The maypole dancers are restricted by what’s left of the ribbons. I watch them squeeze past each other with shining faces flushed pink from the heat. Too pink to be skin. More like meat.
To my right, John’s wickerwork bath chair crunches as he shifts. “Raymond tells me you’re writing again,” he says.
I swallow a scowl and nod. Raymond—Ray—John’s doctor. That man can’t smell gas without striking a match. On the hospital green, the dance comes to an end, and as we applaud with the rest of the crowd, it occurs to me that I ought to elaborate. “I’m compiling a book on folklore.”
I sense rather than see his brows twitch. “So.” He tips his head towards the beribboned maypole. “This must be research. And here I was, thinking it a social call.”
“Can it not be both?”
He chuckles under his breath. “Always the opportunist, weren’t you, Dot?”
A memory rears its head. Something I said, long ago. You were telling me about the puddle, John? I burn a hole in the May Queen’s dress, at a loss for where to look.
“I came because I needed Ray’s help.”
“Oh, it’s Raymond these days,” he says. “He’s decided he hates Ray. It’s not doctorly enough.”
I glance up at the balcony behind us, my gaze snagging on a familiar pair of tan gabardine trousers. Ray is there, laughing and smoking with his colleagues. He has a sandwich in hand, a limp, white triangle lined with ham and pickle. I plumped for cheese earlier and regretted it. Good West Country cheddar shouldn’t be left out to sweat like that. I start to say something bitter—Isn’t it a little late to play the good doctor?—when I catch John’s eye. His knuckles are bloodless, clutching the bath chair’s handlebars.
A muscle ticks in his jaw. “What kind of help, anyway?”
“With the bank.”
“Are you in trouble?”
I blink, surprised by his genuine concern. “No. Nothing like that. His name is still on my account. The publisher’s cheques go through him, too. I’m not a child anymore—I want it stopped. I’m thirty-two, for God’s sake.”
“If you needed an agent, I wish you’d asked me. I am your cousin.”
I glance at him. He’s wearing shirt-sleeves to blend in with the merry crowd despite being rather too peaked to look merry himself. Not enough flesh on his bones even sixteen years after the Great War. A misnomer if there ever was one. “You were in no condition,” I mutter. “Besides, you’d have insisted on a bigger cut.”
“Didn’t I deserve one?”
His mild tone takes us both unawares and for a tentative moment my heart dares to lift; has enough time passed that we can make light of what I did? But it’s not that easy, of course. It can’t be. He rolls his bony shoulders and asks, why folklore when I could be telling my own stories?
Why folklore, indeed.
Three days later, Ray—Raymond; but, oh, let’s not give him the satisfaction!—Ray strikes a match in his office and holds the flame to the tip of a cigarette, the window behind him stippled with rain. He’s grown an Errol Flynn moustache three years too late to be fashionable. I long to tell him how silly it looks, but I don’t like to test his temper. I accept a cigarette instead.
He lights me up and leans back, ejecting smoke from flared nostrils. “It’s a little Godless, isn’t it, Dot?” His lips glint beneath the fringe of dark hair, perversely wet. “All that paganism?”
I smile tightly. “In Moreton,” say I, “church-goers leave sprigs of willow and yew at the end of every pew during Easter. No one knows why. Interesting, is it not? When you think of folklore, you think of the absence of God, whereas I find there’s rather too much of Him . . . It must be all the punishment.”
His eyes flick to mine. “What punishment?”
“Rough music. Skimmity rides. Villagers march sinners through the streets, banging pots and pans, and when they get to a lake or a stream, they hold the sinner underwater.” I watch the rain, my unwanted cigarette pincered between my forefingers. “Not long enough to drown,” I murmur. “Just long enough that everything bad gets washed away.”
He taps cigarette ash into the dregs of his brandy.
“Oh, do grow up,” he says.
