THE STRANGERS: A STRANGE STORY

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A diary reveals the torment of a man driven to the edge of madness by watching the mysterious tenants of a slum house in London. What is their purpose? Who are they? Where do they come from, and are they of this earth at all?

Submitted: June 04, 2012

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Submitted: June 04, 2012

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FIRE DESTROYS SLUM HOUSING IN SOUTHWARK

CAUSE UNKOWN

 

Firefighters are today clearing up after  a blaze which destroyed a block of four  houses at 225-229 Copperfield Street, Southwark,  as  investigations are expected to begin as to the cause of the fire. Remarkably, all properties were apparently vacant at the time and no-one was hurt, although neighbours have reported that the homes were occupied up until the time of the blaze by a group of people whose movements at present appear to be a mystery. The owner of the properties is currently being traced amid claims that the occupants were illegal immigrants and that conditions in the houses were unfit for human habitation. Significantly, however, no claims for benefits or political asylum are known to have been submitted by the occupants. As the properties were in a block separated from other buildings by an alleyway, no other properties were damaged, and firefighters have commented on the remarkable fact that this should be so despite the intense heat they say was generated by the blaze. At present, police have declined to rule out foul play.

 

London Evening Standard, 16th November 1981

 

 

My uncle was Nigel Danforth,  a tutor at Winchester College of Art, and he died intestate at the age of fifty-four, at a time when he had never got around to making a will. Because of this and one need not go into detail, all of his possessions were inventoried and I came into ownership of his scrapbook and notebooks containing a huge number of newspaper clippings from his time as a student in London. I regarded them as mere curiosities, but I had known my uncle to be a brilliant, but it seemed, excessively nervous man, who seemed to have a haunted look about himself at times, as if he feared the close presence of some vague danger or that something unpleasant was going to happen to him. As time went  on he became somewhat frail and had to go part-time at his college, an arrangement that was meant to be temporary, but which turned out to be permanent as it happened. Finally I think his nervous state became bad enough to bring about the cancer that killed him at such an early age.

At the time of his death I myself was at King’s College, Cambridge reading economics, and as I say, once the will had finally been enacted I came into possession of a few of his drawings, and the scrapbooks, a number of his reference books and a little money, enough to buy me a few of the luxuries student life doesn’t generally provide. His remaining sculptures had been sold as part of the estate  and one of them is on show at Tate Modern presently, which makes me proud although sculpture isn’t really my thing.

I sat one evening in my rooms poring through the scrapbook, which was quite a thick tome, and found that the newspaper clippings referred to all kinds of odd things, like reports of mysterious lights in the sky, mainly in Kent where he lived, disappearances, crop circles, UFO sightings, mysterious injuries to animals and the like. It read like the collection of someone into Forteana or something of the sort, and although I half-expected to find stuff about Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman and Atlantis in it, I never did. Clearly my uncle was a man of eccentric habits, which I knew from my few meetings with him in the past, but this was a side of his character I hadn’t been aware of before.

The notebooks were even more fascinating however. They were difficult to make sense of, but they contained references to the movements of the stars, the ascension and declination of the sky, the plane of the ecliptic and stellar positions, much as one would expect of an amateur astronomer, but my uncle was nothing of the kind as far as I could remember, not even having possession of a telescope. It seems he got many of these references from reading astronomical papers, some of which were pasted into his books. They also contained some odd drawings, quite a number of them. Many were stylised charts or sketches clearly intended to show the location of celestial bodies, but most of them looked  like abortive portraits. Again and again I found pictures of a man’s or a woman’s head, but with the features having been sketched in and then erased, as if there was something he was trying to record or express, but was unable to do adequately and in frustration, abandoned the attempt. I began to feel a deep sorrow as clearly, what these scrapbooks and notebooks showed was the steady decline of a man’s sanity, as a strange obsession overtook him. A feverishness entered his writing in later stages of his life and I could clearly see in the increasingly scrawled nature of his handwriting the final stages of a mania. I felt disturbed and worried, not least because I wondered whether he suffered from a madness which ran in the family, but also because I wondered how the rest of my family thought.

As I came to put the books back into the cardboard box I kept them in, something fell out of them which I hadn’t noticed before. It was a square paper envelope, which, when I opened it, turned out to contain a blue CD-ROM. From the yellow patch I found on one side of the envelope I guessed it had been sellotaped into one of the books. I turned it over in my hands and wondered how often he used computers. He had had about four as I recall and the executors had had the memories wiped clean so the things could be recycled. This was after the university had requested access to his files as two of the computers were their property. The September evening was drawing in by now, but I thought there was only one way to find out so I decided to have a look. My PC was in the corner of the room by the window with an incongruous Victorian glass table lamp next to it. Here I sat, as it happened for the next two hours, although I didn’t expect to at the time. I turned on the PC, and inserted the disc. For a moment as it whirred inside the drive it occurred to me that the files may have been encrypted for some reason, why I’m not sure, possibly a kind of conspiracy thinking that was starting to enter my mind. Fortunately however, this wasn’t so, and what came up was a huge PDF file, which when I opened it, turned out to be page after page of handwritten text, scanned on to a computer at some past stage. It seemed to be a diary, and it dated from some time before the fire mentioned in one of the newspaper articles, in fact it started two years before. Evidently my uncle had begun keeping a journal during his studies, possibly another of his eccentricities, and it seemed to finish just after the fire. In fact there were one or two entries after that, but they were garbled and undated.

