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by Paul Murgatroyd




Clive D’Arcy despised Stinker. He’d given Stephen Tinker that nickname at school, where he was top of the class by far in mathematics. This had angered D’Arcy, who publicly dismissed maths as banal and banausic, but secretly found it hard and hated being bettered. He had been top in English, revelling in the exuberance of Hopkins and Thomas and the intricacies of Eliot and Pound. He used to sneer at Stephen as a barbaric mathematician with the social skills of a spittoon and the literary tastes of a retarded four year old cripple – dross like science fiction and ghost stories. He also ridiculed his manic love of geometry and obsessive neatness (his weird centre parting, and the symmetrical positioning of pen, pencil and paper on his desk). He claimed that he couldn’t decide if Stinker was a complete and utter twat or just a complete twat. Now they both went to the same Cambridge college. There D’Arcy largely ignored him, smouldering because the odious little grey man had worked so hard that he won a prestigious scholarship.

Stephen had lost his stammer during his first year at university, but remained shy and diffident. He was someone who just didn’t mix easily and he’d never had a girlfriend. D’Arcy had spotted him staring with drooling eyes at dolly birds several times, and decided that this explained why during the vac the farouche little cough-drop had apparently done some execrable Dale Carnegie course on how to make friends and influence people. D’Arcy thought this was absolutely priceless and was intrigued to see what the pathetic little prole had got out of the course.

So at the start of the new term he ambushed Stephen and worked on him. In the course of a friendly chat he charmed him and invited him to a party in the Music Room at 8 PM on Tuesday. He said that all the others from their school would be there, so they just needed him for a proper old boys reunion; and he added that Yvonne Evans would be there. She had been at the nearby girls school and was now at Girton, and D’Arcy was sure that Stinker panted for her with a buttock-clenching passion. He said in his deep, self-assured voice: ‘You remember Yvonne. Every schoolboy’s wet dream. Actually a wet dream’s wet dream.’

Taken aback by the show of amiability, Stephen fiddled with his glasses, considered and finally said he’d come. With a smug grin D’Arcy thought: jeans duly creamed; I knew that would hook the little loser.

D’Arcy, his friends and Susie, his latest beautiful girlfriend, were all in the Music Room by 7.30. They started drinking and wondering aloud what Stinker Mark II would be like. Briefed by D’Arcy, the others from his school all assembled there by 10 to 8 and joined in the flippant speculation. Soon the chatter and laughter was in competition with the Beatles’ song Help.

At 8 PM precisely Stephen appeared in the doorway, a slight figure in a meticulously co-ordinated outfit of yellow nylon shirt, green knitted tie, olive corduroy pants, mustard cardigan with football buttons, brown socks and Hush Puppies. The record player was switched off, and everybody stopped talking and turned to him. He blanched and twitched as he took in the array of expectant faces. Then he looked down. But after a few moments he swallowed, lifted his head and walked across the room to D’Arcy. People held their breaths, eager to hear the suave new Stephen’s opening gambit.

D’Arcy took hold of both his hands, smiled and said: ‘Ah, Stephen, there you are. Good of you to come.’

Stephen took a deep breath and said: ‘Do you have a piano?’

When D’Arcy bit his lip and shook his head, Stephen said: ‘No? That’s a pity, as I happen to play uncommonly well.’ Then he had nothing more to say, having used up his only conversational ploy.

After several seconds of floored silence Susie snorted, which made others splutter and giggle. Stephen reddened with embarrassment and looked as if he would flee. D’Arcy wasn’t going to allow that. He intended to have a lot more fun with the young man carbuncular before letting him escape.

As the rest turned away to snicker and pass comment, he put a brawny arm around Stephen’s shoulder, leaned down and murmured into his ear: ‘Hang on, Stephen, don’t go. The lovely Yvonne said she was definitely coming. She’s broken up with her boyfriend. I’m sure you’d have a good chance there, with a blue stocking like her. She knows you from that inter-schools chess tournament, so there’s an in for you. When she comes, I’ll bring her over to you. You can explain your winning strategy in the final. Then move on to Go. She’s very keen on that too. You’ll get on like a house on fire. Guaranteed.’

