Samuel Rigger usually knew his way home from the office but, that night of the Christmas party, he did not.
The affair had been typical, with the Managing Director hobnobbing with the tea lady, whilst the top salesman in the Company, all mouth and trousers and an overgenerous gift of the gab, played cat's cradle with the office junior's bra straps. In a peculiar fashion, Samuel had actually begun to like the salesman tonight, ever since their earlier chat at the party, where Samuel had confessed much about himself, his mother and even the minutiae of his home life; it was a relief, because nobody had bothered to speak with Samuel before.
Samuel scrutinised all the party happenings with a jaundiced eye. He would not be able to tell his Mother about everything that went on tonight, a fact which upset him, in view of not normally censoring anything from the narration of his day's doings when he returned home in the evening. After the party reached its balloon-mending stage, Samuel made some hasty farewells and stumbled out into the night air, which had been given a decided edge by the first real frost front of the winter.
The general layout of the streets was familiar enough, but some lamps flickered on and off – a fault in the City's underground cabling, he assumed. The phenomenon cast shadows where shadows should not have been, and created corners where previously there had been open spaces. He could barely discern the silhouette of St Paul's Cathedral – strange, he thought, for this had previously been concealed by an ungodly office building (probably the one where Samuel worked, the one he'd just left). The river's reek was particularly rank, as if some of its gunk had crawled from it by a volition engendered by an indefinable peculiarity of the air which he felt creeping to his bones' innermost marrow.
He attempted to retrace his steps to ascertain the whereabouts of the other party-goers. He caught a glimpse of the wide-boy salesman's back vanishing into an alley with a huge saggy suitcase. The faint voices of the others trilled into the distance, no doubt certain of their ways home. But what was that sitting in the kerbside gutter? Probably one of those dossers who appeared almost human during office hours. Samuel approached and was amazed when he gathered the depth of the gutter – near enough an open sewer with slops and turn-outs littering its trench.
"Are you all right?" he asked the dosser. Being here after hours had given Samuel a certain amount of deliberate courage – to conceal the fear.
The man remained with head bent, so that his face was hidden from the flashing light of a nearby Belisha beacon. His snarling voice was tantamount to wickerwork talking, the short breath rasping, the words sounding as if formed within the throat walls. "I be all right, younker, but I be none too sure about yourself."
"I didn't have too much to drink," Samuel Rigger replied, "but I suppose I must be drunk." In fact, only tonic water had passed his lips all evening.
"Drink be the Devil's own piss, sonny – steer clear of it."
"Can I get down there with you out of the cold?" Samuel was shivering, but no sooner than he had asked the question, he wondered why on earth he even considered doing so.
"Course you can, it be warmer down here – the seepage does it, I reckon, fresh from the backs of a dozen bakers' ovens – the pipes yawn out here..."
Against his normal better judgement, Samuel scrambled down into the trench, but then saw that he had thrown in his lot with the plug-ugliest creature of the human persuasion he had ever seen. The pulsing yellow glow etched a hair-brained version of the face, flesh seeming to melt in and out of shape above and below a walrus moustache whence sprouted a row of broken fence-posts – surely not teeth, pray God they were not teeth. Fingernail eyes were slicked to the quick with glaucomal slime; half-moon pupils throbbed big and small to the rhythm of the now rolling misty phlegm-light. And, Samuel was sure he caught a glimpse of an overnourished tongue wagging like a stallion's 'gentle' from the jagged mouth.
She was worried sick. Her son had never been so late. True, it was the office party tonight – he'd told her proudly that he was going this year. She had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. Now look at what had happened: the hands of the stand-up clock in the corner moved imperceptibly and she was certain the gaps between the ticks were growing longer and yet longer. The gas fire flickered flames up the white-bone grid, as they cast a paltry heat. She wrapped the blanket tighter around her spindly legs, waiting impatiently for Samuel's customary footsteps ascending the stairs to the flat. But they never seemed even near to arriving.
The cars outside, roaring from one Christmas party to another, grew fewer and yet fewer. Then the steps came, at last. Slower than normal. In an ill-shod rhythm and sounding as if there were more than two feet – but less than four. Two and a scraping. She couldn't think straight at the best of times. Samuel had a key, hadn't he? He always kept it on a chain attached to his red braces. No need to get up and let him in. The fumbling at the lock was certainly clumsier than usual. Surely he hadn't been drinking! She had told him specifically – no drinking, since drinking was the Devil's own way of seeing into your soul. At last, the lock's tumblers began to fall, one by one, grievously slow. Then she recalled. She had earlier slipped the bolt across from the inside, with Samuel being out so uncommonly late. She didn't feel safe, otherwise.
"Is that you, Samyool?" she feebly called.
No answer. Only further frantic fumbling with the lock.
"Samyool! Samyool! Please answer your mummy!" This time with a shrill undercurrent.
A thickening voice repled: "Yes, mummy, I'm here – let me in. Why have you slipped the bolt? You've never done that before."
She rose from her chair. She hobbled towards the door, but not before adjusting the chair's antimacassar which she had inadvertently dislodged with her head. Yet she had one last doubt. "Samyool, if that's you, knock on the door the way you know we once agreed..."
And the knocking duly knocked. Exactly as it should: three sharp knuckle raps followed by a head thud. She quickly slid the bolt from its home and the door swung wider than it had ever swung before.
Darkness barged in and, after stifling Samyool's mummy with its long tongue, ransacked the flat just for the fun of it, after having discovered her life savings straightaway in the usual hiding-place.
Samuel Rigger had always been a homebird. Lived with his mother until she died so brutally. Entirely against character, he had lived it up one evening at an office party and, whilst sleeping it off in some City gutter, his aged mother had been robbed (and worse) by a foul-mouthed intruder. All manner of careful handling was required to allow Samuel to grapple with the trauma and even to recognise that his mother would never be able to look after him again. Many Riggers descended from God knows where to iron out the repercussions and to "see to poor Samuel, you know what he's like, no gumption, no go, no nothing, pulled along by his mother's apron-strings." None of the various Riggers would actually take him in, put him safely under their wing where he could heal naturally in the goodness of time.
There were several weeks of police investigation, coroner's reports and funerary arrangements (none of which, incidentally, reached fruition, because the body later disappeared in peculiar circumstances). But, following all such glitches, Samuel was left to his own devices. He didn't return to his City office job, although he did travel to the City on the odd excursion from the flat's gloom to review an incident he couldn't quite remember. Yet he always ended up sitting in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral eating doorsteps of bread he had scrounged from the stale baker around the corner of the suburban streets – where life ever mazed on in the endless kicking against the pricks of death. He didn't even try to find work, he simply dithered and moithered.
One day, however, work found him. The Residence Committe that ran the flats were intent on a campaign of red-staining the steps, or donkey-stoning as the chore was called in Samuel's neck of the woods. They knew he was at a loose end, so they gave him a lump of heavy-duty industrial soap and instructed him to start work; rubbing hard, with the elbow-pumps God had seen fit to give him, into the spiralling stone steps to clean them of Victorian grease and grime. Then a few goings-over with a bunny cloth. They finally gave him a cake of what looked like crimson wax and ordered him to work that into the surfaces whence he had lately summoned a pristine glory – with all the natural veins, knots, knurls and ridges of the stone standing proud. They did not promise him remunerationn for his efforts, since they felt that the self respect induced by the honest-to-goodness travail was reward enough. Yet, they knew he had to eat, so they toasted his bread doorsteps and dunked them in rancid butter to make them more palatable.
Eventually, the stone steps were smartly dark scarlet from tip to toe; and when the walls had been whitewashed, the Residence Committee considered it a job well done. They congratulated Samuel and informed him that his mother, bless her heart, would have been proud of him. And Samuel was more than half proud of himself.
Until Aunt Rigger came to stay with her several trunks.
She had not been one of those Riggers who had bumbled round the bereft Samuel during that hiatus of time, when he did not know whether he were coming or going or, even, gone. He had in fact not seen her, nor even thought about her, for donkey years. But, here she was, evidently unchanged, unaged and just as blustering.
"Well, Samuel Rigger, I expect things have been a trifle difficult since Sylvia ... went away. But, I've decided to stay and look after you. And the first thing you can do is shave off that scrawny moustache, put a bit of God-fearing soap behind your ears and roll back the skin of your billy-bob to ensure there are no black bits accumulating to cause you trouble when you're older."
Samuel simply stared. In a black apron, she had given him baths as a toddler, when his mother had skin trouble. He was taken aback by the onslaught of this talking face, with big red shiny lips, which had arrived accompanied by a room-choking array of soft luggage, portmanteaux, hatboxes, tea-chests, trunks, gin bottles and various unrecognisable items.
"Don't gawp so, nephew. Hasn't your tongue a word to say to your Aunt Rigger?"
He shook his head vigorously. The door-bell rang, the one recently fitted by the other Riggers. She raised her hand and restrained him: "Don't go to answer it yet – the postman always rings twice." The door-bell rang again, this time in a vaguely familiar rhythm. She pounced to the door and took in a parcel that was handed to her by an arm which Samuel assumed to be bodiless. "I was expecting this, nephew. Be an angel and bring the biggest nail you've got here and bang it into the door."
He rose in a desultory fashion, retrieved the large mallet that had been acting as an ad hoc ballcock in the lavatory cistern and, taking the nail which had been precariously bearing a large framed photograph of his mother (which consequently crashed to the linoleum), he forthwith hammered it into the centre of the inside of the door. Whereupon, Aunt Rigger dangled from it a large furry hat which she had noisily unwrapped from the parcel. "There!" she said, standing back, arms akimbo, to admire it. "I feel at home now."
Samuel glanced at his Aunt's hindlegs, hoping she would talk herself to the point of collapse. She did in fact crumple into his mother's favourite armchair and, without adjusting the greasy antimacassar that had been dislodged by the men in brushing past with the baggage, she snored herself to sleep. He subsequently replaced the mallet in the cistern, in the nick of time as it happened, since it was making certain gurgling threats to overflow. He returned to the living-room to survey the havoc caused by the new arrival. The snorting beast in the easy chair had slumped into an ungainly unladylike stance, wicker-veined legs wide, head lolling. The snorts soon died out and a soundless sleep ensued.
Samuel Rigger removed his 'gentle' and examined its minutiae for mites. The hat on the door fell off (with the nail) and squatted on the floor. Much later, he heard scraping noises beyond the flat's front door, easing nearer like hardened skin on stone. Then silence of sorts. Until the bell rang. Only once. Then silence proper, a simple silence through which Samuel Rigger couldn't find his way. He felt as dead as a doornail. He didn't care to answer the door, even if it were possible to do so. It had only been a door-to-door salesman or an honest beggar or, at worst, a plug-ugly dosser, perhaps even another bag woman.
First published ‘Nightfall’ 1991