‘Just a little more tinkering and it’ll be ready for the exhibition.’ muttered Professor Small, polishing a solar cell for his beloved new invention.
‘Yes, Dad,’ said his daughter, who was quietly reading a book, as usual. The professor glanced at her and worried for the umpteenth time about her social life. He was a widow – Mrs. Small having long since departed this vale of tears – and wasn’t at all confident about raising a girl. Dorothy Small was intelligent and studious, like him, but he had a vague impression that a woman of nineteen should get out more.
On the other hand, she put up with his eccentricities so it was only fair that he should allow hers. The kitchen table of their ‘Small’ home was usually covered in mechanical parts and he spent most of his evenings in the garage tinkering with his beloved new car.
The new car was one of a kind. He was making it himself and planned to win a prize one day in some sort of ecological transport competition. It was the answer to both air pollution and noise pollution. Powered partly by solar cells and partly by a battery it whizzed down the road with no more noise than a mouse humming. Since it was not street legal he usually took it out very early in the mornings. Fortunately he lived in a reasonably isolated community, a place called Old Sodbury, near Bristol, England – and the quiet country roads were deserted at first light. His daughter said he drove too fast but she was cautious that way. She was cautious in every way. Too cautious, perhaps.
‘Going out tonight?’ he asked. ‘It’s Saturday.’
She shook her head.
He turned to look at her. She was sat in lotus position on the sofa, her head bent over the novel that occupied her thoughts. The thick rimmed glasses (she couldn’t wear contacts) had slipped down her nose slightly. Her straight brown hair, parted untidily in the middle, hung down limply to her shoulders. She was long and lean, sort of gangly, and not at all like the glamorous girls who pervaded the tv screens and the covers of glossy magazines.
Didn’t girls go out on Saturday night anymore? He wasn’t sure. He had a notion that their social life was largely conducted on computers and smart phones nowadays. Apart from technological developments he was largely unacquainted with the modern world. He shrugged and carried on polishing his parts.
Professor Small was calm and happy. About a mile away from him, another man was not.
‘Go away, imp!’ Martin White yelled his face an angry red. A lady passing by looked at him and shook her head in disapproval. She saw an ordinary English working man in jeans and a shirt with a trowel in his hand standing by a low garden wall.
It was about two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and he was obviously building it. There was an electric cement mixer on the pavement and a pile of bricks nearby. He was on a minor road not far from where he lived doing a weekend job for cash to boost his income. This is common practice among builders. The nice old lady that owned the house wanted a nice new brick wall to replace an old wire fence that had sagged so much under the weight of years and idle teen-agers that it was no longer viable. An acquaintance had put her on to Martin and he had put in a reasonably good bid. On the previous weekend he had put in a reasonably good foundation, a few inches of strong concrete, and was now proceeding with the wall itself. None of this was unusual. It was not that unusual to see a man shouting to himself on an English street, at least not in the centre of Bristol, London or other big cities where assorted lunatics, drunks, drug addicts and so forth roamed freely. It was rare in the quiet streets of Chipping Sodbury, so the woman looked. Then she shrugged and moved on, minding her own business.
The trowel clanged on the pavement.
‘Missed!’ said the Imp, skipping nimbly to one side. ‘Again.’
Martin took a deep breath. ‘Leave…my…brickwork…alone,’ he said very slowly.
The Imp laughed. ‘Or what, Marty? You’ll miss me with a trowel…again.’
‘Don’t call me Marty. I hate being called Marty.’
‘What are you going to do about it…Marty?’ The Imp poked a long, horrible red tongue out at him then dashed around him and tipped over the cement mixer. It fell with a loud clang and the remains of the mix inside spilled out onto the road.
Then it capered gleefully around the mess while the unfortunate builder looked on in despair.
Martin White was a bricklayer aged twenty-one and single. He was quite tall and quite handsome and his hair was quite dark so he fitted the usual description of a desirable man. He lived not far from Professor Small in the small town of Chipping Sodbury.
