They say that every little town has its little curiosity and ours was a homeless man they called Ned. Guy looked like he was pushing seventy, though I don’t think anyone knew for sure how old he was. What I do know is that he was a territorial old fucker, and had been living out of boxes at the end of my road for as long as I can remember.
He had these two foul-smelling shelters at either end of an alley that was supposed to let you cut through to the row of shops that ran parallel, but he’d never let anyone use it. I can’t count the number of times my parents would talk about the council trying to move him on, only to have him reappear a few days later as though he’d never left. In the end I guess they just let him be, small town plod’s got better things to do, you know?
Anyway he died two weeks ago and I think I know what killed him.
It’s funny because whenever you heard anyone talk about him it was always bad. Like he’d been screaming at little kids again, or he’d scared a couple of tourists or whatever. But they had this massive memorial service for him and half the town showed up, crying and saying how sad it was that he had no family and what a shame it was we knew so little about him. They pretended as though they were sorry to see him go.
I went down there a few days after I’d found out he died, to use the alley, you know? I didn’t even need to get anything it was just the fact that I could. I was amazed I was alone really, nice summer’s day, sun shining, but no one out for a stroll. Just me and the path I’d never been able to walk down because of some old bloke with a passion for unkempt hedgerows. There was police tape still tied around a lamp post near the entrance, hanging off just below this frayed bit of rope.
I don’t know why I hesitated. It was like I could hear him, just for a moment, telling me don’t even think about it. I’d only taken a couple of steps when I saw it. Stuffed into the bushes on my left was a load of paper. Some torn sheets of A4 that turned out to be the back of posters, a few ripped envelopes, crinkled receipts, just a whole mess of rubbish with words scrawled all over and tied together with old string. The sheet on the top only had two words on it, written in block capitals and taking up the whole page; STEP BACK.
I looked down the alley. I could see one of the shops at the other end and a few cars swept by as I stood there.
I stepped back. If I hadn’t, I’d probably had been the first to go. As it stands, three people are already missing and I know it’s just the start.
The following is a transcript of the bulk of Ned’s work, as much as I can make out anyway. Most of it is water damaged, incomplete or just so damn hard to read it may as well be written in another language. It’s the best I can do and maybe one day I’ll be able to add to it, but for now it’s important that there’s something about this out there. I’m going back to the alley tomorrow but I’m posting this now. Just in case.
The first entry is dated ‘99 and mostly it’s just a jumble of random words.
Cold. Rust. Somewhere else, someone else, mirrors. Calling? Screaming. Yellow. Yellow. Yellow.
June. ‘99. Frank says it’s Monday. Nothing. Walked up and down, up and down. Over and over and nothing. Maybe dreaming? Like I was still on the pipe. All black and white and grey, ‘cept that yellow. Bright yellow gaze. Think it saw me. Gonna walk again.
Jan. ‘00. Thursday? Again! Happened again! Stink made my eyes water but no mirrors this time. Nothing but wide, open space like something out of a blurred landscape. Didn’t feel the change but only lasted seconds. Certain time of day?
Feb. ‘00. Morning. Little guy from across the way went poof and now there’s bobbies all over. Called to Frank but he don’t have time for me. Missing kid to find. Wouldn’t believe me anyway, ran right after the sod but nothing. Reached for him but he was too quick. Laughing his head off all the way to nowhere. Waited but he didn’t come back.
Feb. End of. ‘00. Maybe Monday. Sat in a cell for two days but Frank went easy on me. Managed to nick a decent pen. No booze though. Warm on the inside, think they reckon I’m a fiddler or something now. No proof so cut me loose. Someone’s moved my boxes again.
April. Easter? ‘00. Drunk this time, damn near took one step too far. Got a better look, grass and hills and tall metal skeletons. Like someone only did half the work then buggered off. Glimpse of yellow as I stepped back out. Coldest I’ve been in months.
New Year. ‘01. Bloody fireworks. Same lot as last year, all handouts and doe eyes. Took a few tins and told ‘em to do one. This time I felt a breeze, then I heard crying. Couldn’t see for shit, then looked up. Tall and made out of grey but not those damn eyes. Didn’t speak, didn’t blink. Stepped back. Still feel sick but can’t bring anything else up.
June. ‘01. Sunday. Woman this time, snuck by while I was out of it on Special Brew. Only know cos Frank was askin’ questions. Some lass from up north somewhere. Run away Frank thinks, probably running now, anyway.
Sep. ‘01. Fucking Wednesday. Almost touched me, one minute here then the next minute there with it in front like it was waiting. Wide yellow gaze and no nothing else. Shit.
Jan. ‘02. Afternoon. Monday. 12.01. Frank gave me a watch. Lookin right at the time when it all shifted, but no friend to meet me thank god. Buildings changed. Or maybe not. Looked bigger but maybe I got closer? All those empty places. Thought I saw that kid before the switch.
Feb. ‘02. Heard the crying from this side, took a walk but nothing. 12.02.
Sep. ‘03. Tuesday. Sun overhead but watch busted. 12.01? 12.01. No sound, just the shift. Buildings all around now, not just in front. Find myself outside a door that don’t need to be there, held up by more rusted pipes. Felt like someone was on the other side, shaky little breaths.
March. ‘04. 12.15 Frank’s gone. Wouldn’t listen. Brought me my usual and sat by me a while. Dumb fuck, should never have said anything. Called me a mad old cunt, telling tales. Counted down the time and took a walk. Smiling right until he wasn’t. Fucking yellow.
