This story was originally published in Xnoybis Volume 2 from Dunham’s Manor Press.
It also features in my chapbook Hinterland.
And the Filth Flows …Always
The flooding was immense. I looked through the bedroom window at the street below. The black slime that last night had begun to seep up from the drains and to flow languidly down the gutters had risen so that neither the tarmac of the road nor the grey stone of the pavement could be seen. In their place was this slow moving river of it winding its way towards the centre of town.
Cars and pedestrians alike made their way through the early morning haze seemingly not noticing the dramatic change to the street through which they passed. I wondered how they could be unaware of the viscous filth that pulled and sucked at their feet, that fouled the tires of their vehicles spraying their chassis’ with the grim substance.
The house was empty. It had been for years. Years since my daughter Kate had left home for her own life and, before that, since Alice had been taken from us. It had been so for years; yet now, faced with this strange and horrid phenomenon outside, I felt the loneliness more than ever. Since those first days after Kate left, those first days without either of the girls –without my family I felt the need to talk to someone –to anyone. To ask why they were not more perturbed, more caring, of the effluence which was now flooding the street. How could they bear to walk through it, to even drive through it?
The houses of Elderslie Road are old red brick Georgian terraces. Front doors opening directly onto the street but elevated by a couple of small steps. The blackness was flowing below the top of the first step, surely they must notice? It is only because of this tiny elevation that the horrid looking stuff was not flowing beneath doors and flooding the houses. At the rear of each house are more steps than in the front which lead down into the back yards so if the flooding was the same in the back then, at least, it would not have come into the kitchen. For now.
Whilst waiting for the kettle to boil I braved a look into the back yard. It too was full of the same black fluid but, unlike the slow river of it to the front of the house, this didn’t appear to be moving. It was just a pool –six inches deep, that filled my back yard from fence to fence. No movement, no ripples, no flowing anywhere. It just sat there, with my garden furniture – a white decorative metal lattice table and chairs – looking strange poking out of the black pool yet casting no reflection.
I took my coffee black that morning. I should have bought milk the night before and now the thought of walking, no –wading, to the shop at the end of the road was extremely unappealing. As much as I want to talk to someone about what has happened the thought of stepping into that filth makes me shudder. Extra sugar curbed the bitterness somewhat.
I took my time getting ready. I wasn’t going to make myself late putting off walking through the sludge outside but I certainly wasn’t going to be early either. I took the portable radio with me from the kitchen to the bathroom so that I could listen to the news whilst washing and shaving and was almost surprised when it was clear water that flowed from the taps rather than whatever had covered the street outside and my backyard. As I shaved I listened to the inanities of the DJ and the awful pop music that they played. Pop music wasn’t any better when I was younger, I have never been one for rose tinted glasses, it has always been dross. Repackaged perhaps; and given a crisp new veneer every year or two but dross all the same. There was no mention of the black flood on either the news reports or the traffic updates. Perhaps, I thought, it is a localized phenomenon –perhaps outside Elderslie Road there had been no flooding. It wasn’t as if this is a newsworthy area: a young girl had been murdered a few streets from here the year before and she had barely made the news. She was, like most of the residents of this part of town, probably of too dark a hue for the national news. Or perhaps her poor mother didn’t quite fit the correct socio-economic class or career demographic for journalists to care about. Either way, we rarely make the news around here. Regardless of child murders or floods of viscous ooze.
I stood at my front door for a while looking down at the filth. It had breached the top of the first step to my house and I sincerely hoped that it would abate before it rose much further. The thought of coming home to a house ruined by the stuff was almost enough for me to phone in to work and claim sickness so that I could spend the day barricading doors against any incursion that may happen. My position at work was, however, tenuous at best and so I didn’t dare miss a day. I had already moved all the books from the bottom shelves and piled them on the coffee table, I had unplugged the electrical gizmos, placing the DVD and VHS players alongside the books. I had emptied the space below the stairs of anything that sat on the floor and emptied the bottom kitchen cupboards onto the work surfaces. There wasn’t much else I was realistically able to do.
I stepped down into the street.
