HORLA FICTION (March 2019)

 

HALLO LEON

by Adam Marks

 

THE Old Man leaned in.

He looked at Robin, who glanced up from his pint, anxiously.

There it was, that baggy, pitted old face; the familiar cut mark on the forehead.

“Hallo Leon…” said the Old Man.

Robin sighed. This again.

“You what, mate?” 

“It’s me,” said the Old Man, smiling hopefully, clutching his chest, “you remember, Anzio…?” He wobbled a bit, vibrating to an uncertain rhythm.  

“Yeah, you said that last time and I still don’t have a clue what you’re on about.”

Robin smiled at his friend across the table as if to say ‘Help me – I’ve been clobbered by the Pub Bore.’  

“You were there, Leon, in Anzio… I thought you wouldn’t make it. I’m so glad you’re here, you old bastard… How did you get here?” The Old Man’s dentures flopped around a little as he spoke. 

“I don’t know who you are,” said Robin, lying. He knew the Old Man’s name, he knew who He was. “I’m sorry… What’d you want?” 

“I’m glad you asked,” said the Old Man. “I’ve got something to tell you…” he sniffed, “something… fishy.” He placed a hand on Robin’s shoulder. Robin shrugged it off.

“Sorry, I’m not… please don’t…” 

The Old Man wasn’t offended. “Of course, no… you wouldn’t understand…”

A strange expression flickered across his face momentarily.

“We are, after all,” he looked up, “all fragments of a greater consciousness housed in pillars of flesh.”

There was a moment’s silence then he looked back at Robin.

“What… is that what you wanted to tell me?” said Robin, finally. 

“Oh no,” said the Old Man, who turned his back and began walking away. “That’s just something I heard off some gnostic geezer. No, I mean something… really fishy.” He laughed to himself and padded off to a dark, discrete corner of the Hospital Tavern

‘Something fishy…’ Robin thought about it. He was curious, finally. He had to ask.

***

The Old Man had been following Robin around for a while it seemed.

Robin was an ambulance driver. Being an ambulance driver gave him the distance paramedics didn’t have. From his seat he was familiar with the harsh, downbeat side of Hackney, but at a remove, out of reach. It hadn’t touched him, until now…  

It was a routine kind of emergency, such as they exist. They’d been called out to a low-rise block of flats off Morning Lane. It was near the end of a long shift.

An old man had had a fall in his home, a routine emergency. Fourth floor.

They’d be some time, the paramedics, so Robin thought he’d get out of his seat, shake out his legs and finish the coffee he’d been nursing.

The Old Man came out on a stretcher.

What kind of fall had it been? A bloody, bandaged head; head wounds always looked bad and old people almost always got head wounds when they fell.

For a moment the man in the stretcher looked bewildered but he quickly clocked onto Robin.

“It’s you. Oh My God it’s you.”

Suddenly demented, wide eyed, the Old Man pointed at him with a sodden finger. 

“Yeah, it’s him all right,” said Scott one of the paramedics carrying the Old Man. “Come on, let’s get you inside. Open the doors, will you?” 

Robin opened them.

***

He had seen a lot of things in the line of work, Robin.

ou had to take it in your stride, you had to.

That finger though, that bloodied finger, it jabbed at him for days afterwards.

Why did the Old Man recognise him, and why did Robin care, what had shaken him so? 

He started seeing the Old Man about town, usually through the window of his ambulance. The Old Man would be sitting at bus stops, toddling through parks and so on. The instants started to mount.

Occasionally the Old Man would notice Robin and the same mad eyes would light up. Robin would always drive on. One time though Robin saw Him get onto the 242, he was there, on the upstairs monitor, waving his freedom pass at the driver. By this stage Robin was quite unnerved. He stayed on the bus, past his stop, waiting for the Old Man to get off, just hoping He wouldn’t notice him.

The instants started to mount.  

Robin was with his Wife and Daughter. The three of them were clothes shopping in the Kingsland Centre when, as if from nowhere, He appeared.

“Fancy seeing you here, Leon, it’s been a while. Cor blimey, it’s not like the old days. Things have changed so much. Do you remember, in the 1st Division? No, tell a lie, it was the 56th Division by that point. Do you remember coming home…? I’m not sure. Some of us didn’t come home. They flooded the marshes, didn’t they… the Germans. The marshes, you remember the marshes, Leon…? The explosions, oh, it was terrible. We had to get to the mountains, yes, the mountains, before we lost the element of surprise. Do you remember, lost in the marshes…? flooded they were, and explosions everywhere, pitiless lottery, bodies bobbing in the marshes, dead they were… I… Anyway… where was I…?” 

The Old Man stopped and clutched for something. No, he’d lost his thread. “Never mind,” he said, “there’s always time… I must remember more.”

He patted Robin on the back, then waddled away as stealthy as he arrived. 

***

From then on it seemed the Old Man was seeking Robin out with his war ramblings, always calling him Leon. Repeated encounters meant what began as uncanny evolved into a nuisance. Each time He wanted to tell Robin something but could never quite remember, until that is, He saw Robin in the forecourt of his station washing his ambulance down.

“Leon…? Leon..? Is that you, Leon…?”

Robin looked up from his work. He knew that voice. It was Him, the Old Man. 

“It is you. Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude but… I can’t stop. Here, something occurs to me, Leon… You were dead… Yeah, I saw it.”

It seemed to Robin that the Old Man was almost smiling.

“You were, killed, by a shell,” He said. “It was in the marshes, the Germans had just flooded them, you see? We were advancing under fire. We had to find a way through… You were twenty yards away from me. You turned to look in my direction, then you opened your mouth and then… BANG!” 

