Horla Fiction (July 2020)

 

We present the second instalment of

EL  AMARIO DE ESQUELETOS

(The Skeleton Closet)

An Iberian Mystery

by JOE ROCHE

For those who may have missed it, the first instalment is here

FOUR

We make our way along the side of the river, the freshwater torrent rushes past and looks a chalky green, probably a combination of the sandy sediment lining the riverbed and the overwhelming greenery here in the valley. I tell you what, I had serious misconceptions of Spain as being;

  • Dry
  • Dusty
  • Hot

Despite visiting many times previously, this is my first time so far in-land and I must say it’s anything but. Here, up in the montanas, it is:

  • Verdant
  • Cool
  • Muy tranquillo (google translate it)

My friends, there are 4 of us currently and we are expecting to be joined by more later, have all made the same mistake I have, sharing climatic misconceptions and packing accordingly.

We walk fast along the path towards Fuente de los banos, beach towels slung across shoulders. For about a kilometre we converse, discussing the previous night in gory detail and even exchanging what some people might deem as “banter”.

  • Dan Shake was unreal
  • Jamie Tiller will tear it apart tonight
  • I thought Jon K was a disappointment, it didn’t really work going b2b

I thought I had gotten off lightly when Paddy pipes up “mate that girl last night, she wouldn’t stop screaming, what the fuck were you doing to her??”

“Clearly the right things.” is my response, a comment seemingly sufficiently witty and macho so as to escape further scrutiny, for the time being at least.

We emerge, after some time winding our way through the valley, towards a beachhead of pebbles which stretches out into the water. Bodies are strewn across the stony beach, basking in the sun at the water’s edge. Cliffs rise up steeply either side of the famous hot springs, framing swimmers who move serenely through green waters.

I’m vaguely aware that the group conversation of which I was formerly part has taken a fork in the road a while-back which I seem to have missed. My head is swimming, dehydration possibly, maybe something more sinister who knows.

Without a word I step up and walk into the water. Initial cold gives way to warmth quickly upon completion of a few powerful strokes. The stony seabed soon changes to silt and is no longer within reach of my legs as I move out into the centre of the springs.

For some reason, I imagined more classical hot springs when I pictured this moment; shallow pools, steaming and roiling, sulphur. Slightly disappointing I guess, here the springs must surface into the river from deep underground. The only indication of their presence is the water temperature here being above the absolute zero of the showers.  

Still though it’s pleasant enough, a quick taste of the water reveals it to be fresh water coming up into the river. Perhaps not drinkable but certainly refreshing enough to be swimming in, none of that salt crystal itchiness to look forward to.

I turn around in the water and look for my companions on the shore. Sure enough they are in varying states of hangover on the riverside; Paddy seems to be bartering with a drinks seller over cold beer, Kurtz seems to be withering away by the minute, Henry is completely wiped out laid legs akimbo on the stones.

Peace suddenly envelops me, my mind wanders amid the relative clarity of the moment. Having spent so much of the last few hours, days even, thinking of a million things at high speed, it feels delicious to embrace emptiness.  Then, she’s there again. I’m thinking of her and I’m thinking of the closet. I get my breathing wrong and inhale the spring water, I then make my way back to shore, puncturing idyllic reveries with a spluttering butterfly stroke.

 

FIVE

There’s a different girl tonight. She’s younger, younger than me. We had briefly met on the bus from Valencia. I say met, we were on the same bus but I’m sure we noticed each other. This one is different to the last, she’s German for a start, she’s a pretty little thing, very much with an innocent (I’m not going to say girl next door don’t worry) aura, though one with a bit of mischief concealed near to the surface. She’s fair skinned, blue eyed and has a reddish chestnut bob of hair framing refined bone structure. 

It’s dark and I’m trying to remember enough German to impress her.

  • Wie gehts es dir?
  • Wie hiesst du?
  • Wir wohnt sie in Deutschland?

The effect of which seems to be more endearing than impressive. Ahwell.

We continue to drink and chat together, mostly in English, my command of which is far superior. It always strikes me how Europeans, so delicate and sophisticated, don’t drink like we do. They go along to these things, festivals and club nights, and they actually talk to one another and enjoy the music; bizarre.

