A Story by David A. Riley
“Nobody expects anything really dramatic to happen at Christmas.”
“There was Ceausescu. He got toppled at Christmas. That was pretty dramatic.”
“And they shot him. Which was even more dramatic.”
“Along with his wife!”
“Then we had the Tsunami on Boxing Day.”
“I know that, I know. But – and it’s a big but – it’s still true that no one expects anything to happen at Christmas. When it does, it takes us by surprise.”
“But you could say that about any day of the year. You could say no one expects anything really dramatic to happen on the twenty-fifth of July. Now there’s a boring date for you.”
“And if you said this to the vicar he’d soon tell you that the most dramatic event in the history of mankind happened at Christmas.”
“Oh, put a sock in it! You’ll have us singing carols next. For God’s sake…”
“Anyway, Bob, what exactly are you getting at? Why does it matter whether, rightly or wrongly – depending on your point of view – you think no one expects anything really dramatic to happen at Christmas? Apart for the usual domestic break-ups and rows and everything else you might expect when most of the population over indulges in alcohol.”
“Never mind all that. Whose round is it next? I’m drinking without.” Arthur Renshaw banged his empty beer glass on the table between them, emphasising his point. The four old men, the Grudgers they called themselves (after the district of town they were all born in, Grudge End), burst out laughing, while Bob Beesley fished in his wallet for a ten-pound note.
“Barman,” he called out. “Another four of your best, please!”
They were a distinctive group, even in the Potter’s Wheel, one of the few unrefurbished, unremodernised pubs in the district. Its dark wallpaper first saw the light of day – such as ever penetrated this far – over thirty years ago, much about the same time the paint dried on its woodwork. There was a luxurious atmosphere of dilapidation about the place, with its damp beer mats that often stuck tenaciously to the scarred wooden tables and the old fashioned, barrel-shaped glasses.
Bob Beesley heaved himself up off his stool and waddled to the bar, where he picked up their next round of drinks and passed them, one by one, to eager hands held stretched from the nearby alcove that was literally their own reserve spot in the pub. “And a bag of pork scratchings,” Bob added. “I’m feelin’ a bit peckish.”
By the time he’d sat down again, panting from the effort, the others had taken at least two or three gulps of their beers and were busily arguing once more. Bob pushed his thick, horn-rimmed spectacles back up the broad bridge of his nose and glanced at the darkening sky outside the nearest window as he nimbly unfastened his pork scratchings. It looked as if there was a storm brewing, which probably meant he’d have to hurry home later to avoid getting soaked; he’d left his raincoat hung behind his front door, along with his brolly. Typical the weather should change like this, he thought. Just his luck.
“Anyway,” Tom Atkins said to him; his sallow cheeks had gained a faint, almost healthy flush from the two pints he’d drunk, “what’s all this about Christmas? It’s not November till tomorrow. It’s only friggin’ Halloween tonight. It’s bad enough all the shops start putting up their blasted decorations as soon as we’ve seen the back of Bonfire Night, without you going on about it.”
“You old humbug,” Arthur scolded him. “You get more miserable by the year.”
“So would you if you’d thirteen grandchilder to buy presents for – and none of ‘em cheap.”
“As if you didn’t really love it,” Bob told him. “I’ve seen you, hiking off to Eddison’s Toy Shop on Market Street. You’re like a child yourself when you get in there. And I’ll bet you make sure you help some of those grandchilder of yours to play with their toys!”
The others laughed, including Tom, who had to admit that he did, sometimes, have to help them out. “But only when they’re not sure how to play with them properly,” he added. “Some of these modern toys are very complicated to use, you know.”
Paddy Morgan, his brick-red cheeks like very old slabs of beef, shook his head sadly. “You never grew up, Tom. I’ve always said it.”
“Some of us grow up too fast,” Tom told him. “I envy my grandchilder. They’ve some wonderful toys these days. Far better than we’d to make do with when we were kiddies.”
There was a rumbled chorus of agreements to this. Then Tom said: “I’d better get in another round. I see Arthur’s about to be drinking without again.”
“Drinks too fast. Always has. Like a bottomless drain,” Bob grumbled good-naturedly. He glanced at the clock, hidden above the bar amidst a line of almost empty optics. Nine thirty and he felt tired already. Getting old, he thought. Getting far too old. Not like the old days when the four of them would paint the town red. A long, long time ago now, he added to himself, sadly.
“What’s going on out there?”
On his way to the bar, Tom glanced at the speaker, a terse old farmer who drove down to the pub at night in his battered Land Rover for a pint or two by himself before going home to bed.
“What is it, Jim?” Tom asked as he leant against the bar and nodded to the landlord for another four pints.
“Outside. Looks like some sort of commotion. Might be some damned idiots out celebrating Halloween.” Jim Bartlet slammed down his beer and sidled over to the frosted glass door. Frowning, he placed a hand on the doorknob to pull it open.
As he watched him, Tom felt a faint premonition that something was wrong, something worse than just a commotion outside. And for an instant he had an urge to tell Jim to ignore it, to let go of the door and go back to the bar. But it was an urge he ignored. Not only would Jim think he was being absurd, but he would take no notice of him. In fact, he’d be even more likely to go ahead with whatever he was going to do if he said anything to him. And quite rightly so. If someone told Tom something as ridiculous as that he’d ignore them as well. Tom shuddered, though, as the irascible old farmer pulled the door open and stepped outside. There was a brief hint of fog and a noise like someone snapping twigs. Less than a minute later the door burst open and Jim Bartlet fell back into the pub, blood streaming from his face. He made a half turn, as if to steady himself against the bar, then slithered to the ground. Tom reached for him, but his reflexes were slow these days and he missed. Sam Sowerby, though, for all his own weight, was round the public side of the bar within seconds and knelt beside the farmer, cradling his head. Jim’s face was unrecognisable. A red, raw ruin of sinews and veins and stripped, naked meat. It was as if the skin had been sliced from his face, cut away from deep into the flesh and muscles and down into the bone. On instinct Tom went to the heavy, wooden outer door, hurriedly closed it with a solid thud, then snapped the locks shut, top and bottom, though it seemed a feeble enough defence against whatever had attacked Jim Bartlet.
