I knew the businessman was Nicholas Chowder from the nameplate on his desk.
“Aggravation, nothing but aggravation!” he said with a smile.
My assessment of Chowder’s frame of mind, however, stemmed not from his name nor from his understatement regarding aggravation nor from his smile, but from his throat which had accidentally developed a vicious-looking gash as a result of my wielding a blade rather too threateningly in the vicinity of his adam’s apple.
“I am merely a burglar,” I retorted.
I could judge he had already undergone a pig of a day amid the wretched uniformity of life’s awfulness. Too many lost deals, too many unsatisfying lurches to and from lunch.
I snatched a quick glance at the papers strewn over his leather-topped desk. Anonymous mugging had never appealed to me because, by dint of its nature, such an activity was not only anti-social but also involved unsociable hours, whilst straightforward bodily harm allowed me to meet people in the course of my work. The doorman to the office block hadn’t been worth spending the time of day with – the servant classes often weren’t. So I had dealt *him* a deadly blow first off. I knew, simply knew, in those days of recession and hard graft, that the upper floors of the block would hold at least one late-working businessman crouched over as he sweated blood. Indeed, Chowder’s papers bore an archipelago of marks, as if greasy fish and tomato-sauced chips had been wrapped up in them.
I held the blade slightly less threateningly to give him the opportunity to breathe again and – since I enjoyed anticipation more than anything – to prevent the incision I had made in his neck from haemorrhaging too soon. As I did so, I gathered from his papers that he had been writing prose of a creative nature as opposed to the tedious facts and figures wich business often thrived upon.
His words indeed told of creatures with seemingly misspelled names, faraway places, impending dooms, frowning fates and churlish investigators. None of it made complete sense. I was intrigued, because I had vaguely been acquainted with such a mythos as a child, when my father read me bedtime horror stories. They now came flooding back to me as I consumed further paragraphs of Chowder’s scribble.
In the meantime, I released him and he flopped into his revolving chair, dabbing the front of his neck with a strawberry-spotted handkerchief. Robbery was no longer at the forefront of my mind nor, even, self-preservation. To have discovered this hotbed of literary endeavour in such a non-descript city block was sufficient to exclude all other considerations and I plumped myself down in his secretary’s seat, shuffling more of his papers to within my range of vision.
“This is all very interesting…”
I raised my sight towards Chowder. He still smiled. The wound still welled without over-brimming.
“Your name,” he said, in such a tone as it wasn’t a question.
“I’ve been called Sharp End,” I replied, ignoring his tone.
“I’m Liftcraft, Menshun Liftcraft.”
So the Chowder nameplate was a diversionary tactic.
He proceeded to explain matters with many preambles of pointless logic, so that I would be eventually amenable to his revelations: such as the fact that many of the creatures described in his papers were real, with tentacles and undreamable features – and they squatted in the top floor boardroom of that very office block.
Over the years, however, they had actually mutated into human beings. Liftcraft (aka Chowder) blamed, he claimed, inbreeding for this state of affairs. No wonder – bearing in mind his written descriptions I had briefly browsed. Surely, I thought, the creatures’ erstwhile ugliness must have been a disincentive to mating, a consideration which also compelled me to scrutinise, for the first time, the detailed demeanour of my victim, the one who called himself Menshun Liftcraft. A businessman’s suit had indeed blinded me to the state of his complexion and facial landmarks.
“Let me tell you … Sharp End … when people stare at me as you are, then I start to think that they see more than there is to see…”
I shrugged, indicating, by default, that I hadn’t understood his words. Yet how could I have previously ignored the gaping pores which exuded the greasy substance I had earlier noticed staining the papers … and the rubbery nose … the sunken sockets whence his eyeballs sagged.
“…or less,” he added, after an inordinate pause.
I countered by uttering one of my most meaningful non-sequiturs:
“Do you think they’re in disguise, your creatures? Fancy dress and masks would be a more believable belief-system than their actually becoming human beings by the natural selection of mutation, wouldn’t it?”
“Fancy dress? It’s a thought, I suppose. I hadn’t considered that it might be feasible for them to disguise themselves as human beings … unless evolution itself is a sort of disguise, albeit a slow-motion sort.”
