The Smog

 

It was another of those dank, late October afternoons when the sun, however hard it tried, could not penetrate the dense smog. Five miles away in the countryside the fields were radiant with its autumn rays.

In town, it soon wouldn't be possible for Oswald to see three feet in front of him, let alone to the end of the back-to-back terrace, so he had been allowed out of classes early.

As soon as he arrived home and unloaded his satchel, he left to collect his five-year-old sister from infant school two streets away. During the summer Alice would have been quite happy to come back with her two older friends. But the smog altered everything. The traffic slowed to a crawl and workers leaving the factory, on which the local economy depended, found it quicker to walk than wait for a bus. The upper decks of Routemaster buses already reeked of stale tobacco smoke and damp gabardine, and the sulphuric smog rolled in through the open platforms.

When Oswald reached the school, the infants had been kept inside until someone arrived to collect them. The smog was growing thicker. Everyone knew that it was unhealthy to breathe in, but it was the only air they had outside their homes.

Alice was in a petulant mood; even her favourite pastime of making plasticine people had not improved it. When they were home she wanted Oswald to read her a book, despite knowing that he had to collect the groceries before the shop closed and she wouldn't get tea until the tin of pineapple slices and loaf of bread arrived.

As their mother was busy with the laundry, Oswald brought out the doll’s house to occupy his young sister until he came back.

He hated having to shop in this weather. The local grocer was half a mile away and on fine days there was the shortcut across Memorial Park. The thick smog made that impossible. He would have to walk around it, hearing the distant quacking of disgruntled ducks who dare not take off for fear of flying into a tree.

It had gone 6 o'clock when Oswald started his journey back with a basket full of groceries. The weight of the tins and potatoes made the 14-year-old's arms ache, and the wicker scratched his legs because he couldn’t lift it any higher. It was no use; as he reached the bench by the park he had to rest.

The headlights of a slowly passing car penetrated the gloom, picking out a shape wending its confused way about the lawn on the other side of the railing. Oswald wondered what anyone could be doing there when it was barely possible to see an arm's length in front of you. Perhaps the man was up to no good, but he seemed to be disorientated, lurching this way and that as though looking for some way out.

Oswald went to the park’s gate and took a few steps in to see if someone needed help. As he got closer he recognised the work clothes of a neighbour. "Mr Brown, Mr Brown! Are you all right?"

There was no reply and Oswald could see... he wasn't quite sure what. It was certainly Mr Brown's face, but it wore a strange expression.

Dennis Brown was a fit man in his thirties with a large family. He shouldn't have lost his way home and be wandering about Memorial Park. When the smog was this bad, workers were allowed to leave early instead of completing their eight to six o'clock shift. So why wasn't Mr Brown at home?

He briefly recognised Oswald and tried to tell him something.

Then an eerie glow enveloped the neighbour.

The teenager recoiled in horror as Dennis Brown’s body dissolved into the light until nothing recognisable remained.

Oswald could not recall if he screamed, or remember snatching up the basket of groceries and running for dear life to the police station. It was twice the distance from his home and he had no idea how he reached it so quickly.

The desk sergeant took some time to calm down the 14-year-old, and it was only after a mug of tea and cigarette he was able to describe what he had seen. Had Oswald been thinking straight he would have wondered why his outpouring was taken so seriously. What he had witnessed must have been impossible.

As his parents didn't have a telephone, the teenager and the basket of groceries were driven back home to his increasingly anxious family. The only one unconcerned was Alice, resentful that he had spent so long bringing home her tea.

Oswald later overheard a rumour that Dennis Brown had been in Memorial Park to look for his eldest son's football, which had been kicked over the railings on the way home from school. His wife never forgave herself for asking him to go and find it.

 

Oswald heard no more about the incident. A collection was made to help Mrs Brown pay the rent arrears so the family was not evicted. Dennis Brown was eventually declared legally dead so she was able to collect a widow's pension.

It was only much later when Oswald learnt that other people had disappeared in Memorial Park. He was probably the only one to be close to someone when they were swallowed by the smog. The police recorded all of them as missing persons.

 

Once the Clean Air Act had been passed, there was no more smog. The late autumn skies were once more visible and that oily coating which smothered everything no longer had to be scrubbed away. Now it was left to tobacco and traffic pollution to destroy people's health.

 

Oswald and Alice grew apart after he left to join the Navy and she married a Dutchman.

They did not meet again until they were well into their 70s. Oswald frequently told his grandchildren about the neighbour that had melted in the park. Alice told hers that her brother was delusional and used to see things, and it was a wonder the Navy accepted him.

When they did eventually meet, they hardly recognised each other.

 

Oswald never again entered Memorial Park, despite coming back to his home town to retire. So he didn’t see the infants’ playground filled with swings, roundabouts, slides, and climbing frames. He also didn’t hear the accounts of dog walkers claiming to have seen phantom shapes in the early evening spring mists.

