by Craig Wallwork
My father said that the best way to a woman’s heart was through her sternum. I took that literally and enrolled in medical school after leaving six-form college. The nearest I got to being with a woman during my first four years studying was with Amputee Annie, the torso CPR dummy. We kissed, but it never led anywhere.
As I discovered recently while travelling along the M62 motorway, my father was wrong: the way to a woman’s heart is not through her sternum, but instead by jamming an umbrella into the chest of a winged demon from Hell.
Let me go back a little. I was taking the trip from my halls of residence at the Queen’s Campus at Durham University to my parent’s home in Blackburn, Lancashire. I had boarded the National Express just off the North Road with a duffle bag filled with ripe laundry and a few medical books I needed to reference for a term paper. I can’t read on coaches, or in cars. The movement and shifting of position brings on nausea so I tend to grab a window seat and stare out into the distance, allowing my mind to wander to strange places and even stranger thoughts. Whereas most people see lines of cars heading in opposite directions while travelling on a motorway, when I look out of the window of a car or coach, I see mechanical bugs with big round white eyes and curved spines, ant-like in their single file configuration. I once saw an old couple clogging up the middle lane in a Citron that reminded me of a dung beetle. They looked so frail, and the man was concentrating so hard on keeping the steering wheel straight, that I was convinced they were made of tissue paper and that they slept in a tissue box, holding their weightless hands in the night and hoping to God no one ever needed to blow their nose. The other students say I have no aptitude for medicine, and that I’m better placed writing fiction for people with no sense of imagination. I always agree and tell them I only wanted to be a surgeon because I thought I’d get laid.
From Durham to Blackburn you have to pass the towns of Richmond, Bedale, and Ripon leading to a main station in Harrogate. Most of the people that board at Richmond and Ripon are usually morose and over the age of fifty (I’ve done the trip about fifty times now and you get to know where you are just by the people who board). They carry small misshapen bags that I imagined contain body parts of their spouses and neighbours. Old people are the worse for being overlooked when it comes to murder because they seem so frail and placid, but frankly, the way I see it, they lived through a world war where killing was commonplace. You can’t shake something like that off you. So when I see an old man board the coach, and he’s carrying a small bag that could probably fit an adult sized head in it, I try to avoid eye contact so they don’t sit near me.
If I’m being honest here, and I am trying to be, I hate it when people sit next to me regardless if they’re old or young. I will do all I can to seem like the type of person you shouldn’t sit next to. Before heading back home I don’t shave or shower and I always where the same t-shirt that says, “On Day Release from Folsom Prison.” I take my shoes off and at every stop, I put my feet against the head of the seat in front and pick at the toenails. And I always, always, leave my bag on the seat next to me with the top open a little so the reek of thirty day old underpants permeates the air.
Sometimes, even with all these factors present, you’ll get some arse who just wants to sit next to you. At Bedale, this person was a man who stank of carnival food. He spent the journey to Harrogate eating his fingers. I could hear him chewing the flesh as if he was gnawing on a rack of ribs. Every now and then he’d spit a big chunk of flesh out, hitting the back of the chair in front of him.
When one piece, which looked like the knuckle, landed on my lap, I said to him, “You’ll never find a pair of gloves to fit if you carry on.” He didn’t say anything to this because his mouth was full of fingernails, flesh, and bone. I was glad when he got off the coach at Harrogate and his stench was replaced with a sweet smell of perfume.
The arm nearest to me was coffee coloured and covered with fine dark hairs that placed her heritage far from the murky shores of England. Around her wrist, which were slight, were silver bangles adorned with tiny horseshoes, four leaf clovers and small silver keys. She was superstitious, which meant she had been through some hard times, or had something bad happen to her. I traced her arm to her hand and noticed she wore no rings, nor did I note any discolouration of the skin to suggest she had recently removed one. She was single. At this stage, I had not even seen her face. When she boarded I was too busy watching a fat man in the bus station eating what looked to me like a baby’s arm, but was probably just a sausage roll. But from her smell, which reminded me of Hubba Bubba chewing gum I had as a kid, and her Mediterranean hairy arm, I was in love. I wasn’t prepared for it. But here you go, that’s how it is sometimes. The fact that her face may have looked like a burnt scrotum didn’t concern me because out of all the seats on the coach, this woman, whoever she was, chose to sit next to me.
