An excerpt from

The Backstreets of Purgatory

Helen Taylor

‘See you after, Finjay,’ Maurice called from the corridor. ‘Salutations to you and your lassie. Merry Crimbo and all that business.’ The greeting provoked a spike of anxiety in Finn, a flicker of extra worry, because he realised he couldn’t quite remember what arrangements he’d made with Lizzi for the day.

‘Aye, mate. Have a good one,’ he shouted back, listening to Maurice limp away, the uneven click of his soles across the floorboards, the slam of the corridor door. Finally, the last drops of coffee splashed into the glass jug and Finn’s blood pressure settled in anticipation. He poured himself a mugful and, before he nipped outside for a fag, went to grab his phone from the studio.

There was no signal in the vaults of the building. Thoughts of Lizzi wafted among the cobwebs as Finn drifted along the darkened corridor, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, coffee cup in one hand, the other attempting to resuscitate his dying phone. Lizzi was spending Christmas with Jed and Rob, going to Jed’s for dinner once he’d finished his priestly duties. It would be the first for years where she hadn’t had an M&S meal for one in front of a bad film while her dad partied in a Santa hat and combat shorts between drilling shifts in the middle of the South Pacific. And she was ludicrously grateful to Finn for arranging it. To be honest, his entire contribution to the plan had amounted to agreeing when Rob made the suggestion (a suggestion which had caused him a moment or two of disquiet, he had to admit) although he was, of course, more than willing to accept the credit.

The light from the phone screen made no impact in the dark corridor. Resigned to losing his recently but deceitfully acquired brownie points, Finn slipped the phone into his back pocket, planning to phone Lizzi as soon as he got outside, and reached for the door to the main hall.

His hand flailed uselessly in the void.

Finn paused, unsure what had made him misjudge his surroundings. Cautiously, he groped ahead. Tapped along the corridor wall. Tried to suss the distance he’d come. Felt for the radiator. Something was wrong. Majorly wrong. Nothing was where it was meant to be.

Warily, he shuffled into the pit of darkness. Ears sharp, nose tuned, eyes turned up full. Gradually the darkness congealed and a subtle scent began to infiltrate his senses. It was eerie. Intense. A bit close up, like someone else was there. He called out, groped further ahead. Slowly, distinctly, the smell got stronger. The heady, chemical high of naphthalene and turps and, underneath, the musty fetor of stale breath and dried sweat. He shuffled forward, paused, listened. There was someone there. There must be.

The seconds passed and the smell enveloped the passageway. The top notes stripped the lining of Finn’s sinuses and made his eyes nip. The bass notes were lumpish and sickly. It was the smell of another century. Pungent and anachronistic and physically barring the way.

Someone. He was sure. Absolutely sure.

‘Who’s there?’ Finn pushed his voice out into the emptiness and listened. His nerves were making leaps and connections in all directions to decipher the olfactory clues to the intruder. There was not enough semi- digested ethanol in the mix for it to be Maurice who anyhow would be out the door by now, even at his lamentable pace. Finn sniffed again. Overbearingly masculine with hints of mothballs and solvent. Linseed and oil paint. Putrid drains. And time.

‘Is someone there?’ He was much less panicked than he considered he ought to be. There was something reassuring in the stench of decay. It was comforting, loaded with promise, like the vinegar must of mildew in a second hand book store.

‘Come on. I won’t let on to anyone else.’ It might be one of Maurice’s jakie pals hiding out, or a left-over from the charity do.

A shadow flitted across the darkness. A clang of steel against iron.

Finn’s heart jittered and he took a tentative step forward, straining his eyes to see in the dark, but there was nothing and nobody concrete, the noise being only the newly flushed heating system clanking with the effort required to circulate water through its elderly pipes. A vague weight of disappointment settled on him.

His disappointment, though, was short lived. Before he had the chance to fully revel in what might have been, Finn found the corridor door exactly where it belonged and, on opening it, was winded by the power of the vision that beheld him. In the hall below the stage, the contents of several cardboard boxes were strewn across the parquet. Tinsel, streamers, Nativity outfits spilled from the cartons, and the dark haired girl —the one he had seen at the party making soup with her blonde pal, the pair of them achingly familiar and yet utterly foreign—was there, with her shoes kicked off and her feet bare and the Virgin’s blue cloak pulled around her shoulders, sifting through the objects and humming Christmas carols to herself. Finn willed himself not to breathe, terrified she was another apparition who might disappear before he could make sense of her. Telling himself he might startle her, she might freak and chib herself with the kitchen scissors she was using to hack at the parcel tape sealing the boxes. But it was more than that. Much more.

It was as if by not breathing he could prolong this moment, counterforce the spin of the earth, stop time trampling over this ecstatic vision, and he found himself praying she wouldn’t look up, that she wouldn’t notice how he had frozen into an effigy of himself, petrified by her astonishing beauty, or worse, that inside his organs were wriggling and play-fighting like newly hatched maggots.

The girl yanked more boxes from their storage under the stage, ripped off the tape, and tipped contents onto the floor. Something snagged in Finn’s heart at this confusion of innocence and slovenliness. Her humming ebbed and flowed, swirling into song, dipping into murmurs, depending on the force required to yank the boxes out. For the first time in Finn’s life, it dawned on him that probability and genetics and Darwin and all those other religions he’d subscribed to over the years (logic, common- sense, realism) couldn’t adequately account for the power of the girl’s beauty or the force of her presence, and that the only rational, sensible, logical explanation for an image so exquisite, so heavenly, so utterly fucking perfect, was the intervention of the big man upstairs. Finn grabbed the doorframe to stop his knees giving way, light-headed from this unnerving epiphany and a lack of oxygen. He took a breath and checked his mug of coffee. When the God thoughts started coming, you had to question your stimulants.

‘I am looking for Jesus and his ass,’ the girl said, when Finn eventually shook himself up enough to wander over.