Liftcraft was thinking louder than he talked.
“Can I meet them?” I asked.
By now, I had mostly forgotten that I was a robber. I fancied myself more as one of those investigators I’d seen cursorily sketched by Liftcraft’s written words. A part of my mind (that part not entrammelled by the residual problems of self-identification) wondered whether Liftcraft’s bosses knew he spent office time writing stories about monsters. But, judging by the size of his plush room, he *was* a boss – one calling himself Nicholas Chowder, so as to conceal his real foreign name.
“You want to see them, do you, Sharp End? But there’s nothing to see except replicas of normal human beings whom you can see walking along any street any day of any week. Why would you want to see such people?”
“But not so ordinary *if* they’ve bred themselves from … aliens.”
“No, no, not aliens. You’re … *we* are the aliens, Sharp End, not them. Those in the boardroom are Elder Gods, Ancient Ones, Cthulhu’s childer – and, to them, everything else is alien.”
He continued with such a rigmarole of unpronounceable names and words and places and book titles that I only caught fragments. No possible preamble could have justified such an outlandish diatribe. Yet, surely, only sense could be[i] quite
“Everything else is alien”: that’s what Menshun Liftcraft kept repeating before the office door swung open to admit a group of short-skirted secretaries. So – the building had not been left bereft by home-going, after all. Everybody worked late here, it seemed.
These leggy ladies caused me temporarily to lose my thread and there followed a short lull, before one of the newcomers shrieked as Liftcraft’s neck wound dawned on her – ensued by clicking dominoes falling like echoes: tutting tongue-riffs shuffling like sticky playing-cards. Yet I soon realised I was wrong: the secretary was not kicking up such a fuss regarding Liftcraft’s state, but a small creature skittered over the floor, one which the girls were evidently chasing with hysterical yipping noises.
There followed a frantic flurry as they scattered in all directions, this being an attempt to cut off the creature’s retreat. One glimpse told me that I would need more than a glimpse to ascertain the creature’s nature. A simple cat-lick of a glance might have told me volumes about a normal animal, but this was different, so different it wasn’t even possible to differentiate difference from sameness.
Yet, now, there it perched, throbbing … upon a filing cabinet, as if daring the circling secretaries to make a snatch for it. It managed this feat, however, without eyes. It looked like a long waggling nose between two wrinkled bulbous sacs, sacs that were so loose they were almost one, not two, and with sprouting side tufts of wiry hair. But, no, it *did* appear to have a single eye, after all, a sunken one, more of a needle’s eye – in the centre of its snout-ends’s unravelled helmet. The thing pulsed, throbbed and, yes, preened itself with a viscid milkiness which its weeping pinprick of an eye-hole seeped, then spat.
I felt sorry for it, despite the ugliness. It was one of Cthulhu’s childer, as I was later to learn, and, thus, beyond pity, beyond, even, love, hate or envy.
The girls were soon herded from the room by Menshun Liftcraft who subsequently turned his face to me knowingly – knowing that I would never really know.
Meanwhile, the creature had flopped to the floor, whereupon it scuttled silently to the lap of my skirt and suggestively squatted there, purring.
“Aggravation, nothing but aggravation!” Liftcraft said with a smile. “Secretaries are so very empty-headed, but *you*, Miss Sharp End, are a different kettle of fish.”
Knowing all along what variety of creature *I* was, he kindly offered me the nick in his neck.
I didn’t argue. After all, having no real faith in Ancient Gods or Great Old Ones or any of those tarramadiddles, *my* soul’s investment was simply in burgled blood.
