He arrived in Liverpool at about three in the afternoon, with darkness and lust in his heart. The day had looked sunny as he peered through the dust smeared window on the long journey from Lincoln, but once he got in at Lime Street station there was an air of gloom about the place, and he was sure that it wasn’t just coming from inside of him. The carriage had looked drearier the longer the journey went on; there were even black stains on the seats which he had not noticed when he had set out a few hours earlier.
There was nobody to meet him of course; but then after the leaving party who had seen him on his way at Lincoln he was rather glad. Cheryl had not been there, nor her husband Ian, but her mother Wendy who glared at him as he got on the train, had been there as had Cheryl’s younger sister Lisa with a couple of tattooed male friends. How Lisa with her two abortions and exotic love life could lecture him on morality he did not know, but she was single so perhaps that made some kind of difference whereas Cheryl was not only married but had a young son.
“You destroy everything you touch, you bastard.” Lisa had shouted as he had got on the train and he supposed that she was right, but perhaps things would change; he was making a fresh start in a new city, a city where he knew nobody and nobody knew him and where he had a new job. After the affair with Cheryl had come to its catastrophic end, he had just applied for every library post he could afford to take, not caring where it was or what the specialism was. However this post as a family and local history researcher in Liverpool’s Central Library rather appealed him and presumably his enthusiasm had shone through because he was offered the job on the same day of his interview, just as he arrived home.
As he made his way through the rather dull looking city, which in fact looked more like a town than the thriving sea port that he had heard so much about, he wondered if what Lisa had said was really fair; clearly Cheryl’s husband finding out about their six month long affair had made life difficult for her, but apparently they were staying together and trying to make it work and perhaps it would help their relationship. He had not forced Cheryl to have sex with him, despite what Ian might think; they had both been unhappy and lonely. Perhaps he should have persuaded her to work on her marriage, get counselling but when a beautiful young woman throws herself at you it can be difficult to resist and he suspected many better men than him would have done the same. He had never pretended to be any better than he was.
He had rented a flat just a bus ride from the city centre which was already furnished. The van that he had hired had already taken most of his stuff down the previous week so all he had with him was a couple of cases which contained the rest of his clothes and toiletries and other bits and pieces. He felt quite light-hearted as he caught the bus to Walton. For the first time he no longer had to look around in case he bumped into Ian or one of Cheryl’s rather rough relatives. It had always surprised him that Cheryl had come from such a dysfunctional family when she was so shy and sensitive. She had confessed to him that she often thought that she had been adopted from a wealthier family but unfortunately her looks if not her personality showed she was definitely a Kearey.
He had had holiday owing from his job at Lincoln College so he had a week to unpack his stuff and get settled in the area before starting his new job the following Monday. He read a lot during that week; after all it does not take a week to unpack, and he could not walk all the time and he had no friends to visit or lover to meet in secret.
He was reading Confessions of a Justified Sinner and enjoying it; he had got it from one of the many second hand bookshops that litter the streets of Lincoln. The previous owner was obviously not a particularly clean person because there were black stains on the book; not a great many just the odd splash. He was not sure what the blackness was, possibly ink, but they had a kind of damp smell as if of decay, it was not a strong smell but it was insidious nonetheless, and whenever he walked into his front room he caught a slight whiff of it. He tried to rub the blackness off with his finger but it had permeated itself into the page and would not go. He hurriedly finished the book and gave it away to a local charity shop.
He enjoyed his first day at work, he was quite nervous to begin with, but the rest of the staff seemed friendly. His manager was called Dave and was easy going and cheerful and the other three members of the team were women, at least one of whom, Laura, was extremely attractive with pale white skin and dark hair, and with a lithe body and a small bosom; nothing like Cheryl who had been blonde and curvy. Most importantly Laura did not seem to be attached to anyone; well she wore no wedding ring and mentioned no significant other. In the aftermath of the Cheryl affair he had sworn off all romantic relationships but that was in another country, and if the wench wasn’t exactly dead she was a long way away.
That night after watching some television he picked up Pamela which he was reading now. To his disgust he noticed those same black stains that had disfigured his previous novel. He wondered if he had bought it from the same bookshop; possibly they had both previously belonged to the same person. He shuddered slightly but carried on reading about the trials and tribulations of Pamela Andrews.
