The Warren Street Kid
by Frances Gow
Corey gazes at the floor and tries to imagine what the baby might look like. Eyes emerald like its mother’s or his own dusty grey? When he looks up, the agony in Mel’s expression punctuates his own grief.
“It hurts, Corey,” she says. “Hell, it hurts.” The door swings open and Cory’s heart leaps. He relaxes when he sees the midwife, Eliza, bustle into the room and he casts a guilty glance at Mel. Would she and Eliza be able to cope with the Kid if it made an appearance? Corey fidgets. When no one is looking, he ducks down and peers under the bed. Nothing. When he looks up, Eliza is frowning at him, tut-tutting.
Mel grabs his hand and draws him close.
“What are you doing?” she says. Eliza extracts him from Mel’s grasp and straps the foetal monitor around Mel’s middle. He departs to the amplified sound of the baby’s racing heartbeat, like the hooves of a dozen horses bolting down the watery streets of Atlantis.
Out of the hospital and into the bustle of a late Friday afternoon. He turns left into Goodge Street where the entrance to the Underground looms, frothing at the mouth with Londoners, tourists and undesirables. No room for manoeuvre, quicker to walk, run, trot, run screaming because he has to get to Warren Street station. He has to find the Kid.
He turns into Charlotte Street. Big mistake. All sorts of media sorts having late lunches and laughing. Corey ducks and dives, nearly slipping over on a discarded chip bag clinging to the pavement. He swears under his breath, regains his balance and sprints. The entrance door to Roko restaurant swings open, nearly knocking him over and he recognises Dan, a subeditor from his office. Corey ducks into the road narrowly avoiding a taxi which blasts its horn. Heart thumping, he glances over his shoulder. Dan is looking in the opposite direction, laughing at something his companion said. Corey slows his pace, hoping he has not been spotted.
When he gets to Warren Street, he mingles into the dissipating crowd and races down the escalators to the Northbound Northern Line platform. Ignoring the stitch in his side, he marches up to the end of the platform and stands, hands on hips, staring into the darkness of the empty tunnel.
“Where are you now?” he yells. A woman on a bench glances at him and moves away. Cool air rushes past his face and the distant rumble of an approaching train brings it all back in an instant.
* * *
Corey sat on a bench near the mouth of the tunnel, a pile of newspapers stacked by his side. He sat as far away from anyone else as possible. No-one should disturb his state of self-reflection. The trains came and went. People got off and people got on. Still, Corey sat, contemplating his future. He had to come up with a good story lead by the next day.
Patrick, the producer of the independent TV station he worked for, had made it perfectly clear. No story, no job. Well, it was inevitable, he supposed. He had cajoled and lied his way into his current position as an Assistant Producer with a fabricated career history at the BBC and fake references. His only real experience was in the summer two years ago, working as a runner in news and current affairs.
Come on, Corey boy, you’ve come this far... think. Think. He slapped his forehead. Useless. What’s the point of having status, if you can’t even enjoy success? He could hear his father’s voice telling him how misguided he was and how an East End boy would never grow rich on middle-class dreams.
He turned his attention to the newspapers and started to flick through the top one. His best ideas always came to him through reading the papers, and this was Corey’s favourite spot. His thinking spot. Only four stops down the line from home and one stop away from work. Perfect. A space in between, where people only passed through and paid him little heed.
He flicked through a tabloid and the page fell open on the photo of Mel Standish; he wondered how it might feel to be so adored by the population. He wondered how he might feel to be loved by someone so stunning. “This is hopeless,” he muttered, turning the page.
A train rushed into the station. People got off and people got on. The train departed and a boy was left standing alone on the platform in front of Corey. Corey glanced up. The boy was staring. Corey stared back.
“Hey, Kid. Shouldn’t you be in...” his words trailed off. That was one weird kid. He eyed the bald head and pointed ears. It suddenly occurred to him that the Kid might be ill or something. Its wrinkled skin was covered in a sort of sackcloth suit which looked out of place.
The Kid smiled, revealing a row of tiny pointed teeth that had little black tips, like someone had coloured them in with a felt pen. That is ugly, thought Corey.
“Why are you crying?” Its voice was a hoarse whisper.
“I’m not crying,” Corey said.
“Yes, you are,” the Kid said.
“Push off, Kid.” Corey wiped his tear-streaked face with a sleeve. It was hot in there or something. The Kid laughed. “I know what you want and I can help you get it.”
“Why should you?” Corey said.
