Flinders Street is no more, but back in the late nineteenth century it was a busy Kirkdale thoroughfare that ran from Commercial Road to Stanley Road, and in the year 1897, a rather suspicious-looking gentleman called at one of the lodging houses on this street. He was of middling size, and he wore a long full-length tweed-wool frock coat and a black slouch hat, and he carried an old scuffed oversized portmanteau case.
The lodging house, at Number 79 Flinders Street, was run by a world-weary Irish Liverpool man named Joe Turner, and from the moment he set eyes on the lodger, he thought there was something sinister about him. The stranger signed his name in the lodging house register as Mr Jones, but people in the area believed he was a Lithuanian, as he had been heard speaking in that language by Mr Isaacs, a local Russian-born grocer. Jones had a long prominent aquiline nose, a small bald head with tufts of hair above the ears, and a striking stoop, as if he'd been accustomed to crouching in his occupation and he'd stuck like that. Perhaps he was a clerk or a writer.
Mr Jones demanded, and was given, the attic lodgings as advertised in the window, and paid for a fortnight's stay in advance. Joe Turner's nine-year-old nephew, Paddy, lugged the new lodger's heavy oblong-shaped portmanteau up the six flights of stairs - and received only a nod and a smile from Jones in return. Then the door was slammed in his face.
Very strange things happened in the city that week, and only young Paddy had the brains and the intuition to connect them to the mysterious Mr Jones, but nobody was prepared to listen to his conclusions.
One late afternoon, an enormous black bird, resembling a raven, but with an estimated wingspan of some twelve feet, was seen in flight over the Huskisson Branch Dock. Stevedores and merchants, who shared a suspicious nature with their seafaring counterparts, regarded the bird as a bad omen. One sea captain, who had recently returned from San Francisco, believed the creature to be an imported Californian condor - a giant South American bird with a nine-foot wingspan, although it was known that such birds had a bald yellow head, and the ominous bird wheeling above them had a black head.
Everyone on the quayside, and people on the waterfront's Regent Road, stood spellbound, watching the giant bird as it circled above them and occasionally plunged down to the banks of the river. It flew towards the east, and cast a gargantuan shadow over Stanley Park, where it was seen to dive and seize something. Some witnesses claimed that it was a small child, but the general consensus was that a dog had been picked up by the talons of the enormous bird. The rumours of the giant bird swept the city, and most intelligent people dismissed the weird story as superstitious nonsense.
However, two days later, at 5.30am, Mr Jones crept from his room carrying a hessian sack and went down into the backyard to empty its contents into the dustbin. Paddy was awakened by the creaking of the stairs and peeped out of his bedroom window. He saw him carefully covering the refuse with newspapers and instantly became suspicious, so he later went down to have a look in the bin. What he saw chilled him to his marrow. Under the crumpled papers he found several fish heads - as well as the skeletal remains of a small dog...
"You're talking daft now, Paddy," landlord Joe Turner told his nine-year-old nephew when the lad told him what he'd seen and claimed that Mr Jones, the new lodger up in the garret, had dumped the remains after his 'giant bird' had eaten the flesh.
"And where exactly would he be keeping this giant bird?" Joe asked young Paddy, whilst lighting his pipe.
"In Mr Jones's big case, of course, Uncle Joe!" the child replied. "That'll be why it was so heavy."
Joe smirked and patronisingly patted the child's head, but the conversation with his nephew had turned his mind to his enigmatic new lodger. He leaned on the mantelpiece in the front parlour, thinking about Mr Jones, and how he always went out to eat - and never even came down for breakfast. Perhaps he had to eat kosher food, or was on some other special diet, the landlord reasoned. Out of curiosity he went into the backyard and examined the dustbin - and to his utter horror he found the six fish heads and the stinking carcass of an animal, just as Paddy had described. On closer examination he saw that the animal was a young mongrel dog. Joe recoiled with a handkerchief to his mouth. Of course, he did not believe for one minute that any bird had eaten that dog, but perhaps some 'heathen' from Lithuania, where dogs were perhaps considered to be a delicacy...
Whatever the explanation, Joe wanted to get to the bottom of the grisly remains and so he climbed the sixty steps up to the garret to have words with Mr Jones but there was no answer when he knocked and when he tried the handle, he found that the door was locked from the inside.
"I know you're in there, Mr Jones!" shouted the landlord through the keyhole. "So you might as well come out now."
This finally elicited a response; the lodger shouted something back in his foreign tongue and threw an object at the door. This was not the reaction that Joe Turner was expecting. He had had some very strange lodgers in his time, but this fellow was in a class of his own! He went back down to the parlour and apologised to his nephew for doubting his story. Paddy looked up from cleaning out the ashes from the fireplace.
"I told you he was creepy, didn't I, Uncle Joe," he said, wide-eyed, kneeling on the newspapers which he'd spread across the hearth rug. "It must be a pretty big bird to pick a dog up and eat it like that," said the boy, lost in morbid contemplation.
"Listen, son," said Joe. "I'm telling you once and for all, no bird ate that dog,'" and he shook his head dismissively. "It's that lunatic upstairs who ate that dog. They've obviously got very peculiar tastes in food where he comes from. They'll eat anything"
"Uncle, where is Lithuania?" Paddy inquired.