(published ‘Black Moon’ 1995)
THE HOUSE RINGS WITH THE SOUNDS OF RAMBLING CHILDREN. IF THERE ARE ANY GROWN-UPS IN ATTENDANCE, THEY CERTAINLY DO NOT MAKE THEIR PRESENCE FELT. IN FACT, THE PARTY IS EVIDENTLY AT ITS HEIGHT, SINCE TWO GIRLS IN PINAFORE DRESSES, OF INDETERMINATE AGES, LEAN FROM A PRECARIOUS BALCONY, HOLDING FUNNY HATS TIGHT TO THEIR HEADS IN THE LATE AFTERNOON BREEZE. A BOY BLOWS A SQUEAKY TOY FROM ONE OF THE MANY ATTIC WINDOWS. HIS SHOUTS CANNOT BE HEARD FROM THE SUMMER PAGODA WHICH SOME ANCIENT FOLLY OF A PERSON ONCE SAW FIT TO HAVE ERECTED BESIDE THE GREEN LAKE.
THE BOY, DRESSED IN A SAILOR’S TUNIC, IS AN ECHO OF MYSELF AT THE SAME AGE. HE WAVES BUT, SURELY, I CAN’T BE SEEN. I WAVE BACK BUT, SURELY, HE CAN’T SEE ME. EVENTUALLY, HE DUCKS INSIDE TO ESCAPE THE EDGE OF DUSK.
LATER, A SEXLESS CHILD, WITH A BLACKENED FACE, EXTRUDES FROM ONE OF THE CHIMNEYPOTS ON THE VAST ROOF’S STAIRCASE STACKS. IT HOLDS UP A WINDMILL TOY WITH BUTTERFLY SAILS WHICH I GUESS MUST BE SPINNING LIKE MAD IN THE PICKING-UP BREEZE. INSIDE, THERE MAY BE SEVERAL OTHER CHILDREN IN PARTY DRESSES, BIBS AND TUCKERS, PLAYING THE WHOLE HOUSE FOR ITS EVERY NOOK AND CRANNY. HIDE AND SEEK, PASS THE PARCEL, MUSICAL CHAIRS, HUNT THE THIMBLE, FORFEITS AND DRESSING-UP. OH, I SIMPLY WOULD LOVE TO JOIN IN, LIKE A DROWNER, GRABBING MY SECOND CHILDHOOD HOOK-LINE-AND-SINKER. I ONCE DISCOVERED GREAT DELIGHT IN MOTHER’S DRESSINGUP TRUNK, THE ONE THROUGH WHICH SHE ALLOWED US TO RUMMAGE ON WET SUNDAY AFTERNOONS…
JUST AS WE SURRENDERED ANY HOPE OF THE WEATHER IMPROVING, THE LATE SUN SUDDENLY SHAFTED ACROSS THE LOFT FROM THE SKYLIGHT, PICKING ME OUT AS A CHILD IN SOME ANCIENT SHE-COUSIN’S COMING-OUT DRESS, BILLOWING AROUND MY ANKLES IN GOSSAMER SEAS OF ENDLESS CHILDHOOD’S DREAM. BY COMPARISON TO THE NIP AND TUCK OF MY USUAL TUNIC TROUSERS, I FELT SO GOOD, SO LIBERATED. MEANWHILE, THE OTHERS AIR-TOSSED THE KALEIDOSCOPIC FLOTSAM OF FABRICS, FRILLS, AND FAIRISLE WOOL. MOTHER LAUGHED UPON SEEING US ALL DRESSED UP, OUR EYES ENGORGED WITH SUNSET. MY OLDER SISTER WAS LANCELOT OF THE GREEN LAKE, SPORTING GRANDPOP’S OLD FIREGUARD, WITH SEE-THROUGH BODY TIGHTS BENEATH; ANOTHER SISTER STRUTTED THE LOFT AS A QUEEN, IN MINK-EDGED ROBES OF ROYAL BLUE SATIN, UNDER A CROWN OF CAPTURED SUNLIGHT. YET IT WAS ME WHO EARNED MOTHER’S WARMEST PRAISE, AS SHE TIED A PINK RIBBON IN MY HAIR.
WITH PRICKLING EYES, I SEE ANOTHER GIRL IN FLOWING TWILIT LACE JOIN THE OTHER TWO ON THE TINY BALCONY. SHE WAVES, AS I WAVE BACK SIMULTANEOUSLY FROM THE PAGODA. SHE HAS BEEN DISCOVERED IN THE UNLIKELIEST OF HIDING PLACES, BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHO FOUND HER, SINCE A SEEKER HAS NOT YET BEEN APPOINTED OFFICIALLY. MY MIND WONDERS AS IT WANDERS — THE EVENING DRAWING IN WHILE I SPOT EVIDENCE OF HIGH-BANKED FIRES CURLING FROM ALL THE CHIMNEYPOTS LIKE FEATHERY SOOT.
