Simon Bestwick has, much to his horror, just turned 29. As if the world about to plunge to apocalyptic war isn't bad enough, he'll be 30 next year, should he live so long. This will probably make him both redouble all his efforts to get into print and write even darker, more disturbing stuff, so be warned. His fiction has appeared in such mags as Terror Tales, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Nasty Piece of Work, Enigmatic Tales, Strix and Darkness Rising, and he has work forthcoming in the anthologies Extremes 5, Beneath The Ground, and Sailing Strange Seas. A loudmouthed socialist and currently single (hopefully these two conditions are not related), he lives in the Lancashire town of Swinton, and when not writing, can be found drinking, eating, going for long walks or marching with the Anti Nazi League against the forces of darkness.
'The old know nothing. Fling them down. They made the world and they need punishing.'
- Howard Barker, The Castle, Act One, Scene One.
I can see them from my window now, stood in the shadows of the old bus shelter, a bus shelter with the naked, signless pole of the stop beside it. The bus doesn't run down here anymore, but they never got around to taking the shelter apart. More's the pity. But would it have made any difference? If not there, they would have found another place to congregate.
The air feels so stuffy in here, tastes so stale. The walls seem to close in, to the width and height and breadth of a coffin. I can't breathe. Claustrophobia. I must get out. I have to go out.
No. I mustn't. Mustn't.
But sooner or later, I know I will.
Before I do, I have to set it down. Concentrate, Christopher. Concentrate on the task in hand. It'll help, for a little while at least.
When did it start? That's the tough bit. It has to start somewhere, but there must be so much that's led up to it. I don't think I can honestly tell you where it started. But I can tell you where it began for me.
I didn't see them get Ruth Hamilton. I saw the aftermath, glimpsed the huddled shape on the kerb, but the light that stands directly above the shelter is bust, has been for a long time, months. I expect they did that. Preparing the ground.
It was a while before I plucked up the courage to go out. It used to be a nice neighbourhood, but in the eighties it got run down. The council dumped all the tenants it didn't want here. Now I don't like to go out after dark. But it looked like a body fallen by the shelter. I couldn't see any of them there.
The kids. The children who gather there at dusk. They smoke cigarettes and they drink cans of lager and bottles of cheap wine. They're all about thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years of age. I think. I've never been very good at guessing. By night, all you can see is the odd little gleaming coal of a cigarette, being passed back and forth. Or maybe it isn't just cigarettes. You hear about all sorts...
Anyway, eventually, I nerved myself to go out. I wrapped up warm- at my age, you start to feel the cold more than you did before- and walked up to the bus stop. My palms were clammy with sweat every step of the way. They always are, outside after dark. The old aren't safe outside, not around here, not anymore.
At last I reached the shelter. Something glistened on the pavement, wending its way over the kerb and into the gutter. I thought it was blood at first, but then smelt its acridity and realised that it wasn't. It was urine.
She lay there, limbs out flung, headscarf disarrayed over her grey hair and wide-eyed, agonised face. Her mouth yawned too in death, and her false teeth had slipped out.
Why do our bodies betray us so? All through life it happens, more and more as the time goes away from you, but so often at that last moment, bowels and bladder failing, a final humiliation. A last sneer. Death must be a young man, I often think, a "scally", as they call them round here, the children at the bus shelter. Unfeeling and unthinking, jeering and cruel. But perhaps there's not much room for finer feelings, growing up in a place like this. A vicious circle; a place dark and empty, nothing to do and nowhere to go, and no money to do it with either, unless you steal it. Parents who have nothing- except, all too many times, drinking problems and drug problems and all the rest of it. I try to understand, really, I do but sometimes it's just beyond me. Ben never tried to. He clung to all his own certainties, the same ones his parents issued him with as a child. Sometimes, I envied him that.
In the distance, a few streets away, a siren started wailing.
I crouched painfully beside her, old joints creaking, and felt with stiffening, arthritic fingers for the pulse in her neck and throat. There was nothing. Her skin was already going cold. I felt a coldness too, starting from the inside and spreading out, an oppressive weight inside my chest and stomach like a ball of tightly-packed ice stitched in there. Her glasses were askew, one lens cracked. Gently I slipped them off and closed her eyes.
