It's time for another triple bill of my Hundred Nightmares!
Nightmare Twenty: Get Well Soon
Amber was having a smoke in the hospital grounds when she saw him.
“Hey”, she said, callling over and waving. “Hey, over here.”
The man looked up, saw her, stopped, and then began to trudge towards the bench where Amber was sitting. He was dressed like an undertaker, except his suit was grey rather than black. At first he seemed of no particular age, but as he came closer, she saw that his face deeply lined. He looked sick himself.
“Hello”, he said, in a reedy voice. He seemed shy, even nervous.
“You left flowers for my mother”, said Amber. “Last week. I saw you.”
“How is she?”, the man asked, suddenly eager.
“Better”, said Amber, smiling. “She’s going to make it now.”
The man didn’t smile, but Amber could see the relief on his face. He looked as though some enormous weight had been momentarily lifted from him. Amber warmed to him even more.
“Won’t you sit down?”, she asked, patting the bench beside her.
The man seemed reluctant. Amber grabbed his wrist and pulled him towards the bench.
“How do you know my mother?”, she asked, as soon as he was sitting.
The man looked away, towards some pigeons who were pecking for food in the grass. He looked so uncomfortable that Amber felt a little guilty.
“I didn’t know your mother”, he admitted, almost furtively.
Amber was taken aback. The bouquet had been luxurious. The first explanation that occurred to her was that he’d been some old admirer.
“It’s very kind to give such lovely flowers to a stranger”, said Amber, not knowing what else to say.
The man laughed. It wasn’t a joyous laugh. It might even have been a bitter one. “Kind?" he asked. His voice was hoarse, almost parched. “That’s funny.”
Silence hung between them. Amber felt embarrassed, but more curious than embarrassed.
“You don’t look too well”, she ventured. “You should go to a doctor.”
“I hope to God I die!” said the man, with sudden and surprising vehemence.
He started to rise from the bench at that. But once again, Amber grabbed him by the wrist, surprising herself by the act. He looked at her with wide eyes.
“Sit down”, she said, her voice almost stern. “Talk to me. What you did was kind. It was.”
The man sat down again. His seemed overwhelmed, exhausted.
“You want to hear my story?”, he asked, still avoiding her eyes.
“Yes”, said Amber. “Yes, I do want to hear it.”
The man gave another mirthless laugh. “Well, maybe it’s time”, he said, looking into the middle distance. “Maybe...”
Amber said nothing. She sat there, watching the man, waiting.
“Nobody brought me flowers, you see”, he said. “I almost died in hospital. Many years ago now. I was living alone at the time. My wife had left me some months before. I had no friends. My parents were long dead.
“Those flowers”, he said, shaking his head, staring into the air as though he was seeing into the past. “They tortured me. All the beds beside me, they had flowers. I had none. So...so I started stealing them.”
It seemed a rather trivial sin, but he confessed it as though it was murder.
“Not from my own ward, of course”, he said. “From others, as soon as I was well enough to wander around. And...and then I started to get better.
“The flowers, you see...they’re love. They’re life. At least, somehow, I stumbled on a way to use them like that. Don’t ask me how. But I flourished, and...well, even after I got out, I kept going to hospitals and stealing them. It gave me life. It gave me power. I was never sick. I could work my will on anybody. I had everything a man could want, except..except for love.”
He closed his eyes at that, as though exhausted by the confession.
“And none of it is worth a damn, without that, is it?
So finally I began giving it all back. All the life-force I had taken. I began visiting strangers, leaving flowers...it seemed to make them better, most of the time.”
“Maybe they did make people feel better”, said Amber, moved to pity by this forlorn stranger. “But you never harmed anybody. You didn’t feed on anybody’s...anybody’s life-force. This is all in your head. That’s all.”
“Is it?” asked the man, his voice just audible, as though he was falling asleep. There was a smile on his face-- a sardonic smile, but one with a tinge of peace to it. “You see, I was taken into hospital just before the war. The Kaiser’s war…”
His voice trailed off, and a few moments later, Amber realised he was dead.
* * * *
Nightmare Twenty-One: A Quick Breakfast
Alistair loved the early train. He hated getting up early, but it was worth it to sit in an all-but empty train, staring out a world half-lit by dawn. It was a world of infinite promise.
