HORLA FICTION (March 2019)



by Mark Colbourne

THE caseworker parked in the first space he saw. Hooking his left hand behind Adnan’s head rest, he reversed between the two chains of cars which were nestled against the kerb.

“It’s up there, but this is as close as we’ll get,” the caseworker said, immediately reaching for the door handle. “Honestly, the parking round here is a nightmare. You should count yourself lucky you don’t drive. Ready for a walk?”

In the passenger seat, Adnan nodded and, when the flow of pedestrians to his left allowed, also pulled himself from the car. He slung the rucksack which carried everything he owned over both shoulders and followed along the pavement. The signage of the shops they passed were an array of languages, few of which he could understand. 

After five minutes, the caseworker stopped before a three storey house.

“Here you go then,” he said, raising a hand. “Home sweet home.”

Adnan considered the building. He had never been entirely certain what to expect of Great Britain. His imagination had proposed a spectrum which swept from opportunity to trial, from hope to adversity, but had still failed to suggest anything quite like this.

The house faced north with a facade permanently shrouded in shade. Somehow, the structure appeared top-heavy, as if looming towards the pavement like a drunk. Paint peeled from the window frames around glass panes sunk beneath grime.

A short path led to the front door through a garden where even weeds struggled to grow. The adjacent houses seemed to edge away from their neighbour, attempting to distance itself.

 His caseworker offered the smile of a disenfranchised estate agent. “Ok then,” he whistled. “Let’s get you settled.”

Inside, they were received by a duty officer who neglected to shake either man’s hand. The three stood in a hallway where, to Adnan’s eyes, shadows fell at the strangest of angles. There was no natural light and the bulb above offered only a dull wash of sepia. Adnan signed some forms as the house rules were outlined. The caseworker listed the times that Adnan would need to present himself for his return interviews and then, indicating the duty officer, announced that he would leave him in this capable care.

Finally, Adnan was shown to his room – a small box with a bed and a sink on the third floor. The wall paper was fading and worn; the carpet tattered and stained. He unpacked his rucksack and sat down to face the blank walls, gently appreciating that his travels had finally revealed their destination.

After an hour, there was a knock on his door. A man who introduced himself as Maher stood on the other side. He spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent.

“The guy who runs this place told me you’d arrived,” Maher said. “Thought I’d say hello. Something familiar, yes? Everyone else here from Africa or whatever. Somalia. I don’t know.”

Adnan leaned against the doorframe. Neither man said which part of their country they were from and neither asked. They were in a different world. Whatever had happened before – whatever they had seen or done or experienced – was, for the moment, not something they particularly wanted to discuss with a stranger.

“I have some good fortune for you,” Maher continued. “A little welcome gift. Needs to be kept quiet, though. A job. A shop. Making pizzas for the delivery. A friend runs it and they need people. All cash. Help get you started here, if you like the idea?”

Adnan nodded. He liked the idea very much.

“I’ll come and get you tomorrow morning. Don’t tell anyone though, yes? The asylum application doesn’t need to know about this. Just between us.”

That night, Adnan settled into a single bed whose narrow mattress wheezed beneath his weight. He closed his eyes and was ambushed by thoughts of home. He remembered being forced to leave the town where he was studying. He recalled those many months of travel, those miles of land and water. He relived the crossed borders and struck deals, the lies told and risks taken. And everything had been to get here, to get to this.

Exhausted, it was not long before he fell asleep.

He was woken by a child crying. The sound erupted from the next room; a cycle of screams increasingly intense. Lying in the darkness of the early hours, Adnan weighed whether he should rouse himself to go and complain. Only a timidity of the new – a suspicion of his surroundings – prevented this. It was his first night in the house. Perhaps it was best to keep himself to himself.

He pulled the pillow over his head but failed to muffle the sound.

The next morning, Maher called as arranged.

“The first night on your way to becoming a British citizen,” Mayer smiled as they left the house. “How was it? How did you sleep?”

Adnan shook his head. “Terribly. Some kid was crying in the room next door. All night long, wailing and wailing. It wouldn’t stop.”

