An excerpt from

The Sussex Devils

Marc Heal

Chapter One – Beneath The Gray’s Inn Road

Adam unlocked the basement door. Warily, I peered in. He looked at me, awaiting my reaction.

“Well? What do you think?”

“It’s absolutely perfect,” I laughed and flared my nostrils, savouring the musty air of the studio. “I didn’t think places like this existed in London any more. Not in the middle of town.”

It was a thin, rectangular space, about twenty-five feet long. The ceiling was low and the lighting was dim. Two or three hundred vinyl albums lay stacked along a battered sideboard, propped against a pair of turntables. One of the walls was bare brick, which is reflective, and therefore not ideal for listening to audio. But it enhanced the urban, industrial atmosphere, and that was what I wanted. Truth be told, I had fallen in love with the place before we even opened the door.

It was a dark, sodden October evening in 2012. I had met Adam outside a set of massive security gates on the Greys Inn Road. He was a small fellow, with a cheerful, ferrety face. Tonight he wore a flat cap, with his coat collar pulled up.

“So, where do we go?” I shrugged.

Adam grinned and pointed downwards. There was a tiny door set flush into the gates. But for the keyhole you would never have known it was there. He unlocked it with an old-fashioned Chubb key and we crawled through, disappearing off the street, Alice in Wonderland style. On the other side we found ourselves in a short alley. It was suddenly quiet. My boots clicked on the wet cobblestones. Broken guttering dripped in the corners. It would have been a good spot to score Laudanum or murder a prostitute.

At the end of the alley was full sized, solid steel door. More unlocking. We entered a double-storey Victorian warehouse containing some light commercial units – a gentleman’s tailor, a bathroom outfitter and a motorcycle workshop. Later I would learn that during the day the security gates were open to the road and then there was a steady traffic through the alley; deliverymen chewing pencils, arguing over clipboards, dispatch riders leaning against the walls, smoking cigarettes and bragging about bikes and girls. But at night the gates were closed. Then, as now, the warehouse was deserted, heavy with a sense of the uncanny and filled with goods from all the businesses that shared the premises; clothing dummies, scooters, mirrors and shower units.

Adam led me down a creaky iron staircase to the basement. The corridor was cluttered with old videotapes and broken amplifiers. He fumbled for the lock, but I knew I was going to take the room even before the door swung open.

I touched the old London bricks of the studio walls. I supposed the basement had been dug out when the warehouse was built, sometime in the nineteenth century. It must have been a storeroom once, but now Adam had installed a low table, some lamps and a pair of powerful studio monitors for playback. Through some primeval sense, a change in air pressure perhaps, you knew you were below street level. It is rare to be in heart of the city and to feel such a dead weight of silence. Down here you would hear nothing, and no one would hear you.

Adam jangled the keys. “Three hundred a month, for three nights a week and it’s yours.”

I made a face. “I thought you said it only cost you five hundred a month.”

“I’m Jewish, Marc,” Adam shrugged in explanation. “A Jewish accountant.”

I shouldn’t have been so enthusiastic. “All right. Three hundred.”

We shook on it. “What is it you’re going to be doing down here?” Adam asked, only mildly interested. I was embarrassed.

“Oh, uh… I’m working on a project. It’s really a finale – a swansong. I thought that I would go through all my old tapes and archive them. See if there’s anything that should have been released but never was. And I had an idea that I would put one last album out, with one or two new tracks.” I petered out. “It’s a goodbye, really. I don’t know.“

This was true. I understood my motive but not my purpose.

It was Jamie Duffy’s suicide that had started me off. I can hardly claim that Jamie and I were close; indeed it had been fourteen years since I had last seen him, in Chicago. But being on the road throws people together, and we had shared plenty of motels and buses and dressing rooms as we toured across America during the late nineties. Jamie was coming into his early forties - a bad time to be a man. Forty-four is the age males are most likely to commit suicide, and an especially bad time for rock musicians. Of course for some virtuosos, age cannot wither their talent. There are a handful of veteran rockers that will be in demand so long as they can grip a microphone. But for the average guy in a rock band, it’s all over by forty. Actually it’s over much sooner, but approaching the fifth decade seems to bring home a final, frequently fatal torschlusspanik.

Jamie had one last performance left. He went home with three bottles of sleeping tablets, poured the pills out neatly onto a dish, photographed them with his mobile phone and posted the picture online with the caption, “This is how the end begins”. Then he swallowed the lot. They found him dead the next day.

