This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

August 15, 2010

Fear.

This is another one of the early stories. Like most of the earlier stuff, it’s written in a traditional, decompressed style. It also requires some concentration to keep a grip on the geography of the building which is the stage for the plot – quite literally.

The settings, and even some of the incidents, are drawn from life. I spent five years doing that job, from 1997-2002. It was first published in an anthology called Time for Bedlam (Saltboy Bookmakers) in 2005.

Approximate reading time: 30 minutes.

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As I was walking up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today:
I wish, I wish he’d go away.

It is often said that the only thing to fear is fear itself.

Fine words, and true perhaps at the deepest of psychological and spiritual levels. But most of us don’t live life at that level, and fear is not something to which we will become immune simply by reading wise words.

Fear takes many forms, most of which are entirely rational. If you’re walking alone down a dark street late at night and find yourself surrounded by a bad-mouthed bunch of drunken yobs bent upon using you for sport, you would have to be pretty brave or very drunk to avoid feeling some degree of trepidation. Similarly, only the most outrageous fantasy figures of comic books and Hollywood films manage to hang by their fingertips from the ledges of tenth storey windows and still keep their minds and bodily functions fully under control. Ordinary mortals experience blind panic and have their muscles frozen by the effect of sheer terror. That sort of fear is simply the mind’s natural reaction to the real possibility of imminent pain, physical damage, or even death, and is universal.

To many people, the fear of being placed in an exposed position is strong. Ask them to speak to an audience, or even attend a job interview, and they will shrivel at the thought. Their fear is that they will somehow fail to live up to expectation and be mocked in consequence. This is no more than a fear of failure and consequent rejection. Most of us need to belong.

Then there are the true phobias, the fear of things that have no way of posing any actual threat. The sufferer may be unable to control the sense of terror at the time, but the essential reality is simple: there is actually nothing to be afraid of.

But then there is that infinitely more subtle form: fear of the unknown. Fear of things heard, but not seen. Or maybe not even heard, just felt somewhere deep inside. Things that might or might not be there. The sort of fear that sometimes comes from no identifiable source at all, but which holds your mind and body in a vice-like grip just the same. It is the sort that walks a tantalizing road between concrete reality and baseless imagination.

Are these fears merely creations of the mind? Or could there be forces or energies that float about in the ether, stalking the unwary or lying in wait for the casual passer-by? Perhaps they lie dormant in walls and trees and standing stones, and influence the minds of sensitive souls through some natural process as yet unknown to the fledgling discipline of modern science. Perhaps they are stronger at certain times than others, when conditions are somehow right. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have occasionally been prey to such fears myself, but I’ve usually been able to shrug them off without much difficulty. On one occasion only in my life did they take such a hold on me that my accustomed ability for self-control was wrested from me and blind panic took its place.

* * *

I was working at a professional repertory theatre situated in a large industrial conurbation in the north of England. Its main claim to distinction was the fact that it was a rare example of a purpose-built theatre in the round, the sort in which the auditorium is approximately circular with the stage at ground level in the centre and the audience seated in tiered rows around it.

The whole building had been constructed to the same circular design. It stood entirely within mature, self-contained grounds that had once belonged to an old country house and which were full of old trees and dark, secluded corners. Bits of Georgian and Victorian decorated masonry had been rescued from the old house and incorporated into several of the exterior design features. Inside the building its circular plan meant that, on all levels, you could walk through each area in turn and find yourself back where you started from several minutes later. This unusual layout was confusing to strangers but surprisingly logical to those who knew it well; and few people knew the building better than I did.

My official job title was Security Man, but it wasn’t the uniform-and-dog type of security work. Much of my time was spent doing a variety of front-of-house duties from a desk in the foyer. The security aspect was largely a matter of checking doors and windows, trouble-shooting the occasional technical problem and putting the building to bed once it was empty late at night. Of all the varied and pleasurable aspects of the job, it was that final close-down routine that I liked most.

