Fluorescent lights flickered nervously to life. Bouncers began shepherding shambling party-goers to the exits. Wary staff armed with brushes and mops slowly reclaimed territory for civilisation. DJs hurriedly packed away their equipment.
It was almost three in the morning.
'I told you we should have left a half hour ago,' I muttered.
'Ah relax, you know it's always like this,' Rob replied.
A glass whistled past Rob's ear, shattering against the wall.
'Ok, maybe not quite like this.'
'Come on let's go.'
'Christ, good thing you're wearing chinos, should hide that shit you're having,' he grinned.
'Funny bastard you are, pity those stupid white pants don't hide blood stains so well. Nice jacket too, I hear the Smurf look is the Next Big Thing.'
'You're just jealous 'cos Sinead left an hour ago and you never got the shift and I did. No girl for you, one girl for me.'
'Girl was it? Fuck, I thought that was the fella who broke Jamie's ribs against Midleton on Saturday. Was wondering why he'd gone out in drag.'
'Your sexual frustration makes me sad.'
A scrawny, Adidas tracksuit encased figure stumbled into us. He held up a hand in apology.
'Sorry boys, sorry,' he slurred. 'Ya wouln' have a fag wouldja?'
'No, sorry man, neither of us smoke,' Rob replied.
Well, at least not what he's after.
He regarded us suspiciously from small, dark eyes that seemed to have been set halfway through his skull. He was older than I had first thought, somewhere in his mid-twenties, but his face had the texture of a pepperoni pizza.
'Don' be lyin' to me now boys, ya fuckers…' he trailed off, swaying slightly.
There was an awkward silence. Rob and I exchanged glances.
'So, er, we're just going to leave,' Rob said.
'Heroin smokin' fuckheads...' he replied as he pushed past us.
We burst out laughing.
'C-can you even smoke heroin?' Rob said through gasps.
'What an absolute muppet.'
'C'mon, let's get a move on then, get you home so you can change those trousers,' Rob smirked.
'At least I can get mine off.'
'She managed to get inside them.'
'Oh I'd say she did, strong, hairy knuckles and all.'
On we bantered back and forth as we pushed down the narrow corridor through the throng of under-age drinkers and over-age prowlers, the former seeking easy drink, the latter only all too willing to provide. They would try to reap the rewards now.
Unfortunate anagram that word is.
Two bouncers flanked the doorway like gargoyles, eyes darting through the crowd, mentally sorting the wolves from the sheep. Outside a rough inner-city voice could be heard roaring 'Come out you short-arse prick and fight me! None of your buddy bum boys are here now are they? You fucking pussy!'
'Well with an offer as appealing as that, how could one refuse?' I muttered.
'You know, you sound like an awful gay when you talk like that.'
'"Gay" as in "a homosexual" or just the negative connotations attached to "gay"?'
'Bitta both really.'
Grinning, Rob clapped me on the back.
'You're OK really, you just need to find a woman who finds books and stuff hot. Librarian or something, some of them are into some really messed up shit.'
We were nearing the door, at the tail end of the crowd when one of the bouncers abruptly stuck out a hand like a spade. We were momentarily stunned. We were the good guys, we didn't kick up trouble or act the wanker. Yeah we'd get fairly drunk, maybe smoke a bit of weed, but we were energetic at worst.
'Er, yeah?' I asked.
The bouncer at six feet or so was a bit shorter than me, but was considerably more bulky. He was dressed all in black, head shaven in quintessential bouncer style. His partner was dressed identically. And had an identically shaven dome. And stood at an identical height.
Maybe they're identical twins?
Tweedledee stared at me for a long moment before dropping his hand.
'Welcome, brother,' he said with a voice of whiskey, cigars and petrol.
He shook my hand.
'Uh, thanks, I was actually heading home though...'
Before I could take a step however, Tweedledum took a step forward, hand out also.
The hell is going on?
'Welcome, brother,' he said, his voice like a gorgeous symphony condensed into two words.
Ah, it's stuff like that isn't it? Fuck you Rob.
He shook my hand.
'Er, OK, thanks.'