His suicide troubled me. I took it as a warning and it hardened my determination to sever any remaining ties with music. Admittedly, I had long ago abandoned any idea of relying on a career in rock to pay the rent. It had been thirteen years since I had last released an album, and I had been drawing a regular paycheck for the previous eight. Somehow though, I had never made a decision to quit. I felt no completion, no finality. I didn’t have anything quite so final in mind as a night in with two hundred barbiturates and the Twitter account, but I felt that after a trawl through the archives, a valedictory song and perhaps a limited edition album for my two or three thousand remaining fans, it would be healthy to say farewell. This subterranean den would be a perfect base for the work.

Of course, Adam had never known me as anything other than a suit in a TV and advertising production company. He found my enthusiasm for the studio amusing. I think he had me down for a life crisis. After the studio, no doubt a Harley Davidson and an affair with a production assistant would follow.

“What do you call it? This place?” I asked him, gazing happily around. The distressed brickwork gave the room an apocalyptic feel.

“It doesn’t have a name. I know the guy that owns the warehouse and when he showed it to me I took it. It’s just a… strange little bunker really isn’t it?”

“A strange bunker! Yes, that’s about it. By the way, is there a toilet, somewhere to wash, upstairs in the warehouse?

“It’s basic, but yes. Why?”

“I’m going to sleep on the couch on the nights when I’m here. To save some money.”

“You’re going to sleep down here?

“Yeah, why not? It’s only a couple of nights for a few weeks. The couch is huge. I’ll keep a duvet in the booth.”

“No reason.” Adam looked around the room doubtfully. “But I’m not sure I’d want to spend the night down here alone. It gets bloody quiet after the warehouse closes. I’d get the creeps.”

“Dah! Pussy.”

Adam sighed. “Three hundred, cash money.”

I started sorting through my tapes in late October. I had paid for the bunker for three months. I made an occasion of my nights down there, bringing in a spread from the delicatessen, or treating myself to a takeaway vegetable curry. I rationalised renting the bunker as a holistically beneficial project. Staying in London is expensive: sleeping there would save money. One week in, I took out a short-term membership at a nearby gymnasium, with the idea that in the mornings I would work out and shower there. By the time I was finished on the tapes I was determined to emerge a new man - frugal, creative and physically fit.

I made a lot of music during the 80’s and 90’s and I am not an efficient archiver. Most of the tapes were stored in an old black metal trunk that I rescued from being thrown out by my parents in Sussex sometime in the 1980’s. Despite its sharp corners and awkward handles, I have carted it around ever since I was a student.

There were perhaps two hundred tapes to go through, although many were duplicates or safety copies. Some had been put in the wrong case. Some had been bagged together under long-forgotten taxonomies. Most were loose, and like an archaeologist exploring sedimentary strata, the deeper you went, the older the deposit. Each tape now needed to be sorted and checked for any missing gems, like a neglected song or a forgotten mix. To be honest, there was little that struck me as being of any worth, but as a diary of my twenties and early thirties, the tapes offered up rare nostalgia; dead ends, experiments, long forgotten sessions with old friends. I once made a concept album, for which I assumed the persona of a character called the Ashtrayhead. For the front cover, I pansticked my face, shaved my head and glued on 300 cigarettes in the shape of a Mohican, which we then lit up and photographed the results. I found the original Ashtrayhead recordings, and more peculiarities besides. It was a stock-take of the past. I wondered how many days, months, years of my life I had spent in recording studios. It was a happy task, and not one that I hurried over.

After a few nights, I decided to be more systematic. I removed all the remaining tapes to divide them into piles – definites, oddities, possibles and so on.

Having emptied the trunk I saw that at some point I had lined its base with newspaper – an old copy of The Guardian. I was delighted with the find. The issue dated from late September 1986 – obviously the week of that year’s Labour Party conference, because the front-page headline read, “Kinnock Shrugs Off His Troubles”, with a picture of the ill-starred leader on the platform in Blackpool, beaming with confidence. I pushed the tapes aside for a while to immerse myself in that autumn of 1986. I felt a pang of sympathy for Neil Kinnock. For a most of that year it had looked possible that he might defeat, or at least dent Thatcher’s long hegemony. It was the year of Westland, the bombing of Libya, the abolition of the GLC. Unemployment was well over three million. In April, Labour had won a by-election in Fulham on a respectable swing. You could see from Kinnock’s huge grin that he still thought he was going to win. But by the autumn of ‘86, the economic boom was filling up consumer pockets, at least in London and the South, and the Conservative poll numbers were starting to tick up again.

