Just Telling Stories

August 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 22 minutes, 11 seconds

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“Go on. Tell me stories.”
“What kind?”
Her eyes glittered in the light from the bedside lamp. “Scary ones.”
They were in twin beds facing each other over the gap. There was not much luxury in this hotel, so only one lamp with a worn shade, on a bedside table between them at the headboard end. It shone in his eyes making him squint if he looked too far to the right.
“They might give you nightmares. We’ve got to be up early tomorrow if we want to catch the first bus back.”
“I won’t have nightmares. I’m a big girl.” She pulled down the quilt, revealing a nightie which was loose enough to expose the edge of her breasts. She covered up again, grinning.
It was just humour to her, but he shifted uncomfortably on the bed as memories hardened into focus. It hadn’t been his plan, but maybe it was worth encouraging her.
“Okay. I’m short on inspiration, so it’ll have to be things from books or films. Since we’re in a hotel, there’s one I read once… A book by Dean Koontz. Can’t remember the title. A woman was staying in a weird seaside town where people were acting strange. There was a scene in a restaurant where all the locals were stuffing spicy food into their mouths but just staring ahead in silence as they ate, that kind of thing. She was in a hotel, got thirsty and left her room for a soft drink. Her bedroom was in a long corridor with stairs at each end, all the other doors were just to apparently empty rooms. She realised she hadn’t seen any other guests. Into the enclosed, gloomy stairs to the ground floor. She put money in the drinks machine and got a can of something, but as it clunked she thought she heard the door she’d come through two flights up close. As if someone had been waiting for her to make a noise which might cover the sound of them shutting the door. Stealthy. She listened but heard nothing else. Still, she felt that there was someone listening to her, somewhere on the shadowy staircase above her. If they were hiding and following her it couldn’t be good. She couldn’t bring herself to go back up the stairs, but worried she was imagining it. So she entered that floor’s corridor of rooms, walked quickly along it, opened the fire door at the base of the second set of stairs at the other end. That was dark too, maybe the lights were broken. She was just about to go up quickly when she thought she heard a click, a door on another floor opening or closing. As if the person had moved along her floor quickly and was now up there. Or, even worse, she suddenly realises, what if there were two people, one at each staircase, and they were working together, going to ambush her? Even now one of them could be coming down these stairs, another could be at the other end of this corridor, having followed her down, and they could be getting ready to trap her, for whatever reason… Shit, that’s scary.”
“What did she do?”
“The sensible thing. Got help from the person on hotel reception. And of course, the member of staff didn’t find anything, thought she was mad, saw her to her room. But she wasn’t mad. I won’t say what happens next, but it’s a good book to read, especially if you’re staying in a hotel. All his books have a good premise. Like the first of his I ever read when I was at school, Phantoms. I picked it up – it was my Nan’s, she wasn’t interested in it – and started reading. A woman and her sister driving home for a holiday. Get to their hometown after night had fallen. And the weird thing is, lights are on in some houses, but there’s no sign of life. No people on the streets. No-one in shops or bars, no answer at doors. She leaves her younger sister in the car, gets out and walks down a pitch-black covered alleyway, thinking she can hear something in the rafters above her, almost panicking her, but she gets through okay. She goes into a kitchen. It seems empty at first. But then she realises there are two hands holding a rolling pin, severed at the wrist. Something apparently cut them off before the person could react, while in the act of rolling out pastry. No body, no blood. Until she sees a head in the oven and gets out of there. That idea of being totally alone, a whole town wiped out without any sign of a struggle, I just couldn’t stop reading.”
“We’ve not seen many people in this hotel.”
“Yeah. Imagine if they’d all disappeared, or been killed? And the killers were creeping down the hallway towards our room…”
They both listened for any noise. It was eerily quiet, only an occasional scratch of rain gusted against the window. Then they heard a cough from outside, presumably someone having a cigarette on the grassy walkway. She smiled.
“Not all dead then!”
“Not yet,” he said in his most ominous voice. “Hey, if this gets too horrifying, do you want to hop into my bed?”
“Not a good idea.”
“Why not? Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Things are different. We’re just friends now.”
“No benefits?”
“The benefit is my company.”
“Spoilsport. What if I get cold in the night?”
