Short story: ‘The Lion at the Gate’ by C J Tudor
A Sliver of Darkness is the new short story collection from C J Tudor, bestselling author of the The Chalk Man. To celebrate its release, we’ve got a captivating story from the book just for you – ‘The Lion at the Gate’.
Known for her compelling style and spine-tingling descriptions, C J Tudor’s short stories will grip and unnerve you like few others can. With high praise from heavyweights like Stephen King and Lee Child, this collection is a great introduction to her work.
Read on for ‘The Lion at the Gate’ from A Sliver of Darkness by C J Tudor!
‘The Lion at the Gate’
C J Tudor
Stiff saw it first. He was good at spotting stuff. Usually stuff that would get us into trouble.
It wasn’t like he deliberately went out looking for it. But trouble always seemed to find him. And Stiff couldn’t look away. Like a magpie spotting something shiny or a moth throwing itself into the flame.
The day he saw the lion, we were on our way to school. Late. My fault. It usually was. Even if I got up early, some shit would happen that would stop me leaving on time.
I guess that’s why I always felt responsible. Because if we hadn’t been late, we’d never have taken the cut-through and Stiff would never have seen it.
And maybe, just maybe, they’d all be alive.
But then, as my nan used to say (before she went completely doolally): ‘Easy to smell the shit when you’re stood in it. The secret is not to stand in the shit.’
’Course, by that point, she was usually lying in hers, so I guess we all end up in the shit eventually.
‘C’mon,’ Carl panted. ‘We’ve only got eleven minutes and thirty-five seconds and we’ve still got point-nine of a mile to go.’
He hitched his schoolbag over his shoulder and adopted the half-scuttle, half-jog that passed for a run. Carl was a stout kid. Not fat but stocky. He looked like the sort of kid who would smash heads first and ask questions later. But that was crap. Carl was clever. Like genius clever. He could do maths and equations in his head like fucking Stephen Hawking. But he was also soft when it came to normal world stuff. ‘Soft as mushy peas,’ Fallow said.
Fallow was not soft. Fallow was hard and sharp, with a temper to match. You had to watch yourself with Fallow. A wrong word could easily end up in a black eye. But he looked out for his mates. And Stiff, Carl and me were his mates. Fuck knows why.
‘Shit,’ he cursed now. ‘We’re not gonna make it.’
He was right. No way were we going to get to school on time. Farthing, our Year 10 Form Tutor, would cream his cords over that. He was just waiting for an excuse to give us an exclusion. Most of the teachers at school were okay, but Farthing was a real twat. He got off on making kids’ lives that bit worse. And mine wasn’t exactly a fairytale to start with.
‘We could always cut through the Oaks,’ Stiff said. And giggled.
Stiff giggled at all sorts of stuff. For no reason. That was how he got his nickname. Because he was always corpsing. Stiff, geddit?
We all stopped and looked at him. Corporation Oaks. That was what it said on the flaking, moss-crusted street sign, but everyone called it the Oaks, on account – amazingly – of all the oak trees that lined the road, so tall they cast the street into a kind of perpetual twilight.
It was a weird road, because you couldn’t drive along it, even though it was wide enough. There were concrete bollards, top and bottom. At the end, before you got to the next street, was a patch of scraggy wasteland. A lot of druggies, tramps and alkies hung around there. Prostitutes too. A couple of years back, some kid got murdered. That’s why we weren’t supposed to walk that way.
It must have been a posh street once. The houses were huge; three-storey Victorian ones with high gates, long gardens and great big windows. They were all divided up into flats now. But it never looked like anyone was living in them. A lot of the windows were shuttered or boarded up. In winter, even when it was dark, you never saw any lights illuminating the black rectangles of glass.
‘We’re not supposed to go that way,’ I said.
Fallow sneered. ‘Are you feeble, man? It’s quicker.’
‘By about seven minutes and twenty-five seconds,’ Carl added unhelpfully.
I looked at Stiff, who was silent. Like he knew already he had made a bad call.
