter in the winter of 1935, the sharp crack of his neck as he landed in a crumpled heap on the ice-cracked concrete, the coppery smell of his blood filling the stilled air; years later, the landing crafts pulling onto the sand at Gold Beach, offering a quick prayer then running for his dear life to the fortified walls of the German gun nest, crying and screaming amongst the great craters and hunks of rusted metal as his friends and countrymen fell and died around him in clouds of bullets and a storm of exploding shells; the dark December night many years ago when his first and only child had arrived into the world, still-born and cold; witnessing a ten-car pile-up on the motorway nearby a few weeks or so before he decided he was no longer fit to drive, tendrils of flame and broken bodies glimpsed through the unseasonal mists; holding Dolores’ clammy hand as she slipped off calmly into eternal sleep, the floods of his tears soaking her clothes as he huddled over her body.
These and many others.
When the frenzied flood of images ceased and he was thrust back to the present, Thomas was left with a startling insight – the hole was there, in each and every memory, its presence so plain now yet invisible to him at the time, sometimes as little more than a faint shade, sometimes rippling in the heavy shadow like a wave about to break, always amongst the darkness wherever it could be found. The hole was surely telling him something, showing him something of itself with these fresh perspectives. A part of him had perhaps already considered what he now believed to be so – that this hole was a face of Death itself, or some servant of the very same, sent here with but one purpose in mind. It had taken Charlie and now it was here for him.
As he felt the pieces of the puzzle were finally falling into a pattern of sorts, the front door of the property burst open, filling the hallway with cold April sunlight. Thomas saw the startled face of Henry staring back at him from the doorway. The boy looked strange, Thomas saw, like his face was made of wax. Just before he fainted and fell back towards the wall like a sack of potatoes, he noticed another figure a few steps behind.
“I think he’s coming round now,” one voice said.
“I hope so,” replied a second.
Thomas opened his eyes nervously, as if he expected a great wave of pain to assail him, blinking to cure his blurred vision, letting out a deep breath when no pains came. The first voice belonged to Henry who was leaning eagerly over the bed, holding Thomas by the hand as though this were his deathbed and the young man was saying his last goodbye. There were tears in the corners of the youngster’s eyes, real tears.
“How… how are you feeling?”
Thomas thought about it for a moment, vague flashes of the revelations of before lingering still yet beyond his muddled reach, pushed away as Thomas felt for damage in his arms and legs. There was an ache on the small of his back that might well leave a beast of a bruise, and a few scrapes on his inner arms, but apart from that he seemed generally in good shape.
“I’m fine. I think I’m fine.”
Henry held a hand across his heart as though it had all been too much for him. “You gave me a real fright there, Thomas. I mean… what on earth where you thinking? You know you shouldn’t attempt those stairs unless someone’s with you. I mean, honestly, we both know your hips can’t take it. You could’ve taken a tumble and broken your arm or your neck. Anything could’ve happened.”
Thomas felt like a scolded child, ashamed and unable to answer, and he wasn’t quite sure what exactly had happened, the last he remembered being staring at the hole as it glistened at the bottom of the stairwell. Thomas glanced through the open doorway, and for a brief moment, he saw a sudden veil pass across Henry’s face, something that hinted at fear or nervousness.
“Come on in,” Henry said to the person standing in the hallway.
“Who is it?” Thomas said as he tried to lever his body into a sitting position.
“Stay there,” Henry replied as he leaned over and took the strain from the old man’s arms. “It’s my friend you met yesterday when you had that spell, do you remember? Dr. Black, from the hospital.”
Thomas started to shake as the doctor entered the room, his shadow falling across the bed, and as his eyes met the doctor’s, he lost consciousness for the second time that day, and dropped quickly into a startlingly vivid dream that might’ve been a memory.
He was standing at the top of the stairs in the communal hallway, peering into the depths of the hole, watching as a thick black mass made its way to the opening from those adamantine depths, rising to the surface and threatening to erupt upon the world with terrifying force.
