Wednesday 6 July 2016

Nine Polaroids and a Letter

(Another horror story. It shares a structure with a story I had published in an anthology for White Wolf some years ago, but nothing else; that original story though has gone down in legend as the one I literally wrote while sleeping. This one, well. I was awake, so I have no excuse.)

(My Patreon backers got to see this a day early, and currently have access to a full set of RPG rules in beta that no one else has seen, and that sort of thing is going to happen more, which is a good way of saying, why not stick a few pennies in there to get early and exclusive content?) 

I was out looking for Bethan again. I do it more than ever now. Like a couple of times a month. I mean, not that I am actually looking for her, or that I expect to bump into her or something. But I look. It's like a compulsion, a need. I go walking. Looking for Bethan.

Just walking. Along the seafront. Around the roundabout at the end of Bryn Road with the old people's home on it. Where they found the car. Same route every time.

Just walking. I was done, actually on my way home, on the front, past the rec on the St. Helen's side, must have been about nine in the evening. And I wasn't really in the world. Just letting the traffic whizz by and the wind blow in my face and thinking about getting over it.

Looking for Bethan. I don't expect to see anyone or talk to anyone. I was preoccupied. Someone walked by me on the side nearer the road and said something, and I said, “Sorry, what?” without even thinking. I remember wondering for a moment if I knew him.

I'd never seen him before. And he stopped and turned and looked at me, and then he was right in my face. Young, right, but with this red, cracked skin all around his mouth and his nostrils and this smell. Like poverty: all cigarettes and sweat. His breath in little clouds, puff, puff, puff, every one vile, pungent.

A little alarm bell rang. I said, “Sorry.” I sped up. I moved on. He overtook me, stood in front of me, barred my way.

I think I looked around then. Like I was appealing to the traffic.

No one was going to stop. And then as if he hadn't even moved it, his hand was on my throat and I could see that one of his eyes was all white and milky, like it had a cataract, and he slapped me with the other hand, like a girl would slap me, and my glasses fell off. He said he wanted my money. I didn't have any.

Something coiled up, tight as a fist in my stomach.

I had my hands around his wrist. He said he was drunk. I began to hate him.

And me. I hated me. The ease with which he had me. The way I started begging for him to go away. He started laughing at me. I don't recall properly what happened then, at least not in any order.

I kicked him in the shin. His grip loosened. He swore and he tried to hit me again, but he was off-balance and missed an easy shot at me. I batted his hand off my throat and struck out, and somehow connected with his throat with some force and he sort of gurgled, and he was on the pavement and then I started kicking him and screaming at him and then there was blood and he wasn't moving, and I was standing by him with my stomach all knotted up and my hands shaking. I picked up my glasses from the ground, thankfully intact, and the wallet that had fallen from my pocket, my house keys, and without thinking, scooped up what looked like a small white envelope that had fallen on the ground next to him. And then I stood in the dark, hot and shivering, with my breath in small urgent clouds, and looked over my shoulder at the traffic whizzing past. No one was on the street. None of the cars paid any notice of me.

And I stood there shaking for a minute, in the wide open air, and then I started to run, and I ran until I got home and sank to the floor in my coat with my back to the front door, and realised only then that what I was holding was not mine, an unsealed envelope, in which I found a handful of photographs, Polaroids.

Each one had on the white part below the photo a number scrawled in permanent marker, from one to nine.

A picture of Swansea Station, Platform Two, from a vantage point near the exit. The shoulder and arm of what looks like a policeman, judging by details of the uniform, can be seen on the left-hand edge of the picture. A line of people, standing behind each other, are queuing to get onto a train. They're very thin. Their clothes are in rags. You can't see their faces, but from the backs of their hairless heads they are small and you can see something is very wrong with them. It is like — as far as you can tell, because they are some distance away and the focus is blurry they're really small — their hairless heads are covered with scabs, or scales.

The Cross-Country train – one of the newer kind of train - looks very old, its paint cracked and covered with graffiti, the visible metal rusted or filthy. From inside the near-opaque windows you can see a light, and if you look very closely, one person inside, his or her face and hands pressed against the window, his scream a small black smear.

I think I spent hours just looking at them, one after the other.

Each one shows part of town, but it's wrong, like there's something in the place of a building, or a street, or a landmark each time, or the building is somehow different, or the people are wrong. That something hideous is always present, even if it might not be directly visible. All in the washed-out colours of a faded Polaroid.