The rest of the Grudgers had scrambled to their feet, even Bill, though he trailed behind the others as they gathered about the body on the floor.
“I’ll phone for the police,” Arthur said. He hurried to the phone behind the bar. A moment later he looked at the others, a crestfallen expression on his long, thin, lugubrious face. “It’s dead,” he told them.
Bob frowned at him. “What d’you mean dead?”
“It’s dead,” Arthur repeated. “The phone’s dead.”
Sam laid the farmer’s mutilated head back on the floor. “Let me try,” he told him. He hurried behind the bar and stabbed energetically at the buttons on the phone, as if force alone could make it work. In the end he slammed it back on its cradle. He looked over at the locked outer door. The others, watching him, looked over too.
“I ain’t going out there. Not till there’s at least a vanful of police outside. Preferably a SWAT team,” Bob muttered.
“I don’t think there’s much chance of a SWAT team in Edgebottom,” Tom told him. “Not for hours anyway. They’d have to send to Manchester for one – and that’s more than fifteen mile frae here.”
Paddy nodded at the dead body of Jim Bartlet. “What the ‘ell did that to him? We can’t just stand here while there’s someone out there who killed poor Jim like that. It’s horrible. Horrible. We’ve got to contact the police. Somehow.”
“Barring smoke signals – which no one would see at this time of night anyway – what would you suggest, Paddy?” Sam asked, shaken; he looked down at his bloodstained hands, then went to the sink behind the bar to wash them clean. “What would you suggest?” he muttered to himself as he vigorously tried to wipe them dry on a wet bar towel.
“There’s a lunatic out there,” Bob said. “A lunatic with a butcher’s cleaver. What else could have done that to Jim Bartlet’s face?”
They all, reluctantly, looked down at the farmer’s head, laid in a spreading pool of blood. The only other customer left in the pub beside the Grudgers was Harold Sillitoe, a retired schoolmaster with literary pretensions. But he seemed speechless, sat on his barstool with his eyes closed against the horror only three yards from him, his single malt whisky untouched on the bar in front of him.
“What did he hear that made him go outside?” Paddy wondered out loud.
“Whatever it was I couldn’t hear it.” Tom shook his head. “But I did feel something was wrong. I almost said that to him. That he’d be better off ignoring whatever he’d heard and stay here. I don’t even know why I felt that. Though I wish I’d said something now.”
“And do you think Jim would’ve listened?” Bob asked. “He’ld’ve told you to stop being soft. And gone out.”
“At least I would’ve tried. I feel guilty somehow.”
“Bollocks! Only the bastard as did that to him is guilty of anything. How were you to know someone would chop off his friggin’ face?” Bob reached for his pint off the table behind them and took a long swallow.
“We’ve still got to do something,” Paddy insisted. “We can’t just stay here while whoever attacked him is still out there, roaming about.”
The landlord shook his head. “And what would you suggest? I’ve tried the phone. And that’s dead. What else is there?”
“You’ve got a mobile, haven’t you?” Paddy asked.
Sam swore, then hurried to the stairs. He came back again only a minute later, mobile in one hand. “No signal. No bloody signal.”
A tense silence settled on the men. Then Bob asked if Sam had the remote for the TV. There was an old, eighteen-inch set in the games room, usually used by some of the locals to watch horse racing on Saturday afternoons, though none of the Grudgers had ever watched it.
Sam disappeared behind the bar, then came out with the remote and went into the games room, with its pool table and darts board. They heard him cursing to himself. The old men exchanged worried looks, then Sam strode slowly back into the lounge, his broad face even paler than usual.
“You aren’t going to believe this,” he said to them.
“But you can’t get any channels,” Bob answered. “The TV’s dead as well.”
“No reception on any of its channels.” Sam flung the remote onto the bar. “It’s as if we’re cut off from everything.”
“But how?” Bob asked.
“And why?” Tom put in with a shudder. “Why?”
Bob wandered slowly to the window and peered outside, the others watching him intently. He moved his head cautiously from side to side, but the darkness looked impenetrable. He couldn’t even see any streetlights down the road. Not far away should have been the illuminated clock tower on St Paul’s Junior School. He couldn’t see that either. Nor the traffic lights at the end of the block. Nor any traffic. No traffic at all. As if the world outside had ceased to exist.
Shuddering, Bob backed away from the window. He looked at the others, unsure what to say.
“This is freakin’ surreal,” Sillitoe suddenly said, reaching for his whisky. “Freakin’, freakin’ surreal.”
“Calm down, Harold,” the landlord told him. “No need to panic.”
The others eyed him in disbelief.
“If this isn’t cause enough to panic, what is?” Bob asked.
The rest added their agreement.
“I’m just about ready to panic myself,” Tom said. “And that’s without even knowing what ‘freaking surreal’ even means.”
Perhaps in an effort to show some kind of moral control, Sam slowly walked towards the front door.
“Are you sure what you’re doing?” Tom asked.
“We can’t just stay here, can we?” Sam said, uncertainly.
“But if you go out, the same might happen to you as happened to Jim Bartlet. I wouldn’t risk it.”
“Nor me,” added Bob.
