What is it about horror stories that make them, rather paradoxically, such comfort reading? Whenever I'm having a really tough time I find that a good (or even a bad) horror novel does more for me than spiritual reading. Maybe it's bad to admit that, but there you go.
There is a book exchange shelf outside the library where I work, and whenever I see a Point Horror book there I grab it and devour it. What I like about Point Horror is that it was Pre-Twilight and the eroticism isn't overplayed. There is certainly a valid erotic undertone in a lot of horror but when it becomes soft porn-- or even worse, slushy romance-- it's unbearable. And what's even worse is the gritty, slick, 'urban' horror that has been so fashionable in recent years-- I'm thinking of Kelley Armstrong, Simon Clark and people like that. I don't think horror should be hip and I don't think its should be about hipsters. Who cares how many hip people get skewered, anyway? I prefer hicks over hipsters any day. Or suburbanites, like in The Snowman.
This instalment also contains my trademark "bathtub scene", although it might be a disappointment after previous ones.
Right now I'm reading Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. My sister's family bought it for me as a Christmas present three or four years ago and it had to wait its time, but I'm glad for it now.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the unfolding horror in Higginstown. The story is getting good 'viewing figures' so far, which pleases me. After all, these characters have lain in suspended animation on a laptop hard-drive for about five years and they only come to life when you read them into life.
Even ecstasy grows tired. After five hours of exulting in the snow—at one point, he stopped long enough to drink a banana-flavoured yoghurt drink—Marcus was finally worn out. He let Shauna guide him back to their house without much protest, kicking the magical powder in front of him as he went. Shauna felt almost as sad as he did. The flakes were still floating from the sky, and the gleam on fields and roofs and car-bonnets was as fresh as ever, but humans couldn’t keep up with nature’s playtime. Not even children could.
Today was a one-off, a stolen day. Tomorrow, Shauna would be back to her mops and cloths and toilet cleaners. She was working Saturday, too. And by Sunday things would be back to normal.
Making their way back to the house, she was reminded of all the despondent return journeys she had ever made. Coming back from the beach with her parents, tired and cross and unsatisfied. Going back to school in September, the summer that had seemed endless somehow spent. The last hours of Sunday nights, sitting up over homework, feeling her stomach tense up with anticipation. The snow always melted in the end.
And always, there was that hollow, frustrated feeling, as if none of it had been worth anything once it was over, the soul still crying out for more. As if all happiness was nothing but fairy-gold disappearing even as you held it in your hands.
“Will the shopping centre be closed tomorrow?”, asked Marcus, sleepily, as he trudged by her side.
“No, honey”, said Shauna, putting her arm around his shoulder.
The doctors had warned against too much exertion. Some of them had talked as though he should be confined to bed twenty hours out of the twenty four. Some of them had breezily told her that games were fine, so long as he wasn’t running himself into the ground every day. The doctors said lots of different things.
That was the one of the things that kept going through her head, these past few hours. That was one of the things that kept a fire glowing under her sadness. She had felt like this ever since that moment when they had been cheering the snowman, when she had dared to hope for the first time ever.
Doctors said different things. Doctors had been wrong. She had heard so many stories. Her own father had been told, at the age of thirty, that he’d never walk again. He was walking within a week. Doctors sent people with cancer home with a clean bill of health, and had others saying their last goodybes when they had decades left to live. Even in her own job, there were stories. Caroline Holland had been told there was nothing to be done for her back pains, that she’d have to endure her bouts of agony forever. A bonesetter had sorted it out in two weeks.
She’d never listened to those stories before, even while she was smiling and nodding and muttering astonishment. She didn’t want to hear them. But now she remembered them all, down to the merest letter in Just For You.
But even that was just her rational mind, performing acrobatics. Really, in her heart, she had decided to hope. The inevitable was only inevitable when you accepted it. How many battles had been one against overwhelming odds, like in that film about the Zulus? How many people had come through concentration camps and wars and massacres because they refused, plain refused, to look the Reaper in the face?
She remembered the voice of her aunt, who had gone to Mass every single morning: It’s a sin to despair. Judas went to Hell because he despaired, not because of the other thing.
She would accept the inevitable when her child’s body was lying lifeless in its coffin. Only then. Marcus had no idea of his own situation, aside from the constant tests and doctors. She would put it out of her head, too, as much as she possibly could.
She made them sausages and chips for dinner—their mutual favourite—and made Marcus laugh all the way through by doing impressions of all the people he knew. They were terrrible impressions, but he didn’t care, and neither did she. She felt a kind of desperate giddiness.
“What do you want to do after your bath?”, she asked, clearing away the plates.
“Draw”, he said, without so much as a pause for consideration.
“Good”, said Shauna, glad that it was something that he could do on his own. The truth was that she had never been very good with children. They seemed to like her—everyone seemed to like her, she thought, though even admitting it to herself felt arrogant. But more than a couple of hours talking to Marcus drained her. She loved him more than she loved her own life, but sometimes she just wanted him to be in another room.
She wanted to flop into an armchair and lose herself in the world of medical dramas and murderous wives for an hour or two. Television was a great device for making you forget who you were. Even in your dreams, you rarely shrugged off your past, your problems. For that, you had to step into the collective dreams of the glowing box.
With an hour, Marcus was happily occupied with his crayons and markers and huge sheets of paper, all sprawled out on his bedroom floor, and she was making her way back to the living room. She was wondering what was on TV at this time of day, when she was usually mopping the men’s toilets for the seventh time.
She had bent forward to switch the television on when something struck her.
She didn’t really know what struck her. An uneasiness. A feeling that there was something wrong, something that was just on the edge of her consciousness. Something in this very room.
She turned back around, and her eyes swept its narrow bounds.
The same five-year-old wallpaper. The same books, the last of which she’d got for a Christmas present last year. The same carpet, that had been here when she arrived. The same modern-looking clock hanging over the mantlepiece, with notches rather than numbers. Her sister had bought her that.
