Only a few days ago did it occur to me that I should have saved up my handful of Christmas-themed nightmares for this time of the year. After all, I started posting them around Halloween, so it's hardly surprising that they're still coming in December, given that there are a hundred of them. Oh well. But I didn't think of it. And there's only one Christmassy nightmare left, which I will post later in the month.
So here are three non-festive ones. The first is perhaps the strangest out of all the hundred, in that it's questionable whether anyone will find it all spooky. But I was trying to go for different kinds of scare, not just danger and the uncanny all the time. It's not that easy. I also tried to include a fair amount of stories with no element of the supernatural, which were a lot harder than the ones where anything was possible.
The third is pretty weak. I was trying to write the kind of non-picture story that might have appeared in an Eagle or Battle or Warlord annual. But who on earth would get that? And even at that it's not a successful pastiche. Oh, well.
Welcome to my nightmares...again!
Nightmare 47: You’re Aisling, Bronagh
“Just the one night?”, asked the boy behind the counter, in his thick country accent.
“Just the one”, said Bronagh, looking around the reception desk. She had become a connoiseur of bed and breakfasts. Luckily for her, she liked them. Maybe she’d start her own one day, when she’d left the gym business behind.
It was the themed bed and breakfasts she couldn’t stand, the ones that strove for a particular look. She’d stayed in one in Sligo that had a poetry aesthetic. There were even framed poems from former guests on the walls.
But Rockyfields was as unpretentious as its name. Glass models of butterlies stood on the counter. There was a painting of a ship on a moonlit sea on the wall behind. A framed news story commemmorated the local GAA club’s victory in some cup or other, many years ago. A bed and breakfast was supposed to be a home away from home, and who had a themed home?
“You’re up two flights of stairs”, said the boy, never looking up from the computer. “The door with the picture of ducks.”
“Quack quack”, said Bronagh.
The boy barely smiled. “Sign on the sheet there”, he said, nodding his head.
Bronagh signed it. “Do you live here?”, she asked the boy.
The boy—he was a young man, Bronagh supposed, there was no such thing as child labour anymore—shook his head, looking a little surprised. “Nobody lives here but Mr and Mrs Holmes”, he said. “At least, not since Aisling left, and that was long before my time.”
The speech seemed to have taken a lot out of him. He hurried through a door marked PRIVATE, perhaps to recuperate.
Bronagh went upstairs. As she climbed the narrow staircase—the wooden bannisters were polished so brightly she could almost smell the elbow-grease—a strange sense of familiarity came over, so strong it might have been called déja-vu. Even the pattern on the carpet looked familiar.
She was about to start on the second flight stairs when she saw something that made her stop.
It was a framed, black and white photograph on the wall of the landing. It showed a man and a woman, who both looked to be in their early thirties, beaming at the camera. The man was bald with a large moustache and heavy-framed glasses. The woman was rather winsome, with dark hair cut in a brisk style. She had an intense look about her.
Between them, her arms around their shoulders, stood Bronagh.
There was no mistaking it. She had seen many pictures of her childhood- her parents were inveterate camera-snappers—and she recognised her own face at seven or eight years old. But more than that, she remembered the t-shirt she was wearing in the picture. It had a pixellated, space-invaders style picture on the front. She’d loved that t-shirt.
On the bottom of the frame, a brass tag said: Aisling aged seven years, 1979.
When she saw that, Bronagh did something she had never done before, something she never expected to do. She fainted.
* * * *
When she came to, she was lying on a couch, with several pillows under her head. A man was sitting in an armchair beside her, watching her. It was a cluttered, rather stuffy sitting room.
She’d been looking at the man for a few moments before she recognised him. He still had the large moustache—grey now-- but the heavy-framed glasses had been replaced by a more stylish pair. He was looking at her anxiously.
She sat up in the chair abruptly.
“That’s me in the photograph outside”, said Bronagh, limply.
“I know”, said the man with the moustache, with a gentle smile.
“How the hell did it get there?”, said Bronagh. “Who the hell is Aisling?”
“You’re Aisling, Bronagh”, said the man, matter-of-factly. “You’re Aisling. Do you want some brandy? I have a bottle here, just for these kind of emergencies. That’s my excuse.”
He poured her one and handed it to her. She took it without thinking.
“My name is Gordon Holmes”, said the man, staring into Bronagh’s eyes. His own eyes were grey, watery. “My wife’s name is Monica. And she’s….she’s not well. She hasn’t been well for some time. Years.”
