White corridor - By Christopher Fowler



‘Concentrate on the moth.’

The creature fluttered against the inside of the upended water glass as the women leaned in to watch. It was trying to reach the light from the amber street lamp that shone through the gap in the curtains. Each time its wings batted against its prison, the Shaded Broad-bar Scotopteryx chenopodiata shed more of the powder that kept it in flight, leaving arrow-imprints on the glass.

‘Concentrate hard on the moth, Madeline.’

In the early evening drizzle, the Edwardian terraced house at 24 Cranmere Road was like a thousand others in the surrounding South London streets, its quiddity to be a part of the city’s chaotic whole. There were shiny grey slates, dead chimney pots and shabby bay windows. The rain sketched silver signatures across the rooftops, leaving inky pools on empty pavements. At this time of the year it was an indoor world.

Behind dense green curtains, five women sat in what had once been the front parlour, narrowing their thoughts in the overheated air. The house was owned by Kate Summerton, a prematurely grey housewife who had reached the age at which so many suburban women faded from the view of men. As if to aid this new invisibility, she tied back her hair and wore TV-screen glasses with catalogue slacks and a shapeless faun cardigan.

Her guests were all neighbours except Madeline Gilby, who worked in the Costcutter supermarket on the Old Kent Road and was disturbingly beautiful, even when she arrived still wearing her blue cashier’s smock. Kate had known her for almost three years, and it had taken that long to convince her that she possessed a rare gift beyond that of her grace.

The small brown moth batted feebly once more, then sank to the tablecloth. It was losing strength. Madeline furrowed her brow and pressed pale hands to her temples, shutting her eyes tight.

‘He’s tiring. Keep concentrating.’

The Broad-bar made one final attempt to escape through the top of the glass, and fell back. One wing ticked rapidly and then became still.

‘That,’ said Jessica, adjusting her great glasses, ‘shows the true intensity of the directed mind. The energy you generated is not measurable by any electronic means, and yet it’s enough to interfere with the nervous system of this poor little creature. Of course, the test is hardly very scientific, but it suffices to demonstrate the power you hold within you.’

Madeline was astonished. She gasped and smiled at the others.

‘You have the gift, dear, as all women do in different degrees,’ said Kate. ‘In time, and with our help, you’ll be able to identify the auras of others, seeing deep inside their hearts. You’ll instinctively know if they mean you good or harm, and will never need to fear a man again. From now on, you and your son will be safe.’

Kate was clear and confident, conscious of her middle-class enunciation. As a professional, she was used to being heard and obeyed. She turned to the others. ‘You see how easy it is to harness your inner self? It is important to understand that, in a manner of speaking, all women have two hearts. The first is the muscle that pumps our blood, and the second is a psychic heart that, if properly developed, opens us to secret knowledge. You can all harness that heart-power, just as Madeline is doing. Males don’t possess this second spiritual heart; they have only flesh and bone. They feel pain and pleasure, but there is no extra dimension to their feelings, whereas we are able to find deeper shading in our emotional spirituality. This is the defence we develop against those who hurt us and our children, because most men do eventually, even if they never intend to. They are fundamentally different creatures, and fail to understand the damage they cause. With training, we can open a pathway illuminated by the pure light of truth, and see into the hearts of men. This is the breakthrough that Madeline has achieved today, in this room.’

Madeline was unable to stop herself from crying. As a child she had been lonely and imaginative, used to spending long afternoons with books and make-believe friends until boys discovered her nascent beauty. Then the nightmare had begun. Now, there was a chance that it might really be over. For the first time since she had met Kate, she truly believed that her power existed.

‘That’s it, let it all out,’ said her mentor, placing a plump arm around her as the others murmured their approval. ‘It always