After the funeral, I went down the Legion with Ben Crabshaw. We loosened our ties and unfastened our collars and nursed pints of bitter at a small, chip-topped table in the corner, for all the world, I suspect, like two old crows in our funeral black.
I'd known Ruth Hamilton for a long time. We'd both been born and bred in this area, lived in the same houses we'd been born in. Ben was a newer arrival, coming in the years after the war. He was a bitter, sour-faced man, right-wing even by the standards of the times. A Londoner by birth, it was rumoured he'd marched once with Mosley's blackshirts. At times I could believe it. All through the eighties, he managed to contrive to blame the one Pakistani family in the neighbourhood- they'd taken over the old newsagents- for its decline. And they say today's children are bad. If we'd met in our respective youths, we'd have battered one another to a pulp.
Still, for all that, I suppose you could say we were friends. Politics and unsavoury suspicions aside, Ben wasn't all bad. He had a sense of humour, sometimes cruel but always laugh-out-loud funny, and he was full of those small generosities that are appreciated and make a difference. And it was hard to tell if he believed any of it anymore, or was just going through the old motions to convince himself he still knew who he was.
Besides, when you reach a certain age, it gets harder to pick and choose your companions; he was the only one my own age left around here, now that Ruth was gone.
She was a beauty in her time, was Ruth. For a little while, once, when we were younger, we'd walked out together. But then she married someone else. We stayed friends. Stan, Ruth's husband, didn't come back from the war. He was taken prisoner at Dunkirk, but died in a German PoW camp. I was never sure what of. By then, Ruth and I were too used to being friends to be anything else; and friends we stayed, and I wouldn't have changed that for anything, but I regretted it all the same, what we had, or could have had, and lost. Isn't that always the way?
Ben was quiet in the Legion, gazing down into the dwindling cap of froth on his pint of ale, hands cupped around it like a child's round a mug of cocoa, in from the snow on a winter's day, as if it would warm instead of chill. He'd always carried a torch for Ruth. They'd seen each other for a few months in the fifties, but soon enough Ruth decided she'd rather just be friends, same as with me. I think that really she was a one-man woman, just as there are one-woman men. Ben, I think, felt the same sadness as I did over that- well, perhaps not quite the same. As I said, there was a bitterness to him as well, an anger, an old wound that never quite healed. I'm not sure what; we were friends, but there were some depths to one other we never quite plumbed.
He was angry then, about Ruth. I could hardly blame him, but who could you blame? She'd collapsed in the road from a heart attack; it was as simple and brutal as that. There was nobody to blame.
So I thought. But Ben didn't agree. And much as it pains me to admit it, he was right.
'Those bloody kids,' he growled, knuckles whitening around the glass. 'Little bastards. Bloody vicious little shits.'
'Come on, Ben,' I said. 'You can't blame them. They were nowhere near.'
'Bollocks,' he spat. 'That's all you know.'
'Oh? And what do you know that's so different?'
It was an old argument, and I was sorry as soon as I spoke for what I'd said. We'd bickered about the kids on the estate many a time; to me, they were just a symptom, the result of all else that had gone wrong, but to Ben, they were proof positive of how the younger generation didn't have the strength or the steel of those who'd gone before. An old argument it was, and tired. The same as me. I hadn't the energy for it again, not now, not with Ruth just bade farewell to. But I'd get it anyway, I knew.
Except I didn't, not in the way I'd expected at any rate. Ben wasn't angry, not in the same way; the brief flame of it guttered and blew out, left only the smoke of his bitterness, the ashes of a torch carried long and burned away at last to nothing.
'I told the police what I saw,' Ben said quietly. 'But none of them believed me. No-one believes me.'
'What do you mean?' I frowned, not understanding. 'What was it you saw?'
'Those bloody kids. They were at the shelter when Ruth walked up past them. God!' The fires flared up again; Ben clenched his fist and slammed it down flat on the table. Heads turned. Ben glared at them. They looked away. He turned back and looked at me. His eyes were wet and tinged with redness. 'What the bloody hell was she doing out there, Chris? Out there on her own, that time of night?'
'She wasn't the type to be intimidated,' I said softly. 'If she wanted to go out, she wouldn't let a few snotty-nosed little kids stop her. You know what Ruth was like, Ben.'
