The Entity moved in next door, arriving mid-morning. The neighbours smiled a hello as It ushered in newly brought pine furniture and knick knacks. It smiled, saying ‘hello’ back. For some of those standing watching the Entity arrive that warm spring morning Its voice sounded oddly harsh, for others it was a rich impressive baritone. In the heat, the Entity shivered. Glancing furtively about, It seemed uncomfortable with all the activity around it and the street-long inquisitive eyes focused on Its every move. A few of the Entity’s new neighbours noticed how ill It looked, its face pale and lined, how slow it moved, while others noticed instead its striking attractiveness. They all later agreed that It was tall and well dressed, although also at the time many saw the Entity as dressed in ordinary black corduroys and ill-fitting woollen jumpers.
The following week it did not emerge from Its new home. In the half-light It stayed indoors, reading books and magazines. Its house seemed throughout that time perpetually shaded, shielded by silence.
Sarah was a naturally curious woman and so was first to pop around to greet the new neighbour. Newly divorced, she did not welcome gossip but nor was she prepared to let it inhibit her behaviour. She liked men and enjoyed sex. Why should she give them up because her neighbours watched her every move? She was in her prime, and would prove it. Besides, the new neighbour looked cute. Over six foot, although clearly recovering from a debilitating illness, It was cute. With trepidation, in early evening she knocked on the door. As she stood waiting, she noticed the flowers decorating the porch were dead, a muddy brown or slovenly grey instead of the once vivid yellows, blues and reds she fondly remembered.
There was no answer at first, and she was about to leave when the door opened wide and It stood there half-exposing its broad discoloured flattened teeth.
‘Hello.’ It said. Its voice was soft and low.
‘Hello.’ Sarah replied. She put out a hand. ‘I’m your immediate neighbour but one, on the other side of the street. Welcome to the neighbourhood.’
‘Thank you.’ It replied. Without hesitating It opened the door wide. ‘Would you like to come in?’
Its directness took Sarah by surprise. Despite her reservations, she nodded and walked in as It stepped aside.
As she well knew from umpteen previous visits, the front door opened onto the lounge. It had dramatically changed the décor. The previous tenants, the Hendersons-professionals with a young family-had preferred bright colours. The Entity had replaced their primary coloured motifs with dreary abstracts.
‘Please, take a seat.’ It said. ‘Would you like a drink? I don’t have much in the house, just gin, brandy, whiskey and ice or tonic water.’
Sitting down and swiftly crossing her legs, she opted for brandy. While he went for the drink she had a chance to further appraise her surroundings. She noted first the scarcity of furniture, although what was there seemed to have been well chosen-modern lines and neutral colours. But there were no personal touches. The décor looked like it had been selected by an estate agent. Everything was bland, down to the plastic replica wooden flooring that covered the ground floor. It was just a base as her ex-husband had referred several times to their shared home, breaking her tiny, well-oiled heart in the process. The Entity had no family. She was sure of that. The home she sat in was not designed for a family. Still, glancing around, she was surprised by the lack of photographs anywhere, the lack of ornaments, knick-knacks and paintings. Apart from the undemanding colour-scheme, the house seemed pervaded by shadows.
It returned after a few minutes, drinks in hand, and sat opposite her.
‘Thank you. You’re the first one here to greet me. I thought none of you would, it was taking so long.’
She took the glass and immediately downed a relaxing mouthful. The brandy tasted ripe, rich and mature. She nursed it, swilling it around her palate.
Studying Its strangely shifting features, she introduced herself:
‘My name’s Sarah. Sarah Wallington.’
The Entity furrowed Its brow. It seemed to understand It was expected to respond in kind.
‘I’m Ted.’ The Entity responded hesitantly as if uncertain that that was who It actually was. Its eyes became temporarily blank as if It was internalising something truly painful.
“What do you do, Ted? You are already something of a mystery.”
Its features grew even paler as if It had suffered an assault.
The weather changed and the breeze that had brought release from the heat all day was replaced by a sudden flurry of strong winds. It stood up looking out onto the ordered street with its carefully manufactured homes. Composing Its features, It turned towards her smiling.
‘I do many things.’
Her eyes widened in curiosity.
“Oh, search for and collect food stuff.”
Its voice dropped several octaves, becoming like empty space in a haunted house dripping with dew and cobwebs.
The light in the room dimmed. The single plain clock on the wall became frantic, the hands turning violently. Her body seemed fixed to the sofa. She watched the Entity speak, Its mouth opening and closing like a pump, Its tongue roaming nomadically within Its pitch-black mouth. She remembered nothing more until she found herself walking across the quiet street towards her home, storms threatening again as the troubled air became tangled in tree branches, making the worrying sound of cracking whips. Reaching her house door she stopped all movement suddenly realising where she was and what she was doing. She looked around in confusion, shook her head and unlocked her door.
