They picked up Howard from the bus stop in town, early in the morning of his first day.
“Bit of a change for you, then, off to work with the rest of ’em?” said the driver, a thickset shaven-headed man in his fifties. His voice was incongruously mild and affable; it took Howard a while to process the statement and decide that it wasn’t any sort of dig.
“I’ve been doing bits and bobs,” he said, with the air of injured defensiveness that had become more or less habitual since he’d left college and signed on the dole.
“Not like this you haven’t,” said the man in the back seat.
Howard caught a glimpse of him in the rear-view mirror, and decided to address himself to the driver.
“I suppose you’ve done this for a while, then,” he said.
“Ooh, a good while now,” agreed the driver. “I’m Dave. That’s Barry in the back, he’s leaving us, aren’t you, Barry?”
“Too right,” Barry said flatly. “Is that a Wetherspoons? You can drop me here.”
Dave seemed surprised. “You off, then? Aren’t you going to give me-laddo the talk or anything?”
“Talk?” Barry was halfway out of the back door before the car had come to a full halt. He had to stoop to Howard’s wound-down window to reply. “What ‘talk’ is that, then? You mean tell him about the job, what he’s signed up for? Tell him what goes on, like? Where’s the point in that? You tell him now, he’d laugh in your face. Even when he’s done it, he won’t understand it. Look at me. I’ve done it the best part of six months and I still don’t understand fuck all, I don’t. I can tell him that if you’d like.” He thrust his head into the passenger window, causing Howard to recoil slightly. “Get that, did you, mate? Fuck, all. There you go, consider yourself up to speed.”
“Righto,” Dave said to the sound of Barry’s door slamming shut behind him. “Phew. Well, so much for Barry. He’s moving on, like I say.” He considered a while, while around him the high street traffic honked and swerved. “I think the best thing to do’s just to take you there and show you the ropes meself, so to speak. There’s some of them little Scotch eggs in the glove compartment, help yourself.”
They drove on in silence, more or less, till the business parks and industrial estates gave way to the wide flat fields of the Cheshire plain. The day was sunny, mild for March, and with Dave’s window rolled down the car was filled with the sweet loamy smell of fertilized farmland. After a while, Howard caught the first whiff of what lay up ahead.
“You getting that, are you?” Dave must have seen his nose wrinkle. “It’s alright, you get used to it after a while. I don’t hardly notice it at all, now, me.” Chuckling, he rolled the window up.
At the junction with the motorway, Dave took an unmarked turn off the roundabout that led to a five-bar gate, beyond which lay a farm lane that ran parallel with the motorway.
“Do us a favor,” Dave said, unhooking a big bunch of keys from his belt. “It’s that one there, look, the Chubb with the bit of blue tape on it.”
Howard undid the padlock and opened the gate. Closing it behind him he felt an odd little shiver run up the back of his neck.
On their right was the raised bank of the motorway; away to their left ran an evil-looking stream, a tidewater branch of the Dee estuary, and beyond it the refinery. The track, fringed with wasted hedgerow, led them through scrubby uncultivated fields that had all but reverted to marshland. The stink of the refinery was getting stronger and stronger.
A couple of miles down the track, Howard was beginning to appreciate the weird isolation of the place. The cars and lorries up on the motorway were, to all intents and purposes, as far removed from them as the airplanes scratching contrails across the bright spring sky. Across the mudflats and the stream, the refinery, an abstract of metal piping and brick chimney, looked so unfamiliar as to be almost alien, the space-age architecture of a moon base. Howard had heard the place was largely automated; more than anything it looked abandoned, a relic of the industrial age left behind to perplex some band of post-apocalyptic refugees. Not for the first time, he wondered whether he’d done the right thing in answering the advertisement in the newsagent’s window.
“This is us, then,” Dave said, indicating ahead.
With a sinking feeling, Howard saw what lay at the end of the dirt track. “What, the caravan?”
“Home away from home.” Dave braked to a halt on a wide waste patch in front of the static caravan. When he turned the engine off, the silence took Howard almost by surprise. For a few seconds, the two men sat in the front seats and said nothing. Then Dave nudged Howard and said, “Okey-doke, let’s get you started.”