He managed a smile. 'Aye. Don't I just.' He was quiet for a few moments, and we both mused, together but apart, on the woman we'd both, at our separate times and places, loved and lost. 'But what they did, Chris...'
'Who? The kids?' He nodded. 'What did they do?'
'They spread out as she came up. Right around her. I saw them from my window. They were talking to her. I don't know what about. Then-' His breath caught and he took a gulp of beer, then wiped his eyes on his sleeve. I took out a crumpled tissue from my pocket and handed it to him. 'One of them took a knife out, Chris. One of the girls. She stabbed Ruth. I saw it.'
I spoke as gently as I knew how. 'Ben, Ruth died of a heart attack. She wasn't stabbed. There were no injuries. They-'
'I bloody know!' He shouted. More heads turned, and Ben rose angrily, glaring about him. 'What're you bloody looking at?'
'Ben-' I caught his sleeve and he knocked my hand away. 'Ben, calm down-'
'Oh, bugger off,' he spat contemptuously. 'You're just like all the bloody rest.'
He turned and stalked off, his pint all but untouched.
I was tempted to follow him, but didn't; I knew from long past experience that wouldn't work. When Ben was angry, the only thing to do was let that anger run its course.
So I stayed and finished my own pint, debated draining Ben's for him as well, and then decided not to. Wouldn't be right, somehow. Besides, in less than an hour it'd be dark. And I wanted to be safely indoors by then.
I walked home slowly. The kids had already started gathering by the bus stop; a couple of them, a boy and a girl, were there. The girl had found something to perch herself on, and all I could see was one foot, in a training shoe and the leg of a pair of tracksuit bottoms, swinging to and fro. The boy were tracksuit bottoms too, and a jacket of some kind. Kappa, I think it said. He wore a baseball cap too, his face pale with a couple of small tight clusters of red spots. His eyes were like little black olives, set in sleepless panda-rings of darkened skin. He was sucking, hollow-cheeked, on a cigarette, and those olive-black eyes seemed to follow me as I walked.
I looked away and walked a little faster, fast as my old bones dared. Home felt a long way away.
When I was indoors, I took off my coat and made a pot of tea. I took it with lots of milk and sugar, and then went upstairs to my room. From the window, which looked down the street, I could see the bus shelter.
They were gathering there now, in the dusk. There were seven of them. There always were. I recognised them now. I'd never noticed before how it was always the same group, always there, always turning up with clockwork regularity. Four boys, three girls. I could hear their laughter, raucous and sharp, through the thin pane of glass.
Looking more closely though, I could see that one of the girls was different. I remembered now. One of them had always had blonde hair. Really blonde, catching the dying sunlight like gold. The other two were mousy brunettes, one straight-haired, one curly. I could see them, but the third girl had long hair that was very dark, almost black. Glossy. Not blonde at all.
Perhaps she'd dyed it. I shrugged. It was none of my business anyway. And I was about to turn away, and perhaps would have made no more of the whole thing, when I saw a car pulling up by the stop.
What caught my eye was the make. It was a BMW, new and gleaming and silver. You don't see many of them around here. They wouldn't last long.
A door opened and the woman got out of it. She was quite tall, and very elegant, beautiful and groomed, with long, expensively styled blonde hair. Expensively dressed too. I put her in her early twenties, though as I said I'm not great with guessing people's ages.
The blonde-haired woman leaned against the side of the bus shelter, slouching just the way the kids did, and started talking to them. She got out a packet of fags and offered them around. She laughed. The children laughed. And then another odd thing happened.
She got chatting with one of the boys. He moved up close to her. He put his arm around her waist. She put hers around his shoulders. Then they started kissing.
I don't mean gentle pecks either. This was full on, mouth on mouth stuff, just like the clumsy grapplings I'd seen the kids doing with each other. He put his hands on her chest, pawing her breasts through the cotton blouse. She stuck her hand down between his legs and started rubbing.
Finally they pulled apart, flushed. Then she led him by the hand to her car. They waved to the others as they got in. The other kids waved back, or called out to them. Then the BMW pulled out and was gone, and there were only six kids left. One of them looked up at my eyes and seemed to see me. It was the boy I'd seen before at the bus stop; even at that distance, I could make out the cold little blacknesses that were his eyes. I stepped away from the window and went back downstairs. There was a tin of beans in the cupboard and I heated them up for tea. I've never been a great lover of beans, but you make use of what you've got. Don't you? We all do.