Then she saw it. Standing in the middle of the ornaments on the mantlepiece, the snowglobe that she had bought in a school jumble sale thirty years ago. The snowglobe that Merriman had knocked over, that had smashed to pieces all over her carpet. She’d made light of it at the time, but she’d cried for fifteen minutes after he was gone, holding one of the plastic figures that had lived in it for so long. That jumble sale was one of her happiest childhood memories. She’d bought the snowglobe, a book of boarding school stories, and a pair of rainbow earrings. Thinking about it brought back the memory of home-made scones from Mrs. Hyde’s cake-stand, so floury and warm.
The book and the earrings were long gone, but the snowglobe had followed her through all the years since. She’d always felt like the oldest part of her soul was contained in it, like a dewdrop of childhood. It was hard not to think angry thoughts about Merriman. He was a sad-looking kind of chap; that helped, since her heart was always tender towards the unhappy.
And now it was standing, perfectly intact, on the mantlepiece. She had put the pieces away in her box of trinkets and treasures, but there it was. Staring at her.
She walked towards it, feeling like she was floating. She wasn’t scared. She was strangely excited.
It’s a sign, she thought. It’s an answer to what I’ve been talking about. It’s a sign that nothing is impossible.
Shauna had never doubted the existence of God, not once in her life. There was always somebody in charge, wasn’t there? Religion bored her to tears, though. She had the unreflective faith of the utterly down-to-earth. It had never even occurred to her to pray before. If God listened to prayers, why did bad things happen at all? Today had been her first prayer, besides mumbled words in school and church. And already, there was a sign.
She picked up the snowglobe. She shook it. The flurry of flakes inside it awoke a whole world of comfort. She could almost taste doughy, warm scone in her mouth. She could smell the musty, delicious scent of books and clothes and bric-a-brac that had been taken from their shelves and cupboards for the first time in years. That smell somehow made her think of upturned soil. Or rebirth.
The robin redbreast was back on his branch, and the red-cheeked children were looking at him with wonder in their eyes, all three of them shielded from time and change and decay. She turned it around to look at its base. MADE IN TAWAIN, said the weathered letters.
All of a sudden she didn’t feel like watching television anymore. She stood, shaking the globe over and over, looking at the robin redbreast, imagining that all the wisdom of heaven and earth lay inside its tiny, black eye.
She put the snowglobe back, tenderly, and walked back up the stairs. She had put the pieces in her box of trinkets. What was in there now?
Her box of trinkets was under her bed. Her bed, that she had happily had to herself for the past five years, except when Marcus crept into it. Which he hardly ever did. She’d long given up any desire to share it with anybody else. Men’s attention still pleased her, but the thought of getting involved in all that again made her groan. It was hard to remember a time, long ago, when she’d thought of little else.
She pulled out the cardboard box that contained her few treasures. Letters from her mother, birth certificates, old photographs. She lingered over one that showed her and her parents on one of the Aran Islands, a year before her father died. Another moment out of time, that. Why did all the happiest moments of our lives seem not to belong to our lives at all? Why did they seem to belong to some other life, some dream life?
She rummaged through the box several times, but the figures from the snowglobe weren’t there. But of course they weren’t. How could they be?
She pushed the box away, got up and walked around the room, feeling almost giddy. She opened the door of her wardrobe, and looked at herself in the long mirror on the inside. It wasn’t something she did very often. Only once or twice in the day, after brushing her teeth or washing her hands. But now she gave herself a long, appreciative look. She smiled. It was a winning smile. It had been so long since her own looks gave her such pleasure.
And she looked so young, all of a sudden. She felt young, and she looked young.
She closed the wardrobe door, and hummed a snatch of a song that had been huge when she was nineteen. Marcus was being very quiet, she suddenly thought. Even more quiet than usual. A spasm of anxiety passed through her, and she hurried to his room.
But there he was, perfectly happy, with crayons scattered all around him, and a huge piece of paper in front of him. He was leaning over it, drawing with tight, quick strokes of the crayon. Once she’d seen some educational psychologist on TV, saying that all children drew in long, circular motions at first. Marcus had never done that. What did psychologists know?
“Hello, honey”, she said, when his eyes didn’t move from the picture, though she had been standing there a while.
He looked up now. He looked strangely excited, too. He was smiling. And he had seemed so tired as they were coming home. She thought he might go straight to sleep.
“Let me see what you’re drawing”, she said, walking carefully over the picture, that was lying between her and her son.
When she turned and looked, a jolt of surprise passed through her. She’d always been proud of Marcus’s drawing abilities, though they were nothing amazing. But this…this was way beyond what he’d ever done before. It was nothing astonishing in itself—most other people would hardly raise an eyebrow, probably—but she saw the difference, and it almost took her breath away.
It was a snowman. It was the snowman, the one that they had built today. There was Toffee’s hat, crudely drawn and the wrong colour, but somehow umistakeable. There was the pipe, sticking up at exactly the right jaunty angle. Even the button mouth, and nose, and eyes, seemed a perfect copy of the real thing.
The proportions were exactly right, though the outline was as shaky as you’d expect a child’s drawing to be. Somehow, it captured the essence of the real thing, like a caricature captured the essence of somebody’s face. And it had such life to it, more life than she had seen in paintings that had asking-prices of hundreds and thousands of euros. It almost looked like the snowman could step off the page. And the snowballs falling through the air looked like they might start really falling any moment.
“It’s our snowman!”, said Shauna, crouching down and putting her hand on her son’s shoulder. She gave it a conspiratorial squeeze.
“Mr. Higgins”, said Marcus, matter of factly, still colouring in the snowman’s scarf. “His name is Mr. Higgins.”
The snowman smiled up at Shauna from the page, newborn and fresh as the snow outside. He looked so jolly. He made every Santa Claus she had ever seen look positively dour.
“He looks so friendly, doesn’t he?”, she asked.
Marcus put down the crayon—the picture was finished, it seemed—and sat back, looking down on at it appreciatively.
“Yes,” he said. “He’s friendly. He’s our friend. He’s everybody’s friend.”
“I can see that”, said Shauna, thinking of the snowglobe downstairs. Why didn’t the thought feel weird, disturbing? Why did it feel so reassuring? “I can see that just by looking at him.”
