Once again I open my treasure-cabinet of dark delights and invite you into my penumbrous lair. Wipe your shoes on the mat before you come in.
From the Deeps
Nathan stared into the glistening bubbles of his bath for a few moments before he stepped in. It was his unfailing routine. He loved these few moments, though they spooked him a little. He loved the faint crackling sound of the bubble bath, the tiny prisms of the bubbles.
He sighed, and stepped in.
Water isn’t your enemy, Nathan, his father had told him, those mornings on Ballycooney Strand, as they waded further and further into the tide. What happened…happened.
After a few days, it had gone beyond therapy and become a precious shared ceremony, the union of a mysterious trinity. Nathan, and his father, and Shay, who they refused to stop talking about.
Shay is with us in the water, said Nathan’s father. Don’t try to put him out of your mind, Nathan.
Water. Such powerful and conflicting memories had been superimposed over it now, that even seeing a drop fall from a dripping tap filled Nathan with emotion. He had never grown used to it, though he worked in sight of the stuff every single day.
He did feel his brother’s presence, he thought, closing his eyes and luxuriating in the warmth. Not as a metaphor, or a memory. In a very literal, actual sense, his brother was with him now. He could not see him, or hear him, or even feel a tingling on his skin. He just knew.
There were oceans of comfort in that feeling. He never felt more at home, safer, than he felt while he was sitting in the bath. The moaning and tapping of the pipes was the most reassuring sound he could imagine.
It was only when he was out of the water that the memories plagued him. He always had solid ground under his feet when that image came back to him, the sight that had burrowed to the core of his consciousness; his brother’s hand, reaching upwards through the water, vainly begging to be saved.
Except Nathan hadn’t been able to save him. He had saved lives since then-— he had made it his business—- but, on that summer’s day, he had been eleven years old and barely able to swim.
The snapping sound of the post coming through his letterbox gave him a start. He had been dozing off. He rose from the waters, reluctantly, and reached for a towel.
As soon as he was dry, he went out to the front door, to see what had arrived. Mostly junk mail, but there was a postcard from his friend Julie. Get your ass out here as soon as possible, it said. Talk about hedonism! No orgies, but everybody is hellbent on fun all day long. And the sun never lets you down. Next time, you’re coming with me, and no excuses, mister.
Nathan turned the postcard back to the picture side. It showed a coastal resort in Tunisia. He stared at the condensed, brilliant blue of the sparkling sea. That would be nice...but how could he ever enjoy a holiday? Every day he spent away from the swimming pool was spent fretting. He was always sure that would be the day some child drowned, drowned because Nathan was not on duty. Of course there were other lifeguards, but what difference did that make? That wouldn’t ease his conscience any. He would spend the rest of his life brooding about another soul that had been lost because of him.
Another hand reaching up through the waters, reaching forlornly for help.
* * * *
“Hey, you”, growled Nathan, leaping from his chair and putting the loudspeaker to his lips. “Yes, you. This is a swimming pool. It’s not a playground. Stop messing about or you’re out”.
He put the loudspeaker down, and prowled back to his chair. The boy had looked bewildered, and why shouldn’t he? He hadn’t really been messing. But it was a good idea to bark at somebody once in a while. Kept them awake.
He settled back in his chair, and breathed the chlorine-heavy air. He loved the smell of chlorine. Give him that smell over ozone any day…of course, what people called “ozone” was rotting seaweed, wasn’t it? But then, people always sentimentalized the sea. White horses and Neptune’s kingdom and all that.
Neptune could keep his kingdom. This was Nathan’s kingdom, from the shimmering sheen of lights on the water to the muffled echoes in the air.
He thought of Shay’s “swimming lessons”. Though he was younger, he’d been precocious. He’d been teaching Nathan how to swim that day. He hadn’t a clue, but that was Shay all over. He thought he knew it all…
Somebody was shouting. Nathan snapped back to alertness with a jolt. Goddammit, he had been dozing off again! At work!
Now more than one person was shouting. Shouts filled the air. He ran to the edge of the water, and cried out in shock at what he saw.
People were sinking into the depths. And they were depths. The lanes had disappeared, as had the tiles at the bottom of the pool. Now….now no bottom was in sight. Just a deep, opaque blue.
