Since Charlie Hadn’t Come was first published in Roads Ahead (ed. Catherine O’Flynn) by Tindal Street Press and later republished in Litro. The following images form the nine pages of Jess Watson’s graphic interpretation of the story.
After reading through Roads Ahead I found myself drawn to the visual writing style of Chris Smith and the moving tale Since Charlie Hadn’t Come. The story was powerful, a tale of a man reduced to the level of an animal by the removal of his sole carer, full of imagery and dankness that genuinely leaves the reader haunted. I began by systematically segmenting the story and plotting the panels before I begun on the originals which are entirely done in pen and ink. I primarily work in black and white so it was a good match, since the bleakness of the story seemed to fit monotone. I wanted to create the chaos and confusion that steadily increases within the central character Albert and focus on the deterioration of environment and mental health.
Chris Smith’s brilliant story ‘Since Charlie Hadn’t Come’ is a disturbing tale of bucolic extra-urban wildness sliding into unexpected degrees of horror.
I have reprinted the story in full:
Since Charlie Hadn’t Come
Dry-stone walls rose like towers up the steep and craggy hillside, patches of mist slithered across peaked summits, Herdwicks and Swaledales wandered through the fells. An aged cottage jutted from the side of the Old Man of Coniston. In red chalk on the paving stones in front of the door it was written:
ALBERT REYNOLDS. THIS IS YOUR FARM. DON’T FORGET TO CLOSE THE DOOR.
The words were faded and difficult to read.
Inside, Albert was sitting in a broken armchair. Tufts of white stuffing, like the hair from his ears, stuck from the chair’s edges. He was wearing the rust-coloured dressing gown that Charlie had given him for Christmas. In the pocket of the dressing gown there was a list of things Albert needed to do before he went to bed: brush your teeth, go to the toilet, cross the calendar, blow out the candle, close the window. They were simple things, but they were important things.
Albert had a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, no ice; the freezer was broken, or he hadn’t paid his electricity bill, or he didn’t have a freezer. He didn’t know. His eyes were fixed on Martha, who was standing in his living room, scratching her head against the coffee table. Martha’s homeland bordered onto Albert’s cottage and was marked by an orange star dyed into her grey wool. Her itch seemed insatiable; it was hard to get at, somewhere between her ears, not quite reachable. She pushed the pile of Farmers Weeklys onto the floor. The latest issue was dated some weeks before, the same day as Charlie’s last visit. Martha bent down and tested the front cover with her tongue. Then she tried to chew through the whole paper. Albert mumbled at her, or tried to talk without remembering to open his mouth. She ignored him. Albert stamped his foot, making a pathetic clonk on the wooden floorboards. Martha turned away and carried the paper with her through the kitchen and out the door. She stood on her favourite spot on the grass by the wall.
Since Charlie hadn’t come, Albert had ignored a lot of things. He ignored the rats that scurried from the kitchen, past his feet-filled slippers into the hallway. Since Charlie hadn’t come, he’d ignored the cow carcass at the bottom of the stairs. The cow had been there for two weeks. She’d wandered in while Albert was asleep in his armchair and made her way up the steps. She’d chewed the guest room’s heavy velvet curtains, pulled them off their rail, and stood for a long time on the landing. Later she’d walked into Albert’s bedroom, looking for something else to eat. Seeing that there was no grass on the floor she’d made her way back to the stairs.
The rats had scratched through her tough Friesian skin and eaten away at her flesh. Her neck was bent at an unlikely angle. Her eye sockets were filled with maggots. Above her body a calendar was Blu-tacked to the wall. A red marker hung next to it on a string. A carefully marked cross filled each day leading to Sunday, where it was written:
ALBERT REYNOLDS, GET DRESSED FOR CHARLIE.
Since Charlie hadn’t come, the upstairs had become an aviary; bird shit covered the single bed, the worn carpet. Since Charlie hadn’t come, the cow continued to rot and Albert’s grey stubble had become a white beard.
Charlie was Albert’s brother. He worked in a bookshop-café in Windermere, selling flapjacks and tea for £1.50. Every Sunday he would visit Albert. He’d get a bus to Coniston and walk up the track beside the beck to the base of the Old Man, Coniston’s conical mountain. Albert’s door was never locked, but Charlie would knock and wait. He would hear Albert scurrying around the house, his Sunday shoes clattering on the wooden floorboards like clogs. When Albert opened the door he would have islands of stubble on his face and shaving foam in his hair. His white shirt would be inside out or have a charred circle where he’d tried ironing it with a hot saucepan.
