The Walls of Madness



Winner of The Solstice List Novella of the Year.
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Back Cover Copy:

Bill Hunter sees things other people only imagine; he sees the low beasts and the dark man, too. A man called Marlin.


People call him crazy. But sometimes nightmares are real. Sometimes the walls are thin.


And sometimes, in the dead of night, that man, that Marlin, comes through...


Sample (Chapters 1-3)


Part One

One of the many worst things about being nuts was being so goddamned important.

Mark Vonnegut
The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity
I.

When Billy Hunter saw spiders in the walls, it was Eileen Westwood that chased them away with broom or duster. Billy saw spiders, and beetles, and mice, sometimes. Sometimes it was different, and it wasn’t any of those things. Those times Eileen didn’t go rushing in, because Billy wasn’t right in the head then.
            Good lord, that didn’t sound Christian, but Billy wasn’t right in the head and that was the best that could be said. Sweetest man she’d ever met when it was just the creepies and the crawlies and the scrabbling in the walls, but when the black moon was on him, when the Devil was in him ranting at the black moon…
            Well, those times, she took a knife in her pocket along with her broom or duster and prayed to the Good Lord for the poor man.
            She took the knife not because he was a danger to her. Never that.
            No. She took it because he could be persuasive enough that he got her scared of the things in the walls, too. Those things he saw, she didn’t ever want to see.
            But he wasn’t right in the head, and there were no such things as the Hatheth or the Krama, the Yik and the man, the Marlin.
‘No.’
There were no such things.
‘No,’ she said. She spoke out loud, because she thought it’d do her good to hear the words, but there was doubt in her voice. She knew why. Even though it was nuts, it was because he could be damn convincing. Somedays she chased those things away while he screamed and raved and tried to climb the wall behind her, his heels scrabbling at the walls. He’d clawed that wall so many times his fingernails were all broken and torn. The blood on the walls he washed down – she was hot on creepies, but not so good with blood.
‘Poor, poor man,’ she said, shaking her head. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. Maybe his old man had it in his blood, the sickness, just like his son. Billy never did talk about his dad, though, nor his mum, for that matter. But it was a shame, alright. Smart boy, hitting the prime of his life…could happen to anyone, she supposed. Not her. She had her rock, and that was the all of it.
But Billy suffered. Grown man or not, he cried those nights, and shrieked, too, sometimes, in a high pitch that dug needles into her spine.
The man, the Marlin, though. He came on the worst of days and Good Lord didn’t he scare her? Did he? Of course he did, because when he came she didn’t mind admitted she’d needed the toilet really badly.
Just kind of like night terrors, for Billy. It had become a lullaby for her, ever since he moved in. But she loved the boy and it wasn’t the Marlin tonight, just the low beasts, the beetles, maybe the mice…she couldn’t tell anything from the scream except that it wasn’t them. It wasn’t him.
And that wasn’t so bad.
            Just plain screaming, like kid who’d just had a nightmare. She could deal with that, easy as. She almost smiled.
Eileen checked the old school clock on the wall. 11pm.
Good time. Get in early and sometimes she could read a little before bed, after Billy’d calmed down a little.
She pulled on her wellies and her overcoat in the front porch, because winter was just about kicking in. Middle of December and they still got the ocassional sunshine day, but cold enough now.
Old bones, but she always was good with the cold.
Just a short hop over the fence and she’d be next door and with any luck she wouldn’t be listening to him through the wall all night.
She loved Billy like a neighbour should, but she still liked her sleep.
Coat on, wellies pulled up smartly over her tights, she kissed the little cross that hung down between low breasts and picked up the broom for some chasing.

*
II.