“The room next door? You mean the one next to you?” Maher asked.

Adnan nodded.

“I don’t think so, my friend,” Maher said. “It’s a preacher from Senegal in there. He has no child.”

 At a pizza shop near a main road, Adnan was put to work in a kitchen concealed from the front of house. He cleaned surfaces, folded boxes and prepared food for eight hours. At the end of this shift, he was given £30 and a pizza. He sat with Maher on a bench in a nearby park to eat before returning to the house.

That night, he was woken again by the crying child.

The reserve of the previous day had dissolved. He was tired from work, he needed to sleep, and – if Maher was correct about who occupied that room – then he had every right to raise an objection.

Adnan walked onto the landing, standing outside the door adjacent to his own. He raised his knuckles to knock but, as they fell an inch away from the surface, stopped.

The sound, he realised, was not coming from the other side; it was not coming from his neighbour.

Turning towards the stairs, Adnan tried to isolate the source. Perhaps from the floor below? He took a step forwards, fixing his senses. Suddenly, he was aware of how cold the house had become. In his T-shirt and underpants, he shivered against the abrupt drop in temperature and wrapped his arms around himself for warmth. The crying grew in pitch and desperation. Why was no one else awake? How could they possibly sleep through this? Who was supposed to be looking after the child?

At the top of the stairs, he hesitated. In the dim glow of the landing light, he could see his frozen breath spiralling away with each exhale. The crying, he began to suspect, did not stem from a room: it was coming from the walls.

Adnan span around and hurried back into bed, pulling the thin blankets over his head.

Wide awake, he waited for the morning. 

 Three buses and five sets of directions were required to get to his caseworker’s office. Once there, Adnan was told to wait in an overcrowded reception area, which he did for nearly three hours before eventually being called through. While his caseworker tapped at a mobile phone, Adnan spent thirty minutes gridlocked in paperwork. The forms stretched to an absurd infinity – asylum application, benefits supply, citizenship tests, refugee status… The progress he made was slight.

With the appointment over, Adnan – beneath the gathering weight of a headache – returned to the house.

Before he went inside he stood for a moment on the pavement, measuring the building as if it were a puzzle – an optical illusion which deceived from every angle.

A strong afternoon sun held position in the sky, but the front of the house was defiantly dark, as if it had never been troubled by daylight and remained proud of this absence. On the third floor he could see the window of his room. The light was on – a yellow glow behind the opaque pane. Perhaps he had forgotten to turn it off this morning? He remembered the cold from the previous night, he remembered the cries which seemed to rise from every angle. He was exhausted – he was thinking of things that could not possibly be real. With a shiver, he walked up the path and entered the code for the magnetic lock.

Back in his room, he tried to sleep, but sleep was a quarry always two spry steps ahead. Once again, his mind was a churn of memories; a kaleidoscope projected on the curtain of closed eyes. He thought of how the war had begun. He thought of the regime soldiers who had initially claimed the streets, of how any local uprising had been crushed before it had even mobilised. He thought of the rumours of the approaching black flags, of the fighting and horrors which kept drawing inexorably closer. He thought of his older sister and her husband, of his niece, who had owned a nice house in the now obliterated city and how he no idea if they were even still alive. His eyes broke open and, staring into the dark, he was almost relieved when the crying began. At least this was something that would offer a distraction to his past.

Rising from his bed, he walked out of his room. The cold dug beneath his skin, brutal and cruel. Carefully, he stepped downstairs and into the second floor bathroom, tugging the thin cord of the light switch. The crying was exactly as it had been in his room – unchanged in either volume or measure – and yet no one else in the house appeared to be awake. Adnan placed his hands on the sink, gripping the rim, feeling exhaustion spread through every muscle and limb. He had come so far; he had already lost so much – and yet he knew that there was always more to lose. What he had survived would have broken many. In the wall-mounted mirror, he looked himself in the eye.

“Am I going mad?”

It was not an unreasonable question.