Theatres, especially good quality producing houses, are dream factories in which, over the years, so many stories are told, so many fantasies constructed and so many emotions engendered that the combined effect is to produce a rich reservoir of subtle energy that seems to become stored in the physical fabric of the building. When the day is done and the place is empty of people, that energy flows out again, rather as the heat of summer sunshine gets stored in the brick walls of city buildings on hot days, only to escape again into the cooler air at night.

To some people this is nonsense, but not to me. I felt those energies every night I was on duty and can attest to the fact that they are bordering on the palpable to those who are sensitive and accepting enough to be open to them. When the last person had left and I set off on my final tour of the building, I felt privileged to have this mercurial mansion all to myself, to feel the thrill of its stored memories, and to hear, with some rare inner faculty, the echoes of countless pulses of something infinitely more subtle than sound and light.

I’d been doing the job for three years and had grown quite used to the natural noises that occurred late at night. At first, certain of them had startled and unnerved me. The creaking of shrinking boards, the knocking of a pocket of air in the hot water system, the closing of a toilet door on its spring catch a couple of minutes after I’d vacated the room. I was used to those and had developed an instinct for ignoring them without a second thought.

Occasionally there were noises that didn’t fit the usual pattern, and some of them I never did manage to explain. But they were rare and, as I said, I managed to ignore them and press on regardless. I still looked forward to my final three quarters of an hour alone before setting the alarm, locking the front doors and going home.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blasé about the noises. Perhaps the energies that inhabit the fabric of buildings are more than merely abstract in nature. Perhaps they are aware of us. Perhaps they think and watch. I sometimes felt that I was being watched.

One might speculate that such energies can coalesce into something more substantial, something we might call “entities”; and it might be that they need to engender some strong reaction in those who come within their orbit of influence in order to give their existence a purpose. They might have taken my relative lack of concern as indicating irreverence and deserving of punishment. Perhaps that’s why I was attacked.

For attacked I certainly was, one cold, snowy night in March. Not physically, of course; their physical capabilities are severely limited. When such things attack they go for the fear centre, wherever that may be located. But that can be as debilitating as any physical assault, arguably more so since the source of the debility is inside us spreading outwards, nipping in the bud the reserves of strength and toughness that normally help us to respond to outside forces.

The date was March 15th. I remember it particularly as I had read Julius Caesar at school and had learned that the Ides of March were placed on that day. I had come to regard it as the most inauspicious day of the year. Several bad or upsetting things had happened on March 15th and it had always concerned me far more than any Friday 13th.

I remember, too, that our resident company were performing a Shakespeare play at the time. We did one every year, to coincide with the school curriculum, and that year’s production was Hamlet. I wondered later whether the themes of vengeance and ghostly visitations might have had a bearing on the night’s events.

The audience that night had been a fairly sombre crowd who had mostly left at the end of the performance. A few had stayed in the bar for a post-show drink, but they had all gone by 11.30. As far as I knew, the only people left in the building were the bar manager and me. He finished his cashing up at about 11.45 and left. I locked the doors behind him and prepared for the best part of the day.

The feeling of peace at that point in the night was always welcome. The sounds that had filled the air all evening were now a thing of memory. No more droning conversation, no raucous laughter surging from the bar, nobody moving about in the shop inspecting the greetings cards and gift items, no humming from the central heating system that was automatically timed to shut down at 10.30. Nothing, just silence, and I loved it. As usual, I set about conducting my well-practiced routine.

At first it was as uneventful as ever. Starting from my desk inside the main entrance on the ground floor I checked the cellar, the downstairs bar, the cloakroom and the toilets. Everything was in order; the lights were off and the doors locked.

I walked up the central staircase, turned right and made my way across the main bar towards the glass doors situated at the far end. They led out onto a wooden balcony that overlooked the grounds, providing a popular spot for audiences to take their drinks on balmy summer evenings. It was anything but balmy that night. The balcony and its furniture were white from the earlier snowfall, and the doors were shut.