I wavered. ‘I dunno.’
‘Fine,’ Fallow said. ‘Do what you want. It’s your crazy mum’s fault we’re late.’
I wanted to defend my mum, but he was right. She was crazy.
Fallow turned, leapfrogged one of the bollards and marched up the middle of the road. Stiff followed. Carl looked at me, shrugged and trotted after them. I stood, staring up at the twisted oaks and looming houses. Welcome to the jungle, a low voice in my brain whispered.
I sighed, adjusted my rucksack and shouted:
It was late October. The leaves had lost their fragile grip on the trees. The bare branches made spiky silhouettes against the grey clouds, like someone had snipped jagged strips out of the sky.
Either side, the houses stood silent and still. On our street, the houses were always alive with noise and movement. Washing fluttered on makeshift lines, radios blared, front doors opened and slammed with kids running in and out. And usually, somewhere, there was the sound of sirens. Here, you could barely hear the hum of traffic at the end of the road. Everything was muffled. Dead.
The four of us were quiet too. We walked quickly, but we didn’t run. Like it felt wrong to shout or leg it along here, a bit like in the school corridors.
I tried to adopt a casual ‘who gives a crap?’ swagger, like Fallow. But even he was having trouble holding it. Something about the road. It kind of weighed down on you, like a heavy fog or that weird feeling you got in your chest when it was about to thunder.
I was relieved to see we were almost at the end of the road, just a couple more houses to pass, when Stiff said: ‘Whoah. Look at that.’
I wish we hadn’t. I wish we had said, For fuck’s sake, Stiff, we haven’t got time, put our heads down and hurried past. But we didn’t. Like lemmings, we all turned and looked.
It was a lion.
Not a real lion. Obviously. That would be stupid. This was Nottingham, not Africa. We didn’t even have a zoo. At least, not a proper one. Just one of those baby ones with goats and sheep you could feed (except they always ate the paper bags the food came in, or your clothes if you got too close).
This lion was spray-painted, like graffiti, on a wooden gate in front of one of the houses. It was just the lion’s face and it was huge, covering the whole gate, which had to be about six feet high. The colours were weird too. Purple and green with flecks of orange and red. Its mane was a heaving, twisted mass of blues and muddy browns, woven like dreadlocks. And the eyes were black. No irises. Blind, yet it still felt like it was staring right at you.
‘What the fuck is that ?’ Fallow muttered. ‘
A lion,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I know it’s a lion, but it’s a fucking weird looking lion.’
He dumped his bag on the ground and took a couple of steps towards it.
I looked up at the house. I could only see the top half, above the wall. Pitted dark stone, half shrouded in dead ivy; splintered wooden window frames, like rotting black bones. I looked back at the lion.
A voice growled in my head. Low, guttural, threatening.
I BITE, SONNY BOY.
I jumped and glanced behind me, half expecting to see someone standing there. But there was no one, except Stiff and Carl. Stiff looked nervous. Carl was frowning, like he was trying to work something out.
Fallow took another step towards the lion. The voice growled again:
I BITE. AND YOU’LL TASTE SWEET. SWEET AS CHEEKS.
Fallow stretched out a hand to touch the wood. I wanted to tell him to stop, to move away. But, just as I opened my mouth, he leapt back, clutching his hand.
‘What is it? What happened?’
Fallow held up his finger. ‘Fucking splinter.’
I could see a sliver of black wood embedded in his index finger. He yanked it out. Blood bloomed, ripe and red, on his fingertip.
‘Shit!’ He glared at the lion and spat on the ground. ‘Fuck this.’ He snatched his bag up, face dark. ‘C’mon. Let’s get out of here.’
He strode off. The rest of us stumbled after him. When Fallow got one of his moods on, you were safer to stay in his wake. Stiff looked guilty, like the splinter had been his fault (which it had, kind of). Carl was mumbling to himself.
‘What d’you say?’ I asked him.
‘Dimensions,’ he muttered.
‘Seven by five. Six by three. It’s not right. Not the right dimensions.’