March. ‘04. Went by the church. Got a new watch. Building site over by the shopping centre, new flats or some shit. Got a few supplies. 12.01. Gonna walk till I find him.
March. ‘04. There’s more than one now.
December. ‘05. Keep tryin to me move on. Just keep coming back. Bad penny, that’s me. Keep piling up the boxes till there’s no more room for space. No space for anyone to pass. Hear it all the time now, the crying. That damn kid cries all fuckin night.
Jan. ‘06. 12.01. Opened the door. Was too close, needed the space. Twisted the handle and pushed. Mirrors, again after all this time. Showed me the grass and the hills I started in behind the broken city. Knew they were behind me too. No Frank, no kid, no runaway. Not anymore. Look like yellow but these ones got no eyes. Took a while to step back.
May. ‘06. Saturday. Been thinking. Reading a little, old hag at the library fucks off on Thursdays and the little girl she leaves there is too scared to tell me to sling it. Been a while since I stole a good book. This one’s about reality. The kid’s finally stopped crying.
June. ‘06. Little shits on a dare, march right up all wide shoulders and ego. Not much to do but let ‘em kick what they wanna kick. 12.01 had ‘em running back to the school gates cos I didn’t try to stop the taller one from going for a stroll. Back in the cells before the sun goes down, I reckon.
June. ‘06. Three days this time. Frank’s replacement doesn’t like me much. His shoes ain’t got a scuff on ’em.
Oct. ‘07. 12.01. Standing on one of the mirrors now. Wonder where I’m going? Yellow on my left this time. All sloughed and static. Gettin too old for this.
March. ‘08. Fuck knows. Got a rope, some kid on Park Road fancies herself a do-gooder. Wants to interview me for a project. Might ask her to get me a new watch too.
May. ‘08. Thursday. 12.01. Looked back enough to see the door closed behind me. No one about but me and the rope around my waist, other end hanging in thin air like it wasn’t attached to anything. Waited a while, then stepped back.
August. ‘09. Knee been playing up. Joint keeps freezing like its forgotten how to bend. Lager takes the edge off but I’m always running low. Can’t stop going back, can’t stop going forward. Another fella gets by but this time I scream bloody murder till he legs it so fast 12.01 comes and he’s long gone. Might need to use the rope for something else.
Sep. ‘09. Monday. Probably. 12.01. It just looks at me. Doesn’t care when I throw the rope. Or when I knot it tight. Cares when I pull though, first time I heard that scream in years. Stepped back. Dropped the rope.
Jan. ‘10. Hospital stinks more than I do. Worse than I do and they wouldn’t give me a pen, like the girls didn’t walk around with them sticking out of every damned pocket they had. Fluids, all clear. Knee feels better but they couldn’t fix the weight on my chest. Sent me back out into a world with three new gonners and my boxes all left to collapse in the rain. Maybe I should post a fuckin sign.
March. ‘10. Tuesday. Wonder who’s following who. 12.01. We just stare at each other, yellow and I.
March. ‘10. 12.01. They stand around inside the buildings like there’s something for them to do. All grey and focused and watching. Yellow gets the closest, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it move. It still has my rope.
November. ‘11. Monday. Nights are getting colder and not many places do hand outs anymore. Few people chuck me change on their way by, more than way back when. Enough for a few bits and pieces. 12.01 comes and goes but I don’t. Chest feels too heavy.
Jan. ‘12. Thursday. More of them than there used to be, all masses of solid shadow just lookin’ at me. Yellow ain’t about so I try reaching out to the closest but it doesn’t move.
July. ‘12. Every other breath has me choking on my own spit. I sound like an engine won’t start up right. Knee is buggered, couldn’t run even if I wanted to.
Feb. ‘13. Thursday. 12.01. Yellow next to me again, rustling away, wonder if it’s laughing at me too. Hard job with no fuckin’ mouth. Others aren’t about, no more buildings either, must be behind me now. More hills and grass and a botched skyline. Wonder if this place was always dead.
Nov. ‘13. 12.02. Screaming comes through so loud it had some young bloke come knockin’. Peering over my boxes and calling my name. Told him to get lost, knows what’s good for him. Need a plan, for when I can’t keep them out of here anymore.
Jan. ‘14. Monday. They’ll be laughing all the fuckin’ way to the other side, these blind fucks. Just like Frank and all the rest. Only so many times you can be ‘escorted out’ till you throw up your hands. Let ‘em walk it. Let ‘em go get themselves lost.
March. ‘14. Hospital again. No one moved my boxes this time, at least.
August. ‘14. 12.01. Little house at the bottom of a colourless hill. Door looked like it had been kicked in. Big old signs in some foreign language. Flood lights off in the distance. Chain link fences. All of ‘em standing beside me this time, lookin’ down there. Yellow reaches out. I step back.
Jan. ‘15. Too long, too late, too old. Time to sober up a while. Get my affairs in order. Can’t stop ‘em forever and the rest are coming from somewhere. I don’t sleep, coughing keeps me up, but there are dozens of them nowadays and they ain’t stepping over from here. Gettin’ closer to that house every 12.01.
Jan. End of. ‘15. If there are answers inside that place, I’m gonna have to step forward to get to ‘em.
Feb. ‘15. Sunday. Left my stuff, got another rope. Tied it to the post and pulled it tight. Might be enough to get me back. Gonna step inside and find out what’s what. Bring something back. Get this path all blocked off. No more little lads goin’ poof. No more shadows for old yellow to fill his dead place with. Gonna stuff this record I’ve kept in the hedge. Just in case.