The sticky label had peeled off the videocassette, leaving behind only thin ragged scraps of dirty white paper. I peered at the stains on the paper, trying to make out what had once been written there, but could make no sense of the faint striations which remained.
The wind moved heavily across the walls, pressing against the outside of the house. The window creaked, the glass shifting fractionally in old frames. I glanced outside, across the jagged tops of the trees in the park opposite, and towards the brightly lit expanse of the city.
“It’s a third generation copy,” the man in the pub had promised me. “One of Reef’s last short films, made before he died.”
I fingered the spools, turning one of them with my thumb jammed into the gap. The plastic groaned; the tape encased within the slim box whispered as it wound around its inner cogs.
“It doesn’t have a title, not that I can find. It’s just a short show reel, meant as a teaser to attract finance for a longer project he wanted to direct.” The man’s face had been covered in acne scars; his big square hands swallowed the pint glass I’d brought him from the bar.
I didn’t know the man’s name, but we’d been introduced by a petty criminal named Billy Talbot, a mutual friend and fellow cinema enthusiast. Billy and I shared a love of obscure horror films, if not much else, and Derek Reef was one of the few directors we both admired—although my own admiration for the oddball director far outweighed Talbot’s own.
For the uninitiated, Reef had made a handful of films in the 1970s, and had been assassinated in New York before even having the chance to make a name for himself with his short body of work.
After the renegade director’s death, there had been a small groundswell of interest in his output: a few independent cinemas ran retrospective seasons, a documentary was funded by the BBC but never shown because of unquoted legal reasons, and various film magazines ran one-page features on his debauched lifestyle rather than the films he left behind.
None of that interested me to any great degree; I simply wanted to see the films. None of them were particularly great in the conventional sense, but they were at least technically proficient. My favorite was Flowers For Flora’s Grave, which had been based on a cult novel by a pulp horror writer (also dead), but even that suffered from a lack of budget and the inability of the director to extract decent performances from anyone but his voluptuous star and sometimes lover, the infamous Vanna St. Clair.
My own interest in the films was due mainly to the fact that my late father had appeared as an extra in one of Reef’s early mainstream shorts, and after I found a copy of it when sorting through his particulars after his death, I became intrigued by the somewhat cheesy and certainly controversial films subsequently made by Reef.
The tape given to me by the man in the pub was allegedly one of the few copies in circulation of a ten-minute sequence Reef had put together a few weeks before his murder by a mumbling vagrant with an obscure axe to grind. I’d read about the rumored existence of the film, but had given up any hope of actually seeing it until Billy Talbot rang me, drunk and breathless, one evening to tell me that he’d tracked down a copy.
The conversation had been stilted; Billy was obviously stoned on something, and judging by the background noise he was calling from a party or somewhere equally as chaotic. He was a strange and often dangerous man, but for some reason our relationship had lasted a number of years. I vicariously enjoyed the risky nature of his subculture lifestyle; he liked to be associated with a nerd, just to give him what he always called “layers.”
I crouched before the old VHS machine I kept wired to the television in my bedroom. I hadn’t used the thing in over a year, and wasn’t even sure if it was still in working order. Everything worthwhile was available on DVD these days, usually downloaded and converted from the Internet.
Pressing the power button, I experienced a brief and oddly enjoyable moment of panic when nothing happened . . . but then the green light came on and I hit eject. The shelf shuddered out of the front of the machine, and I slipped in the tape.
“Okay, Reef. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I moved to the armchair in the center of the room, cracked open the can of lager I’d brought up from the fridge, and settled down in front of a screen full of grizzled static. Lifting the remote control, I pressed play, and waited to be disappointed.
I wasn’t quite prepared to believe that this was actually what the man in the pub had claimed it to be; not for the relatively measly sum of one hundred pounds and a few pints of bitter. If this were the real thing, it would be worth several times that sum on the Internet, sold to a private collector. But the man had been adamant that he was not in it for the money: he wanted the recording to go to someone who would appreciate it, and apparently Billy Talbot had vouched for me in that capacity.
The static began to clear. I narrowed my eyes in the dark room and struggled to make out a picture. After a short while, a scene resolved on the screen. A young bearded man sat in an armchair at the center of a grubby room. There was a television before him, but it was impossible to make out what he was watching—to me, it looked like a reflection of himself, or perhaps another scene featuring a similar figure in an armchair, but this one slovenly and unkempt.
The man stared at the screen, sipping something from a glass. I took a drink of my beer. On the screen the man seemed nervous, almost pensive. His face was blurred, but he seemed to be frowning.
I leaned forward, eager to see more.
