(Notes from the journal of Steve Escalier, a resident of Holloway, London. 20th August 20. Exact year unknown.)
It was dead-end sentiments and looping thoughts that occupied my days and nights. And so these elements will compose the tale of my peregrinations in Holloway, back in the days that followed my dismissal from my library job. And the time in which the creature became a fixture in my life.
Sunday October 18
That afternoon, seeking respite from all my woes, I went into The Witherspring to mollify my soul. I knew their patrician bar staff would provide a listening ear, if that was what was needed. As I sat and sipped a pint, I wondered how the nearby gigglemugs would react if I told them that their chat was too relentless and causing me vexation. Half the customers in there that night were crocked and looking mad as hops. Perhaps it was a dread of Monday morning that compelled their rapid drinking. Insomnia had made me grumpy and the amitriptyline my doctor had prescribed had worsened this and so I told myself to settle down and let the world be what it was. I knew my problems were of my making and I wouldn’t put the blame on others. The tintinnabulation for last orders pierced the smoky air and I thought of heading for a late night bar, suppressing any thought of the dyspeptic morning-after that I’d face. Sometimes as a pastime on a drinking bout, I created false personae. They were just a substitute for friends. In the shadowed corner where I sat, I summoned up the character of a private eye. Rick Clews was his name. Rick Clews the detective prone to introspection. Rick would help me solve my problems. He would find the answers that I needed. Of course I knew he was a fiction, a diversion from reality, but it would get me to the evening’s end.
My thoughts gave me distraction. But it wasn’t like it was before. The creature had ruined everything. That bloody tick, that parasitic creature, lost me my library job, in which I’d worked in the local history section, overseeing the archive of Victorian slang. The fiend had spoilt it all for me. Before that were bucolic days, picnics by the river, just me and Tanya by ourselves. Times were better then. Until I found that creature waiting in a book. It had stolen my ability to sleep, left me frayed in spirit and overly suspicious.
Later on, I got home and slammed the bedsit’s door against the sour miasma of the outside world. But lying awake at four am, reality impinged upon my thoughts. Imagining Tanya’s wide blue stare, with the one whose name I refused to declare, would not vocalize, even in a silent voice.
Thinking of their being so close had flattened me. That was all I knew. Things weren’t like they were before.
Monday October 19
It was a sunny day, late in the afternoon. I hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime yesterday. Some shopping was a necessity.
The walls of the Waitrose on Holloway Road displayed the arcing contours of a graffiti artist’s work. All diversions from reality were fine by me. I’d have liked to construct some compositions along these lines myself but graffiti artists had to work at night and I was scared of meeting with the police, and being caught red-handed. Yet again my fears had ruined a perfect plan. The thought of a nighttime rozzer’s hand upon my shoulder filled me full of horror as capiophobia had always troubled me. (Capiophobia, the fear of being arrested, particularly when innocent of any crime, was a term that I’d discovered in a layman’s guide to psychiatric terms. A colleague had left this volume in the library staffroom. For years while sipping tea and eating biscuits, I’d scoured its many pages, finding labels for my mental ailments, both supposable and real.). But my admiration for the pictograms along the walls of the Waitrose remained. My beatitude was interrupted when, through the window, I saw the two who had beleaguered me. It was Tanya and her flame.
My face pressed flat against the glass, I saw them on their shopping trip, laughing as they steered their trolley around the crowd within the supermarket. A mendicant, of which a multitude traversed these parts, placed his bruised face near to mine and begged me for some cash. He took the coins I offered him, said ‘thank you, mate, God bless’ and shuffled on. The poor bloke had already copped a mouse and I wondered if he had been hit just for asking for some dosh. His swollen eye looked painful. Nobody was without their problems, so it seemed.
I turned once more to gaze upon the handsome couple, noting the effulgence of Tanya’s happy face when going about the shopping with her shiny-suited behemoth whose name I would not contemplate. He wore a golden lugger in each ear, and sported bright tattoos around his throat. Intertwining hands, they left the supermarket. Repairing to a nearby doorway, I observed them boarding a bus, probably heading up to Camden for a convivial early evening drink. Later on, I supposed, they’d go back home to watch some bad TV. As we used to do. As for me, I postponed my shopping trip, feeling too much rancour at the world, and moved on to a lushery. The Lamb, quite near to Highbury, would be my destination.
A barman in The Witherspring had told me many stories of the habits of Tanya’s new beau, of his propensity for acts of grievous bodily harm in his profession as a punisher. The one I would not name because that caused me pain possessed a wide and lengthy scar from eye to chin. They said that prior to nobbling his adversaries, he’d ask them if his scar was beautiful. If the answer was a ‘no’ he’d beat them to unconsciousness then stamp upon their heads. If they replied in the affirmative he’d provide them with a scar like his.
