By Liam O’Caroll
Sometimes we read not only for pleasure -the main reason why we do it- but also for the sheer fun of the narration. This short story is fun to read because it is easy to relate to and also keeps you entertained right up to the end
All Donald Marsden wanted was peace and quiet. When his children had all grown up and moved out, the grandchildren became too old to come around and play and his wife had finally left him for someone else, he had relished the prospect of enjoying his retirement in a quiet house. No chance. The absence of fellow occupants simply revealed the noise all around him, constant, unending, maddening noise. The neighbours on one side of his terraced house in Southampton were forever doing DIY, hammering and drilling, often as early as 8am on weekends and as late as 9pm on any night of the week. When he complained to them about it, they always apologised with a pleasant smile before carrying on exactly as before. On the other side lived a family and a family meant children. Children who thumped up and down the stairs at the crack of dawn, yelling at the tops of their little voices. Often the parents were even louder, sometimes shouting angrily at their kids, at other times pretending to be monsters, their chasing and roaring prompting juvenile hysterics.
Then there were the outdoor noises. Why did there always seem to be men outside, scraping shovels off the road and carrying out conversations at the tops of chavvy voices? Loudmouthed men who shouted, argued, laughed, swore and coughed up phlegm which they spat on the ground. With all this endless maintenance, you’d expect the road and footpath to look immaculate but of course you wouldn’t think so to see it.
He longed to fire off a salvo of abuse in their direction, shocking them to their socks. The scream of “Shut up!” that normally exploded in his head, one day shot out of his mouth and through his open window. The workmen fell silent which told Donald he must have been heard. He then had misgivings about having shouted. Would they yell back? Would they come knocking on his door? He could just say he was talking to his dog, not that it was any of their bloody business, before closing the door on them. They wouldn’t know he hadn’t a dog. They could then sod off back to their shovels and their obvious, loudmouthed humour.
Then there was the traffic, cars and motorcycles that raced up and down his road, often spewing loud, pumping dance music through open windows or sun roofs. He hated it when one of those really ear-splitting motorbikes roared past his house but, paradoxically, this hated noise provided a cover for the verbal abuse it elicited. As each bike roared by, he vented his feelings without fear of reprisals. For this reason, he began to look forward to the arrival of such motorbikes for the opportunity they afforded for him to pour out his pent-up anger into the most unrestrained shout of ‘Fuck off’ ever heard from a man in his seventies.
Worst of all however were the vehicles that seemed devoted to stopping outside his window. There they would stay for about half an hour, engine growling away like some hunting beast. Wasn’t that supposed to be against the law nowadays? It was bad for the environment surely. Meanwhile, the drivers just sat there on their social media phones like the self-absorbed morons they were. The sound of the engine maddened him along with the thought of all the diesel poisoning his air. Why didn’t these drivers just switch off the engine while they waited? Ah but that would condemn them to the mammoth task of switching it back on again, the bloody ignoramuses.
He wished he could go out there and puncture their tyres. He had a Stanley knife – would that be sufficient to pierce the rubber? He saw himself with a gun, shooting out the tyres and scaring the drivers away, making it well-known to the whole neighbourhood that you did not park outside the house of the mad bloke with the gun. But he didn’t have a gun. Sadly, firearms had hitherto played no part in his life. Still, it was a nice idea.
Then when the weather was good, Donald’s attempts to enjoy a bit of sunshine in the back garden were also marred. Seeing the fine weather, he would sit out on the patio to absorb some rays and contemplate the sounds of birds and insects whereupon immediately, as if following his initiative, doors would fly open and every bastard on the street would pour out of their houses, the DIY neighbours to mow the lawn or trim the hedges and the family to kick balls against wooden fences and generally shatter the peace with their happy, raucous racket. Some nights, there would be a barbecue with invited guests getting more and more drunk which meant they got more and more loud, their laughter and shouts competing with the excesses of the ghetto blaster or whatever thing they used these days to play music, if you could even call it music. So much for the serenity of summer time.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, he now had a member of the armed forces looming over him and yelling in his face to get out of his house. This was because, finally, the day had come on which Donald Marsden would have his wish; the day when the power tools would fall silent, when the whole town would empty of people and their loathsome vehicles; a day of absolute peace, quieter than Christmas morning – at least for a while. Of course, before there could be calm, there had to be the storm.