They moved simultaneously away from the exit. Rob and I hurried out on to the pavement. The crowd had spread out slightly, but most were waiting on taxis, lifts or 'Michael you fat fuck, would you ever hurry on?’. Urban life at its most charming.
'What the hell was that?' I whispered as we strode down the street among the trickle of chipper pilgrims, the cacophony of the club slowly receding.
'I know, where the fuck did they get the notion we'd been dealing?' he replied, running a hand through his short hair.
'Wait, what? When did they mention dealing?'
'Er, when they said they never wanted to see us again? When they said “We know what ye're at”?'
I stared at him, pulling him to a halt.
'What did you say?'
He frowned at me, like I was losing it.
'Were you even listening?'
A tap on the shoulder.
Wheeling, I saw an unfamiliar girl. She couldn't have been more than seventeen, dressed up for a night out. Petite with wide, round blue eyes, pale skin and long brown hair to her waist, she gazed up at me, head tilted slightly to one side.
'Er, can I hel-?'
My question was cut off as she grabbed my face in two hands before pulling it down to hers, while stretching on her tip-toes. Halting with us nose to nose, she looked at me.
And I mean she really looked at me.
Even in the sparsely lit street, her azure eyes shone brightly like a cat's, pulling me deeper and deeper.
She held this for a whole minute.
You may think that after a sexually unsuccessful night that I was taking whatever female contact I could get, but it felt as if I'd been paralysed.
Slowly pulling back slightly, I saw a slight smile quirk the corners of her mouth. She kissed me on each cheek.
'Welcome, brother,' she whispered in a voice of such pureness, I felt as if my heart would burst.
She left me frozen, walking down the street until she was swallowed by the darkness.
'Wahey, someone's storing that one in the Wank Bank anyway! Getting jumped by a girl like that? Bit young, but nice!'
'Did…' I paused 'Did you hear her say anything?'
Rob laughed. 'Well not really, but I could guess from that look she gave you. Got her number didn't you? What did she say her name was?'
Christ, he didn't see this one either!
'Er, uh...' I floundered, shock and fear evaporating the words off my tongue.
'Can't even remember?' he winked grinning.
'Yeah, I suppose...'
'You'll have to fix that man! Find out who she hangs around with. Actually,' he paused to consider 'they'll probably find you first.'
Forcing a smile was all I could manage.
'Don't fuck this up now. She came to you for God sake, you've the upper hand,' he exclaimed.
I could only nod mutely.
'OK then, you coming to the chipper?'
'No, fairly knackered, going to head away.'
I needed to get home, I was as nervous as a Frenchman in a quarrel.
'You feeling OK? I understand having a girl actually touch you can be a bit of a shock and everything...'
Forcing a laugh, I turned for the taxi rank a few streets away.
'See you later,' I called over my shoulder.
A scrape and scuffle of shoes on concrete followed me.
'Ah fuck it, it's overpriced anyway, may as well head home too.'
Although only a two minutes walk, a wave of relief flooded me.
'So, this girl-' Rob began as we rounded a corner.
We both tumbled to the pavement. Above us stood a tall figure. He hadn't even wobbled.
'Haigh, watch where you're going muppet,' Rob spat as he clambered to his feet.
The figure said nothing.
As I rose to my feet, I saw he was similar to the drunken Adidas tracksuit from ten minutes before. He had the classic buzz cut scummy haircut, the eyebrow piercing, several tacky "diamond" ear studs and a tattoo of several Chinese characters which he probably thought meant "Strength and Honour" but more likely meant "Chicken Chow Mein With Fried Rice".
As the pavement was winding around the corner the space was barely wide enough for one person and traffic was just clogged up enough to be dangerous.
'You going to move?' Rob demanded.
He looked at me.
No, not again.
Such archaic phrasing should have sounded hilarious coming in such a nasal accent, but....
It felt as if a great gong had intoned with each word, a thunderous power with each syllable.
'Not a fucking chance dickhead, jog on,' Rob snarled, pulling me along.
We were rounding the final corner to the main street, the taxi rank visible.
'Stupid prick, on crystal meth or something. Anyway' he turned to me 'see you Monday. You've money for a taxi yeah?'
'Yeah, I'm fine, thanks.'
'Good. Ignore that fella, only a wanker.'
