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Hell Isn’t Other People—It’s You!

Book Extract
Simon Rowat

Hell Isn’t Other People—It’s You!

HELL ISN’T OTHER PEOPLE—IT’S YOU!, described in a recent Conservative Woman review as a “literary landmark on the war on woke,” is a comic sci-fi mystery, a Gothic horror, a Christian allegory and an anti-woke satire. Here, in the novel’s tense opening chapter, a family is torn apart by some particularly odd goings on in the night. Enjoy.


It begins with a cry for help.

We’re all seated at the glass dining table, itself tucked away (wedged rather) into the corner of a very gaudy, very constricted kitchen. We’re eating fried vegetables in a tomato sauce; functional on a nutritional level, but nothing on the taste buds. I’m penned in with my back against a wall, so I have an excuse not to move when I hear it go off outside, as if from a starter’s pistol — bang!


Harvey, my oldest, and Alicia, my angriest, only have to stand to look out from the kitchen window, which they do instantly, but it’s not enough to grant them the perfect view they crave, so both of them dart out of the kitchen and into the living room for front row seats.

I’m about to order the both of them back to the table when —


No chance. Let someone else throw out the lifeline. The streetlights only work sporadically nowadays and have been known to go off completely in a finger snap. The wise move is to sit tight, out of harm’s way, and stay together as a family. Lucy raises her eyebrows precociously as if to turn our silence at the dining table into a question that needs my urgent attention, and I reply by nodding towards her plate, indicating for her to eat up.


It’s a male voice, stripped of any artifice. My husband was a psychologist. (Is a psychologist, not was — though was my husband, not is.) He’d probably have told you that the chance of him outside receiving any assistance in the dead of night from a stranger would have been greatly improved by his being a woman. A damsel in distress is one thing, a dude in the darkness is something else. Then again, one doesn’t need to be a psychologist to reach that sort of conclusion. A cynic maybe. But not a psychologist.

Lucy looks to squeeze herself out from her tight position between the dining table and the wall in order to join her siblings in the next room then decides to check in with me first; she always was an obedient child.

“I want to look out the window as well,” she pleads.

I breathe in.

Having filled my lungs deeply, I make a grumpy show of the expiration of air, snorting dramatically for her benefit. The combined effect means No in any language. She remains seated.

And time passes.

I let it go by quietly. What takes over is the brittle sort of silence one expects to be broken at any moment like a glass through soapy fingers onto a hard kitchen floor. To lessen the effect on my nerves of another desperate cry, I tense myself, and smile woodenly at Lucy.

More time passes.

Maybe he’s gone away, I’m thinking, hoping, wishing. However, if it stays this quiet out there for much longer, it might raise dark questions: Is it all over for him? Could I have done anything to help, or no, should I have? Are we obliged to help our fellow man in times of great social crisis?

It’s also oddly quiet in our makeshift home.

It takes a life-changing scenario to get my Harvey and Alicia to remain this silent for this long. They’re in the living room on the other side of the wall to us, but there doesn’t appear to be too much ‘living’ going on. I can’t hear any of their usual squabbling; I can’t hear much of anything.

“Hey — what are you up to in there?”

“Nothing, Mum,” replies Alicia, all sweetness and light.

“You are both to stay put, do you hear?”

Harvey snaps back, “Loud and clear”.

They’ll have their noses up against the windowpane, enjoying a closer view of the action than the kitchen affords, rubbernecking to ogle our stranger’s predicament. Not that I blame them — I’d be doing the same if I wasn’t on role modelling duty for Lucy. What is this morbid curiosity we have when it comes to gawping at the suffering of others? Traffic accidents used to bring whole road lanes to a crawl while people stared in guilty wonder at the flashing lights, the blood, and all that contorted metal. Why does everything seem so trivial when it happens to the lives of others? Were we staring into our own oblivion, our own demise when we rubber-necked? God, what were we doing? I remember how people even used to film those awful scenes on their mobile phones, uploading untold misery for posterity —


Not anymore, they don’t.

Out in the street, the stranger cries: “YOU’RE NOT FOOLING ME — I KNOW THERE ARE PEOPLE LISTENING!” Lucy’s eyes, already set on mine, bulge nervously; the fuzz on her arms stands on end. “I KNOW YOU’RE OUT THERE, TUCKED UP AND SAFE IN YOUR PERFECT LITTLE HOUSES!”

“He’s talking about us, Mummy.”

“He’s talking about the likes of us.”

“What’s the difference?”

I hold my breath a moment before replying.

“We can’t risk our own security to help every stranger crazy enough to put himself in harm’s way. The rules of the game have changed, honey. We have to be smart. And smart in today’s context means cautious.”

“What if it was one of us out there who needed help?”

“Don’t do that.”

“You’d want someone friendly enough to —”

“I said don’t!”

The kitchen light goes off, comes back on again, and then flickers with indecision. I reach underneath its drooping crystals deep into the heart of the ugly, plastic chandelier — it’d be an intrusive presence in a normal-sized kitchen, let alone this one — ouch! — and I give its single, humming bulb a meaningful tap; having prodded it back to life, I suck the hot sting out of my finger.

“I should have binned this tacky light fixture ages ago,” I grumble, shaking my hand cool.

“And the flat that goes with it,” replies Lucy, barely missing a beat. “And the area surrounding it —”

“HEAR ME!” The vowels are so outstretched they’re almost ready to snap. “I NEED YOUR HELP!”