Her friends suddenly seem a bit distressed, it seems they want to leave with her, either that or they’re concerned about leaving her, it’s hard to tell with the language barrier and the music thumping out of the arena speakers.

I ain’t never really, until recently took a look at myself in this universe

And I guess I’m on that path

I really don’t know… 

Things are getting a bit much, I’m really feeling it. I take my leave under the guise of getting her a drink. I stumble through a crowd consistently mostly of native Spaniards but also Dutch, Germans, Belgians – the same life affirming bunch who I shared such a delightful walk to the arena with. Gorgeous people. 

I prop myself up on the bar and rake my pockets for drinks tokens. I realise with a pang of  regret that my reusable cup has once again gone awol, having deserted it’s post around my belt; heavy pvc no doubt trampled into the dust – there goes my 3 euros too.

By the time the sole barman gets to me my head has returned from swimming and has started to dry itself off. I nearly order ‘dos mas gin y tonicos’ but I stop myself half way through and order ‘dos cervecas’ instead – she’ll want a beer I’m sure. The barman hands over two beers. I say beers, these things are hardly more than a tinnies worth; nowhere near a pint and about an inch from being full.

Forget it, they do things differently here. I grab the beers, turn away from the bar without a word to the waiter and nearly knock someone over, a girl. She’s blonde and she’s got a panicked look in her eyes.  

Panic dims and is replaced by a flicker of recognition, “It’s you, have you seen Liz?”

Liz – that was her name. Vague memories from last night, despite the current state of intoxication, seep through. This girl was one of her friends, and her housemate if I remember correctly.

I answer without missing a beat “Not since this morning no, is everything ok?”

Without another word or a second glance at me, she’s off through the crowd of people. My thoughts on the matter; mildly concerning, but not worth dwelling on.

I edge my way through the throng of revellers; taking extra care to not spill my precious cargo. The bass comes back in hard as I pass a speaker stack to my right.

Y’see I have a certain amount of understanding in my life,

And I’m holding it in the palm of my hand

I don’t wanna hold it too tight cos it’ll come out

It’s like sand…

My ears ring, presumably from the early onset of tinnitus, I stumble over an outstretched leg and all manner of rage washes over me. Bastard. I look up and an apologetic Spaniard stands in front of me, smirking, either from the near disaster his leg has caused, or from some mirthful exchange shared between friends.

Y’see I have a certain amount of understanding in my life,

And I’m holding it in the palm of my hand

I don’t wanna hold it too tight cos it’ll come out

It’s like sand…

He has an impressive moustache, and as he says ‘lo siento’ over the roar of the rave, it occurs to me that I recognise him. One of the local DJ’s I’m sure. The urges subside and I’m fine with it, we might get chatting later anyway; ‘De nada amigo’. 

Happy that I’ve taken the high road I venture forth once more into the crowd, beers clutched to my chest. A new track has just been mixed in and the vibe has just gotten darker and more melodic, the bass has dropped right out and a new vocal spills out across the mountainside.

Wind is sweeping

Us away

I get back to the speaker stack we were stood by. I’m all alone. None of my lot, none of her friends, I’m just surrounded on all sides by silhouettes, sliding in and out of the peripherals of my vision in time to the music. I close my eyes and concentrate on standing upright for a few seconds.   

Winter’s creeping

Closer 

I look over my shoulder, not seeing anyone. Staying calm I stand on my toes to see across the dance-floor. 

I’m left getting

Colder 

Still no-one. Ignoring the deafening and painful pressure against my ear drums and in my head, I stand next to the speaker stack on top of a wooden palette being used by two friends during an ersatz counselling session. 

Need a hand on

Shoulder 

There she is! Is it her? It looks like her, but where are her friends? She’s on her own making her way out of the arena. 

A good time to pray

Leaving the beers behind, I follow the girl through the crowd.

 

SIX

Morning. I glance down at my watch – actually scrap that it’s afternoon.

  • Brown: the wooden platform I’m sat on, my skin
  • Gold: the sand, my beer (a light lager, doing a lot to alleviate my condition) 
  • Blue: the water we’re floating on, how I feel about leaving this place

I’m sat with friends floating on a pontoon out in the middle of the water. A DJ is playing from behind a booth on the shore. Revellers dance on the beach and swimmers glide past us. Comida y bebidas (food & drink) can be purchased from a shack. All in all it’s an utterly fabulous scene; one of those moments you’d like to crystallise, or even condense and distil for consumption at a later date.