The delight in an old newspaper lies in the hubris of the writers and the personalities of the day. You know what they don’t – what happens next. Kinnock would lose badly to Thatcher in the following spring.

I lifted out the remainder of the Guardian from the trunk. It was probably the first time I had done this since 1986, I reflected. Underneath, there lay some minor detritus; a button badge that said, “I AM OLD”, given to me by a girlfriend on a birthday sometime in my twenties, a couple of old coins and some paperclips. And another piece of newspaper – this time just a scrap. It was part of an inside page. At first I thought it was torn from the same issue. Then I turned it over and noticed the date - the 20th February 1986, seven months prior to the Kinnock edition.

I felt a sense of dread right then. A tiny voice urged me to stop. Instead, I read the headline.

“Satan Case Judge Is Asked to Clear Court.”

 

I twitched and blinked.

 

“The judge in the alleged Satan swindle trial was last night asked by a rector to clear the court today for evidence on black magic artefacts which were “too dangerous” to speak of openly. The Rev John Baker said mere mention of five objects used in devil worshipping rites by Derry Mainwaring Knight could threaten the lives of Knight and others.

 

Knight, aged 46, of Dormansland, Surrey, is accused of conning more than £200,000 from wealthy Christians to buy the occult regalia, destroy a circle of devil-worshippers and save himself from satanic possession. Three of the items which Knight wished to buy and destroy had been referred to at Maidstone Crown Court solely as “A, B and C.”

 

When asked for more details by the prosecution, Mr Baker said: “I must request for the court to be closed because it is too dangerous to talk about them in open court.”

Mr Michael West, QC, defending, pleaded that it was vital for the jury to hear the evidence and warned the prosecution to “realise that we are not playing a party game.”

I put the paper down, laying it out carefully on the lid of the trunk. I saw a flickering image of a dark sky, shot with white stars. I heard a crackling, droning sound. I felt nauseous.

“The horror,” I murmured. I always say “The horror,” when a panic attack is lurking. It is an involuntary mantra; for some reason naming it helps. “The horror, you get the horror.” The other technique is to think about sex. Don’t be shy. You have mere seconds before the attack starts. Think dirty. Don’t worry about veracity. Draw on a stylized tableau of your finest moments fucking. Do it quickly. And breathe slowly, whatever the cost.

I sat on the couch. The artificial silence of the underground room lay heavy. I stared at my hands. Easy, old son, easy does it. The lines on each of my palms carve out an M, I have always fancied. I swigged from a can of Diet Coke. I stared at the brick wall, which throbbed and rippled with a faint 3D effect.

“The horror. You get the horror.”

I glanced sideways at the newspaper. Suddenly my solitary location felt less clever. The isolation was near complete at night. Even phone reception was poor. From the bunker it took several minutes to reach the open street. Suppose something happened to me down here? A heart attack? An aneurysm?

“Something worse,” a nasty, impish voice seemed to say. I heard that odd crackling again, louder now, like radio interference, or a Geiger counter. I felt a tearing sensation beginning inside me. One palm tensed solid, like an arthritic, and a pins and needles sensation spread up the side of my body. I heard myself say, “Come on now. Just an anxiety attack.” But the voice sounded far away.

Then in mocking answer, a powerful force hit me in the side of my chest. I jerked backwards, knocking over my can of drink, which hit the floor, fizzing angrily. I fell back onto the couch and tensed for the worst. It came alright, orange blisters and boils foaming over my vision, splitting it, as if it was merely a meniscus covering another reality behind, a brown red skin, with a wound, or eye, or vulva, opening and closing. Multiple waves of abomination hit me. I heard insane cackles, something like monkeys gibbering, rising to a demented, hysterical pitch before a sudden cut off, then a bubbling, slithering sound. I moaned, and gripped at the sofa. Then that snapping noise again, now with sounds of torture, rape, unimaginable agonies, a scream that never ended, that stays with me now. The volume grew. Pleadings for death, inhuman growling. More voices, one saying calmly above the wave of terror, over and over again, “I am coming for you.” There was nothing I could do now. I was prostrate. I heard myself make little spastic noises in my throat. My lips moved but I could not form the words, “The horror, the horror.”

