Almost the last thing I did as an agnostic was write a collection of one hundred very short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. Reflecting my increasing disillusionment with my secular outlook, they include some of the bleakest and darkest things I've ever written. indeed, a friend who recently read some of them told me they were too dark for his liking. I say this so nobody is shocked!
The very day I finished the epilogue (for there is a framing story to them all), I fell into a very deep depression which was God's last wake-up call, and I spent many months concentrating on looking for God rather than writing.
Well, here are three of them, which I don't think I've posted before. Enjoy! Happy Halloween!
1. 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?
2. The Outsider
Hetterton was village Marshall had dreamt about all his life. It was the sort of place he’d planned to move to in his retirement. But when a manager’s job came up in the Old Colours Hotel, he was happy to get there twenty years ahead of schedule.
The job wasn’t onerous. Marshall was glad. He’d worked hard all his life, but never thought of hard work as a virtue. Anyone who did was a fool.
There weren’t many fools in Hetterton. Marshall’s favourite pub, the Man and Maid, was never deserted. Within a week, he knew everybody who drank there.
Except for one.
She sat by the fire, always. She was a pretty enough woman, though not the stuff of dreams. Her clothes were unfashionable but not tasteful—pleated cardigans featured heavily—and she always seemed to be reading some mystery novel or other. She might have been in her late thirties.
There were so many other people to get to know, at first, that Marshall hardly thought about her. It was only when he’d reached first name terms with the rest of the regulars—and most of the town—that he asked about her.
“Who’s she?”, she asked, while sharing a table with Jerry, the village postmaster.
Jerry, a red-haired, red-faced man, always had a smile on his face, but when he followed the direction of Marshall’s eyes, it faded.
“Think she’s called Holmes”, said Jerry. “Keeps to herself.”
“Looks like kind of lonely to me”, said Marshall. “Every now and again she looks around…like she wishes she could join in.”
Jerry shrugged his broad shoulders. “If you say so”.
“Let’s go talk to her”, said Marshall.
“I’m just going to finish this one and go”, said Jerry. “Got to get a few things”…he looked down into his beer a little bashfully.
“Suit yourself”, said Marshall, intrigued now. “Catch you later, Jerry.”
He walked to where the woman was sitting, put his pint down on her table, and sat opposite her. She looked up, her eyebrows raised, surprise in her hazel eyes.
“What you reading?”, asked Marshall.
“Murder Isn’t Polite”, she said, turning the cover of the book, revealing a picture of a an old man in a smoking jacket raising his arms protectively. “Dolores Harney.”
“I’ve read it”, said Marshall. “I gorge on those things.”
They talked. Marshall found himself wondering why the lady was so friendless. Her name was Julia. She was warm, funny, witty, well-informed. They spoke for three hours, then he walked her back to her cottage. She lived alone.
Before she went inside, she clutched his arm, looked into his eyes and said: “Marshall, you’re sweet. It was really sweet of you to talk to me today.”
“There was nothing sweet about—“
“Listen”, she said, an expression of pain crossing her face. “Please don’t do it again. Some people….they just have something about them. And I’m like that. It’s best to leave me alone.”
“Don’t be absurd”, he said, impatiently. “This is just an idea you’ve got into your head. It’s just…”
She leaned forward, kissed his cheek, and said: “Please don’t talk to me again.” There were tears in her eyes. He called her back, but she kept walking.
* * *
It was late. Marshall went straight back to the Old Colours Hotel, and took to bed after a quick look around.
The next morning, he had a dental appointment in the city. He found himself thinking about Julia as he got dressed. He wasn’t going to respect her self-imposed quarantine, that was for sure. Whatever she said, the longing for companionship was plain in her hazel eyes.
He thought of her as he read a wildlife magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, as he had his teeth examined, and as he stood in the Halley’s Comet afterwards, nursing his usual post-dental gin.
He only stopped thinking of her when he spotted Jackson, his college friend, doing the crossword on a stool by the window. He crossed towards him.