Sam looked round at them, seeing the concern in their faces. The fear.
“We can’t just wait around for something to happen,” Sam told them, insistently.
With less resolution than he allowed himself to show, Sam took a firm hold of the upper lock of the front door, then clicked it open. Bending his knees, he reached for the lower lock and clicked that open too. Licking his lips, Sam paused for a moment to rebuild his determination, before reaching for the door handle, his palm damp with sweat as he tried to grip it as firmly as he could.
The door opened with ease. Outside all was black, the solid, impenetrable black of absolute nothingness. No streetlights, no traffic, no hint of the stars or the moon or the pavement or the rest of the town or anything of the outside world at all. Just an endless, eternal black, like everlasting night, that went on and on till his eyes ached from the strain of staring into it.
Even so, Sam stood at the pub doorway for a long, long moment. He wanted to reach out into the darkness, but something warned him not to do it, that not only would it be wrong but dangerous. Perhaps Jim Bartlet had felt the same urge and leant out to peer into the darkness too, and in doing so lost his face. Sam shuddered, unable to cope with the bizarre ideas that rushed in at him about what he was looking at, then he stepped back into the warmth and light and shabby cosiness of the pub; he slammed the front door shut behind him and returned to the lounge.
“What did you see?” Bob asked, a tremor in his voice.
“Come on,” Tom added. “Say something. You’re worrying me.”
Sam stepped behind the bar and poured himself a stiff whisky from the optics. He drank it in one gulp, then poured himself another. He drank this too in one gulp.
“Sam!” Bob rapped on the bar to catch his attention. “What the hell did you see?”
“See?” Sam shut his eyes for a moment, his plump face blank. “I wish there had been something to see. But I couldn’t see nothing more than you could see through the window. There’s nothing. Nothing out there. Nothing at all.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” Paddy snapped at him. “What d’you mean, nothing? D’you mean you couldn’t see anything because we’ve had a power cut?”
“A power cut that’s affected everywhere apart from the Potter’s Wheel?” Sam laughed humourlessly. “You’re a genius, Paddy. How come I couldn’t think of that!”
“Then what?” Bob asked. Feeling queasy with fear, he sat down on one of the old bar stools and leant against the bar. He felt in need of his pint of beer again.
“There’s no ‘what’ about it. Not so far as I can see – so far as I can reckon,” Sam said, almost to himself. “I looked out of the door and there was nothing there. Just a deep black void that went on and on forever.”
“Steady, Sam,” Tom told him.
“Steady? You should take a look out there yourself,” Sam said. “But be careful, ‘cause I reckon it’s a blackness you shouldn’t even try to touch. Not unless you want to end up like Jim.”
“I thought some madman did that to him. Hacked him with a knife or an axe,” Paddy said, as they looked down at the farmer’s body by the bar.
Sam shook his head. “I don’t think so. There’s nothing human, mad or otherwise, out there, Paddy. Whatever did that to him wasn’t human. More likely it was just the blackness that did it. How, I don’t know.”
The six men sat round the bar for some minutes in silence as each of them tried to digest what had happened.
Suddenly, his face white with fear, Harold Sillitoe knocked over his whisky and rushed for the door. “I don’t care what rubbish any of you say, I’m not staying here,” he shouted at them. “I’m not staying here to be trapped.”
Sam tried to grab his arm, but the schoolteacher was too fast. The next moment he reached the door, snapped its locks and flung it open. Arthur Renshaw was the nearest to him; he tried to pull him back, but Sillitoe was too determined to get out of the pub and slipped past his fingers. The moment he reached beyond the doorway into the darkness, though, he screamed. At that instant Arthur managed to grasp hold of the collar of his coat, then grunted with the effort as he tugged him back. Together they fell into the lounge, tumbling across the floor, as Sillitoe writhed in abject agony, the stumps of his arms jetting blood over the two of them. Tom moved in and pulled Arthur free, then stood back as the schoolteacher’s body spasmed, then stilled, and the blood ceased pumping from the severed ends of his arms.
A look of horror on his face, Arthur said: “What the hell did that to him?”
“I told you,” Sam answered. “The darkness. He touched it. He put his arms into it. And, somehow, in some way, it destroyed them.”
“Much worse,” Bob added sombrely. “I saw what acid can do when I worked at Watson’s Chemical Works in Thrushington and that’s nothing like as bad as this, believe me. Nor anything like so fast.” He shuddered and sat down again on his stool. Then reached for his beer.
Meanwhile, Sam knelt beside Sillitoe. “He’s dead,” he told them, though they knew this by now. The schoolteacher’s body had jerked only once and become so still there was no room for doubt in any of them that he had died – that and the stemming of the outpouring of blood from what was left of his arms.
Sam nodded to Arthur, and the two of them dragged Sillitoe’s body away to one wall. They then dragged Jim Bartlet’s next to it, away from the bar.
“Place is beginning to look like a friggin’ morgue,” Tom muttered.
“Aye, and it’s us who are creatin’ it,” Bob added.
Sam went behind the bar, filled five glasses of whisky, then passed them out to the four Grudgers, before sitting down himself and taking a deep gulp of his drink. “I hope that’s the last attempt any of us make to get out through that door.”
With an exchange of glances, the four men nodded their heads as they raised the whiskies to their lips.
“What are we going to do?” Bob asked. “We can’t just sit here, pleasant though it is, forever.”
“Well, I’m just glad my wife decided to leave me last month,” Sam said. “Otherwise the nagging bitch’d be going at us relentlessly by now.”
“What d’you reckon it is?” Paddy asked.
Sam shrugged. “I’ve no more idea than any of you. I doubt our schoolteacher friend, for all his learning and degrees and suchlike, had any more himself. Which is, perhaps, why he panicked.”
