Simon believed it was luck when he saw the garden gnome. He should have stumbled past it. It was dark and he was drunk. His eyes blinked a couple of times as his brain tried to override the alcohol blurring his vision. Then he grinned mischievously in recognition. It was a gnome. He giggled as if seeing an old friend. It looked out of place, on its own, in the middle of the garden. The nearest street light was like a spotlight and the lawn it sat upon its stage. The gnome stood facing the house in its custom clothes: red hat curving forwards, red trousers held up with red braces over a blue shirt.
"You little beauty," said Simon.
His drinking buddies staggered over. Stu saw the gnome and burst out laughing.
Matt saw it and said, "I double-dare you."
Simon chuckled. He needed no such challenge. After downing eight pints of lager, the gnome deserved kicking. He crept into the garden, behind him his friends' drunken giggles encouraging him on. In his head, this all made sense. The next-door neighbour's garden was the goal – just a simple chip to cover four yards and a metre fence in the middle. Easy. He licked a finger and held it up. It was more for the comical effect than to judge the wind, but it worked. Stu and Matt stifled their giggling behind a hand. He ran forwards and kicked. The gnome smashed, showering the lawn with pottery fragments. That was not supposed to happen. He stared, open-mouthed at the destruction at his feet, and then burst out laughing, Stu joined in too. Matt had a finger on his lips shushing them when a light in the house came on.
"Oh shit," Simon groaned. "I hope he's not big."
There was no point hiding because there was nowhere to hide, and he was too drunk to run. He stared at the front door, rueing the idiotic decision to kick the gnome, but mainly wishing he'd turned down that last pint.
His friends were not helping. They were on the pavement, going, "Ooooo," as if expecting a ruckus.
The door opened and a young man appeared, wearing a dressing-gown. Simon's brain assessed the threat level in milliseconds and deemed the man's fighting ability as zero.
"Was it you?" The man demanded from the safety of his doorstep.
Simon closed his eyes and sighed. The man had a right to be angry, but he wasn't about to grovel.
"Would you believe me if I said it was an accident?"
He followed his answer with a smile. If he had to pay for a new garden gnome then so be it, he just didn't want the police getting involved. However, something unexpected happened. The man's face became a beacon of joy.
"I don't care," said the man. "God bless you, for ridding me of this horror."
With that said, he closed the door, and a muted cry of, "Yes", could be heard inside. Simon turned to his friends, his hands spread and his mouth agape.
"Can someone explain to me what just happened?"
"You're a jammy bastard," said Matt. "If that had been me, the guy would have been the size of The Rock, and he'd have been bouncing me around his garden as we speak."
Stu agreed. "If there was one person I'd bet on winning the lottery, my money would be on you."
Luck was far from Simon's thoughts. "Did his reaction not seem a little odd?"
Matt hiccupped. "The gnome was probably a gift from his mother-in-law."
"Who cares?" said Stu. "I want my bed."
The alarm clock sprang into action, blaring out a hit from the radio. Its steady rhythm brought life to the bed as Simon's arm snaked out from under the duvet to switch it off. His head was pounding. He laid there momentarily knowing any movement would bring more misery, but he couldn't linger, he had to go to work. After showering, he dressed slowly, as the slightest jolt made him groan in pain. Breakfast was eaten in silence, washed down with a mug of tea and painkillers.
He placed the empty bowl in the sink, moved through to the hall, and grabbed his car keys from a side table. Opening the front door, the sun stabbed at his eyes like a strobe light at a disco.
"For fuck's sake," he groaned.
The walk up the garden path was done while rubbing his eyes. As he neared the garden gate, he stopped.
"What the . . ?"
At the centre of his garden was a gnome. He walked towards it, mesmerised, wondering if he was dreaming, but as he drew closer his hands clenched into fists as his temper surfaced. The gnome's porcelain, bearded face, stared back, its brow set in a frown.
"Let me put you out of your misery," said Simon, and he brought a heavy work boot down upon its head. It broke into pieces. "I haven't got time for stupid fucking games."
At work, lorries were coming and going all morning. In the delivery area, Simon drove in on his forklift, removed the last pallet from the bay, and placed it in the racking. With his workload complete, he drove to the administrator's office and parked up. Two drivers were already in there, handing in paperwork. When they left, Simon entered.
The administrator looked up as he reached for the paperwork. "Bloody hell, Simon, heavy night last night?"
Simon grimaced. "Yeah, you could say that. I'll never bloody learn."
