The year was 1995, and it was a sunny March morning in Portslade. The gates of the level crossing beeped as they opened to let a passing train into to the bustling city of Brighton, where the rich people lived. Robbie the hairdresser put his advertising board onto the pavement, while elderly ladies bartered joie de vivre in the post office queue next door. Across the street, charity shop volunteers sorted through bags of donations, putting the best bits aside for themselves before opening for business.
Robbie tutted at the steady stream of urinal cake flowing down the gutter from the blocked public toilets outside the train station. Someone should lose their job over that.
Intending to call the council, he turned to go back into his shop, but got distracted by Merril, who was bending over to pick up her bus pass. All along the high street, buskers and street vendors competed with the ceaseless roar of roadworks for attention.
A five minute walk south from the hairdressers was the jetty, where the early morning fog continued to thin, leaving only a faint haze behind it and revealing a squadron of seagulls hovering like stealth bombers high in the emerging blue above as they awaited the return of the fishing trawlers. Curtains were being pulled back, shutters were opening, and pots of tea were being poured as the façade of ordinary life played itself out for yet another day.
Up above the town, on the edges of the craggy chalk cliffs, three dark and war-torn figures stepped out of the fog. Their leader removed his horned helmet and spat ectoplasm into the cool salty breeze. Drawing his sword, he screamed the words, ‘Sambō-Kōjin’ as he pointed towards a patch of land at the edge of the town; the Portslade Allotments.
For nature lovers, this was the perfect time of the year; the terror of winter now a fading memory, the daffodils poking their heads up, ushering in nine months of peace and solitude in the great outdoors. That is, if you weren’t having your eardrums assaulted by Brian Fowler.
Barry Harris was beginning to realise why his had been the only application to the local council for this rather neglected plot.
‘Have you heard of the legend of Mrs Jittery Twitch?’ asked Brian, putting down his can of herbicide and leaning on the fence that separated their allotments.
‘No,’ replied Barry, wondering wearily if this was some kind of joke.
‘She used to be a familiar part of local folklore, but people dare not talk about her anymore, and no one really knows if she exists. Some say she’s half woman, half cockroach, and came into being when the two were fused in a bizarre gardening accident. Others say she’s a mutated demon sent from the hell realms to punish the wicked.’
‘Really?’ Barry’s eyes widened sarcastically as he sat on an upside down bucket, forgetting about his work.
‘She lives in the corners of reality, watching us. She knows our shadow sides intimately, and feeds on the hate of our enemies.’
The colour started to drain from Barry’s face, so he looked down and scratched at the dirt with a twig to hide it from Brian. ‘What does she look like?’ he asked, trying to make it sound like he didn’t really care.
‘It’s said she has five hundred arms and burning eyes that can melt your brain just by looking at you. She wears thick dark glasses, and only takes them off when she decides punishment is justified.’
‘Shit!’ Barry fumbled with his flask to reassure himself, twisting the top off clumsily. ‘How do we know she’s not just a fairy tale?’
Brian took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the back of his neck. He’d snared his audience, and knew the value of a dramatic pause. He continued slowly.
‘There is…a way…to summon her, but only if you need help fighting your enemies.’
‘How?’ asked Barry, now hanging on Brian’s every word.
‘Listen, this isn’t something you want to know about, and I don’t even know if it works. No one dares beckon her, because they will be forever in her debt if they do. If she came calling for you in the future, you might have to perform unspeakable acts on her behalf.’
Barry had fallen for Brian’s favourite trick—get ‘em keen then treat ‘em mean— and he hated not knowing. He was one of those people that had to see the end of a movie no matter how dreadful it was. ‘Just tell me!’ His nostrils started to flare.
‘Alright, since you’ve forced my hand. Are you really sure you want to know? I have warned you…’
Barry’s face began its rapid, well-known transformation into purple, making Brian chuckle.
‘Calm down, old man, I will tell you. You simply have to recite the following incantation out loud.’ Brian fetched a pen from his shed and scribbled away on the back of his yearly planting calendar. ‘Just look at it, don’t even read it in your mind.’
Are you a devil? Are you a witch? Judge the soul of my enemies, Mrs Jittery Twitch.
Barry looked at the words, his heart clattering against his ribcage. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to Brian. ‘What would happen next if I said it out loud?’
‘She appears out of nowhere and asks a question of such significance that, when your enemies answer, she learns everything she needs to make her judgement.’
‘Judgement? What judgement?’ Barry threw his hands in the air, bewildered.
‘Ah!’ Brian grew histrionic, delighted his new neighbour was so easy. ‘But if Jittery’s judgment doesn’t fall in their favour—'
‘She gets very twitchy.’
‘That’s terrifying,’ replied Barry, dropping his shoulders so his hands came to rest on his knees. ‘I see that every time my mum misses her medication.’
Brian edged closer to Barry and looked him in the eye. ‘This is no joking matter. The real problems start when she gets twitchy. If she decides your enemies deserve a quick death, she takes her glasses off, and the next thing you know, their brains are dribbling out of their noses. If, however, she decides your antagonist warrants a sterner penalty, she works herself up into such an animated frenzy that she explodes, reducing the soul of your enemy…to dust. After that, no one will hear from her again until she is reborn from the sins of future generations.’
Silent as a snowflake, Barry stared down at the dregs of his tomato soup. He looked up at Brian, puffed up his cheeks, and blew out a long stream of air as he clambered to his feet. ‘That’s definitely a punishment if I ever heard of one. I wouldn't ever need to call on her of course, not with my ninjutsu training. I’m a walking weapon of mass destruction.’ Barry started a punch sequence to show off his skills.
Brian took a few steps backwards and covered his mouth while he cleared his throat, trying to make his laughter look like a coughing fit.
‘I’ll be sure not to upset you then, old chap! Is there any more news about your dad and Mindy?’
Barry stared wistfully out over the allotments for a few moments before replying.
‘The police found a picture of a Japanese model in dad’s underwear drawer, so they reckon he’s gone off with her and taken Mindy with him. They’ve closed the case. Something doesn't add up about it though, something’s not right.’
‘Don’t talk to me about the bloody police! I reported Arthur at plot 67 for selling cannabis from his shed, and they’ve done nothing, even though it completely contravenes allotment policy. He says it’s for medicinal use, but he keeps falling over whilst trying to turn his compost. He’s totally off his tits.'
Ending a conversation with Brian was a bit like trying to get rid of bindweed; virtually impossible. Apart from his obsession with weeds, allotment policy, and fairy tales, he could speak on any subject without stopping for hours, possibly days. He could even dispense with the need for breathing when he really got into a flow.
By the time Barry got home, it was almost nightfall. He took some fish fingers out of the freezer and walked over to the window to close the curtains. It was be a misty night, though he could still see his neighbour’s old Basset Hound staring up at him from their back garden. Barry instantly felt uneasy, but didn’t know why. He pulled the curtains closed for a few moments, then opened them again to find the hound was still gawking at him. Its expression seemed irritated, like it was pissed off about something. Barry closed the curtains again and waited long enough for condensation to form on the box of defrosting fish in his hand before carefully peeling the bottom corner of the curtain up so he could peer out without being seen. This time, the hound seemed to be raising its eyebrows, as if to say, ‘really?’
Sarcastic bastard! thought Barry. Sod this, fish fingers and then bed.