Today is All Hallows’ Eve, a day when (according to Christian tradition which usurped the older Pagan festival of Salmain) ghoulies and ghosties and all manners of evil supernatural beings come out for a night of revelry before the holy All Saints’ Day.
All I know is that it's a great excuse for me to put my dark narrative hat on to tell you a story or two that might send a small shiver down your spine.
Here's one to get us started...
“Don’t encourage them,” he snapped at his teenage son who was rummaged in his pocket for some change for the beggar outside the Underground station. “You’re not helping, just feeding his habit. Probably catch something just handing over my hard-earned cash too.”
He eyed the stinking bundle of rags with suspicion as he meticulously tapped a cigarette out its packet, then looked away and lit it, forming a tent with his hands to shelter the lighter’s flame from the guttering gusts of autumn wind. He closed one eye against the sting of the smoke as the red glow caught and nibbled at the filter paper.
Behind him, rheumy eyes bore into him from behind the cardboard sign “HOMELESS AND HUNGRY. PLEASE HELP”.
Phil grabbed his boy’s elbow and propelled him away, intent on putting as much distance as possible between his only child and the street scum littering the pavement. He changed the subject, driving home the importance of making a good impression, making sure his son understood that he was expected to make a good impression and not let the side down.
The fly that settled on the back of his neck warranted no more of his attention that the filthy beggar they left behind. It was just slapped away and forgotten, but not before biting the tender, open-pored flesh just above his collar.
Later that afternoon, father and son made their way across the Square. The boy’s head hung low, despondent, as Phil jabbed at him with angry words berating him for failing to win a place at the prestigious school he had set his sights on. John bit back his words, knowing they would find no welcome, and stared at the ground before him.
They never saw the beggar, slumped like a deflated sentry at the station entrance, watching the subterranean slowly swallow them as they rolled down the escalator to the platforms. They never saw his minute nod across the concourse to a grossly fat, red-cheeked woman in too-big carpet slippers secured with string, pushing a trolley filled with plastic supermarket bags. Nor did they notice when she whistled down the steps to a young, wasted man lolling against a column.
A low rumble and a gust of stale air heralded the arrival of the train. Phil pushed his way into the carriage, sneering in disgust as he brushed against the dead-eyed, unwashed youth that stepped aboard with his boy. His hand shot out and grabbed John’s wrist as he saw him reaching for his pocket to hand over a few coins for a sandwich or hot coffee. “I told you before. Isn’t it about time you started to listening to me?” he barked. John shrugged an apology to the parchment-skinned junkie and glared at his father’s angry back, wondering where that black mark on the nape of his neck had come from.
Three in morning. Phil’s eyes snapped open in panic, frantically looking into the black before him, trying to make sense of the nightmare images of endless brick-lined tunnels that had shattered his sleep. He waited for his vision to adjust to the darkness, but it remained impenetrable, oppressive. A solid weight sat on his chest and he reached out to dislodge Jet, his wife’s black cat (or witch’s familiar as he liked to call it). His hand met no warm dark fur with a beating heart beneath – just a pool of icy cold darkness.
As he stretched his jowls to shave the next morning, Phil’s eyes were drawn to a mark on his neck, reaching dark fingers around from the back. After a momentary flash of dread, he put all thoughts of malignant melanoma out of his mind, splashed on some aftershave and fastened his collar and tie just a little bit tighter than normal before heading out the door for his morning commute.
On the train, he enjoyed more breathing space than usual, his fellow passengers giving him a wide berth. Not that it bothered him – better not be rammed up against the scroungers, losers and filthy foreigners scattered through the wagon heaving with commuters. It didn’t occur to him that the black mark reaching around to his larynx or his waxy ochre-tinged skin might have something to do with it.
