London smelled like a dead thing. And it occurred to Charlie Bloom—who stood wearing only a bath towel and looking through the grey square of kitchen window as whole gallons of rain came teeming from the rooftops outside as thick and heavy as steel girders then crashing to the concrete in waves—that it might just never go away, that smell.
It was of brown runoff Thames water. It was of sulphur and bloated corpses. It was of black water sewage and fire and brimstone and death and it swirled around in the estuary that had become of the road outside his door.
He lived on Milk Street, half a mile north of the river where the handsome townhouses were like slices in a long white cake. The kitchen was at the back of the house and looked onto a miserable courtyard. Four stone walls, a birdbath and a hint of shrub. Charlie had the window open an inch and the bitter air nipped at his face. But he didn’t mind. This was as close to the outside as he had been for a week and a half—and that was only to fetch the milk from the doorstep.
He pushed the window open further and noticed his hand was shaking. He had grown so neurotic that he flinched every time the apocalyptic growl of London thunder rumbled across the city and its fantastic spiders of lightning exploded like blue flowers through the dark. Their static glow bounced around the walls of the courtyard and made all the shadows dance. It was only midday but a convoy of iron storm clouds had moored up like warships sometime last week and they completely blot out the sun. It was hard to believe this was spring.
But Charlie knew that it was hardly the weather depressing him. That honour went to his roommate, Harry Burden.
Harry was incredibly bright. Harrow educated and from a well-to-do family. He claimed to be descended from Lord Byron—and acted like it. And he had grown up on an estate quite unlike the one Charlie had. Blye House wasn’t owned by the council, for one thing. For another, it came with a butler. And while Harry could recite for you the complete works of Shakespeare and conduct whole conversations in Latin, he couldn’t tell you how much a loaf of bread cost. He was classically handsome, wildly eccentric and fiercely intelligent—but at the same time, the single biggest nitwit Charlie Bloom had ever met.
Presently, Harry was up in his bedroom making a bloody awful racket without a care in the world for Charlie’s hangover. They may have been best friends but Charlie still hated the stupid bastard with all his heart.
Christ! His heart! It felt like it was being juiced by a big hand. Why had he agreed to move in with the silly prick? They had lived together back at university and that had almost killed him. Now he was certain Harry meant to finish the job. It was a natural side effect of their living together. Harry didn’t mean to cause trouble. It just had a way of finding him.
‘What are you doing up there you bloody fool?’ Charlie groaned as more monstrous banging shook the ceiling and caused the chandeliers to rattle.
He doubted very much that Harry had heard him, but was relieved to find the banging did subside.
‘Thank you,’ he said, looking around the kitchen wearily.
God was he fed up. For a minute or two he considered doing the dishes, but the state of them depressed him more than Harry ever did. The plates were stacked so high by the sink they touched the ceiling and were crusted over with something like barnacles. And by the back door, a deflating mountain of bin bags coagulated into a puddle of black treacle.
Charlie was quite certain theirs was the only house for a mile in every direction you would find in such despair.
He turned back to the courtyard outside. Concentrate on the birdbath, he told himself. Yes, just watch the birdbath. A pool of mercury whose ripples were all he wanted to contend with that morning, the ripples, which spread from the barrage of rain-like arrow fire and bubbled on the surface like magma. The storm was hypnotic and he watched as the courtyard began to flood. He watched the pools eddy round the drains; he watched a cyclone tear through puddles; he watched the water level rise, first in inches, then in feet, then lap at the rooftops. He watched as ships dipped and soared across the back of a rising tsunami. As a forty-gun frigate opened fire on a fleet of Portuguese schooners. As cannonballs tore through the gun deck, while hail, as big and round as boulders, came down in a meteor shower, crashing through the deluge of swirling black ocean and sending explosive geysers of froth a hundred and forty feet into the air. He watched as a thousand rearing seahorses led the Kanagawa rogue wave across violent tempests and were consumed by the mouth of Charybdis on the Italian strait—
Something smacked hard into the window and Charlie’s eyes sprung open like roller blinds. He had fallen asleep and awoke in time to catch a puff of black feathers evaporate into the air. He put his head to the glass and saw a little blackbird outside, twirling through the courtyard like a downed bomber. It swooped up before it crashed into the shale and landed awkwardly beneath the birdbath with a broken wing. The basin above had flooded and a waterfall pinned the bird to its stone ankle like the bars of a cage.