In the shimmering morning air, she couldn’t remember what had happened that night. Worried and confused, she inspected her vagina accepting with relief that they hadn’t had intercourse. Her head didn’t hurt, so, knowing how alcohol affected her, she concluded that she couldn’t have drunk too much. If she’d had, even then, the following morning, she would have been unable to face the sunlight.
She stayed indoors until late afternoon when in crumpled clothes she pulled the living room curtains wide open and stared across at the Entity’s house. She couldn’t turn away. Eventually, in the thin, turgid light as evening approached the Entity opened Its front door, looked right and left and then straight at her. Their eyes remained locked, and briefly as the day drained away her life seemed to gradually seep away too.
They met two days later at one of the regular coffee afternoons run by Jeff and Mort, the couple who lived at the end of the avenue where the trees bunched up to form a wide sunshade. For the street, this was a much anticipated event. On occasion, the entire street turned up mainly to hear Jeff’s expanded gossip and taste as many of Mort’s sumptuous sandwiches as they could in a few short hours.
As Sarah entered, the stark smell of gin still on her breath, she waved to Tess, her closest friend in the street. Tess stood in a corner as usual up against the bookcase, drinking slowly, her lined rumpled jowls hanging from her face like discarded carrier bags. Her husband, Brian, whom Sarah regularly slept with, sat on the sofa eating slowly and smiling at everyone he knew. While Tess waved at Sarah resignedly, Brian gave her a conspiratorial grin.
Sarah’s eyes moved towards the back garden, a compendium of rose bushes, dandelions and rare colourful flowers planted randomly, where most of the guests on that warm day congregated. Nodding to her friends, she continued on her way.
The Entity stood in the garden’s centre by a small alder, covered in umbrella-shaped bunches of tiny leaves that seemed to provide It with a sun shield and a demonic halo at the same time. It appeared much taller than before, and even more attractive. Its pallor was gone, replaced by a reddish, almost opulent complexion. As was their habit, Jeff and Mort were very attentive towards the newcomer keeping him well-supplied with food and drink as well as subtly applied caresses and wide-mouthed smiles. Once again, Sarah stared fixedly at the Entity. She was briefly suffused by the tangy, riveting forces of lust that suddenly enveloped her.
The Entity eventually noticed her over the heads of Mort and Jeff. It smiled. Giving its apologies, the Entity circumnavigated his overzealous hosts and approached her.
“Good to see you again.” It said to her quietly.
She instantly flushed. Her hand shook and the colour seemed to drain from her drink as if in response to Its closeness.
“I thought I’d lost my new friend.” It continued.
It touched her arm, filling it with coldness.
‘How are you Ted?’ She asked shivering.
‘I’m fine. How are you Sarah?’ It turned around to Jeff and Mort. ‘Sarah was the first one to visit me when I moved in. Then it was you two guys.’
Jeff and Mort looked put out.
‘Oh, what did you want Sarah? Sugar?’ Mort asked sarcastically.
Sarah smiled. ‘No, I leave you to ask for that.’
Mort turned his back on her with a sniff.
‘Come over tomorrow again.’ It suggested, immediately returning to its new friends.
Sarah nodded to its receding back, wondering why she’d agreed.
The Entity was the main topic of conversation during the party. Several of the women exclaimed at how well mannered and handsome It was. Others immediately concerned themselves with Its apparent closeness to Jeff and Mort, debating Its sexuality until Sarah’s visit was mentioned. Neighbours had noticed her arrive at the Entity’s bungalow, staying for several hours. Sarah, everyone knew, was a woman of light-feather light-morals. Some of the younger women, several were in their early thirties, noted how much healthier It looked already, and that clearly the local environment was doing It good. Sarah noticed that in the half-light the Entity resembled a woman. Although, when she looked again she could see that this metamorphosis was a trick played by edgy shadows from the flickering garden lights and the half-moon in the sky like a lingering, uninvolved guest. By ten the party came to an end. Everyone left, returning to their homes except for the Entity, which stayed with Jeff and Mort, much to Sarah’s peculiar irritation.
Sarah got up early the following day for work as a cashier in town. Feeling oddly nauseous, her head dizzy, she only spent half the day there then requesting time off she returned home. Alighting from the Route 59 single decker at the bottom of the street, as she rarely took her car for such short distances, she began the upward climb towards her house. Passing Mort and Jeff’s bungalow, she spied Jeff crazily slumped over his garden chair, a blank look on his face and nearby was Mort flopped against the wall. She called out. Both waved at her lazily. She was shocked at how tired they looked.
