The Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race is, unfortunately, fictional. As well as bath tub scenes, I like to include made-up board games in my stories. I love board games-- of a certain kind. (I don't like board games that take ages to learn, or board games that are too silly and gimmicky. Even Scrabble is a bit too skillful for my liking. I like board games that involve some element of skill, but not so much that any particular person-- usually me-- runs the risk of being utterly humiliated. I also like the boards to be tasteful. The original Trivial Pursuit is the greatest board game of all time, and the board itself was a work of art.)
“Where was Dracula when the lights went out?”, asked Fiona.
Lisa sighed. “In the dark, Mum”, she said. “If that’s not the oldest joke in the world, it’s in the first few pages.”
“You’ve just heard them all”, said her mother, a little proudly. “You seemed to know it all from the time you were born.”
“I don’t know anything”, said Lisa, without any false modesty. “Are we going to close up and go home, or what?”
“Leave it another half-hour” said Fiona, looking at her watch. “The power might come back.”
They were sitting in the kitchenette, cradling cups of lemonade in their hands. Outside, the wind was whipping up the most terrific snowstorm either woman had ever seen. Snow was battering the windows with a constant barrage of soft thumps. They’d managed to find two small candles, and were sitting in the puddle of light they threw. Outside, there was only the faintest memory of sunlight. They’d been blacked out at twenty minutes past seven. Timeless Toys stayed open until half-eight on a Thursday; it was their busiest time of the week, aside from Saturday.
“I don’t think it’s going to come back”, said Lisa. “Not anytime soon, anyway. Nobody is going to go shopping in these conditions. What if it gets worse? We might be better off setting home now.”
“It’s amazing how a storm can suddenly die”, said Fiona, a little sheepishly. She just didn’t want to go back to their house, Lisa knew. It seemed filled with his presence now. Danny.
They had got the phone call a few hours after he had been taken to hospital. He had regained consciousness there, and rushed out into the accident and emergency waiting room, screaming that he had to get back to Higginstown. It was ten minutes past ten. A man who had come in with injuries from a fight, and who seemed to be mentally unbalanced—naturally, or with chemical assistance—took out a knife and stabbed him in front of everybody. He died within minutes.
“That’s what they call a self-fulfilling prophecy”, Lisa had said, trying to hide her horror, but both woman thought immediately of his matter-of-fact prediction hours before: By midnight I’ll be dead.
They had made an unspoken agreement never to mention Danny or the incident again, and both women were happy to lose themselves in the (not too absorbing) business of the shop. Until the electricity went, that was.
When the lights went out, and the noises of civilisation were stilled, you were stuck with yourself.
“I can’t believe you sold that doll’s house, Lisa”, said Fiona, with a smile that tried to be easy but was more artifical than the light that had been cut off. “Three hundred and fifty euros! I never thought we were going to sell it. I thought it was good for window-shopping, that’s all.”
Lisa avoided her mother’s eyes, and stared back into the maelstrom outside. “I’m not too proud of that, Mum”, she said. “I’m not sure the woman could afford it. She looked…”
“You gave her fifty euro off”, said Fiona, who never sold anything for less than its asking price. “And she didn’t even ask for a reduction. I think you were very fair. Too fair.”
“I saw the light in her eyes”, said Lisa, as much to herself as to her mother. “I saw that she was seeing the doll’s house of her dreams, the doll’s house that she never had when she was a girl.”
“Did you want a doll’s house when you were a girl, honey?”, asked Fiona, a little anxiously.
“No”, said Lisa, truthfully. She was on the point of admitting that she never wanted toys at all, but she stopped herself, sensing that it would make Fiona sad. Her mother had loved buying toys for her, and made up for the forbidden Christmas by impromptu gifts through the whole year.
Fiona was opening her mouth to say something, when there was a thump in the shop outside. Something had been put through the letter-box.
Lisa sat up and reached her hand to the door of the kitchenette, but her mother grabbed her arm. When she turned around, Fiona’s face was white.
“What if it’s a petrol bomb?”, her mother asked, in a frantic whisper. “What if it’s those kids again, the ones who vandalised our door?”
This struck Lisa as coming within the suburbs of possibility, and her heart beat faster. “We’d better go out the window”, she said, as calmly as she could. She crossed the narrow floor, started undoing the latches and braced herself for the blast of snow and wind. Did petrol bombs explode immediately? She had no idea.
The wind howled with triumph as she let it in, and a shower of flakes gusted into the kitchenette. “You go first”, said Fiona, who was visibly writing with nerves.
Lisa climbed up on the sideboard and stepped onto the sill over the sink. A moment later she was over, and reaching her hand out to her mother. Fiona negotiated the window more awkwardly, but soon they were both running away from the shop, hugging themselves in the sudden, lacerating cold of the snowstorm.