The mirror answered with a ripple – a wave which marbled across the glass. Adnan blinked. The reflection was distorted and fluid; his skin appeared as wax. Instinctively, he raised an arm, reaching towards the liquid surface.

Without resistance, his extended fingertip was submerged.

He pushed further, his entire hand disappearing into the cold water of the mirror. And then, from beneath, from beyond, something grabbed him.

Adnan screamed. He fell backwards, hitting the wall behind him. Looking up, automatically bracing himself for an attack, he saw that the mirror had once again become a normal, solid surface.

Collecting himself, he scrambled out of the bathroom, his left hand massaging the assailed right. On the landing, a door from the opposite bedroom broke ajar. Adnan froze. There was no light inside. Slowly, a voice rose from within.

 “You keep quiet out there, yes?” The sentence was an accented croak of broken English. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”

The following day, he returned to the pizza takeaway with Maher. Their shift dragged beneath the surgical lights of the kitchen, it limped around the stainless steel surfaces and plastic containers. But it provided money – however little – and also a reason to leave the house.

After they had finished, the two men sat once again on the park bench to eat their pizza. Adnan felt compelled to talk, but also understood that he should be cautious. Could be trust Maher? They had only met a few days before– they knew nothing of the other’s past, of their previous loyalties.

“I think the house is haunted,” Adnan eventually whispered, painfully aware that he sounded insane.

Maher raised his eyebrows; his lips sharpened in a smile. “Are you sleeping? You look tired.”

“No,” Adnan admitted.

“Well that’s it then,” Maher cheered. “That’s all you need. This is a big change, a big step. You’re starting a new life. The body will take some time to get used to that.”

“I don’t know,” Adnan felt himself obliged to explain. “I mean, look at the building where we live. What kind of a house have they put us in? Where is the light? The sunshine? There are noises at night. Children crying. There are strange things. The angles of the rooms seem all wrong. Have you noticed that? What is the history here? What has happened? Don’t we deserve to know?”

Slowly, Maher’s smile softened with a suggestion of sympathy, as if he understood that insomnia was not the real problem. “You know, where we’re from, back home, it is full of ghosts,” he said, gathering his thoughts. “The ones we left behind, the ones who disappeared, we ones who we had to hurt. We’re haunted every minute of the day, people like you and me. We carry these ghosts with us. All of them, all of the time. And because there are so many ghosts already in our heads, perhaps one more will not make too much of a difference.”

Adnan took a moment to consider these words. Finally, he nodded. They finished their pizzas and went back home.

For the week that followed, Adnan’s days settled into a routine. Each morning, he would go with Maher to clean the kitchen and cook pizzas. At the end of his shift, he would be paid in cash and return to the house. This was a moment that he had begun to dread.

Every evening, as he walked from the street to the front door, he could sense the house swelling, widening, readying itself to pull him inside. In his bedroom, he would undress and wash in the sink – he had stopped using the communal bathroom on the second floor – before lying awake in the darkness, unable to fall asleep. The cries would always start on the dot of midnight, daggering the night with an initial weep, with a single, exploratory moan. Unanswered, the sound would accelerate with distress and ferocity. The cry was an artefact of fear. It resonated with anger; it rang with indictment. And Adnan understood that he was the only person who could hear it. The cry was meant for him. Perhaps to drive him mad. Perhaps to drive him out of his room, into the arms of whatever was waiting. He would bury his face in his pillow, trying to resist the screams.

He could not remember the last time that he had slept.

At the next review meeting with his caseworker, Adnan decided to ask for help. He knew that he had to get out of that house. He was being destroyed, and it seemed that this was precisely what the house wanted. 

 “I need to be moved,” Adnan said.

The caseworker stared at his computer screen, as he had from the second that Adnan had entered the office.

“From the house? Why’s that?”

Adnan hesitated. Although increasingly desperate, he knew that his words should be chosen carefully. “I think… I think that there is a problem.”

 “What kind of a problem? With the house? With one of the other tenants?”

 “There is a baby. It cries all night. I cannot sleep.”