Indoors, she refreshed and changed. After a reviving brandy she went over the road and knocked the Entity’s door. It answered the door within a minutes, standing before her resplendently healthy, appearing ten years younger. It looked slightly different that afternoon, as if its features had been rearranged.
‘Hi’. She said jocularly. ‘You asked me to come around.’
‘Suggested’, It said. Its voice had changed too. Become deeper.
Sarah replied. Her voice resembled an echo returning from a very deep cavern.
Moving aside to let her in, she entered the Entity’s home as if in a trance, her movements automatic.
The furnishings, in such a short time, had changed. The inside seemed less masculine. There was a number of fripperies. Doilies were strategically positioned on a new dining table. Chintz covered the furniture. Beautiful water-colours covered the living room walls, images of rivers, streams and exotic skies. Plastic flowers stood upright in expensive vases.
‘You’ve changed it. That’s sudden.’ She noted.
‘A drink?’ It asked, ignoring her observation.
‘A coffee this time, please.’
She hated people to think she drank all the time.
‘Ah.’ Its eyes danced with humour. ‘I’ll have to go into the kitchen.’
She heard the Entity shuffling about in the kitchen. Looking around, she noticed that It still had no TV, nor anything to play music on. She wondered what it did alone at night. Occupying herself with a fingernail, a red-painted simulation with white stars attached, she sat back in the armchair refusing to let her mind wander again, telling herself to stay awake. She began silently reciting a Lewis Carroll poem, focusing on its sly humour. Ted did not return for over ten minutes.
With abject apologies It returned with a brightly designed mug of coffee. She cupped it, enjoying the heat. It sat down carefully beside her.
‘How good to see you again. A friend of yours called earlier.’
‘Tess. She came with her husband. Nice fellow. He stayed around for a while after she left and we talked football for hours.’ It laughed.
She wondered what Tess, not the most sociable of people, had wanted. Not letting the matter worry her, she decided it was Brian’s curiosity that had been piqued.
‘Oh.’ The coffee was delicious. The biscuits were rich and buttery. It ate nothing.
‘Arn’t you hungry?’ She asked the Entity.
‘I rarely get hungry.’ It replied.
Its eyes were, she noted, tinged with red. Growing dizzy, she realised how odd they were. Human eyes
were very rarely red. It placed a hand on her knee, and through her jeans she felt its talons.
It was ten. She saw the dark pouring through her half curtained window. The TV was flickering. Her wall clock was clicking out the seconds. She barely had the strength to lift her eye lids. She struggled out of her armchair and looked around. How did she get here? Again, she’d lost all memory of the previous six hours. Once again she checked her clothes, but instinctively knew that nothing had happened. Once more, she had no energy. What had happened? What had he done, she wondered?
Unable to summon up energy, she again fell asleep.
She tussled with the urge to visit It again for several days, nevertheless watching as a troupe of eager women entered the bungalow, often followed by irate husbands. She took up reading to take her mind off the newcomer, feeling hopeless and ridiculous like some infatuated girl with an uncontrollable crush on an unsuitable boy.
‘It’s not that interesting.’ She told herself angrily, instantly wondering why she’d called Ted ‘It’.
Eventually, she donned her tracksuit and set out on a run, putting distance between herself and the neighbourhood. She passed down the road and onto the nearby common. Within half an hour she’d reached the other side of the common and began to run along the perimeter. As she ran, all she could think of was her new neighbour. Her unwelcome thoughts made her run even harder. Coming back exhausted and sweaty, she almost fell over Tess who for some reason that Sarah then did not understand was lying before her on the road, half hidden by a neighbour’s hedge.
Once she had recovered herself, Sarah bent down and began poking her.
‘Tess, Tess, what’s wrong?’
Tess blinked up at her from her prone position. Attempting to smile, she pushed herself onto an elbow.
‘Been drinking?’ Sarah asked with as much concern as cruelty.
Tess had begun to drink heavily when she learnt of Brian and Sarah’s affair, which predated the latter’s bitter devoice.
‘No. No.’ She gave a wan smile. ‘Don’t know. I must be ill.’ She levered herself up. ‘Don’t feel well. I came out for a walk I think and, well, I don’t remember anything else.’
Her eyes temporarily became glazed again, while Sarah helped her to her feet.
‘Go get some rest. You’ll be OK after some sleep.’
Tess nodded weakly.
‘Where’s Brian?’ Sarah asked. She could not see him about. He usually was when not at work, tending the garden or gossiping with neighbours.