I sat for two hours reading the diary, my eyes becoming tired in front of the screen, but unable to draw myself away. As the evening waned and the old Gothic room became dark, I was sitting in an oasis of blue light in front of the computer with a coldness gnawing at my soul. What I found in the diaries and notes was either a highly strange and unnatural experience which would account for my uncle’s later illness, or the slow disintegration of a highly advanced mind into hallucinations. I found out later that he had in fact spent some weeks in hospital after the events described in his diaries. Sometimes the entries were rambling notes that were not dated, just a kind of stream of consciousness, making me sad at the thought of what must essentially have been a deeply unstable personality. Looking back, it feels as if I was in the presence either of questionable sanity or something wholly inexplicable, at least in terms of known reality. By the time I had finished the first reading, I had a strange, other-worldly feeling clawing at the edge of my consciousness, a sense of having encountered something from another sphere of existence, or a kind of madness. Either way, the feeling was one of deep strangeness, as if I had somehow been at the bottom of the ocean or in outer space, before coming back.

The diaries didn’t really make a coherent narrative, as some entries were headed: “Before the last entry” and “Recollection unclear”, particularly toward the last few pages. I struggled to make sense of it all and finally, some days later, I began to write it down myself in the order I think it must have unfolded as experience, either in reality which seems bizarre, or in his mind. Either way it was a deeply troubling experience, and I sometimes read through it trying to understand what must have happened. However, I know that this is fast becoming an unhealthy occupation and that I will be better off concentrating more on my studies. Still, the story, if it can be called a story, as I eventually evolved it is the closest I can get to making any sense of my uncle’s sad ramblings. The truth will never be known, I suppose, and I for one won’t explore it any further, as it would be detrimental to my family history. The diaries mention another person who may have witnessed the things my uncle describes, a medical student by the name of James Bridie. I tried looking him up on Facebook, but soon gave up as there were so many James Bridies there, he could have been anyone. Besides, what good would it do to ask him about something like this that may have happened thirty years ago, even if I could trace him? No, I decided. Some things are better left alone.

 

Danforth stepped off the train into the hot, acrid air of Waterloo Underground Station and made his way through the teeming warren of white-tiled tunnels to the bustling vastness of the railway station. The silver earthworm whispered away into the earth behind him as he went, carrying its human cargo with it into oblivion, at least as far as Danforth was concerned. It was hard to avoid the rush hour, and often he stayed late in his studio at St Martin’s School of Art to do just that, but today he felt tired and so had left at 4 o’clock, hopefully just in time to beat the worst of it. There is really no comfortable time for travelling in London. Danforth had been there two years now, and it had taken him six months to stop looking over his shoulder for muggers, and about a year to learn to stop thinking about the IRA planting bombs on the Tube. The trains would vomit forth people, spilling out rapidly into the station like blood from a damaged artery, to scurry rabbit-like through the tunnels to the surface. Danforth hated it: it was the only thing about London he didn’t like, because for him it was a far cry from his home town of Norwich, historic and pretty but for Danforth, a place without hope or ambition. Once he had made up his mind to study fine art, London was the only place to be, and St Martin’s his preferred college. The central location on Charing Cross Road was perfect for one with his love of culture, with its bookshops, close proximity to museums and the old, somewhat cramped studios were more than compensated for by the air of industry that permeated the School. Danforth’s mind was alive with three-dimensional dreams, fantasies in metal and wood, as his ambitions were slowly translated into reality. He had worked eighteen hours  a day for the last three days, his energy consumed by a passion for creating, and this had finally made him decide to have a rest. Danforth’s usual day consisted of lectures or tutorials in the morning followed by research and work on his portfolio, and interrupted by a couple of hours at lunch in the Duke of Cambridge with fellow students, made up for later by more hours in the studio, and dinner at home, which was in shared housing in Southwark. Even with London weighting, his student grant didn’t afford him much of a lifestyle and he spent most of his time in overdraft.

