What Hundred Nightmares? These Hundred Nightmares.
Nightmare 44: When Will I Flee You Again?
The woman in the red t-shirt stumbled, almost fell, but never stopped running. Or screaming. The man with the shaggy hair was closing in on her every second, grinning dementedly.
Above them, the Norfolk sky glowed a perfect blue. The gentlest of breezes played through the branches of the generations-old trees that flanked the meadow. Apart from the running figures and the woman’s screams, it was the most tranquil summer scene imaginable.
Then the man lunged forward and managed to grasp the woman by the elbow. Her screams grew even more high-pitched and frantic as he fell on top of her. They lay in a huddle for a moment, and then began to struggle.
A few moments later, the woman’s screams stopped, to be followed by a fit of giggling. The man was nuzzling her neck, while his hands were ranging all over her body. After a minute or two of this, she pushed him off. He rolled backwards, and lay on his back, gazing up into the blue sea of air.
“This place is a dream”, said the young woman. “A dream.”
“Nothing airy or ethereal about me, cherry”, said the man, crossing his arms beneath his head.
“Except for what you do. What do you do?”, she asked. There was something ritualistic about the question, as though she didn’t for a moment expect an answer.
“I’m a guest of his Lordship”, said the man. “He keeps me for my charm.”
“Oh, sod off, then”, said the girl, crossing her legs beneath her and sliding her hand underneath the man’s shirt. She ran her fingers through his chest hairs, and gazed down at his face— his eyes were closed now— with a fond but thoughtful smile. “Actually, this whole place is— maybe not ethereal— but there’s something unreal about it.”
“Mmmmmm?”, asked the man, lazily.
“I mean, yes, it’s a genuine, certified traditional rural village”, the girl went on. A strand of her chesnut hair had fell her deep brown eyes. She flicked it back with a graceful toss of her head. “It’s the eternal England. The cattle market really goes back to God knows when, and Lord Ockley is really in Burke’s Peerage.”
“Did you check?”, asked the man, smiling, but still not opening his eyes.
“Maybe I did”, she said, sliding her arm back out from his shirt. “Anyway, the point is...all these rich people playing at lords and ladies. Talk about new money! I mean, look at my so-called-father”, she went on, resting her hand on the man’s thigh. “He grew up in a one-bedroomed flat. He used to have shares in a chain of sex shops. It’s painful, listening to him carefully pronounce his haitches and remembering to call the toilet the loo.”
“Don’t be such a snob, Arleen dear”, said the man, with a crooked grin. “If this is what boarding school does to you, I’m glad I never took my A-levels.”
“Oh, I’m a snob, am I?”, asked Arleen, squeezing the man's thigh. “And who sent me to boarding school? It’s all part of the crazy make-believe world they live in. Like me having to pretend that I swam out of his loins, rather than being plucked out of an orphanage because I was the prettiest there.”
“I bet you were, too”, said the man, huskily.
“It’s all so fake. I mean, hunting? My so-called Daddy hunting? Wanting me to go, too? It makes me sick. A lot of grown men and women chasing after a fox. And the local constabulary turning a blind eye, to suck up to his Lordship.”
“Oh, don’t start all that”, said the man, slowly sitting up. “Nothing makes me sicker than city humanitarians belly-aching about the hunt. You know what? The fox likes the hunt.”
“Oh, that’s baloney”, said Arleen, though she couldn’t help smiling.
“It’s true”, said the man. “I mean, you eat meat, don’t you? What’s the difference?”
“I don’t meat, so there”, said Arleen. She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Well, you should”, said the man, picking pieces of grass from his hair. “Death is the spice of life, Arlene. Animals are happy because every day could be their last. And you should come hunting, too. Especially this Saturday. It’s the Knoxley Hunt! Talk about tradition. Besides, nothing in this world is sexier than a woman in jodhpurs.”
“Except a man with eyes like yours”, she said, leaning forward to kiss him.
* * *
“You came, after all?”, asked Lord Ockley, smiling down at Arleen. “Your father said you were somewhat reluctant.”
“I guess I can just about bear to see a fox slaughtered”, said Arleen, drily.
Lord Ockley laughed, as though delighted. “We do use the term “fox”, my sweet child. But today is the Knoxley Hunt. Today is the Knoxley Hunt, and it's not an actual fox that we're hunting.”
With his riding crop, he pointed into the distance. She followed his gaze. The man she’d been kissing the morning before stood alone, dressed all in red. A hundred yards back, the still-leashed hounds stared at him, their ears pricked.
