by Jim Mountfield
A hand landed on the tattered shoulder of my jacket. “You again!” raged
a voice. “I’ve told you this isn’t a dosshouse. Yet you keep coming
As was my habit on those wet winter afternoons, I was sitting in the
room that housed the gallery’s café and bookshop, taking
infinitesimally small sips from a cup of coffee I’d managed to make
last for two hours already. And I’d been reading a story in a magazine
I’d borrowed from a rack, a report on how New York’s Metropolitan
Museum of Art had agreed to sell a fabulously valuable painting by Paul
Cezanne to one of the world’s biggest corporations. Then this man from
the gallery’s management accosted me.
He yanked me up from the table and grabbed the manuscript that I
brought with me every afternoon to work on but, invariably, I’d abandon
after a few minutes in favour of a magazine. He stuffed the manuscript
into my satchel. I protested, “Be careful! That’s the book I’m
He flung the satchel into my arms. “Yeah, right. Time to go, Thomas
The girl on duty came out from behind the counter. “He’s been fine, Mr
Elrick. He hasn’t been a nuisance.”
“Have you smelt him? He’s upsetting the other customers just by being
here. Stinking the place out.”
“Yes,” I said, “I was only reading. A fascinating story. You know that
giant media and IT company that’s bought up the paintings over the last
few years, the Gauguins, Klimts, Picassos and Lautrecs? They’ve struck
again. One of The Card Players by Paul Cezanne.” The man, Elrick,
pushed me towards the doors that opened onto the street. I kept
speaking, hoping I might escape ejection if I involved him in a
conversation about art. “You know what it reminds me of? The sci-fi
film Children of Men. When humans are dying out and they’re
trying to preserve their legacy by assembling an Ark of the Arts. It’s
as if this company is doing something similar – ”
“I really,” snarled Elrick, “couldn’t give a shit.” And he propelled me
out into the cold drizzly street.
I summoned my last shreds of dignity, turned around and faced him. “You
shouldn’t treat people like that. My father always told me to be nice
to the people you meet on your way up. Because you might meet them
again on your way down.”
Elrick didn’t slam the gallery door on me as I expected. He stepped
onto the pavement beside me. “I won’t meet you again on my way down
because by then you’ll be dead. Long since expired in the
gutter.” He pointed along the street. “Start walking. I’m waiting here
until I’m sure you’ve really gone…”
His voice trailed away. He realised he was accidentally pointing
towards a beggar who crouched a few yards from us. The beggar had an
upturned baseball cap, so far empty, on the pavement in front of him
and despite the absence of sunshine he wore dark glasses over his
unshaven, skin-and-bones face. The spot he’d chosen was between the
gallery’s last street-level window and a doorway at the top of some
stairs descending into the railway station, which was the main occupant
of this block.
“Christ, another one! Hey, beggar boy!” Forgetting me, Elrick stomped
along to the man, grabbed the hood of the stained cagoule he was
wearing and hoisted him off the pavement. “I’m not having you pestering
my customers, either. Go on. Scat!”
The beggar looked dazed. While Elrick dragged him onto his feet, his
head cranked from side to side and his arms flailed, as if he sensed he
was under attack but was unable to identify from where. Once he was up,
Elrick reacted to those flailing arms by assuming that the beggar was
trying to hit him and threw a punch himself. This struck the beggar’s
jaw and he reeled back with a bewildered cry.
“Hey,” I shouted, “stop that! Leave the guy alone!”
I used a weapon – my satchel. I swung it on its strap so that the
canvas bag thumped against Elrick’s head. The bag contained the
five-hundred-page manuscript and he was already off-balance after
throwing the punch. That was why he reeled too. He reeled from the
pavement, through the doorway and into the station, then tipped over
the top stair and fell with several thuds and cracks down the metal
staircase to the station’s concourse. I rushed in after him. I was in
time to see him tumble past the lowest stairs, flinging his arms and
legs about as if he was dancing a crazy spinning jitterbug. Then he
landed in a tangle on the concrete floor at the bottom.
Luckily, he hadn’t met anyone on his way down.
The beggar appeared at the top of the staircase beside me. “What
happened,” he mumbled, “to that mean old guy who hit me?”
Elrick’s body didn’t move. I wondered if his plunge down the stairs had
killed him – and if it had, who’d be blamed for it? I doubted if the
police would pay much heed to our side of the story.