She shook her head. “Just carry on with the scary stuff.”
He bit back a snide remark. Deep breath through the nose. Then continued. “A lot of Koontz’s books start with that kind of hook. Intensity, where a woman stays at her friend’s house in the country, and can’t sleep so stands by the window in the dark thinking, and then realises someone has broken in and is killing her friend’s family, so she hides under the bed. The killer comes in, puts the light on. She pulls her bag under it with her at the last second. Luckily she hadn’t got into the bed, it is still all made up, so the room looks unoccupied. But she can’t leave people to die and begins to sneak through the house in the dark, not sure where the killer is…”
“Urgh. I’d stay hidden.”
“Even if your friend was still alive? She’d been raped and tied up, maybe you could free her before he came back?”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
“Your turn then to tell me something.”
“Okay. This is true though.”
“Yeah, right.” He snorted.
“It is. I was looking after a friend’s house once, years ago, I was about twenty. They had a cat called Poppy. But it wasn’t theirs originally. It had belonged to a woman. But she had killed herself. Hung. And the cat had been in the house with her, locked in, and it was five days before anyone found the body.”
“Really?”
“Yeah. It was horrible. The cat was trapped with her body all that time. Poor thing. Anyway, I was looking after my friends’ house while they were in Spain, I was staying in the guest bedroom, it was really nice, I like house-sitting.”
“Hey, I could do it for you, whenever you and whatsisname go on holiday.”
“You know his name. And I doubt he’d want you in the house.”
“I wouldn’t root through your drawers.”
“That’s not the reason. And I’d rather you kept him out of the conversation. Okay, house-sitting… I was a bit nervous. I’d watched a horror film, I think it was The Fog, so I was jumpy, kept looking out of the windows to make sure there wasn’t any fog rolling in, hoping the doorbell wouldn’t ring. And then I went to bed, cuddled up to the cat. But in the night I woke for some reason and realised the cat wasn’t on the bed with me any more, I switched the bedside lamp on, there was no sign of it, so I got up. On the landing light I saw the door to the main bedroom was ajar. It had been closed. I was nervous but I went in anyway, switched that light on… The cat was sat on the bed, shivering and staring up towards the corner of the room. At nothing. But it was as if it could see something I couldn’t; for the cat something was there, something hung there. I freaked out, it was so intense, I got out of there, back to my room, locked the door so the cat couldn’t come in, sat in bed with the light on. And when I told the owners the next day they said it often does that, stares up, as if it had watched its dead owner swinging there. They said not to worry, there wasn’t a ghost or anything. But I never looked after the house again.”
“I don’t think I would either.”
“Your turn to tell me something again now, not from a book.” The light from the lamp was a bit yellow, gave her skin a sickly tone as she leaned there on one elbow facing him, eager for another tale. She looked good in bed. Always had.
“Oh I don’t know… Though I remember something I was frightened of as a kid, some story me and my cousin used to tell about the black nuns.”
“What are they?”
“The funny thing is, I can hardly remember many details about them now, or even where we’d heard about them originally. Maybe we’d discussed it with other kids who’d known the legend. I was about nine I think. I just remember that we got really scared when we talked about them. He would be in a sleeping bag on the floor by my bed when he was staying, and in the night we’d whisper about them after the lights went out. They were called the black nuns, because they wore long black robes and whatever the hood things nuns wear.”
“Wimples?”
“Maybe. But they weren’t alive. Maybe not human, even, They’d all had their heads removed, and others sewn on in their place. Heads that were blackened, swollen, they’d been poisoned or drowned or crushed, maybe heads from Hell – I can’t even remember why the heads were that way. We used to know.”
“Dementia.”
“The heads? Oh, you mean me. Unlikely at thirty.”
“I’ve heard of it. Maybe you’re really an old person, senile, unable to walk, trapped in a decayed mind where you think it is forty years earlier and you fantasize that you’re in a room with a beautiful woman.”
“It would be a nightmare, turn out you’re a vampire, or an axe murderer.”
“Charming,” she said, amused.
“A cannibal. You wait until the lights off then… eat me.”
She frowned, perhaps seeing innuendo there.