Marcus felt silent for a few moments. He was still looking down at the picture, as if he had not drawn it at all, as if it he was seeing it for the first time. And then he said, almost solemnly:
“Mr. Higgins is going to make everything alright. Mr. Higgins is going to make everybody happy now.”
Brendan found a job sooner than he’d expected. If he was to be honest, he found a job sooner than he’d hoped.
When she hadn’t been malingering over phantom illnesses, Eleanor had always been good at getting things done. She’d had part-time jobs from the time she was fifteen. And it just took one phonecall for her to find him a job as a stand-in barman in a local pub. She knew the manager, and she knew that one of the bar staff was off having a baby.
“I don’t know anything about being a barman”, Brendan said, with a studied lightness of tone. He was trying not to seem ungrateful.
“Well, you’ve spent enough time in pubs”, said Eleanor, rather stiffly. There had been a definite thaw in their relations, but old reactions were hard to change. The next moment she smiled, trying to pass it off as a joke. “How complicated can it be? You pour drinks and take money. It will be a doddle to you.”
“What’s the name of this place, anyway?”
“It’s called The Champion”, said Eleanor. “It’s a sports pub. It’s only fifteen minutes walk from here”
“What’s a sports pub?”, asked Brendan, more disdainfully than he’d meant to.
“You know what a sports pub is”, said Eleanor, and now her smile was even more strained. “It’s a pub where people go to look at sports on a big screen. It has a sports theme. This place has only been opened a year or two”. There was a pause, and she added—with silky defiance—“I used to go there with Adam.”
Brendan didn’t comment on that, and struggled to keep a neutral expression. He’d made enough faces in the past, while Adam was discussing soccer. And rugby. And boxing. And cricket. The man only had two topics of conversation, work and sport. Brendan would lead him on with a show of feigned interest, asking him to explain what a technical knock-out was while wearing an expression of pure fascination. Adam was oblivious to the sarcasm—he wasn’t the most perceptive of chaps—but Eleanor’s lips would grow tighter every minute.
“I won’t have to throw people out, will I?”, he asked.
“They have a bouncer”, she said. “And they have other bar staff, so you won’t be on your own. Harry said you can start as soon as you like.” From the expression on his sister’s face, he could see that as soon you like meant tonight.
“I’ll have a bath and go, then”, said Brendan, trying to look eager. “Have you any t-shirts…sweaters…anything I could wear? I never want to put on that damned shirt and tie again.”
“I’ll see what I can find”, said Eleanor, with a final smile to show that she was doing her best. “The hot water is scalding hot. You only need to turn the hot tap on a tiny bit.”
Brendan felt a surge of pleasure when he saw the bathroom. He’d always liked to mock Eleanor’s domestic perfectionism, but he had to admit, its results could be very pleasing. He’d rarely seen such a cosy bathroom. The green tiles on the wall gave a marble effect, and the colour was perfectly mirrored in the lino underfoot. The mat was a deeper green, and the mirrored cabinet on the wall was painted the same colour.
And there was a plastic battleship, sitting on a shelf above the bath, along with a whole armoury of salts and lotions. With a few minutes, he was splashing the battleship about in the tub, exulting in the first decent bath he’d had for years. The digs were he’d been saying had a bathroom painted billious orange, and the water never seemed to get beyond lukewarm, no matter how long it was heated up.
Maybe work wouldn’t be so bad, he found himself thinking. Despite Eleanor’s aspersions, he’d never really spend much time in pubs, and even when he was there, he rarely got so much as tipsy. It was extraordinary how everybody seemed to regard him as a ne’er-do-well, a confirmed idler. A life like that would have suited Brendan just fine. But he’d never had so much as a week free of work since he’d left school. He hadn’t even been to college. Maybe if he wore a navy-blue suit and a permanently harried expression people would believe he was gainfully employed. He got out of the bath and dried himself on the deep, shaggy towels.
“What’s this?”, he asked, when he had emerged from the bathroom and Eleanor was showing him the clothes she’d rustled up. The garment in question was an emerald green shirt of some kind.
“It’s an Ireland rugby jersey”, said Eleanor. “All the staff in the Champion wear sports jerseys. It’s the dress code.”
Brendan straightened the thing out, and looked at it. Suddenly, the blazer and tie didn’t seem so bad. At least they had a certain dignity.
“You don’t have any other jerseys in there?”, he asked, staring at the thing.
“You’d like the others even less”, said Eleanor, and she was suppressing a smile. “Believe me.”
Sighing, he put it on, threw on the rest of the clothes, and headed out into the snow.
The snow. My God, was it ever going to stop? It was too good to be true. Brendan would be quite happy for it to snow like this forever. Once he had decided that his idea of cynic was somebody who didn’t get excited by snow. He suddenly felt cheerful. So what if he had to wear a jersey, anyway? He remembered working in the sandwich factory for five months. Serving drinks would be fun in comparison to that, no matter what he was wearing.
He dawdled along, in no hurry whatsoever. Kids were still throwing snowballs, though it was at least eight o’ clock in the evening. He remembered, from his own childhood, that some of the rougher kids would throw snowballs with rocks inside them. That was symbolic of…something or other, he decided. And a good reason to keep his eyes open.
He came to the park. It was closed by now, of course, or he could have taken a shortcut through it. Or course, it was still possible. Or was he too old and respectable to hop over some railings?
He wasn’t in any hurry, but it felt like a challenge. He looked around, and in a few moments he was climbing over the railings he had climbed dozens of times before, sometimes with some little thugs in hot pursuit.
This might not be too clever, he thought. Parks had a rather unsavoury reputation after hours. What if he disturbed some junkies? Well, he was over them now. And the one sport he’d ever been good at was running. He’d had to be, growing up in Higginstown.
He stalked along, darting glances all around him. The snow glowed an eerie orange under the street lamps. He was half-way through the park, and beginning to breathe easier, when all of a sudden he stopped short. Somebody was standing there, right ahead of him, at the next corner. Just standing there, completely still. And looking at him, it seemed.
His heart started thumping, and his muscles tensed. Turn around, he thought. Don’t just walk into trouble. You have to stop being an idiot at some stage.
