I am writing about events I do not understand. If I had time, I could regulate my thoughts into a clear and simple account, over the course, perhaps, of several months. But I have neither the time nor the want to delay any further. My tale will be shapeless and weird, defying the boundaries of sense, but I choose to write now, and in great haste, because my memories are as vivid as they will ever be. I hold these thoughts in my mind’s eye as water is so briefly held between the fingers. If I shift my attention from this task, I will lose these thoughts forever.
It is fitting, I suppose, that I ended up in this state whilst searching for the body of my editor. It is now, as I give myself over to this strange and shifting narrative, that I need Alexander the most.
Alexander Yates had edited my writing since I was seven-teen. He was not a professional editor – in fact, he was an engineer by trade. Alexander and I grew up together in the provincial town of Hullport, east of Essex. He encouraged my writing at a time when I assigned little value to it. This was an ad hoc arrangement, never formalised, but it worked excellently. He saw what my writing could be – what I could be – when I could not. When Alexander spoke of the things he believed, you believed in them, too.
I later moved to London and begun my literary career in earnest. I made a name for myself as a writer of essays, largely autobiographical, and of some criticism. Alexander remained behind in Hullport and concentrated on his engineering work. Still, I engaged his counsel for all of my writing, though as he grew busier and I was forced to deal more with literary agents and publishing houses, our partnership no longer had the easy priority it once enjoyed.
But it was always Alexander’s voice that I trusted the most. Perhaps because it was the first voice I ever trusted at all. To write without an editor, without Alexander, would be… it would be to build a house with faulty wiring. The exterior would appear sound, but the edges are dangerous, frayed. I would not know myself whether the words were good or bad. Without Alexander, I write blindly, without assurances, and I write at length and in desperation, writing and publishing on and on and on and on for how-ever long it takes for my words to meet with response and for someone to confirm the words as being true and good.
Recently, I received a cable in London notifying me that Alexander Yates had died. I later clarified he was merely presumed dead. Alexander had disappeared in a mineshaft, the site of one of the many construction projects to which he was contracted. The authorities called off the search after a month.
I reported to Hullport for the funeral service. With no body to bury, the local authorities decided to symbolically fill Alexander’s coffin with the pet turtle from a local classroom. But the schoolchildren complained, and they had to give the turtle back. In the end, they buried only an empty casket.
The funeral service was entirely unworthy of Alexander. Less men attended than I would have thought proper. The pastor read perfunctorily from Corinthians, and only I remained at the grave. Clad in my sodden overcoat, I kept a miserable vigil in the thunderous rain of the after-noon. After I departed, the local teen-agers congregated at the cemetery to eat ham-burgers and exchange hand-jobs. And I wondered whether luck smiled on Alexander as it had the turtle. Was his life spared, too?
Certainly I wished that to be true. I pondered the question as I walked from the cemetery to the police station, inattentive to the downpour. The docks, whose industry is the diseased blood that courses through the clotted veins of this half-a-town, border the industrial smokestacks of the refineries, which the workers, in their hardhats and their overalls, leave in dour formation for the pub, where they drown their sorrows and all else that remains of them. The walls of the pub are viscous – thick and sticky to the touch from a paint job that never fully healed. It is odd: for as much as these men drink, I have never seen one fully drunk.
The people of Hullport are a dull lot, sickly and physically unfortunate. I never understood what Alexander saw in Hullport and why he devoted so much of his life to these people. They remain firmly in the last century, I feel, literally shackled by superstition – take, for example, the tales they tell of the roaming ‘Hullport mudmonster’, a supposed local cryptid whose body is made of dirty mud. They claim to fear this creature even as they gleefully propagate its legend. No men of science are these.
As the local constabulary is selected from this population, I had little faith in the thoroughness of the police investigation, and the verdict on Alexander’s ‘death’. At the station, I spoke with the inspector, a portly man with swollen reptilian lips, of the name Barnes. Barnes had no leads, no information, and was roundly unconcerned about not having recovered or even located the body from the mine. Alexander had likely been crushed in a mine collapse, he theorised – or simply asphyxiated, or fallen or trapped. The mines were deep, he told me, with many dark and uncharted passageways – nobody even knew where they all led. Or perhaps, he said, Alexander was eaten alive by some strange creature, e.g. the Hullport mudmonster.
“Mudmonster!” I exclaimed. “You expect me to believe that rubbish?”
“The simplest explanation is often times the correct one,” he insisted, smacking his lips. “Mudmonster’s razor.”
That night, I supped in the Great Room of Alexander’s mansion, joined by Alexander’s elderly butler Rickards. We sat by the ornate fireplace in leather armchairs and sniffed at glasses of rare brandy from Alexander’s private collection. The house was magnificent. It brought me great comfort to know that Alexander had spent the last years of his life in great comfort.