Life is transitory. You don’t know it’s good until it’s gone.

The DJ plays a new tune, a mix of punchy snares and kicks along with some tranquil synths that almost sound like a sampled harpsichord or lute; something medieval for sure.

It’s true though. Everyone spends their lives working towards this paradigm of what they think happiness or fulfilment is:

  • A wife and two kids
  • A nice car
  • Becoming a celebrated artist

What they don’t realise, and this is what gets you, is that happiness and fulfilment aren’t destinations – you don’t arrive there, get off, smell the roses and set up camp. You either are or you aren’t. There’s no past or future, only now. Exist in the moment, everything else is illusory.

A pair of dragonflies zip across the spring water, weaving in and out of one another’s way, taking turns to momentarily dive to the surface. A hawk, or some other bird of prey, hovers overhead blocking out my sun for a millisecond. I breathe deep. The sun hints at ferocity to be felt in a few short hours.

I roll over onto my stomach and call out to my friends who surround me on the pontoon, a colony of beached walrus.

“Does anyone fancy a beer?”

A chorus of affirmative mumbles washes over me, as I stand up it occurs to me; I don’t want to leave.

Pressure builds once more on my eardrums as I dive headfirst into the spring water; as I arc upwards underwater I wonder if that looked as spectacular in real life as it did in my head. Dismayed, glistening expressions on faces betray the reality as I breach and shake my field of vision clear of freshwater droplets. 

I step out of the water and onto the pebble beach. No-one is looking at me but suddenly everyone is looking at me. The chill of the water stays with me as I walk out towards the beach bar.

  • Is everybody looking at me?
  • Do they know who I am?
  • Do they know what I’ve done?

Worry bombards me from all sides. Urgent, persistent, pranging pangs burrow their way in from outside, slamming into my psyche – unsure if heartbeat or speaker stack:

Boom, boom, boom, boom

Boom, boom, boom, boom,

It will take a minute but I know it will pass. I pick up my sunglasses from the beach and then sit down in the shade off to one side. I’m fighting:

  • Rising nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • An adrenal urge to flee back to the dark apartment.

Collapsing into the nearest chair I take deep breaths and the nausea starts to subside, saltwater slowly draining from a leaking vessel. Without thinking I reach into a pouch hung around my neck, a hitherto underutilised store of worldly goods, pull out a familiar blue pill and swallow dry.

I sit back into the chair and look out at the horde of festival goers on the beach. If only they knew the surging rush behind the lens.

*

Day breaks with characteristic venom, it’s May in Valencia and the sun bites from around 11 o’clock right through until 5 or 6. It rained last night, not that Gregor could hear it with headphones on.

He wakes up and is immediately hit by the wave of confusion that strikes anyone who has fallen asleep somewhere unexpected, in this instance; the sofa. Sun streams in through un-shuttered French windows. Two empty bottles of Tempranillo stand sheepishly on the table, the last stragglers at an after party. A glass lies stained and discarded, but thankfully intact on the floor under the table.

He overcomes his hazy disorientation and reaches for his phone. It’s twenty past eight in the morning. A quick check of his emails reveals he has work to do today. A quick check of twitter reveals the world is still insane.

Half an hour, a shower, a light application of spf moisturiser and a blast of deodorant later, Gregor looks at himself in the mirror. He has dressed in dark coloured shorts and a heavy jumper, along with some asics trainers. Gaunt eyes stare back at him over the rim of translucent spectacles. His moustache, as impressive as it is after months of careful preening, is dark and curls up slightly at the ends; he’s even caught himself twiddling it in more reflective moments.

What the fuck is that moustache saying really, he mutters to no one.

Gregor passes through the corridors and onto the landing. He stops briefly at the lamp, to pick up his keys and a notebook from its table, before exiting the apartment.

Outside the apartment is a vintage elevator, barely more than a birdcage suspended 8 stories up. Gregor disregards the hanging cage and descends instead via the wrought iron spiral staircase. He’s already thinking of the coffee, served with trademark palette-cleansing sparkling water; one or both of them will clear his oozing hangover.