• • • •
I itch to quit the hospital—and by association, to quit my old self. I send up silent thanks when the good doctor looks up from his coffee one morning and says, “A friend of mine happens to know the last man to have the Dorset Ooser in his possession, or however one says it. You ought to interview him for this little book of yours, Dot. You conduct interviews so well, after all.” He shoots a sly look at John who, as one of the ward’s long-term residents, is taking breakfast with us. His tone is jovial, but ever since I cut him out of my affairs, his eyes say get out, and take your talk of punishment with you. So, I give John a dry peck on the cheek and return home to write my little book.
Although my pride stings, my curiosity is piqued. The Ooser—it variably sounds like osser, wurser, or oozer depending on whom you ask—was a hollow horned head, worn during skimmity rides as a form of humiliation. It was lost around the turn of the century and no two accounts agree on the circumstances of its disappearance. The man who possessed it last must be long in the tooth by now: this could be my only chance at a firsthand account. The thought of squeezing someone for information sickens me, but despite my desire, and John’s urging, that I return to novels, my sales suggest I do far better with another’s words than my own. Therefore, I shut away my unease—away it goes, as unsettlingly smooth as ever—and I make contact with this man, a Mr. Lawrence Durbin; or rather, I contact his daughter, Edith, who has set herself up as something of a broker. She warns me that her father’s time comes at a steep price. I assure her I can pay.
At the tail end of May, I find myself taking a roundabout train to Crewkerne via Exeter, and rapping on the Durbins’ blue front door. Before it opens, I step back and note the pointing. Compared to other, less isolated cottages in the area, the walls are in good repair.
Edith lets me in. She’s grey, lean—but not hungrily so. The first thing she does is put out her palm like a beggar. Money first. One has to admire the sheer cheek. I give her hand a firm shake instead. There’s dirt under and around her fingernails.
“How do you do, Miss Durbin.”
“Miss Miller, how be on? You got here all right.” She asks where I’m staying and I tell her I’ve taken a suite at the old coaching inn, the George, back in Crewkerne; it’s a pleasant walk, and yes, my boots are definitely up to task, and no, I’m not a bit tired.
“But you’ll have to excuse me; I left my purse behind.” I pinch off my gloves, finger by finger. “We can settle another time, once we’ve ascertained how much you’re due.”
“Mm. I suppose you’d better meet Dad, then,” she says, scratching the back of her neck. “He’s through here.”
She shows me into the sitting room. A cream-chested lurcher comes over to greet me, quite the opposite of its master, Lawrence, who watches me warily from the best armchair. I glance at Edith. She assures me she’s told her father about my visit, so I say how do you do to the old man, et cetera; he nestles deeper into the seat.
The room is silent save for the lurcher’s tail thumping the sofa.
“He’ll warm up. Tea?”
She puts the kettle on while I find somewhere to sit, which is awkward because the lurcher won’t let me pass. I settle on the ottoman instead. Despite the season, the upholstery is cold, almost damp, and the room smells vaguely mineral. Like turned soil, exposed worms. Lawrence doesn’t soften until the arrival of the tea tray reminds him of his manners. He asks me my name.
Edith shakes her head, pouring tea. “I did tell you, Dad. I swear it’s in one ear and out the other these days.”
“It’s quite all right,” I say. “Sir, my name is Dorothy Miller. I’d like to ask you a few questions, if I may.”
Lawrence accepts the mug his daughter passes him and sets it loosely on his blanketed lap. It’s half empty to prevent spills, the tea inside as milky as you’d give to a child. The lurcher comes over to investigate. He scratches the dog’s head.
“You’re not from around here.”
“I live in Bristol, Mr. Durbin—oh, you have sugar? Two please, black; thank you, Edith.” I take the teacup—from a daintier set, saved for best—and return to the conversation. “In fact, this is my first visit to Crewkerne. I understand you’ve not always lived here?”
His lips thin. “I moved here with my employers, the Caves, in the 1880s. They were Dorset folk.” I ask if he’s ever been back to Dorset and he says no, he didn’t leave much behind.
“And it’s just the two of you?”
“Mum passed on a few years ago,” says Edith.
