Authors: Gary McMahon
His eyes widen. He has seen something, some kind of movement, way behind the carved tree; an image that he believes does not belong here. He begins to stand but pauses partway to his feet, staring at a point beyond the trees. What was it? Did he even see anything at all, or is he just tired?
Staring in wonder, he watches a tall, dark figure as it passes between the final row of trees, taking short, dainty strides – almost skipping along – and facing forward. The figure is wearing a long black overcoat that reaches down to its ankles. On its head is perched a strange black cap – like a flattened top hat, but with a wider, floppier brim. Beneath the hat is a sort of black snood or cowl that falls down the back of the head, protecting the rear of the neck.
Brendan wants to call out to his friends, but something has robbed him of his voice. He crouches there, with one hand pressed flat against the base of the nearest tree, supporting him, and the other still gripping the empty pop can. He watches the figure as it passes from tree to tree, visible for seconds at a time as it dances gaily between the broad dark trunks.
The figure is either hideously deformed or wearing some kind of mask. The bone-white face is pinched forward and outward to form a long beak with a sharpened end. The large, bulbous eyes look like swimming goggles, but with black frames and lenses.
The figure is terrifying. Fear has taken Brendan’s voice, and only when he realises this does he regain the ability to communicate.
“Lads!” He turns and glances towards his friends, and then back again to where he saw the figure. It has stopped and turned towards him in the short time when his attention was elsewhere; he feels its gaze, even through the absurd goggles. There is a thin walking stick in the figure’s yellow-gloved right hand, and it raises it, like a weapon or a magician’s wand, pointing it in Brendan’s direction. The other hand, also covered by a dull yellow glove, makes abstract shapes and patterns in the air, the fingers moving in intricate contortions, as if they are tying knots out of nothing. He knows that he should not be able to pick out such minor details at this distance, but somehow he can. It is as if the figure has grown more vital in his perspective, like an embossed image standing proud from a flat background. The effect is disorienting: he feels sick, his head begins to pound; his eyes water as the figure looms in his vision, drawing closer and increasing in definition without taking even a single step towards him. It must be an optical illusion... a trick of the light.
Then he begins to hear the clicking sound, like fingers snapping along to some otherworldly tune.
Brendan opens his mouth, but no words come out. He stares at the figure, at the way its coat flaps about the thin body even though there is no wind to cause the motion; the way the material bulges and rises slightly in front, as if a rogue gust is trapped under there, between the figure’s long, thin legs. Then, one by one, what looks like several additional limbs seem to emerge from beneath the hem of the coat, their small, bare, two-toed feet kicking and flapping as they descend awkwardly to the ground.
“Quick, lads! Come here!” His voice sounds raw, as if his throat has been damaged, his mouth parched. But at least he has found the strength to speak.
He glances away and then back again. The figure is no longer there. A beam of sunlight blazes in the spot between the trees where the figure had stood, making the air look as if it has caught fire. The two trees that had framed the figure seem to bend fractionally outwards, making the space bigger than before and straining beneath the pressure of reality.
“What’s up?” Simon is standing beside him, reaching down to help him complete the journey from sitting to standing. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Brendan turns his head and stares at his friend, at his wide, amused eyes. He feels the small pimples on his forehead tighten; the larger ones clustered across his back and shoulders begin to pop, covering his flesh in a warm, sticky excretion. He doesn’t quite know if he’s still afraid or simply relieved that he was just seeing things out there, beyond the trees.
Should he be glad that his imagination is creating phantoms, or should he be afraid that it has done so to fill some kind of gap in his brain?
“I think I did,” he says, shaking now, unable to hold back either a scream or a laugh – he’s not sure which – for much longer. “A ghost... or a monster.”
Learning To Speak
“Sometimes you have to go back just so you can move forward.”
– Simon Ridley
at the window and stared out at the seething darkness of King’s Cross. His torso was bare; he’d spilled some wine on his shirt earlier, when he’d been preparing a late dinner, and it was warm enough in the flat that he had not bothered to put on a clean one. The July sky was clear and the thin, fragile clouds drifted like skeins of semen in bathwater.
The room was dark, too. He had not turned on the lights. The dinner he’d made sat cold and untouched in a bowl on the kitchen counter, the pasta stiffening and the tomato and garlic sauce congealing like old blood. He rubbed his face with his hands, and realised that he needed a shave. His head felt emptied, hollowed out.
A creased, padded manila envelope lay on the dining table before him, and he tried his best not to look again at the printed handwriting. The package had been posted here, to his home address, rather than the office, and it had arrived after he’d left for work. So he’d only seen it when he got back a few hours ago, after leaving the office early because of the overnight car journey he had scheduled.
The book sat next to the discarded packaging, the outer edges of the cover slightly blackened, perhaps by fire. The title was illegible, the author unknown. But he knew what the book was. Once, a long time ago, it had belonged to Simon. He had owned it in another lifetime.
The book was called
Extreme Boot Camp Workout
by Alex ‘Brawler’ Mahler. It had once belonged to Simon’s father, a man who enjoyed keeping fit more than he liked spending time with his family. Simon had lost track of the book years ago, when he left home to come to London. But now it was here, back in his hands.
A helicopter hummed past his window, miles away but still visible in the crisp evening sky. Simon turned his head and watched it go by, reminded of something he had seen or been told of a long time ago but could not quite grasp with any level of clarity right now – something to do with hummingbirds.
