It wasn't like he'd meant to kick her as he came round the corner. Anyway, it wasn't really a kick, more like a bit of a bump. No, a nudge, that's what it was, just a nudge. After all, sitting on the pavement like that, it's her own fault really if people end up nudging her. She'd sat there as long as he could remember – way back into his childhood – the same short grey hair, wrinkled face, shapeless clothes, sitting cross-legged on that grimy old blanket just outside the station. Blind eyes closed – well, he assumed she was blind, he'd certainly never seen her open her eyes. But come to that he'd never seen her stand or move either, and surely she must get up sometime and go somewhere. She couldn't stay sitting there all the time with that weird old banjo,could she? Snakeskin – he'd never seen another one anything like it. She didn't really play it, even, just plucked the strings in a desultory sort of fashion – and he'd never seen anyone throw her money for her efforts. Made him wonder why she sat there day after day. He'd apologized when he knocked her over – well, he'd meant to, but he was in such a rush that maybe he hadn't. She'd have been fine anyway – it was only a nudge after all, just a little nudge.
They used to make up stories about her back at school. She used to be a great beauty, but she was blinded by a jealous rival. Or maybe it was all an act – she was working for Them (whoever They were), keeping a watch on things, not really blind at all. Or she'd sold her soul to some devil or other, but got tricked (as tends to be the case with devils) and ended up with just a strange banjo and sightless eyes. He'd added his own – she wasn't human at all, the snakeskin was the giveaway. Didn't everyone know that snakes didn't need eyes to sense – they could feel vibrations, sense the heat of your body? She sat there waiting for prey and when night fell slipped away in serpent form through the drains, fangs dripping with venom so potent that it etched the stones it dripped upon. Now he came to think of it, they pretty much gave up on the stories after that one – they all just gave her a wide berth.
He was well down Nathan Road by now, crowd-weaving along through the usual masses of Hong Kong humanity, ducking past the tailors and the fake Rolex sellers as they lurked in the side streets like trap door spiders waiting for their tourist prey. He shuddered for no reason that he could put his finger on. The word 'prey' in his thoughts just seemed to flick a chill up his spine and his steps faltered for just a second or two. He shook it off and plunged into the human sea, crowd-swimming onwards to work.
It wasn't until work was over, standing waiting for the ferry, that he thought of her again. It might have been the setting sun colour-matching the neon as the light faded that brought her back to mind, thoughts of a snake in the darkness. But he stood packed into a press of people, safe in their midst, and the thought was only fleeting. As the scrum pored onto the ferry he made his way to his usual spot at the front where there was a slight breeze off the water cutting through the humidity. The lights of Kowloon ahead grew steadily closer and brighter, when he noticed the movement in the water. Parallel to the boat something kept pace with it, something long and narrow left a slight wake, caused ripples to wash against the side of the ferry. There was something there. Something long, thin, greenish in colour. His breathing speeded as he craned his neck, trying to see more clearly, but the ripples and reflections thwarted him. The ferry bumped against the Kowloon jetty and he struggled to move as the rippling form drew closer and closer, but the crowd held him in place. It filled his vision, the sinuous form moving towards him. He became aware that he was holding his breath, gripping the railing so hard that his fingers hurt. Closer and closer it came, swaying side-to-side. Then out of the water it came, pulled hand-over-hand by a crewman – a green, sodden rope being hauled in, wound up, placed back on the deck where it belonged. He breathed again in a shuddering gasp and staggered off with the flow of the crowd.
The lights of Nathan Road glared as garish as ever, but somehow it seemed darker than usual tonight, the shadows between the streetlamps deeper and blacker. He scuttled from lamp-post to lamp-post. Why did nobody else seem to see it? They all seemed to be behaving as normal, even when a neon sign not ten yards from him flickered and went out; when the lamp he was under visibly dimmed, crackled and hummed. He walked faster, then faster still. What was that noise he just heard? It sounded like... a sort of slithering sound. His nerve snapped and he broke into a run, pushing people aside, until he nearly slipped over something at his feet, something that made a slithering sound as his foot struck it. He stared down wide-eyed and found himself looking at a dried squid. One of many. From an overturned crate at the side of the road where two men shouted at each other. He stopped, took a deep breath, willed himself to be calm. All in his head, all in his head. His pulse slowed, his breathing eased. He walked onward at a more normal pace.
Nearly home now, he looked over at the corner where he'd nudged the old woman this morning. Nobody there. She'd gone home of course – where else would she be at this time. He rounded the corner, opened his front door, stepped inside. Flicked the light on, closed the door behind him. Flung his jacket onto a chair, flung himself into another. Then all the lights went out – not just the lights in his flat, but the lights outside shining in through the windows. And somewhere in the darkness there was the smallest of sounds. It sounded like a banjo being softly plucked.
BIO: Originally a Londoner, now living in Devon, an intermittant writer for as long as I can remember, now finally making the effort to put fingers to keyboard on a more regular basis. An avid reader and appalling hoarder of books of many types.