Danforth left the rail terminal behind and was quickly amidst the quiet Southwark streets, the tall, storied houses around him filtering out the noise of the city, the April air cool and welcome after the heat of the Tube. The area he lived in was a warren of old and crumbling tenements, punctuated by Victorian pubs and decaying convenience shops run by Indians. It was an area habited chiefly by students and migrant workers, like a lot of London at the present time. The houses were maintained in a somewhat haphazard fashion by the landlords, whose interest was not in their tenants, but in the income they represented. The area he lived in was a small square of four-storey houses in blocks surrounding a patch of overgrown and neglected vegetation that passed as a garden, fenced in by rusting iron railings. At one corner of the square a small block of four houses was separated from the terraces by a narrow alley in which reposed a number of waste bins. Danforth lived in a room  at the top of one of the terraced houses overlooking the square and the garden, the view taking in the separated block to the left of his window.

Danforth unlocked the front door, let himself in and as always his nostrils were assailed by the familiar musty smell of the old house, the smell, he thought, of decay and neglect, but, as he always reflected, that was a part of student life. The hall was narrow and high-ceilinged, as always in old Victorian terraces with a shallow arch above the beginning of the stairs. At night when the bare lightbulb overhead was on the hall would look a pale yellow colour, but in daylight appeared off-white, the colour of old paint. Many of his friends at college were in halls of residence, but Danforth had had to come out after a year, both to accommodate new students on his course, and because he wanted somewhere more independent, more mature and less of a students’ community where he had got very little sleep all told what with parties, people coming back in the early hours drunk, practising their guitar riffs and occasionally, making love or fighting. The first six months had been fun, drinking, going on pub crawls, spending time in the student bar, going with girls, sitting in his or someone else’s room doing drugs and boozing on cheap wine: but eventually all that began to pall and although he still liked to enjoy himself, he preferred to do so on his own terms, which was hardly possible in hall. Danforth trudged up the stairs to the top landing, passing a door on the second floor which was slightly ajar. That meant James Bridie was in, which was actually unusual for the time of day. James was a Scot, a medical student at  UCL and Guy’s Hospital. He didn’t get much time to socialise and so when he did, he made the most of it. Danforth went past without saying anything or making too much noise, as today he hoped Jim wasn’t going to ask him out for a pint. Jim was a charismatic and likeable fellow whose company Danforth enjoyed a great deal, and he hadn’t seen him for over a week, but today wasn’t the best day to go out: better recharge his batteries first. Jim would leave his door slightly open if he was expecting a visitor or had time to spare for a chat, but if he was working the door stayed shut. This meant everyone had learned fairly quickly when he wasn’t to be disturbed. No-one had phones in their rooms, the only phone was a payphone in the hall, so if tenants wanted to talk to each other, they had to do so by other means.

Danforth let himself into his room and closed the door. Unlike Jim, he always kept his door closed, but that didn’t stop anyone knocking on the door and Danforth couldn’t very well pretend he wasn’t in if he was busy. One thing about living on the top floor was that everyone else in the house knew your movements.

The attic room was fairly large, about eighteen feet square, and the window was set into an angled wall at one end of the room. It was painted white and Danforth had put up posters of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd’s famous pyramids photo from Dark Side of the Moon. The old brown wardrobe on the left hand wall held as many of his clothes as he could fit into it, and there was a chest of drawers next to it containing the rest. Both were made of dark brown polished wood and Danforth had always guessed they were pre-war. The single bed lay to the right, with Danforth’s suitcase under it. He kept it out of sight so as not to be reminded of the essentially transitory nature of his position, and in the left hand corner near the window there was a sink with a mirror, which Danforth used to wash both himself and his dishes, preferring not to use  the shared bathroom unless he really needed to. There was a large old desk and chair to the right of the window on which were some small sculpture models made of dried clay, and an angled lamp for working by, with a small pile of unwashed dishes next to it, plus a small portable stereo with a tape deck but no record player, and a portable TV wedged into the corner. Danforth had a Dansette record player on the floor by the desk.  A number of tools and sketches were scattered on the desk with more drawings tacked up around the room with Blu-Tack. There was a small occasional table in the middle of the room with an old table-lamp and more models on it, and in the far corner from the door  was a cupboard with a Belling electric cooker on the top of it, under another cupboard fixed to the corner above. This contained most of Danforth’s food supplies, most of which were canned goods, bread, potatoes and powdered milk, which Danforth considered woefully inadequate, but as he had no fridge, he had little choice. On some open shelves at one end of the cupboard were his plates and dishes, and next to the cooker was a small drop-leaf table with a yellow Formica top. Danforth’s books were scattered about the room with the cardboard boxes they had come in next to the cupboard in a pile between the cupboard and the bed. The whole was a picture of clutter and disorganisation, with every available flat surface occupied by little sculpture models, books, drawings, pencils, sketchbooks and tools. For Danforth, it was home.