That was when it started. As I approached the doors I felt a sudden sense of disquiet, a conviction that someone was standing close to the top of the stairs and watching me silently. I turned and looked across the length of the bar and beyond the staircase towards the restaurant area. My eyes searched the scene for several seconds, but there was nothing save the usual post-show debris of empty glasses, crumpled crisp packets and clumsily rearranged tables. And there was no sound apart from the customary low hum of the refrigeration unit behind the bar.

I felt a nervous thrill creep across my neck, but this had happened before and I shrugged it off as usual. I checked that the balcony doors were locked and proceeded to the next area, the north fire escape.

There were two fire escapes leading from the upper floor, one on the north side of the building and one on the south, and I had always felt uneasy about checking them. The north one was particularly troublesome.

The top of the stairwell was adjacent to the busy bar area, and the double doors at the bottom exited at a point close to the car park. It was not unusual to find those doors open, obviously left that way by someone taking the short cut to their car and ignoring the Emergency Use Only notice. As my duties required that I stay at my post by the main entrance from the end of the show to the closing of the building, there was no way of knowing how long they had been open. There was always the possibility that someone could have slipped into the building through the open doors, bypassed the bar unseen and made their way backstage where they could still be lurking.

On this occasion, however, the doors were firmly shut. I felt relieved and turned to make my way back up the staircase.

I heard a noise on the fire escape landing. Not a loud noise and certainly nothing I could identify. It was the sort of noise that is too short and indistinct to identify, but you know you’ve heard it all the same. I hurried back up the stairs and reached the landing in seconds. There was nothing there and I looked through the glass doors into the bar that was still predictably empty.

My sense of disquiet increased, but I continued to suppress it. I knew that the circular shape of the building sometimes produced odd acoustic effects, and that an indistinct sound in one area could be caused by something natural and innocent occurring in another. I carried on, feeling slightly uneasy I admit, but still in full control.

The next area to be checked was the reception room that lay beyond the far side of the landing. As it was such a cold night, I wasn’t surprised to find that all the windows were securely shut and both offices that led off the room were soon checked. I turned off the lights and went through the door at the far side and onto the landing that overlooked the green room.

By that stage I had covered half the circular layout on the upper floor and was at the back of the building. The green room below me was the area in which the actors relaxed between appearances, and from which they made most of their entrances onto the stage.

The voice I heard as I walked across the landing was unmistakeable – or was it? That’s the problem with memories of that sort: the certainty of the time becomes questionable in retrospect. At that moment I was as certain as I could have been.

I heard a man’s voice, too low and indistinct to make out the words, but definitely a man’s voice. My nerves were beginning to feel strained but I had the presence of mind to assume that one of the actors or production staff might still be in the building, probably using the payphone that was placed near the male dressing room outside my field of vision.

I leaned over the balcony rail until I could see the full length of the room. There was nobody using the phone and no other explanation for the voice. It could have belonged to someone in the dressing room, the door of which was propped open. It looked mysterious and menacing, as open doors do when you’re feeling nervous in a big, empty building late at night. I did the obvious.

“Hello,” I called. “Anybody there?”

No reply. My vague sense of unease produced by these indeterminate sounds and nervous imaginings was replaced by something much more definite and down-to-earth.

We had been experiencing problems with all-too-physical intruders finding their way around the “drum”, a concrete-walled passageway that ran around the inside of the building under the tiered auditorium seating. Two public entrances ran across it from the foyer into the auditorium at stage level, and there was a third entrance onto the stage from the green room. It provided a quick and simple way of reaching the backstage area from the foyer, and the local opportunist thieves had been spotted in there several times in the preceding months. Some had even managed to reach the dressing rooms, and we had been subjected to a spate of thefts. The prospect of finding a couple of mean and potentially violent intruders lurking there was not pleasant. But I was the Security Man so, alone or not, it was my job to check.

I made my way nervously, but with dutiful haste, down the spiral staircase. The entrance to the male dressing room was situated at one end of the green room, the female counterpart at the other. As the voice had been unquestionably male, I made for that one first.