But something impelled him. Curiosity, or pride, or stubborness. Or an intution that running away was usually more dangerous in the end. He kept going, his skin tightening more with every step. He’d never seen anyone stand so still. And wearing a hat…?
Twenty more paces, and he broke out into loud laughter.
A snowman. He’d been taken in by a snowman. Well, he had no more right to snigger during prisoner-of-war films, when the prison guards were fooled by the silhouette of a sack of oatmeal, wearing a cap.
He’d never seen such a well-made snowman. It was like something from a movie. And how long had it been there, anyway? It still had a pipe and a cap and a scarf. In a neighbourhood where saplings seldom survived more than a few weeks, that was a minor miracle.
He stood staring at the snowman for fully five minutes, fascinated. It was more than its perfect shape. It was more than the fact that it hadn’t been robbed of its accoutrements. There was…an aura about it. It was like the spirit of the landscape, the personification of the snow. It was hard to believe that it had been built mere hours ago, that it had ever been built at all. It was hard to believe that it hadn’t come into being of its own accord. And that smile made of buttons gave it an uncanny appearance of wisdom. A sort of wild wisdom.
He shook his head, wondering whether he was catching craziness from Eleanor. He gave a soldier’s salute to the thing, and went on his way, still with his eyes peeled for junkies and undesirables. Before long he was standing outside The Champion.
He almost turned back, as soon as he saw it. There were four or five pubs in Higginstown already. None of them had ever appealed to him. But The Champion…well, the Champion took the prize.
It looked more like a casino than a pub, he thought. There were so many lights blazing on its front, he was surprised it didn’t go bankrupt on the electricity costs alone. But the worst part was the sign beside its name. Brendan liked hanging-signs. He’d written an article on them for a journal of Dublin local history, some years ago. But this wasn’t a hanging sign. This was…a flashing sign. It was made of coloured bulbs. A sporting figure of some kind was perpetually lifting a trophy in the air, and lowering it again, depending on which bulbs were flashing, at intervals of five seconds or so.
Well, it couldn’t get worse than that, he thought. He braced himself and walked into the pub.
It wasn’t as bad as that inside. It was quite tasteful, in fact. True, there were four big screens showing sports. Four. But how many pubs were without televisions and big screens, these days?
Signed jerseys in frames and photographs of famous sporting moments lined the walls. The décor was subdued, the colours were muted, and the layout was pleasingly irregular. And, best of all, it wasn’t floodlit. He’d almost expected that
The place was quite busy. He walked to the bar, and it took him a little while to get attention from the barmaid. She was a blonde girl who looked hardly out of her teens. And, right at this moment, she looked very flustered.
“I’m here to work”, he said, feeling slightly ridiculous. “My sister phoned..”
She nodded her head, and then gestured behind the bar with it. “Go talk to Armstrong. Dark-skinned fellah”, she said, and then she was taking another order.
Armstrong was a cheerful man, probably in his fifties, who lifted his eyebrows when Brendan took his coat off and he saw the green shirt.
“Rugby fan?”, he asked.
“Absolutely”, said Brendan. “Never miss a game.”
His training lasted about ten minutes. The “six” button on the computerised register didn’t work; you had to hit the “three” button twice, instead. You had to check fifty euro notes against the light, for the watermark. And you had to gently intervene when the sound on the screens were raised too high. Then it was straight into the fray.
He had never realised there were so many alchoholic drinks, and he felt like a kid on work experience when he had to ask somebody else to mix the cocktails. He didn’t like the understanding smiles that some people gave him while he was hesitating over which tap to pull, and he liked it even less when they pointed the right one out to him. But he had the hang of it within two hours, and by then custom had slowed down.
“Having fun?”, asked the barmaid, Judy.
“Olé, olé, olé”, said Brendan, winning nothing but a confused stare.
An hour or so later, he was going from table to table, collecting empty glasses. At one of them, a simple-looking chap was singing a reggae song to four or five others. He had a half-witted grin on his face. The others were wearing smiles of various sorts—ranging from the uncomfortable to the delighted—while a man in close-cropped hair and a football jersey was egging him on.
“Give us your Fred Astaire, Jonesy”, said the man in the jersey, putting a friendly hand on the simpleton’s shoulder. “Give us some New York, New York. Wait till you hear this one”, he said, smirking around at the others.
Brendan took three empty glasses from the table, and the man in the jersey looked up at him, meeting his eyes, eager to include him in the joke. Brendan felt an overwhelming desire to punch him in the jaw. He pushed the urge down—getting sacked on the first day would be a record even for him—and moved to another table.
Fifteen minutes later, he was leaning on the bar, while Armstrong and Judy chatted about car insurance by the cash register. He was staring at a big screen that was showing soccer when an old man in a brown-grey beard and a rumpled grey shirt ordered a whiskey. It was the third whiskey he’d ordered from Brendan.
“Do I sense a certain disdain for the sporting life?”, said the man.
Brendan looked more closely at him. He seemed a little merry, but not drunk. He was smiling at Brendan good-humouredly, his eyes twinkling.
“I don’t know that I’m professionally permitted to answer that question”, Brendan answered.
The man smiled even more broadly, and said: “You have the keen face of a scholar, a man not unacquainted with books and the finer things of life. I’m afraid it’s all-too-common for men of your temperament to despise the athletic pursuits.”
“What makes you so sure I despise them?”, asked Brendan, trying to work out if the man was mocking him.
“A certain sardonic cast comes upon your face when you look about your new place of work”, said the old man, “especially when you direct your gaze to the games on the screen. And yet, is it justified, this coolness? The ancient Athenians saw nothing ignoble in the physical arts. To them, hurling the disc was as admirable as composing a lyric. Homer did not disdain to describe the funeral games of Patroclus in loving detail.” He took a sip of whiskey, nodded his head apreciatively, and looked back up at Brendan. “Confucius said: The gentleman is no vessel. The man of true culture strives for a broadness, a roundedness.”
Brendan looked around the pub, and leaned closer towards the old man. “I think many patrons of this public house would agree with you”, he said. “I see much evidence of broadness and roundedness.” He held his hands in front of his stomach. “I think their sport of choice is pizza-eating.”