He went to the overhead cupboard and got himself a bottle of beer from the three he had left, and pouring himself a glass, sat down to watch the TV at the desk. He found the news with stories of jobs being lost all over the country, which saddened him particularly as he remembered his father telling him; “There’ll be  no jobs soon boy! Get yourself a job! Pretty soon everyone’ll be out of work, all the young people your age! If you go to art school you’ll come out with no prospects...” And amidst the emerging rhetoric about the “waste of a generation” and endless images of unemployed people queuing at Jobcentres, Danforth felt slightly depressed. After twenty minutes and a glass of beer he felt that the shared bathroom, for once, did not seem like such a bad idea, so he sauntered down past Jim’s room with towel and soap for a hot soak, and felt a kind of guilty relief that the door was closed as he went back up. He could hear the others coming home now, announced by footsteps on the stairs and the heavy slamming of doors. Feeling drowsy after his bath he settled down to watch East Enders, as the sky slowly darkened and he switched on the table lamp, bathing the room in a yellow glow. The square below was quiet, no notable comings and goings, and as far as he could tell the houses on the corner were empty. He’d never been sure whether there was anyone living there or not, as the grimy net curtains in the windows had never moved or changed, and he’d rarely seen anyone go in or out except for workmen in small vans. In all, a quiet evening. It was another hour and a half before he went to bed with a book and finally fell asleep at about half-past nine.

Danforth was a heavy sleeper, but what woke him abruptly at 3 am was a loud rumbling noise, seeming to come from all directions at once, growing louder and louder until he thought the walls were shaking. A panicked thought came into his mind that a plane was flying low overhead, perhaps crashing..... it was unusual for the planes from Heathrow to be as loud as this, and Danforth, feeling a mixture of annoyance and mild worry, went to the window and peered through the now- closed curtains.  He couldn’t see anything outside except the quiet square in darkness, no lights in any of the windows, no-one outside, and as he looked up, nothing in the sky, no plane lights, nothing. The noise began to slowly die down until it faded away altogether, and peer as he might, Danforth couldn’t see a thing. Relieved, he put it down to a plane on an unknown flight path. There were often complaints on the news from people who lived close to the airport having their lives ruined by noisy aircraft and unable to sell their houses. Usually they had moved there before the nearest terminal was built, but this was the first time Danforth had heard anything of the kind here. Normally the planes were quietly audible far away, never a close experience like this. The square was silent now except for the barking of a dog in the distance, and Danforth, after another fifteen minutes, was sound asleep again.

The next day was Friday, and Danforth arose refreshed after a night’s sleep. The rain drizzled slowly from a heavy sky with the gentle persistence that marks all-day rain, and he looked forward to a drink in the local pub tonight, as was one of his customs. As  he washed in the sink he looked at his reflection in the mirror, the gaunt and chiselled face with three days’ stubble on it, the dark and rakish hair that fell over his forehead in a manner reminiscent of a self-portrait of  Stanley Spencer, one of his favourite painters, as far as painting interested him. The heavy bags under his eyes caused by staying out too late had vanished after a good night’s sleep, and for this he was grateful. Having dressed and donned the long grey overcoat that was his dress trademark among colleagues, he wrote a quick note inviting Jim out later and pushed it under the door of his room as he passed on his way out.

That evening the atmosphere in the Lord Clyde was bustling and lively. The Clyde was close to where Danforth lived and was a Victorian pub with a green-tiled facade and engraved windows. The air was dense with smoke and the buzz of conversation as Danforth sat in a corner of the bar with Jim and his girlfriend, Claire, a fellow medical student who often stayed with Jim at the weekend, along with two others, Adam and Simon, from the house, all studying at local colleges. Jim was entertaining everyone by telling stories over a round of Adnam’s  about how he had  had to take part in post-mortem examinations that week, and someone fainted at one of them, then he had described how he had been trained to assist with the draining of blood from a corpse and refilling the veins with formaldehyde. At times like this odd things would happen, the corpse would reflex in some unexpected way or due to compression of cartilage would appear to move., and Jim described in great detail the effect of seeing this on his fellow students. Told by anyone else such stories might have seemed morbid or depressing, but with Jim’s wit were rendered into tales of fun. Somehow his Scottish burr: “Ah hail fram Peebles,” he would introduce himself, persuaded one to laugh at anything he said. Jim was a big, sandy-haired young man, (the expression “youth” didn’t do him justice) with a high intelligence and a keen dedication to his work, but also a healthy sense of humour, especially at times of leisure. “Did you hear that plane that came over low last night , Jim?” Danforth eventually got in amid the laughter of his companions.

“Aye, ah did that.” Jim replied. “Woke me up, you too ah guess. Wasn’t sure it were a plane though.”

“What d’you suppose then?” Danforth asked.

“Ah maybe one o’ them tube trains or something. Ye can hear ‘em sometimes at night when they go over a bridge above the ground”

“No way” Danforth scolded, “It just about rattled the roof off!”

“Didn’t seem that loud to me, Danny-boy.” (Hardly anyone called Danforth “Nigel” except his tutors, and frankly, he didn’t mind. He kept being called “Dan” or “Dan the Man” by most colleagues and preferred it as he felt his own name sounded wet.) “Got back off again soon enough  anyways.”

