by Graham Tugwell
Bright where the shaft of sun falls on it.
Dark in corners where the flies gather.
Gristling every surface, fat waxy beads of flesh and blood, stickiness dripping on slender threads…
We stand in the doorway.
Bodies have come to pieces in here.
We can smell them.
In the doorway we stand, boys shocked and wordless.
In the dark before us something moves—
Speaking with a weak and broken voice—
Barely there at all…
“Please. Help me.”
Four boys, running across a field as fast as their bodies will let them—
Cormac Sulltry, short and stout, covers ground with a speed that belies his size, vaulting the low slant-angled fence he hits the corrugated earth; staggering, stiff-legged, for a step, the impact knocking the hat from his head.
It lies upturned, unheeded on clay— Sulltry stares at a horizon hammering up and down with footfalls, arms like pistons, breaths shredding between grimacing teeth.
Saltsweat pinches eyelids.
Nothing will slow him.
Boots thump the dirt behind, flattening the hat like a careless pet— Kevin Shields— huge, unmolded, left hand on right shoulder tight, trying to keep the blood within. A rose is blossoming under his fingers, turning the green of his jersey brown.
Curly hair bouncing, jug ears bright red, Kevin hollers through crooked teeth “Cormac! Cormac! Cormac! Cormac!”
Nothing will convince Sulltry to turn, to look back.
Close behind, in the wake of Shield’s ungainly frame I run.
I’ve lost a shoe to the lip of the ditch and a stitch is folding the breath out of me. Slapping a palm to settle my glasses, I leave a smudge across one lens, blurring the backs of the boys. My other hand plunges in pockets—
Where’s my inhaler—?
Left it behind—
There’s a screech behind me.
Little Tommy Sweetnam, foot swallowed by a rabbit hole, pitches forward, heels of his hands and knees hitting the turf, shrill screams bursting his hamster’s cheeks—“No! Don’t leave me!”
Can’t catch my breath—pins in the heart of me—
Cormac a distant smudge, Kevin loping after him, and Tommy struggling, blonde head pressed to the mud—
I take the softness of his hand, drag him to his feet. “We left him,” says Tommy, tears carving pink in the muck. “We just left him.”
I grab him by the sleeve and haul him over the tumbled fence.
And the last of us, the fifth boy—
Where’s Alby Gorman?
We left him with the Dragging Man.
The five of us were friends because no-one else would have us.
Cormac Sulltry was bossy and arrogant and short-tempered and always convinced he was in the right. He wore a cap, like a gang leader in his comics.
Kevin Shields was slow and his father was strange and his mother took a knife to her wrists a month before school began.
Tommy Sweetnam was soft and gentle, and while all the rest of us were growing up, he remained a baby, younger than us in every way.
And me, stricken with pneumonia at an early age and never truly recovered; a sickly air hung round me, made me cold and distant. Happy to wait and listen.
And Alby Gorman…
Was Alby Gorman.
We came together, the scraps and odds and ends…
Friends because no-one else would have us.
We learned that Cormac was fearless and cunning and clever and Kevin was kind and loyal and loved his kittens, and Tommy was an artist, such a voice—he’d sing for us, behind the Water Tower. He was good like that.
And me, I’d listen.
I was there for them.
Even Alby Gorman.
Bringing children around corners, pressing teachers against windows, sending Joe the caretaker racing across the tarmac.
Tommy finds me by the rosebushes.
“He’s doing it,” he stammers, pudgy face pale, “Doing it again!”
Leaving my lunch on the wall I run, up the slope, along prefabs to the gravel behind the boiler, pushing through gathered children— Cormac and Kevin already there.
So is Alby Gorman.
Kneeling on the small of Pascal Givens’ back, one hand worked entwining in his hair, Alby presses the trapped boy’s head down amongst the sharp and scraping stones.
Givens’ voice— the high shriek of a pet crushed in a closing door: “Help me help me help me—”
Because the look on Alby Gorman’s face—that placid concentration, the tongue-tip in the corner of his mouth. Softly, serenely, he twists Pascal Givens’ arm— eyes bulging pale bubbles, close to popping, free hand slapping and clawing gravel— Pascal can do nothing as Alby drags the limb around and up the length of his back.