Martin had an unusual problem. He was cursed, and had been for two weeks now, with a tormenting imp. Like Harvey, the giant rabbit in the well-loved film – the imp was invisible to everyone but him, though it had a definite physical presence. It was ugly with grey/green skin, three-fingered hands, three-toed feet and a face like a church gargoyle. But though mean spirited it was no mere spirit. It occupied space and had solidity and weight. Another person might trip over the Imp if it got in their way. (It was only two feet tall). Moreover, Martin knew that insects could detect it, perhaps using senses other than sight, because he had once seen it stung by an irritable wasp. That had been a good day.
Mostly, though, all his days were bad. It tormented him endlessly in small ways. It would hide the teabags, shut doors in his face when he was carrying a tray of food, tip the rubbish bin over in the street and trip him up. In the past fortnight he had been scalded by soup on his wrist, had lump hammers dropped on his toes, buckets dropped on his head and been kicked in the shins about forty times. The Imp vanished, sometimes for hours at a time, and would then reappear suddenly. He had no idea where it went and no idea when it would come back so the waiting for its inevitable return was psychological torture. He assumed that it returned to Imp-land to eat and sleep for, mercifully, it was not usually around after midnight. Regrettably, it was often back very early in the morning to throw water on him in bed.
Worst of all, the Imp would destroy his brickwork at the end of a long hard day. That was horrible. Martin was proud of his brickwork. Once he had employed his clumsy brother Eric as a labourer. Eric was inclined to fall over his own feet and had twice fallen on the carefully constructed walls that were being built, destroying them. Martin had regretfully sacked him. He liked his brother but he couldn’t stand to see his work destroyed (not to mention the pay lost having to do it twice.) Martin loved brickwork and took a real pride in the craft, especially with these weekend jobs where he could do it properly. Monday to Friday he was working on an industrial estate building giant new warehouses, miles of long stretcher courses with no art or style to them. His mate Michael Flannagan, an Irishman from County Down had a little rhyme:
Put them away
A thousand a day
And make hay
While the sun shines.
He was a better bricklayer than a poet but the idea was right. Builders often had long periods of no work in winter and, like the farmer, had to make ’hay’ while the sun was up. But the ‘thousand a day’ gave no real chance to do good work, and no one would have cared if you had. The little garden wall was a chance to be a craftsman and Martin loved it.
The imp pushed three bricks off that he had just laid. Martin dashed forward and again he was too slow. The trowel clanged harmlessly against the new wall and dislodged another brick. He gazed heavenward and groaned in frustration.
‘What did I do to deserve you?’
The Imp laughed. ‘You know what you did, Marty.’
It had been a fortnight earlier, a Friday night. Martin, like any red-blooded single man in the building trade, had gone to the pub for a well-deserved drink after his long week bending over brickwork. Driven by a powerful thirst he had imbibed more strong lager than was good for him. Driven by other urges he had approached a woman who was sat quietly in the corner by herself drinking a glass of sherry. He had been watching her for most of the evening.
She was very tall with silver hair. She wore a short denim jacket over a pale blue T-shirt. Her skinny jeans showed off long, lean lovely legs. Black leather boots did not subtract from her appeal. She was not conventionally pretty and not young either but she had some indefinable appeal. He decided to chat her up and moved over to her table.
‘Hello, gorgeous,’ he said cheerfully. ’Mind if I join you?’
She turned her head to one side and cupped a hand over one ear. ’Eh?’ The pub lounge was already quite noisy, though it was only nine o’clock.
‘Mind if I join you?’ he said more loudly.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I do.’
He sat down on the chair opposite her. They were at a round table near a window that faced out onto Chipping Sodbury High Street. The pub was typical of a small market town; dark brown walls, wooden beams, dark wooden tables and chairs and a durable carpet underfoot.
‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’ he asked.
‘I’m enjoying being alone,’ she replied. ‘Go away.’
‘Aw, you don’t mean that,’ he said, trying not to slur. The world seemed a bit distant from him, as if he was looking at it all through thick glass but he liked the view. He was full of beery courage and determined not to be put off.
