By the time I reach Westferry, only one other passenger remains with me in the carriage: a late-shifter like myself. I have a number of reports to get through before the Christmas break, so, having finished my newspaper, I undo the clasps on my briefcase and remove a sheaf of them.
While I peck determinedly at the pages with a biro, the other passenger stands up and moves several seats closer to me. I afford myself a glance. His suit is the mirror of mine, but in black, and he sports a bright red tie with white shirt. Very seasonal, I smirk to myself. His face is thin, the jaw especially so. I’d put him a few years younger than me. His attaché case is an antique though: faded, worn at the edges, with rust flecks on the metal. Almost large enough to be a trunk.
The train gives an especially strong jolt, sending the point of my pen skidding.
“Our jobs are not dissimilar,” says the stranger, nodding sharply at my papers.
His manner of speaking unsettles me. The voice is audibly muffled, as if it were another mouth speaking from within his body. His lips move with a strange deliberation that reminds me of something mechanical, and don’t seem to match the shape of the words. I smile an acknowledgment, and determine to concentrate all the harder on my work.
I hear the click of his case opening. From within it, to my great perplexion, he produces his own small clutch of pages, holding them out for me to take. I stare at them blankly, which only causes him to proffer them all the more earnestly. In that instant, however, a pain seems to shoot through his body. He recoils, dropping the sheets to the floor.
An automatic gesture – I stoop to pick them up, with the aim of giving them back to him, but he won’t take them and seems afraid of my approaching him, now holding up his case as a barrier between us and making odd, low, guttural noises. I glance down at the first page and feel a creeping chill as my eyes alight on my own name, my address, date of birth and other details already filled in, the manuscript a wormy black scrawl.
I look up again, but in the moment of my distraction, the figure has been replaced by another passenger entirely: an older man in duller colours, nose-deep in the Evening Standard.
“You dropped these,” I tell him, without much conviction.
He takes one dubious look at them. Wordlessly shakes his head.
The last few streets before my flat are poorly lit. An icy wind seizes up my jaw and seems to reach even beneath the folds of my scarf. At one point I think I hear the sound of some creature – or small man – scuttling along beside me with short, frantic breaths, but it’s only a clutch of dried, papery leaves being pulled along by that same wind.
My right hand is frozen stiff because it’s still gripping the papers. Forms, I should say. Six pages of questions and tick-boxes, all under a general header paragraph:
This questionnaire is to aid in the assessment of what future mortality-related benefits you are entitled to. In order to help us select the appropriate treatment, please answer all questions truthfully.
I’d paused at the bedraggled litter bin outside the station, but couldn’t bring myself to throw away the papers. Couldn’t even loosen my grip on them. With the cold quickly numbing my hand, it seemed I no longer had sufficient control of my fingers. So I took the forms with me, having the notion that I would burn them on the gas hob when I got indoors, or else shred them for recycling.
The trees at the end of my street. Bare and ever-so-slowly tossing their heads. From one of the higher branches, a bird is peering down at me. A blackbird? Too large. A crow or rook? Yes, I see now its long, grey bill – a small, blunted scythe. I see also that it wears around its neck a chain with a box on the end of it, about the size of a padlock. A kind of miniature cash-box? Metal certainly. It’s glinting in the dim light from the houses.
The crow tilts its head jerkily and lets out a cawing that sounds like an old woman laughing.
“Is it you again?” I ask angrily. “Come down here and turn back into a man.”
The bird doesn’t budge. Neither, however, does it look away.
“I’m going to burn these damned forms. Understand?” I say, waving them at him from a whitened fist. “I’m going to tear them into pieces and burn them. I don’t know who you are, but I don’t answer to you.”
The crow cackles again, then raises its wings and takes off, disappearing immediately against the backdrop of the cloud-covered night.
The smell and sound of sizzling meat greets me as I enter the flat in a cloak of freezing air. I pause, surprised, before shutting the door softly behind me. It’s far too late for Rachel to be cooking.
I go to the kitchen without shedding my coat. Rachel stands with her back to me, nudging a large slab of steak around the pan, humming to herself. I can’t name the tune.
She doesn’t seem to hear me. I try again, approaching gingerly.