An unexpected pang prompts me to give the usual platitudes. My own mother died of tuberculosis, and the Jutland conflict did for my father shortly afterwards. I was fifteen. My aunt and uncle had room to spare, with John away at the Front, so they took me in. They’re decent people, all told, though I’ll never forget that when my aunt read my first short story, she called it a good effort.
Suddenly, Lawrence looks at me. “Why are you here, Miss . . . Miss . . .”
“Miss Miller, Dad.”
“Why have you come bothering us, Miss Miller? There’s nothing here for the likes of you.”
“Well, what’s this all about, eh?” Lawrence’s voice rises as his grasp of the situation escapes him. John displayed the same disorientation when he came home; senility and war shock aren’t so far off from one another. “What does she want?”
“I’m sorry I’ve not been clearer,” I say. “I’m a writer. I’ve been corresponding with your daughter.”
“She’s Dorothy Miller, Dad,” Edith says through gritted teeth. “She wrote that book you like?”
Lawrence’s eyes flick from me, with my bob and blue slacks, to his daughter, whose sleeves are patched at the elbow. We were born in different centuries. I don’t blame him when he asks what we could possibly have to correspond about.
“I’m writing a book on—well, on folklore, and a mutual friend said you might be able to shed some light on the fate of the Ooser.”
The old man turns puce. “No.”
“I will compensate—”
“—its cultural significance—”
He jumps to his feet. “I got rid of it—why would I invite it back? Get out!”
• • • •
The lurcher’s nosing at something in the hedgerow. A rabbit and her kits, perhaps, or a frog. When Edith whistles through her fingers, she backs off, her find—whatever it was—already forgotten. Daft thing.
“I hope this wasn’t a wasted journey,” says Edith.
She wheezes as she walks, escorting me across the fields to town. By the clock’s reckoning, the day’s getting on, but it’s almost midsummer, so we’re suspended in those queer hours of light between supper and sleep, when a clock’s hands cease to matter and nightingales beckon us outside.
Not wasted, no. Whatever the outcome with Lawrence, it’s good to get away, to breathe unfamiliar air, to purge oneself. To discover what it’s like to be Dorothy instead of Dot. It was Ray who first gutted my name, made it sharp. A name that forces one to bare one’s teeth at the end.
I clear my throat. “What do you know of the Ooser? The Caves left it in your father’s care. He must have mentioned it over the years, surely?”
A smile grows around her mouth as she recalls something. “I wore it once. Must have been in ’01 or ’02.”
“As late as that?”
“Oh, it was in poor shape. One horn missing, hair falling out. Mum wouldn’t go near it,” she adds. “She dint like how the eyes bulged, otherwise it might have been better looked after. Anyway, Dad used to get it out every so often and wear it to scare the local children.”
“I’m sure the little beasts deserved it.”
The lurcher trots ahead of us, lithe as a sickle.
“I begged to try it on.” Her voice is pitched lower than before. “I wanted to take it off as soon as it was on my shoulders.”
“There were no eyeholes,” says she. “The inside was pitch-black and stank like the underside of a rotten log. There was a hinge you could work with your chin, a hinge to open the lower jaw, but you yourself couldn’t talk without working it. When it all got too much and you tried to say you’d had enough, the clack of wooden teeth made it so no one could hear you. I suppose you already know that those made to wear it were dunked in the end? Imagine being held underwater while wearing such a thing.”
You were telling me about the puddle, John?
My foot catches on something. Edith turns to look back at me. Cricket-song surges around us.
“I’m sorry. Is this too much?”
I shake my head. “Go on.”
She says it wasn’t just the dark or the smell or the hollow clack-clack that made her want to tear the Ooser off. It was heavy, solid wood, but there was more to it than physical weight: the Ooser had been placed on the heads of sinners as far back as anyone could remember.
“They stained it, somehow,” Edith says. “It’s hard to get nasty stains out of wood.”
We continue on our way.
“I was a babber,” she says bracingly. “No doubt I let my imagination run away with me. Still, I couldn’t help but believe the thing was evil. I thanked God when Dad said it was gone.”
“And did he tell you where it went?”
