A Tiding – Part V

by Timothy J Jarvis

Part V of ‘A Tiding’. The first part can be found here.

Soundtrack: Aaron Martin, Water Tongue

One of these latter was perched on an old-fashioned Bakelite telephone, beak cruelly agape.

Kentish Town underground – drizzle – Colin again, agitated – a ravel of streets – a derelict tenement – a garret – magpies – a withered old man

Mark and Colin arranged to meet at nine-thirty in the evening on Kentish Town High Road, outside the entrance to the underground. Mark arrived a few minutes early. The appointed time passed, and there was no sign of Colin. Then it began drizzling, slicking glistering reflections to the tarmac, huddling pedestrians into their coats. Mark took shelter in the entrance to the station.

He waited about twenty-five minutes. The rain eased, and he was considering leaving, but then he sighted Colin alighting at a bus stop on the other side of the road. After getting off the bus, he stood on the pavement peering about him. Mark attracted his attention by waving. Colin waved back. He seemed agitated, clutched his carrier bag in his left hand.

Heedless, he hopped down from the kerb, crossed over to Mark. A taxi driver, forced to brake, sounded his horn.

‘We’re in a hurry!’ Colin blurted.

‘Sorry?’ Mark said.

‘I know, my fault. But I need to present my offering to the daemon by ten thirty. That was made very clear to me. Right, it’s back this way.’

Colin walked into the traffic once more, darting in front of a white van. Mark followed, more warily, and, after crossing the road, was forced to jog to catch up.

Colin headed west, into a ravel of streets scarred by a low viaduct, where 1950s council housing, Victorian terraces, warehouses, and small factories jostled. He scurried, and Mark remained a few paces behind. After ten minutes or so, Colin ducked into the maw of a railway arch. Mark hesitated a moment, then followed. They passed beneath a vault of dank brickwork and emerged into a small square of pale stone tenements, which, in the wan moonlight, resembled the fruitings of a vast fungus. Colin crossed the square; Mark followed. Underfoot was a slurry of mouldering flyers, newspapers, cartons, smeary brown paper bags, and part-eaten fast food. Going up to a building, which seemed abandoned, Colin pushed open its door with the toe of his shoe, entered. Mark steeled himself, went in after.

There were two doors leading off the hallway; both fastened with padlocks. Flocked paper covered the walls, its Paisley design cankered with mould. Wooden stairs led up to the upper floors. Colin started up them, Mark followed. Many of the treads were rotten and they had to pick their way with care.

As they climbed, they passed several doors on landings; all were, as those on the ground floor, secured by padlocks. The place was silent, save for rodents scurrying in the walls. At the top of the staircase there was a doorway through which a weak light spilled. On reaching the threshold, Colin paused a moment, crossed himself, then entered. Mark also hesitated before going in after.

The room was cramped, a garret with a slanting ceiling and just one window, a sash. It was meagrely furnished. Under the window was a bed with an iron frame. Beside it, along the wall, were ranged a bedside cabinet, wardrobe, and chest of drawers in chipboard with flaking pine veneer. On the cabinet, a mug and a Gideon Bible rested. The mug was tea-stained within, emblazoned with a photograph of the Royal Pump Rooms at Leamington Spa without. Picture fragments, painstakingly cut from magazines, had been glued to the front cover of the Bible, to make a collage depicting a brawny bare-chested young man, with pendulous dugs and tiny Jack-o-lanterns for pupils, hefting an ichthyosaurus over his head.

The odours of camphor, cold tea, and lavender mingled in the air; underneath there was a faint reek of urine. It was drear and stark: a naked forty watt bulb dangling at the end of a long flex was the lone light source; there was a hearth, but no fire burnt in it; the walls were papered a drab olive; and the floorboards were bare, unvarnished. The sole vivid hue was the blowfly green of a satin counterpane which lay crumpled on the floor beside the bed, and the only ornaments were six taxidermy magpies, variously mounted and posed, four displayed on the chest of drawers and two, on the mantelpiece above the grate. One of these latter was perched on an old-fashioned Bakelite telephone, beak cruelly agape.

A draft from the ill-fitting sash stirred the bulb; in the skittering light the stuffed birds seemed animate.

‘The magpie,’ Colin whispered, ‘is the daemon’s familiar.’

A cranefly listlessly circled the light, whining low; nodding towards it, Colin said, with great solemnity, ‘Daddy longlegs. They don’t bite, you know.’

Mark, staring aghast at the bed, did not hear him. There, on stained sheets, lay a withered old man, in blue-and-red-checked pyjamas too large for his scrawny frame. His skin was thin and translucent as onionskin and his greasy white hair stuck up from his head like a coxcomb. The sleeves and legs of his pyjamas were rucked up, exposing spindly, pale, and mottled limbs. He lay still, save the shallow rise and fall of his ribcage, staring vacantly up at the beaten egg-white peaks of the Artex ceiling.

Taking Mark’s arm, Colin pulled him towards the bed. As they drew nearer, Colin pointed out the quilted coverlet on the floor.

‘Look. The mysterious quincunx.’

At that moment, the old man gave a sigh, the breath rattling in his throat.

To be continued