The surge stopped at the extremity of the hole, forming a viscous liquid mixture that glittered and glowed like the stars of the firmament, folding upon itself until some form began to coalesce – a jet-black face, the features constantly shifting, morphing seamlessly through a thousand forms.
We have something to show you, the voice said as those great black lips opened wide and he was pushed from behind to fly through the empty air. Come to us.
Thomas awoke from the dream as quickly as it had been thrust upon him, his body covered in a thin film of sweat. He was lying flat on the bed. He had not moved at all and it was clear from the plain looks on the faces of both Henry and the doctor that the odd vision had lasted for no more than an instant, that neither of them had been any part of it.
”Henry called me as soon as you fell, Mr. Huxley.” His voice was confident, his smile false and seeming to recall little of the dark emotions Thomas had felt less than a day previous. “You’ve had a nasty fall and you’re lucky you haven’t broken anything. Just a few bruises, that’s all. You’ll be as fit as a fiddle in a few days.”
A look of worry passed across the impostor’s brow as Thomas didn’t offer a reply. As he made to reach out as though to check Thomas for signs of life, Thomas lifted his hand and pushed the stranger’s outstretched arm roughly away.
The old man turned to face Henry and cleared his throat: “Please Henry, can I speak with you for a moment, speak with you alone?”
The question hung in the palpable silence for a few seconds until Henry, having offered a lingering look to the doctor, spluttered a hurried “of course.”
Thomas waited until he heard the sound of the living room door closing before he took a deep breath and focused his attention on Henry, knowing the time had come to get some of this burden off his chest. “I know you think I can’t look after myself and that I’m not capable of making decisions, and it’s true that I’d be helpless without you, but I know what my gut tells me, and its telling me I can’t trust that man.” He paused to allow Henry to say something, but the younger man simply stared back at him, cheeks reddening. “Can’t you see it in his eyes?” Thomas continued, “don’t you feel something…something wrong about him? I’ve seen too much recently, been allowed to see too much, and I know what I know.” He paused for a moment, thinking that his last remark had made him sound like some fanatic. Still, it was all he had. “I know what I know, Henry.”
Henry stared at him for a moment, mouth hanging slightly open as though a reply was beyond him. “Really Thomas,” he said, shaking his head like a doting mother. “He’s a respected member of the community and a very good friend of mine. Do you really think I would bring someone here who I thought would harm you? I think…” he paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, “…I think you’ve been deteriorating a lot recently Thomas, and I just want to get you out of this place and find you some professional help. Dr. Black can help you with your… your mental problems.”
“How dare you!” Thomas fumed. “That man wishes ill of me, and I know it for a fact. You’re supposed to be on my side, Henry. If you won’t help me, then I want you to leave this instant!” His hands were shaking as he pointed to the door. “I didn’t want to think it, but I believe you might be working with him, helping him.”
Henry stood at the foot of the bed, silent and red-faced, unsure of what to do. “OK, OK. If you don’t want him to be here I’ll get rid of him and stay with you for a while, Thomas. It’s not good for you to be alone. We can have a nice talk, clear the air a little.”
Thomas sat for a few moments in silence after Henry had left the room, out of breath, brimming with anger, thinking back on what he had said, wondering as he pondered on that tiny flash of dream if any of the events of the last few days had been real or if they really were nothing more than evidence of his deterioration.
Dr. Black – a market trader by profession whose real name even Henry did not know – was leafing through the contents of a drawer when Henry burst into the room, a glaring look of worry in the whites of the young man’s eyes.
The doctor smiled and held up the photographs Henry had arranged to have developed. “Have you seen this shit? Twenty-something photographs of a pavement. The old bastard’s losing…”
Henry held up a hand to interrupt, keeping his voice low. “Listen, I don’t have time to explain it now, but you’re going have to leave. Thomas knows... somehow, he knows what you’re up to.”
