Mark Morris is responsible for the novels Toady, Stitch, The Immaculate, The Secret of Anatomy, Mr Bad Face, Longbarrow, Genesis, The Dogs, The Uglimen, Nowhere Near an Angel and Fiddleback (writing as J.M. Morris) - as well as collections such as Close to the Bone. He is also editor of the Cinema Macabre book in which authors, editors, actors and film-makers write about their favourite horror films. The book includes contributions from such names as Simon - Shaun of the Dead - Pegg, Mark - League of Gentlemen - Gatiss, Muriel Gray, Neil Gaiman, Brian Aldiss and many others.
Frosties, I think, as the high-pitched trilling slices my dream in two with the devastating precision of a light-sabre. Eyes gummed with sleep, I grope for my alarm clock before its hideous twittering can shake my fillings out of my head. I find the offensive little bastard, and killing it with a swift thump I roll over on to my back. I thought it might have been different today, what with Rachel going and all, but no. This morning, just as every morning, I have woken up with my breakfast preference imprinted at the forefront of my mind like a mental menu.
Today definitely feels like a Frosties day - don't ask me why. Each day is different. Yesterday was Coco Pops, tomorrow might be Golden Nuggets (and how good it is to see them back) or Shreddies or just plain old Weetabix, or even toast, with any of a variety of toppings - marmalade, peanut butter, jam, honey.
Not that any of this is even the remotest bit important. In fact, I'm surprised, even a bit ashamed, to find that I have any appetite at all. After four years of wedded bliss - or the nearest thing to it without actually being married (coupled bliss?) - I'm single again. I've been single now for approximately eleven hours. And what's the first thing I think of after waking up alone? Kellogg's fucking Frosties! I ask you, what does that say about the state of the modern relationship?
Now, I'm not a callous person, or a stupid one. I loved Rachel, I really did. Still do, in fact. All I can say is that human emotion is a strange and complex animal. The whole Frosties thing is probably nothing more than a defence mechanism, and sooner or later my sense of…I don't know…stoicism?, resolve?, shock?, whatever, will crack like the flimsy dam it undoubtedly is, and a seething, swirling torrent of despair will come rushing in, destroying all in its path.
If I'm being entirely truthful, however, I have to admit that last night, even amidst the shock and the recriminations, there was a tiny part of me that felt almost gleeful she was going, and a callous little thought-operative at the back of my mind, seemingly independent of me, began to catalogue all the things I could do when she'd left. 1) Watch videos until three in the morning without feeling guilty, 2) Play my Clash albums really loud and not have to put up with sour looks, 3) Eat takeaways as often as I liked instead of having to restrict myself to one a week for money and health reasons, 4) Not have to bother shaving at weekends, 5) Buy myself a full set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figures without being made to feel like an immature, money-wasting tosser.
All of that was yesterday, but even now that I've slept on it I don't actually feel all that much different. Apart from feeling a bit hollow, a bit end-of-an-era-ish, my most acute emotion, if you can call it an emotion, is embarrassment. It makes me feel a bit of a dick to be dumped, to be honest, a bit of a loser. What will I say when someone at work asks me, 'How's Rachel?' Will I say, 'Oh, she's fine,' and change the subject? Or will I say, 'Oh, she's walked out on me because I'm an immature twat with no verve and no ambition, who's predictably dull on the sex front - when I can be bothered, of course, which isn't often - and who is about as interesting to talk to as a length of lead piping'?
The latter is Rachel's take on things, of course, not mine. Not that she has ever been mean enough to actually say any of the above, because she isn't like that. All the stuff she thinks about me I've mostly gleaned from the long and tortuous conversations we've had about us over the past few months. She wouldn't come right out and say, 'You're a boring git,' but she'd talk about how I was becoming entrenched in - as she put it - my own little world, about how I never wanted to go out except to the pictures, about how my friends were gradually deserting me because I never bothered to keep in touch with anyone any more, about how all I ever wanted to do of an evening was watch telly instead of talking, about how I needed a new challenge, a new impetus, something to take me out of myself.
