by D M Artis



Living at the country manor house made Lucinda Pascoe-Blythe nervous. Cavernous rooms, merely antiquated during the day, transformed at night into backdrops from a nightmare. Even during daylight hours she moved in a twitchy, sudden way, as though her every response was a last-minute grab at priceless crockery sliding from a dining table. Her vulnerability might have been endearing had she not developed a personality in late middle-age as sour as lime.

            Winter nights like the night in question made her especially uncomfortable: the creaking of ancient oaks outside, the shrieks of things unknown in the civilised world of Kensington and Chelsea. Insisting that the servants remain on call throughout the night provided little peace of mind. If Charles had sold the house before he died he could have left her wealthier still. Property values had plummeted since then. Technically, they had never been man and wife, so perhaps he thought that might complicate matters. Ever generous and forbearing, but sadly misguided — typical of Charles.

            In the grand drawing room, Lucinda hurried from the light switch to each ornate gilt lamp in turn. She snapped them on with a slap of her clammy palm. As it soon transpired, there was every reason to feel nervous that night.

            A movement in her peripheral vision caused her to jerk around. The invitation letter to Lady Blackaby's dinner party had fluttered from the mantle. She snatched up the invitation, still in its envelope, and propped it back up at a precise angle so that visitors would recognise the gold-crested stationery at a glance.

            Outside, the light spilling from the windows barely cut into the glutinous night. Huddled in the darkness, unknown to Lucinda, they peered in through the window. They saw her fuss over the card on the mantelpiece and felt a collective wave of exaltation. Lucinda looked slender and trim for her age. She had no loose skin at her neck and few wrinkles, certainly no laugh-lines. The corners of her mouth were not drawn down by jowls. She appeared to be fifty at most. But they knew better.

            So thrilled by the proximity of their target, they attempted to force the window. Locked. As one, they let out a timorous trill of frustration, but would not be thwarted by a simple lock. They had come too far and suffered too much to be denied.

            Inside, Lucinda distracted herself with a copy of Paris Match. She stood by the mantle trying to ignore the pricking at the nape of her neck. Even to a person who had grown as insensitive as Lucinda, the atmosphere felt loaded and ominous.

            As she licked her fingertip to turn the page the window shattered. Shards of glass speared inwards. Lucinda shrieked. A fist-sized object thudded on the rug and rolled neatly to her feet. The object was wrapped in writing paper. She stood petrified, wide-eyed, her mouth a perfect crimson circle.

            From the direction of the shattered window a voice hissed, "Read it."

            Lucinda made to scream for help. She little knew that the servants had heard her the first time but decided to hang back for a while because they despised her. Before she could cry out the voice continued.

            "Do not scream. Just read."

            The voice gave little clue of gender. It had a phlegmy undertone; Lucinda visualised an old man with an abnormally long tongue. A probing tongue he could never contain behind his own lips. She trembled with fear and revulsion.

            She threw aside the magazine and seized the object at her feet. She fumbled with the paper: it had been crumpled around an ornamental rock from the garden and fastened with a fat elastic band. The note said:




            Lucinda hyperventilated precisely as her analyst had warned her not to, sucking in hysterical gasps. She dropped the note. Her pale hands fluttered, patting the pockets of her hessian-coloured Chanel trousers, searching for her cell phone.

            "Do not call for help," said the voice from out in the gloom. "Open the door."

            "The police are coming," Lucinda blurted. "I have infra-red alarms installed."

            She hadn't.

            "Do as we say and you will come to no harm," the voice replied. "If we wanted to hurt you would we request that you open the door?"

            "Then why smash the window?" she said. "Why not ring the doorbell?"

            "We got a little...over-excited. Sorry."

            Lucinda paused. Newspapers told her that the outside world teemed with highly-strung criminals. Resistance provoked their drug-addled fury. If her action in doing as requested and opening the door might seem foolhardy to us, we must allow for the fact that she was numb with shock. We must also allow for the fact that, in recent years, complacency and Charles's deference had made her an immensely unresourceful person.

            In any case, she thought, the intruder would gain access with or without her assistance. Better to cooperate. She hurried to the hallway and unbolted the front door. It swung open. She gasped at the sight of the would-be assailant.