This is probably insane, thought Lisa, but she kept running down Canice Street until she thought she was well beyond the reach of any blast. Her mother was a bit slower, and was gasping for air by the time she reached her. It was so cold that tears were coming into Lisa’s eyes.
A purple car pulled up beside them, on the sludge-heavy road. A grey-haired woman was looking out at them with concern. The car door opened.
“What’s wrong?”, asked the woman, in a Yorkshire accent. She was well-dressed and had short, curly hair and stylish glasses.
“We think there might be a bomb in our shop”, said Lisa, feeling ridiculous.
But the woman looked startled, and said, “Well, get in. You’ll die out in that cold.”
Lisa and Fiona clambered into the car, and for a few moments all they could do was luxuriate in its warmth.
“Which shop is it?”, asked the woman, looking around the street anxiously. There were two newsagents’, a pharmacy, and a fast food shop in Canice’s Street, as well as Timeless Toys.
“The toy shop over there”, said Lisa, pointing, feeling more silly by the second.
“I can’t call the police”, said the woman. “My phone seems to be down.”
“All the phones are down”, said Lisa, wondering once more what on earth was going on today.
“We’d better not leave the shop door open”, said Fiona, under the weight of two worries now. “We’ll give it a few minutes…”
“What exactly happened?”, asked the grey-haired woman, and when Lisa had quickly explained, she said: “If it was a petrol bomb, it would have exploded long ago. Let’s go have a look. Maybe it was a dead bird or something. Kids can have a pretty nasty sense of humour. My name is Lucy, by the way. Lucy Sherry”
“I’m Fiona Heffernan, and this is my daughter Lisa”, said Fiona. “Thank you so much, Lucy. I hope you don’t think we’re gone mad.”
“This snow is driving us all mad, I think”, said Lucy, driving towards the shop. “You stay here. I’ll put on my coat and check what it is.”
When they had pulled up by Timeless Toys, and Lucy had gone to investigate, Lisa’s eye fell on the car radio. Was that gone, too? With trepidation, she reached forward and turned it on.
Rock music blared through the car, and though Lisa winced at the sudden assault on her ears, her spirits shot up at the sound. She lowered the volume, and twiddled with the tuning dial, looking for a voice.
She hit on an interview on some news channel, where a teachers’ trade union official was defending a claim for a five per cent salary increase, and hinting at a one-day strike some time next week.
“Well, the world is going on outside Higginstown, anyway”, she said. “Maybe it’s just us.”
“Higginstown isn’t powered off one grid”, said Fiona, absently. Her eyes were fixed on the shop. “Don’t you remember how our power would be cut off while a few streets up still had theirs’?”
“Maybe the house will be OK, then”, said Lisa, switching the radio off. “I hope so. I want to see Breakneck Alley tonight. I hope that bitch Ruby—“
But now Lucy was coming back from the shop, and she was clutching something that Lisa recognised immediately, even though the whirling snow and the dark evening made it hard to make out anything other than outlines.
“Oh my God”, she said. “Look what it is.”
“What is it?”, asked Fiona, the familiar anxiety back in her voice.
“It’s one of Sheridan’s…things”, said Lisa, who felt more uneasy every time she saw one of the figurines.
Lucy seemed uneasy, too. As soon as she had got into the car, she passed the thing to Lisa, and made a face. “I didn’t know what to expect”, she said. “But I wasn’t expecting that. Do you know what it is?”
“It’s something we were selling”, said Lisa, wondering whether Lucy took them for a pair of lunatics now. “It’s…by a local artist. This is the second that we’ve had returned.”
“I have to admit, I’m not surprised”, said Lucy, staring at the thing with dark fascination. “What does surprise me is that anybody bought one at all. It gives me the spooks”.
“I’ll put it away then”, said Lisa, slotting the figurine underneath her seat. A man had come in that very morning, eager to return another of the things to them. He didn’t ask for his money back, and she didn’t offer. He seemed horribly embarrassed, and eager to get out of the shop as soon as he possibly could. He said so much craft had gone into the thing—even though he found he didn’t like it so much, after all-- that he didn’t want it to end up in his garage.
“What are you going to do now?”, asked Lucy. “Do you have a car?”
“We don’t live far away”, said Fiona, who always seemed to feel a kind of shame at their lack of transport. “We usually walk.”
“Well, you can’t walk today, that’s for sure. Let me drive you home. I don’t think anybody is doing any more business this evening. Why don’t you go to lock up?”, she asked Lisa. “You’re young and hot-blooded. You’ll survive the cold”
A few moments later, Lisa was inside the shop. She took care not to look at Sheridan’s creations, though she was intensely aware of their presence. Somehow, she imagined them looking even more baleful in the near-darkness.
As she was emptying the till, a strange thought occurred to her. The more that she was creeped out by the things, the more fascinated she became with Sheridan himself. She kept on seeing his face and recalling little moments from school. Everything he did seemed to mutiply his mystery, down to the way he stared into the air as he ate his sandwiches in the hall. As if he could see things that nobody else could.
