That's the Irish for "horrible" or "horrific". In what sense it applies to the latest trio of my Hundred Nightmares...well, I'll let you decide for yourself!
Nightmare Twenty-Six: The Outsider
Hetterton was village Marshall had dreamt about all his life. It was the sort of place he’d planned to move to in his retirement. But when a manager’s job came up in the Old Colours Hotel, he was happy to get there twenty years ahead of schedule.
The job wasn’t onerous. Marshall was glad. He’d worked hard all his life, but never thought of hard work as a virtue. Anyone who did was a fool.
There weren’t many fools in Hetterton. Marshall’s favourite pub, the Man and Maid, was never deserted. Within a week, he knew everybody who drank there.
Except for one.
She sat by the fire, always. She was a pretty enough woman, though not the stuff of dreams. Her clothes were unfashionable but not tasteful—- pleated cardigans featured heavily—- and she always seemed to be reading some mystery novel or other. She might have been in her late thirties.
There were so many other people to get to know, at first, that Marshall hardly thought about her. It was only when he’d reached first name terms with the rest of the regulars—- and most of the town—- that he asked about her.
“Who’s she?”, she asked, while sharing a table with Jerry, the village postmaster.
Jerry, a red-haired, red-faced man, always had a smile on his face, but when he followed the direction of Marshall’s eyes, it faded.
“Think she’s called Holmes”, said Jerry. “Keeps to herself.”
“Looks like kind of lonely to me”, said Marshall. “Every now and again she looks around...like she wishes she could join in.”
Jerry shrugged his broad shoulders. “If you say so”.
“Let’s go talk to her”, said Marshall.
“I’m just going to finish this one and go”, said Jerry. “Got to get a few things”…he looked down into his beer a little bashfully.
“Suit yourself”, said Marshall, intrigued now. “Catch you later, Jerry.”
He walked to where the woman was sitting, put his pint down on her table, and sat opposite her. She looked up, her eyebrows raised, surprise in her hazel eyes.
“What you reading?”, asked Marshall.
“Murder Isn’t Polite”, she said, turning the cover of the book, revealing a picture of a an old man in a smoking jacket raising his arms protectively. “Dolores Harney.”
“I’ve read it”, said Marshall. “I gorge on those things.”
They talked. Marshall found himself wondering why the lady was so friendless. Her name was Julia. She was warm, funny, witty, well-informed. They spoke for three hours, then he walked her back to her cottage. She lived alone.
Before she went inside, she clutched his arm, looked into his eyes and said: “Marshall, you’re sweet. It was really sweet of you to talk to me today.”
“There was nothing sweet about—“
“Listen”, she said, an expression of pain crossing her face. “Please don’t do it again. Some people...they just have something about them. And I’m like that. It’s best to leave me alone.”
“Don’t be absurd”, he said, impatiently. “This is just an idea you’ve got into your head. It’s just…”
She leaned forward, kissed his cheek, and said: “Please don’t talk to me again.” There were tears in her eyes. He called her back, but she kept walking.
* * *
It was late. Marshall went straight back to the Old Colours Hotel, and took to bed after a quick look around.
The next morning, he had a dental appointment in the city. He found himself thinking about Julia as he got dressed. He wasn’t going to respect her self-imposed quarantine, that was for sure. Whatever she said, the longing for companionship was plain in her hazel eyes.
He thought of her as he read a wildlife magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, as he had his teeth examined, and as he stood in the Halley’s Comet afterwards, nursing his usual post-dental gin.
He only stopped thinking of her when he spotted Jackson, his college friend, doing the crossword on a stool by the window. He crossed towards him.
“Still struggling with that thing?”, he asked. “Do you ever give up?”
Jackson looked up. The pleasure Marshall had expected to see light up his pale blue eyes was not there. In fact, there was no welcome in them at all.
“Actually, Marshall”, he said, standing up and rolling up the newspaper, “I have to rush right now”.
