by Dominic Hemy
The late October afternoon is bright and clear, a chill wind whipping across the meandering path. But there’s a cosy pub with the promise of a pie and a pint at the end of the trek. A motley collection of unidentified birds zip around, swooping in the fierce gusts coming off the sea, the sense of unbounded glee apparent in the huge dives so acrobatically executed. The crashing surf on the shore holds a wonderfully therapeutic rhythm, the burst of fresh salty air blasting the cobwebs away with every leap of the beautiful white horses.
Pottering along at a leisurely pace, thinking about everything and nothing, the pub eventually heaves into view as the sun begins to kiss the waves on the horizon. The smells of rich stews and roasting potatoes waft up from the kitchen in the swirling breeze, and his stomach rumbles in timely response to the wondrous odours. They immediately bring back images of the first time he stumbled across this precious gem of country idyll.
He begins to wonder if that rather pretty girl would be behind the bar again. Unlikely, is the final conclusion. It was hardly the sort of job people like her stayed in for long before being lured to one of the local towns in search of a more fulfilling existence, a larger pay packet, and a new set of suitors. She would want far more excitement than what this sleepy corner could offer.
Inside is warm and welcoming after the bleak landscape of the afternoon, so it’s not long before he is ensconced in front of the roaring fire with a beer in hand, the succulent steak pie and mountains of trimmings imminent. The low ceiling and open pits are from another age, yet the comfort they have afforded travellers down the years lingers in every nook and cranny, a constant thread passing back through all those who have taken respite in this most homely of inns.
A fuzzy state of contentment begins to settle nicely as the fetching barmaid he had been daydreaming of slides into the chair opposite. Her opening gambit of whether he was busy that evening surprises as much as delights him, an excitement that quickly rises to a frenzy when she starts talking about an old abandoned house a little further along the coast.
Expectations are tempered somewhat once she mentions old family documents left behind in mysterious circumstances. But before he knows it, he has agreed to be her knight in shining armour. Over dinner, musings slowly turn to what sort of reward she might bestow upon him later that night once he has completed her quest and returned the hero.
In the gloom of twilight, the trees cast twisting silhouettes against the pale light of the half-moon as it darts in and out of the scudding clouds; a mood only deepened by the last of the squawking gulls gathering a few final leftovers from the day’s forgotten picnics. The walk is not a long one, but frequent stumbles down rabbit holes and over the odd errant tree root reduces progress to what feels like a crawl.
Finally, a squat, crumbling mansion begins to take shape in the growing darkness, seemingly random spires sticking up like broken teeth whilst shattered windows glare at the path in soulless disdain. Despite the lack of much wall left around the property, he goes through the ornate gate: an idea instantly regretted as the rust-encrusted scream it unleashes shoots through every nerve in his body.
A hasty look around allays most fears of anything untoward disturbed by the unholy screech, but a small unwelcome thought surfaces, commenting on how bountiful the English countryside at night can be for writers of the macabre. Not the time for such ponderings, he quickly counters, there is a damsel in distress. Those put off by the inevitable march of nature never got the girl.
Wild brambles and misshapen bushes, once beautifully fashioned, now leer at him as he passes. The rocky gravel of the path is deadened by the invasive weeds that now have the run of the place, enhancing the etherealness of the whole situation. He is not surprised by the ancient gargoyle knocker hanging on the rotting front door, looking particularly demonic as he pushes past into the oppressive blackness beyond.
Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock… The large grandfather clock is deafening in the musty silence. Even the thick layer of grime coating the whole house can do little to dampen the passing of time. Bong. The ring to mark the hour makes him leap. Bong. Three. Four. Bong. Six. Seven. Eight. He counts them out. Bong. Nine, Ten. Eleven. Bong. A brief moment of peace before the clicking of the gears pierces the absolute stillness. Midnight already, he would have to hurry.
Jumping at every sound was not helping, as he flinches when something unseen scuttles away. The fact he was imagining it sounding like bone scraping on metal is needlessly slowing the pace of his search. He peers uneasily at the stairs descending to the cellar. Why is he being so reticent? It’s not as if he is in some sort of horror story. The groan from the wood as he put his foot on the first step adds yet more flashing images from long-forgotten gruesome films to his internal montage.