The search was nerve wracking. Each changing compartment was covered by a curtain, and the job of pulling back successive curtains when you’re alone, your nerves are already stretched and you’ve heard a voice that shouldn’t be there, isn’t easy. It was also necessary to keep looking back into the green room, just in case the “intruders” came out of the female dressing room and tried to make their escape. I was predictably relieved to complete the search without finding anything.

But the job was only half done. I still had to check the other dressing room. That search was equally fruitless and my nerves were given a brief respite. The question still remained, however: where had the voice come from? I hurriedly checked that the doors and windows were locked before switching off the lights in both dressing rooms.

I moved on, anxious by now to get the night’s work finished and be on my way down friendly, well-lit streets with cars and recognisable fellow human beings. It was unusual for me to feel that way, but the atmosphere in the building was becoming too menacing for comfort. And the sense of an unseen presence close by was becoming stronger.

I walked quickly through the door that led into the next area, a room that served a dual purpose. Mostly it was used by the actors and production staff as a second rest room, but it also doubled as a small foyer when the studio theatre was in use.

The entrance to this second small performance area was through a set of double doors to my left. To my right stood a twin set of doors that led outside to an ornamental garden. One of the routine jobs was to check that the exterior lighting in the garden was switched on for security reasons, and it took only a cursory glance to see that it was. The deep yellow light illuminating the freshly-fallen snow would have been beautiful at any other time and well worth gazing at. Not that night. I was in no mood to marvel at the beauty of virgin snow. I had no thought but to get the job finished and be out of the building.

I checked that the outer and inner doors to the garden were both locked and crossed the room to enter the studio theatre. This room also had a dual purpose. When it was not hosting some avant garde or other minority-interest production, it was used as a rehearsal room and was often laid out with props and stage furniture.

That night it was empty, and my footfalls were disturbingly loud as I crossed the wooden floor to check the fire escape doors at the far end. I had an illogical but horrible sense that I would be alerting some malevolent presence to my whereabouts, and instinctively tried to walk more quietly. All the doors and windows were secure and I turned to make my way back across the floor. I stopped when I heard a muffled bang.

Its source was unmistakeable. The toilets next to the rehearsal room had spring return catches and I had heard them close noisily on countless occasions, but only after I had been in to check them. I hadn’t got there yet. This time I ran and opened the door into the foyer. I was beginning to breathe hard as I looked around the room, and the back of my neck felt chilled and prickly.

At that point a perverse reaction set in, a sense of bravado born of desperation. I charged noisily into each toilet in turn. I suppose some part of me hoped that my noise and aggression would startle any intruder and give me the advantage. The mood didn’t last long. Both rooms were empty and the mystery of the banging door remained unsolved. My shallow sense of bravado dissipated and was replaced by a chill running down my spine, as well as a growing feeling of weakness in my legs. I prepared myself to push on and check the final part of the backstage area.

I passed through the door that led into the workshops. I was now at that part of the building farthest from the public areas and at the extremity of the theatre’s land. There were some windows on that side that were hidden from the road by a line of mature trees, and their position made them the obvious place for burglars to break in when the building was locked. The obvious thought struck me. Maybe someone had left a window open and an opportunist thief had spotted it and got in. Perhaps that was the explanation for the low voice and the banging door. I didn’t relish the prospect of entering, but it had to be done.

I walked into the small corridor that ran off to my left towards the props workshop. Ahead of me was the entrance to the larger carpentry shop and, to my right, a door leading into the costume workshop. I checked the carpentry shop first.

The rolling door at the far end was down, and the wicket door locked. All the windows were placed high at ceiling level and they, too, were fastened. I made my way into the props workshop. The windows in there were all firmly shut and there was no sound or sign of disturbance. I came back along the narrow corridor and opened the door into the costume area. I could see that the windows in there were also shut, and there was no sign of any break-in.

