Extract: London Revenant by Conrad Williams

Chapter 1
It’s so late, it’s early.
It feels the tunnels radiating out like veins teased from Its body. Further along this platform stands an athletic man in trainers, jeans and a T-shirt upon which the words Foo Fighters are neatly stencilled. There’s a woman reading the Evening Standard, the toe of her left foot tapping against the painted kerb at the platform edge. She wears glossy black clothes; her legs are thin, her trousers tight around her buttocks. A courier bag filled with box files hangs heavily on her shoulder, as if it were some kind of penance. She looks like a tired raven. The last train to Upminster is a minute away. On the opposite platform, a couple are clinched, kissing each other greedily. There are no other people around.
It strolls down the platform and buys a Crunchie bar from the vending machine although It won’t eat it. It can’t abide the sickly sweet taste of Topside food, everything sugared and salted to hide how unpalatable it all is. How mass market. Its guts churn at the thought of the greasy junk that passed Its lips in the past. Those memories will help It now, the rage at the way It was forced to eat that rubbish, that shit. E numbers and monosodium glutamate and xanthum gum and riboflavinoids and disodium guanylate – whatever that is – and fuck it, and fuck it all.
The woman has turned to glance at It before returning to her newspaper, and It feels happy that it was just a glance. Because doesn’t that mean It’s still got some normal in It? It still blends in. Maybe It looks like a guy wending his weary way home from a building site, pock-marked with plaster dust and paint, the grime from a day’s solid graft. But It really ought to be invisible for this. It can’t afford to make these errors. It can’t afford to be caught. Next time the world must be blind to It. Not even a glance. As if It were a ghost.
It assesses the way she is standing, the spread of weight, the lie of her fulcrum, her natural balance and poise. She weighs maybe a hundred and twenty pounds. She’s on the back foot. That big bag of homework will need to be compensated for. Further… you can see, without trying too hard, how she would look naked. A bit of a belly on her; slim in the hip and thigh; breasts high, but slowly going to seed. Rounded shoulders. Too much time making eyes at the VDU. Emails and spreadsheets. It can imagine her in the morning, after the shower, sizing herself up in the mirror. After tonight, well, she won’t ever wish for her youth back again.
From here, you can smell the woman’s perfume despite the charred persistence of diesel fumes. Foo Fighters is rubbing his eyes and trying to focus on a paperback. Across the track, the kiss continues: he’s holding on to the shivering meat of her thigh as though she were about to come apart in his hand. Her fingers flutter at his groin for a second. It wonders if he can taste any of the rubbish she will have eaten for dinner.
The breeze quickens.
In the moment before the grime-streaked snout of the train powers into the station, the lick of preceding blue light across the tunnel walls becomes almost liquid as time thickens and masses at Its shoulders. It becomes incandescent. Like the silent flight of black holes around It, Its focus diminishes until only she remains fixed within. The deliberate fold of her newspaper, the movement of her hand as she flicks an errant strand of hair from her eye, the shift of weight from one foot to another. The drop and tilt of her hips – all scorched on to Its retina as surely as if It were staring at messages written in the sun. In two steps, It is upon her. The way she stiffens tells It she’s aware of something, even though It’s moved silently… but anyway, she’s too soft, too slow, too late now. One hand at the small of her back to counter her instinct to retreat; one at the dip between her shoulder blades: Its movement is fluid and inexorable. Her head flies back, her hair whipping Its hand as she disappears over the edge. The scream could have come from her, the witnesses, the train as it tried to abort its charge. No, the scream is coming from It as It flees through the tunnel marked NO EXIT. Foo Fighters, if he’s pursuing, is not as lithe as he looks; more likely he’s staring down at the rails in shock or trying to help. Its hand plucks a blade from the pocket of Its jacket and It slows down. Its heartbeat is steady. It went well.
It makes Its way quickly to the interlocking service tunnels, donning Its bicycle mask to protect It against the grime. Home is a long walk from here but It’s done it before on dry runs for this very day. Next time, there’ll be more choice.