His uncle, who hadn't got the faintest idea where it was, simulated a long coughing fit after puffing on his pipe, in order to evade the question. Eventually he stopped and said, by way of diversion. "Mind you don't get any of that ash on that rug."
"You know I'm always careful, Uncle."
Uncle Joe then warned his nephew not to go anywhere near the Lithuanian, saying that he could get into real trouble by poking his nose into things he didn't understand. But Paddy was not to be fobbed off. He was now even more convinced that their strange lodger was up to no good and he intended to discover exactly what was going on.
That evening, as Uncle Joe was snoring under a newspaper slumped in his fireside armchair, Paddy crept back upstairs to the garret, and peeped through the keyhole of Mr Jones's room. The room was bathed in the reddish gold light of a setting sun, and the garret window was wide open. At first, Paddy couldn't see or hear anything and thought he may have gone out. But then he nearly jumped out of his skin when he suddenly heard the lodger crying out. He uttered a succession of unfamiliar words and then made a dreadful inhuman rattling sound which seemed to resonate from deep down in the back of his throat, as if he were choking. There then followed a tense period of silence during which Paddy scarcely dared breathe, terrified lest he should be discovered by the creepy lodger.
What he saw next froze him to the very depths of his soul with fear. A giant black bird waddled into view, blocking out the sun's dying rays," and Paddy blinked through the keyhole in total disbelief. Its great claws rasped on the floorboards as the six foot tall bird struggled to manoeuvre itself in the cramped surroundings. The freaky creature had a man's head, but with the incongruous addition of a huge beak at the front - and a startlingly bald head. It had the head of Mr Jones! Somehow that bird was Mr Jones! By some sort of devilry the lodger had metamorphosed into this grotesque hybrid with feathers and fur covering his round chest from the neck down. Mr Jones's hands had been transformed into the talons of a bird, and he was now perched at the open window, ready to fly off.
Paddy couldn't suppress a small gasp of fright as the bird flexed its enormous wings, and it was alerted immediately. It cocked its mighty head to one side, all its senses primed. Then it turned its head through one hundred and eighty degrees and the lens of its huge domed eye zoomed right into Paddy's eye at the keyhole. In a flash it hopped down off its perch and flew in a frenzy of fur and feathers at the door, its great beak smashing repeatedly through the wooden panels, as if they were matchwood...
Paddy's terrified screams echoed down the stairways of the house where they reached the ears of the slumbering Joe Turner. He woke up with a start and fought his way from under the newspaper before flying out of the front parlour to the foot of the stairs. He looked up the stairs to the source of the screams and heard his nephew's footfalls clattering towards him.
"Whatever's wrong, Paddy?" he asked, as the lad reached the first floor landing and he began to climb the stairs towards him, but Paddy came hurtling straight past his uncle and bolted into the parlour, where he disappeared under a table. Joe crouched down beneath the table and could plainly see that the child was trembling uncontrollably from head to foot.
"Paddy, what's wrong with you?" he asked, sternly. "I can't help you if you won't tell me what's wrong. You've not been up to see that foreign chap again, have you?"
As the boy's breathing gradually slowed, he managed to give a garbled account of his encounter with Mr Jones and of his incredible metamorphosis into the huge bird, and he quivered when he described how the unholy creature had gone for him and smashed great holes in the door. Joe had heard enough. He marched straight over to the sideboard, pulled out an old biscuit tin, lifted the lid, and took out a loaded revolver, then set off to confront whatever it was up there in the garret. He could see where something had torn jagged holes in the attic door, just as Paddy had described, but peeping through them, Joe could see no signs of either the Lithuanian lodger, or of any giant bird. Holding the revolver out in front of him, he unlocked the door with his master key and cautiously entered the room. The garret windows were still wide open, and a brisk breeze from the river had chilled the room. Joe closed the windows and lit the gas mantle. He jumped when he heard the floorboard creak outside the door, but it was just young Paddy. He had conjured up enough courage to come out from under the table and was now determined to help his uncle fight that grotesque bird of terror.
"Go back downstairs, Paddy," his uncle told him, as his eyes took in the lodger's shirt, waistcoat, trousers and long-Johns lying on the bed.
Paddy stayed put, wiping tears from his reddened eyes.
"But, Uncle I ..." he began, when the room suddenly darkened as something hovered outside the windows. It started to thump against the window panes, startling them both. Joe raised the revolver and aimed it straight at the casements, which were now bulging inwards, threatening to give way at any moment. He backed away towards the doorway, where Paddy was crying again. Then with a sudden roar, the windows burst open, and shards of glass and splintered frame showered the garret. Joe Turner froze with fear. An enormous black bird with a vaguely human beaked head squeezed through the window and entered the room - with something writhing frantically in its mouth.