And often, on the early train, he had the whole carriage to himself. That was the best part. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his wife and children. They were his entire world. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? Now and again, you liked to step out of your world. Now and again, you wanted to become nobody.
Right now, he wasn’t Assistant Head of Marketing at a frozen food company. He wasn’t returning from a conference in Belfast. He wasn’t married to a woman (who he adored) called Penny, and he didn’t have two daughters (who he would die for) called Alison and Melody
He was a man, sitting alone, going from one place to another. That’s all anybody who walked down the aisle would see in him. But nobody had walked down the aisle. There were a few other passengers—- he had seen them getting on—- but they had all boarded closer to the front.
He had brought a book, just to have it—- a Western he had picked up in a second-hand bookshop, just before the conference—- but he didn’t expect he would open it. No, it was entertainment enough just to gaze out the window, to see mile after mile of green fields zoom past. It wasn’t scenic, but he didn’t need scenery. Empty fields were fine. There was something so cleansing, so revitalising in the very sight of them.
And then somebody did come down the aisle. Alistair looked up at him. It was a man who might have been in his late sixties. He was tall, weathered, stubbled. His hair was pale blonde and his clothes were worn.
He met Alistair’s eye, and smiled. Alistair knew he was going to sit opposite him. He returned the smile, perfunctorily, and stared back out the window, ignoring the man as he peeled off his coat and settled into his seat.
After three or four minutes, the man asked: “Have you had breakfast?”
He had a deep voice. He pronounced his words so precisely, so much against the current of his strong accent, that Alistair guessed he was mostly self-educated.
“Yes”, said Alistair.
“Care to join me in my breakfast?”, the man asked, pulling two lunchboxes out of his bag. “To be honest, one of them is my lunch, but I hate to eat alone. Let’s not have a tedious argument about it.”
“OK, then”, said Alistair, picking up the lunchbox, and hoping there were no ham sandwiches. “Thanks”.
The lunchbox was packed. A foil package of salad sandwiches lay at the top. Alistair began to eat them, while his intrusive companion asked him questions. He tried to fob him off with vague replies, but the man was insatiable. Within ten minutes, he knew most of what there was to know about Alistair’s life.
That was when Alistair, reaching down to the next foil package, touched something metallic. He looked up, and the man gave him an impish smile.
“There’s a surprise at the bottom of the box”, he said, chuckling.
Alistair lifted the foil package. It was heavy. He unwrapped it, and somehow wasn’t surprised to find himself holding a small black pistol.
He looked back up at his companion. The man was pointing a similar pistol at Alistair. And his grin had widened.
“You have sixty seconds”, he said, his voice perfectly even. “Sixty seconds to pull the trigger and plant a bullet in me. If you haven’t shot me by then, you’re never going to leave this train. One...two...”
Alistair stared at the man, at the gun, at the finger resting on the trigger. The fields, innocent and full of potential, sped past outside. A recorded voice announced that they were approaching the first stop.
The man had reached twenty when Alistair leaned forward and slapped him in the face.
Then Alistair punched him in the stomach, and as he doubled over, wrested the gun from his limp hand.
The man slowly rose back to a sitting position, staring at Alistair with wild and confused eyes.
“What’s the problem?” asked Alistair, dropping both guns onto the table between them. “Did I do something wrong?
"Were you expecting me to pull the trigger at the last moment? Was I supposed to be surprised that the gun wasn’t loaded? Were you supposed to give me a knowing smile, put your pistoal away, and get off at the next station? Was I supposed to be grateful for a new lease of life? Was I supposed to have learnt some kind of lesson? Were you going to shock me out of the banality of my existence?”
The man could only stare at him, the embodiment of shock.
“Let me tell you what I do”, said Alistair. “I flog frozen food. I go home to my wife and children every night. I watch situation comedies on television. Sometimes I host dinner parties. I fish at weekends. I read Westerns, history, a few classics. And every single day, I’m grateful for being alive. I chose a life and I’m living it. And I’m just fine with that.”
He pushed the pistols across the table, back towards their owner.
“One of us is lost and empty”, said Alistair. “But it’s not me.”