Bronagh took a long, very unladylike draft of the brandy. She needed it. Her head was still fuzzy as hell. She heard Gordon’s words as though from far away.
“We...we had a little girl when we were first married. She died before her first birthday. We were advised against having any more. But, in the last five years or so, Monica...well, she’s begun to believe Aisling never died. She’d never really accepted her death….you visited here a long time ago, Bronagh, with your parents. Monica fell in love with you. We took more pictures….Bronagh, will you be Aisling? Please? Will you be Aisling, every once in a while?”
Nightmare 48: All You Can Eat
His mother told George that he wasn’t fat, but what else would a mother say? He wasn’t huge, that was true. Small boys didn’t jeer him. He didn’t have trouble squeezing past other people on a bus.
But, still, George decided, looking at his naked body in the bedroom mirror, he was fat. His stomach protruded, and he had the suggestion of a double-chin.
It bothered him. He was a handsome boy. He was a very handsome boy, and he would have a fine figure, if it wasn’t padded with a layer of blubber.
Girls liked him. Nice girls, too. But not the premier league of girls. Girls like Suzie Morrow. Every time he had gone to talk to her, she had given him a withering look. And he had no doubt that the extra poundage was the reason.
He sighed, looking into the mirror. He could always go to the gym, or take up soccer, or something. But the very thought made him groan. Even walking down the long drive to the school bored him to the tears, and made him feel hot envy of the couple of kids in his class who had their own cars.
There was a rapping on the door. He cursed, and called: “I’m not dressed.”
There was a pause, and then his mother spoke through the wood. “Well, I’m going out for a few hours. You’re on your own, so answer the door. And the telephone. And get some study done.”
He scowled at the door, and replied with one of those inarticulate vocalisations—part grunt, part sigh—that only teenage boys can master.
“Take care, pet”, she said, and a few moments later he heard her high-heels clicking on the wood of the stairs.
He looked at his bed. Textbooks lay open on the mattress, but a car magazine lay on top of them. He hadn’t done any study this term. It bothered him. It was fear, really. Looking in those damned books made him feel stupid and hopelessly behind.
The front door thudded shut downstairs. He pulled on some boxer shorts and a pyjama bottoms, and wandered downstairs, thinking of Suzie Morrow and the Subaru Impreza.
He went into the kitchen and opened the fridge automatically. Oh, there were some of his mother’s cheesecakes...she just kept making them. He cursed her under his breath and closed the fridge door. Well, no more of those for him.
He walked into the living room, watched an episode of The Dead Planet, went back into the kitchen, ate three of the cheekecakes, and washed them down with a large glass of milk.
He was washing out the glass when he noticed the stone man hanging from the curtain rail over the sink.
That was Auntie Prism’s barminess. Prism. Who was called Prism? Of course, his mother had been lumbered with the name Terra, but she’d had the sense to change it to Terri. She hadn’t exactly disowned her hippy parents— George certainly would have— but she hadn’t followed in their footsteps like Auntie Prism did, opening a wacko occult shop and eventually killing herself trying to perform some ceremony involving fire.
He picked up the stone man, for the first time ever. It was crudely carved, but that only gave it a spooky primitive look. Auntie Prism had made it, but it might have been unearthed by archaeologists.
Without planning to, he found himself wishing upon it. The thought just came into his head.
Let me be slim, he thought. Give me chiselled abs. Get rid of all that blubber. In some way that doesn’t involve running around or living like Gandhi.
Then he laughed at his own stupidity, and flung the thing away from him. It struck the window and danced on its string for a few moments.
He went to the fridge, and had another cheese-cake.
* * * * * *
“George!”, cried his mother, stepping out of the living room. “What happened to your face?”
“It’s nothing”, he said, irritably.
“Did someone hit you?”, she asked, stepping closer to him. “And what’s all this stuff?”, she asked, looking down. “All these bags? What are you always sneaking up to your room?”
“I’m making something”, he snapped. “I’m being creative.”
He brushed past her, up the stairs, towards the sanctuary of his room. Who would have guessed that Suzie Morrow would have turned out to be such a psycho? And who’d told her about Alison, anyway?
As soon as he’d locked his bedroom door, he poured the contents of the bags onto his bed. Packets of crisps, bars of chocolate, and tubs of ice-cream rained down upon it. He picked up a chocolate bar, unwrapped it, and devoured it in five gulps. He was always hungry now. Hungry? He was famished, like someone half-starved, though he never stopped eating.