“Maybe, but it was pretty loud at the top. Maybe its just being up there makes it so noisy.”

“Aye well, could have been anything. Sound plays tricks at night y’know.”

“I bet you thought it was a missile, Dan.” Clare said and laughed. She thought Danforth somewhat eccentric.

“Well, he heard it as well,” Danforth protested.  “Anyway, I still think it was a plane.”

“ Can you imagine it”, Adam added, “what it would be like if we heard that and it really was a bomb? Like in the war? You’d shit your pants!”

“Aye, mebbe so,” Jim replied. “Anyhow, Danny-boy, it’s your round!”

That ended the discussion about the mysterious noise of last night, with no-one attaching any importance to it at all. The evening went on into the night with a visit to another bar where there was a band on, and afterwards they all staggered back into the square with the vague consciousness of life going on all around them, and Jim imagining some old lady shouting “Young hooligans!” if they managed to wake anyone up. Curiously enough, Danforth noticed, there were lights in the apparently empty block of houses on the corner. Maybe somebody had moved in, although Danforth felt it was odd that he hadn’t noticed any vehicles or people moving furniture about. Maybe, like his own house they were furnished bedsits anyway, that was usually the case. It was unusual though, for new tenants just to move in with suitcases. One or two of the windows were lit from within by a deep, blue glow. Well, no accounting for taste in lightshades, he thought.

 

Weeks passed and Danforth thought nothing more about whether the houses were tenanted or not, paying no attention to whether anyone was coming or going from there, although some of the other tenants in his own house remarked that they rarely saw anyone go in or out, when they did it seemed to be late at night and you could never see their faces, as they seemed to be wearing some sort of hood or cowl over their heads. In London this wasn’t as unusual as it would have been elsewhere in England, due to the large number of immigrants the city entertained. Jim reckoned they were simply foreigners, possibly illegal. When Danforth wondered if they ought to inform the authorities, Jim dismissed the idea, as there was no real evidence. They would, he said, look fools if the tenants had every right to be here and they’d made an issue of it. Danforth wasn’t convinced. He knew there was no danger in an anonymous phone call, but he understood Jim’s point. No-one wants to be thought of a as a busybody, unless they have a malicious streak in them. At night, the blue lights were visible from Danforth’s window, but he got used to them and gradually the presence of the strangers receded from his mind. They made no noise, they kept a low profile, they attracted no attention to themselves. Danforth simply thought it odd. But the rest of the term passed with Danforth finally earning some praise from his tutors for his first monumental piece, Triton, which had taken up much of this time: “This is more than student work, Nigel. You’re making real progress. This is sculpture!” one of the tenants of his house moved out as the end of his course came, and the summer break arrived, which saw Danforth doing some seasonal work in a factory before going home to Norwich to visit his parents. The quaintness of the old cathedral town and the chance to spend a bit of time by the seaside as well as visiting his parents gave him a restful break from study and London, although to Danforth, the town seemed smaller than it had before he had left.

Danforth visited old friends, people he still kept in touch with from school and from his shop jobs before he went to London, and the heaviness of his pressured and hectic life there gradually left him behind, until he finally had to pack his bags and prepare to return. He found it strange: when he was in London, he didn’t miss Norwich, and when he was in Norwich, the thought of returning to London depressed him slightly, possibly because, he mused, it was the feeling one always gets when a holiday ends, as if London was now actually his home, and his home town a holiday destination. One week before term was due to begin at college, he boarded the train for London.

 

The rain drizzled gently down as Danforth, suitcase in hand, walked into the square approaching his digs, and without an umbrella or hat he cursed his own foolishness. As he rounded the corner he noticed an odd smell that he couldn’t readily identify. It wasn’t unpleasant or particularly strong, just unfamiliar and puzzling, and it seemed most noticeable as he passed the block of houses at the corner of the square, causing him to remember the secretive occupants of those houses, the tenants he had never seen. Mentally he immediately connected it with them and reflected for a moment, his mind turning to thoughts of poor hygiene or drug use, even manufacture. He felt vaguely uncomfortable thinking about the mysterious and invisible tenants, his mind associating them gradually with crime of some sort. Squalor was an occasional fact of life in some areas of London, he knew. All the same, there was something distinctly odd about those houses and the queer behaviour of whoever was living in them. The smell passed as he reached his digs and let himself in. As he went up the stairs he noticed that Jim didn’t seem to be back yet, and he decided  that later on he would go down to the Lord Clyde as he usually managed to bump into somebody he knew. With a week to go before the start of term he had a little time on his hands to buy some groceries, rearrange his room and make himself comfortable.

