Oddments, snippets and the occasional short story.
(This particular story first appeared online in Hub Fiction, around 2010. It’s set in my favourite part of London: Smithfield, on the edge of the City. I lived there for a couple of years – and even though it’s been a while, there’s something about it that keeps making me want to write about it…)
I once met a man who had a habit of finding strange places. I say “habit” rather than “gift” although that’s what I’d call it, myself. He was a man who could be found next to a bar – no matter the time of day or night; the kind of man who, if asked the right sort of questions and given the right sort of drinks, would tell you anything you wanted to know. Just the kind I was looking for.
I met him in a pub in west Smithfield, where he was slowly but steadily working his way through the row of bottles behind the bar: he wasn’t especially pleased to see me, but I sat down beside him anyway and began by asking if he was the man who had found the Hall of Corpses. The question didn’t surprise him, and instead he squinted across at me, then laughed. “So you know about that one, do you?”
I did. It was the stuff of urban legend, one that had already been doing the rounds for years by the time I first heard it – that somewhere beneath Smithfield, London’s busy meat market, there’s a maze of tunnels originally built to bring in livestock for slaughter. And that somewhere in that maze, there’s a room. A market worker, so the story goes, got lost down there one night and came across a tunnel he’d never used before, and as in most of these stories, he walked down it until he reached a door – big, heavy, old – carved with strange letters and faces that stared out at him. He pushed the door open and stepped into a place he couldn’t wait to leave: stretching away into the distance, far past the boundaries of the market, full of shadows… but not quite dark enough to hide the bodies.
Hanging from the roof, rows and rows of bodies, stripped and gutted and butchered like the animal carcasses above ground; only these weren’t cows or pigs – these were people. As far as the eye could see, dead people swinging from hooks. And he was so busy throwing up over his own shoes that he didn’t hear the footsteps behind him, or the key turning in the lock…
The legend winds up, if it’s told right, with the poor market worker never being heard from again – except if that’s true, where’s the story come from? Exactly. But that’s only the start of it, as a couple of years ago, a rumour started to do the rounds: that someone had not only found the Hall of Corpses, he’d made it back to tell the tale. Which was why I was sitting next to a drunkard in an empty pub at three o’clock in the afternoon. Despite the smell.
We talked; or rather, I talked while I bought him drinks and he occasionally mumbled into the bottom of the glass. I told him how I had come to London, how I had fallen in love with its strange histories, its lost legends. How I’d heard the one about the Hall of Corpses…
“And you wondered how you’d go about finding somewhere like that, right?” he said, turning to look at me. I nodded; must have said something I thought was witty. He simply looked me up and down, then shook his head. “You think you want to find them? The hidden places? You listen to me, princess: you don’t. They’re all forgotten for a reason. The city bundled them up and hid them away and let you forget about them. You should trust it knows what it’s doing. But you think it’s funny, don’t you? You think it’s clever and you’ll go looking anyway. And one day… well, I figure you’ll find it out soon enough.” He drained his glass and set it down with a bang. “You want to find one? Really? One of these lost treasures you keep talking about? It’s easy enough: all you have to do is open your eyes. And then open them again.” He rubbed at the bristle on his jaw and sniffed. “Try the City. Somewhere near the Exchange should see you right. But don’t you come crying to me when you find what you’re looking for.”
And that, I said to myself, was no less than you should have expected. Open your eyes, and then open them again. Uh-huh. So I picked up my bag and left, walking towards the Tube station – keeping a healthy distance between myself and the market, just in case. I suppose I must have been thinking about that Hall of Corpses story, or the things that he said, because after a while I looked up and realised I’d gone way past my station: I was in the middle of the City, in front of the Royal Exchange. Just where he’d told me to go. Maybe it was my subconscious. Maybe it was destiny. There I was, standing exactly where he’d said I should look. For what? No idea. What was there to lose? Alright, so I might look like a total plank, but… why not?
I took a deep breath, I closed my eyes. I opened them again and looked about me. Still looked the same: even down to the bus parked squarely across the yellow box on the road. Nothing different there. I closed my eyes again, opened them… and closed them, opened them… again and again until I was dizzy and a little old lady passing by asked “whether you’ve got something in your eye, dear?” Serve me right, I thought as I sat down on a bench. The whole thing was stupid. Legends, myths, fantasies… they’re all just that.
Had that been there a moment ago?
Directly across from me was an alley running between two heavy stone office buildings: one housing an insurance brokers’ and the other a discreetly expensive firm of solicitors. Two buildings that I could swear were attached to one another a moment ago. Now there was a gloomy gap between them, blurry at the edges and…
I stared into the darkness. It stared right back.
I grabbed my bag and ran. Back down Cheapside as fast as my little feet could carry me, awash with fear: feeling like I’d done something I knew I wasn’t supposed to, and had been found out; been somewhere I shouldn’t be. Seen something I shouldn’t have. Maybe that’s what it was, but all I knew was that I wanted to get as much pavement between my back and that darkness as possible. I was afraid it would swallow me whole.