She switched off all the lights, in case the electricity came back, put on her own coat, collected her mother’s assortment of outer garments, and turned the key that lowered the windows’ shutters. She had shut the door behind her, to keep out the snow, and as the shutter descended, so did complete darkness descend on the shop. A tingle passed through her spine.
Where was Dracula when the lights went out? Everywhere.
The Things were only feet away, to her left. She imagined them looking at her. But what the hell was she doing, anyway, suddenly imagining things? Imagination had never been her forte. Now she was seeing claws, and fancying that wooden figurines were ready to jump off the shelf at her. Suddenly, she was ablaze with indignation at her own childishness.
She forced herself to walk to the corner, and reach out to where the Things were shelved. Her hand closed around one immediately, making her start. Why was it so warm to her touch? But, of course, that was her imagination, too.
She let go of it quickly, went out and locked the door, and hurried back to the car.
“You go right down the end of this road—“, she began as soon as she’d sat down and shut the car door. She was taking off her coat and starting to put on her seatbelt in one fluid movement.
“Oh, your mother’s given me directions already”, said Lucy, with a little smile. She had a pleasant face, a face that seemed strangely at odds with her smart suit. Lisa found it easier to imagine her rolling out pastry with an old wine bottle than chairing a meeting. “It’s extraordinary how much geriatrics over twenty-five can manage on their own.”
Lisa flushed, and she heard her mother laughing. The laugh was a little too pleased for her liking. Was she that bad?
“Lucy is a hypnotherapist”, said Fiona, as the car revved up, and Lisa could hear that her mother’s eyes were sparkling. Anything to do with psychology or therapy awed her.
“I’d rather not call myself a hypnotherapist”, said Lucy, steering the car along the uphill road. People had been advised not to drive for the last couple of days, but several cars had already passed them, at a crawl. “It’s just my job. God save us from the people who become their jobs.”
“I wonder what skeletons you’d would find hiding in my cupboard”, said Fiona. The idea seemed to fascinate her and disturb her at once.
“I’m a bit tired of skeletons”, said Lucy, and though she spoke airily, Lisa could hear how much she meant it. “I could happily spend the rest of my life around dull people. People are so proud of their complexes.”
“You’d like Higginstown, then”, said Lisa, looking out at the rows of identical houses, the curtains glowing with candle-light, none of the living rooms awash with the blue-grey glow of television. The sight disturbed her, somehow. Unlike most of the people she knew, who claimed to hate television, she loved it. “It has so much dullness it could export it.”
“Except for toy shops that sell toys so disturbing that people buy them and give them back”, said Lucy, raising her eyebrow. “Turn left here?”
“Yes”, said Lisa and Fiona, simultaneously.
When their house came in view, mother and daughter started simultaneously, too. Lucy noticed it from the corner of her eye, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“There’s somebody in our house”, said Lisa, softly, staring at the yellow glow of gleaming through the gaps in the living-room curtain. “Nobody should be there.”
Lucy didn’t say anything. She stopped the engine of the car, though they were still a few doors away from the house, and they sat there for a few moments, just staring.
“Is there a police station—“ she began to ask, but she was cut off by a cry from the other two women.
She looked back at the house. The door was opened, and the figure of a man had stepped out. It was too dark to see what he looked like, but he began to run towards them. He was carrying something.
“Who the hell…”, asked Lisa, but her voice trailed off as the figure moved closer. There was something blood-chilling about the way he moved, as if he being chased by the devil himself. When he was close enough to be seen by the light of the car, Lucy was frightened by the shock of black hair, the intense eyes staring from behind thick, square glasses, and the statue of some saint he was brandishing like a club.
Lisa screamed and Fiona fainted as Danny lifted the statue of St. Francis in the air. Lucy was trying to start the car, but nothing was happening.
“Still, it might be a blessing in disguise”, said Brendan, moving his cyclist three squares and landing on a picture of William Ewart Gladstone. “I didn’t think I could take any more of those football chants. I think I’d rather be caught up in an honest-to-God riot than one of those mortifying banter sessions.”
Eleanor smiled. All the ice seemed to have gone out of her tonight. “Well, here’s the question. Who said, “I never could figure out what those damned dots meant?”, and what was he talking about? For five shillings apiece.”
“It was Randolph Churchill”, said Brendan. “And he was talking about decimal points. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.”
“OK, no need to show off”, said Eleanor, with a hint of genuine dudgeon, as she added another two shillings to Brendan’s score. “So you have twenty-five pounds, five shillings. I have twelve pounds.” She put the pencil down and rolled the die, sighing when she only rolled a one. She moved her London Bobby piece one place, onto a picture of Charles Dickens, and sighed even heavier. “Bloody books.”
