Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Clive Barker: The life of deth

Clive Barker


THE NEWSPAPER WAS the first edition of the day, and Elaine devoured it from cover to cover as she sat in the hospital waiting room. An animal thought to be a panther - which had terrorised the neighbourhood of Epping Forest for two months - had been shot and found to be a wild dog. Archaeologists in the Sudan had discovered bone fragments which they opined might lead to a complete reappraisal of Man's origins. A young woman who had once danced with minor royalty had been found murdered near Clapham; a solo round-the-world yachtsman was missing; recently excited hopes of a cure for the common cold had been dashed. She read the global bulletins and the trivia with equal fervour - anything to keep her mind off the examination ahead - but today's news seemed very like yesterday's; only the names had been changed.

Doctor Sennett informed her that she was healing well, both inside and out, and was quite fit to return to her full responsibilities whenever she felt psychologically resilient enough. She should make another appointment for the first week of the new year, he told her, and come back for a final examination then. She left him washing his hands of her.

The thought of getting straight onto the bus and heading back to her rooms was repugnant after so much time sitting and waiting. She would walk a stop or two along the route, she decided. The exercise would be good for her, and the December day, though far from warm, was bright.

Her plans proved over-ambitious however. After only a few minutes of walking her lower abdomen began to ache, and she started to feel nauseous, so she turned off the main road to seek out a place where she could rest and drink some tea. She should eat too, she knew, though she had never had much appetite, and had less still since the operation. Her wanderings were rewarded. She found a small restaurant which, though it was twelve fifty-five, was not enjoying a roaring lunch-time trade. A small woman with unashamedly artificial red hair served her tea and a mushroom omelette. She did her best to eat, but didn't get very far. The waitress was plainly concerned.



'Something wrong with the food?' she said, somewhat testily.

'Oh no,' Elaine reassured her. 'It's just me.'

The waitress looked offended nevertheless.

Td like some more tea though, if I may?' Elaine said.

She pushed the plate away from her, hoping the waitress would claim it soon. The sight of the meal congealing on the patternless plate was doing nothing for her mood. She hated this unwelcome sensitivity in herself: it was absurd that a plate of uneaten eggs should bring these doldrums on, but she couldn't help herself. She found everywhere little echoes of her own loss. In the death, by a benign November and then the sudden frosts, of the bulbs in her window-sill box; in the thought of the wild dog she'd read of that morning, shot in Epping Forest.

The waitress returned with fresh tea, but failed to take the plate. Elaine called her back, requesting that she do so. Grudgingly, she obliged.

There were no customers left in the place now, other than Elaine, and the waitress busied herself with removing the lunchtime menus from the tables and replacing them with those for the evening. Elaine sat staring out of the window. Veils of blue-grey smoke had crept down the street in recent minutes, solidifying the sunlight.

'They're burning again,' the waitress said. 'Damn smell gets everywhere.'

'What are they burning?'

'Used to be the community centre. They're knocking it down, and building a new one. It's a waste of tax-payers' money.'

The smoke was indeed creeping into the restaurant. Elaine did not find it offensive; it was sweetly redolent of autumn, her favourite season. Intrigued, she finished her tea, paid for her meal, and then elected to wander along and find the source of the smoke. She didn't have far to walk. At the end of the street was a small square; the demolition site dominated it. There was one surprise however. The building that the waitress had described as a community centre was in fact a church; or had been. The lead and slates had already been stripped off the roof, leaving the joists bare to the sky; the windows had been denuded of glass; the turf had gone from the lawn at the side of the building, and two trees had been felled there. It was their pyre which provided the tantalising scent.

She doubted if the building had ever been beautiful, but there was enough of its structure remaining for her to suppose it might have had charm. Its weathered stone was now completely at variance with the brick and concrete that surrounded it, but its besieged situation (the workmen labouring to undo it; the bulldozer on hand, hungry for rubble) gave it a certain glamour.

One or two of the workmen noticed her standing watching them, but none made any move to stop her as she walked across the square to the front porch of the church and peered inside. The interior, stripped of its decorative stonework, of pulpit, pews, font and the rest, was simply a stone room, completely lacking in atmosphere or authority. Somebody, however, had found a source of interest here. At the far end of the church a man stood with his back to Elaine, staring intently at the ground. Hearing footsteps behind him he looked round guiltily.

'Oh,' he said. 'I won't be a moment.'

'It's all right -' Elaine said. 'I think we're probably both trespassing.'

The man nodded. He was dressed soberly - even drearily - but for his green bow-tie. His features, despite the garb and the grey hairs of a man in middle-age, were curiously unlined, as though neither smile nor frown much ruffled their perfect indifference.

'Sad, isn't it?' he said. 'Seeing a place like this.'

'Did you know the church as it used to be?'

'I came in on occasion,' he said, 'but it was never very popular.'

'What's it called?'

'All Saints. It was built in the late seventeenth century, I believe. Are you fond of churches?'

'Not particularly. It was just that I saw the smoke, and ...'

'Everybody likes a demolition scene,' he said.

'Yes,' she replied, 'I suppose that's true.'

'It's like watching a funeral. Better them than us, eh?'

She murmured something in agreement, her mind flitting elsewhere. Back to the hospital. To her pain and her present healing. To her life saved only by losing the capacity for further life. Better them than us.

'My name's Kavanagh,' he said, covering the short distance between them, his hand extended.

'How do you do?' she said. Tm Elaine Rider.'

'Elaine,' he said. 'Charming.'

'Are you just taking a final look at the place before it comes down?'

'That's right. I've been looking at the inscriptions on the floor stones. Some of them are most eloquent.' He brushed a fragment of timber off one of the tablets with his foot. 'It seems such a loss. I'm sure they'll just smash the stones to smithereens when they start to pull the floor up -'

She looked down at the patchwork of tablets beneath her feet. Not all were marked, and of those that were many simply carried names and dates. There were some inscriptions however. One, to the left of where Kavanagh was standing, carried an all but eroded relief of crossed shin-bones, like drum-sticks, and the abrupt motto: Redeem the time.

'I think there must have been a crypt under here at some time,' Kavanagh said.

'Oh. I see. And these are the people who were buried there.'

'Well, I can't think of any other reason for the inscriptions, can you? I was thinking of asking the workmen ...' he paused in mid-sentence, '... you'll probably think this positively morbid of me ..."

'What?'

'Well, just to preserve one or two of the finer stones from being destroyed.'

'I don't think that's morbid,' she said. They're very beautiful.'

He was evidently encouraged by her response. 'Maybe I should speak with them now,' he said. 'Would you excuse me for a moment?'

He left her standing in the nave like a forsaken bride, while he went out to quiz one of the workmen. She wandered down to where the altar had been, reading the names as she went. Who knew or cared about these people's resting places now? Dead two hundred years and more, and gone away not into loving posterity but into oblivion. And suddenly the unarticulated hopes for an after-life she had nursed through her thirty-four years slipped away; she was no longer weighed down by some vague ambition for heaven. Ont day, perhaps this day, she would die, just as these people had died, and it wouldn't matter a jot. There was nothing to come, nothing to aspire to, nothing to dream of. She stood in a patch of smoke-thickened sun, thinking of this, and was almost happy.

Kavanagh returned from his exchanges with the foreman.

'There is indeed a crypt,' he said, 'but it hasn't been emptied yet.'

'Oh.'

They were still underfoot, she thought. Dust and bones.

'Apparently they're having some difficulty getting into it. All the entrances have been sealed up. That's why they're digging around the foundations. To find another way in.'

'Are crypts normally sealed up?'

'Not as thoroughly as this one.'

'Maybe there was no more room,' she said.

Kavanagh took the comment quite seriously. 'Maybe,' he said.

'Will they give you one of the stones?'

He shook his head. 'It's not up to them to say. These are just council lackeys. Apparently they have a firm of professional excavators to come in and shift the bodies to new burial sites. It all has to be done with due decorum.'

'Much they care,' Elaine said, looking down at the stones again.