Stephen felt edgy, his stomach was churning and he was keen to leave. But he just couldn’t pass up the chance of meeting Yvonne (gorgeous Yvonne) and maybe actually getting himself a girlfriend (if only!). He mumbled: ‘Ah, great, er, thanks, Clive. OK, I’ll hang on then. Do you think she’ll be here soon? Only, erm, there’s a really difficult calculus question that I’ve been-‘

‘Oh god,’ drawled D’Arcy, ‘forget about your sums for once, Stephen. This is your school captain speaking. I’m sure she’ll be here soon. She was looking decidedly glum when I saw her, and a bit wistful, so she won’t miss this…Have some punch while you’re waiting – well, it’s fruit cup actually. Help yourself. It’s over there.’

He pointed with his pipe, smiled and then added: ‘It’ll relax you. Why don’t you loosen up and have some fun, old man?’

When Stephen went off to get himself some punch, D’Arcy winked at his woman and his friends. The punch contained lots of lethal Merrydown Apple Wine, so boring old Stephen, who was no drinker, would shortly be in a state of Bacchanalian exaltation.

Yvonne Evans didn’t turn up, just possibly because she hadn’t been invited. As he waited for her, Stephen stood on his own, smiling politely at nobody and sipping punch. While others danced and laughed and kissed, he kept on glancing hopefully at the doorway, and also counted the roses on the wallpaper, and then the chairs around the two big tables. He was put out to discover that one had two more chairs than the other. When he went for a refill, he moved a chair to make the numbers tally.

After nearly half an hour he had got through two plastic cups of punch and felt odd. With a sigh he decided that Yvonne wasn’t coming after all and he should go. He suspected that bastard D’Arcy had set him up. Another jolly prank, more persecution. He put his cup down, but before he could leave D’Arcy hurried over with Susie, cornered him and began chatting away. He worked in sly digs at Hush Puppies, pianos and corduroy pants to amuse her, and pressed another cup of punch on him. Stephen avoided eye contact and became increasingly tense and upset. He spotted all the digs, but was too cowed to reply. As D’Arcy and Susie brayed with laughter, his lips tautened and he clenched his fists at his sides, making both sets of knuckles pale in parallel.

Finally he couldn’t take the humiliation any more. He excused himself and flung off to the lavatories. He was there for a long time. D’Arcy went to look for him, and soon ran back, shouting: ‘Come and see what the stupid bastard’s up to now. The prat is hanging bat-like from the coat-hooks wailing: “Why does nobody love me?” You’ve got to see this. It’s priceless. You’ll scream with laughter.’ They all charged in and were convulsed at the sight of Stephen. They jeered at him and joined in the wailing until D’Arcy finally opined that the twit had now achieved full twitosity and there was no way the little worm could top that. He suggested they go back to the party and get seriously sloshed. They did, forgetting all about Stephen.

It was later established that he wandered off, trembling and in tears, to the college bar, had a few brooding pints of Greene King and staggered back to his rooms. There he passed out on his back, and subsequently threw up and choked to death on his own vomit.

D’Arcy got up late the next morning, hung over. When he heard the news about Stephen, he raised a disdainful eyebrow and said: ‘Oops. Oh well, serves the drunken little proletarian right. What a loser! Death by puking – how grotesque!’

That afternoon, when he returned from rugger bruised and godlike in triumph, there was a sinister red stain on the floor by the fireplace. That was odd. He must have had a nose-bleed or something last night when he got back in his cups. He’d tell the bedder to clean it up.

As he did that the next morning, he became aware of a strong smell of apples. Strange. He didn’t have any apples. Must be the bedder. She sounded like a creature from the fens, ur, ar, mangel-wurzels and tattie-bogels. A fat and frowzy Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When he got back from lectures, the smell and the bedmaker had gone, but the red stain was still there. He’d have to have a word with the idle bloody wench.

On his way to a supervision at 5 PM he was vaguely aware of piano music emanating from a window somewhere. Later, when he strolled to hall relishing a super supervision in which he had positively shone, he heard the same sombre notes. He suddenly realized that he’d heard them that morning too. Was the whole damned college playing that dreary dirge? He knew the tune very well, but couldn’t put a name to it, irritatingly. In fact it was Chopin’s Funeral March. He drowned it out by reciting ‘she was only a farmer’s daughter, but she couldn’t keep her calves together’ and similar dirty ditties.

He heard it again that evening as he was swaggering his way to the college bar with Nigel Hyde. Since Nigel had missed Tuesday’s party, D’Arcy was regaling him with that silly ass Stinker’s ludicrous opening gambit and his own clever ploy with the punch. Then the music started up again. He asked Nigel what that tiresome bloody tune was called, but Nigel looked baffled and said he couldn’t hear any tune. D’Arcy was about to pursue this further, when they reached the bar, Nigel opened the door and the din of laughter, shouts and the Rolling Stones drowned out Chopin. D’Arcy shook his head distractedly, entered and began to gloat over all the digs he’d got in at the ghastly little worm in his last chat with him.

Before long Rodney, Quentin and Roger turned up, and D’Arcy got them to play a super drinking game he’d invented, and called Cardinal Puff. By 11 o’clock they were all legless. D’Arcy conducted the others as they sang: ‘It was on a bridge at midnight, picking blackheads from her crutch, she said: “Sir, I’ve never had it,” I said: “No, not facking much!”’ Then he fell over. Between giggles Nigel persuaded him to go to his rooms for a schooner of a simply superb sherry that he’d recently discovered. He assured D’Arcy that he would be amazed at how quickly the sherry would sober him up. D’Arcy was so drunk that he believed him.

He left Nigel seconds before midnight, and the college clock began striking the hour just as he lurched into the archway leading out of North Court. Suddenly from the shadows somebody spoke: ‘Are you wearing a broadsword within the college gates, sir?’

D’Arcy jumped, and then said: ‘Ha bloody ha,’ looking down his nose in the direction of the speaker.

‘Are you Mr Quint, sir?’

‘No, I am not.’

‘Are you Sir Edmund Orme, sir?’

‘No I’m bloody not. I’m Mr Clive D’Arcy. And who the hell might you be?’

‘Oh, I’m the head porter, sir – pun intended,’ replied the voice.

A figure emerged from the gloom. It was Parkinson, the head porter. He was carrying his head under his arm. As D’Arcy stared open-mouthed, the head winked at him. Then it spoke: ‘Givenni givanni ‘tis very strange in the world to see so sudden a change.’

Abruptly Parkinson turned into a huge bat. That in rapid succession became a rotting corpse, a chess board, a braying ass, a brimming punch bowl and finally a Viking. D’Arcy, who had been peering in bewilderment at the earlier changes, took a step back at the sight of the fierce seven-foot warrior. He was wearing bloody chainmail and had a jagged blue-black scar from his hairline to the bridge of his broken nose. And he stank of sweat and mead. His pupils rolled up in the moonlight, leaving only the whites visible, appalling D’Arcy. Then he bellowed: ‘Dy by dx. Any monasteries round here?’

‘Er, n-no,’ said D’Arcy, looking round to check.

‘Oh well. No matter. I’ll pillage the chapel instead and carry off the choir into slavery. I’m a salt-water bandit with brutal vices. Yclept Eric the Dead. A ghost. And do you know the thing about Nordic ghosts?’

‘N-no,’ said D’Arcy.

‘Ha! I shit up your nose, you ignorant little half-wit. They’re a lot more physical and violent than your usual ghosts. Especially when they’re pissed off over losing everything.’

As D’Arcy gulped, the spectre held up his massive left fist before his startled face and demanded: ‘Do you see this fist, do you see this fist?’

‘Y-yes,’ quavered D’Arcy, focussing on it.

‘Super,’ said the warrior, and smashed his other fist into D’Arcy’s stomach.

As D’Arcy folded over and threw up extravagantly, the Viking murmured into his ear: ‘Hope you enjoyed the punch, old man. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you…a loser. The worm has turned. Spot the connections, the symmetry.’

Then he picked up D’Arcy, gasping for breath and with tears in his eyes, and slung him over his shoulder. He carried him back to his rooms and threw him on to his bed, where D’Arcy immediately lost consciousness.

When he woke up the next morning, he remembered none of this. But for some reason he felt edgy, and his stomach was tender. He was forcing down aspirins and coffee when the bedmaker came in. He scowled at her and said: ‘I thought I told you to get rid of that stain on the floor.’

‘Oh but I did, sir. I scrubbed away for ten minutes.’

‘Oh but you didn’t. It’s still there. Do get rid of it, there’s a good little bedder.’

In the afternoon D’Arcy went to the library and lost himself re-reading The Dead in Joyce’s Dubliners. Then he consulted a few books and articles on the story and dashed off what he prided himself was a bijou little essay for Dr Brummiescum. He decided he deserved a celebratory pint. When he got into the lift and the door closed, he was surprised by a phantom fart. It was a wailing, gibbering fart that went on and on, and up the scale at the end. He was trying to work out where the hell it could have come from when the stink of brimstone hit him. As he gagged, the lift stopped, its door opened and somebody got in. It was the Gallic Symbol, a sexy foreign language student who he’d worked on for weeks and finally persuaded to come round for a drink and with any luck some vigorous rumpy-pumpy that evening. Her nostrils flared. She muttered ‘merde’, not inappropriately, and glowered at him, because the lift had come down from the top floor with only him in it, so he must have produced the foul smell. He blushed and didn’t know what to say to her. When they reached the ground floor, she leapt out. He started to apologize, but she snarled ‘cochon’ over her shoulder and strode off out of his life.

When he got back to his rooms, bewildered and disconsolate, he found that the stain was still there, and he swore that he would absolutely excoriate that idle inbred bloody fen-dweller the next day.

That night he had a very frightening dream. He was walking though moonbeams in a silent wood where no bird sang, when he heard a rustle in the leaves behind him. He spun round and glimpsed the head of a huge worm rearing up. It was smiling at him, and had eyes, which glittered malevolently. He bolted. After several seconds he just had to look back to check on it. What he saw was a jagged ball of darkness rolling towards him at speed. He ran faster. But he soon got a stitch and was forced to slow down. As he staggered along, black tendrils curled around his legs, clutching, tightening. He screamed in terror.

Abruptly he was out of the wood, into a strip of meadowland, safe.

As he got his breath back, he caught sight of what he somehow knew was called Hill House – an old shuttered building standing by itself at the foot of a hill and holding darkness within. A cowled figure up on the summit shouted: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ and started down. In an instant the figure was beside him, pulling back the cowl, to reveal the head of a large brown dog.

As D’Arcy gaped, aghast, the head spoke: ‘Hello, old scream. Been walkies? I’ve been waiting here for you for ages, absolute aeons. No matter. Now that you are here, answer me this: do you have a girlfriend?’

When D’Arcy managed a nod, the dog pursed its lips and said: ‘Yes? That’s a pity, as I happen to slay uncommonly well.’

Then the figure faded away, murmuring: ‘Toodle pip. Have to biff off now. Got to see a man about a dog.’

D’Arcy awoke the next morning uneasily aware that he’d had a bad dream but recalling only snippets of it. He knew that there had been something in it that rang a bell, something very disquieting, but he couldn’t remember what it was. It left him feeling frustrated and depressed.

That night he went to a party at Trinity, which was spoiled when Susie got blotto on black velvet, then turned nasty and threw her drink over Nigel’s girlfriend. D’Arcy had to drag her away and walk her back to her digs, to make sure she got home safely. Back in his rooms he had a restless night’s sleep and awoke to see Susie at his window in the first glimmer of dawn sobbing: ‘Let me in, let me in.’ He just goggled at her, so she raked her nails down the glass, making it shriek. He hurriedly opened up and helped her in. Her little hands were cold, and she seemed to bring winter into the room with her. He shut the window, put his dressing gown on and wrapped his college scarf around his neck.

She savaged him with a glare, and growled: ‘You bloody bodger! You took your time. I’ve been hanging round for half the night, and now I’m really cold. Are you deaf or daft?’

‘I was asleep,’ protested D’Arcy, ‘You know – alone and savagely sleeping.’

She curled her lip and snarled: ‘Where was the Dangma when the Alaya of the universe was in Paramatha? Hey? Answer me that, you intellectual jelly tot.’

‘What? I say, calm down, Suze,’ said D’Arcy, and went to hug her.

She hissed: ‘Stand back! I have sharpened my nipples, and they’re set on Wound.’

D’Arcy promptly stood back.

Susie intoned: ‘Thrill with the lissome lust of the light, o man! My man! Give me the sign of the Open Eye, and the token erect of the thorny thigh.’

D’Arcy frowned, baffled. ‘I’m afraid I, er, I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Suze.’

‘So, not so literate after all. For all your pretension and showing off. But you must excuse me if I’m being opaque: I’m always opaque when I’m dead.’

D’Arcy stiffened and the hair on his neck rose when he heard this.

She added: ‘But I can say this to you clearly, engrave it on the writing-tablets of your mind: beware of flying babies!’

D’Arcy decided she was still pissed and relaxed a bit. ‘OK yah fine. Actually I’ve always been wary of tiny tots – little failed adults. And babies…well, I always celebrate Herod’s birthday, quietly but –‘

She snapped: ‘This is no time for levity. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more. Time was to indulge in arrogance; time was to manipulate and humiliate; time was to – what is the fornicating time anyway?’

As she said this, the college clock began to strike, as if on cue. After the sixth and final chime she said: ‘My time is up. I can’t hang about any longer. You should have opened up earlier, you bodger. Phone me at nine sharp for the next breath-taking instalment.’

She walked backwards away from D’Arcy. At every step she took, the window raised itself a little. When she reached it, it was wide open. She wailed, and floated out of it into the keening void.

After she soared away, D’Arcy numbly closed the window. His stomach had knotted up and his heart was thudding. He pinched himself to see if he was awake. He felt the pinch. He started trembling, and paced the room, trying to come up with an explanation. The only one he could see was that she was a ghost. Which was preposterous. But she had said she was dead. And she had been cold to the touch. And there was that business with the window. After worrying at the problem for a few minutes he realized that he was very cold and returned to bed. At once he was overcome by sleep.

He woke at five to nine, remembered Susie’s command and rushed off to the public phone in the cycle sheds. At nine exactly he dialled her number. When the landlady answered, he said: ‘Oh hello, it’s Clive D’Arcy here. Sorry to bother you this early but could I possibly speak to Susie?’

The woman sobbed, and said she had bad news for him: when she went to wake Susie for breakfast, she found that she’d done something awful…she’d hanged herself; with a blue stocking; and there was a note at her feet saying WHY DOES NOBODY LOVE ME?

Stunned, D’Arcy said: ‘Aahm, right. OK fine. Super. Thank you.’

He put the receiver down and stumbled off to his rooms. Terrible, terrible. He’d really liked Susie - she was sexy and pretty and great fun. He’d really miss her. It was all so sudden. And hanging herself! The note too, weirdly reminiscent of Stinker. So it must have been her ghost that came to him. God, he felt sick.

