Bad Cat, Bats, Cannibalism, Cats, Edinburgh, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Halloween, Halloween special, Horror, Humor, Metamorphosis, Question Time, Satire, Scottish National Party, Short Story, SNP, Syria, Syrian Refugee Crisis, Syrian Refugees
“Fingal himself was there, strong in the grey locks of years. Full rose his sinewy limbs; and wide his shoulders spread. His eyes flashed with lightning, as though flights of bats swarmed up his kilt.”
Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic or Erse language by James Macpherson.
Tori felt terror, that dire feeling as if an airy abyss was opening up in her chest, even before she knew what exactly she was looking at. Then it clicked – the cat was gripping a live bat in its jaws. Andrea was queenly and snowy white, one of those cats that always look like they have been fluffed up all over with a hairdryer. She had padded, almost scuttled, into the living room with the eerie crablike stealth that had so exhilarated Tori. The cat’s face seemed rigid and aghast as she shrank nearer with the bat. Her head dipped sycophantically and Tori shrieked as her mouth opened.
The bat was both too quick off the mark and too slow. Andrea pounced on it again, instantly distracted from Tori, and her tail flickered with an angry whisk.
Really, this is the last thing I need, Tori despaired. On this, of all evenings.
The bat was now glued to the floor; its parchment wings swivelled and unfolded. To Tori’s eyes, these animals always looked outraged to be bats. This one’s normal, furry animal head was peeking up out of its ungainly origami body in indignation.
Actually, a bat’s body is just the same as two human hands. When children want to mimic bats they place their thumbs together and flutter their fingers evocatively. This is basically what a bat is – two long-lost hands that evolution has flattened and warped to ghastly proportions. There might be a metamorphosis myth somewhere in operation about an avaricious demigod who was punished by being reduced to two hands. Hands that could only fly uselessly around, able no more to fondle gold coins.
Andrea tapped the bat with her paw and it tucked itself up into a handy parcel. It emitted a flurry of incandescent electrical chirrups. Andrea stepped back and looked up at Tori for validation. This was a mistake – when she had looked back again, the bat was gone. It had bolted and glanced wildly off the wall, skidding into the darkness under a chest of drawers.
There was now an amazing silence as if it had never been there at all.
We’ll keep this room closed off, Tori decided. She shooed the cat out of the room and shut the door behind them both. Hopefully, this bat would crawl into a crevice, die from its wounds, and decompose odourlessly into a beautiful skeleton. Hopefully, all memory of it would melt from Tori’s mind until a sunny winter’s morning, much later in her life, when she would stop in a garden and randomly think, whatever had become of that bat?
Tori’s employer, Sylvie, was that night expecting the arrival of her Syrian changeling. Sylvie was the SNP Minister for Childcare and Early Years. Two years ago there had been a period of about four days in the media when every outlet was moralising about Syrian refugees and deploring how few the UK government had taken in. Sylvie had appeared on a BBC panel show that was being filmed in Edinburgh during this period. Here, her ruin was made.
Sylvie was as adept at manipulating a middle-class audience to repeated pleasurable climaxes as any knowledgeable prostitute was with a stupid young sailor. She had condemned the UK government, to the inevitable applause, and next she had pledged that she would personally take a child refugee into her own home. This was what the Scottish people were like, she had insisted stridently, and this would exhibit their values of compassion and fairness. The implication was that there was something wrong with everybody down in England; that people’s spiritual fabric coarsened at a point coincidentally just below the Scottish border. Inevitably, the audience had applauded and whooped and Sylvie had been sprayed with a full faceload of this enthusiasm. Having manipulated them to her satisfaction, that, it had seemed, was that.
Except that for once it wasn’t that. For once, Sylvie would need more than her usual low cunning. Bloggers, Twitter users, a journalist from the Spectator – a small crowd of whatever the opposite of well-wishers were – had kept gleefully demanding updates about her impending refugee. She had tried frantically to move the dial on – to the injustice of food banks, to the injustice of hate crimes after Brexit, to the injustice of universal credit – but it had always dropped leadenly back to her infernal promise.
Finally, the only way to make the problem go away was to submit to the indignity of actually adopting a Syrian orphan. Tori had been hired to help with the paperwork. It had turned out that you couldn’t just order up an orphan like a DVD from Amazon. Indeed, the paperwork was stupendous.