Lucy freezes and her eyes swell in fear, and I shake my head at her to signal No.

No: we can’t risk our safety.

No matter how hard he pleads.

Not after the risks we’ve taken to get here.

“They’re very quiet next door,” says Lucy. “The Black Sheep.”

I’d often describe Harvey and Alicia this way to amuse Lucy when we were all present and correct in the living room, or here in the kitchen, but never behind either of their backs in case they were to hear it second or thirdhand; I know the self-fulfilling power of labels better than anyone. Sometimes Lucy would croak Baaa-baaa-baaa! at them in a childish heckle — it made them laugh and made her happy, our family joke — that is until Alicia kicked up a fuss about the Black Sheep’s implicit racism or whatever, ousting it from the family repertoire.


“What, honey?”

There’s a note of concern in her voice.

“You didn’t reply. I just said the Black Sheep are quiet next door.”

“Sorry — I drifted.” I ready an elbow as if to nudge her, and say: “Let’s hope that it stays that way, right?”

“You’re drifting a lot, Mum.”

“I’ve a lot on my mind.”

“How can you drift off at a time like this?”

I pinch her cheek lightly and hold it there. “When am I supposed to drift…” I release her flesh and stroke her face and force out of myself a wry smile. “When all the time is a time like this?”

Outside, our nocturnal victim is now sounding altogether less of one: “THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!”

I should be relieved that his predicament seems to be over, that a thorn has been removed from my conscience. His voice won’t trouble me any longer, it won’t sneak into waking thoughts or nightmares, unexpectedly, as a reminder of my failings as a human being; it shouldn’t do that at least, because someone out there in this uncertain world is more of a human being than I am. So I should be relieved, and yet all I feel is weak and pathetic.

Lucy’s eyes are bulging again, eagerly.

I throw a nod at her in the direction of her siblings in the front room, and then after squeezing out from her place wedged between the dining table and the wall, off she scuttles. I count off the seconds it takes for her to go next door. Any moment now, Alicia and Harvey will bring the news back in with them, like a pair of town criers, and Lucy and I will gobble it down voraciously.


Lucy darts back into the kitchen. “The front door’s ajar!” she says. “They’re not in the flat!”


In a heartbeat I’m up and craning for a view of the scene from the kitchen window, nose flat and hard against the pane, and being the only people out there I spot them both straightaway. Up above, a distant glowing dot zips past like a comet in the night sky. Down below, the streetlights twinkle and throb and give just enough light to Alicia and Harvey, who’ve taken an arm apiece of this noisy stranger, his head drooping forward languidly, and are carrying him across the street towards our apartment like a wounded soldier from a battlefield.


You’ve only got seconds to spare.

What not to do — don’t run outside, on instinct, heart pounding, punching forward with each purposeful stride, don’t do any of that. Speed and a rashness would be the death of us, no, I won’t run after them, instead I’ll take a slow breath to steady the nerves and I’ll get up and I’ll put the kettle on.

Lucy seems concerned at my blasé behaviour — so I run my fingers through her long, curly hair to comfort her. Leaning in to the weight of my hand for reassurance, she asks: “What’re are you doing?”

“What does it look like?”

With my free hand I get a mug and drop in a bag.

“It looks like you’re making a cup of tea.”

“Do trust your mother, Lucy.”

I let the kettle do its thing in the kitchen and lead her out into the hallway where I push open our front door, invitingly. There’s a long row of candle stubs burning along the outdoor corridor floor lighting our way to the lift at the opposite end. They glimmer, dance and drop in a playful tussle with the night winds. From here we’ll hear the mechanical whirr of the lift when it gets going. At least it’ll give me some time to prepare myself. Any advance warning is better than nothing.

A noise!

The old lift rattles into action and I adjust myself self-consciously in search of a more casual posture, but leaning into me Lucy slips when my arms unlock and has to grab at me to regain balance. Recomposing herself, a little ruefully, she says “What are you going to say when they get here?”

“It’s a surprise — no spoilers.”

Lucy snorts at my sarcastic humour, but secretly laps up the levity. I imagine she’s comforted by my show of inner confidence — the flicker of a grin I spot buried deep beneath her precociously stern expression has its own comforting effect on me and I smile at her warmly. Having a young’un around may be the best form of therapy any mother can get.

A mechanical crescendo of rattles and whirs echoes from the lift shaft as they draw closer.

And closer.

Seconds away now.

As the lift shaft growls.

It’s getting closer.


Ping! The doors yawn open and Harvey and Alicia, struggling under the heft of the stranger, each holding one of his flopping arms around their necks, drag him out of the lift and towards us in the doorway. The stranger’s head, sloping forward like a dead swan’s, bobs along lifelessly with every step.

“Mind the candles,” Lucy says.

“You mind the candles!” Alicia replies, needlessly taking out her stress on Lucy. “And move out of our way!”

Hollywood style, Harvey yells, “We’re coming through!”

The first thing I notice about the stranger are the darkly tinted glasses he’s wearing. Black thick-rimmed frames, fashionable once, like Michael Caine’s back in the sixties, but securely connected around the back of his head with an elastic band, so also sort of cheap-looking. It’s the tinted lenses that concern me, hiding his eyes.

Lucy and I step aside — our backs go flat against the wall to make the necessary space as they drag him past us into the front room and drape him across the sofa.

“Harvey, check his pulse will you.” The authority in Alicia’s voice gives it all away: she’s the one responsible for tonight’s derring-do.