‘Go away, young man,’ she said very firmly. ‘You are not my type.’
He glared at her. Hope had turned suddenly to frustration which quickly changed to anger. ‘Ah, you’re ugly anyway,’ he said, standing up.
It was a fairly standard response for a rejected British male. Her reply was not.
She moved her hands in an odd gesture, as if weaving patterns in the air.
She said: ‘Yr wyf yn eich curse gyda arg. And it will last longer than your hangover, fool!’
‘Go to blazes,’ he replied, turning away. He didn’t recognize the language she had spoken, though it sounded a bit like Gaelic or welsh. He had recognized one word: curse. He thought it wasn’t very nice. On the other hand he realized, even full of lager, that he hadn’t been nice either and felt a bit ashamed. Martin frequently argued with friends and relatives that despite their awful reputation not all builders were stupid foul-mouthed louts. Many of them were nice chaps who spoke politely, enjoyed soft music and even read books. He like fantasy himself: Tolkien, Donaldson and the like. It was true that the scaffolds of Britain were not teeming with poets, he argued, but just because a fellow was good with his hands and enjoyed working outdoors it didn’t necessarily follow that he was a brute. Yet tonight, indubitably, he had behaved like the worst stereotype of a builder. All in all it was a sobering experience and had ruined the evening. He left the remainder of his drink at the bar and walked out of the exit. He did not look back at the woman.
He stepped out of the pub and tripped over something. With a cry of surprise he sprawled in an ungainly heap on the pavement. Two young girls walking past giggled. An older woman gave him a withering look. They clearly thought he was drunk. He was a bit drunk but not enough to fall over. Looking back to see what had tripped him he saw the Imp for the first time.
It was stood a couple of feet away, doubled up with laughter. Martin stared at it, blinked, stared again.
‘Did you trip me…midget?’ Martin had fully imbibed the political correctness of the last decade and even though drunk did search mentally for a polite form of terminology to describe the person before him. He failed.
‘Sure, I tripped you’ the creature replied cheerfully. ‘And I’m not a midget, whelp. I’m an Imp.’
So it had begun.
Jill pottered about the garden of her little cottage, her usual Saturday afternoon routine. She was reasonably content except for a nagging feeling of having forgotten something. The feeling had been with her for about two weeks now, since the Sunday before last. On that day she had awoken with a slight hangover after a few too many sherries the night before. Usually she didn’t take alcohol to any extent but a mood of melancholy had come over her and she had gone out. The evening had been largely uneventful, and morose. But there was something she had meant to do the next day and for the life of her she couldn’t remember.
‘You’re getting old, girl,’ she muttered to herself, re-potting a pansy that was wilting. That morning she had spent half an hour trying to find her car keys, an increasingly common occurrence. Having found them she couldn’t recall where it was she had intended to go.
The damned menopause. There really should be a spell to put a stop to it, she thought. Must have a look at the Necronomicon later and see if it offered any help, though it seemed unlikely that the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred would have much to say on such mundane matters.
Just then the cat nudged her with its nose, demanding to be fed.
‘Alright, Sneezy. Be with you now.’
Martin gave up trying to build the wall. He knocked on the door and told the dear, sweet old lady that he was low on cement and would have to come back and finish the job next week. She was not at all bothered.
He stalked homeward with the Imp behind him. He ignored it. He showered and changed and headed for the High Street. He needed some groceries. Across the street from the small convenience store was the town hall and outside was a sign declaring that the Alternative Fair was taking place that day.
The Alternative Fair was an annual event. Astrologers, Tarot card readers, crystal ball readers, healing crystal saleswomen and all the other dealers in ancient mysteries gathered there in dozens of stalls and waited for customers to pour in. Martin, a pragmatist, found the whole thing laughable and had never entered. He called it the Weirdo Fair. Now he saw it with new eyes. He was, indubitably, cursed with an invisible Imp that no one else could see. It had been proved over the last two weeks. He had bruised shins, a scalded wrist and a severe ongoing headache to prove it. He could conceive of no ordinary solution to the problem of the Imp so a supernatural solution might be the answer.