He could see thin, white arms reaching up through the depths, clutching the ankles of the swimmers, pulling them below the surface. And, beneath the shouting and the splashes, he could hear something familiar.. Thin, airy voices calling Nathan...Nathan...Nathan. He recognised them at once. They were the voices of the drowned, and he knew them from his dreams.
The Cemetery Man
It was insane, but Katie couldn’t help herself.
It was her first time back home since the funeral. For the last five months, she’d deliberately avoided the house in which she’d grown up. Then, suddenly, she had to come back, as though a switch had been flipped inside her brain.
The second urge took her that night. She slipped out of the house. Her parents were heavy sleepers and didn’t even notice.
The cemetery was twenty minutes walk away. She had bundled up, but the October air still chilled her. Katie had always loved the phrase the dead of the night—it was exciting, and romantic—but it kept pasing through her mind now, and it didn’t seem romantic at all.
Her dead sister called to her, too impatient to wait for morning. Lucy used to call Katie when she was lonely. All the time. She always turned to her when she needed help, just as she had when they were children. And Lucy was lonely now.
As she walked through the streets of the sleeping town, she remembered all the stories she had heard about Portarda Cemetery. Gangs hung out there sometimes. Gangs of idle youths, rather than gangs of hardened criminals, but that didn’t make them any less scary now. She told herself that they would all be in bed at this time, that even the jobless and the night-owls were slumbering by this hour. It was the dead of night.
But then there was him. Only now did she remember him.
She’d seen him on the day of the funeral. Only Katie had seemed to notice him. He was standing about forty yards away, past an avenue of trees.
Katie noticed him because he was going from grave to grave, pausing over each. He seemed to be mumbling over them. He would have looked like a necromancer if he hadn’t been dressed so shabbily. Somehow, the shapeless slacks and the crumpled polo-neck jumper didn’t go with devil-worship. His hair was shoulder-length and ruffled, and even from a distance, she could see that it was clumped and matted.
As the priest droned on, she watched the man. Perhaps she needed something to distract her from the thing they were putting into the ground. The man seemed utterly intent on his weird activity. But perhaps it’s true that we can feel another person’s eyes upon us. Eventually, he looked up, and Katie shuddered. The way his mouth hung open, the intensity of his stare, the very angle at which he held his head; everything about him was wrong, troubling.
She looked away, but as they were filtering out of the cemetery, she couldn’t help a final glance. He was stilll there, still moving from tombstone to tombstone. It made her flesh crawl to think he might come to Lucy’s tombstone, eventually.
Now the thought of him did more than make her flesh crawl. It made her frantic with fear, but she kept going. She climbed over the cemetery railings without much difficulty—though the touch of metal on her hands was icy, in the cold night air—and dropped into the darkness below, half-expecting to break her leg on a tombstone. But her heels landed on grass.
She moved forward slowly. The darkness was almost complete. It was a cloudy night, and the moonlight barely filtered through. But she could still read the inscriptions, and she was confident she could find Lucy’s grave.
She was close to it when a hand clamped over her mouth. She tried to scream, in spite of it. Another arm wrapped itself tightly around her waist.
“Well, well”. It was a man’s voice, rough, low. “What are you doing out here at this time? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
He laughed. It was a cruel, exultant laugh.
Then something strange happened. He screamed, and let her go. Katie fell to the ground. She rolled onto her back, raising her arms in defence as she did so. She was not at all prepared for what she saw.
There were three men. They were fighting. It was the most savage fight she had ever seen, though she could make out little of it. There were headbutts, and knees to the groin, and hands wrapped around the throat.
It went on for two or three minutes. Then, all of a sudden, two of the fighters retreated and ran, stumbling and wheezing, disappearing into the night.
The remaining figure crouched beside her. Katie screamed when she saw that it was him. She tried to back away, but he grabbed her by the arm.
“Why did you come here? It’s dangerous, for you, at this time.”
It was not the voice of her attacker. This man’s voice was soft, almost childish. Katie couldn’t reply. She could only stare at him, her heart pounding.