It was at least fifteen years since Brendan and Eleanor had played The Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race, and Brendan still remembered most of the answers. Eleanor always seemed to forget them as soon as the game was finished. She’d always been reluctant to play, so Brendan was amazed that she’d kept the game all these years. Not a single piece was missing; even the record of their old games had been preserved. His sister, who thought old buildings were good for nothing but demolition, could be surprisingly sentimental about the most unpredictable things.
“Well, you might get this one”, said Brendan. “Who wrote: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?”
“I don’t know”, snapped Eleanor, showing a flash of her usual impatience. “Some big girl’s blouse poet who stayed in bed all day feeling sorry for himself, I’ll bet.”
“It was Tennyson”, said Brendan. “He was so strong in his youth than it was said he could could lift a bullock.”
“He was better off lifting bullocks than writing…nonsense”, said Eleanor, with a little smile. Brendan laughed spontaneously.
Her mood had definitely improved since Brendan had come to stay. He wondered how lonely she must have been before he arrived. She had never been used to living on her own. Ever since their mother had died, she had always lived with a boyfriend or a female friend or two.
“This is nice, though, isn’t it?”, said Brendan, putting the die back in its drum and rattling it.
“Nice enough”, said Eleanor, grudgingly. The candlelight softened her face, giving it an unfamiliar gentle look. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without the lift, though.”
“This can’t go on too long”, said Brendan, rolling the die. “Until then, I’m your servant.”
“God help me”, said Eleanor, smiling again.
Brendan was happy. He’d always loved it when there was a blackout, in childhood. He watched as much television as anybody else, until he was about fifteen, but he’d always felt a resentment towards it. Even back then, he wanted to be like the kids in the story-books, who discovered secret passages in old houses, or set up clubs in caves and attics, or found themselves happily washed up on islands that might have been designed for their convenience, with an abundance of firewood and edible fruit. None of the kids in the stories came home from school and watched dubbed Japanese cartoons until it was time for dinner.
He remembered, when the lights would go, making hand-shadows on the wall by candle-light, and telling ghost stories, and the sound of the saucepan boiling water for tea on the gas cooker. He remembered everything suddenly seeming more real, more palpable.
“I wish we could just live like this all the time”, he said now. “Get used to it. Save electricity for life-support macines and incubators and combine harvesters. Bring back storytelling and ballads and hospitality and using our imaginations.”
“Nothing’s stopping anybody doing that now”, said Eleanor, with audible patience.
“Oh, yes it is”, said Brendan. “Custom. Custom is the most effective police force in the world. There’s no appeal against it.”
“Maybe we should go all the way, bring back human sacrifice and treating women like cattle”, said Eleanor, plucking a card from the box. “Technology. What year was the first cinema opened in Britain?”
“1898”, said Brendan, knowing it was the wrong answer. He thought Eleanor might start losing her temper if his lead stretched too far.
“Ten years later”, answered his sister, unable to hide her pleasure at his mistake. Then she yawned, and suddenly Brendan realised she looked very, very tired.
“Aren’t you getting any sleep?”, he asked, trying not to sound concerned. Where the old Eleanor fished for other peoples’ sympathy, the new Eleanor resented it ferociously.
“Oh…” said Eleanor, and he could see she was troubled. “I was never much of a sleeper.”
“Is it your…visions?”, asked Brendan.
She put the die-drum back on the table with a click, and looked up at her brother. Neither of them had mentioned her visions since the day Brendan had arrived.
She looked him in the eyes for a moment, and then looked away, down at the board of the Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race. “I know it’s all imagination”, she said, embarrassment weighting her voice. “But I still get them. In the night. It’s always when I’m falling asleep, when I’m just on the edge of sleep. Suddenly it hits me like…” she waved her open palm through the air, as if she was slapping somebody.
“I saw something myself”, said Brendan.
Eleanor looked back up now, her eyes suddenly alert. “You had a vision?”
Brendan hesitated. He liked the paranormal when it was a story, a tale traded over cottage fires through generations. But he’d never taken any of it seriously. As a mirror of the social unconsciousness, fairy tales and ghost stories were endlessly fascinating. The thought of them being literally true was somehow…disappointing. It took all the poetry out of it.
But Eleanor’s gaze held him like handcuffs, and he said: “Not a vision, not like yours. I wasn’t asleep. I was awake. I was going to work, on my first day.”
“To the Champion?”, asked Eleanor, who was looking at him with more interest now than he ever remembered her showing him before. It almost made him squirm.
“To the Champion”, he echoed. “I went through the park. And I saw…well, I saw a snowman”.
“A snowman?”, asked Eleanor, and it seemed like her eyes flashed in the light of the candles. She didn’t seem to find anything incongruous in the story so far, like he had expected her too. She was enthralled.
“A snowman”, he said, encouraged. “The best snowman I’ve ever seen in my life. It was huge, and it looked…it looked almost alive.”
Eleanor swallowed, and nodded, and kept staring at him.
“Well, when I went back, it was gone. It hadn’t been knocked over or anything. There was nothing left on it. It was as if it had just…”
“Walked away”, finished Eleanor, in a whisper.
