Lost Souls


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by Brian Wright

It’s not nice being stuck between four walls. Sometimes I think, this is what Hell must be like. But I try not to dwell on it. Won’t be long, I tell myself, before I’m out of here.

I have a theory about bed-sitting rooms, that they have a time limit. A stay-by date. It varies, but ten years is absolutely the max. By then you’re a terminal case, on your way to the scrap heap or the funny farm. I’m worried the rot is setting in early in my case. I swear this room is getting smaller.

I visit the local pub to get away from my thoughts. A lot of the flotsam and jetsam from the house are regulars. Old Henderson sits in the corner on his own, never speaking to anyone, except for the occasional remark to himself. He scares me, not least because I have visions of becoming like him.

I usually chat with my best friend from the house, Peter Doromo, who serves behind the bar. He’s different from most of the others, confident and full of life. He makes it plain that he isn’t going to be around for long. Moving on up, as the song says.

He makes fun of our fellow-lodgers behind their backs, giving them derisive nicknames. The maddo saddo, he calls Henderson. I laugh along with him, but can’t help thinking, only a couple more years to go.

I try to avoid old Henderson, just about managing a ‘hello’ when I encounter him slouching towards me, hunched against the cold even in the middle of summer, mumbling into his dirty grey beard. He must be the loneliest person in the world. Never gets a letter, never makes or takes a phone call. A study in social isolation.

Yep, we’re each in our own little hell.

I sometimes suspect all the people who live here are either damned or deranged. Or soon will be. Old Henderson, for one, appears to be clinging onto reality by his blackened fingernails. I wonder if he’s done something in a previous life to deserve this.

I wonder if I have.

Peter doesn’t believe in any kind of religion. He still mocks me for letting on that I flirted with Oriental spiritualism in my teens. He’s taken to calling me Buddha. It’s all in good fun, though.

There’s a stir of excitement in the house at last. Her name is Cassy and she’s down on the second floor, in the room next to old Henderson. Probably can’t believe her luck. All the no-hopers have been sniffing around, but only Peter has had the guts to ask her over to the pub. He’s going to be my role model when I get out of here.

Cassy is pretty, for this place anyway. We chat at the bar while Peter is busy serving people. I think she likes me. But that makes me even more depressed. I can’t help remembering how long it is since I last had a girl-friend. I don’t stand a chance against Peter anyway; he already acts as if the two of them are an item.

It’s a Saturday night and the house is silent, as if no-one else is here. Peter has taken Cassy out for the first time, to the movies. I’m too down even to fancy a beer, but the sensation that the walls are closing in finally drives me out.

I exchange words with a few of the regulars and then notice old Henderson, on his own as usual. Peter has recently changed his nickname, rather mysteriously referring to him as Stan. He won’t say why, obviously a private joke.

For a moment, I feel a pang of sympathy for the old man, even think about sitting down with him. Then he shoots me a look, the evil eye, and I shake my head in alarm and disgust.

Perhaps I really am going mad.

I meet Peter on the stairs. He’s full of himself, leering at me when I ask how the date went. However, I notice there are scratches down one side of his face. And Cassy no longer comes to the pub.

I’ve just had a shock, a pleasant one for a change. Cassy is in my room, explaining why she hasn’t been for a drink lately. Seems that Peter was less than the perfect gentleman on their night out. Tried it on, in fact.

There’s a gap in the conversation after that. Eventually, to fill the silence as much as anything else, I ask if she’d like to go for a meal or something. I’m conscious of my cheeks burning as I stumble over the words, but astonishingly Cassy accepts my offer. It feels as if she’s turned up in the nick of time. Even the room has stopped shrinking.

Peter has taken the news well. After our third date I decided that I really ought to tell him about me and Cassy. I get up the courage in the pub after an unaccustomed stint on the whisky.

‘No problem, Buddha,’ he reassures me. As I’m throwing up in the filthy toilet afterwards, I feel a sort of love for my friend.

I’d like me and Cassy to move in together, a nice flat somewhere. Heaven or hell, it should be no contest.

And yet I can’t bring myself to ask her. It’s fear of change, I suppose, the unknown. But there’s another reason. Peter has hinted that Cassy is seeing someone else behind my back. I tell him that’s nonsense, the only person she’s seeing more of than me is old Henderson.

To my mind, it’s the one flaw in her. She fusses over the man as if he’s her father or something, always popping across the passageway to see how he is. More than once I’ve been on the point of speaking out. Even in my head, though, it doesn’t sound brave or make sense. He scares me, Cassy.