Violence never was my thing. My aspiration had been a quiet and happy life, becoming assistant head librarian and setting up a mortgage on a flat in Holloway, with access to all facilities. And to live a happy life with her.
I couldn’t accept I’d missed my opportunity, to have a perfectly contented life. It came so near to realization, though it must be said that hindsight brings its insights rather late. Passivity and indecision had informed my choices. Or maybe not passivity. Rather a deferral, endless hesitation. Let me start to live but not quite yet had been my attitude. I’d watched the one whose name I cannot speak infringe upon our lives, offering a different world to her. She took up the offer without compunction.
The Lamb was crowded when I got there. Later on there would be a traditional Irish music session, this being the reason why I’d gone there for the first time, several months ago. I went to speak to Jemma, a local working girl, who was sitting at the bar, flicking through a local paper. Once she’d come in with a trick, a furtive-looking cove, and she insisted that he buy me drinks. The man had tears in his eyes. I sensed he craved humiliation and employed Jemma for that purpose and I suspected he wasn’t putting Nebuchadnezzar out to grass with her. Jemma would be charging him a hefty fee, but she had integrity. She never was a roller and was able at her job. She’d told me once a client flew her out to Mexico to obtain her special services. In the field of domination, she had a reputation, was something of a toffer in her industry. She also was a painter but maybe didn’t earn so much from that. Everyone had to make a living.
Jemma smiled and asked me how I was and I told her of my day, how I’d lost my library job some weeks ago and described to her careers I might have done instead. She commiserated, as she always did, although sometimes I wondered if she was sincere. Being a postman might have suited me, I said. An outdoors healthy life with lots of exercise. But postmen often had to cross the paths of dogs of variable temperament. The thought of monstrous canine jaws snapping at my knees plunged me into terror. Once again the perfect plan had failed. I didn’t want to start the job then find it was impossible. It was a shame I suffered from my cynophobia. Jemma sympathized and told me not to worry, that something good was bound to come along. She said that things would work out given time. A palmer passed along the bar with a bag of knockoff clothes for sale, their price tags not removed, but Jemma dismissed him with one hand then told me that she had to go. She said, ‘I’ve got to bolt. Everything will work out fine. Be careful not to drink too much.’
I stayed a bit and drank a little more and mused on things in general, but heeded Jemma’s words. In my own way being an optimist, I accepted change was possible. Library shelves contained much useful information. Self-help books contained a wealth of wisdom. Treatises on the usage of the will showed how one might reach one’s goals. I’d ruminated on what would comprise a perfect version of success, a master plan that no one could refute. The notebooks in my bedsit held a distillate of all my reading, although not a literal distillation of the books themselves, of course, as library books were sacrosanct. An unalloyed state of happiness was what I sought. Once, I’d got so close to it. And the time I’d got so near to happiness involved the role of other people, others outside my solipsistic universe. Within my churning thoughts, an insight materialized. I had to become less wrapped up in myself. On one table was a flyer for the Hope and Anchor, on Upper Street. The flyer advertised an open night for stand-up comedy. A strategy came into view. In the corner the musicians were tuning up their instruments: guitars, fiddles, banjos. Someone was tapping rhythms on a bodhran. But tonight I couldn’t stay. I had a sense of what I had to do.
Trudging back to bedsit land, I recalled how radiant Tanya looked with him that afternoon, the rival whom I must not name, whose identity I will suppress. I felt an envy of the role he had created for himself. I needed to focus on my search for work. Maybe I could do the type of task he did. My adversary was a debt collector, worked outside the law. It didn’t seem so likely though, that I could assume his livelihood. His job required the use of weapons. A weapon might be seized and turned against myself. Even a smattering of that vision caused me utter dread. Another perfect plan that would never see the light of day. My hoplophobia put paid to all that type of thing.
Saturday October 20
For the first time in a long time I woke up feeling optimistic.
It was the night of the comedy talent show on Upper Street, at the Hope and Anchor. For the last four days, I’d planned my act, rehearsing with a mirror, listening to a recording of my lines to help me memorize them, sometimes letting my recorded script run on even when I slept.
The process had been tiring. My mood had not been helped by the presence of the tick, the parasite I had acquired one afternoon, while perusing some volumes in the library. It must have slept inside that book for years before I had encountered it. At night, it drank my blood, draining all my vital energies. But having cut back on my use of alcohol to invigorate myself, I was determined to see this through, and shuffled to the venue with my written backup script and some degree of trepidation.
