Stealing souls (Summer 1966)
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment; I am the Lord. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt”
Even in this state, the boy knew there was something wrong with the man in the white coat.
In fact, if facts were anything to be believed, he knew that this was not a man at all. His outward appearance was just that. The boy saw what he really was but could do nothing about it.
Bring unto me the little children.
And they had.
His followers had taken to the roads of the kingdom and had stolen where they could. Their master wanted the young. He wished for those minds still forming, minds that could be moulded and controlled. He wanted the chance to steal the souls of those in his charge. And his followers did their jobs well. Night after night they scoured the land for that which their master desired and soon the ward was bursting with the lost ones.
The boy had been one of the taken. He had been snatched from the garden of his home during one sleepy summer’s dusk and had been deposited on the desolate ward where his tiny existence would be taken from him. Like the others on the ward, there was to be no escape.
The thing in the white coat moved amongst them and fed upon their tortured dreams. Night after night, it arrived at his bedside and watched. Always, the white coat would come in the darkest hour bringing with it the promise of relief. All the children had to do was surrender.
Yet the boy did not yield.
He was dead.
He had been that way for many years. Nobody had noticed as no one had cared. James Harrison had enjoyed in death the isolation that he had sought in life. The curtains of his flat had remained drawn. Only the tiniest shaft of light had penetrated on those days when the sun had been released from behind the veil of clouds. For all intents and purposes, this was a tomb not unlike those that were sometimes found in Egypt.
He had been sitting, seething at the television screen, wondering if he should collect another bottle of cider from his fridge and thinking that he should turn down his central heating, when it happened.
The beautiful young people on the television were laughing at their own poor attempts at being funny and he was considering changing programmes. Normally, he just needed to reach to the side of him and pick the remote control from the table but this time it wasn’t in the usual place. His hand searched more frantically but for naught. Swearing under his breath, he leant over and found that it had fallen to the floor. He attempted to reach it but only managed to nudge it under his chair. His frustration and blood pressure rose. Now he had to get up. With a strain that surprised him, he prised his body from the comfort of the cushions and was able to stand, before lowering himself to the carpet. His hand felt blindly in the darkness under the chair and he thought that he felt the hard plastic touch of the control. Yet, as he moved to clasp it, it moved away from him. Now his heart beat with primal anger.
The first of many tiny explosions of white fireworks interrupted his vision and he felt the air seeping from his lungs like a departing breeze. His first thought was that he must be coming down with something and his second was to blame the outside world of people for being incubators of such diseases.
The next thing that happened caused him concern. His attention was dragged from the underworld of the chair to the doorway where he thought that he had seen movement. It had only been in the corner of his sight yet he was sure that something small and dark had scuttled along the line of the skirting boards. His mind registered vermin.
When he had been working the fishing boats, he had seen rats as big as cats patrolling the darkest corners of the boats. They had developed a taste for the sea and had gorged upon the fish that had been the prime task of the fishermen’s cold ventures. Somehow, they could never find the things when they were searching back in dock. They just disappeared.
Again, he had seen something move and this time it was bigger. He looked more closely, ignoring his original mission but there was nothing. His eyes were playing tricks. One final push brought success and he muttered his begrudging satisfaction before returning to his pew.
The presenter was leering at him. Her common voice was filling the room and her false smile reached the sides of the screen. Like an executioner, he pointed the remote control and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened.
He pressed it again and nothing happened. Again and again and again. He exploded into obscenities as the audience fell about in induced laughter. He threw the malfunctioning equipment at the plastic smiles of the winning couple and watched it bounce off their arrogant faces.
Behind him, he heard scratching. It was getting louder and he was sure that it was moving towards him. He sat solid in his chair.
His mind’s eye saw it first. It was a rat the size of a dog and it was, he could never know how, smiling at him.
At exactly 8.27, he died. Disbelief swept the muscles of his face. The end credits rolled with the theme tune that was to play his death march. It is as a result of our society that people are allowed to live and die without ever having been noticed, or missed, by anyone. Winter is the season that takes many individuals as they are prone, through natural selection, to offer themselves up to the elements. It is the same as when hunters track a herd across the Great Plains identifying an easy kill. In our instinctive need for safety, humans have gathered themselves into strongholds, towns and cities, where the harshness of the old world can be kept at bay. It is a paradox that this is where the predators from the old world now gather to pick off easy meals.
