Mr Porter parked in St Mary’s churchyard — the Elephant was no place to take a Jag — and set off up the Kennington Road to his first appointment. As he hurried along, his arms flapped loose as a dipper’s prosthetics and his legs, fragile as corn snacks beneath the tailored stripes, appeared barely capable of supporting the little weight they carried.
Mr Porter was not your average debt collector.
It would be natural to assume Mr Porter’s stature dictated his methods. It didn’t: he simply had no need to play the thug or the rough-houser. Mr Porter only ever needed a quick chat after which the debtor, having no idea why — since Porter had issued not a single threat — would pine for the boot and the bat and do whatever was necessary to erase him from their life forever.
As he made his way toward the Elephant’s dirty, beating heart, his spirits rose. He forgot the flames lapping at his sternum and the weeping contusions welding his shirt to his back. He sucked in the smell of stale alcohol and dog shit, skipped through the filth that greased every pavement and when he saw the statue — the turret atop the elephant’s back — he swooned like any tourist. He noticed fresh paint, and delighted in how the new, garish colours eviscerated it of the ridiculous solemnity it had clung to for so long. You can keep your Burghers of Calais, he thought, just leave me this.
Mr Porter’s first appointment was at Natton House, a brutal cliff of streaked stone and misery that harboured many of his tattered little birdies. His client, Mr Butler, was a man who’d shattered when the Glassworks folded and now owed him over two grand. Porter bounded merrily up the crumbling stairway and banged on his door.
He heard raised voices inside and knocked again. Eventually, Butler opened up.
“You’re looking well, Mr Butler,” said Porter.
Butler dropped his head.
“Well aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Without a word, Butler turned and Porter followed.
“I hope we don’t have to go through everything again, Mr Butler.”
“No, no of course not, Mr Porter,” said Butler, handing over a dirty roll of notes and a carrier bag filled with loose change.
As Mr Porter weighed them in his open palm, he took in the full splendour of his surroundings: the empty vodka bottles stuffed between cushions and cigarette butts blooming from the sodden carpet. He watched a naked child climb toward an open window and rejoiced in the father’s reaction or lack of it as he swayed to the sound a wailing tabby, matted in its own pale vomit, curled in a potty decorated with emerald sausage dogs and dolphins in Dixie cups.
Hearing his wife slam the bedroom door, Butler fell to his knees. He curled in a ball and pawed at Porter’s loafers. Looking down, Porter slid the roll of notes into his pocket — enough to pay this family’s rent for a full month — and shivered with well being.
“I’ll be back on Friday, make sure you’ve got the rest,” he said and pulling his feet free, turned and left.
* * *
Mr Porter drove west to Mortlake and cutting the engine, rolled up behind a row of abandoned garages. After pulling on a hoodie, he crept across the road and hid in bushes opposite his ex-wife’s new bungalow.
Here he stayed, watching until the street lamps shone and the curtains closed. And then longer. Sucking on miniatures as rain fell and his clothes dropped in wet loops. When he could stand no more, he left.
As soon as he opened the door to his rambling, three-story town house, he heard the brisk paradiddle of tiny feet and knew it was ravenous. Fortunately, cold skin combined with the warmth radiating from heating vents guaranteed it plenty to eat. He dragged off his shirt and in one jump it was on him.
The relief was sumptuous and Mr Porter moaned as it moved across his back. Occasionally it bit down too hard, but the pain was all pleasure and falling, Porter kneaded the carpet as his body submitted to whatever attentions it craved.
Until he’d stumbled upon a cure, Mr Porter had suffered from excessive itching his entire adult life. No lotions or creams mitigated his suffering and the interminable biopsies and blood tests revealed nothing. His wife, driven insane by his whinging would straddle him and, raising ten sharpened nails, swipe and swipe til the white sheets were white no more.
On the first day she left him, Porter suffered his most withering attack to date. He cowered in the mirror searching for clues and just as he was about to slam himself into something hard enough to numb the pain, he saw a tiny flash of blue. He snatched at it and to his surprise, felt something between his fingers. Holding it at arm’s length, he dropped it into a jam jar and screwed the lid down tight.
Excited by his discovery, he forgot work and spent the day online, trawling through university databases and entomology archives, attempting to identify the diminutive beastie flickering within the jar. He found nothing and was eventually forced to accept it for what it was: an itch, nothing more, nothing less.
On the second day, cowering again, he saw an arc of burnt orange — A tiny sun storm between his blades. He snatched and caught it by its wing. As it struggled, some part of it struck out and cleaved his thumb nail clean off. It was bigger, much bigger than the first and he slammed it into the jar. Immediately it grew, its chest rippling with muscles and colours, then circling the other, it pounced and forced it down between lips spinning like a drive belt. Catching one then another, Porter watched it dispatch them with same preternatural efficiency.
On the third day, Porter attempted to vary its diet, offering it baby mice and rocket salad, but it rejected them: It had become so addicted to its own kind, it would eat nothing else and whined like a nailed tyre until Porter delivered more.
Joyfully, on the fourth day, Mr Porter realised he had his cure: he lifted it from the jar and placed it on his naked back. After a moment of uncertainty, it began to gorge itself, not stopping until his skin was smooth and red as candy apple. Once sated, it returned to its jar and fell fast asleep. Mr Porter also fell asleep, right there on the kitchen floor and dreamt of tranquil savannahs and the many women he lent to.