'I must agree,' Kavanagh replied. 'It all seems in excess of the facts. But then perhaps we're not God- fearing enough.'

'Probably.'

'Anyhow, they told me to come back in a day or two's time, and ask the removal men.'

She laughed at the thought of the dead moving house; packing up their goods and chattels. Kavanagh was pleased to have made a joke, even if it had been unintentional. Riding on the crest of this success, he said: 'I wonder, may I take you for a drink?'

'I wouldn't be very good company, I'm afraid,' she said. 'I'm really very tired.'

'We could perhaps meet later,' he said.

She looked away from his eager face. He was pleasant enough, in his uneventful way. She liked his green bow-tie - surely a joke at the expense of his own drabness. She liked his seriousness too. But she couldn't face the idea of drinking with him; at least not tonight. She made her apologies, and explained that she'd been ill recently and hadn't recovered her stamina.

'Another night perhaps?' he enquired gently. The lack of aggression in his courtship was persuasive, and she said:

That would be nice. Thank you.'

Before they parted they exchanged telephone num- bers. He seemed charmingly excited by the thought of their meeting again; it made her feel, despite all that had been taken from her, that she still had her sex.

She returned to the flat to find both a parcel from Mitch and a hungry cat on the doorstep. She fed the demanding animal, then made herself some coffee and opened the parcel. In it, cocooned in several layers of tissue paper, she found a silk scarf, chosen with Mitch's uncanny eye for her taste. The note along with it simply said: It's your colour. I love you. Mitch. She wanted to pick up the telephone on the spot and talk to him, but somehow the thought of hearing his voice seemed dangerous. Too close to the hurt, perhaps. He would ask her how she felt, and she would reply that she was well, and he would insist: yes, but really? And she would say: I'm empty; they took out half my innards, damn you, and I'll never have your children or anybody else's, so that's the end of that, isn't it? Even thinking about their talking she felt tears threaten, and in a fit of inexplicable rage she wrapped the scarf up in the desiccated paper and buried it at the back of her deepest drawer. Damn him for trying to make things better now, when at the time she'd most needed him all he'd talked of was fatherhood, and how her tumours would deny it him.

It was a clear evening - the sky's cold skin stretched to breaking point. She did not want to draw the curtains in the front room, even though passers-by would stare in, because the deepening blue was too fine to miss. So she sat at the window and watched the dark come. Only when the last change had been wrought did she close off the chill.

She had no appetite, but she made herself some food nevertheless, and sat down to watch television as she ate. The food unfinished, she laid down her tray, and dozed, the programmes filtering through to her intermittently. Some witless comedian whose merest cough sent his audience into paroxysms; a natural history programme on life in the Serengeti; the news. She had read all that she needed to know that morning: the headlines hadn't changed.

One item, however, did pique her curiosity: an interview with the solo yachtsman, Michael May bury, who had been picked up that day after two weeks adrift in the Pacific. The interview was being beamed from Australia, and the contact was bad; the image of Maybury's bearded and sun-scorched face was constantly threatened with being snowed out. The picture mattered little: the account he gave of his failed voyage was riveting in sound alone, and in particular an event that seemed to distress him afresh even as he told it. He had been becalmed, and as his vessel lacked a motor had been obliged to wait for wind. It had not come. A week had gone by with his hardly moving a kilometre from the same spot of listless ocean; no bird or passing ship broke the monotony. With every hour that passed, his claustrophobia grew, and on the eighth day it reached panic proportions, so he let himself over the side of the yacht and swam away from the vessel, a life-line tied about his middle, in order to escape the same few yards of deck. But once away from the yacht, and treading the still, warm water, he had no desire to go back. Why not untie the knot, he'd thought to himself, and float away.

'What made you change your mind?' the interviewer asked.

Here May bury frowned. He had clearly reached the crux of his story, but didn't want to finish it. The interviewer repeated the question.

At last, hesitantly, the sailor responded. 'I looked back at the yacht,' he said, 'and I saw somebody on the deck.'

The interviewer, not certain that he'd heard correctly, said: 'Somebody on the deck?'

'That's right,' Maybury replied. 'Somebody was there. I saw a figure quite clearly; moving around.'

'Did you ... did you recognise this stowaway?' the question came.

Maybury's face closed down, sensing that his story was being treated with mild sarcasm.

'Who was it?' the interviewer pressed.

'I don't know,' Maybury said. 'Death, I suppose.'

The questioner was momentarily lost for words.

'But of course you returned to the" boat, eventually.'

'Of course.'

'And there was no sign of anybody?'

Maybury glanced up at the interviewer, and a look of contempt crossed his face.

'I've survived, haven't I?' he said.

The interviewer mumbled something about not understanding his point.

'I didn't drown,' Maybury said. 'I could have died then, if I'd wanted to. Slipped off the rope and drowned.'

'But you didn't. And the next day -'

The next day the wind picked up.'

'It's an extraordinary story,' the interviewer said, content that the stickiest part of the exchange was now safely by-passed. 'You must be looking forward to seeing your family again for Christmas ...'

Elaine didn't hear the final exchange of pleasantries. Her imagination was tied by a fine rope to the room she was sitting in; her fingers toyed with the knot. If Death could find a boat in the wastes of the Pacific, how much easier it must be to find her. To sit with her, perhaps, as she slept. To watch her as she went about her mourning. She stood up and turned the television off. The flat was suddenly silent. She questioned the hush impatiently, but it held no sign of guests, welcome or unwelcome.

As she listened, she could taste salt-water. Ocean, no doubt.

She had been offered several refuges in which to convalesce when she came out of hospital. Her father had invited her up to Aberdeen; her sister Rachel had made several appeals for her to spend a few weeks in Buckinghamshire; there had even been a pitiful telephone call from Mitch, in which he had talked of their holidaying together. She had rejected them all, telling them that she wanted to re-establish the rhythm of her previous life as soon as possible: to return to her job, to her working colleagues and friends. In fact, her reasons had gone deeper than that. She had feared their sympathies, feared that she would be held too close in their affections and quickly come to rely upon them. Her streak of independence, which had first brought her to this unfriendly city, was in studied defiance of her smothering appetite for security. If she gave in to those loving appeals she knew she would take root in domestic soil and not look up and out again for another year. In which time, what adventures might have passed her by?

Instead she had returned to work as soon as she felt able, hoping that although she had not taken on all her former responsibilities the familiar routines would help her to re-establish a normal life. But the sleight-of-hand was not entirely successful. Every few days something would happen - she would overhear some remark, or catch a look that she was not intended to see - that made her realise she was being treated with a rehearsed caution; that her colleagues viewed her as being fundamentally changed by her illness. It had made her angry. She'd wanted to spit her suspicions in their faces; tell them that she and her uterus were not synonymous, and that the removal of one did not imply the eclipse of the other.

But today, returning to the office, she was not so certain they weren't correct. She felt as though she hadn't slept in weeks, though in fact she was sleeping long and deeply every night. Her eyesight was blurred, and there was a curious remoteness about her experiences that day that she associated with extreme fatigue, as if she were drifting further and further from the work on her desk; from her sensations, from her very thoughts. Twice that morning she caught herself speaking and then wondered who it was who was conceiving of these words. It certainly wasn't her; she was too busy listening.

And then, an hour after lunch, things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. She had been called into her supervisor's office and asked to sit down.

'Are you all right, Elaine?' Mr Chimes had asked.

'Yes,' she'd told him. 'I'm fine.'

There's been some concern -'

'About what?'

Chimes looked slightly embarrassed. 'Your beha- viour,' he finally said. 'Please don't think I'm prying, Elaine. It's just that if you need some further time to recuperate -'

'There's nothing wrong with me.'

'But your weeping -'

'What?'

'The way you've been crying today. It concerns us.'

'Cry?' she'd said. 'I don't cry.'

The supervisor seemed baffled. 'But you've been crying all day. You're crying now.'

Elaine put a tentative hand to her cheek. And yes; yes, she was crying. Her cheek was wet. She'd stood up, shocked at her own conduct.

