Philip had to run across the terminal concourse to catch the last train from Victoria to Streatham Common, and he was still trying to get his breath back by the time the train stopped at Clapham Junction.
Apart from a girl with dreadlocks right behind him who wouldn’t stop talking on her mobile phone, he was the only passenger in his carriage. He could see his face reflected in the blackness of the window and he thought that he looked at least forty years old, even though he was only twenty-eight. His hair had been thinning lately, but he put that down to stress.
Streatham Common station was deserted when he arrived, and so he didn’t have to show his ticket. It was nine minutes past midnight, and a fine rain was falling, so that the streetlights all shone like dandelion clocks.
He turned up the collar of his jacket and started to walk down Greyhound Lane. It would take him only five minutes to get back to his flat, but he was so tired that he felt like lying down in the nearest front garden and falling asleep, regardless of the rain. It had been a little over five months now since he had started his first major role as reward manager for Ensurex International, but during that time they had taken over two other insurance companies, which had meant that he was responsible for sorting out hundreds of conflicting demands for bonuses and pensions and other benefits.
He loved figures. He could have happily crunched numbers all day. But it was dealing with foul-tempered managers and whining, discontented staff that he found so exhausting. Ensurex International paid well, but he was beginning to wonder if it was worth all the pressure.
He crossed over to the row of houses which faced the south side of the common. The common itself was dark and empty, with only a sparse line of plane trees separating it from the road. His flat was in a converted Edwardian house on the corner of Braxted Road, with a paved-over garden and a gaggle of green dustbins outside. The couple who lived directly underneath him smoked and argued and played rap music all night and he had wanted to move for months, but he never seemed to have the time or the energy to look for anywhere new.
He was only thirty metres away from his front driveway when he noticed six or seven dark figures standing on the common, roughly in a circle. He stopped and stared at them, shading his eyes from the streetlight with his hand. They were too far away for him to be able to see them clearly, but they all appeared to be hooded, and they were swaying slightly, as if they were performing a ritual dance.
He knew that he should probably mind his own business, but there had been reports in the Streatham Guardian recently about a local society of Druids who had been trying to trace the ley lines that ran across this part of South London. Ley lines were supposed to connect one site of supernatural significance to another – such as a Neolithic hill fort at Crystal Palace to a sacred well in Waddon. They interested Philip because he had worked out a way of mapping them mathematically with shape analysis, which archaeologists often used to locate buried ruins.
He admitted to himself that it was nerdish, but he had always loved solving problems with numbers, ever since he was a schoolboy.
The dark hooded figures certainly looked like Druids, and perhaps they had found a ley line crossing the common. After all, Streatham had been named ‘street-ham’ after the Roman road that had been built through it, and it was conceivable that the Romans had followed the mystical track used by the ancient Britons.
Philip crossed over the road and walked over the wet grass towards the figures. They continued to sway, but they were silent, neither talking nor singing, and under their hoods their faces were in total darkness, so it was impossible to make out what they looked like.
As he came nearer, the three nearest figures turned their heads towards him, but he still couldn’t see their faces. It was almost as if their hoods were empty.
‘I – ah – I hope I’m not interrupting anything!’ Philip called out. ‘I saw you all there and I couldn’t help wondering if you were Druids. You know – looking for ley lines. I’m very interested in that myself. Ley lines.’
Now the rest of the figures turned towards him. He stopped where he was, concerned that he might have interrupted a family occasion that was deeply personal, like the commemoration of a dead child, or perhaps some kind of fringe religious ceremony. Still, the figures remained silent, although they continued to sway in a way that was beginning to make Philip feel inexplicably uneasy.
‘Listen, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you. It’s just that I was reading about Druids and ley lines in the local rag. Sorry. Sorry. I’ll leave you to it.’
He started to walk back towards the road. He had only gone a few metres, though, before he heard a very soft rumbling sound behind him, like somebody shaking out a floormat. He started to turn around to see what it was when one of the figures leapt up onto his shoulders and knocked him face-down onto the grass.
For a few seconds he was too winded to say anything. He started to lift up his head but the figure swung its arm around and hit his left ear so hard that his eardrum burst. He tried to roll over and push the figure off him, but two more dark figures dropped down beside him, one on each side, and somehow they wrapped their sleeves around his arms, binding him so tightly that he was unable to move, while another two bound his legs.
He felt as if he were laced up in a straitjacket. The more violently he struggled, the tighter his bonds became, so tight that they were cutting off his circulation. He was desperate to shout for help, but the figure who had first knocked him down was pressing down on his back and he was unable to draw enough breath into his lungs. The figure was so heavy that he thought his spine was going to crack, and all he could manage was a repetitive ‘Ah! – ah! – ah!’
While the figure on his back kept him pinned to the ground, the figure who was holding his right arm started to twist it around in its socket. The pain was so excruciating that it brought tears to Philip’s eyes, and with his good right ear he could hear the tendons and muscles crackling apart.
‘Stop-stop-stop-stop-God-that-hurts-stop!’ he begged, but the figure kept on twisting harder and harder until Philip felt his upper arm-bone wrenched right out of its socket. The figure then screwed his whole arm through three hundred and sixty degrees, so that the sleeves of his raincoat and his jacket and his shirt were all ripped off together. It took one final twist to tear his skin apart, too, and with every heartbeat dark red blood was squirted out onto the grass.
The pain was so overwhelming that it went beyond Philip’s capacity to feel it. He saw nothing but bright scarlet and then he saw black and then he passed out.
The figure tugged three times at his arm to pull it away from his shoulder, then slung it off into the rain and the darkness.
It was now that the rest of the dismemberment began. Philip’s left arm was rotated twice by the figure that had been gripping it, and then once more, until it was suddenly torn free. At the same time the two figures holding his legs bent them sideways at right angles, again and again. It took over twenty minutes of twisting and pulling, with all seven figures clustered over Philip’s mutilated body like a clamour of rooks, except that this clamour was deathly silent. Apart from the constant swishing of late-night traffic along Streatham High Road, the only sounds were the tearing of Philip’s trousers, the cracking of his thigh muscles as they were stretched to the limit and beyond, and a soft sucking noise from each of his hips as the joints were dislocated.
While they were wrenching off his legs, Philip suffered a massive cardiac arrest. His chest jolted, but if the figures realised that he had died, it didn’t deter them from rolling his bloodied torso over onto his back. Huddled over him, they punctured his stomach with scores of pinholes, perforating it so much that they could rip the skin and muscle apart as if they were tearing open a padded envelope. Once they had opened him up, they scooped out his bowels in armfuls.
The figures weren’t repelled by the stench, or the blood, or the faeces. They embraced his intestines like long-lost children, passing them around in slippery loops, one to the other, and wrapping their arms around them. After that, they dragged out his stomach and his liver and his lungs, and held them up to their hoods as if they were kissing them.
For nearly an hour they sat in the drizzle with Philip’s remains strewn around them, their heads bowed like pilgrims who have at last found the spiritual peace for which they have been searching all their lives. Then, one by one, they rose and silently made their way to the north side of the common, where the trees grew more densely, and disappeared into the darkness.