Carl came out with weird shit sometimes. It was his mad, mathematical brain.
‘You’ve lost me, man,’ I said.
But it was like he hadn’t heard me. As though he was furiously scribbling equations on some mental chalk board in his head.
I left him to it and fell in step beside him. As we reached the bollards, I glanced back. The lion stared out from the gate. But something looked different. Some thing around the nose, the mouth. Then I realized.
It was obviously just a trick of the light . . . but it looked like it was snarling.
I didn’t mean to go back. If you’d asked me, I would have said it was the furthest thing from my mind. I mean, I had enough problems. There was Mum, for a start. I loved my mum. I’d never known my dad and she was all I had. But Mum was sick. Not outward sick, not even cancer sick. But in her head sick. It wasn’t her body that hurt, it was her brain. I guess a doctor would have said she was depressed. But she wouldn’t see a doctor and I was scared shitless that if she did, Social Services would take me away, put me in some care home or something. And everyone knew what happened in those places.
So, Mum and me, we tried to deal with it on our own. I mean, some days she would be okay. She’d get up, get dressed. For a while she even managed to get herself to work. But the last year or so, the good days had dropped right off. She’d lost the job she had cleaning at the council offices. Instead, she did casual work, cleaning for a friend of a friend.
She spent more time lying in bed with the curtains pulled. On those days, I would get myself up, go to school, make dinner then watch some telly or play on my PlayStation for a while before bed. That wasn’t so bad.
The bad ones were the manic days. The ones where she was all bright and brittle. You never knew what she’d do when she was like that. Once, I woke up to find her trying to put a plastic bag over my head. 169 Another, she stood in the kitchen slicing at her arm with a razor. Still smiling. Always smiling. Although, after a while, it looked more like a snarl.
This morning, a Sunday, I came downstairs to find her cleaning. She’d taken down all the curtains. All the cutlery was in the sink. The cushions had been thrown off the sofas.
‘What are you doing, Mum?’
‘Cleaning off all the pawprints, sweetheart.’
‘The filthy beastie has been in here.’
‘The filthy beastie?’
‘It sneaks in while we’re sleeping and makes every thing dirty, sweetheart. It’s full of fleas and disease, so I have to make sure everything is clean.’
‘You haven’t touched it, have you, Jay? Have you showered this morning? Did you clean your ears? It can get inside your ears, you know. All the way to your brain.’
She advanced towards me, hands sheathed in yellow Marigolds, brandishing a Brillo pad and a bottle of bleach.
I backed away. ‘Tell you what, Mum. Why don’t I go, get you some more cleaning stuff? You don’t want to run out.’
She paused. Her smile brightened. ‘Good boy. That’s a good idea.’
She turned back to the patch of carpet she was scrubbing. There was now a huge white threadbare patch on the grey pile.
I scurried out of the door. Once I was outside, I grabbed my bike and sped off down the road. I wasn’t sure where I meant to go. When Mum was like this, I just needed to get away. Maybe to the shops, or the Rec.
I certainly didn’t intend to cycle the opposite way, down Woodborough Road to the Oaks. But somehow, that’s where I found myself. I paused at the bottom of the street, staring up. As always, it was silent and dark. I mean, I suppose that wasn’t so weird. It was early on a Sunday and most people would still be in bed. Still, I couldn’t quite contain a shiver. I rubbed my arms. Stupid. In my haste to get out of the house, I’d forgotten my hoodie.
The next thing I did was even more stupid. I climbed off my bike and wheeled it between the bollards, up the Oaks. I walked steadily, not fast, not slow, trying to ignore the creeping feeling at the back of my neck, the sort you got when invisible eyes were crawling all over you. Two thirds of the way up, I stopped.
The lion was still there. No one had scrubbed it off or painted over it – and normally the council were shit hot at cleaning up graffiti.
Something about it was different, though. The colours. They looked brighter. Not as dark and sludgy. There were flecks of light in those huge dark eyes. And the mouth. No trick of the light. The mouth had definitely changed. Before, it had been closed. Now, one corner of the lip curled up, revealing a glimpse of sharp, yellow teeth.