As the hours passed the five men slowly relapsed into silence. It was only when it passed eleven o’clock, when he would normally lock the front door and call last orders, that Sam remembered his lodger. Ever since his wife left him, he had supplemented his dwindling income in the pub by letting out one of the spare bedrooms upstairs. An odd old bugger, his current lodger called himself Albert Durer, though Sam was sure this wasn’t his real name somehow. Still, the money was welcome each week – and he paid it on time every Friday.
“Have any of you seen Albert?” Sam asked, though none of the men remembered catching sight of the lodger all evening.
“Perhaps he couldn’t get in ‘cause of that stuff,” Paddy suggested, with a vague gesture at the door.
“I’ll go take a look in his room,” Sam said.
It was less than a minute later that he shouted down to the rest of them to “come up here! For Christ’s sake, take a look at this!”
As the four men gathered about the open doorway upstairs, panting for breath, Sam stood at the far end of the room in front of the curtained window. Between them the threadbare carpet had been rolled back to uncover the floorboards. On these there was a large, painted circle in white and a five-pointed star. All around the edges were peculiar symbols and the burnt-out stubs of candles, their melted wax lying in off-white ridges on the floorboards. In the centre of the star was what horrified them all the most: it was a nailed-down body of a rat, its ribs and stomach sliced open.
“The dirty bastard,” Bob muttered, wiping sweat from his forehead. “The dirty, dirty bastard!”
“Filthy pervert, more like,” Tom put in. “Who’d do a thing like that?”
“Albert Durer, that’s who,” Sam said. “And here’s me, cookin’ his breakfast for him every morning, and the bastard does that in my own home.”
“What is it?” Paddy asked. “Satanism?”
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “It’s something horrible, I know that. Whether it’s Satanism or not, I haven’t a clue. Ask me something I know something about, and I’ll answer you. This…this is just friggin’ disgustin’, whatever you call it.”
“There’s some kind of old book over there on the dresser,” Tom said, pointing.
They followed his finger, and Sam stepped over to the dresser, gingerly keeping his feet outside the painted circle. He touched the open book, its pages crackling beneath his fingers like very old parchment. He stared at it hard for several moments, his brows puckering with concentration.
“Can’t make out a blessed thing that’s written in it,” he told them eventually. “It’s all in some kind of foreign language.”
“Like French?” Paddy asked, to whom foreign meant Calais, which was the furthest he’d ever travelled.
“Or Latin?” Bob asked, who’d done four years of it at Grammar School a long time ago and could just about remember Amo, Amas, Amat.
“Take a look,” Sam told him, but when Bob sidled over to peer at the book, he shook his head. “I don’t think it is Latin,” he said finally. “Or if it is, it’s in some kind of code.”
The men shook their heads in consternation.
“D’you think this has anything to do with what’s happened tonight?” Tom asked.
Sam stared at him. “That blackness?” he asked.
“I know it sounds mad,” Tom went on. “But before what happened to Jim and Harold that would have sounded mad too. And it is Halloween. When better to do something queer like this?”
“But why?” Bob asked. “And how?”
Tom shrugged. “You’d have to ask Sam’s absent lodger that, if we ever get chance to meet him again.”
“I’d like just one chance to meet that bastard again,” Sam muttered as he gazed at the mutilated remains of the rat nailed to the floorboards. “He’d not forget it if we did.”
While they were upstairs, they checked the rest of the bedrooms and Sam’s living room, but the sheer solid blackness outside never changed. By the early hours of the morning they had all gone to sleep in the two other bedrooms besides Durer’s, though none of them felt secure enough to undress. Whatever was happening to them, they were sure there were more surprises in store. And none of them, probably, good.
Sam was the first up. By half eight he had prepared breakfast for them all of fried eggs and bacon.
“There’s plenty of food in the freezer, but I can’t promise many more days of bacon and egg,” he told them as they sat about the table in the kitchen.
“Do you think we’ll be stuck here that long?” Tom asked, his sallow complexion now grey, with dark shadows under his eyes.
“Who knows?” Sam said. “We’re still stuck now, aren’t we? Which makes it nearly twelve hours already. Who knows how much longer this’ll go on?”
“Much longer and I think I’ll go stir crazy,” Tom muttered. “We might’ve joked sometimes about how grand it’d be to get locked inside a pub, but the reality’s not quite the same.”
“The lock-in from Hell,” Bob said. Like Tom, his plump face showed signs of strain.
“I never thought the Potter’s Wheel Paradise, but I never reckoned to compare it to Hell,” Sam said with an attempt at levity, trying to put out of his mind what they saw in Albert Durer’s bedroom.
Levity, though, had come into short supply by mid-afternoon and the view through the windows was still pitch black. There was a creeping atmosphere of fear in the pub. And claustrophobia.
There were strange anomalies. Though they could neither send nor receive telephone calls, and the TV and radio were dead, there were still supplies of electricity and water. Arthur Renshaw said it was a pity the water pipes weren’t big enough to crawl along, otherwise they might have been able to get out that way, till Bob pointed out that, however big the pipes might be, they would drown in them anyway because of the water – and still get nowhere. Sam organised for the two bodies in the lounge to be wrapped and taped inside bin bags, then he and Tom dragged them into the cellar, where it was cold enough to keep them preserved – and where, more importantly, they weren’t in constant view.
By evening there was real fear.
“We should have heard something from someone by now,” Tom insisted. “Surely somebody knows we’re stuck here, that something’s wrong.”
Sam shrugged. “Who knows what it’s like on the outside? Perhaps it’s as dangerous to get into the Potter’s Wheel as it is to get out.”
