Home » The Keys by Matthew G. Rees

FICTION (May 2018)

The Keys

by Matthew G. Rees 

You ask about the keys?

You haven’t posed the question directly. That I grant. But why else would you be here, with me, at this hour? Besides, I see their shapes – like ghostly ships – in the pupils of your eyes.

What… exactly… do you want to know? And don’t say everything. Answer with that and we shall be here all night, and beyond. (It is night… out there, I take it?) But, since you have come, since you are here, I will share the salient points. What harm can it do me now?

These are the important facts:

The keys came into my possession in a provincial town whose name need not detain us: a sale at what might grandly be titled an auction room (though in reality it was hardly that). My compulsion for searching out curios had taken me there. Photographs of defunct sporting teams, vellum deeds with splintering seals, the blown eggs of birds, old posters for forgotten seaside resorts once reachable by rail, fishing reels (without rods) that I have bought solely for the pleasure of their mellifluous tock, cameras for which there has long ceased to be film… Such are the things for which I scour and scavenge.

This habit of mine must stop, I know.  The situation is absurd. My rooms have become a labyrinth of trenches… a kind of maze, if you will. At the centre, here, is my small space for living: my couch, desk, the chair on which you sit. At times, mad as it sounds, I have become lost for hours and, on occasion, days. One night, I don’t doubt, I shall be crushed by the collapse of some cobwebbed escarpment: boxed soldiers, tinplate toys, clockwork frogs and robots with club feet, crawling and stomping over me in the dark… an avalanche of brittle seashells, chalk fossils, jars heavy with glass marbles that shall surge from them and scatter, and the heaped, mildewed limbs of grotesquely tangled marionettes.

And yet… you found your way here, didn’t you? You picked my locks.

But the keys. Yes. Forgive my digression.

The saleroom was a fag-end of a place. A fleapit. Furniture disgorging its stuffing, cracked  chamber pots (occupied by dead ferns and flies) cheap, late edition books, ghastly paintings of rocky shores, fish knives whose dusty cases indicated their retrieval from mouse-infested attics, crockery of no value or interest, dented bowler hats, moth-eaten furs and, finally… the keys.

They were housed in a rectangular panel of grimed canvas and leather that lay unfurled on a table, each key in its own sheath, the tops – the bows – revealing themselves in a way that made me think of tools that some surgeon or vet or travelling tooth-puller might in years past have taken on a campaign.

They were – are – old. Here… come closer… see for yourself. Hold them. That’s it. Feel their weight. Proper keys. Keys with meaning, history, ritual. That’s what we’re talking about. Think about it. Imagine the hands that have turned these.

And something else. As I looked down on them in that seedy saleroom I pressed the tips of my fingers to their stems secreted as they were in their fabric shrouds. And one word occurred to me. Skeleton. Not for its common usage in the matter of keys: a key that has been specially filed to permit passage through several locks. But instead for how, in those pouches, they made me think of the human anatomy: skulls, clavicles, the humerus, radius, femurs, shins. (Later, freakishly, a volume on the subject of keys, one book among the thousands I possess, caught my eye on a shelf. Its references to shanks, throats, collars made sense of what I had thought and felt.)

When it came to the bidding, the auctioneer (a florid, red-haired man) brought down his hammer and announced their sale to me, though I was far from certain that I had signalled a bid.

That evening, after my rail journey home, I considered them here, one by one, under my desk light: holding them in my palms, running my forefinger along their shafts, staring at and through the curlicues and filigreed flourishes of the finer examples, feeling the weight of their more utilitarian companions, sating myself with their smoothness, studying their scars. This I did till the dawn infiltrated its light through my curtainless windows in a way that took from the keys all solidity and definition. Finally, I laid my head on the desk, and slept.

