Malcolm Laughton

The February Featured Writer is Malcolm Laughton

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by Malcolm Laughton

A muffled, muttering and mumbling sound moved against the silence.

Curious as to the intrusion upon the silence, Finlay peered out his window, looking for the source. Between the tenement blocks, he glimpsed only a deserted factory.

He would be the last to leave the tenement. The whole block had to come down to make way for an access road onto an urban motorway. Even Mrs. Wishaw—the old woman whose visiting sons and daughters looked ancient themselves—had capitulated to false progress, and moved out. She’d been anchored by memories.

Finlay didn’t want to move, and wasn’t sure why he felt so strongly to stay. Anything (or anyone) binding him emotionally, belonged in the past. He stood at the window morbidly musing at the interruption to silence.

The tenement had never been completely silent in the past. Lives, even the quiet ones, seeped their presence through the walls like vibratos. Since the removals however, the internal silence had stretched out melancholically. Now though, as Finlay listened, he thought the mumbling came from Mrs. Wishaw’s flat below. The terrible thought ran through his head that the old woman hadn’t left at all, but had fallen on the floor. But he’d seen her, and her time-worn, wee dog, leave…he’d seen the big, red, furniture removal van, and the black cab.

Finlay listened carefully. Walls could play tricks, sounds moving between neighboring properties. Perhaps the sound…but no…it came from below—a pained, insistent, muttering and mumbling. The thought came to him that Mrs. Wishaw had come back to an empty house, and then had fallen there all alone.

Why am I just standing here? I should go down, he thought to himself. He tried to shout down to her, “Are you all right?” But, feeling it was none of his business, his words wouldn’t come out strong enough. The muttering and mumbling grew louder, desperate, inconsolable. He shook himself, and headed for his door.

The stair landing lay in the half-dark. As Finlay looked down the stairs, nothing looked amiss, except for the odd sense of absence in a deserted building, the silence of emptiness intruding into space. Against that blank background, the sound was palpably there amidst the insensible walls. But he couldn’t make out any words. He stepped onto the stairs, and resting one hand against the cold wall, as if to steady himself, he began to move down to Mrs. Wishaw’s door.

He pushed the doorbell. The bell didn’t ring. Of course, the electrics would be cut off to the flat. An old fashioned brass knocker hung above the letterbox. He rapped it. The muttering and mumbling stopped, as if someone was listening. Then it started up again, more desperate than before. The mumbling ascended into wailing.

Finlay felt torn. Part of him wanted to have nothing to do with it. He could call the Police. It really wasn’t his business. But he was being called by an old woman who’d fallen on the floor. He couldn’t just turn his back. He figured he couldn’t get in anyway…the door would be locked.

Just to make the point to himself, he pushed at the door. It swung open, shocking him.

Finlay peered into the empty hall; the floor without carpets, only old, worn, patchy linoleum nailed to dirty floorboards. A smell of must—old sweat and animal odor—filled his nostrils. She was whimpering now, from a room within. Finlay felt like a trespasser; habitual instinct holding him back, inhibiting intrusion into someone else’s house. He almost turned away, but he heard her crying…sobbing…so he stepped inside.

The house looked bigger than his own, but that was because it had no furniture. His footsteps on the floorboards of the deserted living room made sharp echoes from the walls, giving the impression of a big space closing in on itself. He pushed open the bedroom door, but he saw no old woman lying there; only the impressions of the bed frame feet pressed by time into the floor. He pushed open the kitchen door, but he saw no old woman lying there; only a tide-line of wash-ups in the sink. She must have fallen in the bathroom.

Finlay hesitated before the certainty of finding her lying on the bathroom floor; she couldn’t be anywhere else. Yet the sobbing, whining, and wailing, sounded as if it came from elsewhere in the house, moving along and within the hollowed emptiness. But he’d checked everywhere else. She had to be in the bathroom.

He pushed the bathroom door slowly. He imagined the door striking her old head.

The bathroom was empty. It made no sense. He stood there—feeling stupid, not knowing what to do—listening to the sound from somewhere in the house. He thought it came from the living room, yet he’d already been there. He had to look there again.

Finlay stood in the living room, staring at faded floral wallpaper. The sound, now falling back to a murmur, came from the room—there could be no doubt, it was distinct, it was close—but the room was empty. He couldn’t understand it.

Then he had it: there was another door. He’d ignored it before. Mrs. Wishaw’s house had the same layout as his own, so he knew the door opened on a shallow cupboard too small for someone to have fallen in. But that was where the sobbing, murmuring, and muttering came from. She must have lost her mind and slipped into childhood memories of hiding in a cupboard. He wanted, again, to step away, but he had to look. He pulled open the cupboard door.

“Help me.”

For a moment, Finlay couldn’t take it in. Behind the door, he saw a dark mesh, and behind that mesh stood a man, as if bound in a wood and iron crib. The walls of the cupboard shone and shimmered; and colors ran in the air about the man, like spirals of light in a crazed eye.

“Help me.” The man grimaced. “Help me. I’m trapped in this…nook…this cranny. I can’t get out by myself. It’s the old memories.”

“You mean Mrs. Wishaw’s memories?”

“Just help me!”

“I’ll get help.” Finlay turned to go.

The wailing began again. Finlay couldn’t stand it. He had to get away, but with each step it grew louder, sharper, more painful. The room rattled and rang with it.

Finlay, his hands over his ears, turned back. “All right! All right. I’ll help. Just stop that wailing.” The wailing waned into a whimper. “Now, just how do I help?”

“Help me pull this up.” The man hunkered down, and grabbed the bottom rung of the dark grill.

Finlay from one side, and the man from the other, heaved and heaved, tugging on the lattice; the metal wood digging into Finlay’s skin with flakes and skelfs. The grill began to grind, rising in fits and starts like a reluctant portcullis.

