Halloween Special!

In the spirit of Halloween, and because I haven’t posted yet this week, I’ve decided to post a short story I wrote about a group of friends who find themselves in the a little house in the middle of nowhere. I posted a snippet a few weeks back, of a scene that happens much later, but here is the original story. Enjoy!
***

Retreat

Ed finally pinned Deb to the ground. In her remaining seconds, Deb paused her intelligible screams to retaliate spectacularly; she gobbed in his face. Ed however, remained completely in the zone. He didn’t even flinch; he refused to be distracted from his task. Doggedly, he locked Deb’s flailing arms and pressed the t-shirt over her face. She fought obstinately to the last, covering his arms in scratches and bruises and tearing an earlobe as she dragged his hoop earring through it. But in the end, as with the rest, her muffled screams faded to a desperate whimper, her violent squirming collapsed into a pathetic wriggle, and glancing at the house one last time, she eventually lay motionless. The words ‘Free Tibet’ spread across the fabric that spilled out of her mouth.

We watched all of this from the window. It was far too hot to go outside and say goodbye to her properly. All week we’d been hounded by this relentless, unnatural heat. It had kept us trapped indoors, grouped around fans and windows, desperate for a whisper of a breeze to calm the fever. Everything was so laboured, such an effort. Even now, gathered in the living room to observe the spectacle, Alex, Ben, Christy and I could barely concentrate.  We just waited. Waited for the sky to break. Waited for the temperature to fall. Waited for Ed to finish with Deb so we could have some dinner.

 

*

 

We decided to take a trip to the South Downs at the end of term.  It was the beginning of one of those lengthy summers, the kind that drags on so relentlessly that the only thing you can do to puncture the already crippling boredom is run away. So we packed our bags and headed to the countryside, where the weather was supposed to be invigorating and you could lose yourself in the charm of a pastoral scene.

We rented a cottage; a quaint little thing made up of red bricks, wooden beams, vast French windows and a small paved patio. It was surrounded by rolling fields, trees in bloom, a blank sheet of sky and complete seclusion. On one side the sea cut us off from all existence, and on the other the last glimpses of civilisation were scattered across the horizon. It was paradise; vivid and pleasing, and true. Everything was constantly shrouded in sunlight, as if adorned with a golden halo; the reeds beside the duck pond, the simple view of the afternoon, the insects buzzing around our ears. Everything.  For a second, it even framed the people.

For a second, I must stress.

For the second in particular when we first stepped over the threshold, and savoured the crisp air, and drank in the picturesque view. Yes, we would be just fine here, we thought collectively. We repeated this mantra to ourselves, as we brushed aside our niggling issues and roasted meat on a barbeque; as we dispelled the gossip and went for a refreshing swim; as we shut out the uneasiness and lay beneath the stars. Everything would be just fine.

 If the words ‘just’ and ‘fine’ were enough to plaster over the cracks in our group. 

All the cracks. All the rifts in this house. All the spats that would arise during our two week stay in the blistering sun. Not even in three bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a never ending field could we live without the wall paper peeling, revealing the truth. It got too hot. The four of us sharing one room became implausible, an outrage, a personal affront. In this fervour, once strained favours were revoked, manners were brushed aside; simply ignoring our issues was no longer a feasible option. We needed a solution to this solstice, to this endless heat wave.

I was the first to stumble across one.

To say I snapped would be too severe. To say that somewhere in my brain, a screw had come loose, or the cogs were out of sync, or a chemical imbalance had taken place and triggered a totally unprecedented reaction would be missing the point entirely. There was no sudden change; the ill feeling had always been there.  I finally noticed it here; that the elephant in the room was really Godzilla, and the lull that was always at the edges of our conversations was actually an oppressive silence, and the nagging feeling that I couldn’t quite shake was specifically Fran and her stream of meaningless questions. So really, I didn’t snap; I just finally woke up. I woke up and smelt the coffee, the offensive stench of ignorance, and baseness, and desperation that wafted over from her general direction.

It was the most rational thing that I had done since we arrived at the cottage. In the clearest state of mind, I picked up that loose paving stone, (which, more importantly, wasn’t mentioned in the holiday brochure when it should have been), and bashed Fran in the head with it. Repeatedly. In fact, in time to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre that had been playing in my head all week.  As her blood gushed out of the wound and tarnished the perfect turf a rich red, the composition struck me and I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my art project. Oh, and apologising for the paving stone which everyone was adamant would come out of our deposit.

 

*

 

After taking a moment to admire his handiwork, Ed grabbed a towel from the clothes line and sauntered back inside, wiping off the mixture of sweat and saliva that was dripping from his brows. His face was red, his ear was bleeding, and his white shirt was almost transparent with sweat.

‘Jesus Christ, it’s hot!’ he said, fanning himself with the towel, ‘You’d think the sun was about to supernova or something!’

 We all looked up at the sky. It was a battered and bruised shade of purple. Swollen clouds tenuously harboured a storm that would eventually dispel all this searing heat. But presently it refused to break, and instead the heavens teased us as we waited impatiently.

‘I think I might jump in the shower,’ Ed suggested.

‘Don’t bother,’ Ben said, miserably propping up his head in his palms, ‘there’s no cold water.’

‘Really? Shit. I need to get the smell of Deb off my skin,’ Ed groaned, grimacing in disgust, ‘It’s bad enough that I can’t get rid of her voice. It’s still grating on my ear drums.’

Suddenly, he placed his hands on his hips and pushed his chest out, prancing around the room in an impromptu impression of her.

‘Blah blah blah, bleeding heart liberal. Blah blah blah, freedom of incredibly loud speech.’

‘She was pretty loud,’ Alex agreed, as she laughed at Ed’s imitation.

