I need to piss but I can’t take the stairs by the microfiche room or else I’ll see Kinchin again. Oh, he’ll be there, skulking in the stairwell, waiting to follow me up two flights of stairs, down a drab corridor and into the bathroom. He can watch me through the door, you know, such is his desire to see me relieve myself. The lad can’t be older than five, but his face is scored with crow’s feet and frown lines, jowls like pork chops hanging in a butcher’s window. Getting up and down these stairs is hard enough at my age without him lurking outside the bathroom stall while I do my business. Worst of all is when he speaks, talking without opening his mouth, a voice like blood on gravel: Oh god, how they hurt me. I put my hands over my ears but I can still hear him.
There’s one other bathroom located on the other side of the archive facility but the door has been wadded shut with yellowing foam. This place is a vast 1980s affair that denies convenience. It’s one of those buildings that you can’t imagine ever being functional, let alone modern or inviting. There is hostility in every angle, room after room of mislabelled archive boxes and deliberate obfuscation. The ambient dread of an overworked heating system hums through every floor, broken photocopiers chunter in a room far away that no one ever comes to fix. I’ll say that one thing about Kinchin. I know he will be there if I exit the reading room and smell burning fuel, so caustic that at least it cuts through the usual aroma of cabbagey effluence.
Kinchin could have been my grandson. What an ugly thought. Silas and I never had children but it doesn’t stop me wondering what they’d look like, what kind of people they’d be. Probably an egomaniac (Silas) with an admirable work ethic (me). One thing for sure they wouldn’t look like Kinchin, in that frayed woollen suit with the piss stains around the crotch. Didn’t he have a mother who could have washed his clothes once in a while? Kinchins. That’s what Granny called children who didn’t have parents. Like the Moss family who lived on the outskirts of Corswick, six emaciated kids who’d beg for change in the town square on a Saturday morning. Wretched mites, those little Kinchins, Granny would say as she dragged me into the greengrocers. The mother hanged herself. She’d repeat the story each time we saw them that summer, as if their poverty was a deliberate personal affront to her. When the children didn’t show at school in September, social services rounded them up and put them into care. Granny would still shake her head every time we passed the old Moss house. Wretched Kinchins.
I shift on the reading room chair, wincing as I cross one stiff leg over the other. I can wait a little bit longer, it’s only a short drive from Corswick back to Ashmere and then I can pee in privacy at home. I can’t bear to hear Kinchin’s groaning again. Not today, not after what I’ve just read. Oh, he’ll be there, baring those receding gums and stubby little teeth as he cries, skin like the greasy film on top of an old glass of milk. Have I told you about the way he moves? He slithers, leaving a viscous trail behind him, up and down the same flight of stairs all day until he sees me heading to the bathroom. Seems like a waste of energy to me. But there’s no bargaining with his sorrow. Oh god, he cries, how they hurt me. He cannot be comforted even if I wanted to.
The first time I saw Kinchin was in a dream. You shouldn’t be here, I told him. So banal were my dreams, choking on a piece of turkey gristle at a Christmas party or leaving the curtain open as I undress, that something so eldritch seemed out of place. That was shortly after the redacted files were released. I’ve been coming here for six months now, reading police notes and witness statements, searching for answers about what became of Silas. We all knew someone who’d gone missing during those years; there were stories from all over the fells. The lucky ones turned up dead. At least their families knew.
There’s no one here to help me lift the archive boxes, so I have to go from the reading room to record room B where they left files pertaining to 1988-1991. The census records are kept in record room D, but to locate the exact documents I require, I need to consult the card catalogues in record room A. It’s slow work and my eyesight isn’t so good these days; I take my time over each report because I’ve little appetite for reading so much horror. Six months I’d spent in these archives with nothing but card catalogues and Kinchin for company. That’s enough to drive anyone to the asylum. Well, I’d been lobbying for twenty-five years for these records and I wasn’t going to give up on account of some ghost.
It’s time for my medication. I pull the packet out of my handbag and swallow the pills dry, they stick inside my throat inching their way down my gullet. I don’t dare take a sip of water in case I piss myself on the way home. It’s so hot in here though, the radiators turned up filling the archives with a dusty, stale heat. The nurse told me I had cystitis, that I would need to drink more water and recommended some cotton pads, akin to baby’s nappies that I could wear when I left the house. Just in case, she said. I’m not incontinent, I told her. Not yet. I just had to get through these files before my pass expired. I had to find out what happened to Silas even if it meant neglecting bodily functions.