'I didn't ... I didn't know,' she said. Though the words sounded preposterous, they were true. She hadn't known. Only now, with the fact pointed out, did she taste tears in her throat and sinuses; and with that taste came a memory of when this eccentricity had begun: in front of the television the night before.

'Why don't you take the rest of the day off?'

'Yes.'

'Take the rest of the week if you'd like,' Chimes said. 'You're a valued member of staff, Elaine; I don't have to tell you that. We don't want you coming to any harm.'

This last remark struck home with stinging force. Did they think she was verging on suicide; was that why she was treated with kid gloves? They were only tears she was shedding, for God's sake, and she was so indifferent to them she had not even known they were falling.

'I'll go home,' she said. 'Thank you for your ... concern.'

The supervisor looked at her with some dismay. 'It must have been a very traumatic experience,' he said. 'We all understand; we really do. If you feel you want to talk about it at any time -'

She declined, but thanked him again and left the office.

Face to face with herself in the mirror of the women's toilets she realised just how bad she looked. Her skin was flushed, her eyes swollen. She did what she could to conceal the signs of this painless grief, then picked up her coat and started home. As she reached the underground station she knew that returning to the empty flat would not be a wise idea. She would brood, she would sleep (so much sleep of late, and so perfectly dreamless) but she would not improve her mental condition by either route. It was the bell of Holy Innocents, tolling in the clear afternoon, that reminded her of the smoke and the square and Mr Kavanagh. There, she decided, was a fit place for her to walk. She could enjoy the sunlight, and think. Maybe she would meet her admirer again.

She found her way back to All Saints easily enough, but there was disappointment awaiting her. The demo- lition site had been cordoned off, the boundary marked by a row of posts - a red fluorescent ribbon looped between them. The site was guarded by no less than four policemen, who were ushering pedestrians towards a detour around the square. The workers and their hammers had been exiled from the shadows of All Saints and now a very different selection of people - suited and academic - occupied the zone beyond the ribbon, some in furrowed conversation, others standing on the muddy ground and staring up quizzically at the derelict church. The south transept and much of the area around it had been curtained off from public view by an arrangement of tarpaulins and black plastic sheeting. Occasionally somebody would emerge from behind this veil and consult with others on the site. All who did so, she noted, were wearing gloves; one or two were also masked. It was as though they were performing some ad hoc surgery in the shelter of the screen. A tumour, perhaps, in the bowels of All Saints.

She approached one of the officers. 'What's going on?'

'The foundations are unstable,' he told her. 'Apparently the place could fall down at any moment.'

'Why are they wearing masks?'

'It's just a precaution against the dust.'

She didn't argue, though this explanation struck her as unlikely.

'If you want to get through to Temple Street you'll have to go round the back,' the officer said.

What she really wanted to do was to stand and watch proceedings, but the proximity of the uniformed quartet intimidated her, and she decided to give up and go home. As she began to make her way back to the main road she caught sight of a familiar figure crossing the end of an adjacent street. It was unmistakably Kavanagh. She called after him, though he had already disappeared, and was pleased to see him step back into view and return a nod to her.

'Well, well -' he said as he came down to meet her. 'I didn't expect to see you again so soon.'

'I came to watch the rest of the demolition,' she said.

His face was ruddy with the cold, and his eyes were shining.

Tm so pleased,' he said. 'Do you want to have some afternoon tea? There's a place just around the corner.'

Td like that.'

As they walked she asked him if he knew what was going on at All Saints.

'It's the crypt,' he said, confirming her suspicions.

They opened it?'

'They certainly found a way in. I was here this morning -'

'About your stones?'

That's right. They were already putting up the tarpaulins then.'

'Some of them were wearing masks.'

'It won't smell very fresh down there. Not after so long.'

Thinking of the curtain of tarpaulin drawn between her and the mystery within she said: 'I wonder what it's like.'

'A wonderland,' Kavanagh replied.

It was an odd response, and she didn't query it, at least not on the spot. But later, when they'd sat and talked together for an hour, and she felt easier with him, she returned to the comment.

'What you said about the crypt...'

'Yes?'

'About it being a wonderland.'

'Did I say that?' he replied, somewhat sheepishly. 'What must you think of me?'

'I was just puzzled. Wondered what you meant.'

'I like places where the dead are,' he said. 'I always have. Cemeteries can be very beautiful, don't you think? Mausoleums and tombs; all the fine craftsmanship that goes into those places. Even the dead may sometimes reward closer scrutiny.' He looked at her to see if he had strayed beyond her taste threshold, but seeing that she only looked at him with quiet fascination, continued. They can be very beautiful on occasion. It's a sort of a glamour they have. It's a shame it's wasted on morticians and funeral directors.' He made a small mischievous grin. 'I'm sure there's much to be seen in that crypt. Strange sights. Wonderful sights.'

'I only ever saw one dead person. My grandmother, I was very young at the time ...'

'I trust it was a pivotal experience.'

'I don't think so. In fact I scarcely remember it at all, I only remember how everybody cried.'

'Ah.'

He nodded sagely.

'So selfish,' he said. 'Don't you think? Spoiling a farewell with snot and sobs.' Again, he looked at her to gauge the response; again he was satisfied that she would not take offence. 'We cry for ourselves, don't we? Not for the dead. The dead are past caring.'

She made a small, soft: 'Yes,' and then, more loudly: 'My God, yes. That's right. Always for ourselves ...'

'You see how much the dead can teach, just by lying there, twiddling their thumb-bones?'

She laughed: he joined her in laughter. She had misjudged him on that initial meeting, thinking his face unused to smiles; it was not. But his features, when the laughter died, swiftly regained that eerie quiescence she had first noticed.

When, after a further half hour of his laconic remarks, he told her he had appointments to keep and had to be on his way, she thanked him for his company, and said:

'Nobody's made me laugh so much in weeks. I'm grateful.'

'You should laugh,' he told her. 'It suits you.' Then added: 'You have beautiful teeth.'

She thought of this odd remark when he'd gone, as she did of a dozen others he had made through the afternoon. He was undoubtedly one of the most off-beat individuals she'd ever encountered, but he had come into her life - with his eagerness to talk of crypts and the dead and the beauty of her teeth - at just the right moment. He was the perfect distraction from her buried sorrows, making her present aberrations seem minor stuff beside his own. When she started home she was in high spirits. If she had not known herself better she might have thought herself half in love with him.

On the journey back, and later that evening, she thought particularly of the joke he had made about the dead twiddling their thumb-bones, and that thought led inevitably to the mysteries that lay out of sight in the crypt. Her curiosity, once aroused, was not easily silenced; it grew on her steadily that she badly wanted to slip through that cordon of ribbon and see the burial chamber with her own eyes. It was a desire she would never previously have admitted to herself. (How many times had she walked from the site of an accident, telling herself to control the shameful inquisitiveness she felt?) But Kavanagh had legitimised her appetite with his flagrant enthusiasm for things funereal. Now, with the taboo shed, she wanted to go back to All Saints and look Death in its face, then next time she saw Kavanagh she would have some stories to tell of her own. The idea, no sooner budded, came to full flower, and in the middle of the evening she dressed for the street again and headed back towards the square.

She didn't reach All Saints until well after eleven- thirty, but there were still signs of activity at the site. Lights, mounted on stands and on the wall of the church itself, poured illumination on the scene. A trio of technicians, Kavanagh's so-called removal men, stood outside the tarpaulin shelter, their faces drawn with fatigue, their breath clouding the frosty air. She stayed out of sight and watched the scene. She was growing steadily colder, and her scars had begun to ache, but it was apparent that the night's work on the crypt was more or less over. After some brief exchange with the police, the technicians departed. They had extinguished all but one of the floodlights, leaving the site - church, tarpaulin and rimy mud - in grim chiaroscuro.

The two officers who had been left on guard were not over-conscientious in their duties. What idiot, they apparently reasoned, would come grave-robbing at this hour, and in such temperatures? After a few minutes keeping a foot-stamping vigil they withdrew to the relative comfort of the workmen's hut. When they did not re-emerge, Elaine crept out of hiding and moved as cautiously as possible to the ribbon that divided one zone from the other. A radio had been turned on in the hut; its noise (music for lovers from dusk to dawn, the distant voice purred) covered her crackling advance across the frozen earth.

Once beyond the cordon, and into the forbidden territory beyond, she was not so hesitant. She swiftly crossed the hard ground, its wheel-ploughed furrows like concrete, into the lee of the church. The floodlight was dazzling; by it her breath appeared as solid as yesterday's smoke had seemed. Behind her, the music for lovers murmured on. No one emerged from the hut to summon her from her trespassing. No alarm-bells rang. She reached the edge of the tarpaulin curtain without incident, and peered at the scene concealed behind it.

The demolition men, under very specific instructions to judge by the care they had taken in their labours, had dug fully eight feet down the side of All Saints, exposing the foundations. In so doing they had uncovered an entrance to the burial-chamber which previous hands had been at pains to conceal. Not only had earth been piled up against the flank of the church to hide the entrance, but the crypt door had also been removed, and stone masons sealed the entire aperture up. This had clearly been done at some speed; their handiwork was far from ordered. They had simply filled the entrance up with any stone or brick that had come to hand, and plastered coarse mortar over their endeavours. Into this mortar - though the design had been spoiled by the excavations - some artisan had scrawled a six-foot

cross.

All their efforts in securing the crypt, and marking the mortar to keep the godless out, had gone for nothing however. The seal had been broken - the mortar hacked at, the stones torn away. There was now a small hole in the middle of the doorway, large enough for one person to gain access to the interior. Elaine had no hesitation in climbing down the slope to the breached wall, and then squirming through.

She had predicted the darkness she met on the other side, and had brought with her a cigarette lighter Mitch had given her three years ago. She flicked it on. The flame was small; she turned up the wick, and by the swelling light investigated the space ahead of her. It was not the crypt itself she had stepped into but a narrow vestibule of some kind: a yard or so in front of her was another wall, and another door. This one had not been replaced with bricks, though into its solid timbers a second cross had been gouged. She approached the door. The lock had been removed - by the investigators presumably - and the door then held shut again with a rope binding. This had been done quickly, by tired fingers. She did not find the rope difficult to untie, though it required both hands, and so had to be effected in the dark.

As she worked the knot free, she heard voices. The policemen - damn them - had left the seclusion of their hut and come out into the bitter night to do their rounds. She let the rope be, and pressed herself against the inside wall of the vestibule. The officers' voices were becoming louder: talking of their children, and the escalating cost of Christmas joy. Now they were within yards of the crypt entrance, standing, or so she guessed, in the shelter of the tarpaulin. They made no attempt to descend the slope however, but finished their cursory inspection on the lip of the earthworks, then turned back. Their voices faded.

Satisfied that they were out of sight and hearing of her, she reignited the flame and returned to the door. It was large and brutally heavy; her first attempt at hauling it open met with little success. She tried again, and this time it moved, grating across the grit on the vestibule floor. Once it was open the vital inches required for her to squeeze through she eased her straining. The lighter guttered as though a breath had blown from within; the flame briefly burned not yellow but electric blue. She didn't pause to admire it, but slid into the promised wonderland.

Now the flame fed - became livid - and for an instant its sudden brightness took her sight away. She pressed the corners of her eyes to clear them, and looked again.

So this was Death. There was none of the art or the glamour Kavanagh had talked of; no calm laying out of shrouded beauties on cool marble sheets; no elaborate reliquaries, nor aphorisms on the nature of human frailty: not even names and dates. In most cases, the corpses lacked even coffins.

The crypt was a charnel-house. Bodies had been thrown in heaps on every side; entire families pressed into niches that were designed to hold a single casket, dozens more left where hasty and careless hands had tossed them. The scene - though absolutely still - was rife with panic. It was there in the faces that stared from the piles of dead: mouths wide in silent protest, sockets in which eyes had withered gaping in shock at such treatment. It was there too in the way the system of burial had degenerated from the ordered arrangement of caskets at the far end of the crypt to the haphazard piling of crudely made coffins, their wood unplaned, their lids unmarked but for a scrawled cross, and thence - finally - to this hurried heaping of unhoused carcasses, all concern for dignity, perhaps even for the rites of passage, forgotten in the rising hysteria.

There had been a disaster, of that she could have no doubt; a sudden influx of bodies - men, women, children (there was a baby at her feet who could not have lived a day) - who had died in such escalating numbers that there was not even time to close their eyelids before they were shunted away into this pit. Perhaps the coffin-makers had also died, and were thrown here amongst their clients; the shroud-sewers too, and the priests. All gone in one apocalyptic month (or week), their surviving relatives too shocked or too frightened to consider the niceties, but only eager to have the dead thrust out of sight where they would never have to look on their flesh again.

There was much of that flesh still in evidence. The sealing of the crypt, closing it off from the decaying air, had kept the occupants intact. Now, with the violation of this secret chamber, the heat of decay had been rekindled, and the tissues were deteriorating afresh. Everywhere she saw rot at work, making sores and suppurations, blisters and pustules. She raised the flame to see better, though the stench of spoilage was beginning to crowd upon her and make her dizzy. Everywhere her eyes travelled she seemed to alight upon some pitiful sight. Two children laid together as if sleeping in each other's arms; a woman whose last act, it appeared, had been to paint her sickened face so as to die more fit for the marriage-bed than the grave.

She could not help but stare, though her fascination cheated them of privacy. There was so much to see and remember. She could never be the same, could she, having viewed these scenes? One corpse - lying half-hidden beneath another - drew her particular attention: a woman whose long chestnut-coloured hair flowed from her scalp so copiously Elaine envied it. She moved closer to get a better look, and then, putting the last of her squeamishness to flight, took hold of the body thrown across the woman, and hauled it away. The flesh of the corpse was greasy to the touch, and left her lingers stained, but she was not distressed. The uncovered corpse lay with her legs wide, but the constant weight of her companion had bent them into an impossible configuration. The wound that had killed her had bloodied her thighs, and glued her skirt to her abdomen and groin. Had she miscarried, Elaine wondered, or had some disease devoured her there?

She stared and stared, bending close to study the faraway look on the woman's rotted face. Such a place to lie, she thought, with your blood still shaming you. She would tell Kavanagh when next she saw him, how wrong he had been with his sentimental tales of calm beneath the sod.

She had seen enough; more than enough. She wiped her hands upon her coat and made her way back to the door, closing it behind her and knotting up the rope again as she had found it. Then she climbed the slope into the clean air. The policemen were nowhere in sight, and she slipped away unseen, like a shadow's shadow.

There was nothing for her to feel, once she had mastered her" initial disgust, and that twinge of pity she'd felt seeing the children and the woman with the chestnut hair; and even those responses - even the pity and the repugnance - were quite manageable. She had felt both more acutely seeing a dog run down by a car than she had standing in the crypt of All Saints, despite the horrid displays on every side. When she laid her head down to sleep that night, and realised that she was neither trembling nor nauseous, she felt strong. What was there to fear in all the world if the spectacle of mortality she had just witnessed could be borne so readily? She slept deeply, and woke refreshed.

She went back to work that morning, apologising to Chimes for her behaviour of the previous day, and reassuring him that she was now feeling happier than she'd felt in months. In order to prove her rehabilitation she was as gregarious as she could be, striking up conversations with neglected acquaintances, and giving her smile a ready airing. This met with some initial resistance; she could sense her colleagues doubting that this bout of sunshine actually meant a summer. But when the mood was sustained throughout the day and through the day following, they began to respond more readily. By Thursday it was as though the tears of earlier in the week had never been shed. People told her how well she was looking. It was true; her mirror confirmed the rumours. Her eyes shone, her skin shone. She was a picture of vitality.

On Thursday afternoon she was sitting at her desk, working through a backlog of inquiries, when one of the secretaries appeared from the corridor and began to babble. Somebody went to the woman's aid; through the sobs it was apparent she was talking about Bernice, a woman Elaine knew well enough to exchange smiles with on the stairs, but no better. There had been an accident, it seemed; the woman was talking about blood on the floor. Elaine got up and joined those who were making their way out to see what the fuss was about. The supervisor was already standing outside the women's lavatories, vainly instructing the curious to keep clear. Somebody else - another witness, it seemed - was offering her account of events:

'She was just standing there, and suddenly she started to shake. I thought she was having a fit. Blood started to come from her nose. Then from her mouth. Pouring out.'

'There's nothing to see,' Chimes insisted. 'Please keep back.' But he was substantially ignored. Blankets were being brought to wrap around the woman, and as soon as the toilet door was opened again the sight-seers pressed forward. Elaine caught sight of a form moving about on the toilet floor as if convulsed by cramps; she had no wish to see any more. Leaving the others to throng the corridor, talking loudly of Bernice as if she were already dead, Elaine returned to her desk. She had so much to do; so many wasted, grieving days to catch up on. An apt phrase flitted into her head. Redeem the time. She wrote the three words on her notebook as a reminder. Where did they come from? She couldn't recall. It didn't matter. Sometimes there was wisdom in forgetting.

Kavanagh rang her that evening, and invited her out to dinner the following night. She had to decline, however, eager as she was to discuss her recent exploits, because a small party was being thrown by several of her friends, to celebrate her return to health. Would he care to join them? she asked. He thanked her for the invitation, but replied that large numbers of people had always intimidated him. She told him not to be foolish: that her circle would be pleased to meet him, and she to show him off, but he replied he would only put in an appearance if his ego felt the equal of it, and that if he didn't show up he hoped she wouldn't offended. She soothed such fears. Before the conversation came to an end she slyly mentioned that next time they met she had a tale to tell.

The following day brought unhappy news. Bernice had died in the early hours of Friday morning, without ever regaining consciousness. The cause of death was as yet unverified, but the office gossips concurred that she had never been a strong woman - always the first amongst the secretaries to catch a cold and the last to shake it off. There was also some talk, though traded less loudly, about her personal behaviour. She had been generous with her favours it appeared, and injudicious in her choice of partners. With venereal diseases reaching epidemic proportions, was that not the likeliest explanation for the death?

The news, though it kept the rumourmongers in business, was not good for general morale. Two girls went sick that morning, and at lunchtime it seemed that Elaine was the only member of staff with an appetite. She compensated for the lack in her colleagues, however. She had a fierce hunger in her; her body almost seemed to ache for sustenance. It was a good feeling, after so many months of lassitude. When she looked around at the worn faces at the table she felt utterly apart from them: from their tittle-tattle and their trivial opinions, from the way their talk circled on the suddenness of Bernice's death as though they had not given the subject a moment's thought in years, and were amazed that their neglect had not rendered it extinct.

Elaine knew better. She had come close to death so often in the recent past: during the months leading up to her hysterectomy, when the tumours had suddenly doubled in size as though sensing that they were plotted against; on the operating table, when twice the surgeons thought they'd lost her; and most recently, in the crypt, face to face with those gawping carcasses. Death was everywhere. That they should be so startled by its entrance into their charmless circle struck her as almost comical. She ate lustily, and let them talk in whispers.

They gathered for her party at Reuben's house - Elaine, Hermione, Sam and Nellwyn, Josh and Sonja. It was a good night; a chance to pick up on how mutual friends were faring; how statuses and ambitions were on the change. Everyone got drunk very quickly; tongues already loosened by familiarity became progressively looser. Nellwyn led a tearful toast to Elaine; Josh and Sonja had a short but acrimonious exchange on the subject of evangelism; Reuben did his impersonations of fellow barristers. It was like old times, except that memory had yet to improve it. Kavanagh did not put in an appearance, and Elaine was glad of it. Despite her protestations when speaking to him she knew he would have felt out of place in such close-knit company.

About half past midnight, when the room had settled into a number of quiet exchanges, Hermione mentioned the yachtsman. Though she was almost across the room, Elaine heard the sailor's name mentioned quite distinctly. She broke off her conversation with Nellwyn and picked her way through the sprawling limbs to join Hermione and Sam.

'I heard you talking about Maybury,' she said.

'Yes,' said Hermione, 'Sam and I were just saying how strange it all was -'

'I saw him on the news,' Elaine said.

'Sad story, isn't it?' Sam commented. 'The way it happened.'

'Why sad?'

'Him saying that: about Death being on the boat with him-'

'- And then dying,' Hermione said.

'Dying?' said Elaine. 'When was this?'

'It was in all the papers.'

'I haven't been concentrating that much,' Elaine replied. 'What happened?'

'He was killed,' Sam said. 'They were taking him to the airport to fly him home, and there was an accident. He was killed just like that.' He snapped his middle finger and thumb. 'Out like a light.'

'So sad,' said Hermione.

She glanced at Elaine, and a frown crept across her face. The look baffled Elaine until - with that same shock of recognition she'd felt in Chimes' office, discovering her tears - she realized that she was smiling.

So the sailor was dead.

When the party broke up in the early hours of Saturday morning - when the embraces and the kisses were over and she was home again - she thought over the Maybury interview she'd heard, summoning a face scorched by the sun and eyes peeled by the wastes he'd almost been lost to, thinking of his mixture of detachment and faint embarrassment as he'd told the tale of his stowaway. And, of course, those final words of his, when pressed to identify the stranger:

'Death, I suppose,' he'd said.

He'd been right.

She woke up late on Saturday morning, without the anticipated hangover. There was a letter from Mi ten. She didn't open it, but left it on the mantelpiece for an idle moment later in the day. The first snow of winter was in the wind, though it was too wet to make any serious impression on the streets. The chill was biting enough however, to judge by the scowls on the faces of passers-by. She felt oddly immune from it, however. Though she had no heating on in the flat she walked around in her bathrobe, and barefoot, as though she had a fire stoked in her belly.

After coffee she went through to wash. There was a spider clot of hair in the plug hole; she fished it out and dropped it down the lavatory, then returned to the sink. Since the removal of the dressings she had studiously avoided any close scrutiny of her body, but today her qualms and her vanity seemed to have disappeared. She stripped off her robe, and looked herself over critically.

She was pleased with what she saw. Her breasts were full and dark, her skin had a pleasing sheen to it, her pubic hair had regrown more lushly than ever. The scars themselves still looked and felt tender, but her eyes read their lividness as a sign of her cunt's ambition, as though any day now her sex would grow from anus to navel (and beyond perhaps) opening her up; making her terrible.

It was paradoxical, surely, that it was only now, when the surgeons had emptied her out, that she should feel so ripe, so resplendent. She stood for fully half an hour in front of the mirror admiring herself, her thoughts drifting off. Eventually she returned to the chore of washing. That done, she went back into the front room, still naked. She had no desire to conceal herself; quite the other way about. It was all she could do to prevent herself from stepping out into the snow and giving the whole street something to remember her by.

She crossed to the window, thinking a dozen such foolish thoughts. The snow had thickened. Through the flurries she caught a movement in the alley between the houses opposite. Somebody was there, watching her, though she couldn't see who. She didn't mind. She stood peeping at the peeper, wondering if he would have the courage to show himself, but he did not.

She watched for several minutes before she realised that her brazenness had frightened him away. Disappointed, she wandered back to the bedroom and got dressed. It was time she found herself something to eat; she had that familiar fierce hunger upon her. The fridge was practically empty. She would have to go out and stock up for the weekend.

Supermarkets were circuses, especially on a Saturday, but her mood was far too buoyant to be depressed by having to make her way through the crowds. Today she even found some pleasure in these scenes of conspicuous consumption; in the trolleys and the baskets heaped high with foodstuffs, and the children greedy-eyed as they approached the confectionery, and tearful if denied it, and the wives weighing up the merits of a leg of mutton while their husbands watched the girls on the staff with eyes no less calculating.