She says she feels sorry for him.

I’m talking to Peter in the pub. Old Henderson is in his usual corner, with his usual sour face. Peter asks if I’ve ever wondered about ‘Stan the Man’, as he puts it. I don’t know what to say. ‘Don’t you think he looks like a Stan?’ he asks. Now I’m even more confused. Peter just laughs.

Peter was right. It seems there is someone else. He’s some sort of hippy, a drug user, who lives in a squat across town. Cassy explains that she’s moving there to look after him. She says she’s sorry for giving me the wrong idea.

She says she felt sorry for me.

I’m glad she’s gone, otherwise I might have done something bad to her. I could tell she was upset when I wouldn’t even say goodbye. She should count herself lucky.

I’m spending more and more time in the pub, anything to get out of my room, the walls closing in again. Peter supplies me with free tots of whisky; I’m even getting a taste for the stuff. In fact, I’m changing in lots of ways. More than anything right now I want to punish someone, hurt them. Just to get my own back.

One night, as we’re staggering back to the house, Peter lets me in on a secret. His face is a yellow mask under the street lamp, not the slightest trace of a smile. I wonder for a moment if he’s gone mad, or I have. Or both of us.

He tells me that he believes old Henderson is the Devil’s representative on Earth, recruiting for his master.

It’s only a joke, of course, but he says it with such a straight face! He’s constantly urging me to be careful of old Henderson, to the point where I can no longer look the man in the face. Peter has changed his nickname again, re-arranging the letters.

Now he’s Satan.

Even though she’s made me hate her, I defend Cassy. She couldn’t have been one of the old man’s recruits, I argue, too kind for her own good. A stupid bitch, yes, but she would never hurt anyone. Peter gives me a sideways look. All at once there are doubts in my head.

But I have so many questions! Peter answers them non-committally with an easy smile. He won’t tell me how he knows about old Henderson, just asks me to trust him. As he says the words, I notice a sudden light in his eyes. Then it’s gone.

Peter’s theory is playing on my mind. It seems to confirm that my first instincts about the old man were right. Catching the acrid whiff of his shabby overcoat as I edge past him in the street one day, I find myself wondering if that’s how sulphur smells.

The doubts are in my head. In fact, they’re taking over.

Peter says we have to do something, before he corrupts anyone else. The pieces are falling into place. Peter says it’s why he doesn’t get any mail or phones calls, being able to communicate with his boss in other ways.

When he urges me to look at the old man in the pub, I watch him with growing horror out of the corner of my eye. Mumbling, a pause, more mumbling, just as if he’s holding a conversation.

‘See, Buddha,’ my friend hisses.

Peter says I have to do something about the old man.

I sense that things are coming to a head. My head, Peter’s words running over and again in there. When I shudder awake in the mornings, it feels as if I can touch both walls without extending my arms.

Things have come to a head. Someone has moved into Cassy’s old room, a young woman. Peter tells me it’s not a coincidence. He says I have to act with speed. I find myself in the hardware store down the road.

Peter explains it’s the only way I can escape from the house. ‘Won’t be long,’ he reassures me, sliding another double across the counter, ‘before you leave here for good.’ The glow is in his eyes again, just for a second.

He’s my only friend in the world. I want to be like him.

Old Henderson’s smell seems to be everywhere in the house - even my food tastes of him. It’s as if I’ve turned into a cannibal. I saw them both going out the other morning. She held the door open for Satan and smiled. I worry that she’s already been contaminated.

I spend my days lying in my room now, listening out for their noises from below. The place has become so small that I can get to the door in one step if I have to. I don’t even go to the pub any more. Peter smuggles out bottles of whisky for me.

Peter confirms that it’s too late to save her. He says they’ll both have to face the music. I show him the axe I’ve bought. ‘That’s sharp,’ he says with approval. Because my hands tremble so much, it’s become his habit to button up my shirt. He does that now. ‘One last time,’ he jokes. He’s my friend.

‘Remember, it’s your only escape,’ he reminds me, as he stands in the doorway. The light in the passage throws his shadow against the wall. For a second it looks huge, misshapen. The red glint is in his eyes again, as if a fire is burning inside him.

After he goes, I sit on my bed and test the edge of the blade with my thumb. There are noises from downstairs. They’re both in, Peter told me.

The smell is growing stronger, seeping under the door. I have to keep myself from retching. It’s the stench of evil alright. This place is definitely the ante-room to Hell.

Thoughts of Satan and the girl and revenge fill my skull.

I’ll go down and see to them in a minute.

Copyright Brian Wright 2007

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