It is night. Dusk has fallen, and the shadows have not so much disappeared as consumed everything entirely. The whole street, the whole town, is one large mass of shadows, heaving together and spewing into the cold air.
Justin is a shadow. He is a bulky, shapeless lump in the dark, blanket wrapped around him, the hair on his face long and bristling, spreading as if trying to conceal his features. A squirrel hiding treasure in the dark, scuttling soil.
He is afraid tonight.
There was a time when he was afraid most nights. He lived inside a quivering mound of terror, his senses peaked and spiked and whistling with tension. But then, inevitably, it became mundane. Those growling ghouls of fever and frostbite, and those strange, festering ailments born of the damp, as though his body were a fertile ground for fungus, or had given up altogether, and begun to decompose. The ever present threat of theft of the little he had, loss of crucial belongings like bedding and booze. Fists and tempers and angry, chemically altered pupils, too bright to be natural, too sad to survive. They became, if not acceptable, at least somehow accepted. If not companionable, at least recognizable companions. Now he walks with them, sleeps with them, hates them but no longer remembers a life without them.
He has no reason to be afraid tonight.
But he shrinks back into the hollows of the walls of buildings, settles himself behind the bins, nestling into their warm, musty stench. A sudden sound makes him start and he sits up, wide eyed and peers around the bin to the end of the alley. There is a bright, white flash of something, a sudden shout of laughter. Footsteps. He listens, heart pounding, until they leave the alley in their wake, and retreat into nothing. He breathes again. Or he thinks he does. It’s hard to tell in this alley – the air seems full of breath. He doesn’t know how much of it is his.
Something is wrong.
There is no one else here. It’s a quiet place, somewhere to hide, but it is also the haunt of sharp toothed hunters, foxes and cats, badgers and old needles. It’s not a place to stay. It would be better to go now, to join the others. There are a couple of small groups that Justin, if not exactly, ‘in with’, is at least tolerated by, on a passing occasion. They sleep in the carpark behind the garage, and in the shadow of the town-hall at the top of the steps. They would share booze, and wild chatter and, as long as they were to steer clear of any other, less stable groups, there would be a relative peace, a sort of wobbly safety. Justin feels a warm rush, a sudden, panicky urge to find them. Usually he keeps himself to himself. Sleeps in the hollow under the bench behind the back entrance to the pub . Leaves by the time they open up again for breakfast.
But tonight is different.
In fact, if Justin stops to consider, the whole day has been strange.
He left the pub at the usual time in the morning, when the staff started clattering with pans and grills, and stopped a little way around the corner to light up one of the cigarette butts left on the ground, inhale a little taste of someone else’s last night, a trace of lipstick, a distant memory of sex. He sat quietly, behind one of the sparse and scrawny bushes in the gravel of the car park, closed his eyes a little, tested the air. His hands were cold as he brought the cigarette to his lips, icy when his fingertips brushed against his skin.
There was a commotion behind him, a short sharp cry of alarm at the back door, and then a surge of activity, people moving, talking, words indistinguishable but voices high, excited. Someone talking about calling the services.
Justin moved then. He had spent a few nights in a cell and he preferred the outside. He didn’t like the way the police had looked at him, spoken to him. The inbuilt suspicion. A set of half hewn assumptions. It probably wasn’t true of all police. But he preferred not to stay around long enough to find out. If there had been some kind of incident at the pub to investigate, he didn’t want to be found in the vicinity. Smelling sour and acidic. Stealing old cigarettes. He got up, as unobtrusively as he could, and stole away. He was good at that. No-body noticed. There were a group of them huddled around the back entrance, looking and poking at something. He had hoped it wasn’t an animal. A fox grown too familiar, a feral cat worn low on lives.
Something about that memory sends a shiver through him now and he pulls his blanket closer around him. It had been biting last night, colder than anticipated, even for late October. The tips of his fingers and toes, though long used to this, had felt puffy and strange, burning with cold. His eyelids when he stirred, had been brittle, sticky, as though welded to his skin, his eyeballs retreating beneath them, too afraid to be exposed to the frozen air.
He hasn’t warmed up since.
There is more noise in the street now. It feels muted, distanced, there has been a quality like that to sound all day, as though everything is happening underwater. A slow, muffled rumble to the lorries on the roads, dogs shouting their messages into the sea. He hadn’t spoken to anyone. He’d gazed all day from his position, slumped against the wall of the Tesco Express, at people’s passing legs and ankles. Somewhere in the strange, timeless monotony of it, someone normally might have dropped a handful of change, firing their shrapnel into his hands, even if they did not stop to chat.
