4th NOVEMBER 1995
A girl stands on a street corner in the 17th arondissment of Paris. She twists a finger through her black hair, teasing it into drifts and spikes, while her other hand drags at the zip of her black leather jacket. She is wearing a t-shirt of David Bowie as Aladdin Sane. From a pocket she produces a crumpled packet of Gauloise. The breeze pinches the flame from her a few times before she manages to light her cigarette and then she snaps the lighter shut with a practised flick of her wrist, streamers of smoke trailing from her nose. Across the street a couple grasp each other tipsily after a long Saturday lunch. The man says something, French contorted in an English accent that makes the woman trill with laughter. The girl watches them in amusement, smoke falling from her smile. From nearby she hears a car horn jabbing the air and a raised voice in response. The man says something else that the woman finds funny. Another car horn sounds, a serrated series of beeps signalling greater impatience. The girl ignores the altercation and instead keeps her eyes fixed on an apartment across the street from where she is standing. She draws on her cigarette again. The window is pushed open, briefly dazzling with sunlight but she doesn’t look away or even blink. As she snorts smoke an elderly man clambers slowly through the window. There is a moment when things seem to stop: the old man doesn’t move and the girl holds her breath. Finally he leans forward and falls into the air. Someone shouts but the girl is transfixed, watching the man moving through the air for a few seconds before he hits the ground. The sound is soft, yet heavy and final. Some other people who witnessed the incident shout in surprise, call to each other, and approach the inert figure. The drunken couple stare open-mouthed at the dead man. The girl drops her cigarette and smudges it on the kerb with the tip of her shoe before she turns and walks away. The drunken man glances at her, and looks baffled. In the afternoon brightness the sun exaggerates an anorexic shadow several metres ahead of her and an equally elongated shadow is cast in her wake.
James rubbed at his eyes. The pressure felt good; he imagined he was smearing away the achiness and fatigue accumulated after a week of night shifts.
‘Keeping yous up Jamie?’ said Marcus, setting down his pint.
‘Don’t mind me,’ James replied, a finger lingering beneath his right eyelid. ‘My sleep pattern’s all shot. I don’t know whether it’s too early or too late.’ He moved his finger, feeling as though without the support his face were collapsing. ‘I’m just out of sync.’
‘A pint of London Pride would’ve sorted you out,’ said Marcus.
James nodded towards Marcus’ glass and grimaced. ‘Stuff tastes like marmalade,’ he complained. ‘I’m fine with this,’ he added, picking up his own pint.
‘Suit yourself. So how’s this dead mail that’s keeping you awake at night?’
James tutted. ‘It’s called Undelivered Mail, these days, not the Dead Letter Office. You wouldn’t believe how much of this stuff there is, though. We’re sorting through sackfuls of it every night.’
Marcus smirked. ‘Necro-filing.’
James rolled his eyes. ‘Fuck off. It’s a step up from sitting in an office basement with you, shutting down old bank accounts.’
Marcus took another deep glug at his pint. ‘Found anything interesting?’
James inclined his head and shrugged. ‘Most of it’s routine. Junk mail. There’s so much of it you don’t have time to read anything really. If it’s got an address then it can be returned, official correspondence and documents can be sent back, everything else is shredded.’
Marcus tapped the side of his nose. ‘That’s what you’re told to say. Bet it all goes through M.I.5 first.’
James shook his head this time. ‘Sorry to disappoint. There’s no conspiracy theory here. It all goes into secure bins and gets carted away at the end of the shift.’
‘So you don’t actually see anything shredded? If I get you another pint will you tell me the truth?’
James laughed. ‘Sure. Same again.’
Marcus leant across the table. ‘If you find anything about the Experimental Films Unit I want to know, right?’
‘You’re not still on about that one, are you? It’s just another Roswell-Stargate- Project-conspiracy theory. You probably read it in Fortean Times, between an unearthed fairy coffin and an interview with a mer-man.’
Marcus looked solemn. ‘Something happened,’ he said. ‘They did something, Jamie. Definitely.’
9th AUGUST 1971
Terry Sanderson shifted in his chair. The office was uncomfortably hot and the sunlight was now nearly directly in his eyes. He looked again at the clock on the wall, noting that the man sitting behind the desk hadn’t moved for eight minutes. A car horn tooted down below, somewhere along Oxford Street, but otherwise the only sound in the room was the ticking enormous ticking of the clock. Terry suspected this was all intentional.
‘Quite –’ said the man, slapping shut the file ‘– a yarn.’ He looked at the cigarette held close to the side of his head, eyed the extended pale beam of ash, and adroitly lowered his arm to knock this into the ashtray beside two telephones. Finally he turned his gaze to Terry, his eyebrows raised.