It was a supernatural problem, after all.
He crossed the road to the Weirdo Fair.
The Imp was in front of him, dancing a merry jig. ‘Why are you bothering with those charlatans. If you’re interested in magic I can do it.’
Martin ignored him. He had discovered that engaging the little devil in conversation only added to his frustration. He walked into the lobby of the town hall and paid the five pound entrance fee then walked into the main room. There were stalls everywhere. He approached the nearest, a bald man offering to see your future in a crystal ball. The customer’s chair before the small table was empty. Martin sat in it.
‘Would you like a reading, sir?’
Martin glanced at the cardboard sign propped up on the corner of the desk that bore the legend: ‘Readings £15.00’. He shook his head.
‘I’m cursed,’ he said. ‘Cursed with an Imp. Can you see it?’ He turned and indicated the small creature stood nearby. As the place was quite crowded the Imp was too concerned with not being trampled to worry about much else.
The bald man stared where the finger pointed. He shook his head and gave Martin a wary look. ‘There’s nothing there.’
‘If you can’t see it I guess you can’t get rid of it.’ Martin stood up and went to the next table where a woman with long dark hair sold crystals to heal the soul. She couldn’t see the Imp either.
For about an hour he did the rounds of the stalls and failed to find anyone with enough supernatural ability to perceive the presence of his small tormentor, never mind get rid of it.
He stalked back out onto the High Street while the Imp cackled with glee.
The church bells rang to indicate that it was four o’clock.
Martin smiled suddenly, then strode quickly around the corner.
Jill scrubbed the small trowel with a churn brush and put it neatly on the rack in the wooden shed. She was meticulous about having a place for everything and keeping everything in its place. She secured the shed door with a bolt and padlock and added a charm for extra safety. Anyone attempting to break in would be suddenly struck by nameless, overwhelming terror. Then she removed her Wellingtons and put them in the box by the back door. All the while a small thought was niggling at her mind, like a toothache.
What have I forgotten.
They sat in a cosy, dark oak-panelled room off the main hall of the church, where the celebrants dressed for the service. Martin had popped in on the off chance and was fortunate enough to find a member of the clergy there, checking that the altar was all correctly laid out for Sunday’s ceremony.
The Vicar of St. Dudley’s was a short pink-faced, chubby young man with soft, fat fingers, the sort of fellow that a horny-handed toiler like Martin would normally have viewed with disdain. At the moment he was a potential saviour so the builder wooed him desperately. He was encouraged by the fact that the Imp had not followed him into the church grounds. For the past forty minutes he had been explaining his problem to the Vicar, and proposing a solution, too.
‘An exorcism,’ Martin repeated, leaning forward eagerly. ’You see, Your Holiness…’
‘Call me Rodney,’ sighed the Vicar. ‘Please.’ In his confusion the bricklayer had so far addressed him as Father, Your Grace, Your Eminence, Your Worship and, now, Your Holiness. As he was neither a catholic priest, a duke, a cardinal, a Justice of the Peace, nor the Pope he felt obliged to correct the young fellow each time. He was distinctly uncomfortable with the whole tone of the conversation anyway.
Martin continued: ‘You see, this Imp has been tormenting me for a fortnight now and it’s driving me crazy. It appeared suddenly the other Saturday. I think the woman in the pub might have something to do with it; but I haven’t been able to track her down. But an Imp is a sort of devil, isn’t it? So I thought you might be able to cast it out.’
Rodney squirmed. ‘Martin, this is all a bit…unusual. I mean, the modern church is really more about the human side of Christianity. We believe in helping people, certainly. We have shelters for the homeless, organize fairs and jumble sales to raise money for charity, do lots of good work. But the sort of thing you’re talking about…well, it all seems a bit… supernatural.’