It was Thursday morning and Donald was settling into his favourite chair in the front room. The usual noise of rush hour was suddenly reinforced by a chorus of sirens. Then, he heard the roar of a helicopter, so close, so intense, he could believe it was trying to land on his roof. Was there a war on? Thought Donald in exasperation. He wasn’t far from the truth. Southampton was being invaded, only not by an army.
The helicopter moved off, apparently following the direction taken by the sirens. Then came a different kind of clamour. Through the walls, he heard the thump of footsteps on stairs and the slam of numerous doors. Outside came the revving of engines and blare of horns mixed with the angry shouts of adults and excited voices of children and all the time, sirens and helicopters were audible in the distance. The familiar cacophony of rush hour was reaching an unprecedented pitch. He had never known anything like it.
Had Donald been one for using social media, he would have found the reason for the commotion within seconds but he hadn’t. His mobile lay on the table, the only apps on it being those that were loaded on it when he had reluctantly bought it. As far as he was concerned, it was a phone. He thought he’d made enough of a concession to the modern age by learning how to send a text. He had even once, at the urging of his children, signed up to twitter but a lack of interest meant he had never memorised the password to log in. He just couldn’t be bothered. The few times he had looked on his timeline, the tweets were such pointless twaddle that he’d switched the thing off in disgust. After all, he’d bought the phone because he wanted a phone. Therefore, the latest chapter of his home town’s history began to unfold without his knowledge.
In an attempt to find out what was going on, Donald switched on the telly. Instead of the news, it was some kind of monster movie with a giant, nasty-looking thing, a bit like a dinosaur, stomping four-legged along a busy coast road, stepping on cars while panic-stricken people ran in all directions. Donald was confused. What happened to Breakfast News for fuck sake? They’re supposed to show news at this time, not bloody films. Convincing special effects though.
He switched channels as another helicopter passed over, making the window panes rattle. A nature programme showing a close-up on a snake winding its way along leafy earth. The scene cut to a bird’s nest high on a tree. It cut back to the snake. Donald watched curiously as the reptile slithered onto the trunk of the tree. It cut back to a bird popping inside the nest, then it returned to the snake. It was now scaling the tree. Donald watched it make its way upwards until it came to where the nest was lodged. He held his breath as the snake bored its head into the intricate network of twigs and grasses. Moments later, he let out a whistle as the snake withdrew, the hapless bird clutched in its serpentine jaws.
Donald was drawn away from the television by a new noise, a cacophonous trumpeting burble which was vaguely familiar. As the sound drew nearer, it became more distinct. It was a man’s voice, amplified through some kind of instrument.
Donald rose stiffly and went to the front room window to look out. Vehicles were bumper to bumper and the pavements were thronging with pedestrians pulling suitcases behind them, some holding young children, others with dogs on leads. Amongst them he glimpsed the occasional person in a wheelchair, even one old boy in pyjamas being carried along by three people. Across the road stood a policeman, loudhailer held to his lips.
‘Leave your homes. This is an emergency. Leave your homes now and comply with the emergency services. The city is being evacuated. Leave your homes …’
Donald’s heart sank. Did he really have to leave his home? He did not fancy being jostled and lost in all those crowds. Besides, they didn’t say why they had to leave. Freedom of information. What a joke. Well he wasn’t going to just comply with the order, not without a good reason.
He went back to the telly and switched channels. Whatever was going on around here, surely it would be on the news by now. He found again the monster movie. For fuck sake! Then he stopped. There was something familiar about the location. The red funnel of a ship rose up at the end of a cobbled street featuring a mediaeval church … was that not a shot of Town Quay at the end of Bugle Street? He hadn’t known of many disaster movies set in Britain, let alone Southampton. As he watched, fascinated, it dawned on him that there was something odd about the images. They lingered too long on the same shot. There were no cutaways to fleeing victims or set piece battles between monster and soldiers. Then it cut to a familiar studio with a newsreader he recognised. This was the fucking news! He raised the volume with the remote and heard media voices discussing the event. Apparently, some flaming great lizard had come out of the sea and was rampaging through the streets of Southampton. It cut to a correspondent standing in St Michael’s Square with the creature in the background, investigating the Isle of Wight ferry. It reminded him of that long ago episode of The Goodies when a young Michael Aspel was giving a live report before being stepped on by a giant kitten. Donald began to laugh.