Charlie would bring food; they’d have tea and go for walks. Last time Charlie came Albert had answered the door wearing only a dinner coat and shoes. He tried to boil the kettle without any water and then made tea without any teabags. Charlie patiently wrote him a note, with an arrow pointing to the right pot:
ALBERT REYNOLDS, HERE ARE THE TEABAGS.
After Charlie had helped him make the tea they went for a walk in the hills. Albert could still name all the sheep in the valley; it was one thing he never seemed to forget. There was a small waterfall that Albert always headed for; it had a deep pool in the shape of a basin. It was the only place Charlie could get Albert to wash.
Back at the house Charlie returned things to their right places. He replaced notes. He cleaned and tidied. Before he left he filled in next Sunday’s box:
ALBERT REYNOLDS, GET DRESSED FOR CHARLIE. DON’T FORGET YOUR SHIRT AND TROUSSERS.
Since Charlie hadn’t come, the window in Albert’s bedroom hadn’t been closed. A damp semicircle on the side of the bed made the urine stains look fresh. But the bed hadn’t been slept in, since Charlie hadn’t come. Since Charlie hadn’t come, every couple of days Albert would stand upright, and each time his body would be more withered, less human. He would prance into the kitchen and defecate in the sink.
Albert’s food supplies had either been eaten or had rotted since Charlie hadn’t come.
Albert looked at the door in the kitchen and saw that Martha had come back in. She walked over to the empty fireplace and stuck her nose in the cold, grey ash. She recoiled with a snort and sent a small puff of dust into the air. She ambled across the room and nibbled the corner of the rug beneath the coffee table. Albert picked up a shotgun that was leant against his chair and pointed it at Martha. He pulled the trigger; there was the gentle tap of metal on metal. He didn’t know where the bullets were. He looked down at the coffee table, which had a message scratched into it:
ALBERT REYNOLDS, YOUR HOUSE SUPPLIES ARE KEPT IN THE BASEMENT.
Albert had to walk around the dead cow to get to the basement door. There was a sign pinned to it saying:
ALBERT REYNOLDS, PUT THE TORCH ON THE NAIL. DID YOU SWITCH OFF THE TAPS?
A torch hung on a piece of string from a nail. Albert walked down the steep steps and stood on the basement floor. It was cold and black. He opened a wall cupboard and found a box of shotgun shells and a tub of grease. On the way back he paused to look at the cow at the bottom of the stairs. In the living room he took a shell from the box and threw it at Martha. She ran out of the house. There were now only three shells left in the box. He loaded two of them into his shotgun and put the last one in his mouth like a cigar. He shouted at the cow.
‘Where is Charlie?’ He paused for an answer. ‘If you don’t answer me or leave my house in the next five seconds I’m going to blow my feet off.’
The gun waved in front of him. He counted to four and fired; the spray of shot shattered a large window at the side of the house. It hung like a spider’s web and then it fell in shards to the floor. Albert got up and walked back towards the cow, holding the shotgun in his shaking hands. The shotgun didn’t have a sight, but he looked down the length of the barrel anyway, walking towards her as he lined up his vision. He tripped over her hoof and landed on top of her, dropping the gun as he fell. It bounced down the basement stairs and landed on the floor below. Albert crawled to the door and looked down into the dark for a brief, silent moment before backing into the living room and scratching his head against the coffee table. He started chewing the papers on the floor. He stared for a long time at a picture of a sheep and then ate that too.
Albert crawled into the kitchen on his hands and knees and looked out the back door. A note, which he couldn’t see, was pinned to the back of the door. It read:
ALBERT REYNOLDS, YOU ARE NOT A SHEEP.
The view was still stunning, but cigar smoke clouds were forming on the horizon. It was going to be a wet evening. Albert went back inside, took the tub of grease from the coffee table, and smeared the dark, bile-coloured paste all over his head and his body. He rubbed some into his hair. Then he crawled back though the kitchen and into the yard, where the red chalk had faded since Charlie hadn’t come. By the edge of the wall Martha was chewing Albert’s favourite patch of grass.