Nightmare 45: Love is Magic
She was so damned happy all the time. That’s what drove Frank crazy.
He spent hardly any time at home himself. When he was at home, he was usually on the phone or the computer, tending to the never-ending demands of Elf Chocolate, and the soon-to-be-released Merlin bar.
So it drove him crazy to see how happy Tina was without him. All she seemed to ever do was smile. She smiled to herself. That was the worst part of it. She lounged around the house all day long, gardening and tidying and working on her ludicrous "art".
Tina’s art! Frank had never seen anything less artistic than that junk. It wasn’t competent, but it wasn’t imaginative, either. She delighted in insipid watercolours of sunsets, gauzy angels, smiling snowmen. She built clay cottage after clay cottage, never even varying the number of windows.
One day he came home to find she had painted the words LOVE IS MAGIC on a four-by-two canvas. The text itself was wobbly and unevenly coloured, and she had illuminated it with the most garish images; daisies, cherubs, sunbeams, and even— this was the limit— kittens.
“Don’t you see how utterly twee and banal that is?”, he snapped.
She gawked up at him, shocked by his sudden candour. He felt a moment’s pleasure at her dismay, but the next instant, her gentle smile was back.
“Well, it gives me pleasure”, she said. “I put my soul into it. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it? That’s what brings everything to life. Love.”
He stalked out of the room. How could a man endure such goading?
The Merlin bar was only a week from being unveiled when he snapped again. She was in the garden this time. He came out to ask her where she had put his motorsport magazines. She was crouching on the grass with her arm wrapped around the garden gnome— a garden gnome!— and singing to a butterfly that circled in the air.
He kicked the gnome from under her, and she toppled over onto the lawn.
“You live in a fantasy world!”, he shouted, glaring down at her. “All at my expense! What sort of fool am I, financing a wife who never so much as talks to me?”
“You lose your temper when I try to talk to you”, she answered, in her maddeningly put-upon whimper.
“Because you take no interest in anything I do or say!”, he shouted. He realised his fists were clenched. “All you want is your big house, your insulated life. I don’t think you ever loved me. Do you know, I really believed you loved me, once? Isn’t that a laugh?”
“I did love you”, said Tina, beginning to cry. That was the trump card, of course. How could you argue with blubbering? “You were different, then.”
He turned away and strode back to the house. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass of the back door, and it filled him with mortification. He was a small, ugly, red-faced man. How could he ever have believed a beautiful woman could have loved him? Love is magic? Money was magic.
She was meek and cautious for the next few days, but she still seemed so blithe. Before very long, she was humming to herself again. And doubtless telling herself idiotic stories about houseflies.
Then the Merlin was launched. It should have been the summit of Frank’s career. It was intended to become a household name, like Mars and Kit-Kat. They had organised a huge publicity push. They hired magicians to pull Merlin bars from thin air in supermarkets all over the country. They had ads by an award-winning director. But, on the very day it hit the shelves, the Merlin was being hailed as the biggest flop in the history of the British chocolate industry.
He was in a foul mood when he got home. He found himself thinking bitterly about the canvas Tina had mounted in their bedroom. It showed a blurry white stallion leaping over a tinfoil river. He trembled with rage, just thinking about it. He drew a large knife from the sideboard, and began to climb the stairs.
He stopped outside the bedroom door. He could hear moaning and panting, and the squeaking of bedsprings. It had been a long time since he’d heard that.
Then it stopped. Goddamit, they had heard him!
He kicked the door in, and strode into the room. But all he saw was Tina, sitting up against the bolster, her face flushed. Her eyes were fixed on the knife.
“Where is he?”, demanded Frank.
The next moment, his right arm filled with pain, and the knife fell to the floor. And then the pain began in earnest, first in his legs, then— as he toppled over— in his torso and neck. It went on and on and on.
He knew he was dying. The world shimmered before him. And the strangest sight of his life had been saved for last.
A tiny man with a white beard stood before him, holding a blood-stained blade. He was no more than three feet high, and he was naked apart from the red cap on his head. Frank was staring at it, recognizing (with a strange lack of surprise) his own garden gnome, when he blacked out.
Nightmare 46: The Dark of Morning
And then, a voice filled the room. It was a happy voice, almost a manic one.
“Get up! Get up, you lazy buggers! It’s Jude Murray here, and this is the Jude Awakening! November the sixth is a miserable, overcast, gooseflesh-making day! A good old-fashioned Irish morning! Now get the hell out of bed! Here’s some Led Zeppelin to get you out!”