What'd he hear this time? What the fuck is going on? Am I losing my mind? Why can only I see this?
'All right so, see you later,' he said, clambering into the front seat of a taxi.
The taxi pulling away, took the second right and disappeared.
The next taxi pulled up.
I sat in, shutting the door.
'Could you take me to Richmond's Avenue please?'
His voice was colossal, a rumbling avalanche that shook my body and mind, the whole car shivering in sympathy.
I turned slowly, to see a large figure in driver's seat, his skin and clothes so dark, they seemed to blend into a shadow.
But his eyes.
Two searchlights in the blackness gazed back at me, like the Iron Giant at midnight.
Yelling in fear, all rationality lost, I tumbled out of the car. Scrambling to my feet like a furiously wheel spinning car, I ran.
After putting a small amount of distance between me and the car, I stole a glance over my shoulder.
He hadn't moved. I could barely make out the taxi.
But I could see two pinpricks of light, following me, never going out for a second.
Like the last two stars on the edge of the universe.
Turning off the street, I barrelled round corner after corner, street after street until I'd reached the outskirts of the town. Halting hunched over, gasping for breath, I took a moment before regarding my surroundings.
Relief began to course through me.
Strange, I'd usually be quite nervous otherwise, being alone at three in the morning in this town. But after all this shit...
Having recovered, I dug out my phone, clicked in the earphones, turned on the radio and set off. I needed to hear a voice, a normal damn voice.
'Sooooo here we are, twenty past three on the midnight shift, with me, DJ Welcome and let's keep it going with 'All Alone' from the Gorillaz!'
'Fuck that, like I need to be reminded,' I muttered.
I changed stations.
'If you're just joining us, for whatever reason at this time, welcome! This is The Brother on the Last Mile, taking you through to the end. How about some Script? Here they are with "You Won't Feel a Thing". '
My barely repressed nerves began to wriggle.
I changed stations.
'So here it is, the Beatles with "Run For Your Life".'
Ice began crystallising in my chest. Pure, undiluted fear.
And then I felt it. A Presence. A low thrumming energy. It was at some distance yet, but the power of it was incredible, like an unholy heart of malevolence pumping corruption.
It was coming in my direction.
The idea of pulling out my earphones was unthinkable. The possibility of a fraction of my skin being exposed to such malevolence, to what felt like the embodiment of evil ran contrary to every primal instinct in my body.
'Run and hide!' they screamed.
Pulling my hood up I blasted the volume up to try and drown out the faint keening that was only getting louder.
It wasn't working.
All of a sudden my phone went insane, swapping from station to station rapidly, fractions of different DJ's and songs blurring through my head.
'"The Runner" by King of Leon"-'
'And that was "You Won't See Me"-'
'Any Snow Patrol fans? This is "Run".'
'Going classic with "I'll Get You"-'
'Let's try this one, "No Escape" by-'
I felt tears streaming down my cheeks, utter terror flooded me.
'"Hysteria" from Muse-'
I could feel it getting closer, imagining the pavement behind me blackening, the trees rotting to mulch, food in shops spoiling, everything being unmade and left contaminated and decayed.
The cycling of stations suddenly stopped. Static hiss. I faltered momentarily.
Then there was silence.
A gentle sigh.
'This is the end of the show. "Songs for the Dead".'
Immediately, the station switching resumed, but at one hundred times the pace, barely a word snaking through each time.
Over and over, every word a different note, pitch, key and tempo but all the more terrifying because of it.
I was too slow, I could feel it, the Presence was closing the gap.
I'm going to die.
What was that?
Feeling a sudden injection of energy, like a sudden swallow of icy water in broiling heat, I managed to increase my pace, the growing stitch in my side vanishing. I wasn't pulling away from the Presence, rather I was maintaining the distance.
Where am I even going?
The thought had never even occurred to me. The direction I was running in felt right. That was all I knew.
Suddenly bursting out on to another street, I turned right and continued dashing. I wasn't far now, I felt it.
The keening was less distinct, the combination of a million funeral dirges not able to bore in to my mind.
I'm going to make it!...Where ever that is.
A few hundred metres away I could see this bright, white light. Somehow I had always been heading for it.
As I got closer I realised it was an archway. And there were figures around it.