There was silence between them for a moment, and all they could hear was the howl of the snowstorm outside, which somehow seemed to be coming from millions of miles away.
Eleanor, unconsciously, reached towards her chest and grasped the silver cross that she was never seen without. Her first boyfriend had given it to her, when she was fourteen. She looked pensive; it was the perfect word to describe her. She looked as if she was immersed in a pool of thought, as if she could neither see nor hear anything around her.
“I’ve seen him, too”, she said.
Brendan felt as if his body had suddenly become entirely hollow inside. He remembered feeling like this when he had attended a First Aid course, and suddenly became aware of the awful vulnerability of the human body, how little it would take to stop the heart from beating. He felt like he was made of glass, at that moment. Now he felt…
He felt like he was a mouse in a field, above which dozens of birds of prey were circling.
“In your visions?”, asked Brendan, and his throat felt horribly tight. He squeezed the words out.
Eleanor nodded, still looking as if she was in a trance. “And the feelings I have in my dream...they’re horrible and somehow wonderful at once. I feel like…have you heard that story about the guy who acted as Superman, in the original series? How he became convinced he was Superman, and jumped out the window and died?”
Brendan nodded. “It’s not true”, he said, softly.
“Of course it’s not”, said Eleanor, with the shadow of a frown. “The point is, I feel like I could jump out a window and fly, when I have visions of this Snowman. I feel a kind of…delight….but it’s an insane delight. Insane, and almost cruel.”
“When I saw the snowman first”, said Brendan, feeling as if some long-lost childhood memory was coming back with extraordinary force, “I laughed and laughed. I felt so giddy.”
“What does it mean?”, asked Eleanor, awoken out of her trance, and staring into her brother’s eyes as if she as trying to catch him out in a lie.
“Well…” started Brendan, feeling like he used to when one of the bus tour passengers asked him a question he couldn’t answer.
“Don’t give me some claptrap about rational explanations”, said Eleanor, with surprising bitterness. It was as if she was angry that his last explanation had let her down. “Snowmen don’t just disappear. There’s nothing rational about that.”
“An elaborate practical joke…” began Brendan, knowing how much his hedging would irritate Eleanor, but feeling that anything was better than facing the other possibility. The one he had dismissed within ten minutes of seeing the snowman gone. “When the park was closed would be the best time to do that.”
“It’s a lot of effort for a pretty stupid practical joke”, said Eleanor, still fondling her cross. “And besides…”
But she never finished her sentence, because at that moment there was a crash of glass as the window smashed into a hundred pieces. Brendan felt fragments of the pane smack against his face, his body. Then something else was launching itself against him. It was a battering ram of snowy wind, so strong that it knocked him against the wall. The pieces of The Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race were fluttering about in the air.
The first gust was the worst, but even after that, it was difficult to stand his ground. And Eleanor was on the floor, lying face down. He propped one hand against the wall, and leaned down to turn her over, his pulses soaring. When he turned her around, she had a bloody nose. Her eyes opened for a second, looked at him incuriously, and then closed again. His insides seemed to seize up for a second, but he put a hand on her chest and could feel that she was still breathing.
Snow was everywhere. It was already stuck to the blood that was dribbling from Eleanor’s nose.
He picked her up, with difficulty. She was a thin woman but Brendan was far from strong. He thought of her wheelchair, but then realised it wasn’t going to be any use. He had to get her out of here. Maybe next door. She knew the neighbours, and they might know what to do. Brendan’s First Aid course had been more than ten years ago, and he didn’t remember the slightest thing from it.
He dragged her to the living room, but he saw that the same thing had happened there. The window was smashed open, and ornaments and DVDs and magazines were being hurled around the room by the force of the wind. And the snow; it was already clinging to everything, somehow. There was a film of snow over the walls, the carpet, even the ceiling. And even from here he could hear the wind raging in the other rooms. He had to get out this flat.
He dragged her down the hall, holding her by the armpits. How was there a layer of snow on the hallway carpet, already? Eleanor left a trail behind her as he slid her along it.
But, dammit, they’d need coats and jumpers. He left her in the hallway, hoping that she’d come to while he went in search of them. But she was still out cold when he got back, and she didn’t come to her senses while he was wrapping her in her wine-coloured sweater and fur-lined winter jacket.
He felt an overwhelming urge to get out of the flat, to get both of them out of the flat. He wasn’t going to worry about what was happening until…well, until he was out of this madness, whatever it was. Brendan was good at postponing worries. He’d been doing it his entire life.
A few seconds after he’d got them outside the front door, the door of the neighbouring flat opened and a man in one of the bushiest beards he had ever seen stepped out. He was a short man, but broad-shouldered, and giving the impression of immense power. Eleanor always called him Moses when she talked about him.
Moses caught sight of Eleanor, and his face tightened with concern.