The caseworker raised his head, looking at Adnan for the first time since their meeting had begun. “Mmm,” he mused. “You don’t look too fresh, to be honest.”

“Can you move me?”

 “Well, it’s not really that simple. It’s not like we have a lot of places right now, budgets being what they are. You were lucky to get that room and there’s nowhere else to move to. And I’m pretty sure that there’s no baby. No one’s told me about a baby. It’s a home for adults only. That’s one of the rules.”

 “It cries all night. It is driving me insane.”

 “Have you spoken to the duty officer in the house?”

Adnan, of course, had not. His silence gave the caseworker his answer.

 “Look,” he said. “Just try and get yourself a good night’s sleep. That’s all you need. We’re moving through your application. You’ve got a pretty solid case. If I was a betting man then I’d say that asylum’s looking like a sure thing. So let’s finish up here and then you can go home and rest.”

After fifteen minutes, the caseworker closed the appointment and Adnan began his journey back to the house. A light rain fell. The sky above and the streets around him were a uniform grey. He walked in a stupor. Drained and without any alternative, he felt as if he had been defeated. He would return and it would claim him – it would mock and torture, it would torment with the impossible, it would agonize with a crying that no one else could hear. Fatigue disturbed his vision and poisoned the blood; it prickled and itched beneath his skin, thudding with hammer blows within his skull. England swam as he shambled and heaved. This refugee – this immigrant – with his bloodshot eyes and astonished expression, who stank of hours trapped in a close, hot kitchen, who no longer showered and shook with fear and delirium. People swerved to avoid him, recoiling from whatever horror he carried inside. Parents guided their children away from his trajectory. Pensioners shuffled to the side of the pavements. The eyes of men with closely cropped hair bulged in disgust as he passed.

They did not want him here, in their country: they did not want his kind and their contagion; they did not want their ghosts.

The house rose like a tomb. The clouds had fortified, darkening the sky and strengthening the rain. He wondered what on earth he had come to. What was this place? This house, this nation…? From the fear of bombs and fighting and displacement to the fear of this.

For ten minutes, he stood at the side of the road until, soaked through, he could bear the rain and the cold no more. Reluctantly, he went inside.

Sliding into the hallway like a thief, Adnan held his breath. The house was silent and utterly still. He edged towards the stairs, every movement resounding with a cavernous echo. Instinctively, he knew that he was alone. The other residents, the cleaner, the duty officer… all of them were gone. All that remained was the house, and whatever was hiding within it.

From the foot of the stars he looked up to the first floor landing as, beneath his sodden clothes, he began to shiver. Preparing himself to climb the two storeys to his room, Adnan placed a hand on the bannister.

The wood stung his palm with the cruel scald of ice.

Adnan flinched and rubbed the burn, staring in amazement. He placed one foot carefully before another.

Halfway up the stairs, a darkness slowly descended, an innate black which drifted like a fog – it enveloped him, it obscured all. His four remaining senses were heightened. He could hear the lapping of water. He could taste cold, smell salt and feel the stairs absorbing his feet. Sinking and swaying, his hand went again towards the bannister but stopped – the pain from the earlier injury stalling his natural instinct.

Desperately, he reached forward, trying to find some balance, trying to find some way to climb to the safety of the landing.

A hand seized his wrist. A grip reaching out from within the dark. Adnan screamed, losing what balance remained to fall backwards. His wrist was released and he tumbled down the stairs, landing crumpled on the hallway floor. Ignoring his body’s pain and protests, he scrambled to his feet, running back through the front door and out into the rain.

He did not stop until he had reached a park nearly a mile away.

On a bench in a shelter, he sat in wet clothes and waited. As night fell, the park writhed with the shouts and rustles of people who had little interest in the day. Adnan slunk away from the shelter and secluded himself within a small assembly of bushes. 

