By BENJAMIN WOLFE.
I HEAR THE second half of a scream as I come quickly out of sleep. The first half, although I didn’t consciously register it, must have punctured my dream and woken me up. For a second it feels like I am somewhere alien, a hotel in a small foreign city perhaps, or even the wing of a hospital. The room feels bleached and cold, full of the bad hours of the early morning, the drained light. But then I locate myself on the face of the earth, realise I am in London, in my flat, in my own bed, and a dribble of warmth returns to the walls and the ceiling.
I always wake up when there is something evil happening on my street. It’s my curse. I have ears that are incredibly sensitive to certain types of sounds. I am woken by the sound of anything wicked, anything abnormal. The wind could howl between the buildings and men in vans could deliver early morning goods, shouting hearty greetings to one another; that wouldn’t disturb me. But the quietest evil noise wakes me up in an instant. I am lucky I live in a nice area, or my nights would be sleepless.
Soon after I moved to London, I was woken by a woman screaming and raging in the street, begging someone to leave her alone. The first wave of noise woke me, but my woken self did not retain the sound. It bounced off my brain. So I knew I had been woken by a noise, but had no idea what it had been. Curious, frightened, I lay in bed with the blanket up to my throat, waiting for the follow up that I knew was coming. The second sound that would uncloak the first. And then it came: “Get the hell away from me! Leave my head alone!” It was savage, like the spasm of a muscle, the jerk of a neck. Then it came again: “Please, get away from me!”
It was tormented, but the voice retained a primal viciousness. It was not entirely subjugated. Lying in my bed, the sheets unwashed, I realised that people fight for their lives, just like animals do. It takes a while for a living thing to succumb to the doped-up warmth of the longest night. I’d never heard a human become an animal before, and now someone in this city had been stripped back to basics, right under my window.
I took a deep breath and climbed out of bed, walking over to the door leading onto my balcony. I live on the top floor. It was three in the morning, but London never gets darker than about eight pm. The air must have been freezing, but even in a t-shirt I didn’t feel it at all. Cold had been displaced in the hierarchy of concerns. The woman screamed again, but she was under the lip of the building, so I couldn’t see her. No one answered her, nothing else moved. There was just concrete, a voice and me. Somehow I became aware of the fact that she was alone, screaming at herself, or some recalcitrant part of her brain.
“Get out of my head,” she shrieked, panting audibly with the exertion.
I pulled on a blue superman jumper that I often wore to the gym, pushed my feet into flip-flops and went out of the door, taking the stairs down through the building and out onto the street. I had no choice. I had made certain promises to myself, long, long ago. It wasn’t so much about my fellow man, or about love, although I like to think I am a kind person. It was about me. It was about retaining an idea of myself. As an historian, I know that the cowardly are ugly. Their lives look ugly when watched from a great distance. I’ve never wanted to be ugly.
Besides, I have a girlfriend, and I tell her all the time that I’m not afraid of anything. And she believes me. I lie to her about all sorts of things (where I am when she calls me, the contents of my phone), but somewhere along the line integrity has to bite. And courage – of course – is the great redeemer.
I pushed the front door open and bounced onto the street, trying to look jaunty, like this was nothing but a summer’s day. There was a woman sitting with her back against the building, her head drooping between her knees. There was a glass bottle of something alcoholic broken into little pieces next to her. Perhaps the shattering was what had woken me. The woman looked up, her eyes blurry, converging and diverging as she groped for clarity.
I got about a meter away from her and stopped. She was unclean and unpredictable. Like with a rat or a possum, I knew that she was too small to do me much physical harm, but I was still horrified by the idea of her squirming under my hands and around my ankles.
“Are you alright? I heard you shouting about something. I wondered…if you were alright.”
She did nothing for a few seconds, then nodded sullenly and poked at the broken glass with her toe. Her red cardigan was stained with liquid. Some spittle hung elongated from her rubbery, shiny lip.
I stood ambiguously on the street, shifting my weight from foot to foot, retracting my hands into the sleeves of my jumper. We were an awkward pair.
“Well I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” I said eventually, “If anything bad happens then… shout to me. I’m just up there. I’ll wake up.” I pointed skywards. The woman looked up at the stars, a flicker of wonder briefly in her eyes. Then she gave another nod, even more sullen this time. She’d been caught being mad, and like a disciplined child she relinquished her bad behaviour grudgingly. She made no more noise that night.