‘I think he’s at home.’ Tess replied.
‘Come.’ Sarah put an arm around her and helped her the few hundred yards back to her house. Once there she plopped her onto the sofa and went looking for Brian. There seemed no sign of him in the house, until, venturing into the bedroom, she saw an inert lump beneath the duvet. She went over. Brian appeared to be asleep, but his stillness was unsettling. There was no movement. Even a sleeping person moves. She bent over and tested his breathing. He was dead.
After the ambulance had taken the body away, Sarah stayed with Tess until her adult children, living on the other side of town, arrived. The death was judged to be natural. He had succumbed to one of those mysterious viruses/organ failures that affect middle-aged men. Sarah noticed how old looking he had become in the space of a month. His skin had become flaky, he had lost clumps of hair from the back of his scalp and his teeth had blackened. He was no longer the handsome man she’d happily slept with whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The entire street attended Brian’s funeral, as despite his sporadic promiscuity he was very popular amongst the residents. Never seen without a smile, his eyes always had a twinkle and his lips produced jolly quips in the relaxed manner of a failed comedian. At the front of the funeral procession, wearing an attractively mournful expression, the Entity strolled sporting a beautifully tailored, selectively expensive, well-chosen black suit surrounded by attentive women and men. They lingered on his every gesture and expression.
It, in Its element, stayed throughout the internment, graced the wake for several hours leaving at the very last minute with a young female mourner.
Prolonged lethargy struck the funeral attendees, consuming the entire street. The energy of its many residents, its tiny animals and numerous pets, seemed to have been sucked up by invisible, noiseless extractors. Sarah’s friends and neighbours struggled to leave their beds, staying there, tired and drained. The street became desolate. Dust accumulated on decaying porches and eaves, waiting for unlikely hogweed to drift by in sudden gusts of wind. Strangely, Sarah was less affected than the others. She retained sufficient energy to go from house to house checking on her old, and, it seemed, dying neighbours.
Doctors came in to every household on a regular basis, taking blood, giving drugs, diagnosing to no or little effect. Like Sarah, the Entity was fine. Finer than It had ever been before. The nurses attending the Entity, checking Its pulse and pressing thermometers into Its every orifice, also acquired the virus-if that is what it was. The lethargy spread, quickly affecting others. In the adjoining streets, people also took to their beds. An emergency situation was declared, and crisis epidemic strategies initiated by the local health authority. The entire, usually slumberous, town buzzed with excitement at the macabre events until succumbing themselves.
The Entity grew healthier and healthier. Amongst all the casualties It moved like a resplendent demi-god, laughing and chuckling between moments of effusive empathy for the dwindling lives of Its stricken neighbours. Sarah noticed It was changing rapidly. It appeared taller, more muscular, Its eyes burning with coal-bright energy.
Tess was the next to die. She fell into a sleep, and lacked the energy to come out of it. She had grown increasingly thin, her body beset with boils. Her hair had fallen out. After a few days she quietly expired, her children already fled, with only Sarah and the Entity by her side. It had placed a reassuring hand upon her brow and at that point her face grew even paler, and she hacked out a final tortured breathe. The Entity appeared to grow yet another inch.
The Entity was the chief mourner at Mort and Jeff’s death the following month. The nearer It approached the two friends, the more difficult their breathing became. The Entity seemed to be mining the air from their lungs.
Sarah also began to visibly weaken. She hardly now moved from her house. Thankfully, It visited her every day bringing food and brandy. It asked for no payment. Its solicitude was remarkable. At times, when she was coherent, she wondered if the Entity had brought the virus into the street. At other times she called him by her ex-husband’s name. Eventually an ambulance arrived, removing her to the hospital, where, for a while, she recovered, weakening again whenever It visited. Her friends now gone, without children, the Entity was the only one who seemed to care for her.
A month later, regardless of the intense medical activity around her, blood transfusions, injections, numerous investigative procedures, like the others she too died. The only one to attend her funeral, tall, strong, robust, the Entity stifled several simulated tears and threw the obligatory handful of dust into her grave.
A week later in the early hours of the morning Its furniture was removed from the now ghostly street, with its rows of empty houses, and the Entity left. Driving away It stopped at the end of the street, turned and looked for one final time on Its recent home, remembering Its old dead friends with a sigh, pursed its thinning lips, trawled a hand through Its thinning hair, and drove on.
Three months afterwards, a small town a hundred miles up the M5, cuddled between green hills like a baby nestling between plump green breasts, was suddenly infected by yet another unknown virus. In their dozens, the inhabitants fell dead in the streets. The Entity watched them die, smiling, refreshed by Its renewed potency.