A mouse skittered around the skirting board and popped into a hole. There was a greasy line around the skirting board, marking out their run. Didn’t matter how often Bill put down traps and poison. Didn’t matter how often he blocked the hole. They gnawed their way through.
They’d gnawed through polyfilla, then polyfilla stacked with mouse poison, wire wool, a small plank he’d nailed in (when Mrs. Westwood was out one day).
He knew mice and rats gnawed things. He knew they were dirty little bastards. But he’d never know them to be invunerable to every torture known to man.
They lived in the walls. The snuck under the bed while he tried to sleep and cried, some nights, like a little boy afraid of something in the cupboard, crying for Daddy, crying monster.
            But it was just mice, and Mrs. Westwood was coming. Billy’s chills fled. He could hear her boots, clumping up the old stairs, the stairs creaking. Third step, fourth, seventh, ninth…a couple more to go. Those narrow old stairs with their worn old wood.
            For each step his heart slowed a beat. Racing, down to…not quite idling, but maybe an engine settling in for a long stretch on the motorway.
            ‘Billy? What is it?’ Mrs. Westwood said, coming into the room. Every light in the room blazed – A harsh bulb with no shade hung from the ceiling, a bedside lamp, and a standing lamp there in the corner.
            He felt calmer already, but he could still hear them.
‘Mrs Westwood…I’m sorry…I’m…’
‘Good boy,’ she said, like she was talking to one of her pupils, back before she’d retired. ‘Good boy. Just tell me where those little…’
‘Mice,’ he said. ‘Mouse. Just one. It went into the hole in the wall. It’s in the walls. I can’t sleep…I can’t sleep…’
            ‘Ssh,’ she said, and held her broom out in front of her. She could sense him building up again. See it in his eyes, the way he worked his jaw and somehow seemed to bite his own teeth while he spoke, like he couldn’t remember the size of his own mouth, nor how to make the words in his head fit through it.
            ‘Show me,’ she said, and remembered not to lead him, just to follow. It could make it worse if she got to the wall before he pointed it out. It was always the same thing, on creepies and crawlies nights – the hole.
           There wasn’t any hole there, but Eileen Westwood went exactly where Billy pointed, nonetheless. He’d nailed a bit of board over the non-existent hole some time ago, so it would have been easy enough to get there first. But she didn’t preempt him. She just followed his lead.
            ‘Shoo!’ she said eventually. ‘Shoo!’ Like she meant it, like she was really angry at all mice and seriously pissed off with this one in particular.
           She flapped the broom at the hole that wasn’t there. Sometimes she felt like an idiot, but these kinds of nights when Billy was pretty much as there as he ever got after dark, she didn’t mind so much. It wasn’t a frightening thing. She just waved the broom around, or the duster, and things went away from Billy’s head.
            Once or twice there had been actual spiders, but she’d flattened those pretty quickly. Apart from once, this massive spider, all spindly legs, that moved way too fast for her old bones. She wasn’t a slouch. She was pretty nimble for seventy, though she tried not to be prideful of it. Still, that damn spider had been quick.
            ‘Shoo!’ she shouted at the hole that wasn’t there. Billy came a little closer.
            ‘It’s gone?’
            ‘It’s gone,’ she nodded. A lot of times just her reassurance or maybe the tone of her voice was enough to settle him down.
            ‘Didn’t see the other ones?’
            Oh, she thought. Stave it off and quickly. Don’t question, don’t get into anything uncomfortable.
            ‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘A mouse, and that’s all, and it’s gone now. Now you can go to sleep.’ She kept her voice calm, but firm, too, like she wasn’t going to take any kind of argument.
            She saw Billy was crying a bit, even though he was a man of thirty.
            But then he wasn’t like normal men. He used to be a teacher himself. He’d got a degree in history and even went on to get a master’s degree. That was before his breakdown.
            Schizophrenia, they called it, but she didn’t really know much about that, apart from what she’d looked up in the library. It was pretty rare, thank God.
It didn’t matter what textbooks said. All she knew was that the poor man suffered, and that the mouse was gone, and that she had a cup of tea going cold and a book waiting.
            But Good Lord, that wasn’t charitable.
            Still…
            ‘All right, Billy? You can sleep now. I’ve got to go to sleep myself. I’m driving you in the morning? Remember?’
            Billy wasn’t allowed to drive, because of his illness or his medication, she didn’t know. But he wasn’t allowed to drive and he was her neighbour, so she drove him, and if she was honest with herself she sort of enjoyed the company and yes, the purpose, too.
            It wasn’t so easy, growing old alone, out in the country. Schizophrenic or not, Billy was a good man when he was in himself. Toughest was the nights, but the night was done now and in the morning he’d probably be just fine, or near enough so as a good neighbour wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.
            ‘Thank you. Thank you,’ he said. ‘Eileen…I’m sorry. So sorry.’
            ‘Ssh, now. None of that. You’ll be fine. It was just a mouse and nothing to be frightened off, OK?’
Billy nodded. She nodded back, satisfied he’d be alright. The terror was fading from his eyes, and he was beginning to look sleepy. Relief, or medication kicking in, she didn’t know. Didn’t matter either way, though, because he was going to go off and she was going to get some sleep.
That was good enough.
‘I’m going to go now, all right?’
            ‘Sorry.’
            ‘Enough,’ she said, in that same firm tone she’d learned long and hard in the school rooms of her working years.
            She nodded once again before she clomped back down the stairs.
            She stepped over the fence between their properties and into her back garden. She’d thought about maybe laying some slabs there, so she didn’t have to wear her wellies. She never quite got round to it.
            Her tea was cold when she got back, but she boiled up the kettle and took a fresh cup to bed. Her bed was cold, but she had a thick nighty and she kind of liked the feel of cold crisp sheets on her bare feet. She always had, right since she’d been a little girl.
            Eileen Westwood read for an hour or so, set her mental alarm clock for five, and went out like a light.