The problem is, the world is tough enough for someone determined to do the right thing. But at least the oblivious, the blind and the sleepy, can just about get away with it. But for someone who hears everything, who wakes up when evil whispers, London is a hard place to survive. All cities must be, I suppose.
Somewhere in London, right now, someone is beating his wife, a gang brandishing blades are chasing another kid like a dog, someone is getting kicked in the head because of the colour of their skin or the name of their faith, and one day, it will happen within earshot. You will see it out of the corner of your eye down a lesser lane. You can wear sunglasses, or use earphones (as I often do) to block out as much as possible, but something will get through eventually. The auditor of souls will intrude and ask you who you are. And then you have a decision to make. You can pretend you didn’t see, didn’t hear. But you will know. You will have been audited. Your character is on trial every second of every day. I walk the streets and sleep in my bed terrified of coming within the radius of evil, because I have made my decision.
So that is why I am breathing deeply now, praying that I have misinterpreted the sounds that just woke me. I am upright in bed, feeling the darkness with everything I have, trying to imbibe all its aching clues. Then the sound again. Someone shouts out in fear. I can tell it’s a man. Something horrible is happening to him in the street. The sounds he’s making are about survival. He’s pleading. The bravado is gone. He is no longer insisting on his masculinity. He has surrendered that. He just wants his body intact, for his mind to retain cognitive function.
My room feels very cold, dry and sterile, clinical like an operating theatre. I feel that fear of life that grips us very early in the morning, the vague sensation that we might not be strong enough to survive it all. I look at the patches of light and dark on the wall, the enervating light creeping through the curtain.
For some reason, my brain jumps to the things I’ve read about Auschwitz, about people being complicit because of their silence. And what was that thing about survivor’s guilt? I had read it drove some people to suicide. This may seem a little too far, but I’m trying to grab onto things, points of reference to cling to as my brain starts its slide towards rationalised cowardice. Then I think of Nelson, Admiral Lord Nelson. As a child, I had stood in Trafalgar Square and looked up at his statue, way up in the sky, and asked my father:
“What does somebody have to do to get up there?”
“Be very brave,” he’d replied, and patted my head.
Nelson had fought a polar bear with the butt of a rifle when he was just thirteen. He was fearless. But when I read about the things he did, they always looked warm, jolly, beautiful. So why is it so cold and ugly in here? The moment has no narrative quality, no spectacle to ennoble it. Just me, afraid, and the sound of pain outside.
Now I can hear shouts of anger from different voices, incoherent, exclamations punctuated by dull thuds. Only swear words are decipherable from the messy flow of language. I can no longer hear a victim. He has stopped his pleas, become inanimate, like a sack of something. More thuds. A group of people are playing out their fantasy down there. Perhaps they are competing with each other, kick for kick. I can tell by the sound of the thuds and the incoherent shouts that they have dreamt of this for a long time. Their victim is being punished for grudges his assailants have collected since they were small children, a lifetime of hate exorcised on skin, bone and organs.
I leap out of bed, pull on my Superman jumper, slip into my flip-flops, burst out of my bedroom and then out of the door of the flat, dropping from step to step heavily, feeling light-headed, dim and vague, my legs wobbly, immobile, anesthetized.
Then I plunge out of the main door of the building and into the night. All the sound in the street is swallowed in an instant. Violence evaporates. There is a man propped up against the wall, covered in blood, something hanging out of his nose. He lolls, apparently asleep. Around him a group of young men, shocked by my arrival, lurch round, looking like dinosaurs, their bodies so corporal, their eyes big. They are strange specimens in the moonlight. We look at each other in silence, like people from different planets meeting for the first time. There is no sound until the unconscious man slowly slumps forward onto the road. He had been held up by their kicks.
“I can’t let you hurt him anymore,” I say quietly after a while, almost apologetic, standing still and retracting my hands into my frayed blue Superman jumper. Everything is ugly, spontaneous, immediate. My legs are heavy with fear. My toes are numb. What I am doing is beautiful, but because I am here I cannot see it. I guess this is what heroism feels like.
Benjamin Wolfe is a writer living in London, and, as a keen historian, is fascinated by modern versions of ancient sentiments. He has published short stories and poems in Open Pen, Agenda, Sarasvati, The New Writer, Between These Shores (his story due for 2021 publication in this magazine has been nominated for next year’s Pushcart Prize), Weyfarers, Gloom Cupboard, and Emerge, as well as in an American anthology of poetry.