A busy crossing made me stop, catch my breath while I waited for the light to change, leaning on the signal post and trying to pull myself together… which might have been easier had I not become aware of a woman standing next to me, slightly too close for comfort, pulling a dirty grey shawl around her shoulders. People stepped around her on the pavement without seeing her, without her seeing them—but she could certainly see me, and she was watching me with a look of intense amusement.
“Wotcha running for?”
I must have looked at her blankly, because she smirked and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Ain’t no point in running, pet. You’re in now.” She looked me up and down before turning away and sauntering down the road, turning onto a street I knew shouldn’t be there, just as I knew that the building behind me (were I to turn around and look at it) wouldn’t be a bookshop anymore – it would be something else. I didn’t want to know what that might be.
The crossing lights changed, the traffic stopping. Ahead of me, everything was as it should be and I thought that if I kept going, kept moving ahead, I would be alright. If I could get to the station, I’d be fine: I was overtired, that was all, and I needed to get home. Just needed to get home. But behind me I could feel something shifting; a pressure as though the streets were pulling and twisting to let something other through. A man brushed past me from behind as I crossed the street, standing out from the dark suits everywhere around because he was dressed in tattered tweed and wore a noose around his neck. He turned and grinned at me as he passed, but not before I saw the hole where the back of his head should be.
I could scream, I said to myself. I could scream, and then someone will stop and help me. They’ll call an ambulance. Someone will help. Someone. And just as I thought this, an old woman pulled at my elbow. “Thought this was what you wanted, deary? To see the lost spaces?”
Her eyes were sewn shut, and I was running again. Between people, real or imaginary; between buses and cars and horses and carts. Between A-boards for golf sales, and crowds of flagellants.
I’m losing my mind, I thought as I saw the sign for the Tube station ahead… I’m losing my mind.
It was getting dark. A staircase stretched down into the ground, its walls set with glittering teeth – and with one quick look, the Tube became a non-option. Instead, I turned left into what should have been a public garden; now a grim maze of winding passages with no doors or windows – just high brick walls. I turned this way and that, left then right, doubling back on myself time and again until I was hopelessly lost.
This couldn’t be: I know this city. I know it, and I love it for all that I know. But as I realised that I was lost and I sank to the floor; as I drowned in my panic, I heard laughter behind me. It was my friend from the Hook and Cleaver pub, the man from Smithfield, but somehow he looked taller, stronger, less disheveled. A dirt-streaked courtesan hung on his arm, her shoes caked with mud and blood, her eyes glassy. “You found your way, then?”
“I think I lost it.”
“No, you found it alright. You wanted to see, and now you do. You see all those hidden places you were so keen to find. Never thought to consider whether you’d like them, did you? Well, now. Too late for that: tears and spilled milk. You’re stuck seeing what you see: once your eyes are open, they don’t close again – not until they’re closed, if you get what I mean? You’re lost to the city, like me: you’ll see what it wants you to see and there’s no way back. It’s why I drink, you know. I can’t stop any more. I can’t see anything else, not even when I try – only this, so I drink to make it stop. To make it leave me alone. I just want to see the same as everyone else. I want to see roads and cars, and pavements and chewing gum. Buses running red lights, even those fucking bike couriers. But I can’t stop seeing this place, these things. And it doesn’t stop; it never ends.”
I couldn’t answer. I just looked up at him, leaning so very casually against the wall while I sat in a broken puddle on the ground. He shrugged. “Take my advice and stay to the west. You’re not ready for the east yet.” He sniffed again, just like he had a world ago. What was that: an hour? “And if you’re wise, you won’t come looking for me.” Then he was gone, leaving me alone in the dark.
I once met a man who had a habit of finding strange places. I say “habit” rather than “gift” although that’s what I would once have called it, myself. He taught me to see the things that are hidden in the streets of a city, the things the city chooses to keep to itself, and he taught me how – at least for a short while – to stop seeing them. So I sit here in this bar, and wait: for the dead to creep in at the edges of my mind, for the sounds of a past that may never have happened to break through the din of today. I wait for the day someone comes in and asks me whether it’s true that there’s a chamber of horrors beneath the market. And when they come, I’ll tell them that it’s not just a chamber (it’s easy enough: all you have to do is open your eyes. And then open them again) but a whole world of them.
(This story was originally published in issue 2 of Sideshow Fables, in mid-2010. As you might expect with a title like “Sideshow Fables”, the theme was the circus–be it the performers, the customers or a little of both…)
“Two adults, three children.”
(Cancer. Hanging. Cancer–again? Must run in the family–fishing accident, overdose.)
The girl who sits in the ticket booth at the circus can see how you’re going to die.
It’s not something she’s especially proud of: it’s not even something she’s particularly fond of. It just, you know, is. Like the sun setting, the tide ebbing and the dust falling; it’s just one of those Things That Are.
“Umm… hello? Yes. Three… no, four… Charlotte, would you come here please? Now!”
(Drowning. Nasty one, at that.)
It started when she was little; six or seven, maybe. She remembers the first time perfectly: it was her mother’s death that she saw. Their hands had touched in passing a cup from one to another, and in her mind there was a flash, a spark, and she saw her mother falling from the bedroom window… and then three days later, she had seen it again–only this time it had not been in her mind. She remembered standing numbly, dumbly, behind the coffin, believing that somehow she had brought this to pass and holding that belief, that knowledge, to herself like a cold dark secret. It would wake her shaking and screaming in the night for months: and then it happened again. And again. And again.
