Charlie woke up with a start. He had a headache, a stomach ache and backache, and while he’d been asleep – or, more accurately, while he’d been unconscious — his nose had bled all over the pillow and crusted his upper lip. His eyeballs felt like they were on fire, despite the fact that the only light in the hotel room came from the bathroom, where the door had been left ajar. He was alone in the rumpled bed, so he imagined the girl had adjourned to the bathroom to clean herself up.
He couldn’t remember her name, but that was nothing unusual. Booze destroyed brain cells and coke destroyed the septum, that was the way it worked, and as long as you accepted that you had to pay for your pleasures, the world kept turning. Nothing worth having was free.
Take Gina, or Gloria, for example. Just another young woman trying to make a living by making the most of what she had to offer. What she had was mostly tits and ass, true, but those commodities she had in abundance. So what if she couldn’t hold a decent conversation on any subject other than TV celebrities, or hadn’t read a book since she left high school, an event he guessed had taken place three or four years before tonight’s festivities?
Charlie didn’t care, he liked her. She was good fun, which was why their business arrangement had turned into a real party. She didn’t ask lots of tedious questions regarding his wedding ring, or his spotless reputation as a local politician, or crazy things like the future. She just gave in and went with the flow, choosing to have a good time and make the best of things. Gina or Gloria was a person after his own heart.
There were two empty champagne bottles on one bedside cabinet, a half-full bottle of Chivas Regal and a coffee mug full of cigarette stubs on the other despite the fact that all the hotel rooms in the world were now non-smoking. No problem with that, no problem with anything, because the manager was a close personal friend, meaning that he had at least as much to lose as Charlie, if he ever wanted to make trouble.
Charlie sat up and pulled himself back to lean against the headboard. It was hard work. Gina or Gloria loved her work, and she was good at it. He looked at the light from the bathroom, although it pained him. He could hear the whir of the fan, but nothing else. Maybe she was on the toilet, squeezing one out. Or watching the Kardashians on her phone.
Or maybe she’d overdosed on something, on some drug he hadn’t given her.
Oh shit, he thought, not again.
He cleared his throat. ‘Hey…’ Still the correct name wouldn’t come. ‘You okay in there?’
A silhouette immediately slipped out through the door and walked across the room, and Charlie stared in shock. It wasn’t the interesting silhouette of a naked young woman. Or the less interesting silhouette of a fully clothed woman, for that matter. It was a man in a dark suit. The man stopped before the TV unit and turned to face the bed. Charlie could just make out dark hair, the dark tie against the white shirt. The man appeared to be drying his hands on a towel.
‘Looking a little the worse for wear, Charlie,’ he said.
‘Been a long night,’ Charlie managed to croak.
The man laughed. ‘Yes. And it’ll be a damned sight longer still.’
The man turned away for a moment to snap on the lamp. In the new burst of light, Charlie saw that the man wasn’t drying his hands after washing them. He was wiping them clean of blood. The white hotel towel was all but saturated with it.
Charlie looked at the bathroom door, listened to the whirring fan. ‘Where’s Gina?’ he asked. His voice shook. He was surprised how fast he’d gone from borderline stoned to stone cold sober.
‘Gina?’ the stranger frowned.
‘Gloria? I think you must mean Gwen.’
That was the name, Charlie suddenly remembered. Gwen. Gwendolyn Frances, named after a maiden aunt who’d died a month before she was born. Gwen, who used her real name, and who openly and trustingly told the truth about everything.
‘Yes, Gwen.’ Charlie looked at the man painstakingly cleaning blood from between his fingers. ‘Where is she? Where’s Gwen?’
The man raised his eyebrows in response to the note of panic in Charlie’s voice.
‘Relax, will you,’ he said. ‘She’s in the shower.’
Charlie glanced at the door to the bathroom again. There was no water running in there.
‘Also in the hand-basin,’ the man added as an afterthought. ‘And the bidet.’
Charlie stared at the man’s face. His expression was that of a man who believed he had just said something richly humorous. But Charlie couldn’t see past the bloody towel.
‘Who are you?’
‘Me?’ the man smiled, dropping his towel into the bin. ‘I’m your new best friend.’
The smile grew wider. ‘Together forever.’
The vase is overfilled with dried out flowers — Calla Lilies, she believes — and the surface upon which it stands is littered all around with fallen petals long since turned to brown paste.
Whole nests of poisoned mice quietly turn to dust behind the mildewed walls.
Constellations of spider corpses crowd the room’s high places and shadowed corners, like dark stars.
‘This is my place,’ she whispers. ‘I belong here.’
She circles endlessly through the dust and rot, and sees not a speck, smells not a whiff.
Many years have passed since her solitary vigil began, but she has not kept count, and now she is lost in time.
At the mantelpiece she pauses and holds out her hands to a cold flame that flickers only in her memory.
‘Fire,’ she whispers. ‘That’s the thing.’
There are noises from upstairs. A thud, a dragging sound, a low ripple of laughter, and then an echoing scream.
She closes her eyes.
She can feel powerful fingers wound tightly in her hair, and stale breath in her face.
Her arms are pulled behind her back and held there, while other hands begin to tear at the bodice of her dress.
‘No,’ she whispers. ‘Not here. Not again, not so soon.’
A collage of overlapping faces take shape before her eyes and threaten to smother her.
One of the faces rings a little bell.
Many little bells.
She claps her hands to her ears, and scatters the faces by stepping through them.
‘I trusted you,’ she whispers. ‘You betrayed me.’