They drank slowly and steadily that night. Talk petered out long before ten; after that they sat around the bar in desultory groups, each consumed by their own gloomy thoughts for the future. Before they knew it, it was midnight, they all felt slightly drunk, and went to bed grumbling about the bloody absurdity of it all.
Five days passed and the situation hardly changed, though the bacon and eggs for breakfast had long since run out and Sam was beginning to look increasingly more worried whenever he went to the freezer. His initial optimism about what it held hadn’t taken into account that it would have to cater for five grown men, with no additional food coming in from any other source. Now it was beginning to empty with ominous speed. Two days later the freezer was down to an already opened bag of peas, three fish fingers, some ice cream in a battered tub and a very old packet of boil-in-the-bag spinach.
Within the next few days they were all beginning to feel hungry and beginning to realise that they were facing the grim prospect of starvation. If being imprisoned within the pub had been enough to make them feel afraid to start with, their food running out increased this till there was hardly a moment when they weren’t aware of it. It dominated their thoughts. But there was nothing they could do about it. They had long since searched the pub for every possible scrap of food, from half eaten packets of biscuits to the snacks hung on cards behind the bar. Even dusty jars of out of date cherries for cocktails that had never been popular in the Potter’s Wheel had all been consumed. Their ill-assorted diet led them to feeling queasy as well as hungry, depressing their spirits even more and making all of them irritable.
By the end of the second week tempers, as well as hunger, were at breaking point…
“This is bloody ridiculous,” Bob said eventually as the five of them sat around a table in the lounge. With empty stomachs, they had stopped drinking alcohol till later at night; and each of them now held a bottle of fruit juice from behind the bar. “We’ve got to do something. If we don’t, we’re going to starve to death within the next couple of weeks, unless we turn to cannibalism.”
“And with only five of us that wouldn’t last long,” Sam put in with a rueful smile, though his attempt at humour met with little response from the drawn faces of the four old men, who stared at him in silence
“We’ve got to try something,” Tom said. “Even if it means risking what happened to the others. If we don’t…”
“If we don’t, we’re doomed,” Bob said flatly.
Sam went behind the bar and poured them five beers. “If we’re to plan getting out of here we need something stronger than orange juice,” he told them.
Their first plans, though, were vague impracticalities that were soon dissected and tossed to one side. It was Tom who came up with the first and only practical suggestion.
“Have you ever wondered why we’ve still got water and electricity?” he asked.
“Good job we have them,” Arthur said. “We’d have been well buggered if we hadn’t.”
“I agree with you there. But why have we still got them,” Tom went on insistently. “That’s the important thing. That’s what I’ve been wondering. After all, we’ve no TV or radio signals.”
They sat there watching him, waiting.
“And?” Bob asked. “What answer have you come up with? Or is this going to be twenty friggin’ questions?”
“Two things,” Tom said, and, despite the hunger that was aching in his stomach, he managed a smile of monumental smugness. “Electrical cable and lead pipes – or whatever they make water pipes from these days.”
“It ain’t lead, I know that,” Sam said. “But I get your point. Electricity and water get through because they’re protected in some kind of casing.”
“And?” Bob asked. “Am I being a bit thick, but how does that help us. We can’t get out of here through either of them, can we?”
“But we might be able to make some kind of casing through the darkness,” Tom said. “Something that’ll protect us inside. It’s just a matter of finding something that’ll stretch out into the darkness that we would be safe inside.”
“It’s more than just worth a try,” Sam said. “Better than sitting here, starving to death.”
Putting aside their beers, they set out foraging about the pub for materials they could use to construct a tunnel.
“I hope that darkness doesn’t stretch too far,” Tom confided in Sam, but the landlord shrugged. “We’ve got to try, Tom. It’s the best idea so far, and if we don’t make a stab at it we’re doomed anyway.”
It was in the beer cellar they came up with the solution. At one time, during the late eighties, a previous landlord had made an attempt at building up the catering side of the pub, and with that purpose in mind had started work on a proper professional kitchen. Things had gone well, till he was told he would have to construct a ventilation system. Spiralling costs, at each new demand from the local council, had resulted in him eventually abandoning the project. In the cellar, though, were the aluminium panels for an unconstructed ventilation system, ready to be connected together to form a two-foot square metal shaft.
“If we could connect these together, we could lead them from the front door out into the darkness. Hopefully they’ll make a shaft long enough to let us crawl out of here,” Sam said, as they relayed the open-ended boxes up the cellar steps to the bar.
Opening the front door was a ticklish operation as no one wanted to risk suffering any of the mutilations that struck those who had already tried to get out that way. The deep, almost cosmic darkness that confronted them, with its cold, black depths, had become no less awesome – or frightening. Gingerly, they pushed the ventilation shaft, a twelve-foot length of aluminium squares, inch by inch out across the doorstep into what should have been the street. Their first attempt, though, was a dismal failure. As they shone a torch into it, they could see that the inexplicable darkness had entered it from the far end, filling it till it was in line with the darkness at the doorstep.
“We’ll need to seal the far end off,” Sam said as they pulled the shaft back into the pub. “Perhaps that’ll keep it out.”
They found some sheets of aluminium in the cellar which fitted on the end of the shaft. With a soldering iron, it did not take long before they had it in place.
“Make sure you seal in every gap, otherwise the darkness might seep through,” Tom suggested while Sam worked on it. “But not too strongly. It has to break off.”
This time, as they slowly, carefully pushed the delicate shaft into the darkness, the inside remained clear. Even when most of it stretched out from the pub, its outside swallowed by the darkness around it, as if it no longer existed, its interior remained bright, unsullied by even the slightest hint of darkness.
