I stopped the car at last and let the fog close in around me, enveloping me in its thick, undulating billows of grey. It was strangely comforting, like being swathed in a warm woollen blanket. It softened the edges of the outside world, dulled each sound to a murmur and, despite the isolation and the darkness, it made this seem like a safe place.
Nevertheless, it had caused me to lose my way. I had decided to take a different route this evening, skirting the common in order to avoid the traffic and shave a few minutes off my seemingly interminable journey home. Christ, this job in the city was dragging me down - I seemed to have surrendered whole chunks of my life to a parade of pointless paperwork. As each day went by I felt that I was sinking ever deeper into a morass of mediocrity. But it was the travelling that really got me down, grid locked in traffic for hour after hour, fumes building, horns blaring and tempers becoming increasingly fragile. It just made me all the more desperate to put my foot down and go; to drive and keep driving until I had left my old life behind and was far, far away. And so I had attempted this ‘short cut’ in order to claw back a few moments of my life. Some hope.
Sadly the weather had conspired against me. The mists had become thicker and thicker, blinding me. I had slowed my pace to a crawl so that I might pick out my way, but at some point I must have taken a wrong turn, and now I was hopelessly lost. I sighed and stared out into the gloomy night, desperately searching for some feature or landmark that I might recognise. I saw nothing but nebulous banks of fog as they floated out across the common, mixing and merging into weird, twisted patterns, then just melting away to reform into different shapes a moment later.
My breath had begun to steam up the windscreen. To amuse myself I idly wrote my name in the condensation, staring vacantly at the letters until they began to mist over. I sat for a moment in the pitch silence, listening to the rattling of the fog on the window and taking in the colourful smell of the radiant moonlight. Then, curiously, I heard the sound of running feet approaching along the road ahead.
Was it real?
What kind of maniac would be out here on a night like this - apart from me, that is? I shook my head, hoping that this would dislodge the hallucination from my tired mind, but the sound was still there. Tap, tap, tappy tap on the damp tarmac. And it was getting closer. I leaned forward, wiping the windscreen clean as I tried to penetrate the fog.
Suddenly a woman appeared in the beam of my headlamps. The shock of her abrupt arrival caused me to throw myself backwards in my seat. She seemed equally surprised to come upon me and failed to check her headlong flight. There was a thud and the car rocked as she slammed into the front of the vehicle. I sat in stunned amazement as she rolled around on the bonnet, clutching her knee and moaning pathetically. Then she dropped back onto the road, out of sight, but still groaning to herself. Coming to my senses at last, I quickly jumped out of the car and went around to the front to examine the paintwork.
“Cathy, Cathy,” I heard the woman moan behind me as I crouched at the roadside.
“I’m not Cathy, you stupid bitch!” I said angrily, frowning at my shattered headlamps. “The name’s Dickson - Geoff Dickson. Remember that name, you’ll need it when you come to write out the cheque, because I’m going to make damn sure you pay for the damage you’ve done to my car.”
A cursory inspection had revealed the damage to be minimal, but this did nothing to curb my indignation. In fact, the woman’s callous disregard for the trouble she had caused only served to increase my irritation. That, and her subsequent attempts to involve me in her own misfortunes.
“No, Cathy’s over there in the road,” she rattled on. She reached out and grabbed hold of my leg. “We had an accident. She’s badly hurt.”
I’m not an uncharitable person, but by now she was beginning to get my back up. I could sense we were not going to be the best of friends, and the way she was quite deliberately bleeding over my turn-ups only served to make the situation more fraught.
I tried to shake her loose, but she only clung on tighter. “You’ve got to help her,” she pleaded, her face a mess of tears and gravel. “She could be bleeding to death!”
“Well, that’s as maybe,” I responded, unmoved by her tale of woe. “It’s got nothing to do with me, now has it? Quite frankly, it’s not my problem.”
“B-but,” she stammered in what I took to be an incredulous voice, “you must help us.”
I folded my arms nonchalantly. “Oh, must I?” I replied. “Explain the logic behind that, why don’t you? Just because some demented woman takes a flying leap at my headlights, I’m automatically obliged to help, is that it?”