‘Pretty loud? Diabolically loud. SHE ALWAYS TALKED AT THIS DECIBEL, NO MATTER WHAT TONE OF VOICE SHE WAS USING,’ he shouted, matching Deb’s usual volume.

‘She probably couldn’t hear herself over all her bullshit’

‘Even if she couldn’t,’ Ed said, finally flopping down on the couch, ‘the rest of the British Isles could.’

For a moment he was quiet, as if he was running through all his memories of her.  Then he concluded, ‘Fucking Deb.’

Fucking Deb indeed. I don’t know how, but she had managed to be such a bad combination of ignorant and aggressive, that despite the fact she was constantly spouting uniformed drivel, no one was brave enough to contest her claims. She’d only made it this far because she’d been careful with choosing who to rant at. It was either Ben, because he was so docile; Fran, because she was equally unintelligent; or Gabe, because he was too impolite to really pay attention to her. But with Fran removed from the equation, Gabe following blindly after her (he’d tried to avenge his fallen lover, so Alex had strangled him with his own neck tie), and Ben growing increasingly impatient, she’d tried her luck with Ed. Now we’d have to try and fit her in the same plot as her previous targets.

‘We’ll have to bury her,’ I proposed.

‘Yeah, I’ll move her in a bit,’ Ed mumbled, patting his stomach, ‘Is anyone else really hungry?’

 ‘I’m starving,’ Ben grumbled.

‘Shall I go and put some pasta on?’

‘Brilliant idea.’

‘Yeah,’ Alex confirmed. Then, as an afterthought she added, ‘Christie, why don’t you help him?’

I’d almost forgotten about Christie. Up until this point, she had been unusually quiet, perched in the wicker chair with her little legs tucked under her. While the pair were clashing in the garden, she’d been trying to read an old copy of Oedipus Rex. But in the heat, she was reading a page every ten minutes, and every so often her eyes would flick up to check the progress. Poor Christie. She was too delicate for this place. She’d hidden in the living room when I dealt Fran that final blow, and wretched when she saw Gabe’s eyes bulge as Alex tightened her grip. No doubt she would need to lie down soon. Poor, pure Christie.

 ‘Christie?’ Alex pressed. Christie was not distracted by her book this time; she was fixed instead on the towel Ed had just used, that now lay on the floor. She glanced up, once she felt us all staring, and looked from Ed to Alex. One was smiling cheerfully, the other shrewdly.

‘Sure,’ she replied, eventually.

They left the living room. Alex got up from the arm chair she had been inattentively occupying and went to turn the fan up. But it was already at full blast. She shook her head at the lethargy of it all, and remained there, waiting for some sort of draft to cool her down. The fan just continued to provide its unimpressive wheeze, barely rippling her chiffon blouse.

‘I wonder who’s next,’ she said to herself.  She had her back to us, but we could just make out the reflection of her tired eyes in the window.

‘Next?’ Ben asked, puzzled.

‘Well, obviously. This isn’t the final group. It’s an odd number and odd numbers never work out.’

‘And you know Ed,’ I chipped in, ‘He’s so temperamental. I’d hate to be the next person to annoy him.’

‘Regardless of his mood swings, it won’t be me,’ Alex said, self-assured, as she dragged herself back to the couch.

‘I make sure he’s up for breakfast.’

‘Then it won’t be me,’ I said, smiling smugly, ‘because I look after him when he’s ill.’

‘And it won’t be me,’ Ben added triumphantly, ‘because I always pay for the cab when we go out.’

‘So the real question is how long does Christie have?’

‘No, the real question is,’ Alex replied, stretching, ‘garlic bread or dough balls?’

‘Dough balls would be amazing right now.’ Ben moaned.

‘Right now? It would be amazing all of the time!’

Lost in our fantasy of food, we didn’t acknowledge the clattering and clamouring in the kitchen until it ended with a resonant thud. We stopped talking then, listening intently as the kitchen door slammed, looking at each other in bemusement.

‘Well, that was quick,’ Ben called to Ed, ‘What did she do, put too much salt in the water?’

There was no reply, except the sound of feet shuffling along the corridor. The living room door slowly opened, as someone backed inside, dragging something heavy with them. We turned to greet Ed with mock reproachful glares.

But he was not alive to see them. Christie, hair out of place and arms sopping up to the elbow, dragged his lifeless body into the room, wheezing from the effort. His sodden head dripped a watery trail along the wooden beams and the printed carpets. Mentally I calculated the blow to our deposit, as we all looked on in either surprise or intrigue or complacence. It was hard to tell in the silence.

‘What?’ Christie puffed, acknowledging us finally as she caught her breath, ‘I told him a million times not to leave the towels on the floor.’

We reacted accordingly. Alex got up and poured herself a drink from the water jug. She winced as the lukewarm refreshment did the opposite of its purpose, and then sank back into her seat. I looked at Ed; a pool of ruddy water was collecting around his disfigured ear and beginning to stain the carpet. Another fifty pounds off the deposit, I thought. Bloody hell. Ben was now upright; his usually nonchalant eyes were fixed on the open door, as if he expected another person to come through it. His jaws were tense as he considered, no doubt, the rumbling in his stomach and why it still hadn’t been satiated.

‘Shall we order takeaway?’ Christie asked, sitting down and returning to her book.

‘It’s just that, I made quite a bit of mess in the kitchen. It’ll be a miracle if I can clean it all up.’

‘Good plan,’ Alex said, lazily cradling her drink. I nodded in agreement.

‘What do you think, Ben?’ Christie asked.

Her question drew him out of his thoughts. Turning to her, Ben looked at Christie dead on.

‘Oh. Yeah, Chinese,’ he replied, ‘I’d kill for some prawn crackers right now.’

 

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