Harold Bumstead awoke in the darkness of his bedroom and became immediately aware of two sounds. The first was the sound of rain beating against his windows; the second was the uneven ticking of the old alarm clock that had stood on the little walnut cabinet beside his bed since before he could remember. The rain sounded spiteful; the clock sounded nervous. He looked at the luminous hands and judged the time to be around ten past five.
For a minute, or maybe a little longer, he mused on the question of why he had woken up suddenly at ten past five on a wet November morning. He hadn’t reached a conclusion, nor even gained the merest notion of where to start working one out, when a third sound began to impress itself into his still lethargic mind. It was a car engine coming closer – from the left, he thought – along the narrow street of terraced houses, and which was clearly accustomed to going wherever it wanted to go and expected to be obeyed. He fancied he heard the sinister swishing of tyres on the wet road, but soon decided it was probably his imagination at work, since the old sash window was closed.
The car slowed, the engine stopped, and there was silence for a few seconds. Silence, that is, apart from the spitting rain and the jittery clock. And then he heard a car door bang, closely followed by a second one. They sounded very near, probably opposite his house and immediately outside number 19 where old Mrs Bullivant lived.
He remembered having said ‘good morning’ to Mrs Bullivant a long time ago, but she had only returned his greeting with an icy stare from pale grey eyes that looked drier than an old lady’s eyes ought to look. He thought he had heard her say ‘Don’t dare speak to me, you dirty little sewer rat,’ but that was probably his imagination at work, too. Whatever the fact of the matter, he had never presumed to attempt any form of verbal exchange since.
So now he wondered why Mrs Bullivant was receiving visitors at five o’clock in the morning. He wondered whether she might be dead, and whether Collecting Men had come from wherever such men are held in readiness to collect her remains and take them to wherever such objects are taken. He wondered whether he should rise from his bed into the frigid air of an unheated bedroom to watch through the window and find out.
There was a time when I would have thrown myself into the business of watching a story unfold, typing it eagerly as the pictures passed before my eyes, and then editing it conscientiously before casting it to the winds and towards many small press publishers in the hope that somebody might read it one day. That’s how it used to work, but I’m not sure I can be bothered any more.
Still, the ghost of Kafka haunts me sometimes, so maybe…