“But nothing,” I continued, riding roughshod over her objections. “Where would I be if every time some soppy tart threw herself at my car, I just dropped everything and leapt to her assistance? Who do you think I am - Batman?”
“But, we’ve had an accident,” the mad woman croaked, raising herself just enough to point along the road.
“So you keep harping on about,” I responded. “Quite frankly, I’m sick of hearing about it, you daft cow. You’ve got no right trying to drag other people into your mess.”
“But she’s horribly injured,” she persisted.
I rolled my eyes skyward and sighed. “Oh, you just don’t get it, do you?” I said. “I don’t care. I don’t give a damn. Now will you please let go of my leg, you’re wasting your time. There is nothing that you can possibly say that will make me want to help your friend.”
“I have money,” she said.
“Where is she?” I replied.
The woman informed me that her name was Janet. I told her that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested, but it didn’t stop her explaining the circumstances of her accident. She told me that she worked with Cathy at the local meat rendering plant and had been giving her a lift home in her combination motorbike and sidecar, when the road had disappeared and a tree had leapt out in front of them. It was at this point that her voice began to falter. Clearly she was becoming quite upset, and so I walked several paces in front of her to avoid embarrassment.
Eventually we reached the scene of the accident. A mangled and twisted mess of steel lay at the foot of an ancient oak, which had a sidecar in its uppermost branches and a surprised expression on its trunk. But there was no sign of Cathy.
“There’s no sign of Cathy,” I pointed out unnecessarily. “Is this a wind up?”
“No, of course not,” she replied defensively, a resolute expression on her upturned face. For a brief moment the moonlight glistened enchantingly in her glass eye. “She was right here.”
Janet pointed to a spot on the ground, then frowned as she reconsidered. “Well actually, she was more sort of that direction, with her feet bent up over there and her arm twisted around there.”
She was gesticulating wildly, so I hit her. I don’t know if it helped calm her down, but it certainly did me a power of good. “How badly was she hurt?” I asked once she’d stopped gibbering.
“She had a graze on her knee and a button had come off her blouse,” Janet replied.
“That bad, eh?” I mused. I rubbed my chin slowly as I contemplated the situation. The mists seemed to close about me. I felt icy cold, but it wasn’t just the chill night air that made me shiver. Suddenly the silence was disturbed by a faint but razor-sharp crack, like that made by a brittle twig being broken underfoot.
“What’s that?” I hissed, startled.
Janet hazarded a guess. “It sounds like a faint but razor sharp crack,” she whispered.
“That’s what I was thinking,” I breathed.
“It’s almost like the noise made by a brittle twig being broken underfoot,” she added.
She could well have been right, although I didn’t like to admit it. I muttered something uncomplimentary beneath my breath, then called out, “Who is it? Who’s there?”
For a moment all was silent, then came the reply.
“It’s me,” a voice returned. “I’m sorry, but I think I’ve just broken someone’s twig.”
By now my trepidation was rapidly giving way to irritation. “Who are you?” I demanded of the phantom twig snapper, but the only reply I got was the wind whistling through the trees and the disgruntled chatter of a nearby squirrel complaining that someone had trodden on its nuts.
Janet suddenly caught her breath. “Perhaps it’s Cathy’s father?” she said hopefully. “I think he’s a pharmacist or something. Maybe he’s come out to look for us?” But she didn’t sound too sure of herself. I could feel her trembling with fear as she drew closer to me, so I pushed her away.
“Or then again,” she continued, “it might be some foul and demonic creature of the night, lusting to feast on our warm blood.”
I looked at her askance, but she was obviously on a roll. Her hand went to her mouth and when next she spoke it was in a hoarse, melodramatic whisper.
“Or could it be,” she hissed, “a mad, axe-wielding mentalist with a fetish for jelly?”
