HORLA FICTION (January 2019)



by Matthew John Fletcher

THE white Art Deco block finally hove into view.

It gave the impression of an ocean liner that had veered terminally off course, running aground on the edge of the common. With its trim lines it seemed to silently admonish by way of contrast the bland sprawl of the failed sixties experiment in social living that had been conducted in its vicinity, the residue of which had undergone disquieting, unforeseen mutations.

In sight of the windows, the figure slowed down a little and made a show of casually fishing out its keys. Once inside, however, it hurried across the thin red carpet of the deserted lobby in a state of obvious agitation, took the brass-railed staircase two at a time, turned right on the landing, stopping outside a white door with a brass number ‘3’ at the top. Manically rummaging through pockets, it fumbled a key into the lock, turned, put a shoulder against the door and disappeared inside.

The figure collapsed back against the door, sagging at the middle. As it straightened up, it resolved itself into the form of a man in his early twenties whose clothes seemed a size too large and whose eyes held an apprehensive look.

These eyes now peered out of the window, taking in the tree branch whose green leaves threatened on every whim of the breeze to assail the garishly coloured glass of the upper pane. He shuddered slightly and made his way over to the sofa bed at the other end of the room. It was, as he had left it, in sofa mode ready for day-use and he simply threw himself onto it without removing his shoes.

Today his running joke about the cushion being determined as a noun to give the lie to its cousin the verb failed to bring a smile to his face. Right now, he didn’t care how hard the cushion was, nor even how many previous tenants having done who knew what had reduced the nap of the sofa bed’s brown fabric to a smooth and slightly greasy sheen.

He turned on to his right side in order to avoid the sound of his heart thudding in his ears and lay there trying to regulate his breath as the beginner’s guide to meditation had instructed. The swift percussion eased itself into a less urgent tempo and, gradually regaining control of his mind, he began to retrace his movements in an attempt to pinpoint where it had all started.

Town had been fine. Yes, there had been absolutely no problem in town. He had spent a long time with the ties. It had come down to a choice between the blue and the burgundy and he had, after giving the matter considerable thought, settled on the burgundy. He could imagine the dull glow of the burgundy tie adding a touch of vibrancy to the sensible grey of the new suit.  

Yes, he was sure of it: town had been absolutely fine. What then of the tube? He considered. He was by no means enamoured with travelling on the underground and he could still remember the dread sense of claustrophobia that had gripped him on those first couple of occasions when he had been new to the city, forcing him off the train a full three stops before his destination in a desperate search for air and open space. However, that was now months ago now and the memory had almost faded amidst the sensory onslaught of his burgeoning new life.

No, the tube had also been fine, he was sure of it. In fact, the carriage had been almost empty, it being late morning on a weekday and he had had no problem finding a seat. He’d spent the time imagining what his first day of work might be like, how the people whom he had briefly met at interview and whose faces he could now scarcely recall would respond to his presence on a daily basis. On a whim, he had decided to walk back across the common and had got off at an earlier stop.

He moved a knee in a futile attempt to get comfortable and stared into the darkness that lurked between the arm of the sofa bed and the disobliging cushion.

And then there had been the hairdressers. It was situated on the road leading from the tube station to the common. He wouldn’t have noticed it ordinarily, the place blending into its background in the same way as everything seemed to blend into its background in the arid streets this far south of the river. But a bright red easel cradling a blackboard with writing in clean white chalk had caught his eye.

He had stopped to read the board, the river of pedestrians momentarily parting around him, only to re-form a few feet beyond him in its inevitable movement towards the green delta of the common. A suspicion that he should honour his first day at work with a haircut had propelled him inside.

Seated on the leather settee in the waiting area, he had idly picked up one of the less dishevelled of the out-of-date magazines that covered the glass-topped coffee table and started reading an article entitled ‘The Well-Dressed Man’. He hadn’t yet reached the section on shirt-and-tie combinations – his primary motivation for selecting the article – when he had heard his name spoken.

