It happened on a housing estate in the inner city. A piece of former parkland that had been handed over to developers to build two storey homes, based on the town house concept, for yuppies who’d come along too late to be part of the last gentrification wave. I never would have known such a place existed, though it was a short bike ride away from where I lived.
To start with I was standing around with many others in the kitchen-dining room, just watching, listening and trying not to look like an outsider. It was weird, though, attending the baby shower of the woman I was replacing in the Law Research Office while she took maternity leave. I gathered she was “a bit of a character,” mostly disliked but held in awe by the other admin staff, and that her power derived from sucking up to the academics, one of whom was throwing this party for her. This was Johanna, the popular and sexy new Associate Professor and Dean of Research. I gathered that she credited Mag with getting her the funding for the research project that had made her career, and that the two had become personal friends as a result.
Everyone loved Johanna (besides which almost everyone was employed on a temporary contract), hence we were all here at this uncomfortable do. But I do think a lot of people actually looked up to her, wanted to be her, had a crush on her. For example, she had been on TV recently, on a panel show on which she was arguing against a conservative journalist over hate-speech laws. The guy basically implied that she was a Nazi and talked about burning books and putting political opponents in concentration camps. Well, it was a bad move on his part because her belly dancer’s eyes filled with tears and grew fierce talking about her grandparents’ miraculous escape from the Nazis. The guy was totally embarrassed and had to apologise. Everyone was talking about it at work afterwards, sharing her triumph. I heard she got a standing ovation from her students.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with detailed description of the place she shared with the Dean of the school, whom she was shacked up with; enough to say they had plenty of nice furniture and appliances, but it was reassuring to me as a pleb that the place looked hardly lived-in, like they had no time to themselves.
Finishing another wine, I was in danger of getting drunk and doing or saying something stupid. Conversations were awkward because there was a sense that you were supposed to know everyone, which was sort-of true, but only sort-of. And they were all university people, which meant that no amount of pretentiousness was off-limits. At one point, for example, I struck up a conversation with a girl who happened to be standing beside me, not talking to anyone either. I had a hunch she worked as someone’s Personal Assistant, or possibly in some research centre or other; I didn’t want to assume, though, in case she was some young hotshot academic.
“I love your dress!”
“Thanks,” she replied, then after a pause, “yours too.”
“What is it, ’60s? ’70s?” The dress looked like it was made from recycled upholstery, with a Calvinist collar stuck on.
She smiled. “Actually I made it myself.”
“Wow! That must have taken you ages. It looks so… authentic,” I said, unintentionally using what must have been a red flag word.
“That’s a notion I’m really into interrogating,” she began, “you, know, of cultural ‘authenticity’” she made quotation marks with her fingers, making me want to throw my drink in her face, “I think it’s really a discourse which thrives on the social inequality between centre and periphery and the fetishism of the underdeveloped-as-commodity. In my thesis I’m exploring the notion of the nostalgic consumption of time as a feature of late capitalism…”
She was using these big words and offsetting them with a rising intonation that was supposed to stop her from sounding pompous. She went on and on, namedropping the usual suspects and trying to convince me that she was doing something important with her life. So I was right about her being admin.
“. . . Anyway,” she eventually wound up, “sorry to be such a theory nerd! What do you do?”
I told her as colourlessly as possible and let the conversation drop, having barely managed to repress my feelings while draining my glass and saying “uh-huh, right, I see” in the right places.
Then it was a sudden feeling of someone or something standing right behind me, too close for comfort, and uttering a kind of buzzing snarl, or snarling buzz, right in my ear. It was a feeling I had had several times over the past few days and which was starting to make me wonder if I was about to experience a psychotic episode (which I’m aware that some people will say I did). It dated back to a dream of about a week ago that had hung over me ever since in the way dreams sometimes do when you’re a child. Fully awake, I kept getting the urge to run away from the danger which even just remembering it seemed to contain. If I was inside, I wanted to be outside; if outside, inside. Wherever I went it felt like an ambush, as if whatever I had done was just what it wanted me to do.
It went like this. I was getting ready for and then travelling to work, anxious about being late and so on. To begin with it was a typical stress dream, just repeating and rehearsing the days behind and ahead with a sense of time slowing down, days passing while you butter the toast, get distracted chasing a white rabbit, etc. But it intensified gradually until it changed into something else, and something materialised, or half materialised, behind me. Finally I got out of the house, caught the tram, which was empty except for me and the presence which followed me when I changed seats and then when I got off at my stop. The streets were totally empty and there was a sense that people had taken cover, as though there was a plague or a bomb or something. I began to panic and ran from one locked door of a shop or someone’s house to the next, still feeling without being able to see that something was following me. Then I began to see it. It was a dark figure about the size of a man that I understood was some kind of rapist.