These long conversations, always instigated by Rachel, had been draining, both mentally and physically, and to be honest were the last thing I needed after a knackering day at work. In the end I'd started responding to them defensively, facetiously, monosyllabically. It was all right for her. She sat on her arse all day in a nice, airy office, chatting to her friends, whereas I was constantly on my feet, either dealing with stroppy, arrogant or just plain dumb customers at the tills or the information desk, or banging books out on the shelves at breakneck speed to fill the vast gaps which were constantly appearing, or lugging heavy boxes about when the deliveries came in.
Don't get me wrong. I like my job. It's varied, and I'm always too busy to be bored, and I get on pretty well with the people I work with, and I get a thirty per cent discount on videos and books But what Rachel didn't seem to understand was that at the end of a long day I didn't want to have long, philosophical conversations. I just wanted to veg out and watch a movie or Father Ted or the EastEnders omnibus that I'd taped the Sunday before. So when Rachel said, during one of our long, draining `us' conversations that we didn't talk any more, I'd respond sullenly, 'What are we doing now, then - morris dancing?' Or alternatively I'd remind her of a conversation we'd had a couple of days previously, to which she'd retort, 'I don't regard you asking me to name my top five James Bond films a conversation.'
'What is it then?' I'd say.
'It's a bit sad, that's what it is,' she'd reply, and she'd look sad as she said it, as though me asking her about James Bond had made things really seriously wrong between us. And just at that moment, even though I loved her, I'd hate her for it. And I'd hate her even more when she then went on to say that it was just another symptom of me retreating into my own little world. I'd retort, probably quite aggressively, that it wasn't my fault if she didn't have a hobby, and that if she needed my constant input to make her life interesting, then she was the sad one, not me.
'Why do you constantly try to undermine what I'm interested in?' I'd ask.
'I don't,' she'd say. 'It's just that the things you are interested in - films and TV programmes, and reading books about films and TV programmes - is all so…insular.'
'It's not insular. If you were interested in films and stuff we could talk about them. We could have long, interesting conversations. We could go on for hours.'
'But I don't want to, Steve. Those things aren't important. They're not real. They're make believe. It's a fantasy world.'
'Well, maybe fantasy's better than real life,' I'd say. 'Maybe real life's too miserable.'
'Oh, grow up,' she'd say.
And so on and so on. I told her that perhaps she ought to take up a hobby - macramé or collecting Barbie dolls or painting pebbles or something. So she did. Well, she didn't take up any of those things, but she started to become a lot more independent, to do a lot more things off her own bat, and not rely on me to provide her with her entertainment all the time. She started going out a lot more with the people from work, she started going to the gym a couple of times a week, and she even joined a theatre group, a walking group and a meditation class.
Part of me relished the extra time I got to myself, the opportunity to do whatever I wanted without any interruptions, but part of me felt terribly guilty that perhaps I wasn't putting as much into the relationship as I ought to. My problem is that I'm a selfish bastard, and I always take the easy option. I don't want to have to make a big effort. I just want an easy life - nice, quiet, uncomplicated. This is maybe a bit shitty for the person I'm with, unless of course they want the same things as me.
Rachel didn't want the same things as me. She said I'd changed a lot over the years, which surprised me because I don't think I have. Even after all this, though, I didn't see the inevitable coming. When our long heart-to-hearts dried up a few weeks ago, I mistakenly thought this meant we'd got over our sticky patch and were getting on okay. I thought we'd just carry on, living together, being around for one another, connecting occasionally, providing security just by existing in the same space.
The real reasons the conversations had dried up, however, were a) because Rachel was far more occupied of an evening, and b) because (as she told me last night) she felt she'd said as much as she could and it still hadn't changed things, so she'd given up on us, decided to call it a day.
I'm a twenty-four carat arsehole for not realising this, I suppose, but hey, what can I say? I'm a bloke. As far as I was concerned, her announcement last night that she was leaving came right out of the blue.
'What, just like that?' I said.
'No, Steve, not just like that. What do you think we've been doing these last three months? Why do you think we've been having all these long conversations?'
'But I thought we'd sorted it!' I protested.
She rolled her eyes. 'That's just my point, Steve. We haven't sorted it. We haven't come even remotely near sorting it. What we've actually done is come to a full stop. We're on totally different wavelengths. It's just not working out any more.'
'Well, why didn't you say something?'
'I've been trying to say something these past three months. You just haven't been listening to me.'