The old man guffawed with laughter, and continued laughing, and laughed until his eyes were pressed close and tears were streaming from them. Brendan had served another customer and come back to him before he had recovered.
“My name is Drummond”, said the old man, extending his hand, still wheezing. “But the world knows me as Toffee.”
“Brendan Cheevers”, said Brendan, grasping Toffee’s hand and shaking it. “Nice to meet you, Toffee”.
“Nice to meet you, Brendan”, said Toffee. “You look like a man of parts, of resources. I always make it my business to know people like that. Comes in handy.” He raised his glass in salute. “And now I must return to my companions, who were engaged in a most interesting discussion on greyhound racing.” He gave a final impish grin, and turned away.
“Funny dude, that guy”, said Judy, coming over to Brendan.
But Brendan was already looking over at the other table, beneath the photograph of Stanley Matthews. Now the innocent was singing a theme song from a soap opera.
“He’s making a monkey of that fellah”, said Brendan. “It makes me want to punch his teeth in.”
Judy shrugged. “He looks like he’s having fun to me”.
Brendan stood there, staring at them. The smug face on the man with the blue jersey made his blood boil. What was wrong with him, anyway? How come everybody else in the world seemed to be able to bite back their anger, their indignation, but he never could?
He took out his wallet, and discreetly counted through his money. A hundred and twenty euros. All his wealth in the world. He needed this job. He turned to Judy.
“Is there anyone in here who you’ve never seen before?”, he asked her. “Anyone who’s not a regular?”
“Loads”, said Judy, with another shrug. He guessed she shrugged a lot.
“Point some out to me”, said Brendan.
Judy pointed out one, and another, and another. At the sixth person she pointed out, Brendan said: “OK.”
He served a few more customers—the place was busying up again, after a lull—and watched the man he’d marked. He was tall, burly, but intelligent-looking. He had rimless glasses and stubble, and he was sitting alone, watching one of the screens.
“I’ll be back in a second”, said Brendan, and he made his way to the table where the man with the rimless glasses was sitting.
He sat across from him, and the man broke off his stare at the screen. The expression on his face was displeased, but polite.
“How would you like to make some easy money?”, asked Brendan.
The man looked as suspicious as Brendan had expected him to look. “I’m just here to watch the game”, he replied, slowly
Brendan smiled, trying to look sane and reassuring. He nodded towards the table he had been watching. The man in the rimless glasses followed his gaze.
“That chap who’s singing over there is being humiliated by the man in the blue jersey. This is my first day working here, and I can’t do anything about it. I need this job. But I’d happily pay a hundred and twenty quid to see someone shove a pint of beer in his face.”
The man smiled, as if the idea appealed to him, but he seemed unsure.
“Come on” said Brendan. “You never come in here, I’m told. What do you care if they ban you? And look at the guy. You can see the type he is. A nasty little weasel. No fight in him.”
“I could do with the money”, said the man, his smile growing warmer. “And I’d like to do it, anyway. I’ve noticed him before now.”
Brendan looked around, slipped the notes from his wallet, and placed them on the man’s lap, under cover of the table. “Give it a few minutes”, he said, and the man nodded.
The simple-looking chap had progressed to singing a Beatles song when Rimless Glasses made his move. Brendan saw it all. He tapped the bully on his shoulder, gave him an enormous grin, and then hurled the contents of his own three-quarters-full pint glass into his face. Nothing in Brendan’s whole life was more delicious than the look of utter astonishment on the face of the creep.
The bouncer was already lunging towards the table, and he grabbed Rimless Glasses and hurried him towards the door. But there was something half-hearted about the way he did it. And Brendan noticed the hint of approval on the bouncer’s face. He suspected there that there might be some words of congratulation when they got outside. There had already been a few cheers and laughs around the pub.
“Deftly done, sir.”
Brendan turned to his left. Toffee was standing by the bar, smiling, his face a little redder than it had been earlier.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, said Brendan, smiling back.
“Indeed”, said Toffee. “I think I’m going to try a brandy next.”
The bully went home within half-an-hour—only staying long enough to make it not seem like a retreat—and by then the pub was emptying, anyway. Toffee was one of the last to go, raising a finger to Brendan in farewell as he did. Brendan and the other staff stayed another forty minutes, cleaning up and putting everything away. When they were locking up, Armstrong leaned towards Brendan and whispered: “Good one”.
Brendan was in a good mood. And when he came to the park, he remembered the snowman, and laughed to himself. He wanted another look. Suddenly, he wasn’t worried about junkies or anything else.
He hopped over the railings, and hurried towards the place. He was humming the Beatles tune that the simple-minded chap had been humming. He wondered what he’d make of what happened. He replayed the creep’s look of bewilderment in his head again, and again, and again. He was so lost in the memory that, when he came to himself, he was standing at the snowman’s corner.
Except the snowman wasn’t there.
Suddenly, Brendan went cold all over. He had to be wrong, surely. It must be another part of the park. He looked around. There was no mistaking it. He’d been in this park a thousand times, and this had definitely been the place.
Where, only four and a half hours ago, there had stood the biggest snowman he had ever seen, now there was nothing. Not even a stump. Nothing but the snow falling as if it would fall forever.
The Bloodcurdler did a brisk trade all through the month of October. Sarah often wondered whether it was more than an accident of history that Halloween occured when it did. Was there something about October, something in the air, in the alignment of the planets or flowing of the tides or God alone knew what else, that gave people a hunger to be frightened? Did something in this season create dreams of an otherworld, and thoughts of the dead come back to life?
Whatever the explanation, October was the busiest time of the year for Dublin’s only horror cinema. Ireland’s only horror cinema. Higginstown had two businesses that could be called specialist; Big Hair, the boutique where the eighties never ended (persisting instead in a state of torpor) and the Bloodcurdler. Sarah had worked in both of them. She’d left Big Hair because of the social life. The manager called her staff “her crew”, brought them on long and tedious drinking binges, and liked to call them into her office to advise them on their personal problems. Sarah, lacking any real traumas, had invented a kleptomaniac boyfriend. When she burst out laughing half-way through the heart-to-heart, life became more than a little awkward at Big Hair.