After a pause: “So these heads, they were sewn on, rough stitches.” He drew a zig-zag line on the coarse blanket he’d found in the wardrobe and had put over the duvet to keep out the autumn chill. “And the black nuns would appear around people’s beds in the night, have sharp implements to cut off heads and sew these weird black heads on, make more black nuns. You’d wake and they’d be there, staring, then they’d make their move.”
“That’s nasty.”
“Yeah. They could appear anywhere when you weren’t looking. In a wardrobe, or round a corner, or in a bathroom. Then get you when you were weakest. They’re like a combination of all your worst fears. I think they went after unbelievers, and maybe only adults so that the bodies were the right size to sew on the heads. I vaguely remember something about them corrupting a person’s blood first, changing their body until they were ready for the nuns to appear.”
“I bet you both scared yourselves silly.”
“We did. I remember one day he said we shouldn’t talk about them any more.”
“Why?”
“In case it summoned them. It was a silly idea but seemed dreadful yet true to a kid, so we stopped. Never talked about them again. Just in case.”
“Great, and now you’ve just told me.”
“We were kids. It was just a fantasy.”
“Still freaky. Tell me something that isn’t real again.”
“You’re insatiable. Well, talking about the black nuns reminded me of a bit in the film Exorcist 3. Have you seen it?”
“No.”
“I think that film had heads being sewn on to bodies too? Maybe Jesus heads from life-sized crucifixes? That’s probably why I remembered this. But it’s a great scene. It’s in a hospital. The camera is looking down a long hospital hallway with some doors leading off. At the far end of the viewpoint is a desk, and a nurse working there. It’s night time. Then you hear a weird noise. A sort of cracking, or crinkly rustling noise. She looks up, then in the direction of the camera, past all the closed doors. The noise stops. Creepy. Goes back to work. Then you hear it again. She seems agitated. Indecisive. You know there is something not right, yet the noise isn’t overtly ominous. She looks towards the doors. Suddenly the big one nearest her desk opens, she nearly has a heart attack, a doctor comes in, he’s laughing, finishing his shift. Tension all broken. He takes his leave, goes. She grins. Back to work. Then the noise, again. Suddenly you remember how weird it is. She looks. Works. Again. She starts to leave her desk to investigate, looking unhappy about it but not able to ignore it any longer. Starts to walk towards the camera.”
“Don’t tell me if it’s disturbing.”
“She opens the first door. Looks in. Nothing. Does the same for the second door. The room is empty. Creak. Moves on. Obviously nervous. Thinks she’s nearer to the noise. Opens the door, cautious, looks in, and you see it.”
His voice had lowered. She edged closer to the edge of her bed, to hear him better. She brushed her hair behind her ears. He could smell the coconut shampoo she’d always used.
“What?”
“A glass of whisky with ice in. The ice is cracking in the warmth. Breaking down. She breathes a sigh of relief. We do too. It’s all explained. False alarm. She smiles. Closes the door. Starts to walk back to her desk. Then,” he clapped his hands, making her flinch, “just as she walks past one of the rooms she’d checked the door opens and a man in a surgical gown and mask walks out with a pair of surgical shears at head height. Decapitates her. Shit, it’s so unexpected. What makes it creepier is that she’d checked the room, it was empty. Then he just steps out, no hesitation, just methodical ruthlessness. Brilliant cinema, it’s a masterpiece of tension, all done in one long shot. She thought she was safe from that direction, but you’re not safe anywhere. It’s like when I went to the pictures to see Blair Witch Project with a friend. I knew nothing about it beforehand. The film was disturbing, but I wasn’t afraid – then in the final scene she walks into a derelict room in a house in the woods, and something in the corner the girl had just walked past gets her from behind, a dead child molester. I thought I was okay, said bye to my friend, went home – only lived in a poky flat then – and found I couldn’t walk into a room normally: I was terrified that wherever I turned my back, something would be there. I ended up – this is true – going into my bedroom sideways, back to the wall so nothing could get me from behind, edged round the room and got into bed. Left the lights on all night, like you with the cat, sat up in bed, watched the door. Fell asleep sat upright like that. I hate the way ideas get under your skin, stay with you. You can’t turn your back on anything. Urgh. After that every noise in the house seemed ominous; signs of things creeping around.”