At around the same time as Harrison met his eventual partner for eternity, many more were disappearing from the field of existence. For them, life had blinked and was gone. Whatever it had failed to give them, many of them still harboured some hope of a kinder afterlife. Harrison too would have had this if it were not for his unfortunate meeting with his personal ferryman.
In Britain during that winter, there was a rash of unreported deaths. The divorced, the disabled, the rich and the once famous were being carried away in the full view of a society that simply did not see. During the course of a few short days spanning the mid-winter solstice, a number of apparently unconnected deaths were left unreported.
In Birmingham, a fifty-five-year-old man ‘vanished’ while seated at his dinner table. His last meal awaiting his attention, cooled and then decomposed in a parody of himself. The apartment block, in which he had lived for fifty years, had been declared officially empty and stood awaiting a purchaser and redevelopment. A downturn in the local economy had helped to keep this opportunity closed like the lid of a coffin. The initial odour that rose from his corpse was not noticed and his mummification was ensured.
In Manchester, the body of a travelling salesman, back for a not so festive break from the distraction of his business, was left to its own devices in a flat that had not been visited by members of the outside world for years. These, like their other unknowing companions in death, benefited from conditions that favoured the preservation of their cadavers if not their memories.
It was as if someone had drawn up a list of the more desirable and had gone out collecting in time for Christmas.
The baby had abandoned its cries on that eve before Christmas.
During the short time that it had been part of this world, it had discovered only pain and indifference. Only fourteen months and the world had rewarded its struggle with a second-hand travel cot and sheets that bore evidence of its neglect.
The television was on and was showing a programme that followed the love lives of the young. His mother, who was now without a love life, sat watching the entertainment. Tears of unfathomed regret waited beyond her eyes. She stemmed them with her anger. She pulled at her cigarette and welcomed its harshness into her lungs. Saturday night and here she was trapped in this flat with a baby she didn’t want or love. She looked over towards the kid and snapped her gaze away just as the thing started to throw back some recognition. She needed a drink. Within a minute, she was out of the door, turning off the light as she went.
The baby sat helpless in the dark.
Even for one so young, it had gotten used to this and had discovered, through pain, that silence was the best option. She would be gone a long time. Sometimes, she would not return until the next morning and then she would sleep. The baby would lay silent until sleep brought about some relief. It welcomed the comfort of the night and loved the stillness of the flat when she wasn’t there. Already, he had learnt the hard lessons of life and these were to shape a heart that would not be hurt by anyone ever again.
The child shivered as a cold breeze ran along the floor. Goosebumps shot up its arms. The boy had never seen anything like this before. It stood high like the woman but had no shape. It was darker than any night the baby had ever experienced and yet it meant him no harm. There was a hand that reached out and stroked his face.
Boy, you have been chosen. You will lead my army and you will be without equal in the time that is to come. This existence that you have to endure is only preparation for your life to come. Take care to experience all those things that will make you strong. I will be watching you from the distance and I will make sure that she does not harm you beyond that which will benefit us.
I give you this sign that others will recognise.
The dark placed a clawed hand on the child’s back and when it lifted again there was a small black mark that was shaped like a flute.
In years to come, I will call upon you. For now, you must grow boy and become strong. She that now lets you suffer shall meet her own torment when she has fulfilled her usefulness.
With that, the shape was gone. The child’s life had been marked by the hatred of a woman that could not bring herself to accept any responsibility for her baby’s existence. She would continue to serve a purpose only so that the child could get the chance to start its long journey. She was mother only by accident and her time would be spent in servitude to the greater cause.
The boy, that he would eventually become, would never be able to say anything about this woman for he would never know her. Her death would be a reminder only to those who had nothing else to think about, whose lives were meaningless and empty, shells that had lost their inhabitants. He would never know or care that he once had a mother. He would grow up in the care, or indifference, of others. He would experience neglect and abuse in the same measure as others tasted love. He would travel as a dark pilgrim through the jetsam of the modern world meeting cause admiration and fear amongst those he would meet. In some future, already sketched, he would bring about the pain of purgation for those not worthy of this toy that was life.
After finding the boy, the thing that had wandered for centuries would wander some more. Like a dark Magee, it would bring gifts to those who would inherit this earth and he would bring the wish of desolation to those that desired it.
Throughout the world, its black seeds were being sown into desperate lives and it silently rejoiced in its own coming.