He looked at them for a moment, feeling both revulsion and pity for their lifeless forms, their tails like slowly-moving earthworms as they writhed in the current. His feelings turned to pity for himself, that he should have to endure this weekly - sometimes daily - task of "taking out the visitors" as Mr Soire, his employer, had euphemistically named it. Mr Soire was a ‘visitor’ himself, after all – in the nastiest possible sense. Groyne shrugged. There was not much he could do, was there?
Many were the times that Groyne had thought about reporting to the authorities the rat-infestation in the cellar of Soire’s bakery, and all the more so each time he was forced to inch his way down the entire length of Stone Point, that arm of close-knit limestones built by Victorians in a misguided and ultimately futile attempt to redirect the flow of water in the estuary mouth. For Mr Soire would not have the rats disposed of at the shore, or in any other way. "Hold the bag down close to the water when you lets the visitors out," he always intoned, his yellow teeth permanently exposed. "We don't want no-one with binoculars to know about the visitors." Bi-nock-lars, he always pronounced it, and that set Groyne's teeth on edge.
Taking a few deep breaths before he dared brave the return trip along the point, Groyne peered across the languorous grey milk of the sea. On the far side of the bay was the low hump of the Naze, and Groyne could even pick out the brick tower on top which year-by-year inched closer to the edge of the crumbling cliffs. Despite the brick, it seemed a metal radio mast in certain visibilities. Often, though, it steamed like a tranche of kiln. Now, it was an icicle brandished as a dirk by some cliff-clad giant.
Much nearer to hand were the insectoid forms of the Sentinels -- or, at least, that was what they'd always called them as children. Two Victorian lighthouses, they haunted Groyne's dreams from time to time, though he did not know why. Built of cast iron, one stood on bare legs in the sea itself, now that the tide was almost in. This, the shorter of the two, had much wider 'hips' below the rotund light-room, was firmly female in Groyne's mind. The taller, narrower one -- the male -- stood slightly tense on its long iron legs on the beach itself, slightly on tiptoe, as if straining to see what the female was doing in the water.
Absent-mindedly, Groyne counted the male's legs. He was sure there were six, yet the female in the water appeared to have only four. If the male was a six-legged insect then she certainly could not be one too with only four legs. She was a different species, a different phylum even, yet superficially similar to the male -- he had never considered it before. And what was she doing in the water, standing up to her bare knees so enticingly, her wide hips facing full-on towards the male? Then Groyne saw. She was a mermaid, a lighthouse mermaid transmitting some mating-dance music in a high pitch. Not the same kind of creature as the male but wickedly pretending to be. Wickedly enticing her potential mate out into the water, there to dismember him. Groyne shuddered and turned away.
There was a strident whirring noise in the air. The Light Programme was slowing sinking into the static. Sing Something Simple. Music While You Work. Housewives' Choice. Workers' Playtime. All mothballed by time. Broadcast on a wavelength frequented by interference of the most frightening kind.
Groyne – having returned to his twouptwodown in Alfred Terrace – decided to blot it out and switched on his own old-fashioned wireless. He now imagined that the two lighthouses had been turned into old sea-forts and then, by the due course of the Sixties Marine Defences Act, into pirate radio stations, signalling raucously with modern disco lights rather than enticingly with stick-insect concupiscence. Wading ashore to become as bland and awful as Terrestrial Radio Number something or Number something else.
Yet Groyne's receiver only played raves from the grave, tunes from the tomb, verse from the hearse and he turned the heavy-duty pointer along the illuminated dial, past Luxembourg, Hilversum, Rabat, Toulouse, Home Service, Third Programme, Caroline, BBC 1, 2 , 3 and 4, Clacton’s Dream 100…
Some of those hadn’t been on this ancient dial before, had they? He shrugged. He carelessly fine-tuned it. There was a whining vibration from the bakelite hull of the wireless. A MIND AT THE END OF ITS TETHER. The voice was grumbly, insistent… An old recording of H.G. Wells. Sounded a bit like the Bakery’s Mr Soire, biscuit slow. But it seemed to be a talk about collecting rats, evidently some shorthand for imminent death. A rat as chrysalis, then the fluttering, whirring of colourful flight from the sea-shrunk manglings of its body, lifting like butterfly angels towards a Heaven's respite.
