The group met Thursday evenings in the basement of an old church next to a soup kitchen on a grey, exhaust stained street in the St. Pancras neighborhood of central London. The residents of those few blocks were mainly Arabs, but had previously been German immigrants. In fact, that corner of town had been immigrants since Roman times, a place where anachronistic customs were secreted behind tightly drawn drapes and equally tight lips. The church itself was scarred, inside and out, with a tumultuous history. The foundation contained stones nearly a millenium in age, and the current walls–constructed after a fire had burned the last structure to the ground–were pockmarked from the gutting of the English reformation; pillars contained blanched outlines of crucifixes and statues torn hastily from their facades by iconoclasts; gaudy newer statuaries, installed a hundred years hence by anglo-catholics of the Oxford Movement, only partially covered these ghostly outlines, giving them a strange, prosthetic appearance.
The congregation was principally composed of a scant array of ragged homeless, who attended daily mass to escape the chilled, wet air before the soup kitchen opened at six. For the first few weeks I held the group sessions in the basement, I felt personally responsible for the dispersal of the last remnants of this ancient house of worship’s last parishioners. But the appearance of the half dozen members of my group, hobbling painfully down the narrow stairs into the dank basement, so disquieted the church goers that they fled to other refuges.
The group unsettled me as well. Thursdays became days of uneasiness, long hours spent with a dry mouth, lack of appetite and the proverbial butterflies flittering about my viscera. After the hour, my constitution weakened still, and I would wander through the crooked alleys, taking obfuscated paths past inhabited cardboard shanties and red lit windows of establishments where men with upturned collars snuck in quickly and guiltily. Those evenings, I would check the lock on my flat door perhaps thrice, and the windows too, adjusting the drapes so that not one crack would allow unseen eyes to peep within. My bedroom light never dimmed those long evenings, during which I craved sleep desperately but was too indescribably disquieted to close my eyes. It was one of those nights when I pulled a dusty King James bible from where it had fallen years earlier behind my bedside table and lay forgotten, and read for comfort stories I recalled only faintly, last heard upon my mother’s knee. With the book laid across my raised knees as I huddled in bed, I pined over one passage I felt inexplicably drawn to, again and again on the nights that followed. It was a verse from the first book of the prophet Samuel: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, the glory is departed from Israel: because the Ark of God was taken…” The footnote for this passage at the bottom of the page was a quote from Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, which included the haunting words: “Death is too serious a thing to admit the relish of any earthly joy.”
The appearance of the support group was sufficient to drive away the homeless from daily mass, but it was something deeper and darker and less describable about the group that plagued me. Their appearance overall was fastidious in the extreme. Smartly dressed clothes were carefully pinned back in places to discreetly conceal the nubs of amputated limbs. Meticulously combed hair concealed, in part, a missing ear here and an eye patch there. Neat leather gloves all but concealed missing digits, with the occasional flaccid finger the only telltale sign. Pleasantries were delivered with bashful, tight lipped grins that obscured missing teeth.
For the most, the group represented a subset of clients to whom I had been counseling individually for years on addiction issues, ranging from old classics like gambling and drinking to newer vices, like sex chatting and internet pornography. I founded this support group not as a general group therapy session for recovering addicts, but rather in response to a strange trend I had observed in a subset of my clientele. And after my colleagues learned that I had a therapy group for individuals consumed by the peculiarly horrible compulsion to undergo elective amputation, I began to take referrals from them as well. Where they underwent these surgeries was for a long time unclear to me, though I now have my suspicions, but they guarded the party or parties responsible for aiding them in their mutilation with the same secrecy of a recovering alcoholic with a bottle of booze hidden in the toilet reservoir.
Margaret was the youngest and the least altered of the group, at least at first glance. She seemed to apply the same discretion to her compulsion to amputate as she had applied during her former life as a cutter. She may have been pretty if there wasn’t around her almost an aura of decay. She was painfully thin, and although I never made inroads along this avenue, I suspected anorexia or bulimia. She wore a floral fragrance that was much too young even for her modest age, and this ever-present scent was intermixed with some acrid odor that permeated her clothes and possessions and smelled of bile. She had come into therapy while in her second year of reading anthropology at the University College of London. She felt, in her words, that she had gotten the cutting under control at the time, with respect to frequency, discretion and infection prevention. But in her studies, she had become increasingly fixated on the ritual in some still primitive communities of female circumcision, spending many hours after lecture discussing the issue with her tutor. The tutor finally decided that her level of interest in this particular rite of passage was unhealthy, and told her so. At her first group session, smoking feverishly and wearing the same black long-sleeved pullover and baggy, ill-fitting blue jeans I would always see her in thereafter, she confessed that she had removed only a nipple and a toe up to that point.