“What we’re up to,” the doctor corrected him. “Don’t forget it’s the both of us. We have a deal, just like we had on all the others. There’s no point in you getting all emotional now, not when we’re just about done.”
“I know,” Henry said, head stooped, voice soft. “I’m sorry.”
“Everything will be absolutely fine,” the doctor replied as he stepped to Henry and took the young man in his arms, kissing him on the forehead and running fingers through his hair. “I told you I’d take care of you, didn’t I? You just need to trust me. This one is going to pay out.”
“I just… I just feel so bad.”
The doctor sighed. “Why this sudden flash of conscience now? We’ve talked through this a thousand times. All you need to do now is get him to sign the Will. I’ll arrange everything else. Once you have that signature, it’s plain sailing. I’ll make a start on working out the rest of the paper trail.” He leaned in close, grasping Henry roughly around the back of the neck, their lips almost touching, the doctor’s breath smelling of stale smoke. His next words were a warning: “Make him sign today.”
The doctor loosed his grip, stroked Henry’s cheek with the back of his hand, and stepped sharply away. “You’re too nice, Henry, far too nice. Look at it this way – all that money just sitting there. No living relatives and no Will to be found. It’s best that you and I get paid for all the hard work we’ve put in, rather than the government taking it all, or it going to some bloody cat charity or something. Your friend Thomas won’t need any money where he’s going.”
Henry smiled. “You’re right. Just like always.”
“I’ll go then,” the doctor said. “You just keep him on your side. Another day or two and this will all be over.”
Thomas awoke that night and found himself in a different place to the one in which he had fallen asleep. He was standing in the dark on the bottom step of the cold stairwell, the thrumming of the void caressing the soles of his feet, sending waves of healing warmth through his body. He did not question how or why he had come here, why his legs did not ache as usual, how he had covered the distance without his walking sticks, without being aware of it at all. He took a deep breath and dropped to one knee then leaned out across the opening, peering into the empty blackness below, a dark void, a portal to nowhere and nothing.
A gust of cold air that smelled of electricity blew the wispy grey strands of his hair about wildly as he saw again the movement deep within the belly of the pit, a rising tide of blackness miles below rushing to the surface like some subterranean eruption. Thomas was gripped with primal fright as he watched the racing surge yet he held his ground as the fury of the expelled air continued apace, the exhalation of death herself.
The gust of wind stopped as though a switch had been flicked and he rubbed his dry eyes to see the glittering black pool that had formed at the surface, its sullen depths full of motion and glowing with mottled light. He could not recall moving his hands towards the pool but he jerked them away suddenly as the liquid started to move, swirling gently at first, and now bubbling and broiling, sending thick jets of steam into the narrow hallway.
None of this is real, Thomas thought to himself. This is all a dream.
Watch, a voice said.
Impossibly – if there was still such a concept in Thomas’ mind – the hole began to move from the floor, extending its oily edges higher and higher like some blanket of night until it covered the surface of the door perfectly, a pitch black mirror.
He found himself staring at his dripping ungodly reflection for a brief second before the surface flashed with silver light and Thomas saw exactly why the hole had been calling to him.
Later still, Thomas was sat at his writing desk, neatly folding a piece of paper before putting it into his breast pocket with the other items of his plan, already at ease with the fact that he had to die.
He had spent the last few hours putting his thoughts down on paper as he knew this was to be his last night – one for Henry and one for the police officer who would be in charge of the inevitable investigation, detailing all he had learned about Henry and the doctor, all the hole had shown him. He removed his jacket and placed it over the back of the chair, looking around the room with a tear in his eye. No need to worry about the cold where I’m going, he thought.
