:: Article

Oblique House

By Jake Elliot.

London. Fog everywhere. The densest fog presses through the streets, squeezing along alleyways, eddying around buildings, rolling over rooftops and smothering Lincoln’s Inn. The very heart of the fog. Chance figures creep among the nether sky of fog and the man with the carpet bag waits for them to pass before continuing with his journey. Jo sniffs, the fog cruelly pinching at his fingers, and he shivers, hugging the bag tighter. It is not much further now, he hopes, although it is difficult to be certain. The fog so thick

waddling up Holborn Hill, a giant lizard pounds through the draining mud, its tail knocking against cars undistinguishable in mire and rocking them beneath their cowls of mud. The plastic beacon of a traffic island splinters beneath the creature’s massive foot. At the top of the street the lizard nudges past a buried lorry, snapping the suspension and sending the vehicle slithering down the hill, where it chases a tide of receding mud

Ghosts in the fog. A man bundled in a greatcoat, hat and scarf negotiates the mud streaming down the centre of the street. He hops carefully over the choked gutter, where a bank of mud oozes up over the kerbstone, listening to the braying horns of nearby shadows that nose their way painfully like blind beasts. An accident in this would be like prehistoric monsters locked in a death-grip. A ghost peering over a steering wheel shouts at someone who has forgotten to turn their rear lights on.

only glimpses visible through swirling

Jo tries to peer through the fog, unsure whether he has seen movement. He sniffs again and clutches the bag with his other hand, plunging his numbed fingers into a ragged pocket. The fog surges around him. Jo feels a moment of panic. What if he has been followed? Impossible, he tells himself. No-one could keep up with him unless they could grasp at his sleeve, much less trail him from the British Museum. From somewhere he hears the clatter of a hansom carriage, travelling recklessly fast. Jo gropes and fumbles his way to the wall, resting against the damp, chilled stone until the noise subsides. He thinks he sees a point of illumination, briefly, bobbing in the distance like a marsh-light but it disappears again before he can place it properly.

the fog descends, a jaundiced cataract

clatters to a halt over the wet cobbles and the severe-looking man orders the lamp to be covered. He announces an address in the East End as his companion climbs into the cab beside him. And then we are away, the horses ploughing forwards with the unveiled lamplight turning the fog before them to a hazy shimmer. While his companion asks a string of questions the man ignores him. A quick glance shows him leaning forward clutching his walking cane and resting his chin on the back of his gloved hands. It is as if he were alone in the cab, so little attention does he give to the other beside him. As we slow to inch our way across a junction the questioner raises his voice. “Dash it all! We can’t have lost Moran, we were directly after him. We can’t be that far behind!” The seat creaks and the reply is perfectly audible for all its lack of volume, cutting clearly through the drear fog. “Oh, but somehow we are. Presently we are hastening towards Brickmakers Wharf, although that place has been built over and lost for at least thirty years.”

There is a flavour to the fog. An after-taste, like delicate melon. H V Morton buries his mouth in his scarf, pulls his greatcoat around him and walks on, intending to make the journey back to the house.

Although night is generally my time for walking, I confess that the imposition of such a heavy and enduring fog as had befallen upon the city withdrew those prominent features that I had, almost without acknowledgement, hitherto relied upon to guide my roaming. My curiosity and interest were, nevertheless, drawn to the sweet child who had pleasantly addressed me and begged to be directed to another quarter of the town and I had maintained an intricate journey towards her home, sufficient, indeed, to occasion a disorientation in me at least equal to that of the little creature trudging at my side. Now, with the street where my companion resided maybe less than a score of steps away from us, I found myself vainly walking like a blind man; increasingly aware of the ingenuous trusting of the child and how further undeserved it was with each passing step.

“On such a night it makes me glad to know we are not near that remarkable door, nor that damnable fellow Hyde…”
“You forget, Richard,” and here, Mr Utterson raised a hand to quieten his friend, “that we had agreed not to refer to the matter again.”

it’s getting crowded in the fog

The dim gleaming of the gas around Chancery helps Jo decide that he is nearer to the house. Soon he can transfer the carpet bag to the solemn looking gentleman and be away with the promised sovereigns. The man found Jo in a haze of gin outside a tavern and offered him the money to remove an object from the British Museum on this specific night and deliver it immediately to an address close to Lincoln’s Inn. Jo has never been to the British Museum, is still slightly unnerved at witnessing electric lights, and cannot understand why his shifty employer wants a wax cylinder labelled ‘Charles Dickens’ but he isn’t being paid for his thinking. It is his nimble fingers and subsequent silence that the sovereigns are provided for. Jo heads towards the man he only knows as Jarndyce, happily anticipating his money. Around him, the fog seems to be lessening, although it could be an effect of the gas, smudged pools of light offering depth and perspective.
From nearby Jo hears a heavy thudding sound. Pooled water on the pavement trembles. Jo’s first thought is that he has been followed after all and a posse of police is rushing towards him. He dismisses this as another low rumble passes through the ground. From over the top of a building across the street Jo sees the looming head of a monstrous lizard, its eye sweeping over the local rooftops. Jo backs away unsteadily and lets out a cry of horror. The enormous eye rakes around to gaze down at him.