Unlike other addiction support groups I had organized previously, there was a strange apathy and hopelessness to this one that had me constantly wondering, perhaps even subconsciously hoping, that the group would dissolve. On one occasion, Nicholas, a recovering teenage alcoholic, arrived with a new, clean white bandage over his right ear. By way of experiment, I did not comment on it at first, but waited patiently for someone in the group to bring it up. Ceremoniously, the tennis ball that designated a member’s turn to speak was passed clockwise around the circle, with updates on the past week. Peggy had an ingrown toenail but was afraid to look at it because, “if I see it, the toe comes off.” George had been finding it difficult to find work since he had removed his lower leg, and his depression was worsening. Paul was taking so many showers that his landlady told him he was using all the hot water in the building, and might be evicted if he couldn’t be somewhat more respectful of shared resources.
When the ball came to Nicholas, he said he had nothing to report, and no one commented, or even looked at him. The ball next went to Margaret, but I stopped her. “Doesn’t anyone want to discuss what Nicholas has done this week?” I asked.
The room was silent except for the hum of the lights, the drip of the coffee maker and the occasional exhalation of smoke. After a few long moments, I asked, “How does everyone feel about what Nicholas has done?” When I decided this line of questioning was futile, I let Margaret continue.
Most of the group discussions centered not around amputation but around cleanliness of person and home, and a vague sense that something outside was filthy and encroaching. Paul, who at some point had been a seminarian, spoke often about temptation and the curse of flesh, and while the language he used to describe his discomfiture was peculiarly religious in tone, the group seemed most empathetic toward the general sentiment. None of the group, Paul included, was actively religious in any outward way, but they spoke of the world and their lives within it from a characteristically dualistic perspective, almost to the point of cliche on certain topics. The material world, and material possessions especially, were corrupt. The flesh was a constant torment in their eyes, lending itself to temptation and impurity. Physical blemishes of any kind were paradoxically abhorrent. And there was a sense that they had difficulty articulating that escape was possible, although as best I could deduce, escape did not mean suicide, at least not exclusively.
One evening, after wrapping up for the evening with my usual remarks about looking forward and taking things a day at a time, I noticed that Nicholas was spending an unusually long time to get his things together and his coat on. Sensing that he had some pressing matter he hoped to discuss in private, I pretended to check some messages on my phone while the others hobbled out of the basement and up the stairs. Finally, I asked, “Is something on your mind, Nicholas?”
He pulled from his woolen overcoat a small composition notebook. He started to hold it out to me, then retracted it noticeably. Finally, he said, “Dr. Rosen, do you believe in automatic writing?”
“Do you mean psychography?”
“I don’t know what that word means.”
“It’s supposed to happen when someone writes subconsciously, without conscious awareness.”
“Well, do you believe in it?”
“It’s one of a set of psychological phenomena referred to as ideomotor effects, and they are not widely recognized to be reliable indicators of subconscious phenomena. Spiritualists tend to be more interested in these things today than modern psychologists.”
He looked down at the composition notebook, and I looked at my watch. Finally, he said, “I don’t remember writing some of the things in this, but it’s my personal journal, I’ve never shown it to anyone. And the handwriting in it definitely looks like mine. Each night, I read it before I go to bed and tuck it safely under my pillow, but when I wake up in the morning, there’s more in it than there was the night before.”
“Nicholas, would you like me to look at what you’ve written?”
Hesitantly, he began to extend it to me, and then stopped. “I don’t think I should.”
“Why don’t you think you should?”
“I don’t think he’d want me to.”
“Who wouldn’t want you to?” When I posed this question, he looked startled, but I couldn’t tell if he was shocked at what I had asked or what he had said that had prompted it.
“It’s late–I have to go,” he said. And with that, he stumbled out of the last group session he ever attended with me.
Peggy was the first to die. The circumstances were, I’ll admit, suspicious. There was no note, and she was found locked in her apartment. The immediate cause of death was deemed excessive loss of blood from lacerations all over her naked form, but the object used to cause the lacerations could not be located. Also, some of the lacerations were in odd places, such as the upper back, where self-inflicted wounds are unusual. There was an apparent intentionality to the wounds, which seemed to wrap around about her form in a spiral. But owing to the facts that the door to her flat was locked from the inside, she was alone, and the flat was on the sixth floor, no foul play was immediately suspected. They found her in the bathtub, but presumed that she had injured herself in another room before making her way to the bath. The police could shed no light on the strangely mangled metal of the drain in that room.