Oh you've got to be fucking kidding me.
Flanking it were Tweedledee and Tweededum from the night club. Parked next to it was the taxi driver and in front of it was Adidas Tracksuit and the Porcelain Doll.
They all regarded me blankly as I drew closer, even the girl.
Her aloof expression suddenly became wide-eyed shock.
'NO ABSOLUTION,' the Presence screamed, roared, wept and shrieked.
'HURRY BROTHER,' she cried to me.
The roar of an engine.
I ricocheted off the edge of the car, landing in a heap ten metres from the arch.
Looking up I could see stony expressions on the faces of the Watchers. Tears tracked down the girl's face as she wept silently.
'Pity about that girl, I never wanted you to have to find out about this,' a voice said.
Through blurred vision I could make out his approach and the black taxi he'd nearly killed me with.
'You see, I always sort of suspected you, but she was what gave you away.'
'What are you talking about?' I choked.
The pain was incredible, shooting up and down my side, I could barely think.
'I mean, OK, I thought maybe you were pissed when you were on about the bouncers, but twice in a row? Think I'm stupid?' he demanded kicking me in the side.
I screamed in pain.
'Thought you were so fucking clever, pretending to take that taxi didn't you?' he kicked me again.
The Presence drew closer.
I tried to crawl towards the arch, under the vicious gaze of Rob and the unsympathetic vigil of the Watchers.
'Oh no, no, no, there will be no mercy,' he kicked again 'there will be no forgiveness,' he stamped on my back 'there will be no absolution!'
The Presence near, I could see lamp posts curling like liquorice, light bulbs popping like bubbles, the pavement cracking like a hammered biscuit.
But above the torrent of vitriol and hate from the Presence, of the senseless screaming from Rob, I could hear a soaring voice of such purity, such heart bursting beauty I knew it could come from only one place.
The girl. Alone.
'Yeah, yeah, sing your fucking song, like you always do,' Rob spat.
But I knew Rob and I could see that, beneath the bravado, he was afraid.
But my body was so racked with pain; I just couldn't make the connection.
I just couldn't.
All the while the Presence drew closer.
Its keening had fallen away to whispers, whispers of anguish, pain, hate, spite, resentment, scorn and torment that were increasing in volume.
But this was barely perceptible to me. It felt as if she had linked her soul to mine and was filling me with such love and sadness, sadness that stemmed not from hatred, but from the deprivation of love. It built. And built.
It felt as every moment of heart rending joy had ignited in my chest.
The Presence was almost upon me.
'NO ABSOLUTION,' they wailed.
Like a marionette had suddenly strung me, I was suspended loosely in the air.
'What the hell is this?' Rob demanded.
I'm glowing, my entire body is glowing.
Slowly, it began to intensify until it became painful too look upon, but I had to see, had to know.
It burned deep within me, like I'd drank several bottles of vodka in seconds.
The Presence had arrived, an indistinct shadow radiating all that Pandora had unleashed.
'Well, if this is all you have-'
The light suddenly burst out in an incandescent explosion, hurling Rob back and recoiling the Presence who shrieked in pain.
But that was nothing on me.
I felt as if I was being burned alive from the inside out. My vocal cords were shredded in moments, but still I tried to scream.
And all while she sang.
On and on the light burned, insanity tantalisingly close. I then vaguely realised the Presence was being steadily eroded, like a dirty stain grudgingly conceding ground to disinfectant.
Rob was nowhere to be seen.
Without warning a wave of sewage-black light struck me. The sudden contact of such polar opposites caused a complete reversal of energy, throwing me backwards, towards the gate.
Light having faded, I crashed to the ground, landing ten feet from the arch.
'Hurry brother,' she whispered.
No, I don't want to hurry, I just want to be left alone.
I could feel the Presence was damaged and momentarily stunned, but not for long.
The Presence began to stir.
The whispering resumed, quiet at first.
'Please hel-'Rob's wail cut off with a scream and a meaty crunch.
You chose the wrong path Rob.
The whispering was louder now, the keening returning.
The girl stood in the entrance to archway, singing once more, hand outstretched.
The Presence suddenly rushed at me like a hurricane of damnation.
A soft hand.