This has nothing to do with Catholicism, conservatism or Ireland, but I thought I would end my blog (for now, at least) on a slight self-indulgence.
I am a fan of the horror genre. A few years ago I wrote a collection of a hundred very short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. My idea was that most horror stories are simply variations on a few oft-repeated themes, so I wanted to try to come up with genuinely original plot ideas, so that each tale was different from all the others. I also wanted a range of different sorts of story-- whimsical and serious, supernatural and non-supernatural, mildly spooky and attemptedly terrifying.
I was pleased with the results, but nobody else was, since neither the book nor any of its hundred tales (there was also a framing prologue and epilogue) were ever published.
So I am going to sign off on one of the hundred tales, probably my favourite. It's called:
The Absolutely Worst Thing Imaginable
Under a stone-grey dawn, a man walked through a winter landscape.
He was in his early fifties. There was nothing remarkable in his appearance, except for his presence in this lonely place, at this unlikely time.
He wore faded jeans, a thick black overcoat, and a battered blue bobble hat.
His name was Jude Denning. The day before, he had brought his wife and children to Captain Fun, the adventure park that had opened three years before. He had wanted to let the kids on all the rides, no matter the expense, but that would have made Sabrina suspicious.
She did get a little suspicious, later, when he took her to the Thousand Nights Restaurant, her favourite place to eat. How could she help noticing the way he was looking at her, as though he’d never seen her before? Or as though he would never see her again?
“Are you sure everything is OK?”, she’d asked, three different times, her brown eyes dark with anxiety, her skin golden in the candlelight.
“Everything is better than OK”, he’d said, leaning forward and fondling her knee under the table. “I’m married to the most perfect lady in the universe. What could be more OK than that?”
This morning, before he’d set out, he’d left her a note in her book of Sherlock Holmes stories. She’d find it there. Always presuming, of course…
Don’t even think like that, he told himself, shivering in the morning air.
It had begun five years ago, the journey that had brought him here. They’d been at a wedding in Cardifff, and Jude—well lubricated with cider—had been persuaded to get on stage and belt out a karaoke version of "My Way".
He could remember the moment perfectly. He was singing the line the record shows I took the blows and waving his left hand in the air. He was looking at the barman, who had his arms folded and was sporting a sloppy grin.
And then he heard the voice. A voice from nowhere, a voice in his head. It was a woman’s voice, and she spoke with a plummy BBC accent, like a newsreader from the forties.
She said, Sixty Million.
He stopped. The crowd laughed, thinking he was pausing for dramatic effect, getting ready for the crescendo.
Jude stood there, staring out at the other guests, his left hand still aloft.
Two or three seconds later, the voice said: Fifty-Nine Million, Nine Hundred Thousand, Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine.
He had stepped from the stage, bewildered, hardly hearing the murmur that ran through the hall.
It had gone on ever since. Every two or three seconds, the faceless woman spoke the next number in the countdown. There was something horribly clinical about the voice, though he never thought of it as coming from a robot or a machine.
He even heard it in his dreams. When he could sleep.
He hadn’t told anybody. Who could he tell? A psychiatrist? Jude was a truck driver. Psychiatrists were for movie stars and managing directors. Once or twice he’d almost told Sabrina, but he’d never summoned the courage. How did you say something like that?
He’d run through the possibilities over and over again, until he felt like a lab rat navigating some impossible, inescapable maze.
First possibility: he was going nuts. He didn’t think that was it, but then, mad people never did.
Perhaps he was a human bomb. That was why he was here now, far away from his wife and children.
Perhaps he’d been gifted with some weird knowledge of the future. Perhaps Gwendoline (he’d even given her a name) was counting down the moments until World War Three. Or to an alien invasion. Perhaps he could pick up an extra-terrestrial countdown from the depths of space, through some quirk of brain configuration. But what aliens spoke with English public school accents?
He’d driven himself to distraction and beyond, trying to think of the absolutely worst thing imaginable, to pre-empt fate. He’d leafed through the Book of Revelations, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and all the local library’s books on the occult and supernatural.
He gazed into the brightening heavens, took a deep breath of God’s air, closed his eyes, and pictured Sabrina smiling at him.
He opened his eyes and gazed out at the green country before him. For the first time in five years, he was experiencing silence; sweet, pure silence. And he was alive. Tears began to roll down his cheeks.
And then Gwendoline said: Sixty million…