Within three weeks, she had moved to the Bloodcurdler, and within another month, she was assistant manager, at the age of twenty-one.
It wasn’t as impressive as it sounded. The Bloodcurdler had twenty staff altogether, and most of them were still too young to vote. There were rarely more than nine on duty. It had been open four years, and nobody had expected it to last more than a few months. But like the villains of the films it showed, the Bloodcurler simply refused to die.
Being assistant manager exempted her from scrubbing toilets, but that was all. She still sat in the box office, checked tickets, and doled out popcorn and cola. Or shock-corn and blood, to use the proper terms; popcorn mixed with sweets shaped as bats and skulls and coffins, and crimson-coloured cola. Nothing was too tacky for the Bloodcurdler.
Not that scrubbing the toilets would have bothered her. She liked getting to do everything. Even the sort of thing she was doing now; dealing with an AFC, which was in-house slang most often explained as another flipping crank. The manager wasn’t in tonight, and Sarah was sitting behind his desk, looking out at the busy lobby while talking to the AFC on the phone.
“I’m afraid I can’t stop the film, Mrs. Fogarty”, she said. “It’s policy. It’s not fair to spoil everybody else’s evening, unless it’s an absolute emergency.”
“Hardly spoiling it to stop the film for two minutes”, said the AFC, in icy tones. “And it is an emergency.”
“You said you wanted to ask your son for a computer’s password”, said Sarah, striving to put the faintest topspin of bemusement into her words.
There was a pause from the end of the line. “It is an emergency”, repeated Mrs. Fogarty. “I need to phone my husband in Toronto with some important figures, that are on a file on the computer. He has a meeting in fifteen minutes.”
“Oh dear”, said Sarah, putting as much fake concern into her voice as she possibly could, smiling at Maureen Griffin as she passed by the office door, and spelling out AFC with the index finger of her left hand. Maureen smiled back, made a rude gesture at the receiver, and disappeared from view.
“Well, why don’t you do something about it, instead of tut-tutting?”, asked the AFC, her blood pressure almost audibly rising. “What’s more important, a high-level business meeting or some…monster movie?”
“I’m afraid I can’t interrupt the performance”, said Sarah, as pompously as she could.
“The performance”, parrotted Mrs. Fogarty, acidly. “You make it sound like it’s…Chekov. Instead of boobs and guts.”
“They’ve paid their money, they take their choice”, said Sarah, beginning to get bored of the exchange.
“Don’t get cheeky with me”, said Mrs. Fogarty, though Sarah could hear that she’d conceded defeat. “What did you say your name was, again?”
“Sarah Mulhall”, said Sarah. “Would you like me to spell that?”
“No, thank you. All I’ll say is that I’m on very good terms with several county councillors, and I intend to ask them about this cinema of yours. I hope you’re not letting in children under age. I really do.”
“We’re very careful about that, Mrs. Fogarty.” There was a brooding silence on the line. Sarah thought the AFC might slam the receiver down any moment. She didn’t want to miss out on her parting shot. “Have a frightful evening”, she said, sweetly.
“What did you say?”, came the screech from the other end of the line.
“Have a frightful evening”, said Sarah, her voice full of surprised innocence. “It’s what we always say, here. To go with the horror theme, you know.”
There was a grunt from the other end, and the sound of a receiver slammed down. Sarah chuckled to herself for a few seconds, went to the filing cabinet, ran her arm along the top—she was rather short, and could just about reach—and took down a dog-eared notebook. Shay didn’t know it existed, but he wouldn’t give a damn if he did know. She added Geraldine Fogary to the roll-call of AFCs, gave her three out of five stars, and added the date. She put it back in its place, and went back outside to the lobby.
“Sarah”, said John Coffey, who had been hovering outside the door. He was the skinniest boy she had ever seen; it was painful to look at him. “I’ve swept the snow away from the emergency exits.”
“Good”, said Sarah. “We don’t want our customers burnt to death, do we?”
“Is that a trick question?”, asked John, smiling. Given a bit of feeding, he would be quite attractive.
“Now put your zombie mask back on”, said Sarah. “We have to keep up some sorts of standards.” Plus, it covers the acne, she thought, and giggled to herself. No, that was cruel; she was not so long out of adolescence herself, to forget how much anguish those eruptions brought about.
The lobby was filling up for the second feature of the night, The Ghoul Next Door. The new film on Screen One, Just in Crime, was half-way through. Sarah could hear the hoots and the squeals from here, though a fair-sized corridor lay between it and the lobby. It was her idea to have the electric lights in the corridor constantly flickering, like sputtering candles in a Gothic castle. It was her idea to have a recording of maniacal laughter played in the bathrooms every few minutes. Regulars were used to it but it still made the newcomers jump.
Sarah loved this job. Everybody thought she was a driven, careerist bitch and Sarah wasn’t sure they were entirely wrong. Not that she was a bitch—she was pretty confident that wasn’t true— but she knew she could go far. She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to. Would anything ever be as much fun as this? Or would she look back in ten, fifteen years, bored to death with committee meetings and reports and dinner parties, and dream of the days when she was paid to make people screech?
There was nothing left to do. The Bloodcurdler was a tight ship. Not quite one that sailed itself, but sometimes there was nothing to do but cruise.
“I’m going to have a look at the new film”, she said to Maureen, who was replenishing a box of straws at the front of the shop. “Have you seen it yet?”
“Yes”, said Maureen, smiling but not looking up. “It’s even worse than most of the rubbish we show.”
“Maureen”, said Sarah, in mock horror. “Not in front of the punters.” A few well-dressed Goths who were queueing at the shop were grinning. Sarah liked the Goths and the heavy metal fans. They never caused any trouble, for all the lurid pictures on their t-shirts.
She walked down the flickering corridor, wondered whether it would be possible to hang false cobwebs, and went into Screen One. Khaled, who was on the door, managed to look self-conscious as she passed, even though he was wearing a goblin mask. He’d adored her from the moment he’d started. She wondered absently why she seemed to draw so many shy men.