I had expected more resistance than I met. The slime looked to be thick, thick like cornstarch. Kate had shown me, years before, a video on the Internet of people running across swimming pools filled with cornstarch. She said it was a “non-Newtonian” liquid and so behaved like a solid and a liquid depending on how much pressure you put upon it. I was impressed with an 11 year old using a phrase like “non-Newtonian” even if it meant nothing to me. This filth looked almost like a pitch black version of the cornstarch on her Internet videos.
Instead of the resistance I had expected my foot sank easily into the stream and had sunk past my ankle into it before my foot reached the pavement. When I tried to pull my foot back out however I found that the slime had become more substantial and I had some difficulty in extracting my foot without leaving my shoe behind. When I pulled it free my foot had doubled in size thanks to the filth that was clinging to it. A man passing by on the other side of the street was looking at me. I gestured at the muck on my shoe, smiled, shrugged and, closing the door behind me, stepped in the black river.
I found walking through the stuff a lot easier if I didn’t attempt to remove my foot entirely from its grasp. This lead to me assuming an odd half shuffling gait which considerably slowed my progress to the metro station above Crepsworth Street.
Eventually I reached the gap between the terraced houses of Crepsworth Street and the steep stairs between them to the metro platform. Approaching I could see that the slime was now coating the stairs as well as the streets between Elderslie Road and here. It was being carried there on the soles of hundreds of shoes that traversed the steps during rush hour. It puddled and pooled in the middle of the steps and formed extremely slow moving waterfalls, or should that be slimefalls, dribbling from one step down to the next.
The platform too was covered. Pooling here and there or seeping over the edge and down onto the tracks. There was even a film of it over the touch screen of the vending machine where I purchased my ticket –turned to brown by the light of the screen. It didn’t seem to affect the functionality of the device and my ticket finished printing just as the 07:50 to Bagswell trundled into the station. I hurriedly, and somewhat ineffectually, attempted to wipe the thin greasy film that had covered my hand onto the side of the vending machine before boarding the train.
I judged that, given the amount of slime which covered the floor of the carriage and the shoes of the commuters already ensconced aboard, that the flooding was no mere localized phenomena –which made the lack of it being reported on the radio rather more peculiar. The 07:50 to Bagswell passed through the suburbs of Meritt and Candlewiks before heading into the city proper. One would have thought that flooding in those, more affluent, areas may have warranted some acknowledgement on the air.
As the train pulled out of the station I could see down and across the city and it became clear that almost everywhere in this part of town was flooded with black oil, or tar, or slime, or whatever it was. Cars slew through it; spraying gobbets of the stuff into the air, splashing oblivious pedestrians who simply trudged onwards as though nothing had changed around them.
I also noticed that the coats and trousers of my fellow commuters were spotted with black. Where they were buffeted together by the motion of the train the globs of blackness gelled together being stretched slowly apart as they moved away from one another. Through this motion small webs of blackness were forming between people. I myself had not been splashed by any passing cars en route to the station yet as I looked down I saw with disgust that I was now part of that sticky gelatinous web. A web which connected me to the people directly around me; a strand stretched from my right shoulder to the back of a pasty young man in an ill fitting suit whose eyes were firmly fixed upon his mobile phone, from my left knee a thick line of it hung between me and the rucksack sat at the feet of a young woman who I recognized from my street. Glancing back over my shoulder I could see more strands joining me to a tired looking woman of about my age, to a broad shouldered man in mechanics overalls and to a woman in a cleaners smock. I barely managed not to gag; bile rose to the back of my throat.
The doors opened more as the train stopped at Milstone station and more passengers boarded –bumping into one another, into me, pushing me into other people. More strands forming, more of this filth attaching itself to me.
Unable to stomach the cramped conditions of the carriage which allowed for the spreading of this filthy ichor I disembarked hurriedly, pushing against the onflow of passengers, and decided to walk to work. I knew that I would be late but decided that I would rather face the ire of Alasdair, my supervisor, than find myself vomiting on a train packed full of commuters.
