Monstrous May, Pagham-verse

#MonstrousMay 2023: The Monster’s Hide

The Condemnation of 43-55 Starling Lane

cws: body horror (graphic) involving skin and eyes

My neighbour has been dead for days, but I can still hear him coughing through the wall. It is a hollow, hard bark of a cough, forced from his chest cavity and vibrating over his voice box, but it isn’t him doing the breathing.

Starling Lane is a long street behind a disused train track that once branched from the main line to the Barker Mill, and curved along past the village of workers known as Barker Crescent, which is several streets in curved rows set a short distance from the town, and arcing down to Pagham-on-Sea docks – not to be confused with the historic Pagham Harbour, which only shares the first part of the name.

I moved there in the summer of 2007, when there were 58 terraced cottages, two for sale, three rented. It wasn’t a bad little place to live. It had storage heaters and hadn’t been decorated since 1984 – “authentically retro”, the estate agent said to me. I saw some mould in the attic. “Don’t worry about that,” the surveyor said. “It’s not dangerous.”

The houses on the end of the row seemed to disagree; whenever I walked by, the curtains were speckled grey with it, hanging in the windows like limp rags. Paint peeled around the door frames. I never saw anyone go in or out of numbers 1-4 Starling Lane, and after a couple of years, I started noticing that 5-8 were also eerily quiet. No music, no dogs, no kids, no arguments. The lights stopped coming on. The cars remained in the parking spaces, but one day I got home from work and three of them were missing. Then another four cars, gone. Other neighbours parked there instead, leaving gaps for my Nissan Micra. I never parked in front of those houses, I couldn’t tell you why.

Some sixth sense, perhaps. Well, I know now.

In 2010, they knocked down numbers 1-10. There were skips in the street and around the corner, and I had a nose through some of the items – they were throwing away all the good stuff, coffee tables, kitchen appliances, curtains, bed linen, bed frames, bookcases. I took a few things for my house; I thought nobody would mind.

I should have suspected something then, when my eczema flared and got worse, spreading over my hands and elbows and arms in rough, bleeding patches. But it settled and responded to treatment, leaving white, rough splotches behind, and I tried not to think about them. I covered up. Kept them dry. I saw a specialist when my skin began to change, when it began to harden, when small growths appeared. They were like boils, but solid, and underneath the hump of hard, bleach-white skin, was a layer of translucent jelly that clung into my flesh with tiny fibres. I managed to peel one off with a butter knife, the flat blade slipping in the gap and prising it away, leaving a shallow, bloody pit. It hurt, but it healed. I didn’t want to see a doctor. My skin didn’t want me to, so I didn’t go.

Nothing filled the gap. Number 11 was empty, unsold. The people at Number 12 moved out six months later, then Number 23. I never knew them.

At night, I thought I could hear a moaning sound, like someone in pain. A long, drawn-out groan in the early hours, right above my head. The attics connect, you see. All the way along. They’re all partitioned off, but the terrace was built in one long line, dividing walls put up on a shared foundation. Maybe the coal cellars all connect too – mine is a concrete box, far too damp for storage.

I did investigate the moaning. I assumed at first it was someone’s TV, but couldn’t fathom what they’d be watching that sounded like that. I went up to my attic with a torch, and it was coming from the other side, but how far along I couldn’t tell. I went back downstairs and came out of the house in a dressing gown and slippers, walking slowly along the street in the dark.

There wasn’t anything to hear from outside. Nothing except the scream of a vixen, strangled and eerie, somewhere in the woods behind Starling Lane. There was the rumble of distant traffic, reassuringly human and modern and civilised. But there was no moaning, no human-voiced groans. None of the other houses had lights on.

I went back home, and the sounds had stopped.

Not long after that, Numbers 13-15 had notices served. I didn’t actually see their tenants leave. Number 28 and Number 40 went up for sale. I asked the lady at 40 if they were moving somewhere nice. She just looked at me, as if I had asked her what the moon was really made of.

I should have gone, too.

But I didn’t.

I don’t know why I didn’t. I blame my skin.

When Number 40 was empty, things got worse.

16-27 were silent. I never saw them. The moaning at night resumed, but it sounded different. Less human. More like the lowing of a cow, but a cow with a human throat. I don’t know. I couldn’t figure out where it came from.

I picked off boil after boil that summer, packing the pits they left, in constant pain with the stinging that set my skin on fire. My eyes began to swell and itch. I found layers of the jelly on the undersides of my eyelids, eating into the raw pink underneath. It detached as I pulled my lower lid down in the bathroom mirror, thin and pale-grey, but rooted at the bottom. I tried to remove it myself with tweezers, and it came away painfully in gelatinous pieces. I couldn’t get all of it, and it came back. It rewarded me only when I left it alone.

My second eyelids grew back after I tweezed them out, for that was the best way I can describe what they are. I had muscular control over them at first, two sets of lids that blink independently of one another. The lower set are now fused over my eyeballs, and I still see, but in a grey filmed glaze. It is restful, and better this way. Now, I do not have to look at myself, my skin, my situation, and see what has happened to me. It is easier to accept – and besides, there is no ‘I’ anymore. ‘I’ am we, we are me, and yet there is still some part that insists on an independent sense of self. The part of me still encased in this skin.

They knocked down Numbers 11-30. We had inspectors come to visit the other properties from Environmental Health, but I refused to let them through the door. They said they’d be back with warrants and legal permission, and I called their bluff on that. They wanted to know if I had a skin condition. I shut the door. My skin stopped hurting so much after that. I began to nurture it. It liked me to moisturise. I stopped picking out the boils. They only came back.

My toes fused first. Then my fingers. Webs of skin, fragile and soggy, linked the digits together. These were easily broken, like the thin covering of a blister, but when broken they itched maddeningly and the itching was impossible to relieve. I let them be, aired them, dried them, and they hardened. Only that brought relief.

I noticed now that the patches were changing colour. There was a greenish-grey tinge to the skin. Some of those bleach-white patches were darkening to a kind of mushroom taupe, while others mottled into shades of light and dark, slate and lichen. When I could not get out of bed anymore, I knew that they would condemn our houses too, that this was not just me, but the whole street, and we would all soon be gone. I clung to the seconds of life like they were small eternities, moulded to the mattress and sheets with the jelly of my new flesh, feelers of it connecting to the rest of the street.

That’s how I knew my neighbour was dead.

I could taste him, if I tried. I could reach into his chest with my extremities, and pump his diaphragm as I feasted, keeping myself alive just that little bit longer, until they came for me.

I could feel others, also still alive, doing the same to my living body. We nourished each other.

It is strange that, in those final moments, we never exchanged words but we were more in community than we ever had been on our little street.

Environmental Health are back. They have erected a cordon.

My thick, spongey hide is no protection from what they will bring to finish us off. I am not afraid of the wrecking balls and the flamethrowers, though. I am ripe and ready. They do not yet know we need the heat and the fire. My hide is bursting with nuggets of life.

They may destroy Starling Lane, wipe it off the town map like it was never here, but we will live on.

Things like us always find a way.

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