Again, relief turned to concern as the source of the noises remained a mystery. I am ashamed to confess it, but confess it I must. By then I was close to panic, feeling that every room I had to enter might contain something hideous hiding in a dark corner. I had no option but to press on.

I checked the costume manager’s office and the design studio. All was in order. I looked with some suspicion at the rows of sombre Victorian costumes lined up on rails ready for the next production. I tried not to imagine what might be lurking among them, and fought back the sudden notion that those dark frock coats and heavy black dresses could be used by discarnate beings to give themselves the physical form that would enable them to attack me more effectively. I hurried past them, giving them as wide a berth as possible, and opened the door to the dyeing room.

I recoiled in horror as I was confronted by a lurid white face staring at me out of the semi-darkness. Despite the fragile state of my nerves, however, it took only a second to realise that I was looking at nothing more than a hideous dummy, something that had been made for the previous year’s Christmas show and then left there for want of more proper storage space. I cursed whoever was responsible, but switched on the light and moved quickly across the room.

As I tried the door handle at the far end, I realised that my hand was shaking and I was beginning to doubt that I would be able to complete the full array of checks that night. My whole being was becoming consumed with an urge to flee. The sense of an invisible and malevolent presence was stronger than ever. Call it imagination fuelled by a few unfortunate noises if you like. You weren’t there to feel it; I was.

I walked back through the room and glanced at the dyeing tub by the wall. I wished I hadn’t. It was an old fashioned, free-standing iron bathtub and was two thirds full of evil-looking, coloured water as usual. That night the water was a deep red, the colour of veinous blood. I recalled the chilling scene from the French classic Les Diaboliques, when the man who has been forcibly drowned in his bathtub sits up slowly and glares at his murderer with dead eyes. My own eyes widened as I saw bubbles start to break at the surface, at the head of a thin line rising from something unseen in the impenetrable depths. I had never seen that before and knew of no explanation for it. The thought of putting my hand in to find out was too horrible to contemplate. When the bubbles became bigger and the rising stream more dense, I half-ran towards the entrance, turned off the light and slammed the door shut.

I wasted no time in turning off all the lights in the workshops and hurried back into the studio theatre foyer. I had to finish my job and summoned up what reserves of equilibrium I had left to do it. I walked back towards the green room, glancing as was my custom, at the ornamental garden beyond the windows. My quickened stride was halted as I realised there was something wrong. The garden was in darkness; the exterior lights were off.

This had happened before, several times. Inclement weather often affected the exterior electrics in that part of the grounds and tripped the lighting circuit. The trip switch was on a board in the carpentry shop and I admit that I felt too afraid to go back in there to reset it. I just wanted to finish the job and get out of the building. I justified my decision with a weak excuse born of fear: if the circuit had tripped five minutes later, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have been aware of it anyway so I might as well pretend that I hadn’t noticed.

Suppressing a slight sense of shame, I walked quickly towards the green room, glancing to my left as I approached the door. To heap further horror onto this night of horrors, I saw that the light switch that operated the outside lighting was in the “off” position; the circuit hadn’t tripped at all. How could that be? It was a good firm rocker switch in full working order. Who – or what – could have turned it off?

I approached it with a sense of disbelief. Could I be looking at the wrong switch? There were three on the panel but only the middle one was used. Nervously, I switched it back on. It was as firm as ever and the garden lighting sprang back into life. I didn’t bother to attempt an explanation, neither did I look behind me. I switched off the interior lights, shut the door and locked it.

The next job was to turn off all the lights in the green room. I knew that this would leave only those above the landing to provide some feeble illumination, and my fingers hesitated over the switches. I also knew that the next part of my routine took me through two widely spaced sets of double doors that led into the drum. The space was dark enough when the green room was fully lit; it would be virtually pitch black once the lights were off. Part of me desperately wanted to avoid it, but an increasing sense of panic spurred me on.