Gregor leaves the darkness of the stairwell as it empties him out onto the streets of Russafa. Worn geometric shapes pass on the concrete beneath his asics as he moves with the urgency of someone in dire need of caffeine. He looks around at the place he’s called home for 11 months.

All around him on street level are cafes and bakeries, above are apartments in shades of pastel much like his, the whole place has a run-down Parisian feel to it. Vivid murals adorn walls and street corners. People; most often university students, scholars and tourists, flow down the street in a regular stream. One of the many things Gregor loves about Valencia, at least this early in the season, is the relative lack of tourists considering the charm of the city.

Gregor arrives at Sebastian’s. He looks around a sprawling seating area which encroaches into the street. There she is. Sat as far from the café as possible, smoking a cigarette.

Sebastian’s is Gregor’s favourite café. In addition to providing excellent coffee, served with carbonated water, it also serves a variety of tasty if cholesterol-rich tapa and bar snacks. It is also the haunt of Grete.

Grete is in her early twenties and studies at the nearby University. She has a long face with regal features, her hair looks silver; impossible to tell if died or platinum blonde.

Gregor makes his way through a gauntlet of cheap plastic chairs, coming in to land within 2 tables of Grete. Two tables isn’t weird, Gregor tells himself as he sits down with Grete in the periphery of his vision.

The waitress comes over and takes his order, even though she knows what he’s having before he opens his mouth and once again butchers the Spanish pronunciation.

“Un café y…er con aqua con gas, por favour”

“Claro, bien” the waitress says without writing anything down or looking at him. She leaves them both together in isolation at their tables. 

Gregor has been struggling to write. He has always struggled, but recently even coming up with 50 words requires an intense dredging of the mind. He’s found such a dredging tends to yield more results once he’s begun conducting the business of the day. Coffee seems to help too.

Vaguely hopeful that someone’s eyes are on him, he takes out his black notebook, a faux leather affair with an elastic loop for his biro and makes a show of putting pen to paper.

 

SEVEN

Without a word I leave my companions at the springs. Things are getting to me. Everything seems too much.

The journey back to the town is blurred as I ghost my way along the river. No one acknowledges me, I keep my eyes down. 

Soon the church bell tower comes into view around the mountainside. From where I walk, the tower blocks out a sun starting to set. It gives me;

  • Something to focus on
  • Direction
  • Comfort

The riverside path eventually makes way for the cobbled streets of Montenejos. The evening sun is blissfully obscured by crumbling terracotta towers. I feel relieved to be back.

I stop at a corner shop and purchase a bottle of artisanal beer, I tear off the bottle cap with my teeth and continue walking; it’s a delicious pale ale called Tyrel. I make a mental note to remember the name, the label on the bottle depicts a goat skull.

Dusky red hues melt away to either side of me and are replaced by a harsh green light up ahead.

  • A neon cross
  • Pharmacia, Drogueria
  • “Tiene diazepam por mi muy mal anxiedad?”  

I emerge with a blister pack which I tuck into the pouch hanging around my neck. A tiny bird logo is sewn in with silver thread, I think it’s a gull or an albatross, which I’ve never noticed before. 

I carry on walking, passing through serrated shadows cast by cornices on buildings. Night isn’t far away and most of the denizens of the town are making their way to the festival site, beginning the nightly procession along the river Mijares (I googled it earlier). I sit down on some steps to my left and take a swig of Tyrel.

My mind begins to wander. Why am I here on my own?

I check my phone, there’s a few messages from Kurt and Patrick:

19:07 – Where are you man?

19:58 – You ok?

20:27 – Grab us some beers will you? 

I turn my phone off and bury it once more in my pocket.

For the first time in a while I feel certain of where I am.  I look upwards at the foot of the church bell tower. Its rectangular mass blots out the now-orange sky. The belfry at the top is rough-hewn and Italianate in appearance. It seems I sit beneath an obsidian obelisk. 

With beer in hand I look out onto the small square at the foot of the church tower. The whole square lies in shadow, the orange sky now creating a binary tableau against dark buildings. Towards the far end of the square a group of people gather in front of two burning braziers. A red curtain stands behind three figures.