'Well, you obviously haven't been telling me clearly enough,' I said. 'I didn't know things were this serious. I didn't know you were thinking of leaving.'
'Sorry, Steve. But I've decided that we'd just be happier apart.'
'You've decided? What about me? I don't want to be on my own. I love you, Rach.'
'I love you too, Steve. But not enough, not any more. I'm sorry.'
'Please, Rach,' I said, switching off Star Trek and jumping up, 'don't go. I'll change.'
'You won't, Steve.'
'Yes I will.'
'You won't because you don't want to.'
'I'll change if it means keeping you. I'll do whatever it takes.'
'I don't want that. I don't want a doormat. You'd be doing things under sufferance and you'd get resentful.'
'No I wouldn't.'
'Yes you would. Anyway, it's too late now. I've met someone else.'
That someone else was a bloke called Clement from her meditation class. I mean, Clement, for fuck's sake! What sort of a twatty name is that? Things took a bit of a downward turn once he entered the conversation. Tempers were raised, ugly things were said, and in the end Rachel packed her bags and stomped off down the stairs. 'I hope you and Clement's minced morsels are very fucking happy together', I shouted after her. Then I went back into the flat, took her Lighthouse Family CDs out of their cases and boiled them in a pan of water before drying them and putting them back. I didn't know if it would have any adverse effect on the sound, but it made me feel good. I'd always hated those bastards.
And now here I am. It's a Frosties day, and when all's said and done, I don't actually feel too bad. I lie on my back with my eyes closed for about ten minutes, not moving, just thinking about stuff. I think about Rachel, and then I decide that I'm going to spend £50 in the shop today because I deserve a treat, and then I plan a six-hour video evening starting at seven and finishing at one and I decide what I'm going to watch.
Then I open my eyes and I'm immediately aware that something's wrong with my face. At the edge of my downward vision there are what look like pink growths on both of my cheeks. Also, I'm vaguely aware that there's something on my forehead, between my eyes. When I look up I see the underside of something white.
I raise my hands to my face and that's when I get the biggest shock of my life. As my fingers approach the growths on my cheeks, the growths themselves extend and I realise that they too are fingers!
I've got fingers growing out of my cheeks! Fingers that move, that wriggle and curl up and point and do all the things that regular fingers do. I snatch my hands back before the fingers on my cheeks and my normal fingers can touch. My heart jolts as though it's been subjected to a massive electric shock and seems to yank my stomach contents behind it. I throw myself back in my bed, bumping my head on the headboard, as if a tarantula has suddenly dropped down in front of my eyes. But of course I can't escape the fingers on my cheeks because they're growing right out of my face. They're part of me, and yet they're not. They're alien, they have their own independent movements, they're like parasitical creatures wriggling their fat pink legs as they eat their way out of me.
I start to shake and to make kind of groaning noises, 'Urr, urr,' that I can't stop. I scramble out of bed, feeling clumsy, feeling as though I've been given some drug that makes me feel partially detached from my body, and blunder my way to the bathroom. In the bathroom I look in the mirror and I can't believe what I'm seeing. I have three fully-grown fingers growing out of each cheek with knuckles and nails and everything. The fingers are moving very slowly, twitching really. If I stuck out my tongue I could lick the tips of the ones nearest my mouth. I'd known they were there, but seeing them is such a horrible shock. Mind you, it's not as much of a shock as seeing what's on my forehead, because bulging between my two normal eyes is a third eye, huge, round and milky-blind.
My body heaves so abruptly and so violently that I am hauled up on to my tiptoes. Despite the fact that I haven't eaten this morning I still manage to produce an impressive amount of vomit. It comes too quickly for me even to direct it into the sink, and ends up spattering the mirror, concealing my own reflection from me. When I've finished being sick I start to cry. What's happening to me is impossible. I wonder if I'm going mad.
I sink to the floor, my sobs tearing the energy out of me, debilitating me. My tears must be running down my new fingers, perhaps dripping off their tips, but I can't feel them. I take care when I'm crying not to put my hands up to my face. I can't bear the thought of my new fingers craning up towards my normal fingers, touching them, stroking them, curling round them like lovers' fingers intertwining. Lots of thoughts run through my head as I lie there. Would this have happened to me if Rachel had not left? How can I go to work looking like this? How can I ever leave the house again? What am I going to do?