Nightmare Twenty-Seven: Stutter
“What would the government do if all smokers did give up tomorrow?”, asked Maureen, stuffing the packet of John Player Blue and the few coins of change into her coat pocket. “Their coffers would be empty.”
“But we keep on buying them anyway, no matter how much tax they slap on them”, said the shopkeeper. A cigarette hung from his own lips, in casual defiance of the law. “More fool us”.
“Guess you don’t have many inspectors dropping in on you here”, said Maureen, looking out the window of the shop, down the road that disappeared into the horizon.
“Closest house is three miles away”, said the old man, with an impish grin. “Closest town is ten miles away. The government’s remote control doesn’t reach out here”.
Maureen laughed. She was happy today. Coming back to the place where she and Jimmy had grown up hadn’t make her sad, as she’d partly expected. She felt girlish.
“Had you got the radio on in the car?”, asked the shopkeeper.
“No”, said Maureen, a little nervously. “Why, has something happened?”
“I don’t know”, said the man, shrugging and squinting into the sunlight. “Can’t get it in here. I phoned my wife and she says there’s no television signal.”
“What do you think it could be?”, asked Maureen, looking out the window again. It was such a beautiful summer morning, it was impossible to feel concerned.
“God knows”, said the man, shrugging. “Nothing like this has ev—ev—“
The man’s expression had frozen. He was staring straight at Maureen. His eyes, so lively a moment before, had become glassy.
“Ev-ev-ev-ev-“. The voice was monotonous and strangely nasal now.
“What’s wrong with you?”, Maureen blurted out, taking a step backwards.
The old man continued to repeat his single syllable, and then—- only for a moment, but Maureen saw it—- his eyes flashed. For a moment, they were lit up by a bright green glow.
She turned, and ran. Behind her, the shopkeeper repeated: “Ev-ev-ev-ev-”.
She pulled the door of the car open, slid into her seat, and said: “For God’s sake, let’s go”.
“Why?”, asked Jack. She didn’t look at him—- she stared straight ahead—- but she could hear the surprise and anxiety in his voice. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know”, she said, her voice shaking. “But that guy’s going crazy. He was like..a robot. Get out of here, for God’s sake.”
As Jack revved the car up, she reached forward and turned on the radio. She fiddled with the knob. Nothing but static; not even the hint of a voice.
“What’s wrong with the radio?”, she asked, the panic in her voice rising.
“Probably solar spots or something”, said Jack, in his usual nonchalant purr.
His familiar voice calmed her. They drove five minutes, ten minutes, as she explained what had happened in the shop. They passed three cars. Every one of their drivers waved as they passed. People had always been friendly here.
“How can you be sure that his eyes...glowed?”, asked Jack. “Maybe it was just a reflection...”
“Stop!”, screamed Maureen, and the car’s brakes screeched.
A teenage girl had been crossing the road some distance ahead of them. Maureen was watching her at the moment she stopped walking. One foot was extended in the air, and one arm was swinging backwards. She had simply frozen.
The car came to a halt mere feet away from the girl. Maureen and Jack sat in silence, staring at the eerily motionless figure.
“There was something on the radio this morning”, said Jack, in a low voice. “While you were having your shower. A rumour about some...signal from space. The thing was…”
“What?”, asked Maureen, still staring ahead at the motionless girl.
“They couldn’t make sense of it, but somebody thought it might be related to...ancient Sumerian, I think it was. There was a scientist on saying it must be some ingenious prank. It didn’t even make the headlines.”
“What’s wrong with her, Jack?”, cried Maureen, unable to keep the panic from her voice any more.
“Calm down, Maureen”, said Jack, reaching across and grasping her arm. “It’s probably just—just—just---just—“
She looked across at him. He was staring at her. His eyes flashed green.
Nightmare Twenty-Eight: Never Again
Terry Harte shifted in his soft leather chair. He had never sat in a bank manager’s office before, never mind been invited in.