***

When I came-to, roused by the traffic in the street and an aching in my neck, the keys were all back in their sheaths, which surprised me because I felt sure that I had left half, if not more, scattered about the desk. I stared at them as they reposed – all twelve – neatly in their pouches. It was then that I noticed something which – peculiarly – had escaped my attention both in the saleroom and during the night that had passed: the presence at the end of the row of an empty pouch (and, therefore, the absence from this collection of a key).

There is nothing to be gained from evasion. I shall admit it directly. The keys quickly established a hold over me in a way that had anyone described such a condition to my face I would have scorned it as an absurdity.

My curiosity began innocently enough. I wondered where they were from, the purposes to which they had been put, the things, places, they might have secured: cells, tea caddies, attic rooms, drawers, cabinets, armouries, larders, wine cellars, Bibles… chastity belts.

Next, perhaps influenced by the way in which I have surrounded myself with the accumulations of my life – train sets, jigsaw puzzles, comics from my childhood that with hot-teared fury I refused to let my mother throw out, my scout uniform and school cricket whites, my father’s dry-nibbed fountain pen that appears and disappears like the proverbial needle, wristwatches that I wind and lose which so torment me with their ticking – I began to conceive myself detained in those places that the keys had locked and unlocked. So much so that I felt myself physically present in their interiors. I brushed against the dark, mahogany walls inside those tea caddies, inhaling their rich aromas. I eased my being between the chill glassware of laudanum bottles in ‘medicine’ cabinets, I secreted myself in reliquaries amid the bones of saints and splinters of the True Cross, packed myself away in the satin-lined portmanteaux of spies, gamblers and executioners. I even sensed myself (not, I hope, too perversely) within the warm skirts of women insanely trussed and locked by jealous fathers and husbands.

Soon my thoughts were of the keys and nothing else. I barely strayed from my desk – holding them, caressing them, immersing myself in imaginings about their metal. Meanwhile my telephone, which had been silent for years, rang at all hours. It was as if callers in other time zones, remote from this, had messages they needed to pass. I wondered about the entreaties of Eskimos that might crack and echo in my ear, the soothsaying words of Zulu women (QaphelaQaphela), the advice that might quietly be urged by Aboriginal elders (with faces of great seriousness and profundity). I let each shrill summons ring until the callers gave up. I could not have answered even if I had wanted to, having lost sight of my telephone months, if not years, previously.

In the days and nights that followed – mad as this may sound – the keys acquired entirely different pathologies. By this I mean they came alive before my eyes in living, moving forms. One elegant key – its heart-shaped handle an oasis of rococo curls (I think its antecedents Venetian or French) – spun and danced… here, on this desk… not as a key, but as a ballerina… her shoes, frills and flesh the colour of pale pewter.

At other times, when perhaps the light or my mood was darker, the same key would reveal itself in another womanly guise: those ornamentations transformed into the laced corsetry and flowing black chiffons of a courtesan. They glanced my face and cast over me a thick, seductive scent, beckoning me – fool that I am – to enter her boudoir beyond an elaborately gilded escutcheon.

One hollow-shanked key ceased all connection with earthly mechanisms, instead becoming a conduit to the increasingly strange depths of my mind, a phial from which it would have me sniff or swallow exotica of its choosing. Often it would present itself in the hand of that painted lady: warm, perfumed, plucked from her bosom.

One ugly creation, its end like some primitive claw – whose original home could only have been the dungeons of some tyrant – transformed itself to a scuttling scorpion that pursued me with its venom at this very desk.

Worse, though, for the cruelty of its deception, was the pretty, little key whose innocent appearance suggested its likely match with a jewellery (or some similar) box, possibly of the musical kind. Its practice, between my finger and thumb, was to make its way up the side of my head to my temple… as a pistol of the snub, concealable variety. Only when I came perilously close to pulling the trigger in one of my wild nights of intoxication, my lady smiling on my knee, did I decide that the madness had to stop.

The next day I left the house for the first time in weeks, carrying with me the keys. I took the train north, alighting at every station. In each town and village I discarded one of the keys. I tossed them into canals and down the drains of sewers. More than once I strode out into fields to fling them into furrows and piles of slurry, or else I made my way into woods to conceal others in the hollows of trees and beneath beds of dead leaves that I raked away and replaced on my hands and knees. In a park, I permitted a small dog to approach me at a bench and, when its owner was not looking, to take one of their number from my palm and run off with it as if it were a stick. Finally, in moonlight, at the town at the end of the line, I discovered a churchyard with a grave fresh-dug. There I tossed the last.

At the town’s station I found the platform buffet still open despite the lateness of the hour. The woman behind the counter eyed me through the billowing steam of the coffee machine. As she took my money at the till her eyes fell on the soiled state of my hands. Mine fell on the numerous keys (to her workplace, I presumed) bunched on a ring at her hip.  She noticed, but pretended not to, as the cup and saucer that I accepted from her tremored in my hand. The spoon on the saucer gave out a tinkle that in any normal circumstance would have been impossible to hear. Yet now its noise seemed to possess the power of a klaxon or even the pealing of cathedral bells. All conversation in the buffet, all sound from the whooshing, gurgling, jetting coffee machine, stopped.

I seated myself at a table. Across the aisle a wrinkled old woman with rouged cheeks nodded to me over a teapot. A murmur restored itself among the customers and the commotions of the coffee machine resumed.

Soon, though, it was apparent that all those present in that strange, fugged place had only one thing on their minds.

‘The key issue,’ a seeming student of the hectoring type, seated opposite another, began.

‘… I’ll leave it under the flowerpot, as usual,’ whispered a woman on a telephone who was seated four tables from me and whose words ought to have been inaudible, though I heard every one.

Meanwhile, at the counter, a woman with a small trolley had engaged the manageress in gossip about another that each knew. ‘Apparently she’ll be having keystone surgery. It’s how they do it now.’

‘Keyhole,’ cut in the manageress, pushing a cup and saucer towards her.

‘Yes,’ said the woman with the trolley, ‘that’s it.’

Even the news presenter on the television – hung against a wall – broke in to announce that a politician who I knew nothing of would be delivering a keynote speech come the morning.

From somewhere the discordant plinking of a piano began.

I fled to the platform where, clutching my carpet bag, I cowered in a shadow till my train departed at last.

Only at home in my keep (by now a word that you might appreciate I found troubling to think of, let alone say)… ringed by my walls… at the heart of my maze… did I again feel safe and, after the stresses of my day, fall asleep.

***

I heard it long before I saw. A clank, then a clink, in the manner of something correcting itself – conscious of its noise – in the still and cloistered dark.

At first the sound was… awkward… as if its creator were struggling for balance, bearings. The step was a kind of stumble, as if of something shackled, chained. I sat up at my desk.

Steadily it grew swifter: the sound now borne by the blackness one of a jingling and jangling: the noise of someone, some thing, no longer stumbling or even merely walking but rushing through my trenches… closing in.

At times it stopped, as if its agent had reached some dead-end or fork between my cliffs of boxes and books. Then it re-began: faster, nearer, than before.

Reckoning it best to move rather than be preyed on in my seat, I rose and made off. Our chase began.

I cannot tell you precisely for how long and how far we ran. This is an old and large townhouse that extends deeply from the street. There are cellars, attics and outhouses full, like the rest of the place, with the accumulations – detritus some might call it – of my unconventional life. Suffice to say that I was harried horrifically through alleyways and crescents of my creation.

We were on the second floor, in what in my boyhood had been the music room, when, with the coming of dawn,  I collapsed exhausted at the end of a claustrophobic passage lined with towers of old newspapers and runs of magazines.

In the faint, grey light I saw him… my hunter.

He moved towards me, and I curled ball-like at his feet. Despite my terror and my desire to look away I found myself staring at his astonishing frame.

Every key that I had hidden, buried, thrown, even those in the grave at the churchyard, had resurrected themselves and returned to my door, assembled in his incredible skeleton. And not only those of which I had sought to rid myself but others, too, so that his femurs, his tibias, his tarsals, each and every part of his physique, was constructed wholly of keys. For an instant I imagined these rallying to his cause as he marched through moonlit streets, magnetically drawn to his dark, jangling form from the doors, hooks and drawers of houses; still more, swelling his chest, from factories, churches and farms, as he raced on his train under swarming stars.

He plucked one from his ribcage that I recognised from the woods… blew a leaf from its shank. With a dull chime from his iron bones, he leant forward and offered me the key. This I took from his claw hand (itself composed of other keys spread like a fan). Drawing himself upright he pointed a ‘finger’ to the wall behind me. I turned and saw a door.

It was a doomish, oppressive, nail-studded thing. I placed the key in the cavernous throat of its lock. Turning it was like priming the workings of some great stopped clock or recommencing the revolutions of some seized and rusted ferris wheel. As I pulled the door towards me I was blinded by immense beams of light. Slowly these gave way to scenes of breath-taking beauty occupied by animals, birds and lepidoptera vanished from the earth. I gazed on graceful big cats, species of birds, bats and butterflies (not flying singly but in vast, airborne shoals). A rhinocerous whose terrible death I had read about wandered free with others, young at their sides. Meanwhile, elsewhere, turtles, marlin and other sea creatures glided in abundance in oceans that were azure blue.

Suddenly I felt his hand clamp my shoulder and draw me back. He slammed the door shut, drew the key from its lock.

Next he spun and pointed me to another portal, at the sides of which gaslights flared. Again he handed me a key, one that this time he took from the depths of his gullet. In mockery he shook from it the soil of the grave into which I had thrown it, and then placed it in my palm. I opened the door. My eyes fell on scenes of wild, bacchanalian excess and debauchery. His face, leaning at my shoulder, broke into a huge grin, the keys in his mouth arrayed in ugly crenellations, like foul stumps of rotten teeth. He flung out an arm like some fairground showman, entreating me to enter. This time it was my turn to slam the door.

Now his cold, metal hand clamped my wrist. He led me to a window at the rear of the house through which daylight was – at last – pouring. As we stood at those panes he bade me look out on the water meadows that reach from what passes for my garden to the slow, green river beyond. Two figures – a woman and a small boy – were crossing the fields, the woman taking the boy’s hand. I knew them instantly.

The vice on my wrist fell away. In its place I felt my mother’s fingers. As I stared through that glass I heard his form in clinking, clunking retreat (though I did not turn to look).

When, hours later, I came-to at my desk, all of the keys were before me in the pouches of their canvas panel – as they are before us now.

The last pocket – the empty one, that I told you of – I have, of course, come to realise is my own. I know it is my destiny to be stitched there as surely as some dead seaman in a sheet of sailcloth. Even now, in your presence, I sense its covers on my cheeks.

I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve always been waiting… inside these walls. I knew that one day you would come, and pick my locks.

So take me now. Take the keys.

Take all of us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew G. Rees has, among other things, been a journalist, a teacher and a night-shift cab driver. He knows a man  who once saw Dylan Thomas order a whisky in a  bar  and pay for it himself. Recently he’s been undertaking a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales, on the subject of imagery and fiction. Previously he taught English at a school in Moscow. His published stories include ‘Compass’, ‘Priest’, ‘Dead Wood’, ‘Bait Pump’ and ‘I’ve Got You’. One, ‘The Tip’, has been described as a ‘short, Gogol-esque masterpiece’. A new story, ‘The Word’, has been published as a numbered limited edition chapbook by The Three Impostors / Wentwood Press, of Wales,  as part of an homage to Arthur Machen. A play by Rees, Dragonfly, has recently been performed professionally on tour in Wales. He is the editor of Horla. The wenbsite for Three Impostors is here: Three Impostors

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