Eventually I stop crying and struggle up into a sitting position. I'm full of tears and snot and I really have to blow my nose, and so I do, gritting my teeth and forcing myself to hold the piece of bog roll in place as my new fingers probe and caress the backs of my hands. I splash some water on my face, then dry it, which is a horribly weird sensation. My new fingers wriggle feebly under the towel like kittens tied in a sack. Afterwards I don't feel any better, but I feel able to think a bit more clearly. I need help, I decide. Professional help. I need to see a doctor.
There's no way I'm going to trog down to the hospital on the bus and sit in Casualty, though, so I dial 999. When I say that I want an ambulance, the woman on the other end of the line asks me what the nature of the problem is. I tell her I've had an accident and can't get out of my flat. When she asks me if there's any blood loss, I say, 'No, I just can't move, please hurry,' and put the phone down.
Waiting for the ambulance I can't settle. I sit, stand, walk about, move from room to room. My stomach grinds with apprehension at the prospect of people seeing me, seeing what a freak I've become. It's no longer a Frosties day. Rachel's departure couldn't put paid to my appetite, but this has.
I keep going to the window and looking down into the street below, wishing desperately that the ambulance would arrive whilst simultaneously dreading it. When it does finally arrive it's not an ambulance at all, but one of those white vans with PARAMEDIC painted on the side in big black letters. Immediately my stomach contents bubble up, then drain into my bowels. I rush to the toilet and manage to get my boxers down just before the deluge. It only takes thirty seconds and afterwards I feel so enervated I can barely wipe my arse. I'm just washing my hands and realising that I'm still only wearing the things I went to bed in - boxers and a crumpled black T-shirt with a picture of Darth Maul on it - when the buzzer in the hallway goes.
'Hello,' I say, wishing now that I could just crawl back in to bed and go to sleep and find out when I wake up that everything is back to normal.
'Paramedics, son. Was it you who called for an ambulance?'
'Yes,' I say.
'Let us in then, would you, son, if you can manage it.'
I press the button beside the little speaker and imagine them entering the building. I run into the bedroom, find some jeans with a hole in the knee and pull them on. I don't have time for socks, so I slip my feet into the trainers I kicked off before crawling into bed drunk last night. Before I can begin to tie the laces, they're banging on my door.
'Coming,' I croak, wishing with all my heart that this was just a normal day. Wishing that Rachel was here. Wishing that I could go to work and come back and that Rachel and I could have one of our long conversations, and that this time I could say the right things and make everything okay again.
Am I being punished for not making the effort, for allowing the truly important things to slip through my fingers? If so, is there any way of reversing the process, of turning back the clock? Perhaps it's Rachel I really need to speak to, not a doctor. It's too late now, though. I open the door.
I don't like the look of the blokes who are standing there. One has tinted glasses and a stubbly beard, the other has a lumpy, pock-marked face and tiny eyes. They're both big blokes - tall, thick-set, broad-shouldered, just this side of fat. If they'd been wearing suits and not paramedic jackets, they'd have looked like bouncers or hired thugs.
The pock-marked one opens his tiny eyes as far as they can go and says, 'Bloody hell, look at the state of you!'
I'm embarrassed by their scrutiny. No, more than embarrassed - ashamed. As if my physical appearance is neither some freakish anatomical accident nor God's design nor a product of genetics, but of my own making. I hang my head and mumble, 'You can see now why I needed you.'
The two men look at each other, then the one with the stubble says, 'We're not with you, son.'
I gesture vaguely at my face. 'This,' I say.
The pock-marked one just stares at me, then he says, 'Born like that, were you?'
I shake my head. 'No, that's just it. When I went to bed last night I was normal. Then when I woke up…I looked like this.'
'Bummer,' says the stubbly one. 'Life can sometimes be cruel, can't it, Doug?'
'Oh yeah,' says Doug, the pock-marked one. 'One day you're Brad Pitt, the next you wake up and you look like this.' He points at his own face and the two men chuckle.
'So,' says the stubbly one, rubbing his big, meaty hands together, 'where's the injured party, son?'
'Well…I'm it,' I say. 'I'm the injured party.'
The two men look me up and down, then the stubbly one says, 'You look able-bodied enough to me, son.'