“She’s unconscious”, said Brendan. “Our windows blew in…”
“Same with me”, said Moses, who was dressed in a long brown overcoat. “Give me her legs. We’d better get her out. Get her….somewhere.”
They had both closed their front doors behind them, but they could still hear the storm’s contortions in their flats, its fury outside the walls of the apartment complex.
“We’d better make for the open spaces, brother”, said Moses. He had the deepest accent Brendan had ever heard. “It feels like the whole place might be blown down.”
“The whole place?”, asked Brendan, trying to hold back the tide of hysteria. “It’s not made of plywood, is it?”
Moses looked up at him, and Brendan found it difficult not to flinch from his dark brown eyes.
“This isn’t any normal wind and you know it”, he said. His voice was gentle, but unwavering. “Whatever it is, it wants us out of here.”
“Whatever it is?”, repeated Brendan, hating the petulant, sarcastic sound of his own voice.
“Don’t you hear it?”, asked Moses, unperturbed.
“Hear what?”, asked Brendan, somehow feeling more scared at these words than at all the events of the last five minutes.
“The laughter!”, said Moses. “I’m talking about the laughter.” He said it impatiently, as if he didn’t want to mention it at all. “Now let’s get her out of her before we’re all out of it, permanently.”
As they dragged her towards the stairs, Brendan did hear it. He heard it reluctantly, but he heard it. The wind sounded like it was laughing. The wind was laughing. There could be no mistake about it.
It wasn’t like the laughter of some mad professor in a corny science-fiction film. It was wild, jolly laughter. It was like the laughter of some gigantic, monstrous eight-year-old.
Now he heard it, he couldn’t get it out of his head. It made every square inch of his skin come out in goosebumps. It made his stomach tighten, and his teeth clench. But, somehow, it made him want to laugh, too, just like an outbreak of laughter in a room makes you join in, even when you don’t know what it’s about.
Now Moses was laughing, too. They dragged Eleanor’s senseless form down the stairs, both of them giggling like schoolboys, both of them expecting the apartment to fall around their heads any moment.
Joe Gubbins was walking his dog down Holland Street when he saw it. A car slowing and stopping, and a man running from his house towards it, carrying something heavy-looking in his hand. Even from behind this distance, he could recognise madness. The man wasn’t just angry. He was demented. Nobody sane moved with that kind of abandon.
He hesitated. Dukes had pricked his ears, but he hadn’t even begun to bark. The lunatic was still too far away for that. Joe could turn away now. After all, what was he armed with? A Jack Russell terrier? Dukes had a lot of fight in him, but he could hardly be classed as a deadly weapon.
He tugged on Dukes’s lead, turned, and began to walk away. But he’d stopped before he took the third step. He had a sudden, painfully clear vision of the future; spending the rest of his life knowing that he’d turned his back when he might have helped. What if he read tomorrow that a maniac had murdered some old lady in her car, in Higgistown? He’d spend the rest of his life trying to wash out a stain that could never be removed. He kicked the ground in frustration, sending a shower of snow into the air. Dukes leapt for it, trying to snap at it with his jaws. But the next moment, man and dog were racing back down Holland Street, Dukes joyously, his master reluctantly.
The man running towards the car didn’t slow down, or look around. He must have heard Dukes’s barking, but he was focused on his goal with all the horrible intensity of the insane. From here, Joe could hear the stuttering of the engine as the car tried to get away. Only a few minutes ago, he had passed a car that had broken down. Three men had been looking into the engine with that unique absorption he had only seen in men looking into car engines.
What was going on today? The thought hardly had time to flit through his mind. Right now, it was hard to think of anything except the figure who Dukes was already straining the leash to reach.
Joe had only ever been good at one sport, and that was running. It had been years since he’d even run for a bus—being on time was overrated, he reckoned—but those years disappeared in a moment, and he might have been back in school again, leaving all the other kids behind him on sports day. Dukes was a young dog, but he could just about keep up with him now.
The lunatic was standing right above the car when Joe caught up with him. Even so he, Joe hesitated. Tackling a maniac seemed an intrinisically unnatural act, like sticking something sharp into your own ear, or lying down on a train track.
For the first time he saw what the man was holding. It was a statue of St. Francis. He remembered his own mother had one like it. He’d drawn a crayon moustache on it once, and she’d disappointed him by merely laughing when she saw it. The staute was lifted above the maniac’s head, ready to swing down onto the windshield. He didn’t look into the car but he had a vague impression of women sitting behind the glass, panic on their faces.
It was now or ever. He let go of Dukes’s lead and grabbed the madman’s forearms in the moment before they swung downwards.
The strength in that downward swing was greater than anything he could have imagined. He had expected to stop them in mid-air. Instead, he found himself being hurled over the man’s head. His back smashed against the glass, which still did not shatter. The shock was greater than the pain. He heard the statue whistle into the darkness, thrown out of its course by his intervention.