H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine … and the War of the Worlds. Groyne listened to the droning of bombers shuddering, throbbing, eating further into the bakelite, intermixed with the hisses and screams of short wave mistuning. Veering towards the ancient martello towers and misshapen redoubts of the coastal defences.
Groyne decided he didn't really grab the station he’d homed in on – but the tuner seemed to be stuck on the taut wire carrying its spoke along the dial … or the wire was snapped. He could not escape the ever insistent signal nor lose it somewhere amid the seething interference from the ether. The bakelite basement was tenebrous indeed.
The tuner lost its tether.
Groyne turned the deep deep treadwheels of despond – white noise, black noise, a million butterfly wings whirring endlessly. Sing something simple. The simplest song of all – silence.
The voice from the speaker was Mr Soire. Groyne twisted and turned the walkie-talkie beneath his motionless gaze. It was clumsier than real conversation. Through touch of throb and tweak. Apparently, Soire told him, there was smuggling in the port tonight and it was important that any 'visitors' were set adrift between the huge mounds of cabling that the ships had jettisoned. Erstwhile vermin were better bait than grey noise or smoke signals or semaphores or tattoos of drumming. They made more meaningful floating patterns, like dead tea-leaves in widows' cups.
Such serendipities, you see, were what made Stone Point irresistible as a place of exchange. But then a crucial knot of intensest sound woke this country of the blind; the two mating polypods inched nearer amid the shy foghorns of their mermaid saraband, believing that, sadly, Groyne was deaf.
The limestone cobbles were slippery tonight, surfaces slick with algae and sea spray. Twice he nearly lost his footing before he reached the end of the Point, more than 500 yards out into the bay, and squatted, one hand down to aid his balance, tripod-like. The lights from Felixstowe pierced the gloom, made fuzzy by sea-fret. The rumble and drone of engines, of cranes and lorries and ferries, washed over him, numbing his senses, soothing him, lulling him to distraction.
Times like this... he felt at peace. Detached from the land, freed of the burden of his day-to-day existence.
Something shifted -- squirmed! -- at his back, in the sack over his shoulder. One of the little grey buggers was still alive! Looking for a way out, clambering over the corpses of its kin, biting, gnawing, burrowing.
He stopped himself just short of hurling the sack into the waves, fear of his employer marginally greater than revulsion at the sack's contents. He edged forward to where the rocks sloped steeply down to the sea, held the sack out over seaweed-tasselled cobbles, released the knot at its neck and shook. Grey corpses tumbled out. Or bits of grey corpse. Or several things that were either corpses or not. He could not see if any remained alive, could only recall the certainty of that vile movement against his shoulder blade.
Stone Point had been built as part of a Victorian scheme to tame the estuary of the river Stour: a great rocky breakwater extending out towards Felixstowe to drive the strong currents away from the south side of the estuary, where they scoured the mudflats and dropped their silty deposits in the docks at Harwich. The scheme had been abandoned long before completion -- some said because of difficulties with the underwater footings, others blamed a chief engineer a little too familiar with the fair of the Three Cups, his measurements imprecise, his projections askew. Here at the end of the Point, the currents were strong, insistent. Anything dumped here was instantly seized, dragged out into the North Sea in a frenzied rush. "You gives the visitors to the waves," Soire would tell him, "and the sea is very grateful. Sea's not particular at all, takes all sorts." Par-tick-lar, rattled through yellowed teeth. Soire always struck him as a character out of Dickens -- a Silas Wegg, scheming and manoeuvring -- or from Peake, perhaps, a Ghormengastian gruesome.