I thought — I don't know. I thought that they might be fakes to start with. I mean, they were so odd. I thought that someone might have done them for fun. Or for an art project or something. These are Polaroids, right. Old ones. I thought they were really hard to fake.

This is Brynmill. By the Rhyddings.The sun is big, and bright, and red and terribly close, and it creates a flare in the lens, washes everything with red. The windows of the pub are all cracked; the one car visible, a Mini, parked on the corner, is a burnt-out wreck.At the corner of the shot, where the school crossing could be, someone out of shot is holding the Children Crossing lollipop sign; only the wizened, blackened hand is visible.

I lived in fear for a few days, half expecting the police to knock on the door, or for something to appear in the Evening Post. But nothing happened, no consequences.

I kept the pictures in a drawer in my old bureau, and I think I looked at them about five, six, seven times a day. Just leafing through them, wondering why they had been made like that.

I couldn't figure out how they did it. I mean, you can do a lot with CGI these days, but it only looks like something other than computer graphics when you have millions and millions to put into a studio. And then only about ten per cent of the time, maybe.

I tried Googling it. It's easy enough, if you're talented, to make a picture and mess with the colours so they look like a Polaroid. But the paper. The black stuff on the back. The texture of the white material that frames it. Why would you fake that? How could you?

I thought about taking them to Collier's, maybe, to see what they thought, but then I thought that I might have to explain how I got them. And so I put them away and then I took them out, over and over.

This is the bowling green on Brynmill Park. In the middle of the picture, a man is on fire. He is on his knees and his arms are outstretched towards the camera, beseeching the photographer, and his face is contorted in agony.

He is surrounded by three policemen, standing, doing nothing. One, on the right, is holding a can of petrol. On the left, one of the policemen has turned to look at the camera. Even though he is facing you, you cannot see his face. At the very edge of the picture, where the pavilion should be, you can see the corner of a building made of black stone that shines in the sunlight.

I began to think about the pictures all the time. And the more I looked at them, the more I started to fantasise about them, to imagine if they were real.

And then I started thinking about Bethan. And then I started to wonder why I was thinking about Bethan, why on earth the pictures brought her of all people to mind, she who never even watched a horror movie in her life. And I pored over the photographs even more, trying to see something hidden in them, as if they could tell me where she went, as if they were a clue to where she had gone.

I can’t stop thinking about her. Where she is. What she’s doing. Whether I should send her a text, or try to call again. She just keeps popping into my head.

This is Pantygwydr Road, seen from the bottom of the hill. The sky is that same washed-out blue of the Polaroid high-summer, but the houses all look derelict, and the cars are burned out, and the trees that line the avenue seem to be made of something other than wood, and reach sinuous branches to the sky like fingers.

One tree, in the foreground to the left, has snared a bird in its tendrils, a seagull, its beak wide open, looking for all the world as if it is, although doomed, struggling to escape.

I am being watched. If you like, you can check out the window. Without it looking like it's obvious. They're there. I know they are. In a rusty old black Vauxhall Astra. Two of them. Old men, in these filthy suits. Yes, them.

They've been following me around for maybe four or five days now.

A few days later, I went back. To where the car was found. And around the corner to where the fight was. I passed the old people's home on the roundabout at the end of Bryn Road. All the way there I kept seeing this rusted up black Astra. And at some point it dawned that they were following me. It wasn't even subtle. I turned and looked at them, and these two old men in filthy suits stared at me with pale, watery old-man eyes and didn't look away.

They followed me home and parked outside my house. And every time I went out, they followed me. Not saying or doing anything. Parked on the corner, just looking at me with those sad, tired eyes.

I shivered, crossed the road as if to talk to them. They started the car, and rounded the corner. I belted around the corner. I could not see them, nor hear the engine. Only the silence of the evening and the sound of the sea.

And then I started thinking about Bethan again.

This is somewhere in Sketty, I think. It looks like the church on the crossroads, taken from the middle of the roundabout. The bell tower, under a deep purple sky, has split open, cracked from the top, widening; in the maw it creates are neat rows of long, white teeth.

It was a couple of evenings after that. I was walking home from work. I stopped about halfway, and stared at a back lane I had just passed. Perfectly normal. Except that in a year of walking along this street I had never passed it, twenty yards past the other lane that I did recognise, and which I had already crossed. Moss between concrete paving slabs. Ivy on decaying red-brick walls. Bin bags behind rusting garage doors. And then I walked back to the other lane, two houses away. No different. And then I counted the house numbers: 34, 36, lane. 38, 40, lane, 46. Two houses missing.