He reached out and touched the other item that had been inside the envelope along with the book: a single immature acorn, its shell caught in the process of darkening from green to brown. Carved roughly into the shell were his initials: SR. His fingers traced the letters, and then he pulled his hand away, as if he were afraid to touch the thing for much longer than a few seconds.
His laptop sat open on the table, its screen the only bright spot in the room. The web browser displayed an article from the
newspaper. It was old news, from before Christmas. November, to be exact: almost nine months ago. He couldn’t even remember what he’d been doing back then. Lately his life seemed to be running away from him, leaving him with vague, unsubstantial memories of business meetings and social events, deals and parties and random encounters with people who held little interest for him.
The article was about a fire on a housing estate in Northumberland which the locals called the Concrete Grove. Simon had grown up there, and left as soon as he was old enough to get out on his own. But despite him not setting foot back there in the best part of fifteen years, the place had never really left him.
You can take the boy out of the Grove...
According to the reporter a small gym owned by a local gangster had been set alight, and the fire had killed two people: the owner, Monty Bright, and one of his associates, a man called Terry Bison. Both men’s bodies had been so badly disfigured in the fire that they could only be identified by partial tattoos and dental records. The second man had also been identified by his prosthetic arm.
A few columns down the page, printed as an unrelated side bar, there was mention of unidentified birds gathering over the local landmark known as the Needle. The old tower block – derelict for decades – seemed to have been the focal point for the congregation of tiny birds on the night of the blaze. Hundreds of them had hovered around the tip of the tower, remaining there for half an hour, and then disappeared once the blaze was under control. It was reported as a natural phenomenon, a weird bit of local colour.
A hard copy of both of these articles had been included in the envelope, along with the book. Their headlines were crudely circled in red pen by whoever had sent him the package. Simon had no idea why anyone would send him these now, so many months after the fire in the report. The postmark on the front of the envelope showed that it had been sent from the northeast. It didn’t take much to put the clues together and realise that someone from the Grove had sent him the information. Probably the same person who regularly sent him clippings from the local rag, leaflets taken from the Tourist Information Centre, and countless other pieces of seemingly random information. He’d been receiving this stuff for years. Even when he moved house – which was often – the anonymous sender somehow managed to track him down.
But none of this information was random – not really. It was all connected by geography.
Simon reached out and grabbed his mouse, double-clicking on the left button and opening a shortcut on his computer desktop. The icon was a link to an online server, where he stored all the information he collectively termed the Concrete Warehouse.
The rented space on the server acted as a depository for anything that he felt might be linked to his old home town – things he’d been sent by his nameless informant, information he’d gathered himself. He also had copies of everything on a portable hard drive that he kept hidden in a drawer of his desk back at the office. He had been updating these files for years, since he moved away from the area to live in the capital. The files weren’t exhaustive; he had probably missed a lot of things, mostly due to his inability to afford a decent computer until his business concerns had begun to do well. Before that, he’d done what he could, storing information when he was able. Only when he was in a position to buy good equipment had he switched to the server.
If asked, he would struggle to give a reason for doing this. It just felt right. He thought it was a thing he should do, an interest he should maintain. It was also for these vague reasons that he’d kept an eye out for the names of his old friends on the estate, particularly the two boys he’d shared his childhood with. The boys he had never made contact with since leaving the Grove. Only one of those names had proved fruitful, and he’d kept tabs on its owner for quite some time. The other name was as good as lost.
Simon ran his hand across the roughened cover of the book. It felt calloused, like old skin. He turned back to the window and stared out at the night. He picked up the book and opened it, thumbing through the pages at random. Scrawls and scribbles; doodles and diagrams. A page from an old A-Z map was pasted over the centre pages, and the word ‘Loculus’ was written in black pen and underlined several times on the back page; other words had been written, too, the handwriting different for almost every one.
He turned to page twenty-nine and stared at the words he knew he’d find there. His own handwriting, years out of date, looked like a fake, a forgery. But he had written the words himself, just after the single biggest event of his life. This single sentence was the reason he knew the book was the same one he had owned when he was ten years old.
The Concrete Grove is a doorway to Creation
He had never known what the phrase meant, but it had been in his head when he and his friends had emerged from the derelict tower block that morning, battered and bruised and covered in filth. Like a message in a bottle, it was meant for him: a warning, a declaration of war, a reminder from his childhood self that he could never escape the shadows of his past.
He shut his eyes and closed the book, placing the palm of his hand across the cover, as if trying to hide it from view. He felt like crying, but he wasn’t sure why. Sorrow grasped him, squeezing him tight.
“I need a drink,” he said. He was already feeling light-headed, two Martinis to the wind, and he had a long way to drive later. But he no longer wanted to drink alone; he needed company, even if it was the company of strangers.
Making a decision, Simon put on a T-shirt and checked his reflection in the mirror. Then he grabbed his coat, shrugging it on as he crossed to the door of the penthouse flat, went out onto the private landing and pressed the button for the lift. He watched the lift lights flash on and off as he waited, showing the elevator climbing through the floors. He experienced the absurd notion that somebody was in the lift, coming to meet him.
The lift doors opened, and after only a slight pause he stepped inside the empty chamber, hitting the button for the ground floor. Nobody else got on during the downward journey. It was late – the other tenants in the building were either entertaining at home, enjoying a quiet Friday evening in, or out and about in the pubs and clubs of the capital. He had picked this apartment block specially, because none of his neighbours was aged over thirty-five and they were all well-heeled executive types, with busy social lives. This was a young place, a vibrant environment, and the endless activity in the rooms and corridors helped him not to dwell on the past – or, at least, the parts of the past that he could remember with any real clarity.