When people ask you to tell a joke, the best thing to do is tell it straight away. Don’t put it off or play it down. The longer you wait, the more the joke has to pay off, and, generally, when someone has to wait for more than a minute or two, no joke is ever that good. I felt the same about my first words to the woman next to me. I had foolishly wasted twenty miles of the journey in silence, picking the toenails off my lap and berating myself for not shaving and showering that morning. I should had started by saying hello, but once we got out of Harrogate and onto the Trans-Pennine motorway, the moment seemed to have passed, which then meant the only way I could initiate a conversation was by means of mutual interest or by divine intervention. I knew nothing of life overseas, nor the history of Italians, Spanish, or Portuguese (the three main areas I assumed her family had descended from). So it was down to God to play his hand in bringing about a natural turn of events that would help render the words decaying in the back of my throat. But God wasn’t around that day, and instead it was the Morning Star, his Fallen Angel who brought us together.
We had just passed the Saddleworth junction close to the village of Dogmael, and were close to what I have heard referred to as the Little House on the Prairie, a small farmhouse located between the two carriageways of the M62, when the traffic began to slow to a stop. I glanced out of the window to the many indolent insects and pressed my eye against the glass to see ahead. I noticed a few people getting out of their cars, pointing forward to a place I could not see. I felt this was a good a time as any to turn to face the woman next to me and deliver a well-observed comment about heavy congestion affecting this particular stretch of motorway due to high winds brought on by its abnormally high location. But as I looked again outside, the people I saw did not appear to be influenced by the wind. Their hair was unmoved, and they were happy to stand beside their stationary cars with no coats. I assumed there must have been an accident ahead, and for some reason I remembered reading about a coach which had been bombed along this route sometime in the 1970s. I didn’t wish to scare the woman or bring about mass hysteria on the coach should one of the passengers hear my recount, so I remained staring out of the window, waiting for the right moment to present itself. I did not need to wait long.
There was a lot of commotion coming from the front of the coach that drew everyone’s attention from the windows. One man at the back of us mentioned that someone was trying to get in. I stood up slightly so I could see, and I saw the driver’s hand gesturing toward the door in a go-away motion. I then heard the door being hit hard several times. I was about to make a light remark to the woman about the lengths some people will go to not to miss the coach, when suddenly the doors flew open and a man with a red face and panic in his eyes screamed to us all, “They’re fucking eating people alive!”
An old lady at the front (probably from Richmond) scolded the man for swearing, to which he replied, “Fuck you, you old bag, and turn up your hearing aid! People are fucking dying out there!”
A muscular man with tattoos crawling up his neck got up from his seat and told the man to calm down, and then the driver got out of his seat and began examining the door. I heard the driver say that the door was broken and that the man would have to pay for the damages, and well, this just made him go even crazier.
“I’m not paying for no fucking door!” he yelled. Another person shouted back, “Double negative, so yes you bleeding are!” The old lady gasped again at all the profanities and the tattooed guy began pushing the crazy man out of the door.
“I ain’t going out there!” he cried.
I’m not a physical man but I thought helping to get the crazy man out of the coach might go down well with the woman. If nothing else, the gesture would allow me to ask the woman to move so I could pass. And this I did, and in that moment I turned to face her for the first time I felt the whole world around me shake and the deafening strike of my heart for she was as beautiful as I imagined. I can’t say it was one thing, like her nose, or her eyes, but the collective configuration of all her features that beset my heart, as if some higher force had moulded them from the most valuable cuts of flesh and cartilage and aligned each without flaw or heedlessness. My legs buckled and I stumbled foolishly into the aisle. I had heard people refer to falling in love as being struck by a thunderbolt, and I figured this must have happened to me. But as I propped myself up, there were other people in the aisle with me, and the thunderous noise that I assumed was my heart beating for the woman was now emanating from the roof.
Extended before me was the bracelet of lucky charms, an open palm of pale rivulets that traversed this way and that to form the word “Love” – or so I had rendered this image in my mind.
“Take my hand,” she said, “there’s something on the roof.”
As the woman said this she looked up and I noticed under her chin three tiny moles surrounded by even tinier freckles that if projected in the night sky I’m sure would have brought astrophysicists to tears. Her hand was warm and soft, and while a strange comparison, it reminded me of the soft skin around my penis.
The coach shook again and people responded by screaming aloud, “What the hell is that?”
Before she could answer, the crazy guy was screaming at the top of his voice, “It’s not of this world!”