The administrator turned back to his computer and began typing, leaving Simon to watch for a moment before boredom made his eyes wander. The sports car on the pin-up calendar was not his thing. Holiday forms and memorandums cluttered the notice board. In the corner was a monitor featuring four live feeds from the goods yard. Three lorry bays were in use. The fourth was empty. In the background, the car park gates were open. Beside the gate post was a shape he thought he recognised. He stepped closer and leaned in. It was a garden gnome. Someone was playing games. He raced out the door, behind him the administrator shouted after him.
In the loading area, three drivers watched his dash for the exit. "Is there a fire?" someone joked.
Simon ignored them. He passed the parked lorries, sped around the busy forklifts, and raced across the car park. As he neared the gate, he could see there was nothing there. He slowed to a walk. Maybe he was wrong, he thought. He stepped up to the gate. In the mud, small footprints led away from the gate and into the hedge.
This has got to be some kind of joke, he thought. That guy whose gnome he broke is getting his own back. It has to be.
Back in the office, the administrator viewed Simon with concern. "Is everything all right? You raced across that yard as if you were going to punch someone."
"I still might yet." Simon grunted.
"Maybe. We'll see."
The drive home was performed in autopilot as Simon's mind considered what happened. The question was: how did that guy know where he worked? Or lived, for that matter. Was he followed home last night? It was possible, especially after how much alcohol he'd consumed. He would have been an easy mark to follow. It certainly would explain the gnome in his garden. But what about work? Was he followed there, too? It was the only plausible explanation.
As he turned into his street, he slowed down. If he had been followed, maybe his house was being watched? He searched the street looking for cars he didn't recognise. It was difficult to tell. He pulled into the curb outside his house and through the window he could see two gnomes in his garden. He gripped the steering wheel until his fingers turned white.
"You mother fucker."
Simon climbed from the car and slammed the door. Stomping across the pavement, the two garden gnomes were facing the gate as if they were waiting for him. Their porcelain faces were set in a snarl. He stormed into the garden and kicked the first. Shards of pottery sprayed everywhere. The second gnome he picked up and held above his head in the direction of the street.
"This is your fucking money you're wasting. You keep bringing them, and I'll keep on breaking them."
He threw the gnome to the floor. Part of it broke, the parts that didn't were pulverised under his steel toe-capped boots.
The following morning there were four garden gnomes on his lawn. Each one of their pottery, bearded faces, was scowling. Simon stared down at them, incredulous about what was happening.
"I'm tempted to break you fuckers just to see if they'll be eight of you when I get home."
He crouched before the nearest one. It was wearing glasses. The faces of the others differed too. One was slightly thinner in the face, another was feminine, but with a beard. Whoever made them was making them unique. They were putting time and effort into their creation, right down to their expressions. But why make them angry?
After lowering the forks of his truck, Simon ticked the pallet off his paperwork. Eight more and then it was lunch break.
He put the clipboard on the armrest and clicked the forklift in reverse. He glanced along the aisle to see if it was safe to go and saw a small shape run into the racking.
"What the fuck." Was that a cat?
He pulled the handbrake and climbed down from the truck. As he started walking to the end of the aisle, the light above went out, leaving him in shadow. He glanced up at the defunct bulb, growling under his breath in dismay. Not again. It's about time someone fixed that. He stared along the darkened aisle. If it was a cat, the semi-darkness could help him creep up on it.
He tip-toed to the end of the aisle and peered both ways, the walkway was clear.
Not deterred, he lingered for a little while but saw or heard nothing. "Fuck this; I've got things to do." As he approached his truck, something toppled to the floor in the next aisle. He spun around, searching the shadows, half expecting something to come dashing out. All was still. He slowly crept around the racking. A box was on the floor. One of its corners was flattened from the impact. He crouched down to inspect it and then looked up to see where it fell from. The pallet two beams up moved. Instincts took over and he dived out of the way. Behind him, eighteen heavy boxes crashed to the floor with a loud crack as plastic and wood collided with the concrete floor. And then silence.
Simon stared at the crumpled boxes, at the place where he'd been standing just moments before.
He felt a hand upon his shoulder and he flinched. Spinning around, he held an arm up to protect himself. It was Grant.
"Are you okay, dude?" asked Grant.
Simon was too numb to respond. He didn't even hear him approach. Grant helped him to his feet and dusted him down.
"Don't worry about this," said Grant. "Go outside and get some air. You look like death."
Simon heeded the advice. There was a low wall by the fire exit which he used as a seat. Ten minutes went by before Grant joined him.
"That was a lucky escape, man."
"Tell me about it," said Simon. "What happened?"
"It looks like it was pushed off."
"Did any of the cameras catch it?"