Groyne straightened, shook the sack one last time. "Good night, my little beauties," he said with a chuckle. "Good night and God bless. Give the mermaids a kiss from old Groyne."
He stooped then, squinting, struggling to distinguish detail in the gloom. What was it that had snagged his attention? A milky glimmering, a play of light and dark, of white against the inky green of the weed and rock. White dome, dark sockets where eyes had once belonged. Not just rats, then, cast adrift from the end of the Point, occasionally reluctant to go, lodging in the tangled weed.
Groyne straightened, chuckled again. Not just rats at all.
Groyne kneaded the soft, floury dough, pushing his fingers deep, forming mouths and eye sockets into which his fingers delved and groped, exploring the hidden realm of the dough's inner softness. He squashed and heaped it up again into a pale dome, translucent and almost glowing in the dim, green light of the cellar, the undersea world of the bakery, made so by the turquoise-painted windows that would have looked out onto the passing feet of Harwich dwellers, if he had been able to see through the mottled glass.
"Don't you plays with the putty!"
Groyne started as Soire's voice cut through his thoughts.
"That putty's stone-ground flour! How many times do I tells you? He makes the best cobs. Be obedient!" O-bed-ant. From permanent exposure to the heat of the bake-room, Soire's stained teeth were as dry and dusty as his skin, as floury as his unslaked words. Only his eyes showed colour, blood-shot and livid as he glowered at Groyne.
Groyne was obedient. He turned dutifully back to his task of flattening the dough then dividing it criss-cross, cross-criss, with a large blunt knife that was as flour-grained in its pitted iron skin as Soire himself. But Soire had not got to Groyne today, and he did not back-chat his employer. As he worked he swallowed a grin, for he knew that what he had discovered under the green water at the slippery-slithery end of Stone Point, would change everything.
Spacing out the blobs of grey dough on a tray (Soire was right, the dough was like putty, especially this stone-ground stuff that had in its blood some of the grindings - the meat - of the stone itself), he began to hum to himself, a hissing-in-and-out as he breathed, the whirr of a thousand butterfly wings turning the air into white sound, then into silence.
He opened the great shiny-steel door of an oven and the heat belched over him, making the hairs on his skin prickle and wither. For a moment he stared unblinking into the furnace of the interior, feeling it dry his eye-balls and prick the water from their socket-corners until he could bear it no more and had to look away, mercifully closing his lids. There was a purity in the heat though, it burnt from his mind the nightmare of rats, the twitching at his shoulder blade which had been there ever since... Long-legged metal figures could live inside there, in the heat of the flames. Their flesh would not dry out, then wither, then burn. They could stride about, their legs creating a radio-whine like the legs of grasshoppers rubbed together in the dry summer grass. Metal on metal, the female luring the male with her Pirate call, her siren whisperings, her baked light...
But he knew there was something wrong with that. After he had slid the tray of soft, naked dough-balls into the oven with the long-handled gaffer and thankfully closed the door, he set to work on the next batch, and pondered on the lighthouses. He could see them even now, and his finger-nails traced their stiff shapes in the dough. The female was not luring the male. He almost had it now, the vision was clearer. She was in the sea because... (he folded and beat the dough, over and over, inside-out, outside-in, concealing more and more air in its silky pockets) ...because she was trying to get away from the male. That was it, she was fleeing from the male, not luring him. She was anxious, turning back to face him out of fear, not flirtation. The sea was grey and treacherous around her legs, not light and milky. But she had four legs - no, she had eight! Eight legs issued from her broad iron hips, but in pairs that joined at the ankles, so that they only looked like four at a glance. She was bound at the ankles, yet could still stumble into the sea, in a desperate attempt to escape the male. And now there was nowhere else for her to go. She was trapped between the green silent depths behind and the predatory male at the shore. He was rising on tip-toe not to see what she was doing, but ready, mantis-like, to strike!
"You!" Soire's voice thundered and rolled through the heated cellar-air. "’Peers their burnt. Takes them out! Takes them out!"
For seconds Groyne stared helplessly at his master, stared aghast and uncomprehendingly into the heat and rage of the man's floury face - a place where not even long-legged metal figures could survive - searching there for meaning and sense.
"The cobs! The cobs! Takes them out!"
Cobs or cobbs. Piers or peers. Groyne found it difficult to focus on the words and their meanings. Sense came to Groyne in a moment of pure stillness like the one he sometimes found at the end of Stone Point. Then the moment had fled, and he sprang into action, dragging open the door of the oven, grasping the blistering handle with a greasy cloth, catching the loop in the tray with the long gaffer to drag the burning bread from inside.
When Soire had finished scalding Groyne with his hot breath and left him sitting silent and subdued before the bread he had burnt, Groyne saw that the burnt cobs had each burst open in their over-ripeness. Blackened, and turning their insides out, they displayed their flaky, air-pocket hearts, their secrets revealed, each a crysalis burst open to release its hissing butterfly.
Groyne set off at a fast pace through the narrow Harwich backstreets where floppy string sailor-dolls hung inside windows, and houses were painted like bright ships: heading through underpasses and the narrow concrete slip-ways of wartime-defences, redoubts with walls like hardened dough, until he came down at last to the heel of Stone Point. There he did not hesitate as was usual, but strode boldly out across the crusty stones that were like so many sea-blackened cobs, taking a purposeful bee-line down the centre, his back upright and a lightness in his stride. He knew that what he was about to do would change his world. Mr Soire would no longer be his boss, and probably be forced – even in proxy – to close the bakery for baking bread in such an unsavoury place, maybe even have to spend some time in jail for this crime. The worthy folk of Harwich would never see the world in quite the same way again either, for their lives would be turned inside out, like pastries opened heart-out, the bursting of the chrysalis to release what was within...
Over his shoulder he carried some rope and a sack, but not a sack of dead and dying rats this time. It spread across his back like a thick cloak, a big flour sack, newly emptied and sweet-smelling, ready to take and conceal what he would drag up from the end of the point...
Inspiration was not the work of a moment. Not a rupture of blinding light that revealed the pearl within a heart of darkness. This darkness was a deafness in itself; Groyne had no need for any mock ministrations of sound. He knew he had clumsily negotiated the green-stained slipperiness of the Stone Point’s bevels – simply for one purpose. Not to dispel rumours. But to collect them, like sonar signals, like scintilla from Soire’s methodically arithmetical evening out of evenings … curds of shadow made ear-pricked and squeaky. Static messages seaweed-clogged and fucus-feigned.
He shook his head as if it were a crumpled bag of sweets dished out by corner shops. Made the sounds collect like a a blue tourniquet of salt at the bottom of crinkly crisps. The moth fluttered its wings much as the brain felt his veins flether. He bulged his eyes like bi-nok-lars to see further into the sea mists, opening the neck of his sack to gather in the harvest of the waves.
At the Electric Cinema in Harwich – where the ticket kiosk issued memories of fifties romances alongside those other more wondrous archetypes of nostalgia trawled from English seaside resorts – Mr Soire was meeting his latest flame. Groyne could imagine the whole scene as if he were really and truly within Soire’s skull. A buxom scold fresh from Gormenghast’s back kitchen by the look of her, with the name of Mrs Frankau. He did not worry about any offshoots from his clandestine plots of smuggling: he would surely know how to dry out those things that bobbed like jellyfish in the withering seas around. Nothing would disrupt Soire’s love life. Mrs Frankau’s bakelite face cracked like a chamberpot used just that once too often.
“Hey, give us a break,” she shrieked.
Mr Soire stood his ground. His mind may have been elsewhere – almost within the cranium that Groyne carried around on top like a curled back shell, revealing a brain like a mussel or oyster. They shared each other’s skull, then. That must be it. Soire and Groyne were soulmates, despite the hierarchy of their master and servant relationship. Mrs Frankau, despite her attractions as a receptacle for his passions, represented more of a diversion for him, rather than a be-all-and-end-all. Money spoke louder than the crashing chains of mighty anchors being clumsily weighed in careless dockyards and ports.
“Want to see this film real bad,” suddenly announced Mrs Frankau, as he passed over loose change into the faceless hands of the Electric Cinema’s kiosk.
“Could do without it,” he murmured, hearing the crashing gears of another busted propeller tangling on marine treasure.
He rather prided himself as a matinee idol. Why did she need the likes of Ronald Coleman and Stewart Granger?
Inside the cinema, from back of row, the chanderlumes dimmed as the high curtains rollered aside to reveal the squat screen, with one odd dab of a thrown icecream from an ancient incident of Saturday Morning Pictures. The projector falteringly threw the image of a pasty-faced individual bearing all the markings of potential handsomeness … laced with undercurrents of fear and loathing. The cheeks bulged like bread too slowly baking. The eyes winked like molluscs in starshine. The chin doubled as a cliffhanger.
Flash Gordon mustered his buzzing Wellsian Hoover-craft into wild fancy-free displays over a recognizable coast. Soire could not believe his eyes. There were those two lightship stations in an old-fashioned waltz so typical of towns where there were more dead folk than living ones. They danced into the nights, arm in arm, speaking life’s own sweet nothings. Gentlemanly and ladylike to the most perfect etiquette of dying. And an evil wizard sat at his jockey-spot, dishing the discs, wailing his entourage of modern-speak to the world. Tuned in, turned over, tumbling into the wild crescendoes of yet one more end-of-time.
He turned his meek and doe-like skull from the screen and responded to Mrs Frankau’s rank attentions.
Groyne left the skull and began watching the waves grow smaller. It had taken a time. He looked back, momentarily, towards the odd winking lights of residential Harwich where his alter ego canoodled -- and, then, towards the dark shapes of the port’s gathered motley fleet. He lowered the open-ended sack towards the fulsome sea. A huge submarine loomed, periscope akimbo. Groyne believed he knew what it was. A Russian spy, tangled in the nets of his nightmares. Or an underwater pirate radio station, beating the legal definition of Territorial Waters at its own game. But then, of course, it turned into a one-eyed Cthulhoid. Then a Hollywood rat-shark with white puff belly and many dark-skinned fins along its back. This was a creature that should not have existed. The drug-laden rats that had generously sown the currents at the end of Stone Point had created from the very waters such quaint, queer fish-life, rather than the rats themselves being taken from the sluggish tides and in turn used by humans as hallucinants to change the waves into subsequent harbours of such strange visions. The chicken and the egg. The dream and the drug. Groyne thought he knew which came first. He wanted both, of course. For Soire, if not for himself.
The visibilities of vision faded like lost signals. The thing that had changed his life, the discovery of which had bobbed up and down upon the rank surface of his own mind, was now rising towards him from the actual sea at Stone Point’s end. Not a vision, now, but a reality. A skull. One with darkening wells of sight. Soire’s skull, made from a doughy bone that the sea had miraculously hooked back from the distant undertows and lower tides.
Beyond the margins of territorial waters. Porous and eatable with the very salt that seasoned it. Barely recognisable, but still a Soire … evening out the untransmitted fates of visiting vengeance … his Soire – the Soire who’d lost a body to the rotting of the rats. Decay was almost like cooking, Groyne thought.
The three authors live within a few miles of each other on the East
coast of England. They meet regularly to explore their surroundings
and share a few drinks, after which they write strange stories in
collaboration. Their work, collaborative and solo, has been published
widely in magazine, web and book form around the world. They are all
members of Storyville.
Keith Brooke: www.keithbrooke.co.uk
D.F. Lewis : www.weirdmonger.com
Lawrence Dyer:www.dowse.com (The site launched by Lawrence Dyer).
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