Of course, when I turned around he wasn’t there, but then he–or it, maybe it was even a she, I somehow thought–would reappear as a blur in the corner of my eye when I began running again. The distance before me lengthened as I ran. There was a terrible feeling of agoraphobia. When it caught me I was paralysed rigid and there was a stinging pain where it penetrated me.
Over the noise of the party I thought I heard a baleful crying, or moaning noise. One of the young children in the next room where the TV was on, throwing a tantrum and screaming, “You’re dead! You’re dead! You’re dead . . . !”
And that same sense of paralysis, like being a fly in a spider’s web, had been fulfilled at work the very next day when, during the office meeting, I was put on the spot in front of everyone. It was the Publications Coordinator. She’d asked me a couple of weeks earlier to undertake a research project on the research projects being undertaken at essentially all the research institutions in the world, in order to provide information to be posted on the intranet for academic staff. The job was initially given to her, but she had re-negotiated her workload with the Research Manager (on one of their trips to the coffee shop, I suppose) and given my job description I could hardly refuse. The fact, though, was that I had no idea what was really expected of me. “Just something for the back burner…” she’d said, when I asked for details.
Now the Research Manager was asking me to give a report on it in front of everyone!
“Well . . . it looks like there’s been a lot of research activity in environmental law,” I began, unpromisingly, “and international law . . .”
“I see. And what kind of intersections are you observing between research areas?” asked my Manager.
I looked at the papers in front of me, then back at the Manager’s face, and saw that she had been looking at my papers, too, noticing that I had brought no notes. It hadn’t been on the agenda; should I have added it?
“Well, I’m not really at the stage yet of . . . analysing the data in detail. I’ll have a closer look at those intersections and, of course, at the extent and types of interdisciplinary crossover as well, once I’ve finished the . . . initial survey.” I began, waffling on until the creased foreheads began to nod along in the hope that I would just shut up. In fact all I’d done was to enter search terms into a citation database that I guessed was authoritative, and recorded the number of results for each.
I could have sworn, though it seemed incredibly rude, that the Manager had rolled her eyes while I was speaking–I mean quite blatantly, as if to say to everyone present, “Do you hear this?” Focusing on making relative sense and talking for a sufficient length of time, it didn’t register when it happened; it was only afterwards that I became increasingly sure.
Anyway, back at the party, fighting against the urge to leave, I found I had an even more urgent one to go the toilet. Unfortunately, this was a house full of boozing women and there was a line. I could hardly believe it: it was like a bar. I could see academics and admin staff having bored and awkward conversations everywhere, and resorting to unwise amounts of alcohol to ameliorate the situation. So I decided to just go upstairs.
There was a door at the top on the right, which I opened just a crack. It was dark inside and carpeted, a bedroom, obviously. There was another beside it, lit by a raised blind. Then I walked up the corridor. Only a linen cupboard at the end of the hall, but perhaps one of the bedrooms had an en suite. I just hadn’t wanted to cross the line of entering that private space; but I was already snooping around upstairs.
I went back to the second. Success. I wasn’t too worried about being disturbed as I had just seen Johanna deep in conversation with somebody a moment ago. As soon as I sat down and began to collect my thoughts, I heard voices approaching–and in another moment they were in the room next to me! In case either of them needed to go, the smart thing would of course have been to emerge straight away and plead emergency. I was just hesitating when I realised that the en suite was what you call a “Jack and Jill,” connecting two bedrooms, so I could always escape quickly into the next to hopefully avoid being seen.
“. . . I just don’t know what to do. Maybe you could have a look at her and–oh God!–please tell me I’m crazy!”
Whoever it was sighed. “What can you do about it either way? If she doesn’t want a doctor . . .”
“You don’t understand. If you’d only seen what she looks like! I knew she was unwell this morning. She wouldn’t even get dressed; I had to make her take something out of the wardrobe to change into later. I even had to pick it out for her. She was standing there, completely listless, just staring into her cupboard like a zombie!”
I stood up and arranged myself as quietly as I could, ready to flee, and continued listening.
“Johanna, I know this may sound unkind, but don’t you don’t think it might be partly theatrics? I know Mag’s a very competent person in her sphere, but she does have . . . a bit of a thespian streak. You said she was reciting Yeats in the car–”
“Oh, sure, that’s just something she does, haven’t you noticed? ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’–it’s like a catchphrase with her.”
“Ha, reminds me of when I didn’t get the Open Society grant last year. ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ she said.”