Stepping into Screen One brought the familiar shiver of excitement. This was what had brought her to the cinema, really; not sensing an opening, or the challenge of a novel idea. She loved the cinema more than anything else in the world. She’d been to every cinema in Dublin, and many further afield. Wherever she was, stepping into this hushed darkness felt like coming home. Or like walking into her own soul.
There was a good crowd, and the film had them going. That was what the Bloodcurdler lived on. People who went to see films like Behind You and Short Back and Scythes lived in a different universe to film reviewers. The only reviews that mattered to them were delivered over pizza and poker games. A film that had drawn a handful of people on its opening night would often play to a near-packed house the night after.
As she made her way to the back of the audience, a huge cheer went up, mixed with a few groans of vicarious pain. Sarah looked up at the screen. A fat man in horn-rimmed spectacles and a navy suit was being literally strangled with red tape. “What’s that you’re saying?”, asked his attacker, who was standing behind him. His face was painted as a skull and he was wearing a judge’s wig. “Let you go? I’m afraid you don’t qualify as a human being who deserves to live under the Bloody Justice Act of 2007.”
“There’s…no…such…Act”, gasped his victim, seeming as outraged by this invention as by the assault itself.
“I just enacted it”, said Skull-Face. He pulled tighter on the red tapes around the man’s fat neck. Sarah wasn’t too surprised when the man’s head was severed from his shoulders, as neatly as a guillotine would do it. She’d seen too many of these films to be surprised. And she was not at all surprised when another cheer went up from the audience, even more resounding than the last, and followed by the familiar chant.
“Again! Again! Again! Again!”
They were thumping the the arms of their seats so hard that Sarah could feel the vibrations underfoot. She smiled affectionately at the scene. All this was fun, but she regretted the cinema had to show so much gore, so much camp. They showed more classy films from time to time, and the kids sat through them dutifully. But Mrs. Fogarty was right. More than anything, they hungered for boobs and guts. Mostly for guts.
The screen went blank, back to its raw gray, and there was a whizzing noise overhead as the projectionist reeled the scene back. There was yet another cheer from the crowd, this one jubilant, and a palpable air of anticipation. The teenage wolves were licking their lips.
Sarah couldn’t help feeling proud when this happened. Once again, her idea. To get the custom going, they’d had to pack the audience with stooges, calling for encores of particular moments. But within a week it had taken off. Most of the time the audience was indulged. Sometimes they were frustrated, to keep an element of suspense. That had been Sarah’s idea, too.
After the murderous moment had been played a third time, and the audience had settled back to their usual giddiness, Sarah turned her attention from the screen to the crowd themselves. She always liked to know who was coming into her kingdom. There weren’t very many surprises tonight; she had seen most of these people before. There were the Goths in black from head to toe, the heavy metal fans in leather jackets with lurid pictures on the back, and—thankfully only a few—the rough kids who wore tracksuits and had their hair cropped short. How ironic was it that the tracksuit, which must have seemed symbolic of health and wholesomeness when it was invented, should have become such a sinister sight, and that somebody wearing a t-shirt with Satanic symbols was almost guaranteed to be polite and civilised?
There was only one stand-out in the audience. He looked like he could be in his late thirties or early forties. He had long hair in a pony-tail, looked like a regular visitor to the gym, and was sucking a lollipop. Older men sometimes came to the Bloodcurdler for unsavoury purposes, hoping to pick up some of the young people who congregated there. But that happened rarely, and was little more than a nuisance. Still, she made a mental note of him. Everything new had to be pondered.
The audience were gettting excited again, and she turned her attention back to the screen. A middle-aged man dressed in a drab grey cardigan and baggy grey slacks was suspended over a vat from which steam was rising. He was hanging horizontally from cords, and the hero of film—the man with the skull face and judge’s wig—was holding a scissors to one of the cords.
“Now, Mr. Henderson”, he said, “I hope you’ve done your homework because otherwise, you’ll be in some very hot water.”
“This is outrageous”, said Mr. Henderson, in a plummy accent.
“No, this is Bloody Justice”, said Skull Face. “Spelling test, Mr. Henderson. Some trick ones today. And the first one is, self-immolation.”
Mr. Henderson got that one right, to the disappointment of the audience. But cords were snapped for his wrong answers on lobotomise, Mephistophelean, sadomasochistic, thaumaturgic and magick. He was indignant on the last.
“Magic isn’t…isn’t…spelt with a K”, he sputtered, staring at the boiling water two feet below him. He was hanging by a single cord now.
“It is in my book”, said Skull Face. “One more question, Mr. Henderson. Answer this one right and you live. What dire prediction did you make for Keith Sanders on February the fifth, 1998?”.
“That’s not spelling!”, cried Mr. Henderon, frantically.
“It arose from a spelling mistake, when he spelled bizarre incorrectly”, said White Balaclava. “So in a way, it is.”
“I told him…I told him”…it was clear that Mr. Henderson didn’t remember what he’d told Keith Sanders. “I told him he’d never amount to anything.”
“Not specific enough!”, shouted White Balaclava. “You told him he was doomed to the dole queue! Wrong answer, Mr. Henderson!”
He snapped the final cord, and the unhappy teacher fell into the vat with a gut-wrenching howl and a thunderous splash. The audience rose to their feet in appreciation, and almost immediately the chanting and the banging began: “Again! Again! Again! Again!”
They had only been chanting for a few seconds when the lights went out.
The little lights on the ceiling and underfoot, the glowing green EXIT sign, the electric strips that ran along the walls to stop people bumping into them, all of them were gone. The cinema was entirely dark. But still the chanting went on, as if the kids had not so much as noticed the blackout.
“Again! Again! Again!”
Sarah looked up at the window of the projection room. That was in darkness, too. She got to her feet and hurried to the front of the cinema, as quickly as the pitch black would allow. This is where a good manager doesn’t panic, she thought.
When she stood in front of the screen, she shouted: “Attention! Attention! Attention!”
Nobody paid the slightest attention. The chanting went on, gathering in momentum every moment: “Again! Again! Again!”