'But it's these,' I say, gesturing at my new fingers, at my third eye. 'I need to see someone. I need help.'
'So what's that got to do with us?' says Doug.
'Well, I can't go out looking like this, can I?' I say. 'People will stare.'
Both of the men suddenly look really pissed-off. 'So you mean to tell us,' says the stubbly one, 'that you phoned for us just because you wanted a lift to the hospital?'
'999 is for emergencies only,' says Doug.
'But this is an emergency,' I say weakly.
'An emergency!' exclaims Doug. 'Just because you can now pick your nose without having to move your hands, you call that an emergency?'
'But I don't know what's happening to me,' I bleat. 'It's not normal, is it?'
'Are you in pain, son?' says the stubbly one sarcastically, the pouchy flesh around his glaring eyes looking bruised behind his dark-tinted specs. 'Is your condition life-threatening?'
'I don't know,' I say miserably.
'There's probably some poor geezer who'll die of a heart attack because of you. Have you thought about that?' says Doug, stepping forward and jabbing me in the chest with his finger.
I'm near to tears again. I can feel the urge to break down building up at the back of my throat. If I say anything else I know my voice will crack and I'll start blubbing, so I just shake my head.
Doug shakes his head too, though in a dismissive why-do-I-have-to-put-up-with-tossers-like-this? kind of way.
'Bloody time-wasters,' mutters the stubbly one. 'Why didn't you just call a cab, son?'
I still can't speak. I just shake my head, shrug.
'Well, now you've got us out here on a wild goose chase you might as well make yourself useful,' says Doug. 'I could kill a cup of tea. Put the kettle on, son.'
He barges past me into the flat. The stubbly one follows. I'm so caught off-guard that I stumble backwards and thump into the wall. When I recover enough to go after them and catch them up, I find that they've made themselves comfortable. Doug's sitting on my settee, leafing through this week's copy of heat magazine, and the stubbly one's poking around in the kitchen.
Doug looks up. 'Two sugars for me, son. Not much milk.'
Then the one in the kitchen shouts out, 'Hey, Doug, there's a load of beer in the fridge.'
'Even better,' says Doug. 'Forget the tea, son. I'll have a drop of the old amber nectar.'
I've managed to overcome the urge to break down now, but my voice still sounds a bit weak and whiny. 'Should you be doing this?' I ask.
Doug goes all still and looks at me with his hard little eyes. 'Doing what, son?' he says icily.
I feel nervous. Below my eyes I can see the fingers moving, writhing slowly like blind, brainless worms. 'Well…drinking beer when you're supposed to be on duty. Shouldn't you be out helping people, saving their lives?'
'Are you telling me how to do my job, son?' Doug says quietly.
'No, I'm just…' I look at his face and decide not to push it. 'I was just saying, that's all.'
The stubbly one comes back in to the room carrying two open bottles of Grolsch. 'Johnny Fingers giving you a hard time, is he, Doug?'
'Nothing I can't handle,' says Doug cheerfully, taking one of the beers.
The two men drink deep from their bottles. Doug burps. Chaz walks over to my shelf of videos beside the telly and pulls out my pirate copy of A Clockwork Orange which I got at a film festival in Manchester.
'Hey, Doug, have you ever seen this?'
'No,' says Doug. 'Is it any good?'
'It's a bit arty-farty in places,' says Chaz, 'but it's got some good bits in it. There's a great bit where a bird gets raped.'
'Stick it on then,' says Doug. 'Let's have a look.'
Chaz puts the video on and the two men begin to watch it. I stand around like a spare part, wondering what to do. I want to ask them to leave, but I feel intimidated. I hope they'll go after they've finished their beer. But when Doug's drained his bottle he just holds it up and waggles it in the air. 'Get us another one of these, would you, son?' he says.
I hover, not sure whether to do what he says or to say something. I step towards him, and then, feeling as though there's a bird fluttering in my stomach, I say, 'I don't think that's a good idea.'
Chaz snorts an ugly burst of laughter out of his nose. I don't know whether this is because of something that's just happened in the film, because of what I've said, or because he's anticipating Doug's reaction to what I've said. Not that it really matters, because Doug's the one I have to watch out for. He goes all still again, and he gives me that stare that's both impassive and terrifying. I think of nutters who switch off before performing acts of unspeakable violence. I think of Henry from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with Chaz as his horrible friend, Otis, giggling away in the corner, getting off on all the violence.