Obviously, rationally, I knew that whoever had painted it must have changed it. Irrationally, I couldn’t shake the image of the lion moving, stretching, yawning.
I forced myself to walk closer. In my head, a voice growled:
WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE? A FILTHY LITTLE BEASTIE.
No, I thought. I’m not. And you’re just a painting. Just a stupid bit of graffiti. And, to prove it, I reached out a hand and touched the wood…
I snatched my hand back
No, no, no.
It wasn’t wood.
It felt like…
‘I need to talk to you.’
Carl didn’t look up. He sat on his bed, in his pyjamas, intent on some ancient game on his Xbox. Carl liked playing old games. Something about coding. Fuck knows. A plate of uneaten toast sat next to him. There were more plates, smeared with leftover food, on the desk by his bed and on the floor. Dirty cutlery too. Filthy. I almost stood on a bread knife lying on the carpet.
‘What are you doing here?’ he said, and decapitated a badly pixellated zombie.
‘Your mum let me in. Said you’d been stuck up here all morning. And to tell you to eat your breakfast.’
Carl stared at the screen. ‘I’m busy.’
‘It’s about the lion.’
‘The lion at the gate.’
I saw his hand waver, just a fraction. Blood spatter filled the screen.
‘Shit!’ He threw down the controller in disgust. ‘Look what you made me do.’
I grabbed the controller, yanked it out of the Xbox and lobbed it across the room. ‘Boo-fucking-hoo.’
Carl stared at me. His big, round face looked bewildered and hurt. I felt bad. I lost my temper sometimes. I shouldn’t. I sat on the bed. ‘Sorry. I’m sorry. But it’s important. What did you mean about the dimensions?’
‘It was nothing.’
‘No. It meant something.’
He sighed. ‘The dimensions of the painting are seven foot by five foot.’
‘The gate is six foot by three foot.’
‘I don’t understand?’
‘The lion is bigger than the gate.’
‘You’re fucking with me.’
‘You must be wrong. I mean, you didn’t actually measure it.’
‘I didn’t need to.’
I stared at him. He shook his head. ‘Fine. I’ll show you.’ He slid off the bed and padded over to his desk. ‘I need a tape measure.’
He fumbled in the drawers. I waited a beat and then I crouched down, picked up the bread knife and slid it into my pocket.
We cycled back to Woodborough Road. Carl’s bike was a lot newer and cooler than mine. But then, Carl’s mum and dad had more money than the rest of us. They lived on a new estate, in a big house with a proper garden and shit. They both had cars and Carl always had the latest phone and trainers. Carl was a friend, but sometimes I felt jealous of his life; resentful of the fact that he just took all this stuff for granted. Occasionally, even though it felt shit to admit it, I kind of hated him.
We reached the Oaks and wheeled our bikes up to the gate. We laid them down on the ground and stared at the lion. In the short time I’d been away it had changed again. The colours seemed even brighter. The light in the dark chasms of its eyes gleamed. The lips revealed more teeth.
I BITE. REMEMBER. I BITE.
‘It looks different,’ Carl said.
He frowned and took out his tape measure. ‘I need you to hold one end.’
I didn’t really want to get close to the lion again, but I obliged. We measured the gate first. I was the tallest, so I stretched up to reach the top. Carl knelt at the bottom, on the dusty ground.
‘Six foot,’ he said, and showed me.
We measured side to side, the lion’s mane just above our heads.
‘Three foot. Now the lion.’
I took the end of the tape measure and stretched it to the top of the lion’s head. I stood on tiptoes. I strained. I couldn’t reach. It didn’t make sense. I knew what my eyes were telling me. But I also knew that there was no way I could reach the tip of that twisty, dreadlocked mane.
‘See,’ Carl said. ‘That’s already way over six foot five and you haven’t reached the top.’
I lowered the tape measure, heart thudding. He was right.
‘Sideways,’ I said, feeling a bit irritated at his smugness.