Paul was the next to die, and then Shawn. The details of these deaths are grizzly, and I have no interest to reiterate them here except to suggest a common thread: in each case, the deceased was alone in a locked flat, and severely lacerated and bruised. And in all three flats, some small detail was found to be amiss with the plumbing. In Paul’s case, for instance, the grating over the shower drain had been torn completely clear from the basin.
After the incident with the composition notebook, I didn’t hear from Nicholas for several weeks. In addition to missing group therapy on Thursday nights, he stopped coming to one-on-one sessions in my office at Bedford Square. Then, one evening, as I was making my way by foot from the office to the old church, I saw Nicholas hobbling ahead a block or so ahead of me on his crutches and remaining leg. Relieved, but somewhat annoyed by his earliness and the anticipated imposition on my time, I felt no urge to make my presence known, and instinctively slowed my walk, wanting to avoid much contact outside normal therapeutic settings. But when he came to Tonbridge Street, instead of crossing to the old church, he turned left around the corner. Puzzled, and somewhat early for the session, my last appointment of the day having canceled unexpectedly, I followed.
Tonbridge Street was empty, save for a few North African boys kicking around a football outside a dark, sparsely patronized pub called “the Crooked Hound”. I had a quick look around the Hound, but Nicholas was nowhere to be found, not even in the men’s room. Dark men of uncertain ethnicity huddled over dimly lit tables talking in hushed voices within. Across the street, only one establishment was well lit in the encroaching gloom of evening, and that was a small shop I had never noticed before marked “International Emporium”.
Puzzled, I walked over to the church basement and unpacked my sack, but curiosity got the better of me and after a quarter hour I walked back to the emporium. The shop was empty and the proprietor nowhere to be seen, and so I was left for the moment alone amidst a sea of international oddities. Horrible savage masks from primitive peoples across the world adorned the walls. Alabaster vases suggestive of the receptacles common to crematoriums were piled in one corner, and many stacks of crumbling leather-bound tomes were carefully sorted into various bookshelves. A swollen-bellied statue of a fertility goddess with sagging breasts and strangely disproportionate facial features sat on an end table; a single, black candlestick burned at her feet. The room smelled of dust and wax and incense.
A single door frame in the very back of the room provided the only exit, and appeared to lead to a stairway, although most of the view was obscured by a hanging curtain. From the basement, I could hear the buzz of an electric motor, like a drill or a saw. Next to the curtained door was a small couch, in front of which sat a coffee table strewn with well-paged-through magazines. It was obviously a waiting area, but there was nothing to hint of the types of services for which one might wait.
And, there upon the floor as though it had fallen off of the coach, was Nicholas’ composition notebook.
Guiltily, I sat down, picked up the notebook and flipped it open to a random page and started reading: “…stuck in the dark beneath hunting uttering unspeakable names not spoken since the dawn of man feeding on those who know…” I skipped ahead a few pages and began reading again: “… escaped the flesh prison to where the spirits have fled but the flesh must still be punished … damn this secret, it dooms me…”
My reading was suddenly interrupted. “May I help you?” The man who addressed me I knew instantly for the proprietor. I turned to see his head poking out from behind the curtain which he held in place with a rubber-gloved hand, carefully concealing whatever he was wearing. His accent was vaguely eastern European, but I couldn’t place it.
“Is–has–Nicholas been here?” I stammered, dropping the composition notebook.
“No one is here. I am closed for the day.”
“But I thought I saw him come in here.”
“No one has come.”
I looked down at the composition notebook, but decided not to press the issue. “Well, ta very much then,” I said and left.
A morning during the week that followed the last of the alleged suicides, I canceled all my appointments after receiving an early morning call from The Gordon Hospital, where Nicholas upon admission had named me his primary contact. I took the tube to Pimlico and walked from there through the crisp, morning air. Visiting hours were only in the evenings, but as a therapist I am assured special privileges in mental wards.
Nicholas was in a bad way when I found him. Police had brought him to the Gordon because of peculiar, disruptive and highly irritable behavior he displayed while searching about the fountain in Leicester square the prior evening. There had been several complaints about his screaming into the water one minute, and then curling up into the fetal position beneath the basin and shaking with fear the next. This pattern had repeated over and over for the better part of an hour, and someone had notified the authorities of a disabled man acting queerly.