Sitting back in his chair, he poured himself some more tea and watched further coverage of the story. This was some kind of hoax, surely. Fake news in the real sense. Well, all those suckers out there were welcome to scarper but he wasn’t falling for it. Gradually, however, as the coverage continued with live updates, interviews with the Home Secretary, Head of the Armed forces and a manically excited palaeontologist, Donald began to believe it was true. He turned his eyes heavenwards in disgust. In the movies, this sort of thing only happened in major world cities like New York or London. Now that it was actually taking place for real, it would have to be in his town, wouldn’t it? Then up came the Prime Minister, the cretin, praising the emergency services in that usual disingenuous way of his, rejoicing in the relatively low death toll due to the speedy evacuation organised by his saintly government. Such a shame the beast hadn’t risen from the Thames outside Parliament and made a quick snack of this smarmy old Etonian.
He looked outside again. Okay, so it was true. There really was a monster here in the town but was it really necessary to clear the entire city of everyone? What about looters? Whenever a town got evacuated, there were always looters breaking into people’s homes, taking whatever they could find. Moreover, what would an evacuation lead to? Successive nights sharing a mattress with some flatulent, bum-scratching stranger in a dodgy B&B while some ruffians broke into his house, stole all his valuables and left the place a shambles? Then there was the other danger. Over the years, Donald had fought hard to stay in his home. The landlords had offered him sweeteners, promises of better accommodation elsewhere but he’d known all their tricks, had known people in similar circumstances. He knew they just wanted him out so they could sell off the property. When he’d resisted that, they had tried harassment and intimidation. He had faced all this down at every stage. If he were to clear out now for who knows how long, he might come back to find they’d taken advantage of his absence to change the locks and sell the place off. After all, possession was nine tenths of the law. Then he remembered his old man had stayed in his house throughout the Second World War, seen through the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the V2 raids, the lot. He had stood his ground, not legged it. It had been business as usual every day and he’d had no Anderson or Morrison to shelter in. Donald resolved to stay put. It’s not as if this thing could crush every house in Southampton. If he just sat tight, kept his head down, it would either pass him by or else be taken out by the army or the RAF. Come to think of it, what had happened to the Royal Navy? How come they hadn’t potted the thing when it was still in the sea? Must have caught them knapping, the useless bastards. You would think with Pompey so close, this part of the coast would have been well defended. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time Southampton had been shafted by its maritime neighbour.
Like a street parade, the loudhailer and vehicles progressed past Donald’s house, their sound receding slowly into the distance. With surprising swiftness, the street became empty and, save for a distant helicopter, an eerie silence descended. A silence Donald had never known. The tranquillity he had so desperately craved for so long. He loved it. And then it was interrupted.
‘Southampton’s being evacuated’ the man in khaki fatigues informed Donald heatedly.
When the military jeep had screeched to a halt outside, a squad of soldiers had jumped down and started a methodical house-to-house check for stragglers. It wasn’t long before Donald’s doorbell was ringing and his letterbox flapping.
‘You have to come with me now.’ Said the sergeant.
‘I’m not leaving my house’ repeated Donald for the umpteenth time. ‘This is my home and nothing’s going to drive me out of it now.’
‘Fine’, said the sergeant. ‘Then we’ll have to carry you out.’
‘Lay a finger on me and I’ll have you for assault.’
The sergeant was afraid of this, but not as afraid he was of being eaten alive or crushed beneath the masonry of Southampton. His job was to ensure all civvies were safely evacuated but, frankly, if any of the great British public were going to be difficult, as far as he was concerned, sod them. His first priority was his men. Carrying a recalcitrant old twat out of a terraced house could put his squad in danger, slow them down, leaving them vulnerable to attack from the invader that was heading this way.
Suddenly another voice was heard
‘What’s this sergeant?’
Donald looked around to see an officer in the doorway.
‘Refuses to leave, Sir,’ replied the sergeant.
Lieutenant Gupta regarded Donald. ‘And he’s aware of what’s going on?’
Donald piped up. ‘Yes he is. He isn’t deaf and he isn’t thick.’
