“If you have lived one day, you have seen everything. One day equals all days. There is no other light, no other night. The Sun, Moon and Stars, disposed just as they are now, were enjoyed by your grandsires and will entertain your great-grandchildren.”
In the beginning, there was silence. A rustle of dry autumn leaves, blown by bitter October winds. Tom could smell rain was coming. His scrawny frame perched on the edge of a steep valley, through which ran a rust orange stream. He tossed the long striped scarf over his shoulder and pulled an arrow from the quiver concealed under his trench coat. The chill air bit at his fingers as he aimed, steadied, and fired.
“Yes!” Tom whispered, punching the air and running to a tree stump. Next to it, a model Cyberman lay on the floor beside his arrow. He lifted the figurine, replaced it on the stump and froze. Someone was watching him. It was rare to come across anyone this far from the path so late in the evening. There was a flash of red. A figure stood on a fallen trunk staring across the clearing, but when Tom turned, it disappeared. He walked to the trunk and searched the area, but there was no sign of anyone. As he was about to return to his archery, Tom spotted something odd about the trunk. Kneeling to examine it, he saw a strange symbol etched deep into the bark. A staff mounted at the top with a pair of wings and entwined by two serpents.
He had seen it before.
The stranger slipped his Morris Marina into third gear as he passed a sign reading “Welcome to Wigan.” Rain bounced off the windscreen, rendering the wipers useless. He glanced at his watch. His hand wrinkled with age, and scarred with the remains of an old burn. It was almost eight PM. It might already be too late. He glanced at the mysterious package on the back seat. The label read “For the URGENT attention of Professor A. Collins. Department of Fortean Anthropology, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.”
The stranger stopped at some traffic lights and leant across to open his glove box. He reached in and checked his antique Walter PPK. The driver of the car behind honked his horn. The light was now green. The stranger released the handbrake and drove on.
As Kate passed through the hall of the flat, an envelope slipped through the letterbox and dropped to the floor. She leant over, picked up the letter and continued into the living room. She went to place it with the rest of her parents’ mail, but noticed it was for her. The address was simple handwritten capital letters. There was no stamp. KATE MELLING. It must be another party invitation from Susan.
Kate returned to the hall and opened the front door. She hurried along the corridor in her Cure T-shirt and black leggings. The sound of her bare feet echoed against the walls. At the lifts, the doors opened and an old man stepped out. It was Mr. Blackledge, a retired chain-smoking former miner. He spent most of his afternoons in the pub on the ground floor. When he saw Kate, he clutched at his heart, and recovered.
“Bloody hooligan,” he shouted, before hurrying away.
Kate returned to the flat and closed the door. She walked to her bedroom, threw the letter on the bedside cabinet and picked up her book, Nadja by André Breton. She lay on the bed reading for about two minutes, and sighed. She slipped the book to the bottom of the teetering pile next to her bed, and looked at the letter.
It was not from Susan. Her envelopes were always pink, and her handwriting was full of ridiculous loops. She tore it open and tipped it upside down. A folded newspaper article fell out onto the bed.
The icy downpour lashed Tom as he walked home through his estate, a maze-like warren of red brick council houses. It was almost 10 o’clock. A group of older lads stood on a corner drinking bottles of cheap strong cider. He knew them; they had left his school the previous year. Tom slipped into an alley. Mud squelched under his feet in the dark. His socks were wet, and heavy as water seeped through the holes in his shoes. He was squeezing through a clutter of bins when someone shouted.
“Where’s your stupid costume?”
A skinny youth approached Tom, shoulders hunched and head bobbing. His nose was bleeding. It was Barry McLaughlin, who until he had left under a cloud last spring, had been the meanest kids in the school. This reputation was due to his lack of empathy for others and a talent for turning all situations into violent confrontations. If a fellow pupil’s line of vision passed over him for a second, he would be upon them. He was a prominent member of the Wigan Football Casuals. Local football hooligans with a penchant for golfing wear.
Tom pushed over a bin and sprinted towards the light at the other end of the passage. He was almost there, when another figure stepped out grinning. It was Gaz Reid, McLaughlin’s faithful sidekick and part-time punch-bag.
Tom pushed at a tall garden gate, which swung open. He shut it behind him and felt for a bolt; finding one near the top, he slid it into place. Tom was in a small back yard, lit at the centre by the light from a kitchen window. The kitchen was empty but someone might return at any moment. The wall into the next yard was small, so he jumped over it and hid in a dark corner.
Tom could hear McLaughlin kicking each of the gates in the alley.
“Nobody makes a fool out of me,” shouted McLaughlin. “It’s payback time Swift.”
Tom had no idea what had so angered the older youth. McLaughlin never needed a reason to inflict pain, but it was as if he had a real grievance against Tom. As far as Tom could remember, their paths had had never crossed. Tom believed he had a talent for blending into the background. He had a knack for avoiding the school psychos. How did Barry even know his name?