The train lurched to a halt between stations. Suppressed groans of annoyance floated above the passengers as they waited for it to start moving again. It didn’t. Instead the lights blinked out plunging the carriage into darkness. The faint glow of a dozen mobile phone screens bounced off the windows and penetrated the gloom beyond. Grimyy bricks walls looked back at the commuters. Phil shuddered, shrugging off vague memories of his nightmare and trying to harness his racing pulse. His hand strayed to the back of his neck, nervously playing with the place from where the stain was slowly but surely spreading. Unknown to him, a new spot was rapidly forming on his left cheekbone.
The lights flickered back on and the train creaked back into motion. Passengers exchanged looks of annoyance and tutted at the ceiling. Phil drew a juddering breathe and exhaled with a shaky wheeze, clutching at the upright pole for support. At the next stop, the train spilled out its load of city wage-slaves, Phil among them. He shifted his briefcase to his other hand and held tight onto the handrail of the escalator heading upwards to ground level, emerging in the morning light with a gasp to be greeted by a wide toothless grin from the beggar in his usual spot at the entrance. He looked Phil in the eye, winked theatrically and raised his dirt-engrained fingers to his temple in a mocking salute.
The working day passed like any other. Sat in his cubicle, Phil worked methodically through the pile of outgoing cases, correcting the mistakes of the inept and ingrates he had to work with, never leaving his desk to make small-talk at the water cooler or coo over some idiot’s latest batch of sickening baby photos. His coat felt unusually heavy as he shrugged it on after dropping the last file into his Out box and turning off the lights. His eyes burned and a cold sweat played on his brow. Probably coming down with a fever from one of those low-lifes on the train, he thought.
Stepping out into the evening drizzle, he took care not to slip on the slick pavement, and made his way gingerly to the station. The rain plastered his hair to his head, sending rivulets down his temples. He felt oh, so tired. His vision swam and he grabbed the banister on the steps down the station.
Gasping for breath, he would have cheered if he had the strength. Coming his way, looking the very picture of wholesome youth, was John, arm in arm with some copy/paste girl from his crowd. He reached out a hand to appeal to his son for help, but the boy looked straight through him, not recognising his own father beneath the rapid decay his day had wrought. “Don’t feel sorry for them,” he told the girl on his arm. “My dad’s right. It’s all a scam – he probably would have picked my pocket if I’d let him get close enough.”
Defeated, Phil made his painful way down the steps to the platform. It was packed full of damp, steaming commuters. Seeking somewhere to rest, he inched to the end of the platform and leant against the cracked tiles, waiting for the train. It wasn’t due for another another 12 minutes. He let out a ragged sigh and closed his weary eyes.
A wave of unwashed body odour flowed past and a soft shushing noise roused him. He opened his eyes to see the obese bag lady standing next to him in her ill-fitting carpet slippers looking straight at him, smiling, and beckoning for him to follow her. Once she was sure she had his attention, she turned and manoeuvred her bulk past the little gate separating the platform from the tunnel beyond. Phil watched in bemusement as she was swallowed by the darkness, then followed.
It was like stepping into his dream. Brick walls, slimy with something unmentionable, and an undefinable stench of something damp, cold, rancid but very much alive washed over him. But he felt no dread. He let the soft, sweet darkness engulf him as he realised that this was where his life had been leading him all along.
Years of blaming others, condemning outsiders, laying the faults of the world at the feet of outcasts had paved his way in life.
Now, at last, he had changed lanes. This was his journey’s end.
If you’re still in the mood for some Hallowe’en reading, maybe you’d like to check out ‘Incubus’ at http://shemeanswellbut.blogspot.gr/2014/01/incubus.html or ‘Rapture’http://shemeanswellbut.blogspot.gr/2014/04/rapture.html
I’m hoping to add more little dark tales before midnight – both from my own pen and from anyone who wants to add their voice around the cauldron. If you want to join in the 'Around The Cauldron' fun, add a link to your story in the comments, or send me a message with your tale and a couple of lines describing yourself, and I’ll add it as a guest post.