“I’m Mr Short,” said the oddly proportioned man. He spoke in a strange, high pitched, rasping, whistling, and at times almost buzzing voice. Dad had already told me that one of his regulars was a ’Mr Short’ who had multiple disabilities — no, not disabilities, deformities. He was wearing a loud striped suit, a straw boater, and heavy looking mittens. I could not see his face because he had a muffler up to his nose, and heavy, wraparound sunglasses with mirror lenses. “Have you got any bottles?” he continued.
“We don’t sell bottles,” I said. “This is an electrical shop. We sell computer stuff, and TV sets, and electrical components, that kind of thing.”
“I mean vacuum tubes.”
Ah, American. “Oh, you mean valves.”
“Yes. I’d like some valves please.”
“What kind? We don’t carry many these days. It’s all transistors and ICs,” I said.
“What do you recommend?”
“It depends what you want to do,” I said, wondering what kind of an idiot Dad’s absence had lumbered me with. “Do you want to build a valve amplifier? Or a radio? Or an oscillator?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Look,” I said, “maybe you’d better come into the store room where we keep the government surplus stuff and pick out some yourself?”
“All right,” he said and followed me in that odd, shuffling gate of his. I half expected to see the rest of him trailing on the floor, behind. “I can’t use my hands very well,” he said. “If I point them out, can you put them into a bag for me?”
So we did that. The valves were in little boxes of a dozen or so and he pointed with his creepy, mittened paw. Dad had told me he had that awful ectrodactyly deformity, like the ‘lobster boys’ in the old freak shows. He picked out nearly every valve we had, so it took ages. I tried to chat at the same time. “These are Russian valves,” I said. “The newer ones, the ones in better condition are Russian, because they were so behind the times they kept using them longer than we did. Some of them are brand new. Well, almost. I mean as new as they can be. Never been used.” To be honest, he was making me nervous. I kept looking at the suggestion of misshapen legs badly hidden by the worsted trousers. He had Sirenomelia: merman syndrome, too — according to Dad. Apparently they had to operate to divide his mono-leg into an approximation of a pair. It was a wonder he could get around at all.
“I’d like to buy that as well,” he said, pointing to a real museum piece: a valve voltmeter.
“No,” I said, “that’s not for sale.” Dad knew it was a collector’s item. He just hadn’t got around to having it valued. “I can sell you the up to date equivalent.”
“Does it use valves?”
“No. It’s transistor.”
“Transistors don’t work where… I am going,” he said.
Mad as a March hare.
I priced everything up and knocked ten percent off for him being a regular customer. He could have taken the lot for me. Those valves were only taking up valuable space. Nowadays, we hardly sold any.
What did he mean: ‘transistors don’t work where I’m going’? I’d better ask him.”
“Just where are you going?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you in a moment,” he said, “When we’ve packed all these away.”
So I laid out all the valves in an old shoebox and handed them across the counter. “Please charge it to my account?” he said, leaning over and gripping the box under his arm.
I didn’t know anything about that arrangement, but I wasn’t going to argue. I just reminded him about his promise to tell me where he was taking them.
“Yes, I will,” he said. But at that moment one of the valves dropped out of the box and rolled behind the counter. “Oh dear,” he said. “Will you get that for me? My hands, you know. My hands…”
And I dropped behind the counter to find the missing valve. But when I stood up again, Mr Short had gone out of the door and down the street.
Well, I wasn’t too bothered, because to tell the truth I was glad to be rid of him. No doubt Dad would sort his bill out. And I was sure Mr Short was harmless. But he gave me the creeps. Smelled fishy, too.
I found it hard to get off to sleep that night. Every time the wind blew through the trees, I remembered Mr Short’s strange, droning voice. And when someone walked by on the pavement outside, I remembered his shuffling feet on the stone floor of the storeroom.
And then I must have drifted off to sleep. The walls and the ceiling of my room dissolved. And the stars were pulling at me. It did not seem like a dream. The colours were brilliant; striking. I swear, there were colours for which we have no name. And over this, there was a commentary. I seemed to hear Mr Short’s rasping, buzzing voice. “The tenth planet,” he said. “Yuggoth, the planet beyond Pluto. Transistors do not work there. Shub Nigurath!”
I jerked awake. I could hear a noise downstairs. And it was then I remembered my silly habit of leaving the back door unlocked. I must have left it unlocked tonight as well.
So I carefully picked up my mobile phone, opened my bedroom door and tiptoed down the stairs to investigate. There were strange noises coming from the store room at the back. I was sure that I heard a strange clicking noise and a shuffling sound and yes, a weird, rasping voice:
“Oh curse these clumsy hands. Oh my awkward paws! Get a grip! Get a grip!”
Without wasting time, I dialled 999 and whispered our address to the operator, and that we had had a break-in. I trembled in agitation. I knew who it would be. Dad might be soft hearted with him, but best customer or not, the law was the law! And besides, he gave me the creeps. He frightened me!
Perhaps it would be better if I waited for the police to arrive? Yes. That would be the best thing to do. But then I heard a strange clicking sound. It sounded for all the world like a cigarette lighter. Oh God! There was wood wool and expanded polystyrene and cardboard everywhere in there! All kinds of flammable packing material. What if he set fire to the store room? Whether by design or chance, he could burn down the house! I had better just have a look to make sure.
At first I couldn’t see anything, it was so dark. I turned on the light and looked around and there, on the bench, I saw his mittens. I picked them up so that I could hand them back to him when I found him. But I was surprised to find that they were not the soft woollen mittens I was expecting. They were hard and had a waxy smell. And then I saw Mr Short’s long cloak.
“I told you that was not for sale,” I said. But I couldn’t say any more. Without the mittens I could see his ‘lobster claw’ hands. Only they weren’t hands. They really were lobster claws; shiny and of a lurid pink, clicking and rattling as they fumbled with the valve voltmeter, trying to lift it off the shelf. They looked like two crabs executing a mating dance.
And then he turned, and I saw his face for the first time.
It was then I screamed.
It wasn’t a face.
It was a horrible, chitinous mass of mandibles, and eyes. Monstrous, crablike eyes on stalks.
His feet were exposed as well. They were not feet. They were claws that clicked on the stone floor as he shuffled towards me. I went mad then. The sight of him unhinged me and blasted my reason to the winds. I knew then with absolute certainty that I would never rid myself of the image of that face that was not a face. That cold, insectile, inhuman visage would float in front of my eyes for the rest of my days, until death mercifully claimed me.
Mr Short reached out with that horrible lobster claw and touched me on the shoulder in a grotesque parody of a reassuring gesture.
“I’m only borrowing it,” he said, in that dreadful, buzzing voice of his that no human tongue and throat could have formed.
And it was then that I fainted dead away.
But the final horror came when they found me in the storeroom. I know now that they asked me repeatedly to tell them what and whom I had seen. But all I could say, over and over again was, “My hands! My paws! Get a grip! Get a grip!”
And the real horror was that I couldn’t get a grip. My own hands, were fright-frozen into a kind of mockery of what human hands were like. Twisted as if by some terrible kind of arthritic disease or spasm they leapt out of the half light, stark and lurid pink, as nothing less than the claws of a lobster!