by Alex Clark

Some curiosities are better left unsatisfied.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

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I pushed the car into the night. Moths darted through the play of the headlights. An insect cracked across the windscreen; its smashed body was carried through my line of vision by the warm summer's air surging up over the glass.

I glanced into the rearview. Consumed by darkness, the city slept beneath meticulous rows of amber streetlights that looked like fireflies hovering over an ink black pond.

From that moment, I knew I would never see Leeds again.

I looked to the passenger seat and there, juddering on the black leather upholstery under the vibrations of the car was the catalyst and instigator of my life spiraling into oblivion.

* * *

Since the early nineties I've been the Landlord of the Duke of York public house in Armley. It's a real dive; a bitter hellhole with a hundred years of ale soaking into the floorboards and only the dregs of society as customers.

The Duke is a free standing porcelain-clad building that sits in the shadow of Leeds Prison. The prison is tarnished jet black by a century of industrial filth and grime and with its turrets and opulent central tower, the place looks more like a fortress or garrison than an incarceration center. Because of the proximity of my pub to the prison gates, it became a routine first-port-of-call for many of the released convicts.

Over the last fifteen years, I've pulled pints for murderers, drug dealers, serial rapists, arsonists and the occasional child molester. The last pedophile I met was a fat little cretin of a man who mentally was no more than a child himself. He ordered lemonade and sat at my bar crying into his dumpy pink hands for an hour.

It was a lousy job, but I had to earn a living just like any other man and the annual turnover was respectable enough.

Prisoners are released during the week, so naturally the weekend became my quietest period. Saturdays and Sundays I would just cater for the locals and these were all broken men who were both recently divorced and laid off labourers or old boys wearing moth eaten suits clinging onto whatever remained of their regimental pride.

But the events of last Saturday really bucked the trend. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the stranger who walked into the pub an hour before closing would turn my life upside down.

The man burst through the doors at 10pm. It'd been raining outside. Water ran from his dreadlocks onto the mosaic floor. He shuffled up to the bar and dropped his canvas rucksack by a stool. I took him for a vagrant, but he smelled of expensive foreign aftershave and despite his disheveled face being partially obscured by hair and beard, he was clean and his eyes were bright.

"Pint of Guinness please, ta, thank you." He had an abrasive Glaswegian accent; yet it was robust and distinct.

I was hesitant about serving him at first, but he threw an assortment of coins onto the bar and regardless of whom you are—if you're willing to pay, I'm willing to serve.

I placed the Guinness before him and swept the loose coins off the bar into my hand.

"Thanks my old mucker, buddy-boy-cocker." His bright blue eyes shone through his heavy fringe. His gaze never left mine. I didn't say anything in return; instead I went about my business and collected empty glasses.

"A mighty-fine place you have here, Landlord. A place that is both mighty and fine indeed… double adjective…" The stranger looked glumly into his stout for a second. He spun around on his stool to face me. Passion roared behind his eyes.

"You know, Landlord, if my old shit-shank-Poe's-prose-is-oh-so-rosy-dicksplash English teacher heard me use a double adjective, he'd have surely thrashed me across the face with his wooden ruler."

I smiled by way of acknowledgement. I've known plenty of lone drinkers with a penchant for lamenting the first thing that comes to mind, but this man was different; he spoke clearly and passionately, unlike the semi-coherent rants of hardened drinkers.

The time was approaching 11. I rang for last orders. The two remaining inebriates shuffled languidly to the bar. A man with a filthy lumberjack shirt ordered two tumblers of rum and two beers. He stank of urine and sweat; his brown eyes were glazed and cloudy. The deep recesses in his face made him look twenty years older than he was.

"Two cheers for the man who has two beers," the stranger sang. The man in the stained lumberjack shirt twitched uncomfortably.

"Two cheers, two cheers… or perhaps I meant jeers… jeers to the man who drinks his beers alone."

I was warming to the stranger; he had bite and charisma.

"Thumbs up to the man with the rums… thumbs to the man in the doldrums with his two rums." The stranger was in his stride; he rocked in the stool and laughed and clapped his hands.

The drunk in the corner sat with his back to the bar. He pretended not to have heard the words, but he had, and they were acid to him.