Black Dog blasted out of the alarm clock radio sitting on the chair. But there was no movement on the bed. The bed was empty.
Somebody had been sleeping in it, though. The pillow was still dented. The wine-coloured duvet had been pulled halfway down. If anybody was to examine the pillow, they would have found auburn hairs on it.
“Duh-Duh! Duh-duh-duh! All time classic there. I can remember when I heard that Zep were breaking up. Life seemed to have been robbed of its meaning. Yes, boys and girls, uncle Jude is really that old. Now, some stories for you.”
There was hardly any light in the room. The heavy red curtains were drawn. What light did filter through the gap between them was a sombre blue-grey. It glinted dully on the eyes of the dolls and the teddy bears.
“A man in Phibsborough is selling his friendship. He says he’ll be anybody’s friend for thirty euro an hour. He promises entertainment, an understanding ear, help carrying shopping bags...pretty much anything that a friend would do for you. When asked if his services might go beyond friendship, he said that some things can’t be bought. Unless he gets a very good offer, I suppose.”
The heads of the dolls and teddy bears were separate from their bodies. They were lying in a line along the dressing table. There were five teddy bears and seven dolls. None of them were commercially available any more, apart from one of the dolls, that was marketed as a classic model.
Their bodies lay underneath the legs of the dressing table, in pieces. The stuffing of the teddy bears had been scattered around their dismembered limbs. The fragments of their bodies looked worn and frayed, as though they had been around for a long time.
“A twenty-eight year old woman was refused admission to a showing of Dead Wrong because cinema staff thought she was under eighteen. Jacqueline Brophy had no ID on her at the time, so she couldn’t prove she was old enough to watch the slasher film. Even when the manageress was called, she agreed with her staff. When the woman came back and proved she was two years shy of thirty, the Megaview offered her a week of free films as apology. Personally, I think she should be grateful. She looks ten years younger than she is and she missed out on two hours of sheer punishment. Boys and girls, I’ve seen that film, and I wouldn’t let anybody in, I tell ya.”
One dolls hung in the air. A noose of twine hung from the light-socket to her neck. She was dressed in a sky-blue nurse’s uniform.
On the floor, underneath the floor, was a heap of photographs and cards. Holes had been cut out of the photographs. The eyes of one face had been neatly scissored out in each one. They were the eyes of a girl with auburn hair. She was a pretty girl, with a sweet smile and a happy-go-lucky expression. In most of them, she had her arms wrapped around somebody’s shoulder. Often, she had both arms wrapped around different shoulders.
“Two students from Drimnagh are looking to set an unusual record. They want to have a drink in every pub in Dublin—city and county—in one day. Hotel bars, cafés-bars and train stations don’t count. It has to be a pub pub, a genuine Dublin watering hole. They hope to cover them all from twelve p.m. to twelve a.m. on November the tenth, and they’re raising funds for Cerebral Palsy Ireland. Not to mention the Vitner’s Association of Ireland. They won’t be sipping alcohol in every pub, but I still imagine that, by midnight, they’ll be dancing on tables and telling complete strangers they love them.”
A pile of books lay beside the unmade bed. They had titles like Letting Yourself Live, The Way Out and Ten Steps to Healing. Magazines lay around them. Women with perfect teeth and complexions stared from the pages. A crossword had been half-completed in one of them.
“Nothing much happening in the headlines today. Minister Mulligan apologises for his joke about hospital waiting lists. That’s pretty much on all of the front pages. Is that a slow news day or what? I tell you what, we need a streaker doing somersaults in the Dáil or a Boeing crash-landing in the Phoenix Park. Something to wake us up. It’s just another day, boys and girls. So here’s that very song, from Sir Paul McCartney.”
On the door hung a calender. It was a single-page calender for 1994, with a picture of a black stallion at the top. The box that represented November the Sixth—that very day, fifteen years before—was coloured in black marker, and it had been ringed again and again and again, the rings radiating over most of the calender.
On the wall above the bed, written neatly in black paint, were the foot-high words: LOOK UNDER THE STAIRS. The paint pot lay at the foot of the bed. The lid had been replaced and the brush lay across it.
There was a knock at the bedroom door. Then another. Then another.
“Linda, sweetie”, said a woman’s voice. “Are you OK? Linda?”
The strains of "Just Another Day" filled the room. There was a pause, and then more knocking, and then the handle of the door turned.