She hurries past the open door to the hallway and the forbidden staircase, with echoes of the past tumbling down it, riser by riser, like a child’s abandoned plaything grown sinister with age.
Along the wall of crooked pictures with frames of peeling gilt, portraits with accusing eyes that follow her.
That judge her, and then condemn her.
‘It was not my crime,’ she whispers. ‘I was ever the victim.’
A sharp turn left at the dust-encrusted Victrola in the corner, away from the clock with its tarnished and web-choked pendulum, its skeletal hands frozen at the quarter hour. But it chimes each and every hour, nevertheless.
Another turn left, back around the dining table littered with broken crockery and the insect-stripped bones of a pheasant carcass.
Under the tall window, an eye upon the outside world now blinded by a cataract of accrued filth.
‘I always liked this room,’ she whispers. ‘It was my favourite from the first.’
Then to the piano she mastered so well that people came from all around to hear her play. Small, intimate parties of fine ladies and gentlemen, fans and cigars, lace and collar studs, parasols and silver-topped canes.
All entranced by the sounds conjured from her instrument, and she, an innocent, entranced by the warmth of their praise.
Lightheaded, flushed, supreme. Beatific, possessed by joy.
Yet to be brought low.
‘I did not know,’ she whispers. ‘How could I have known?’
The piano keys now are the discoloured teeth of an ancient skull. No music has issued from within the cracked case for decades, although she remembers every note as fresh as paint.
She cannot now recall who brought the flowers, or why, but the sentiment behind the gift must have been powerful, for there are so many.
Certainly too many for the small vessel she had found to display them.
The vase is overfilled with flowers — Calla Lilies, she believes.
‘It will have to serve,’ she whispers. ‘For the moment.’
Deep behind the rotting lathe and plaster walls, the cosy nests of long dead mice steadily turn to dust.
In the high corners of the room, the dried out bodies of dead spiders blankly stare down upon her endless circuit as it begins anew.
‘This is my place,’ she whispers. ‘I belong here.’
I’ve been living in my house for about twelve years now, and for all but the first I’ve been waking up at around two o’clock in the morning, and then sneaking down into this basement like a thief.
Technically, I suppose the basement’s my workshop, but I don’t do any actual work when I come down at night. I just hang out for an hour or so, and then creep back up into bed before my wife realises I’ve gone. There’s an old hardback chair down here I saved from the dump, and I like to sit on it and look at the wall. That’s all I do, really. I sit and look at the black mould growing on the white-washed wall, and I wonder about what the future will bring. That’s what I’m doing now.
When we first moved in a dozen years ago the mould was just a small, cloudy smudge at about the height of my knee. My wife said that we’d have to take a closer look at it if it got any worse, and I agreed. But she’s never been down here since then. My wife writes for a living, you see, and she values the privacy of others just as much as she does for herself — so my workshop is as invisible and inviolate to her as her study is to me. Just as well really, because otherwise she’d have a fit.
You see, the mould now covers the entire wall, side to side and ceiling to floor. Mostly it’s black, but in places there are patches of a rank mossy green. In two or three other places there are vivid streaks of crimson. Tonight there’s a new streak, even longer than the others.
Over the years the mould also seems to have changed the composition of the wall itself. Thinning it, refining it somehow. Now the surface is like a delicate but mottled skin, a membrane, and there’s something on the other side that makes it undulate slightly, as though it’s floating on the surface of an uneasy pool. I sometimes hear sounds through it, too, although I have no words to describe what they are, for they are like nothing on Earth. I’ve tried and tried to make some sense of them, but no pictures come to my mind’s eye, no experience I’ve ever had can connect the dots.
I glance at my watch now and see that it’s time to go back upstairs. Dawn will be here soon. I’ll visit the bathroom first to flush the toilet, and if my wife wakes up as I climb into bed, I’ll say that I had to take a leak. This is a line she’s heard so many times before it won’t even register on her consciousness. If she does wake, she’ll snuggle up to me and maybe tell me about the dreams I woke her from, which are always like the fantasy stories she writes, full of dark castles and beautiful princesses and dragons. I would like to tell her about my dreams of the past eleven years, but like the sounds I sometimes hear coming through the thinning wall, I simply couldn’t describe them.
I rise from my chair and begin to climb the wooden steps up to the kitchen. But then I pause. I go back down and slowly approach the wall, peering minutely. After a few seconds, I find that a tiny section of the black mould at around the height of my head has risen proud of the rest, like a scab growing over a healing wound. I reach toward it, but then hesitate. I have never wished to actually touch the mould, despite my fascination.
But I find that I am now unable to resist.
I raise my hand again, dig a fingernail into the side of the scab and quickly peel it off. The wall ripples and shudders as though it has actually sensed pain, and I half expect a flood of whatever liquid lies beyond to come pouring through the hole that I have made. But it is not liquid that comes through. It is a sudden outrushing of air so foul that it instantly makes me gag, and I vomit down the front of my t-shirt. Nevertheless, I do not turn away.
Helpless now to do anything else, I raise my hand once more, hook a finger through the hole in the wall and begin to enlarge it. The sounds which I have never been able to identify instantly grow louder and closer, and I realise that I have to see whatever is making them. I need to.
I vomit again, and my eyes are stinging from the atmosphere of that place beyond the skin of my world, but I do not hesitate now. I know that my moment of discovery may be both terrible and painfully brief, but I cannot stop. I begin to tear my way through the wall, and it starts to come apart in my hands in great strips like pliable shell.
Beyond is the future.