Later I went to bed, but sleep was a long time coming. I kept thinking of Ruth, her laughter and her ways, her smile and her bright eyes, and her hair when she'd been young, glossy and black as a raven's wing.
Ben came round later the following day. He looked tired, as if he hadn't slept.
'Afternoon,' he grunted from the porch as I opened the door.
We looked at each other for a couple more silent seconds, and then he snapped, 'Well, for god's sake, can I come in, then?'
I held the door open for him. 'Be my guest.'
I made coffee for us both.
'I'm sorry about yesterday,' he said finally.
I shrugged. 'You were upset. It's only natural.'
'Be nice if something round here were,' he said darkly. 'Seen that new girl who's taken to hanging round the bus stop?'
I thought back to last night. 'Her in the Beamer?'
Ben looked at me as if I'd gone mad. 'No, you prat. Her with the dark hair.'
'Oh aye.' I nodded. 'Thought she was dyeing it or something.'
'Or something,' Ben muttered. 'Did you see her face?'
'No. Just the back of her head. Why?'
Ben hesitated and chewed his lip, then shook his head. 'I'm saying nothing. Next time you see her, have a look at her face.'
He shook his head, pensively. 'Just do it. Then we'll talk about it.' He sighed. 'Just the two of us left now, isn't it?'
'Funny, really. House starts getting you down after a bit. Too bloody small and too bloody big, all at once. You know what I mean?'
'Aye,' I said. 'I know.'
'It's been getting worse lately. Can hardly stand to stick in there. Funny that. If I'd lived with Ruth I could have understood it, maybe, but I didn't. Should be nervy about out there, not in here. But no. It's been getting worse. You find that?'
I didn't, in fact; for me it had been no different from the usual run of things. Ruth's death hadn't engendered any fear, only a slow sullen ache of loss. But I shrugged and half-nodded, so he wouldn't feel as though it was just him.
The conversation petered out, but Ben still hung around. We sat up, watched the television and took in the late film; White Heat with Jimmy Cagney. I can remember seeing that when it came out at the pictures. They made a fuss then about how violent it was. God knows what they'd make of films now.
I watched Ben walk home, to his house a few doors down. Across the road, at the bus shelter, the coal of a cigarette gleamed in the shadows, like a tiny blind red eye.
It rained the next day, hissing down from a dull grey sky, blotched and grimy-looking like stained and dirty cloth. The road and pavements glistened; droplets of water ran down my bedroom window, puddled on the sill, leaked through a crack and dripped onto the carpet. I sighed and wiped up best as I could, pushed a dishcloth up against the crack.
I drank cups of tea and later one of cocoa, when the lightning started flashing and the thunder rolled down the street. I used to love thunderstorms when I was a boy, long as I was safely inside and out of their way. Still do.
The storm passed off and sunlight cracked the shell of the clouds, just in time for old Sol to go down again. And as dusk gathered, the children began coming to the shelter once more.
The boy with the olive-black eyes, and there was the other boy, the one who'd gone off with the lady in the BMW. The other two lads. The girl with the curly hair. And then the last two. The straight-haired brunette girl; and the new one, the one with the glossy black hair. She started chatting with the other two girls, and finally half-turned so I saw her face for the first time.
I'd made another cup of tea, and was holding it in my hands when that happened. I dropped it with a cry, and it scalded my thigh before splashing all over the carpet.
Because, remember, I'd known Ruth Hamilton since she was a little girl. Since she was the same age as the kids out there, and younger.
The face of the girl at the bus stop was the face of Ruth Hamilton, as a child. Identical in every line and curve.
Ruth had never had a child. No brothers or sisters. What I was seeing couldn't be real. Perhaps I was senile. Perhaps...
But I saw her there, smiling and gossiping, a fag leaking smoke through her fingers, and then I had the bedside drawer open and pulled out an old picture, from before the war. Me and Ruth, back when we were about fifteen, sixteen. I held it up as I went to the window, and looked from face to face; the old dead one in black and white, and the living, breathing one, fresh and pink in living colour at the bus shelter. And they might have been twins.
And I lowered the photo, and I stood and stared. As the sun went down.