I stared at her for a moment or two, trying to think of a suitable put-down, but words failed me. “Nutter,” I managed to mumble at last. Just then a noise behind me made me turn. At first I could see nothing beyond the impenetrable wall of fog, but then I perceived a tiny point of light in the gloom. It seemed to be approaching. Eventually I was able to discern a figure coming towards us. He was a squat man in his late fifties, with a thick, black, pudding-bowl haircut, which rippled like a cornfield in response to the slightest breeze. He was wearing a long white lab coat - which is to say that he was wearing a lab coat that had once been white but which was now a patchwork of charred fabric and multi-coloured stains. He was holding a burning match to light his way, but it was pretty much redundant since some of the patches on his coat glowed with an eerie brightness of their own and gave off considerably more illumination.
The strange man stopped several feet in front of me, motionless. His chin was thrust upwards and he looked down the length of his nose at me with a touch of haughty disdain, a superior twinkle in his eyes.
“I think I’ve just trodden in something,” he said, and the match burnt down and scalded his fingers. “Bugger it!” he cried, dropped the match and started to jump up and down, rubbing his hand.
As I watched him prancing about, any feelings of awe I might have had towards him rapidly dispersed. “Are you Cathy’s father, the pharmacist?” I asked.
“Pharmacist!” he cried indignantly, momentarily distracted from his pain. “I’ll have you know that I am Professor Samuel Mendes!” he exclaimed.
“Professor Samuel Mendes!” I exclaimed right back at him.
“Ah ha!” he continued exclaiming. “I thought you’d be impressed!”
“Impressed!” I repeated, exclaiming out of habit now, rather than anything else. “Never heard of you.”
“Pah!” he spat at me. And such was his contempt that he did quite literally spit at me. “You young dolt! You’ve never heard of the world famous inventor of the wind-powered torch? Or the everlasting kebab? Surely you’ve heard of my patented disposable chocolate?”
“Disposable chocolate?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he explained. “Tastes like shit. Only thing it’s good for is being thrown away.”
I shook my head. “Sorry Prof,” I said. “It’s a new one on me.”
“Me too,” said Janet.
The Professor shrugged. “Well the marketing’s been a problem,” he said philosophically. Then his manner changed abruptly and he eyed us both suspiciously. “The question is, what are you two young people doing all the way out here on a night like this. Up to no good, I’ll warrant.”
He started to circle me slowly, never shifting his piercing gaze from me. I felt myself wilt slightly, but stood my ground. “We could ask the same of you,” I replied.
“I’m looking for something,” he snapped in reply, and there was something in his voice that made that simple statement sound like a challenge.
“Cathy’s key, she wore it around her neck,” he explained. He came to a halt in front of me and brought his face close to mine. The smell of cheese and onion was almost unbearable. “You haven’t seen it at all, have you?”
The question was left lingering in the air like an accusation. One that I was compelled to refute. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Are you sure?” asked Professor Mendes. “You can’t miss it - it’s about four foot long and made of solid lead.”
He tilted his head to one side, his eyes searching for the faintest flicker of deception in my expression. But before I could answer, Janet interceded. “Is this it, Professor?” she said, pointing at something on the ground.
The Professor snorted and gave the object a cursory glance. “No, that’s the rear bumper from a 1962 Morris Oxford,” he said. He kicked the bumper aside and spied the key underneath. “Now this is more like it!” he exclaimed delightedly. He bent down to recover it, but before he could pick it up I leapt over and stomped on it.
“Owww, my bloody fingers!” the Professor cried, snatching back his hand. He glared at me reproachfully. “What do you think you’re playing at, stamping on people’s hands like that? You’re a bloody madman!”
“I’m sorry,” I said firmly, “but I can’t let you have that key. How do we know that you really are Cathy’s father?”
“What are you talking about, you freakin’ lunatic?” the Professor snapped, sucking his bruised fingers.
“Well look at it this way - some poor girl’s gone missing and you just happen to be wandering round on the common,” I argued. “How do we know that you’re not some kind of deviant?”
“Yes!” Janet chipped in. “Or a mad, axe-wielding mentalist with a fetish for jelly?”
“I am,” the Professor freely admitted. “But I’m also Cathy’s father, and I want that key!”