The reflection in the mirror showed a slim, athletic boy— the figure he had dreamed of having. But he didn’t look in the mirror. He hadn’t looked in the mirror for weeks and weeks.
Nightmare 49: Spirit of the Blitz
“The Land of Green Ginger”, said Devon. “What a name for a street!”.
Morris rolled his eyes theatrically. The salt breeze whipped through his long, dishevelled hair. “Are you ever going to get over that?”, he asked his cousin, with a patient smile.
Devon only smiled, his teeth white against his brown skin. He raised the binoculars that were strapped round his neck to his eyes, and looked out to sea.
“You look like a tourist with those binoculaurs”, grumbled Morris.
“Well, I am a tourist”, said Devon, placidly. “All the way from Liverpool.”
They were standing on the balcony of the Hull Museum of Many Cultures. They had spent forty minutes looking through the display stands explaining the histories of Chinese, Irish and Kurdish communities in Hull and Britain. They had tasted biryani and watched a video of a Bar Mitzvah.
“I wish there was a museum about the Blitz”, said Devon, still staring out to sea. “I mean, there were German bombs pounding down right here!”
“Oh, spare me”, said Morris, making a face. “Haven’t we heard enough of that for sixty years? The Blitz spirit! We never closed!”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?”, asked Devon, lowering the binoculaurs.
“It’s all lies, that’s what’s wrong with it”, said Morris. He leaned closer to Devon, his voice rising, a keen light in his eyes. “Do you know, the government tried to stop people from staying in the London Underground during the attacks? But they couldn’t. People were terrified.”
“Of course they were bloody terrified”, said Devon. “The fact that you’re terrified doesn’t mean you’re not brave. I’ve seen newsreels from the time—“
“Oh, that was all propaganda”, said Morris. He was so vociferous now that his salivia showered on Devon’s cheek. “That was all posed. A crowd of grinning Cockneys, mugs of steaming tea in one hand, the other giving a thumbs up to the camera! Britain can take it!”
“Britain did take it”, said Devon, placidly.
“So are you really saying the British are braver than anybody else? Made of sterner stuff, is that it?”
“Calm down”, said Devon, who couldn’t help grinning. “I never said that.”
“Well, that’s the myth that you’re—“ began Morris, but he stopped there.
A noise was coming from the sky above. A drone, growing louder all the time.
Devon raised his bincolaurs and scanned the skies. It took him a moment to find the source of the noise, but when he did, his mouth fell open.
“I don’t believe it”, he said. “It’s impossible. It’s…”
“What is it?”, asked Morris, a little sukily, squinting at the sky.
“It’s a Messerschmitt”, said Devon. “It’s a bloody German bomber! And it’s coming straight for us!”
“Very funny—“ began Morris, but his cousin had already grabbed him by the arm and was dragging him downstairs. The whine of the aircraft’s engines was growing stronger every moment. Morris began to run.
They ran back to the museum café, through the displays of ethnic dress, through the stands detailing the history of Jamaican immigration to Britain, reached the staircase, and pounded down through the third and second floors of the museum. Other people were screaming and running, too.
They had reached the first floor when the bomb hit. Morris was thrown forward, striking his head against the edge of a glass display case. Devon staggered, but stayed on his feet. He stooped down, grabbed his cousin by the shoulders, and began to drag him through the quickly-spreading smoke.
* * *
“The police are still making enquiries into the bomb that devastated the Hull Museum of Many Cultures on Monday morning. Twenty-five people were injured, and one young man is still in a critical condition in Hull Royal Infirmary. Police have made no statement about their suspicions, but there is a speculation that right-wing extremists were responsible.”
Devon laughed bitterly. Right-wing extremists was pretty accurate. He’d made a statement to the police. They’d treated him respectfully, but they looked at him as though he was crazy. And what else could he expect? Who would believe that the last German bomber could turn up almost seventy years late?
Devon turned from the TV. The nurse with the brown curls was standing there, smiling at him. It was four o’ clock in the morning and he was alone in the hospital waiting room.
“I wanted to tell you that Morris is improving. He’s still not out of danger, and he’s in no condition to see anyone, but he asked me to tell you something.”
She cleared her throat, with a look of embarrassment, and gave Devon an awkward thumbs up. “He said that Britain can still take it.”