The platform at Milstone station was completely deserted as the train pulled out and slippery underfoot from the film of blackness which had been dragged up from the streets by people hurrying to work. My coat was covered in trails of the viscous goo –it was completely ruined. I removed my wallet and phone and, as soon as I had descended to the street, I threw it in the nearest bin. There was nothing I could realistically have done about the strands and globs of filth attached to my trousers, unless I fancied an enforced trip to the nearest police station or loony bin.
Looking about I realized that I had little idea where it was that I had disembarked. My commute to work had always been performed by train and so the space between my neighbourhood and the city centre, where the office was located, were a bit of a mystery to me.
A bus passing the station threw up a wall of black slurry and I narrowly avoided being covered head to foot. I did however spot that the destination of the bus was Hettingley Square –a small bus interchange not far from my work- and so I trudged off through the mire that the streets had become following the direction of the bus –catching a bus was out of the question as each one that passed was just as crowded as the train carriage from which I had fled.
It took me nearly an hour to reach work which made me half an hour late and, sure enough, as I walked into the office, there was Alasdair standing beside my cubicle. He caught sight of me and pointedly looked at his wrist which, despite his wrist being completely devoid of any time keeping device, signified he was annoyed at my tardiness.
It may seem strange that I accepted all that was happening on face value –that I did not doubt myself when I saw that no other person was reacting to the flooding of the town with this black ooze. The truth is that I did doubt myself. I tried not to believe my own senses when it seemed that I alone was aware of this startling intrusion upon the world. I was, as I am still, convinced that this was no mere hallucination. I may be in my late 40s but I did have a youth. I experimented with LSD and “magic mushrooms” along with many of my teenage friends; I have experienced hallucinations that would terrify most and I have enjoyed them as I could always distinguish what was real from what was not and this slime was most definitely real. I had decided this before I had reached the end of Elderslie Road –the experience of the substance was far too vivid. There was none of the unreality of a drug induced hallucination and so the lack of reaction from my fellow citizens was incredibly perturbing. It also made what happened next even more terrifying.
As I approached my desk the office was filled with the usual low level murmuring and background noise generated by any office. I couldn’t make out, or don’t recall making out, any particular conversations which were occurring as people spoke to clients and potential clients down the phones –though I, perhaps, wasn’t listening. I hadn’t actually spoken to anyone so far this morning. I had bought my ticket from a machine and was far too distracted by the filthy oil coating everything on my commute to have paid any attention to the nattering of my fellow commuters on the train.
I walked towards Alasdair, excuses and explanations already forming in my mind and as I drew near he opened his mouth to speak.
He opened his mouth and darkness fell out.
I stood, horrified, as the oil, which was now everywhere, spilled from his lips. Unlike the slime that oozed in the streets and clung to my clothes this was hot, steaming. Black tendrils of steam poured from the darkness running down his chin. His eyes grew dark at the corners and he wept tears of black until his face was nothing but vile, steaming, oil. The tendrils of steam moved as though they were an extension of his body, they did not dissipate as steam does from a kettle. They coiled around one another like dozens of black translucent snakes. When they moved towards me I stepped back and bumped into the desk occupied by Simon with whom I shared the small cubicle. This momentary distraction managed to shake me free from the mesmerizing horror of Alasdair.
Simon made a guttural barking noise. Half bark, half horrid organic belch. A sound one would expect to hear emitted by a tar pit of the sort seen devouring woolly mammoth in museums and in children’s ancient history books. He uttered this awful sound and then darkness spilled forth from his mouth too. Barely containing a scream I turned on my heel and fled the office. Ignoring the lift I raced down the stairs and out through the side exit. Stopping in the alley beside the office recycling bins to vomit against the building next door.
Avoiding public transport and, to the best of my ability, streets with large numbers of people, I made my way home. It took nearly two hours to reach Elderslie Road. The slime continued to flow here as thick and vile as it flowed through the rest of the city. On my walk home I noticed that, as the day drew on, people were not so much covered in the slime due to being splashed by passing vehicles or brushing up against one another. Now they seemed to be secreting it themselves. A thin sheen of darkness weeping from the pores in their skin. I myself seemed to have avoided this most recent development of this horrifying phenomenon. Perhaps this was because I had been able to perceive the stuff or perhaps I had simply lost my mind. The vividness of the experience, how tangible everything was, continued to convince me that this was no hallucination. That something had gone very, very awry with the world. Or perhaps that the stuff had always been there and I had simply not been able to see it.