We stretched the tape measure from jaw to jaw.
Carl grinned triumphantly. Suddenly cocky.
He reached out to pat the wood. ‘I told you. Wrong –’
I wanted to warn him. But it happened so quickly. The roar rose in my head. Carl’s grin morphed into a scream.
But his arm wasn’t there. It was in the lion’s jaws. Up to the elbow and being dragged in even further. I could see blood oozing out of the wood, and I could hear an awful, hideous crunching sound as the bones were pulverized.
‘Jay, help me!’
I grabbed his other arm, tried to yank him back. But it was no good. Then I remembered the knife. I pulled it out of my pocket and stabbed at the lion. I gouged at its eyes, its snout. But it was difficult because Carl kept writhing around screaming and, in my fear and frenzy, I wasn’t sure if I was stabbing at the lion or Carl any more.
Finally, the screams and the roars subsided. I stepped away. Carl slid slowly down the gate. His arm was a mangled mess. His chest and face were a mass of blood. One eye was gone.
I stared at him. At the blood. Pooling on the ground, dripping from the lion’s jaws.
RUN, LITTLE BEASTIE. RUN.
I ran, the roars still echoing in my ears.
They found Carl’s body the next day. What was left of it. All the newspapers said he had been stabbed, mutilated. They didn’t say anything about being savaged and half eaten. But I suppose they were trying to cover that bit up.
They came to talk to me, of course. I was the last person to see him alive. I told them I had called for him that day, we’d rode around on our bikes and then gone our separate ways. I didn’t know what he was doing on Corporation Oaks. My mum told me never to go up there.
They asked me if I had ever argued with Carl and if I owned a knife. I told them no, he was my friend. And no, I didn’t carry a knife.
I’d thrown it in the canal by then, still slimy with his blood.
For a couple of weeks afterwards, when we walked past the end of the Oaks, the road was bustling with activity. Almost like a normal street. Except the people walking around, talking and squinting at the ground, wore police uniforms and weird white suits.
‘I bet some fucking paedo did it,’ Fallow muttered as we stood and watched.
‘Or some nut job out of the hospital,’ Stiff giggled.
I stayed silent. I couldn’t tell Fallow or Stiff what had really happened. They’d have thought I was a nut job.
Afterwards, I would think that maybe I should have said something. Warned them. And maybe, a couple of weeks later, when they suggested we go back and see where it had happened, faces glowing with morbid glee, I should have tried harder to talk them out of it. But I didn’t.
LET THEM SEE, a low voice in my head had purred. FILTHY LITTLE BEASTIES.
Police tape fluttered in the breeze like left-over party decorations. A few people had laid flowers. They were mostly wilted and dying.
As we walked along the Oaks, the same oppressive heaviness bore down on me. Like the trees and houses were closing in. I could hear a different sound in my head now. Not roaring. A slow, steady rustling. Several times I glanced behind me, as if I might spot some thing creeping through the overgrown grass verges.
The houses looked as dead and empty as ever. I supposed the police must have knocked on doors, talked to people. Yet, for some reason, I felt that these doors had never been opened. Not to the police. Not to anyone.
We approached the gate. Stiff pointed at a large, rusty-looking stain on the ground.
Fallow whistled. ‘That’s a fuckload of blood. But then, he was a fat bastard.’
Stiff chortled. I thought how much he annoyed me sometimes. Fallow too. They hadn’t said a kind word about Carl since he died. Just made stupid jokes.
I walked past them. I stared at the gate.
The lion was gone. That wasn’t a surprise. I’d half expected the gate to have been scrubbed clean.
The surprise was what was in its place.
A twisted mass of green, yellow, orange and brown. It curled around and around. Like a giant kaleidoscope. Hypnotic. Somewhere amidst the mass of tensed coils, two red eyes burned.
‘What the fuck is that?’ Fallow said from behind me.
‘A snake,’ I said.
SOFTLY, SOFTLY, SQUEEZY MONKEY.
My fingers clenched and unclenched.
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