Without saying a word, Doug brings back his arm and throws his empty bottle at me.
I'm taken by surprise, but I manage to duck. The bottle sails over my shoulder and shatters against a bookcase. I feel a prickling sensation on the back of my arm. I don't know whether this is caused by flying slivers of glass sticking in me or whether it's just my skin flinching from the prospect of it. I'm shocked and scared, and before I can stop myself I blurt, 'What did you fucking do that for?'
Doug stands up and I take a step back. 'You're starting to seriously get on my nerves, son,' he says.
'This is my flat,' I say, but there's little conviction in my voice.
Chaz laughs his ugly snorting laugh again. Then he too stands up, walks over to the telly and kung fu kicks it. It falls off its stand and crashes to the floor. There's a fzzzt sound and then a white shower of sparks like a little firework and then the screen goes black.
'What did you do that for?' I bleat.
'Because I could,' said Chaz. He looks at Doug. 'Time to make this trip worth our while I think, Doug.'
'I think so,' Doug replies, his eyes never leaving mine.
'What do you want?' I whimper.
'We just want to do our job, son,' says Doug.
'It's nothing personal,' says Chaz. 'Please don't think it's `cos you're a freak or anything. Because we're not like that are we, Doug?'
Doug shakes his head.
'There's no prejudice involved or nothing,' Chaz continues. 'Black, white, male, female, young, old, it doesn't matter to us.'
They're advancing on me slowly and I'm backing away. 'Please leave me alone,' I say, my voice weedy and high-pitched because I'm on the verge of tears again.
'We can't do that, son. I mean, you called us here, didn't you?' says Chaz reasonably. 'We have to have something to show for it.'
'It's best if you don't resist,' says Doug. 'Just go limp. We'll do the rest.'
'What do you reckon, Doug? The stairs?' says Chaz.
'What do you mean, the stairs?' I all but weep.
'We're going to throw you down them, son,' says Chaz. 'Try and break a few bones.'
'Then we'll rush you to the hospital,' says Doug. 'It'll be exciting. We'll put the flashing light on and everything.'
'Don't worry, son, we'll look after you,' says Chaz.
'We're trained paramedics,' explains Doug with a modicum of pride.
'You can't do this!' I squeal. 'I'll report you! I'll get the police on to you!'
'I knew he'd be trouble the minute I saw him,' says Chaz.
'We'll have to crush his vocal cords,' says Doug reflectively. 'Make it look like it happened when he fell down the stairs.'
'And his hands,' adds Chaz. 'Don't forget his hands.'
'Hmm,' says Doug. 'We'll have to make it permanent enough so he never talks or writes again.'
'You'll have to do that,' says Chaz, and turns to me. 'It's his speciality,' he explains. 'You should see the injuries he inflicts. They're like works of art.'
It's at this point that I run. I don't know whether Doug and Chaz are chasing me. I'm terrified, and my breath's scraping in my throat like a hacksaw blade, and I can taste blood right at the back there somewhere, and my legs aren't going as fast as I want them to so that I feel I'm wading through syrupy air, and my trainers feel loose and sloppy on my feet because the laces aren't tied, and the laces are lashing my bare ankles like little whips, and I keep thinking I'm going to step on them and go arse over tit, and I have to grab the door handle and pull it towards me, which means having to stop, having to actually step backwards before I can get out of the door, and then I am out of the door and I'm screaming, 'Help! Help!' like a teenage girl in a slasher movie.
I keep feeling a big, meaty hand coming down on my shoulder or giving me a shove between my shoulder blades so that I fall headlong down the stairs, but these feelings are only imaginary, not real. As it is, I nearly break my neck by leaping three, four steps at a time in my panic to get away. At the bottom of the stairs, as I reach for the Yale lock that will allow me to open the outside door and get out of the building, I risk a glance behind me. Either Doug and Chaz haven't followed me or they're quite a way behind.