He looked up at the professional smile of a girl holding a white bundle of cloth. He hurriedly closed the magazine, put it down on the table and stood up, holding out his arms as she helped him into one of the white capes used to keep falling hair off clothes.

He had followed her into the haircutting area, taken the seat she pointed to and, looking into the mirror in front of him, spoken in generic terms of the sort of hair cut he typically chose. The face in the mirror had registered understanding and the soft snip of scissors began to buzz in his ear like a gnat with over-developed mandibles.

It hadn’t taken him long to notice the crack. Not that it was particularly striking: it was a small crack that ran diagonally from the bottom of the mirror, about two thirds of the way along, to the right edge of the mirror, around the same distance down from the top.

A word dredged up from distant dismal memories of maths lessons at school came back to him: scalene.

If he was not mistaken, that was, geometrically and mathematically speaking, the very word that described its form. The crack had taken on a black tinge, as if the impact – surely accidental – to which it owed its genesis had occurred some time ago.

Soon bored with his discovery, his eyes had wandered elsewhere. He had reconnoitered via the intact majority of the mirror the room behind him; he had observed the angled head of the hairdresser intent on her work. By way of variety, he had tried looking to his left, but his head was soon guided gently but firmly back to the centre line. And then his eyes had fallen once more on the crack.

He felt himself strangely drawn to it; indeed, it occupied the only spot on which he could easily fix his gaze without causing undue strain to the muscles of his eyes.

It was only later when he felt a tap on the shoulder and saw in the mirror in front of him the back of his head displayed in a small mirror angled behind him that he realised his eyes hadn’t once moved from that ugly imperfection on the surface of the glass.

He had paid and left, choosing the path which cut diagonally across the common. It was shortly afterwards that it had happened. That much was clear at least. He had got about half way across the expanse of green and was enjoying being out in the sun. The dull roar of traffic heading north into the centre and south into the etiolated extremities of the city formed a sort of drone that was not unpleasant.

(Cont next column)

As the breeze quickened, he thought of Monday, the start of his new career, and he had the impression that he was walking into his own future, physical action edging towards metaphor. Then the world turned upside down and the ground was pulled from under his feet.

That’s the only way he could describe it. His feeling of fresh anticipation had suddenly been replaced by one of abject fear. The dull roar of the traffic took on an ominous note, the breeze died away and the heat seemed to rise up around him. The sky became a bronze dome which pressed down upon him.

Down, down, down.

An image of his head squashed open like a walnut, brain dribbling whitish grey onto the green of the grass struck him with all the force of prophecy.

He beat his fists against the cushion. No. No. No. No no no no no. The stifling monotony of a London afternoon crept up on him and the walls of the cramped flat ballooned inwards. His mind bolted like a horse startled by a viper and careered through strange pastures and along obscure paths.

It took a heroic effort to get it back under some semblance of control. It was only towards dusk that his heartbeat slowed, and the walls ceased to bulge quite so badly. He sat up and stared at the far wall until all evidence of its recent elasticity had completely disappeared.  

At some point he must have dozed. He woke up and tried to bring the red glow of the alarm clock into focus. He remembered the arrangement he had made to go for drinks, decided to break it, but the thought of sitting alone in his room, wide awake as the red digits counted down to Monday scared him. Out of the corner of his eye the wall began to buckle inwards. He decided a night out would do him good.

He found them in the beer garden. The night was unseasonably warm, and the air seemed to crackle with static electricity. A feeling of suspense charged the atmosphere. He was reminded of the tension backstage in the hour before the curtain goes up. Spring was here, and summer would be coming. Winter was behind them. He looked around at the faces of his peers. They seemed different. But how? Then it struck him: they were in the process of change.

This short period between the end of University and the start of employment obviously corresponded to a brief pupal stage. He found himself speculating as to what things of wings and colours might emerge from those temporal chrysalises but managed to stop before he got too far in. A drink appeared in front of him and he gulped at it greedily. He made an effort to get involved in the conversation and felt the black mood slipping away.

By the second drink it had gone, and his normal self was back. The self that had, a mere matter of hours ago, cowered on a sofa bed in a rented studio flat as the afternoon faded into evening was scarcely recognisable.

Someone started talking about Art. It was a conceit of theirs to do so, all the more so since they were now almost all of them without exception bound for office life.

Amidst all the bantering talk of selling out and references to Faustian pacts, he found himself thinking that the truth for most of them was far more prosaic: they were running smoothly along the paths to which upbringing and environment had intended for them all along and, barring some unforeseen event or weird aberration, would undoubtedly go on to moderately thrive and breed offspring that would in their turn choose similar paths.

He felt the familiar feeling of pressure returning and he shook his head to clear it and made an effort to focus on the conversation.

The precocious pupil of Verrocchio was mentioned, which was a cue for shouts of derision; Da Vinci wasn’t deemed esoteric enough at this early stage of the evening.

But in a sudden up-rush of intellectual contrarianism, someone decided to run with it. In the confident tones of the expensively educated, this art historian-about-to-turn-banker postulated that the assured lines of the maestro’s famous beauties, his Madonna of the Rocks, the St Anne in the Louvre, had only been made possible by the fevered intricacies of the grotesques, a Dionysian counterpoint, as it were, to the Apollonian. Another, a classicist in the process of transforming into a lawyer, took the argument a step further, suggesting that the strangely distorted faces which the artist had rendered so vividly were a product of exactly the same technique of inspiration which had produced the things of harmony and beauty; that is to say, the way in which he would deliberately stare at a surface until the hairline cracks, fissures, mottlings and other natural blemishes in the stone, brick or marble resolved themselves into the image of a face, or a hand, some thing of beauty, or else of some fantastic hybrid otherwise only glimpsed in delirium.

He found his eyes drawn to the wall that ran along the length of the beer garden. Red brick, with splashes of whitewash here and there, it must have been standing for a century or more. Its surface, mottled, pitted, lined with cracks, spoke eloquently of years endured in this corner of the metropolis, of storms and snows, wars, busts, booms, high days and holy days, all the raucous pleasures taken at every possible opportunity by the city’s inhabitants.

And as he looked, the cracks, the spots, the blemishes began to coalesce, like blobs of quicksilver running together in the process of creating something monstrous and strange.

What had begun as a mere intimation now hovered on the borders of the definite. He knew it wanted but a moment more and the image would be fully formed. That image which, now he considered the matter more carefully, must have begun to take shape in the cracked mirror that morning and whose essence had borne down upon him like a bronze dome on the common.

He recalled the obscene bulging of the walls in the flat. The thing, whatever it was, had doubtless been patiently lurking all afternoon in anticipation of just such an opportunity.

There was not much time. It was almost through.

He stood up abruptly, muttered something about an early start the next day, raised a hand in farewell and left to general astonishment. Once outside on the street he walked quickly. He was careful to keep his gaze fixed dead ahead, so as to avoid looking at either the dark cracks that he felt multiplying between the concrete paving stones beneath his feet, or the hairline cracks that he suspected were surrounding him, creeping up the walls of the buildings to his right and left like thin black worms.

He knew that if he could just keep his mind occupied, then it would all be all right.

A hobby would be helpful. He felt a pang at his callow refusal to take golf lessons at university. No matter, that could be easily rectified. There was a club a mere five stops down the line. Yes, golf would be just the thing to keep his mind occupied

He thrust his head forward in a show of determination and strode homewards through the south London night, the lurid orange smudge of the streetlights forming an ironic aureole around his freshly-cut hair. 

As he walked, the sky pressed down upon him and the inevitability of summer’s coming, bringing hot airlessness to the dusty streets, gave rise once more to feelings of terror. For he felt that, somehow, when the sun stood still in its declination and the dance of the noonday devil was at its most abandoned, it would be then that the cracks would really begin to show through.    

Matthew John Fletcher is a British writer based in Athens, Greece. He is currently working on his first short story collection. He graduated with an MA in English and German Literature from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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