Once at home I packed a bag and called Kate, leaving a message on her mobile phone telling her that I was coming to visit. I walked back to the city center and, on the way, withdrew as much money as I could from the cash machine and boarded a train out of town. Sitting in the least occupied coach that I could find, I made my way across the country to my daughter.
As the train thundered out of the city and across the countryside I saw the same black oil covering everything. It dripped from electricity pylons and trees, it flowed down motorways and turned rivers into the picture of an environmentalist’s nightmare. The conductor, when she came, was weeping steaming tendrils of oil. The tendrils reached from her face and, as she took tickets, mingled with the tendrils weaving about the heads and faces of the few other passengers in the carriage. I looked down at the back of the seat before me and proffered her my ticket. Not looking up until she had moved on.
The train sped through the countryside. Between towns and villages. The oil was everywhere; making a mockery of the clear blue sky and the sun shining brilliant in the sky. If it wasn’t for the disturbing nature of what was happening it would have been a pleasant day to spend in the country or in a park somewhere. Especially now that I had, without doubt, lost my job –not that this was a pressing concern given the circumstances.
I alighted at the station of Kenneton, the small town to which Kate had moved, and found, unsurprisingly, that the situation here was exactly the same as it had been in the city and everywhere in between. I avoided contact with the people around me, their heads a mass of black steaming tendrils, and made my way to Kate’s house.
Kate had moved to this town for work and because she and Mark, my soon to be son-in-law, could afford to live in a nicer house than had they remained in the city. I hadn’t visited them enough, especially not since Alice had died. What were they going to make of me turning up now? Out of the blue, or the black as it were? Would they think me crazy when I told them what I was seeing? Would they be able to see it too once it had been pointed out to them? Would they think that grief and living alone had pushed me over the edge? That I was slipping into some kind of early dementia? My mother had had Alzheimer’s, but surely that wouldn’t account for what I was now seeing all around me? By this point I had had a few hours of relative calm on the train and so was beginning to fall prey to the same doubts that I had dismissed just this morning on my way to work. Doubts about my sanity.
There was no one at home when I arrived at Kate’s house. A semi-detached with nice gardens to the front and back. It was no surprise that they were not in, both of them worked full time in the next town along and so I could look forward to a few more hours alone with my doubts. I took myself to the back of their house and waited in the garden. Thankfully their neighbours were also at work –I had not visited enough to know them and I fear that they may not have reacted well to a, by now, rather wild eyed stranger hanging about their neighbour’s garden unattended.
Slow, intolerable, hours passed as I sat on a bench in their garden. The flooding wasn’t as pronounced here as it was in the street to the front of the house. Still, an inch thick film of it coated the lawn and had stained the grass as black as coal. It dripped from the apple tree and seeped into the kitchen beneath their back door.
Eventually I heard a car pull into the driveway at the front of the house and Kate and Mark laughing as they closed the car doors behind them. I emerged from the side of the house and they both looked surprised to see me despite the message I had left on Kate’s mobile. She smiled and called out to me. As she came close to embrace me I recoiled. I recoiled from my own daughter’s embrace. She too was covered in the oil. She too had those tendrils of black steam weaving about her head. She too was infected with this horror.
She asked me what was wrong and I understood her. No barking gulps or torrents of slime ushered forth from her mouth. I looked at her. She was my daughter. Always.
“Nothing” -I lied, and returned her embrace.
Felt the muck seep from her to me. Accepting it.
The tendrils of black steam embraced me as she did her arms. Her embrace easing the horror that had been coursing through my veins since I left work –made it tolerable. Made me realize that I could ignore it, pretend not to see it –was that what everyone else was doing? Ignoring the horror? Pretending the darkness wasn’t there so as to preserve their sanity? Perhaps I too could do this. Perhaps I too could live in a world of black insanity. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. This illusion; this pretence.
I say her name and my mouth tastes of filth.