It plunges into the infernal Circle Line, praying to God that she’ll be all right.

Chapter 2
Tunnel vision
Three-am moonlight, like radioactive milk. Like a soluble headache pill at the moment it hits water. Like a marble of wet electricity about to explode into a fireball.
Adam is fine too, reading lots this summer, he looks
The softness of the dream receded, replaced by the gradual return of solid shapes sucked back from the dark: a chair, a table, a bookcase. A suitcase vomiting clothes from its deep, slack mouth. The book on the floor that I was reading: Dead Babies.
The dream was almost too soft to hold on to but before it left me, I knew it had something to do with being in a place darker than shadows, where electricity crackled along the walls. There was something there with me, something with less substance than water, and it was either tracking me, or me it. Direction meant nothing and neither did purpose. In the dream, all that was certain was the weak flirt of blue light and the suffocating dark, smothering it as soon as it was born. I remembered getting on a train, arriving, getting off the train and falling into a blackness that was so pure it was almost white.
I slipped out of bed and padded to the window. A van was double-parked outside; a figure leaned over the steering wheel taking measured drags of a cigarette. The passenger door was open, as were the doors at the back. A stiff breeze jerked at the branches of the elm outside the window: chancy light spat through it on to the pavement where a shadow was growing. I moved back, out of sight, as the shadow was eaten by its maker: a slim, short-haired woman in a jumper and combats. The doors slammed shut, the engine started and the van moved away. Light, rapid footsteps died almost before they’d begun on the old, bare staircase. A shadow spoiled the strip of light beneath my door.
he looks… just like his dad?
I scanned the street. Nobody else seemed to be awake at this hour; I felt restless, inexplicably upset. Questions were queueing up at the enquiry desk in my head, which was blocked off by a sign that read: Go Away, I’m Tired, though I knew the chance of sleep returning was unlikely now.
he looks… like he might shape up to be a proper little clever clogs?
In the dark, I found a jumper and a pair of jeans in the suitcase and pulled them on. I was hunting for my keys when I heard another sleeping form stir: the house next door. For months there had been a tall, protective shield of wood blocking the entrance to the grounds and tanned men in protective headwear and jerkins with luminous flashes fussing around the exterior. I was used to the house’s voice by now: the skitters and whispers that travelled up from the exposed foundations to whip around the interior like trapped birds.
he looks… lonely, alone, and I never meant to leave you like this, my love?

London, this late at night: plenty of places to walk to; nowhere to walk. Nowhere to walk safely. It was all about circles this late at night, a route to bring you safely back to point A. I never used to be this nervous about my city at night. But people were dying out there as if their lives depended on it. Yellow police incident boards were appearing on main roads with terrible frequency. Did You See Anything? Young men murdered for no greater crime than walking home late at night. Women robbed sitting in busy parks during their lunch hours. One day, a bus on its way to Waterloo from Highgate had to abandon its journey because someone on the top deck set fire to the seats.
Frustrated by my lack of options, I marched down Dartmouth Park Hill to the junction at the bottom where Tufnell Park Tube station lies sleeping and silent, collecting litter in the bars of its security gates. The roads around here were as black as a smoker’s lungs, and at this time of the night unnaturally quiet, clotted with cars that all looked the same colour under the sodium lights. London unnerved me like this. And I was in no fit state for it. I was feeling wounded, Morrissey-like. I felt as if I should consider developing an Absinthe habit. I should start reading Polish war poetry and wear more black.
A month ago, Laura finished it. On her birthday. A present to herself.
I bit down on the inclination to brood, which was becoming more and more of a habit, and sucked some cold air deep inside me. Relationships were like rules: there to be broken.
The city seemed vulnerable and deserted: travel to the centre, a couple of miles south, and I might find that its heart had stopped beating completely. A city shouldn’t be like this. It wasn’t normal. It should be full-on: people falling face first into their pizzas and fighting and fucking and dodging the traffic at all times of the day and night. A quiet London was a London untrue to itself. It was like being watched. It was like everyone but me knowing what the score was. Lately, London appeared to me more and more as an alien city in which I no longer felt welcome. Who was I if I couldn’t get a handle on the place that was supposed to be home?