He was peering into her face, too. He seemed even stranger, close up, even more grotesque. “I know you”, he said. “Lucy Marlowe. You were hear when Lucy Marlowe was buried. Lucy Marlowe, twenty-third January 1969 to twenty-first March 2009. Remembered by father Philip and wife--”
“Who are you?”, gasped Katie, still terrified. “What do you do here?”
The man smiled at her. It was a sad and proud smile. “I remember”, he said. “I remember the dead people. All of them. Who else is there to remember them all, except for me?”
To Share a Womb
“Are you OK?”, asked the lady with the golden curls, reaching out and laying her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder.
The younger woman looked up. Her eyes were red from weeping, and her make-up was smudged from tears. Her face looked ill-suited to weeping; she had a strong, determined chin and hawkish features. Her black hair was cut short.
“My sister”, she said. “She’s…she’s…”
The woman with the golden curls said nothing. She knew there was nothing to be said.
“She’s my twin”, said the younger woman, and sniffed.
The comment might have seemed irrelevant, but to the woman with the golden curls, it was entirely to the point. “I’m a twin, too”, she said. “I know. My name is Charlotte.”
“Monica”, said the younger woman. “Thank you, Charlotte.”
“It’s different, isn’t it?”, said Charlotte, taking her hand from Monica’s shoulder and joining her on the hard bench. “No matter what they say, it’s different. Being a twin.”
“Yes”, said Monica. “It is”.
“They can do all the debunking studies that they want”, said Charlotte, “and dismiss it as old wives’ tales all they want, too. But we know. I’ve always known when Yvonne was in pain, or in danger. She almost drowned in a swimming pool in Spain, two years ago, and I…I felt I was drowning, too.”
For a few moments, there was silence in the foyer, empty but for them. Even the traffic outside had slowed almost to nothing. It was the depths of the small hours.
“Claire was knocked down by a van”, said Monica. “I…I didn’t just feel it. I saw it. I asked them if it was a red tiler’s van, and it was. I knew it had happened in Carpenter Street, just outside the sports centre.”
“Goodness”, said Charlotte. “I’ve never heard of a bond that strong. Claire…is she…?”
“No”, said Monica, in a feeble voice. “She’s still hanging on. But...but I don’t think….” Her voice sank to silence, and the two women sat listening to a drunk singing streets away.
“I’m going to get a coffee from the machine”, said Charlotte, rising. “Do you want one?”
“No”, said Monica. “No, wait…yes. Yes, please, I would.”
Charlotte went to the machine, fumbled for coins, and drew two cups of coffee in paper cups. She was obviously familiar with it, not pausing to look at the instructions that flashed on the display, doubling up the paper cups for insulation. She carried the coffee back to the bench. By now, Monica was attempting a brave smile.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte”, she said, her voice stronger now. “I never asked you...who are you here to…?”
“Oh”, said Charlotte, wrinkling her nose dismissively. “My mother-in-law. A wonderful woman, but she’s been a long time hovering between life and death now.”
“Do you know what frightens me the most?”, asked Monica, almost interrupting the older woman.
“What’s that?”, asked Charlotte, gently.
“That I can’t feel her”, said Monica. She looked as though she was going to break into tears, but suppressed it with a fierce frown. “I could always feel her before. But now I feel nothing. It’s…it’s so lonely.”
Charlotte made no reply. She merely sipped her coffee—if it could be called coffee—and smiled sympathetically. The drunk was singing again, and she thought how strange it was that a person’s life might end to such a graceless accompaniment.
* * * *
“Monica?”, said the voice at the end of the line. “Monica, it’s Charlotte”.
For a moment, Monica made no reply. The name meant nothing to her. Then she remembered. She leaned her head against the bed, and said: “Oh…Charlotte…”
“I didn’t talk to you at the funeral”, said Charlotte. She sounded so ridiculous; a tinny voice against Monica’s ear, coming from the other end of the universe. “You looked…looked as though you didn’t want to talk to anybody. Monica, if there’s anything I can do…”
The voice chattered on, benign, irrelevant. What could Monica say that Charlotte would understand? That anyone could understand? How could she tell them about the great weight that she felt closing down on her at all hours, the overpowering scent of dank soil that never left her nostrils? How could she explain the darkness? How could they know what it was like to feel tiny, unseen creatures burrowing into your flesh?