J. P. J. Potts


And the house said, Come. I hadn’t thought of it. The whole bashed mess was half-renovated, but then so was I; bits of me hung on loose nails and failed extensions, trickled from gutters stuffed with Instagram art and pizza deals. So I left the hostel. Easy. Kissed the bunk bye. A pair of joggers had slithered off in the night. The stairs were a fantastic way to hate yourself. On the five-flight helix with my case, I said goodbye to an Australian. “Ohhhh, naur! You’re gonna miss the crawl! The crawl, though!” But I told him no worries, there was road gin. Maybe we’d meet again as juniper berries. Then I hugged his ridiculous skin. He wore my joggers. We fought about it. A cab came. Lights dribbled like sucked sweets on the window, and my head was black, so the driver couldn’t find much there. 

At the coach station I hunkered from the usual screams as lunatics saw the toilet fee. I sat beside a lady with a scarf and raincoat, one of those boil-in-a-bag bodies. “Is gonna come soon,” she said. 

“What is?” 

“The last one,” she said, sneezing and dabbing her nose. I looked at the departure board but there were only firsts. “Is very near,” she said, “the end.” When I turned back, she was trudging to the rain. She left half a pack of tissues and I tore one up. 

The doors opened. I uttered the name of my grandma’s city. The coach growled. Air frosted my knees. How can you sleep with a part cold? People must do it. Leeds left me like a trick, a stumble from a waltzer. We entered the motorway’s somnolent surf of cars and rain. I thought of an early memory, clipped in a circling car, fighting to stay awake even though Dad was aiming for knockout because in the dark he was mine.  

We fled from rest stops and flirted with cats’ eyes while Lucozade dried on the next seat. A man went, “Oh no no,” on the glass, and then, “Keith,” and stopped. Sore rubbish hit benches. We went with loose heads into thinner country. Muted. And light. Fields. Sheep like old teeth. We woke silently to thumped clouds.

And then stretching from the dark, we were there, over Grangetown, by the sea, and I knew where to go again. I found the close, the square with the tall wall and crying gulls. An open van stood with hired men for another house, not hers, a front door lashed to the van. The sky blotted blue like test paper. The men shifted planks and saws wordlessly. A salt breeze swept us closer. 

Her house wasn’t finished. It still held some of Grandma. I almost asked Dad if she’d mind, barely two months gone, about me staying there. Was she rested? Would the air fryer offend her? He said he’d thought about it, then installed precautions. You’ll see her if she comes about. There are lights in the hall, they follow feet. Opening the door, I expected her with a yellow wink and a silver palm. But the passage was blank. LEDs blinked on the skirting board. The electric bell whined and died. Rolls of carpet lay bunched against the wall like cheap cake displays. The floor had been stripped, sanded, gashed. I dropped my case and smoked in the yard. The new kitchen was almost there; along with the living room, the nearest to personhood. I sat on the sofa she’d never have put up with, testing the cushions and fingering the lamp. Throttled by decades. On my phone, reminders: Turn gas off. Set the timer. I’m back in nine days so leave early or I can take u x 

I wanted joggers but only had swim shorts, which angered my balls. Never mind. You itch, don’t you. Grandma’s bed was smaller than I remembered; it took a while to curl comfortably on the sheets. I searched for her mist on the pillow, rooted, and found a tissue beneath—used, crumpled, sweet-smelling. I woke up with it. Lay a while stroking her. Even felt absently on the bedside table for the china hippo she’d let me hold in the morning, leaving it there while I slept because I’d like to squeeze the sharp parts and get stronger. Where was that hippo? The sun was weak, nothing like the Saturday haze that would pin me there like a thumb twenty years ago. I hugged the sheets, staring at the poke of the neighbour’s chimney and listening for gulls, who tapped roof code. 

And the city, well, it was something. I suppose you had to be there. People dragged themselves to whatever was open and when it wasn’t they moved on, tottered towards slot machines and saveloys, bakeries and clinics, wearing fleeces the colours of kelp; they pushed and wiggled and reversed things that might be babies. Their faces wore maps of hard lives: red rivers, bruised hills, craters from Pluto. But they smiled so much. Smiled like they meant it. Grabbed your words and whirled them in a soapy iris. “Y’alreet?” with a look that said yes. “Eeee, turning nippy, isn’t it? Gonna have to hoy me coat on for the match, rip me scarf off the bairn.” 