Earlier in the stairwell, Thomas had witnessed his death as he stared into the hole. His jaw had slackened and he had watched with detached shock as the final act played out before him. Young Henry opening the door to the flat, his head stooped in shame; the dark-eyed Dr. Black walking calmly into the room, carrying pages and pages of documents for the befuddled and drug-addled Thomas to sign; smiling when the job was done as he lifted Thomas gently from his chair, led him to the front door; Thomas himself muttering vaguely as he was led from the room to the top of the stairwell with a string of spittle hanging from his lips, followed by the sudden rush of air and sound and sensation as the stranger shoved him headlong down the stairs towards the hard marble below, where the purring hole waited to claim him.
He had watched the events leading up to it with a creeping feeling of inevitability, knowing then that he had been right to distrust the supposed doctor, was sorry that he had ever trusted Henry. It was the fact that the young lad was part of all this that hurt the most. But it did not matter for he had found a way in which he could claim some small victory, see that justice was done.
He picked up the telephone and made the first phone call. It was to Henry, begging him to come over immediately and pleading that he bring the doctor with him. “I need help,” Thomas croaked. “Please, come…” He hung up and left the sentence unfinished, sure that Henry would hurry.
He waited in silence by the window for close to ten minutes, watching the patterns the falling rain made on the tarmac below until he saw Henry and the doctor getting out of a car below. Thomas picked up the receiver again and dialled 999, giving his name and address, and saying that two men who had been stealing from him had keys to his house and they had made threats to kill him if he didn’t give them money. He had cried towards the end, in the seconds before he cut the call short.
“Please, they’re here now. They’re...”
The call had been a ruse but the tears had been real. To end it like this was the last thing he wanted, but he knew it was the only way.
“Thomas! What is it? What’s wrong?” Henry puffed as he burst through the front door, red-faced and out of breath, “On the phone you sounded…”
The look on the face of the old man stopped him in his tracks; the broad grin, smiling eyes, the combed hair and freshly-shaved jowls. Thomas looked better than he had in months.
“What’s… what’s going on here, Thomas?”
“Is your friend with you?” Thomas asked, answering the question with a question.
“He’ll be right up,” Henry replied, ill at ease with the subdued voice and glowing demeanour of the old man. “Now, will you please tell me what’s going on, Thomas? Why did you need me to rush over? What on earth’s wrong?”
“I’ve just been…thinking, and there are things I need tell you,” Thomas replied as the doctor walked through the open doorway. He looked into his eyes and saw the utter absence of feeling there, and knew that what he was doing was the right thing. He turned his attention to the doctor, trying not to sneer as he spoke: “Dr. Black, I’m glad you have come. I’m sorry for the way I acted yesterday and the day before. It won’t happen again.”
The doctor gave a faltering smile, unsure what to make of the old man’s change in character. Henry had said the old fool was close to tears on the phone, frightened for his life, but any sign of the worry Henry had heard was not at all evident.
“I need you to help me with something,” Thomas continued after a pause, “and I see now that you are the right person… the right people to help me. No-one could deserve this… this prize more than the two of you. I’m sure you’ve both done so much to help me.”
Henry and the doctor glanced at each other for a moment, some unspoken dialogue passing between them.
“I am going to die soon,” Thomas said after a pause, “sooner than any of us realize. I need someone… I need you to witness my Last Will and Testament.”
“What do you mean ‘you’re going to die soon?’’’ Henry said, a film of perspiration forming across his top lip, glancing nervously once again to the doctor.
“What I mean is, I want to leave all my… well, I want to leave everything to you, Henry, and I know your friend can help me. I have all the necessary papers in my jacket. I prepared my own but I’m sure your versions have the same outcome.” He smiled as he looked from Henry to the doctor and back again, trying to hide his nerves, knowing he was playing a dangerous game. “It’s what you wanted, after all, isn’t it? It’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
Henry stared open-mouthed, amazed at the turn of events; the doctor’s brow creased in something that may have been confusion or worry.