I switched off the lights quickly, dashed towards the doors, threw one of them open and hurried across the space with my heart thumping. I felt some temporary relief as I entered the brightly lit corridor beyond. Then I realised what the bright lighting meant. The drum lights were wired into the same circuit as the house lights and both sets should have been off. The switch for the circuit was on a board in the control room overlooking the stage, and it was the job of the lighting technician to switch them off at the end of the performance. He must have forgotten. He did occasionally but why, why tonight?

The control room was the place from which the sound, lighting and special effects were operated. It was positioned on the third level of the building, the same as the balcony, a good twenty five feet above the stage. It was a lonely and eerie place up there when the auditorium was empty, and I knew that one of the technicians had claimed he had seen a dark, shadowy figure on the gantry walkway one night. Even the phlegmatic and sceptical sound engineer was wary of working on the gantry without company. And yet, on top of everything that had happened that night, I would have to go up there and turn off the house lights.

Could I face it? My first reaction was “No.” I was aware of a cold sweat and a slight nausea that was making me feel physically uncomfortable as well as terrified. I hovered in nervous confusion for a second, poised between my natural sense of duty and my understandable need to ignore it. But the tour was nearly finished and, notwithstanding my desperate state, I was determined to do the job properly.

I switched off my instincts which were screaming frantically at me to get out of the building, and walked briskly up the shallow ramp onto the stage. The climb to the control room was a chore at the best of times. That night it was excruciating. My stomach felt painfully taught as I crossed the full width of the stage, ran smartly up the central staircase that climbed between the seating, passed through the public entrance door, climbed a second set of stairs to the balcony and hurried across the back of the auditorium towards the control room. I consciously pushed back the urge to look at the lighting gantry.

I unlocked the door and left my keys in the lock. This was a habit I had developed on previous occasions, as I knew that the auditorium and staircases would be only dimly lit by the cleaners’ and emergency lights once the main house lights were off. I hadn’t thought about that when I made the decision to go up there.

I walked into the control room and made my way around the banks of desks towards the one that controlled the auditorium lighting. It was situated next to a large, sliding window that overlooked the stage and seating, and afforded a clear view of the gantry walkway that ran just above it. The walkway was painted black, as was the ceiling. And yet, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a large, indeterminate shape, blacker than the background, moving across the gantry towards the window. My sense of terror made me look towards it but my direct stare saw nothing. I looked away again to slide the House Master switch down, and immediately saw it again, only closer this time.

Down went the slider and I rushed out of room, locking the door behind me with hands that were now visibly trembling. I made what speed I could on the gloomy staircases and headed back towards the stage. It was much darker than it had been coming up. The emergency lighting provided only weak pools of half-light, and left large areas in semi darkness. The descent seemed to take forever, even though I was stumbling in my haste.

I reached the stage and rushed across it towards one of the public exits, aware of that same indeterminate blackness moving across the gantry above me. But now I was convinced I could hear something too, something that sounded like a deep bellowing coming from the upper level. It had a haunting and blood-chilling quality, as though it were far away but getting closer. Perhaps it was just the heightened blood pressure pounding through my ears. I didn’t stop to consider the matter. I was out of the auditorium and across the drum in seconds, fumbling with my fish key to turn off the cleaners’ lights. I stumbled out into the foyer, safe but shaking from head to foot.

I felt some relief at being back among the bright lights, and was thankful for the sight of the outside world going about its mundane business beyond the large windows. But my sense of remission was premature. I still had one area to check and my vengeful entity had not finished with me yet.

The final part of my routine took me back up the main staircase, turning left at the top to check the restaurant and the public toilets. This was quickly done and I moved on through the door that led onto the landing of the south fire escape. I looked nervously behind me, half expecting that something formless, but unquestionably gross and terrifying, might have followed me out of the drum and be coming slowly up the wide stairs. I could see nothing and the silence was so complete as to be almost menacing in itself.

I walked briskly down the concrete steps to check the doors at the bottom. They were securely fastened and I ran back up, remembering with discomfort the sound I had heard on the other fire escape landing. This time there was nothing, and I made my way through into the offices.

