When the time for his civil service examination drew near Lung Po made up his mind to go somewhere to study alone. He feared the attractions of the seaside, and he feared rural isolation, for of old he knew its charms, and so he determined to stay in his parents empty investment flat in London where there would be nothing to distract him. As Po wished to avoid friends he had no wish to encumber himself with the attention of his parents’ friends, and so their ghost flat in Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen development was perfect. His parents and their friends had invested in the luxury apartment block and left their flats empty, banking on an overheated property market to reap a huge profit. He packed a suitcase with some clothes and his laptop, and then flew from Hong Kong to London.
When after a twelve hour flight he arrived at Heathrow Airport, he felt satisfied that he had so far obliterated his tracks as to be sure of having a peaceful opportunity of pursuing his studies. He travelled from the western outskirts of London to the centre of town in less than two hours. The Denizen was brand spanking new and as attractive as a desert, nobody was living there. Po looked around the Cripplegate and Bunhill neighbourhoods the day after his arrival and found the area he’d moved to was littered with ghost home developments, many of which had attracted Chinese investors, although The Heron AKA Milton Court had drawn in its serious money from the mafia state of Russia.
An endless parade of empty apartment buildings towered above social housing that had been built for local proletarians. Canaletto Tower, The Atlas, 250 City Road and The Lexicon, were all impressively inhuman in their height and scale. The Denizen may not have been as tall as these monuments to unbridled capitalism but it was still impressive and prevented sunlight from reaching dozens of council flats, two schools and Fortune Street Park. It more than held its own against the overpriced empty apartments in places like Dance Square, The Eagle, Eagle Point, Fable Apartments, The Featherstone and The Bezier Building.
When Po told the concierge he intended to stay in his parents Denizen apartment for several months the man beamed.
‘To tell you the truth,’ the concierge said, ‘I should be only too happy to accustom the people around here to see The Denizen inhabited. Leaving it empty allows absurd prejudices to grow up around it, and these can be best put down by its occupation—if only,’ he added with a sly glance at Po, ‘by a scholar like yourself, who wants its quiet for a time.’
Po thought it needless to ask the agent about the ‘absurd prejudice’. He knew he could get more information from other quarters should he require it. The concierge provided the contact details of a local woman who would undertake to ‘do’ for him. He then went to Waitrose to buy provisions. The check out lady seemed a cheerful and kindly person. However when he told her he’d just moved into The Denizen, she threw up her hands in amazement.
‘Not in The Denizen!’ she grew pale as she spoke.
Po explained that his parents owned a luxury apartment there and he was only staying in it for a few months. He asked cashier to tell him what there was against the place. She told him that hundreds of years before—how long she could not say, as she was no historian, but she thought it must have been four hundred years or more—the abode of an aldermanic sheriff had stood on the site of what was now The Denizen. The sheriff was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences and his hostility to prisoners at the Old Bailey. There was also a plague pit beneath the site and it had acted as a home to brothels and later to warehouses in which children had been horribly abused.
The cashier told Po locals were against the new apartment block because 110 social housing units for key workers had been knocked down to make way for the empty ghost flats. People were also against the development because it was much taller than the previous building, The Denizen stole vast amounts of sunlight from its neighbours. The woman also imparted that the history of the site made locals queasy. There was a general feeling that when the foundations of The Denizen had been laid evil spirits were disturbed because as the block was taller, these had gone deeper than those for the earlier buildings. It was located directly opposite where the old City mortuary had stood until it was destroyed in The Blitz. For her own part the check out lady said she would not take all the money in the Bank of England in exchange for staying in The Denizen an hour by herself. Then she apologised to Po for her disturbing talk.
‘It’s bad of me, sir. But are you really going to live there all alone. If you were my boy—and you’ll excuse me for saying it—you wouldn’t sleep there a night, not if I had to go there myself and blow the place up to stop you sleeping in it!’
The lady was so manifestly in earnest, and was so kindly in her intentions, that Po, although amused, was touched. He told her kindly how much he appreciated her interest in him.
‘But my dear woman,’ he add, ‘you need not be concerned about me! A man who is reading for the Chinese civil service exam has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of the eldrich things you talk about, and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow mysteries of any kind to enter his mind. In three months time I’m going to have to answer 135 multiple-choice questions in two hours, that’s more than one a minute, the subjects covered include logic, world affairs, language, and maths!’
