The August-September Editor's Pick Story is by Jim Mountfield
Please feel free to email Jim at: email@example.com
by Jim Mountfield
Simon’s phone rang. He stopped on the street, freed it from a duffle-coat pocket and answered without checking who the caller was. When he heard Janet Mathie’s voice, he sighed and thought: old witch.
“It’s disgraceful,” she barked, “that I have to keep calling about this. If you’d any decency you’d have returned the deposit the day I moved out. But no, you’ve continually fobbed me off, hoping to cheat me out of that money. Five hundred pounds that’s mine!”
Simon resumed walking, although because of his weight it was tiring to walk and talk at the same time. “I told you,” he wheezed. “It was your money minus the cost of repairs for damage done to the flat during your tenancy. And there was damage – ”
“Rubbish! I kept that flat in perfect condition. Why, I was the best tenant you could’ve wanted. I paid the bills the instant they arrived, I did nothing to disturb the neighbours and I never complained to you when they disturbed me. Even that horrible family across the landing, the problem neighbours you sneakily didn’t warn me about before I signed the lease – I just went and dealt with them myself. And now you try to fleece me out of 500 pounds!”
Simon reached the building. With his free hand he fished the keys out of another pocket and let himself into the lobby. “There was damage,” he said. “Mould. You kept the windows shut too much and hung too many things on the walls. In the still air, behind the hangings, the mould took root and made a mess. I’ll need to hire a cleaning company to sort it out. That’ll cost your deposit money at least.”
From the phone came a screech: “Liar!”
Simon chose that moment to cut off her call. He returned the phone to his pocket. Then he unlocked the flat’s mailbox and discovered an envelope that had the name and address of his mortgage provider on its back. He didn’t bother to open it because already he was 99-percent sure what the letter inside said and he stuffed it into the pocket beside the phone.
As he struggled up the stairs at the rear of the lobby, he began to worry. Her ringing a few minutes before he reached the flat – was that a coincidence? He looked upwards, at the edges of the balustrades where each landing opened into the stairwell, and thought he saw a face peeping down at him. When he stopped and stared, however, he only made out the line of another balustrade. He remained uneasy. Was she lurking above him? Had she called his phone to distract him, while she got ready to drop something heavy on his head?
Impossible, he told himself. She’d returned the keys a fortnight ago, including the one to the main door. She’d no way of getting into the building now.
Though of course, she could’ve got an extra set of keys cut in the past year… Then the phone started ringing again and Simon gave a frightened squawk.
This time he left the phone in his duffle-coat. He continued up the stairs. Only when he’d emerged onto the fourth-floor landing and tottered across to the flat did the ringing cease. He needed a minute to get both his breath and his composure back. Then he inserted the flat-key in the door.
Before he could open it, however, he realised that one of the Hanley boys was watching from across the landing, outside the door of his family’s flat. He didn’t know the boy’s name but he knew the face. A year ago, shortly before Janet Mathie became his tenant, this boy and him had had an altercation. Simon had come up the stairs and found him sitting on the landing with a frog, which he must’ve caught in the canal at the back of the building. He was amusing himself by slicing off the frog’s legs with a razor blade.
His anger welling up, Simon stalked towards the boy. It wasn’t the frog that concerned him. He didn’t want to bring potential tenants to the flat with bloodstains on the landing floor.
Unperturbed, the boy snarled: “Fuck off, fatso. Or I’ll cut your legs off too.”
And when Simon raised a hand to clout him, he shrieked, “Help, somebody, help! There’s a pervert here! A child molester’s trying to touch me!”
At that, Ma Hanley had flown out of their flat, insults and obscenities spattering off her lips. While Simon tried to deal with the mother, the boy retreated down the stairs and took the luckless frog with him.
Today Simon glared across the landing, wishing his eyes could emit laser beams that’d burn the little scumbag to a cinder. But the boy looked different now. The scowl that Simon remembered him having was gone. He was pale and wide-eyed.
In a trembling voice he called: “M-Mam!”
As she had a year ago, his mother appeared from the door behind him. However, the rage that’d animated her back then was absent. All she did was take the boy’s shoulders and pull him against her – a gesture Simon thought was surprisingly maternal by her standards. And the boy looked surprisingly supine as he retreated into her arms.
“She’s gone, then?” demanded Ma Hanley. Simon supposed she was in her mid-forties, although her face was haggard enough to belong to someone twenty years older.
“Yes,” he said. “Two weeks she’s been gone.”
He turned and twisted the key in the lock. But the woman wasn’t finished. Behind him she said, “Don’t ever put someone like her in that flat again.”
Simon opened the door. Then he realised the irony of what he’d heard and turned back. “She didn’t cause you bother, did she?”
