Authors: Gary McMahon
He stared at the doorway ahead of him, and it was only after the figure crossed the space from left to right that he realised he’d seen someone.
Brendan twitched in shock; a delayed reaction, a strange little side-step because his body was unsure how to react. “I’m armed!” He gripped the torch even tighter, hoping that he would not have to use it – or if he did, that he managed to get in the first blow and it was hard enough to count.
The figure crossed the doorway again, a dark silhouette moving this time from right to left. It moved with a staggering gait, as if whoever it was had been drinking heavily.
It’s a doper
, he thought.
He’s stoned and doesn’t know where he is.
He relaxed slightly, more sure of himself now that he could put a name to his fear. Drug users had been known to break into the Needle to shoot up or smoke crack; kids sometimes came here to fuck; once or twice the most desperate transients had even popped in for a night’s sleep.
“Show yourself. Come into the main space here, and I’ll escort you off the premises. If you do not comply, I will be forced to call for police back-up and you will be arrested.” He thought that he sounded like some sad old rent-a-cop: a pathetic character in a shitty movie. “This is private property. You are trespassing.”
The figure stumbled back into view. It was thin, unsteady on its feet, and had now turned to face the doorway.
“That’s right. Just come through here and we can sort this out the easy way.”
Brendan flicked his wrist to bring the torch beam around, so that he might highlight the figure. The man stood framed in the doorway, his clothes dirty and ragged, his hands clutching the shattered wooden frame, and his face a white featureless mass hovering above his narrow shoulders.
“Shit.” Brendan stepped backwards, almost tripping on a pile of something directly behind him. “What the fuck?” The torch beam danced across the walls, striping the figure as it advanced through the doorway and into what used to be the main entrance hall, but was now just a vast space filled with junk.
The man moved slowly. His arms hung loosely at his sides. His bloated white head was rigid, locked facing forward. He had no eyes. No mouth. Just a tattered white mask, an image from a nightmare...
...and then Brendan realised that the man’s face was bandaged. He was limping; he wasn’t drunk or stoned, but injured. He dragged his feet across the filthy floor, twisting his hips awkwardly and moving towards the sound of Brendan’s voice.
“Are you okay, mate?” Brendan no longer felt threatened. The man was unwell. He had clearly come here to hide his infirmities away from the world. Cursed with his own medical condition, this was a reaction Brendan could understand – he empathised with the man’s desire to hide, to lock himself away from a mocking world.
He remembered the names he’d been called at school:
Rashback, Beam-Me-Up-Spotty, Dot-to-Dot
... and a hundred more, each worse than the last. The skin across his shoulders and the top of his back cried out in sympathy; his pain reached out to this other man’s agonies, like a hand across a chasm.
The man with the bandaged face made a low, soft sound, somewhere between a cry and a sigh.
“It’s okay, mate. I won’t hurt you. Come on; let’s get you out of here. I have food and drink back at the cabin.”
The man reached out a hand and it flailed in the air like a damaged bird.
Brendan grabbed the hand and tugged, helping the man across the detritus-covered floor. Close up, the bandages were surprisingly clean. They looked fresh, as if they’d been recently applied. Somebody somewhere was looking after this man, and they were making sure he kept his dressings clean. That was something, at least; it meant that he wasn’t completely alone in the world. There was someone to tend to his most basic needs, to treat him like a human being.
Brendan guided the man towards the door, feeling invisible eyes upon him as he turned his back on the interior of the Needle. He always felt this way, as if the building itself were watching him, waiting for him to slip up. He’d overcome his surface fears, but other terrors ran deeper, caught in the blood and the marrow. Some terrors could never be beaten, no matter how hard you fought against them.
“Come on, mate,” he said, as they left the building and returned to the relative safety of the night. “I’ll put the kettle on and we can have a little chat. Have you been living here?”
The man allowed himself to be led but he did not reply. He walked in silence, unable or unwilling to communicate. His hand was limp; the fingers felt boneless. His lumbering steps carried him wherever he was taken, and he acquiesced without as much as a whimper of protest.
Just as they reached the security cabin, Brendan heard the sound of a car engine as it cut out and tyres simultaneously coming to a halt on the gravel beyond the hoardings. He stopped, patted his companion on the arm, and left him there as he approached the front gate to the compound. Who was this so late at night? Drug dealers, using the place for their transactions? He stood at the gate and peered through the railings. There was a black 4x4 parked a few yards away where it had driven off the edge of Grove Street to stop just outside the pool of street light, and someone sat behind the wheel staring at the tower block. All he could see was the dark outline of a man or a slim, mannish woman: short hair, square chin, sunken patches where eyes should be.
Brendan turned on his torch and pointed it at the vehicle, trying to illuminate the person inside. The figure moved quickly, as if panicked, and the engine started up again. The tyres spun on the gravel, and the vehicle reversed at speed, heading towards the southern edge of Grove Crescent.
, he thought again for no apparent reason,
can never be beaten
HAT HAPPENED TO
you?” Brendan was making tea. The camping kettle had boiled on the small portable gas-powered hob, and he’d poured it into two large mugs along with some long-life milk and teabags. He stirred the cups, waiting for the milky water to turn dark, and then he scooped out the bags and dumped them into the plastic carrier bag he used to collect his rubbish.
His guest sat at the small table in silence, staring at the wall.
“I know you, don’t I? I’ve seen you before.” Brendan picked up the mugs and carried them to the table. He placed one in front of the bandaged man and sat down in the plastic chair opposite. The furniture in the security cabin wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was practical.
The man didn’t move. He just sat there. The bandages were wrapped tightly around his head and there were slits left for his eyes, nose and mouth. What little skin was visible looked raw and shiny, like badly healed scar tissue.