‘One for sorrow,’ Charlie muttered to himself. ‘You and me both, Mr Magpie.’
The walls shook again and bits of plaster dropped heavily across the dining table. He felt like he was in a warzone. The thumping subsided. The sound of a door opened above, footsteps stormed the landing and came charging downstairs, before the clatter of an almighty crash exploded at the foot of the stairs.
‘Ow! You swine!’ a voice cried out.
The door swung open and Harry burst into the kitchen, rubbing his leg. He spotted Charlie and thrust a thumb over his shoulder.
‘Tripped over the bloody boar head again,’ he explained.
At the foot of the stairs the trophy mount of a tusked boar sat looking quite unhappy to find himself stuffed and discarded so unceremoniously. Harry had stolen the thing from his father’s estate, Blye House, the week before, then promptly aborted any plans he had for it.
‘Charlie-Boy, I’m in the throes of a most violent hangover,’ he said, collapsing into an empty chair and throwing an arm across his forehead dramatically. ‘I saw off the end of the turps last night. Have we any ice?’
Charlie looked Harry over; he was gangly and foppish and had a few too many teeth in his mouth, but he was handsome regardless, in an old-fashioned kind of way. He reached for debonair but was several inches too short. And presently the whites of his eyes were a fatty yellowish colour.
‘Christ, you look a picture,’ Charlie said.
‘Nonsense. I’m the paradigm of man,’ he rebuffed. ‘Besides, I’m coming down with pneumonia or something. I nearly coughed up a fucking lung this morning. You’re hardly a painting yourself. Have you slept? Why are you only wearing a towel?’
‘My clothes are in the wash. What was all that banging about?’
Harry wasn’t listening. He was lost in his own head, sitting cross-legged on his chair, with eyes shut tightly, drilling fingers into temples.
He started to hum.
‘What are you doing?’ Charlie asked.
‘Regenerating liver mass. Omm…’
‘And what was all that banging about?’
‘Shh. Meditating. Omm…’
Charlie rolled his eyes. He noticed Harry was still in the old brown suit he’d had on three days ago and it was stained about the lapels from drink or vomit or both. Only now it was below an attractive military greatcoat with a high, stiff collar.
‘Where did you get that coat from? It looks warm.’
‘This old thing?’ Harry smirked. ‘I repurposed it from my father’s last winter.’ He had started referring to the things he stole from his father as “repurposed” recently. It had become a catch phrase. It drove Charlie quite mad. ‘Forgot I had the bloody thing until I received this.’ His devilish smile faded. ‘It concerns you. Here.’
He had pulled a letter from thin air and shoved it under Charlie’s nose.
‘I can’t read this. I’ve got a migraine like a tumour. Who’s it from?’
‘My father. Give it here, then.’ Harry got to his feet and cleared the throat. ‘“Dear Harrington,”’ he read, ‘“I remember a boy on the green in plus fours and a beret at the close of last summer, strenuously promising to apply himself this year. So why is it you’ve not shown up for a single day with van der Sar—?”’
‘Who’s van der Sar?’ Charlie interrupted.
‘A great fat puff from The Times. I was meant to be his assistant. My father scheduled the whole affair. Didn’t I tell you? I met up with the bugger on New Year’s Day and he tried to roger me without so much as a whiff of foreplay. When my father told me I was to work under him I hadn’t realised he meant it quite so literally. Well, he can fuck his job sky high if he means to sell my arse for it.’