“Let me first ask you a question,” Thomas said in lieu of a reply. “Or to be more accurate, let me make you an offer. I know, though you will no doubt dispute it, that neither of you are who you claim to be. I know why you came here and what you intend to do, but I also know how to beat you.” He smiled to himself for a moment before he continued, happy that his would-be killers were held in thrall: “I know everything. I know why you have placed yourselves into my life. I know what you have been looking for, what you want from me, and I know that I have little in way of defence and that you will take it from me regardless, one way or another. I know also that you have carried out, or at least attempted to carry out, this cruel act many times before. So, my offer to the both of you is this – Confess. Confess or be punished.”
The doctor returned Thomas’ gaze for a moment as he wondered how the old man knew all this before his faced creased with a knowing smile as it dawned on him that Henry must’ve been a little loose with his words. The little bastard would feel his wrath later.
“You?” the doctor said as he stood and prodded Thomas roughly in the chest, all pretence of friendliness and brotherhood suddenly evaporated. “You are in no fit state to punish anyone, you piece of shit..”
He was up close now, close enough for Thomas to smell the stale aftershave and old sweat, the hair oil and cigarette breath. “I could wring your neck right now, you old bastard,” he spat as he stared into Thomas’ eyes from six inches away, the darkness Thomas had feared earlier now seeming dull and empty. “You are less than nothing to me,” the doctor continued. “The only reason you are still alive is that you wouldn’t let me near enough to reel you in, screaming like a scared child every time you see me. You’re pathetic. A pathetic old nobody who’ll soon be as dead as his dead wife if he doesn’t shut his fucking mouth.”
He moved away from Thomas, balling his fists repeatedly and jumping from foot to foot, barely containing his anger. “I have to do it now, Henry, he knows too much. We can sort everything out later, or just write this one off as a loss. Close your eyes.”
Henry was not ready for such an escalation, half-supposing his presence would not be needed when the deed was finally to be carried out. He back off into the corner of the room, shaking his head from side to side, hugging the arm of the sofa as the doctor nonchalantly rolled up his sleeves. Thomas heard the approaching sirens, heard the car stopping in the alleyway, and he heard too the thrumming call from the stairwell below, the hole reminding him of the preordained place. He took a deep breath and thought for a moment of Dolores. He hoped he would be with her soon.
In the next instant he was moving, across the hallway and out of the front door of the flat with the doctor lunging after him, stumbling towards the stairs, moving faster than he had in years, heedless of the arthritic pain that stabbed at his limbs, leaning over in his haste, the momentum carrying him over, slipping, falling headlong from the top stair, diving into the empty air, imagining he was a bird, soaring and swooping, diving and twisting, paradise, freedom...
His body dropped through the air and hit the unyielding stairs with a dull thud and the sound of a score of brittle bones breaking, before tumbling down the final half dozen and landing in a crumpled heap by the front door, the harsh exhalation of his dying breath like fingers fanning a sheaf of old paper. The doctor could only stare and mumble half-formed words as the pounding on the front door below started.
“Police!” the voice boomed through the heavy wood. “Open the door!”
A flood of thoughts poured through the doctor’s mind as he ducked away from the open doorway, each conflicting, vying for acknowledgement, swirling and blending together. He focused on one alone: The old man’s Last Will and Testament. Inside the jacket pocket. The sound of splintering wood echoed in the stairwell as the police officer kicked the door in. Henry screamed aloud as burly voices drifted into the room. Heavy footsteps followed, but all the doctor could think of was the Will. Destroy the Will and you can explain your way out of this. The old man was poorly and delirious, he had simply had a fall. They were visiting friends, that was all.
His shaking hands found the papers in the inside pocket, fumbling through them, discarding the useless items on the floor – a green lighter, a ballpoint pen, a small diary bound in leather – before the police burst into the room, and he fell apart inside as he flicked through the pages of the diary and realized in those last, brief moments that he had been outwitted by the old man – the pages and pages of evidence, detailing everything he had done in pursuit of the old man’s wealth.
How could he have known? He thought. Impossible.