That was it. Brendan suddenly knew who this was sitting in his cabin.
“You’re Banjo, aren’t you?”
The man twitched slightly at the sound of his name. He tilted his head sideways and glanced at Brendan, as if he’d suddenly realised that he was not alone.
“You’re the junkie... sorry, the bloke who escaped from the fire at that gym on Grove Street. I read about it in the papers. That loan shark Monty Bright and his mate died. You were seen in the area before the fire started, and everybody said you must have started it.”
Banjo’s eyes were shining. He looked like he might be crying.
“Did you? Was it you that started the fire?” Brendan remembered the news reports of Banjo scratching off his own face in the street, and his subsequent disappearance from hospital. Because of an eyewitness stating that Banjo was back in the Grove on the night of the fire, it was assumed that he’d been the one who burned down the gym, and that he had run from the scene when the sirens started.
Banjo turned his head away, glancing at the far wall. He couldn’t make eye contact; there was something he didn’t want to communicate.
“It’s okay, man. Let’s just get some hot tea down you. And a sandwich. Do you like ham and cheese?” He stood and crossed the room, retrieving his lunchbox from the bench near the window. He took out a small cling-filmed package, unpeeled the wrapping, and handed Banjo a sandwich. “There you go. Here – have them both.” He took out the second sandwich and handed it to his guest.
Banjo grabbed the food and began to stuff it into his mouth, without any consideration for manners. Brendan wondered when the guy had last eaten. It looked like it must have been days ago. “Here,” he said. “Have it all. There’s an apple in there, and a chocolate bar. Take it.”
Banjo took the lunchbox, glanced into it, and smiled at Brendan. His mouth, beneath the dressings, was twisted, but Brendan got the gist. He knew he was being thanked.
He watched Banjo eat, trying to discern the extent of his wounds through the bandages. He thought again of the news reports at the time – statements about a local drug addict trying to tear off his own face with his bare hands. Apparently he’d had some kind of seizure, and suffered brain damage as a result. When he walked out of the hospital, the police had issued an announcement that he wasn’t dangerous, but the public should be wary of approaching him. His mind had snapped.
“Jesus,” he muttered, watching as Banjo bit the apple in half with a single lunge of his jaws. He ate the lot: even the core. “You must be starving.”
He made another two cups of tea and sat back down, smiling. “You’re safe here. It’s okay; I won’t call the police. You’re not doing any harm, or causing any damage. I know that.” Brendan knew he was a soft touch; his wife, Jane, never missed an opportunity to tell him this. But better to be soft than hard as stone, like a lot of the other people he knew around here. If he could help someone out, he would. It was in his nature. He was, he supposed, a caring sort of person.
“So, what are we going to do with you, then? I mean, I can’t keep you here – in the hut. I’d get fired.”
Banjo was still eating. There was apple juice on his chin.
“Fucking hell, mate. You’re like a child. You should really be somewhere that people can help you.” Brendan felt such a wave of pity and compassion that he thought he might get up and hug the man. But he got himself under control and simply sat and stared, wishing that he could do something practical. When he was a kid, he’d been the most selfish little shit imaginable, but as an adult, he felt such empathy for those who suffered. He supposed it was something to do with that time when he and his friends had been taken. That’s what everybody had said: they’d been snatched. But the truth was that none of them could remember; all they knew was that they’d been building a tree house one Friday evening, and then they’d come staggering out of the Needle the following Monday morning, scratched and bloody and aching.
He didn’t like to think too hard about that time, but he knew that it was impossible to erase it completely from his mind. That weekend was part of him; it was a piece of his personal history. Sometimes, in the early hours, when he couldn’t sleep and Jane lay snoring beside him, he’d try to grab hold of the images inside his head. Something about a white mask with a beak, screams, shadows... and trees. Of all the things that came to him in the night, this image of huge oak trees was the strangest.
Massive oaks, all set out in a rough circle, with Brendan and his two best friends in the world sitting in the centre of that circle. Screaming.
But that was all he could hang on to before the images faded. However hard he tried, focusing intently on the pictures in his head, they still faded away. Perhaps it was for the best. The doctors had told his parents at the time that the boys had been ‘interfered with’, that someone had torn their anuses and mauled their genitalia. They’d been sexually abused. And none of them could remember a thing about it.
Brendan, Simon and Marty: not one single reliable memory between them. Brendan retained nothing but fuzzy mental pictures... soft-focus images from a dimly recalled film.
Banjo suddenly got to his feet, pushing away from the table and sending the chair scraping across the floor. The noise disturbed Brendan, pulling him from his thoughts. He glanced over at the bandaged man, and tried to smile in a reassuring way. “It’s okay, mate. Nobody can hurt you here.”
Banjo’s eyes blinked rapidly. He turned his head briskly from left to right, as if searching for something.
That was when Brendan heard the noise. It was a faint clicking, like someone shuffling a deck of cards or flicking the pages of a new glossy book. It sounded like it was coming from just outside the window. Brendan got up and crossed the room, all of a sudden afraid of the sound. It connected somehow with his vague memories of that night twenty years ago. The mind pictures stirred, like embers raked into a pit, and the clicking noise set them flaring up again into weak flames.
He’d heard the noise, or one very much like it, before. Back then; during that lost weekend.
“Clickety...” The word came out of his mouth before he was even aware of speaking it out loud. He stopped, turned, and looked at Banjo. The other man was backing away, moving towards the door. His hands were raised in front of him in a protective gesture, as if he thought Brendan might attack him.
“No,” said Brendan. “It’s okay. Just a noise. Out there, in the dark. It’s probably something blowing in the wind... a bit of sheet metal or something.”