Strangest thing, it was, the strangest thing. Wouldn’t have believed it if I’d heard it from somebody else but, ah, there you go, that’s the way things happen, sometimes, innit?
I was on clean up. Some old biddy-some posh old biddy, she’d come down with the Cough. Her relatives had all been taken care of, course. I don’t imagine it was too pleasant for them. Budget cuts and all that but, there you go, there you go. We all got to make do with the hand that’d dealt us, don’t we? Sort of thing wouldn’t happen if people just followed the rules, like they were told. I follow the rules. Do I like it, all the time? Course not. I miss the pub. I miss golf. But I follow the rules. It’s the people who don’t follow the rules that make our lives so unpleasant.
So, I went down there with the team and got to work. Weren’t too pretty. She was in a hell of a state, she was. Kept on crying. Where’s my boys? Where’s my boys? I had to give her a few smacks, just to shut her up. We gave the whole house the once over with the spray. Read her the Statement. Gave her the chance to put her affairs in order-there’s this digital, ready-made will, they’re supposed to sign. Leaves all their property-well, assets more than property in this case, to the local council. A little contribution to our collective effort against the sickness. She told us to go fuck ourselves and that, I’m not going to lie, that did piss me off a little bit. You know what I mean? I’m just doing my job. Aren’t I? What am I supposed to do? She was the one breaking the rules. She was the one that got herself sick. I gave her a few more slaps, just to work off some of my frustration. I used to go to the pub. I follow the rules. That’s why I don’t get sick. I bet that old bag thought she was special, didn’t she? Well, now she knows better, don’t she? We sorted her out, got out the house and lit the place up.
The flames spread very quickly. Thanks to our special spray. Whoosh. Up her big house went. Must admit, I do like the sight of the fire. It does make my eyes twinkle a little bit; I must admit. Like the bonfires we used to have, when I was a boy. With my family. They’re all gone now, of course. Budget cuts. Couldn’t save them. It’s just how it goes, sometimes. What can you do? I know my place. I know the hand I’ve been dealt. Not like that stupid old bag. She didn’t get it. People like her, they never do. That’s why they’re being purged, I reckon. That’s why they’re getting themselves killed off.
As the house was going up, that’s when I first saw him. I couldn’t believe my eyes, at first. I saw him, in the bedroom window, behind two thick curtains of fire. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I thought I was dreaming it.
It was a bloke dressed up in one of them-whatchamacallit, the old Plague Doctor’s outfits. I swear, I wouldn’t make this sort of thing up. I couldn’t make this sort of thing up if I wanted to. He was just standing there and, I don’t know how I knew this, but I could tell that behind the mask, he was looking right at me. It was like something out of a bad dream. I cried out to my boys: Look, look! You see that? You see that? What the hell is that? They didn’t see it. They looked at me like I was going daft. I didn’t leave until the whole house had burnt itself to the ground. I wanted to make sure that that horrible, black figure behind the window was nothing but ashes. I went home, once the house was no more, and fell into a long, dark sleep.
I started seeing him more, after that. At clean ups he was always there, in the corner of the room. Staring at me with those big, black, soulless eyes of his. His hooked face gleaming like a knife. Made me a bag of nerves on the job, I can tell you. The boys all noticed. How violent I became. Got to a point where they even had to pull me away from the patients, at some points. And, no matter how many houses I burnt down, no matter how many times I saw that dreadful, crow-headed demon disappear under mountains and mountains of fire, he would always pop back up again. It drove me mad; I tell you. It drove me completely mad. I started sneaking bottles again, off the black market. Anything to help me sleep. Anything to help dull the impression of that awful Doctor from my imagination.
After about a month of this, I started seeing him in my house. Hanging over my bed, beak bared. I saw him in my fridge, at one point, his horrible curved face, glinted at me like it wanted to peck out my insides. I saw it in the bath-in the bath! -of all places, its long block coat soaked in cold, cold water.
Course, I couldn’t go to the shrink with this information. Budget cuts, you see. Our department’s been sliced and diced with them. If they thought that my head was going a bit funny, they’d pack me off to the Funny Farms, wouldn’t they? Then I’d end up six feet under, before the day was out. They don’t like loose cannons in the department.
It got to the point where, every time I blinked, I’d see that Doctor, hanging inside my eyelids, beak bared, eyes bulging, full of murderous intent. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t work. What could I do but die? So, that’s exactly what I decided to do. I went over my place, once, twice, three time with the spray and pulled out my Dad’s old cigarette lighter. I’d kept it from the good old days, before I had to clean up him and Mum. Rules, you see. They’re there for a reason, aren’t they? That’s why I had to do it. Otherwise, well, the whole house of cards falls down, doesn’t it? Up in a thick cloud of smoke and fire. Had to do it. Didn’t enjoy it, but I had to do my job.
He was watching me from the doorway, that crow bastard. He was grinning behind the mask, I could tell, as I dropped the naked flame onto the soaking wet floor. I raised my middle finger to that spectral monster, the flames burst out from under my feet and swallowed up the whole house. I smiled.
Until I realised that, he was still there, inside the fire. And the fire was all around me and within me. And, though it burned my skin and scorched my bones to blackened pulps, I was given no escape. And I’m still there, to this day. Burning, watched, as always, by that damned Plague Doctor.
by Rhys Clarke