‘Well you see, sir, it’s...’ began Terry.
The man frowned. ‘Shush,’ he said, quickly and distinctly.
Terry didn’t know how to react to being shushed and merely blinked in the sunlight.
‘After all this time we have forty-five minutes of film that could be broadcast. Could, in theory, be transmitted on BBC 2 for the real weirdies who like that sort of thing, although I shudder to think of the fun and games Mrs Whitehouse and her ilk would make of such unhinged rubbish. I understand this…writer – if that’s not denigrating the term – is no longer with us? Murdered by the fellow with whom he cohabited, no less?’
Terry shifted in his seat. The man was almost in silhouette now, his cigarette’s smoke looking bluish in the light. ‘Sir, I thought I was here about…’
The man’s hand rapped the top of the file. ‘About the events of last week,’ he said acidly. ‘Yes, this absurd experiment or performance or whatever to goodness it was. I’ve had the Minister complaining about you playing about at the top of the Post Office Tower, policemen confiscating everything in sight, and two members of your gang who’ve gone doolally. You were supposed to be making cutting-edge television, Sanderson – what got into you?’
Terry was sweating now. The two cameramen had both been strapped down and sedated for their own good. He flushed at being reminded.
‘We never thought…after our broadcast…we never thought we’d get a reply. And then they materialised, right there, just for a moment. And our cameras caught it all.’
James dabbed his finger across the last few crisp-crumbs sticking to the inside of the packet.
‘Thought you weren’t hungry,’ said Marcus
‘Carbs,’ retorted James. ‘I’m hoping it’ll help me to sleep.’
‘Still not sleeping?’ said Marcus.
James licked his finger and began folding up the crisp packet. ‘I find counting little green aliens doesn’t work for me.’
Marcus sniffed. ‘They are more bluey-grey, actually, if you’ve read about it. But that’s not what I’m researching any more. Have you heard of the Listening Operation?’
James grimaced. ‘I’m all ears.’
‘Since the late sixties people kept reporting clicks and strange sounds during their telephone calls but the operators could never find any faults on the line.’
James stopped concertina-ing the foil packet and looked up. ‘That’s it?’
‘People were listening in,’ Marcus said sharply. ‘Known fact. This woman called Jessie Corberry blew the whistle on it. Even went on tv about it. Anyway, she reckoned it went much further; it was a bigger project. She wrote books about it for years but, mysteriously, they’ve never come out. Recently she started to post online, going on about a top-secret experiment they carried out in 1995. But last Thursday guess whose bank account details I had to delete?’
‘Marcus, how old was she?’
Marcus frowned. ‘That’s not the point,’ he said. ‘She knew all about secret surveillance projects and messages sent into space so it’s a weird coincidence, isn’t it?
‘Hardly,’ replied James. ‘Three pieces of mail for the same person, each twenty years apart, now that’s a coincidence.’
Marcus stopped with his pint mid-way to his mouth. ‘Do tell,’ he said eventually.
‘Albion Blood Esq., care of the London Hospital,’ said James.
31st OCTOBER 1995
Sir Norman descends the stairs into the lowest basement of the London Hospital. After the numerous flights of stairs he is breathing heavily. He fumbles with his bowtie and curses when the elbow of his dinner jacket brushes against the crumbling, pruinose brickwork. The anxious junior doctor with him misinterprets the exclamation.
‘We’re nearly there, Sir Norman,’ he says over his shoulder as they reach the bottom of the staircase. His voice echoes.
‘’I have been here before, Glinton,’ retorts Sir Norman, finally divesting himself of the troublesome tie.
Glinton nods. ‘Of course. The, ah, patient woke shortly before eighty-thirty,’ he says, ‘so we paged you immediately after conducting a reflex test.’
‘Precisely as the entrée was being served,’ observes Sir Norman. ‘But what happened here? What caused Albion Blood to come out of his coma?’
Glinton is about to reply when the lights along the wall of the corridor flicker and dim. Glinton stares in alarm at the brass fittings and their failing filaments.
‘Blast it!’ says Sir Norman. He strides out, his shoes crunching through masonry dust, and almost barges past Glinton. ‘Did he say anything? Has he spoken?’
Glinton looks sickly in the pulsing light. ‘He said he heard someone calling. And then he asked how long he’d been unconscious.’
Sir Norman stopped abruptly and wheeled to face his cowed junior. ‘I sincerely hope no-one was imprudent enough to tell him.’
Glinton took a deep breath as the lighting spasmed. ‘Sir Norman, is it true…about the patient?’
Sir Norman’s grimace was hidden in the slow strobing of the ancient lighting system. ‘Quite true. Albion Blood fell into a deep coma on December 31st 1899. And now, somehow, something’s brought him back out of it.’