The man on the screen leaned forward.
I experienced then a moment of déjà vu tinged with acute vertigo, as if I were falling through a space I’d once dreamed of, and knew that what waited for me at the bottom would possess a familiar face.
Suddenly, as if speakers had just been turned on, the film’s badly overdubbed soundtrack came into play. Through a storm of static, I heard what sounded like loud clapping but soon realized was, in fact, the beating of huge wings.
The young man left his chair and went to the window. The bare boards he trod upon were stained and worn; the peeling walls of the room were angled inwards, patches of plaster showing signs of dampness and decay.
When he reached the window the man stretched out and unlatched the clasp, then slid the sash upward. The sound grew louder; whatever was making it was outside, and drawing near.
The camera swung around fluidly, a vertiginous precursor to modern jerky shooting techniques, and I was able to see over the man’s shoulder and out of the window. The trees in the park opposite shuddered and the lights of the city beyond were smeared, like a bad oil painting done by the hand of a madman.
Something was approaching.
It flew low, gliding for a moment just above the level of the trees, and although it was far away, it grew larger as it closed in on the young man in the window. He clutched the wooden frame, rotten wood splintering and breaking off in his hands. Then, panicking, he pulled down the sash and retreated, backing into the center of the room. His backside collided with the raggedy armchair and he stopped.
The camera then offered another view of the window, but this time the sky was empty of everything but the stars and the seedy reflected lights from the city below. Even the trees had vanished, leaving behind an emptiness that seemed somehow pregnant with meaning.
I sat in my chair and stared at the small gray screen, attempting to make sense of what I’d seen. Was it some kind of elaborate joke concocted by Billy Talbot, perhaps as revenge for some imaginary hurt? But Billy possessed neither the imagination nor the funds for such an ambitious enterprise; he was currently out of work (legal or otherwise), claiming benefits, and could barely put together enough cash for a couple of pints in the local pub.
“The man?” What about him? The nameless scarface who’d sold me the tape.
I stood, went to the window, and looked out at the view. The sky was dark: gossamer scraps of clouds bled across a flat gray canvas. In the distance, just about visible, a dark speck hung on the horizon. As I watched, I could imagine that speck was drawing closer, as if borne by great leathery wings.
I put on my coat and left the house. The pub was still open—it never closed, not since the drinking laws had changed to allow all-day service.
The cold air hit me like a slap in the face as I made my way past crumbling blocks of empty flats, burned-out warehouses and the remains of shops closed down years ago. The council regeneration program had not yet reached my district; we were still waiting for the work to be done. My surroundings consisted mainly of crumbling brickwork, steel security shutters and exposed concrete foundations.
The man was standing at the bar when I entered the pub, his big hands resting on the scarred wooden surface. An empty glass stood before him, but he made no move to have it refilled.
I approached him without speaking. He glanced at me, and then returned his apathetic gaze to the empty glass.
“Two pints,” I said to the barman—a fat man who rarely ever spoke, yet still managed to attract a regular crowd to his premises. Perhaps his lack of chitchat was the main draw.
“Have you watched it?”
The barman served our drinks and retreated to the far end of the bar, where he stared at the repeat of an earlier football match on a tiny wall-mounted TV.
“Yes. I’ve just sat through it.”
“Good,” said the man, before taking a drink. “That’ll save us a lot of pointless discussion.”
I watched his hands. They moved slowly, but with little finesse. The knuckles were badly damaged, covered in small cuts and swellings, as if he’d been in a fight.
“What is it?” I waited for him to answer.
“It’s a film. Just a bit of film.” His swollen lips writhed across the lower half of his face; a thick band of shadow lengthened his chin, making it look as if his head were too large for his stocky body.
“Yes, I know that. But what is it?”
He turned to me then, finally gracing me with his full attention. There were tears in his eyes and his forehead was freshly scabbed. Fresh blood was smeared across one eyebrow, mingling with the dark hairs. “I don’t know. I haven’t even watched it. The people I got it from told me not to: they said it only works on one person, and I wasn’t fit to be exposed to its glory. Fucking nutters.” He looked away, blinking.
“Who were they, these people?”
“Religious types. Met them at a film fair in Cleveland. I was selling homemade porn and they had all these DVDs supposed to be a recording of angels. Bullshit. All I saw was a few retarded children in a Romanian orphanage dressed up in paper fairy costumes.”
He paused to take another drink.
“I bought a job lot of other crap off them, though. A load of old horror films, some rare stuff I already had a customer for, and the thing I sold you. That Reef thing.”