Shrugging off my cardigan, I briefly consider undoing the top button of my blouse, but even in solitude it feels improper. I return to the papers in front of me. It’s grim reading, I sift my way through accounts of the skins floating in Jerod Water and imagine them bobbing along the lake’s surface like plastic bags. We thought they were suicides at first, you know how it was up here. It all started with that awful Mrs Thatcher and her band of devils championing privatisation. The mining industry was at the heart of the fells and people started to lose hope when the pits closed and jobs were scarce. Sadness and fear hung in the air all over the villages during those years. And then we learned about a different kind of terror, one that could not be named. Strange silhouettes appearing on the fell tops. Men going missing from the villages. The mountain all of a sudden seemed too high, too vast. What secrets did it keep?
I take a thin report out of its plastic sleeve and thumb through the witness statement from an Ebbdale farmer. It caught my attention because the village, more of a cluster of farm buildings in the lowlands, was very close to my house in Ashmere and I’d often buy eggs from them. Nice folk, though I didn’t recognise the name of the farmer who’d given the report. Silas would walk Cherry, our cocker spaniel, every morning through Ebbdale and up to Overdale and back. He’d come back smelling of the fells: grassy manure and fog.
The farmer said he’d heard guttural noises one night coming from the old mine in Overdale. He went to investigate, when a man, or what he thought was a man, was dragging himself along the shale path leaving a trail of blood behind him. He said the man was naked, there was blood gushing from where his genitals should have been. He was repeating the same phrase over and over again but his voice was so hoarse the farmer couldn’t make out what he was saying. The farmer ran back to his house to call for an ambulance, but by the time the emergency services arrived, the man had vanished and there was no blood to be found. I swallow thickly, rolling the end of the treasury tag mindlessly between my fingertips. I think of that morning only Cherry returned from their walk, fur soaked through, barking at me as if I could understand what she was saying.
Anything could have happened in that mine, it was sequestered in such an unpopulated area of the fells and little effort had been made to secure it against trespass after closure. I imagined Silas’s body, one among many, flayed and maimed in some dark, bottomless hell.
The strip light overhead whines with increasing volume. I dab a handkerchief on my forehead as discomfort masses inside me, a needling sensation in my urethra makes itself known. I can’t wait any longer.
On the stairs by the microfiche room, Kinchin waits. Pitiful black tears roll down his cheeks. A sob catches in my throat. Let me pass Kinchin, I beg. I pull myself up the stairs and he follows, always two steps behind. Oh God, how they hurt me, his words a lasso around my waist. I look up, my balance shifts; the polystyrene ceiling tiles melt, running like sputum down the walls. The staircase begins a cruel multiplication; each step I climb adds two to the total. I do not turn back; I do not need to, I know he is there by that terrible mantra which never changes. Oh God, how they hurt me. I slip on the viscous trail Kinchin has deposited on the stairs; I try to maintain purchase, struggling to right myself, clutching the bannister like a lifebuoy.
At the top of the stairs, I shuffle along the corridor. It is too straight and the vanishing point gets further and further away. I feel a runnel of piss trickling down my tights. My cheeks burn, but it’s too damn late for shame. I barrel into the bathroom and lock myself into a stall. Silence now, except for the dripping of the tap as it counts down the seconds until that awful moment when the door swings open.
Kinchin stands outside my stall; all I can see are his little worn brogues. I squeeze my eyes shut and pray that when I open them, he’ll be gone. And then I hear it. Oh god, how they hurt me.
So what? I bark at him, eyes still closed. You’re not special. I hurt all the time. I’m old and my body is crumbling, my heart is sore from all the people I’ve lost. The world is on fire and all you can think about is your own suffering. Go and endure it elsewhere, leave me in peace.
Silence. I slowly open my eyes to see a pool of amber liquid slithering under the door. The smell of petrol assaults my nostrils. Kinchin reforms and stands closer than I’ve ever been to him before. I stare into those big eyes blooming like black mould and dread bores its way through me. Oh god, he says, how they hurt me.
His face begins to contort and, you will not believe me when I say this, but there was a second face pushing through, another skull puppeteering his own. His eyes flicker between black and a vivid hazel, so familiar it was as if I only saw them this morning. I look at him and see Silas. His face inside Kinchin’s. His body sewn into this tiny horror masquerading as a boy. Kinchin’s face warps like burning rubber, the elasticity of his face stretched so far it could split. He wretches, open mouthed, and vomits the end of a chain that he drags from his throat. All the while he repeats that awful phrase, now I know it is but a facsimile of human suffering.
R.L. Summerling is a writer from South East London. In her free time she enjoys befriending crows in Nunhead Cemetery. She has stories in Hexagon’s MYRIAD, Seize The Press, Bear Creek Gazette and more. You can find her at rlsummerling.com and on