‘His New Body’, Simon Kewin

Art © 2023 Miguel Santos

 [ Cat © 2023 Miguel Santos ] He scavenged the parts for his new body from the back streets of London.

He waited for the safety of night. Night and cold kept the people—the living people—off the streets, and this was a raw winter night of ice and fog. If he stayed away from the bright lights he’d be, at most, just a ghost image on grainy CCTV feeds, easily missed.

He pulled the tatty umbrella from the bin in Marylebone. That would be one arm, its plastic crook a hand. The umbrella had given him the idea. Drifting by that afternoon, daylight dissolving him almost to nothing, the umbrella had looked like a hand reaching across from the material world. A body part. He suddenly saw. He needed a body again. He’d seen too many other spirits fade into oblivion. It would be so easy to succumb. A smudge of light in the fog, then a whisper on the breeze, then nothing. He wouldn’t let it happen to him.

He looked around, wondering how to do this. He spotted a mound of black plastic rubbish sacks left in an alley beside an antiques shop. One of those would be his body, its soiled cartons and rotting fruit his internal organs. With an effort of will he could move items, of course, propel umbrella and sack together. Anyone could do that, anyone dead. He did it now, piercing the shiny black plastic with the sharp tip of the umbrella. The hard part would be making everything articulate like a real body. Make it sway and strut. That would take practice. He would be a baby again, a toddler, learning to coordinate distant, alien limbs.

Legs. He needed legs. A length of rusting drainpipe and a rotting timber almost the same length made a workable pair. He punctured two more holes in the bottom of the sack. Some curdled liquid seeped out. He really needed knees, of course: lacking them he had to waddle awkwardly. Perhaps he could work on the legs later, break them in two so they flexed.

Wedged beneath a parked car he spotted a crumpled football, tattered black and white hexagons. His head, for now. He could find nothing for a second arm. In the end he snapped off a low-hanging branch from a plane tree. With its side-twigs trimmed it was close enough. A child’s idea of an arm. A snowman arm; a scarecrow arm.

Back in the shadows of the alleyway, just him and the wheelie-bins, he set about learning to walk. The uneven scuffing of his feet sounded like the steps in some ponderous dance. A police-car wailed by but didn’t stop. He kept on at it, trying to concentrate on all his body parts at the same time. He failed again and again. He’d focus on his legs and the black sack would overbalance and collapse to the floor. How did people do this? How had he ever done it?

When, finally, he could hold everything together, he staggered and clumped his way back toward the street. A person again. He peered around the corner, checking no one was about. The sodium streetlights left deep shadows behind cars, in doorways. Nothing moved, apart from a cat staring at him from across the street, its back arched. That was fine. Cats didn’t count.

He stepped out onto the street and, step by clumsy step, walked to the window of a pizza take-away, its interior dark. He stopped to admire his reflection. He didn’t need to, of course; he could have just floated out of his new body and looked back at himself. But this was what you did. What living people did, when they had new clothes or a new hairstyle to admire.

He gazed at himself for a long time. The misshapen, dumpy sack. The unmatched limbs. The football with its frozen scream. None of it was what he’d hoped for. This hideous parody of a person. He would never be able to do what he needed looking like this. He wanted to look away but couldn’t bear to admit defeat.

“What the hell is that?”

He’d stared at himself too long, had forgotten to keep an eye on the street. Four people, two couples, young and rowdy, on their way home from pub or club. One of the men, the one who shouted, pointed at him.

“Hey, you!”

“Is that a costume?” The woman on the man’s arm. She sounded disgusted. “What is that?”

Uselessly, he tried to back away from them, old instinct kicking in. He could have fled the material objects. But a thrill of panic had seized him, or a memory of panic, and he played his part, trying to scuttle away from them, knowing he could never be quick enough.

He waited for the suck of pain from their gaze upon him, the draining of his energy. When he realized there was none he stopped moving, confused. He let them come closer. Nothing. His body, poor as it was, fixed him somehow, made him real. He wasn’t just a wisp of energy to be consumed and drained by the gaze of human eyes.

Freak!” Another woman’s voice. “Get him, Dave. Come on, let’s get him. Bloody hell, it’s hideous.”

He stopped and turned around to face the four of them, remembering what fear was like. They were close to him now. The first kick whumped into his bin-bag body, ripping it open and sending half-empty cans and discarded milk-cartons splashing to the ground. One leg buckled and gave way. He half-fell, holding his head up with the branch. The rickety umbrella was uselessly bent. He looked up at his attackers, still using the imagined eyes in the football. The woman picked up one of his legs, the rotting timber, and swung it at his head. He had a moment of dizzying disorientation as he saw the world from the spinning ball: ground, buildings, sky, ground. He let his tattered body go then, let rubbish-sack and limbs collapse to a heap on the floor. He soared away, immaterial once more, the visceral fear fading away as he flew.