A thin sliver of blood-flecked spittle trailed from Thomas’ mouth as he lay on the cold tiles, his limbs bent at unnatural angles, a spreading pool of blood stretching across the floor from the deep wound at the back of his skull where he had landed on the bottom step.
In the few seconds before his death, the happenings of the previous day, his last day, ran through his mind. He had spent the night setting up the trail of evidence for the police – false evidence, put down by his own hand, but pointing to the truth of what Henry and the doctor intended nonetheless. He knew they would find the doctor’s fingerprints in all the right places, corroborated by the partly fictitious diary. Everything would fall into place and he was sure Henry – greedy, foolish Henry – would break down and tell the police everything.
He had succeeded. Henry and the doctor would suffer for all they had done, to Thomas and god-knew-how-many others. He was sure because he had seen, had been allowed to see, all of these things. Why, he did not know, but the one thought that stayed with him until the last was that he had stopped it, that his would be the last life needlessly wasted. He had sacrificed himself to save others, and after all, this was the greatest gift he could have given.
A thin veil of sparkling lights flooded over everything as his dying eyes saw their last image; nothing inspirational nor even interesting, but Thomas was satisfied at the simple pleasure of seeing the heavy boots of the police officer stepping quickly past him on his way to administer justice, by both the law of the land and by the cosmic laws of which the hole was part; the cracked avocado paint of the stairwell walls; hearing the rhythmic sputtering of the rain as it peppered the hallway through the open door; then knowing and accepting silence as he saw the first swirling tendrils of the hole begin to appear at the extremities of his vision, rippling though the air, pulling itself together in a warm and welcoming shroud that wrapped itself around his inert body, purring with utter contentment through his shattered bones, drawing out the last embers of his life.
As the blackness crept across the field of his vision, signalling the end of the journey, his last living thought burst into his mind, surfacing suddenly to play on that thin sliver of nagging doubt and to question his deal with Death who had – when all was said and done – achieved exactly what it wanted: What have I done?
Darkness, all-pervading, infinite. Consciousness was lost save the tiniest fragment, as insignificant as a single grain of sand in the deepest desert. Yet still, against all odds, some gossamer thin web of his self drifted in this velvet abyss, moving at the speed of stars and planets, all-encompassing and nothing in the same instant, the last flame spluttering against the rising tide of darkness as it was swept downwards and inwards and every which way.
This fragment felt the knowledge of its disconnect, this tiny particle of self, lost and at the whim of some indescribable force. But somehow, that minuscule fragment had held on as the layers of his consciousness had been stripped away. He tried to think, to structure some coherent thought, but he could do nothing save revel in the sure knowledge that he still existed, painless and free, drifting towards something he could not comprehend and had lost the language to describe.
Then, out of the darkness, a change in pressure, in texture, some barely distinguishable spasm in the ether. A signal. Moving at speed, terrifying speed, bursting outwards and upwards, thrusting towards the unseen surface, glowing, pulsing, vibrating. Warmth, liquid warmth, permeating the void; motion, slow at first, distant, then becoming clearer; a sound he remembers from life… ah, sweet memory, joined again… thud, thud, thud. The beating of a heart, massive and unbounded, then colour, beautiful colour, spreading from the darkness towards him, touching him, massaging at his skin, warm pinks and reds seeping through the fragile lids of his unborn eyes, particles drifting in the fluid around him; the warm memory kept from us all, buried deep within, brought to the surface again; the tranquillity of the womb, existence.
As the dreamy hues of pinks and reds sweep across his vision, filling his new body with unfathomable happiness, Thomas lets go of that last fragment, feels the subtle tearing as the link breaks, smiling within, drifting into eternal slumber; the heart of his new mother, of his new life, beating out a primal rhythm that would join him to her forever; her voice, musical and angelic, safe and warm, coming to him as vibrations through her body.
In the womb, the baby stirs, innocent, the joys of life unbridled stretching to infinity before his unknowing eyes.