Grabbing the beggar’s arm, I shouted, “Come on, we got to leave! We got
to run!” I towed him back out of the station, across the road
and up the hill. We climbed a series of narrow winding alleys that
thankfully kept us out of public view, though they contained an
exhausting number of stone steps. We reached the top and emerged onto
the high street, but I didn’t let us pause to get our breath back. I
dragged him to the street’s far side and into another warren of alleys.
We came at last to a pub that I knew, a rundown pub unfrequented by
tourists or office-workers, whose landlady didn’t mind the presence of
two homeless scruffs if they stayed quiet and inconspicuous.
I sat the beggar at a corner table, ransacked my pockets, managed to
find just enough money for a half-pint of beer and went to the counter.
The other customers ignored me because they were engrossed in a
football match playing on a large LCD screen on the wall. Inscribed in
the screen’s bottom-right corner was the name D-REKT, which I
recognised as the corporation I’d read about in the art magazine. I
wondered if D-REKT owned the sports channel showing the football as
well as having manufactured the LCD screen. It was possible. I knew
that in addition to hoarding masterpieces by Gauguin, Picasso, Klimt,
Lautrec and Cezanne, they produced countless entertainment and
communication devices and they operated a glut of TV channels.
I bought the half-pint, returned to the beggar, took a sip of beer and
pushed it across the table-top to him. He didn’t react. Because of the
dark glasses concealing his eyes it was difficult to know what the
matter was, if he was in shock after being punched or if he was just
drugged up. Then I noticed something about his right shoulder. It’d
looked normal before the tussle with Elrick but now, compared with his
other shoulder, it was twisted and misshapen.
I studied his face again and said, “I know you. You’re Clive, aren’t you?”
The beggar came out of his stupor. “How do you know my name?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
“It was a long time ago. Maybe you don’t remember. A shop called Canvas Books in the late 1980s. You were a kid then.”
I waited for his face to show a glimmer of recognition. When the glimmer appeared, I asked, “How’s Derek these days?”
His voice was sorrowful. “Derek? Oh… He’s gone.”
The beggar removed his glasses and I saw that one of his eyes was
missing. Where he should have had a right eye, he had an empty socket.
Meanwhile, around the rim of his remaining eye, there glistened a tear.
Canvas Books was on the bottom floor of a strange building that was
shaped like a slice of pie and tapered into a corner between two
converging streets. It was strange too because its frontage along one
side, overlooking one of the streets, was almost entirely made of
glass. Through that glass I’d people-watch for much of the time I was
there. I’d occasionally see someone I’d known from university walk by
dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase. This made me feel relieved
that I’d escaped the drudgery of a nine-to-five desk job. It also made
me feel depressed because they were surely earning a decent wage while
I survived on dole-money topped up with the illegal earnings of a
once-a-week, cash-in-hand job in a bookshop.
I worked there every Wednesday, filling in for a staff-member who was
officially on the pay-roll but, for some mysterious reason, was
unavailable in the middle of the week. The bookshop’s owner, a laidback
and un-bureaucratic guy called William, was happy to pay me at the end
of each Wednesday with a few notes from the till.
It was easy work because the bookshop was rarely busy. It sold
expensive hardbacked art-books and its clientele consisted of a few
well-to-do art-lovers and a few staff-members from the History of Art
Department on the nearby campus. When I wasn’t people-watching, I’d sit
behind the counter and write in a jotter – starting the first draft of
the novel that, thirty years later, had become the five-hundred-page
manuscript in my satchel.
I was alone in the shop that afternoon when a boy came through the
door. He wore a faded green parka jacket that looked several sizes too
big for him. The hem of the jacket was around his knees and the hood,
with a fringe of dirty fur, swallowed his head. This apparition glided
past like a submarine periscope cutting through sea.
“Good afternoon,” I said warily.
“Afternoon,” said a muffled voice from the parka-hood.
He prised a tome about Vincent van Gogh off a shelf, cradled it in his
right arm and with his left hand started leafing through its pages. I
watched dumfounded. No kid had ever entered the bookshop on the
Wednesdays I’d worked there. And this one, in his scruffy parka, didn’t
look like a precocious kid who might be interested in art-books. I felt
tempted to walk over and tell him to leave. But he wasn’t doing
anything wrong. He was only browsing – which was what most visitors did
for most of their time in the shop.
Nonetheless, from the counter, I demanded, “That a good book, is it?”
My voice was gruff. I tried to transmit the message, “Bugger off!”