Nightmare Twenty-Two: A Sketch
The queue stretched from the single cash register to the little stand of light fiction novels. The old woman at its head was laboriously searching her handbag for her purse. Mandy sighed, and wandered away from her mother.
She’d lost her job two months ago, and was still looking for a new one. This daytime world had been a revelation at first—- life actually went on while most people her age were in school or college or at work!—- but watching gameshows and sitting in empty pubs with her friend Cathy (who’d been thrown onto the dole on the same day as Mandy) had quickly palled.
No mon, no fun. She’d always hated that saying. Well, having no cash in your pocket was a real pain, but in the end, it wasn’t the worst part of life on the dole. Her parents were always there to tide her over, even to make sure she could afford the occasional night out or trip to the cinema.
No, it was the aimlessness. Life had to be going somewhere. So maybe working in a creche hadn’t been a career, but it had been...it had been a framework. There had been a reason to go to bed, to get out of bed, to hurry for the bus, something to complain about. There had been the drama of the other girls’ lives, their lousy boyfriends, their unsympathetic parents. Now the only drama she had was Day by Day and Northsiders.
She ambled to the stationery shelves, staring listessly at the coloured pencils, mathematical sets and staplers. There was a row of felt-tip pens jutting up through a cardboard collar. Idly, she drew one out, and scribbled a zig-zag line on the cardboard. The fine, dark line of ink that it left gave her more pleasure than she’d had all day.
She snapped the cap back on the pen, and looked for some paper. She plucked a drawing pad from the middle shelf, and went to join her mother. The old woman was still at the head of queue, counting her change.
* * *
When they got home, she took her purchases up to her room. She felt a strange but intense excitement.
She laid the sketch-pad out on the floor—she had no table—and sat cross-legged before it. She turned the cover, and uncapped the pen. She loved the faint click that it made.
Mandy stared down at the white page. She remembered how it felt to look out her bedroom window, as a child, and see a thick blanket of snow lying on the ground. It was beautiful and clean and untouched, but it still cried out to be used, to have its gleaming potential fulfilled.
She laid the tip of the pen on the paper, and drew a gently curving line. She had no idea what it was. It was the beginning of a road leading anywhere.
An hour later, her mother knocked on the door. “Cathy on the phone for you.”
Mandy swore under her breath, rose up—- pins and needles surging through her legs as she did so—- and walked to the door. She opened it a fraction, and whispered: “Can you tell her I’m asleep?”
* * *
“We should do something about Mandy”, said her mother.
Her husband grunted, and changed the channel to a motor sports programme.
“Paddy, it’s been months”, said his wife, her voice taut with anxiety. “First thing in the morning, to the last thing in the night, drawing. She doesn’t want to see anyone or go anywhere. Or even apply for any jobs.”
Paddy looked around. There was a defeated look on his face, the look of a man who wants to pretend nothing is wrong but knows that it’s futile.
“And then yesterday”, said his wife, pressing the advantage. “She went into town. I thought, wonderful, she’s coming out of it. But when she came back, she was carrying a huge sheet of paper, almost half her own size...”
“Yeah?”, asked Paddy, a little helplessly.
“And this morning I went up to her room while she was in the bath”, said Mandy’s mother. “She’d been drawing all day yesterday, and there was nothing on it except—- something—- in one corner. Maybe half an inch...”
* * *
“I’m so close”, said Mandy, leaning towards her friend. “I’m so close to the end. Maybe another month or so.
Cathy smiled at her, guardedly. She hadn’t seen Mandy since Christmas. Then, her friend had been gaunt, chalk-skinned, uncommunicative. She was still gaunt and pale, but now her eyes shone and she was full of a twitchy enthusiasm.
“Don’t you get it?”, asked Mandy, reaching forward and grasping her friend’s arm. Tightly. “I just have to finish it, and then—- and then—- and then I can do anything. My whole life is opening up to me again.”
Cathy took a nervous sip of her mineral water.
“Maybe you should just—“ she began, but at that moment, Mandy slumped forward, her head knocking her glass of cola to the ground.
Half a mile away, the picture she had laboured over for three months was curling into cinders on the living room fire, and her mother was gazing down at its embers, biting her lower lip nervously. It’s for the best, her mother was reassuring herself. It’s for the best.