"Forgive me, my man. It's all the diacetylmorphine that I stole from the hospital in the '70s. I straddled the black horse for a decade or more. I rode to blissful, incandescent dereliction and back and it's left me inclined to act a bit of swine."

I rang the bell for the second and final time that evening. The two drunken men left the pub. The man in the lumberjack shirt glanced at me as he left. Here was a man who looked for all the world as though he was about to burst into tears. He solicited comfort and apologies; he got neither.

I reached for a clean glass. I began to pour a fresh pint of Guinness. The stranger took the length of his hair in his hands. He twisted and manipulated the dreadlocks so that they formed a natural turban. I handed him the new pint and he released his hair.

"This one's on the house."

"How very fair."

"Who are you?" I prompted the question. I'd been itching to do so ever since the man arrived.

"To you, Landlord, I'm a mother's son. I'm nothing but a simple conglomeration of everything that has ever come to pass. You see, Landlord, it all boils down the humble atom—the chief instigator of everything."

I looked on nonplussed.

"Yes, Landlord, the atom. The atom is the rudimentary building block of everything you see and touch. This beard, that pint glass, the ink in the Latin verb that you have tattooed to your forearm. Imagine you could take a penny and put in beneath the lens of a microscope so powerful that it would let you view a surface area the size of one angstrom. If you peered into the viewfinder you would no longer see the copper-coating of the coin, but a whole new cosmic world of the atom. You see, Landlord, atoms don't die like you and I will. They simply break away and disperse with the decomposition of an organism. Then they go where the hell they like. They'll travel the universe and back before meeting up with others of their kind to create a hydrogen particle that will soon help create a drop of water, or a grain of wheat, or even new flesh to cover the skin which is dying and falling away from your face and limbs as we speak. Take such a theory into account, Landlord, and you'll appreciate that every man on this earth is created from recycled materials.

"Therefore, Landlord, in response to your question, I can happily tell you that I am the apple that fell onto the head of the hapless Newton. I am the wood of the funeral pyre used to burn the very attractive Joan of Arc. Landlord, what you see with your very own eyes is every man who ever swung his sword in anger and died during the battle of Thapsus. Just the same as you, Landlord."

The stranger drank deeply from the Guinness. He wiped the excess of creamy froth from his beard and then he reached for his canvas rucksack. I heard the sound of metallic clanking and guessed that he must have been carrying cans of tinned food in his bag. He reached inside and brought out a small wooden box and set it down on the bar. It looked decades old. It was the size of a bunched fist and the lid bore the fading picture of a Victorian period classroom scene in which a mustachioed art teacher painted a mountain range on his canvas to the adoration of his pupils.

"Drugs?" I said with disdain.

"Certainly not, Landlord. Why, Charlie Brown and his friends are hiding away at home in a biscuit tin within the panels of our bath. Can you believe it, Landlord, Ellie has lived with me for twenty years now and she's still not caught me out on that one?" The stranger laughed boisterously, but with it came a terrible croaking and wheezing.

"Then what is it?" I prompted. My dour upbringing didn't promote flagrant attitudes towards people who threatened livelihoods.

"Well, Landlord, reverting back to your earlier question, that being who am I? Well I am also the essence of the soil and the earth… or at least I will be when this old drum beats for the last time." He thumped his chest directly above his heart.

He put one hand on the box. His fingerless glove still held remnants of creamy froth.

"This is something to be viewed by nobody, Landlord. Not yourself, not your buddies, not your wife or your kids or your dog. Nobody. I want you to keep hold of this for me. Keep it from daylight and mankind. Hide it away in your loft in a damn safe if needs be. Just make sure that nobody sees inside, Landlord."

"OK, you can trust me. When a man comes to me for a favour, he can rest assured that it'll be honoured," I lied. Tired of pathetic charades, I decided that it was time for him to leave. "If you'll excuse me, I'll be shutting now; I've an appointment with the man from the brewery first thing tomorrow morning. I'll see you to the door."

"Right you are, Landlord. I'll be on my way now. God be with you. And remember what I told you. Nobody sees inside the box."