I looked over toward the door; he was half in and half out, his hands gripped tight around the doorframe. The tattooed man was pushing his chest, trying his best to force him out. People were shouting for the man to leave and the man shouted back, “It’s got fucking wings!” The driver was hitting a button on the dashboard to shut the door, but nothing was happening. That’s when the tattooed man threw back his leg and launched his foot right into the crazy man’s crotch. His hands let go within seconds and I saw him fall out into the road. A few people at the back of the coach cheered and as a victory salute, the tattooed man raised his hand in the air. I’m sure he was going to say something like, “Nothing to see here, people,“ you know, like they do in the movies, but before he could open his mouth he was blasted with an almighty deluge of blood.
The first few rows screamed like a cinema audience watching a slasher flick and I wondered for a moment if he’d been shot in the head. Then he yelled, “It’s not me… It’s not my blood!” Another set of screams followed when a round object was hurled into the coach and into the driver’s hands. He held it there for a few seconds, looking down at it. When someone shouted it was a head, the old woman passed out and I heard someone else throw up. The driver dropped-kicked the head back out of the door like he was passing someone a football, and whoever, or whatever, was out there threw it back within a matter of seconds.
From behind me, someone screamed out for a doctor. Then I heard another person shout, “She’s gone into labour!” Just my luck.
I got to my feet and raised my hand in the air, “I’m a medical student!” I looked down at the woman and smiled. For some reason the whole chain of events, and being the only person of any value in a medical crisis, had driven away my nerves. I set off toward the back of the coach with a poised and confident stride and failed to notice a loose bag that had found its way into the aisle. I tripped and cracked my head on the floor and passed out.
From the darkness, I heard the panting of a woman, and the fusion of worried voices. There was talk of a hole in the motorway. Someone had counted ten creatures, another thirty. Drivers were being dragged from their cars. I heard limbs and heads had been torn off. Others were grabbed and taken into the skies. It was surreal, like I was in a movie. I didn’t want to open my eyes to make real the world around me. Then I heard her voice, honeyed and comforting.
“I think he’s waking up,” she said. I felt her soft hand on my brow, and then her fingers brush away my hair. There was no fear in me at that moment. I knew beyond the shade of nothingness lay her beauty, and those spellbinding onyx eyes looking down at me. And when I opened my eyes, there was nothing but two legs spread apart and a hairy dilated vagina staring down at me.
“Her waters broke when that crazy guy’s head was thrown into the coach,” said a large man with ruddy complexion. “It was brown, the water. Is that normal?”
I sat up and looked down the aisle. I could see through the front window a swarm of malformed figures swooping through the sky toward people running from their cars.
“What are they?” I asked to no one in particular and I heard the woman’s voice again say, “We think they’re demons.” I turned and there she was, sat beside the pregnant woman, wiping a small handkerchief against her cheek.
The man asked again, “Is it normal?” and I pointed toward the front of the coach.
“Does that look normal to you?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “not that… Is it normal for her waters to be brown?”
I realised my mistake and ransacked my medical knowledge bank.
“It’s meconium.” I looked to the pregnant woman. “It means your baby has had its first bowl movement.”
The man, who I assumed at this stage was the father, said, “The baby took a shit? That’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not going to choke on it?”
I didn’t want to worry anyone, but for baby to have a bowl movement so early on meant it could be in distress. I told the man it was nothing to worry about and then I knelt before the woman.
“How far apart are the contractions?”
Between panting, she said, “About… two… minutes.”
“How long was I out?” I asked the beautiful woman.
“Not long, about ten minutes, give or take a few.”
I told the man I was going to have to feel the cervix, and he nodded his approval. The woman was nine fingers wide, which meant there wasn’t much time left.
“I take it this is not your first?” I asked the pregnant woman.
“Third… The other two… are… with… my… mother.”
I looked back and the passengers on the coach were caught between the wonder of seeing a natural birth taking place, and the terror of death beyond the window.
I shouted out, “Does anyone have any towels? A pair of scissors, perhaps?”
One woman said he had a pair of nail clippers, and a scarf. Another woman said she had a flannel. I ran down the aisle toward the driver and the tattooed man who were both still trying to get the door shut. I asked the driver if he had a first aid kit, and with his attention clearly fixed on securing the door, he pointed to an overhead compartment where a green plastic box sat. His hands were still bloody from the head incident and I asked if he was okay.
“Will be when I get this door locked.”
At that moment, the coach groaned as something landed on it again and everyone screamed. The two sounds were now tied together like the popping of a champagne cork and the ensuing screams of jollity, except there was no joy to be found here.
