Note: This could be about anyone. It just so happens I've used the name of Richard Hirst, who did rather well in the 2011 Manchester Fiction Prize. Except, well, despite a reference to his wonderful drawings of cats, it's not him really. I read this story to Richard Hirst on the Bad Language stage in August 2012.A tidy cul-de-sac lined on both sides with driveways so regular, you could slide a tab along the road and zip it right up. Shorn lawns bordered by paving scrubbed magnolia.
Lost cat signs in Helvetica; lunching on bruschetta; elbow patches in leather.
Here, said Richard Hirst.
The first house had colourful window boxes. The doorbell chimed Casio Big Ben. The woman who answered was all pearls and pleats highlighted with cerise eye shadow. She was Lucinda Cooper, retired nurse, not bad at whist. Richard Hirst knew everything.
I’ve been expecting you, she whispered. Her cheek was the colour of bruised apple. She angled her face away.
He looked behind her, into the hallway. Florid wallpaper. Family photos in frames with the glass taken out. He could hear a television blaring from another room and the sound of a man clearing a wet throat.
If you let me in, said Richard Hirst, I can heal your hurts.
Lucinda Cooper leaned forward, mouthed ‘okay’, then stood ironing-board upright. He climbed into her rib cage and set to work. She closed the door carefully, the latch connecting with a soft click.
The next house was decorated with ivy, a motif mimicked on a plaque introducing the home as Cedar Cottage. A chubby man answered the door. Adrian Milton: 28 but looked 39. Ruffled hair, dirty apron, sandals, fat toes. His unhealthy face seemed rolled in custard creams. He held a cleaver in his hand.
I did a bad thing, he said.
Richard Hirst knew everything. He pressed the crown of his head into Adrian Milton’s adam's apple and levered himself inside his throat.
Next house. Robert Perdue, an elderly man with unruly eyebrows that reached into the air like antennae. His garden blushed pink with oleanders and orchids, planted by a friend’s grandchild with whom he had developed an intimate relationship. The kid was robbing him blind, thought Richard Hirst as he settled inside the old man’s stomach and set to work.
The afternoon drew on. A 14-year-old girl with pyjamas like a rainbow but a face like a rainstorm. A cheerful grandmother with bushy hair and a dead twin she never mentioned. A tank-topped man with a back so arched, he looked like a new moon trying to walk. Each one let him in.
Richard Hirst stood outside the last address. He looked back at the houses he had visited. He imagined each house expelling its contents onto the litterless street: an explosion of sofas, mattresses, knicker drawers, lawnmowers, Kindles and fine cheese. And a multitude of faces looking in wonder from open doorways, their skin as pale as the ghosts of their past.
The last house seemed to have forgotten where it was, as though it had joined the party late. The grass overgrew in uneven clumps and the brickwork crumbled. A smashed clay gnome lay on the grubby doorstep, its shard of a face fixed in horror at the sky.
Richard Hirst knocked. He heard a shuffling inside the house, the sound of a walk that filled him with unease. The man who answered was Richard Hirst. Not quite Richard Hirst. A blurred version that changed before his eyes, in height, in shape, in intent, his features shifting all the time.
Richard Hirst stopped for a moment, then pressed on. If you let me in, he said, I can heal your hurts.
Eh? said Richard Hirst.
Richard Hirst tried to think but his mind seemed suffocated with wool. The others had been expecting him, had let him get to work. The hallway behind blurry Richard Hirst was dark but he could just make out peeling wallpaper and black scrawls from floor to ceiling. Looked like cats. Drawings of cats.
I can buy you cats, puppies, rabbits, alligators, said Richard Hirst to Richard Hirst. Just let me in. I know you better than anyone here.
Richard Hirst stopped talking because the words seemed wrong. Richard Hirst stood in his doorway, dipping in and out of reality, barely looking at Richard Hirst. Behind him, the cats began to stretch. One looked sideways at the two men then bared its teeth. There were no doors off the hallway: just a long corridor leading into a black nothing.
Without notice, Richard Hirst stepped outside his broken house and pushed his foot into Richard Hirst’s mouth. Richard Hirst stiffened and for a moment forgot everything, forgot the cul-de-sac and its neat houses. He tightened his throat, thrusting desperately from his diaphragm. Richard Hirst wasn’t letting Richard Hirst in.
Richard Hirst balanced awkwardly with one leg down Richard Hirst’s throat. Richard Hirst was stuck. Richard Hirst cursed Richard Hirst, his words muffled by trouser.
The pair stood locked on the mossy driveway like the Isle of Man sign having a stroke, like Siamese twins having sex with themselves.
And looking on, a multitude of pale faces staring out from suburbia.