I saw him out of the pub and locked the door. I returned to the bar and the box. I studied the faded painting again. The artist wore a radiant and benign smile. He looked strong and well traveled. Was he recounting tales of journeys abroad? To the Alps, or Himalayas even? Whatever he spoke of, his young audience was clearly overjoyed in hearing what the man had to say.

The box was heavy, but I heard no movement from within when I shook it. A lot of drugs have changed hands in the Duke of York; I usually turn a blind eye so long as I'm not directly involved.

I fully believed that the stranger had passed some illicit substance off on me so as soon as I had finished cleaning the bar and prepping for opening the next morning, I took the box upstairs and broke the locking mechanism with a spoon. I expected to find a few wraps of heroin or uncut cocaine, but there was nothing. With the exception of a few dust motes, the box was empty.

* * *

I woke at around three-thirty to discover my room on fire. In the far corner next to the TV, a ball of red flame was slowly burning. I leapt out of bed with a pillow and smashed at the fire that spewed out from the wooden box. The box fell to the floor and still it burnt. I smashed at the flames again, but I couldn't snuff them. After a couple of moments, I realised that no scorch marks were etched into the carpet. A second later, I noticed that there was no heat rising from the flames. Tentatively I picked up the box to study the anomaly.

What I had seen when I woke looked immediately like fire, but once I regained my composure, I looked again and what I saw appeared and behaved nothing at all like flame.

An incandescent red light was emanating from the wooden box, it rose slowly in rotating veils; it had more the characteristics of smoke than fire. The light twisted and kited above the opening. I held the box close to my face and there was no change in temperature around the entity. I could see straight through it to the opposing wall and to the photograph and of my parents on holiday in St. Omagh the year before they were killed. I even moved my hand through the light phenomenon, but I felt no grain or texture. Still the filmy light moved in gentle ripples through the air. It looked for all the world as though a miniature Aurora Borealis manifestation was occurring in my bedroom. The light was free to move and unfold as it wished yet it remained anchored to its source—the wooden box.

I put the box on my bedside table and watched on mesmerized until the coming of day when the light faded and eventually vanished.

I didn't know it at the time, but the light show signaled the beginning of the end for the life I had at the Duke of York.

* * *

I opened the pub at eleven. Business was slow at first.

A woman came and went. She wore a short skirt, no tights. Her heels were too large; she walked uncertainly and with discomfort. The shoes had long since taken the skin from her ankles and now coarse leather rubbed against open pink wounds.

I didn't speak to her; I knew her as a local prostitute and a desperate junkie. Her vivacious red lipstick looked as though she'd let her idiot son apply it; it coated her brown teeth and ran onto her cracked cheeks. She drank double gins one after another and left without speaking.

The woman shambled out and a short little man strode in. He was only a couple of inches over five-foot. He was bald, he wore wire-framed glasses and he was cleanly shaven and meticulously dressed in tunic and black trousers. He nodded courteously to me and sat in the corner without buying a drink. He sat with his chin held high and occasionally peered out of the window. His composure only faltered when a stout man whose height and build betrayed any good intentions to maneuver gracefully came crashing through the doors.

I expected trouble, but the men were acquaintances. The man who had just walked into the pub wiped his hands feverishly on the back of his bottle green corduroys and thrust out a powerful hand in greeting.

"Charles Peace, man of legend. How do you do?" The large man inquired with shameless spite.

"I'm very well, thank you, given the circumstances of course."

The slight man hooked his tunic collar down a couple of inches to show off a crescent purple bruise than ran from ear to ear across his neck and throat.

"Now, if I'm not mistaken, Joseph Shepherd, from the newspapers' reports you displayed a morbid curiosity in the building of your own coffin and when asked if you believed in God, you replied with something 'far too irreverent and shocking to be printed'. And if I understand correctly, Thomas Askern had a bit of an ordeal drawing the bolt?"

"That's right, Charlie; the lousy old fool just didn't have the strength."

"That didn't stop you from dancing on air, did it?"

"No, Askern got help from one of his goons. By the time the trap opened, I was ready to go home for my tea."

"How quaint."

This was incredible; two men had come into my pub in Victorian period costume to engage in a role-play. They were effortlessly playing the parts of two of the most notorious criminals ever hanged within the walls of Leeds Prison. I imagined that they were a couple of history students enjoying some comic relief from their studies.

