But then comes a surprise. For the first time in a long while a warm semi-consciousness numbs Harry’s palsied limbs and steadies his belaboured breathing. A gift from the night, who is usually Harry’s enemy.
Almost asleep. Time to make a friend of it.
Hold on to this feeling. Submit to it. It’s alright…
He keeps his eyes squeezed shut even though he’s becoming vaguely aware of something in the room with him. He hears intermittent sounds that in his mind take the shape of legs scuttling across the wooden floor. Then feathery sounds: a delicate, frantic insect. Its wings whisper his name. Once again, the night is laughing at him.
He is shivering again.
• • •
Harry, distracted by his declaiming, clips an embankment of slush turning a corner at the local key store. Feels the clumps lodge under his left front fender, the hiss of slush against the wheel.
“Killie,” he sighs, “completely winter-fucked.”
George half-nods, licks his pinkie finger. Flattens over his stray eyebrow hairs. Ritual and habit. He breathes in the thick air, his breathing as heavy and hopeless as Harry’s dad’s when he’s drunk.
The council house is a carbuncle. Brutalism in burgundy.
“Here we go…”
They sit at the kitchen table, enjoying their lunch-hour. The punter, Mrs. Gilchrist, has a leaky S-bend. The whole house smells like a sewage factory. It’s a simple job — a partial-trap replacement—but they’ll milk it as much as they can. Mrs. Gilchrist sorts Harry and George with cups of milk-rich tea and an arrangement of digestive biscuits. She dotes on the two men and enjoys their company. She knows they’re over-egging the damage, but doesn’t mind.
Harry browses the news on his mobile phone, trying his best to stave off the weight of fatigue from yet another night of broken sleep. He’s beanpole skinny—undernourished according to George. He has a faintly absent quality, an inner sadness swirling behind his glazed eyes.
George on the other hand is a swag-bellied 40-something with a kind, oblate face. Between sips of tea, he reads Mrs. Gilchrist’s newspaper. He disrupts the quiet with a loud but good-natured grunt:
“Here, you’ll like this: ‘Experts at Scotland’s Rural College anticipate thousands of crane fly larvae, or Leatherjackets, are waiting to hatch across the West coast. Previously, farmers have used pesticides to reduce the number of Jenny Longlegs but this means is now prohibited since the substance chlor-pyrifos’—or some fuckin’ thing—‘was deemed toxic by the World Health Organisation. There is now a real concern for farmers’ crops in Ayrshire and beyond.’”
Harry looks up from his phone, one eyebrow raised.
“Fuck sake. It’s a concern alright,” he says with a hint of genuine anxiety — “Jennies, man. God’s punishment for humanity’s sins.”
George chuckles to himself. When Harry looks around the kitchen and shudders, George lets out a belly-laugh.
“Och, give me peace. They’re practically dust wi wings.”
Harry puts down his phone hard on the table, causing the delicate level of tea to slip over the brim of his cup.
“False sense of security. They want you to think they’re harmless. They’ve got this poison in their bloodstream that can down a buffalo, you know!”
“Pish!” George derides, returning to Mrs. Gilchrist’s paper.
“I’m telling you. We’re just lucky their fangs cannae penetrate human flesh. But the threat is real.”
“Christ, it gets better — here, listen to this: ‘on average, a million grubs were found in each hectare of land surveyed by SRUC.’”
Harry gulps. He takes a big mouthful of his tea.
“‘In the coming weeks these grubs will hatch, unleashing millions of the insects to terrorise homes in June and July.’”
“Jesus. ‘terrorise’ — it says that? It actually says ‘terrorise’?”
“Yup. You’re fucked, mate. Big mad Jenny Longlegs are comin’ after ye. Assuming a different form and that. You won’t see ‘em comin’.”
George wiggles his fingers to mimic a creepy crawly in hot pursuit.
“Don’t, man. Seriously. I cannae even…”
“Och, I’m only kidding on. Here, it’s those fucking wandering spiders that arrived from Brazil you want to watch. Oor Charlie says he saw this massive cunt-spider eating a crow. Eatin’ it’s heed n’ awe that.”
“Did he, aye?” Harry’s a skeptic.
“Aye well, we better get back to this.”
George gestures to the labyrinth of leaky pipes beneath the sink, one of which can be heard dripping into a large saucepan. As Harry stares at the dark cupboard the drop grows louder and louder. He knows it’s not possible, but it’s still happening. It also can’t be possible that the cupboard seems just a little closer each time he blinks, but it is.
George downs his tea and folds the paper over. Harry stands up but stops in his tracks. His expression is a pale mask of fear.
“George, you sure it’s away?”
Harry bulges his eyes in the direction of the sink.
“Awe, here, don’t be that pathetic,” says George. “It’s deed. Look, its leg fell off.”
A skinny detached limb, thin as a thread, dangles almost invisibly, clutched between George’s thumb and forefinger. Harry doesn’t move. His mouth feels dry.
“Did you know that a detached leg can continue to twitch for up to an hour? It distracts predators while the Jenny hobbles away on 7 legs. I mean, where’s the rest of it went?” he manages to say.
“Probably shambled away to get its big brother so he can kick your cunt in.”
Harry looks at George, eyes pleading.
“I cannae sleep at night, worried about them coming into my room,” he says. “That noise… like metal fingers rattling against tin.”
