by Paul Michael Moreau
I received a garbled and incoherent message, barely recognisable as Gloria’s voice. None of her subsequent texts made sense either - something about needing my help to move house. It was all rather strange as we were no longer close, drifting ever further out of touch all these years since Mum died. I overcame my reluctance and she picked-up immediately, unleashing a panic-stricken babble so incomprehensible that I simply barked, 'Calm down,' the first words I had spoken to her in years.
'Lee, please help me,' she pleaded through tears, her tone shockingly subdued for a brash and confident big sister. 'I’ve got to get away now. I can’t stay in this house another night and I’m never coming back. You’re the only person who will understand.'
'Can’t it wait until the weekend? Surely you can stay at a friend’s, or book into a hotel?'
'Please come tonight, I’ve already packed the essentials. There’s been some prowler, and whoever it is killed Charlie.'
'Charlie Cat,' she sobbed. 'Can you bring a spade or something?'
'Take it easy sister. I’m on my way, just give me a couple of hours.'
I had not been back to Hackney since Mum’s funeral, having long decamped to a sea view in Hove. Gloria went one better of course, forging a successful career in the City and, for reasons lost on me, buying our childhood home when Dalston moved upmarket.
I drove up to the smoke, half-expecting the law to stop me once there. In Hove no one takes any notice of a guy like me driving a black Mercedes saloon, tinted windows and all. But it’s a different story in Brixton or Hackney. Two hours after committing to Gloria I turned off Kingsland Road onto Dalston Lane.
Strange how everything about a place is renewed and transformed yet, at some fundamental level, nothing really changes. The area has seen gentrification; the faces are different but they look the same. There are enough new bars, cafes and boutiques to rival Brighton. Yet signs of Jamaican culture - much more than the t-shirts and souvenirs sold by street traders - remain everywhere. Still plenty of Turkish businesses too, along with Vietnamese, but most noticeable is the influx of trendy white people.
I found a parking space about fifty yards from the house. I was seventeen years old the last time I stepped inside. I’m forty-two now, yet the sight of the place still leaves me cold. How can Gloria bear to live there?
It happened one September, the last week of Malcolm’s prison sentence. Mum brought us up single-handedly, taught us to be honest and hard-working, not that he ever listened to her. I hoped to take a graphic design course and Gloria started her first job down at Bishopsgate, but Mum found our older brother feckless and lazy. ‘Just like your Dad,’ she said and, not having seen my father since my fifth birthday, I took her word as gospel.
I knew all Malcolm’s secrets, not just the ones he confided. The petty street crime and dealing, how much he wanted to be a gangster - he talked and read about nothing else - and what lay hidden beneath the floorboards of our bedroom.
It held a powerful allure, a covetable glamour reminiscent of adventures in old movies and TV shows. The desire to clasp it in my hand, even to fire it, became overwhelming. One night I lifted the loose board where the gun rested in the protective folds of an old tablecloth. Cradling it in my hand, the cold grip against my palm, I admired the sheen of the metal. I held a CZ 70, a Czech semi-automatic pistol with four rounds to play with. I loaded and unloaded the clip, drawing beads on imaginary foes.
They demolished the old industrial units and workshops behind the gardens, laying foundations for the new blocks of low-rise flats replacing them. I figured I could get away with a single shot out there late at night if I quickly stashed the gun. A foolish folly of youth.
My chance came the next evening with Mum and Gloria out at the cinema. I climbed our garden wall and walked on to the construction site with the gun in my coat pocket. Feeling scared but also compelled, unable to hold back, having anticipated this moment for weeks.
Under the moonless night, I made for the centre of an alien landscape of site huts, excavations and sand piles. I walked between wooden posts set at regular intervals, finding a spot as far as possible from any light source. The usual aural backdrop played: sounds of distant traffic, raised voices, the wail of a siren. The rhythmic pulse and breathing of the city merged with my own in a symphony of expectation.
Something gave beneath my foot and I peered down using my key-ring torch to see I stood on a dead rat. Not an ordinary dead rat, but one of three, headless and laid out with precision inside the smoothed surface of a circle inscribed in the loose soil. That sixth sense kicked-in immediately: a sudden suspicion of not being alone, the chill feel of the previously mild night, that way you just know someone is watching you - a presence close by and hostile. All spirit of adventure evaporated in that instant, replaced by overwhelming fear.
I backed away, turning and walking quickly, almost breaking into a run. A high-pitched ululation came from somewhere behind me, halfway between a howl and an anguished cry: an admixture neither human nor animal, and closing fast.