"Anyway, Joseph, digressions aside, you did remember to bring what I asked for?"

"Charlie… you mean to say you don't trust your old pal? After all these years?"

"Come on, Joseph, time's dripping away. I don't have all day to spend colluding to your juvenile games. The piece… did you bring it?"

The slight man sat hunched forwards, resting his elbows on the table. His bald head glistened with beads of sweat. His bulging eyes were almost in contact with the lens of his wire glasses.

"The piece, Joseph."

"Hold your horses, Charlie, here it is."

The stout man twitched uncomfortably and removed the ragged scarf that was tied around his neck to expose a similar blemish to that of his friend. A purple crescent bruise formed a devilish smile across his throat.

He handed over a small object, retrieved from his jacket pocket and wrapped in a handkerchief. The slight man slipped it straight into his jacket without so much as inspecting it.

"Sound as a pound it is. As a matter of fact, it's the same piece that I used to do Bethel with on Wadworth Moor."

"Good boy. Now, do you have time to share a brandy with me?"

"Yes, yes, but what will you do about money?"

"Don't worry Joseph, my lad. Where there's a will..."

The slight man took out a roll of bank notes and peeled one away.

"A brandy?"

"A brandy."

The Charlie Peace impersonator walked over to the bar. I'd already poured the brandies by the time he arrived. He threw the note on the bar and nodded in the same manner that he did as when he arrived at the pub.

The precision of the play-acting was making me feel edgy. The overall tone and sincerity seemed a little too dark to be coming from a couple of students playing about on their day off.

"Much obliged; it's been a while since I last had a drink."

"Same here. Thank you for noting the obvious, Joseph. However, since you went to the gallows 21 years before I did, I'll allow you the frivolous observation."

"Say, Charlie, would Katherine ever step out with you?"

"Please, Joseph, spare me the vulgarities."

"I love Charlie," the stout man began to sing. "Charlie was a thief, Charlie killed a copper."

The Charlie Peace impersonator looked agitated. He held his tumbler so tightly, his knuckles turned white.

"Charlie came to our house, he stole some bread and jam, he ate my mother's pudden."

"Don't toy with me, Joseph; I'm in no mood to be playing games."

"When the coppers caught him, they hung him on a rope… Poor old Charlie, You haven't got a hope."

"Enough," the slight man barked. He tipped over the table and lunged at his acquaintance. With unnerving agility, he slashed at the man's throat and darted for the doors, taking his illicit package with him.

I ran to the doors, but the man had long gone. I turned back into the pub and the big man was on his knees. A huge crimson rent opened in his throat like a sinister grin. It had ripped open the length of the scar. The flesh along the scar tissue must have been weak; it parted like wet paper.

The man tried in vain to stem the flow of blood, but with a faint gurgle, his eyes rolled into his head and he fell face flat to the floor.

I rushed to him but I knew there was little that I could do. In fact, when I rolled him onto his back, his skin was cold to the touch. It was icy cold; it was as if he'd been dead years.

If the man lying on my floor was the actual Joseph Shepherd, not merely an impersonator, he should have hanged on the scaffold inside the walls of Leeds Prison nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

I wrapped bar towels around his throat and dragged him out to the yard. I fed him into one of the bottle-banks; it would be days before he'd be discovered and what with all the other banks across the region being emptied at the same depot, the authorities would have no idea that the man had been picked up at the Duke.

It dawned on me that I hadn't locked the doors to the pub before I took care of the dead man; anyone stopping by for a drink would bare witness to the dark crimson gore that was fast congealing in my front barroom. I secured the bottle bank and made for the bar. I entered through the kitchen and back rooms and as I feared, it was hysterical sounds that greeted me and not the postmortem silence I needed.

I peered out into the barroom from behind the kitchen door and pacing the floor was a child dressed in rags. His hands were bound behind his back and a length of broken rope dangled between his legs; the top end was secured and tied in a noose around his fractured neck. His head was slumped at an awkward angle and he sobbed madly. Tears ran freely from his eyes and with them, they took away the dirt from the boy's cheeks, cleaning open soft pink channels of unadulterated virginal flesh as they rolled.