He seemed oblivious to my tone. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “Very good.”
He browsed strangely. These books were beautifully illustrated. People
took their time turning the pages because they wanted to admire the
paintings reproduced on them. This kid took a maximum of two seconds to
turn from one page to the next – though he methodically went through
every page. After a few minutes, he’d skimmed the entire book. He
returned it to the shelf, moved a few steps along and picked out
another book, one about Monet. Then he was off again, going through the
book page by page at a crazy pace.
After a half-hour he’d got through a half-dozen books. I felt
increasingly uncomfortable. I watched him begin to leaf through yet
another book, again making sure he saw every page but not giving
himself time to process what was on those pages. Then I emerged from
behind the counter, approached him and took a deep breath.
“I have to ask you to buy something,” I said. “If you’re not going to buy anything, you need to leave the shop.”
The boy turned and looked up at me and I saw a thin, pallid face within
the furry hood. When he replied, he sounded frightened. “I’m just
reading. Not doing any harm. Not damaging your books. See?” He held up
the current book to show how pristine it was. This one was about
Caravaggio and just now was open at a page containing a reproduction of
Judith beheading Holofernes.
“Well, it’s great that you haven’t damaged them. But I’m afraid time’s
up. This is a bookshop, not a library. If you’re not buying, you have
The boy backed away, brandishing the book in front of him like a
shield. “But I haven’t finished reading this one! Just let me finish it
and I’ll go. Okay?”
I advanced on him. “Reading? How can you read six books in half-an-hour?”
Then in a completely different tone the boy said, “Caravaggio is a
fascinating artist, isn’t he? How he translated the violence of his
existence, of his personality, onto his canvases. And of course, how he
used lighting to heighten their physical and emotional intensity.”
I thought someone else had spoken. I even glanced behind me to check if
a lecturer from the History of Art Department had entered without me
noticing. No, we were alone. Unnerved, I decided I wanted this boy out
of the shop – now. I shouted, “Just give me the bloody book and clear
off!” And I lunged at him and grabbed the book and tried to wrench it
free of him.
“No,” he shouted back, “let me finish!” Then there was a ripping noise
and he did let go of the book and it was fully in my hands, but with
the page showing Judith beheading Holofernes
torn down the middle. The page-half with Judith flapped away from the
half with Holofernes, so that it looked like a pair of disembodied
hands were sawing his head off his body. Realising what’d happened, the
boy squawked “Shit!” and dashed towards the door.
But I dashed for the door too, reached it the same moment he did,
shouldered him and knocked him into the corner. Then I seized him with
my free hand – I still clutched the Caravaggio book – and bundled him
into the space behind the counter and forced him down on the chair I’d
“Sit still!” I spat.
He babbled. The weird authority with which he’d discussed Caravaggio
had vanished. “I’m sorry, mister, I didn’t mean to tear your book, it
was an accident – ”
“Just,” I roared, “fucking sit!”
I checked the book’s dust-jacket and shuddered when I saw the price.
Then I reached for the shop’s telephone, on the counter, and dialed the
number William had given me for emergencies. I got no answer.
Occasionally, through the glass, I’d see businessmen walking along and
talking into big brick-shaped gadgets with antennae. But William, the
most lackadaisical businessman in the city, hadn’t got around to buying
one of those new-fangled mobile phones yet. He wasn’t at home and I had
no way of contacting him.
As I put down the receiver, the boy said, “Look, mister, I’m sorry. I really am. But just let me go, will you? Please. Please.”
I considered the options and decided I couldn’t let him go. The book
cost a fortune and it was ruined. I was worried that if I didn’t have
the culprit at hand, William would deduct the book-price from my wages
and for weeks afterwards my finances would be decimated. And I couldn’t
call the police because I was employed illegally. The more I thought
about it, the more I felt I had to keep the boy here until I raised
William. Then perhaps William could get onto the boy’s parents and make
them pay for the book.
In the meantime, I had a shop to run.
The boy started talking again. He’d found the jotter in which I’d
been writing and glanced over its first page. Now, with no hint of the
panic he’d exhibited earlier, he said: “Heavily influenced by Malcolm
Lowry’s Under the Volcano.
And Graham Greene too – that reference to Catholicism gives it away.