"Yeah, but it's not great. It's dark down there. You can just make out the pallet edging forwards as if someone's pushing it."
Simon stared at him as his mind calculated what could have been. "Do you realise how heavy that pallet would weigh?"
Grant agreed. "We all do, hence the reason why they're not getting the police involved. I'll tell you what is strange, though. There are small handprints in the dust like a child's been up there."
Simon's heart began to pound. It couldn't be.
"Are you all right, dude?" Grant asked. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
The Bear Inn was closed when Simon drove by. He looked over out of habit, but instead of thinking of beer, he was concentrating on the route he took home the night he kicked the first gnome. He took the next left and then slowed. Each house looked the same. They were old council houses with long, empty lawns.
Simon slowed the car, the fence looked familiar. There was the house, he was sure of it. He pulled over and climbed out of the car. At first, he scanned the lawn for broken pottery. There was none. As he considered whether or not to knock on the door, a man walked towards him from the street.
"Can I help you?" the man asked.
Simon stayed his ground. "I broke your gnome the other night."
The man walked straight past him to his front door. "Don't worry about it, it was old, and I don't really miss it."
Simon took a hesitant step forwards. "I was hoping to speak to you in regards to that gnome."
The man fumbled for his keys. "It was just a garden gnome, nothing more."
"But that's the thing, I don't think it was."
"I don't know what you're talking about." The key went in and he opened the door.
"Please," said Simon. "I think I'm in trouble."
The man paused in his doorway. "Have you broken the gnome?"
"Yes, two of them."
"Two of them?" The man's voice rose in shock.
"There were four on my lawn as of this morning."
"That's not good."
"I think they're trying to . . . hurt me."
"Eye for an eye."
"Revenge? For breaking the others? So, how do I stop them?"
The man faced Simon and shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not even sure that you can. As you've already found out, break one, and more will keep coming. I suggest you do not break anymore."
"There has to be a way to stop them. Can I not reason with them?"
The man chuckled. "Reason with them? If someone killed someone close to you, would you not want revenge?"
"Yes, but . . . they're garden gnomes for fucks sake."
"Garden gnomes that are trying to kill you."
Simon clenched his fists and glared at the man. "So that's it, then? I just let them kill me?"
"I'm not saying that but if there is a way to stop them, you'd better find what it is, and quick."
"How did you stop them from killing you?"
"It was never trying to kill me. I just couldn't get rid of the bloody thing. I bought it from a woman called, Dubran. She told me, 'Whatever you do, don't break him. Give him a good home and he'll look after you.' When I realised my mistake, I tried to find her, but she was gone. I only wanted it as an ornament, but no matter where I placed the bloody thing, the following morning it was somewhere else. It scared the hell out of me. And that's when you came along."
He stepped into his house and partially closed the door. "I'm sorry I couldn't be of any more help. Good luck."
Simon left feeling no better off than when he first arrived.
Back home, the four gnomes were facing the gate. Simon moved towards the nearest one and tapped its red hat with a knuckle. Picking it up, he examined it. It was just an ornamental garden gnome.
"Why are you giving me so much grief?"
The garden gnome's glazed face was inanimate.
"Breaking you was a mistake, I see that now. Why don't we make a deal: if I let you stay, you behave and leave me alone. We can all live together. What do you say?"
He placed the gnome next to the others and tapped its head like appeasing a small boy.
"There we go. So, a truce it is, then. Let bygones be bygones."
Simon stepped into the doorway of his home and looked back. The gnomes were facing the gate. He closed the door, locked it, and raced to the window in the lounge. The four gnomes were facing his front door.
"For fuck's sake," he gasped.
The scene took his breath away. A shiver went down his back and he broke out into a cold sweat. For the first time since this all started, he felt threatened. He double-checked the front door and then locked the back door. He then walked through the house checking all the windows. Only when he was satisfied that everything was secure, was he able to relax.
He went to the window. The gnomes were facing the door.
All through the early evening, the slightest sound made him leap from the sofa, and peer through the curtain.
The gnomes were facing the door.
Bedtime came. He crept towards the window and peered out. The gnomes were still facing the door.
He left the lounge light on before going to bed, hoping to trick them, and criticised himself for his irrational behaviour. This is ridiculous, he thought. Before he'd reached the top of the stairs his mind was made up, tomorrow the gnomes were going in the bin.