The Kid cocked its head to one side thoughtfully. “Good question. What can you give me if I promise to help you?”
“Depends what you can do for me,” Corey said, wishing the Kid would just go away.
“I can give you a lead on the biggest breaking story of this week.”
“How do you...?” Corey stalled, looked in wonder at the repulsive creature, and, thinking he had nothing to lose, unclasped his thick gold link chain and handed it to the Kid. The Kid snatched it and bit one of the links.
“Goody, goody,” it squealed and scuttled closer to Corey. He backed away in disgust, but the Kid came forward and whispered.
“Come closer. I can tell you where the General is hiding out...”
Corey listened and the import of the Kid’s scoop flicked a switch in his brain. He leapt from the bench and without a backward glance, raced up and out of Warren Street station, punching the number of the news crew into his mobile as he ran.
* * *
Corey was happy for a while. The story break gave him the opportunity to learn more and to impress his colleagues, but he always had one eye on the next step.
To Warren Street he returned time and again. To sit, mull and plan. He felt he ought to thank the Kid, but the thought of seeing the hideous creature again made his skin crawl. As time went on he began to forget how he came to be in that fortunate position.
His father’s voice cut into his thoughts; “You’ll never break free from your roots, so why bother? What makes you think you’re so different?”
So instead of trying to understand why his happiness turned sour, Corey reached for an instant solution. A quick-fix remedy that would cure all; a better job, more status, more money. If only he had a higher role within the company, all that retrospective misery would just go away.
He sat with his pile of newspapers and thought about his job. That word “assistant” in front of “producer” was taunting him. It was a nasty, unnecessary word, one that implied he was not wholly in control. He had to do something about it.
The Kid stood in front of him with a mischievous smile on its face. Corey jumped. Where the hell did it come from? The gold link chain around its neck looked odd, illuminating the ingratiating expression on its face. Corey touched his own neck to finger the chain that was no longer there.
“Why are you crying?” the Kid said, taking a step closer.
“I’m not... falling for that one again,” Corey said. This time the conversation was going to follow his lead. “What can you do for me, Kid?” The Kid stepped closer and Corey reeled back against the stench. It was like rotten meat rolled in manure. “Damn,” he coughed, the bile rising to his throat. “What the hell happened to you?”
“This world does not agree with me,” the Kid said, waving a hand in dismissal. “So, you want a better job? What can you offer me this time?” Corey unclasped his watch and dangled it at arm’s length. He pinched his nose and breathed through his mouth.
“It’s a Fila divers watch, worth over £500. Made from titanium, same thing they use to build space rockets.” The Kid looked curiously at it, then snatched the watch and flipped it onto its wrist. A flutter of dead skin cells filled the air. The Kid held up its wrist and smiled.
“Hmn. Not bad. Be seeing you.” It jumped off the platform and scuttled away into the tunnel.
“Hey... what about..?”
On his return to the office, Corey discovered that one of the producers on the programme had resigned, and Corey was offered first refusal on the vacant position.
The next time he saw the Kid, it was in a worse state than ever. Its eyes sank into its skull and grey flesh enveloped its bone structure in great folds like the skin of a rhino.
By the time Corey reached the position of Editor, he had relinquished his annual subscription to an exclusive health club, his credit card, car keys and collection of semi-precious gem stones. Somehow, it never seemed to be enough. While the Kid grew ever more decrepit, Corey grew ever more restless. He eventually returned to Warren Street Station, to his favourite bench and his pile of dailies.
There was something missing from the puzzle of his life. He flipped through the papers faster and faster until he couldn’t really see what was on the page, then chucked them into a heap on the seat next to him in despair.
She was staring right at him from page three of the tabloid: Mel Standish. Celebrity model, distant and unattainable. This time his emotions did get the upper hand and Corey submitted to the tears. He cried for all the crappy jobs he had ever had and he cried for all the lies he had ever told. But above all, he cried for a woman he might never hold. A love that could have saved him.
“What is it this time?” the Kid said with a sigh. Corey looked up. There was a small, smartly dressed Kid in a suit and tie, with a bag over its head, two eye holes, a crude slit for the mouth and a hat perched on top. It looked like the Elephant Man on a good day. Its arms were folded across its chest.
Embarrassed, Corey wiped across his face with his sleeve. The Kid peered through the eye holes at the picture on the open page of the newspaper. “Oh, I get it. Well, what can you offer me this time?”