“I don’t know who’s playing,” I’d say. 

“Ohhh, whey, we’ve been battered and shat on, truthfully, this season, but Clarke had a crackin’ header last week. There’s still hope for carnage.” 

“You were up, weren’t you, then down. Now it’s all sticking to the middle.” 

“Ayyye, speakin’ of which, don’t let that fish finger drop oot. The mayo’s mental.” 

“It’s great, ya knar. Thanks. Some heat.” And I wondered how delicious it was to find my accent again, rustling under a pile of tote bags and Hilary Mantels. Through the first day I tried it on, stretching my e’s, smothering my consonants like old relatives. The air still fumed with the Nissan factory. I learned someone had knocked the cinema down, that the sports centre held job fairs, and the All Saints had closed and reopened and closed. Weird after five cities with glass that kept climbing. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing when they looked up, pausing suddenly on the street. Whey, it’s small. Smaller than yesterday. 

When I’d taken acid here once, with Abby, we’d almost made sense of it. She’d handed over tabs in a park and hung from a tree laughing so sharp I thought she’d crack the branch, peering with me at the moon like a scoop of cream, clapping her mittens. And we’d followed the hunched night people who were sucked up by doors and gates we couldn’t see. She kept asking who they were. Really. “Just toys, man, looking for patches and their springs fixed.” A firework had leapt into the sky, scorching stars. “See, there they go!” But we hadn’t stayed out for long, and ended up watching Aliens, and the same cat from the movie—well, no—turned up on her doorstep, a stray tired of space. We’d loved that. The cat knew us. Abby took it with her when she left and lifted the cat on her lap on Skype when we still knew our usernames.

I returned to the house, made the air fryer submit. Last night’s gin, nice, with a cigarette, noticing Dad had bought Grandma’s favourite cheap lemonade. “This is my body,” I said mixing. “This is my blood.” One of the LEDs winked off for good. I had a little hash left over from Leeds, and went to the lounge, hooking my laptop to the T.V.—priority of fathers—as my brain flamed. And it felt like she was there. Not there. Sitting in the armchair behind me. A toe nuzzling the hole in her slipper, flowered skirt bouncing on her knees. Smelling of time. I spun. The nape of my neck grew warm, not unlike the touch of a hand. 

Back in the yard, breathing, I clung to the shed. We’d never said goodbye. It was over too fast, and I’d been sick, whatever you’d call it. I hoped she’d understand. There was no moon that night, but I searched for one. Craned my head and whispered. 

Something clattered by the bins and made me jump. A tin rolled out, resting at the drain. Something scurried. I shone my phone that way, and saw a black leg. Brown. Almost too quick to catch. 

“Hey, fucker!”

I edged round the bins, tilting the light. A couple of cans and packets lay scattered and mauled. Shaking, I trailed the torch to the garage, the slip of wall between us and the neighbour. Nothing stared out. But from the end of the close came a hoot, a soft wordless question, like a call from a forest. More answered it. Hoo, they went. Hoo hoo hoo. 

They came back the next night, after town, when I was scrolling ads, invoices, writing half an article on the best practices in field service management with keywords in lime, running past shattered warehouses and old shipyards in the afternoon. I felt good, ruined, elastic. Then—on the window; from the floor no-one. While I checked the right corner, a second tap struck the left, a plink moth hard. Through the cold bunker of house I heard the hooting, lower than before, almost a secret. 

I called Dad despite myself. “Are there animals out here or what? Something I might as well know?” 

“What do you mean? Animals, son?” Wherever he was—Malaga, maybe—it was fuzzy. 

“Pests, man. Or kids doing bullshit.”

“Don’t think there are many about, at least giving you grief. Never see them outside nae more. Shame. We’d mess with the laundrette lass and nick her copper wires.” 

“I didn’t ask for the Beano,” I said, seeing him as a child on the mantle, a freckled terrorist with a cowlick. “And copper’s a bad word now. Nah. There’s a thing with proper legs coming around. I saw it and one’s just knocked.” 

He sighed and faded into crowd sound. When he returned, he was slower, serious. “You need to lay off the spliffs, like.”