Ma Hanley tightened her grip on the boy. “Too right she did. She did something to Gary here.”
The boy looked ready to cry. Was he really the frog-torturer, Simon wondered, or did the torturer have a pathetic twin brother?
“What did she do?”
“I don’t know what she did because he won’t tell me. He won’t say a word about what happened. But somehow, she scared him. Scared him so bad that he begged me not to go across and confront the old bitch. And he hasn’t been right since.”
Tears started oozing down Gary’s cheeks. He freed himself from his mother and disappeared through the doorway behind her.
Simon found this baffling. What the hell had happened? “Well, I’m sorry for that,” he said in as sarcastic a tone as he could muster. “The poor lad… The poor wee lad.”
And unexpectedly, he found himself admiring Janet Mathie. Though at the same time he felt troubled, for if she could do this to the Hanleys, what might she do to him?
This was his second visit to the flat since Janet Mathie had moved out. He’d come here a few hours after her departure, to collect the keys and check that everything was in order. The keys had been left for him in the lobby mailbox, along with a thank-you card and a handwritten note politely reminding him about the 500-pound deposit. Meanwhile, everything in the flat had been in order. It was clean – scrupulously clean.
Indeed, looking along the entrance passageway now, Simon felt a stab of self-disgust. More than clean – the flat had been pristine. The old woman really had taken care of it. Briefly, he was tempted to return her deposit. But only briefly, and only tempted. Then remembering his mortgage problems, remembering how he was a whisker away from losing this flat, he resolved to keep the money. He’d keep claiming the walls were covered in mould. He’d parrot that until she got tired of arguing and gave up and left him alone. What could she do? She wasn’t rich. She couldn’t afford a lawyer.
He noticed how she’d left her cleaning materials – wire brushes, cloths, detergent bottles and spray-cans – packed in a plastic bucket on the floor under the wash-hand basin, seemingly as encouragement for the next tenant to keep up the good work.
Suddenly, his phone bleeped with a text. Before he thought better of it, he took the phone from his pocket and opened the message. He read: I am sick of your sort. I try to live my life with integrity, to treat other people fairly. Yet bad people like you continually see my decency as a weakness to exploit, as an invitation to cheat and abuse and torment me. Well, be warned. I do not meekly accept mistreatment by bad people. I fight back. I fight back!
Any sympathy that he’d built up for Janet Mathie vanished. “Tough shit!” he snarled, almost crushing the phone in his fist. “Tough shit you old bitch!”
He waddled back into the passageway and the mysterious smell got stronger. It reminded him of a malodorous type of orchid that an eccentric great-aunt of his had once grown. He entered the next room along, the bedroom. This contained nothing that might be producing the smell and, again, it was perfectly clean. The sheet covering the bed was spotless, as were the white walls around it.
In fact, Simon was still unused to seeing the walls in the flat so bare and white. He hadn’t exaggerated when he accused Janet Mathie of hanging up lots of things. On the occasions when he’d been in the flat during her tenancy, he’d found the walls of the bedroom, passageway and living room cluttered with items. Cluttered with freaky items – corn dollies, green men, sinister-faced angels and ghoulish masks from Africa and Asia.
A door on the passageway’s other side opened into the kitchen. It was immaculate too, the floor tiles bright, the sink and draining board shining, not a speck on top of the kitchen-units. By now the smell was so strong and musty that he was no longer thinking of orchids, but of buck-goats during their mating season. He checked in the cupboards, fridge and oven, under the sink and even behind the glass hatch of the washing machine, but found nothing that might be causing it.
Again the phone beeped. The new message said: This is your last chance. Give me my deposit back now!
“Fuck off,” said Simon in a harassed voice. “Fuck off, fuck off!” He bustled to the door at the end of the passageway and entered the living room. Immediately the smell became so rank that it clogged his throat and lungs. He coughed violently while his man-breasts and his folds of waist-fat juddered around him.
Finally, as his coughing subsided, he managed to look around the living room. Its walls were white and bare too. A sofa, armchair and TV set occupied one end of it, a table and matching set of chairs occupied the other. On the table stood four candles, of various heights and thicknesses, each one made of a distinctly coloured wax – black, grey, brown and red. All the candles were lit. Four smoke-plumes rose from their flames and formed a miasma below the ceiling.
The phone fell from Simon’s hands. He reeled across the room to the window, which looked over the canal – the canal that supplied Gary Hanley with frogs to mutilate. He wrenched the window open, turned back to the table, seized the candles one by one and flung them out. There were distant plops as they landed in the canal. At the same time, the candle-smoke went into his face and down his throat again and he suffered another coughing fit. Again, his fat-rolls bounced about him. Suddenly the rancid smoke-smell seemed to contaminate all of him, his clothes, hair, skin and flesh.