Charlie noticed how Harry was grinding his teeth and looking off into the corner with a fixed glare. He shook his head and said, ‘I’m getting off pace. His letter continues. “It’s unbecoming to have such ill regard for one’s future, and”—Christ, listen to this—“Burden Boys are made of better stuff…”’
‘Blimey indeed. It goes on and on like this for some time. I’ll skip ahead. A-ha! Now this part is fantastic—I ought to have it framed for posterity: “From the moment that twee midwife severed your umbilical cord, you’ve been edging toward the limit of my patience. But until this year you had always toed the line. Now you’ve given up on the toe and stuck the whole bloody leg across.”’
‘He’s got a point,’ Charlie reasoned.
‘Well of course he has! But it doesn’t mean he’s not a total bastard for saying it. The gall of the man! And then he manages to write another three paragraphs without actually saying anything. But there’s more, this is the important part, listen to this: “I was deadly serious when I said I would cut you off if you failed at this job. You’ve left me no choice but to follow through on that promise. I will not continue to mollycoddle you through life.”’
Harry snorted sarcastically. He balled the paper up and threw it on the table in front of Charlie and held his arms out to the dishes.
‘My father ladies and gentlemen. What a cunt. Mollycoddle me? The man’s effing insane. He had old Sallow take me fishing, the chef cook all my meals, and the nanny change my nappies. Paying our bills is just about the closest thing to affection he’s ever shown me. I half-believe the van der Sar episode was another of his attempts at love-by-proxy.’
Charlie had un-balled the letter and ironed the creases out with the palm of his hands. He read through it again, quickly. It was signed Richard Burden. Below was a postscript: “You wouldn’t happen to have seen my greatcoat?”
Charlie shook his head, troubled by the thing.
‘This is bad Harry. Really bad. This is not, er, y’know—’
‘Exactly. This is not good.’
‘I know darling. He’s severed all ties with me. He’s stopped paying our bills. Stopped my allowances. He’s denying me access to my trust fund. I’m now officially poorer than you and you’re a food bank baby for crying out loud and from the north of England! I mean no offence, Charlie, but it’s a bloody classist joke.’
‘This is why you finished off the turps?’
‘’Fraid so. Didn’t have the stomach to tell you he’d written last night, so I tried to get abso-blotto first. Must’ve passed out before I could muster the will.’
‘You’ve been up there for days. What’ve you been doing?’
‘Getting my affairs in order.’
‘And all the banging?’
‘I’m building a bird table. We’ve a family of crows living on the roof.’
The light flickered overhead. The two of them moved in to watch as it sparked on and off. Charlie held his breath with worry. The lump in his throat metastasised as a particularly brutal knot in his stomach. He was being infested by his own neuroses. The bulbs gave a final cackle of light then cut out and the room darkened. The only light now came from down the hall, but it was a grey and spectral kind of light and it was strobed with the shadow of the rainfall.
‘That bastard,’ Harry growled.
‘He’s done it,’ Charlie whimpered. ‘He’s cut us off.’
‘That’s it then. I’ll have to kill myself. Where’s the revolver?’
He pulled open the kitchen draw and rooted through it.
‘You lent it to Mad Eric Wardle for a gram, which turned out to be sugar. I used it in my tea.’
‘I did? Why on Earth did I do that?’ Harry stopped rooting through the draws and fished a mug from the sink.
‘It was during one of your episodes. You’d insufflated some hairspray. Look, don’t use that mug, I found a creature living in it this morning.’
Charlie doubled over suddenly with intense pain. The knot felt like some bastard ventriloquist had an arm up his arse and was honking his internal organs like horns.
‘Christ! What are we going to do about this, Harry? Things are getting desperate around here as it is. There’s toxic goo dripping from my bedroom ceiling. I woke up to Chinese water torture. I told you this place was too much for us when we moved in. Didn’t I tell you it was too much for us when we moved in? You promised your father would cover the rent. That was all I asked. I just quit my job for God’s sake. This is bloody Knightsbridge, Harry and I’m from the north. I’m hyperventilating. Ow. Ow! I’ve given myself a hernia—’
‘Calm down,’ Harry said.
‘I knew something like this would happen, but I let you talk me into it. Oh why did I let you talk me into it? Our halls were never this bad at uni and I almost contracted cholera in first year. I think I’ve got hives or carbuncles or something.’