The tip of each extended wing touched the walls on either side of the room -a span of at least fifteen feet. The unfortunate cat - for that was what it was -which was trapped in the monster's beak, was torn to shreds by two great claw-like hands, and the bird was so engrossed in its feeding frenzy that it didn't notice Joe Turner, and, mute with terror, he stepped behind the damaged door and closed it over. He took several deep breaths and then opened the door again and aimed the revolver straight at the bird. Its head twisted to face him and it let out a blood-curdling squawk as the landlord discharged six shots into it in quick succession. The bird screeched horribly and lunged at him, but Joe turned and ran, pushing Paddy ahead of him as he did so.
Uncle and nephew tumbled down the stairs with the nightmarish bird from Hell waddling obscenely after them. When Paddy picked himself up on the next landing, he saw his uncle groaning and clutching his knee. Halfway up the stairs lay the stunned bird with a glazed look in its eyes. Joe Turner scrambled painfully to his feet and cautiously approached the bird to have a closer look -upon which the bird suddenly became animated and batted him with its wing and raised its head, emitting a high-pitched cry which must have been heard for miles around. Joe was sent crashing through the banister and rails and fell on to the next flight of stairs in a senseless heap. The giant bird then seemed to summon all of its remaining strength and it slowly raised itself up. Having done so, it then steadily began to hobble down the stairs towards Paddy...
Paddy screamed out to his uncle, who was lying motionless among the splintered handrail and balusters on the descending flight of stairs. "Help me! Help me!" he yelled. The grotesque wounded bird hopped awkwardly down the stairs, limping and tilting its head to look at him side-on with its domed red-iris eyes. The boy decided to take a chance, and racing past it, picked up a length of the broken baluster and started taking swipes at the creature, aiming at its head. The bird shrieked like a stuck pig and desperately tried to extend its wings to shield itself from the blows raining down on its bald head. But so enormous was the bird, that it was hemmed in between the wall and the stairway rail and couldn't manoeuvre itself properly in the tight space. Paddy couldn't believe it when, unable to defend itself, he saw it slowly turn and limp back up to the garret, leaving him sobbing over his injured uncle.
Joe Turner soon regained consciousness, but before he and Paddy had a chance to discuss what to do next, they heard a knock at the front door. Joe groggily staggered downstairs with his nephew and opened the door to find an old man wearing a long black coat and a homburg hat. The man introduced himself as a Mr Steiner, and said that he'd observed the giant bird flying to and from the garret, and what's more, he claimed that he knew precisely who the 'bird-man' was. Most astonishing of all, he also claimed that he could kill him. There was something open and honest about the old foreign-sounding man, despite his wild claims, so, somewhat apprehensively, Joe decided to admit him into the house. Perhaps he really could help rid them of the avian menace.
Having accepted the drink that he was offered, the stranger proceeded to tell Joe and Paddy a very unsettling story.
In broken English, Steiner told how, in the twelfth century, a snowstorm, almost unprecedented in its severity, had almost buried a Lithuanian village near Vilnius. The fallen snow quickly turned to ice and refused to thaw for months, and during the long freeze, the villagers were unable to get out to look for food. After having eaten all their winter preserves and grain as well as every animal within the confines of the village, the villagers were staring starvation in the face. They were almost ready to resort to cannibalism, when a strange gigantic bird suddenly landed in their midst. It had been seen around the region for many years and was said to be the embodiment of an evil magician who had been transformed into a bird a hundred years before, as punishment for inflicting terrible atrocities on the people of the region.
Now, to the starving villagers the bird meant only one thing: food. It was soon shot and stoned and then lassoed. However, the bird did not finish up in the communal cooking pot. Instead, a prominent local family used brute force to claim the creature as their own, and it was promptly roasted on their spit, filling the whole village with delicious aromas, which nearly drove the famished villagers mad. A holy man warned the family against consuming the bird's flesh, predicting that they would all be cursed as a result and in time would themselves change into such a bird. The ravenous family listened impatiently to his warnings but ate the bird anyway.
The snows eventually thawed and spring arrived. Most of the villagers had survived the great hunger, but the people of the castle were not so lucky, and they slowly began to turn into giant birds; birds with an unholy appetite for human flesh. They fed off the hapless villagers for many years despite them trying everything to defend themselves. Eventually it was discovered that the creatures could be killed by using silver-tipped arrows and so the cull began. But some of the giant birds escaped, and underwent a secondary metamorphosis, becoming human again for a while. Mr Jones was the last descendant of this cursed clan. Steiner had followed him all the way to Liverpool - and was now ready to kill him and so put an end to the curse. The old man produced a gun. explaining that it had silver-tipped bullets in its chamber. He then climbed up to the garret, accompanied by Joe Turner and Paddy.
They found Jones still partially transformed into the devil bird. Without hesitation, Steiner shot him three times through the heart. The tormented feathered figure toppled backwards out of the garret window, but somehow managed to cling to the window frame with its claws. Steiner held out his hand, and a gnarled clawed hand weakly grasped his palm. The old man then pulled the partially transformed creature back into the room, where it collapsed on the floor and died. Before their eyes the corpse slowly changed fully back into a man again, before disintegrating into a pile of grey dust.
Until his death in the late 1950s, Paddy Turner told anyone who would listen about this strange incident, and swore that it had really happened. Who knows? Perhaps Shakespeare was right; maybe there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.