He stuck himself as far out of the window as he could, wanting to cough the smoke up from his lungs and inhale fresh air from outside. Then, fearing the weight of his belly might pull him through the window and drop him four storeys onto the paved canal-side, he panicked and yanked himself backwards. He staggered back across the living room and collided with a wall. He leaned there for a moment, feeling sick. Then he turned his head.
Leering a few inches along the wall from him was a small, twisted face that might’ve belonged to an evil homunculus. Simon shrieked and sprang away. For the next minute, his heart clanged so madly inside his flabby chest that he feared it’d give out altogether.
What was really on the wall, he saw, was a red, clay face the shape and size of a side-plate. It was one of Janet Mathie’s grotesque wall-hangings. She’d forgotten to remove it when she’d moved out. Or she’d hung it there when she’d returned to the flat with her cut keys and her four stinky candles.
When his heart was beating more calmly, he strode across and snatched the red face off the wall. He noted its popping eyes, its grooved red cheeks, its shred of a nose, its lipless rictus that showed two full rows of teeth. He spat, “Ugly bastard!” and dumped it on the table-top, glad to have found it before the potential new tenant arrived.
Then he picked his phone off the floor and started to compose a text. This isn’t your flat now you hag. You’ve no right to sneak in and out of it. I’ll have the police on you for trespassing. And by the way, I’m getting the locks changed!
But before he could send the text, Simon noticed something else. There seemed to be a blurry mishmash of colours on the wall where the face had been hanging… He stared and the blur coalesced into a stain. He put the phone down on the table beside the clay face, then went and leaned close to the wall. The stain had the same size and roundness as the face and it consisted of mould – burgeoning black and green-brown spores. The spores were somehow flecked with red too, so that they had the appearance of a skin-rash.
“Christ,” he murmured. “I was right. There was mould on the wall. I lied about it, but I was actually right!”
He stepped back and poked a finger at it. That the surrounding wall was spotlessly white made the plate-shaped patch of mould seem even more unsightly. When he withdrew the finger, he saw that its end was covered in particles of black, green-brown and red and he rubbed it on the front of his coat.
Meanwhile, the smell lingered in the room. Despite the open window, it refused to leave.
It suddenly seemed a good idea to scrape that mess off the wall before the potential tenant saw it. He remembered how Janet Mathie had left a collection of cleaning things in the bathroom. So he hurried out of the living room and returned a moment later with a wire brush. He raised the brush to the stain. Then he saw that there was still mould on his fingertip and spent another minute rubbing it on his coat.
He raised the brush a second time, but saw something else that made him pause. To one side of the round stain, slightly higher up the wall, was a smaller patch of mould. The same, gruesome flecks of black, green-brown and red were concentrated in another circle. Compared to the original mould-patch, it resembled a moon in orbit around a planet.
Simon shook his head. How had he managed not to see this second patch?
And even as he took this in, he noticed a third and then a fourth and a fifth circle of mould extending in a ragged line along the wall beyond. None of these additional patches were on the scale of the one that’d lurked behind the clay face, but their colours seemed equally vivid. Simon stepped back again. He saw how a trail of mould ran back to the door of the entrance passageway.
Still rubbing his befouled finger against his coat, still holding the wire brush, Simon followed the trail of mould-stains to the door. Through it, the trail continued with three or four circular patches along the passageway wall, as far as the next doorway. Simon passed through that as well, into the bedroom.
The bedroom walls were devoid of mould. Too devoid of it, thought Simon. Looking from side to side, he approached the bed in the room’s centre. Somehow, a suspicion grew in him that the mould had become animate and could scurry about the walls and hide from him. His head jerked around over his shoulder a couple of times, and he even wheeled 360 degrees at one point, trying to catch sight of it. But he saw nothing but clean white surfaces.
Where had it gone?
He was beside the bed, and was turning to look behind him again, when it suddenly occurred to him to look upwards too. He saw what was above him on the ceiling and gasped. At the same time, the backs of his legs encountered the bed-edge. He swayed and then his many kilos of fat made him topple onto the sheet-covered mattress.
Lying there, Simon stared up at the canopy of mould that covered the bedroom ceiling. He felt like he was sprawled on the ground while contemplating the night-sky. However, instead of constellations, there were patterns of pixelated rottenness. Black fungoid explosions had taken the place of galaxies. Green pits festered where there should’ve been nebulae. And directly above his face, what might’ve been a bright full moon was, here… He found himself staring at a concentration of lurid brown and red growths, so weirdly veined and contoured that it resembled a sentient organism – straining downwards, trying to wrestle itself out of the ceiling.
Simon wondered what he could really see in that concentration of mould, amid its repulsive lines, shapes and textures. Meanwhile, it seemed to lower itself, closer towards him.