He lay on the bonnet of the car, stunned. But then the man was leaning over him, and now there could be no doubt of his madness. The eyes that were staring at him held no flicker of reason at all; they were the eyes of a wild dog. He was shouting, and it seemed as though the shouts were intended as words, but there was no sense to be made from them. He grabbed Joe by the collar of his jacket, and flung him with devilish strength to one side.
First there was the pain of impact, then there was the sting of the cold. The snow burned into the skin of his face, and when he managed to raise himself, he saw the awful contrast of his own blood against the glowing white of the ground. My God, he thought, there’s so much of it.
He rolled around, and saw that the man had rushed to the side of the car, in search for his statue. The car was still shuddering in a vain attempt to start, and Dukes was rushing towards Joe. He manged to lift his arms in time to stop the dog in its tracks. The thought of its hot tongue licking his face was agony, right now. He knew, without trying, that he wouldn’t be able to get back up for a few more moments at least. Icy panic gripped him.
But the madman seemed to have lost all interest in him. He was smashing the statue against the windscreen again, and now the women in the car were screaming. It only took a few strikes for the glass to shatter. The man howled in triumph—a horrible, rasping, primal howl—and raised his statue, this time to collide with flesh and bone, rather than glass.
But then the howl of triumph was followed by a howl of pain that was even more sickening. The man fell backwards, and Saint Francis landed with a soft thump in the snow.
It was too dark to make out what happened then. The man was howling louder every second, and he seemed to be struggling with something invisible. And another noise was coming from him; it was like Dukes’s growl. But it wasn’t Dukes. Dukes was running away, as fast as he could, with worried glances over his shoulder every few moments. He didn’t stop until he was eight or nine houses away, and barely visible in the gloom of the evening.
But now blood was spurting from the man who had been attacking the car, and if Danny had been shocked by the copiousness of his own blood on the snow, he was horrified by the torrents coming from the attacker. Was the man ripping his own throat open? His hands looked to be wrapped around his neck.
And then he saw the most horrible thing he had ever seen in his whole life. Five years before, he had been caught up in a traffic accident, whose aftermath had given him years of nightmares, and made him sure he would never sit in a car for the rest of his life. No sight could ever be more gruesome than what he had seen that day, but what he saw now was somehow more disturbing.
He saw what looked like a tiny man run away from the body of the maniac, as if in an enormous hurry. It was moving in the opposite direction from Joe, so he saw nothing except the silhouettes of its tiny legs, arms and head. But there was no mistaking it. It wasn’t some kind of wild beast. It had the dimensions of a human being who had been shrunk to a fraction of his real size. And it was chuckling. Joe could hear that distinctly. The chuckles didn’t sound very different from the growling that he had heard a moment before. It scampered away so quickly, as if driven by some call, that it was only visible for perhaps five seconds. But those five seconds seemed to stretch out like a summer’s day.
Meanwhile, the madman’s howls had ceased, and Joe was sure that the man was dead. He seemed to be staring up into the sky, as if enthralled by the snowfall. His arms were spread at crazy angles, and a pool of blood was still spreading from him. In the car, the women had stopped screaming.
It was so cold.
Joe closed his eyes. He wanted to shut the vision he had just seen out of his mind. The way the thing had scurried! It had looked like a bad special effect from a fifties film. Those bad special effects had always spooked him. Seeing it for real made him feel…soiled, somehow. As if there were creepy-crawlies under his skin.
He opened his eyes again when he heard the whimpers of Dukes coming closer to him. He forced himself to a sitting position, and gathered the dog up in his arms. Though his whole body groaned with pain, it wasn’t quite as bad as he expected. And now—delayed a few moments by his astonishment—relief coursed through him. If that thing hadn’t stilled the maniac, Joe was sure he would never have risen again.
He pressed Dukes to his chest, and slowly lifted himself to his feet. He was more than a little shaky, but at least he was sure he wasn’t going to fall over. The next moment a wave of dizziness passed over him, and thought that he was going to throw up, but that passed, too.
He walked past the body lying on the snow, deliberately not looking down at it, and moved to the car. Memories of the crash five years ago flashed through his mind, both horrors merging in his mind. He half-expected to see the same carnage in this car. But he forced himself to look through the shattered windshield.
There were two women staring out at him. One was a young girl. She was watching him, white-faced but amazingly calm, considering the circumstances. The other was grey-haired and professional-looking. She was still staring at the body in the snow, as if time had stopped for her. Behind them, he could see another woman slumped in her seat, but all he could make out was her sandy and profuse hair, which was covering her face. He guessed she had been knocked out, or fainted.
“Thank you”, said the girl, watching him.
“You’re welcome”, said Joe, automatically. Dukes gave a short, confused bark and struggled in Joe’s grasp. He set him down on the snow, going slowly for the sake of his aching bones.
The girl turned towards the older lady, and gave her a gentle shake. “Lucy”, she said, in a loud whisper, as if frightened that anything louder was going to bring the maniac back to life.