The keychain came into play once more. “It’s a Chubb again, see, but the black tape this time,” Dave explained, popping the padlock that secured the caravan door. “Upsy-daisy, there we go. Door shuts like so—” and he shot home the bolt on the inside. “Now, let’s have the fire on, shall we? Gets a bit damp in here otherwise, bit parky.”
While Dave lit the propane heater, Howard took stock of his new workplace. There was a sort of counter or low shelf made of plywood, running around two sides of the caravan; there was a fold-out bunk bed; there were a couple of office chairs, one from the typing pool, one from middle management, both having seen better days. There was a grey metal filing cabinet, and on top of it a large industrial clamp lamp with a reel of extension cable.
“I left the generator running,” Dave was saying, “you can turn that off if the noise gets on your nerves, but you want to make sure it’s on again well before it gets dark, ’cos that’s your only electricity, see?” He reached up, tapped the twin fluorescent tubes above his head. “Gonna need your light there, later on.”
“You’ll be back before it gets dark, though, won’t you?”
“Oh, I should think so,” Dave said, not wholly reassuringly. “Right, well, let me see. Talk you through it. Blimey. Okay, well, here goes, then—”
Watching Dave’s aging Volvo out of sight across the flats, Howard found himself prey to a mixture of emotions. There was tedium, or more accurately the anticipation of tedium, which to be fair had been predictable from the get-go. There was the nagging conviction that here was a waste of a third-rate degree in media studies, and by extension the life it had been expected to transform. Over and above these things, though, he hadn’t expected to feel quite so lonely; nor, all things considered, quite so apprehensive. Not knowing why he felt these things didn’t really help—quite the opposite, in fact.
The Volvo’s receding engine merged into the ambient din of the distant motorway, and Howard suddenly felt absurdly isolated, standing in front of the caravan. He looked to the north, towards the refinery where thick white smoke belched incessantly from the chimneys. Howard guessed—wrongly, it turned out—that he would, as Dave had suggested, get used to the smell. Away to the east, the polder stretched flat and unlovely for five miles or so, till the land rose to the big power plant at Rocksavage. To the south lay the motorway, of course, and beyond it the hills of Helsby and Frodsham. Feeling at once hemmed-in and exposed, Howard cast a wistful glance west towards the trees, in which direction Dave’s Volvo had disappeared.
Within these boundaries of his space lay little enough to capture Howard’s attention. Over by the raised carriageway of the M56 there was a large articulated trailer, detached from its cab, parked at an angle to the eastbound traffic. Howard knew from frequent journeys on the motorway that on the far side of the trailer was painted the slogan CAR BOOT SALES EVERY SUN A.M. JUNCT 12. On the side now visible to him, the side hidden from the traffic, he could see nothing . . . except, as he squinted into the low March sunlight, a couple of men in business suits standing in its shade. Howard guessed they were shaking hands on some new advertising for the side of the trailer: PAY DAY LOANS FROM flashapply.com, perhaps, or WE BUY BROKEN GOLD. He’d been looking at them for a few minutes, drawn to this only sign of activity in all that dead space, before he remembered Dave’s instructions. Dutifully he climbed the steps into the caravan, settled himself in the better-upholstered of the two office chairs, and pulled down the big loose-leaf ledger from its shelf.
“09.23,” he wrote in the first ruled column, just as Dave had shown him, and in the next: “2 men.” In the wider space to the right he wrote: “Standing by trailer near motorway—” He paused before adding a period. Really, what else could he say?
His entry lay at the top of a new page. Before leaving, Dave had extracted the preceding few sheets, stuffed them in a manila folder and taken them away with him. On a whim, he leafed back to a tabbed divider with DECEMBER written in underlined capitals. The first entry was “2 / nr. tralor” followed by “3 / same”, then “2 again” over a time period ranging from half-past seven in the morning to just gone nine.
Howard swiveled in his chair and peered through the back window. There they were, the same two men, barely visible in the shadow. Regular visitors, clearly. But why?
On the shelf above where the big ledger was kept was a smaller ring-binder. “Have a look in there later on, if you like,” Dave had told him. “Might come in handy to show you the lie of the land, like.”
Howard, feeling disorientated less than ten minutes into his new job, pulled it down and opened it.