He vowed he wouldn’t go back, wouldn’t risk the possibility of being seen again. But when night fell, he did. The truth was, he’d felt more alive in those few minutes than he had for a long time. They’d actually seen him, spoken to him. He longed to feel it all again. Fear and terror were poor emotions, but at least they were emotions.

He floated back over the scene where they’d attacked him, the alleyway in which he’d assembled his body. There was no sign, now, of any of it having happened.

He drifted around in circles for a while, half-hoping his attackers would return, imagining they would be back just because he was. No one came. A van roared down the narrow street, squeezing between the lines of parked cars. The only other movement was the same cat, lying on top of a wall but clearly watching him as he circled around and around.

“Over here!”

He was about to leave, drift back down to the Thames, the bright lights of the river where so many ghosts gathered at night, when the voice stopped him. A woman called to him from the shadows of a doorway, a shop side-entrance boarded up and plastered with fly-posters. He couldn’t see anything of her. He stopped and waited, not even sure that she, whoever she was, was speaking to him.

“Come on, I know you’re there. I can’t see you, maybe, but I can see the cat and I know she’s watching you. I won’t harm you.”

He drifted over towards her, not manifesting, completely invisible, completely safe. The cat panned its head around as he moved, following him. He’d been allergic to cats when he was alive.

The woman sat in a nest of rags and boxes, a slanting board the roof of her little cave. She looked like she’d been there a long time. Her hair was a matted mess, her face streaked with dirt.

“Come on,” she said. “See, I picked them up for you. Your legs and arms. Take them.”

On the ground next to her upturned-crate table stood the umbrella, pipe, length of wood, branch and football, neatly arranged like a diagram of his body.

“Collected them didn’t I? Thought you might be back for them.”

She didn’t look dangerous. She didn’t look very mobile at all, sitting there huddled up in countless coats and blankets. He stopped in front of her and allowed himself to slip into the material world very slightly. A wisp of smoke, an outline. Enough that he could communicate while only having the merest sliver of his spirit leeched from him.


When she saw him a small smile of victory spread across her filthy face. “I saw them. Saw what they did to you. I’ve seen what they do all too often.”

“You knew them?”

“Them? Nah. Just their type. You see plenty of that living out here, let me tell you. You learn to sit quiet in the shadows, don’t you? You and me both, eh?”

“You picked my body up?”

“I did. Took me all night. Not so mobile as I was. Had to crawl around on me hands and knees, if you can believe such a thing. These legs of mine aren’t what they were.”

She whacked her limbs with the wooden stick she rested her chin on, as if they were completely without sensation.

“Why?” he asked.

“Oh, now, aren’t you the bright one? I said. I picked them up so you could use them again.”

He floated towards her. He could smell her now he inhabited the material world. A fug of must and dirt, the tang of urine.

“That’s it. Go on. Take ’em, they’re yours aren’t they?”

She watched with the appreciation of a connoisseur as he slipped into the objects, possessing them, filling them. She hadn’t recovered the rubbish-sack, but there were plenty of those lying around. He could take his pick, slot the limbs back in. Then perhaps he could find something better than the rickety umbrella, build a better new body piece by piece. He made the limbs dance, lifting them off the ground, articulating them as if a torso held them together. It already felt easier, more natural.

“Got you!”

 [ Camera © 2023 Miguel Santos ] The woman had pulled a camera from somewhere in the folds of her rags and held it up now, pointing at him. She’d clicked the button, taking a picture of him manifesting there in the open. It was an old camera, he could see, a film camera, and she had to ratchet it on manually with her thumb to take another. He fled from the limbs, letting them clatter to the floor, the football landing on top of them and rolling off to the side. But she clicked and clicked again, catching all the evidence of him. He felt sharp agony as the camera and the woman’s gaze combined to drain him, reduce him.

“You come back here! I’ve got you now, ain’t I? I know how it works. You’re in my control now.”

He fled, flying up over the rooftops, the mountains and valleys of the London skyline, getting away from her as rapidly as he could. She continued to call after him as he flew, a mad woman shouting into the night.

He stopped when he reached the Thames, hovering over the dark waters, feeling safe there. She couldn’t reach him now. But it didn’t matter. She’d captured his image; had it stored on the film of her camera. That was the killer. That was why so many got drained away. Pictures of ghosts. That was why so many sought deserted houses and lonely hilltops. The poisonous gaze of the living.

Somehow, he had to get the camera off her. Modern ones were worse, of course. Instant images that could be copied and sent around the world, each one another pinprick in the soul. And video cameras, thirty frames per second, were almost instant oblivion. At least, with the woman’s old film camera, he had time.

