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Feeders and Eaters

Neil Gaiman

  Feeders and Eaters

  Neil Gaiman

  Short horror story, accompanied by work by P. Craig Russell (adapting Poe's "Eldorado") and others.


  Feeders and Eaters

  About the following story Gaiman says: "This story started as a dream I had in 1984, when I was living in Edgeware. I was in the dream, both me and the man in the story. Normally dreams don't make stories, but this one continued to haunt me, and in 1990-ish 1 wrote it as a comic for Mark Buckingham to draw. Not many people read it, and it was printed so dark that much of what was happening became almost impossible to make out.

  "When asked for a story for Keep Out the Night, I remembered that one, and I got intrigued by the idea of taking an old horror story I wrote as a comic and rewriting it as prose. It's an odd piece, like a collaboration between me age thirty and me age forty-one."

  —E. D.

  This is a true story, pretty much. As far as that goes, and whatever good it does anybody. It was late one night, and I was cold, in a city where I had no right to be. Not at that time of night, anyway. I won't tell you which city. I'd missed my last train, and I wasn't sleepy, so I prowled the streets around the station until I found an all-night café. Somewhere warm to sit.

  You know the kind of place; you've been there: café's name on a Pepsi sign above a dirty plate-glass window, dried egg residue between the tines of all their forks. I wasn't hungry, but I bought a slice of toast and a mug of greasy tea, so they'd leave me alone.

  There were a couple of other people in there, sitting alone at their tables, derelicts and insomniacs huddled over their empty plates. Dirty coats and donkey jackets, each buttoned up to the neck.

  I was walking back from the counter, with my tray, when somebody said, "Hey." It was a man's voice. "You," the voice said, and I knew he was talking to me, not to the room. "I know you. Come here. Sit over here."

  I ignored it. You don't want to get involved, not with anyone you'd run into in a place like that.

  Then he said my name, and I turned and looked at him. When someone knows your name, you don't have any option.

  "Don't you know me?" he asked. I shook my head. I didn't know anyone who looked like that. You don't forget something like that. "It's me," he said, his voice a pleading whisper. "Eddie Barrow. Come on mate. You know me."

  And when he said his name I did know him, more or less. I mean, I knew Eddie Barrow. We had worked on a building site together, ten years back, during my only real flirtation with manual work.

  Eddie Barrow was tall, and heavily muscled, with a movie star smile and lazy good looks. He was ex-police. Sometimes he'd tell me stories, true tales of fitting-up and doing over, of punishment and crime. He had left the force after some trouble between him and one of the top brass. He said it was the Chief Superintendent's wife forced him to leave. Eddie was always getting into trouble with women. They really liked him, women.

  When we were working together on the building site they'd hunt him down, give him sandwiches, little presents, whatever. He never seemed to do anything to make them like him; they just liked him. I used to watch him to see how he did it, but it didn't seem to be anything he did. Eventually, I decided it was just the way he was: big, strong, not very bright, and terribly, terribly good-looking.

  But that was ten years ago.

  The man sitting at the Formica table wasn't good-looking. His eyes were dull, and rimmed with red, and they stared down at the table-top, without hope. His skin was grey. He was too thin, obscenely thin. I could see his scalp through his filthy hair. I said, "What happened to you?"

  "How d'you mean?"

  "You look a bit rough," I said, although he looked worse than rough; he looked dead. Eddie Barrow had been a big guy. Now he'd collapsed in on himself. All bones and flaking skin.

  "Yeah," he said. Or maybe "Yeah?" I couldn't tell. Then, resigned, flatly, "Happens to us all in the end."

  He gestured with his left hand, pointed at the seat opposite him. His right arm hung stiffly at his side, his right hand safe and hidden in the pocket of his coat.

  Eddie's table was by the window, where anyone walking past could see you. Not somewhere I'd sit by choice, not if it was up to me. But it was too late now. I sat down facing him and I sipped my tea. I didn't say anything, which could have been a mistake. Small talk might have kept his demons at a distance. But I cradled my mug and said nothing. So I suppose he must have thought that I wanted to know more, that I cared. I didn't care. I had enough problems of my own. I didn't want to know about his struggle with whatever it was that had brought him to this state—drink, or drugs, or disease—but he started to talk, in a grey voice, and I listened.

  "I came here a few years back, when they were building the bypass. Stuck around after, the way you do. Got a room in an old place around the back of Prince Regent's Street. Room in the attic. It was a family house, really. They only rented out the top floor, so there were just the two boarders, me and Miss Corvier. We were both up in the attic, but in separate rooms, next door to each other. I'd hear her moving about. And there was a cat. It was the family cat, but it came upstairs to say hello, every now and again, which was more than the family ever did.

  "I always had my meals with the family, but Miss Corvier she didn't ever come down for meals, so it was a week before I met her. She was coming out of the upstairs lavvy. She looked so old. Wrinkled face, like an old, old monkey. But long hair, down to her waist, like a young girl.

  "It's funny, with old people, you don't think they feel things like we do. I mean, here's her, old enough to be my granny and…" He stopped. Licked his lips with a grey tongue. "Anyway… I came up to the room one night and there's a brown paper bag of mushrooms outside my door on the ground. It was a present, I knew that straight off. A present for me. Not normal mushrooms, though. So I knocked on her door.

  "I says, 'Are these for me?'

  " 'Picked them meself, Mister Barrow,' she says.

  " 'They aren't like toadstools or anything?' I asked. 'Y'know, poisonous? Or funny mushrooms?'

  "She just laughs. Cackles even. 'They're for eating,' she says. 'They're fine. Shaggy inkcaps, they are. Eat them soon now. They go off quick. They're best fried up with a little butter and garlic.'

  " 'I say, are you having some too?'

  "She says, 'No.' She says, 'I used to be a proper one for mushrooms, but not any more, not with my stomach. But they're lovely. Nothing better than a young shaggy inkcap mushroom. It's astonishing the things that people don't eat. All the things around them that people could eat, if only they knew it.'

  "I said 'Thanks,' and went back into my half of the attic. They'd done the conversion a few years before, nice job really. I put the mushrooms down by the sink. After a few days they dissolved into black stuff, like ink, and I had to put the whole mess into a plastic bag and throw it away.

  "I'm on my way downstairs with the plastic bag, and I run into her on the stairs, she says 'Hullo Mister B.'

  "I say, 'Hello Miss Corvier.'

  " 'Call me Effie,' she says. 'How were the mushrooms?'

  " 'Very nice, thank you,' I said. 'They were lovely.'

  "She'd leave me other things after that, little presents, flowers in old milk-bottles, things like that, then nothing. I was a bit relieved when the presents suddenly stopped.

  "So I'm down at dinner with the family, the lad at the poly, he was home for the holidays. It was August. Really hot. And someone says they hadn't seen her for about a week, and could I look in on her. I said I didn't mind.

  "So I did. The door wasn't locked. She was in bed. She had a thin sheet over her, but you could see she was naked under the sheet. Not that I was trying to see anything, it'd be like looking at your gran in t
he altogether. This old lady. But she looked so pleased to see me.

  " 'Do you need a doctor?' I says.

  "She shakes her head. 'I'm not ill,' she says. 'I'm hungry. That's all.'

  " 'Are you sure,' I say, 'because I can call someone. It's not a bother. They'll come out for old people.'

  "She says, 'Edward? I don't want to be a burden on anyone, but I'm so hungry.'

  " 'Right. I'll get you something to eat,' I said. 'Something easy on your tummy,' I says. That's when she surprises me. She looks embarrassed. Then she says, very quietly, 'Meat. It's got to be fresh meat, and raw. I won't let anyone else cook for me. Meat. Please, Edward.'

  " 'Not a problem,' I says, and I go downstairs. I thought for a moment about nicking it from the cat's bowl, but of course I didn't. It was like, I knew she wanted it, so I had to do it. I had no choice. I went down to Safeway, and I bought her a readipak of best ground sirloin.