* * *
Despite adhering rigidly to the guiding dictum that loaned money and morality should never become friends, Mr Porter found dealing with pensioners troublesome. He preferred the middle aged and middle classed; he preferred those still strong enough to fear weakness.
Today, he would visit Mrs Cook and Mrs Cook was very old.
Ironically, the only reason Mr Porter hadn’t written off her debt was because he liked her and, unless he was a complete fool, she appeared to like him too. A situation Mr Porter was ill accustomed to and, although he hated to admit it, one he found strangely nourishing.
Mrs Cook lived in Nation house, a looming, shit brown monolith built to shield the well-heeled residents of Herne Valley from the noise generated by the new bypass, but subsequently converted — after a boozy deal struck between two profligate councillors — into hundreds of ‘dwelling pellets’. The deal would provide the perfect opportunity to spin dry some public funds and also clear away — by secreting them between its cloying walls — every problem housing applicant in a twenty-mile radius.
Porter climbed the attenuated stairwell, up to her fourth floor flat and knocked. He heard the sound of slippers shuffling across carpet and waited.
“You’re late, Mr Porter. I’ll have to make another pot now. Naughty boy,” said Mrs Cook, finally opening the door.
“Sorry Mrs Cook,” replied Porter and followed her into the narrow hallway.
“I’ll get the tea. Would you like a biscuit?”
“No thank you, Mrs Cook,” said Porter, shooing away the cat and sitting down,
“I’m in a bit of a hurry,” he shouted through to the kitchen.
Mrs Crock appeared with a tray and seeing it begin to slip from her hands, Porter grabbed it and set it down.
“You are a good boy, Mr Porter, I wish my son was a bit more like you and not the fucking, little prick that he is.”
When Mrs Cook talked like this, Porter got paranoid, so paranoid he felt compelled to check for cameras, fearing he might be the butt of some elaborate prank.
“Mrs Cook, we both know why I’m here.”
“Yes, Mr Porter. Of course!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr Porter, I don’t have any,” and saying this she began to cough so hard Mr Porter would have, if he hadn’t seen it many times before, feared for her life
“I’m so very ill, Mr Porter.”
“I know, I know,” replied Porter and sighed.
“But you must understand, if I don’t collect, my bosses won’t be happy. Bad for you, bad for me Mrs Cook.”
“I don’t want you to get into trouble. You’re like a son to me. Sometimes I wish you were my son . . . “
“You’re very kind Mrs Cook, but we must get back to the money”
“Well, I do have something Mr Porter and I think it’s worth something. It’s in the loft. Please take it, I would have left it to you anyway. When I die, Mr Porter.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see,” and with that, she stood, and taking him by the arm, lead him out to the hallway.
“Up there,” she said, pointing to a small hatch in the ceiling.
“Up there,” sighed Porter.
Standing on a chair, he released the latch and the door swung down, missing his head by inches. He pulled down a ladder and climbed up.
“It’s in the corner, in a shoe box,” shouted Mrs Cook.
Porter’s back rubbed against the roof joists, disturbing clouds of insulation foam, as he pulled himself deeper into the crawl space. More debris fell and his throat tightened as he moved past broken board games and stacks of newspapers. Finally, just as the bulb began to flicker and die, he saw the shoe box. Stuffing it quickly beneath his arm, he turned and pulled himself out.
“Why would I want this Mrs Cook?”
“I thought it would be right up your street, Mr Porter, given your line of work.”
Porter dangled the revolver between two fingers.
“No, Mrs Cook, I don’t use guns.”
“But it was my father’s. He killed people with it,” she said, her face shining
Porter handed it back.
“I’ll be back next Tuesday, Mrs Cook.”
“I look forward to it, Mr Porter, I might have another little surprise for you.”
“Just the money, please, Mrs Cook. I don’t think I can cope with much more.”
Once outside, he patted himself down. He was glad he didn’t have his car, glad he had an excuse not to stalk her today. He walked the short distance home and opening the door, heard it dart and hit something hard. He slipped quietly through to the bedroom and flopped down on the bed.
Immediately he roared out in pain as millions of tiny needles pierced his back. He remembered the attic — the insulation — and realised his jacket must be covered in glass fibres.
Porter saw the door swing slowly open, heard it sniffing. In an instant it was on him, flipping him over, latching on and forcing the glass hairs deeper into his skin. New swarms enveloped him. He struggled up and watched in the mirror as it appeared above his shoulder; it’s one huge eye the colour of bin scum. It had grown again: rows of new teeth, triangular and perfectly flat, but softness too, and more legs that coiled in slow exploration. It sunk down and Porter felt it searching. A lick, a nip, then one mouthful and it was inside, or in-between. Rolling and sucking and purring.
Porter felt his rib cage shift and blacked out.
When he woke, he saw himself: a desultory puppet — a sheet upon a stick — his desiccated pelt beating against the bay window like a trapped gallinipper. Panicking, he reached down to check his money.
It was all there.
But not much else.
GJ HART currently lives and works in Brixton, London and has had stories published in The Harpoon Review, 99 Pine Street, The Jellyfish Review, Foliate Oak, Eunoia Review, and others. He can be found arguing with himself over @gj_hart.