I brush her shoulder with my fingertips and she spins round violently, as if my very touch burnt. Her face. Not Rachel’s face. Rachel’s hair, Rachel’s clothes, Rachel’s body. But the face of the other passenger, now contorted into a snarl. And around her/his/its neck is slung a drawstring leather purse, distended to the shape of a droplet by its heavy contents.
I withdraw equally sharply, tripping over a chair. The distance between us seems to soothe the creature. Its features relax and it points to the crumpled swatch of pages I still clutch in my hand.
“If I fill them out, you’ll give her back to me? Is that it? Well?”
It smiles, and I notice – yes, unmistakably, Rachel’s teeth behind those alien lips.
“I know you can speak. Promise me you’ll give her back.”
It says nothing but thrusts its forefinger – Rachel’s forefinger – repeatedly at the sheets. I right the kitchen chair I’d knocked down, and set the pages out on the table. All at once, the creases wrought by my clenched first disappear, as easily as if they were marks in water. Something begins to manifest itself before my eyes, out of the meaty steam – a knife? No, a crooked pen. With a trembling hand, I pluck it from the air and sit down to write.
The questions seem endless and endlessly intricate, far more than six sheets’ worth. The more I stare at the paper, the more I seem to be swallowed up by it, with options and tick-boxes extending in all directions, limited only by the caveat of ‘over the last 12 months’. They centre, I realise, on morality, on my guilt, but each is loaded with judgmentalism and syntactic mischief.
Are you able to spare some or more of your available disposable income beyond that which you already do on the provision of meaningful assistance* to the homeless, destitute, poverty-afflicted, disadvantaged and/or those deprived of a fully supportive social infrastructure?
Have you been remunerated or rewarded for a task requiring little corresponding effort and/or imagination on your part and known this to be the case, either at a high level of conscience or beneath a material or immaterial veneer of sophistic self-justification?
On and on they go. Now sweat dapples my brow.
Has there existed the possibility of negative effects (psychological, physical, social, environmental) of your function as an employee/sole trader/business owner that you do not regularly take into account in the performance of your duties and/or related activities?
If yes, could you have done more to mitigate these effects and/or their foreseen, unforeseen or suspected consequences?
Even the simple ones seem designed to snare me:
Have you ever enjoyed others’ misfortune?
Do you benefit from social inequality?
I don’t even make it to the end. Because I can only answer ‘yes’ to each and every one, by the time I have struggled, fists shaking, through a substantial sea of them, my fate is made. The pen fades once more into a puffet of steam. The paper turns wholly black, as if soaked in ink or crude oil.
A voice behind me, its vowels long and steady as a bull’s low:
“Based on your assessment, we have concluded that you are …”
A deliberate, pained pause.
“… fit for taking.”
And laughter. Terrible laughter.
It is the devil, or one of his minions, now standing behind me, his hand on my shoulder. That hand – large, knot-knuckled and clawed. Hoofed feet, and shagged in a fine, black fur that covers his entire body apart from his face and hands, which are the red of a wax seal. Horns thick and gnarled, twisting like bent mental. A long, sheep-like snout from which unravels a tongue that tapers to a single pointed tip. A tail that loops several times across the kitchen floor.
Around his waist are wrapped rust-bitten chains and bells, whose chime when he moves is more of a sickly scraping. On his back, he hulks a sack of the coarsest cloth, vast and wriggling with whatever is inside it.
“Now I can lay my claws on you at last!” he roars, and his voice rattles the glass and china the way an approaching heavy goods vehicle might. “By your own doing!”
“It wasn’t fair,” I tell him, though my own voice is but a croak. “You rigged this. What are you anyway? What is this? Why me? Are you Satan? Are you the devil himself?”
“I am not. I have many names.”
He leans in so that his long snout is but a few millimetres from my ear. Now he whispers to me:
“Call me Krampus, if you like. I’m a professional punisher. I punish bad children at Christmas.”
“But I’m not a child!”
“No? I’m not so sure. In any case, as of recently, we’re … extending the programme. And the range of punishments.”
I throw back my chair, slip from under his claw. I upend the table in his path. I scream and try to put the door between him and me. But his hand is on me again. Wood splinters. I am lifted up, and beneath me I see the writhing sack open like the maw of some toothless creature. All I can see in it is darkness. Nothing else.
And in I go.