‘Charlie, you’re being hysterical,’ Harry said, edging away. ‘Take a breath.’
Charlie rocked back and forth on his chair, breathing heavily and scratching imagined fleas all over his naked torso. He was working up to that breakdown he’d promised himself.
Harry waited another moment until Charlie’s breathing had steadied, and then he asked, ‘What does Mad Eric Wardle want with my great-grandfather’s old service revolver? He’s not going to do a crime is he?’
‘I don’t know, he’s mad isn’t he?’
Harry turned the tap on. It made a long, rattling sound and he squatted down to watch as a stream of brown sludgy water trickled out.
‘Right. That’s it!’ he decided. ‘I’m going to do something.’
‘Good! Thank God. We can’t go on like this. What will you do?’
‘I’ll write to my father,’ he said. ‘Take a note, Charlie-Boy!’
Charlie scrabbled around the table for something to write on.
‘“Dear Father”,’ Harry began. ‘“What a funny little man you are. Sincerely, Mr Burden, your son. Dictated but not read.” Be a darling and post it before the last pick up, would you Charlie? Send it with a dead mouse—we’ve plenty around.’
Charlie compared the two letters in front of him—if theirs could even be called a letter. It was scribbled in Charlie’s spidery handwriting on a torn sheet of yellowing paper with a cigarette burn in its corner and a spot of mould by the margin. Richard’s was on a thick letter-headed cardstock with the family crest and a dated stamp and a series of important-looking initials trailing his name.
‘I’m not convinced this will help with our plight,’ Charlie said.
‘Of course it will. I can just imagine the look on the bastard’s face when he slits it open with that ruby inlay letter-opener he’s so fond of and discovers such devastating contents. Besides, it’s the best I can do, short of grovelling.’
‘Then grovel!’ Charlie slammed the letters on the table, startling Harry. ‘This place is killing us. Look at me; I haven’t eaten in three days. I’ve got a potbelly like a starving African. And I can’t sleep. All we do is give ourselves hangovers. It’s not usual, Harry.’
‘Relax, Charlie. Sit back down, take a Valium. There’s some in the draw, I think, by the unguent for the carbuncles.’
Harry was going through the fridge now. It was depressingly empty. Two expired cartons of orange juice, a bottle of milk, sprouting cress through its foil lid, and a pack of butter. He closed the door and looked down at Charlie. The boy was a wreck. Unshaven, with red eyes, ringed by that eternal darkness. He’d stared too long into the abyss. And he was only dressed in a bath towel.
‘Why are you wearing that towel?’ Harry asked again. ‘You’re covered in goose pimples. You’ll catch your death.’
‘My clothes are in the wash,’ Charlie groaned, utterly defeated.
‘What, all of them? You didn’t keep spares?’
‘I was drunk! This is what I’m telling you. I’m not functioning properly. I’ve got a brain like a fried egg. Do you know who does their washing when they’re drunk? The winos two doors over! That’s who. I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown, Harry. I need to get out of this place, it’s killing me. You’re killing me. Country air, that’s what I need.’
‘’Tis but a minor setback, Charlie-Boy. Fear not. There’s a suit in my wardrobe with your name on. Savile Row, don’t you know.’
He tried to sound upbeat and wore a weak smile, but edged away from Charlie and occupied himself opening cupboards. They were all empty except one, which had been stocked with twenty cans of soup and all the beans you could eat what felt like yesterday. Now it held just one solitary tub of something the colour and texture of molasses and it sat below a cobweb watched over by something with twenty red eyes.
‘There’s another of those creatures in here,’ Harry noted.
Charlie gave up. He slumped over his laptop on the dining table like a marionette without a puppeteer. When he noticed, Harry slid over and prodded him in the cheek.
‘Are you still breathing?’
‘Unfortunately so,’ Charlie mumbled.
‘Good. Try not to die. I don’t suppose you’ve written anything today?’
‘No I’ve not,’ Charlie said. He sat up and slammed his laptop shut. ‘I’ve not written anything since God knows when. And neither have you, I’ll wager. If I wasn’t so fucking miserable I would laugh. For a couple of writers, we never actually write anything, do we?’