“I’ve never seen that film. Don’t want to, now.”
“Probably best. Another film that got under my skin is The Exorcist, the first one. It’s worse because you know it really happened, but to a boy, he got possessed instead of a girl. I saw the film as a kid, made me worry about creaks in the attic. And I’d told my friends it was good, and they hadn’t seen it, so when I found out there was a late night showing at a cinema in Manchester four of us went. I was about nineteen I think. It should have been good – I know the special effects can seem ropy if you’re not into it – but the problem was that some people in the cinema were laughing, jeering, making noise. It was killing the effect, making it less scary. Really annoying. So we came out, my friends weren’t that impressed, ‘It was okay’, kind of thing. We got a bus home. The thing is, pictures get lodged in your head. The film is known for that, I think there’s even a few bits where there are subliminal images, like a monstrous white face flashed over another face for a fraction of a second. And we’d got off the bus, it was all gloomy, just streetlights, walking down the road, thinking we were all fine, and I was walking past a car ¬–”
“I don’t think I want to know any more if this is going to be awful.”
“It’s okay, it’s not bad. It’s just that as we walked past I saw something, and almost shrieked, because for a second I thought I’d seen a pale face with wild hair rear up in the back of the car towards me, I was so freaked out – but there was nothing there. My friends laughed. Said it must have been a reflection. And I think they’re right. But it seemed real, like I’d created or summoned it by believing in it. Just a reflection. See, I said it wasn’t terrible. I wanted to show that it’s just in our minds. Psychology.”
“It does creep you out. I feel like the hairs are up on the back of my neck.”
“Yeah, it’s funny. Sunny day, you never think of these things. Dead of night, you cack yourself. It’s your fault, you wanted to tell scary stories.”
“I know. I wish we hadn’t now.”
“Because it affects you?”
“Yes.”
He realised they had been talking more and more quietly, voices dialled down. It reminded him of times from the past, things that happened between them, but that was a different intimacy from a different time. This was the intimacy of fear. He looked round the room. It definitely seemed more murky than before. Deep shade around the portable TV in the corner, next to the large wardrobe with creaky doors. The corner at the foot of his bed which led to the bathroom and hotel room door seemed more ominous, it could be hiding anything.
Psychology. Just psychology, he told himself. But it could be used, if you were clever. He thought for a bit. Then had an idea.
“It affects me too. Don’t tell anyone this, but I hate being alone at night, because I have three fears that always get to me. They’re all related, and usually all of them freak me out at once when I go toilet.”
“Toilet!”
“Yeah. In the dark.”
“Why not put a light on?”
“I’m trying to get over these fears. So I challenge myself. Doesn’t work though.”
“I’ll probably regret this, but I can’t resist if it’s toilet-related fear. What scares you? And don’t dare tell me it’s a giant snake. I know you, remember. Tadpole more like.”
“If you’re going to be like that…” He turned away, as if only pretending that she’d offended him. Oh, she was going to get it.
“Don’t be silly. Tell me.”
“Well, the first one is that when I go toilet in the dark I cross the landing; then the entrance to the bathroom is the door right at the top of the stairs down to the front door. And I try not to look down the stairs in the moonlight because I worry that I’ll see a man, Michael Myers, stood there in workman’s overalls, looking up with his pale moon mask on, a large kitchen knife in his hands, and as soon as I see him he’ll start walking up the stairs quickly, that horrible purposeful stride that isn’t a run but still means he’ll get to you in seconds. So I don’t look, because I think that then he won’t be there. Except as I go into the bathroom I can see down the stairs out of the corner of my eye, and because I’m not looking properly I see the shape of the coats on hooks and it looks a bit like a man shape in the gloom, as if he is there, and I rush into the bathroom and then look anyway, to see if I need to bolt the door – not that it would do any good because he would punch his way through, breathing heavy, that eager rasping, slashing with the knife –”
“Fuck, stop it, that’s hideous.”
“I know. It’s from when I was a kid. I hadn’t even seen the film Halloween.”
“How did you know about him then?”
