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
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
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
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
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
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 areif 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
" 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
"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
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
"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 atomthe 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
"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 sourcethe wooden
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
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
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
"I'm very well, thank you, given the circumstances of
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
"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."
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?"
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
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
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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
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 madnessthe 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
outcuriosity 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.