I licked my lips. Behind me, the door opened and heavy footsteps entered the bar, pausing at my back; when I turned to look, there was no one there and the door was closed to keep out the night. “How can I contact these people? Do you have an address, a telephone number? Anything. I would make it worth your while.”
Again he turned to face me, a look of fear in those wide, wet eyes. “They came to see me earlier this evening, after I gave you the tape. They said they were watching me, and that if I ever tried to contact them, they’d kill me.” He raised his hand, opened his fist to show me the marks I’d noticed earlier. “I’m a hard man, but they were harder. They showed me photographs of the last person who crossed them.” He picked up his pint glass and drained it, not a flicker of distaste crossing his face.
I thought about Billy Talbot, and how he’d been involved with certain groups in the past—neo-Nazis, right wing protest parties, obscure pseudo-religious cults. I’d thought he’d put all that behind him, but perhaps I was wrong.
Was I the money-shot finale to some insane ritual, or maybe a debt owed by Billy to a crowd he should not have messed with—people far more dangerous than he had expected? None of this seemed real. It was like the plot of one of the films I loved.
When I left the pub I felt as if I were being followed. Shadows stirred in every corner, sounds came from each dark doorway I passed. Whenever I looked up at the sky, I expected to catch sight of something gliding down towards me, reaching for me like a bird of prey claiming a field mouse.
I locked myself indoors, climbed the stairs, and knelt before the VCR, once more pressing the eject button. The tape was not inside. I’d left it there when I returned to the pub, but now it was gone. I should have expected it, really: I’m not a stupid man.
I tried to eat a sandwich but it tasted like cardboard. Water from the tap had a coppery bite. I drank whisky, lots of it: my only recourse was to get blindingly drunk. Perhaps that way I would be unable to see whatever it was when finally it came for me . . .
Finally, I return to the armchair in my upstairs room to stare at the dead television screen. The whisky is dwindling, but I cannot get drunk enough to turn off my mind.
The screen flares up suddenly, a bright light accompanied by a faint popping sound. Despite the lack of a videocassette, the picture is almost the same as before: a young man sitting in a filthy armchair, a drink in his hand. I raise my glass; the man raises his glass. I sit forward; the man shuffles forward in his chair.
“No.” We speak the dialogue in unison, twin performers on a darkened set. “Please.”
Then, eventually, the sound of great flapping wings approaches, unhindered by the layer of glass and the thin walls of my/his dwelling.
We—the actor and I—stand and run to the window. The thing is closer now, and I can see that it is gaunt and leathery, like a corpse whose skin has dried out and adhered to yellowed bone. Its head is massive, like the skull of a skinned lion, and its eye sockets are filled with a glow that burns like the bulbs from a set of arc lights in the film of my destruction.
But the whole thing resembles a shoddy costume, a lazy special effect. Its details are shabby. I can almost see the stitches holding together the frayed seams of its outline. For some reason I find this idea even more disturbing than if the creature looked real.
I turn to the television screen; my counterpart turns his back on me.
Then, horrified, I watch the screen as the thing crashes soundlessly through the window, grasping the man’s back, and begins to tear at his head and upturned face. He throws up his hands, trying to bat it away, but it is far too powerful and pins him easily to the dusty boards, its lolloping, oversized head lowering over his screaming features.
It is over in seconds: the beast drags the bloody remains to the window and carries them away, perhaps to some terrible nest located far off, in another place, made up of discarded scraps of celluloid.
I turn stiffly to the window, but there is nothing to be seen. Like a coming attraction, what I have witnessed on the screen is merely a precursor, a clip of what is meant to happen next. I step to the window. The night beyond is completely black, like a cinema screen between shows. Then, one by one, tiny lights flash on in the darkness, and I am shocked by the sight of a million television screens flickering like childhood nightlights.
“Why me? Why choose me?”
There is no answer but the gentle pulsing of television light.
I once again have the sense that I am being watched, or perhaps maneuvered by hidden personalities: writer and director, linking up for a final collaboration, something that will eventually reach out across the cosmos towards a brand new audience . . .
“I’m not important. I have nothing to offer . . . I have no story to tell.”
My words break off into the darkness, a trail of confusion I will soon follow towards my annihilation. These words, I now realize, are no longer part of the shooting script.
I stare at the screens that are really eyes; they are suspended in the void, hung from unseen stars and the tails of strange comets that remain invisible to my eyes. I turn around and grab the armchair, hauling it across to the window, where I sit and stare out at the digital congregation, waiting for the often-tricky third act to unspool.
Calmly, I wonder which of the screens will be big enough to contain my soul.
Spread the word!