I realised with dismay that once I had checked the individual rooms I would have to go through the door at the far end that led onto the near side of the green room landing. The final light at the back of the building had to be switched off. Heaven knows what I might see in the room below me, even if it wasn’t waiting on the other side of the door. I doubted my ability to open that door. Nevertheless, I checked the rooms with unusual haste, turned off the lights and moved nervously towards the final door.

There was glass panel at the side which afforded a view of the green room, dimly lit and with deep shadows sitting inscrutably around the furniture. I saw nothing moving and called on the little courage I had left to throw open the door and step onto the landing.

As I did so, I felt a sudden gust of ice-cold air rush past me. A simple air lock, I thought. I wasn’t convinced. I switched off the light and hurried back across the office, spurred on by the growing certainty that invisible, predatory forces were closing in.

As I approached the door at the far end that led back onto the fire escape landing, the hard-pumping blood in my veins seemed to stop in cold, suspended animation. I heard a strange sound behind me. I can only describe it as a high pitched and sibilant rattle, accompanied by a scraping noise like the dragging of feet across the carpet.

By now, panic was firmly in control and I rushed towards the door, refusing to look behind me. Fortunately, the office door had a keypad lock that opened with a simple lever on the inside, so there was no need to fiddle with keys. I was soon crossing the restaurant and heading for the main staircase.

I hesitated briefly as I approached the top of the stairs. How could I know that something hadn’t followed me out of the drum and be waiting for me at the bottom? How could I know that I wasn’t caught in a trap - one otherworldly assailant behind me and one waiting in the foyer? I couldn’t, but I’d heard the one behind me and there was no other means of escape. I walked quickly but cautiously down the staircase. I breathed again as I saw that the foyer was empty and heard no noise save the faint drone of traffic on the road outside.

My desk was situated close to the bottom of the stairs. Under normal circumstances I would have sat down at that point to fill in a time sheet, check that I had all my belongings and lock the desk drawers. These were not normal circumstances.

I grabbed my bag without bothering to fasten it and rushed across towards the box office where the main light switches and the alarm panel were located. As I reached the box office door, I heard that same sibilant noise, apparently coming from the direction of the fire escape door at the end of the restaurant. Then I heard again the same terrible sound of feet being dragged along the floor.

I was desperate to run out of the building, but it was a very cold night and my coat was in the box office. It would also have been a serious dereliction of duty to leave without setting the alarm.

Fortunately, I had left the door ajar earlier so there was no need to enter the code on the keypad. I rushed in, flinging my rucksack over my shoulder. I was swallowing hard every few seconds and visibly trembling. I grabbed my coat and flicked off all the switches that controlled the downstairs lights. How my agitated fingers managed to set the code on the alarm panel I’ll never know; but they did, and the familiar beep-beep of the system arming itself began. I rushed back out into the foyer, slamming the door behind me.

There was now just a single bank of lights left on. These were necessary to allow passage through the space between the double set of foyer doors, and were controlled by a fish key switch located on the wall between them. I could hear the rattling becoming louder and the dragging sound was now unquestionably on the staircase. Some perverse urge made me look in that direction. There was nothing physical on the stairs, but there was a large black shadow of vague but constantly shifting shape on the wall, moving slowly downwards.

An uncomfortable sensation was rising in my throat. A howl of sheer terror was about to burst out of my mouth. I managed to control it, but only partially; it still found expression as a sort of pathetic, stifled, wavering moan. I fumbled with the fish key and turned off the foyer lights, extinguishing that hideous shadow, and rushed through the outer door into the cold March night. The door was double-locked in seconds and I made my way quickly along the cobbled drive and out onto the pavement that bordered the busy main road.

Never have I been so pleased to be in the world of traffic, streetlights and occasional drunks makings their way home from pubs and parties. I stood for several minutes, revelling in it. My nerves were still well and truly shot and I was weak and breathless, and yet I felt both relieved and safe. I knew, somehow, that I wouldn’t be followed. Whatever had attacked me belonged to the theatre; I knew that it couldn’t exist outside the confines of the dream factory. That was the limit of its environment. It had no more prospect of travelling into the outside world than I had of flying to Alpha Centauri. How could I be so sure? I don’t know, but I was.