Suddenly the grill was up, the nook open.

Finlay saw a head running with sundry faces. The man appeared to explode into a compendium of old sepia photos, psychedelic sixties colors, holograms: women pushing prams; men hanging about close entrances, smoking pipes; battleships, grey in like-colored seas; trams trundling along rails; lovers in each other’s arms; deathbed vigils; children kicking leather footballs; German bombers in dark Scottish skies; pop dancers and record players; golden red, the scent of jasmine, and bangles glinting on a familiar wrist; dogs and goldfish and parrots—all ran and swirled before and around Finlay, giddying his senses.

Finlay felt intoxicated; floating on the lives and times of other people: clamoring, chattering, smelling, running, lying, loving, living and dying. His senses, his nerves, all lit up like the flickering of a million colored candles, all those memories inside him.

Then they were gone.

The memory man ran from the room…his form seething with shapes and faces. Finlay felt some of his more-than-half-forgotten memories in the mix, somewhere—running from him. The face of his mother peering into the cradle; hanging plastic colored bauble toys he now remembered were wonders; haunting lullabies of a transient era singing to him like sister sirens. He had to catch up with the memories before they faded in the hard daylight.

As Finlay ran after the turbulent, roiling man of forgotten and remembered things, his head ran with melodic fragments pulling at him, dragging him to the edge of recollection: holiday paper-streamers rippling red, blue, yellow, and green; the blood of scrapes and cuts on young skin; the blue sky of childhood summers; the bloom of buttercups; the fresh green leaves of a fallen spring time. He saw scooters and roller-skates and sledges. He saw snow lie deep, and frost fingers creep up windowpanes. He saw, at last, the face of Catriona, his first love—as young again as when she’d summered in his one bedroom, tenement flat, all that time ago—with a familiar tartan ribbon in her bonny, golden-red hair. He had to catch them, he had to catch her, he had to catch the running fleeing memory peddler.

Finlay chased the peddler down streets, through closes into backcourts, over low brick walls, out over derelict gaps with weeds and broken glass; out to the deserted factory, and between its broken, rusted doors.

From there, he couldn’t see where the memory peddler had gone. The factory looked empty except for a few abandoned, robot-construction arms. He sensed an absence, a feeling of time having moved on. A feeling of the forlorn welled in him. The memory peddler had escaped.

Then he sensed the movement of robotic arms, of phantasm men in blue overalls moving between machines. There was a sudden collapse of the past into the present…a collapse of the gone, into a single, living man. Finlay heard wailing screaming compress into words.

“Don’t follow me!”

For a moment, Finlay stood frozen. The words cut into him, like the edge of a factory echo. Then he saw faces blooming from the back of the fleeing man. Faces of people Finlay thought he might know, and faces of people he did. Faces fluttering like moths in and out of space.

He had to catch them, or they’d be gone forever, and one so very particular. He saw the flash of summer sunlight on the golden-red of her hair, her lovely head turning from him. Why don’t you turn back to look at me, my love?

The peddler slipped through a back doorway. Finlay ran after him. Ran after Catriona. Where are you going, my love? In such a hurry?

Suddenly Finlay didn’t know where he was. He was disorientated. He saw high flats, but they plunged below him topsy-turvy and inside-out. He could see people flitting about the rooms, in and out of focus. While nearby, rising above him, he saw the ruined bulk of a red sandstone castle. The sky above, one minute with heavy dark clouds, the next with wisps of white on blue, or a blood red moon among silver clouds. Finlay ran along a beach, then ran along paving stones avoiding cracks, and finally he ran across a field of long grass and dandelions.

Where have you gone, my…? Finlay knew he was chasing someone across the ever-changing landscapes. But he forgot who. He had come from somewhere. But he forgot where. His head ran with people. His head ran with faces. He thought he recognized some. He saw a golden red haired, young woman. She turned to look at him, with sad blue eyes, as if through a distant window of time. He knew her. But her name slipped. He had his own name. Yet he couldn’t find it. Lost in others. Lost.

He stopped running, not knowing if he’d been chased or chasing. Dead ahead were houses with faces peering out of them. And trees and dogs and gardens and cars—all of them moving, and tipping into a great pit.

Finlay stood at the edge. He’d always suffered vertigo—his nervous system remembered that—and he felt vertiginous as he stared into the maelstrom of memories churning into the deep. He saw a girl fall, her blue eyes gazing into his. He dizzied, but couldn’t step back. The words, where does the time go, ran through his head as he peered into the swirling tumbling mass. He felt his head emptying, a falling sensation in his brain: thoughts slipping from him. Images of people—faces, personalities, names—tumbled from his head into the churning pit.

Finlay—that name forgotten to himself—couldn’t tell how he’d got there. The Past was a forgotten, causeless, timeless thing. Things lived only in the pit. In the tumbling chaos, like a bobbing on the waves, he again thought he caught sight of things he recognized. Streamers, colored dangling bauble toys, scooters and sledges. They were his! And a smiling, loving, woman’s face. He knew that bright-eyed, smiling face—bobbing among others, comingling with a toss of golden-red.

Finlay stood an unsteady moment more, and, head first, flung himself in…tumbling under memories into a warm, beating nothing.


Malcolm Laughton lives in Glasgow, Scotland; and works as a Scottish Parliamentary Assistant. His stories have appeared in: Imperial Youth Review; The Horror Zine Magazine; Supernatural Tales, Electric Spec; Eulogies II, Tales From The Cellar; Bards and Sages Quarterly; Deep Wood Publishing, Fantasy Friday; Dark Horizons, the Journal of the British Fantasy Society; Abandoned Towers Magazine; Whispers of Wickedness; Quantum Muse; and Wild Violet, Mystic Mist Issue.