“I’m a little bit worried by this cash order you want paid”, said the manager, smiling across the desk at him. He was a rangy man with a neat goatee.
“There’s nothing to worry about”, said Terry, hastily.
The manager raised his eyebrows. “That’s your entire savings with us, Mr. Harte”, he said, “All to a dog’s refuge. I mean, it’s very laudable, but what are you going to do?”
“Go live with my sister in Donegal”, said Terry, promptly.
“Mr. Harte, you realise that it’s bank policy to contact the police if any transaction strikes us as suspicious?”, asked the manager, frowning.
Terry shrugged his shoulders. “That’s fine”, he said, politely.
The silence stretched. Then the manager sighed, shook his head, and said: “Well, I guess that won’t be necessary. But are you sure everything is OK, Mr Harte?”
“Everything’s fine”, said Terry, already rising from his chair. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate it...you are going to process that order, aren’t you?”
“It’s your money,” said the manager. He stretched his hand across the desk. “Good luck, Mr. Harte. Good luck”.
What more could I do?, thought the bank manager, as the old man’s rough hand grasped his own. Nothing’s going to stop him if his mind’s made up..
* * * *
The streets were all but empty as Terry made his way to Mortimer Bridge.
He didn’t feel sad, or frightened. He felt...hollow. Ever since Chisler had died, he had felt this void in his soul.
It was too much. Every time one of his dogs had died, Terry had sworn never again. Joey, Empress, Phantom, Draco, Baskerville, Mastermind. One black labrador, two German Shepherds, one boxer, one terrier, one rottweiler, and the Jack Russell that he had buried last week. Companions from his boyhood to his old age. Why had God allowed the bond between man and dog to be so deep, when it had to be so brief?
He felt as though he had died seven times already. Tonight was just...well, like putting a book back on the shelf after you were finished with it.
He was walking up the stone steps of the bridge when he heard a growling from behind him. He turned.
A young man in a bomber jacket was standing feet away, holding a pitbull on a stout metal chain. He grinned with malevolent excitement. The dog’s teeth were bared. It looked as though it had been made vicious by years of teasing.
“Where do you think you’re going?”, asked the youth, stepping closer.
“Nowhere”, said Terry, eyeing the dog’s spit-flecked fangs.
“Hey, I recognise you”, said the kid, peering at Terry’s face. “You have a crappy little Jack Russell, don’t you?”
“Used to”, said Terry, helplessly. The pitbull was straining on the chain now.
“Aw, did it die?”, asked the youth. “Poor little runt. How much money have you got on you?”
“I don’t have any money at all”, said Terry. “I gave it all away. Really.”
“Why the hell did you do that?”, asked the boy, angrily, as though infuriated by the unexpectedness of Terry’s reply. “Who did you give it to?”
“A dog charity”, said Terry. “Hey, could you watch that dog, please?”
The boy stared at him expressionlessly. Then a great grin crossed his face and he bent over, overpowered by a sudden fit of laughter.
The pitbull took the opportunity to break free of the his grasp, and hurled itself at Terry. The old man turned, trying to run, but only succeeded in falling in a heap on the wet concrete of the path.
It was hard to say exactly what happened next. The pitbull’s barking seemed to mutiply, growing more agitated as it did so. Soon, the air was full of howls.
Terry looked up, and cried out with astonishment. They were all there; Joey and Empress, Phantom and Draco, Baskerville and Mastermind, each of them snarling and snapping at his attacker. Even the Jack Russell, Chisler, was yapping valiantly at the cowed pitbull.
The terrified hound turned and ran, still howling from the injuries he had sustained, and his owner raced after him, into the night.
* * *
The old man travelled from town to town, from city to city. He begged, stole chocolate and sandwiches from the shop shelves, and even—now and again— filched from the same rubbish bins as his companions. He washed at public bathrooms or in the bowls of fountains, when he washed at all. His dogs followed him, guarded him, lay beside him at night. He was happy.
There would be no more hollowness; there would be no more farewells. Never again.