  "The cat smelled it. Followed me up the stairs. I said, 'You get down, puss. It's not for you. It's for Miss Corvier and she's not feeling well, and she's going to need it for her supper,' and the thing mewed at me as if it hadn't been fed in a week, which I knew wasn't true because its bowl was still half-full. Stupid, that cat was.

  "I knock on her door, she says 'Come in.' She's still in the bed. and I give her the pack of meat, and she says 'Thank you Edward, you've got a good heart.' And she starts to tear off the plastic wrap, there in the bed. There's a puddle of brown blood under the plastic tray, and it drips onto her sheet, but she doesn't notice. Makes me shiver.

  "I'm going out the door, and I can already hear her starting to eat with her fingers, cramming the raw mince into her mouth. And she hadn't got out of bed.

  "But the next day she's up and about, and from there on she's in and out at all hours, in spite of her age, and I think there you are. They say red meat's bad for you, but it did her the world of good. And raw, well, it's just steak tartare, isn't it? You ever eaten raw meat?"

  The question came as a surprise. I said, "Me?"

  Eddie looked at me with his dead eyes, and he said, "Nobody else at this table."

  "Yes. A little. When I was a small boy—four, five years old—my grandmother would take me to the butcher's with her, and he'd give me slices of raw liver, and I'd just eat them, there in the shop, like that. And everyone would laugh."

  I hadn't thought of that in twenty years. But it was true.

  I still like my liver rare, and sometimes, if I'm cooking and if nobody else is around, I'll cut a thin slice of raw liver before I season it, and I'll eat it, relishing the texture and the naked, iron taste.

  "Not me," he said. "I liked my meat properly cooked. So the next thing that happened was Thompson went missing."


  "The cat. Somebody said there used to be two of them, and they called them Thompson and Thompson. I don't know why. Stupid, giving them both the same name. The first one was squashed by a lorry." He pushed at a small mound of sugar on the Formica top with a fingertip. His left hand, still. I was beginning to wonder whether he had a right arm. Maybe the sleeve was empty. Not that it was any of my business. Nobody gets through life without losing a few things on the way.

  I was trying to think of some way of telling him I didn't have any money, just in case he was going to ask me for something when he got to the end of his story. I didn't have any money: just a train ticket and enough pennies for the bus ticket home.

  "I was never much of a one for cats," he said suddenly. "Not really. I liked dogs. Big, faithful things. You knew where you were with a dog. Not cats. Go off for days on end, you don't see them. When I was a lad, we had a cat, it was called Ginger. There was a family down the street, they had a cat they called Marmalade. Turned out it was the same cat, getting fed by all of us. Well, I mean. Sneaky little buggers. You can't trust them.

  "That was why I didn't think anything when Thompson went away. The family was worried. Not me. I knew it'd come back. They always do.

  "Anyway, a few nights later, I heard it. I was trying to sleep, and I couldn't. It was the middle of the night, and I heard this mewing. Going on, and on, and on. It wasn't loud, but when you can't sleep these things just get on your nerves. I thought maybe it was stuck up in the rafters, or out on the roof outside. Wherever it was, there wasn't any point in trying to sleep through it. I knew that. So I got up, and I got dressed—even put my boots on in case I was going to be climbing out onto the roof—and I went looking for the cat.

  "I went out in the corridor. It was coming from Miss Corvier's room on the other side of the attic. I knocked on her door, but no one answered. Tried the door. It wasn't locked. So I went in. I thought maybe that the cat was stuck somewhere. Or hurt. I don't know. I just wanted to help, really.

  "Miss Corvier wasn't there. I mean, you know sometimes if there's anyone in a room, and that room was empty. Except there's something on the floor in the corner going mrie, mrie… And I turned on the light to see what it was."

  He stopped then for almost a minute, the fingers of his left hand picking at the black goo that had crusted around the neck of the ketchup bottle. It was shaped like a large tomato. Then he said, "What I didn't understand was how it could still be alive. I mean, it was. And from the chest up, it was alive, and breathing, and fur and everything. But its back legs, its rib cage. Like a chicken carcass. Just bones. And what are they called, sinews? And, it lifted its head, and it looked at me.

  "It may have been a cat, but I knew what it wanted. It was in its eyes. I mean." He stopped. "Well, I just knew. I'd never seen eyes like that. You would have known what it wanted, all it wanted, if you'd seen those eyes. I did what it wanted. You'd have to be a monster, not to."

  "What did you do?"

  "I used my boots." Pause. "There wasn't much blood. Not really. I just stamped, and stamped on its head, until there wasn't really anything much left that looked like anything. If you'd seen it looking at you like that, you would have done what I did."

  I didn't say anything.

  "And then I heard someone coming up the stairs to the attic, and I thought I ought to do something, I mean, it didn't look good. I don't know what it must have looked like really, but I just stood there, feeling stupid, with a stinking mess on my boots, and when the door opens, it's Miss Corvier.

  "And she sees it all. She looks at me. And she says, 'You killed him.' I can hear something funny in her voice, and for a moment I don't know what it is, and then she comes closer, and I realize that she's crying.

  "That's something about old people, when they cry like children, you don't know where to look, do you? And she says, 'He was all I had to keep me going, and you killed him. After all I've done,' she says, 'making it so the meat stays fresh, so the life stays on. After all I've done.

  "I'm an old woman,' she says. 'I need my meat.'

  "I didn't know what to say.

  "She's wiping her eyes with her hand. 'I don't want to be a burden on anybody,' she says. She's crying now. And she's looking at me. She says, 'I never wanted to be a burden.' She says, 'That was my meat. Now,' she says, 'who's going to feed me now?' "

  He stopped, rested his grey face in his left hand, as if he was tired. Tired of talking to me, tired of the story, tired of life. Then he shook his head, and looked at me, and said, "If you'd seen that cat, you would have done what I did. Anyone would have done."

  He raised his head then, for the first time in his story, looked me in the eyes. I thought I saw an appeal for help in his eyes, something he was too proud to say aloud.

  Here it comes, I thought. This is where he asks me for money.

  Somebody outside tapped on the window of the café. It wasn't a loud tapping, but Eddie jumped. He said, "I have to go now. That means I have to go."

  I just nodded. He got up from the table. He was still a tall man, which almost surprised me: he'd collapsed in on himself in so many other ways. He pushed the table away as he got up, and as he got up he took his right hand out of his coat-po
cket. For balance, I suppose. I don't know.

  Maybe he wanted me to see it. But if he wanted me to see it, why did he keep it in his pocket the whole time? No, I don't think he wanted me to see it. I think it was an accident.

  He wasn't wearing a shirt or a jumper under his coat, so I could see his arm, and his wrist. Nothing wrong with either of them. He had a normal wrist. It was only when you looked below the wrist that you saw most of the flesh had been picked from the bones, chewed like chicken wings, leaving only dried morsels of meat, scraps and crumbs, and little else. He only had three fingers left, and most of a thumb. I suppose the other finger-bones must have just fallen right off, with no skin or flesh to hold them on.

  That was what I saw. Only for a moment, then he put his hand back in his pocket, and pushed out of the door, into the chilly night.

  I watched him then, through the dirty plate-glass of the café window. It was funny. From everything he'd said, I'd imagined Miss Corvier to be an old woman. But the woman waiting for him, outside, on the pavement, couldn't have been much over thirty. She had long, long hair, though. The kind of hair you can sit on, as they say, although that always sounds faintly like a line from a dirty joke. She looked a bit like a hippy, I suppose. Sort of pretty, in a hungry kind of way.

  She took his arm, and looked up into his eyes, and they walked away out of the café's light for all the world like a couple of teenagers who were just beginning to realize that they were in love.

  I went back up to the counter and bought another cup of tea, and a couple of packets of crisps to see me through until the morning, and I sat and thought about the expression on his face when he'd looked at me that last time.

  On the milk-train back to the big city I sat opposite a woman carrying a baby. It was floating in formaldehyde, in a heavy glass container. She needed to sell it, rather urgently, and although I was extremely tired we talked about her reasons for selling it, and about other things, for the rest of the journey.