One young woman was intrigued by the reports, even if her superiors weren’t. PC Sarah Solomons had recently joined the police force. As a child she had heard about the disappearances in the smog and wondered then why the mystery had never been solved, not thinking for one moment that she would be the one to attempt it because no one else seemed interested.

With access to the police database she was able to read the reports about the people who went missing in the smog of the 1950s. Searching the history of Memorial Park did invite rebukes from more senior officers who told her to stop wasting time. That just made PC Solomons determined to do it when off duty as she had at least one lead to follow. Oswald was the only person to actually see someone dissolve away and it didn’t take long to track him down.

 

Despite 55 years passing since Dennis Brown melted from sight, it was almost a relief for that knock on the door to announce that someone had, at last, begun to take his experience seriously. Sarah Solomons may have been a lowly PC, but she suspected that the reappearance of the phantoms in Memorial Park had something to do with Oswald, and he believed the young woman deserved promotion if she managed to solve the mystery that had baffled the police force of his day.

After all those years, he was persuaded to return to Memorial Park.

In the setting spring sun it was light years away from the sinister, smog-filled place he remembered. Daffodils bloomed in the borders and the sticky buds of chestnut preparing to burst open. Squirrels were busy building drays for new broods and birds plucked fur from the combings of someone’s German shepherd to line their nests. The seventy-year-old Oswald barely recognised the tidy, re-landscaped Memorial Park. Surely no phantom or malevolent force would dare intrude here.

“The sightings are usually about this time, just as the sun is about to set,” PC Solomons explained. “The eyewitnesses claimed it was as though these ghosts were reaching out from a distant portal into this world, and always in the same place.”

Oswald was incredulous. “And you wonder whether we should invite them in?”

“What harm could there be if they really do exist? There are things in this Universe beyond the comprehension of the human mind; it doesn’t mean they’re evil.”

It was obvious the young woman not only had the optimism of youth, but a theory which had been dismissed by her superiors as fantasy. Oswald was keen to hear it. Even after a lifetime, the disappearance of Dennis Brown remained horrific. Knowing what had happened to him might help alleviate the memory.

“There could be a merging with another dimension which briefly causes an overlap in time, just long enough for those unsuspecting souls to have fallen through it.”

Her theory seemed plausible to Oswald who had come across many strange things, especially when he had been in the Navy.

“Can you remember exactly where it happened?” PC Solomons pointed to the flowerbed near the main entrance where the dog walkers had seen the phantoms. “Recent reports say it was somewhere about there.”

“Must have been. I didn’t go any further into the park.” Oswald prodded the flowerbed’s border of late crocuses with his walking stick. “This was just grass back then.”

The setting sun caught the colours in the pale petals and turned them flame red. Old man and young woman shuddered as they sensed a strange rift in reality.

The last shaft of sunlight picked out a ghostly, pearlised portal rising from the ground.

Without thinking, Oswald called out, “Mr Brown... are you there?” hardly expecting a response.

Then something began to materialise.

The shadow of the man he had seen disappear over fifty years ago was barely visible and his words echoed from a different dimension, “Hello Oswald. We have been waiting for you.”

The old man’s blood ran cold. It was just as well he had a strong heart.

“Why? What do you want with me?”

“We need people like you to join us. Don’t be alarmed. Here you will become young again and never age. Why wouldn’t you want to come?”

Oswald was on the verge of panic. “But I’ve got a family! And you had a family, Dennis Brown!”

“But you must come! Join our family here and live forever!”

As the phantom reached out to pull him though the rip in time, a brief window into a nightmarish world opened.

Oswald was frozen in horror and powerless to resist, however much against his determination not to go. He was being dragged through the portal into a volcanic world full of fire and conflict. Young men like Dennis Brown were being slaughtered and maimed, only to rise up and start fighting again in an alien dimension of never-ending carnage. It was so terrible Oswald couldn't believe that the mild-mannered neighbour had become one of these murderous psychopaths. But there he was, grasping his arm with every intention of turning him into one of them.

Oswald preferred to die a natural death, not one over and over again on the battlefields of an alien world. He tried to pull back, but was not strong enough.

Just as he could no longer resist, something with superhuman strength snatched Oswald back. He toppled on top of them into the crocuses.

The dreadful portal immediately closed.

PC Solomons helped him up. “Sorry about that, but you were starting to disappear. You okay?”

Oswald managed to catch his breath.

“Did you see any of that?”

“Enough to know that some alien contacts are probably not such a good idea.”

“I don’t want to live forever. It’s not natural. I would have thought a fit young woman like you would be a better candidate for cannon fodder. Why weren’t you pulled through instead?”

“You didn’t know, did you?”

“Know what?”

“All the people who disappeared through that portal were male. Women and girls had been in the same place and walked right past it. They were ignored. At least we now know what all those blokes were needed for.”

"Pity no one will ever believe us."