I pull the door open and run out. I run right past their van, which I notice has an open McDonalds box on the dashboard with a half-eaten hamburger in it. I feel horribly exposed out here and bow my head, holding my hands up in front of my face as I run. Luckily it's a quiet street, but I do run past a black lady pushing a pram. I glance at her, expecting to see her recoil in horror, but she doesn't even look at me. It's a bitingly cold February morning, but although I'm aware of the chill on my bare arms, my adrenaline and panic are keeping the rest of my body warm for the moment. I reach the top of the road and turn right, instinctively heading for the park a bit further up, craving the cover of the bushes and trees. There are one or two people around, but they're far enough away from me not to be able to see me clearly, and I reach the park without incident.
Going in through the green, wrought-iron gates, I see a young couple off to my left and so I turn right. From a distance I must look like a normal jogger apart from the fact that I'm wearing jeans. I know that I can't avoid people forever, and that sooner or later I'm going to have people pointing at me, staring at me, screaming or laughing or making disgusted noises like I've got some kind of disease. The only way to stop this, I guess, will be to have an operation, to have my new fingers and my third eye surgically removed. I wonder if this will leave scars, if I'm going to have to wear a mask for the rest of my life. I see myself living a solitary, tortured, noble life, a kind of modern-day Phantom of the Opera.
Then a woman and two young girls come round the corner and all but collide with me. I put up my hands instinctively and accidentally touch one of the woman's breasts. She's a dumpy woman in her mid-thirties. The girls are about eight or nine. 'Sorry,' I say, then the woman looks into my face for the first time and I see her expression change from mild surprise to utter horror. She sucks in a breath so sharply she sounds like she's hissing at me, and then in a voice dripping with disgust she says, 'Oh my God.'
The girls stare at me, goggle-eyed, and the woman reaches out her arms to them as though to gather them protectively to her.
I back away, holding up my hands, feeling wretched. 'Sorry,' I say. 'I didn't mean to…that is…sorry.' I blunder past the woman, my face burning, and I see some thick bushes lining the path ahead. I plunge in to them, clawing them aside with my hands. Small, sharp branches scrape my skin, leaves slap my face. My new fingers wriggle as if to defend themselves against the leaves. I can't feel my third eye at all, the milky one in the middle of my forehead, but I imagine it staring blindly ahead, oblivious to the leaves slapping against it.
When I've got so deep into the bushes that the leaves I've plunged through have closed again behind me, I sink down into a sitting position, crossing my legs because I haven't got room to move about. I'm surrounded by leaves and stalks, I can't see anything else. I'm panting, my lungs clenching painfully with each breath. I'm not used to running, and when I do it always reminds me how out of shape I am, even though I'm quite thin. I'm soaked with sweat, which is starting to dry cold on my skin, making me shiver. In fact, the cold and the delayed reaction to everything that's happened to me this morning start to work together, and I begin not just to shiver but to shudder, a feeling like an internal earthquake of coldness that starts in my belly and radiates outwards, causing my teeth to chatter uncontrollably, my whole body to shake as though with palsy.
I draw my knees up and wrap my arms around them and try desperately to find some warmth within myself. What I'd give now for a fleecy jacket or, even better, a steamy hot bath. I wonder how long it takes for someone to die of exposure. Maybe I'll be found in a week or two, stiff and white, like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining. Or maybe I'll never be found. It doesn't look as if anyone's actually burrowed their way into these bushes before. No reason why they should have, I suppose.
I consider my options. I could go back to the flat, see if the Paramedic van has gone, and if it has, try to get someone to let me in, because I'd fled the place without my key. I could try to find a police station and tell them the whole story. Or I could just sit here for a bit, in the quiet, among the leaves, where no one can see me.
I don't fancy going back to the flat, because even if the van has gone, it won't necessarily mean the men have gone too, will it? It might be a trick. They might park the van round the corner, out of the way, or maybe just one of them might drive off and leave the other behind to wait for me to come back. Besides, I don't want anyone who lives in the same building as me seeing what a freak I've become. And the thought of wandering around looking for a police station makes me feel sick. All those people pointing at me, recoiling in horror like the woman and the two girls, or laughing and jeering, perhaps even attacking me just because I'm different.
No, I don't want any of that, not just yet anyway. So I'll just sit here for a bit and hope that when my sweat dries I'll feel warmer. And I'll try to gather my thoughts and come up with a better plan. Maybe when I stand up I can see how much money I've got in my pocket, and if I've got enough I can find a phone and ring Rachel at work, get her to meet me here in her car. She'll help me, I know she will.
