Ah all the lonely people,
Ah all the lonely people...
-- "Eleanor Rigby,"The Beatles, 1966
The Great Smog of '52 lasted a grand total of five days. Everyone knows it affected London and its outlying suburbs, of course. Pea-soupers have been an old friend of the City of the Fog.
But what fewer people know is that it affected the picturesque hamlet of St Fillians as well.
While London was smothered with the warm and cosy sulphur dioxide mask for less than a week, St Fillians' bout stretched on nigh for a fortnight and a half, our comforting duvet woven out of mercury nitrate. Smog the hue of lurid rust infiltrated the air, patiently and methodically poisoning the inhabitants. There were times when it grew bored, anxious and greedy, behaving not unlike a spoiled, selfish tyke, and snatched up an entire family just because it could.
The Daily Telegraph was riddled about with sensationalized accounts of the dead and dying, clinging feebly to life as they breathed their last, struggling to draw in air past the pus that filled their lungs, constricting their air flow. Bile coloured plumes of smoke choking the rosy hue from the cheeks of the good people of the city of London.
There was no mention of St Fillians. The capital, as per usual in those days, was too wrapped up in itself to give notice to entities and events outside its golden, plummy realm. It was if we had been rudely scrapped off the map --like one does to the gum that irritatingly adheres to the sole of your shoe-- leaving a raw, gaping hole in the Highlands and no one gave a bloody damn. We had been essentially transformed into a paper town.
Despite this, there was no true panic. For the government hid the bodies exceptionally well. Those who survived the poison, however....
Now, cold rain beats weakly against the ground, lazily rinsing away the fresh smear marring the pavement. The drops dutifully continue until it is nothing but a diluted puddle of iron and platelets. Spotting the scene ahead --knowing quite well that everyone is watching--I immediately contrive my most dazzling counterfeit grin and force my eyes up and forward.
The people of Merc Road have all lined up, cluttered and packed amongst eachother on the sidewalks, spilling out into the street like rabid sardines. The occasional onlooker will get overeager, elbowing a neighbour in the jaw, knifing another in the carotid with the stray pen. Desperate for that fix, that brief glimpse into the human condition, the deepest part of our psyche that strips one bare to the errant, depraved, primal versions of ourselves.
I do my damnedest to simulate the manic gleam that shines too brightly in their wet, inflamed eyes. With the ease of daily routine, I begin to laugh hysterically. Elbowing and jabbing the sharpened tip of my closed umbrella into arms and legs, I create a prompt fissure in the Bevy. They dutifully step aside, avoiding the bracing, uncomfortable bite of the metal ferrule.
Some begin to chuckle, joining in on my false merriment. Hearing that, I begin to let some of the tension bleed out of me. However, I am not so foolish as to let my guard down completely. Not after what happened to Taric. The memory unbiddenly rushes to the forefront of my mind, tearing ruthlessly at my concentration, scrambling my thoughts, mixing and matching recollections.
Long, white lab coats.
My mother's infectious laugh.
Tortoise shell horn-rimmed glasses.
Cary Grant discovering a body in a window bench.
The comforting aroma of Grandfather's Tea Shop.
The feeling of Taric's hot blood . . . welling up between my fingers, embedding into the lines of my palms.
Eyes are still on me, observing, peeking, waitingwaitingwaiting. The burning weight that you cannot mistake for anything else. That unnerving, heady awareness which burrows hot and prickling, rendering your flesh asunder. Unsympathetically prying back muscle and eroding bone, it poisons the sweetness of your marrow till you cannot help but sense the bile inch up your throat.
It's not self-importance, it's fact.
"It's braw, isn't it?"
The question snaps me back to the present, causing me to notice I have inadvertently stopped my progress through the swarm of bodies. I whip my head towards the energetic, feminine voice. The girl is harmless enough as appearances go. Dangerously thin and willowy, she seems as if she could be knocked over with a stiff bit of wind. Her dirty blonde hair is cropped short and paired with her boxy, stripped Mod dress; it gives her quite the androgynous look. A resplendent smile stretches the corners of her lips, making her entire face glow with unfettered joy. To a naïve onlooker, she's just like any other teenager, obsessed with obtaining George Harrison's autograph and applying her Twiggy lashes perfectly.
Fortunately, I am one of the few who knows better.
I nod fervently, my cheeks beginning to feel the keen ache of being upheld for so long. Clearing my throat, with my heart throwing itself against my ribs, I answer with the socially acceptable reply.
"You'd have to be sane not to appreciate it!" I crow.
The response immediately sweeps away possible suspicion. With a renewed grin and a particularly frenzied sparkle in her pale hazel irises, she turns her attention back to the grim scene. Breathing a silent sigh of flooding relief, I pick up my game of swatting the crowd's limbs and other appendages that have the misfortune of blocking my path.
Soon, I breakthrough to the epicentre. And there in wait lies another one. A halo of watered down blood frames their bludgeoned head, painting a rather morbid Madonna upon the pavement.
His injuries are grotesque.
At least, I believe the poor soul was male. The body is so painfully emaciated it is a challenge to distinguish one from the other.
Each leg splays out in awkward, unnatural angles, a twisted, perverted mockery of when a child creates a snow angel. The limbs petrified in the final spasms of his death throes. The left eye has left its home, a sore, weeping hole taking residence. Beneath the gaping cavity the face is severely sunken in, the cheek sagging without the support of the zygomatic bone. It must be entirely shattered to bits. The right eyelid is nearly swollen shut --only a silver of his clouded iris and pupil visible--marred with deep plum and maroon coloured splotches.
The left side of his mandible is fractured, exposed, half of his teeth on display in a gruesome grin. All of the muscle and skin is absent, cleaved from the very bone.
A pale grey hue --one that can only be emulated by the dead-- adorns his flesh, slick from the passing shower, naked save for a pair of some rather mishandled, threadbare tartan breeks.
Drawing in the crisp autumn air deep into my lungs, I set further into the circle. As I gaze down at the pitiful sight, I find myself struggling to keep my manic little mask on.
No, I did not know this creature.
But from the sorry state he is in, I can only be sure that he was one of us: Sane.
Not wanting to leave him rotting in the street any longer than necessary, I Claim him. Taking a brief scan of the crowd, I determine that no one is either willing or energetic enough to do so. Standing up a smidge straighter than usual, I quickly step over the corpse. This is met with the typical resigned grumblings and half-whispered, fevered rantings and ravings -- always to oneself, of course. They begrudgingly disperse, dragging their feet and kicking rusted soup cans down the lane like sullen, scolded children. Claiming is one of the few rules that they actually adhere to and uphold with the strictest piety.
To err is a death sentence without fail.
Flipping open the flap of my worn leather satchel, I dig for what I had hoped I wasn't going to need today. My fingers find the polished wood of my collapsible stretcher with acute familiarity. Carefully, I draw it out and fling it outward, gravity unfurling it until the tell-tale click, click, click of the wood pieces lock together neatly.
And all the damn while, I have the sickening smile pinning my lips up. I can't let the act slip for one moment. Even if the Bevy have all retreated back to their homes, I know all too well that they'll be spying at their leisure from the comfort of their reading chairs. Diligently staring out the windows for any indication that there might be an interloper in their midst. Silently willing for any occasion to rise up. Any occasion to rise up and claw and rip and tear the meat from an outsider's person.
This is life now.
Thank you for reading!