For a moment.
We all hear it—
The soft wet click of something forced out of place.
Pascal’s scream rises until, at the edge of hearing, it empties him.
Still he lies on gravel.
Only then does Alby Gorman look at his audience.
Cormac impassive and Kevin sick and Tommy distraught: “Why Alby?”
Alby looks at us as if the answer’s obvious, as if we’re stupid. He smiles. Says “I wanted to see his new watch.”
(The limp wrist, red and purple, and the yellow plastic of a strap)
Alby Gorman shrugs. “He wouldn’t let me. So I made him.”
Joe the caretaker lifts the boy from the gravel, pushes his way through the children.
Alby’s smile widens. “What’s the problem? I didn’t take it.”
Joe puts Pascal on the backseat of his car.
A curve of kids and teachers stare down at Alby Gorman.
Wondering what he is capable of.
What he will do next.
Alby Gorman squats on haunches.
“It didn’t land on his feet.”
He prods the white kitten.
“I thought they always landed on their feet…”
He rises as Kevin gathers the limp thing in his hands—his silent tears huge and bright and awful.
“Maybe I kicked it too hard,” says Alby Gorman and he grins. “Give me another one, Kevin. Let’s try again.”
“How high can you sing, Tommy?”
They sit behind the Water Tower, watching traffic pass.
Tommy plucks at his sleeve.
“Em,” he says, “Em. Dunno.”
“Try, for me,” says Alby Gorman.
“What, em… what song do you want, Alby?”
“This is… em… this is something Mammy and her sisters sing.”
“Come and look out through the window.”
“That big old moon is shining down…”
Alby nods. “Can you go higher?”
Tommy’s voice sharpens:
“Tell me now, don’t it remind you.”
And sharpens further, hangs there, shivering:
“Of a… blanket… on the… ground.”
“Let me help,” says Alby Gorman.
Hands close on Tommy’s throat.
Tighter and tighter.
Until song becomes scream.
Brown haired and blue-eyed.
And all of us so scared of him.
He lived with his grandmother and little sister until, one day, he lived with just his grandmother.
And he smiled.
All the time he smiled and stared and we learned that life was easier when he got his own way.
The four of us, we became friends because no-one else would have us.
But we weren’t friends with Alby Gorman.
He didn’t know the meaning of the word.
Once, he found me by the rosebushes. Sat beside me.
I settled my glasses. “Are you okay, Alby?”
He ran his finger over thorns. Snapped a budding rose from its stem.
His voice was low. “Why are they scared of me?”
Stomach a cold plunge, I replied, “Who, Alby?”
He plucked a curved leaf, flicked it in the air.
“The rest of the class.”
Another red leaf fell.
“The people who say they’re my friends.”
Scraps of rose settled on his lap.
His blue eyes did not blink.
“You,” he said.
Wanted to run. Could feel my chest collapsing—fingers searched for my inhaler.
Finally, I found my voice. “You… you hurt people,” I whispered. “You don’t know how strong you are.”
“And when you hurt them…”
“You don’t care.”
“I hurt people?” he said.
“Is that so..?”
He tapped his lap.
Curls of soft red plucked from the bulb…
I stared at them.
His hands curled in fists.
Breath dragging, throat and neck enclosing, I bent. With numb lips, plucked a leaf from the lap of Alby Gorman.
I sat back.
He smiled, patted my cheek.
“We’re friends. We’re kind to each other. We play games.”
His fingers rested for a long time.
“Don’t be scared of me. I don’t want that.”
The taste of roses.
“No more,” says Cormac Sulltry. “Something has to be done.”
He slams his fist into the palm of his hand, the way they do it on TV.
We’re in Tommy’s house, in his bedroom.
Kevin sits on the floor, Tommy and I sit on his bed.
Cormac strides, repeating, “Something has to be done,” under his hat he scratches his greasy scalp.
It is Kevin who solves our problem.