Nobody today. It must be the cold. Justin shrugs, shrinks deeper into his corner, peers out at the alley with stinging eyes. There is nothing wrong. It is only the weather.
Somebody screams. Then a figure rounds the corner at the end of the alley, and begins to run towards him. Justin shrinks back so hard against the bin he feels as though it might somehow have absorbed him. The figure is bloodied. Its skin seems to hang off it in jagged strips, pulled by the unsympathetic wind. There are black circles where there should have been its eyes. Its hair is black and long. And dead. It runs unsteadily, its ankles turning, as though in the last throes of some awful agony.
It shouts again, this time with a sort of shrieking laughter. Another shape appears behind it, larger this time, bulkier, masculine. It wears a pair of plastic angel wings and a sleeveless white vest.
The first figure seems to slow, running out of energy in its flight. It turns to face its pursuer.
“David!”, it says, “Stop it! Stop doing that! You’ll give me a heart attack.”
It is a girl in costume. She wears something skin tight but with ragged black ribbons coming off it, though what creature it is intended to represent is not clear. She wears a lot of eyeliner, very high heels, a wig and a large quantity of liberally daubed fake blood. It seems slightly sweet.
Halloween. All Hallows Eve.
The shops have been so draped in it for so long Justin has long since ceased to notice. He has no idea of the date. If he’d paused to consider it he’d probably have assumed it was already over.
“What?” says the man, “afraid of an angel?”
The girl shrugs. “Is that what you are?” But she giggles and wobbles her way into his arms and for a moment Justin can smell their saliva. He stays very silent, very still. But they do not notice him. And after a while they leave. He didn’t want them. But now he feels oddly bereft.
He is suddenly filled with a strong urge to seek company. He feels lonely, so lonely, as if he has been lonely for decades and is only just realizing. But it is Halloween, which means the streets will be filled and the pubs lined with parties. Costumed and hyped and drunk and, underneath, just a little bit spooked. Trying to laugh their fears out of existence by aping them, welcoming them in. Justin knows that Halloween evening can be lucrative, like Christmas and Bank holidays, and New Year’s Eve. But it is also noisy and spew strewn and drunken. More often than not it is more trouble than it’s worth. He stays by the bins.
But when he breathes he is increasingly certain that the breath that fills the alley is not his own. He has not eaten today, though there are in fact, plenty of opportunities to eat nowadays, there are numerous food trucks and canteens and religious groups doing their bit. And you can avoid the queues and the company if you’re feeling a bit threatened. You can wait and hang back and sneak along at the end. Or grab yours right at the beginning, before anyone arrives. One or two of the volunteers have even grown to know him, keeping a plate back to hand over when the other punters have gone and the packing up is almost over. They hadn’t noticed him today though. Perhaps he was too late. Or they ran out of food before. He had arrived when they were packing up but no one glanced up, he couldn’t catch anyone’s eye. Oddly, he’d found it didn’t matter. He wasn’t that hungry. He had felt queasy and cold. He still does. Perhaps he is sickening for something.
In the end it is the cat that does it. It trots into the alley with a business like air, then stops. Sniffs. Stands very still, its ears alert, its eyes very wide. It is looking right at him. Its fur stands on end. Behind it, it swishes a tail grown fat and electric with fear. Justin and the cat stare fixedly at each other for a long moment. Then he glances behind him, afraid, suddenly, that whoever or whatever it was looking at might somehow have come for him out of the wall. There is nothing and no one. Only bricks and mortar. A circle of cigarette ash in the brick, a spider web in the grooves. To the right, the words “SJ 4 PT 4ever”. A clumsily drawn heart. The word “Fuc” with the final letter smeared and obscured, as though someone has half heartedly tried to scrub it away. He turns back to the cat. It is frozen to the spot. They stare at each other wildly. Then he makes some small, involuntary movement, and it turns very quickly, and, before he can refocus, it has shot away.
Justin does not want to be here any more. He does not want to be in this alley with its heaving air. He does not want to wait for the thing which scared the cat to return or to manifest. He does not want to be alone.
Wheezing a little, he stands, pulls his blanket over his shoulder, steels himself, and walks to the end of the alley, and then out into the street.