Without warning the door was pulled off and the driver with it. I looked out where a warped creature with a half-goat and half-rhino crossbreed skull with teeth of blackened root stared down at the driver. Through bluish lucent skin, its spine had been pushed out to form a trunk from which two huge wings had formed from jagged bone. Its torso was human, but the limbs were stretched out, long and twisted. It bent down and thrust its skeletal hand into the driver’s chest, killing him instantly. The whole coach erupted with fear and I reeled back on the spot, falling into the driver’s seat. Geezers of blood shot up turning the sky crimson as the demon pulled everything that was once in the driver, out.
Adrenalin, or pure stupidity, got a hold of the tattooed man and he leapt from the coach and jumped on the demon’s horned back. He looked like he was on a bucking bronco, holding tight with all his strength as the demon twisted its gruesome body left and right. He did okay for a spell too, jamming his fingers into its bulbous yellow eyes and throwing a few well-aimed punches into its exposed ribs. But the demon didn’t take kindly to this and flew off toward the Heavens, taking the tattooed man with him.
I grabbed the first aid kit and ran to the pregnant woman. She was contracting. The head had crowned. I opened the kit and removed all the gauze and cotton pads. There were a few antiseptic wipes in there that I used to clean my hands. There was also a pair of small scissors to help cut the umbilical cord, or possibly perform an episiotomy if the baby didn’t come out quick.
The woman was screaming, yelling out in pain.
“What’s your name?” I asked the pregnant woman.
The father replied, “Jenny.”
“I want to hear rapid breaths, Jenny. Okay?”
“It… hurts,” she replied.
“You’re doing fine. It won’t be long now, but you have to trust me.” I looked over to the beautiful woman and handed her the scissors and the antiseptic wipes.
“Can you clean these, please.”
She took them and began following my instructions. My heart ached for her.
“Rapid breaths, Jenny!” I shouted. Another contraction. “Now PUSH!”
Shuddering with exertion, Jenny put her all into it. The skin around her hands was bone white as she gripped the ruddy man by his hand.
“The head’s coming, Jenny! Keep going!”
For thirty seconds, Jenny was shaking worse than a person with Parkinson’s having the biggest shit of their life. After the thirty seconds had passed she fell back into the chair, exhausted. I heard more screaming from the front of the coach. I turned and there was one of those winged fuckers slithering toward the front row of passengers. It was different from the one that had killed the driver and took the tattooed man into the sky. Its head was more fish-like and it had no legs, but instead a long body that tapered off into a tail. It slinked onto the coach like an ancestor of Medusa. Everyone went mental and began running toward us.
“Woah!” I shouted, standing up with my hands held out in front of me. “There’s a woman giving birth here!”
A woman holding a child to her chest shouted back, “Then she’ll understand what I’m prepared to do to protect my child!”
She was about to say something else but was winded by a man who pushed her to one side. The woman fell into the chairs, falling on her back so her child didn’t get hurt.
“ENOUGH!” I shouted.
Rage had taken over me and I saw the red mist. I have never gotten that angry before and when I heard my voice reach the level it did, I wondered if it was me yelling or some over person behind me. I looked around briefly to make sure and my eyes fell to the beautiful woman who was staring right back at me. She had a look that gave me strength I never thought I had. The man who was hurtling toward me slowed briefly. I took five steps toward him before launching my fist and hitting him square on the chin. He hit the ground quicker than birdshit.
The pain was excruciating in my hand, but I dragged his unconscious body to one of the spare seats before yelling at everyone, “CLEAR THE MUTHA-FUCKING AISLE, PEOPLE! MEDICAL STUDENT COMING THROUGH!”
And the passengers, they just stopped and moved to one side. Guess a few must have read my t-shirt and thought I was crazy, but I felt like fucking Moses in that moment, separating the Red Sea, except I was mightily pissed and all I wanted was to kick some demon arse.
The ugly fish-faced demon saw me when all the other people moved to the adjacent seats. It knew why I was there and so bared its long fangs that looked razor sharp. I realised then I hadn’t thought this through. What was I going to kill it with, my sweaty feet? Right then I smelt that lovely Hubba Bubba smell and beside me the beautiful woman arrived with the scissors in her hand.
“Take these,” she said, her breath falling on my neck like snowflakes. She then kissed my cheek. “Good luck,” she said.