Edith sets her jaw. “He’s been saying different things for years—Mum threw it out, it crumbled to bits, an American collector took a shine to it. I thought he was having a bit of fun. Now, I wonder if his mind hadn’t started to go . . . For instance, I once heard him say that a man from East Chinnock came for it, but when I made enquiries there, they knew of no such person. I weren’t surprised—Dad said the man had no head.”
The last hill is hard-going. We catch our breath at the top and then skip down the other side, almost too fast for our feet. As I climb over a stile, I say, “What do you make of that bit at the end? It seemed so specific, so lucid. ‘I got rid of it—why would I invite it back?’”
“I wouldn’t put much stock in his ravings, Miss Miller,” replies Edith. “Uh, talking of stock—I wonder if you’d stop at the bookshop and sign a few copies of Unto the Breach while you’re here? I’m afraid I promised you would.”
My cheeks burn. That rag. Breach was my first bestseller, a collection of war stories from Ray’s earliest patients, including John. The words therein aren’t mine; my name has no right to grace the cover. I’d pulp every last copy if I could.
Edith looks unhappy to have presumed. Might as well put it to use, I suppose. Dot or Dorothy, I’m an opportunist at heart, like John said. Damn him. No, that’s unfair—damn myself. “I’ll sign them, but I expect quid pro quo.” At her furrowed brow, I explain: “A favour for a favour. Your father’s time at no extra charge.”
I bid the dog an exuberant goodbye before the woman can protest.
Night, when it comes, comes fast. Crewkerne’s lamps still run on gas—electricity hasn’t touched this part of Somerset yet—and gas gives off very little light. The George’s inner yard has a pond-water murkiness to it, a depth that’s hard to discern, and I can’t help but imagine someone moving in the stables—or worse, someone keeping perfectly still. I decline supper and head straight upstairs, my heart lurching in my breast.
My room is as cold as a tomb. I kick off my boots and burrow into bed fully clothed. Beneath the blankets, my breath sounds too close to my own ears. If I open my mouth wide enough, my jawbone clicks.
The hinge mechanism catches your chin so you can’t pull your head out, and anyway there are hands on the back of your head—your neck—your shoulders, holding you under.
Oh, I can’t breathe! I fling the blankets away with a yelp.
Those hands—they were as good as mine, once.
When I interviewed John for Breach, talking over the few details about his time at the Front that he felt able to share, he was dark around the eyes. I used my typewriter; I didn’t transcribe longhand because I thought hearing the rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat would do him good. Exposure therapy, Ray called it. When the sound made John cry, I asked if he wanted to stop for to-day. He wiped his nose on his sleeve—I remember being disgusted by that. “No. You’re the only one who talks to me anymore.”
I handed him a handkerchief.
“You were telling me about the puddle, John?”
At this, he clammed up. His foot started jiggling.
• • • •
My pen hangs poised over one of a dozen title pages. By signing these books, might I not induce someone to buy them? The thought of some stranger pawing over John’s memories, the same way I did, pains me. At length, I purchase the bloody things myself.
As I lug them back to the George, Edith catches up with me. Her face is so muzzy with exhaustion, I almost don’t recognise her. She says that since my visit, her father has suffered the most distressing night-terrors. The thrashing, wailing kind. We pass beneath the coaching inn’s arch. The yard glares at us, every excruciating detail of cobble, lead and nail picked out by over-zealous sunlight.
“I shall come by to-morrow and talk to him.”
“No! You’ll make him worse.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. Our voices sound too crisp, too bald in the yard. I draw her aside, close to the walls where the air smells damp. “Things have to get worse before they get better, and an interview might be just the ticket. There are ways of getting a scared man out of a funk, and making him face his fear head-on is one of them.”
Her eyes are flints. “I’ve read your books. Those ways are cruel.”
“They get results.”
“Torture generally does.”
“I think you misunderstand me,” I snap. “I want to have a cup of tea with your father, not put him in thumbscrews.”
“You’re not seeing him. No one is—don’t look at me like that.”
“But this is hardly fair: your father told me nothing! Without his account, the chapter on Dorset will be most unsatisfying.”