“Since when did you get to bark orders at me, Nurse Ratched?” her brother snaps back. “You do it!”

“He might not like a girl touching him,” she counters.

“You’d only be touching his wrist,” he snorts, before mumbling sotto voce: “Unless you had something else in mind?”

I’ve already had enough of this.

“Harvey — stop pushing her buttons; Alicia — stop having so many buttons!”

To cut short their squabbling I lift his wrist and check for a pulse myself and it’s there — of course it’s there, like it ever went anywhere else! I hold his limp wrist aloft a while longer than needed to observe the stranger and it gets me to wondering, is he looking up at us from behind those darkly tinted glasses, taking his time to survey us with a similarly critical eye?

“He’s alive,” I say.

There’s an audible sigh of relief from Alicia.

He’s also young, by my estimation somewhere between Alicia (16) and Harvey (19). There’s some facial hair — wispy, the sort that needs a ruthless tweezering — while in terms of the look he’s cultivating, it’s nondescript to the point of invisibility: he’s in a brown body warmer over a thick black jumper, skinny jeans, and a wet and weathered pair of trainers. Oddly, he has several overlapping plasters on his neck, obviously concealing something we’re not meant to see, and, odder still, he has a black leather glove on his left hand.

I can’t allow a trace of anxiety to reveal itself in any readable, translatable expression as Lucy would pick up on the change in me in a blink of an eye and make comment — bless her, she wouldn’t be able to help herself — but the more I see of him, the more certain I am of what he is and what this’ll mean for us, so I’m looking concerned, sure, but only as if for his health like the kids around him; I’ll keep my thoughts as close to my heart as a card shark’s hand, and anyone who ever said sharing is caring is no dice in a high stakes game of poker.

Innocently, I ask, “Maybe we should take his glasses off?”

His right hand (hitherto limp) goes up in a flash to keep them on his face. Alicia shakes her head at me to suggest that this is a bad idea, but if I’d really wanted to do it, I wouldn’t have tabled it for discussion beforehand; we’re a family, not a democracy. I simply needed to establish how defensive he was going to be about them coming off and the answer is Very.

“Where am I?” he croaks, shaking his head as if he’s coming to and clearing away the webs.

A likely story.

“Don’t worry, you’re safe here,” says Alicia.

“Yeah, we carried you in,” adds Harvey.

“Can you walk?” asks Lucy.

Now it’s Alicia’s turn to shake her head, in disdain at her sister’s naivety. “Of course he can’t walk, Lucy,” she groans. “He wouldn’t have been calling for help outside if he could walk.”

“Drink, I need to drink,” he mutters.

“He may need something hard, Mum, and you’ve got whiskey in the—”

I freeze Alicia with a nitrogen-cold glare, and she gets it, as well she should, she may have been the boss of Harvey outside but she’s not about to play that role in here with me. In the brief but uncomfortable silence that follows, all that can be heard are the sofa springs as the stranger adjusts his body weight, along with his raspy breathing, and our kettle in the kitchen whistling Dixie — and how I want to hug Lucy when she says, “Why don’t you make him a cup of tea, Mum?”

“Good idea — anyone else?”

“Not for me,” says Harvey, and Alicia shakes her head, sullenly, a little stung by my reaction to her talk of the drinks cabinet. Lucy shakes her head as well, but I ignore this and take her hand in mine and pull her out with me into the kitchen. When we get there, she whispers, “He isn’t saying much is he?”

She’s clearly intrigued by our unfolding domestic drama.

“No, he’s not — hey, grab me the milk out of the fridge, would you?”

It’s on the top shelf, in amongst the dairy, and places a minor physical demand on her, a usefully preoccupying one. She goes on tiptoes and reaches out for it with the tips of her fingers and while she has her back turned I drop an unhealthy dosage of sleeping pills into our stranger’s mug and pour in the hot water. “Maybe he’s in a state of shock,” she says, turning around and handing me the carton. “Maybe that’s why he’s so quiet — do you think that’s the problem?”

“I think he’s the problem.”

I spoon in some sugar and stir, then I add a splash of milk for colour. Pharmaceutical scum rises to the surface, so I spoon it out into the sink.

“Don’t be mean, Mum.”

Grabbing her by the shoulders and pulling her into my personal space so that I’m up in her face, I exhale, in an intense susurration of words: “Lucy — you have got to stay close, do you hear?”

She gulps.


“You are not to be in the room alone with him without my being present.”

“No — yeah, okay.”

“If I leave, you follow.”

Words failing her at this point, she nods, pretty emphatically, and gulps again to find her voice.

“Is he dangerous?”


“How do you know?”

“We don’t have time, Lucy, I just know.”

“But what about Harvey and Alicia, they’re in the other room with him right now — are they safe?”

I leave her question hanging in the air like the echo of a knell and the colour drains from her face. Giving over a hot mug of tea to her, I say: “Take this in to him, he’s more likely to drink it if you hand it over.”

“Why do you care if he drinks the—”

“Lucy — take it in!”

She nods, resolutely accepting her walk-on role in our drama, one which has lost all of its previous intrigue for her. To keep the stranger company and to look the part, I pour myself out a cuppa. “Keep schtum from now on,” I say. “And let other people do the talking.”

She nods.

Together we head back into the front room to see him propped up under a harem of crimson cushions. Irrational, I know, but I can’t help bridling at the sight of his wet trainers on the end of our sofa. “Here you are?” says Lucy, handing it over. She has four of her little fingers in the handle of the mug when she passes it into his gloved hand. It’s hot. I mean really hot. And yet his fingers stay firmly clasped around the body of the mug without any show of discomfort.