THE BOY SHUT HIMSELF IN THE BROOM CUPBOARD AS THE BEST POSSIBLE HIDING-PLACE FROM THE SEEKER. BEST IN THE SENSE THAT HE DID WANT HER TO FIND HIM AT SOME STAGE … BUT NOT TOO EASILY. SOME OF THE OTHER CHILDREN WOULD PROBABLY BE NOW ENSCONCED IN THE OUTLANDISH PLACES IN THE LARGE HOUSE, PERHAPS NEVER TO BE DISCOVERED. THE BOY COULD HEAR HER COUNTING IN THE DISTANCE, MISSING OUT NUMBERS HERE AND THERE, EITHER AS A JOKE OR, MAYBE, EVIL. HE LAUGHED. THE CUPBOARD WAS STUFFY AND MUFFLED HIS NOISES.
THE COUNTING CEASED AT AN UNROUND NUMBER. “COMING — READY OR NOT!” HE LISTENED TO HER FEET SCAMPERING AWAY INTO THE FURTHER REACHES OF THE HOUSE. HE WAS SURPRISED TO HEAR AN IMMEDIATE RATTLING AT THE BROOM CUPBOARD DOOR. AT FIRST, A GENTLE TEASING OF THE PLAY AT THE HINGES, GRADUALLY BECOMING MORE INSISTENT. HIS SURPRISE QUICKLY TURNED TO FEAR. THIS SURELY COULD NOT BE THE OFFICIAL SEEKER-OF-HIDERS, IN BODY TIGHTS. FEAR, ONCE FORMED, QUICKLY HATCHED THE TWIN FIENDS DESPAIR AND TERROR, A DARK-DERIVED SYMBIOSIS WHICH RESOLUTELY TOOK SWAY.
THE VOICE WAS OUTLANDISH, MAKING HIM THINK IT WAS A BROOM OR SOME OTHER SWEEPING IMPLEMENT TRYING TO RETURN TO ITS LAIR THE CUPBOARD. THE BOY LAUGHED … AND CRIED. THE HOUSE WAS SUDDENLY QUIET. HE TRIED TO STOP BREATHING TO SEE IF HE COULD HEAR THE INTRUDER BREATHING. “INTRUDER” DID NOT SEEM THE RIGHT WORD, BUT STRANGE WORDS OF WHICH HE KNEW NO MEANING ALREADY PASSED THROUGH HIS HEAD, PRETENTIOUS WORDS, SILLY WORDS. LIKE SYMBIOSIS.
THE NURSERY RHYME OF WHICH HE HAD JUST CAUGHT A LINE WAS NOT ONE THAT MOTHER HAD READ TO HIM. THE VOICE MUST BELONG TO ANOTHER HIDER-WITHIN-DARKNESS LIKE HIMSELF, FRESH FROM COVERING ITS SKIN IN SOOT.
I AM NOW OLD, GROWN OUT OF SUCH GAMES. GROWN OUT OF THE PAST. AND, LIKE ALL SEXLESS HUMAN CREATURES, I EVER SUFFER THE PANGS OF GIVING BIRTH TO A PARTHENOGENESIS OF WRINKLED, HALF-FILLED HUMAN SKIN.
“LARDY-DAR, LARDY-DAR.” I HUM, AS I HOBBLE FROM, THE PAGODA: GROWN OUT OF PEEPING UPON A VICARIOUS CHILDHOOD. WHATEVER IT IS THAT IS INSIDE MY BODY OFTEN TURNS OVER IN ITS DREAMFUL SLEEP. THE LITTLE BOY I ONCE WAS? A SOOT-STAINED SUCCUBUS? OR WORSE? ALL WAITING TO GROW OUT OF *ME*.
(published ‘Not Dead But Dreaming’ 1999)