(Cont. next column)

Robin jumped. 

The Old Man stopped to fix his dentures before resuming. “You were gone… I think you might have been trying to say something to me. I was knocked off my feet. I think it’s how I got this,” he said, pointing to his recent head wound. “We were knocked off our feet. Not all of us I mean, there was nothing left of you… I think you were trying to say something… Anyway, see you, Leon.”

*** 

Robin said goodbye to Scott for a moment and went looking. He found the Old Man sitting alone at a table in the lounge area of the Hospital Tavern. He went over to the table. He had to ask.

“Hello, Mr Bradley.”

“Oh, hallo stranger,” said the Old Man. “So you do recognise me then?”

He had a small bundle of newspapers, a walking stick and was slowly pawing a half-pint glass of cola.  

“I know your name, Mr Bradley.”

Gulp. He had to ask.

“We took you to hospital once, you remember, we took you in my ambulance.”

“Oh, so you own an ambulance now, do you Leon?” The Old Man shot back with a sly, toothy grin.

Warily, Robin returned the smile and said, “Do you mind?” He pulled up a stool and sat down next to the table. “Mr Bradley,” he said, after a pause for thought, “why do you keep calling me Leon?” He didn’t know why he felt nervous asking the question but, even so, he had to ask.

“Well, that’s your name, isn’t it? Leon Feld, 56th Division Infantry. I know your face, see. How could I forget? I mean, I forgot I did, but then I remembered, see? Once you remember you don’t forget any more.”

“But I’m not who you think I am,” said Robin. 

“I know your face, Leon.” The Old Man tapped the side of his skull. “In here…” 

“All right, but I’m not this… Leon Feld.”

“You are,” The Old Man insisted. “You are, but…”

“Look, what do you want?” said Robin, interrupting. “I keep seeing you around, and…” 

“It’s a small world,” the Old Man sighed. “Here we are now,” he said, he fixed Robin’s gaze with an odd, abrupt power. He gestured out of the window by way of demonstration. They both looked. “After all these years, things have changed so much. It’s not like the old days… Huh, they’ll be taking this place soon…” and the Old Man laughed to Himself.  The pair then looked back at each other. “But there’s more, you see…?” said the Old Man. The same strange expression returned. Robin was spellbound. He had to ask.

“This thing you had to tell me…” said Robin, flatly, “what is it?” 

Old Man Bradley paused before plunging into memory.

“It was after you were killed” said Mr Bradley. “The explosion… I was knocked off my feet… head wound… A few days later, I think, not so long anyway, we had made it to the mountains, finally. It was after the battle. The Germans had retreated to the Gothic Line and we were on this plateau, see…?”

The Old Man gestured out the pub window again. The view had changed. Outside was cold grass, naked trees and piles of rocks.

They were on ‘this plateau.’

Mr Bradley continued.

“I was helping collect all the bodies, the dead bodies of the Germans. It was cold up there, I tell you. The wind whipping…”

A breeze swept through the pub. 

“We had to find out who they were, the Germans, and whether they had anything useful on them, for the war, see…?”

The Old Man paused for a second, staring into middle-distance. He scratched his nose, stood up with a grunt and resumed.

“We had this big tarpaulin out, pegged to the ground because of the wind and a truck that had come up the mountainside.”

The Old Man pointed to the floor. Robin stood. There they were.

“We unloaded the bodies from the truck onto the tarpaulin.” The Old Man stood as well. “There were the bodies, dead bodies laid out… in a row.”

he Old Man laid a hand on Robin’s shoulder. Slack mouthed and ecstatic, quietly, he looked into Robin’s eyes.

“I’d never seen a German before,” he said, now poring over Robin’s face, vibrating gently, swirling, “not up close, you know, except in anger… in combat, like… and then you don’t really stop to look at the faces, do you?”

Old Man Bradley pressed down gently. Robin sank to his knees, gently, quietly.

“But now,” said the Old Man, “there was all these faces looking up at me and they were so young. I mean… I was nineteen at the time… They were all drained… cold… no light behind the eyes. It was very cold up there…”

Robin lay down on the floor, face up, gently, quietly. The Old Man towered overhead. It was cold.

“We were told to go through their pockets,” said the Old Man. “Some of them had pictures of girlfriends… Some had crosses… round their necks… Some of them I remember had letters on them, addressed to Mama and Papa… so young…” 

Mr Bradley sighed, finally breaking his gaze.

He knelt down over Robin, whose body was starting to go numb.

Mountains loomed overhead.

“This went on for half an hour, body after body, all young men… It was cold up there. Half an hour… then I saw something…”

He puzzled.

“What did I see…?” 

Robin shook his head. It was about all he could do. He didn’t know. It was darkening.

“What did I see…? Yes, I see it now… again…” the Old Man said. “I unloaded a soldier… a dead soldier… a German soldier… It was… It was you Leon…”

The Old Man reached out to Robin.

“Again…?” Robin croaked. The darkness was closing.

“Your face…” said the Old Man, “all cold and drained it was.”

He touched Robin’s face, gently. It was cold.

Quietly, gently, Robin was going dark. 

“It was you…”

“Again…?” said Robin, quietly.

“Yes” the Old Man said. “He was you… It was your face… Looking up at me…”

“Again” Robin whispered, near silent, all but gone.

“Isn’t that something…?” said the Old Man. The light went out. He sniffed. “Something really fishy…”

Adam Marks lives and works in London. He writes both long and short-form fiction, mostly slipstream and urban fantasy. He has been published in outlets such as Here Comes EveryoneRipples in Space and Exaggerated Press. He is a member of Hackney Writers and Clockhouse Group