I ran to that demon with the biggest hard-on I ever had. And I guess seeing a crazy wide-eyed medical student wielding a pair of tiny scissors with a bulge in his pants must have took it by surprise because it just stayed there.
I didn’t think about the consequences once I arrived, I just jammed the scissors right in its head. Green ooze spurted out and hit me in the face. I wiped my eyes and saw the demon rising on its tail, making it much taller and more menacing than before. It then opened its mouth to reveal the leftovers of its last victim: an eye, an ear and a gold necklace with a Jesus cross.
I looked around and couldn’t find a damn thing to use. This was it, I thought. I’m going to die. And what pissed me off more than anything was not the fact I wouldn’t finish medical school, or perform open heart surgery, but that I was still a virgin. I was going to die a damn virgin! Then from one of the seats next to me a hand reached out. In it was an umbrella, one of those big ones with the metal tips. I grabbed it without even thinking and thrust it into the demon’s chest. A piercing scream rang aloud and from the opposite end of the coach, Jenny screamed too. And as the demon slipped to the floor, so did Jenny’s third child.
It was a girl. As I cleaned the ooze from the scissors removed from the demon and handed them to her husband, I asked Jenny if they had a name for the baby.
“We were thinking of Alice, or Molly.”
The father cut to the cord and both mother and baby were separated. As Jenny gave her final push and delivered the placenta, I wrapped it in a Tesco bag and said, “So which is it?” That was when Jenny asked me my name.
They must have thought they’d be able to abbreviate or adapt my name to sound more feminine, a tribute to the man who helped deliver her.
“My name is Ralph.”
Both Jenny and the father looked at each other and shook their heads. I then looked over to the woman beside her.
“I didn’t do this alone, you know,” I said tilting my head toward the woman. “I can’t imagine a woman as beautiful as she to have a boring name.”
The remark brought a little colour to her cheeks and had me wondering if I’d been possessed by a Mills and Boon author. Jenny turned to the woman, her baby pressed against her breast, and asked for her name.
“It’s silly,” she said to Jenny.
“Please,” said Jenny softly.
“But I didn’t do anything,” replied the woman. “It was Ralph.”
Jenny insisted, and finally the woman succumbed.
“It’s Morning. See, I told you it was silly.” Even I was taken a little aback by that.
“Morning?” asked Jenny, and as if not hearing her, I repeated the name.
Morning looked to me and said, “My family name is Birdsong.”
Jenny’s husband, or boyfriend, or whatever he was, said, “Oh, yeah, like the Greens, Jenny. They called their daughter Theresa. It’s a talking point, a bit of fun, right?”
Jenny didn’t say anything and turned back to Morning.
“It’s a beautiful name,” she said. Then Jenny looked down at her baby and said the name over and over. “Hello, Morning. You’re the sweetest, most beautiful girl in the world, aren’t you, Morning? Yes you are.”
Under my breath, but loud enough for Morning to hear me, I said, “The second most.”
We sat for a long time in that coach. Many of the passengers were too afraid to leave so a few of us helped to fix the door. We secured it using nylon tights and a couple of scarves. One of those demons would have pulled it off without any effort, but deception is enough to pacify even the most restless of hearts.
I spent a while looking out the front window of that coach, watching the hordes of demons spiralling toward the sky. One passenger was convinced Lucifer had set them free to rein war on God and all the angels. It wasn’t a bad theory, too, when they later explained that this spot was probably chosen because of its altitude, and there was less distance to travel. Whatever they were, they had become bored with us humans and seemed unwavering in their attempt to reach whatever lay beyond the grey skies.
As the sun grew heavy and began to sink behind the Yorkshire moorland, fifty or so tiny green trucks appeared on the horizon. As they got nearer we noticed that mounted on the backs were tiny guns. One person yelled it was the army come to save us and everyone rushed to the windows to see. Everyone began to smile and there was a sense of lightness in the air, as if a thick fog had been blown away. It was then I felt her soft hand in mine and her lips close to my ear.
“You saved us, Ralph. You’re the hero.”
And against the backcloth of a hundred winged demons being shot and firebombed out of the sky, Morning and I kissed, and, for the first time in my life, I felt the beat of another heart against my own.
After leaving school, CRAIG WALLWORK studied Art before becoming a filmmaker and writer. “Birdsong and the Hell Demons” is taken from his forthcoming novel, Dog Mile. Other short stories by Craig can be found in many a sordid corner of the world, or from his website: craigwallwork.blogspot.com.