Horla Fiction (June 2020)

 

THE NEED TO ESCAPE

by MATTHEW DAVIES

 

THE cottage was somewhere on a hill in Tenby – if that’s the right place; it might not have been Tenby at all.

We stayed there for a week. In my memory, the rooms in the cottage change shapes, swap positions and some of them disappear altogether, only to reappear the next time I think of that place. But this phenomenon isn’t just a result of my memory playing tricks on me; this happened for real while we were staying there. Rooms changing shapes, swapping positions and so on was a common occurrence, from my perspective at least.

My bedroom had a view of the front lawn, which was small with a narrow path running through it. The path went from the small openness of the lawn to a closed-off place between tall bushes and trees, as if making its way into another world. I particularly remember the path because I had a skateboard; it was made of yellow plastic with translucent red wheels. I didn’t skateboard often, but at least it left me with a good memory of the path and how it went rapidly from the small openness of the lawn into the closed-off place between the tall bushes and trees.

There was a good view of the coastline. I remember it mainly because of the way it was revealed after I’d zoomed along the path, through the closed lushest part and on out into a wide-open area. Here there were pavements and roads and hills that drew the eye to the sweeping view. After the darker area on the path, the area enclosed by tall bushes and trees, the bright sweeping view really stood out.

i’d often stop and stand quite still, one foot on the skateboard, while I looked at this view. It was a view that forced my thoughts to catch their breath; a view that began as a vista seen through the tall bushes and trees and ended up as a panorama.

I stayed at the cottage with my brother, Thomas, who is ten years older than me, and his then-girlfriend, Susan. She was friendly towards me and we got on quite well. We joked around a bit, although mostly I didn’t pay her much attention. She had no real authority over me or anything, but she wasn’t a pushover.

One time, she turned and yelled at me when I snapped a tea towel against the back of her thigh. It’s hard to remember her completely; hard to keep her still in my head so I can bend my thoughts around her. For me, she was there and not there. I suppose this was because she was mostly there for Thomas; I was an added attraction, although exactly why I was with them on that holiday I can’t recall. Her skin had an even and unblemished paleness to it that made me think of plastic.

Despite my bedroom’s small size, it wasn’t claustrophobic. I remember lying on the bed, but nothing much else. I seemed to spend most of my time there lying on the bed and reading – if I wasn’t looking out of the window, or if we weren’t out and about as a sort of family unit, hiking or something. During that holiday I was reading a book about a character, a teacher, who was leading an ordinary sort of life until the day he showed up at his workplace, his school, with his arm in a sling and a huge bandage wrapped around his hand.

It turned out that he’d been leaning against his car window when the glass broke and left him with severed tendons. The book must have been about more than that, but that’s all I remember.

As I said, my bedroom was very small. There was a wardrobe in one corner and in the other a chest of drawers with a little mirror perched on it. Although it was not a claustrophobic room, I found it a place from which I felt the need to escape – either by reading the breaking glass book or by gazing out of the window. There was something there in the bedroom, a feeling of gloom. What I mean is that it was hardly a light and airy room: there were undertones of some sort of horror. It was nothing over the top, just a distant horror that clung to the walls. For the most part, I thought little of it, but when I did pay attention I fancied I could sense it moving. The horror became a small crawling thing, something like a confused and dejected animal, dragging itself along near the skirting boards and snuffling at the floor.

On only one occasion did it present itself in a way that was less intangible. I was looking out of the window at the lawn when the sun went behind a cloud. The room felt suddenly cold and I knew I was being watched. I turned around and saw the thing, its ghostly shape, and it was looking up at me. For a moment, I thought I saw something of another world flitting over the surface of its eyes, but before I could react the ghostly thing vanished.

The kitchen was rather small, too. Despite there being enough room in it to snap a tea towel against the back of a person’s thigh, I felt confined in there. With the stove at my elbow it was no problem to reach out and open the fridge door, or lean to one side and do the washing up. There was a small table and four chairs crammed up next to the room’s entrance.

There seemed to be something wrong with the kitchen window. Even when I knew the sun was shining, the window remained dark as if in perpetual shadow, although this was not the case; one sunny morning I checked. The window was brightly illuminated from the outside but when I went inside again it was as if dusk had fallen. During the week we stayed in that cottage, we were always bumping into things in the kitchen’s gloom; the stove, the fridge, the table and chairs.

The bedroom that Thomas and Susan used felt wrong to me. There was something supernatural about it, although it was not at all like the kitchen or my room. Though large and well-lit, I had the feeling the walls were askew, somehow twisted out of shape. I never set foot in that room, which wasn’t difficult as there was no reason for me to do so. I did try to bring up the room’s wall problem with Susan, but she dismissed the idea out of hand.

As their bedroom door was always left ajar, I’d glance inside whenever I was passing by, and it never failed; the walls would appear to have changed their positions since the last time I’d looked. And the brightness was almost too much. The bedroom’s window was out of my line of sight, so one day I checked if the sun was out by running to my room and looking out of the window there. As I’d suspected, the sky was overcast. I then returned to the bedroom and looked in again and there was that same odd luminosity bleaching the walls that were now of course slotted into new positions. It was a supernatural room.

The best parts of that holiday were spent either lying on my bed and reading or skateboarding outside. The escape of reading was comforting, but to be out of the cottage, a distance away from it would flood my mind with a light far superior to that which distorted the bedroom used by Thomas and Susan. I didn’t even need to spend much time outside; ten minutes was enough.

Of course, we all went out together sometimes, and that was fun too, but it was not the same as when I was out there alone, zooming along the area of the path enclosed by tall bushes and trees towards the more open area where the view began. And as I said before, when I got there I liked to stop with one foot on the skateboard and look at the coastline. Sometimes while I was out there on the path my thoughts would dwell on the book I was reading. I’d wonder about the way the accident suddenly happened like that. Was it even possible for a car’s side window to break in such a way? Could glass shatter from the weight of a person’s hand? I thought of tendons severed and how that might feel. If you tried to open and close your hand, would the tendons slide up and down in your arm while your hand remained limp?

The incident that happened started off in the dining room, which is odd because it was the most ordinary room of all. Even though it was dark in there most of the time, it was not the claustrophobic darkness that filled the kitchen. The middle of the dining room was taken up with a heavy wooden table and four heavy wooden chairs. There was a sort of sideboard in one corner with a bowl of fruit on it – and that was about all. I’m not sure if there was a window in the dining room. I suppose there must have been, but I don’t remember it.

We were eating chicken for dinner, chicken breasts with potatoes and peas. Susan lifted her wineglass and said, Bon appétit! I lifted my red currant cordial and Thomas raised his wineglass. At that point, the door between the kitchen and the dining room slammed shut. The light bulb with its little shade hanging from its cable over the dining room table swung back and forth and we all froze. When a few moments had passed, and we’d got over the surprise, we lowered our glasses to the table. I assumed the wind must have got up and blown through the cottage.

I then noticed Susan’s face. She was staring wide-eyed at her right hand. She lifted her hand up and turned it this way and that. Blood! she cried. Look at all the blood! But I couldn’t see anything; her hand looked all right, and her skin still had that unblemished paleness to it. I glanced up at the light bulb with its shade to check that it had stopped swinging and when I looked down again I saw for a moment that there was blood all over her hand. She was now letting it drip on to her napkin that she’d placed on the table beneath it. Before I’d had a chance to absorb what I was seeing, the blood on her hand and on the napkin faded until everything looked normal again. But Susan held her hand out in the same way and moved it back and forth as if allowing the blood to drip in a pattern. After a while, she rested her hand on the table. I thought she’d come to her senses, but the longer she went without speaking the more I knew things weren’t right. Thomas leaned across the table towards her and said, Susan? She stared straight ahead. She looked calm enough, but there was something about her eyes. T

They were motionless, unblinking, and they had an odd glint in them that suggested something untoward was moving through her mind, something wild. Abruptly she stood up, knocking her heavy chair to the floor. She bolted from the room and ran upstairs into my bedroom. Thomas and I chased after her. When we reached my room, we stopped in the doorway. Susan was standing by my bed with my book in her hand. She was reading aloud from it, but softly so that I could not make out her words. Suddenly she looked towards the corner of the room and tilted her head to one side.

“Hello, little one,” she said. She bent down and put out her hand as if to entice something – whatever it was she could see – nearer.

At that moment I felt a cool draft and was immediately aware of a sensation of horror oozing from the walls. Susan glanced around at us and I could see that her face was drawn and her eyes were staring. Before Thomas or I could do anything to stop her, she straightened up and took a couple of steps to the window. She dropped the book on the floor and formed a fist with her right hand. And then she was punching the glass, punching and punching as hard as she could. She began to wail at the same time and in a moment she’d punched through. I don’t remember much else.

She became silent and still. She collapsed on to the floor and there was blood everywhere; on the windowsill, the wall and the floor, on my bed and on my book. Thomas dashed out and came back with one of his belts that he secured around her arm to stop the bleeding. We called an ambulance. I remember waiting for it to arrive, looking out of my bedroom window at the little front lawn with its narrow path running through it.

I could see myself out there on my skateboard moving from the small openness of the lawn to the closed-off place between the tall bushes and trees, then on out into the wide part with that bright sweeping view of the coastline.

 

 

***

Matthew Davies was born in Gloucestershire and has lived in England, Wales and Australia. He currently lives in Norway and works at the University of Oslo. So far, he has written a novel called The Housepainter, a collection of linked short stories called Breathing Space, and many stand-alone stories and flash fictions. Elements of fantasy/horror tend to surface in his work. Initially, he tried to suppress them, before realising they can often reveal an essential part of a character’s personality. Consequently, Matthew does not explain his characters or enlighten the reader with his take on events. In the curious circumstances in which they often find themselves, he say that his characters must reveal themselves through dialogue, action and interaction.

 

Title photo credit. Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer: The image has no direct connection with the fiction.