‘Alright sergeant I’ll deal with this. Said the officer. ‘Gather the men and prepare to leave pronto.’
’Sir!’ The sergeant saluted and ran from the house.
‘Now then Sir.’ Gupta turned to Donald who was still sat in his favourite chair. ‘You’re sure you won’t come with me now?’
‘No, I’ve had enough of being messed about by the authorities. I’m staying here.’
‘Of course,’ said Gupta. ‘Then if you could just sign this form please.’
Donald eyed the sheet of paper suspiciously. ‘What’s this?’
‘I just need you to sign to say that should anything happen to you after we leave, it is your responsibility.’
‘Nothing’s going to happen to me.’
‘I hope you are right Mr Marsden, but if you could just sign.’
He held out a pen. Donald snatched it impatiently and scribbled his name in the box indicated.
‘And this copy please.’
With a prodigious tut, Donald did the same on the copy sheet.
‘Thank you Mr Marsden, so you keep that copy and I’ll take this for official records.’
‘What now?’ repeated Gupta, folding the sheet. ‘Well, Now we leave along with everyone else. Pretty soon, you’ll be the only one left in Southampton. Once all this is over we’ll come back to assess the damage. Hopefully you’ll still be here in one piece.’
Of course I will. I’m not letting anyone loot my property.’
‘It’s not looters you need to worry about,’ said Gupta, although he wondered what this old buffer would do about a determined and possibly armed looter. “I’d be more concerned about our prehistoric friend.”
“Oh come on.” Scoffed Donald. “You lot will soon pot it, won’t you?” I heard it on the box. You’re going to lure it out into the countryside so you can bomb it without damaging the buildings, right?”
“Yes, Mr Marsden.” Replied Gupta. “But there’s no guarantee it will allow itself to be lured into the country. Not while there’s prey to be had in the city.”
“I’ll take my chances thanks.” Said Donald adamantly. “Who says it’ll even come down my street?”
“Very well.” Gupta pocketed the sheet. “In that case, I’ll say goodbye.”
The officer strode to the door through which the engine of the jeep could be heard idling.
‘Why don’t you lot turn off your engines?’ called Donald after him.
Gupta stopped and turned around. ‘Our engines?’
‘Yes, your engines, you know, those things in your jeeps which make the bloody things move. Why don’t you switch it off and help the environment?’
Gupta gaped at him. Was he now being challenged to a debate about carbon emissions when they were minutes away from being crushed under the feet or between the jaws of a colossal prehistoric monster? Gupta shook his head dismissively.
‘Last chance to change your mind?’
Donald seemed to hesitate before repeating his rejection. Gupta nodded and turned away. Moments later, the jeep was gone. The street was silent. Donald shivered. He was alone.
Although the quiet was something he had craved so many times, Donald nonetheless found it unnerving. Had he been right to stay behind? Perhaps he was taking a huge risk. Feeling apprehensive, he locked and bolted the front door, not that a giant reptile would bother with a door, but locking it made him feel more secure.
He went back to his chair and put the telly on again. According to the BBC, it was now advancing down Above Bar Street. Had he learnt to use his smartphone, he could have found a social media platform that would have enabled him to follow the progress of the creature. Soon, he would not need social media to know where it was.
‘Not since The Hundred Years War has Southampton suffered such a trauma,’ said the voice of a correspondent.
‘The damage to the historic city walls is a poignant irony since they were built after the French raid of 1338, the last time Southampton was invaded. Naturally, there are now fears that the Merchant’s House in French Street could suffer the same fate as that of the Tudor House in St Michael’s Square …’
Great, thought Donald. All the town’s heritage smashed to bits. What about this grand plan to lure it out into the country? It hadn’t exactly been a roaring success so far.
He switched off the television and picked up a newspaper. Who says this thing was dangerous anyway? Maybe it wasn’t a meat eater. On second thoughts, over a lifetime of nature programmes, he’d never heard of a reptile that wasn’t carnivorous. Alright, perhaps it wouldn’t be hungry. It might just be exploring new territory or searching for a mate, then, when it failed to find one, it would simply return to the sea from whence it came.