“Are you ready to talk yet?” asks Harvey, gruffly.

He doesn’t reply.

I slink into the background like a shy guest at a party.

“Don’t pressurise him, Harvey!” retorts Alicia with a scowl.

“I wasn’t, I simply asked him what happened out there, how is that pressurising him?”

“He’ll speak when he’s good and ready. Can’t you see that he’s been through a traumatic experience?”

“No, actually, I can’t.”

Harvey’s right: there are no obvious signs that the stranger has been set upon by anyone. He’s wet. Sure. But then given that he’s only recently been spread-eagled on a damp pavement, that’s to be expected. With all the subtlety of a file in a prisoner’s cake, Harvey continues in his cross-examination of our guest:

“Hey pal — are you blind?”

Aghast, Alicia shoots back with, “Harvey, you can’t ask someone that!”

“Why not? Why else would he be wearing those glasses? I can’t even see his eyes behind those lenses.”

Alicia fluffs a cushion at Harvey before returning it to our sofa. “Why not let him drink in silence?”

My sentiments exactly.

But he’s too dumbstruck by his surroundings to drink, or to speak up for himself, despite Harvey’s many attempts at eliciting a backstory, and whoever he is, I can empathise with him on this much at least: the first time anyone sees this place, it’s sure to leave a marked impression.

“It’s kitschy don’t you think?” says Alicia, following his periscopic gaze around the room.

He doesn’t reply.

“We didn’t decorate it — we found it this way,” she says, hurriedly, trying to win him over, perhaps to avoid being tarnished with the same godawful brush as the one used to decorate our flat. She’s right though. None of us are responsible for how it looks. We’re blameless of that much. When we first chanced across our new home, its front door left ajar, the keys on a hook in the hall almost as if in greedy anticipation of our arrival, Lucy had said, “Mum, are we in hell?” I remember her innocent, unguarded question stopping me in my tracks like it was yesterday. “Not yet,” I’d said, giving her a warm hug. I should have done more to placate her though, especially after the lights went on. “But it’s like it’s on fire, Mum!”

She was right.

Is right.

And we’re still there.

In hell.

All the walls are covered in a red and gold Rococo-patterned wallpaper that takes a scalpel to the retina whenever the lights go on. When my head hurts, as it often does, I imagine the flat throbbing malevolently with a life of its own. Up above, the ceiling is a creamy, gilded monstrosity, swirling in plaster shapes, cornices like the icing atop a showy socialite’s wedding cake. Below, a crimson carpet blazes along the floor of every room throughout the flat like a lava flow — every room that is bar the kitchen where a light-capturing black ceramic takes over. The kitchen units are lacquered to gleam and jut out their sharp beaks, forever prodding and poking you like a vicious joke. The dining table has been coerced into a tiny corner where it cowers, obsequiously, outta sight, outta mind. Above it all hangs a huge chandelier — an intrusive, overbearing presence in a far larger kitchen than ours — and it glows in ugly ostentation like new money thrown about by a pimp.

This place.

In our search for sanctuary we’d discovered someone’s bizarre pet project — that of decadence reproduced in miniature — where a regular three-bedroom flat in a working-class apartment block has been reimagined as a Late Baroque fairy tale. The flat’s previous tenant had crafted their environment to the specifications of a garish dream, now it felt like the setting of a nightmare.


“You were screaming at the top of your lungs, man,” Harvey growls, impatiently. “So if you’re about good and ready, it’s time to spill — what happened outside?”

“Don’t rush him,” says Alicia. “Can’t you see this place freaks him out?”

“He’s freaked out — I’m pretty freaked by this too. He was screaming blue murder out there, if you remember, and we defied the curfew for Captain Quiet, risked being set upon and who knows what else, so yeah, maybe we’re entitled to know what’s going on around here.”

“Harvey — we’re not entitled to anything.”

Losing his face in his palms, he groans, “Jesus Christ, Alicia, you’re banging that drum now!?”

She has these bold, high cheek bones which give her face an angular beauty and her pixyish looks a defined, geometrical precision; Harvey has them too but makes far less of the fact. With Alicia it draws you in, no matter how haughty she gets. Gabriel, my husband, he had them — they pull you in, those cheek bones, that look, to the point where you forget their shortcomings as a human being.

Beside me, Lucy whispers, “What are you thinking about, Mum?”

“Your father.”

In a tone of weary resignation, she says, “You’re drifting again, aren’t you?”

“Go and get my handbag — it’s in my bedroom.”

Off she goes, quiet as a dormouse, but her exiting of the room seems to provoke an immediate reaction from the stranger, startling in its speed, as without warning, like a gymnast working a beam, he spins his feet outwards in a perfect quarter circle off the end of the sofa and onto the carpet so as to perch his backside on the edge of the seat. The speed and deftness in which he executes this manoeuvre takes us all back, and, I suspect, was meant to.

“Where am I?” he says, in a grey monotone.

“Silent as a Benedictine monk but when he feels like speaking, we’re the ones answering his questions!” strops Harvey, hiding his amazement behind a rough façade. “I thought you couldn’t move, pal?”

The stranger turns his head towards him, mechanically.

In terms of height and heft my son is the bigger of the two men. Considerably so. His well-built frame is the product of a longstanding bedroom routine of push ups, sit ups, crunches, and an unusually self-disciplined lifestyle — it’s like the whole of his life has been in preparation for a role he hasn’t yet decided on. He knows it’ll be a demanding one, the role, the sort that’ll no doubt attract the girls, admirers aplenty, and hordes of envious pretenders to his throne. He’s always brimming with confidence, Harvey, and ready to hold others to account for their wrongdoings, to be bold, even heroic, and right now is so completely in the dark about the threat he’s facing it’s driving me up the wall; he’s out of his league, edging closer towards a conflict he won’t know how to resolve with every insolent word.

Lucy returns with my small tote handbag and puts it by my feet. I can tell from the calm look on her face that she hasn’t checked its contents.

Harvey crosses his arms, and with enough huff and puff to blow a house down, says, “Once again — what were you doing outside?”

“What’s your name?” interjects Alicia, in an altogether gentler tone.

“Recce,” replies the stranger.

“That’s a nice name!” she chirrups, thrilled at having got him to speak at last. “I think it’s exotic.”

She may do, but it wasn’t her question he was replying to.

“Is it short for anything?” she asks. The stranger observes her coldly, while his mouth remains a faint straight line. Unperturbed, she asks, “Or is it a nickname?” The stranger continues studying her stonily from behind his tinted glasses. “You don’t do much talking, do you?”

It’s Harvey’s turn to aim a self-satisfied smile at his sister, which he releases with another derisive snort.

“Alright then, Mister Recce,” he says, cracking his knuckles. “Let’s try this again — why were you screaming out in the streets?”

When the reply finally arrives, the voice is metallic, distant, and sucks all the air out of the room.

“They come bearing gifts.”

Then he removes his tinted glasses to reveal a pair of bright violet eyes.

“Gifts?” goes Harvey — his voice sounding watery now, less sure of itself. “Who come bearing gifts?”

“The Callers.”

I know my son better than he knows himself — whenever he’s unsettled, he overcompensates, so when he puts his back to our guest, twirls his eyes and mouths the words ‘batshit crazy’ at me, it’s clear what’s behind the act. “Careful where you step, everyone,” he continues, though mercifully under his breath. “Because this one’s lost all his marbles.”

“Stop it,” sighs Alicia. “We’re supposed to be the hosts!”

She’s more right than she knows: every parasite needs one and I reckon we’re it. And yet all I can do is bide my time. Even if I could find a way to fill them in on who or what we have in front of us, and the danger that he poses, they’d seem more on edge as a consequence, less natural, and he’d pick up on any change in their behaviour in the batting of an eyelash.

The living room lights start flickering, mirroring our uncertainty — strobing throughout the whole damn flat like a rave in the early nineties. When the lights finally go back to normal, after thirty seconds or so, I take it as my cue to speak up:

“Who sent you?”

His reply to my question is instant and deadpan. “Skit,” he says. He pauses before developing his answer further. “They’ve stopped giving their gifts, no matter how hard we beg.”

Harvey puts his hands up in mock surrender as if to say, “Well, he’s all yours, Mum!”

“Where have you come from tonight?” I ask.


Harvey looks confusedly at me, then at Alicia. Foolishly, I allow her the space in time to work it out and cut in and say: “Do you mean King’s College — because mum’s an academic and worked there — didn’t you Mum? — she worked in computers, before they all went to pot and stopped speaking to each other.” On hearing this, the stranger’s eyes flit towards mine like a lizard’s. “So is dad. Was dad,” she adds, on reflection. “He was an academic at King’s, in psychology.”

“Where’s your father now?”

Alicia’s face begins to drop; she looks confused by his new interrogatory line of questioning.

“I, er — we don’t know.”

“How long have you lived here?”

Harvey harrumphs in disgust at a closed book expecting everyone else around him to open up like a public library. Alicia frowns at her brother’s inhospitality but she’s only playing the role out of habit now, I sense she wants this ‘Recce’ out of her hair as much as he does.

“A few months,” she says. “We’ve lived here for a few months.”

We’re on the fourth floor of our apartment block: low enough to make our escape down the stairwell, should the proverbial hit the fan; high up enough to get a decent view of the surrounding area to help us make good our getaway.

“I’ve never seen anything, anywhere decorated like this,” says the stranger, shaking his head in disbelief.

“We found it,” she says.

“Found it?”

“One day we sort of, I dunno, stumbled upon a council property that had been left empty for a while.”

I note how Alicia’s speaking half-heartedly, out of an ingrained sense of duty to be civil. She’s already filed him at the back of a mental drawer with all the names she’d rather just forget.

“Why were you looking in a council block for an empty apartment?”

“Right — your turn!” cuts in Harvey with a snarl, his body arched, muscles tensing. “I’m starting to suspect that you were pretending to be in distress earlier?”

“I was.”

He seems unperturbed by my son’s aggression.


Because he was a worm on the end of a fishing line, wriggling and writhing in the street purely for effect, and my kids fell for it, they took the bait and went running to his aid; and after he’d allowed himself to be reeled in, our victim became the predator. Skit would have had a profile of my kids, their personalities, their vulnerabilities, he’d have known how best to exploit that. Alicia was always a sucker for a victim; Harvey would have gone at her behest.

“I was sent to find someone,” he says.

“Who?” barks Harvey.

The stranger turns his eyes onto mine.

“Me,” I say, with a coy smile. “He was looking for me.”

Harvey dismisses me outright with a snort, as if to say, What the hell are you talking about?! and Alicia pulls a disbelieving face too; Lucy is the only one who seems to take me at my word.

“Let’s not cause a stir,” I say, meekly. “I’ll come quietly.”

I’m buying us all some much-needed breathing space. As far as he’s concerned, it’s almost mission accomplished, so he’ll be feeling unthreatened, safe — even with my son bearing down on him — and at this rate could finish the whole narcotized brew in his left hand; he’s been drinking steadily for a while now, casually confident of his superiority over us.

“What’s happening, Mummy?” Lucy’s on the cusp of tears, struggling to fight them back. Faintly, she says, “I can’t lose you as well.”

“Remember what I said earlier?” She doesn’t — so I remind her: “Always trust your mum.”

Outside, in the street, all is silent bar the distant and lonely sound of an abandoned dog; its howling is punctuated by pauses, hinting at closure rather than providing it — inside my head I feel the slow, dull throb of a migraine begin to settle.

Meanwhile, Harvey whispers, “I can take him”.

He may be speaking to me, to Alicia, or perhaps even to himself, whatever, I show him both of my palms in a slow-moving pacifying gesture: Calm down, Harvey, calm the hell down! is the message, which he responds to, relenting with an exasperated eyeroll at my expense, and then I turn to the stranger and put a question to him that’s been troubling me a while.

“What’s under the glove?”

“A hand,” he says.

I raise my eyebrows in a no-shit-Sherlock manner and leave the floor open for him to fill in the blanks, which he doesn’t, he’s fine with the blanks as they are, so I change tack and speak to him in his own enigmatic register.

“What sort of gift did they share with you?”

Now he’s seeing me anew — looking at me rather than through me.

“I lost an arm in an industrial accident,” he says.

“God, that’s awful!” gasps Alicia, and then her eyes, like the rest of ours, can’t help but fall rather quizzically on what appear to be two fully-functioning arms attached to his torso.

“I was lucky that I lost consciousness when I did; you can’t imagine the pain.”

He switches the mug of tea to his right, lifts his gloved hand, the left one, and makes a solid fist in the air; there’s a creaking sound as the leather goes taut, tightening around the bumps of his knuckles. Absorbed by the odd significance of the fist, Alicia says, “No one deserves —”

“I’m better now — after they grew me a new one.”

Before her mind can process this, Alicia’s response has slipped thoughtlessly out of her mouth:

“Wait, what did you say?”

“They right the wrongs meted out by the old gods.”

“No, not that.”

He’s holding his fist at head height, presumably for our benefit, and I sense that we’re supposed to share in his wide-eyed wonderment. Harvey’s look of unconcealed disgust and the dismissive shake of the head that accompanies it suggest that he doesn’t quite believe him.

“They ‘grew’ you a replacement? You honestly want us to believe that?”

The stranger smiles up at my son from the sofa and nods. Yes — yes, he does want him to believe that.



“Well, it is bollocks, Ally. There’s no other word for it. You don’t bloody believe him, do you?”

“You shouldn’t talk like that when Lucy’s here.”

“Stop being such a puritan!”

“We’re her role models.”

“It was your idea to carry this nut-bag home with us — your idea, and don’t forget that. We wouldn’t be in this cuckoo’s nest if you hadn’t made me feel guilty about doing nothing for him — how’s about that for role modelling!”

“Thanks a lot, Harvey!”


“Enough!” I snap, out of sheer exasperation with the pair of them, and because my head’s worsening. It goes quiet, so I turn my attention back to the stranger, and say, in a tone of acquiescence: “Sir, I’ll not give you any trouble, okay, but before I come with you, I have a proposal.”

He raises his eyebrows, expectantly.

“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours?”

Appalled at the innuendo, Alicia gasps, “Christ — Mum! Where the hell did that come from?”

Harvey was right — she does have a puritanical streak.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“I’ll show you my gift, after you get yours out.”

Now it’s Harvey’s turn to play the prude: “Come on, Mum, Ally’s right, tone it down!”

The stranger, oblivious to the suggestive connotations of my proposal, is far more concerned with the possibility of my having a so-called ‘gift’ like his and is soon shaking his head as if to banish the very idea; he’s unwilling to consider that I could be so well endowed.


“Skit would have told me if you had a gift like mine,” he says — but it’s clear he isn’t sure and is on the backfoot. I savour the brief taste of power I have over him while it lasts. “Skit would have known about it.” He’s dribbling out words, coping, as his mind battles against the possibility. “Anyway, you can’t have received a gift: the Callers, they always brand their recipients.”

“Brand them?” I say.

Instinctively, he rips the plasters off his neck to reveal an unrecognisably hieroglyphic language seared onto his skin. The hieroglyphs radiate in the same otherworldly violet as his eyes.

Harvey steps closer towards me, defensively; Alicia backs away a few steps to make way for him.

By my side, I feel Lucy’s warmth as she leans in.

“It’s so we can’t go back for upgrades,” he says, by way of an explanation.

Harvey’s had enough.

“Take off the glove!”

And he does. The stranger takes off the glove, finger by finger, almost coquettishly, and rolls up the sleeve of his jumper for the full effect. What we see leaves us speechless: Sure, it’s recognisable as a five-fingered hand attached by a wrist to an arm, but only in terms of its physical outline — only the curves and contours are in any way Earthborn. Instead of human skin the outer coating of the limb is some sort of a translucent membrane; the room’s striking colours merge on its surface in an oily puddle of tints and shades and dyes of iridescence. It looks as slight as a bubble, but I’m guessing is at least as durable as regular skin. Under the surface of the membrane, strange sinewy shapes move like a lava lamp, forming and reforming by sliding into one other as he works the limb from one slow muscular movement into the next.

“What is that?” gasps Harvey.

“It’s stronger than yours, faster, tougher — and better. Step any closer and I’ll prove it to you.”

Harvey doesn’t rise to the challenge, not this time, he simply stares in wide-eyed wonder at the glowing limb.

“Now you show me your gift,” the stranger says, turning his attention to me. “That was the deal.”

He’s getting impatient.

Under the transparent coating of his limb, one bulging shape floats along like a flight of starlings into a soft, seamless collision with other vague shapes, where they merge, gracefully, forming something altogether new and whole and hypnotic. Mesmerised, I shake my head free of its effect and get my shit together. Then I crouch down to reach into my tote handbag between Lucy and me, slide my fingers around the grip of a cold Glock, slip a finger through the trigger guard, pull it out and aim it at the stranger’s oh-so fucking beautiful arm. I lied earlier. I never had any intention of going quietly with him; noise is more my ticket.

“Yeah, about that gift.”

I bring a second hand up as support to tame the recoil and spread my feet a shoulder width apart, checking that my knees are unlocked for flexibility and that my arm muscles slack enough to take the hit.

“A family of liberals,” he says, sneeringly. “I wouldn’t have had you down as a gun owner.”

“Who says I’m a liberal?”

Harvey’s saying something, but it’s difficult to concentrate with my throbbing headache bass-playing over his troublesome treble; Alicia’s making a hysterical noise of whatever point she’s trying to make. And Lucy’s crying. I blot it all out. Now’s not the time for listening to reason or caution. Reason has had its day. This is a time for reckless action. If you think a thing through, you’ll always err on the side of caution, but I know in my gut that caution will get us all killed today — so I drop the safety, pull the trigger, and shoot at his arm.


The tinnitus that accompanies the gunshot provides a disorientating soundtrack. Lucy screams, Alicia too, however it’s all distant and muted against the ringing in my ears. At least he’s not bulletproof, I tell myself. The gunshot penetrated his arm sure enough — but only as it would have into a bucket of warm glue. Its impact is instantly deadened by whatever gloopy substance he has swirling around in there. We can see the bullet below his membranous skin. A dark pollutant in an exotic pond. He’s as unsure of the repercussions as we are.

“Why did you do that?” he asks.

There’s no blood or anything like its equivalent — the skin must have resealed itself after penetration.

“To let you know that I’m not bluffing when I say, the next one will be in your head.”

His violet eyes lock steadily on mine; he’s daring me to blink or look away. Meanwhile, my tinnitus is ringing, and my migraine is pounding.

“You can’t run forever.”

“Do I look like I’m running; I have a gun pointed at your head.”

The ceiling lights flicker throughout the flat. He takes the moment to unlock his eyes from mine and briefly assess his options. They’re rather scant to say the least. His hands go up in a pacifying gesture as his eyes return to mine.

“Chris,” he says.

“Don’t call me that.”


“It’s Professor, as in Professor Sommers.”

“Skit just wants to talk.”

“Let him fucking talk then!”

“With you.”

“I’m not one for talking.”

“Professor, come on. Be reasonable. What about the kids?”

He looks over towards the ‘kids’ for a sympathetic face, someone who’ll talk me down, make me see sense, but mostly to redirect the Glock from the direction of his face. Alicia’s never seen me with a gun in my hand, and while she doesn’t know what’s happening, i.e. the danger the stranger poses, her default response is predictable enough.

“Mum, you’ve just shot him! He needs our help!”

“Harvey — keep her out of my firing line?”

The slightest utterance would have been enough to get a read on him, but no response is forthcoming.


No response.

The stranger is also quiet. Too calm for anyone with a gun aimed on him. I can’t risk turning my head to take in the full picture of what’s around me — he, however, can see it all in widescreen. If only Lucy’s arms weren’t wrapped around my legs, I’d be able to back-step to a vantage point to see what the hell’s going on. Lying in a sad bundle by my feet however, she’s a wailing wall of sobs and snivels and wretched moans. I sense my older kids moving against me. Out of love, no doubt, but against me nonetheless. They think I’m the crazy in the room.

“Mum,” says Harvey, finally.

He’s getting closer, I can sense it.

Over a shoulder I shout, “Stay back, Harvey!”

“You’re not acting yourself,” he says, edging towards me in what must be cautious, baby steps as he’s taking an age. “Maybe it’s the headaches, Mum, maybe that’s why you’re acting this way. They’re starting to affect your behaviour. I’m not saying you have to follow his damn commands or anything —”

“Stay back!”

“Only that you should lower the gun.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I won’t let you kill him, Mum.”

“You don’t get any say in the matter.”

“Mum —”

The lights begin flickering again. I feel Harvey’s soft, pacifying hand resting gently on my outstretched arm — and I look around at him. A second passes, maybe two. But that’s all it takes. In that moment of distraction, the stranger makes his move and God, he’s fast! He lunges forward, grabs Alicia out of my peripheral vision and pulls her into a deadlocking embrace. Now he has her windpipe between the fingers of his weird, glowing, membranous hand.

“If you shoot me,” he says, resolutely. “This hand will crush her larynx like an eggshell. It’ll even work after my death, believe me.”

I lower my gun.

Alicia manages a frail ‘help’ through the grip on her throat. Her eyes are wet, ballooning with fear. She’s petrified, clearly. In a deep guttural lament, Harvey makes a noise that’s equal parts remorse, shame and horror. It’s his way of saying sorry when words won’t cut it. I mutter for him to shut the hell up and take Lucy off my hands, which he does.

“I’ve lowered my gun; now you do the same with your hand.”

The stranger blinks as if to clear his vision.

“I don’t feel right,” he says.

He gives his facial muscles a sudden workout, pulling several odd expressions in so doing.

Playing stupid, I say, “Really — what’s wrong?”

He wigwags his head with his eyebrows raised, doltishly — but there’s no luck there, no psychogenic changes of any note — so he breathes in through his nose, fills up his lungs, and breathes out through his mouth. It’s all in vain. Nothing seems to deter his spongy mind from soaking up the debilitating effects of the narcotic. His time is running out. But then, so in a sense is mine. He shakes his head again and blinks as if to readjust his vision, and says, “I need to get out of here!”

“I’ve lowered my gun, like you said. Release her, please, and I’ll come quietly with you.”

“You did this to me,” he sneers.

“Did what?”

Edging sideways in an awkward crab-like shuffle, with my daughter dragged along in a deadly embrace, they move towards the living room door. Alicia stares at me in a state of terrified disbelief — she mouths the word ‘Mummy?’ as a startled, innocent question.

“Why won’t you take me instead?” I plead.

“No chance — not in this state.” The stranger backs into the corridor to where the front door remains ajar and back-kicks it fully open with his heel. His movements are becoming slower, almost clumsy.

“I won’t let you leave our home with my daughter.”

She rasps the word ‘Mummy’ and it breaks my heart. I lift the gun, get his head in my crosshairs, slow my breathing, and ready myself for the inevitable.

The stranger stops dead in his tracks.

“I’m not bluffing,” I say.

“Me neither — shoot me and she dies.”

The lights flicker around us.

“Don’t, Mum,” Harvey says, in a whisper. This time I saw him slinking up by my side. He puts his clammy palm on my outstretched arm, just like he did a seeming century ago, only this time I lower the gun under the soft rational authority of his hand. Lifting the volume of his voice, Harvey says, “No sudden movements,” — though it’s not clear whether it’s intended as advice for me, his sister, or it’s a demand he’s making of her desperate assailant.

No more than three metres separate us from the stranger. Keeping us firmly in his eyeline, with my daughter in his grasp, he continues backing out of the apartment sluggishly into the corridor. Most of the candle stubs are out dead along the floor, reduced to long bendy wires of smoke, but there’s light enough for my task. I need just one opportunity. One. If she could only worm her neck free from his grasp for a moment, it’d be all I need. But he’s getting closer to the goddamn lift button with every backward step he takes.

Alicia rasps the words ‘Mummy’ and ‘help’ repeatedly, and each time I hear my name a skewer runs through my heart.

We hear the cranky old lift rattling into action.

By my side, Harvey whispers, “Let them go down together in the lift. I’ll catch him on the sly downstairs.”

I nod at him in agreement.

I sense everyone’s breathing synchronising, merging, and compressing into one. The outside world is tightening in on us like a car compactor. We’re becoming a singularity.

They’ve backed inside the lift. The doors are shutting, dividing her (inside) with him, from us.

“You have my word that she won’t be harmed,” declares the stranger.

I ought to kill him stone-dead for daring to affect a sense of honour.

“Where do we carry out the swap ¬— her for me? Name any place.”


His accusing eyes stay fastened on mine until the steel doors have clamped shut on us. It’s far easier to stare in hate at him than meet the terror in Alicia’s eyes. The lift shaft rumbles and clangs, swallowing my daughter down its rusty oesophagus.

Harvey runs.

Straight out, down the stairwell.

Lucy screams like she’s never screamed before. It tears out into the streets like a banshee, into the surrounding apartments, and into the houses down below, into the lives of the neighbours who we’ll never know, never see — those who wouldn’t have come to our aid anyway. It’s a rite of passage, her scream, a first confrontation with the potential of death.

I take her forcefully in my arms — muffle her wailing by pulling her face into my stomach.

We hear Harvey — feel him — thudding on impact against the landing as he takes whole flights of stairs in one go. He’ll beat the lift. I’ve no doubt in my mind. He’ll get to the ground floor first. He’s got to. We run back into the front room to get a view of ground zero. We press our noses against the window, and our breathing pulses in a hectic mist on the cold glass pane. “There they are!” shouts Lucy, pointing. Down below, two shadows steal out of the building, one clearly holding the other — close, as if fused together — they disappear around a corner. They slip out of sight. Seconds pass. Our breathing is noisy and as heavy as hell. Offstage, we hear a car door slam. An engine turns over. It revs. Then it purrs. Then the unexpected truth hits me like a sucker punch: The stranger must have driven himself here!

He must have parked.

Got out of his damn car.

Lain down.

And screamed for dear life.

In their wake, I see Harvey arrive as a vague silhouette of himself — he’s following the noise of the car — wildly looking about for any trace of them. Wheels screech. A car pulls out. Harvey has its scent and sprints after it like a greyhound after a mechanical hare, but by then it’s all in vain, it’s all over: they’ve got away.

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MAN’S WORLD is now available, for the very first time, as a high-quality printed magazine. Across 200 glorious pages, you’ll find everything that made the digital magazine the sensation that it was – the best essays, the most brilliant new fiction, interviews, art, food, sex, fitness – and so much more.

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