There was a creeping presence in my head, authoritative and implacable. Yes, it was coming for me. I felt my personality weaken as the other grew and grinned. I twisted myself again and knocked over a lamp. Bang, bang, bang. Three more savage jolts and I lay foetal. I could hear him close now, I was certain it was male. “I am coming for you.” Rational thought was beyond me but I made a supreme effort to breathe. I drooled spastically. The tension in my hands worsened, my thumbs frozen across my palms in an odd, stylized position.

If you can think of nothing else, just focus on breathing evenly, the heart will eventually slow. It took a supreme effort, concentrating everything I had into drawing in air, then gradually releasing it. The juddering came again three or four times, still horrible, but with slightly diminished force.

Time passed. In tiny increments, I relaxed. Pins and needles spread as blood flowed back into my arms and hands and fingers. After a while I realized that the silence had returned. It must have taken some minutes because I was conscious that I was soaked with terror sweat and exhausted, as you always are after an attack. It seemed to be over. I massaged my hands free from their clawlike rictus and sat upright, still juddering and jerking occasionally.

Slowly, like an old man, working every button with deliberation, I began to change out of my wet clothes.

That was quite something, I reflected. It was certainly the worst episode in a very long time. After so many years of peace and happiness, I had forgotten the violence of my condition, the humiliation, and the pathetic vulnerability when in extremis. Oh yes, it’s an “anxiety attack”, and it’s all in the mind they say. I know this to be true, because I am a rational person. But that’s not what happens. For me it feels like something is trying to drag me out of this dimension, or reality, or that someone is invading me, inside my head. I feel as if I am, literally, losing my mind. Someone is trying to take it. They get close. One day they might win and there will be no way back. And then there was that odd tearing sensation, the feeling of a veil, or layer peeling away to reveal… what? Or where?

I rubbed my jaw experimentally and I started to reconsider this whole business with the tapes, and especially renting the bunker. For a moment there, I had thought that something had physically snapped, a rupture of membrane or muscle. Imagination no doubt, but perhaps after all, a hotel would have been better. Why, a man who was sensitive to this kind of isolation could go mad in here, I thought.

“You could go mad in here,” I croaked experimentally. The words came out as a piteous warble. I sounded exactly like a pasty-faced hippy I once knew, a neighbour in my first year at university. Through our abutting walls, I had become acquainted with his hippyish ways and his select band of hippyish friends. My imitation of his quavering contralto became widely celebrated in the halls of residence. The hippy had been a real ale fan, I remembered. One night, as the result of an overenthusiastic tasting session, he had vomited in the corridor outside my room. From behind my door, I heard everything in high fidelity. My impression of his high-pitched sobbing as he discharged several pints of Bishop’s Finger formed the centrepiece of my bar room routine for some months thereafter. This then, was his justified revenge. I closed my eyes and smiled. Colin. The hippy’s name was Colin.

Fooling around, I screamed as hard and crazily as I could manage, “MAD! AH, GOD, I’M GOING MAD IN HERE! PLEASE SOMEBODY HELP ME!” Blood pumped furiously through my head in the silence. No one could hear me; no one was there and so no one came. I laughed delightedly. I felt better, almost lightheaded. I dabbed at the spilled drink with a tissue and I cleaned up the studio.

I realised that over the past ten years I had built up substantial layers of mental armour. The attack had explosive force, but lacked depth. Twelve or fifteen years ago, it would have been different. I would have been halfway through a litre of vodka, crunching diazepam by the palmful, doing anything to achieve oblivion.

When I felt completely calm, I picked up the torn paper once again, handling it with caution. I read more about the trial of the man who said he could speak with Satan, and more of the priest who helped him.

 

“Judge William Denison said that if Mr Baker reached a point in his evidence in which he felt the court should be cleared, then he would agree.

 

Earlier, Mr Baker described how Knight spoke in a strange voice in a trance like state during prayers with Knight who had been invited to live with him and his wife in the attic room at his rectory in Newick East Sussex. Mr Baker said that when Knight went into a trance like state a second time, he had decided to find out what had caused the “demonic activity” in his life.