The pleasant twitter of birds drew Donald’s attention to the back garden. Glorious weather. Why not sit out in the sunshine and make the most of it? It was tempting. Go on, he thought. Let’s chance it. Nothing’s going to happen. If a great big animal did come down his street, he would hear it, wouldn’t he? Best keep the backdoor open though, so he can just hop back inside.
Donald lowered himself into his garden chair and sat back, feeling the warmth on his face. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh. Nothing like relaxing in the sun and absolutely no noise from next-door, just the rustle of trees in the light wind. Even the distant buzz of a helicopter added something restful to the soundscape. He could get used to this. Maybe the monster could hang around for a few days, keep the place empty for a while.
Some time later, Donald awoke with a jolt. He’d only gone and fallen asleep! A major threat to civilisation apparently at large in the immediate area, and he’d let himself doze off. He looked around quickly but all seemed normal. ‘Look at me,’ he chuckled to himself. ‘While the rest of the world gets into a flap and legs it out of the city, I’m just sitting here, living the dream.’ Then he shuddered at another thought. What if this thing had come by as he’d slept? He’d have been a sitting target. An easy meal.
Suddenly, there was the sound of another vehicle approaching. The last troops clearing this quarter of the city. Immediately, Donald got to his feet. He had to get out there and flag it down. He hobbled as fast as he could back indoors, through the kitchen and up to the front door. It was locked and he fumbled to open it. He heard the jeep go by just as he got the door open and by the time he reached his garden gate, the jeep had turned the corner and was gone. Now he really was on his own.
He hurried back inside and shut and locked the door again. He went back to his chair and sat down. If he could just sit tight, he would be okay. The thing might not even come down his street. But something Lieutenant Gupta had said kept coming back to him: “while there’s prey to be had in the city …” Was he the prey? Ah, but how likely was it that he was the only one there? Donald realised he was wishing a horrible death on other people so that when the thing reached him, it would no longer want food.
This reverie was cut short by a sudden loud click. Donald never usually noticed the hum of his fridge freezer but he certainly did when abruptly it stopped. What a time for the electricity to cut out. Muttering irritably, Donald went to the cupboard under the stairs where the fuse box was housed. He reached in to flick the switch to get the electricity back on. There was no response, no returning hum of power. He switched on the light in the hall but it did not come on. He went into the sitting room and tried the television with no result. He thumped his hand on the top of the set in exasperation. No electricity meant no way of keeping food fresh. No more boiled water so no cups of tea. When it got dark, no light. The authorities must have cut off the power in the whole area. Had he known they would do that, he could have made a more informed decision when the Army had tried to evacuate him.
He went back out into the garden where the silence was less oppressive. There was still the hope that trouble would not head this way and the army would bring this business to an end quickly, then the electricity would come back. He tensed as a bird suddenly flew past him, twittering a frantic warning call. Then it seemed that every bird in the garden burst into a frenetic chorus of song although with none of the melodious tones Donald used to enjoy but more of a frenetic, high-pitched cacophony usually only heard at sunrise and when the sun went down in the evening. He wondered what this hectic flurry of sound meant. He soon found out.
The ground began to tremble. Loud sounds of impact, smashing glass and the reverberating sounds of something heavy hitting something metallic. He went inside and closed the back door, then went to the front room window to peer out. At first he saw nothing but the empty street. Then, an immense shadow moved into view from the right. He ducked back from the window and sat down. His heart was thumping. This was definitely not a hoax or a big fuss about nothing. It was a real, bizarre event, unprecedented, except in American or Japanese cinema. He was afraid to see what was outside but he wanted – needed – to know. He turned to look.
A gigantic clawed foot of a dark green-brown colour descended in front of his window and came to rest on the ground with a massive thud. He looked up the towering limb but the top of the window frame obscured whatever lay above. A second foot came down. That’s it, keep going past, willed Donald. He waited to see the other feet pass by but next came the huge tail, high as a rail carriage at first, then tapering off. He gazed at it in fascination as, like some titanic serpent, it slithered past. To his immense relief, it passed out of view. Donald only counted two feet. The brief glimpse from the television had shown it walking on four, not two …,
He went to the cabinet and poured himself a whisky with shaking hands. The liquor soothed him. Crikey, he thought. The thing doesn’t half look bigger up close. He rasped mirthlessly at this nonsense. Of course it looks bigger up close, you ruddy twit. He took another swig and patted the cabinet. Touch wood, all was going to plan. It was heading in the right direction to where the RAF would be waiting for it. Perhaps they would lure it to the airport. Then they could bomb that too so fewer planes could darken his skies in future.