‘Jamie!’ Marcus said, snapping his fingers in front of his friend’s face.
James started, blinked and rubbed at his eyes. ‘Sorry, must’ve nodded off,’ he murmured.
Marcus eyed him critically. ‘Yous going for the world record for not sleeping or something?’
James tapped the coat he’d placed over the seat beside him. ‘I was going through some notes I’d made at work. Got carried away with it all. There’s some strange stuff.’
‘Thought it was all junk mail,’ Marcus said, opening a bag of Hula Hoops.
James shook his head. ‘No, not all of it. Some of it’s just funny – letters addressed to ‘Terry in Croydon’ or whatever. Some is bizarre, or mad. And after a while you start to notice some odd connections.’ James laughed at himself and reached for his pint. ‘Or it’s probably just lack of sleep.’
While James had been speaking Marcus was occupied with pushing Hula Hoops onto the fingertips of his left hand. As James concluded Marcus looked up at him. ‘No! That’s because it’s all true!’ he said in a forced whisper. ‘Jamie, there’s all this stuff going on that we don’t know about and every so often bits of it get out, secrets get stumbled upon. Like, did you know there’s a secret tube network that’s under the London underground?’ Marcus gestured towards him and then crunched a snack from his little finger. ‘Tube workers know it and get sacked for talking about it,’ he added, chewing, and then bit again.
James licked foam from his upper lip, looking puzzled. ‘There’s an underground beneath the underground?’
‘There’s a train driver who wrote a pamphlet about it. And then he disappeared. I’ve got it at home.’
James screwed up his features. ‘Why’s it there?’
Marcus didn’t answer immediately and instead licked traces of beef-flavoured potato from his fingertips. ‘Dunno,’ he said eventually. ‘The driver didn’t say.’
Looking over the top of his pint James said ‘Best not to speculate, eh?’ He took a sip. ‘It’s like the fact that the date 1995 keeps cropping up – letters lost back then, some of the madder ones keep referring to it. Just a weird coincidence, I guess.’
Marcus looked around, even though they were the only drinkers in the bar, and then leant towards James. ‘1995? It all makes sense. There was a Fortean Times exhibition that autumn. They held it at Croydon Clock tower, of all places. I’ve got the book somewhere. Think about it: alien debris, haunted artefacts, assorted specimens – all that weirdness concentrated together in one place, at the top of a tower. Must be it. I reckon that created a psychic aura, a network of weird energies. All hidden in plain sight.’
‘In Croydon,’ James corrected him.
29th OCTOBER 1995
The five people who force entry to Redwell House find the empty office suites have been abandoned to the elements. As they reach the upper floor they disturb a colony of bats and one of the young men carrying some of the heavier equipment stumbles in alarm. The other two assistants and the older man with them ensure neither harm nor damage ensues, although the girl in the black leather jacket remains unmoved, studying the myriad fleeing creatures through a pall of cigarette smoke. Occasionally she nods, as if understanding something, and her mouth moves quickly but silently.
Shortly after sunset the equipment has been set up and preliminary checks have been completed. The older man reiterates the importance of their venture: over the past few weeks he has shown all three of the assistants the fourteen seconds of film footage that he was able to salvage. All three are convinced the material is genuine.
The operation begins by establishing a feedback loop between the cameras and the monitors. As they work the older man maintains a commentary, apparently directed towards the girl, who merely sits and smokes through the activity. The equipment they used in 1971 was primitive and limited, he explains, so that the feedback pattern and the sequence of ultra-sonics incorporated into the broadcast were achieved through trial and error. Serendipity, he says. The girl smiles. This time they are able to control the output. He places a tape cassette into a player and links this up to the circuit. Looking first at his assistants and then the girl he nods at each in turn and then presses play. Within minutes bats are smashing into the windows leaving bloody smears as they ricochet from the cracked glass.
All three assistants are found later that night wandering in the street in a highly distressed state, all suffering nosebleeds. They are quickly hospitalised and, following assessments, transferred to psychiatric units. Two are found to be dysphasic while the remaining man speaks animatedly of a girl with blue-grey skin who merged with the static. Within two hours he has lapsed into a deep coma.
The body of a man is discovered on the top floor of an abandoned office block together with recording equipment that is still smoking, short-circuited and useless. He is later identified as Terence Sanderson and the cause of death is recorded as a sudden cerebral aneurysm.
The colony of dead bats that rained down on streets in South London is subsequently reported in the Fortean Times.
Jacob Huntley’s short fiction has appeared in various journals, magazines and anthologies as well as on BBC Radio 4 and ABC radio in Australia.