The woman in the BMW pulled up again, got out and talked to them. She stroked the face of the boy she'd taken off with her the other night, and kissed his cheek tenderly, then kissed him again softly on the lips.
When she smiled, she looked very like the blonde girl who'd vanished from among the shelter kids, but older, of course. And luckier. After a decade or two of breaks that would have passed the shelter girl by and condemned her to teenage motherhood, alone, chain-smoking and buying the cheapest food, eyes puffy and tired from long, low-paid hours, skin grown bad and rough and prematurely old, always the edge of legality in the unequal running fight to support her tiny family, fighting the despair that drags you down to smother your child or slit your wrists.
She got in the car and drove off. The sun slipped on down and it started getting dark. The streetlamps that worked began to glow a dull cherry red.
And the children turned and stared.
Stared across the street at one of the houses.
It was as I followed their gaze that I realised whose house it was.
Run for the phone, I thought. Ring him. Warn him? Say something. Invite him over if you have to. But I didn't. Couldn't. I couldn't seem to move or speak. Only watch.
As, one by one in the gathering dusk, lights blinked on behind Ben Crabshaw's windows. Later, I saw his shadow moving about. And still the children stood there, staring, passing round their cigarettes, taking swallows of beer and cheap wine, watching, waiting.
Ben's shadow, moving to and fro. Pacing furiously. Restless, uncomfortable. In a house at once too small and too large.
I knew then. I knew, and I couldn't move.
A kind of ritual; a cheap, rough magic, home-made out of desperation and the yearning to escape. New lives rich in possibility. In exchange for a sacrifice. A soul to trap and mire in the same despair from which they flee; someone to take their place.
I stood there for more than an hour.
Until Ben's front door flew open and he stormed down the drive, across the road and towards the children.
Why not the old? Who'll remember us as we once were, when we were young? And who's most to blame for their ruined, blighted lives, stunted and hopeless, who's spent longest as architects of their kingdom?
While they go on from hopeless childhood to instant, promise-filled maturity, to build that world anew. Probably exactly the same way as it is now. Only worse.
They spread out as he reached them, encircling him. Two of them caught his arms, one of them the girl who looked so much like Ruth Hamilton. And then the boy who'd been kissing with the blonde lady came forward. I saw the metal gleaming in his hand. Saw it flash out. Heard Ben's muted, throttled cry.
Saw them scatter as I saw him fall, dispersing and vanishing like shadows before the light, as Ben rolled and twisted painfully along the kerb before he finally slumped half in and half out of the gutter. And, at last, was still, the lights from his own house reflecting in his blank, open eyes.
And so now I'm here, ready to climb the walls. I went to the window before, and all seven pairs of their eyes gleamed as they stared towards my house.
After the funeral, the few mourners all went back to Ben's house. He'd no family either. We each took a thing or two of his. Mine was his old photo album. It's right beside me now as I write. I still haven't opened it and looked. Can't.
They never found a mark on him of course. Another heart attack. They don't believe me when I tell them what I saw, anymore than they did Ben.
New faces at the bus stop this evening. The girl in the BMW was back, and she brought a feller with her. Tall dark and handsome. The boy she was kissing isn't there anymore, but the new man has the same dark hair, the same cheeky smile.
And there's a new boy too. He seems to be talking a lot with the girl who looks like Ruth Hamilton once did. Very friendly. Too friendly for my liking. And there's something very, very familiar about him. That's why I don't dare look in the photo album. There'll be pictures of him as a lad in there.
They're all staring at my house. Even away from the window I can feel it. Feel it in the coffin-like oppression of these four, sturdy, once-sheltering walls, in their echoing, lonely emptiness. Too big and too small, all at once, at the same time.
Been here before, haven't we?
Perhaps it won't be so bad. I wonder how much I'll remember? To be young again, even if it's life lived at a dead end. With Ruth. If I can cut in ahead of Ben bloody Crabshaw, who looks like he's already getting stuck in. Maybe it can be good. A swap rather than a theft. A second chance.
Or so I tell myself.
I have to, you see.
Because I really can't hold out anymore.
In a minute or so, I'm going to put this pen down and go to the front door. And then I'll open it, and walk out into the night.
Down the road, to the bus shelter.
(C) Simon Bestwick 2001
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.