She scowls. “I’m sorry a book means so much to you that you’d harass an ill man, Miss Miller.”
A sudden vertigo takes hold of me. I touch the wall to steady myself. “You were quite happy to charge me for the pleasure. Me and many others, I expect.” She flinches and an ugly laugh bruises my throat. I think of the sugar—sugar, at a time when families can’t afford bread!—and the fine tea service; the pointing. “Who else has come asking after the Ooser? Armchair historians, was it? Folklorists? You’ve done very well off your father, I’m sure, so don’t you dare accuse me of taking advantage.”
“Stop saying its name!”
I pull away, baffled. As Edith’s breaths become quick and shallow, and the hand that touches her forehead shakes, my rage dies. All this from a woman who held her hand out for payment before greeting me?
“What’s happened?” I murmur.
She clamps her eyes shut. “It . . . it came for me last night. A man with no head—it makes sense now. And to think I wore it . . .” Eyes spring open. A stumble backwards. An extended, accusatory finger. “Get gone from here before it comes for you, too. Or maybe it don’t matter where you are; it’s quick . . .”
I can get no further sense out of her. My God, she’s gone mad.
The George is on the telephone; as I pass the booth on my way upstairs, I’m tempted to try Ray. Ray, I would say, how do you shake sense into the deranged? And he’d say, what do you need me for, Dot? You got awfully good at it. In the privacy of my suite, I chain-smoke—something I haven’t done in years. I chuck copies of Breach onto the fire as penance. There’s a clear view of the church spire from my window seat. I stare at it all afternoon, Edith’s words constricting my heart.
I’m sorry a book means so much to you that you’d harass an ill man.
Ray made a name for himself treating war shock. This one jumps at loud noises? Rap on his door. That one can’t stand the cold? Prop his windows open. More men returned from the trenches with neurosis than they did with physical injuries, men who’d never even been within range of artillery, so Ray had no shortage of patients for me to write about while I was visiting John. I got quite good at prescribing whatever would torment them most. It’s amazing how fast someone becomes a subject, a person becomes a body. Is such a lack of empathy innate, or does one take it up willingly? Either option is monstrous. I was monstrous, in a hundred small ways.
You were telling me about the puddle, John?
“I lay in it for three days.”
He was sitting on his unmade bed. His shirt hung off him, one spindly collarbone peeking from the open neck. Thinness made his eyes protrude. They were grey like rain on a November morning.
“I wasn’t even in the trenches yet,” he whispered. “I think that’s the worst thing. It’s so bloody stupid.”
He scratched his forearm: a new compulsion. I rested my fingers on the typewriter keys; he was ready to tell me, then.
“We were called up for a shift change. To get to the Front, you had to walk for miles across these—these duckboards because the ground was so waterlogged, and you had people coming the other way with stretchers and whatnot so there wasn’t a lot of room. And these duckboards were slippery, absolutely coated in mud. We had to cross a flooded bit and . . . I don’t know what happened. The slats just—just gave out. I went down with all my kit. A horse broke his leg and fell on top of me, and knocked all the air out of me so I couldn’t shout for help. The lads thought I’d been crushed and couldn’t spare the time to shift the horse and check. They had to leave me.”
He tried to look at me, but I might as well have been vapour; he couldn’t focus his gaze.
“I was—I was stuck there, Dot. With half my face underwater, straining my neck to keep my nose out of it. I couldn’t sleep. If I dozed off, I’d get a lungful of water. And the whole time—the whole time this horse was rotting. Just falling apart like a braised leek.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“I thought I’d have to eat the bloody thing,” he said, disgusted; but he was laughing, too. “No—don’t put that in your book.”
I snatched my fingers off the keys and waggled them at him. We shared a brief smile.
“How did you get free?”
“I passed the time by scooping out the mud around me; it kept my mind active. Eventually it rained, and the water buoyed the horse up enough for me to wriggle out.”
He’d managed to keep his tone clinical so far, but he had to pause there, collect himself.