 

“I therefore once again took authority for all the spirit forces concerned which started to speak to us out of him while he himself was in a tranced state of virtual unconsciousness. It was coming out of his mouth but not in his normal voice.” The rector demanded to know from the “spirit” what had happened in Knight’s life and he said the voice told him: “You cannot have him, he belongs to Lucifer. He was dedicated by sacrifice as a child and he is a master of the occult.”

There were a couple of stray muscle tics as I read but I felt saner this time, no question. There was no tearing or blisters, no sounds, only a squeezing that dispersed into greens and purples, a coshed, drugged sensation, spiralling endlessly into darkness.

I sat on the edge of the couch holding my head. I stayed there in almost the same position for a long time, thinking, breathing in the silence, rocking slowly back and forth. I must have fallen asleep eventually because the next thing I remembered were the dull thuds and vibrations above me that signified another morning in the warehouse had begun.

I went for a workout in the gym. I showered next to a couple of sales executives with hairy arses, bellowing and bullshitting to each other about their big moves in the office. I washed my hair. I cleaned my teeth. I put on a clean shirt. On my way out of the gym I reorganized my bags. I threw my towel in the communal cleaning basket and I stuffed my training shoes into my sports bag. I cleared out some rubbish from my briefcase and threw it in the wastebin; the packaging for a toothbrush, a battered old business proposal and a scrap of newspaper from February 1986. I stared at the bin for a moment and turned away.

Well, that’s that, I thought as I pushed through the exit turnstile. Forget about it. Leave the stygian, spectral realm behind. Now, back to the overworld, to industry and normality. Nearby, a gym attendant was leaning against a step machine as a plump girl with bunches gave it her all.

“How’s it feeling?” he kept asked her. “How’s it feel now? Starting to hurt? You want to quit?”

“I come… from a family… that never gives up,” she panted, poshly.

The attendant caught my eye and winked at me. “Laters.”

In the afternoon I left the office and sat in a coffee house on Great Titchfield Street, staring out of the window. The wind had picked up a little and rain blasted occasionally against the glass. I stirred my tea, which I did not want. My notebook and pen lay on the table, with a list of songs and markings set against them related to the status of the archiving process; F (Found), V (Unreleased Version), S (New Song). I doodled rows and rows of jagged lines.

Sometime in February 1986, I had torn a story from The Guardian.

Of course, there was nothing very odd about this, I rationalised. I used to read The Guardian every day. And I have always liked old newspapers. I have occasionally torn out stories that interested me and stuck them carelessly away in notebooks so that one day I might rediscover them. A couple of years ago I had found a few pages from The Independent tucked in a notebook, a memento of a wager on an old US election. Anyway, my metal box was old and leaky. Lining it with newspaper back in ’86 had clearly been sensible and I had used other pages torn from the same publication. So, what?

Certainly, my reaction to the clipping was strange. The panic attack I experienced had been severe, almost hallucinogenic. That droning, crackling sound, and the sensation of tearing... But after all, panic attacks are unpleasant. If you weren’t panicking, it wouldn’t be an attack would it? Last night was the most serious in years, true, but it was hardly the equivalent of Old Street Roundabout, ‘87, or Kennington ’88, and only a little more violent than say, Arizona Petrified Forest ’95, or Hackney ‘99. I had suffered worse, especially when I was drinking, and I felt perfectly fine now.

Anyway, I shivered; I had thrown the damn thing away.

I looked outside. It was quite dark now. Soon, I thought, I will be going underground again.

I called my wife from the warehouse, watching my multiple reflections in a stack of mirrored bathroom cabinets. I told her to sleep tight. I was very tired. On my laptop I watched an episode of the 1979 BBC series of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The pace suited my mood: slow and reflective.

I saw a British agent called Jim Prideaux, in an English wood, recounting his interrogation and torture to the master spycatcher Smiley. It looked like another wood I once knew, in Sussex.

“I hoped I'd go mad,” Prideaux said, “And no, they knew how to stop that. They left me alone for a couple of days; got me ready for the long one. That was when I… gave them what they wanted.”

Smiley reassured him, with deep sadness and understanding, “It's a matter of health as much as anything.”

Prideaux: “Yes, you don't break exactly, you just run out of stories to tell. I'd reached a point where the things locked away deep down were the only things coming into my brain.”

I paused the programme. I still heard Alec Guinness’s voice, birdsong in the background. I saw his face, softly nodding, staring down at me.

Smiley was right. It was a matter of health as much as anything.