He frowned as he said the word. When deciding on a career Rodney had been torn between social work and the church. He had chosen the latter because it seemed to offer more possibilities of doing good rather than doing bureaucracy but he had no interest in mysticism. As far as he was concerned all that stuff about virgin births and rising from the dead was simply a metaphor for the deeper meaning. He gave Martin a sideways look. ‘You’re not a catholic, are you?’
‘No. C of E, born and bred, right here in this parish.
Rodney gave him an arch look. ‘Why haven’t I seen you at church?’
Martin shrugged. ‘I haven’t been.’
That was it. Rodney’s patience had expired. He stood up and took Martin by the arm, raising him to his feet. ‘I think you should leave, young man. I suggest that you go and see a psychiatrist about these delusions of yours.’
‘You think I’m mad?’ Martin had not, until now, considered that possibility.
Rodney shook his head. ’Mad is a pejorative term that we don’t use nowadays. I think you have mental health problems, though. Do you take drugs?’
Martin shook his head. ’Only lager, though that may be what got me into this mess.’
They had reached the small, dark wooden exit door at the back of the church. Martin had by now realized that Rodney was not going to help and he felt overwhelming despair. His foot hurt from bricks dropped on it; his wrist was sore from the scalding with soup. His head ached. ‘I am the king of pain,’ he murmured, abject in self pity.
‘Goodbye, your majesty.’ The Vicar opened the door and eased him gently out onto the threshold.
The door clicked shut with an air of finality.
Professor Small had worked hard that Saturday and all the pieces of car he had disassembled were now reassembled and back in the vehicle. He was itching to test it and see if his tweaking had improved its performance. Afternoon was slowly turning into evening. It was that quiet time when the Saturday shoppers have all gone home for tea and the Saturday drinkers have not yet gone out to the bars. He turned to Dorothy who was still reading her book.
‘Do you fancy a quick spin, Dot?’
She looked up at him then looked out of the window. It was a balmy summers evening and she had been inside all day.
‘Why not?’ She threw on a light coat and jammed the paperback into its voluminous side pocket. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Oh, not far.’ The Professor rubbed his hands together in anticipation. ‘Just up the High Street in town and maybe a quick dash down the dual carriageway to see how she does for speed.’
‘Aren’t you going to change?’
‘No. Too late now. Set in my ways.’
‘I mean your clothes, Daddy.’
He was never conscious of his clothes. Looking down he saw that his current cladding consisted of a pair of grubby blue overalls.
‘Oh right. Better change. Won’t be a tick.’ He walked upstairs briskly.
Martin was sure he could not take much more of the Imp. He walked down a short road off the High Street that led back to his house with the unfriendly creature jeering at him all the way.
‘Got that headache again, Marty? And I bet your foot hurts from the brick I dropped earlier. Sorry I missed the steel toe-cap.’
He ignored the taunts.
Jill slipped out of her underwear and stepped nimbly into the large shower. It was a bit of a luxury for a single person but she occasionally treated herself to such things. Turning on the stream of hot water she reached for the cleaning gel and squirted a quantity into her calloused hands. Her mind still itched with the forgotten thing.
Professor Small put his foot down on the accelerator and the shiny black vehicle sped quickly up the A46 towards Chipping Sodbury. The bodywork was fibreglass but coated with very thin, very efficient solar panels. He was proud of the car.
‘Slow down, Dad,’ said Dorothy.
‘It’s a fifty mile an hour limit,’ he retorted, somewhat peevishly.
She pursed her lips in disapproval. ‘It is not. It is a forty mile an hour limit, as you well know, and it turns to thirty just ahead.’
‘This thing has excellent brakes,’ he said, steering carefully around a roundabout and turning off onto the long suburban street that led towards the town centre.
‘I might stay with you tonight, Marty.’
Martin was still trudging slowly home, still trying to ignore the annoying creature but he couldn’t ignore that last remark. ‘What!’
The Imp laughed heartily. ‘I know I usually go home but I’m worried you might be lonely. Tonight I’ll stay with you. All night.’ It skipped along happily a few paces ahead of him. ‘What fun we’ll have!’