*

III.

Bill woke at eight when the alarm on his mobile phone went off.
He rolled his tongue around in his head, groaned a little as he tried to work some moisture into his mouth. His evening pills made his head thick like it was full of cold, and his mouth feel like it was full of candyfloss, but maybe more like candyfloss made from spider’s webs.
He shook his head. Morning light, and he wasn’t going down that road. Not today. There weren’t any spiders, not in the daylight. And not the other things.
Bill lay for a few seconds, trying to work his brain up, fell asleep again. His mobile was on snooze.
They can come in the day, too.
He jumped at the thought, half-dreamt.
Normally he’d sleep in ‘til ten, maybe eleven. But today wasn’t one of those days. Today was a hospital day, and he sort of looked forward to those, because for a while after talking things through, he felt better. Never all the way, but the demons in his head popped out, hung around his psychologist for a while. At least, that’s how he imagined it working. He saw them, sometimes, the spiders and the spider things and the Yik and the Krama, crawling, seeping, sliding, out of his brain and down his shoulders, trails of slime and ichor…
But he wasn’t going there. Stop.
He took the circle in his head and snapped it. New day, new start. Fuck the circle. Fuck his brain.
‘Faa,’ he said. Pushed himself out of bed, into the toilet, pissed and brushed his teeth. Only then did he manage to say it.
‘Fuck you, brain,’ he said through a mouthful of toothpaste and spat out the drug shit that caked his mouth into the sink.
            He took fresh clothes from the chest of drawers and the wardrobe. He pulled on his underwear and socks and trousers first, then the top half. The room was cold, frost on the single pane windows. With the heating on the frost would turn to water and run and add to the black rot seeping through the old wooden frames.
            He padded in his socks to the landing and down the stairs. His house had just one bedroom, but he’d never need more. He knew he wouldn’t be living out a life growing old with a wife he loved and doted on right into old age. He’d die alone.
            It made him sad, and he didn’t want to feel sad so early in the morning.
He took his morning cocktail before breakfast – Olanzapine and Pericyazine, both on the maximum dose. Didn’t seem to help him much, but he had to admit, during the day, he could kind of function. Sometimes he saw things…things he didn’t like to think about in the light of day, things that only crept up on him when the light failed and the shadows came out…but he could shut his eyes to those things when it was light and the shadows still moved fast enough that they couldn’t come through.
The low beasts.
            But they weren’t here, and he didn’t need to think about them for a while. It was going to be a good day.
            Bill ate a breakfast of two muffins with fried bacon and fried eggs and two slices of cheese each and black pepper. When he’d finished his breakfast he lit his first cigarette of the day while the kettle boiled.
            Being fat, getting cancer…didn’t really matter, did it? He had bigger things to worry about. Living as a schizophrenic was hard e-fucking-nuff.
            ‘Hard e-fucking-nuff,’ he said.
            He drank tea and sat at the table in his small kitchen, looking out over the barren fields, the stick trees along the boundaries between fields. The other side, out the front of the house, the road ran by, but on either side were fields. A few trees seemed to cling to the clouds, with their wide branches like fingers dug into flesh.  
            The clouds raced by but the sun poked through a couple of times while he smoked his second cigarette and drank his first cup of tea and tried not to think about mice and beetles and bugs and the other things that were dark and some of those things that could talk and told him they wanted him.
They needed him, they said. They had great work for him, they said.
            He didn’t listen, but then the other side told him things that frightened him. Sometimes they showed themselves and on those nights he screamed.
            But that didn’t matter now, because he was going to the hospital, and Eileen’d be with him, and maybe one day soon things would be better, because he was seeing a psychologist now and she’d told him it was going to be alright. Everything was going to be alright.
            Maybe she worked for the other side. Maybe she didn’t. But he had to take a chance on someone, because even on his worst nights, he knew Eileen wouldn’t be around forever, and he was in serious trouble.

*