‘I’ve been trying to write my autobiography,’ Harry said, scratching at his jaw. ‘I’m just having some trouble with the main character.’
‘Yes, it’s that he’s insufferable and I wish he would piss off and die.’
Harry took the molasses from the creature and read the label.
‘You see? We’re useless,’ Charlie said. ‘This isn’t how writers should live. I should be on an Italian hillside, hammering away at an old Remington, chasing the elusive novel through the long winters. But here I am. With you. Didn’t someone say “Hell is bad company” or something? We’re useless…’
‘We’re not useless. We’re just… I have writer’s block—’
‘Yes and you just so happen to have had it for twenty-four years.’
‘What about you? You wrote that stage piece, didn’t you? Hm. Best before April. What month is this?’
‘March. Yes, I did,’ Charlie said. ‘And I’ve yet to see a penny for it. Those fuckers from the Comedy Store are trying to shaft me.’
Harry unscrewed the lid and sniffed inside the jar. He threw his head back and retched. ‘Dear God! This must be from last April. I’m going out. We’ve nothing to eat. Or more importantly drink. Do you want anything?’
‘Yes. Some nourishment. I haven’t eaten in three days. I almost had a go at the butter before.’
‘But it’s green!’ Harry was appalled. ‘Leave it to me.’
He dashed from the room but made it only so far as the door before he turned back around with his long greatcoat cutting a figure eight behind him.
‘Oh, er… I don’t suppose you have any money?’
Charlie got up and followed Harry down the hall. The rain had eased off a little bit and the spectral light that fell in through the frosted glass was now speckled with gold. Somewhere over London there must have been a rainbow.
Charlie took the wallet out of his coat pocket and emptied it into his palm while Harry wrestled with a golf umbrella. The boar head watched the two of them in judgment as the umbrella sprang open.
‘Don’t do that!’ Charlie said. ‘It’s bad luck.’
Harry raised a brow. ‘Yes and our lives are otherwise just brimming with good luck, aren’t they?’
‘Things can always be worse.’
Harry snorted. ‘They surely can’t,’ he said. ‘Death is preferable to our current situation. I should reclaim my revolver and end all this.’
‘Don’t talk like that,’ Charlie snapped. ‘Not after everything that happened last month.’
Harry blushed. ‘Sorry, yes.’ He nodded. ‘I just mean this is ridiculous, that’s all.’ And then tactfully changing the subject, he asked, ‘Have you spoke with Emily today?’
‘She left a message. Said she had something exciting to tell you. God I’ll bet she’s pregnant,’ Harry scoffed. ‘You realise you can barely look after yourself don’t you? The bastard will starve.’
‘She’s not pregnant. And I can look after myself just fine,’ Charlie grumbled.
‘Oh really?’ Harry said. ‘Did you know you’ve got pepperoni in your hair and no clothes on and you haven’t eaten in three days?’
‘I’m chasing the elusive novel into the winter—’
‘Yes, yes. Look, forget all that,’ Harry decided, changing his mind. Clearly this was not the time to get into any of the old bickering. Alcohol beckoned. ‘Should I get us vodka or a couple of four packs? Lager’s cheaper of course but you can’t argue with percentage.’
Charlie sifted the coins about in his palm. ‘I’ve only got about one pound sixty or a twenty.’
Harry plucked the twenty-pound note out of Charlie’s fingers and unbolted the door. He pulled it open and almost bowled into Emily on their doorstep. She was dripping wet with her hair plastered to her face and her arm raised about to knock.‘Speak of the Devil and she shall appear,’ Harry whispered before he dashed out under the golf umbrella.'
About the author
Christian Lea is a writer and illustrator from Manchester who works in academic publishing.
Where Wild Birds Shriek is his first novel, which was written with a coupe in one hand and a snifter of Bailey’s in the other by typing with his nose. This process was made trickier by the fact he could only see straight by squinting through his nostril.
He also writes detective fiction and is currently locked away somewhere plotting another twisted murder for his shabby little sleuth to untangle.