Trendle hated being out this late at night in the Concrete Grove, long after the working populace had gone home. It was a leftover fear from the time, many years ago, when he’d been mugged by a masked stranger as he was walking home from the pub. The man had punched him twice in the kidneys, and when Trendle was on the ground his assailant had kicked him in the head. There followed the feeling of hands going through his shirt pocket, coat pockets, trouser pockets, and removing anything of value. The bastard had even taken his watch.
But that was five years ago, and he should be over it by now. Should be, but wasn’t. He still carried the scars – both physical and mental – and walking these dark streets brought back all the memories with the force not far short of that initial blow.
He had stayed late at the betting shop this evening because he needed the overtime money. He thought it would be okay. He’d convinced himself that he no longer feared being out here, on the streets, as darkness fell.
He had lied. Now he just wanted to get away, to get safely home.
He hurried past boarded-up shops, businesses that hadn’t traded in years; dark alleys opened like hungry mouths along his route to the bus stop.
“Stupid,” he whispered. “Stupid, stupid man…”
Hadn’t there been something in the papers recently about a murder nearby? Or was he just making that up, his mind conspiring with the environment to scare him even more?
Shadows juddered up ahead, a dance of darkness. Trendle slowed his pace, wondering if he could go back, perhaps stay overnight at the shop. But, no; that was foolish. He couldn’t do such a thing. What on earth would people think tomorrow, when they found him sleeping behind the counter?
A slim figure bent forward out of an adjacent alley, sniggering. Then Trendle realised that the sound was the figure’s feet trailing black plastic bags that littered the floor.
“Evening,” he said; a reflex reaction.
The figure straightened, became upright. It was so thin that it might not even be a figure at all. The plastic bags ceased their jittery noise.
“You haven’t seen me.” The voice was low, flat, without accent or inflection. The words fell slowly and heavily, like stones in a black river.
“I’m sorry? What was that?”
The dark figure became darker still as it retreated into the mouth of the alley. Trendle’s vision dimmed and then brightened: a fluke reaction to that stealthy movement in the darkness. When the figure was no longer visible, the order – for that’s what it was – came again, cold and disembodied: “You haven’t seen me.”
Trendle hurried past the alleyway, stepping off the kerb and walking on the road, just in case someone lurched out to grab him. Nobody did. He made it to the bus stop unscathed.
The bus was quiet. Only two other passengers rode with him: an old woman wearing iPod headphones and a much younger woman who seemed to be weeping softly as she read a paperback book. The weeper disembarked two steps before Trendle; the old woman remained on the bus when he got off, her head nodding back and forth to whatever tune was playing in her ears.
Trendle walked the few hundred yards from the bus stop in a state of repressed panic, and when he unlocked his front door, stepped inside, then locked it again, he leaned against the wall and tried to stop himself from crying.
He made a late dinner of beans on toast. Afterwards, he watched a documentary on television, something about a woman who’d pretended to be a survivor of 9/11 when in reality she had not been there at all. Her smug, fat face haunted him as he climbed the stairs to bed, trailing him from the screen to his room.
He slept badly, tossing and turning and mumbling. He woke himself up twice, and each time he thought he saw a far-too-slender figure bending outwards from the wall. He heard a whispered voice: “You haven’t seen me.”
In the morning he felt tired and on edge. His back ached. His scalp itched. He thought he might be coming down with something, so he emailed work and told them he wouldn’t be going in for a couple of days.
He spent the day doing nothing. His head was filled with images of the World Trade Centre towers toppling, and the repeated phrase he’d heard last night.
He couldn’t go out. Everything outside his front door seemed threatening. People walked by his front window, bent almost double, as if they were carrying heavy burdens. He could not make out their faces; they were slim and dark and frightening.
When night fell, he was unable to move from the living room. The silent television flickered; no, it was his eyes, his vision fading and re-establishing itself like a cheap nightclub strobe effect.
Eventually he was too tired to sit up any longer. He reached out and grabbed the remote control, flicked the button to switch off the television. The image on the screen went to black, and he saw reflected there a figure. It was tall, absurdly thin, and bent forward at the waist, as if caught in the act of emerging from the darkened plasma rectangle.
He heard the words before they were even spoken – if they were even spoken at all.
“You haven’t seen me.”
He felt a slight pressure on his shoulder, as if a hand were resting there. Slowly, he turned his head to look behind him…
He saw the sofa, worn and empty, sagging with the ghost of his shape in the flattened cushions. He didn’t remember getting up, but the dying batteries in the control had forced him closer to the TV and now he was leaning forward in a half crouch with the device still pointing at the black screen. His reflection seemed to reach for him from inside.
His shoulder cramped again. How long had he been standing like this? Trendle lowered his arm and experienced another twinge of pain. He tried to massage the area but in the dead screen of the television, arm around his neck, he was strangling himself. He stopped. He didn’t want to see that.
A passing car sent its lights into the room, shadows stuttering across the walls and up the ceiling; thin figures swept around and gone before Trendle could really see them. He wouldn’t sleep tonight, not now, though exhaustion had seeped into his bones. He didn’t feel safe, even in his own house.
He went outside.
Trendle knew exactly where to go. “You haven’t seen me,” he said to the few people he passed. Not on your television. Not on the bus. I’m the man behind the boarded windows.
The realisation eased into him gently, adding its weight to his flesh, bending him beneath its burden. I’m everywhere, he wanted to say, carrying your fear with my own. He emptied his pockets as he walked.
“You haven’t seen me.”
The people he passed acknowledged the truth of it by stepping around him as they might a piece of wind-swept litter. He would find the alley, a safe place between places where someone waited for him, someone who’d been there. A thin twin who would recognise Trendle and share the rest of what he carried.
& RAY CLULEY