“I crawled to the medical tent. The nurses gave me a swig of some truly terrible rum and a pat on the back, and told me I had to report to my commanding officer, that I was late and for that they’d dock my pay. Well, I fell about laughing. What could I do? I left the tent and marched up to the trenches, saluting the horse as I passed.”
As I’d done with the other patients, I took John’s jagged words and shaped them into palatable prose. Their raw forms, I saved for the good doctor. I told Ray that John was terrified of drowning, and the very next day, Ray held my cousin’s face in a bowl of water. He did it many, many times. I learned to watch and take notes. I sacrificed a whole, gleeful chapter of Breach to John’s rehabilitation.
I tuck in my legs and press my eyes into my knees. How long does one have to watch a man drown, and do nothing, before one might as well be doing the drowning?
• • • •
The fields around Crewkerne are beautiful this evening. Heat has faded the grass to a watercolour wash, with brushstrokes of apple and buff, and the sky looks like a bolt of blue silk. I go carefully, a little dazed, wildflowers tickling my palms.
I’ve come outside to clear my head after being cooped up at the George all day. I wrote a little, to my surprise. I wrote something new. As I worked, I felt the lure of pencil on paper, the quiet susurration so like the sound of thought. It’s been a long time since the outer edge of my left hand and smallest finger were grey and shiny with lead.
Perhaps—I glance in the direction of East Chinnock, an hour’s walk while the light’s still good, and Yeovil past that, and the boundary with Dorset beyond—oh, perhaps it’s a blessing that the Ooser’s whereabouts will die with Lawrence Durbin! There’s far more sin in the world now than when the timber to make it was chopped down. How many days and nights of rough music could absolve all that?
There’s a discarded sock in my path. How strange.
I whirl about in confusion. An old man is ambling a hundred yards away in a nightshirt and coat. I gape. Speak of the Devil! I hold my hat to my head and make for him. He reeks of gin and musk, and when he sees me it’s clear he doesn’t recall who I am.
“Are you all right, Mr. Durbin?”
He mumbles something about Edith.
“You shouldn’t be out like this on your own.”
I place my hands on his shoulders to steer him homeward. He’s trembling through his coat. It can’t be from cold. To-day’s heat is only just lifting, the baked ground still warm. It must be fear. Fear of what?
As we approach the cottage, I ask if his daughter is in. “I’d like to make sure she’s all right. She wasn’t herself this afternoon.”
“She’ll bear it,” Lawrence slurs. “Like I have.”
The front gate opens with a melancholic squeal.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
He sighs. “You kept saying its name, the both of you.” I open the front door, guide him in. The hallway smells dank, like a burrow. “I did the same when I knew no better, and so it found me.”
I frown. “What found you?”
His eyes are baleful, a bloodhound’s. “It wanted its head back . . . Men cut it off long ago, to wield judgement for themselves, see.”
I can’t help myself. My curiosity rises, dependably as a corpse bloats. “Please, enough with this nonsense. What did you do with the Ooser? If it’s more money you want—”
A chill breathes down my neck. A twig snaps. Night, when it comes . . . Lawrence hisses like I’ve burned him—don’t say the name, he wails. Something draws my eyes west towards the dying sun. A coppice there is outlined by a blazing corona.
A figure emerges from the trees.
It has the shape of a man except everything’s wrong. It’s too wide and square, and its limbs groan with every movement. A bullock horn tapers out of the left side of its head; the right one is missing. When it sees me, it snaps its jaw. The echo of wooden teeth travels: clack-clack-clack-clack-clack. Laughter.
The Ooser—for what else could it be but the relic reunited with its body, exactly as Lawrence said—strides towards me. Each footfall rattles my bones.
“Run, child, run!” cries the old man.
I run, trusting the ground to catch my feet.
The wind tastes of rot and soil and stagnant water. The Ooser’s gait sends tremors up my heels, boom-boom-boom, and repeats in my heart, boom-boom-boom. I dare a glimpse. My mind makes no sense of the creature chasing me, my eyes won’t take it in—its chin jerks up and I hear a hollow clack, an admonishment for trying to escape—so I look to the cottage for help. There it is, and there stands Edith and Lawrence by the front gate, lurcher at their heels.