The day when you arrive after a tiresome journey is not a good day to go shopping and cook your own dinner, so Danforth went to the Lord Clyde for a pint, fish and chips and the company of some students and locals he had got to know through his two years at St Martin’s. As it happened Jim returned early in the evening and joined them, so the atmosphere was lively and convivial for a couple of hours, as they exchanged stories of home and jokes. Danforth found himself tired quite early in the evening and so left at about 10 o’clock.

Because it was his final year, Danforth threw himself into work. He occupied the welding workshop every day when he wasn’t working on his thesis about the future of British art, and a lot of his social conventions disappeared except at weekends. He kept Friday nights, Saturdays and Sunday afternoons as leisure time, but the rest of the time he spent working. Danforth knew he was a workaholic and sometimes wondered if it was good for him, as he had spent his two years in London with only the most casual and short-lived encounters with women, wheras Jim had a steady girlfriend and still worked as hard as Danforth did, often with very long hours. Danforth would keep late hours himself on many evenings at the window of his room either working on one of his models or on his thesis, and during this time he accidentally found himself invigilating the square at night, developing as time passed, a growing curiosity about the furtive dwellers in the houses at the corner. He never saw them during the day, never in the mornings or early evenings when he went to college, so he surmised that if they worked at all they kept odd hours, but occasionally a group of them would gather in the garden at the centre of the square, huddled together and oddly clothed, muffled as if against extreme cold, their faces hooded and invisible. Now and again one of them would turn his head upwards toward the sky, and on one occasion Danforth felt sure the blank, dark spot inside the hood was looking straight up at the window where he worked, but he dismissed the thought as irrational. Now and again he shared his thoughts with Jim, as he was becoming more and more convinced that the houses were occupied by illegal immigrants, and he wondered whether he ought to do anything about it. Jim usually replied that he had “bigger fish to fry” as he put it, meaning he wanted to concentrate on his work. Whoever they were, they had practically no impact whatever on the life of the square, so why should he be concerned? He met with no more sympathy if he mentioned this to anyone in the pub, as he did once or twice to some locals. Their response was “I just keep away from the place, I do. Don’t concern me.” Danforth stopped mentioning this as he felt that if he did decided to go to the police, fingers would inevitably be pointed in his direction, and he did not want to become mixed up in anything that would make his life unnecessarily complicated. As he became more and more immersed in his studies he largely forgot about them anyway, until one evening he stayed late at the studio, then went for a drink with some friends on Charing Cross Road, before belatedly realising he hadn’t had anything to eat.

Danforth always felt a little more wary on the Tube at night, his eyes searching the cars surreptitiously for suspicious or odd behaviour. He had heard a few too many stories of muggings and stabbings on the Underground, and preferred to stay in a busy car if he could. It was always an eerie experience to walk up to the surface when the station was quiet, his feet echoing in the tunnels, his mind feeling the depth of the subterranean world he briefly occupied, the cool air on his skin as the wind blown by the trains wafted though the underground warrens, so that it was always a relief, even when he was rendered a little light-headed by beer, to reach the surface. Realising he was hungry, Danforth stopped at a kebab shop near the maze of Southwark streets in which he lived,  bought himself a doner with salad, chilli and mint sauce, and seated himself on a high stool at a small aluminium table near the door to eat his dinner. Just before he had reached the kebab shop he had passed a small mini-market, a convenience store where occasionally he bought some last-minute provisions, although he was more accustomed to using  a local market. He had thought of buying a tin of something to cook at home, but had thought better of it and now looked bleakly out into the darkness as he munched his way through a meal which, had he been sober, he might have thought twice before eating as he considered kebabs greasy although he liked the spices and pickled chillies. Somewhere in the background a radio was playing some tinny music and he heard the general hiss and odd clanking from the kitchen, and the hum of traffic on nearby streets. Looking up from the last scraps of bread and salad he noticed a hunched figure passing by the door of the shop, dressed in shapeless black garments and carrying a plastic bag in a gloved hand containing some unspecified goods bearing the logo of the mini-market close by. Something about the figure kept his attention, a shambling gait perhaps, something about the posture of the man, woman or whoever, that automatically made his mind connect with the strange figures he had sometimes watched in the square when working on his thesis. The figure passed and slowly, nervously, Danforth rose from his stool, thanked the proprietor, binned his rubbish and walked out into the street. He still felt light-headed, but kept himself focussed on the shambling figure ahead, occasionally watching it pass briefly through the beam of a street-light as he neared home. The streets around became gradually darker, more oppressive somehow, as they grew narrower, the buildings closer. Danforth  wondered if he was being motivated by some morbid curiosity that went beyond the norm, although he found himself feeling playful, as if this were all a game of some sort, a game of “shadowing.” What did it matter, he thought to himself, if the figure ahead were one of the strange corner denizens or not? He was still pursuing this chain of thought as he approached a road junction marking the corner of the square, running across the street at right-angles.