He stayed there until morning. On the cold, damp ground, concealed amongst the leaves and brambles, he shivered, unable to sleep. His wrist was sore from whatever had grabbed him on the stairs. His arm, back and shoulders ached from the fall. His palm stung from the burn that the bannister had inflicted. Across the park he could hear shouts of feral youths and he thought of those times he had been forced to hide on the journey from Syria to Britain. Of the gangs who had sought to exploit and harm, of the border patrols he’d had to avoid, outrun or escape. And now it appeared that he had endured all of this simply to get to a country which seemed determined to drive him out of his mind.

The next morning he returned to the house but failed to find the courage to go inside. As he waited, the front door broke open and Maher appeared, on his way to work.


He seemed surprised to see him. “I’ve been knocking your door. Where have you been?”

Adnan shrugged, mumbling that he had been out.

 “You look like crap,” Maher said. “Have you slept in a river bed?”

Adnan shook his head. “Let’s just go and make pizza.”

That day, the kitchen felt like a sanctuary rather than a workplace. Adnan relaxed amongst the clear tasks and familiar setting; the normal, everyday environment. A radio buzzed in the background, occasionally interrupted by Maher’s conversation. Orders began to arrive and, as the afternoon climbed towards an evening, Maher crept away for one of his many cigarette breaks. Adnan stood alone at the industrial, stainless steel sink, scrubbing the remnants of burnt pizza crusts from baking trays. His arms were submerged in the warm, soapy water and his mind began to drift. Perhaps he could sleep here? Perhaps out the back? Somewhere warm and safe. Just for an hour… Just a few moments where he could rest his heavy eyes. It would settle his mind; it would help him to see clearly. He told himself that everything was due to a lack of sleep. He was plagued by delirium, disorientated with exhaustion.

Gradually, Adnan became aware of the radio – an ambient noise which his mind could generally ignore. He began to realise that the sound was no longer a pop song nor a presenter. It was a child crying.

A chill stepped down his spine. Below him in the sink, the water began to bubble. Beneath the surface, a hand brushed against his.

He screamed and jumped away. 

“Adnan!” His name arrived in a hissed, urgent whisper from the doorway which led to the rear of the building. He spun around. Maher stood at the backdoor. The radio, he noticed, was once again playing music.

Maher waved his arms. “We’ve got to go. Now.”

Adnan followed through the rear of the kitchen, out into an alleyway lined by industrial-sized wheelie bins. Quickly, Maher pulled himself onto one of these and then over the wall that it stood against. “Come on,” he pressed.

They landed in the back of a weed-covered courtyard belonging to an office block. Straightening himself, Maher walked casually around the side of the building and out onto the street. Adnan tried to emulate this composure, grabbing Maher’s shoulder the second it seemed safe to do so.

“What the hell was that?” he asked.

“Home Office,” Maher said. “They pulled up round the front. Inspectors. Someone’s talked or guessed. The taxman or whoever. I don’t know. We’re better off out of there for now. Time for us to lay low for a while.”

They made their way back to the house. Maher relaxed as the danger passed – an adrenalin kick and the thrill of escape softening the fact that he had lost his job. Adnan remained silent. He knew what he had heard on the radio in those moments before Maher had called for him to run; he knew what he had felt in the sink. It was, he realised with resignation, not the house. It was him. It was what he projected: his fears, his past, his guilt. It had always been him, and he knew what it was.

The captain of the boat that carried him onto the Mediterranean had shown a casual disregard for every aspect of his work. The capacity of his craft, the standard of its upkeep, any consideration of safety or basic common sense… his negligence was comprehensive. Night had fallen and the port was silent. The captain and his single crew mate had smoked cigarettes, paying little attention to the exhausted crowd who shuffled aboard to sit without life-vests on the cramped deck floor. Everyone there – Adnan included – had paid everything they owned to secure their passage.

Accordingly, Adnan was not surprised when the boat went down. Amongst the desperate panic of the other refugees, he simply felt a sad sense of inevitability as the deck slowly began to disappear into the sea.

It was only during those final moments, when the reduced buoyancy capsized the practically submerged boat, that a very real, guttural fear took hold.