And the second time I came back to the “new” lane, the men came. The old men from the car. In these threadbare, ragged suits, with runny eyes and scabs on their faces. And one of them tried to grab me, and drag me down the alley, and his mate went for my other arm, and I pulled away easily and fell right out of the alley, flat on my face on the pavement.

I flipped myself over, sitting on the ground, and in front of me was a house. Lights on. Number 44.
I know. I think I'm going mad.

The Quadrant bus station is the only building on a vast, empty plain, no sign of its neighbours anywhere to be seen; between us and the building, a rocky chasm; it looks like a cathedral. 

Something is standing behind it, something vast, something with huge long feathery fingers that curl around the building’s roof. It is in shadow, silhouetted by the redness of the sun. Its face is cut off by the top of the image.

I went straight home and got drunk. It occurred to me – no, listen – that they are real photos. Real photos of Swansea. Like there is more to the places built here.

Like they are photographs of terrain that sits in the cracks between the landmarks we know. We fool ourselves that distance are concrete, but it might not be that way. You could look to one side and suddenly find yourself looking at different landmarks completely.

I could take a wrong turn down a back lane like that one I nearly got pulled down and never find my way back again.

Fabian Way. Just before Amazon Park. Broad daylight again. Two rusted, burned out cars sit abandoned on the side of the road in the foreground,and inside one is something indistinct, hairy, that looks like an animal. On the bonnet of the car is a human arm, torn off at the elbow, end of the bone visible in a ring of ruined flesh. You can see flowers tattooed on the skin.

I got a phone call from Bethan's mother yesterday. She was crying and angry, like nearly hysterical. It took me a while to get out of her what had happened.

Someone – some nutter, she said – had put a letter through her door, all handwritten, like Bethan's handwriting, only all shaky, like someone had faked it. Did she know who had done it? There was almost an accusatory note in her voice. Did she still have it? I said. I told her I'd go round and look at it.

She didn't offer me a cup of tea.

She always blamed me. As if, as if, as if. As if it were that I had loved Bethan more, she would never have gone away.

I took it, and read it over, and she told me to take it away.

Dear Mum,

I don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but I needed to write this, to tell you, Mum. I am in a terrible place and I want to go home. If they find me they’ll bind me to the Cables or make me join the Children of the Eye and I don’t want to do that because then you’re hollowed out and screaming forever, and the Queen on the TV has so many eyes and hands and everything is hot and dry and dying.

I’m scared, Mum. I wish I’d never left Swansea. I wish that I hadn’t ever come here. Please Mum. Tell someone. Please. Please. I want to go home.


People troop into the entrance of the Brangwyn Hall, the fascia of which fills the frame; huge numbers of them, every one wearing some kind of robe; everyone androgynous, shaven headed, every one with an identically shaped bleeding wound, triangular, on the back of the scalp. In the extreme foreground, the wound on the nearest head can be seen in detail. There is something in there; something small and black, and it is hard to see but under the blood there could be an eye.

I woke up this morning, and I opened my bedroom curtains and looked out of the window, and saw the Guildhall. And then I closed my eyes. I closed my eyes and opened them, saw, for a second, the people from the picture, fresh blood on the backs of shaven heads, trooping silently into the gaping doors. I turned away and looked again, and they were still there. One of the people at the back began to turn, to look over a shoulder, and I looked away.

And I went into my kitchen and ate breakfast, and then I had a shower, went to the window again. The crowd had gone, and there was the Brangwyn, doors shut.

The inside of a house. You can see out of a bay window, see Brynmill Park outside. The floorboards are bare, no furniture here. Five people, men and women stand in ragged overalls, sideways on to the camera, bodies held in stiff, uncomfortable poses. Mouths open. Cables, electric cables entering the backs of their necks, falling to the ground and running out of shot. They could be screaming, twitching.

It was about the fiftieth time I looked at the pictures, and I hadn't seen it before. And it was so obvious now, as if something had moved inside my head.

And there she was. Ruined and empty and lost and never coming back.

There she was.

She’d been right.

I am more afraid now, I think, that I have been for a very long time. Not of old men in suits or thugs with diseased faces, or even of trees with limbs that writhe, or policemen who set you on fire, or wounds with eyes and fingers.

I'm most afraid of all now that I will go looking for Bethan again. And that I will be out and I will see a turn I haven't been down before and I will walk down it and that no one will miss me when I have found her, and I do not come back.