The creature felled me, forcing me to the ground with great strength. It was some kind of deranged tramp but covered in hair, with a long beak-like protuberance for a nose, pushing me into the earth with its hot rancid breath on my face. My battle to preserve my life played out to its frantic cawing, a disgusting bestial sound. I kicked and twisted, unconsciously summoning my youth club martial arts training, landing repeated blows.
Blank black eyes, its grip closing on my neck, the sharp raking talons drawing blood. I got lucky, breaking free to run full pelt for the refuge of home.
I sat on my bed crying, struggling to make sense of the encounter. Once Mum and Gloria got back I told them, minus the part about the gun, now safely back in its hiding place. They did not believe me despite the scratches.
'Just some old wino,' Gloria asserted. 'Not worth the hassle of calling the police.'
'I’ll tell you one thing my boy,' Mum added. 'There is no duppy out there and don’t you go believing any different.'
I let it go, no point pressing my case if disbelieved. But I met something out there not fully human, no doubt clouded my mind.
Malcolm came home three days later. Mum insisted we have a party celebrating the start of his new life, an honest hard-working one she hoped.
He flashed a smile and high-fived me on the doorstep. With Mum busy in the kitchen, we took a ball up to Hackney Downs, kicking it around and laughing at each other’s imperfect skills as we always used to. Mum cooked ackee and saltfish with rice and peas, following up with sweet and spicy banana fritters, his favourite dessert. We stayed up late, Mum even drank a little rum, and, for the first time, I forgot what happened on the building site.
He died the next week, murdered by a rival gang outside a chip shop. A young man butchered like a pig on the street in broad daylight. Nobody cared. Just another crack war casualty not making a single national paper or warranting a mention on the BBC.
A need to avenge burned in my mind. Awhirl with rash schemes, I searched our room, looking through all his stuff. But the gun was not there, Malcolm must have taken it. I moved out the next month despite Mum’s pleading, staying with a friend in Stamford Hill, enrolling on that college course: my ticket out of this life.
The terraced house still looked the same: yellowish London bricks cleaner than I recalled, the freshly painted front door gleaming black atop its short flight of steps. The old place scrubbed up well but it was not enough - so many memories raw and ugly like untreated wounds seeping corruption.
We only occupied the one floor with three bedsits above but Gloria owned the whole pile now, the revitalised street’s multiple occupancy days long-gone. The lower ground floor lights shone behind blinds and I felt apprehension descending the steps, simultaneously conscious of my heartbeat and the absurdity of such feelings in a grown man.
The door flew open before I rang the bell. Gloria ushered me past three suitcases and into the front room. She looked immaculate, slimmer than I expected too; she must still have been dieting. Same old big sister, single-minded and professional.
I pretended not to notice she had been crying as I settled on an expensive leather couch, waiting while she wrapped a vase in newspaper, placing it in one of the half dozen boxes in front of the fireplace. The television stood on the floor with its cable neatly rolled and I resigned myself to at least three journeys to wherever she intended moving.
'What’s the plan sis?'
'I’m renting a penthouse until I find somewhere permanent, in Spitalfields close to the office. It’s fully equipped so anything we don’t take tonight can go to clearance along with the furniture - it’s all replaceable and I’m not coming back. There’s a large sofa you can sleep on tonight.'
Her voice sounded frayed like torn fabric. I had never known her have the jitters like this before, seeing through the façade despite her best efforts.
'Aren’t you going to give me some explanation after driving all this way?'
'I’ll tell you after coffee.'
I followed her into the kitchen, sitting at the table and prompting again by saying, 'Tell me about this prowler then.'
'It started after they demolished those flats out the back.' Gloria glanced towards the dining room as she filled the kettle. It used to be Mum’s bedroom that you walked through to get to the back door. 'I think people are getting into the gardens from the building site.'
'They’ve only been up twenty-five years!' I shook my head. 'God, that makes me feel old.'
'The roofs always leaked.' She took a pair of mugs from the cupboard, still putting on her calm and collected act. 'Someone’s been in the back gardens. The neighbours discovered strange footprints and the woman at number two found two decapitated birds on her patio. The police came round but they’re not prepared to do anything - sent some worse than useless fresh-faced boy to take the details and that was that.'
'It all sounds rather random to me, disconnected events that you’re imagining as something more sinister.'
'I’m not imagining Charlie!' She rubbed tears from her eyes, pacing the kitchen as if in a cage. 'Disgusting things left in the garden - strips of material arranged in patterns, a cluster of feathers bound together, animal bones. Two small holes dug near the tree last week and a deep scratch in the back door from the tip of a knife or a key. Is that enough for you?'