“What was that?” said my little companion, her hand tightening around my own.
I confessed that I did not know and offered that it was someone fallen in the fog, but the cry was too terrible and filled with an excess of horror for such a thing.
“Some poor person may be in need of our help,” the dear child answered, although her voice was hushed and uncertain.
I counted myself a low coward, and a scoundrel even, that I did not act upon the child’s words and instantly plunge into the fog, preparing to assist the fellow who had cried out; instead I wished to maintain that we should hasten homeward and see if the child’s people could help; my moral courage found my voice first, however, and I turned in what I thought was the direction of the alarum.
“Stay behind me, child,” I commanded.

The fog sweeps in even more thickly than before.

clutches carpet bag with prowling lizard ghosts locked in a death-grip smudged pools of pavement trembles and lost for at least thirty years.

recklessly fast damp, chilled stone so much less fragile marsh-light asks a string of questions of his gloved hands

delicate melon like a burnt cork a blind man promised sovereigns

A lantern casts a glow upon the fog, buffeting it back by a mere few yards. The young man holding the lantern aloft looks hesitantly at his older companion who is crouched, inspecting the pavement.
“Well, Professor?”
“This way,” the professor says, “it came along here at quite a pace, I should think, judging by the intervals between the prints.”
The professor straightens and removes a service revolver from beneath his jacket. The man with the lantern takes a moment to glance behind him, trying to see through the fog, before hurrying after the professor. As they reach the corner of the street the professor halts and gestures for the lantern. He leans round the corner, casting the light before him and steadying his revolver over his forearm. He turns with a nod.
“The Inspector was right, it travelled in this direction from Old Holborn.” The professor smiles grimly. “We are very close, my lad.”

A flick of the monstrous tail reduces Jo to a stain on the wall.

The professor hands the lantern back to his companion and creeps along the wall, his revolver held out in front of him, pointing blindly into the fog. There is the vaporous smell of burning and the professor wonders who would be foolish enough to light a fire in this terrible fog. Behind him the young man seems aware of the smoky air too and begins to splutter. The professor looks round in annoyance but the man is choking and coughing before he can get a handkerchief to his mouth. As he catches his breath he blinks his streaming eyes and whispers an apology. The professor checks he is fit to continue and then resumes the hunt.

It is only a few steps later that the young man calls softly to the professor and brings him to a halt again. Where he has been brushing against the wall some sooty deposit has smeared itself over the arm of his jacket. When the professor attempts to wipe it off he finds it adheres to his hands like black fat.
“Is there a chimney on fire?” asks the young man.
“Confounded stuff,” mutters the professor, rubbing his fingers together.
“Its all over this wall,” says the young man, shining the lantern across the rough brickwork. “Like a burnt cork has been bobbed along it.”
The smell of burning presses around them as heavily as the fog. The young man reaches for his handkerchief once more. The professor takes a step back and tries to peer up to the roof of the building but his eyes are defeated almost instantly.
“Professor!”
The young man’s voice carries an inflection of horror and the professor immediately responds, rushing further along the street where his companion has wandered.
In the glow of the lantern is a recessed wooden doorway, charred around the base, and a dark greasy coating, upon which is sprinkled white ash, trickles down the step. The professor stares in puzzlement at the doorway until he slowly begins to comprehend the shape.
“Spontaneous combustion,” he announces.

The air raid wardens tramp through the mud, both of them with grim expressions on their faces.
“It was some sort of light I saw guv, just ahead.”
The man behind him shakes his head. “I don’t like it. I don’t. Swear on the book all of this got hit the other night.”

In the comfort of a drawing room Jarndyce sits in an armchair, smoking a cigar. He turns from his calm contemplation of the flickering fireplace and observes the candles on a coffee table. The wax in the top of the candles spills and drips over the holders. There is a tap at the window. Jarndyce casts the end of his cigar into the fireplace and walks into the hall to open the front door. He stares into the roiling fog before stepping out into the chilly night.
A claw breaks from the fog and places the carpet bag at his feet.
Jarndyce kneels, unconcerned by the appearance of the outsized claw, and opens the bag.
“It is there.”
The lizard moves forward and bows down to see Jarndyce clearly in the fog.
“The thief?” Jarndyce says, gently lifting the wax cylinder from a bed of wool within the bag.
“He is dead – as you requested,” the lizard states. The massive eye darts over the man and the minute shape cradled in his hands. “You should transfer that to CD as soon as possible,” it advises. “So much less fragile.”
Jarndyce replaces the cylinder and snaps the carpet bag shut.
“Now you can tell me how to get out of this,” says the lizard.

The light from the fireplace skated across the surface of Charles Dickens’ only phonograph and Jarndyce smiled thinly in satisfaction before he placed it on the machinery to play it. He had heard conflicting rumours about its contents – working notes for Edwin Drood or a family performance of one of the Christmas stories. Now he would find out.
Once the cylinder was turning smoothly, the machine began to emit pops and hisses along with a rasping acoustic record of the room where it had been etched.
Presently, a cough was heard and a voice cut faintly over the hiss.
As the gentleman referred to hereafter as Dick Datchery hurried to make his train for Cloisterham, he thought ‘London. Fog everywhere…’”

fog.JPG 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jake Elliot has had fiction published in various magazines including Flux, Cafe Irreal, Etchings and Scryfa as well as in anthologies including Paper Scissors Stone and Short Trips 16. He has also written stories for BBC Radio 4. He is currently completing a novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 24th, 2007.