“They’re fine. They’re good for me. How’s your beer?” 

“If it’s kids,” he said, “ask them the time. That works.” 

But he was right, there were no children in Hendon. You had to go up Villette Road for the North Facers, the raw spitting crews on bikes by the chippy. I walked around searching for shadows, looping the estate, its spikes and wild lawns, playing podcasts dimly in my coat pocket because to walk without voices was unbearable. Some of them were funny. I couldn’t recall my last proper conversation. When I walked and listened, I could rehearse interjections, what I’d say around interesting people once everything reassembled. They might like this: A young guy evading his bollock rash. The wind became bitter. I circled towards Grandma’s house, and stopped at the door. Something shimmered on the step. A plate. I picked it up. A metal dish grainy with sand. I took it inside. Held it wonderingly in the bathroom. 

For a few nights, they knocked for me. Scampered in both yards. Scratched the bins. Rattled the letterbox. At first I heard three distinctly, but others joined, always when the sun fell behind the church. I waited for them. And saw them at last—usually by flicking the security light when they made a chorus of swelling excited hoos, running their fingers on the windowpane in the kitchen, tiny brown fingers with nails like splinters, tapping, testing—and I’d blast them with the light and throw open the back passage at the same time to find ten or eleven of them on all fours crouching over an empty tin of chopped pork, hopping off the step, the washing, lithe and long-armed, a halogen blade in their huge eyes as they opened their mouths and ran.  

I considered poison, traps, rat stuff, but couldn’t stomach it. They had hands and feet; that’s murder. I called the police another night and two officers arrived, flushed and polite. They trudged around to shine. “No, no one,” they said, holding their belts. “Just a few shopping bags. Did you get a look at their faces?” 

“Stay,” I said, fetching biscuits. “Just a while. You don’t wanna miss this.”

“We can’t. Sorry. Could be all night.” 

“Well, that’s just not good enough! I’m a taxpayer, in theory.” 

“We can’t caution the air, can we, and I’m sure you’re shaken, but we’re not allowed to hang around for Knocky Nine Doors, either.” 

“You don’t understand,” I told them, rocking and gripping the table. “This is intense. I’m barely sleeping. I have to work somewhere.” 

“So do we,” they said, brushing their trousers as if they were dirty. “Call us again if it’s worse. You might want evidence, too. Record something. Get a good look.” As they left, and I stood fretfully in the hallway, a shape slunk from under a car, ambling to the street through a cone of lamplight. 

I’d already taken a video, sent it to some friends who cried fake or sent a string of OMGs. You couldn’t make much out, to be fair—digits and knuckles, mostly noise. 

Congrats! You’re a cryptid keeper. 

You streaming this, bro? 

Jesus hun wtf!!! 

Monkeys in Sunderland – with Tim Spall. 

Nobody helped. I understood. We’d seen it all somewhere. I thought about leaving, even packed before going, no, I’m a dude.

Then on a grey morning, in a shop for deadline wine, I ran into Abby’s sister Clara. She was buying a scratch card, cracking on with the seller, red hair hanging in a ponytail now. Smiled at me. “Eeeee, look who’s kickin’ around. What’s new, eh?” 

“Came to find me tricycle,” I said, hugging her after a moment’s toeing. She crushed me back. 

“Bloody hell, ye’ve lost weight. And that brown jacket—the one that was stapled to ye shoulders!”

“It fell apart.” 

“Happens to the best of us.” 

I bought the wine and carried some of her shopping. She still lived on the corner of Barnstead Ave where trees hung like mangroves and the pavement was burned. Invited me in for a cuppa. “The lock’s stiff, hang on,” she huffed, revealing a diamond rug, a cat’s tail grazing figurines from East Asia. I stared at the cat on my ankle. 

“Is that . . .” 

“A little blighter, whey aye. Should learn what trouble is. Picked her up from me pal Val last month.” 

“Ohhhh ayeee, uh-huh.” 

We sat with our mugs and blew on them. Clara laughed as I told her about strange travel companions, the American men with guts like orchestras, the receptionist who’d brought me to a sauna for midsummer. She offered a smoke and our puffs mingled. I’ve never been used to cigarettes in rooms; they make me gangly and uncertain, whereas she found her ashtray constantly as she eulogised the club, the bar where grandma had worked until she couldn’t change a tenner. 