Embarrassed by this, George turns shyly away.
“Come on, boy,” he says, without looking at Harry. “It’s one wee daft beastie. They’re everywhere. This thing o yours is becoming irrational.”
“One Jenny, aye. Not too worrying, maybe, but they congregate in large masses with their legs interlaced. Then they start shaking violently, causing the mass to vibrate…”
The rising vibrations in his body send concentric circles through his mug of half-finished tea in deep throbs. Harry looks around terrified.
George leans over, claps his hand on Harry’s shoulder. At his touch, the vibrations suddenly stop.
“Harry, pal. Listen. It’s just a wee beastie. It’ll no kill ye. In fact, I’ll Google the amount of Jenny longlegs fatalities since the dawn of civilisation and I bet it’s nothing over 30. Alright?”
George smiles mischievously at his young apprentice. Harry does not return the grin, only gulps and nods in resignation.
“Let’s get on with this then.”
Harry glares into the shadowy cupboard under the sink. The space seems vast, cavernous: an abyss. An eternal sleep lies in wait. A bed of writhing insects scrabbling and interpenetrating to otherworldly music all around him…
• • •
A text interrupts. The man himself.
Job tomorrow in Mauchline at 8AM. Rabbie Burns territory 😊 I’ll bring the teabags! G
Harry smiles, replies OK and turns off his phone. He pulls the cover over his shoulders and tries to get some sleep.
He doesn’t know how long he lies there, not sleeping. Eventually, he hears his father stumble home. The front door slams. There are raised voices and his mother’s whimpering protests, relentless and pleading, then, from his father, a loud ‘ENOUGH’. His mother falls silent.
Harry tries to ignore all this. He manages to rest peacefully for a few moments—and then he begins to hear it again. That whispery, feathery sound.
He keeps his eyes closed tight, clenched, waiting for the sound to go away. But it doesn’t. It grows louder, closer, until, at last, it’s so close it feels worse to keep his eyes closed and imagine where the sound is coming from than to open them and look.
A gangling, floaty insect rests in the corner of his room, stilt-like legs projecting a long terrifying shadow across the wall. Jenny Longlegs. He stares at it, willing it to go away.
He watches it, keeps his eyes on it, knows exactly where it is at all times. He is beginning to shiver again. His eyes feel raw, scraped. He is afraid to blink. Afraid he will lose it.
He is still watching, still staring, when his father bursts in. The air he brings in swirls the insect away and Harry loses track of it.
Harry sits up, his eyes searching for the insect until they come to rest on his father. The man lingers in the doorway, breathing hard. He comes slowly over, perching himself on the foot of the bed.
Harry can smell the drink heavy on his breath. His father has cuts and bruises all over his face and has a bleeding ear.
“Run-in with the Macready’s. Fuckin’ animals.”
“Because of the result?”
“That oldest one, Jerry, is a bloodhound. He can smell a Catholic a mile away.”
His father tries to laugh but seizes his cheek in agony.
“Dad, maybe if you didn’t…”
“Don’t start. I get enough off your mother. Just don’t.”
They rest in a wooden silence, neither quite sure where to look or what to say. Harry feels his father wants to speak, but the man simply can’t find the right words. But then words stumble out, agonised and muted.
“Each one to their own.”
“Each one to their own. I’m just saying. If I sat here and judged a man for his transgressions I’d be a right hypocrite.”
“Dad, you’re melted.”
“Aye… aye, I’ve had a few.”
And then Harry catches sight of the Jenny again, and hears it too, somehow, even over his father’s too-heavy drunken breathing.
“Dad, can you…?”
Harry gestures to the corner of the room where the Jenny Longlegs again rests in static mobility. His father giggles affectionately.
“Dust wi wings.”
He gets up and cups the beast in his palms, gently releasing it out the window.
“There. It’s away.”
His father nods and walks towards the door. He turns, hesitates, and murmurs each one to their own as he gently pulls the door closed behind him.
Harry lies back down in bed and stares at the ceiling. He checks the corner of the room, now bare and shadowy. He can hear the Jenny outside battering against the window.
• • •
He slowly slides his way out. A little girl is there — blonde pig-tailed hair, porcelain skin. She has a piece of paper in her hands. She presents it to Harry.
He looks at the paper. It’s a picture of a nightmare, a chaotic scrawl of angry black crayon.
“This is… great.”
He squints at the picture and smiles.
“I see it now. Uncanny.”
“You can take it home with you.”
“I will do, cheers.”
He nods. He sets the paper down on the floor beside him to be retrieved once the job’s done. He’s just about to crawl back under the sink to finish when he realizes the girl is staring at him, mesmerised.
“Don’t be so afraid, Harry,” she says.
“Look, there’s you. Dreaming. Asleep. Happy.”
She points down to the picture. Harry looks at the drawing again. Black chaos.
“What am I dreaming about?”
The girl grins.
A voice rings out from the other room: “JENNY, GET THROUGH HERE. STOP PESTERING THAT FELLA!”
Troubled, Harry stares at the signature on the drawing. Jenny. When he looks up, the girl is gone.
Harry backs up against the cupboard, cradling his legs like a terrified child. He is shivering again. His eyes protruding and fixed with fright.
Behind his eyes, the sound of swarming builds and builds.