“I went to WH Smiths with my mum after school, maybe when I was about nine, and I saw a book called Horrors: A History of Horror Movies with a creepy vampire on the cover, coming out of blackness to bite a woman’s neck. I had to have it. Loads of photos. And I got it home and started reading, lay on a big cushion, and was fascinated, couldn’t stop, head filling up with things. The first chapters weren’t too scary, they covered old black and white films and were just interesting, and then there was a chapter called ‘Nature Strikes Back’ about the giant ants and killer bees and stuff –”
“That’s more my kind of thing.”
“But then it got to a chapters on murderers and madness, and had a photo of Leatherface with his chainsaw chasing someone, it looked real, not like a film. And facing it was the Halloween picture. It filled a page. It was black and white, showed a night-time shot, looking up a staircase, Michael Myers stood at the top, solid and menacing, really stark shadow and light, almost hiding part of him. It was the way he was stood there. Not running. Just staring. And about to move. It really horrified me. And when I eventually saw the film – which was as nasty as I’d expected – I saw the scene, where he comes down the stairs after Laurie, he’d just sliced her and she’d tumbled down, had to get up and run through the dark house, bleeding, with him coming after her… It’s like the one in Exorcist 3 with the surgical shears, that kind of steady, determined and deadly stride. And so that’s what I expect to see when I go toilet in the dead of night.”
“I wish I’d never asked. Now I’m going to think of that too.”
“That’s my trip to the toilet. Fear number one. The second fear is as I leave the bathroom.”
“I don’t want to know.”
“You do really.”
“But this is already going to give me nightmares!”
“Isn’t fear good? You wanted it. Don’t chicken out now.”
“You’re a monster.” She put her hands over her ears.
“Fear number two.”
She sniggered.
“I see what you did there, but that wasn’t a joke. No. I leave the bathroom in the dark, and always expect a shove from behind as I pass the top of the stairs, some kind of malicious poltergeist. It will shove me with loads of force, cold pressure, solid air, and I’ll tumble down the stairs, breaking bones, and lie paralysed at the bottom, knowing that whatever pushed me is moving down the stairs after me.”
“I said I didn’t want to know any more!”
“Then you took your hands off your ears. That’s my second fear, why I always feel my way to the banister and grab it as soon as I can, grip it tight until I’m past the top of the stairs.”
“You’re being mean now.”
“Only one more fear.”
A sudden cracking noise from the other side of the wall, like splintering wood.
They both recoiled, looked at each other, wide-eyed.
Then he shrugged. “Just a door banging.”
“First time I’ve heard anyone in the room next to us,” she whispered.
“Yeah.”
Still looking into each other’s eyes. He searched, but all he saw was signs that she was spooked.
“Oh well,” he added, “it’s not like we’ve paid enough to have the whole extension to ourselves.”
“No, I suppose not.” Uncomfortable pause. “Talk to me. I want to hear you talking. No more scary stuff though.”
She was really scared. This was it. He reached across the gap between the beds, to hold hands, ready to follow. She touched his fingers… then patted them awkwardly before moving her hand further away. Moving towards the middle of her bed, away from him. He gritted his teeth. Right.
“I’ll tell you that last one. I worry that if I look in the mirror above the toilet in the dark after midnight I’ll see the Devil’s face looking back at me instead of my own, or maybe it will be behind me looking over my shoulder.”
“I feel upset. Stop now.”
“If it’s any consolation, I’ve shit myself up too,” he said. “I keep imagining that someone is going to step around that corner from the bathroom with some shears, they’d be on us in a second, or someone will be in the wardrobe.”
They both looked at the corner. It seemed darker than before. They held their breath and listened.
“That’s enough, I really mean it now. Please.” She looked like she was going to cry.
He’d got her alright. Made sure things hadn’t gone how she’d expected. She always wanted to control. Tough tits this time. He’d teach her to lead him on.
“I’m going to the bathroom first,” he said. As she picked up a magazine he added, “Wait? What’s that? A scratching noise?” and pretended to listen.
“Stop trying to scare me.”
“What, like pretending I’m being attacked while I’m in there? Or coming out with a pair of scissors?”
“Better fucking not!” She gave him an evil look. He grinned.
In the bathroom he checked behind the shower curtain first. Just an empty, stained bath. The room smelt damp but all was safe. He washed his face, avoided looking in the mirror.

“Your turn,” he said as he stripped to his boxers and T-shirt. She got up on the side of her bed that was furthest from him. Typical.