“Still struggling with that thing?”, he asked. “Do you ever give up?”
Jackson looked up. The pleasure Marshall had expected to see light up his pale blue eyes was not there. In fact, there was no welcome in them at all.
“Actually, Marshall”, he said, standing up and rolling up the newspaper, “I have to rush right now”.
3. The Light in the Window
Norman knew that he shouldn’t walk through Leary Mansions after dark. The estate had a bad reputation even when there had been people living in it. Now that it was empty, waiting for the bulldozers, who knew what dangers lurked there?
But that was part of what drew him.
There wasn’t much danger in Norman’s life. He worked in the offices of a taxi company. Like an air traffic controller, he told people, but with taxis instead of airplanes. He spent all day looking at a computer and talking into a radio. He had drifted into it, after he had dropped out of college and left a succession of other jobs.
Not that he really wanted danger. What was exciting about thugs taking turns to kick at your head? No, he liked the shiver. He liked the melancholy, the sight of all these empty flats and curtainless windows. He had never been to a ghost town, but he had always meant to go. He gloried in the silence, the emptiness, the near-darkness.
Leary Mansions were an oasis of poetry in a desert of suburban mundanity.
He walked home for the sake of his health. That’s what he told everybody. But he knew better, and he suspected that Sally knew better. He wasn’t in any hurry to get home to her. Her temper grew shorter by the month, it seemed. Hard to believe he used to mock her for being too patient and easygoing.
Anyone else would have left her. But he wasn’t the leaving type. She was a teacher, and made more money than he did. He’d made more friends through her than he’d ever had before. She seemed to know everybody. And she was pretty. People were surprised to see them together, Norman knew. He was lucky to have her.
His shoe struck a beer bottle, and sent it careening towards a wall. It smashed, and the echoes rang throughout out the apartment complex. Delicious.
But he couldn’t linger. They were going out to a birthday party tonight, and Sally would be furious if he was late.
He took one last appreciative look around Leary Mansions, and gave a start.
One window was lit up.
It was almost directly above his head, on the top floor. Five floors up. A soft yellow light. He could see figures against it. They were at least half a dozen of them. Closest to the window, he saw the slim, shapely form of a woman, holding a glass.
Perhaps it was the shape of that silhouette, or perhaps it was curiosity. The entrance to the apartment block had been boarded up, but it had been prised loose by many previous hands. He entered, climbed up the graffiti-strewn and filthy stairwell, and knocked at the door. He knew which it was. Light shone through its spy-hole.
A woman opened it. He knew it was the woman at the window. She was beautiful, with blonde curls and large misty eyes. Just the sort of beauty he had always admired most. She was still holding her glass. Before he could speak, she leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth, took his hand, and led him in.
Everybody was pleased to see him, and nobody seemed surprised. The rooms rang with laughter. He had never met people so charming, so intelligent, so graceful.
Then he looked out the window, and the woman who had led him in—her name was Alice—laughed when she saw the shock on his face.
“What happened?”, he asked. The city outside was entirely dark; not even the streetlights shone. There was no sign of life. The entire city was now as desolate as Leary Mansions.
“You came up here, that’s what happened”, said Alice, pulling him towards her again.
Hours passed in a dream of paradise. Nobody spoke about the desolation outside. Within a half-an-hour Norman felt he belonged there, but a warning was sounding in his heart.
He slipped towards the door without telling Alice. She saw him go, and they had a tussle at the front door as he tried to escape her embrace. She was crying, and calling his name. His shirt tore as he pulled away from her.
She called after him, but by the time he had descended the last flight of stairs, she had given up.
He climbed back through the loosened boarding, and stepped out into the night.
It was utterly dark. Only the light of the moon illuminated Leary Mansions.
He walked forward, carefully, frighened of falling over. He walked until he had come to the railings that fenced in the estate. There was no light beyond them. There was no sound of traffic. The city was dead.
Panicking, he turned back in the direction he had come, and looked up.
But the light in the window was gone, too.