Some of the passengers were trapped beneath the hull; some were immediately lost in the unsettled water. Adnan, however, was tipped clear. He kicked and swam, circling his arms in an effort to stay afloat. The current had already drawn him away from what remained of the sinking boat. He was adrift, exhausted and weak, ship-wrecked from an illegal crossing that no one would be waiting for. In that moment, he had no doubt that he would drown.

But then – mercifully, miraculously – a life ring floated towards him, pressed by the course of the water. It must have been the sole buoy that the ship had carried. Adnan lunged forward, choking and desperate, when another grasping hand also appeared on the opposite side. A mother, clutching a baby to her shoulder and struggling to keep both of their heads above water.

Adnan hadn’t even noticed them on the ship.

The ring, however, could not support the weight of all three. The mother stared at Adnan. Her eyes were wide with terror: pleading for help, for compassion, for sacrifice. Not for her – she did not ask this for herself – but for her baby.

The ring was beginning to sink.

If one of them did not let go, then all three would die. And so Adnan acted on an instinct – an instinct to live, a disposition to survive.

He kicked at the mother beneath the water. With one hand, he reached across and hammered blows upon her fingers.

She gasped – there was no breath left to scream.

As she slipped away, Adnan met her glare for a final time. In silence, she accused him; she cursed and condemned. The baby was held aloft for as long as she was able. The child was crying, screaming across the sea and into the sky.

Adnan gripped the ring and bowed his head, bobbing alone in the Mediterranean Sea.

When a fishing boat eventually came to his rescue, he made a promise to himself: he would forget this. In Britain, he would become a better person; he would work hard and be a good citizen and never allow himself to think of what he had had to do to get there.

Maher had been right: they were haunted, but only by the ghosts they carried with them. The house was innocent and, as they walked towards it, Adnan recognised it only as an ordinary building. Perhaps a little dark, perhaps a little dishevelled, but no different to the houses it had been sandwiched between.

For the first time, Adnan walked across the threshold without a weighted sense of reluctance. There was, he knew, nothing to fear from the house – only from his past.

On the second floor landing, they said goodbye. Maher considered him for a moment, as if unable to quite decide on Adnan’s mood. “Don’t worry about the job,” Maher advised, guessing at the cause of his friend’s demeanour. “It will blow over. Something else will come up.”

Adnan didn’t bother to correct him. He simply nodded, said goodbye and walked upstairs to his room. He knew that she would be waiting for him. She had been trying to make him remember, to force him to understand. Only then would he actually see her and, as he opened the door, she was standing there as expected. Her child was not with her, and Adnan realised that he could not hear any crying. With a drawn breath, he stepped into the icy cold of the room.

The mother towered before him. When they had faced each other in the water, she had appeared so slight, so fragile and weak, but now she rose with her head brushing against the ceiling. Her dress was frayed, her skin bleached by the depths and thinly stretched across her bones. There was no anger in her expression, but neither was there mercy. Adnan appreciated that this was the last thing he had any right to expect. Slowly, she raised a long, thin arm, extending a hand and then a finger, pointing towards the sink on the wall. Adnan met her sunken black eyes and their solemn demand for justice – of a wrong that needed to be addressed. He nodded and stepped across the room, inserting the plug and filling the sink with water.

Standing to the side to avoid the taps, he lowered his face into the bowl.

As his lungs began to burn, he surrendered to the natural impulse to pull himself out of the water. A hand, however, pressed itself against the back of his head. Surprisingly strong, it held him perfectly in place. As his legs kicked and back arched, the pressure kept his face submerged. He tried to grip the sink, to push himself up, but the downward force was overpowering.

A desperate panic exploded through his body. His eyes bulged as the water bubbled with his chokes, as the last of his oxygen was spent. 

And then, at the bottom of the sink, a light appeared. Quickly, it grew in size, expanding outwards, filling his vision. A luminous circle, as bright as the sun. In the middle, the child was sleeping, peacefully curled in a ball-like a foetus. The child was waiting for him; the child was waiting for him to arrive.

Mark Colbourne is a 40 year-old writer from the West Midlands of England. He has recently had stories published in Epoque, Scritturia and Tigershark.

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