You need to work on your prose style, though. Weed out the adjectives
and similes and generally avoid using ten words when two or three would
At that, I seized him again and frog-marched him to the other end of
the shop. I couldn’t let him leave, but neither did I want to be in the
same room as him, a creepy little monster that was half-child and
half-cultural critic. The building being triangular, the sidewalls
tapered to a point opposite the counter. Just before the walls met, a
door opened into a tiny room, really a cupboard, that occupied the
triangle’s apex. The door had on its outside a bolt and padlock and if
William had any books of exceptional value on sale he’d keep them
locked in the little corner-room overnight. The bolt would suffice for
Only later did it occur to me that, both times I’d grabbed the boy,
he’d twisted around so that I ended up holding him by his left arm, not
I pushed him through the doorway. He spun and faced me and, again in the child-voice, demanded, “What are you going to do?”
“You stay here till I find the shop owner. Then you can explain
everything to him.” I slammed the door and slid the bolt into the hole
in the door-frame.
Immediately a wailing noise began on the door’s other side. Realising
he was crying, I almost unbolted it again and told him to clear off.
But I resisted the impulse. I returned to the counter, lifted the
phone-receiver and redialled William’s number. Still he didn’t answer.
When I gave up on the telephone, I heard that the boy wasn’t crying any
more. Instead, I could make out his voice behind the door. He was
talking to himself. Talking a lot – and worryingly, what I was hearing
didn’t sound like a monologue. It sounded like a dialogue.
I crept back the door, placed my head against it and was able to discern his words.
“We should have stuck to the library!”
“I’m bored with the library, Clive. I need something new. And this
place is delightful. Van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, Warhol, Pollock,
Caravaggio – so many things I hadn’t known!”
“Never mind the books, Derek! We’re in big trouble. What if they find out about you?”
“Don’t panic. At least that asshole shopkeeper didn’t call the police. Didn’t seem to want to call the police. And he hasn’t been able to find his boss. We still have time to think a way out of this.”
“We? You, Derek. You have to do the thinking!”
“Yes, Clive. Leave the thinking to me.”
I removed my head from the door and wondered if it was a psychiatric
hospital, not William, I should be trying to contact. Then I leant
against the door again. The second voice, the intelligent one – Derek –
was talking. “It’s hot in this little room. I can’t be so hot. Take off
your coat for a minute.”
“Bad idea, Derek. Not with him outside.”
“Yes, but he’s outside. Go on. He won’t see us.”
“I said, bad idea!”
“You want me to overheat? You want me to die? Like I nearly did that time on the bus?”
There was silence while, presumably, the boy inhabited by two
personalities removed the huge faded parka. And then something made me
yank back the bolt and wrench open the door and burst into the room.
The boy was still taking off his coat – underneath which, his torso was
bare-skinned. What was slowing him down with the coat was that his arm
didn’t enter its right sleeve at the top. Rather, there was a slit in
the coat’s side and a corresponding slit in the lower part of the
sleeve. His right arm was inserted into the sleeve through the slits.
This was physically possible because the boy’s right arm grew straight
out of his side and not from his shoulder. Indeed, he didn’t seem to
have a right shoulder.
I could only think of the thing he had instead of a shoulder as a nest.
To the right of his neck he lacked a collarbone and shoulder-blade but
had a bowl-shaped depression whose rim was formed by an upper rib.
Being a nest, it had something nesting in it. At first, I
thought it was a big pale worm or slug. But then the thing stirred and
raised an end towards me and I saw it possessed a head – and a face.
It was a very small and approximate face. On one side was a hole, bump
and crack equating to an eye, nose and half of a mouth. The other side
was a tangle of slimy tubes and strands, including ones sprouting from
the other eye-hole and from the mouth’s other half. These hung with
their bottom ends rooted in a spot at the base of the boy’s neck.
Meanwhile, the boy looked at me. His left eye was wet with tears, but
his right eye was dry and glaring. In the second voice he said,
“Perhaps you’d like to let us go now. Yes?” As he spoke, the miniature
head protruding from his shoulder nodded and the connecting vessels
squirmed like sentient spaghetti.
I cried out in disgust and batted a hand at them. I suppose I was
aiming at the boy’s face, but it was the head of the ghoulish
worm-thing that I struck. The boy screamed – though possibly the scream
came through him and not from him – and staggered back.
When he steadied himself, he looked at me furiously with both eyes. It
was surely the child, Clive, who spoke next: “You bullying bastard!”
Then he charged, punching and kicking. His right fist, at the end of
that low-positioned, branch-like right arm, impacted against my crotch.