Tori had previously worked for Sylvie when she ran a small business down in the Dean Village. Weirdly, from the first moment of the interview, Sylvie had behaved as if she could not recall having ever met her former employee. Tori was hired anew on a sixty-hour-a-week, zero-hour contract. Her job title was “general assistant.” She had gone through the contract alertly, from start to finish.
“It says here Mrs Goodfellow that, technically, I will be adopting the orphan.”
Sylvie nodded and inwardly cursed. She had hoped that Tori might skip over that section.
“It sounds like a big thing, but you’re right – it’s a technicality. There are lots of interviews and assessments. I, in my own role, would not have the time and it would really be your responsibility.”
For a moment, Tori had to fish frantically but next she had located the word, that magical word that annulled every problem in the modern workplace.
“I don’t think that would be appropriate, Mrs Goodfellow.”
Nobody could not like Sylvie. She was amiable and confiding – like a favourite, fun-filled aunt – and yet after a while Tori had sensed a cold, rapid undercurrent to her personality that she did not want to ever put a foot into. Sylvie occasionally became sinister and began chasing after tiny, unreasonable amounts of money. She had once accosted Tori by chance in the street and unleashed an impromptu bill upon her for all the tea that had been drunk in her employment. During this exchange, it was as if she had made a tactical decision not to fully concentrate on Tori any more. She had dimmed the great lamp of her friendship and her voice had become oddly absent-minded in its strictness.
The Syrian orphan would be kept in Sylvie’s Edinburgh apartment, which was implicitly, or really, her husband Colm’s agreed home. There were three bedrooms – Sylvie’s, Colm’s, and a guest bedroom. “So where am I going to sleep?” Tori had inquired.
Sylvie hadn’t known and her breezy reply had insinuated that Tori was meant to be a problem-solver, a meeter of challenges, a finder of innovative solutions. Given that there was currently a wild bat roosting in the vicinity of the living room sofa, Tori would have to sit up all night on one of the kitchen high stools. She would try to doze and not drop off at the same time.
Although he was only eight, this boy had led several lifetimes of horrors. An airstrike had destroyed his family home; he had seen his parents and brothers and sisters being killed with a breathtaking flippancy. He had been on those boats where drowning men pull down their loved ones to drown with them. He had been in those migrant camps that are like swarming, stricken vessels forever stranded out at sea. Tori had assumed that this boy would be sullen and unreachable; that if she looked into his eyes, she might perceive some miniature figure wandering by himself across a far-off plateau of suffering. His English was barely a few flakes.
Over the day, Tori had cleaned and prepared the room for him. Unsatisfied with how dingy it still looked, she ventured into the kitchen, on a whim, to fetch the cat’s bed. This was a sort of mini-igloo that was woven out of padded purple velvet. The self-important cat might make a diverting friend for the boy, but she usually paraded about insolently in front of strangers, appealing for their affection and then fleeing when they tried to touch her.
In the doorway of the bedroom, Tori stopped, with something like a guilty start. A small man was standing naked next to the bed, watching her.
He was less than four feet tall and his skin was colourless and mottled like that of a dead leaf. His face looked drained and he was gripping his left arm, which had a long black cut snaking down it.
No words could break from Tori’s lips. She knew that she would have to blurt something out and she had a brief impression of feet padding around the empty corridors in her head. “I didn’t know you were here already,” she managed to stammer at last.
“I want a sleep,” the man instructed. He turned and looked at the bed sceptically, as if he was unsure how it worked. His accent, with its curious weighting of the consonants, was feasibly Syrian. He seemed to be unconscious that his penis was exposed and Tori found herself trying to glance at it and around it.
The man looked at her again and saw the cat’s bed in her arms. His face swiftly became spitting and ferocious. “Take that away. It upsetting.”
When the doorbell rang, Tori darted back from him, believing for a second that he had sprung at her. Now she was running and laughing. She flung open the door and the social worker laughed at her in surprise. “We’re here!”
The social worker was, from Tori’s experience, an enormously jolly but also very watchful lady. She stepped into the apartment and the boy roamed ahead of her, exploring as if he was on an adventure.
For Tori, it was love at first sight. The boy had a gay little face that was wreathed in smiles; his eyes shone like dewdrops. On seeing Tori, he leapt up and down and rejoiced.
“My goodness,” she marvelled. “How will I ever get him to go to bed?”
More to the point, where would he go to bed?
Soon Tori and the social worker had invented a game that involved tormenting the cat by making it chase the tasselled cord from a curtain around the kitchen floor. After fifteen minutes, the change came as though a switch had been flipped. The boy was all at once yawning ravenously and his head was lolling. He gave into being picked up and Tori carried him into Sylvie’s bedroom.
Tori and the social worker smiled goodnight and the social worker stalked away. Tori imagined her watching the windows of the apartment from her car and listening painstakingly for screams.
Next Sylvie came home. She was irritable and frightened because she had appeared on a BBC panel show this evening and the audience had not responded to her manipulations. She had gloated about Trump and for once the inevitable applause had sounded polite and even grudging. She had spoken movingly of how she had adopted a Syrian immigrant and the audience had looked amused. Some of them had even visibly sniggered. Sylvie could no longer locate the correct levers to operate them. “I’ve gone to all the trouble of adopting an immigrant,” she spluttered, baffled. “What else do they want?”
“Er… about the immigrant, Mrs Goodfellow?”
“I’ll meet him tomorrow. He’s supposed to be asleep, anyway, isn’t he?”
“This is the thing: it appears that there might have been a mistake.”
“Whose mistake?” Sylvie smiled and gave a disoriented look as if she had momentarily lost her balance on a trampoline. Still smiling, she regarded Tori with vicious suspicion.
“It turns out that there are two children. Not one.”
“Two? Why didn’t you send one back?”
All at once, Tori relaxed and a feeling of relief and enjoyment flooded over her. She was indispensable to Mrs Goodfellow – there was nobody else on the planet who was in command of the countless details about this ridiculous adoption. This meant that she could continue with impunity.
“It is late at night, Mrs Goodfellow. That would not be appropriate.”
“I will clear it up in the morning. Meanwhile, the second child – or else the correct, first one – is sleeping in your bedroom.”
Sylvie guffawed with fury. “Can’t these children possibly sleep in the same bed?”
“I can call back the social worker and ask her if you like. But I imagine that that would not be appropriate.”
Sylvie acted with decision. “I shall sleep in my husband’s bedroom. He can have the sofa.” Her eyes flashed and she scampered with comical haste to seize the last bedroom before it was too late.
When Colm arrived home, Tori had the pleasure of informing him where he was sleeping that night. “Hang on,” he snarled, “we only have separate bedrooms so I don’t need to sleep on the sofa anymore!”
He’s going to take advantage of this, Tori worried. He’s going to casually undress in front of me. He’s going to come to me in the middle of the night and whimper and sob from the kitchen door for sex.
Colm was a moody, dainty little man in his mid-forties who, with his pink, plasticky skin, looked to Tori’s mind like a strangely hardened teenager. She would often glimpse him stamping hungrily around the rooms of the apartment and snorting with boredom. Whenever they were alone together, he would look at her appealingly and she would reply with a single look that was effectively a shake of the head. A count-me-out look.
He had invented a photo app that could graft an image of your face onto people in horror movies or Game of Thrones who were being killed in spectacularly gruesome ways. When explaining this app to Tori, he had recounted how he had once had a spiteful argument with a hairdresser and consequently transformed her into Oberyn Martell, the Thrones character who gets his head squashed in. Colm had quit his job as a real-estate manager to market his invention. When Tori had last asked him about it, he was getting “cease and desist” letters from HBO and his app had been made illegal in virtually every country.
Spluttering, Colm had run jerkily up to his bedroom door, brandishing his fists. They are going to fight, Tori realised with a thrill. I mustn’t weep this time; I mustn’t look so foolish again.
“Come on out, you auld bitch. You have three seconds to leave or I’m kicking the door in!”
“Colm, the boys will hear…” Tori had to bend down slightly to hiss into his ear. “And your ‘auld bitch’ will be impossible in the morning if she doesn’t get her… oh, shit!”
To her dismay, Tori had heard her own laugh high above them and alone like a bird in the room. Sylvie had appeared in the doorway wearing a face mask of mashed avocado. She bore an undeniable resemblance to a cartoon of the Loch Ness Monster.
Colm made a muffled, rumbling sound. Next he had literally fallen over, shivering silently with uncontrollable laughter. He began to laugh more noisily and his laughter poured out wetly, hideously, like intestines at his feet. Sylvie was green and wrathful. “You can laugh as much as you want. You can also clear off! You are never coming into this room.”
Her husband stood up as straight as a soldier and became instantly serious. He shook his head ominously. “I promise you I am.” For a second, he and Sylvie were locked in a tottering struggle – he was yanking her hair and yanking her forward. Suddenly, he had pitched to the side and squealed with childish vexation. He had unwittingly scraped avocado all down the sleeve of his designer suit.
“I want sleep.” The little naked man had emerged out into the corridor-salon. “My hearing is the best. I hear every little thing.”
“Do you, indeed?” Colm stared down drolly at the man’s penis.
“For example, when the girl say few minutes ago ‘your auld bitch will be impossible in the morning,’ I heard even in the whisper… you see?”
Sylvie turned around and grinned bleakly at Tori from behind her avocado.
“I’m getting his bed!” Colm yelped. They could only stand frozen as he sprinted straight past the naked man and into his room. He slammed the door behind him in triumph.
Sylvie studied the naked man with appalled wonder. “Is this really an immigrant boy? He must be almost fifty…”
She screamed. With awful, convulsive energy, the naked man had flung himself at her and knocked her to her knees. Next he was licking and slobbering at her face. Sylvie groaned as a slithering tooth made contact and drew blood, whilst Tori tugged futilely at the man’s bare arms. The man began to lick the blood and avocado from Sylvie’s face lovingly, in a kind of trance, and this allowed her to climb stiffly to her feet and push him away again.
Now the Syrian boy had come capering out of his room. He had been obviously awoken by the shouting but he had been awoken with his spirits much restored. He looked almost unearthly with glee.
The naked man appealed to the boy as if he was the only sensible person available in this household. “This no have the vitamin – only insect.” He was apparently adamant on this point. “Bring me insect, little crawling insect.”
The boy peered solemnly at the naked man. The man raised his hand before the boy’s face and scurried with his fingers in order to imitate an insect. Then he squatted on the carpet and mimicked a running insect with his fingers. Now he was miming hunting for an insect.
The boy jumped up and down and screeched with excited comprehension. He searched around, scanning the walls in the manner of a sudden expert, before following them into the kitchen. Tori and Sylvie did not have any time to comment before he had returned with a woodlouse extended on the palm of his hand. The boy was watching it familiarly.
“Put on floor,” the naked man commanded as the boy entered the room. He pointed to the precise spot on the carpet, tucked a little way into the doorway, where he wanted the woodlouse.
The boy put the woodlouse in place and raced back.
Silently, but as if mysterious music had somehow commenced, a small plump man stole into the room. He was around three-foot tall and bald; he too was completely naked. He had sensual peeping eyes and he was peeping around enrapt like a baby. His skin was a rubbery grey-blue. He smiled and peeped with his eyes and trod softly towards them across the carpet. As he approached Tori, he cooed imbecilically.
The first naked man pounced on him in a trice and dived for his firm, plump belly with his teeth. Tori could see immediately that his jaws were so powerful that they could bite a hole out of the wall of a house. As the second man was torn open, he gibbered in an unknown language and flapped his fat hands ineffectually, as if he was trying to helpfully signal to them.
The Syrian boy skipped and screeched with delight.
The first naked man was huddled over the second, feeding on his quivering body. Tori turned and she saw Sylvie’s eyes fastened intently on this scene.
After the naked man had finished feeding, there was a head dumped like a sad turnip on the floor, the hands and feet, and some strewn red bones.
They all seemed to feel sated themselves or dulled by witnessing so much. “Please will you go now?” Tori asked the naked man in a remote voice.
The naked man’s eyes glittered. His fingers ventured to the scar along his arm and he caressed it without thinking. “I go if you turn out light.”
The Syrian boy yawned. He was tired of this world again and he wanted to be back in bed.
“Turn out the light!” Sylvie said to Tori. Her voice was also remote and faintly sardonic.
The Syrian boy ran out of the room ahead of Tori as she went to the door. When she put out the lights, the room became black aside from the silhouette of its small low window, open to the moonlight. There was briefly the outline of a bat swooping out, businesslike now that it was on the night air. When Tori was satisfied that only she and Sylvie remained in the room, she switched the lights back on.
“Mew!” The white cat showed her face at the door and stepped into the room. She made straight for the carcass of the woodlouse on the floor, bent, and sniffed at it.