The five men exchanged cheers of jubilation. They sat back and admired their work for a moment.
“Do you think the far end’s reached the other side of the darkness?” Arthur asked, dampening their spirits. None of them knew how far the darkness reached. For all they knew it might have stretched only inches from the pub – or gone on for eternity. There was no way they could tell from staring into it. It was black and impenetrable to their gaze.
“There’s only one way to tell,” Sam said. “One of us is going to have to creep along that shaft and batter the end off with a hammer. Then, either the darkness will flood in, or there’ll be the real world again.”
“You make it sound so simple,” Bob said. “But you do realise, don’t you, that if the shaft doesn’t reach safety and the darkness does coming flooding in, whoever’s in there will be swallowed by it?”
“And be dissolved like poor old Jim Bartlett’s face or Harold Sillitoe’s arms,” Tom said, unable to hide the horror in his voice as he said it.
“Thanks, Tom,” Sam told him. “I was trying to forget that alternative.”
“Well, one of us will have to try it, whatever the risks. Otherwise we’ve just wasted our time.” Bob wiped his hands on his knees. He looked down at his stomach, which still loomed large despite their enforced diet. “Though I don’t suppose I’ll be able to volunteer. I might manage to squeeze down that shaft, but I don’t think I’d be able to move my arms enough to use a hammer to force the end off.”
“I think we’ll need someone somewhat slimmer, I agree.” Sam looked at the others, conscious that, even though he was youngest here, he was not much slimmer than Bob, and would have a problem in the tunnel too. “Well?” he asked. “Who is it going to be?”
There was a long moment of silence. The others knew the dangers involved, that whoever crawled along the shaft and knocked off the end would be risking his life.
“One of us’ll have to do it,” Arthur said. “Perhaps we should toss for it or pick a short straw or something like that.”
The only ones slim enough to make it, Paddy, Arthur and Tom, exchanged glances.
Sam nipped behind the bar. He returned a minute later with a pack of playing cards.
“Lowest card wins – or loses, depending on your point of view,” he said, shuffling the cards. “Aces low.”
One by one, the three Grudgers reached for the cards and selected one.
“Looks like I’m the one,” Arthur said, flatly as he gazed at the three of spades in his hands. Tom had the five of hearts and Paddy the king of clubs.
“Would you like to do best out of three?” Tom asked.
Arthur shook his head. “Only putting off the inevitable. It’s got to be one of us. Anyway, if it doesn’t work, perhaps I’m the lucky one, eh? At least I wouldn’t have to starve to death. Or end up eating one of you lardy arsed buggers.”
“When do you want to try it?” Sam asked.
“I doubt if I could sleep tonight knowing I was going to have to crawl along that friggin’ tunnel in the morning, so I might as well do it now,” Arthur said, his face deadpan. “What have I got to lose – apart from my nerve?”
“Here,” Sam said to him. He went to the bar and handed him a large whisky. “Just to steady you a bit, eh?”
“Many thanks.” Arthur smiled, thinly, and took a long swallow of the whisky. “Good stuff too, for once.”
He looked at the galvanised tunnel, squared his shoulders, then stepped towards it. Sam handed him a heavy hammer. “A couple of hard bangs should be enough to snap the solder. If someone will help me, two of us will take a firm grip of this end of the shaft to make sure it doesn’t slide forward.”
“Take a bloody firm grip,” Arthur said as he stooped and stretched his hands into the tunnel, then began gingerly to crawl on all fours along it. He could feel the cold metal beneath the palms of his hands. There was an intensity to the coldness which he supposed was because the blackness surrounding it was drawing out any heat into whatever voids of nothingness there were outside.
“Are you okay?” Sam called as the old man shifted his knees into the shaft.
“Feels cold but firm,” Arthur told him; he looked back with difficulty over his shoulders. “Feels as if it’s resting on something solid.”
“Take care,” Bob told him, as he crouched down to watch him crawl foot by foot down the shaft.
Sam gritted his teeth as he and Bob held onto the shaft to make sure it didn’t move. Arthur moved only slowly, not daring to jar the shaft from their fingers, conscious at every move he made of the terrifying blackness surrounding him beyond the thin metal sheets. The shaft felt so fragile he half expected it to come apart every time he moved. Even though the shaft was only twelve feet long, it took him at least five minutes to inch his way to the end. Eventually, though, he was close enough to reach out and touch it.
He pulled the hammer from under his belt.
“Two sharp blows should snap off most of the solder,” Sam called to remind him.
Arthur nodded, though he knew that if the shaft wasn’t long enough, if the blackness extended even further than its end, it would rush in and kill him. The thought of it made the hair prickle along his arms and neck, while his stomach tightened with apprehension into a small, icy nugget of fear.
“Two sharp blows,” Arthur muttered to himself beneath his breath as he manoeuvred the hammer so that he could grip it properly and swing it far enough back in the cramped space inside the shaft to hit the plate at the end.
“Hold onto the shaft for me,” Arthur shouted to Sam and Bob. “I’m going to hit it now.”
He closed his eyes, tightened his grip on the hammer, made a swift, uncharacteristically sincere prayer, then swung with as much force as he could muster.
There was a dull metallic thud.
He gritted his teeth and swung again. Even harder this time.
One corner of the aluminium sheet pinged free and a thin shaft of light shone through the gap.
For a second Arthur stared into it, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, till he realised he was looking at light, however dim, not darkness.
He could barely take his eyes away from it.
“What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” Sam called out to him, alarmed at his stillness.
Arthur took a deep breath as relief flooded through him.
“There’s light,” he shouted down the shaft. “Light!”