Outside the Budgens supermarket near the pub, someone was sitting on the street, holding up a placard to explain that he was homeless. I placed some money on a shawl that he’d spread out in front of him. It was a small percentage of the cash that I would spend a little later on to celebrate my performance at the pub and it seemed that it was only fair to give him a contribution. I was looking forward to the carousing afterwards. Who knew where all this might lead me to? Would I be performing in a host of other venues and in other countries too, perhaps? It could get even get me on TV.
As I went into the pub, I recognized the lyrics of a nineteen eighties hit, filtering from the basement venue. ‘It’s gotta be…ee…ee…ee…ee…per…fect.’ The sentiment was fitting for the evening and, exhausted by adrenalin and lack of sleep, I hobbled down the narrow staircase. The nammow (I’d acquired the use of back slang from a colleague at the library) at the makeshift desk outside the basement smiled when I informed her that I would perform, and she said that I could go in free. She stamped the back of my hand with the symbol of a star.
In the murky basement, a long-haired cove with glasses approached me with a clipboard. On the verge of signing on his list of stand-up comics, I noticed the camera in the corner and couldn’t bring myself to write my name.
‘What’s that camera filming for?’
The bearded organizer said, ‘It’s nothing. Just a record for our archives.’
But I wouldn’t let them dupe me. They might record me caught in a debacle. The film could be transmitted anywhere. Posterity deserved perfection. A less than flawless show could scupper my career. And so I lingered in the corner’s shadows, watching others’ acts, caught up in silent loathing of my self, listening to the others basking in applause.
Afterwards, plodding to The Witherspring at Highbury, I rationalized my reticence. That kind of dream, the performer’s life, was really very shallow. Nothing more than egotism. I’d shrugged off the religious tenets of my youth, but respected certain principles that I’d learned in the teachings. Idolatry and narcissism were never going to be a road to peace of mind. That was one thing that I knew. I tore my backup script in half and threw it in a rubbish bin.
Sitting at The Witherspring, in the outdoors smoking section that faced onto the street, I saw some performers from the talent show walking past and laughing as they talked. Really they’re just wasting all their time, I reassured myself. Everything around me turned to grey and smoke and the smoke transformed to ashes.
My mobile bleeped to say there was a text. The message was from Tanya.
‘Haven’t seen you in a while. Hope that all’s going very well. Tanya x’
The message didn’t merit a reply. It seemed to me so cursory, perhaps the product of a guilty conscience at her newfound happiness in which I didn’t feature. Or maybe she had changed, going out with that bludger meant now she was a trainee mollisher. I shook some ash from off my shoes and left the pub.
Sunday October 21
My insomnia was a problem. Although I never caught the creature, that parasitic archfiend, in the act of biting me, I always woke up feeling tired and drained, dark marks round my eyes. That was proof enough for me. The creature fed on me at night and I woke with such an enervation, accompanied by the marks its vicious teeth had left upon my skin, that I was positive of its nightly habits.
It slumbered in the day and in case the landlord chanced upon it, on one of his intrusive visits on a sudden look around my dwelling place, I transferred the creature to a rucksack, that I’d bought from Sports Direct, halfway down Holloway Road. The bag had been a bargain and without a nine-to-five I had to pull my belt in. Although being unemployed meant I could pass more time at home, it was better that I took the creature out and walked around and got some exercise. Despite my memories of Tanya, of the good times that we’d had, it was time once more to try and live a little bit.
As I walked from Holloway, up to Camden Town, I thought I’d send a text to Tanya, but once again delayed. I was unsure how to tell her of the tick, or if she would believe the story, thinking perhaps that I’d gone mad. She might not bother to reply. In the end I let it go.
On a side street off the Camden Road, a transaction was in progress. Something in a plastic bag was being exchanged for notes and coins. The vendor and the vendee turned to me and glowered. I made tracks around the corner, sensing an audience was not welcome. Perhaps an illicit drug had been involved in their negotiations. Sometimes I thought to seek diversion in a substance such as crack cocaine or to wipe out all my woes in the company of a dollymop. Jemma once had offered me the number of her colleague but seeing the dilemma that my face expressed, she smiled a sympathetic smile, and said perhaps ‘that sort of thing’ was not for me. The crack cocaine, which one of Jemma’s tricks had given me, transpired to provide the briefest of intoxications and violent nausea afterwards.
All I’d really wanted was the same as others want, the standard things that make a life worthwhile: the car, the flat, the girlfriend and the proper job that gave one decent purchasing power. The things that let you be a part of things, that informed people who you were. Deep down I knew I was a mainstream kind of guy.