Dawn was a few hours away. Did she have money? Was there somewhere near she could get the film developed, fix his image in the real world? He had to assume so. He had to go back now. His thoughts of walking among the living again, saving himself, forgotten.

He floated up to her warily, watching her all the time. At least the cat had vanished. She had no idea of his presence. She hummed a tuneless song to herself as she sat there, turning the camera over and over in her hands like a priceless treasure. He wished he could just take it. But it was hers, not something discarded in the street. He needed her consent. That was the rule.

He drifted up to her and then to the side of her little hut. Once out of her direct sight he manifested as before, as slightly as he could, the wounds still raw. The smell of her hit him immediately. She continued to hum her contented, aimless song.

“Please. Let me have it.”

The woman went quiet immediately. He heard a rustling as she hid the camera in the folds of her clothes.

“So, came back did you? Thought you would.”

“You tricked me. You must know what those images will do to me.”

“Oh, I know. Worked it all out.”

“Then why? Why are you doing this?”

She didn’t reply for a moment. He prepared to slip back into the ether, imagining her ready to jump out of her lair, camera clicking again. Instead, she changed the subject completely.

“Know how long I’ve been sitting here?”


“Well, I’ll tell you. Ten years come this summer. That’s a long time with the same view, let me tell you. A long time.”

“Then move on.”

“Ah, that’s it, you see. That’s the problem. It’s these legs. Can’t get more than a few yards without them buckling on me. Useless! And where would I go?”

“Then how do you live?” He tried to recall everything you had to do when you had a body. A lot of time was spent simply meeting its physical needs.

“Oh, people come and help. Do-gooders, enough so I don’t keel over and die. But I’m still stuck here aren’t I?”

“But why do this to me?”

Her voice went quieter. “Want to bargain with you, don’t I? This was the only way of getting your attention.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When you walked last night. And when you made these objects dance around like that. You just, what, possessed them?”

Was that what it was? “I suppose.”

“And you could do that with anything?”

“Anything discarded. That’s the way it works.” The pampered, privileged living. Another reason the dead ended up alone in deserted old houses.

The woman went silent for a while. He thought she must be preparing some new trick, but then she spoke again.

“Look, here’s the camera. Take it. I feel bad about it now. Truth is, there was no film in it anyway. Here.”

She tossed it onto the cracked concrete in front of him. Was it a trick? Perhaps she had a video camera ready.

“Go, on. Destroy it. Then you might listen.”

She sat resting her hands on her stick, knuckles knobbly. He nudged the camera on the floor. It was cracked, broken. Keeping one eye on her, he poured heat into it. Soon it was just a pool of acrid, molten plastic. The woman didn’t move.

“Now, will you listen?”

“Go on.”

“Tell me this,” she said. “Why are you still here? Haunting old London when you should be dead and buried?”

“There are reasons,” he said.

“‘Course there are. Unfinished business, things not said and done. I know how it goes. And we can help each other.”


“You a man or a woman?”

“A man. I was a man. A boy.”

“Ah. Well. Don’t suppose it matters really.”

“What doesn’t matter?”

The cat ambled up then, deliberately ignoring him, to jump up onto her lap and curl into a half-circle.

“Look,” she said. “Here’s what I’m suggesting. You take over my body. I’ll give you it. You leave me free to float around all spectral like. Free to travel, free to get out of this bloody doorway. And you get a body to walk around in, see to whatever it is that’s troubling you.”

“Your body?”

“Don’t you see? It’s useless to me but you can animate it like you did them sticks, eh? That’s pretty much all these legs are these days. Sticks.”

He looked at the umbrella and pipe, the branch and the football. He thought about what he’d looked like in the shop window. He thought about a small body, soft limbs blue from the cold, pulled from the Thames those years ago. He wondered again how old he actually was. Still eight, nine? Or two centuries older? He was just glad she hadn’t asked him the one question he really feared.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

If he could work her body, he’d be a person again. Of sorts. Then he might be able to find answers. What had happened to him. Who he was. The prospect was dizzying, terrifying. It was too much. He dematerialised and floated upwards, away from the woman.

“Don’t go,” she called after him. “Please.”

He stopped and looked down on her: her filthy, damp doorway, her pathetic collection of possessions. He floated higher, up into the night sky, the orange-grey glow of the city around him.

“Please!” she called again. She sounded as if she knew she’d missed her chance.

He bobbed there for several minutes, thinking about everything. The woman sat unmoving, staring into the distance, her chin resting on her old cane once more. A fine drizzle filled the air but she didn’t appear to notice. The cat stood, circled and lay back down on her lap.

She smiled and nodded her head in appreciation when he rematerialised in front of her.

© 2023 Simon Kewin

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