            "A child!"


            The diminutive figure stepped back, out of the fingers of yellow light grasping into the night from the hallway. The figure presented little more than a silhouette.

            "No," said the intruder. "Not a child. We get that all the time and we're fed up with it. We're almost forty."

            "We're?" said Lucinda. "You mean there are others with you?"

            "We refer to ourselves collectively," said the intruder. "Please let us in and we will explain."

            From the little she could see, the child — and Lucinda remained convinced that it was a child — wore heavy clothing. A matted scarf the grey of filthy bandages obscured its face; it had on a curiously old-fashioned hat. Blond curls sprang from beneath the brim.

            Lucinda contemplated slamming the door. Then she considered the damage to her reputation should she be discovered turning away a needy child. All of the women in her social circle clamoured for an orphan or an abandoned ex-prostitute to sponsor. No matter how inconvenient, this situation presented an opportunity. Lucinda visualised a social ladder — a real ladder of pure gold — and saw herself ascending several rungs in her Jimmy Choo shoes. She stood aside to allow the intruder to enter.

            "Please," said the intruder, "dim the lights a little."

            Lucinda flicked off one of the two sets of hall lights and the figure shuffled into the hallway.

            "This way. To the drawing room," she said, guardedly. "But don't touch anything." She stepped into the drawing room and gestured for the intruder to follow. The figure hesitated at the threshold.

            "It's too bright," it said.

            Lucinda's mood had evolved from hysteria to terror, from curiosity to opportunism, and now ended with irritation and impatience. She reached out and grasped the child by the arm, intending to pull it into the room. She realised her serious error of judgement at the moment of contact.

            Lucinda shrieked and recoiled.

            The figure put up its mittened paws. "Stop! Please! We can't tell you how painful your screaming is. We are terribly sensitive."

            "But your arm — your flesh. It's..."

            "Yes, yes we know. We hoped to avoid physical contact. You took us by surprise."

            "You don't feel human."

            "Rest assured, Lucinda—"

            "You know my name?"

            "We are all too human."

            Lucinda backed away; the ancient floorboards creaked beneath her feet. She raised her hands in front of her. "What is it that you want?"

            "In part, you might say that we are here to visit an old friend."

            The intruder stepped into the drawing room, into the light, and uncoiled the scarf. It removed the battered hat. The blond curls came away with the hat.

            "We hoped not to cause alarm," it said, "but the harm is done."

            The sight unveiled rendered Lucinda speechless. A mound of sallow, translucent matter, reminiscent of raw, corn-fed chicken flesh, rested above the intruder's shoulders. Faint ridges lurked below the surface, like pieces of fruit submerged in a trifle. It had no discernable human features. It presented a visage that would have been prized in a painting by Francis Bacon, but which in a house guest made Lucinda gag.

            The intruder acknowledged Lucinda's horror with a placatory gesture of its paw. It spoke from a formerly invisible lipless gummy slit — a paper cut where its mouth should have been.

            "Admittedly, it's not what most people would call a head," it said. "Really little more than fatty tissue and cartilage. But the best of us are only skin and bone, even you, Lucinda."

            Her bladder threatened to give way. "What are you?" she cried.

            "I, that is the part of us talking to you, am Zurich , June, nineteen ninety-seven. Shelley here — we've each given ourselves names," it gestured towards its lower left leg, "is predominantly Harley Street , November, nineteen eighty-six, with a bit of Paris , May, nineteen eighty-seven thrown in."

            Lucinda shook her head slowly, confused, overwhelmed. Then a glimmer of comprehension dawned.

            "Those dates and places, they..."

            The intruder nodded its quivering jelly-head. "Yes, yes. We can see it's coming back to you." It gave a moist, indulgent chuckle. "In fact, you might say it's all coming back to you."

            "The clinics."

            "Correct! We are compelled to admit that it's very hurtful being abandoned across Europe like that. You see it as just a bit of liposuction or reshaping. So clinical. But can you imagine what it is like for us — being sucked out, chiselled off, and abandoned? Unwanted and unloved, knowing you're much happier without us?"

            "This is utterly impossible."