The contents seemed to be in no particular order. Some entries were handwritten, some word-processed; each page seemed to be an entry separate in itself. The first began didactically, in spaced caps:
L E A R N T O R E C O G N I Z E T H E M
You WILL have come across them, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
In the motorway services, for example, at off-peak hours of the daytime, or through the lonely stretches of the night. In the cafeterias, the Happy Chefs and Costa Coffees. They’re drawn inescapably to places like these: the margins, the places in between. They can pass for businessmen, commercial travelers, middle management, representatives. Cups of tea grow cold on the table in front of them as they sit, hands folded, apart from everyone. Other customers come and go while they remain—if you stayed long enough, you would notice it, you’d have to.
You will never see them arriving, nor will you see them leave. Their eyes will never meet your own.
Next time you buy a daily paper from one of those city newsstands, take special notice of the vendor. Try to fix his face, so that you can describe it later—you won’t be able to, but make the effort anyway. Pay attention, too, to the paper he sells you—read it carefully when you get a chance, compare it to another copy of the same edition. Somewhere in its pages there will usually be a clue.
They seem at home in cities, as much as they seem at home anywhere. Check out the pavement crowd beneath the would-be jumper on his high ledge. Not all of them are the conventionally anxious or the drearily morbid.
Once you learn to recognize them, try this exercise: look very closely at the people around you in the Underground carriage or the bus. The law of averages is adamant on this point.
Howard looked up from the ring-binder, feeling more confused than ever. Over by the trailer there were now four men in suits.
On the shelves inside the caravan was a pair of not very good binoculars. Howard spent most of the rest of that morning peering through them, trying to get a better look at the men standing by the trailer. In their ones and twos they came and went, though never while Howard was looking, it seemed. He’d developed a kind of anxiety compulsion about checking both windows, front and rear: there was something going on, he felt sure, along the course of the stream, but the banks were just too high for him to be able to make it out. Perhaps it was nothing more than a black post, uncovered by the tide. A black post, that’s all. But every time he turned away, satisfied or otherwise, from the tidewater creek, it seemed that through the other window there were one or two more of the men, or one or two fewer, over by the trailer.
Where they came from, why they gathered there, what they were doing . . . Howard could work none of it out. The notion they were coming out of (or going back into) the trailer had occurred to him as the most likely explanation for the first part of it, and he spent several hours trying to catch them in the act. By lunchtime he was only half convinced this might really be the explanation. But even if so, what did it actually explain?
He set it all down in the ledger, as best he could. As the day wore on into its slow dragging afternoon, and the shadows began to lengthen across the waste land, he pulled down the small ring-binder once more, flipped through it in a search for answers he half-knew would never really come to anything:
A P A R A D O X
They inhabit all the absences, the voids unfilled. You would not necessarily expect to see them in churches, but this may be subject to change. Hospitals have always been a favorite place; waiting rooms and reception areas, at all hours. And of course the ocean: the oldest jumping-off point of them all.
Visit any out-of-season seaside town and stand on the promenade. Look out across the tidal flats, the people who go walking there, mid-mornings, mid-afternoons. Disregard the dog-walkers, the fishermen digging for lugworm, the retired couples with their happy little camper vans. Concentrate on the others—the ones who don’t fit in. Ask yourself this:
If you were to walk out across the damply rippled sand to the dishwater ebb of the surf—out into the liminal zone—and then look back towards the land, would you see more or less what they see? The shift in perspective, the sudden remoteness that colors all things; imagine it. This is all they know now, anywhere. Imagine how it feels, day in, day out, to patrol these hopeless frontiers; think of the isolation, unyielding, all-encompassing.
Of course, this will be easier for you to understand, the longer you stay on the job.
“Yeah, thanks for that,” said Howard aloud. His voice sounded odd in the cramped space inside the caravan; somehow not like his own. For the first time, he wondered how he himself, a small man in a caravan, might appear to a traveler on the motorway glancing out of the car window. That traveler would probably not see anybody over by the trailer—its bulk, its shadow, the angle of its parking; all would serve to render its occupants invisible from the road. All they would see was a man at the window of the caravan, binoculars clamped to his face, the loneliest figure in that lonely landscape.