I move along the steps towards the people at the end of the square. As I edge closer, I experience a stillness not felt for days.

The steps begin to form an amphitheatre and I realise the figures are actors; fretting and strutting by the light of the braziers. I sit down again, near enough to hear without drawing attention of onlookers.

A figure steps forward on the stage. They stand alone and begin to speak native Spanish which I struggle to keep up with. The actor wears a robe and a crown, which sits atop two animal horns which seem to erupt from his head. 

  • He talks of being a prince
  • Of being the chosen one
  • Of his… house?

I didn’t hear casa so maybe it’s not house.

  • Common people cannot stand his presence
  • His blood sets him apart
  • He waits for his other self to bring salvation

The braziers crackle. Embers rake across the cobbles of the square.

One of the robed figures stood to the side of the stage strides towards the horned prince and, in one movement, brandishes a sword and pushes the prince behind the curtain.

Silence ensues and I look to the third robed figure; unmistakably smaller and female, she holds a trailing ball of string tight to her breast.

Two feet appear from behind the curtain. Children in the audience giggle.

 The swordsman steps out, holding aloft a severed bulls head by the horn.

Children scream, adults applaud.

The bulls head spills blood and globules of viscera drop onto stones. Some of the children in the crowd are crying. I can see dust is mixing in with the bull’s blood.

I’m now painfully aware of my stomach fluttering when I felt nothing previously. Without a receptacle of any description within reach, I purge myself on the steps in front of the church.

Pain. Hardly anything comes up, it must have been the beer. I wipe my mouth and realise I’m sprawled in a public space having pathetically vomited on a medieval church. Local residents send scathing looks as they hurry their children away from the grisly scene. 

With reluctance I haul myself up and leave, draining the bottle as I keep the church at my back walking through the town. 

I’m thinking clearer now I’ve left the square and it occurs to me as I float through its streets that Montenejos is truly beautiful. A rare bud flowering alone on a dusty mountainside forever. 

On my left-hand side passes a circular building, this structure a fractured stone and mortar build which sets it apart from the consistently hued buildings immediately around it. A flicker of recognition sparks recollection.

That’s old. Older than the rest of the town. 12th? 14th Century perhaps? This region, Valencia, Alto Mijares, will have been conquered by the Moors. Maybe that explains the baths.

As I move around the structure it becomes clear what it is, or was – a tower. A Moorish defensive tower. The tower seems to rotate in front of me, as it does I can see the tower has been annexed by another building, a restaurant.

Fortifications such as this must have sprawled across Alto Mijares and Valencia, individually exerting their control by being part of the whole. Lurking up in the hills there will be ruins of an even bigger castle. The stones embedded in the tower were probably taken from the river.

I feel sadness now. That such civilisations could fall, that such a bastion has been reduced to a humble brasserie. A simmering pit of anger flares inside and you know what I’m fucking outraged. How could they do that?

There’s a bitter taste in my mouth as my empty beer bottle shatters against thousand year old mortar. Someone’s shout tries to follow me around the corner but I’m too quick for it.

This thermal village. I wonder if half the people here understand it’s significance?

The sun has now gone behind the hills, leaving an afterglow to the west in the direction of the festival, which blends into a vivid purple in the east. A low crescent moon can be seen hanging between the corners of two buildings which stand like guards at the end of the street.

As the cobbles pass beneath me, I experience in alternating bursts:   

  • Fear
  • Then anger
  • Then joy

Fearful of what might be around corners, this place is full of them.

Angry at what they’ve done to the tower.

Joyous at discovering this place. A nexus, where you can revel in ruin. 

The sun is now little more than a memory as night invades the town. Thin rakish shadows dappled across cobbles are replaced by anonymous black splodges which inhabit places I cannot see. Without the sun the character of this thermal town takes on a new aspect, it no longer reveals its secrets to me and before where there was certainty, now there is ambiguity.

I find myself stood in front of the apartment and I unlock the door, ascending a flight of tiled stairs.

I enter the bedraggled abode and quickly find what I’m looking for.

Future self: this was a bad idea 

I open the tiny fridge-freezer in the corner of the room near the bathroom and the calor gas, removing a bottle of gin and slimline tonic. I fill a glass nearly half and half, as I gulp down two tablets I wonder if it will take the edge off.