She waved her arms in the air, and shouted at the top of her lungs. “You have to get out! We have to clear the cinema! Please follow me to the exit!”
She made her way to the door whose EXIT sign had ceased to glow. As she did so, she remembered that it had an emergency supply of electricity, that was supposed to run for two hours. Somebody was going to take a tongue-lashing from her when this was over. She could be a bitch when she had to be.
Nobody was following her to the exit. They were beginning to stamp the ground now, and to clap their hands. The shouts of “Again! Again!”, were becoming hoarse and frenzied.
It was impossible to see anything, and Sarah hadn’t brought her torch. She took her mobile phone from her pocket and pressed the keypad. The light that sprung from it, which usually seemed so faint, was astonishingly powerful in the complete darkness. All the same, she had to walk back to the audience to see anybody.
She flinched a little from the animal energy of the crowd, the sheer hysteria that hit her like a wave. It was impossible to make any words out of the chanting now, and the ground was vibrating with their stamping feet. All the same, she reached out and grabbed the nearest audience member, a skinny boy with long curly hair and glasses.
“We have to get out!”, she said.
She wasn’t expecting the response. He reached out and hugged her. His embrace was tight, feverish, but she didn’t feel like she was being groped. There was something strangely impersonal about it. She felt like she was being hugged by the crowd, not by this gangly boy.
She pushed him away, and turned to the boy next to him, who was even skinnier and had lank long hair, rather than curly long hair. He just smiled at her, euphorically. She wouldn’t be surprised if he couldn’t hear her; the noise was overwhelming.
But then, somehow, the noise increased tenfold, as a titanic roar came from the dark huddle of bodies. It was a roar of triumph. Instinctively, she looked up at the screen.
The teacher was hanging over the vat of boiling water again. The audience had got what they wanted.
She looked up at the window of the projection room. It was still blacked out.
Somebody was puling at her arm. She looked around. It was Khaled, she saw from the light of her mobile phone. She was still holding onto it, like a plank in a shipwreck.
Khaled guided her towards the cinema lobby, and she didn’t resist. He had taken off his goblin mask, and his long face was creased with anxiety.
Outside was no better. The entire cinema was in darkness, though the torches of the staff made furrows of light here. The staff were standing in a little knot in front of the shop. When they saw Sarah, their faces were filled with an expectant look, as if they thought she could explain this whole thing.
“Everywhere is blacked out”, said Khaled, in his heavily accented English. “We can’t get anybody on the telephone. We can’t get anything.”
“What’s happening in Screen Two?”, asked Sarah. Her rational mind was screaming at what she had just witnessed, the paradox of a film running with no projector.
“It’s the same thing”, came Maureen’s voice. The glow of the torches was so dazzling, it was difficult to make out faces. “They’re going nuts in there, too. We can’t get them out.”
“I’ve heard this is what happens before a nuclear attack”, said John. His voice was shaking, like everybody else’s. “The electricity and the communications go. It’s a war.”
“There’s no war”, said Sarah, trying to sound surer than she felt. “It’s just a blackout, that’s all. We have to get them out, guys. Khaled and Maureen and Connor, come with me. The rest of you get them out of Screen Two.”
“How are we going to get them out?”, asked Maureen, as Sarah’s group crept back down the corridor.
“Somehow”, said Sarah. “Just be careful.”
She had been praying that the screen would be a natural, sane grey when they got in there. But in her heart, she knew it wouldn’t be like that. They would have heard the film playing before they got in, if the roar of the audience hadn’t drowned it out. But as soon as the screen came into view, Sarah could see that the man in white balaclava and Mr. Henderson were going through their spelling test again.
Maureen shook Sarah’s shoulder, and Sarah turned to her, about to protest at the roughness of her shaking. But it died on her lips when she saw Maureen’s face. The girl was staring at the screen, terrified. Sarah followed her stare.
She hadn’t really focused on the screen when she came back in—no accident, that—but now she could see why Maureen was so scared. It wasn’t Mr. Henderson hanging above the vat anymore. It was Mr. Calahan, the least popular teacher at Higginstown Comprehensive. The teacher who had called Sarah an arrogant puppy, and a pudding of ignorance. Maureen had been a couple of years behind Sarah, and they had often bonded over memories of Calahan’s misdeeds.
There was no doubting who it was. He was even wearing Mr. Calahan’s clothes, a lumberjack shirt and beige corduroy trousers. From the howls of the audience, she was sure they recognised him too.
“We have to do something”, said Sarah, hesitating a few feet from the tumult. The beams of light that the torches shed on the audience revealed hardly anything, but it was obvious that they were no longer standing. They were dancing. Or maybe fighting.
Then somebody sprung from the crowd, to a chorus of jeers and screams. Once again Sarah was grabbed, though this time it wasn’t an embrace of ecstatic love. It was grasp of pure panic.
“They’re trying to kill me”, came a man’s voice. It wasn’t the voice of a teenager. Three torchlights turned on him at once, and Sarah saw that it was the older man who she had spotted earlier.
Maureen whimpered when she saw him. His nose and his mouth were bleeding, and his clothes had been ripped at, so that both pockets of his denim shirt were torn off, along with most of its left sleeve. He had the look of a wild animal on his face, an animal who has just escaped from the claws of a beast of prey.
“They keep calling me Calahan”, he said, in a voice that was flat with astonishment and fear. “Calahan”. He spoke the name as if the key to the mystery was contained in it, as if it was a code he might break by repeating it.
“Get him out”, said Sarah, fighting desperately to control her own voice, to keep the panic down. “We have to get out, too. We can’t do anything here.”
But the advice was unnecessary, because all four of them were already rushing back to the corridor. Nobody followed them. Nobody seemed interested in the denim-clad man anymore. They were fixated on the screen, on whatever wild gyrations were going on inside the crowd.
Not a single member of the audience left the Bloodcurdler until more than two hours later. By that time, the cinema had been reduced to a wreck. It was a miracle that nobody was seriously injured. But the greater miracle came the next morning, when the injuries of the denim-clad man and the other audience members who had been bruised and battered in the pandemonium had entirely disappeared.
But by the next morning, miracles were coming thick and fast in Higginstown