Halloween is in full swing. Groups of laughing zombies with gashes across their faces and burn holes in the center of their garments, where their heart would be, laugh and shout over each other to be heard. Music spills from the brightly lit pub entrance, and by the door a man in a bright white blood-strewn apron and black elbow length gloves, tucks his plastic axe under his arm casually as he chats with a slender girl with black hair and sharp teeth. A dribble of blood is painted at the corner of her mouth – it is as if it moves independently every time she smiles. Here and there, parents with mild alarm on their faces, try to shepherd their curious monster-masked children past the more popular pubs into the residential areas. They carry lit pumpkins on wires, and bags full of sweets. It is hard to know whether the children are pleased or excited. Their faces are covered, they can only express evil, or anger, or fear. Perhaps, with the mask on, their emotions are similarly restricted, and it is all they can feel. There are a proliferation of witches, a proliferation of skeletons, and an even greater proliferation of suspenders and short skirts, the wide variety of manifestations of evil seeming all to converge on this particular attribute, as if hanging up their denominational differences in agreement that, at the very least, there should be some semblance of sex. A girl in a tight black cat costume, involving fishnets and leather boots and hotpants grins wickedly at a man in an orange jumpsuit, but she has painted gory drips of blood from her eyes and the edge of her lipstick, blurring her genres and hitting Justin’s already overstretched senses with an unsettling confusion of allure and disgust. A brightly painted clown, his face-paint smudging, leaps over a low fence at the edge of a pub. A sinister woman in a long black cloak sweeps out of an off licence, carrying a clinking white plastic bag, which somehow manages to make her all the more frightening. A teenager in a blood-stained nurses costume, with a skirt far shorter than the NHS would allow, strolls out of Tesco’s talking animatedly into her phone. A wolf suddenly runs a little way up the street, for no apparent reason and to laughter and mock howling. An angry alien leaves a party. A gaggle of vampires enter a house.
Justin presses himself briefly against the window of the gift shop, but the glass seems unstable. It seems as if he might fall through it, find himself wandering, lost, among carved soaps and josticks. He pushes himself away from it, hastily, staggers a little to the side where he can lean on the door. For a moment he thinks the door has opened, before he realizes that he must have fainted a little, must be losing his footing. Must be losing his mind.
Because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them.
In among the revelers. Crowding them out.
Faces, grey and somber, yet somehow, to Justin, they are realer than the others. They wear jogging pants and blankets. They are half in, half out of sleeping bags. They carry rucksacks and carrier bags, or wheel trolleys, or trail invisible animals. They look like him. They are familiar, but he doesn’t know them. And yet, the first who have done so today, he finds they look up at him, register him. Meet his eyes. There is something there, an understanding, perhaps, maybe even an affection, but they make no move towards him. They only move rhythmically, silently, through the street. A parade of hundreds. A quiet marching, He cannot see the start of it, and there doesn’t seem to be an end.
Something brightly colored and plastic suddenly skips across the street among them. A bloodied red riding hood, laughing and calling back over her shoulder to her friends. Justin catches his breath, or someone else’s. But the silent procession do not slow their progress. They only walk through her. She dances through them. And now that Justin really looks at them, his heart frozen and solid somewhere it shouldn’t be, up near his throat, he sees that there are more of them. That they do not walk only in the road, but move, on feet which seem surer, more steady than those clad in plastics and wings and suspenders, through the pavement too. They overlap with the walls, with the entrances to buildings, with the steps up to houses. With the people outside.
Justin’s eyes blur. He sees only the quiet hoard, so dignified in comparison with their living counterparts. And when he opens his eyes again, he sees that the other people, the plastic people, with their blood and their teeth and their knives, have seemed to fade into the same sort of muted underwater as the lorries and the dogs and the sounds of the day. He takes a step towards the middle of the street, worrying a little, trying to find a place he can insert himself into the procession, but somehow, when it happens, it is like a kind of absorption, a gentle flow, like warm water.
Justin feels elated, suddenly, as though he could take off from the street and fly. His feet seem to move almost without his involvement, and he feels warm for the first time since the morning. He walks, silently, with the hollow eyed crowd, and he feels their companionship, and with it, their sadness. He does not know where he is going. But he accepts that this, now, is where he belongs.
And the sexy murderesses and the blood stained butchers, the devils in red tutus and the wolves in suspenders, laugh and frolic in the October moonshine. They tell stories of spirits and watch films which spent millions on special effects. They go on tours through the cemetery and ghost watches in old houses.
They do not see those that walk among them. They do not now.
They never did.
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