Rickards was a thin gent, possessed of stentorian voice and humourless face. I appreciated his company on that weird night. He briefed me at length about what Alexander had done with himself in the years since I left Hullport. Alexander had invested heavily in arterial projects – roads, bridges, tunnels, and railways – and was responsible perhaps more than anyone for the upkeep of the town’s infrastructure. He had done quite well for himself here, and turned his accumulated largesse to some of his individual passions, like the importation of exotic meats and foreign meats. Alexander would celebrate his acquisitions of new meats by opening up his mansion for great feasts, at which all the people of Hullport were welcome to sample said meats. Despite his carnal appetites, Rickards said, Alexander was a great lover of animals, and took in abandoned and abused dogs to raise them back to full health. Rickards may as well have been describing to me a stranger. I realised then how little I had truly known of Alexander’s life beyond his involvement in mine.
As I contemplated the implications of this, my eye drifted across the room where I glimpsed something that chilled me to the marrow. I saw a pack of tiny, white apparitions flit across the doorway, and then disappear down the Great Corridor. It happened so quickly it was if I had caught them dashing between our world and the next.
“By God, Rickards!” I exclaimed, leaping out of my chair. The brandy snifter crashed on the hardwood floor. “Spectres!”
Rickards shook his head. “Not spectres, sir. That is the Ghost Club. It is a recreational after-school programme devised and funded by Mr Yates. It keeps the children off the streets and inside ghost costumes.”
Then Alexander was a philanthropist, on top of all else.
I retook my seat. One of Alexander’s black hounds entered the Great Room and lapped up the spilled brandy.
“When did you last see Alexander?” I petted the dog on its head. “What did he say to you?”
“The last time I saw Mr Yates…” Rickards paused to remember. “For some weeks, Mr Yates had been closely involved with the town’s underground rail line project. He had been commissioned to reconnoitre the planned site. That was where the mine came in. Every day, Mr Yates would visit the mine, and soon he began to have troubled nights. When he slept… when he did sleep, he would toss and turn, and shout out in the night. He told me he was plagued by dark visions, images of teeth, and of stars. One night I heard him cry out the words: ‘Ndyuthr! Ndyuthr!’
“He told me later that it was the mine: that there was something down there. On the last day I saw him, he left the house in the morning with one of the hounds and an oil lamp. He said to me, ‘Mr Rickards, I expect this will be the last we see of one another.’ Indeed, only the hound returned home that day.”
“Mr Rickards! Why did you not report this information to the police?”
“I don’t see the relevance.”
“The relevance? Why, Mr Rickards, Alexander clearly found something quite disturbing in the mine, and told you that he was walking to his certain death!”
“I don’t see how you could take that from what I said.”
That night, the after-noon and evening rain picked up speed and ferocity, and Rickards agreed to have me stay in one of Alexander’s guest rooms. The electricity in the house had somehow failed, so I lighted my way with a tinderbox. I lay in bed and became drowsy to the rhythms of the rain and the wind thrashing against the window. I do not know how long I had slept – if I had slept at all – by the time I awoke to the shattering of the window. I saw the curtains throw a hail of wet glass into the room and I hit the mattress to protect my face. I barely had time to collect myself when three urgent, pounding knocks arrived at the door.
“Rickards?” I called out. The pounding continued unabated. “Rickards, is that you?”
Again, I heard no answer but the battering of the door. Through the broken window, the cold mist slithered down my neck. “Is this one of the Ghost Club children? I have no fondness for horseplay.” The pounding turned so violent that the door now buckled under the pressure.
“Rickards?” The wind screamed. “Inspector Barnes?” This intolerable pounding! I ventured another name.
The noises stopped. I laid still a while to make sure that the presence behind the door had truly disappeared, and once I was satisfied, I left the bed and pushed the wardrobe quietly to block the door.
I did not manage to fall asleep that night, and in the protracted hours I spent lying in the bed, I had much time to consider Alexander’s premature legacy. The man had built this town, paid for its roads, kept safe its children, treated its men and women to great banquets, and saved its animals from death. All for Hullport. And in return? Hullport wrote him off as dead and intended to bury a turtle in his grave, and even at that, they failed.
But had I treated my friend any better?
In Alexander’s spare time, of which I am now surprised he had any, he supported me literally to the hilt – with his time, with his hospitality, with his friendship, even with his money. And what had I done with these gifts but glorify myself? I had never compensated Alexander – not financially, not in any way. I wrote about myself – long essays about my thoughts, my life, my problems – this is all I wrote about. Of what value was this? Had I declared myself to be the only subject in the world of any meaning? What were other people to me but ‘subjects’ of ‘pieces’? What were women to me but ‘stories’? And what had Alexander been to me but… a means? Had I ever done a good deed for another as Alexander had done for me? Had I ever done one good thing for anybody? Had I ever done a single goddamn thing?