Without Howard noticing, the propane heater had run out of fuel. Obviously, he told himself, that was why he was shivering. The replacement cylinders, according to Dave, were in the exterior storage locker. He’d have to go outside to fetch one.
Standing in the open doorway, he peered towards the trailer; for the time being, there was nothing to be seen. After a minute’s hesitation, Howard stepped down, moved quickly around to the front, fumbled the locker open, and hauled out the spare cylinder. As he started back towards the door, something—a dark shape, a blur on the periphery—moved quickly out of sight around the further corner of the caravan. Sheer fright made Howard drop the cylinder; it caught his toe painfully, and by the time he’d limped back inside the caravan sweat was standing out on his forehead.
Over by the edge of the stream, what he’d originally taken for a wooden post sank gradually from his view till it was hidden by the bank.
After about half-an-hour had passed, thirty minutes of confused and unilluminating internal dispute, Howard felt recovered enough to be able to resume his duties (such as he understood them), checking fore and aft and making the relevant notes. By now the trailer men had reappeared, and he logged their comings and goings, their incomprehensible loiterings, with a fair pretense of detachment. He wondered how easy he’d find it to be blasé about the whole affair once the sun went down.
With a glance every few minutes or so towards the windows, front and rear (it was pretty much force of habit by now), he returned to the ring-binder, in the forlorn hope that it might all suddenly fall into place, everything he’d seen, everything he’d read, all he’d experienced in the course of this weirdest of days.
D E F I N I T I O N S
Remember, these are not the dead and buried, the loved ones taken to the graveyard in rented limousines and wept over for a season while their flowers rot on the bare turned earth. These are different. Nobody grieves for them. The majority are not even missed.
Nor yet should you think of them as zombies—but then, it has always been easier to say what they aren’t, than what they really are. To see them clearly, to see them for what they are, we need to look beyond those categories we understand.
What these unfortunates have in common, it seems safest to say, is the experience of lessening. The drip-drip-drip of psychic diminution. The attenuation of the psyche. Call it what you will. They are drained, one and all, at the most profound and fundamental level. Months, maybe years of unremitting reduction . . . till the day, long after they’d become oblivious to the whole process, on which they reached the tipping-point and passed over, unnoticed, unmourned. A day on which they did not go home.
And in this way they were given over to the margins, to the space around the edge of things. In this way, they became the sort of creatures for whom these places—these inhospitable thresholds they’re forever on the verge of crossing—might have been invented.
Though there was no author’s name, no way of telling who’d written these strange pages, Howard felt fairly sure it hadn’t been Barry. Nor yet Dave, he suspected: in fact, he wondered whether Dave had spent much time at all in the caravan when not dropping people off or picking them up. He didn’t seem the type, thought Howard; and then wondered whether this meant that he himself might be that very type. He didn’t really want to think about it at this stage; what it would say about the terminal poverty of his choices, were he to be the type of person who could actually be said to belong here, in this shabby gas-stinking caravan, with night falling over the Cheshire plain, the shadow of the trailer deepening, helping to conceal whatever might be hiding within it.
With an involuntary body-length shudder, he turned a page of the ring-binder and read on:
D A R K N E S S
Some, the newly translated perhaps, are drawn to certain houses in the night. While the occupants are asleep they move in close, position themselves outside the unlit curtained windows and press their faces to the panes, as if—though it’s pointless to ascribe to them any motives we would recognize—some memory of refuge, of belonging might move in them still. Why these houses? Why these feelings? Who can say? We could assume the houses evoke in them something like nostalgia; probably we’d be wrong. All we really know is that there they are, leaning in against the glass, resigned, unwearied, still and noiseless in their vigils.
Occasionally, it has been observed, tears will leak from their wide unblinking eyes, and sometimes in the morning the low-angled sunlight will catch the impressions of their faces on the pane. Hundreds of times you’ve seen these marks. Now you know what causes them.
Howard closed the ring-binder sharply. Already it was too dark to see outside: the fluorescent tubes above his head served only to cast his own white-faced reflection back at himself. There was an hour to go still before Dave might come to pick him up. Would it be better with the lights switched on, or off?
For the life of him he couldn’t decide.
Originally published in The Moment of Panic and reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014.