Back in his rooms, he didn’t take in the red stain by the floor, but he did smell apples again. The bedder must have turned up. He’d get rid of her. He looked into the bedroom to see if she was there. There was no sign of her. But, as his eye passed over the rumpled sheets, they seemed to billow slightly. He blinked, and looked more closely, thinking he’d just imagined it. To his horror the sheets billowed once more. Then they gradually swelled out, and formed a shape. A human shape. It suddenly sat up, and flowed from the bed. Then it stood beside the bed with outstretched arms, groping about, feeling for something, or someone. D’Arcy let out a grunt of disgust, which revealed his position. Immediately the figure flitted across the room to him and pounced. It enveloped him in slithery arms. It thrust its face into his. Its face looked like crumpled linen.

D’Arcy couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

It warbled: ‘Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad.’ Then it laughed and said: ‘That’s what you might call sheet music…Then again you might not.’

D’Arcy gurgled: ‘What?’

‘Oh, I say, old man, you are supposed to be one of the literati. It’s the name of a story, by M.R. James actually. I would have thought that would be clear to the meanest of intelligences. But then you didn’t get the other literary allusions either. Did you, you twit? Do you at least recognize my voice?’

D’Arcy did. He wrinkled his brow and asked: ‘Stinker?’

‘Dead right. Pun intended.’

‘B-but how can you be here, talking to me like this?’

‘W-well, w-what the frigging hell do you want me to do – knock once for Yes and twice for No? I’ve loosened up. I’ve been having fun. Playing with you. Haven’t you got it yet? What’s going on. No? Who’s the silly ass now, then? Vengeance is mine, saith Stinker.’

‘W-what?’ quavered D’Arcy in a cold sweat.

‘You do realize you’ve pissed yourself? Literally. In fright. Why don’t you change your pants and underpants? Frankly, you’re starting to pong a bit, old bean. As ever, you have all the appeal of a cup of cold sick.’

When the pallid arms released him, D’Arcy lurched to the wardrobe, opened the door and reached in. What his hand touched was a mouth, with sharp teeth, and bristly hair around it.

‘Nnnngh,’ grunted D’Arcy, and jerked his hand back out.

Stephen laughed and said: ‘So that’s where it went to. Don’t worry, it’s only a lesser imp from the third circle of Hell. As a magister templi, I have it under complete control. But hang on, who’s that in there with it? Who could it be?...Oh no! My god, it’s the Great Goat of Mendes himself. The eyes, Clive, don’t look at the eyes!’

Stephen let out an unearthly scream and lunged at D’Arcy, who also screamed, and fled. Gibbering manically, Stephen chased him, out of his rooms, across three courts and through the main gate of the college.

D’Arcy ran down the street whimpering. Eventually he became aware of the startled but not horrified gazes directed at him. A glance over his shoulder showed that he was no longer being pursued by bedding, so he stopped and tried to get his breath back. After a few seconds he realized that two schoolgirls were pointing at his crotch. One of them snorted and said: ‘Hey, nice pants! For a piss artist.’ They both giggled. He put his right hand over the damp patch and held his wrist with his other hand. He was very embarrassed, but he was definitely not going back to his rooms to change. He walked on awkwardly, looking back over his shoulder now and then and trying to calm his pounding heart.

As he approached a house with a removals truck outside it, he vaguely took in the sideboard on the narrow pavement and the pulley and ropes that were being used to manoeuvre some item of furniture out of a first floor window. One of the removals men was standing in front of him, blocking the way, and the truck meant D’Arcy couldn’t step out into the road to get past. So he mumbled: ‘Excuse me.’

The man turned round to see who had spoken.

The man was Stephen Tinker.  

As D’Arcy froze, white-faced, Stephen took hold of both his hands in a strong grip, smiled and said: ‘Ah, Clive, there you are. Good of you to come. If you think death by puking is grotesque, how does death by piano strike you? Now that really is grotesque.’

He jerked his head to heaven. D’Arcy looked up, to see the ropes that supported the baby grand directly above him snap.




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