On Friday afternoon he was looking at an 1845 Ordnance Survey map of North Liverpool; someone had written asking them to find the whereabouts of a Primitive Methodist Church in the Kirkdale area of Liverpool. As he examined the map he noticed a small black stain on the map; just a tiny one where the church was marked. And then there was that faint damp smell again. He quickly got out the digital camera they used and took a photograph of the relevant part of the map and put it away, desperate that nobody would see it.
Could the stain possibly be from him? He thoroughly washed his hands in the staff toilet; pouring more and more soap onto his fingers. And yet he could not see any black on them, his fingers looked pristine. Perhaps he was just being fanciful, imagining himself as some kind of Cain with his mark and the hands of every man turned against him, or maybe Midas in reverse. After all he had been through a lot with one thing and another. However for the rest of the afternoon he continually looked at his fingers but they remained unblemished.
That evening there was an email from Cheryl waiting for him, the first time that he had heard from her since moving to Liverpool. She said that she forgave him and was trying to move on with her life and hoped that he was doing the same. He was going to reply, but could not think of what to say so in the end he deleted it and made his tea. As he read Pamela before going to bed he noticed to his relief that the pages were clean.
The following week he began to make strides with his colleague Laura. As he had thought and hoped she was single, apparently she had ended a long term relationship about six months ago and now lived alone. They chatted about classical music and English literature subjects on which he could hold his own. She seemed to enjoy his humour and his erudition. He had realised a long time ago that he did not have a deep knowledge of anything, but he knew a little about a lot of things and certainly enough to impress people who did not know him particularly well or who were not particularly well educated.
He suggested that they go to a production of She Stoops to Conquer which was being shown at the Liverpool Everyman theatre. Rather worryingly she seemed to hesitate for a bit but after a moment agreed to accompany him. He had picked up an old Nissan Micra since moving to Liverpool and he picked up Laura in it outside her house, where she stood waiting, presumably she had stood waiting by the open window. It was a small terraced house, and he wondered if he would ever get to see inside of it.
He felt slightly nervous, because when he had opened the car door earlier he had left behind a slight smudge of black on the silver handle, he had hurriedly tried to wipe it off with his handkerchief but it proved to be quite stubborn, and even resisted the spray cleaner, if anything getting darker the more he sprayed. No doubt it would wear away, but he felt most uneasy. These black stains always seemed to be at the back of his mind.
Laura seemed glad to see him, and gave him a smile as she got into his car. She seemed more at ease with him outside of work. She was dressed casually but smartly in tight black trousers and a long white shirt. There was a lovely smell about her, and he felt excited and flattered at the thought that she had put on an expensive perfume just for his benefit, she certainly never wore it at work.
The play went well; Laura seemed to be engrossed in it. Their knees occasionally touched whilst they sat there and every so often they would exchange smiles at some whit in Oliver Goldsmith’s dialogue. He felt an ease with her when they walked back to where he had parked the car. Normally he would have held her hand but he resisted worried that he might blemish her skin. She did not seem bothered and she walked close at his side as they chatted happily about the play that they had just seen.
He gave Laura a hug as he saw her to her door. For a couple of seconds she pushed herself against him and he could feel her warmth and her thighs against his. She then pulled away and went inside. She had been wearing a light black jacket over her white top but even so he had been wary of dirtying it with his hands. Perhaps he should have worn gloves but he suspected that he would have looked silly, particularly in this rather warm September.
On Wednesday he was pouring over an old Liverpool Street Directory, answering another enquiry, when he noticed a large black stain on the page, which he was sure had not been there when he had opened the book. Unfortunately Dave, his manager just happened to be walking passed and stopped to chat. He saw the mark which was clearly noticeable.
“Oh dear, that looks serious. Our users are so careless at times. You do know we have archive gloves?”
He had forgotten, because nobody ever bothered with them, not even Dave. But in a store cupboard they had boxes of clean, white gloves which were supposed to be worn when handling archive material.