I almost laughed aloud: I remembered finding a little “quote of the day” calendar on Mag’s desk when I became its caretaker.
“But the thing is, it was apropos of nothing. She was just, I don’t know, incanting. And she looked terrible, like, I don’t know, a meth addict or something. She was just lying in bed doing this asthmatic breathing when I arrived to pick her up. I was almost afraid–then I saw her face, like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby–no, worse, God, so much worse than that!” (I’d seen a picture of Mag on the Faculty website, so it wasn’t too hard to believe that she’d look quite a bit worse than Mia Farrow under any conditions whatsoever.) “So I said I’d call a doctor, but she said no, she’d already seen one, but she wasn’t looking at me when she said it. I got the impression she didn’t know what she was saying. But . . . God, what happened then? It was weird. One minute I had my phone out, looking up the nearest doctor, the next she was up, smiling, grinning like crazy, and we were on our way. I just didn’t want today to be a failure, with everyone coming together like this . . . ! There was a pause while the other woman comforted her.
“But then she started coughing and doubling up when we arrived. I thought maybe she was embarrassed about it, me throwing the shower for her. I know she doesn’t have a lot of friends, not really . . . but, God, her face! I mean, when she started showing, before she went on leave, she was throwing up all the time. You remember, we practically had to stage an intervention to get her to take some time off. But that was different, it was her first trimester. Now she actually looks . . . oh, it’s uncanny, I can’t describe how–”
The friend sighed. “Okay. Let’s go in and have a look at her.”
There was sobbing and mumbled acquiescence.
Of course, I now realised that Mag was in the next room, and that the shortest route there was via the en suite. I leapt on tiptoes across the tiles (thankfully my soles were relatively soft) and crossed to the door without glancing at the bed in that darkened room with its closed blinds. Even in those short moments, though, given what I’d just heard, the temptation to look back and possibly turn into a pillar of salt was almost overwhelming. Had I seen, out of the corner of my eye, a shadowy oblong against the wall that could have been a human figure sitting up at ninety degrees? I’d certainly heard its breathing. I kept my eyes before me, opened the door and ran straight down the hallway and then the stairs. Hopefully, delirious Mag wouldn’t know what had happened. At the bottom I almost collided with a circle of chatting women.
Before I could settle back into things, there was a cry from upstairs–an unmistakable cry of pain that struck me, in the context, as like a woman giving birth. But it resounded like a voice inside me, body and mind, because I recognised it as the same noise I’d heard myself make when the nightmare creature stuck me from behind with its stinger.
But it wasn’t all in my head; the noise certainly got everyone’s attention. In a moment something or someone fell over loudly upstairs and there was a high-pitched scream.
Some feet were already rushing upstairs when a figure who could only be Mag herself appeared–at least, from where I was standing, her feet and the hem of her nightgown. Strangely, those rushing towards her didn’t go any further, but retreated, putting the obvious questions to each other in hushed voices. She was staggering like a drunk, but while her movements gave that impression, her complexion suggested so much worse. Johanna wasn’t kidding. Mag looked like a corpse with jaundice. Her eyes were inanimate and her skin looked horribly dried out. You could see the cracks around her lips which were raw as eczema. I repositioned myself for a full-face view as she came slowly downstairs, absurdly regal. Her grey-yellow tongue was poking slowly in and out like a mechanical lizard.
Everyone made way for her in awe, heading straight for the dinner table where the presents were heaped. (The finger- food was crowded up on the kitchen benches as everyone had striven with each other in gift-giving; I’d felt bad for only bringing a card.) Besides her appearance, the terrible, broken engine of Mag’s breath must also have helped clear her path. She began ripping the paper off and going through the boxes silently and intently, as if looking for something. No one said anything–it was too shocking. Finally someone came up and put a hand on her shoulder. She whirled around and thrust her face into the other woman’s, her hands like claws ready to tear her. What came out of that evil clown mouth, in a grating whisper between breaths, was “You!” followed by a string of grammatically disconnected expletives: “Shit! . . . Fuck! . . . Piss! . . .” I guess in her current state Shakespeare and the rest were beyond reach. The woman recoiled and burst into tears.
Johanna was being comforted a bit further back where she stood crying and bleeding where her face had been–what? Bitten? Raked with long yellow fingernails? A few people were now on the phone, speaking quietly as if afraid to attract Mag’s attention. But she was in her own world.
I saw Mag stick her tongue out again, this time at closer quarters. Out of curiosity I had approached a little closer. Behind me some guests were edging toward the side and front doors of the kitchen and dining rooms, respectively, or running into the adjacent lounge for their kids, some of whom had joined the milk-faced crowd. One of them was crying.