“We’d see her plenty, ya knar, suppin’ a Bell’s. Grabbin’ the mic for a song and tellin’ the pool lads to mind their cues.” 

“She was lightning in several bottles,” I said. “Could’ve killed Vegas.” 

“Ayyee. Was sorry to hear. Lovely lass.”

“Yeah. S’fine. She was comfy, I think.” I glanced at the wet neck of my Pinot. 

“When’s the last you heard from Abs?” 

“God, five years?”

“She misses ya.” Clara stubbed her tab, rested her hands on her jeans. “Won’t say it to me, but there are moments . . . She left a lot behind, too. Can’t stop. Worth a message.”

I nodded and grew quiet. A brass clock ticked. “Can I ask you,” I said, “about whether—I mean—” sitting forward, “have you seen summat round here?”

Clara crossed her legs. “Like what, like?” 

“They’re, um. They’re small. Loud. Brownish.” I concentrated on the fireplace. “They come around at night.”   

She looked at me hard. Stroked the cat when it went to her, then sighed, “They’re no harm.” 

“What are they?” 

“Fuck knas.” 

“And you’ve met them?” 

“Everyone has, recently.” She scanned the window. “One time or another.”  

I slid off the sofa and neared the fire. “They’ve been after me for something. I scare them off but it’s no use, they’re getting closer and it’s doing me in.” 

“Your nana fed them,” she said. “She told a few of us, when we got together about it.” 

“She what?” 

“She invited them in. They’re good for us.” The heavy trees in the street flinched at the rev of a strimmer. “They like us. They pay attention. Better than most, these days.” 

She waved on her stoop as I took the bend home, folding and refolding her arms. Clouds were breaking up. A dog wandered over cracked glass. I watched my shows and cooked curly fries and tried to type on a stool in the cupboard office that used to be a spare room. Unscrewed the wine at six. Searched vainly for Abby’s number, and fell asleep to distant barking. 

The bangs roused me—late, frantic, like they knew I’d booked a train. I blundered downstairs and wiped my eyes and pulled the blinds to even more of them rolling and playing on the gutters and leaping off the garage in pairs. 

More fries on the sideboard. I’d made two trays. Slowly, I opened the yard door. No lights but the kitchen. 

They gathered and sniffed the tray. One of them came forward to pluck a piece and darted back to the group, which cooed as it stuffed the fry into its mouth. A few others looked me dead on, gleaming. I put the tray on the floor as calmly as I could. 

Several of them grabbed the food, scraping it over the concrete. Dove silently. Tossed some to share. Their teeth clacked and they hummed in gratitude or satisfaction. I threw some bread too. Everything I had.  

When they were done, we sat down. A couple peeped over me to see what the rest of the house looked like. I moved aside. They sort of tssssked. “You won’t like halves, I bet. We’ll be decent though. He’ll make good work of it.” They cocked their heads and grinned like chimps do with a fang flash. “What else are you after? What did she do? Wasn’t like her to leave without sharing . . . But I wish she’d told me more.” 

The thing that took the first fry offered its palm. Hesitated. Lost faith. And thrust it again, higher. 

We left together, a black jumble. They stayed at my side until we reached the main road where they vanished and emerged at the edges, racing through hedges, swinging on phone poles, beckoning me with their hoos. 

Through the tunnel.

Down the hill to the bay.

Past stars of steel and wire. 

To the exploding beach, the bursting hissing waves. 

And they were harder to follow there. In the dark, I felt a tug. We crossed the slimed rocks. The sands of my earliest memory, when the sky wheeled above a blanket.

 To a dune and a furrow in the earth. They stood all around me. Gasped. Smacked the sand when I asked what next. 

One of them pulled my sleeve, guided my hand to the hole. 

With other sounds that I don’t know. 

But I shut my eyes, let the beach in, hunkered in the crash, and as my fingers dug coldly, pressed upon a familiar sting. Found the body. Clasped it. And squeezed.


J. P. J. Potts is a copywriter and freelance arts journalist in London. He prefers stories that kick you in the head and run away laughing. So far, you can find his published work in the pages—digital or imagined—of Orton, Bandit Fiction, and the Eunoia Review. He enjoys boxing and sensitive walks in yards with no sunlight.