He awoke in the night and turned over. The LED clock said 2.30. His bladder ached. Climbing from his bed, he stumbled through the dark to the bedroom door. He switched on the hall light and froze. A garden gnome was at the top of the stairs. A knife was held in its clay hand. It was inanimate, frozen in a walking stance. Its bearded mouth, snarling. Simon stared at it from the doorway, paralysed. Moments went by and the gnome remained static. After the initial shock faded, Simon edged closer. The other three gnomes were on the stairs, frozen in climbing poses. One was helping another climb up a step, while the third had a leg cocked over the edge of the step. They all held knives.
"Fuck me!" The full horror of what they had planned suddenly hit him. They were here to kill him. But why were they not moving now?
"Come on then, you little fuckers."
Nothing. They remained in their poses. Simon was tempted to push them all down the stairs.
"I thought we had a deal? I could smash you where you stand if I wanted, but I'm not going to."
He began to sense that they could not move if he was watching, going as far as picking up the nearest one, holding it before him to prove the point. Its glazed eyes were fierce and its snarl was menacing. If it wanted to cut him, it was close enough to do so.
Simon stepped passed the other three and carried the one he was holding downstairs.
"Outside with you, but you won't be on your own for long."
He gently placed the gnome at the centre of his garden and then returned for the others. They were on the stairs, waiting for him. Their poses had changed. They were no longer trying to climb but stood facing him, knife in hand, as if ready for a fight. Their ability to move was clear, and they weren't even trying to hide it now.
Once he'd carried them all outside, he crouched in front of them.
"I'm going to put some clothes on. You haven't got to break-in because I'll be coming straight back out. I won't be long."
They were waiting for him when he returned, as he expected. Now their relationship was clear, Simon felt more in control. They had limitations. As long as someone was watching, they couldn't move.
"Right then, lads, we're going for a little drive. Unfortunately, because of your previous behaviour, you'll be riding in the boot."
After a two-hour drive, Simon arrived at his destination. The city lights were dazzling, and the shop windows reflected his car. Inside his head, he was laughing. His idea had come out of nowhere, completely spontaneous. He felt like a gangster in a movie who was about to set some ground rules to a victim in the boot of the car.
He stepped out of the car and walked to the rear. Fifty yards away a road-sweeper slowly manoeuvred around the parked cars. Simon opened the boot and quickly stepped back, he didn't want to fall for any surprises. The gnomes' glazed pottery faces were green.
"Was my driving a little erratic?"
He chuckled at his own humour, but it was what he was about to tell them that amused him the most.
"Right then, because you guys won't accept my apology and seem hell-bent on doing me harm, I've had to take you somewhere that will work as a prison."
A train noisily began to pull away.
"Welcome to Birmingham New Street Station. This place is heaving with people, 24/7."
Simon grabbed a luggage trolley and gently placed the four gnomes upon it. Their faces were grim.
"Oh cheer up," he said. "Think of this as an adventure. I bet you've never been here before."
He put them facing forwards, so they could see their new home. They wobbled side-to-side as the trolley rumbled along the pavement. Simon looked at them, laughing. The thought of what was going on inside their heads, made him laugh all the more. They must be furious.
People were coming and going through the main entrance. Others were stood in small groups with their luggage beside them. Families preparing for their holidays, students heading home for the weekend.
"Look at this place," said Simon, "It's 4.30 in the morning, and it's already busy."
The automatic doors sprung open and Simon pushed the trolley through. He nodded to the people he passed in the corridor and they responded likewise.
It was like stepping into a wonderland. Bright lights reflected off white plastic panel walls and chrome bumper rails. Space-age lifts took shoppers up to arcades on the floors above with neon-lights offering coffees and burgers. They passed posters advertising movies and theatres with their latest performances. There were pharmacies, soap shops, shoe shops, bookshops. Simon grinned at the sheer size of the place. He glanced down at the gnomes in front of him; they just wobbled side-to-side. He didn't know if they were taking any of this in, part of him didn't care. What mattered to him was the genius of the idea.
They entered the atrium. On the wall, the screens showing train arrival times rotated constantly. Cafes were half-full with patrons sipping hot drinks and staring into the middle distance, their thoughts on their destinations.
Between two benches, and close by a shop door, was a little mini garden with a small tree at its centre. Simon placed the gnomes on the grass.
"Welcome home," he said. "You'll never be lonely again. There's always someone here, whether it's commuters or cleaners. And you never know, someone might take you with them and give you a new home. How exciting will that be?"
He quickly looked round to see if anyone was watching. No one cared. They were going about their own business. When he turned back, the gnomes were all facing him with their hands on their hips.
"So, this is it. I'd like to say it was a pleasure, but it hasn't been. In all honesty, it's been a bloody nightmare."
He saluted them and left, turning just once to see them standing there, glaring at him.
