A Short Story by Ian Irvine
He bore a passing resemblance to Elisha Cook Jr. but was slightly more tanned and somewhat heavier. He wore a baggy suit – charcoal grey and off-white dogtooth check, since you ask, and a black Homburg hat with a grey band. As long as he was wearing the hat there was no hint of what was going on, unless seen from the back, where a shiny metal plate was visible beneath the hat, roughly the shape of a teardrop, with the point rising toward the crown of his hair.
It had the blue-grey patina of polished aluminium, and it was for this reason that I christened him ‘Silverhead’. Only if you were close to him for a while would you begin to notice things. Faint noises seemed to emanate from him – whirrings and clickings which were barely audible, but coincided with a strange rippling of the suit material, as if something was causing it to vibrate. He worked in a shop selling books and bric-a-brac in a sparsely populated, down-at-heel area near the edge of the city, at the corner of a drab little square and fifty yards from the tram-stop. I liked to look for odd little shops where I could find things which were of little value to most, but gave me pleasure and fuelled my imagination.
The shop had a painted wooden sign saying ‘L.RACHIN’ in block letters, and a window with a rather uninspiring collection of junk, and one of those plastic yellow sheets which stop colours from fading, but make everything in there just look sad and neglected.
One Friday afternoon I left work early with the idea of calling in at L.Rachin on my way home, because although the window didn’t promise much, there were some interesting things to be found inside, as I was to find out. I stepped off the tram and walked across the dull, featureless square to the shop, and saw big thunder-spots appear on the ground as it started to rain. I hesitated before going in for no good reason I could think of, except that there was an odd atmosphere in there, and the personality of the man at L.Rachin was often polite but there was something distracted about him, as if he wasn’t really present.
I pushed the door open – there was no bell and the last time I’d gone there it was at least ten minutes before the man appeared. There were two rooms, the first was mainly books, but not many novels. Books on Art, Architecture, Physics, Psychology, Anatomy and most other things you could think of were stacked on high metal shelving. There were books going back to the 19th Century, and a fantastic collection of periodicals which I always perused at length. In the second room was an odd collection of bric-a-brac – crockery, picture frames, toys, cameras etc. I didn’t linger long in the first room this time, deciding to head for the junk and work my way back. As I entered the second room I could hear noises from a third, private room at the back – voices and a buzzing sound followed by a loud click.
After a minute or so the door opened and the man appeared. From where I was standing I could see into the room. There was a woman in there sitting at a table – she looked amazing – about thirty maybe, her face was handsome rather than pretty, with a cruel mouth like Joan Crawford. She had hair the colour of Sarsaparilla, and in the hairstyle of a 1940’s film star. As a fan of the movies of that period, I could have been smitten were it not for that mouth and the general uneasy atmosphere of the place. Silverhead looked a little rattled and closed the door behind him. He had a cardboard box full of objects which he proceeded to put on a shelf close to where I was standing.
I said hello, and asked him if he had any pre-1960’s National Geographics, just for something to say.
‘Yes, one from ’52 and one from 59, that’s all’ he said.
‘Right, thanks’ I said.
And then I heard him say something else – I couldn’t really make it out but it sounded like ‘Rachinbookingator’ or similar and he said it very quickly and as if it was involuntary.
I said ‘sorry?’ and he pretended he hadn’t said it.
Instead he just said ‘ On the second shelf up’ and pointed.
I picked up two copies of the National Geographics, and stepped back in to the second room hoping to get another glimpse of the elusive female. I got the distinct feeling he didn’t want me to see into that room, but I went back to stand where I was before just in case. He looked agitated, and took the last few items out of the cardboard box while eyeing my movements. I walked towards him and he watched me while distractedly taking the objects out. I picked up a couple of square, flat boxes containing Standard 8 films, which I was always interested in. There was a 1950’s western with Randolph Scott and a plain white box that just said ‘Shorts’. I asked the man how much for the two films and the two magazines and he said ‘Twelve pounds’.
It was more than I wanted to pay but I found myself saying ‘ok’. I handed over the money and said thanks and he looked at me and said slowly ‘Thank you’.
I walked out of the shop and down the road to my flat in something of a daze. I took the cafetiere out of the cupboard and made myself a nice cup of coffee to perk me up. I sat down thinking about ‘L.Rachin’ and Silverhead and the mysterious woman in the back room. Who were they? What was that metal plate on the back of his head – the result of an operation? And the noises? I dunked another custard cream in my coffee and decided to set up my vintage projector and watch the films I’d purchased at the weirdest shop in the world.