Tom crouched in the dark corner, What did Barry mean by “stupid costume?” McLaughlin must mean the cricket gear Tom had worn for six months. The style had never worked. People had called him a weirdo; even complete strangers, even his Aunty Pat. He had switched back to the overcoat and long scarf, only wearing the Deerstalker in winter. His gran had bought him some socks with tiny golfers on them last Christmas. He had thought they might help him fit in, but no one had noticed. Not even when he had gone to school with the bottom of his trousers rolled up.
A few feet away from where Tom hid the gate shook from a powerful kick. “You’re going to wish you were never born,” McLaughlin shouted from the alleyway. Tom jumped to his feet and ran for the tall fence separating this yard from the next. Half way across he heard a deep bark, followed by a snarling and a scramble of paws. The dark shape of a Rottweiler loomed as Tom leapt, grabbed the top of the fence and heaved himself up. The dog leapt after him, grabbing his foot, but Tom’s momentum kept him moving forward. Tom tumbled over onto a bush in the garden next door minus a shoe. The frustrated canine ripped it apart as a substitute for its intended prey.
A security light flashed on. It illuminated a neat lawn surrounded by a tidy border filled with trimmed shrubs. A second floor window swung open, and an overweight man leaned out. The man’s Iron Maiden t-shirt revealed thick arms covered in tattoos.
“If you’ve damaged my geraniums I’ll...”
Tom ran around the side of the house, which was the end of the row, and out onto the street.
An arm flew around his neck and someone leapt onto his back.
“Get off!” Tom shouted.
Tom clutched at the arm. He could not breathe. Then he was on the floor and they were kicking him. He curled up and put his hands over his head to protect himself. Boots crashed into his ribs, his back and his head.
“Not so brave now are you? Where’s your mummy?”
Tom jumped to his feet and ran straight at Barry. Screaming, his fists balled, ready to attack his tormentor whatever the consequences. A second later, Gary charged into him from the side, knocking Tom sprawling to the floor.
Barry and Gary stood over him laughing. They each took a final kick. Barry knelt on Tom’s back, pain shot through his spine.
“Take this as a warning. If you ever annoy me again, I’ll put you in the Infirmary. You’ll be having your dinner through a straw, if you’re lucky. Understand?”
Barry spat in Tom’s face, and they left him.
The stranger paused for a moment to look at the gloomy red brick edifice of the town hall. The moon was bright, stretching his shadow clear across the road. He placed a Trilby on his head and fastened his dark jacket to conceal the weapon strapped to his shoulder. He lifted the imitation leather briefcase and strode into the building.
His footsteps echoed on the Victorian tiles of the empty foyer. A sign pointed along a corridor indicating rooms 1 – 15. Another sign pointed upstairs to rooms 16 – 30. He climbed to the top of the stairs, pulled open a heavy wooden door, and proceeded along another corridor. He checked each door until he found number 23. A handwritten sign, taped to the door, read “The High Council: Do not disturb”. The stranger knocked. Muffled sounds came from within but there was no answer. He waited for a minute before knocking again, but there was still no reply. The stranger pushed open the door.
Inside was a large meeting room. The tables arranged in a boardroom layout. Pens, notepads and glasses of water placed for each participant. At the opposite end of the room, a flip chart stand held an agenda, bullet pointed with vivid felt tip pens. Around the table sat 23 individuals, their faces concealed by brown hooded robes.
“Sorry, excuse me,” said the stranger, backing out of the door. He stood there for a moment, considering how to proceed.
The door opened again, and a hooded figure peered out. She pulled back the hood, releasing a cascade of auburn hair.
The stranger nodded.
“Sorry, we weren’t expecting you so soon. I’m Elizabeth Norley. If you could follow me?”
They entered the meeting room. Everyone was now dressed in ordinary business suits, helping themselves to Bourbon Cream biscuits.
The stranger’s eyes flicked to the agenda on the flip chart:
•Councillor Holland’s report on the Robin Park development.
•Parking issues - Wallgate.
•The emptiness at the heart of High Councillor Pilkington (Conservative).
•The creature lurking in the waters at Seven Sisters.
•Take-up of free school meals.
•Any other business.
“Thank you for coming Professor Collins,” said an obese man, spraying spit as he spoke. He offered the stranger his hand. “I am Charles Bradshaw, leader of The High Council.”
“Has he arrived yet?” The stranger asked, ignoring the hand.
“Not as far as we know. Our people are on the lookout. Can we see the item?” Bradshaw asked.
The stranger placed his suitcase on the table, opened it, and lifted out a small wooden chest. It was half the size of a shoebox, and covered in mould. The box gave off a stale musty odour. Carved into the side was a symbol; a staff entwined by two serpents, and mounted at the top with a pair of wings. The stranger pulled out a pocketknife. He pried open the rusted clasp. The councillors crowded around as he released the catch and opened the lid.
