By Patrick O’Connell
My name is Bill Fisher. I’m 19 years old, and I’m studying maths at Durham University, though not very well. I have no close friends, the sex life of a railway slider, and I like to draw. If life was a motorway, I was trundling along an uphill country lane on one of those Victorian bicycles with the fat wheel, headed absolutely nowhere.
But this story isn’t really about me (thank Christ, right?). It’s about how the world is on the brink of ending, and there’s barely any time left to save it. The boundary between our world and theirs has shattered like sugar glass, and everyone’s too asleep to realize it. This is my way of waking you up, while I still can. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
It was early October on Elvet bridge, and the fat man in the wig was singing Jailhouse Rock.
I’d seen this impersonator before, in his silly shades and beaten-up jacket, busking his heart out, and guiltily would remember that once again, I’d forgotten to bring change for him. So, this time, like every other, I stopped to listen to him a little way up the bridge, pretending to look at the river and occasionally throwing covert glances his way. If he didn’t see me watching him, went my logic, then he wouldn’t know that I was listening to him free of charge. Elvis was wearing a harmonica around his neck on a cord, but I never once saw him pick it up to play.
Every so often he’d twist and look over his shoulder, like he was expecting to get jumped. Which, I should remind you, is rather unlikely unless that someone was a particularly ambitious fish with a grudge – behind him was the steep drop to the River Wear.
Around the time that the song’s inmates were finishing their dance, I turned to go, and immediately caught him staring directly at me. When I saw him again, he was looking down, fiddling with the cable of his microphone, and I strode quickly across to the staircase that led down to the river path, embarrassed.
It’s a gorgeous little walk, that one, and so thickly greened that at some parts you can barely see the river through the clusters of reeds and big leafy water plants growing out of the bank. It was the beginning of autumn then, and some of those wide leaves were browning like toast at the edges. A furry caterpillar inched across one of them, getting grub in while he still could.
I would’ve soon stopped thinking about the bizarre moment on the bridge, and would have forgotten about it completely.
If he hadn’t been following me.
I didn’t look behind me at all when I was walking down, only stopping occasionally to take pictures of the cathedral towering above the tree line.
I managed to make it all the way past the mill and the little boat club shack, down some steps to a small, secluded concrete area only a couple meters wide. The perfect place for me to draw. I’d only been sitting there for about five minutes, however, sketching the imposing lines of the cathedral rising above the trees, when I once again felt the presence of Elvis.
He was standing at the bottom of the steps, one foot perched a little higher than the other one so that he resembled a perched seabird looking for chips. I glanced sideways at him, and gave him that classic socially-awkward white guy upturn of the head and barely-there smile. He didn’t return it, instead tapping one finger against the outside of his pocket and looking out over the river. In the periphery of my vision, I saw him open his mouth and close it three times. Eventually, he seemed to find the courage to speak.
“I’m going to die.”
I scratched my cheek, and laughed, shortly.
“I’m not joking.”
“Ah. Oh. Sorry.”
There was silence, and in what was probably meant to be an amiable move, he sidled across the concrete platform and sat next to me, letting out a labored breath. I scooted away a little, feeling beyond nervous at this point but completely helpless. He also scooted sideways, so that the distance between us was closed again, and said, conspiratorially:
“There’s a monster following me and it’s going to kill me.”
Okay. Real alarm bells going off now (although at least it wasn’t covid). I flipped the sketchpad shut and tucked it under my arm.
“Um, I’ve just realized I’d better…” I jerked my head to the side ineffectually, unable to think of a specific reason why I’d need to bail that wasn’t just “YOU ARE COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY MENTAL, GOODBYE!”
As I stood, the stout man’s eyes grew wide, and he jerked at the harmonica, the cord snapping around his neck.
“Wait! Wait! Before you go, take it! Please, just take it!”
I hesitated, and so did the world around me. The air tightened and held its breath, and the river seemed to quieten in anticipation.
I took the harmonica, and Elvis smiled. He grew lighter, like a dog that has just shaken itself off from the rain, and rubbed his hands together.
“Well. That’s that, then.”
I held the instrument between my thumb and forefinger, unconsciously rubbing its surface.
He frowned at that and seemed to deflate again, darting his eyes left and right before stepping right up to me. It happened so fast that I didn’t even flinch. I could feel his breath on me, warm and stale and wrong.
“Don’t say that. You shouldn’t have said that. Just go. Please.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I backpedalled up the stairs and onto the main path, walking back at a decent clip towards Elvet bridge. I only made it about a few metres in that direction before I heard Elvis laugh. A joyous sound, that threw itself up towards the sky and shattered itself over and over again with each disbelieving cackle.
On the way back home, I threw the harmonica into a bin.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have buried it at the bottom of the river.
END OF PART ONE
Image via @yourlocalbreadman on Instagram