Edith watches, simply watches, as the Ooser runs me down.
Terror sends me straight into the next hill rather than around. Too steep. I scrabble up on all fours, losing my lead. A hand bigger than my own head grabs my skull and throws me forward. My nose crunches. Coppery heat floods the back of my throat and dribbles down my lips onto my splayed hands.
“Please . . .”
Wooden fingers tangle in my hair and the lapel of my coat. I’m marched to a brook, gagging on my own blood, and plunged in before I remember to take a breath. No, no—not plunged. The water’s no more than three inches deep. Half in, half out. A punishment curated especially for me.
I try to push up, to turn my head; rushing water shoots up my nose; I cough and drag in air, but there’s no air to be had. My lungs burn, water scalding worse than fire.
I must pass out because suddenly I’m bursting up from the brook, retching and alone. I crawl to dry ground, a drip of blood marking my passage. The sun’s set now but the western horizon still glimmers, hovering between night and day before the dark evens out and there are stars to see by. A shadow flits beside me. I don’t even flinch; I’m resigned to another dunking. Then a warm muzzle pushes into my face and starts licking away the blood, and I gasp with pain.
Someone hauls the dog away, grunts, “That’s enough.” It’s Edith. She delivers me into the care of the George’s appalled porter without a word.
• • • •
I travel home via Salisbury instead of Exeter. Moments before the 13:10 pulls in, I see a horned silhouette moving on the platform opposite. The blood drains from my face and my heart drums an uncomfortable rhythm as I walk from the station to my flat. I share John’s phobia now—I couldn’t bear to stand over the en suite basin this morning, my back to the room. Couldn’t trust that I was alone. I unlock my front door with shaking hands and step inside.
I set my travel case down and reacquaint myself with my home. It has a brittle odour: the smell of disuse, of closed, unloved rooms. I unlatch the windows, sliding them up with a whisper of wood on wood, and throw out the browning peonies on my writing desk. There’s an outline in the dust where my typewriter usually goes. I wipe it all down with my sleeve, brew a pot of tea, and then the telephone rings.
It’s John calling from the hospital. He says, as if from far away, “Raymond’s dead.”
My breath catches. I cover my mouth. “What?”
“An intruder broke into the ward. It’s not—not clear what he wanted, nothing was stolen, but it seems the chap ran Raymond right through the first-floor window. The clerk described him to the police as a huge—a huge—well, I don’t know. The staff are scared out of their wits.”
“When was this?”
The creature can traverse counties in an instant, then.
I lean against the wall, unsure of my balance. Outside my front door, a floorboard creaks. As if a weight rests there, attention cocked to the keyhole.
“Dot? Can you hear me?”
I inhale sharply, snap to it. “Yes. Yes, I heard you.”
“Good. Well. The funeral’s next Monday. The ward will have to close, of course.”
I ask him where he’ll go; does he need somewhere? I have the room. His trust isn’t quite mended enough for that, yet.
“My parents are putting me up . . . Have you just got in?”
He tells me he’ll feel better if I keep my door locked; and did I get what I needed in Crewkerne? I give a non-committal reply and agree to meet him at the church on Monday before placing the receiver gently in its cradle. The presence outside broods. I grasp the doorknob, terrified of what I might see in the hallway—do I open it slowly or do I get it over with? Dive or sink? In the end, there’s nothing. I close the door and turn the key out of a sense of duty to John, though I’d be a fool to think a lock can keep something out if it truly wants to come in.
A draught knocks my travel case over. Without my typewriter inside, which I left at the George, it weighs nothing at all. I take it through to the bedroom and fold away my clothes.
My notebook finds its way to my desk. Yesterday’s hesitant start lies inside, a threaded needle waiting to be taken up. As I pluck a pen from my collection and start to read—and how painfully it reads, this newborn thing!—as I reach the next clean page, mould starts spreading across the sitting room wall, blistering the paint with moisture. It takes the shape of horns. I watch its progress, and when it gets too close to stand any longer, I set my nib to the page.
Spread the word!