Moving quickly because now I don’t have much time, I check out my reflection in the mirror. I’m not entirely happy with what I see, so I change clothes.

  • Outrageous floral shirt, hanging loose
  • Velour black teeshirt worn underneath, muscle fit
  • Black jeans, to protect against the night air

 

Suddenly, somewhere behind me there’s movement and a deep grinding sound. I stay still and look past my reflection’s shoulder.

Spasms of terror course downwards through me, rolling end over end down the length of my body. Each icy sinew feels suddenly ablaze as my adrenal gland kicks in. The hairs on my arms and neck are like daggers.  

I thought I was the only person here.

I freeze further still as both me and my reflection realise the sound came from the dark bedroom door behind me. My bedroom.

Finally a consciousness takes back control and I’m able to move towards the door.

I prepare for what might be in there. It sounded like wood splintering.

Reason struggles hand to hand with fear as I burst into the room, hitting the lights on my way in.

The wardrobe doors are open. The curtains are thrown wide as a breeze drags them out onto the balcony.

All of my basic functions and drives are replaced by an overpowering need to return to the festival.

 

*

 

“What are you writing?” asks Grete.

Gregor looks up from his notebook, her question has wrong footed him. It seems with her watching he’s made good progress. He fixes her with what he hopes is his most sincere and sophisticated expression and replies;

“Ah…”

Or tries to reply, the words don’t come and instead he just makes an open-ended vowel sound. Providing an answer to her question requires knowing said answer.

“…ahhhye I don’t know, yet” he qualifies.

Grete’s lips purse and her head moves upwards in a languid movement to signify receipt of that particularly profound stretch of conversation. Her attention is trying to drag her back to the tablet laid in front of her and she’s more than happy to oblige it. Interest gives way to indifference. 

Just like that, Gregor can see it slipping away, there goes your first impression. Your first and only chance to come across as a semi eloquent human and you’ve fallen spectacularly on your face at the foot of the first hurdle.

Gregor turns back round in his seat and stares blankly into his empty macchiato. Keeping his back to the girl at all times, Gregor deposits 5 euros on the table and takes his leave. Without a word to his erstwhile literary companion, he sets off down Carrer de Cuba and back towards the heart of the city.

He gets to the end of the street and turns right onto a wider thoroughfare, Gran Via del Marques del Turia, which is traversed by more people and has 3 lanes of traffic going each way. Mercury and the sun continue to climb.

Gregor gets to the end of the road which empties out at another nexus of human traffic. Gregor is now at the outer limits of the Valencian old town. Surrounding the old town are the remains of an old riverbed.

The river Turia was once notorious for flooding, disastrously bursting its banks at some point in the fifties. A diversion project was undertaken to reduce that coursing body of water to something less destructive, truncating its potency, irrigating the land on the flood plain which surrounds the city. A trickle now remains, snaking its way around the city through what is known as Jardin del Turia or the Turia Gardens.

The gardens are one of Gregor’s favourite things about the city. Following the route of the once furious Turia, the riverbed surrounds the old town and passes near most areas of the city, providing verdant spaces and tranquil ponds in which one escape the heat.

Gregor crosses the main road, weaves in and out of two large walking tours packed with tourists before sidling up to a stand of electric scooters. Another one of Gregor’s favourite aspects of the city; due to its location on the Turia flood plain, Valencia is flat and thus perfect for traversing on scooter. With a few taps of his smartphone, the scooter is released from its fixing and Gregor is away, descending down into the old riverbed on a gentle incline.

The sun is getting close to its highest point and part of Gregor’s rationale behind the slight detour via the gardens is to escape it. 

Passing beneath a sanctuary of palms with an electrified hum, Gregor passes a news stand and tobacconist. A glimpse of the front pages mentions Mistero en Montenejos.

The sun climbs higher and gardens rush past on each side. Gregor plots his next move on his mental map of Valencia.

 

***

Joe Roche is a writer based in Leeds, Yorkshire, northern England. He has written from a young age and studied English at the University of Liverpool. He runs a start-up as a day job; however, as a keen author of short stories and poems, his ambition is to become a full-time writer.

Title photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

Standard Horla disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction