HORLA FICTION (November 2018)





THERE stood the cottage, which I now owned, tucked amongst some laurels.

I stepped out of the taxi, paid the cab driver and picked up my suitcases. So, Uncle Pete had left me this pile of bricks in his will? It didn’t look too bad from outside, but I would rather have had the money my sister received in the bequest. Selling a remote Suffolk cottage, well away from the nearest village, was not going to be easy. It wasn’t exactly a mansion. Two downstairs rooms, a kitchen, and two bedrooms.

Not quite a family home, but probably some elderly retired couple might want it. There were people about who did not like people. Grouches who disliked company and wanted to get away from humanity. Perhaps those with bird watching or hiking hobbies? A second home for city folk? I decided to place adverts in certain magazines: ‘Ideal main or second home for those who like to get away from it all . . .’

Maybe it wouldn’t be too difficult. There was scope for a pretty English garden behind the wooden fence which, incidentally, needed a new coat of creosote. At the moment the patch inside it was full of thistles and other weeds. The exterior had been pink-washed in the Suffolk manner. There is a country tale that they used to use diluted bullock’s blood, but maybe that’s a myth.

The windows looked ancient: the bull’s-eye panes were bowed. A nice single wave from top to bottom, where the warm air went out and the cold air went in. Chimney looked stable enough and the roof slates were all there, so far as I could see. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too hard to sell at that. Plenty of romantics in the world, bless their cotton socks. In fact, I was beginning to think I had got the better half of the bequest after all.

And a few weeks away from London, with its familiar places haunted by memories of Julia, would probably do my mental state a great deal of good.

As I put the key in the lock and turned it, I was aware that the sun was going down. I hoped there would be bedding around and that there was some means of heating food. I’d brought a couple of ready-meals with me. Tomorrow I could order some groceries from the nearest supermarket, which was God knows how far away, on the other side of the marshes, probably.

Inside the cottage it smelt damp and musty, but switching on the light I found the electricity had thankfully been left turned on and I didn’t have to search for a fuse box. In the living room there was a fireplace with logs in the grate: matches, kindling and an old packet of firelighters. Good old Uncle Pete. When I tried them, they still worked, and I soon had a blaze. It wasn’t that cold, being early Autumn, but the whole cottage needed warming up and possibly airing. If the sun came out in the morning I could open a few windows.

Next, a tour of the upstairs revealed some bedding and the toilet and bathroom. I switched on the water tank heater and felt I was right on top of things. It was only then I took that kick in the guts from that memory which wouldn’t go away: Julia’s last words. ‘I never want to see you again’.

I had tried contacting her, before leaving London, hoping that the year which had passed might have changed her mind, but that hope was futile. Standing there alone in the cottage, I felt absolutely bereft. You would have thought I had got over her by this time, but if anything my yearning for her had increased. I lived simply to find some way of getting her back by my side. I lived with the hope that one day the hollow man that was John Callaway would become whole again

All right, so I wept. We men are allowed to do that these days, without being called pansies. God, oh God, it hurt. I felt my insides had been torn out and there was nothing there to keep me standing upright. I loved her so much. Yes, I knew that feelings had never been strong from her direction, but that didn’t make it any easier to take the separation. Hell, it’s an old, old story, quite banal.

She had given her reasons for wanting to break up, and so far as she was concerned they were sensible, sound and legitimate. Yes, the word ‘forever’ had come from both our mouths, but obviously her forevers were shorter than mine. First came the anger: did she think she was irreplaceable? Fuck her! Then the deep hurt: how could she do that to me? Finally, the whining, pleading, calling her in the night until she blocked me from her phone. I still wanted her though. I ached for her. I knew I was being pathetic, pitiful, and that I should swallow hard and take it on the chin, be strong, get on with life. But love turns us into pale little whining creatures, sniffling, ‘Why? Why?’

After a chicken tikka masala sluiced down with a good slug of brandy, I went to bed. I slept badly on my uncle’s bed, which had springs like railway sleepers. The bedding smelt fusty too and the pillows were stained. My own stuff was coming from my last lodgings, but not for another week. I had to put up with what I’d got, though I did arrange the delivery of a pillow by phone when I ordered the groceries. In the middle of the morning I decided to take a tour of the estate.

Out back, there was an apple tree and little else. As already stated, the front garden was chock with weeds. I was no gardener, that had been Julia’s province, so both back and front would stay the way they were until I could get help. The décor inside wasn’t all that bad, but I knew that to sell a house you need to use unexciting colours on the walls and Uncle Pete had painted one of the bedrooms orange, and the wallpaper in the living room and hall was of the flock kind you find in Asian restaurants.

There was only one picture in the whole house, which surprised me, because though Pete had been no artist himself, he did visit the galleries when in London. The work, if I may call it that, was on the living room wall. It was a seascape, or to be entirely accurate, a riverscape. Beyond the marshy creek area, over the water, there was a boat on the far bank being piloted by a dark figure. The boat was coming towards the viewer. A simple-looking craft with the prow cutting through a placid waterway. Quite a peaceful scene really: twilight, given the dismal atmosphere. There were no trees in the scene, just marsh grasses and muddy inlets. A burnished-bronze sun, or perhaps the moon, lay dim behind a misty sky. There were one or two attempts at generic birds: linked black eyebrows. Not an inspiring piece of artwork, by any means. Even the frame was nothing to write home about.

There was no television in house, no internet, I had only my mobile phone to keep me connected with the outside world and the signal wasn’t good on that either. I sat down on one of the overstuffed armchairs and brooded. Looking round I could see a bookcase full of books, so I got up and inspected the titles. Most of them were tatty paperbacks: crime stories, fantasy, thrillers. There was one shelf with non-fiction. Some books on birds, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, historical works, Japanese art: a pristine copy entitled HIROSHIGE, a Life Application Bible and tucked away right at the end of the row, a coffee table book on Greek and Roman Mythology.

I took out and opened the Hiroshige and looked at pine trees covered in snow, lovely curved bridges being crossed by men in conical hats driving oxen, fish, birds, thorn trees clinging to misty mountain ledges. Then I glanced through the mythology of the Ancient Greeks and their copycats, the Romans. The pages were full of gods and goddesses, unfortunate humans caught up in hybrid situations, and lesser figures of the pantheon, also semi-deities such as Achilles and Orion.

After a while I got bored with the names and stories and stared out of the window. A walk. That’s what I needed. A nice long walk in the countryside to protect my sanity. I went crossed the living room to the door, glancing at the picture on the wall as I did so. The boat and the man paddling it looked a little larger in the morning light.

 ‘. . . upon a painted ocean,’ I quoted. ‘Or rather, a painted river.’

Once outside in the chill air, I felt a little better. The trees were taking on the colours of autumn and were beginning to shed their coats. There was a brisk wind close to the ground, shuffling the leaves. A blackbird seemed to be trying to rake them into small heaps. However, the skies were grey and dismal: one of those mournful days that upset the Roman soldiers so much when they invaded Britain in 55 B.C.

I strode briskly through a woodland, hunched into my overcoat, looking for animal life, but seeing very little. Eventually I came to a winding path that led down to a waterway.

When I reached the shore, I was surprised to realise this was the river estuary in the picture. Either Uncle Pete had painted the thing or had someone do it for him. I was even more startled when I looked out towards the far bank and could see a figure rowing a boat very similar to the one in the picture.

For a moment I was quite disconcerted, but then it did occur to me that it might be a ferry of sorts. There was a ferry in Southwold which took tourists across the Blyth to Walberswick. Another in Old Felixstowe, which went over the Deben to Bawdsey. This scene was probably a familiar one and therefore represented by the painting’s artist.

‘You’re rattled,’ I told myself out loud. ‘Get a grip, man.’

I hurried back to the cottage after that, remembering that I was expecting a delivery. Indeed, the Orcado van was parked when I got there, with a puzzled-looking driver peering up at the bedroom windows. ‘Sorry,’ I said from behind, making her jump, ‘went for a walk.’ She turned and shook her head a little, as if to say ‘never mind’ and proceeded to unload the goods. I had ordered the groceries from a nearby town’s Waitrose which also had a John Lewis store attached, so the pillow was in the same vehicle.

The delivery driver politely refused a cup of tea and drove off once the stuff had been unloaded. I started to unpack the groceries and stack them. Once that was done I made myself pot of tea, lit a fire, and then sat down to read a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams, which had been amongst the books on the shelves. I was particularly impressed by his short poems, especially the one called ‘El Hombre’, which spoke of the courage of the Morning Star, still shining bravely in a desperately unequal rivalry with the rising sun.

I felt I could learn a lesson from that star, which I read in the notes was probably Venus. If the morning star could shine alone, surely so could I? I had to get a grip on myself and find the emotional and mental courage to stop dreaming of the past, stop wishing for an impossible future, start living in the present. Williams, a Spanish-American poet, seemed to have an insight into courage in real life.

I did have a kind of vague gift of paranormal feelings – I knew when Uncle Pete was about to die without being told. I just had this premonition of his passing and was not surprised when I received the news of his demise.  However, presentiments like that don’t help you much when you’re suffering from a shattered love affair. You need sturdy, iron courage to ignore the hurt and the yearning for what was lost.

That evening, when I went up to bed, I was astonished to note that the boat and its rower were even larger – closer? – than when I’d seen it in the morning. A chill went through me. What was happening here? Was my fevered brain warping my perception of reality? I stared hard at the picture and could see that the figure in the boat – now standing – was beginning to have recognisable features. I don’t mean I knew him, I mean I could now see a definite nose, a mouth, dark impenetrable eyes.

It was alarming. Surely, I thought, I would have noticed those features before, if they had been so detailed? I went up to bed with some foreboding. My instincts were to take down the painting and throw it on the fire. However, if it was my tortured brain doing the distorting, then destroying the picture would have no effect on my mental state. I decided to get a very good sleep with a soft new pillow.

Perhaps the morning would bring a clearer, fresh mindset. Another Williams’ poem came to mind entitled ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, upon which everything at that precise moment in time depended as it stood there shining with the morning dew.

Respite was not to be had in the morning. The boat was now halfway across the estuary, the black figure now bold, its grey, gaunt face grim with purpose. It seemed to stare at me with a particular possessiveness that gave me cause to feel a terror I had never experienced before. I hastily put on my outdoor clothes, boots and hat, and went hurrying to the river’s edge. I stood in the dank marsh grasses and whimpered as I looked out upon the waters.

There it was, the same craft, the same boatman, both in the same position as their copies in the painting. There was a determination in the stance of that figure with the oar in its fists. The worst of it was, I thought I now knew who he was.

It was Charon, the ferryman who carried dead souls across the River Styx. Was it him? If it was and if I was the one he was after, then I decided I would not visit this place again. If I were not here, he could not have my soul, surely? What I would do, I decided firmly, was leave the cottage and go back to London. This was a figment of my imagination and I would have no part of it. It was loneliness, heartache and solitude that was to blame for my current delusions. 

I knew what had caused it too: reading that damn book on Ancient Greek mythology. I was ever too influenced by stuff like that, especially with my ability, or perhaps it was my affliction, to be able to sense things outside non-physical forces.

When I got back to that lonely, lonely cottage, I actually collapsed inside. What was the point of living, if this was life? This ugly empty existence without Julia. Perhaps tomorrow I would go down to the river and accept what happened to me. If it was all in my head, then nothing would occur. If it wasn’t, then perhaps the best thing for me would be to go with that hooded creature in his boat, over the water. Hades, the Underworld, could not be worse than this. At least there would be others there, amongst whom I could mingle, become part of. They probably wouldn’t be the best of companions, but they would be company none-the-less.

I would no longer be alone.

 My mobile rang.

 It was Julia.

 ‘John? Where are you?’

 She sounded agitated and upset.

 I was shocked to hear her voice, the voice I had not heard for over a year. For a moment I couldn’t answer. My heart was thumping against my ribs.

‘John? That is John Callaway? Are you there? For fuck’s sake, answer. I know you hate me now, for what I’ve done, but I need your help. John?’

‘I – I’m here, Julia. Not angry. Not at all. Just a bit startled to hear your voice. What is it? Of course, I’ll help if I can. There’s no malice . . .’

It seemed to me that she was hardly listening, because she blurted out a story about being thrown onto the street out by her current partner. She had only the clothes she stood up in. Could she come round to my flat and talk. She had made a dreadful mistake. The man she had been living with was a bastard, a fucking bastard, who wanted everything and gave nothing. Could she come to my flat?

‘I won’t stay long, if you don’t want me to. I just need to get my mind settled. You know how unsettled I get sometimes. You always understood that. I loved you for that, John. Just a while. A drink, maybe? You were always a good listener, too. I admired that in you . . .’

‘Julia, I’m not in London. I’m in the wilds of Suffolk.’

There was silence for a while, then, ‘Where? Where is it?’

I told her, but then I said, ‘Look, I’ll come back to London. I don’t have a flat there anymore, but we can go to a hotel or something. Not for anything but a talk, of course,’ I added hastily, thinking that the word ‘hotel’ might imply that I wanted physical intimacy.

‘No,’ she said, firmly. ‘I’ve got to get away from here. He’ll come after me, when he calms down. He always does. He has these wild tempers . . . I’ve had enough, really enough this time. If I come out there to you, he’ll never be able find me.’ There was a that’ll teach him implied in the tone. ‘Yes, that’s the best thing. Don’t worry, I’ve got money. 

‘I take the train to Woodbridge, don’t I. Then what do I say to the cab driver? How do I get to your cottage? Oh, it sounds idyllic John. Really. I think I could get my mind settled out there in the countryside. Is it a beautiful cottage, John? Oh, how I’ve missed your calmness, your common sense . . .’

Missing my ‘common sense’ didn’t exactly thrill me with its implications regarding my character and personality. Is that how she saw me? A stolid, sensible, no nonsense fellow. Not exciting really, but reliable and a good shoulder.

Nevertheless, I gave her instructions on how to get to me and ended the call. I was having mixed emotions. Elated, definitely, but also worried that another can of worms had been opened and I was bound to be hurt again. Actually, I really didn’t care. My prayers had been answered. Julia was coming back to me. Perhaps just for the night, but hopefully for good. Maybe she had learned that a stable relationship was better than running around loose, no matter what excitement it generated.

I forgot all about Charon and his nasty little craft.

When Julia arrived, she didn’t stop talking for at least two hours. She rattled on, first about ‘the bastard’ with whom she had lived for two months, then I learned he was about third in the line of lovers A. M. (After Me). I didn’t care. She was here, with me. I hardly listened to the meaning behind the flow of words, I simply let it all wash over me. It was just so wonderful to hear her voice again, to see her animated face, to smell her hair, to touch her ever so casually when I helped her take her coat off, even to taste her just a little when I kissed her hello.

Julia, my lovely Julia, here with me by my side again. What good fortune was on my head, in my hands, to have and to hold. This was my beloved. We were meant to be together. It was meant to be. God had meant it to be. Humanity had meant it to be. Nature had meant it to be. The Universe had meant it to be. It was meant to be, to be, to be. This imperfect mantra went round and round in my head, until I felt dizzy with joy.

‘Let’s go to bed,’ she said suddenly, stubbing her cigarette out. ‘I need you to make love with me.’

And so to bed.

We made love, she like a tigress, me like John Callaway.

In the middle of the night I got up and went downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee laced with brandy. I was too giddy with whirling thoughts to sleep. Once I had the coffee in my hand I stood by the embers of fire, accepting the last warmth it had to offer. Then I made the mistake of looking up. There he was, his face hard, the lips tight, the eyes terrible. Charon. He was almost at the near bank. I stepped back away from him, even though he wasn’t moving, was only watercolour paint on paper.

Was I still hallucinating? Were my perceptions still distorted, even though she had come back to me? Perhaps this strange episode was actually happening? Well, if it was and he was determined to get me, I was equally determined he wouldn’t. To get me on board, I had to go down to the riverside, which I had no intention of doing.

‘You’re a fool,’ I said, laughing. ‘I can’t take you seriously. You can’t hurt me. There’s no way I’m going to let you. I’m here and you’re out there, stuck on the river with no soul in sight. Go home to the other side, to Hades, or whatever you call it. You’ve come on a wasted journey. Yesterday I might have let you take me. Yesterday I wanted to die. Today I’ve got something to live for and I’m not going anywhere.’

The eyes in the picture burned into mine with a hate I had never thought possible of any creature. During my short time in the cottage we had become enemies. Bitter enemies. I could see by those eyes that Charon didn’t just want my soul, he wanted to destroy me. If he got me in that boat, I would be at his mercy, to do with as he wished. Some dead souls might be delivered to the right destination, but what if there were another journey’s end for those he had taken against?

I knew from my reading of Greek myths that the gods were nasty, vicious, vindictive creatures when they wanted to be. Look what Poseidon did to Odysseus! Sent him through years of hell before letting him go home. Or what Athena did to Arachne for challenging her to a weaving match! Turned her into a spider. The Greek gods were not pleasant creatures and Charon was one of their number. A minor god, yes, but in his craft he was omniscient and had full control of his passengers.

I went back to my bed full of foreboding for my safety.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke with the sun on my face. I reached round for Julia and found her side of the bed empty. Putting on my old flannel dressing gown, I went downstairs to find a note on the kitchen table.

‘Gone for a walk. Jx’

Gone for a walk, where? I looked through the front window. She was nowhere in sight and must have slipped into the woods. At that moment I just hoped she’d stick to the paths, because it was easy to get lost in there. Turning to leave the room to get dressed I found myself face to face with the painting. My heart missed a beat and I gagged with fear. Charon was on his way back over the river, into the dense autumn mists that covered the waters. There were now two figures in his boat.

Julia’s ragged soul stood staring back at her limp body lying on the bank as the craft was lurching into the currents, towards a thick wall of fog.

Charon’s eyes were bright. He was grinning at me.




Garry Kilworth lives in East Anglia, England. He has an honours degree in English from King’s London. He has been a professional writer for 40 years and has had more than 90 novels and collections published. Despite his ‘great age’, as he puts it, he still finds great joy in writing genre fiction, mostly SF, fantasy and horror.
His website is here garry-kilworth.co.uk
Work by him can be found via infinityplus.co.uk/infinities and sfgateway.com