Finally, when the concentration seemed about to reach him, he realised he was looking at a face. Those brown flecks – they were pocks and freckles covering someone’s skin. Those red blotches – they were eyes. That bulging tumorous thing in the middle – it was a nose. That ridge at the bottom, with a wet slit running along it and hairs growing on either side – it was a mouth.
“Janet!” he screamed as the mouth, her mouth puckered down to kiss him. “I’m sorry! You can have the money!”
The man rang Simon’s mobile but got no reply. Outside the building’s door, he rang the bell of the flat several times, but no voice responded from the intercom. He was on the point of giving up and walking back to the bus-stop when, through the door’s glass panes, he saw a boy appear in the lobby.
The boy ran to the door and opened it. The man was about to explain that he’d come to look at a flat in the building, but the boy emerged past him onto the street. He showed no awareness of the man’s presence. Instead, he glanced back into the lobby and spluttered in terror at something he saw there. Then he turned and fled.
The man stared after the boy, so puzzled that he forgot about the door behind him – which swung back into its frame and locked again. But then another figure approached from the lobby and opened the door. Presumably, the figure was what’d frightened the boy.
To the man’s surprise, an elderly lady stepped out of the building. She was small and neatly dressed, with rheumy eyes, pocked skin and a whiskery lower face.
“It’s okay,” he told the old lady. “I’m not a burglar. I’ve arranged with Mr Myers to look at his flat on the fourth floor.”
“You can give him these,” said the lady and rummaged in a handbag. The handbag was already unfastened and for some reason the ends of several candles protruded from it. Finally, with a liver-spotted hand, she produced a set of keys.
“I did warn him,” she muttered, passing the keys to the man. There was a look in the lady’s eyes that, despite her age and smallness, he found intimidating.
Then she went hobbling along the street after the boy.
“How very mysterious,” said the man. This time he’d remembered the door and managed to insert his foot between it and its frame before it swung shut again.
The fact that Simon Myers had answered neither his phone nor the intercom didn’t bode well but the man thought he should appear at the flat at the time agreed. He climbed the stairs to the fourth-floor landing. There was still no sign of the landlord and the flat was locked. However, its door opened when he tried one of the old lady’s keys.
“Hello?” he called inside. “Mr Myers? Are you there?”
Having honoured his side of the arrangement and come punctually, he felt entitled to go inside and look around. He went along a passageway that had three doors along its sides, one closed, the other two open and revealing a bedroom and kitchen. At the end of the passageway he entered a living room. He was impressed by the neatness and cleanliness of everything he saw. Other than the landlord’s absence, the only thing amiss was a faint musty smell. Perhaps to let the smell escape, the living-room window had been opened.
As he looked around the living room, he noticed on the table-top a mobile phone and a bizarre round face. The face was made of glazed red clay, was manically pop-eyed and sported a skull-like grin. That disturbed him somewhat… Nonetheless, the flat was smart. The bathroom was the only part of it he hadn’t seen now. It must be behind the other door in the passageway, the closed one. So he re-entered the passageway, went to the door and pushed it back.
He found himself contemplating a tiled floor that was littered with crumpled garments, including a black duffle-coat. Also, a plastic bucket lay on its side, spilling out brushes, cloths, plastic bottles and spray cans. At the bathroom’s far end, a figure was humped over a wash-hand basin. The figure’s sides were crenelated with fatty layers and it stood naked except for a pair of socks, which remained on its feet even though the feet rested in the centre of a pool of water.
“Mr Myers?” asked the man, a split-second before the figure’s nakedness registered with him.
And even more disturbing than the figure’s nakedness was how its legs, right down to its wet-socked feet, were streaked with red.
The figure swung around. In one hand it held an uncapped detergent-bottle and in the other hand it held a large wire brush. Several strands hung from the brush’s bristles, ragged ones of red and pink and a glistening, fatty one that resembled a giant glob of mucous.
“I’m almost done,” it said in a muffled voice. “I’ve almost got it scrubbed off.”
Briefly, the man had a feeling of déjà vu. The lipless grin, the lid-less eyes, the skinless tissue… He realised he’d seen this red face already, lying beside the phone on the living-room table.
Then, with his déjà-vu explained, the man was able to concentrate properly on the sight in front of him. Which he reacted to by running out of the flat, screaming.
Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, grew in Scotland and now works in the north of Africa. His work has appeared, mostly under different pseudonyms, in the Befast Telegraph, Bite Me, Death Head Grin, the Dream Zone, the Eildon Tree, Flashes in the Dark, Groundswell, Gutter, the Honest Ulsterman, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks and Sorcerous Signals. He is also the author of two non-fiction books about Scottish football and rants and raves regularly on his blog at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp.