“I’ve been in Wan Chai” he said.
This much was unsurprising; Barnsie had the flushed pink skin of a habitual drunk, a once-muscular body now going to seed. Alfie had first met him a few months ago when he’d arrived in Hong Kong, drinking at a bar in Lang Kwai Fong, and recognised a fellow alcoholic specialist.
“Oh great. So you’ve been drinking all day and then you got kicked out of a bar and came round to my place?”
“No, Alfie, shut up and listen for a bit. I’ve been in Wan Chai for a – for – when did you last see me?”
Alfie had to think about this. He’d been so embroiled by work recently he’d mostly neglected his social life, apart from performing at the cabaret nights. “That would have been after that night at the club in February. You came to the show, and then we went out drinking.” They always went out drinking. A few pints in Soho, wander down the hill to Lan Kwai Fong, then hop in a cab and finish off in one bar or another in Wan Chai. If they weren’t too drunk, it would just be somewhere that served gassy beer in dirty glasses; if they were too drunk, there’d be a miserable girl in a schoolgirl uniform dancing behind the bar, while they drank gassy beer from dirty glasses.
“And you haven’t seen me since, have you?”
“Well, come to think of it, no. But this isn’t much of a reunion, is it? Why don’t you just take off that stupid blindfold?” He reached out, but Barnsie batted his hand away.
“Don’t touch it! I can’t see you. If I can see you, they can see you.”
“The people I was with. The people in Wan Chai, where I’ve been for the last month.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Alfie, remember when I told you about what I did in Iraq?”
One night, Barnsie, especially drunk, missing his shirt, had been showing off his tattoos and the long scars down the side of his torso and boasting about his time in the SAS. Alfie hadn’t taken much notice. Typical Army-lad stories about giant tigers or some such rubbish.
“It was the same thing as I saw in that hole. They’re keeping it in a basement in Wan Chai. A shrine.”
Barnsie belched, took a tug on the Glenfiddich. It had been full this morning, it was half empty now. Not that Alfie was going to touch it again, looking at the scabs and flaking skin around Barnsie’s mouth.
“They made me, they made me drink this water, Alfie. You know that you’re seventy percent water, right? Well they poison you with it. You’re not yourself once you’ve drunk the water, Alfie.”
“You’re not making any sense. Maybe if you put that bottle down and let yourself sober up a bit – ”
He hugged the bottle close to his chest, as though he was scared that Alfie was going to snatch it off him. “Can’t. Mustn’t stop drinking. I sober up, they’ll get control back. They made me drink the water, Alfie. That means whatever I see, they can see. Got to keep drinking.”
“Barnsie, you’ve been on a bender in Wan Chai for a month? The last thing you want to do is keep drinking. You want to go home, drink some water, and then think about how you’re going to repair all the things in my flat that you’ve just smashed up.”
“Alfie, you’re not listening. I can’t stop drinking now. If I do, the water is going to let them take control.” He took another slug of the whisky. “I know you don’t believe me. But I’m trying to warn you. I picked up this girl in a bar down in Wan Chai, after you left, she took me to somewhere else on Lockhart, and I saw the carving there, the one I recognised.”
“You what?” Alfie was finding this increasingly difficult to deal with. He’d had a hard day at work, and then he came home to find a vague acquaintance had broken into his flat, wrecked the place, and drunk half his best Scotch. And was intent on telling him some tinfoil-hat-wearing, shaggy dog story about how he was drinking for medicinal purposes.
“From the Gulf, Alfie. Like I said, when we were out in Iraq, in what used to be Mesopotami-uh-ah.” Barnsie was struggling to talk – his face was turning a shade of green that Alfie recognised as a sign of impending vomit. “Only three of us got out from that hole, and I never thought I’d see something like that again.
“So I started talking to the barman, and he saw that I’d seen the carving, that I knew what it meant. I made out that I was the same as them, so they took me downstairs, showed me the main … the main thing.”
“The main what?”
“Just like in Iraq, Alfie. Just like I told you. That thing that left the scar. They’ve got one there, but larger. Much larger.”
Alfie grabbed his arm and started pulling him upright. “Enough of this, Barnsie. I’m going to get you home so I don’t have to put up with all this bullshit any more.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? Well, look, Alfie. Look!”
He tore his jacket open, his shirt was unbuttoned. He pulled it wide. There was a livid, ugly wound, stretching from his collarbone to his waist, as if he’d been slashed with a knife. It wasn’t scabbed over though; it seemed to be seeping a clear fluid, glistening in the red light from the window.
Alfie recoiled. “That’s disgusting, Barnsie. We should get you to a hospital.”
“They held me down and made me drink the water, Alfie. Then they had me. They … they speak to me, Alfie. They make me do things.”
“Well how did you get here?”
“Alcohol, Alfie. The universal disinfectant. I waited, I took my chance, I started drinking all the booze I could get my hands on one day, until I couldn’t hear the voices any more. Then I put on this blindfold so they couldn’t see where I was going, and then I came over here, to tell you.”
He reached out toward Alfie, groping blindly. “Don’t drink water. Whatever you do. Stick to beer, whisky. Don’t let yourself sober up. Then they’ll have you. Ice cubes, anything with water.”
Barnsie tensed up. He clouted himself on the side of the head, groaned.
“Your drink isn’t strong enough, Alfie. You’ve got to get me away before they can see you.”
“What? You’re not making any sense.”
He gave another anguished groan. “I can hear them, Alfie. They’ll make me take the blindfold off!”
He stood up, charged forward. Alfie moved out the way, thinking Barnsie was going to try to wrestle him to the floor. Instead, he roared, smacking his body against the door frame. He blundered out, one hand clawing at his face.
“Don’t let me see you! You can’t let me see -”
Then he tripped, or slipped, or jumped. After his body had fallen down all five flights of stairs, the distinction was irrelevant.