Out of nowhere a blur flashed in front of him and he heard a dull thud as the stranger was thrown into the air. The car stopped abruptly, then with a roar sped on into the night, the sound of muffled curses coming from within. It was the work of seconds and Danforth ran up to the junction and the sprawled, black figure lying there, the bag and its spilled contents lying limply a couple of yards away. Danforth noticed that the head was hooded and the face hidden by a scarf, so nothing was clear. He thought for a second of leprosy and nineteenth century diseases, as he crouched over the figure which amazingly, began to move. Danforth knelt down beside the injured victim.

“Don’t m-”  he started to say then abruptly the words were cut off in his throat.

The figure was slowly rising from the floor, a muffled sound coming from behind the scarf, and Danforth noticed that one of the gloves had come loose on his hand; (Danforth assumed it was a man due to its build) and the palm was exposed. It looked white, and slightly translucent, but what horrified Danforth was that there was a gashed, scraped part of the lower palm which must have grazed the ground as he landed, and it should have been bleeding copiously, but instead it was absolutely devoid of any fluid at all, like a plant stalk, a completely dry cut without any evidence of being human tissue......

Danforth clapped his hand to his mouth and hissed inward, but still holding out a hand to help the rising form. Abruptly it swept his hand aside with surprising strength and uttered another low moan, a guttural, inarticulate sound like the scream of a deaf mute, then, abandoning its provisions, ran toward the corner bock of houses near Danforth’s house, the houses with pale bluish lights at the upper windows. Horrified, Danforth ran back to the house to find Jim.

A minute of hammering on Jim’s door brought someone out on the floor above shouting, “Oi, Nigel, he ain’t in mate! Pack it in, eh?” Danforth ran back down the stairs to the payphone in the hall and dialled 999. “Police,” he said breathlessly. “I want to report an incident.”

 

“Hit and run did you say, sir? Did you get the registration number?” the voice at the other end asked.

“I was too busy looking after the man that was run over.” Danforth replied.

“How about the car? Did you notice what make it was?”

“I’m not sure. Vauxhall Astra...I think” Danforth was never sure about makes of cars.

“Did you notice the colour, sir?”

“Blue.... I guess.”

“Dark blue or pale, sir?”

“Yeah, er, a light blue. “ Danforth was beginning to feel a little foolish.

“OK, what about the victim?”

“Well, it’s weird, he got up and walked away! I couldn’t believe it!”

“Any idea where he went, sir?”

“Well, yes as it happens, I think he lives at, er, 229 Copperfield Street.”

“Is that near you, sir?”

“Yes, just across the road, in fact.”

“Where are you calling from now?” Danforth gave his address.

“Well, not sure how far we can get without a number plate, but we’ll get someone round to see the chap who was hit. He might be able to help. We’ll call an ambulance as well, just in case. He might just be lucky and have shock, but you never know. All right sir, thanks for your time, we’ll be in touch.”

 

Just as Danforth was replacing the receiver the front door opened and Jim walked in. He bustled in with his greatcoat and bag, and looking  Danforth in the face called out “Danny-boy! Ye look like ye’ve seen a ghost man!” As Danforth looked up at him his face suddenly sagged in concern. “Hey, man, ye look green in the face! What’s up?”

Danforth related his hit and run experience and suddenly found himself pouring out the pent-up emotions of his months spent watching the square.

“There’s something wrong with that place, Jim! I’ve watched it for weeks, not sort of because I was all that bothered, but, when I was working! Who the hell are they? That bloke’s hand was mashed to shit and it wouldn’t bleed! Dogs don’t go near it! Did you know that? Jesus! I’ve got the police but  Christ!.......” 

Jim suddenly seized and shook his friend like a rag doll. Danforth started with a shock: he hadn’t realised Jim was that strong. He stopped babbling and Jim fixed him with an iron stare. “Now stop!” Jim said sharply. “Ye’ve been overdoin it, man. Breathe now! Get up an’ fix yersel’ a drink. If there’s been an accident, I’ll go an’ see. If the police are on the way, ye’ve nothing tae worry about. Now, go on, leave it ta me, and I’ll be back in a few minutes. Ye’ve got yerself all worked up over nothin. Get yerself up them stairs’ laddie!”

Danforth breathed heavily and stood nodding his head. He suddenly felt foolish and tired. “Ok, Jim, Ok. I’ll do as you say. I’m sorry.”

“Nae bodda. I’ll be back soon. If the police come ye’d better let me deal with it.I’ll see ye in a few minutes.”