Mag unwrapped and cast aside one gift after another. I saw that she was actually bleeding a little from the mouth–or could it be Johanna’s blood? She spat something out–God knows what. Some people had already left by this time, during which an uncanny twilight seemed to have descended, taking the place of regular time, if that makes any sense. Probably all that had happened was that a cloud passed in front of the sun that had been streaming in through the wide windows. It was as if she was searching among for something as she tossed aside nappies and teething rings and teddy bears. Then she found the odd-man-out. There was a box of champagne flutes, one of which she held up, making faces at her reflection in it until it broke in her grip, after which she continued staring into her palm as if reading her own unpromising future.
Now someone approached and placed a hand on Mag’s shoulder. Mag was quick. The next thing she had that hand in hers. There was a struggle and the woman cried out in pain. It made sense: Mag, who had evidently discovered a love of shiny things, had decided to take the woman’s ring, with or without the finger. She was shouting disjointed obscenities again, interspersed with more monosyllables, while her victim was screaming.
I’m not sure that the woman escaped with all her fingers. There were no heroines but plenty of agitation. In a few moments everyone had left, including Johanna. I guess they were waiting outside for reinforcements.
Finished with the presents, Mag wandered through the discarded wrapping paper and into the loungeroom, drawn perhaps by the sound and lights coming from the TV, on which a man was talking to a puppet owl in an enthusiastic voice. To my partial surprise, she actually sat down in front of it, on the couch. She looked like a tired old woman with arthritis. I had followed at what seemed a safe distance and was now standing to one side, watching her in profile by the TV’s glow in the dimly lit room.
Something was happening inside her. She looked dangerously poised, sitting forward, her hands clenched into fists after having scrabbled for a grip on the smooth leather chair arms. Those long nails would be hurting her, assuming she could feel pain–unless there was another, greater pain she was experiencing. Her face was like a kabuki mask representing grief. Not knowing what I was thinking, I found myself walking around to stand between her and the TV.
Something was moving under her nightgown. Behind the white fabric there were what looked like several, independent points of movement, and a spreading stain whose colour I couldn’t quite make out, but which seemed oddly pale, like the stain meat leaves on butcher’s paper. A gurgling, creaking sound was issuing from her lungs.
Then something clicked and she noticed me. It was as if I’d set off an alarm. She stood up, her blind, round eyes questioning nothing, but baring her teeth and exhaling violently through them. The bloody lumps were growing beneath my gaze, as I stood backing towards the TV, yet somehow unable to run or to look away. It was difficult to see exactly what was going on under that nightgown until I saw what was beginning to flop onto the floor beneath its hem.
Their blind faces were as pale–no, translucent–as their mother’s–their host’s. There was a putrid smell of off meat and incontinence that was getting worse as the flopping continued. It occurred to me I’d once seen something similar in a photo of an unfortunate caterpillar. It didn’t take much extrapolation to gather that her midriff under that nightie was like a crop of writhing bananas, one at a time falling ripe to the carpet and lying there wriggling–helplessly enough, but when one looked like it was moving in my direction my normal instincts returned enough to make me stalk back off to the side.
She followed me with her eyes, turning that death’s head after me as far as it would go, while her feet stood rooted, wide apart. She wouldn’t pursue me, then, at the risk of leaving her brood undefended. The sounds she was making, beyond the stertorious breathing, were probably supposed to be more obscenities, but short, sharp vowels were all she was capable of producing.
Now fascination turned fully to revulsion. It was very primal, a thrilling sensation of self-importance, of agency and responsibility. I had to destroy them, it was my job and no-one else’s. In the kitchen drawers I found a can of fly spray and a stove lighter.
I did what I felt had to be done, and the consequences, which I witnessed for as long as I could from the backyard before climbing over the fence, and then from a greater distance before fleeing the scene entirely, were pretty spectacular. The police and ambulance arrived shortly but, of course, no one had anticipated a need for the fire brigade, so that by the time they arrived it was too late to save anything. There were no human casualties, despite the reports. In the confusion evidently no one had noticed that I was the last one inside the house with Mag, because in the days since then the house call from the police has not yet arrived, and no one has said anything to me about it at work, which goes on as usual, only with more interesting gossip.
But the question I keep asking myself ever since is, what was I really doing standing there, face to face with a walking dead woman? What did I really feel–wasn’t it actually a kind of jealous rivalry, instead of the outright abhorrence I should have felt? Was it really me who killed the cadaverous ghost of Mag and burnt down Johanna’s home–or was it something inside me that was planted in a dream?