The moment passed. I hung around by the gates of the Tube, smelling the air – redolent of oil and sweat and a kind of restrained panic – that moved up through the lift shafts. The platforms would be deathly quiet now. Perhaps the only sound would be made by newspapers and drinks cans pushed gently along by that underground breath. Did they keep the lights on down there, and the cameras? Did they turn the escalators off?
I felt a deep vibration move through my feet. The moan that followed seconds later might have been human but for the hydraulic whispers, the shunting of buffers that couched it. Service trains, possibly, carrying men and women, maintenance staff, the fluffers and gandy dancers who swept the tunnels and platforms, or repaired tracks while London slept. But then I heard a voice, male, strident and breathy, as though its owner was in danger. Or trying to explain something, having just exerted himself too much. I couldn’t make out any words, but I distinctly heard a wet, ripping noise and a shout of alarm. When a confusion of hardware sounds ordered themselves into the unmistakable noise of a lift rising, I moved on. Quickly.
I had been aiming to walk along Fortess Road before doubling back along Highgate Road, to complete a rough triangle along Chetwynd Road and Wyndham Crescent, thereby returning home. But now I hurried across the street and hunkered down behind the bonnet of a blue Tigra, eyes fixed on the locked gates of the Tube station. I placed a hand on the pavement to steady myself and felt the concrete, cool and cracked, against my skin. It was kind of a comfort. I thought I heard the thunk of the lift as it arrived at ground level, and the meshing of gears as its doors opened. Beyond the gates, the dark had no detail. And then, suddenly, it did.
A pale circle emerged from the murk like a bubble breaking the surface of a brackish pond. It hovered a while, before two hands emerged below it, white as bleached bone, to grasp the concertina bars of the gate. They shook the bars lightly, testing them, and the sudden noise made me flinch. I moved further back, and my heels scuffed against the pavement.
The figure stopped shaking the gates. The circle shifted, rotating backwards, and I realised I was staring at the top of a head. What clung to the face below it was an object lesson in thinness. Apart from the eyes. The eyes bulged from that drawn, pallid rectangle of pain as though eager to escape and find a more accommodating skull. It was like looking at a still from the Second World War, a picture of someone liberated from Belsen or Dachau. I felt as if I ought to do something; maybe the person had locked himself in and was in need of help. Perhaps he was a security guard who was injured. But then I could tell from where I was crouching, as the ghostly colour of his skin filled itself in against the darkness, that he was entirely naked.
And he was gazing directly at me. His gummy mouth was cross-hatched by saliva, his whitened tongue emerging; mummified, desperate.
I stood up, close to shitting myself. The figure returned my gaze for a few seconds and then his head slowly lowered until he was showing me his crown again. His hands found a more secure purchase on the metal and began shaking them again, harder, more insistently. A piece of metal sprang clear and jangled on the pavement. And another. A complete strut snapped off. A hinge popped out of the concrete with a little plume of dust. He leaned down, suddenly studious, and scratched at the pavement with nails that must have been six inches long: I heard the awful skrit skrit skrit of them against the concrete.
When he looked up again, a wash of saliva had turned his chin to glass.
I moved away, forcing my legs to do what they were there for, but seemed to have forgotten. I wasn’t around to see if the gates came toppling down, but I heard a monumental crash of metal a little while later, which set off a car alarm. I didn’t stop running until I got back to my road. And once I had stopped, I felt as though I was still fleeing: my heart might have been a die in a cup held by a child desperate to throw a six and my legs were twitching to carry me on, to forget the front door of my flat, to keep running, keep running. But I managed to cool down, relax. Nothing hideous was loping after me, I wasn’t going to become a statistic, a body on the street replaced by a yellow incident board ignored by everyone.

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