At first, it had been deaths which were coming up quickly; a week ahead, perhaps. A month. Then, gradually, it became years, decades. By the time she was twelve, she could tell straight away how almost anyone she met would meet their end. She started avoiding her grandparents and their friends, elderly neighbours–at least, she did until it dawned on her that everyone dies sooner or later. It wasn’t especially comforting.
“Just me, sweetheart.” A man–a biker. In his forties, maybe. He’s looking at her like she’s on a plate.
She sighs. “One, yeah?”
“Unless you’d like to join me? Sure I can find somewhere quiet for us to sit…”
“Don’t suppose you’d show me to my seat for a little extra, would you?”
“Can’t, sorry.” A flash. She pauses and smiles at him. “But for ten bucks, I could give you the backstage tour.” She twirls her hair, watching him as he bites his lip, leans closer to the window. “Is that so?”
“Uh-huh.” She examines her fingernails. “Not tonight though. Thursday’s my night off–say, nine o’clock?”
“You got it, sugar. It’s a date: Thursday at nine.” He hands her the money, his fingers closing clammily about hers as she passes him his ticket, tries to catch her eye. He winks and sets off in the direction of the stalls. Pulling a face, she pockets his money: poor bastard won’t make it past sundown on Tuesday–heavy rain and balding tyres do not make for an easy motorcycle ride, not when you’re in such a hurry…
“Two please: me and him.” The voice jolts her awake again, and she looks out of her little window. There’s a man in his twenties, friendly. He has freckles across the bridge of his nose–and is one of those rare souls who will die old and at peace in his own bed. It’s unusual, and she’s not seen it as often as she might hope, not yet, not with her only being seventeen this summer. There’s too much bad in the world for that, too much that can happen to a body…
It’s the boy, though, the little boy with him who draws her attention. He’s five or so, staring about him with wide, bright eyes. She sees that look a lot: it’s the look all the little kids have the first time they come to the circus. It’s all magic to them, the lights and the sawdust. They don’t see the patches in the Big Top, or the greasepaint melting off the faces, or the rust on the railings. They see an enchanted world, one full of wonders. He’s no different; holding his father’s hand, clutching a grubby-looking cuddly elephant in the other… But he is different. She hands the tickets over, and just as they’re turning away, she catches it: the smell. It’s the boy. Already he reeks of it, a clammy, claggy smell like shoes that have been left out in the rain. It’s soon for him–too soon. It’s tonight. And as they’re walking away, she does something she’s never done before: she opens the door to her booth and leans out. “Hey!” she calls after them. “You might want to give the elephants a miss tonight, you know?”
“What?” The man stares back at her, puzzled. She shrugs. “Maintenance have been doing some work on their pen today, they’re a bit grouchy. Not at their best. It might be an idea not to get too close, OK? Not with the little guy…” she tails off, hoping he can’t hear the desperation in her voice, but praying he’ll listen anyway. He’s looking at her, and she knows he’s about to speak but the boy pulls eagerly at his hand and they are gone.
Somewhere behind her, the familiar music begins; the show has started. There are no more customers for her tonight, and she flips the sign in the booth window to read “Closed: please purchase your ticket from the ushers” and switches off the bare light bulb that hangs overhead. Her last job of the evening is to take the cashbox over to the manager’s caravan, help him count the night’s take. It won’t be as much as he’s hoping for, she knows. There are fewer people each night, each town.
She swings the cashbox ahead of her as she walks, humming under her breath. A burst of laughter from the Big Top: the clowns have started their first routine… it reminds her that she’s supposed to be going for a drink with Charlie sometime. She smiles. He’s really quite cute if you can get over the lingering smell of custard pies in his hair.
She hops over a low barrier and makes her way towards the caravan, past the dog kennels. The animals are restless, uneasy, stirring and shifting as she passes. Suddenly, she hears a loud bang and is showered with sparks… her heart leaps and, startled, she drops the cashbox, spilling coins and notes onto the ground. Glancing up, she can see the light bulb in the overhead string that has blown, makes a mental note to let Marco know. She kneels on the grass, scooping the money back into the box–knowing she’ll need to come back in the morning to check she got it all–and she hears the footstep behind her.“Fancied my tour a little early, sugar,” whispers a voice and the breath is knocked from her body.
The girl who sits in the ticket booth at the circus, the girl who can see how you’re going to die, is lying in the grass in the darkness. The girl who sits in the ticket booth at the circus is dying. She wonders–almost idly–whether this is why the man with the bike will run off the road on Tuesday, why he’ll be in such a hurry…
She feels drowsy. It strikes her as somewhat unfair that of all the deaths she’s seen, she has never been able to see her own; would it have made it easier? Perhaps, perhaps not. It doesn’t seem to matter too much right now. A warm, soft weight pulls her downwards, a fine mist settles over the world. She closes her eyes just as the noise starts in the elephant pen, the screams carrying on the still evening air…..