“I have nothing left that you could possibly want.” Corey’s voice carried an edge of desperation. “You can have my job, my life... you’ve got most of it already. What more could I offer you?”
“Hmm... she is good-looking. But what I really want,” the Kid swept a hand across its disintegrating body, “is something you cannot do for me. But...”
“Anything. Just name the price, anything you want,” Corey said. The Kid pointed a bony finger at the picture of Mel Standish, her blonde hair barely covering her breasts. “Were you ever to have a child...”
Corey was at first shocked. Not least because of the suggestion; he had never even thought of having children and could hardly imagine himself as a father. In his state of desperation, it was all too easy to just say yes. Yes, and it was all fixed. The girl of his dreams was his girl in reality.
* * *
People get off the train and people get on. Corey is left standing on the platform, staring into the dark tunnel as the train whooshes away. Still no sign of the Kid. It is hard to believe that he could have been so foolhardy to have agreed to such a thing. Mel and Corey had decided that they would never have children because of their careers. So when it happened, with an almost divine-like intervention, they discussed abortion so long and hard that they eventually missed the window of opportunity. Corey had searched the platform week after week, looking for the Kid, but it never made another appearance.
He slumps into the bench, forlorn, and weeps with shame. He made a bargain; a bargain that he cannot uphold. The crowd flows towards the exit, people casting their curious gaze over this wretched individual sitting on the bench. Corey jumps up suddenly, balling his fists at the empty tunnel.
“It’s not too late. Come out and show your ugly face. You can’t do this to me.” Corey is screaming. He senses movement behind him, swirls around, fists raised. The police officer and station guard drop back. Corey opens his hands in submission as the police officer instinctively lays a hand upon the weapon hooked to his belt. “I’m going,” says Corey. “Sorry, I’m going.” He is escorted to the exit.
Outside the labour ward, Eliza is waiting for him. Her face is distraught. She opens her mouth and flaps her tongue around but not a sound comes out. Corey pushes past her and into Mel’s room. The room is bare and silent. An empty bed, sheets still ruffled. He approaches the bed and runs a hand over the imprint of Mel’s body. It is still warm. He closes his eyes and tries to recall the last time he saw her face. He can smell her scent in the room, a lingering reminder of what he once had.
He turns towards the empty cot. No, not quite empty. There is a bundle of something. Something still, lifeless. Hardly daring to breathe, Corey approaches the cot and peers over the edge. He reels back; a tiny claw-like finger grips the edge of the blanket.
Then, with a mixture of repulsion and morbid curiosity, he lifts the cover on what was meant to be his child. He looks upon the familiar grey wrinkled skin, the pointed teeth, black tips revealed behind the curl of a smile on its lips. It is a small, but perfectly formed version of the Kid.
The expression on its face has such an innocence and tenderness that he is moved by its own failure; a transmutation that went horribly wrong. And what if it had worked? What if it had successfully traded its decrepit existence for a young human form? He shudders, sickened by the thought.
Corey turns away, heaving. His throat stings with the bile as much as his heart yearns for the love he has lost. A love that was not his to claim in the first place. He bundles the Kid up into sheets and pushes out of the door, past Eliza. The least he can do is bury the poor nameless creature.
* * *
What had once been his reality fades now into a distant memory. A death that negates the past eventually reshapes the future. Corey is happy now, building a life for himself from where he left off, before he met the Kid. He believes in himself now and acknowledges that once upon a time, he made a terrible mistake that nearly ruined his life.
His colleagues at the TV station are getting to know the new Corey. From Assistant Producer, he moves on and begins to make a name for himself. One of the senior news editors is an American who has a distracting habit of referring to Corey as “the Kid.” Corey flinches at the name, but bears it all the same as a timeless reminder of how things might have worked out.
He tries to follow Mel’s career in the tabloids, but she seems to have altogether disappeared from public scrutiny. There is speculation surrounding a rumoured nervous breakdown and a variety of imaginary suitors. No-one really knows. No-one, that is, except for Corey.
He discovers her one day, serving coffee in a local cafe. Their eyes meet across the top of the counter. Did he detect a glimmer of recognition? She has dyed her hair auburn and is wearing a pair of small round spectacles that give her a studious look.
“Do I know you?” she says, turning to attend to his coffee. “You look familiar.”
“No. I don’t think so,” he says. “Not yet, anyhow.”
She fixes her emerald gaze upon him and smiles, raising an eyebrow. Indeed, Corey is happy now. For a while, at least.
Copyright © 2013 by Frances Gow