She purchased twice as much food for the weekend as she would normally have done in a full week, her appetite driven to distraction by the smells from the delicatessen and fresh meat counters. By the time she reached the house she was almost shaking with the anticipation of sustenance. As she put the bags down on the front step and fumbled for her keys she heard a car door slam behind her.

'Elaine?'

It was Hermione. The red wine she'd consumed the previous night had left her looking blotchy and stale.

'Are you feeling all right?' Elaine asked.

'The point is, are you?' Hermione wanted to know.

'Yes, I'm fine. Why shouldn't I be?'

Hermione returned a harried look. 'Sonja's gone down with some kind of food poisoning, and so's Reuben. I just came round to see that you were all right.'

'As I say, fine.'

'I don't understand it.'

'What about Nellwyn and Dick?'

'I couldn't get an answer at their place. But Reuben's in a bad way. They've taken him into hospital for tests.'

'Do you want to come in and have a cup of coffee?'

'No thanks, I've got to get back to see Sonja. I just didn't like to think of your being on your own if you'd gone down with it too.'

Elaine smiled. 'You're an angel,' she said, and kissed Hermione on the cheek. The gesture seemed to startle the other woman. For some reason she stepped back, the kiss exchanged, staring at Elaine with a vague puzzlement in her eyes.

'I must ... I must go,' she said, fixing her face as though it would betray her.

Til call you later in the day,' Elaine said, 'and find out how they're doing.'

'Fine.'

Hermione turned away and crossed the pavement to her car. Though she made a cursory attempt to conceal the gesture, Elaine caught sight of her putting her fingers to the spot on her cheek where she had been kissed and scratching at it, as if to eradicate the contact.

It was not the season for flies, but those that had survived the recent cold buzzed around in the kitchen as Elaine selected some bread, smoked ham, and garlic sausage from her purchases, and sat down to eat. She was ravenous. In five minutes or less she had devoured the meats, and made substantial inroads into the loaf, and her hunger was scarcely tamed. Settling to a dessert of figs and cheese, she thought of the paltry omelette she'd been unable to finish that day after the visit to the hospital. One thought led to another; from omelette to smoke to the square to Kavanagh to her most recent visit to the church, and thinking of the place she was suddenly seized by an enthusiasm to see it one final time before it was entirely levelled. She was probably too late already. The bodies would have been parcelled up and removed, the crypt decontaminated and scoured; the walls would be rubble. But she knew she would not be satisfied until she had seen it for herself.

Even after a meal which would have sickened her with its excess a few days before, she felt light-headed as she set out for All Saints; almost as though she were drunk. Not the maudlin drunkenness she had been prone to when with Mitch, but a euphoria which made her feel well-nigh invulnerable, as if she had at last located some bright and incorruptible part of herself, and no harm would ever befall her again.

She had prepared herself for finding All Saints in ruins, but she did not. The building still stood, its walls untouched, its beams still dividing the sky. Perhaps it too could not be toppled, she mused; perhaps she and it were twin immortals. The suspicion was reinforced by the gaggle of fresh worshippers the church had attracted. The police guard had trebled since the day she'd been here, and the tarpaulin that had shielded the crypt entrance from sight was now a vast tent, supported by scaffolding, which entirely encompassed the flank of the building. The altar-servers, standing in close proximity to the tent, wore masks and gloves; the high priests - the chosen few who were actually allowed into the Holy of Holies - were entirely garbed in protective suits.

She watched from the cordon: the signs and genu- flections between the devotees; the sluicing down of the suited men as they emerged from behind the veil; the fine spray of fumigants which filled the air like bitter incense.

Another onlooker was quizzing one of the officers.

'Why the suits?'

'In case it's contagious,' the reply came.

'After all these years?'

'They don't know what they've got in there.'

'Diseases don't last, do they?'

'It's a plague-pit,' the officer said. 'They're just being cautious.'

Elaine listened to the exchange, and her tongue itched to speak. She could save them their investigations with a few words. After all, she was living proof that whatever pestilence had destroyed the families in the crypt it was no longer virulent. She had breathed that air, she had touched that mouldy flesh, and she felt healthier now than she had in years. But they would not thank her for her revelations, would they? They were too engrossed in their rituals; perhaps even excited by the discovery of such horrors, their turmoil fuelled and fired by the possibility that this death was still living. She would not be so unsporting as to sour their enthusiasm with a confession of her own rare good health.

Instead she turned her back on the priests and their rites, on the drizzle of incense in the air, and began to walk away from the square. As she looked up from her thoughts she glimpsed a familiar figure watching her from the corner of the adjacent street. He turned away as she glanced up, but it was undoubtedly Kavanagh. She called to him, and went to the corner, but he was walking smartly away from her, head bowed. Again she called after him, and now he turned - a patently false look of surprise pasted onto his face - and retrod his escape-route to greet her.

'Have you heard what they've found?' she asked him.

'Oh yes,' he replied. Despite the familiarity they'd last enjoyed she was reminded now of her first impression of him: that he was not a man much conversant with feeling.

'Now you'll never get your stones,' she said.

'I suppose not,' he replied, not overtly concerned at the loss.

She wanted to tell him that she'd seen the plague-pit with her own eyes, hoping the news would bring a gleam to his face, but the corner of this sunlit street was an inappropriate spot for such talk. Besides, it was almost as if he knew. He looked at her so oddly, the warmth of their previous meeting entirely gone.

'Why did you come back?' he asked her.

'Just to see,' she replied.

'I'm flattered.'

'Flattered?'

That my enthusiasm for mausoleums is infectious.'

Still he watched her, and she, returning his look, was conscious of how cold his eyes were, and how perfectly shiny. They might have been glass, she thought; and his skin suede-glued like a hood over the subtle architecture of his skull.

'I should go,' she said.

'Business or pleasure?'

'Neither,' she told him. 'One or two of my friends are ill.'

'Ah.'

She had the impression that he wanted to be away; that it was only fear of foolishness that kept him from running from her.

'Perhaps I'll see you again,' she said. 'Sometime.'

'I'm sure,' he replied, gratefully taking his cue and retreating along the street. 'And to your friends - my best regards.'

Even if she wanted to pass Kavanagh's good wishes along to Reuben and Sonja, she could not have done so. Hermione did not answer the telephone, nor did any of the others. The closest she came was to leave a message with Reuben's answering service.

The light-headedness she'd felt earlier in the day developed into a strange dreaminess as the afternoon inched towards evening. She ate again, but the feast did nothing to keep the fugue-state from deepening. She felt quite well; that sense of inviolability that had came upon her was still intact. But time and again as the day wore on she found herself standing on the threshold of a room not knowing why she had come there; or watching the light dwindle in the street outside without being quite certain if she was the viewer or the thing viewed. She was happy with her company though, as the flies were happy. They kept buzzing attendance even though the dark fell.

About seven in the evening she heard a car draw up outside, and the bell rang. She went to the door of her flat, but couldn't muster the inquisitiveness to open it, step out into the hallway and admit callers. It would be Hermione again, most probably, and she didn't have any appetite for gloomy talk. Didn't want anybody's company in fact, but that of the flies.

The callers insisted on the bell; the more they insisted the more determined she became not to reply. She slid down the wall beside the flat door and listened to the muted debate that now began on the step. It wasn't Hermione; it was nobody she recognized. Now they systematically rang the bells of the flats above, until Mr Prudhoe came down from the top flat, talking to himself as he went, and opened the door to them. Of the conversation that followed she caught sufficient only to grasp the urgency of their mission, but her dishevelled mind hadn't the persistence to attend to the details. They persuaded Prudhoe to allow them into the hallway. They approached the door of her flat and rapped upon it, calling her name. She didn't reply. They rapped again, exchanging words of frustration. She wondered if they could hear her smiling in the darkness. At last - after a further exchange with Prudhoe - they left her to herself.

She didn't know how long she sat on her haunches beside the door, but when she stood up again her lower limbs were entirely numb, and she was hungry. She ate voraciously, more or less finishing off all the purchases of that morning. The flies seemed to have procreated in the intervening hours; they crawled on the table and picked at her slops. She let them eat. They too had their lives to live.

Finally she decided to take some air. No sooner had she stepped out of her flat, however, than the vigilant Prudhoe was at the top of the stairs, and calling down to her.

'Miss Rider. Wait a moment. I have a message for you.'

She contemplated closing the door on him, but she knew he would not rest until he had delivered his communique. He hurried down the stairs - a Cassandra in shabby slippers.

'There were policemen here,' he announced before he had even reached the bottom step, 'they were looking for you.'

'Oh,' she said. 'Did they say what they wanted?'

To talk to you. Urgently. Two of your friends -'

'What about them?'

'They died,' he said. 'This afternoon. They have some kind of disease.'

He had a sheet of notepaper in his hand. This he now passed over to her, relinquishing his hold an instant before she took it.

They left that number for you to call,' he said. 'You've to contact them as soon as possible.' His message delivered, he was already retiring up the stairs again.

Elaine looked down at the sheet of paper, with its scrawled figures. By the time she'd read the seven digits, Prudhoe had disappeared.

She went back into the flat. For some reason she wasn't thinking of Reuben or Sonja - who, it seemed, she would not see again - but of the sailor, Maybury, who'd seen Death and escaped it only to have it follow him like a loyal dog, waiting its moment to leap and lick his face. She sat beside the phone and stared at the numbers on the sheet, and then at the fingers that held the sheet and at the hands that held the fingers. Was the touch that hung so innocently at the end of her arms now lethal? Was that what the detectives had come to tell her? That her friends were dead by her good offices? If so, how many others had she brushed against and breathed upon in the days since her pestilential education at the crypt? In the street, in the bus, in the supermarket: at work, at play. She thought of Bernice, lying on the toilet floor, and of Hermione, rubbing the spot where she had been kissed as if knowing some scourge had been passed along to her. And suddenly she knew, knew in her marrow, that her pursuers were right in their suspicions, and that all these dreamy days she had been nurturing a fatal child. Hence her hunger; hence the glow of fulfilment she felt.

She put down the note and sat in the semi-darkness, trying to work out precisely the plague's location. Was it her fingertips; in her belly; in her eyes? None, and yet all of these. Her first assumption had been wrong. It wasn't a child at all: she didn't carry it in some particular cell. It was everywhere. She and it were synonymous. That being so, there could be no slicing out of the offending part, as they had sliced out her tumours and all that had been devoured by them. Not that she would escape their attentions for that fact. They had come looking for her, hadn't they, to take her back into the custody of sterile rooms, to deprive her of her opinions and dignity, to make her fit only for their loveless investigations. The thought revolted her; she would rather die as the chestnut-haired woman in the crypt had died, sprawled in agonies, than submit to them again. She tore up the sheet of paper and let the litter drop.

It was too late for solutions anyway. The removal men had opened the door and found Death waiting on the other side, eager for daylight. She was its agent, and it - in its wisdom - had granted her immunity; had given her strength and a dreamy rapture; had taken her fear away. She, in return, had spread its word, and there was no undoing those labours: not now. All the dozens, maybe hundreds, of people whom she'd contaminated in the last few days would have gone back to their families and friends, to their work places and their places of recreation, and spread the word yet further. They would have passed its fatal promise to their children as they tucked them into bed, and to their mates in the act of love. Priests had no doubt given it with Communion; shopkeepers with change of a five-pound note.

While she was thinking of this - of the disease spreading like fire in tinder - the doorbell rang again. They had come back for her. And, as before, they were ringing the other bells in the house. She could hear Prudhoe coming downstairs. This time he would know she was in. He would tell them so. They would hammer at the door, and when she refused to answer -

As Prudhoe opened the front door she unlocked the back. As she slipped into the yard she heard voices at the flat door, and then their rapping and their demands. She unbolted the yard gate and fled into the darkness of the alley-way. She already out of hearing range by the time they had beaten down the door.

She wanted most of all to go back to All Saints, but she knew that such a tactic would only invite arrest. They would expect her to follow that route, counting upon her adherence to the first cause. But she wanted to see Death's face again, now more than ever. To speak with it. To debate its strategies. Their strategies. To ask why it had chosen her.

She emerged from the alley-way and watched the goings-on at the front of the house from the corner of the street. This time there were more than two men; she counted four at least, moving in and out of the house. What were they doing? Peeking through her underwear and her love-letters, most probably, examining the sheets on her bed for stray hairs, and the mirror for traces of her reflection. But even if they turned the flat upside-down, if they examined every print and pronoun, they wouldn't find the clues they sought. Let them search. The lover had escaped. Only her tear stains remained, and flies at the light bulb to sing her praises.

The night was starry, but as she walked down to the centre of the city the brightness of the Christmas illuminations festooning trees and buildings cancelled

out their light. Most of the stores were well closed by

this hour, but a good number of window-shoppers still

idled along the pavements. She soon tired of the displays

however, of the baubles and the dummies, and made

her way off the main road and into the side streets.

It was darker here, which suited her abstracted state

of mind. The sound of music and laughter escaped

through open bar doors; an argument erupted in an

upstairs gaming-room: blows were exchanged; in one

doorway two lovers defied discretion; in another, a man

pissed with the gusto of a horse.

It was only now, in the relative hush of these

backwaters, that she realised she was not alone. Footsteps followed her, keeping a cautious distance, but never straying far. Had the trackers followed her? Were they hemming her in even now, preparing to snatch her into their closed order? If so, flight would only delay the inevitable. Better to confront them now, and dare them to come within range of her pollution. She slid into hiding, and listened as the footsteps approached, then stepped into view.

It was not the law, but Kavanagh. Her initial shock was almost immediately superseded by a sudden comprehension of why he had pursued her. She studied him. His skin was pulled so tight over his skull she could see the bone gleam in the dismal light. How, her whirling thoughts demanded, had she not recognised him sooner? Not realised at that first meeting, when he'd talked of the dead and their glamour, that he spoke as their Maker?

'I followed you,' he said.

'All the way from the house?'

He nodded.

'What did they tell you?' he asked her. 'The policemen. What did they say?'

'Nothing I hadn't already guessed,' she replied.

'You knew?'

'In a manner of speaking. I must have done, in my heart of hearts. Remember our first conversation?'

He murmured that he did.

'All you said about Death. Such egotism.'

He grinned suddenly, showing more bone.

'Yes,' he said. 'What must you think of me?'

'It made a kind of sense to me, even then. I didn't know why at the time. Didn't know what the future would bring -'

'What does it bring?' he inquired of her softly.

She shrugged. 'Death's been waiting for me all this time, am I right?'

'Oh yes,' he said, pleased by her understanding of the situation between them. He took a step towards her, and reached to touch her face.

'You are remarkable,' he said.

'Not really.'

'But to be so unmoved by it all. So cold.'

'What's to be afraid of?' she said. He stroked her cheek. She almost expected his hood of skin to come unbuttoned then, and the marbles that played in his sockets to tumble out and smash. But he kept his disguise intact, for appearance's sake.

'I want you,' he told her.

'Yes,' she said. Of course he did. It had been in his every word from the beginning, but she hadn't had the wit to comprehend it. Every love story was - at the last - a story of death; this was what the poets insisted. Why should it be any less true the other way about?

They could not go back to his house; the officers would be there too, he told her, for they must know of the romance between them. Nor, of course, could they return to her flat. So they found a small hotel in the vicinity and took a room there. Even in the dingy lift he took the liberty of stroking her hair, and then, finding her compliant, put his hand upon her breast.

The room was sparsely furnished, but was lent some measure of charm by a splash of coloured lights from a Christmas tree in the street below. Her lover didn't take his eyes off her for a single moment, as if even now he expected her to turn tail and run at the merest flaw in his behaviour. He needn't have concerned himself; his treatment of her left little cause for complaint. His kisses were insistent but not overpowering; his undressing of her - except for the fumbling (a nice human touch, she thought) - was a model of finesse and sweet solemnity.

She was surprised that he had not known about her scar, only because she had become to believe this intimacy had begun on the operating table, when twice she had gone into his arms, and twice been denied them by the surgeon's bullying. But perhaps, being no sentimentalist, he had forgotten that first meeting. Whatever the reason, he looked to be upset when he slipped off her dress, and there was a trembling interval when she thought he would reject her. But the moment passed, and now he reached down to her abdomen and ran his fingers along the scar.

'It's beautiful,' he said.

She was happy.

'I almost died under the anaesthetic,' she told him.

That would have been a waste,' he said, reaching up her body and working at her breast. It seemed to arouse him, for his voice was more guttural when next he spoke. 'What did they tell you?' he asked her, moving his hands up the soft channel behind her clavicle, and stroking her there. She had not been touched in months, except by disinfected hands; his delicacy woke shivers in her. She was so engrossed in pleasure that she failed to reply to his question. He asked again as he moved between her legs.

'What did they tell you?'

Through a haze of anticipation she said: 'They left a number for me to ring. So that I could be helped ...'

'But you didn't want help?'

'No,' she breathed. 'Why should I?'

She half-saw his smile, though her eyes wanted to flicker closed entirely. His appearance failed to stir any passion in her; indeed there was much about his disguise (that absurd bow-tie, for one) which she thought ridiculous. With her eyes closed, however, she could forget such petty details; she could strip the hood off and imagine him pure. When she thought of him that way her mind pirouetted.

He took his hands from her; she opened her eyes. He was fumbling with his belt. As he did so somebody shouted in the street outside. His head jerked in the direction of the window; his body tensed. She was surprised at his sudden concern.

'It's all right,' she said.

He leaned forward and put his hand to her throat.

'Be quiet,' he instructed.

She looked up into his face. He had begun to sweat. The exchanges in the street went on for a few minutes longer; it was simply two late-night gamblers parting. He realized his error now.

'I thought I heard -'

'What?'

'- I thought I heard them calling my name.'

'Who would do that?' she inquired fondly. 'Nobody knows we're here.'

He looked away from the window. All purposefulness had abruptly drained from him; after the instant of fear his features had slackened. He looked almost stupid.

They came close,' he said. 'But they never found me.'

'Close?'

'Coming to you.' He laid his head on her breasts. 'So very close,' he murmured. She could hear her pulse in her head. 'But I'm swift,' he said, 'and invisible.'

His hand strayed back down to her scar, and further.

'And always neat,' he added.

She sighed as he stroked her.

They admire me for that, I'm sure. Don't you think they must admire me? For being so neat?'

She remembered the chaos of the crypt; its indignities, its disorders.

'Not always ..." she said.

He stopped stroking her.

'Oh yes,' he said. 'Oh yes. I never spill blood. That's a rule of mine. Never spill blood.'

She smiled at his boasts. She would tell him now - though surely he already knew - about her visit to All Saints, and the handiwork of his that she'd seen there.

'Sometimes you can't help blood being spilt,' she said, 'I don't hold it against you.'

At these words, he began to tremble.

'What did they tell you about me? What lies'?'

'Nothing,' she said, mystified by his response. 'What could they know?'

'I'm a professional,' he said to her, his hand moving back up to her face. She felt intentionality in him again. A seriousness in his weight as he pressed closer upon her.

'I won't have them lie about me,' he said. 'I won't have it.'

He lifted his head from her chest and looked at her.

'All I do is stop the drummer,' he said.

The drummer?'

'I have to stop him cleanly. In his tracks.'

The wash of colours from the lights below painted his face one moment red, the next green, the next yellow; unadulterated hues, as in a child's paint-box.

'I won't have them tell lies about me,' he said again. 'To say I spill blood.'

'They told me nothing,' she assured him. He had given up his pillow entirely, and now moved to straddle her. His hands were done with tender touches.

'Shall I show you how clean I am?' he said: 'How easily I stop the drummer?'

Before she could reply, his hands closed around her neck. She had no time even to gasp, let alone shout. His thumbs were expert; they found her windpipe and pressed. She heard the drummer quicken its rhythm in her ears. 'It's quick; and clean,' he was telling her, the colours still coming in predictable sequence. Red, yellow, green; red, yellow, green.

There was an error here, she knew; a terrible misunderstanding which she couldn't quite fathom. She struggled to make some sense of it.

'I don't understand,' she tried to tell him, but her bruised larynx could produce no more than a gargling sound.

Too late for excuses,' he said, shaking his head. 'You came to me, remember? You want the drummer stopped. Why else did you come?' His grip tightened yet further. She had the sensation of her face swelling; of the blood throbbing to jump from her eyes.

'Don't you see that they came to warn you about me?' frowning as he laboured. 'They came to seduce you away from me by telling you I spilt blood.'

'No,' she squeezed the syllable out on her last breath, but he only pressed harder to cancel her denial.

The drummer was deafeningly loud now; though Kavanagh's mouth still opened and closed she could no longer hear what he was telling her. It mattered little. She realised now that he was not Death; not the clean-boned guardian she'd waited for. In her eagerness, she had given herself into the hands of a common killer, a street-corner Cain. She wanted to spit contempt at him, but her consciousness was slipping, the room, the lights, the face all throbbing to the drummer's beat. And then it all stopped.

She looked down on the bed. Her body lay sprawled across it. One desperate hand had clutched at the sheet, and clutched still, though there was no life left in it. Her tongue protruded, there was spittle on her blue lips. But (as he had promised) there was no blood.

She hovered, her presence failing even to bring a breeze to the cobwebs in this corner of the ceiling, and watched while Kavanagh observed the rituals of hi« crime. He was bending over the body, whispering in its ear as he rearranged it on the tangled sheets. Then he unbuttoned himself and unveiled that bone whose inflammation was the sincerest form of flattery. What followed was comical in its gracelessness; as her body was comical, with its scars and its places where age puckered and plucked at it. She watched his ungainly attempts at congress quite remotely. His buttocks were pale, and imprinted with the marks his underwear had left; their motion put her in mind of a mechanical toy.

He kissed her as he worked, and swallowed the pestilence with her spittle; his hands came off her body gritty with her contagious cells. He knew none of this, of course. He was perfectly innocent of what corruption he embraced, and took into himself with every uninspired thrust.

At last, he finished. There was no gasp, no cry. He simply stopped his clockwork motion and climbed off her, wiping himself with the edge of the sheet, and buttoning himself up again.

Guides were calling her. She had journeys to make, reunions to look forward to. But she did not want to go; at least not yet. She steered the vehicle of her spirit to a fresh vantage-point, where she could better see Kavanagh's face. Her sight, or whatever sense this condition granted her, saw clearly how his features were painted over a groundwork of muscle, and how, beneath that intricate scheme, the bones sheened. Ah, the bone. He was not Death of course; and yet he was. He had the face, hadn't he? And one day, given decay's blessing, he'd show it. Such a pity that a scraping of flesh came between it and the naked eye.

Come away, the voices insisted. She knew they could not be fobbed off very much longer. Indeed there were some amongst them she thought she knew. A moment, she pleaded, only a moment more.

Kavanagh had finished his business at the murder-scene. He checked his appearance in the wardrobe mirror, then went to the door. She went with him, intrigued by the utter banality of his expression. He slipped out onto the silent landing and then down the stairs, waiting for a moment when the night-porter was otherwise engaged before stepping out into the street, and liberty.

Was it dawn that washed the sky, or the illuminations? Perhaps she had watched him from the corner of the room longer than she'd thought - hours passing as moments in the state she had so recently achieved.

Only at the last was she rewarded for her vigil, as a look she recognised crossed Kavanagh's face. Hunger! The man was hungry. He would not die of the plague, any more than she had. Its presence shone in him - gave a fresh lustre to his skin, and a new insistence to his belly.

He had come to her a minor murderer, and was going from her as Death writ large. She laughed, seeing the self-fulfilling prophecy she had unwittingly engineered. For an instant his pace slowed, as if he might have heard her. But no; it was the drummer he was listening for, beating louder than ever in his ear and demanding, as he went, a new and deadly vigour in his every step.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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