“Hey, it’s after midnight, you know? Don’t look in the mirror.”
She glared at him before disappearing round the corner. Click of a latch.
Maybe he could hide, jump out on her? He looked round the room for a good spot. Except then he realised that they were good hiding places. And he was more nervous than he’d realised. He drummed his fingers on the bed, watching the curtains. In the shadows, and out of the corner of his eyes, they looked like they’d moved. Nonsense.
Just psychology backfiring. He turned his back on the window.
Felt as if he was being watched.
He got up. Pulled the curtains back. The window was fastened tight. Window ledge too narrow for a person.
Heard the taps in the bathroom.
Looked around.
Opened the wardrobe cautiously. Nothing but hangars, clothes and shadow.
The toilet flushed.
Into bed. Fluffed his pillows. Picked up his book. Lay on his side reading it, turning pages impatiently.
The bathroom door opened. She must have already turned the light out in there. He avoided looking at her as she shuffled over to her bed and got into it in silence, a pale shape.
“No monsters?” he asked dismissively, without looking. No reply.
Fine. He turned the lamp off. Lay down, fingers interlaced on his chest. Fidgeted. Lamp back on. Got up. Opened the hotel room’s door. Looked out into the long hallway towards the stairs at the end. No people. One of the hall lights wasn’t working, leaving patches of shadow around an abandoned trolley covered in towels and pillow cases. Closed the door. Flicked the lock. Stared at it. Then got a chair and leaned it against the door.
Hesitated. The wardrobe was at the foot of his bed. Picked up the suitcase rest, folded it, leaned it against the wardrobe door. Looked over his shoulder towards her, pleased. She was under the covers and hadn’t moved. He frowned. She couldn’t be asleep with all his movement.
Back into bed and turned the lamp off, a click to black silence.
He lay on his back. Eyes yet to adjust to the darkness. Shouldn’t be open. Onto his side.
A noise. Creak.
Bedsprings.
Rolled over, stretched his legs out.
A bang from across the room.
It was only the radiator, he told himself. Why did floorboards settle and radiators make strange gurgling noises after the lights went out?
“You hear all those noises?” he whispered. Silence.
He sighed, frustrated.
Lay on his front, arms crossed under the pillow.
Listened. It was quiet now. The room, the hotel around them, even the wind and rain seemed to have died down. He was just starting to relax when he heard dripping noises from the bathroom. Maybe the shower. These old places with their crappy plumbing.
He tried one last time. “Hey, hear that dripping? It might be black nuns forming in the bathroom.”
No answer; maybe she really was asleep.
He thought about what he’d just said. Wished he hadn’t. Listened until the dripping stopped.

He scrabbled up from the well of sleep, a noise nearby, creaking in the blackness. Disoriented at first, then realised it was probably her bedsprings when she changed position. Maybe she was awake.
He whispered her name, his voice sounding hollow. A movement. Rustling.
He felt irrational fear prickling his neck, decided to turn the light on even though she’d be angry if he woke her. For some reason he was afraid to reach his hand out from under the covers to turn on the lamp. His eyes adjusted to the murky dimness a bit, he saw a vague shape, as if she was sat up in bed watching him. Panicking, he reached for the lamp, his hand brushing rough material in passing, there was a smell of burning, the lamp came on.
The charred yet swollen face was staring ay him from hollow eyes, figure in coarse black clothes, he could see the rough and bloody stitching at the neck where it joined flesh that was discoloured with infection, weeping and raw, holes in flesh pulled taut in attachment; it had been watching him sleep. The bed behind was soaked in blood, some ran down the wall, drying spurts on the headboard. In the periphery of his vision he thought there might be other figures in dark robes in the murky shadows; and on the other side of the bed was her body, uncannily stood facing into the corner, shivering but headless above a ragged neck wound; the blood-smeared and sharp shears in the figure’s hand the obvious cause; then he noticed black string and a long thick needle on the duvet next to a disembodied head, blackened and ready to be sewn.
No.
Two heads.
“Mm-mm-m,” he stuttered as the figure rose and leaned over him, eager, focussed, methodical even, opening the shears and cutting his scream short.

Credit To – Karl Drinkwater