The Devil’s Old Man
‘Last stop, mate’, piped the stout man in the football shirt, the colour difficult to gauge underneath the print advert that totally enveloped it. The sleeping man woke to see the man who had woken him trudging off past the faded patterned seats of the decrepit train carriage towards the stuttering automatic door manically malfunctioning with a finicky huff. His head rose off the scratched scribbles of the plastic window, and gathered awareness of his surroundings like a solar panelled calculator slowing warming to the stimuli fuelling its intelligence.
The platform was deserted but for small greyish creatures camouflaged against the bleak concrete surface of the world outside the train. The creatures, which he thought might be birds, hopped on deformed feet devoid of talons with cigarette butts smoking in their beaks. They hopped brazenly towards his feet as he walked towards the floodlit station at the end of the platform.
When he reached the train concourse he was barely able to open his eyes because of the bleached white that resonated throughout his environ, blurred by dark shadows crossing his vision at a speed he had never known a human to travel at. He recognised the sound of mobile phones, but not the tonal qualities that he now heard – like a thousand different orchestras of infinitely unique instruments, their sound was heavy in the air, visible to his squinting eyes – spinning, rising, and diving – colours and sounds dazzling and darting, he lifted a hand to his head to
compose himself, at that moment stumbling into a steely figure clad in black with myriad pockets, straps, belts, and other appendages. The police man flinched with a mechanical clunk of metal before telling him to be careful with an expression that was both menacing and uneasy.
All at once he buckled under the discordant symphony of the cities’ population. Sirens looped over sirens, swelling above the grumble of trains burrowing beneath the city, advertisements spoke multilingually, as he noticed the people that he now recognised were also doing. None of this was particularly alien to the old man. The city of his young manhood had always been a hive of activity, and maybe nothing had changed but him, but everything had just that small amount of subtle change that fifty years would effect. Everything had risen or increased by just that small degree to cause a sea change in the world he once recognised.
Finding a dark corner of the station concourse in which the florescent lights abated. He crouched down and assessed his new world with improved clarity. The perimeter of the station was a maze of vending machines of some variety, unlike the kind he had seen before or during his imprisonment. The train stations was bustling with monochromatic people, their clothes different shades of the same colour, even when of completely different national styles. All of a sudden, the old man was blindsided by an unknown salutation from beyond the cordoned off toilets behind him. He was unable to recognise a face between the metal grills, but there was a definite shadow beyond his limited field of vision.
‘You should make yourself a little less conspicuous’, the old man understood from the darkness, although the dialect was largely unrecognisable, ‘You’re obviously a stranger here,’ continued the voice from the shadows, ‘and although there are millions of strangers here, they do well to not appear so’.
The old man massaged his face vigorously, pressing his fingers firmly over his eyelids. ‘I need to get to the Cathedral’, spoke the old man from a cobwebbed voice box.
‘You won’t find much help there,’ the darkness spoke, as expected, ‘but its where its always been’. There was a pause while the old man tried to find his bearings. ‘Where are you from?’, spoke the voice quietly.
‘A Cell’, answered the old man honestly, as was always his way, ‘But I must get to the Cathedral’.
‘Ok’, answered the man from behind the peeling bars, his shadow more discernable to his adjusted eyes, ‘I can take you there, without being noticed’, and the man appeared from behind the place in which he hid – a rakish red head with filthy skin and musty woollen clothing, ‘follow me’, he hushed.
The old man and his travelling companion walked out of a forgotten exit and into the pungent and thick night air of the city. The old man struggled to breathe in the laden atmosphere clouding the small spaces between the blackened stone buildings. His companion allowed him time before satisfying his own curiosity.
‘How long were you in prison?’, he finally inquired.
‘I was not in prison’, the old man wheezed, ‘I committed no crime. I was locked away because I was thought to have a sickness, a sickness of the mind’.
‘Ah’, expressed the red-head, with no apparent concern visible on his dirty face, before barring the old man with his arm protectively, Ahead of them there was a group of teenagers gathering at the bridge. ‘Ok,’ said the wily red-head with an idea fluttering his eyelids, ‘Walk with your head down and with staggered steps. And drink some of this’, the old man drank a mouthful of what he thought would be liquid, but was in fact noxious fumes, feeling a cloud of warmth consume his throat and oesophagus. ‘Pretty bad, huh?’, said the old man’s guide, ‘But needs must in
this place, and liquid alcohol is expensive – even the heavily diluted stuff’. They walked past the nuisance of teenagers, dressed very peculiarly as far as the old man could see. One wore a coat hanger underneath the collar of his sweatshirt, another wore what he thought might be pyjamas, they all appeared to be styled as a result of accidents.
‘Well done’, said the red-head after they walked past unnoticed, ‘So, if you don’t mind me asking, but actually such questions are no longer rude to ask, why where you imprisoned for being crazy, if you were not? And why are you going to the Cathedral?’
‘Many years ago, a series of meetings and coincidences, confirmed my suspicions that I had been set to task by the devil himself’, stated the old man, ‘Of course, my first reactions to these meetings and coincidences would have been like yours and any other rational man -complete disbelief’, explained the old man before continuing, ‘A gentleman called Puzzlewit had recruited me to write a book, for an academic he worked for, a gentleman called Professor Serpentine. This man, Professor Serpentine, knew much more than anyone I had ever met or have met since. He spoke of religion as if he had seen it all, of science as if he was privy to exclusive information that could explain anything anyone were to question or consider fantasy. At our first meeting, he showed me a copy of a book with my own name as its author, telling me that this book was the book that I was to write in just three weeks. I thought it a cheap trick, until three weeks later, when I produced the book that he had said I would’,
The old man glanced up to see the Cathedral rising above the blackened buildings with their wooden-board faces.
‘Somehow Serpentine, and his apprentice Puzzlewit, laid clues for me to follow,’ continued the old man,‘transported me to places where evil truly existed. I was at once a woman in the heart of the Wahhabi heartland, a refugee of an African tribal war, a Palestinian in Gaza, a homosexual in the Bible Belt… I was all of these people, and in each case I found it was not the devil that bred evil.
‘So Serpentine gave me powers, powers of speech, powers of charisma, he taught me of the true nature of Mohammed and Moses, and the intentions of Jesus, and my book was ready to shift the thoughts of so many that I would have at once been a continental drift pushing and pulling at the ground that people presumed firm and fixed. But I acted unwisely, and gave in to temptation as Serpentine warned me not to, and he abandoned me, and my book ceased to exist.
‘So, today, I have come to this Cathedral on the day of my release, for Serpentine has made me a clue for another book that has yet to be written, for I believe this is a place that he protects. When others have destroyed the city around it for one reason or another, this place has not concerned itself with the identities that people have wrongly assumed. It stands firm above them.
‘Serpentine told me that a Messiah is born every day, but as each day passes, our world becomes more poisonous and our Messiahs are corrupted. So I shall sat here and wait, with my story, ready to protect whomever is sought by Serpentine to continue his work. I shall wait here my friend, and you would do well to take care.’