Buoyed up by the cheers of encouragement that broke out madly behind him. Arthur swung at the metal again with determination. A couple of good, strong blows and he’d have it off. Just a couple, that was all, he thought to himself. The first blow parted the sheet from one side, and the light grew brighter. He aimed a blow at the opposite edge. Just one, he thought. Just one more blow. Make it good and hard and he’d be out of here. Out of here for good.
Back inside the pub, Sam looked at Bob as he tightened his grip on the edge of the shaft before Arthur could strike his next blow. “Nearly there,” he whispered. Bob grinned, then looked down the shaft as Arthur wriggled into position, before bringing the hammer down with a resounding, echoing thud against the metal.
A dim grey light shone down the shaft as the metal fell free. It was a cold light, almost shadowy in substance. Carefully, Arthur crawled further along the shaft, till his head and shoulders were free of it. If he had expected to see any sign of the streets or houses that lay beyond the front of the pub, there was no sign of them now as he craned his neck to see as much as he could , though everything seemed to be little more than dimly-seen differing shades of grey. There was an impression of vast stone walls somewhere in the distance and high above him, as if he was in an enormous cavern. He screwed up his eyes, wishing that he had brought his glasses with him when he came to the pub, but none of his friends had ever seen him wearing them – none of them even knew that his eyesight had worsened over recent years. Out there, though, he felt sure that something moved. Something large and dark.
“Are you okay, Arthur,” he heard Sam call to him as he wriggled free of the shaft and crawled onto the hard, cold surface of the stone outside. He turned around and looked back down the shaft. “It seems okay here,” he called back. “But I’ve no idea where I am. It’s not Edgebottom.”
“Not Edgebottom? But how do you know?” Sam asked.
Arthur saw his face disappear for a moment as Sam discussed things with the others. He reappeared again shortly. “Hold on to your end of the shaft,” Sam told him. “We’re coming through.”
Arthur glanced around the darkness uncertainly. “I don’t know whether it’s all that safe,” he told him. “I keep seeing something move in the distance. Something large. I’ve no idea what it is, though.”
“But we can’t just stay here,” Sam insisted.
Arthur sighed. “Okay. I’ll take a hold of the shaft.”
The shaft stood out a few feet from a dark, glistening mass of blackness like that surrounding the pub. He would have called it a pool, but it rose in front of him up against the side of a wall of rock. He flinched as the shaft tugged his fingers; Sam had squeezed himself into the far end of it, his pale face almost filling it as he stared at Arthur.
“Take it slow,” Arthur told him. “Don’t risk damaging the joins. They’re not all that strong.”
One by one the rest of them slowly made their way along the shaft, till all five of them eventually stood on the rough stone at the end of it. Bob shivered theatrically. “It’s a damn sight colder here than in the pub,” he grumbled.
“You can always go back if you like,” Sam said.
“I’m not sure yet whether that wouldn’t be a good idea,” Bob retorted. “I thought this might lead outside the pub, but God knows where it is. It doesn’t ring a bell with me. It’s like nowhere round Edgebottom that I’ve ever seen.”
“Nor me,” Tom said, his voice quiet, as if he felt intimidated by the vastness of the gloomy depths around them. “Oh, my gawd,” he mumbled.
The rest of them followed his gaze as he stared with a look of horror into the distance.
“What is it?” Arthur asked, though he felt sure that he knew. It was that thing – that large, dark shape he had seen move when he first climbed out of the shaft. He screwed his eyes in an effort to make out what it was. It was large in the distance. Immense. Too large to be real.
The rest of them saw the creature at once, though none could have even started to describe what they saw. It was impossible for them to fix it in their gaze, as if it did not even fully exist within reality, but partially slid between dimensions even as they stared up at it. It was a Leviathan of Biblical size, perhaps octopoid, perhaps insectile, perhaps neither, or both, or many other forms of life simultaneously – or beyond all forms of life, something the like of which none of them had ever heard of or seen or imagined.
They felt fear deprive them of thought as they gazed up at it.
An impossibly long tendril reached towards them from the creature, dark, bristly, covered in rows upon rows of millions of tiny, moving suckers. Arthur shrank back against the rest of the men as it moved towards him. Sam pushed him to one side, then mindlessly scrabbled to get back as far as he could from it. Panic infected them all as they ran about against the rock face in an effort to elude the nearing limb. Paddy was the first to scream. It was a pitifully pathetic, terror-filled scream of gut-wrenching horror. The rest of them were halted for an instant as the tiny suckers transfixed themselves to Paddy’s face. His arms and legs flailed in agony as he tried to tear himself free, as his face seemed to be drawn into all the suckers simultaneously, followed by the rest of his head, then shoulders. Sam felt sickened as blood erupted from all the tears that were ripped about the old man’s body as it was wrenched apart into the hundreds of suckers consuming him. Sam grabbed at one of Paddy’s arms, though he knew he was too late to save him. He tugged at the arm, but there was no give. The immense tendril that was drawing him violently into it was far too strong for his efforts to have any effect upon it.
More of the tendrils or octopoid limbs were emerging from the distant creature. Sam saw Tom trip as one of them soared down at him, attaching itself to his back. His screams rose in a terrible falsetto.
Bob made a bolt for the ventilation shaft to get back to the pub. But the old man was too fat and too slow to make it in time, and another tendril grasped him with its carnivorous suckers.
Was this why they had been trapped in the pub? Sam wondered. Had all this been part of some terrible plan, created by that bastard Durer?
Sam pushed Bob’s writhing body to one side, then dived down the shaft. The brighter light of the pub was ahead of him, and he moved with reckless speed down the shaft towards it, conscious of the possibility that one of the tendrils and its deadly suckers might only be inches away behind him.