 

Danforth trudged wearily up the stairs to his room. He wondered if Jim wasn’t right. Looking back on things, he realised he seemed to have developed an obsession with whoever it was that occupied the house across the way. It seemed to have taken the place in his life of a social life and meaningful routine since his work had occupied his entire existence. It hadn’t been good for him. It was only Jim’s down-to-earth personality that had stopped him making an utter fool of himself. But what had he seen? A hallucination? Was he seeing things? He hadn’t been drinking: was his mind playing tricks? He needed to see a doctor. On entering his room Danforth put on the kettle and anxiously waited by the window, looking down at the square obscured by the reflected light of the little table lamp. He knew Jim had gone to the house whilst he was walking up the stairs, and a feeling of grim foreboding occupied his mind. What was he waiting for? he asked himself in the half-light that was, for the present, his world. He could see no-one outside the house and it was clear Jim had either gone inside or walked around the back of the place to see if there was anything he could do, or anything he could find out. He could see the windows of the house with their dim blue lights within and not for the first time, asked himself what in God’s name he thought was in there.

 

Danforth was never quite sure what it was that made him finally rush back down the stairs before the arrival of the authorities. His notes never made it clear, but they contained a reference to “voices.” Did he hear a voice in his head? Or was the illness that dogged his life in later years already beginning?

Danforth’s diary records him running down the stairs, convinced that Jim was in some kind of trouble. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but the feeling of ill-tidings in his mind had, it seemed, begun to clutch at his heart as mounting panic. Blindly, he rushed out into the street to see the door of the house open, Jim’s figure come lurching out and collapse on the steps leading to the street. In the dim light of the porch, he saw two shadowy figures close the door.

Danforth ran over to where Jim lay, and shook his friend gently. Jim’s eyes gazed sightlessly at him before he suddenly seemed to awaken and said “What? What? Where am I? Hey, Danny, how did ah get here?”

Danforth could hear the distant but gradually approaching sound of sirens among the muted babble of the city as he helped Jim to his feet. Just at that moment he saw the blue light of the windows begin to become brighter, and as he turned, the light increased n brightness and intensity until it became a blue white incandescence which dazzled and then threatened to blind him, causing him to hold up his hand to shield his eyes. Moments later, the house was ablaze, and by the time the police arrived was an inferno. The fire brigade were called immediately but the fire was far advanced when they arrived, and rescue attempts were frustrated by the heat. The square was soon filled with onlookers as more engines turned up to try and control the blaze with fire hoses. By the next morning, the site was razed to the ground and there remained only the pit of the cellars filled with smoking embers. Danforth remembered when it was announced in the newspaper in days to come that no-one had apparently been in the house at the time of the fire, as no human remains were found, that he had seen those shadowy figures at the door. And although he never mentioned it to anyone, his diaries clearly describe the things he saw that night, in drawings and notes. It was only Danforth who saw that blue incandescence within the house suddenly become a ball of blue-white fire that shot straight upwards through the roof, which seemed to explode and shower burning pieces of slate and timber onto the square, flashed into the sky at tremendous speed and vanished through the clouds, leaving only the blazing building behind. But Danforth’s notes never quite made it clear just what he saw in the light of the doorway, all that remained were his drawings, the beings with blurred faces that were not quite like those of anyone on Earth, the features not quite Caucasian, Asian, or negroid, as if they were somehow unfinished......

 

I remember sitting by the little table-lamp in my own room at Cambridge, having read through the diaries and tried to make sense of them.  I felt I had somehow failed, because it was impossible to arrive at a conclusion that didn’t sound either fanciful or insane. If, as my uncle was clearly trying to imply, the inhabitants of that strange house were not of this earth, then what could have been the purpose of their visit? Obviously, the James Bridie mentioned in the diaries had no recollection of going into the house himself, or of anything he might have seen there. This seemed convenient in a way, although I wondered about it. What might he have seen? Although, on reflection, I found myself  wondering if he existed at all. To satisfy my curiosity on this point I looked up the list of alumni on the hospital website, but couldn’t find mention of anyone by that name. This could have been for any number of reasons, as in the days of the internet, most university graduates only have their names on such lists if they put them on themselves. I found myself arriving at the conclusion that parts of the diaries represented the story of a man becoming slowly irrational under pressure of overwork.

But my curiosity sometimes causes me to ask, what if it were true? There are constant implications in the diaries that my uncle saw something very odd during his time in London. He mentioned the features of the man he saw run over as being not quite representative of any race on Earth, but there was nothing he could put his finger on. There was also something about the eyelids being all wrong, unlike those of any race on the planet. Could it have been an experimental attempt by an alien race to imitate our appearance? Was it not quite successful and could it have been improved by later attempts? But these are fanciful thoughts that my mind struggles to give any authority to. The notes now lie in a box under the stairs in my home and I don’t think about them very often. If I do so, I wonder whether there is a genetic predisposition in my family towards such mental illness as affected my uncle, I hope not and tend to avoid irrational-sounding ideas. But I do remember how I felt after that first reading, seated by my computer with its glowing blue screen, thinking of the darkness outside it and the things it may hide, thinking of the strangeness that had suddenly become part of my experience, as if I had travelled to some far and unwholesome place, thinking about  what might exist beyond the window in the vastness of a strange universe......

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2020 MARCUS DARWIN. All rights reserved.

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