After taking the ready-meals he’d purchased back to The Denizen, Po phoned the cleaner the concierge had recommended and arranged to meet her outside the supermarket he’d just left. The charwoman was called Mary Dempster. She was talking to the check out lady he’d spoken to earlier, evidently she’d finished her shift, when he arrived. The cashier was introduced as Iris and was evidently curious to see inside The Denizen. So Po who’d already mentally rated her as grade A MILF, invited her along too. Iris was manifestly afraid of the apartment block and at the slightest sound clutched on to Po, whom she kept within arms reach at all times. Before going she expressed all sorts of kind wishes and at the entrance door to the street said:
‘And perhaps it might be well to have one of those big screens put round your bed at night—though, truth to tell, I would die myself if I were to be so shut in with all kinds of spirits, that put their heads round the sides, or over the top, and look on me!’
The image she’d called up was too much for her nerves, and she fled. Mrs. Dempster sniffed in a superior manner as Iris disappeared, and remarked that for her own part she wasn’t afraid of all the bogies in the underworld.
‘I’ll tell you what it is, sir,’ she said; ‘bogies is all kinds and sorts of things—except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles; and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night Do you think there’s no rats and beetles here when London is overrun with them? And do you imagine, sir, that you won’t see none of them? Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats; and don’t you get to think anything else!’
‘Mary,’ said Po gravely, ‘you know more than Confucius! And let me say that as a mark of esteem for your indubitable soundness of head and heart, I could pay you a great deal extra if you’d stay over with me on any night I happen to feel lonely. I like mature and experienced ladies, and while I rather fancy your friend Iris tickling my balls, I’m even keener for you to perform the same service.’
‘Thank you kindly, sir!’ she answered, ‘but I couldn’t sleep away from home a night. My husband is a very jealous and violent man, and if he suspected something between us it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended in murder. He’d give you no peace.’
‘My good woman,’ said Po hastily, ‘I have come here on purpose to obtain solitude, and believe me that I am grateful to your jealous husband for having so violent a temper that I am perforce denied the temptation of sampling your charms! But do you think Iris might be interested in my money?’
The woman laughed harshly. ‘Iris is a devout Christian who refuses to have sex with her own husband. You’ll get all the solitude you want here.’
Mary set to work with her cleaning and when Po returned from eating and drinking his fill in The Masque Haunt —he always had his laptop with him to study as he boozed—he found the apartment swept and tidied.
Po got out his laptop and set himself down to a spell of real hard work. He went on without pause till about eleven o’clock, when he knocked off for a bit to make himself a cup of tea. He had always been a tea-drinker. During his college life he had sat late at work and taken tea late. The rest was a great luxury to him, and he enjoyed it with a sense of delicious, voluptuous ease. As he sipped his hot tea he revelled in the sense of isolation from his kind. Then it was that he began to notice for the first time what a noise the mice and rats that had invaded the apartment block were making.
‘Surely,’ he thought, ‘they cannot have been at it all the time I was studying. Had they been, I must have noticed it!’ Presently, when the noise increased, he satisfied himself that it was really new. It was evident that at first the mice had been frightened at the presence of a stranger, but that as the time went on they had grown bolder and were now disporting themselves as was their wont.
How busy they were! Hark to the strange noises! Up and down in cavities behind the walls, over the ceiling and under the floor they raced, and gnawed, and scratched! Po smiled to himself as he recalled Mrs. Dempster saying, ‘Bogies is rats, and rats is bogies!’ The tea began to have its effect of intellectual and nervous stimulus, he saw with joy another long spell of work to be done before the night was past, and in the sense of security which it gave him, he allowed himself the luxury of a good look round the apartment. There were some pictures on the walls, but he knew his parents had paid someone local to furnish the place before his arrival, and guessed that little thought had gone into their choosing. Now and then he saw a mouse scamper across the floor, but in an instant it was gone. The thing that most puzzled him, however, was a rope that hung down from a hole in the ceiling. He made another cup of tea and went back to his work. For a little while the mice disturbed him somewhat with their perpetual scampering, but he got accustomed to the noise as one does to the ticking of a clock or the roar of moving water; and he became so immersed in his study that everything in the world, except the problem which he was trying to solve, passed away from him.
He suddenly looked up, his problem still unsolved, and there in the air was that sense of the hour before the dawn, which is so dread to doubtful life. The noise of the mice had ceased. It seemed to Po that it must have ceased but lately and that it was the sudden cessation which broke his concentration. As he looked up he started in spite of his sang froid.
There on a leather chair by the right side of the radiator sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone with an added vindictiveness.
Po felt amazed and seizing a ceremonial sword from the wall ran at it to kill it. Before he could strike it, the rat jumped upon the floor and running up the strange rope, disappeared. Instantly, strange to say, the noisy scampering of the mice began again.