A few years ago, I wrote a collection of short-short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. The idea was that all of the stories had to be as original as I could make them, they had to have different tones and styles, and they had to be different from each other, not variations on a theme.
Well, there were no takers for my collection, and the few I sent out individually into the world came back with their knees scuffed and their spectacles broken. Looking over them since, I realise my own sense of accomplishment when I finished the collection was misplaced. (How I remember breaking open the bottle of Bailey's I had bought in anticipation of writing the last line!) But some of them are not too bad, I think.
Here is one of the less bad ones:
A Man About the House
The mobile phone on the coffe table rang. Wayne lifted it.
“Hi”, he said, a little blearily.
“How are things going?”, asked June. “Any calls, any letters?”
“No”, said Wayne. “Still nothing”.
“Oh…never mind, sweetie. These are tough times. What are you doing?”
“Watching TV”, said Wayne. “Some documentary about footballers’ wives.”
“Lord help us”, said June. “Hey, guess what happened today?”
And she went on for ten or fifteen minutes, telling him about a girl in the office who’d got engaged the night before. Wayne made interested noises until she finally hung up.
She didn’t love him anymore. But really, how could he expect her to?
He was forty-one. Forty-one wasn’t the age to lose your job. Forty-one wasn’t the age for starting again. And if women hated one thing more than anything else, it was failure.
Maybe it was all for the best, though. She was losing her looks fast. Just last night he’d noticed wrinkles at the corner of her mouth that he’d never seen before. How could he have guessed she’d go downhill so fast?
He switched over from the footballer’s wives documentary to a drama set in inter-war Oxford. A drunken undergraduate had interrupted an avant-garde poetry reading. A few scenes later, he was in bed with another slim, white-skinned young man. Wayne flicked the remote control again. A trio of New Yorkers, two men and a women, were having an involved argument about a dinner party. Behind them, through the window, the night skyline glittered.
There was a tapping on the window.
Wayne started, stared at the drawn curtains, stood up, tensed, and pulled the curtains apart.
A man was standing with his face almost pressed to the glass. He was a tall man, well over six foot, with a shaved head and a broken nose. He wore a football jersey and a golden ear-ring. He was grinning at Wayne in the most diabolical manner imaginable.
Wayne jumped up and stepped three paces backwards, still looking at the man. At the same time, the thug began to retreat. He pointed at Wayne as he did so, not breaking his stare even as he clambered backwards over the garden wall. Then he raised one clenched fist, turned around, and swaggered away.
Wayne stood where he was, staring after the man. Should he call the police?
No, he quickly realised, that was naive. The police weren’t interested. And even if they were interested, they were powerless. And so was he. It was every man for himself these days.
He went upstairs and took a bath. The walls and ceiling of the bathroom seemed to closing in on him. It was a ridiculously tiny bathroom, really. But then, this was a ridiculously small house. To think he had been so proud when they’d bought it! How could he have been so green?
He was sitting in the bath when he heard the gunshot. It was perhaps no more than two or three hundred yards away. He froze in the hot water.
Five minutes later, he got out of the water, towelled himself dry, got back into his pyjamas, and went downstairs to see if there had been anything about a shooting in the neighbourhood. He switched on the lunch-time news, but there was nothing. Not about a shooting, anyway. There was something about a mysterious new illness in Brazil, and a fifteen-year-old who had signed a three album deal with Polydor, and a golf course that had been bought for two hundred million by an airline tycoon.
There still hadn’t been anything about it when June got back. Wayne was watching a drama about drug addiction by then.
“You can keep the house”, he said as she was taking her coat off.
She froze, staring at him. She really does look clapped-out, he thought. “What are you talking about?”, she asked, with a confused smile.
“Let’s not play games”, he said. “You can keep the house. I’m going. I don’t have anywhere to go, but I’m going. I’m sick of being afraid here. I’m sick of feeling like a nothing. I’m sick of you despising me. I’m sick—“
June screamed. She was pointing at the television screen. Wayne turned.
A face was staring out from it. It was the face that had looked at him through the window, but worse; almost monstrous, now, twisted with hate and fury. Behind it, the screen was a gleaming white.
June dropped to her hands and knees and lunged towards the TV plug. The face on the screen howled in protest, and a hand came into view. For one moment, Wayne thought the hand had come through the screen. But then the display went dark and June, panting, was brandishing the plug in her hand and staring at her husband.
There was a long, long silence. It was the first silence in the house for a long, long time.
She looks so beautiful, thought Wayne, taken aback at this realisation. The dark eyes that stared into his own were full of love and anxiety.
Outside, in the next garden, some girls were chanting a skipping chant. How much he used to enjoy listening to them! But it seemed like forever since he’d so much as heard them. It seemed so long, too, since he had noticed the birdsong that suddenly, in this hushed moment, seemed so loud and so unmissable; like a great hosanna that had been perpetually offered up since the dawn of the world.