            The creature shrugged lopsidedly. "Who would have imagined cells colliding at the dawn of time and then a few million years later your phone playing ‘Nessun Dorma and taking holiday snaps? Who would have envisaged the popularity of online bingo?"

            "But you haven't a brain or any bones," Lucinda spluttered.

            "A few of us are fragments of bone. A rib or two. Shavings from your nose and jaw. You remember your jaw always seemed slightly too square? There's also a lot of padding." The creature patted its midriff. "But it's surprising how things mount up over the decades. We take your point, though. It shouldn't be possible, but here we are."

            Lucinda cowered. The creature shuffled forward.

            "And you cannot imagine how difficult it proved for us to find each other. It's not like posting an advert on Friends Reunited, you know. Not to mention the snobbish attitudes people have to the sight of shapeless flesh. You'd think they'd be used to it now, what with reality TV."

            Lucinda found the situation so impossible that it seemed dream-like, as though her subconscious had dredged up a physical manifestation of the past to haunt her. "You're claiming to be parts of me?" She gave a hysterical laugh.

            "Precisely. You and us — we just went our separate ways for a while. You reinvented yourself; we scoured the continent and spent endless hours on cross-channel ferries."

            Lucinda said, "Then you can't be me. I'd never take a ferry. I'd sooner die."

            "But you left us to our own devices, without even a small allowance. I won't describe what we had to do to pay our passage. Suffice to say that several gentlemen in Paris experienced pleasures of the flesh quite literally, and in ways that made them reconcile their marriages at the first opportunity."

            "How dare you abuse my body in that way?"

            "At last, you're taking an interest in us."

            The creature advanced tentatively.

            "What are you doing?" Lucinda backed away. "Don't come any closer."

            Lucinda could smell it — taste it at the back of her throat: rotten mackerel and elderflower. She cursed that wine-tasting course for sharpening her palate. She also noticed that the intruder had trodden in something unpleasant and walked it into her antique Persian rug.

            "What do you want?" Lucinda cried. The mantelpiece jabbed a cruel line across her back. She could retreat no further. To her right, a priceless pale figurine, a fey shepherdess, toppled and shattered in the fireplace.

            The creature reached up its mittened paw. Lucinda flinched. It made to grasp Lady Blackaby's invitation from the mantle, behind Lucinda's left shoulder.

            "You know what we want, Lucinda."

            "No!" She swatted the creature's paw.

            "Yes," it hissed. "We want to be accepted into good society."

            "You'll never get that invitation. It's mine. Mine!"

            The creature scrambled to snatch the invitation. Lucinda moved faster. Setting aside her earlier revulsion at the feel of its flesh, she shoved the creature and surprised herself by sending it sprawling.

            She stood upright, gasping, and brandished the invitation triumphantly. "Ha! To think I was frightened. You're feeble."

            "We have very little muscle," croaked the creature. It looked in its prone position like a forgotten Guy on bonfire night. "Almost none."

            "And yet you had the temerity to intimidate me?" Lucinda curled her lip. "I could step on you, squash you like a worm."

            The creature struggled to its feet, not that it had anything we would recognise as feet inside its built-up boots. It spoke breathlessly.

            "Do not make us act against you, Lucinda. We belong together. We love you."

            "Love?" She spoke with exquisite contempt. "You are unloved and unlovable. And there is nothing you can do to harm me."

            Although the creature appeared eyeless and practically featureless, Lucinda imagined that she discerned some expression. The creature itself cursed its inadequacies — no eyes for tears, not the strength in its arms for a meaningful embrace.

            It said, "Have you buried the past so deeply that you have forgotten who we once were?"

            Lucinda sneered. She still half expected to wake at any moment. She pointed to the door with an immaculately manicured finger. "Go, before I call the police."

            "If you deny us we have no alternative but to reveal everything."

            The creature reached down and began, with difficulty, to unfasten its clothing.

            Its voice cracked. "No person can be truly happy unless they are accepted for who they are. Loved for who they are." It unfastened the last button of its fly. "We must show Lady Blackaby and the world the truth. It is the only way, Lucinda. Or, as we were once called, Leonar–"

            "Stop!" Lucinda wailed. But the fly came undone and the truth was out.

©2009 David Artis

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