It was the boy in the goat mask again, or was it a goat with a boy’s body?
Pete chased him up the hillside, the goat boy stopping to let him catch up, before gamboling off ahead again. Mist drifted from above, or was it smoke?
“Hey, kid!” Pete shouted.
“I’ve not heard that one before. I suppose you think you’re a comedian.”
“Wait!” Pete shouted, stopping to catch his breath. “What do you want with me?”
“You’re the one doing the chasing Piotrek.”
This was true.
“Of course it’s true,” said the goat boy. “I don’t bleat on for the sake of it.”
“Ok, I’m going home,” said Pete, turning, and walking back down the hill.
After a few seconds, he looked back to see the goat was now a faint outline in the mist.
“There’s no smoke without fire Piotrek,” it shouted. “Piotrek... Piotrek.”
There was knocking at the door.
“Piotrek!” Bang bang bang. “Open this door. Piotrek!”
Pete got out of bed, his heart hammering against his chest, and unlocked his bedroom door. His father stood outside.
“Thank God you’re ok. You might have choked on your own vomit, the state you were in.”
How did his father know he had been drinking? He had to be more careful about the pubs he visited. There was not much choice of venue for a sixteen year old to get a drink.
“How do you feel?” His father asked.
“I’m fine. I fell asleep.”
“Be careful ok? I’m not going to mention this to your mother, but I won’t cover for you either.”
“Ok dad, thanks,” said Pete, groggy and confused, but wanting to go back to sleep.
Arriving home soaked to the skin, Tom let himself in, and pulled off his remaining shoe in the hallway. His sister Sophie lay on the sofa, watching Bergerac. She did not look up. Tom walked through to the kitchen. His dad was washing the dishes with the radio on, singing along to Stan Ridgeway’s Camouflage.
“It’s my favourite son, climbed out of the canal to see his poor dad. You’ll catch your death walking around like that.” He pulled a plate out of the water, placed it on the draining board, and looked at his son. “Jumping Jesus, have you been scrapping again? You’re no Chuck Norris lad; I’d give it a rest if I were you.”
He ruffled Tom’s hair, and soapsuds flew everywhere.
“Pass me those dishes, and go and get yourself changed. You’re dripping all over your mum’s carpet.”
Tom collected some plates, smeared with tomato sauce and the odd baked bean. He dropped them into the washing bowl. He folded the pale blue Formica table and pushed it against a wall of the tiny kitchen. He turned to go upstairs.
“You’ll need to watch your sister tomorrow,” his dad shouted after him. “I’ve got some overtime.”
“Ok dad. What time will you be back?”
“It’s a 2 -2 shift, you’ll be asleep by the time I’m home. I don’t want you listening to your radio half the night.”
“You’re a good lad Tom. Your mum would have been proud.”
Tom walked back through the living room.
“You look after me. That’s a joke,” mumbled Sophie. She glanced at her brother for the first time since he had walked in. “Oh, bloody hell! Who was it this time?”
“Why’s he wasting his time on you? Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
They climbed the stairs to the bathroom. Tom got the First Aid kit while Sophie filled the sink with water. She dabbed at his face with a warm flannel, and treated the cuts with anti-septic cream.
“You’ll live, but your modelling career is over. The good news is I’ll be able to take a degree in medicine by the time I’m thirteen.”
Tom pushed open the door to his bedroom and flicked on the light. Tom had built and installed the shelves himself, without the aid of a spirit level. They held his Doctor Who models, and alphabetised video cassettes and books. In one corner was a pile of old toys, he was reluctant to throw away; a Stretch Armstrong, Big Track, He-Man and Trick-Stick. He pulled off his wet things and put on some pajamas.
Tom lay on his bed and switched on the radio to listen to his favourite phone-in show, Banter with Brian. He turned the volume low. A caller was ranting about the miners, that they were all communists. He said Arthur Scargill was going to bring the country to its knees. Brian argued they were only fighting to provide for their families and most of them did not have any other options left. The next caller agreed with Brian. He said all Thatcher wanted was to help the rich grab all the wealth. He did not know why people had voted for her rather than Michael Foot. Brian said the caller was a gormless cretin. How long would it be before people stopped relying on politicians? They were self-important middlemen. The next caller claimed he had almost driven his car into a medieval knight, riding a horse through Wigan. Brian said he should move to a town in the twentieth century, or lay off the special cigarettes. The next caller shouted, “Bob, you’re a Fat Get!”
Tom switched off the radio and lay on his bed listening to the clock ticking. In his mind, he retraced his steps of the evening. Through the rain soaked streets and gardens. Along the alleyway where McLaughlin had chased him. Up the hill. Through the Plantation Gates and into the darkness of the woods. Leaves crunched under foot, branches brushed against his face. He came to the clearing where he practiced archery, to the tree stump where he had crouched to pick up the arrow.
A figure stood on the tree trunk staring at him, a hooded shape, and a face in shadows. A moment later, it was gone.