With that, he launched himself at me, shoulder barging me to the ground. For such a small man he was surprisingly strong. In fact, the smell of him alone was enough to overpower me. However, I was not about to let this malodorous maniac get the better of me. As the Professor tried once more to recover the key, I scrambled to my feet and made a dive for him. Before he knew it I was on his back, my hands clasped tightly over his eyes.
“Get off me!” he spluttered.
“Say you submit,” I demanded, tightening my grip.
“Oww, you’re hurting me!” the Professor exclaimed. He spun around, trying to shake me loose, but there was no shifting me.
“Submit!” I insisted.
“Stop buggering about!” Professor Mendes responded. “Let go of me this instant, you fucking lunatic! What kind of madman goes around attacking harmless men of science in the middle of the night?”
With that, this ‘harmless man of science’ managed to sink his teeth into my right hand. I let go and jumped back. He wheeled around to face me, an evil gleam in his eye as he flashed me a broad, toothless grin. I looked down to see his teeth still embedded in my hand. I shrieked in horror and shook my hand violently. The teeth flew off into the darkness, where they could be heard scurrying about the undergrowth, harassing the local wildlife.
Okay, so now the gloves were off.
“I’m sorry Professor,” I said firmly, “but there is no way that you are going to get that key.” My jaw was set in an attitude of grim determination. I narrowed my eyes and fixed him with a cold, dark stare as I slowly advanced towards him. The Professor stood his ground, but I felt that by now I had the measure of him. “Now, are you going to tell us where Cathy is?”
I had got to within three feet of him when the Professor suddenly pulled a cricket bat from inside his coat and knocked me to the ground. Leaving me lying in a dazed stupor, he deftly snatched up the key and ran off into the woods.
I was impressed. Someone who could lay their hands on dangerous sports equipment at a moment’s notice was obviously a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, I was more than a match for him, and I was determined he would not get away. Wasting no time, I changed into my tracksuit and running shoes and set off after him.
The ground was treacherous underfoot, and the darkness turned even the smallest obstacle into a potential death trap. Vaguely I was aware of Janet running behind me, shouting something about pork luncheon meat, but my attention was firmly fixed on the Professor as he stealthily hobbled from tree to tree. He seemed to know exactly where he was heading and eventually the hazy yellow glow of a solitary farmhouse appeared from the gloom. Spurred on by the lights, the Professor quickened his pace and I soon had serious problems keeping up with him. I just managed to keep him in sight as he deftly vaulted the rickety wooden fence at the back of the house. Moments later I reached the fence myself but negotiated it with embarrassingly less aplomb, becoming ensnared by the rusted knots of barbed wire that held it together. By the time I had extricated myself, the Professor was gone.
I paused a moment to catch my breath. I may have lost track of Professor Mendes, but there was only really one place he could have gone. I strode purposefully up the tangled and overgrown lawn towards the rear of the house. Suddenly I heard a door slam behind me, and I turned. There, at the bottom of the garden stood a small brick building, a monument to the efficiency of early twentieth century waste disposal. Or, in other words, an outside toilet. So, the crafty little bleeder thought he could hide out from me in there, did he?
I strode up to the door and rapped on it sharply with my knuckle. “Come on, come on!” I barked. “Are you going to be much longer in there?”
“Go away!” replied the Professor’s muffled voice. “There’s no one here.”
“Listen Prof,” I persisted. “If you’re not gonna come out, then I’m gonna come in.”
“I should give it a few minutes first,” he replied.
“Okay, if that’s the way you want to play it,” I said. I took a few steps back then hurled myself at the door with all my weight. It was less sturdy than I had imagined and, with an explosion of splintering wood, I careered headlong into the toilet. After that things got a little confusing. I remember seeing a young girl standing in front of me, a look of horror on her face. And I recall seeing strange pipes, and levers, and tubes, and valves - certainly not the kind of thing you usually find in an outside toilet. Then there was a sharp crack on the back of my head, my legs turned to jelly, the floor came up to meet me and all I saw after that were stars.