“I know a place,” he says, running fingers along his kitten’s ears. “Dad… tells me…The place where he and Mam went. A terrible place. There’s a thing inside it.”
His voice drops to a whisper.
“The Dragging Man. That’s what she called it. It had its hold on her and wouldn’t let go. Dragging her into the dark. It has no hands and no feet but it holds you tight. In the end she had to cut herself away…”
Kevin looks at the biscuit-coloured kitten in his lap. Patches mews and plays with his fingertips. “We can leave Alby with the Dragging Man.”
Cormac has that look. A plan, falling softly into place. He replaces his hat.
“Yes,” he says.
That half-away look, working the angles…
Deciding the way the world will work…
“But we all have to agree,” says Cormac Sulltry. “All of us.”
“Yes,” says Kevin without hesitation.
“Yes,” I say, after a moment.
Tommy rests his head on folded arms.
He shakes as tears come through him.
“It’s not right.”
Cormac looks at me and nods his head.
I put my hand on Tommy’s arm.
“Tommy,” I say, “He hurts people. Someone has to do something. Before something awful happens.”
Tommy shakes his head.
“You know he has it in him.”
I touch the bruises on his neck.
“Why us?” sobs Tommy.
“Because we’re his friends,” I say. “He trusts us.”
Tommy looks at me. “Do you think we should?”
Tommy drags a rattling breath and tries a little smile.
“Okay,” he says.
And the door opens.
Brown-haired, blue-eyed and smiling.
Tommy gasps. Kevin clutches his kitten. It hisses.
“Secret meeting?” whispers Alby. “Was I not invited?”
He taps the wood of the door.
We say nothing.
“Why not? Am I not your friend?”
Cormac clears his throat.
He has a plan.
“We’re planning a camping trip, Alby. It was going to be a surprise.”
Alby grins. Something glistening on a surgical glove.
“Count me in.”
Down we go by Wishing Lane and up into the woods and hills.
Cormac Sulltry leads the way, and Kevin Shields close to guide, next is me and Tommy Sweetnam. Last of all is Alby Gorman, smiling at sunlight through the trees and throwing sticks at birds.
Five boys on a camping trip.
Singing. Laughing. Looking back at Alby Gorman.
Kevin points. There is a house, dark and broken, in the crease where two hills meet.
“Here,” says Cormac Sulltry, “Here’s where we camp.”
And Kevin stares at the door ajar and the black windows and we must call his name three times.
Slowly, and slanting, the tent goes up.
(Why straighten it? It won’t be slept in.)
We watch Alby Gorman wander up the overgrown path.
He presses his face against dirty glass, runs his fingers along the splintered wood—a piece comes away with a crack. He turns, his grin the gleam of a freshly-dropped turd.
“Dump.” He skips the wood back down the path. “What do you think happened here?”
Kevin makes a strange sound, deep in the back of his throat and Cormac coughs to cover—
“Alby,” he says, “Let’s explore.” A single bead of sweat crystals his brow. “Let’s explore.”
Alby Gorman looks at us and our stomachs freeze over. Time turns to creaking slowness. After an age Alby puts his shoulder to the door and shunts recalcitrant wood aside.
Cormac and I follow him, Tommy a pace behind, and Kevin staying where he is.
We go in and find:
Filth and broken furniture and stained rags on the floor, a fireplace clogged with leaves, and a cracked mirror returning our shadowed faces in pieces. Peeling wallpaper. Swollen wood. A shaft of sun trapping a zithering fly.
And there is the smell of beer, sharp and bloated, making our heads swim.
And there is something in the darkness beyond.
Moving slowly through the other rooms.
I look at Cormac, my chest a pinched unbreathing.
And the thing we’ve come to find leaves the darkness for the light. It passes the doorway and stands there, looking out at us.
A worm, trying its best to be a man.
It has no feet.
It has no hands.
Its arms and legs go on and on.
The Dragging Man.
“Children,” it says. “Stay with me. Stay with me.”
Alby Gorman’s smile disappears.
For the first time there’s a look—
Confusion. Almost… almost… panic—
“What..?” he mumbles.