A deep breath, promptly followed by a hacking fit of coughing from the haze of disturbed dust he draws in, and he makes his way down into the depths. The torch beam uncovers a room even barer than those upstairs, not even any remnants of broken furniture to create the unnerving shapes that had crept at the edge of his vision so garishly above.
A final sweep at last reveals the squat stone arch in the far corner, leading to a second basement. From beyond he can hear the constant drip of water drumming out a steady beat, the echoes making it sound as if it is coming from all around. And there at last, sitting on a large antique desk, are the much sought-after papers. Quickly gathering them up, he notices even more are strewn on the floor behind. Bending down to collect the scattered sheaves, there is a faint whiff of something decidedly unpleasant. Only a decomposing rat, he tells himself.
Still the patter of the languid stream reverberates around the chamber. A wave of relief passes as he inspects the papers to ensure they are all dry; returning with soggy illegible scraps was unlikely to be met with the joy and warmth he had been envisioning. Falling into a slight daze at the mesmeric pattern hammered out, he could almost convince himself they were getting nearer. It was definitely more than one now. Had it always been more than one?
Then the chilling realisation struck: if it was leaking water, why were there no splashes as small pools formed? If it isn’t water, then what could it be? However, this was no time to be deciphering the strange noises of a dilapidated ruin: he had what he came for, and so it was beyond time to leave. Right this instant.
Only, he can’t.
An icy draft runs across the back of his neck, disappearing as quickly as it came. The torch flickers twice, and dies. There is no point in trying to get it to work again, as the lack of results was obvious. Denied one sense, his others heighten quickly; the encircling thrum of insatiable tapping becomes more reminiscent of the invisible creature disturbed upstairs, only this time beating out a steady march forward.
The air tastes fetid, a recipe of age and decay so old even the corruption has lost its vibrancy. It dries his mouth out so utterly that his tongue sticks to the roof, leaving a searing, unreachable itch at the back of his throat. A dim awareness rises that he should be more concerned by this, that he should be chocking, gasping, fighting to get a drop of moisture back. But he simply wasn’t.
The scratching was more like bone on metal, now he thought about it, and becoming so pervasive that it is as if the sound is inside his head, starting to drown everything else out. The breath of wind kisses his nape again, bringing back with it the rancid stench from behind the desk. There is no panic, no rising sense of dread. Just, nothing…
He wakes with a start, feeling slowly seeping back into his limbs. The bed next to him is cold, although a slight divot remains in the mattress. Memories of the previous evening are foggy, at times apparently obscured entirely as if yanked unexpectedly out of a dream. Clocking the note on the table, he rushes over to grab it. Hastily scribbled excuses with a few token platitudes, swift and disappointing. He drops it back where it was left.
There’s something missing, the pieces don’t appear to fit. Coffee should help. Except he has no idea where he is; this is a strange room, one he swears he’s never been in before. Gathering the discarded clothes and going through them all, nothing appears to have been taken – beyond his recollections. Quietly opening the door and looking out, he is met with an empty hallway leading to a small staircase. Carefully creeping down, there are no other sounds in the eerily still building.
What seems to be the front door reveals itself as he descends, an escape beckoning. Exiting as softly as possible, he finds himself on an ordinary suburban street, two lines of smart semi-detached houses behind well-kept hedges and paved-over driveways. Deciding right, the search for caffeine, followed by an answer to where in the hell this is, begins. Maybe a long walk after will do him good, shake loose some of the mystery of last night. A brisk stroll along the coast perhaps, finishing in a nice ye olde pub. That does sound like a grand idea.
About the author:
Dominic Hemy is a Londoner tired of London. He did once grow up – a mistake he has vowed never to make again – and now hopes to spend the rest of his days creatively faffing (whether with music or writing, occasionally both) and slowly pottering around. With beer in hand, obviously.
Other pieces of his appear in Nymphs Publications, Stone Of Madness Press, Pareidolia Literary, Idle Ink, and Interstellar.