We jump at the whistle of the kettle, catch each other’s expressions and laugh. But I can see she is genuinely frightened, suppressing her hysteria only with great determination. Her voice is quiet when she places the steaming mugs on the table and sits opposite me.
'I’m beginning to think that I’m being personally targeted, that the events are converging, but no one believes me. They all think I’m having some kind of crisis, and then I thought of you.'
'Thanks for that sis.'
She laughs again but cannot fool me. 'That time you claimed some creature attacked you.'
'You didn’t believe me.'
'Tell me about the cat.'
'I took the afternoon off to sort out the tenancy, set on getting away from this house by the weekend. I found him in the garden when I got home, all bloody and mutilated, placed there deliberately for me to find.' More sobs and a sniff of the nose. 'Did you bring that spade?'
Out on the street, darkness flowed around the light spilling from lampposts and curtained windows exactly as I remembered - an indelible sense of location. The same demented musique concrète as background. Even the barely perceptible smell of the place. I retrieved my torch and a borrowed army entrenching tool from the car boot.
Back in the kitchen Gloria handed me a checked tablecloth, exactly the kind Mum used to buy from the market, before leading me through the dining room to the back door. She nursed Mum for months in here before the final weeks in the hospice: the only time she ever let anything interrupt her career. I never visited once, not in this house with its memories of Malcolm and then, feeling ashamed, I could not bring myself to visit her in that other place.
'I’ve only a few essentials left to pack, we can leave as soon as you are done.' Gloria squeezed my arm to reassure and opened the door. She was right about that scratch - probably a knife or key, possibly a claw.
The cat’s remains lay between the house and the old leaning tree I used to climb as a boy. Its wildness was gone, tamed along with everything else. The garden was now much tidier with a table and chairs, and shrubs planted at the far end.
Charlie rested not in some random death agony, but carefully placed on his side - definitely posed as Gloria claimed. I examined the body by torchlight: A large hole within a ring of stained fur exposed the scrambled brain, the force of the impact having partially crushed the skull, distorting the shape of the head. Each severed paw left only a raw stump of leg with the tail also missing. Laying the torch on the ground, I lifted the bloody mess on to the tablecloth with the flat of the tool’s blade, rolling it into a pathetic bundle.
I heard a distant sound as I dug a small pit, an unidentifiable high pitch. The mind plays strange and cruel tricks, as it was easy to imagine something out there, watching unseen. I worked faster.
Finally home and seeing the extent of Gloria’s genuine distress, I accepted how foolishly and selfishly I once behaved in refusing to face life in the full, always taking the easy path away from hard truths.
We carried the last suitcases and boxes to the car before Gloria gave the house a final look over, checking nothing important had been forgotten, that everything electrical was unplugged. I waited in the living room while she said goodbye to the old place.
Her rush down the stairs followed a strangled scream and her voice formed an uneasy compromise between shout and whisper: 'Lee, there’s someone in the garden!'
I ran into the dining room, turning off the lights to look through the window. A dark shape moved rapidly away, fading into the deep shadow around the shrubs.
Throwing open the door, I picked up the entrenching tool left leaning against the wall and sprinted past the old tree. Nothing moved on the deserted building site. I walked over its churned and muddy ground, seeking the intruder. The foundations of a dozen new homes lay ahead. The night fell silent, an unnatural silence so impossible in this restless Babylon that I instinctively strengthened my grip on the sharp-bladed tool. The ancient land still held its secrets; this was never Malcolm’s turf.
A shrill cry pierced the stillness and I saw the duppy some twenty yards away, topping a pile of bricks, its talons spread wide, beaked head lifted to the starless sky. I wanted to run but I stood fast, turning to face it, staring into those inhuman eyes where I comprehended neither mind nor soul. It stood in silence, arms outstretched.
'You don’t frighten me.' I lied to myself.
I held the tool out as I stepped forward, keeping the creature fixed in my stare, walking slowly but steadily, wanting the blade to make contact. Then it simply faded into nothingness with a sudden rushing noise, that sound of a flock of birds taking wing. I saw it further off across the site before it blinked out again, once more in the middle distance losing definition. Then repeatedly, each receding snapshot grainier than the last until a final dissipation left me alone amid the night sounds of the city.
You are never truly by yourself in a metropolis, there’s always something.
Gloria called from the garden.
Paul Michael Moreau is a former I.T. professional and author of speculative fiction living on the south coast of the United Kingdom. His recent short stories have appeared in Morpheus Tales, Sanitarium Magazine, and Perihelion Science Fiction.
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