I howled, fell on my knees and vomited explosively across the little
room’s floor, maybe less because of the pain than because of the
revulsion I’d felt during the last moments.
It took me a while to recover. When I managed to lift my gaze from the
floor, I saw that the boy was still in the room. He was making sure the
parka was fully in place again before he stepped into the main
shop-room, visible from the street because of that glass frontage. His
right arm wriggled through the slit in the coat-sleeve and his right
hand emerged from its cuff. Minus the coat, I’d seen how skinny he was.
No doubt it was tough finding enough food when he had to eat for two.
As the worm-thing disappeared again under the coat, Derek’s voice said,
“I’m sure we can rely on you to keep quiet. Tell tales about us and
people will think you’re insane. Besides, you may not believe this, but
we can make your life difficult. I read a lot, you see. I know a lot. And as they say, knowledge is power.”
Then, the coat properly on, the boy walked out of the shop.
When William dropped by at the afternoon’s end, I gave him an edited
version of what’d happened. Someone had tried to shoplift a book, I’d
wrestled it from him and the book had got torn. Then he’d punched me in
the balls and run away. William harrumphed and inspected the damaged
book. “Caravaggio,” he sighed. “Never liked him anyway. Too much light
and shade. Too much intrigue. Too much fucking violence.” Then he paid
me my normal wage from the till.
In the pub, Clive pressed his misshapen shoulder back into a more
regular form. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s just padding now.” Then he raised
his right hand. “Same old trick with the sleeve, though. You know, with
the two slits.”
Gently, I asked, “When did he… leave you?”
“About ten years ago. There was an operation with top surgeons, the
best money could buy. By then we could afford them. Derek was right. If
you have enough knowledge you can do anything and earn anything, no
matter what disadvantages you have. And he knew so much.” His voice
cracked. “Derek said I was a drag. Being attached to me was a burden.
He wanted free of me.”
“There’s been good aspects, of course. Having Derek around could be
very limiting. Especially when they invented the Internet. All I ever
did then was sit at a computer screen while he read stuff. I mean,
Derek’s a fast reader, but you know how the Internet is. It has a lot
of reading, even for him.” His head hung down and a tear leaked from
his remaining eye. “But I miss him. We had great times together. And as
you can see, life hasn’t been wonderful for me since we parted.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated and reached over and clasped his right hand.
Then something occurred to me and I asked, “Clive, what’s your surname?
You and Derek’s surname?”
“Tate,” he sniffled.
“As in the Tate Gallery?”
I looked around and noticed that the landlady was taking advantage of a
quiet moment at the bar to check something on a smartphone. I stood up
and approached the bar-counter again, thinking to myself: Derek… Derek Tate… Derek T… Derekt… D-REKT…
When I asked to borrow the smartphone for a couple of minutes, I told a
lie. “I heard someone say there’s been a serious accident at the train
station. And a friend of mine works there. I want to check if there’s
been any news reports.”
In a few minutes, I’d discovered all manner of interesting things about
D-REKT – not just about their media and IT businesses or about their
mania for buying up the world’s great paintings, as if they were
assembling an Ark of the Arts. I learned about the institute they’d set
up to study diseases that were spread by mosquitoes, like malaria,
dengue fever and the Zika virus, and how they also ran a genetic
laboratory whose main research, allegedly, was about insects. I learned
how they had a strange interest in exhuming long-dead animal carcasses,
possibly infected with long-extinct diseases, from the thawing
permafrost in the Arctic Circle. Nowhere did I read anything to confirm
that these projects were beneficial, that they were necessarily
conducted with the good of humanity in mind. Furthermore, I read
rumours – denied of course by D-REKT – that they were secretly working
with countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea on new generations of
ballistic missiles and chemical and bacteriological weaponry.
I returned the smartphone to the landlady. It couldn’t possibly be him, I thought. Even if he had read a lot and did know a lot. Even if knowledge was power.
I remembered striking his grotesque little head thirty years ago and
wondered if the rest of humanity had reacted to him any better than I
had. Probably not. And I recalled my father’s warning about being nice
to the people you meet on your way up because you might meet them again
on your way down.
I suspected we might all meet Derek on our way down.
© Jim Mountfield
Bio: Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, was educated in
Scotland and currently lives in Sri Lanka. His work has appeared,
sometimes under pseudonyms, in Blood Moon Rising, Death's Head Grin,
the Dream Zone, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, the Horror
Zine, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks and Sorcerous Signals.
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