He slithered out of the end into the pub, scrabbling at the ground to tug himself as fast as he could from the shaft. The metallic structure was moving behind him, and he knew that something else was inside it. A scream was stuck in the back of his throat as he stared at the exit, his fists clenched in a useless gesture of defence, when Arthur thrust himself out of the shaft.
“Help me!” the old man shouted. And Sam saw the thick tip of the tendril that had attached itself to one of his feet emerge from the shaft as Arthur crawled across the floor into the pub. Blood burst from his leg as the suckers commenced their terrible, relentless, irresistible work on him, consuming him even as he struggled to get as far as he could from the shaft. “HELP ME!”
Sam pushed himself to his feet and ran behind the bar into the kitchen. He tugged out the cutlery drawer by the sink. Then ran back into the pub, a carving knife clenched in one fist.
Without hesitation he hacked at the tendril, but the thing was so tough it was like trying to cut through seasoned mahogany. Sharp though the blade was, it barely scratched the surface of the tendril.
“Sam!” Arthur screamed at him, the foot and ankle of his left leg a ruin. “Do something, for Christ’s sake!”
Sam threw the knife to one side.
“What can I do?” he asked him, agitated and frightened. He kicked at the end of the shaft, then on an impulse he reached down and tugged it. He felt it come free as he pulled the far end that was still in the cavern back into the darkness. The tendril, still trapped inside it, disappeared in an instant as darkness filled it. The rest of the tendril flopped onto the floor, falling away from Arthur’s ruptured foot, its severed end oozing thick black fluids that hissed and bubbled on the floor of the pub.
Sam dragged Arthur away from the tendril and up onto a chair near the bar. He wrapped a towel round his injured foot. The old man moaned, but he was still conscious.
“What’s happening to us, Sam?” the old man asked.
“I don’t know for sure,” Sam said. “But I intend to find out.” He looked towards the stairs.
“What’re you going to do?”
“Something I should have thought of days ago,” Sam muttered.
Clenching his fists, Sam strode up the stairs till he stood in the doorway to Albert Durer’s bedroom. He stared in at the painted pentacle and circle and the dead rat nailed in the centre of them. He stepped into the pentacle and kicked the stiffened carcass from the nails pinning it to the floorboards. He then kicked at the painted lines and curves and obscure symbols, scuffing them with the hard leather soles of his boots. He went out into the upstairs kitchen and found a knife. Back in Durer’s bedroom he set to work scraping and slicing as much as he could of the pentacle away. Then he went to the sash window, pulled back its curtains and pushed up the bottom of the window frame. Outside, the ominous, threatening blackness loomed before him. He reached for the book on the dresser. For a second he looked down at its stained, old pages, with their obscure, thickly printed lines of writing and strange drawings. Then he raised the book and threw it with as much force as he could muster out into the darkness.
He sank to his knees. There was nothing else he could think of to do. After this, all there was left was to return to the bar and give what help he could to Arthur. A feeling of helplessness seeped through him as he raised his head and looked at the window – through which the first rays of dawn were starting to emerge from above the dark grey roofs to the east.
No one amongst all the scores of police and local and regional government officials who had gathered about the outside of the pub over the last few days was able to give Sam any reason for the “Strange Anomaly” (as they termed it) that had isolated the Potter’s Wheel from the rest of the normal world. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of minutes before Arthur was whisked away in an ambulance to the nearest hospital to have his injuries treated, while Sam showed a small group of the most senior investigators about the pub.
In the months that followed the reality of what happened became blurred through layers of “official” explanations, denials, claims that the whole thing was some kind of hoax, and an inability of the two survivors from inside the pub to grasp just what had happened to them, as it began to seem, as they looked back on it, as a strange kind of dream or nightmare or, as some experts suggested to them, mass hallucination.
Of his late lodger, Albert Durer, Sam never heard anything more. The odd man appeared to have disappeared completely as if he had never existed. That he had almost certainly used a false name was soon pointed out, when someone mentioned that he must have taken it from the German painter Albrecht Durer, dead for over four hundred years.
“He’d wish he’d been dead that long too if I ever get my hands on him,” Sam would mutter to himself when well in his cups. But he knew there was little chance of that. If he was still alive, “Durer” would be well away from here by now, his mischief done. Though whether he would do what he’d tried to do in the Potter’s Wheel elsewhere… Sam shuddered at the thought. Especially when Arthur hobbled into the pub at night for enough drinks to help him sleep. Then the two of them would talk into the early hours of the morning of those terrible events and marvel that even two of them had survived.
David A. Riley writes horror, fantasy and SF stories. In 1995, along with his wife, Linden, he edited and published a fantasy/SF magazine, Beyond. His first professionally published story was in The 11th Pan Book of Horror in 1970. This was reprinted in 2012 in The Century’s Best Horror Fiction edited by John Pelan for Cemetery Dance. He has had numerous stories published by Doubleday, DAW, Corgi, Sphere, Roc, Playboy Paperbacks, Robinsons, etc., and in magazines such as Aboriginal Science Fiction, Dark Discoveries, Fear, Fantasy Tales. His first collection of stories (4 long stories and a novelette) was published by Hazardous Press in 2012, His Own Mad Demons. A Lovecraftian novel, The Return, was published by Blood Bound Books in the States in 2013. A second collection of his stories, all of which were professionally published prior to 2000, The Lurkers in the Abyss & Other Tales of Terror, was launched at the World Fantasy Convention in 2013. His fantasy novel, Goblin Mire, was published by Parallel Universe Publications in 2015. Their Cramped Dark World is his third collection of short stories. With his wife, Linden, he runs a small press called Parallel Universe Publications, which has so far published ten books. His stories have been translated into Italian, German, Spanish and Russian.