I didn't believe the boy was play-acting; if this had been a game, it was a wickedly devised one and I would have been more than ready to rain down furious blows on the architect of this towering nightmare. From my previous studies into executions carried out at the prison, I figured this reanimation was that of Charles Normington.

Normington was a simple lad who was sent plunging through the gallows at the age of seventeen for playing out his part in the murder of a man at Roundhay for something as trivial as his watch. The judge sat to make an example of Normington and that's exactly what he did. The young Charles broke down when the verdict was read; his grief was inconsolable, but by all accounts his shock was nothing compared to that of his mother, who wailed and screamed and had to be physically removed from the courtroom and restrained. One week later, Charles Normington was dancing his way into darkness on the end of a rope just a hundred metres from here. Only his darkness wasn't absolute; a century and a half after his execution he was back walking in the land of the living, a stranger in a place he once knew so well and with only unparalleled despair to his name.

I came from behind the kitchen door. One foot followed the other. I was carried automatically into the barroom. The boy, Normington, standing at only four feet eight inches and looking every bit the child noticed me and wept louder. As his neck was broken, his head remained lolled over one shoulder and he shimmered round on his feet in order to look at me.

"Help me, mister," the boy said. He peered mournfully down at his noose and tried in vain to wriggle his hands free of his restraints. His efforts were weak, they didn't slack an inch.

"Mister, I sinned like the rest o' them, but it was with the false assurance of others that I committed myself to killing that gen'leman. Please mister, give me your help; I'm tired. I'd like to go home to see me Mam now if I may."

Talking brought that boy a great deal of difficulty, but with those words he persevered. They came one by one, each more sluggish and reluctant than the last. Still Normington tried to free himself of his cuffs, but in his weakened state he made very little progress.

In an awe-induced stupor I ran back into the kitchen to find the chef's best serrated meat knife. It was a heavy-duty stainless steel thing that had teeth like those of a rat's. It would make short work of that rope around the boy's wrists.

I never made it back to the boy. The moment I reemerged back into the barroom the two huge etched glass windows either side of the main door bent inwards and for the briefest of moments the glass with its Roman floral engravings and Duke of York stencils all looked to be painted over the side of two huge balloons grotesquely squeezing themselves into my pub through the windows. A fraction of a second later a hundred thousand diamonds were hanging motionless in the air as those two antique windows imploded in front of a wall of supercharged wind. The whole fabric of my bar shook; beer and wineglasses fell shattering against the floor, spirit bottles were shaken from their optics and each one popped by my feet, dashing their intoxicating liquids abundantly over my bar. In the near distance, a terrific column of orange flame rushed skyward to tickle the toes of the Great Omnipotent. Although the source of the fireball was obscured by the near prison wall, the flames were so intense that I could hear the roar of the great upwards surge and the urgent, coiling, spitting flames were so hot they were dazzling.

The boy was peppered in the blast. Tiny fragments of glass gnashed at the skin from his face, arms and throat. I was uninjured because the trajectory of the broken glass had petered out before it reached me. The boy turned to face me once more but now he was unrecognisable, wearing a crimson mask with his skin sloughed and hanging away from his face like a cheap Halloween mask.

Revolted by what I saw, I cowered behind the heavy door to the kitchen. I heard disjointed shouting from the street. Again I watched from the gap in the door. Now a man I could only describe as looking like a battle-hardened prizefighter exploded through the destroyed window and without considering the lot of the confounded lad sunk a hammerhead into his skull. Normington's head broke like an egg and the kid slumped to the floor without as much as a murmur. The man now pulled the hammer out of the boy's skull; it made a wet sucking sound as it was drawn out of the crimson and grey mulch.