Nicholas was raving, although in retrospect, I am not sure that his ravings were the product of delusions and hallucinations. It occurs to me now that what he told me then may have been an attempt to reveal some secret beliefs or knowledge that the group all shared, but that they had for consistently remained tight lipped about. He rambled and at the same time searched frantically and ceaselessly about the room as though looking for something he either hoped to find or wanted to assure himself wasn’t there. He was too agitated to use his crutches, and at times crawled about the floor dragging his remaining leg. He talked of “the pure ones” who had finally shed the last vestiges of their imperfect mortal flesh and departed the material world, escaping from the power of something unspeakable. He told of a vague evil that had long lived under the city in the subterranean structures that have accumulated over the millennia that London has existed: in the sewers, abandoned railway stations, catacombs and underground rivers. He shuddered while describing long, wispy tendrils of vague substance indistinguishable as plant or animal that waved and whipped about in dark places rending and tearing and choking and smothering.
On the tube back to Euston Square, I made up my mind to learn more about the International Emporium. It was half noon, and I ordered a fisherman’s lunch and a pint at the Hound and sat by the window where I could watch the Emporium entrance across the street. The bread was stale and the cheese sub-par, but I tasted nothing while I sat and watched. Over the long afternoon, a steady trickle of broken, bandaged persons made their way in and out of the Emporium. I stopped counting after some dozen people entered the Emporium’s door; none of their faces were familiar to me. They came and went at a frequency that would have been unremarkable to a passerby, but to someone monitoring the store over the course of a day, they represented a very numerous clientele, each of which stayed within for a portion of an hour before hobbling out again. Not once did I see anyone leave with a parcel or bag or any other suggestion of having made a purchase. Once, I noticed a young woman leave with a fresh bandage over the bottom portion of her ear that I didn’t remember having seen when she entered a half hour before.
As I watched and drank, I became ever more disturbed and convinced that the strange little man behind the curtain was running some type of horrible, secret surgery in the basement. Phrases from Nicholas’ journal and rantings haunted my unsettled mind. Who were these pure ones? What did he mean by the evil tendrils living in the dark, forgotten spaces below the city streets? Had I discovered the seat of some terribly, apocalyptic cult that practiced ritual amputation as a means of purification?
Then, after several hours, a cab pulled up outside the window by which I sat. The silhouetted party inside paid the cabby and then, when the door opened, Margaret stepped out onto the street. Instantly, I was overcome with panic and horror. I shot up from my stool, knocking it over with a noisy bang. I pounded on the glass and yelled. On the street, as the cab was pulling away, Margaret turned and saw me through the window. She, too, suddenly looked terrified, and as I emerged onto the street, it was to see her running north toward Euston Road. Lithe and surprisingly quick, I followed her to the bend in Tonbridge street, where she vaulted over a chain link fence and through a stained, yellow-bricked alley. I might never have been able to close any distance behind her were it not for the traffic on Euston Road that temporarily slowed her progress. “Margaret, wait!” I called as I followed her into St. Pancras station, where she pushed through the gate just ahead of me in the crowd. I finally caught up with her on the platform. “Margaret, wait! Please, wait!”
As the loudspeaker announced the approaching train, Margaret turned around to face me on the platform. Her eyes were wide with terror. At that very moment, I saw long, snakelike grey-brown tendrils, like flattened mats of twine, whip up from beneath the platform and wrap around her middle and throat. I reached for her, the tips of my fingers just touching her shoulders, when the tendrils tightened as quickly as they had appeared, and pulled her beneath the oncoming train.
Stunned, I barely heard the shouts or running people on the platform. I hardly noticed the hands restraining me or the woman tell the bobby that I had pushed a woman down onto the tracks. I barely remember the ride in the police car or the interview in the small room with the one-way window.
Since learning this terrible secret truth, which will be the death of me, I have lost track of time. I know neither how long I have been here, nor even how long it has been since I last slept. Because of the eye-witness testimony, and the suspicious deaths associated with three other members of my group, I doubt very much that my incarceration here will end before the thing finds a means by which it can extend its tendrils into my cell from the ancient depths it haunts beneath the city. I can imagine how they rustle as they probe about narrow winding subterranean paths, tirelessly exploring possible routes through pipes and walls and floors, seeking me with some enigmatic consciousness and singleness of purpose. It can sense my physical presence because I know it’s there, searching hungrily for my flesh, or at least for its destruction. What was that noise? Under the washbasin…
Kevin Crisp teaches human anatomy and has published some fifteen science articles and book chapters, mainly on peculiarities of the blood-sucking leeches. His other interests include fly fishing, amateur radio and creative writing. His fiction has also appeared in The Horror Zine and Frontier Tales.
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Story illustration by Dominic Black.