His courage renewed, Donald decided to put his head outside to make sure the thing was gone. He put down the tumbler and crossed to the door. He undid the lock and pulled the door open wide enough to put his head through. He craned his neck to the left – and saw a pair of massive red eyes staring straight back at him.
The thing looked hellish. Although it had many of the familiar features of a dinosaur – size, shape, reptilian green-brown hue and distended jaws packed with rows of glistening, savage teeth – but this thing had something more alien about it. While shark or crocodile both look intimidating, their expressions seem lifeless, making them appear programmed by instinct and the will to survive; this thing looked as though it was motivated by something else; its face was more expressive than other reptiles and what it expressed in its face, its blazing red eyes, could only be described as malice, as though it hated its prey instead of depending on it for survival. There was a fin-like ridge on the crown of its head which reinforced the harshness of expression in its face, its upright angle pointing to the sky like the crest of a warlike helmet. The row of spikes that ran down its back conveyed extra hostility as if it was dressed for nothing but violence.
Even amidst his frozen fear, Donald had time to register confusion. On the telly the thing had moved on four legs. This one walked on two! What was going on? There wasn’t time to work through this contradiction. The towering giant opened its jaws and let out a sound but not the ear-splitting roar Donald had been expecting but a kind of grunting, rasping hiss which, to Donald, was far more repellent. Then came the next surprise. The thing went down on all fours and made straight for where Donald was standing. So it did have four legs, it just rears up, bear-like when it needs to. This jolted Donald out of his shock and he retreated inside, slamming and locking the door.
“While there’s prey to be had in the city …” came the words of Gupta in Donald’s head. He collapsed into his usual chair and shook with fright as the sweat poured out all over him. Would it be able to get at him in here? Then, something moved across his window, blocking out the daylight.
His heart racing, Donald wondered where he should hide. He got up and staggered through to the kitchen where he crawled beneath the dinner table. That’s what his father had done during the war when the bombs fell. By a miracle, their house had survived unscathed. Donald needed another miracle now.
Then he became aware of a noise, a kind of loud breathy hiss. It’s okay, he thought. Just his own breathing sounding loud in the silence. He held his breath but the sound continued. It got louder and seemed to be coming from above him. Then it was behind him. He glanced up to see a wall of green-brown scales covering the back window.
“I can’t believe this,” whispered Donald. “I just can’t believe it’s come to this! Of all the streets the bloody thing could walk down, it had to, just had to, choose mine. Typical, just bloody typical!”
Then, unexpectedly, sunlight streamed back into the kitchen as the wall of scales vanished from the window. The thing must have given up and moved off. Donald almost wept with relief. Hadn’t he said that, so long as he kept his head down, nothing would happen? Sure he’d almost brought disaster on himself by opening his front door and betraying his presence to the beast, but ultimately, luck had been on his side.
Donald grasped a table leg and started to haul himself up on to his haunches and duly banged his head on the underside of the table. He chuckled euphorically, his instinctive curse lacking its usual conviction. He felt like celebrating with a trip to the whisky cabinet – and it was then that the two clawed feet punched through the roof.
The beast reared up again and brought its front claws down through the attic floor into the storey below. The beast dug through the house, knocking walls aside to root through the upper rooms. Donald thought again of the world war two bombs his parents had survived and knew that, this time, the luck of the family had not been passed down. The kitchen ceiling was prised upwards, causing broken masonry and furniture to rain down and sending clouds of dust in all directions. A dresser fell from the floor above, spilling out its contents and landing on the kitchen table, reinforcing Donald’s hiding place. He clung to the table leg just as he did to his last hope of his makeshift shelter succeeding where the tiled roof of his house had failed. This time, however, keeping his head down would not be enough. The claw came down once more and plucked the dresser and table aside and as Donald Marsden rose up towards the terrible jaws, he admitted that he really ought to have gone with the army when he’d had the chance.
Liam O’Carroll is an actor, writer, journalist, podcaster and pro-disability rights activist. He is married and lives with his wife and son in South West London. This is the second short story we have published by him in Perro Negro.