The snarling beast of man looked about him and over to the bar. The temples at either side of his huge reddened face twitched and undulated like fat earthworms embedded beneath his skin. He drew sharp, sudden breaths and I could hear the hot air as it coursed over and between his jagged teeth that looked like years old, rotten fence-posts.
A knocking from behind took him to the bolted front door. The savage drew back the bolts and kicked open the door. An emaciated drunk shambled in and barely noticed the colossal frame of the man he swayed past. He bore the familiar bluish-purple scar around his throat and he was decked in the common bedraggled dress, now synonymous with the newly reanimated dead that were being drawn to the Duke of York pub by malign wheels of evil which were very much in spin. With utter contempt for the drunkard and with the grace of a man berserk on crack, the lunatic gave the man the same treatment as he gave to the boy. This time the hammer went square into the centre of his victim's face. It sunk a couple of inches directly above his nose, yanking the drunk's eyes tightly together and wickedly meeting them with his puckered lips against the already matted chunk of iron. This time the lunatic didn't hang onto the hammer. The sheer pace of the hammer carried on out of the murderer's fist and sent the drunk windmilling back through the door. Again the lunatic made for the bar and without hesitation I ran away. I headed up the staircase at the back of the kitchen that led to my flat. Armed with the chef's knife, I was hell bent on hacking chunks out of any man foolhardy enough to break into my apartment.

I threw open the door to my bedroom and it too, like my barroom, had suffered tremendously with the force of the blast. My window had also imploded; razor-sharp fragments had been thrown into my room, slashing the curtains and tearing shirts that were hung nearby. The wooden box, the one potential catalyst of this madness—the one thing that'd forced Armley into hosting hell, laid open on the floor, close by the TV stand where I'd last placed it. There was no light manifestation this time, but I didn't doubt that this seemingly innocent play box was exacerbating things beyond my wildest dreams.

I parted what was left of the curtains and saw that the night sky was ablaze with fires emanating from the prison. The Victorian turrets, either side of the prison gatehouse had erupted. Where guards once stood and watched over proceedings inside the prison, there was now phenomenal jets of billowing red flame that roared towards the heavens and to a vanishing point out of sight.

Not only had the windows of my pub been destroyed in the blast, but the wall of the prison had been breached. The wall which was composed of buttery yellow sandstone, belying its strength, stood up to a foot in places. The good, solid, local stone had made the place impregnable, but now it had been transformed into a yawning exit point for legions of the dead.

A river of once executed convicts began flowing out through the breached wall. The river of reanimated flesh and bones were made up of the mad, wild and berserk dead who looked hell bent on mutilating the living, by any means necessary. There was the aggrieved and strung-out dead who stood statuesque and lost until the force of those behind pushed them to the ground where they disappeared beneath the feet of those more determined. There were those newly reanimated who sported grotesque injuries, the likes of which no living man could function with. One thing united the majority; they moved uniformly down the road with alarming swiftness and in the direction of my pub.

I grabbed the fallen box and the knife and rushed back down the stairs. The barbarian who had so effortlessly slain two of his kind was nowhere to be seen. Whether he'd gone in search of warm meat to tear apart, or whether his madness had steered him straight into the oncoming mob, I could only speculate at. I had no intention of finding out—curiosity killed the cat, so they say. The floor of the bar and area immediately surrounding it was partially immersed in neat spirits. I needed no second invitation. I put a light to the chef's balled apron and lobbed it over the bar. I made good my escape through the kitchen and out to my car without so much as casting a glimpse back at my livelihood being consumed by flames. I always preferred the traditional look of pubs and so mine was heavily furnished and decorated in wood. The fire would have only needed seconds to take hold; the whole place would have been gutted in minutes. Any fucker, living or dead, who still fancied taking the pub had my personal invite. Hearing the screams of a man perishing in the fire would have been music to my ears.

* * *

I'm driving now to Malham Cove; heart and pride of the Yorkshire Dales. A place of romance and whimsy for thousands who visit during the years' warmer months. The word 'amour' springs to mind and I howl with laughter and slap the steering wheel. Irony at its cruelest. The box still judders on the seat beside me; it's going to take an express route to hell with me. I'll walk to the cliff-top and find a tree with good, rigid branches that overlooks the cove with all its beauty and innocence. And it'll be from one of those branches that I'll swing like the most jaded of pendulums.




Copyright © 2009 Alex Clark

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Alex Clark lives with his partner, Ines, in Yorkshire. They have nine wonderful guitars, but not a single catnot yet, anyway.

Alex is a hobbyist writer who enjoyed being a part of Silverthought: Ignition some years ago. He has also written music and travel journalism for various sites based in England.

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