A novel in the tradition of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.
My phone rings. It’s Dad’s tune. After a while it cuts out.
It’s nearly midnight and I should have been home hours ago, but I’m kicking my heels. I’d rather get there when Mum and Dad are safely tucked up in bed, leave arguments for tomorrow. I spent most of today helping Andy rebuild the engine of an old Kawasaki W650 in his dad’s workshop, and the day just slipped by, unnoticed. As I’m already in trouble, there’s no point rushing back for an ear-bashing. It’s time they realised I’m seventeen.
I’m a disappointment to my parents, of course. Dad’s a financial whizz for a city bank, which makes a pile of dosh, Mum’s a professor in Ancient History, which doesn’t, but I haven’t got an academic bone in my body. I could become a mechanic, I guess, but though I enjoy rebuilding engines for my biker friends, I really want a bike of my own, to drive, and after that, mostly what I want to do is draw. I think I’m pretty good, but Dad says there are loads of people who think they’re good at art, and I need to get a real job and dabble at my hobby later.
I head for the Motorbike Emporium, watching my reflection flicker from one plate glass window to another as I walk. London is iced with Christmas, the shop windows brightly tinselled with tat and sprayed with fake cheer. The drizzle turns to sleet. I shiver and shrug deeper into my hoodie.
I hate Christmas. Not because it’s Jesus’ birthday, but the pretense that all this glitter has anything to do with it. Don’t get me wrong, if people lived how he said, I think the world would be a better place. But they don’t, even the ones who say they believe in him. Anyway, all that goodwill to all men disappears soon enough when bills from the shopping binge hit the doormat, when the banks start calling in their slice of Christmas cheer. It’s not only Dad who can forecast that kind of New Year.
The bike shop is like the others, encrusted with bling. I’d hoped it wouldn’t be, but it’s sparkly and jangly, complete with a dummy wearing a jaunty red Santa outfit stuffed with cushions. I don’t get why he has to be fat as well as jolly. He’s leaning on the boss’s Harley, which has pride of place in the window, as it does every year, its polished chrome reflecting the flashing lights that decorate the till. Ching! Yeah, see? It’s all about money.
I cup my hands around my face and press my nose against the glass. There, right at the back, hanging on the wall is an old black Norton. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. What wouldn’t I give to rip it from its prison, clean it up, and give it a taste of the open road once more? That’s where it should be, the low pulse of its old engine cutting the night, the narrow tyres thrumming against tarmac. Here it’s just an ornament gathering dust, a sad relic of the old days.
I sigh and step back. My reflection in the window reverses into a ring of white faces. I jump around, startled, but the street behind me is deserted.
I turn back to the window, and they’re behind me, hundreds of them, some wearing leather, some with helmets, some clutching chains as if they know how to use them. The biggest biker gang I’ve ever seen.
I turn my head, slowly, but there’s nothing except the wet road and a marching army of streetlights disappearing into sleet.
Scared and confused, my eyes sidle to the window once more. Behind my stunned gape, the ring of faces draws closer. My heart thuds heavily, my breath shortens. I see them clearly, young and old, all shapes and sizes. In the glass their eyes are expressionless black holes, caved in as if by some huge hunger. Behind them, larger shadows begin to materialise out of darkness: gaunt figures with wild hair and the hint of – antlers? Their monstrous eyes reflect the orange glow of street lights, their long teeth gleam like pure snow.
I freeze. It’s all in my mind. It’s not real. I press my face against the glass and shut my eyes. I’ve never taken drugs, but I guess this is how it must feel; surreal, nightmarish. I tell myself if I count to ten, they’ll be gone, but there’s a soft brush of breath on my neck, and a whiff of something rotten. A strangled noise whistles from my throat. I’m not a wimp and I’m not afraid of a scrap, but right now I’m terrified.
I swivel and put my back to the window. ‘Go away! Leave me alone! You’re not real!’
My voice echoes into the empty street. There are no bikers, no antlered monsters. But I sense their presence in the reflection behind me.
The feather-touch of a ghostly hand brushes my arm. I smell engine oil and rancid, animal breath. Whispers hush like wind:
‘We’re waiting for you. Ride with us, Liam.’
I swallow hard. My heart is beating too fast, too loud. My hands clench into fists, but there’s nothing to hit. My foot knocks something which rattles along the pavement. I slide my back down the wall and grab the bottle by the neck like a weapon. Then, with all my strength, I push upward, turn and smash it into the glass. The bottle explodes. Pieces of glass ricochet like murderous hail then dance to the ground with the icy rain.
There’s a moment of unbelievable silence, then cracks snake from the centre of the window into a shattered mosaic of still faces. The shop alarm screams. Neon lights pulse.
I turn and half crouch against the dark unknown. There’s no gang of brutal bikers. There never was. Blood trickles from my hand and spatters onto the glinting shards of glass which surround me. People arrive. They stare.
I lift my hands, take a small step forward but they back away as if I’m the monster. Realising I’m brandishing a broken bottle, I drop it.
Sirens sound in the distance, drifting closer. I stand, dazed, as vehicles screech to a halt. Police take my arms and lead me to an ambulance. I see their mouths move, but I hear nothing. I shudder. What just happened? I might have dreamed up all those bikers, but could I have invented those creatures with eyes like coals and teeth like sabres? Could I have dreamed up that scent of death, that utter terror?
I don’t think so. My imagination isn’t that good.