By then the sky had cleared and a glorious full moon hung in silver splendour just above the rooftops. The temperature had dropped sharply and the snow that had fallen earlier had first turned to slush and then frozen hard.

My footfalls cracked and crumpled with a resounding report that echoed around the terraced streets. I rejoiced that I could make so much noise without the fear of attracting the attention of some denizen of a darker realm. I reached my own front door within ten minutes, a little light headed but quite relaxed, and was soon settled into a surprisingly untroubled sleep.

After such an experience you might wonder whether I had the courage to return to the place that had caused me so much terror. Of course I had. The following night I turned up for duty as usual, certain that the whole affair had been strictly an isolated incident.

You might also find such a sense of certainty difficult to understand. That wouldn’t be surprising; even I do. I suppose I realised that whatever had been making its presence felt so horribly could have trapped me. But it hadn’t, and somehow I knew that I had never been in any danger. In the two years since that terrifying night, I have conducted my rounds as assiduously as ever and only once experienced anything odd.

It happened a week later. I was making my way back to the foyer through the drum at about one o’clock in the morning. I heard a low chuckle, apparently coming from the auditorium. There is no doubt that it was a chuckle, and I can say with certainty that I was the only human in the building at the time.

At first I was startled and a sudden chill of fear gripped my stomach. But the clarity of final understanding swept majestically over me and the chill was gone. I smiled gracefully and accepted that the joke had been well and truly on me.

Or was it a more serious lesson? Who knows?

I still work there and have no intention of leaving. I love the place more than I could find words to say, and still look forward to my lonely, late night perambulation. I feel privileged to be the custodian of such a maker of magic, and I respect that magic more than ever now.

6 comments:

dellamarinis said...

I don't know if my comment will stick this time – after writing the password, it came back with "service unavailable," and all my precious words disappeared.

Well, it was a great read as usual, Jeff! I always enjoy your highly imaginative tales, or maybe they're true to life, I don't know. (Will copy and paste this now so I don't lose again :)

Happened again. Error 503.

dellamarinis said...

Actually the above comment was meant for The Visitor, I don't know what I did! I really enjoyed this story as well. Fear is a fascinating emotion and most interesting as a response to the unseen and unknown. Thanks for posting these enjoyable tales!

JJ Beazley said...

I keep getting that Error 503 message lately, Della. Suspect it's Google. I've found that the Refresh button resurrects the page successfully.

Thanks for the comment. The Visitor was pure imagination; some of the incidents in Fear happened during my time at the theatre. Hearing 'voices' in an empty theatre can be a bit spooky.

dellamarinis said...

I pictured a type of Globe Theatre from your description since I was just there. It must've been a really nice place to work, creepy silence and all :)

I'm working now on trying to maintain a sense of eeriness and suspense in my own novel and I have to say, it's very challenging. I always need time away to imagine what can be provoking in the most ordinary of experiences. It's enjoyable to read your work because you spend a lot of time on this. Hope one day these stories will show up in a bound volume. Keep trying!

JJ Beazley said...

I'm sure it's easier and more appropriate to maintain that sense in a short story, Della, especially for someone who has always been prone to seeing mystery in the mundane. Maybe it needs to ebb and flow in a novel, so that it works like a white knuckle ride. I just go with instinct, which is very unprofessional.

dellamarinis said...

Yes, you're right – about the ebb and flow part, I mean. What works best for me is to imagine a good film (or a film I've enjoyed) and go with the balance of moods that make it work. I suppose I'm impatient for my own story to be continually fresh and exciting while still keeping it real. Sure. It's hard to get perspective on one's own work, anyway. But, Jeff – unprofessional is maybe a good thing in this line of work! Do enjoy your afternoon.

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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