There was one thing I could do for Alexander, which nobody else would. I would go down into that mine. I would find the place where Alexander lay. If he still lived, then I would save him, and if not, well, I would give him the memorial he deserved. This I would do: one final, and perhaps my first, act of friendship.
I set out at first light. I leashed one of Alexander’s hounds as my guide, and retrieved an oil lamp in the cellar. I paused at the doorway and said goodbye to Rickards, who was dusting in the foyer.
“Mr Rickards, I expect this will be the last we see of one another.”
“See you later, then.”
The road to the mine was long, and took the hound and I far away from what passes in Hullport for civilisation. On the trail we passed the ripe corpse of some rotting animal, and the dog peed on it, and I hated everything about that.
To my good fortune – so I thought at the time – the entrance to the mine was unsealed. No matter that it was a crime scene, no matter that Alexander Yates still waited inside for rescue or internment. I had much to say about the standard of policing in this wreck of a town and I thought that perhaps when I returned to London I should write a letter.
In the mine, the air was warm and thick with dust, and absolutely silent but for the simmering wind and the whimpering of the dog. The miners’ tools lay where the miners had abandoned them, scattered over the ground amidst the sawdust and the rocks. The lights had gone some time ago. I swung the lantern in the blackness to chart a path, and followed the path of the rails deeper into the chasm.
As we progressed, the dog’s protests grew in their fervour. It drove its heels into the ground and held fast as I yanked its leash onwards. It howled softly. I knelt down beside the pitiable creature and hung the lantern between us. In the patch of light, the dog turned its soft eyes up to me and with them begged for clemency. Tears rolled down the side of its face.
“But this is Alexander,” I explained to the dog. “We’re trying to find Alexander. We’re trying to save him.”
The dog nuzzled its long snout into the crook of my arm. I let the leash drop and, perhaps in a display of gratitude, the dog pressed its wet mouth to my nose. I closed my eyes and listened to the dog’s soft footsteps recede hurriedly into the daylight.
I proceeded further into the mine, the worn brass handle of the lantern slippery in the accumulated sweat of my palm. The mine subdivided into paths and passageways, and each passageway begat more and more passageways, expanding into a confounding veinal labyrinth. I had no sense of the size of this maze and no hope of arranging it into a clear pattern in my mind. I chose passageways without thinking and subjected myself to the guiding hand of providence. The path sloped down sharply, and I descended carefully over the uncut rock.
“YOU WILL NOT FIND WHAT YOU SEEK!”
That voice, like the scraping of teeth against chalkboard!
I clambered back up the incline, dropping the lantern in my haste. It cascaded down the mine, splaying its beam in a spasmodic arc across the tunnel walls. I scrambled and ran, from the wind that snarled at my back, and the voice that drilled into my flesh. I tripped, became unbalanced, and fell back down the slope as the lantern had moments before. I dashed my head open on the rocks below.
In retrospect, I am glad for the fall. It denied my cowardly attempt to flee, and allowed me the chance to comport myself and meet my death with some dignity. I am dying here, on the dark floor of the mine, as the blood seeps freely from the gashes that defile my face. Above me, I can hear its breathing, which is rough and primal, and grows ever louder as the thing makes its invisible approach. And I can see Alexander, his body resting against the tree trunk by the shore. Whether he is alive or dead there I cannot say, but I feel that shortly, I will know.
All that remains is to conclude my story. I have staved off the end long enough to pen this strange account on the sides of a mine cart. This took a really long time. I hope that my effort will not be for naught. I hope that my story will eventually be discovered, and – maybe even one day – understood.
I hold a conviction now, which had never before occurred to me. It is this: A good writer writes to glorify himself, a great writer writes to glorify others. I am prouder of those words than anything I have ever written. I would like that to be engraved upon my headstone. Or perhaps, in the spirit of the sentiment, I should have those engraved on the headstone of somebody else. I am not sure whose headstone specifically. I think just any headstone will be fine. Anybody would be thankful to have that.
[Archival Note, 17/09/13: i’m the assistant archaeologist who had to transcribe this and it took forever. it's done now though. this guy never wrote his name down anywhere so I don’t really know who he was. my name is shaun. archaeology is only a day job for me, i'm in a band, sort of heavy pop-punk, called Midgard Cruising. i do lead guitar and vox and cowrite all the songs with craig. if yr in hullport you should come and check us out, we have a couple of shows we’re playing at the Bard on 24/9, 27/9, 1/10, 5/10, 8/10, 15/10, 22/10 and 25/10. more dates to come hopefully. we are on facebook and bandcamp also. we are getting some tshirts and buttons printed and you should be able to buy those at the october shows, but that depends 100% on our supplier who we found on the web. do NOT come to the 24/9 and 27/9 shows expecting to buy tshirts and buttons, they will NOT be there. anyway hope you come out and support the band. white power.]