I had three pints at The Devonshire, near Camden Underground, feeling out of place among the goths in there, and began to get the morbs. Alone and in a bedsit was the place that I would finish in. Old man dies alone in bedsit, thirty days before they found his corpse, I saw the local papers’ headlines say. My sordid little bedsit, furnished with some low-grade lumber (an ancient inclined wardrobe and its threadbare crony, the chair that had three legs) would be my mausoleum. As I made my way back home, the tick was wriggling in the rucksack. I sensed that it was thriving.
Monday October 22
That morning I noticed that the landlord had propelled a manila envelope beneath the crooked door. Thoughts of good news didn’t last too long. It was a written confirmation of my dismissal from my library job.
I checked the tick was trapped within the rucksack, could not forage round the room, then sat back in the fraying armchair and pondered the events of my dismissal.
The sequence leading to my sacking had started with a fractious borrower. My hands had shaken as I held a book called London and the Plague of 1665. I’d been looking for this straying book for months. It detailed the transmission of the plague from rats to fleas to humans. My hands were shaking from excitement and nothing else apart from that, on this particular occasion.
”Ere, mate, are you going to stamp that book or what? I wouldn’t mind it if I got back home before the sun has set.’
I’d met the stare of the impatient borrower. I’ll stamp on you, I silently rejoindered.
‘I’m afraid this book is reserved stock. I cannot authorise its loan today.’
Of course that was a lie. I had to read it first. That much was essential. The man’s face turned crimson.
‘Don’t try and sell me a dog, mate. I know that’s not the truth. This is the third time that you’ve acted weird with me and I’ll have no more of that. You’ve gone too far this time.’
He had grabbed the book out of my hands and slammed it on the lending desk and stridden away. He must have thought I was a simpleton, to speak to me like that. I told myself that he took umbrage without a valid cause, but did not express this point of view as I knew he might complain to Henrietta Scole, the sympathetic head librarian. She tried to give me leeway when I faltered in my work. This only made things worse. She never directly ordered me, just suggestionised. My colleague Michael Lear, shelving books nearby and hearing the enraged borrower, had attempted to divert me with his usual banter. His repartee was whimsical and deadpan and he often talked in back slang. He came over and explained he’d just devised a novel form of monetary system, of edible notes to assuage a pressing hunger plus coins one could dissolve in water, the latter doubling as an analgesic drug. But I paid him scant attention as I couldn’t put aside the fear I’d gone too far this time.
The day of the disciplinary hearing was arduous. The panel was composed of three. Henrietta Scole, Michael Lear and the assistant head librarian, the lattermost being a wizened, would-be despot. Michael Lear was going to be my only hope of fair play. He must have seen me looking worried when he whispered ‘take it easy, namm.’ Shuffling some papers, as he cleared his throat, the assistant head librarian opened the proceedings. I knew he was the hitman for the hearing. He asked me how I was.
When the panel told that me that I’d ‘notched up three complaints’, and that I seemed to have a problem related to the misuse of a substance, I tried to tell them what was really happening. I told them how the tick had waylaid itself within an antique guide to London, questing for a human host, like some vampiric entity. Every night while I was sleeping, I explained, it had drained my lifeblood, and hence the rings around my eyes and my shaking hands. When I tried to describe the creature that had preyed on me, the pedantic assistant head librarian sneered and said the idea was not the most ridiculous excuse he’d heard me give. This excuse was only so absurd that it would make a stuffed bird laugh. He said I should own up as to what my problem really was. I thought that he was like a stuffed bird but did not tell him so. Henrietta bowed her head, wrote something on a document, but didn’t give admonishment to her second-in-command. Michael Lear refused to break his silence and speak in my defence. He had been a colleague and when we’d shared our banter in the break times I’d believed he was my friend. Up until that day, I’d thought that he was up to snuff and someone I could trust. I made a mental note to mete out retribution.
Despite their scepticism, I told them that there might be other creatures waiting, that all the staff were facing danger. When they enquired as to where this colony of bloodsuckers might keep their lodgings, I ran towards a bookshelf and started pulling books onto the floor, but I could not find their clandestine hive. When they asked to see my grey familiar, I told the panel members that sometimes it remained at home, that it was ‘cunning in that way’. At that point I had an insight, although I concealed it from the panel, that the parasite never had a role within reality, that I had formed it as a symbol of some sort, but as a symbol of quite what? I knew it represented something, connected with my job or life or loneliness. My fleeting understandings of the world around me were not enough to clarify what was happening to my mind. I vacillated between belief the tick was something real and the greater likelihood that it was pure imagination.
The assistant head librarian said that they were going to have to let me go. He mentioned my exploring some other opportunities. Henrietta came to talk to me.
‘Well, Stephen, I hope that things work out for you. Make sure that you take care, you hear me now?’
I snapped back to the present moment, surveyed the scabrous surface of the badly plastered ceiling of my bedsit and tried to face reality. Why it was the panel felt compelled to fire me was my question. I leaned back in the three-legged chair, trying to ignore the jabbing of its twisted springs, blocking out the tuneless whistling of my landlord down the stairs, and mused on what had happened. I knew I had to think and analyse my problem in a rational way, so in my head I made a list of factors that had led me to this state.
- I don’t know why they fired me.
- I’m not sure why they fired me.
- Maybe I was not without some blame.
- I have an inkling why they sacked me. I suspect I know the reason why they sacked me.
- Okay it’s true I liked to have a drink or two, but I never came in addled.
- I liked to have a drink or two and only one time did I come in crocked.
- Sometimes I was a little late for work but tried to avoid inebriation.
- On the odd occasion, I admit I came in lushed to work.
- Sometimes in the morning, I had some gin at breakfast.
- Once they caught me sleeping, underneath a table in the local history archive. I admit that on that morning, I’d had a jar or two and hadn’t slept the night before.
- Did they need to fire me? I said I would behave in future. I suppose I’d had too many chances by that point.
So perhaps it really was my fault. And perhaps it was my slip-up that the tick had bitten me. I’d sought out all the dustiest of books, admiring their obscurity, felt in a way those texts belonged to me and no one else. This made me feel I had a role to play, maintaining the life and circulation of these books, as if they were neglected things. That was where the creature lived, within forgotten books. I had gone exploring places that were best to leave alone. At least I had accepted now, my culpability.
I put the letter from the library back inside the manila envelope then placed it in a folder of official documents and this I slid beneath my bed. After that I left my room to go and have a drink.
Tuesday October 23
On Tuesday my problems only worsened.
I’d got home late the night before and in the morning suffered from a ruthless thirst, accompanied by a sense of pessimism. Scooping up the change beside my bedside, I headed to The Witherspring at Holloway.
While trundling down a side street near my chosen venue, planning on a pick-me-up or two, a tall figure moved into view and blocked my path.
”Ere mate, lend us just a couple of quid. Come on, mate, sort us out.’
Not approving his oppressive manner, I shook my head, told him that today I didn’t even have a flatch to give away, and tried to walk on past but the demander moved to bar my way and, jabbing one finger in my chest as he grew angry, overwhelmed by some necessity, lunged to grab the contents of my pocket. Unbeknown to him, the louselike arachnid was slumbering in my bag. As I recoiled, it dropped out on the main drag, and on the fly I scooped it up, the greatly burgeoned tick, and threw it at him, the strictures of the moment causing my impulsive action. It sailed towards my impoverished assailant who now possessed my wallet. The tick alighted on his chest and seized him by the gargler and hung there swaying for an instant, until they both fell to the gutter and writhed around a short while. The creature drained him of almost every drop of blood that had been coursing through his veins. The injured man lay moaning, like a soft, grey statue, half-animated where he sprawled. And then he fell to silence and I realized that the tick had snuffed his candle out. I looked around to check the road was empty then stooped across the inert form and prised my wallet from his hands. I whistled and the tick crawled back inside the rucksack.
After the killing, back at home, I lay upon my bedsit floor, thrashing my face against the carpet, the thought that ‘I was Satan now’ coursing through my soul. I continued with this process until a badly fitted carpet tack hooked itself beneath one nostril and almost tore it open and the pain caused me first to shriek then briefly to forget what I’d just done. The sensation provided some respite.
After a few hours huddled on the floor, mumbling the question ‘why’ a plethora of times, I convinced myself it must have been an accident. With the man I’d helped to kill, I had no grievance. Fear, panic and confusion had dictated what had happened. Perhaps I’d thought that he was armed although I wasn’t sure of that. It was an instinct of some kind, maybe that of self-defence. He had acted without thinking. So had I. And of course the tick was with me. If the tick had not been there, it would not have had the chance to slay him.
The tragedy had occurred. No one had the power to change that. And the real assassin was the tick, not I. After subduing my conscience with too much port, I drifted off to sleep.
Wednesday October 24
At my breakfast taken in the afternoon, as I spread some butter on a piece of dried out bread, a fatal plan encroached upon my thoughts. Feeling better than I had for many weeks, I searched across my skin for marks left by the creature’s teeth but found none there. A realisation came to me. The animal had not fed on me the previous night, had not required more sustenance. It had spared me for one night and I had gained some energy. If I were to feed the tick on the blood of others, surely I would be spared. But my mind recoiled against itself. Such a sentiment was nothing short of evil and I cast aside the devilish thought.
My line of reasoning, regarding a solution to my problem, was leading me to frenzy. Requiring to revitalise my mind somewhat, I decided that a visit to the cinema would be of use. And for once I thought I would omit the pleasures of The Witherspring. The creature accompanied me, cocooned inside the rucksack. I thought of texting Tanya, but maybe I’d wait until tomorrow. And if I were to see her, I would have to face the one that was her consort. That confrontation did not allure.
From living here in Holloway for so many years, I was familiar with the locality and wound my way with ease among the shadows and the evening pedestrians, heading for the multiplex that’s on the corner where Holloway stops and Archway begins its measured climb towards the verdant heights of Highgate.
In the cinema queue I eavesdropped on the chatter of a couple looking old and cold. From their gabby manner, and because they looked a trifle fishy round the gills, I assumed they had been powdering their hair. Not that I was one to pass a judgement on that sort of thing as I was often much more crocked than that. The delo namm said, ‘What’s the point of books? They’re all about the past. They always are, unless it’s all that science fiction crap. That’s even worse, that is.’
Silently, I did concur. There was a time I loved to read, but the problems with my library job had disenchanted me of literature. Issues in the real world were what I had to deal with now. To find a job, a better place to live, and get rid of the parasite were the things that needed doing. The queue moved forwards just a bit. The couple continued their discussion. The delo nammow replied, ‘Nothing’s any good now, books or films or anything. It isn’t like it was before.’
No one could refute her statement. ‘It’ was never like it was before. ‘It’ never could be otherwise. Life was always changing. Acceptance of this fact was crucial for sanity. My cohorts of the queue had given me an insight by pointing out a doorway to a different attitude.
But anger rose up in my chest, blotting out my observation. Why were they complaining? They had each others’ company, a defence against the coldness of the city. They were not the cast out, abject of the street, like the mendicants and three-penny uprights, who had to pace around the city in order to survive. And then my train of thought cruised down a nightmare tunnel. Floating in a host of whispering shadows, I saw the face of the man whose murder I’d abetted, the demander’s hands held out in supplication, face beseeching me for mercy, as the tick decanted him of all his blood. The image would not go. I needed some distraction. Anything would do. Any form of action, or disruption to dispel the image of that face. Maybe I could unleash the tick within the cinema, using chaos to forget the past.
But I knew that letting out that animal in the cinema was wrong and would lead to pandemonium. I kept the rucksack’s straps pulled shut. The haematophage would emerge when that was my decree and only then.
After the double bill, composed of Predator and Predator 2, I got a bus down Holloway, heading south by southeast.
My phone informed me that I had a text. A surge of optimism rose up within my chest. I hoped the message was from Tanya. But it was just an ad for PPI. In a rage, I bounced the phone down on the top deck’s floor then picked it up again. What would explain the dearth of texts from her? I was going to have to speak to her and if there were to be an altercation with her partner I would man up if I had to. I alighted from the bus near to the Union Chapel, and crossed the road to buy some cigarettes and use the Internet. In the Turkish shop, I got the usual genial greeting. The bloke behind the counter said, ‘Okay, my friend? Computer number five.’
He worked all night alone, with only visits from the nighthawks like myself to give him human contact. But somehow he kept smiling, although I wasn’t sure quite how. I looked up on the Internet, ‘defence against gargantuan forms of tick’, and tried some other terms besides, but nothing made an exact match.
I knew the tick was hungry, but decided to keep it in the bag. The shopkeeper was always very affable even though he didn’t know me well. I appreciated his friendliness. He deserved to live. The tick would not get out tonight. I’d let it get much hungrier before it got the chance to feed.
Thursday October 25
This morning a realisation came to me. If I did not kill the tick, now that it had tasted others’ blood, its appetite could lead to numerous mortalities. What had I been thinking of? Planning wicked deeds with the tick as an enforcer? It was never my ambition to be the sidekick of an arachnid serial killer. Thank God I’d returned to my senses. Action was essential to get things back to normal. I decided I might subdue the tick with alcohol that it would ingest while supping on my blood. Maybe I could turn my blood to poison by drinking countless double vodkas and a shandygaff or two before the night arrived. I headed for The Witherspring at Highbury. Mid-afternoon? Too early in the day? That was just too bad. I may have liked to drink on afternoons, but it never was habitual. I’d never been a lushington. As I sat in the bar next to the station, I thought of trying to find another job. Two joggers jogged across the road to Highbury Fields. I would have liked to have been an athlete, a runner sprinting to the finish, a sportsman of accomplishment, earning accolades. But professional athletes were involved in competitions taking place on tracks, in fields and other outdoor places. The thought of all that open space around me filled me with abhorrence. Another plan was thwarted. My recurring agoraphobia blocked the proposition.
It was time to have a change of scene. Heading north, northwest, I trudged my way among the early evening crowd, schlepping to the The Lamb. I watched the laughing passers-by, in groups and pairs, mafficking like tomorrow morning wasn’t going to happen, and asked myself some questions. Was I lonely? What did lonely mean? Did it really matter to live a life alone? Happiness was something yuppies sought, I reassured myself. At The Lamb, there was no sign of Jemma. Her sagacious listening would have helped me now to deal with all my problems. The barmaid asked me what I wanted and I got myself a beer.
After sitting down, and glancing at the music listings in a local paper, I surveyed a few solutions. Perhaps I could move out from the city. Have a change and move out to the countryside. Maybe make some produce of my own that was guaranteed to sell. What was possible to make, having minimal reserves of cash? Honey might be popular to sell at farmers’ markets. But bees were essential in that process. And the thought of an aberrant bee sting and a subsequent freak reaction gave me deep foreboding. Another plan was dashed. The problem was my apiphobia. A rustling in the rucksack on my back cut through my thoughts. I knew the beast was getting hungry and I didn’t want to get arrested for its crimes so I had to drink some more to make my blood more toxic. I’d let it feed on me again tonight and sabotage its gross intentions.
I left The Lamb and went on up the road. There was another movement from the infernal tick. I sensed that it was planning something, feeling what I felt, that my growing resentment at Tanya and her apparent newfound happiness was influencing it by some osmotic process. People stared at me as if they knew my secret. Now the creature had new appetites. It was growing manic.
A few people sat around the doorway of The Witherspring in Holloway. It was too cold to smoke outside but my cravings were insistent. I sat and sipped a beer and watched the smoke rings drift away, wondering where they ended up. I considered texting Tanya, thinking to arrange a meeting with her and also with her satellite. A slurring voice cut through my reverie.
‘Hey Stephen! What you doing along this way at night? I haven’t seen you since that day that you got fired. I hardly recognised you, you’ve put on loads of weight. And alcohol was something that you said you didn’t drink, you mischievous deluder, you.’
Looking up, I saw the grinning face of Michael Lear. Oldest swinger on the library staff and incorrigible gal-sneaker when he wasn’t working. Did he have a midlife crisis? His shapeless leather trousers were the answer to the question. I lied and said that I was waiting for my joint, to go and see a film with her. I told him it was alcohol I said I didn’t drink and that, to be precise, my glass held alcohol combined with beer. Michael nodded from behind a haze of whiskey fumes. He winked and said, ‘I’m just heading to a club, you know. Hot date with a nammow that I met at work. She’s an intern at the library.’
Michael could annoy me when he was both half-rats and also mad as hops. Quiet and whimsical when sober, drinking made him disparaging and inclined to use a lot of backwards slang to wind me up. He grinned and said, ‘There was…there was…’
‘There was what, Michael?’
Michael’s stumbling speech was the result of too much whisky. Of course I knew I had a similar problem, but I never was disorderly.
‘There was a young man from Nantucket, who drank all his beer from a bucket. When asked…’
I raised one hand and said, ‘I’ll see you sometime soon.’
‘Okay, then, I’ll see you later, shirkster. Don’t powder your hair too much alone or you might end up with a case of the morbs tomorrow, mate. And don’t smoke so much occabot. You know that it’s not good for you.’
He chortled and he stumbled off, leaving me blazing with resentment. The face of the man I’d killed, or rather that the tick had murdered, loomed up in my thoughts, pale but very animated. I could not bear to see that furious visage as the dead man’s mouth assumed a sneer. The ghostly presence seemed to say to me, ‘Are you going to let him off with that, insulting you in that manner? Remember how he failed to help you at your hearing with the panel. I think you sense the task you have to carry out for me.’ I knew that I’d do anything to erase the spectral face. And the tick was needing sustenance. Rather him than me, I told myself.
Looking round to check that no one watched me, I let the animal emerge out from the rucksack, and it landed on the pavement with a squelching sound. With its curious, crawling, dragging motion, it trailed after Michael along the street.
‘Is that one dead?’
I passed my glass up to the barmaid, nodding in agreement with her words.
After the arachnid had completed its objective I visited the 12 Bar Club, newly moved to Holloway. Some local bands and singers each played a couple of their songs. By the time the place had shut its doors, the night sky was a lightless void, scrawled across by strands of smoke, and it was time to get back home and go to sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day. My bitterness and hatred were drawing up a vicious blueprint as a malevolent momentum took hold of me. I knew that next day Tanya and her partner would pass through Holloway, heading to the pub quiz they frequented. It was time to have a showdown.
My cigarette was out and I didn’t have a lighter. Across the road, outside a taxi office, someone waited at the doorway, smoking. He looked around as if he didn’t trust the street. The office of the taxi firm was unoccupied. I crossed the road and stopped beside him, asking for a light. He glowered, then frowned and reached within his jacket. I whistled and the tick jumped from the rucksack on my back. In seconds it was over.
That night I dreamed a fevered dream. The setting was a desert and above it hung a vast and ominous sun. In the centre of the landscape were rows of sun-scorched bookshelves, a dehydrated library. In this dream, I lived inside a book upon those bookshelves, sheltering from the ceaseless glare.
Friday October 26
Waking in the middle of the night, I tried to use the less guarded thoughts of that tenebrous time to analyse the dream. In my nightmare I had lived inside a book, waiting there for God knows what. Scraps and scrag ends of affection? Similarly, the tick had lived inside a book. It had spent a lifetime there, waiting for some human contact. This was my epiphany. Some voluminous parasite was not the threat to me. All it really troubled was my imagination. The parasite merely mirrored the life I’d come to live and was nothing more than fantasy. Emotional nutrition was what I really yearned for. The chimeric beast had formed within the cellar of my soul, and now it knocked upon the cellar door. If I firmly locked that door, the beast would starve itself to death and disappear.
I fumbled for the beaker of the vintage port that resided by my bed. For the first time in too many weeks, I found I could relax.
As I unwound I realized that I’d not conspired in any crimes. The killings were a morbid figment. Amitriptyline, prescribed for my insomnia, had interacted with the alcohol of which I’d drunk too much. It was a mild psychosis and nothing worse than that.
My life had changed a lot since I split up with Tanya and then lost my job. It wasn’t like it was before but then again how were things before? Was that something that I really could remember? Maybe I had put a gloss upon the past. Maybe now was no worse than before and I’d always suffered from unease and sometimes melancholia. Tiny shoots of comprehension sprang up in my mind. It could never be like it was before as things were always changing. I had to learn acceptance of that fact and then move on. One encountered new terrains in life. Let life be what it was.
I closed my eyes and went to sleep. I knew that I would sleep well, for the first time in a multitude of weeks. Any thought of confrontation, with Tanya and her partner, was now to be discarded.
When I woke again in darkness, some hideous weight bore down upon my chest. I tried to shriek but no sound did emerge. Thinking that that the leaning wardrobe had toppled on me in the night, I tried to guess the extent of my injuries. There was the sound of human voices, paradoxical in their nature, their tones being sonorous but whispered too. Fleetingly I thought I might be in a hospital as the cadences implied some gravitas. As if it were a secret uttered through a megaphone, both sibilant and echoing, a male voice said, ‘Hey…what’s that in there? Hey, Tanya, come and have a look at this…’
Darkness turned to light as a colossal slab rose off my huddled form and I found that I could breathe with greater ease.
‘Urgh…it’s a flea or a tick or something. Dave, you know what you should really do? It might have something we could catch.’
‘Don’t worry, I know just what I’ve got to do…’
Peering down at me, grimacing in revulsion, were the features of vast faces. I smelt an odour that I recognised, that of dusty, yellowed paper. The voices displayed formality as their location was a library and I was lying inside a book. And they sounded resonant because I was so miniscule. I clutched the page beneath me, hoping not to fall. My witnesses were Tanya and the one whose name was Dave and I recognised his scar and golden luggers too. Nausea suffused me as I pondered on the reason for my switch of form and conjectured on my course of action. Soon I knew the book would slam shut once again, as Dave and Tanya reached a verdict on my destiny. The wretched parasite had never been mere symbol. In reality that beast was I. We were linked together as one conscious thing, one and the same. As my concluding protest, I wondered if I could bite Dave’s finger, prior to my demise. Or could I even scuttle up his arm to freedom? Hope would be the last thing that would die. And I thought of my imaginary friend, conjured up in evenings at The Witherspring, Rick Clews, the detective prone to introspection. Maybe he could help me. I hoped that he would get here in the nick of time, before the critical moment passed.
Ruairi MacInnes lives in London. He is currently working on a novel set in a dystopian, near-future London.