He put some on, and religiously used them for the rest of the day when handling archives. He had to look through some old wills, but almost immediately the black stains started to appear on the last will and testament of Joanne Lee, who had died in 1845. And yet the gloves remained white inside and out. He put his head in his hands and sat there for a moment, baffled and upset. He had a thought and went to the staff toilet and looked in the mirror; there were now black marks on his forehead.
If Dave had not seen the marks on the directory he could have thought it was just his imagination, brought on by all the stress that he had been under. Quite understandable really. But Dave had clearly seen the marks, so they were real all right. And even the gloves did not seem to be a barrier. He washed his hands for two minutes in the sink, vigorously and angrily, so much so that he drew blood.
That evening he heard from Cheryl, again. She texted him this time.
“I am sorry if I have hurt you. I think we both acted from the best intentions. I think you loved me in your own way. Let us move on and forget each other x.”
He had been listening to Handel’s Athalia when he had heard the ping of his mobile phone. He read Cheryl’s message several times, and this time he replied. Just saying that he missed her and hoped that she was happy. The fact that she had now contacted him twice in a matter of days suggested that she probably wasn’t, and he could not help feeling rather pleased about that. After he sent his message, he noticed that the keyboard on his phone was stained black. He carefully tried to wipe them off, but unsurprisingly he could not. The smell was stronger this time; a smell of death perhaps or the smell of pure evil? Perhaps it was a sign that he should stop communicating with Cheryl; put that all behind him.
That night he woke up covered in sweat; he had been dreaming of Cheryl. They had been making love in his bed, like they used to. But then he had startled throttling her and she screamed and he was getting sexually excited the more she struggled and tried to scream. He turned his light on, his heart beating violently. His sheets were covered with black stains and so was his body…. He had a shower and put his sheets in the laundry basket. For some reason he managed to sleep well for the rest of the night.
After that nightmare the stains from his fingers seemed to disappear. At work no more archives were disfigured and at home the pages in his books stayed white. He went on another date with Laura. They visited a vegetarian café in the city centre which was hidden away down a back street and up several flights of stairs, Laura was a vegetarian and a regular at this cafe. He was slightly irritated by the music that was playing but apart from that distraction it was a pleasant evening, and they chatted like old friends. He had convinced himself that Cheryl was the love of his life, but really he had much more in common with Laura; they were closer in age and both educated to a similar level.
Again they hugged as he saw her to her door. If she had invited him in he would probably have accepted, and there had been a moment when he thought she was about to, but it passed and she stayed silent. Still he was not bothered particularly and he felt happy when he drove home. He made himself a mug of herbal tea and listened to some William Boyce on his stereo before having a peaceful sleep.
Even though they were both single and had not even exchanged a kiss, Laura and he kept secret the fact that they saw each other outside of work. He was not sure why this was; they had certainly not come to a decision to do so but he liked the excitement of this hidden relationship and it meant that there was less pressure on them at work. Of course Cheryl and he had had to keep their relationship secret, which had also begun at work, but with Cheryl everyone had known but pretended not to, here nobody seemed to have guessed.
They went to a concert at St. George’s Hall; two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti interspersed with music by Benjamin Britten. They stood outside her door.
“Would you like to come in?” she asked, and of course he did, although he felt nervous as he entered her house for the first time..
They sat on her white sofa, just touching; she smelt even more strongly of her perfume, and he felt drawn towards her. The only illumination was her table lamp and it brought out her beauty even more than usual. He thought that this was the most beautiful woman he had ever spent time with. She looked so pure and virginal. It was she who turned him for a kiss. He held her in his arms and they kissed a long, passionate sharing of love and lust. Of one accord they went to the bedroom.
He awoke at three in the morning; he could see the time by her illuminated alarm clock. She was facing away from him; her white shoulder like an ice mountain. And he could see a mark upon it; he had not noticed her having a tattoo when they had undressed each other earlier but then it had been dark, but there was definitely something there, which he continued to stare at.
As the sun started to shine into the room he noticed more marks on her; black stains against her white skin, almost covering her; on her shoulder, on her back and a long one going down her feline neck, and they seemed to increase the more that he gazed upon her; it was as if he had marked her, claimed ownership. She stirred slightly, but did not wake up.
He vomited as quietly as he could into her cream lavatory and then hurried out of her house into the bright sunlight; his shadow growing larger and larger as he ran…..