The Lamppost Huggers

by Christopher Stanley

It’s six-thirty on a slush-wet Wednesday morning and I’m the only person at the bus stop who isn’t nervous. Other commuters stare, mouths open, absent-mindedly scratching the backs of their wrists. On the far side of the road, an old man hugs a lamppost. In the orange light, his skin is sallow and wrinkled; his hair silver and flecked with snow. He’s naked apart from a pair of threadbare pyjama shorts and when he moves his belly peels away from the frozen metal like Velcro.

It isn’t just the old man who makes the other commuters nervous, it’s what he represents. We’ve all seen the pictures in the news. We’ve heard the stories of ordinary people leaving their homes in the dead of night, with no clothes or shoes, searching for a lamppost to hug. They don’t speak and won’t let go without becoming hostile or suicidal. The best anyone can do is to keep them warm so they don’t die from exposure. Yes, we’ve seen the photos, but that was London, Birmingham, Manchester. Not here. Not in our neighbourhood.

Not until this morning.

Two days later, the old man is gone. In his place is a younger woman with a dressing gown tied loosely around her waist. There’s something intimate about the way she hugs the lamppost, her ear pressed to its metal skin, a contented smile playing on her lips. Her husband is slumped on a nearby bench while her children tug on her dressing gown.

The woman isn’t the only lamppost hugger on the high street this morning. Her family aren’t the only ones mourning the loss of someone who’s still alive. For as far as I can see in both directions, people of all ages cling to lampposts like lovers during a last dance.

The government has declared a state of national emergency, but the huggers don’t respond to curfews. Phrases like ‘mass hysteria’ and ‘viral epidemic’ have flown into the headlines and nested there. A video emerged of a priest in Rotherham persuading a lamppost-hugging member of his congregation to let go. For a day or so, the country dared to hope. Then the priest was photographed in red paisley pyjamas, engaging in his own unorthodox embrace.

According to the leaflets, we’re supposed to sleep with our clothes on. Not just clothes, but winter coats and boots. On the way home from work, I tell the bus driver this is no way to live. What’s happening right now is a test of our national character and the only way to beat it is through strength of mind. That’s why I still sleep in a T-shirt and shorts. That’s why I’m still here and my neighbours are gone.

“I preferred it when the high street was lined with trees,” says the bus driver as I step onto the icy pavement. “The birds did, too.”

At home, I lie in bed and listen to the anguished howls of families begging their loved ones to come inside. I tell myself it won’t be me. Not tonight. I repeat this over and over until it’s imprinted on my subconscious.

I don’t know what time it is when the high-pitched squeal tears me from my dreams. I clamp my hands over my ears and bury my head under the pillow, but the sound just gets louder, ringing like unchecked feedback from a guitar amp. Nauseous and disorientated, I fight my way out of bed and bump through the darkness, certain the noise must be coming from outside. On the way downstairs, I cling to the banister and vomit on the carpet. Then I unlock the front door and fall face-first into the snow.

It isn’t really me who grabs the lamppost. By the time I reach the far side of the road, I’ve lost the capacity for rational thought. The way a tortured man will confess to crimes he didn’t commit, I’m willing to try anything. The moment my skin touches the metal, the noise changes, the lamppost acting like some kind of antenna. Gone is the screaming static. Instead, my head is filled with the soothing music of angels. Beautiful overlapping melodies. Notes as delicate as the falling snow.

This must be what heaven sounds like.

Then I hear another noise above me. A low, soft whoomph. I look up into the darkness, waiting and wondering. The smell arrives first, ripe and sticky like the local dump. Then the creature lands on the arm of the lamppost, each wing as wide as a bus. Its toes are mattress springs and vacuum cleaner hoses, curled into lawnmower-blade talons. Its feathers are shredded pillow cases and ironing-board covers. The way it jerks and twitches, it reminds me of birds on a feeder. But there aren’t any birds this big. And this one has three heads, massive like chimineas, with dangerously-hooked beaks.

The creature is the source of the song I can hear. I don’t care if it’s an angel calling me to heaven or a siren luring me to my demise; I’m ready either way. The middle head stops singing and twists to one side, inspecting me with a black webcam eye. I reach up and it lunges towards me, hissing and spitting, its beak stretched impossibly wide. One snap of those fearsome jaws and my head would come clean off. And maybe I should be afraid, but I’m not. I’m its servant, its disciple, and as long as it sings to me it may do whatever it desires. But something else snatches its attention.

The night bus, growling like a beast up the high street.

The middle head twists towards the others, hissing instructions, and with a flap of its wings, the creature disappears over the rooftops. I panic and start to follow, but the moment I let go of the lamppost, the noise returns. I’m winded by the cold. I fall back and press my ear to the soothing metal.

It’s okay. I can still hear its song.

Christopher Stanley can be found hugging lampposts and other stationary objects on a weather-beaten hill in Bristol, England. In 2018, his stories have been published in The Arcanist, Aphotic Realm and DeadCades: The Infernal Decimation, along with many other fine places. Please follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings
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