“Now!” cries Cormac Sulltry.
We grab and we push.
We are not strong— Alby Gorman will not be moved—
“Children,” cries the Dragging Man. “Stay with me. In the dark.”
And there’s a scream—
Not the Dragging Man.
Not Alby Gorman.
Kevin Shields, thundering down the path, bursting through the doorway, screaming: “You kicked them—kicked to pieces—”
He grabs Alby Gorman and with his strength added to ours we force Alby further in, dirt and rags entwining in our feet. It dawns on him: “Leaving me—trying to leave me here!” and Alby Gorman fights us, pushes us back—
I trip on the broken sill of the door.
Five boys falling, tumbling into summer suns but Kevin is not quick enough—Alby Gorman digs his nails into his chest, feet scrabbling for purchase on the tall boy’s thighs.
Kevin screeches “Get him off me! Get him off! Aaargh!”
Cormac and me, we take Alby by the arms and try to pull him from Kevin—Alby’s teeth close upon the meat of his shoulder and when finally we manage to wrench him off a long wet string comes away in his mouth.
The soft wet noise of it…
Blood gushes and Kevin collapses and Tommy is softly sick through threaded fingers.
“Cormac!” screams Kevin, hands flapping at wounds down neck and shoulder, “Cormac!”
“Not my idea,” mumbles Tommy, “Not my idea…”
And as Alby readies himself to pounce again, as the Dragging Man drifts through the room, I see…
There is a stout branch in the grass by the front door. I pick it up and break it across the forehead of Alby Gorman.
His eyes roll up in his head.
“Ulm…” he says, gulping, “Ulm…”
He steps backwards, puts his hand upon the blood licking over an eyebrow.
Without a sound the handless arms of the Dragging Man close over his throat, over his chest and it is almost a loving thing.
Alby Gorman is dragged into the dark.
Slowly the door of the broken house closes.
We stand there, looking at that door, for a very long time.
“Pack up,” says Cormac sharply. “Pack up and home.”
Kevin makes a noise. “Cormac, it’s not stopping. I can’t…” He paws at the wound. “It won’t stop.”
“No,” weeps Tommy Sweetnam, his head in his hands. “No.”
“Hurry,” shouts Cormac Sulltry
We busy ourselves.
There are noises.
We try to ignore them.
Short gasps and sighs and grunts and once, a long, resounding scream.
And there are shadows behind the dirty windows….
We are busy. Before we can stop him he is down the path. He is through the door.
He was good like that.
“Alby—Alby,” he cries, “I’m sorry—I’m sorry—”
We are behind him shouting, reaching out to pull him back—but we are too late.
We enter the house again.
Bright where sun falls on it.
Dark in corners where the flies gather.
We stand in the doorway, shocked and wordless.
A body has come to pieces.
Speaks with a weak and broken voice…
Barely there at all…
“Please. Help me.”
We look down at the twisted thing cowering in the corner.
“He got out,” whispers the Dragging Man, staring with his one remaining eye, “Couldn’t hold him. Help me…”
The bite marks.
The severed limbs.
“Run,” says Cormac Sulltry.
Four boys, running as fast as they can across the field.
And where’s the fifth boy?
Where’s Alby Gorman?
We find out, one by one.
Cormac, by knife, in the carpark.
Slashes on his palms and chest.
Kevin, at the foot of the garden, black bruises on his throat.
The last straw for his father.
The kittens left to starve.
Tommy, in his bed, a pillow over his face.
So small and delicate.
You’d think he was asleep.
I wait now for Alby Gorman.
And what words will we exchange, before…?
Remembering four boys running across a field, as fast as their bodies will let them.
Remembering the taste of roses.
Seeing a body disappearing into dark.
We were young.
We were scared.
We left him with the Dragging Man.
GRAHAM TUGWELL is a writer and performer. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, he enjoys writing work of abiding strangeness, aimed at provoking that apocalyptic oscillation where the brain cannot decide what is appropriate—laughter or grief. He has lived his whole life in the village where all his stories take place. He loves it with a very special type of hate. Visit his website at grahamtugwell.com.