I tie my shoelaces and then I close my eyes and try to relax. Despite the cold I feel so incredibly tired. And oddly, when I close my eyes I feel warmer, as though I'm slipping down into a cosy, safe place somewhere inside myself. I think of Jack Nicholson again, frozen to death at the end of The Shining, but that doesn't seem important now. The only thing that seems to matter is to reach the safe place, and to put all the hurt and pain and fear behind me.
The sleep that comes over me as I'm sitting there in the bushes is like being anaesthetised. By that I mean it's not like sleep, it's like death, it's nothingness - I don't dream, I'm not aware of time passing at all. Maybe I feel like this because I am anaesthetised in a way, anaesthetised by cold. Maybe my body's shutting down, my blood slowing in my veins, my heart struggling to beat. Maybe I'm dying, slipping quietly, unprotestingly away.
And then I'm no longer dying because I'm suddenly awake, and even though I'm confused, I'm struggling, fighting. I'm not hunched up in the bushes any more, I'm lying on the grass and there are two figures standing over me, holding me down, and it's dark, it's night-time.
'Careful,' one of the figures says, 'he's coming round.'
'Quick,' says the other, 'get him over on to his front.'
Chaz and Doug. The thought zigzags through my head like a single word: Chazandoug, Chazandoug. I panic, but I can hardly fight because my body feels weak, heavy, sluggish with cold. I'm rolled on to my front and my hands are tied behind my back, and it's only when I try to kick out that I realise my legs are tied too. I try to cry out for help, but my tongue feels swollen to twice its normal size and the only thing that comes out is an incoherent, animal-like moan.
I feel a hand on my back and then someone leans down and whispers in my ear, 'Sh, don't fret, friend. Believe me, it's for your own good.'
It's not Doug's voice, or Chaz's. It's someone else, someone I don't know. It doesn't reassure me. I'm scared, but I can't do anything about it. Why couldn't they leave me alone? Why couldn't they just let me die?
Between them the two men pick me up and carry me across the now dark and deserted park. I hear the dull roar of traffic going past beyond the park railings a few hundred yards away. We go into the denser, woodier, more secluded part of the park, and eventually come across a small, squat building, made of wood, standing in a little clearing. Still carrying me, the men hurry towards the building as if they're going to use me as a battering ram to smash down the door. They stop at the door and the man carrying my front end knocks on it. It is opened immediately.
The men carry me inside and lay me face-first on a workbench covered in sacking. I realise that the windows have been blacked out, because there are candles lighting up the room. I hear people moving about behind me and then a voice, deep and mellifluous, says, 'How are you feeling, Steven?'
I'm shocked to hear my name, but oddly reassured by the voice. It sounds concerned, not hostile. The room is warm and my skin starts to prickle and itch as my body thaws out.
'What are you going to do?' I manage to whisper.
I feel a hand stroking my head and one of the men who carried me in here says, 'Don't be scared, Steven. We only want to help.'
'We're not going to hurt you,' says the man who leaned down to murmur in my ear outside. 'You're one of us now.'
'What do you mean I'm one of you?' I say.
There's a pause, and then the man with the deep voice says, 'We're going to turn you over now, Steven, and you may receive a shock. Prepare yourself.'
I feel hands on me, not rough but gentle, turning me over on to my back. I have a lamp suspended over me, angled down at my face. I blink at its brightness and half-turn my head away, and one of the three figures standing over me reaches out to tilt the lamp at the wall. As the light shifts I see the faces of the other three people in the room. My throat tightens.
They are like and yet unlike me. They have fingers growing out of their faces and a round, bulbous eye in the centre of each of their foreheads. Their third eyes, however, are not blind. The pupils are dark and alive and swarming with iridescence. Their normal eyes, by contrast, are shrivelled and sealed up, the skin etched with little criss-crossing scars where the stitches went in.
'Soon you'll see as we do,' says one of the men.
'Wondrous sights,' breathes another.
Then the two men who had carried me in here position themselves either side of me and hold my head still whilst the third picks up a syringe from a surface beside him and pushes the needle gently into my left eye.
(C) Mark Morris 2005
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.