Simon walked into the administrator's office and dropped his paperwork on the table.
"What's next?" he asked.
The administrator leant towards his in-tray and skimmed through the delivery notes. He took one and handed it to Simon.
"Is life all right now, Simon?" he asked. "I thought you were going to punch someone the other week."
Simon smiled as he remembered the stressful time he had with those gnomes. "That was over three weeks ago."
"All sorted then?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"What was it?"
"I had some unwanted guests."
"Gods no. But once I took them to the train station, the problem was solved."
The administrator pouted. "I could do with taking my wife there."
As the days went by, Simon thought about the gnomes less and less. There were no more shadows in his periphery, no more scampering of tiny feet down between the racking, and the walk home from the pub was performed without paranoid glances behind him. Stu and Matt were none the wiser. Simon thought it best to keep the nightmare to himself. After all, he doubted they'd believe him anyway. They were larking around in the middle of the road, wrestling. A streetlight flickered and went out leaving the area in darkness.
Matt started making ghost noises.
"Who hasn't paid the bill?" said Stu.
Simon shivered. Across the road, some bushes rustled. His eyes focused on them just as the light came back on again.
"Way hey," said Matt. He was standing beside a garden fence, looking in. "Simon, you'll never guess what I can see."
Simon held his breath and tried to hide his fear. He hurried over, praying it wasn't them. Sitting beside some flowers was a garden gnome. He closed his eyes and released a long sigh. It had a white hat.
"I think I'll pass this time," he said.
Matt and Stu's heads whipped around, their eyes and mouths open in dismay.
"Are you feeling all right?" asked Matt.
Simon nodded. "I'll tell you all about it someday. At the moment I just want to forget all about it."
They shrugged and the rest of the walk home was done without incident. However, the episode reminded Simon of the full horror of what had happened. Was this how life was going to be? Constantly looking over his shoulder? Once home, he leant back against the cold wood of his front door and closed his eyes. Something about tonight just didn't feel right. He quickly checked the locks on the doors and windows, and then went to bed.
He awoke in the night and glanced around the darkened room. A streetlight bathed the closed curtains in an orange glow and gave shadows to objects on the cupboards. Sighing deeply, he turned onto his back and closed his eyes. Just as he was drifting off, the bedroom door gently squeaked open. He heard the noise, but its significance didn't register. It was the duvet pulling tight, which alarmed him. He tried to move, but his arms and shoulders were pinned to the bed. Even wriggling was impossible. Something climbed upon the bed by his feet. He stared into the darkness, but it was too dark to see anything. Then, the silence was broken by the sound of nasal breathing, followed by tiny feet scampering along the bed. A shape appeared, silhouetted against the glow of the curtains. It was a gnome. The nasal breathing became louder as it stepped closer. Its shoulders bobbed up and down in time with its breathing.
"How did you get out?" cried Simon.
The gnome didn't answer. Instead, it raised a club-shaped object above its head. With a growl, the gnome swung the bat downwards. Simon closed his eyes and braced himself . . .
Brightness. Even with his eyes closed the light hurt. Simon attempted to rub them, but he couldn't move his arms. What happened last night suddenly came rushing back? The gnomes. They're back. They attacked him. What did they do?
Ignoring the pain, he slowly opened his eyes. There was grass below his chin. He must be lying on his front. A couple of yards away was a greenhouse. It was Mr. Barlow's, next door. Mr. Barlow was inside, potting plants.
Simon's brain began to work overtime. The gnomes must have been a bad dream, an alcohol-induced nightmare. But how did he get here? Did he sleepwalk? And why didn't Mr. Barlow wake him?
He tried again to get up, but his arms would not move, neither would his legs. Even rocking was impossible. He began to panic as claustrophobia took hold.
"Mr. Barlow," he screamed. The words never left his mouth. He was shouting inside his head. He tried again. "Mr. Barlow!"
The old man in the greenhouse never turned and continued working with his plants.
Simon began to cry. He tried to force against whatever had him trapped, but it proved pointless.
Mr. Barlow removed his gloves and placed them beside his pots.
He's coming out, thought Simon. He'll see me and help.
Mr. Barlow walked towards Simon as he exited his greenhouse.
That's it, thought Simon.
Mr. Barlow's feet were just a yard from Simon's face.
Why hasn't he seen me? "Mr. Barlow, Mr. Barlow!" Why can't he hear me?
Mr. Barlow moved a brick with his foot and the greenhouse door slowly swung closed. Simon saw his reflection. In the glass was a garden gnome. Its eyes wide with fear and its bearded mouth open in a silent scream.