After setting it all up, I fed the film into the projector and switched off the lights. I decided to see what the white box contained and expected to see some rather dull short films from some lost decade. What I did see gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and turned my face the colour of bare canvas.
It’s hard to report what I was seeing projected on to that white wall in my own living room, but I’ll attempt to describe it as best I can. I was looking at the man from L.Rachin – he was facing the camera wearing a check flannel shirt and he was visible from about the thighs up. He undid the buttons of the shirt to reveal an upper body with a slight paunch in the stomach and a few hairs on his chest. I only had a few seconds to wonder if I was about to watch some awful pornography when the man’s neck and head rotated to the left as it changed colour to a sort of pinkish-purple, and leaning forward revealed a semi-human cross-section of a neck which seemed to contain blood but did not bleed, and the veins and windpipe were a metallic silver-blue. Several small ‘veins’ of this colour began to rise from the blood, which stopped a fraction above the flat opened section of the neck, like the meniscus on a glass of water. The veins rose like periscopes and began extending and connecting to each other.
Simultaneously, a four-inch section of his stomach hinged out in the other direction, with countless more silver-blue tubes and wires extending upwards and connecting in a weird, sinister choreography. I took a breath and blinked a few times, unable to grasp what I was seeing. I tried to gather my thoughts, but kept noticing more things, such as his eyes, which were now bright orange and became visible as the camera moved around him. The cloth on his trousers was vibrating as I had seen when I was in the shop.
Then the woman with the 1940’s Sarsaparilla hair walked in to shot and spoke in short bursts with lots of clicks and what sounded like numbers. You know what it sounds like when you hear speech played backwards? That’s what it sounded like. And then she put something in the mouth of Silverhead – I couldn’t see what it was. Then all the veins unlocked from their positions and reversed back in to place and the neck and stomach sections went back into place and the light in his eyes died down and turned back to blue. Silverhead looked at her and made a strange twitch as he touched the back of his head. Then the film stopped.
I sat on the sofa and thoughts buzzed around my head – I felt like William Bendix in ‘The Blue Dahlia’ when he gets those headaches because of all that monkey music. I knew I needed to calm down so I went to the Kings Arms and sat in the corner with a pint. I had to visit my mother the next day – she was suffering from Alzheimers and often didn’t know who I was. I went every Saturday and sometimes saw one of my brothers there. I thought it would give me time to think about what I’d seen on the film.
The next morning it was a beautiful autumn day and although my sleep had been disturbed by thoughts of Silverhead and Joan Crawford, I left my flat feeling good and went to get the tram and then the train. I made the 10-minute walk from the station to the residential care home and made my way to my mother’s room.
She was sitting in a chair near the window, and I went and kissed her on the forehead. Lately she had lost some of her hair for reasons I didn’t really understand, and although it didn’t seem to bother her, it upset me because it made her look even more frail and vulnerable. I had a picture of her from the 1940’s with one of those beautiful hairdos they copied from movie stars.
Anyway, my brothers didn’t come and after a couple of hours of reading to her and chatting to the nurses I told her I was leaving. She asked for a pillow behind her head so I got one from the other chair and went to put it there. As I did I saw a mark on the back of her head – a very faint scar the shape of a teardrop rising from the back of her neck up to the crown of her hair, or at least where it was. I asked what it was but she just said she was tired. I left and started walking to the station. There were images reeling around in my head – Silverhead’s face, the scenes in the film, and the woman with the Joan Crawford mouth. Then I saw the face of my mother on the same woman, just like the one I had of her at home. I was getting that dizzy William Bendix feeling again, so I stopped at a little park just before the turn for the station.
I sat down on a bench near to a small boating lake. After a minute or two my head began to clear a little, and I stretched out my legs and tried to relax. I looked around to my left toward some trees, and saw Silverhead and the 1940’s woman appearing from there and walking toward me. I was so shocked to see them I couldn’t move – their expressions were emotionless and terrifying, and they were next to me before I could get my breath.
Silverhead stood in front of me and spoke.
‘We need the film – you must give us the film.’
After he spoke he made a clicking sound and his mouth twitched.
‘The film’ He said again.
I looked at him and then at the woman – she made no sound and everything about her scared me. I tried to speak.
‘The..home.It’s at home – where I live.’
What happened next involved no pain that I was aware of, but it did drain the whole world of any colour. It was like walking on a sponge floor in a room with walls that were not really there but were nevertheless the colour of black ink. My head felt like it had been detached and messed about with. Maybe I appeared in some other country as some other person, I don’t know.
People do go missing don’t they? That’s what my friends must have said to each other as time went by, for they were never to see me again.