“What just happened?”, said Joe, watching her.
Lisa looked up at the man. She guessed he was about forty-five. He looked like a retired rugby player who had put on a lot of weight, and he was dressed in a bomber jacket and jeans. He had that craggy look she disliked so much in men, and his hair was a wiry, reddish-blond. He didn’t look like somebody she would trust without hesitation, or even like somebody who entirely trusted himself.
“I don’t know”, she said. She had seen the thing—the thing that Sheridan had created—springing past the broken windshield and leaping towards Danny. She had seen it rush away from him afterwards. She wasn’t going to think about it. Not yet. There would be time.
“Who was that?”, asked Lucy. Lisa looked back at her. Shocked a moment ago, she seemed entirely returned to her senses now, and Lisa felt a surge of approval. She liked people who could get a grip of themselves.
“That was Danny”, said Lisa, turning towards her mother, checking to reassure herself that she was still breathing. “He’s a nutcase. He was in the same church as my mother and me. But we left.”
“How did that thing…” began Lucy—as if this was the question she had wanted to ask the first time— but she trailed off. Her expression said all that needed to be said. Why ask a question that nobody can answer, a question that has no rational answer?
Joe looked around the street. People were openly looking out their windows and standing in their doorways, barely visible in the feeble candelight, now that the danger was over.
Lisa was shaking her mother, and from her groans, it seemed as though Fiona was subconsciously resisting the attempt. It was as if she wanted to remain in the cool black world in which she had found refuge.
“Do you know anything about cars?”, asked Lucy, looking up at Joe. She had a few cuts on her face, but she seemed entirely oblivious to them.
“No”, said Joe. The snow was stinging the wounds on his own face, and he wanted to get away from this scene. He wished he hadn’t turned back. He wished he had never seen that horrible little creature, whose fast-forward motions were still haunting him.
Fiona was awake now, and she was sobbing, weakly. She had taken one look at the shattered glass, turned her face away again, and begun to cry, her hand raised to her face as if she wanted to block out everything else.
“It’s OK, Mum”, said Lisa, putting her arm around her. “We’re safe now.”
“We’re never going to be safe”, said her mother, the words broken by sobs.
“We’d better all get out of here”, said Fiona, released the catch of her safety belt and taking one, final look at the bedraggled form lying a few feet away. “I assume there’s no other maniacs in the house?”
“None that I know of”, said Lisa, taking her arms from her mother and trying to suppress her feelings of irritation. She had always wondered if her mother would rise to the occasion of a genuine crisis, as melodramatic people always did in movies and books. Evidently, the answer was no. She released her own safety belt. “Come on, Mum. Let’s get inside.”
Joe stood uneasily in front of the car. Blood dripped from his nose onto his jacket, and he wiped his face absent-mindedly. What was he supposed to do now? Nobody seemed to need his presence here. Nobody even seemed to want it. He watched the women climb out of the car, and took a step towards the older one, dithering over whether he should offer her his arm or not.
But at that moment, the same great wind that had devastated Eleanor’s flat reared up, and pushed Joe and the others back towards Danny’s body. It knocked every one of them flat, and Dukes was sent flying through the air.
Fiona felt herself smack against something warm and soft, and when she raised herself up, and saw what it was, she began to scream as if her flesh was being torn with pincers. Danny was lying beneath her, staring up at her with dead eyes. It was as though the world was determined to bring them together, no matter how hard she tried to escape.
But another titanic wind send her flying further in the same direction. The screams were knocked from her lungs by its sheer force, and the thought of Danny was driven from her mind by the panic at this power that was tossing her about like a paper bag.
She felt a hand grasping onto her arm, stopping her just as the wind was about to drive her forward again. She turned her head; even doing that was difficult, right now. A tall man with reddish-blond hair was holding onto her. A wave of gratitude washed over her—here was a protector!— and she clutched at him with her other arm, and with all her heart.
She didn’t look behind, or she would have seen Danny’s body being hurled along in the gale after them. But looking behind would have been almost impossible, anyway. Eventually, Danny was doubled up against a lamp-post, where he remained fixed. But Joe and the three women continued to be pushed forward by the snow-heavy wind, and it occurred to each of them simultaneously that the wind sounded like an enormous baby’s laughter. Soon they were all laughing with it, not even aware they were doing so.
Dukes did his utmost to keep close to his master, but his little body was helpless to steer its own course. He was barking louder than he had ever barked. Nobody so much as heard him. They were all listening to that intoxicating, sky-filling laughter.
The sheets of snow were so thick that they couldn’t see the figures in front of them, or the figures to their side. All over Higginstown, people were being driven from their homes by the invading wind, pushed towards the same destination. Some died in the pandemonium, with brains dashed out by a flying brick or hearts stopped through sheer shock. But they died laughing, and what death could be happier, after all?
Nobody noticed that the sky was already growing brighter.