Martin decided he had died and gone to Hell.
Jill stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel round herself. She picked up the scraper from the windowsill and carefully cleaned the glass shower stall. Then she dried herself and towelled at her hair. Stepping out into the hallway she saw that the cat was scratching at the front room door, mewling for food.
‘Maybe I’ll burn the house down while you’re asleep,’ said the Imp.
In a sudden fury Martin rushed at it. Caught off guard on the narrow pavement the Imp skipped nimbly between two parked cars and out onto the road.
Professor Small really was going too fast, thought Dorothy but she was reluctant to repeat her warning. She didn’t want to be a nag. Then she looked ahead. For a second she thought there was something in the road and caught her breath.
Jill said. ‘Stop that, Sneezy, you little Imp.’
That was it! That was what she had forgotten! She waved her hands and spoke quickly: ‘Imp Begone! Yn ôl i’r arallfyd.’
Martin saw a black car bearing down on the Imp.
‘Look out!’ he yelled, decent instincts coming to the fore.
The car went blithely past without stopping. There was no sound of an impact. Martin dashed out into the road and looked at the tarmac. There was nothing there. He waited a few seconds for the Imp to come out from hiding and start tormenting him again. Nothing happened. He was sure the car must have hit it yet there was no body, not even a stain.
Did Imps vanish like soap bubbles on impact?
One thing was certain though.
The Imp was gone!
That certainly called for a celebratory pint. Or two.
Professor Small pulled into the High Street. Young people were just beginning to come out; some dressed in their Saturday night finery.
Dorothy was trembling slightly. Although she was sure she had seen something in there had been no impact. It was very odd. Yet it was a reminder. People were killed by cars every day, about three thousand people a year in Britain alone. People were killed by other things, too. No one knew when the hour was coming. She looked around the street and saw the men and women heading out for a good time. Was she really going to go back home and curl up with a book? Usually that satisfied her but tonight was different somehow. Tonight she felt like a change.
‘Drop me off here, Dad. I fancy a drink.
Martin went in the pub and quickly sank the first pint. It was good to be alive! Then he remembered his previous binge and slowed down. Staring into the good ale he pondered the events of the past two weeks. Had she really set the Imp on him, that lovely silver-haired lady he had tried to pick up? Or had the Imp just appeared at random and picked him for a target? Were there really such things as Imps? Already the whole thing was starting to seem like a bad dream. No, a nightmare.
He looked over to the corner table where his last unfortunate encounter had taken place. The tall, older lady was not there but the seat was occupied. A younger woman with straight brown hair untidily parted in the middle was huddled unobtrusively into the corner. He moved a little closer to her and bent a little to see the cover of her paperback.
It was‘The Mirror of her Dreams’ by Stephen Donaldson.
Martin laughed. ‘That book always makes me think of my dear brother, Eric.’
She looked up at him, blinked. ‘Why?’
‘He’s even more clumsy than the hero. I had to sack him – sack my own brother, mind – because he kept falling over my brickwork and destroying it.’
She smiled. ‘Oh, I think the hero is lovely.’
He looked at her again. She was no beauty but there was something. He sat down abruptly beside her. ‘Can I join you?’
He felt her appraising look. Then she smiled.
‘Sure. Why not?’
*Yr wyf yn eich curse gyda arg. – Welsh for ‘I curse you with an imp’
Imp Begone! Yn ôl i’r arallfyd – Welsh for ‘Begone Imp! Back to the otherworld.’
(Courtesy of google translate. )
Eamonn Murphy lives near Bristol, England and has spent the last 55 years growing up, reading Marvel comics and Golden Age SF, doing lots of different jobs and earning a degree in History and Humanities from the Open University. Finally mature-ish, he has settled with a nice lady in the countryside. He has been a reviewer for sfcrowsnest for several years and has published a few science-fiction stories, most recently in Perihelion SF magazine. His website is at eamonnmurphyblog.wordpress.com