infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror fiction
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

The King of Rain

a novelette

by Mark Chadbourn


"The King of Rain" was my attempt to do a traditional ghost story - but with a twist and a modern setting - as I've always enjoyed the work of MR James and Shirley Jackson. The inspiration came from a trek in the Peak District I did with a few old friends.

We hadn't seen each other for years, but in the strained atmosphere of the walk in harsh conditions a few unpleasant character traits and secret histories emerged. We haven't spoken since...

The King of Rain

It was raining like it had been raining forever. Not the pregnant, silky drops of summer rain, nor the icy bullets of winter storm. It was inconsequential rain, nothing rain, ever-present in the background, a sheet of grey that dampened the spirits as much as it soaked through every item of clothing. All the greens and golds and browns were washed out of the landscape as we trudged relentlessly across the sheep-clipped grass through the gorse towards the looming high lands which lay heavy against the steel clouds. It wasn't the best time to be there, in that twilight zone after the dog days of summer when the world turned away from the light, but we'd agreed to do it for John, and although the thought was in all our heads, he made it plain there was no turning back.

"Hang on a minute." Gordon Broxtowe was wheezing like he smoked sixty a day while he leaned on the wooden staff he'd bought down in the village. Admittedly the climb had been steep so far, but we were still only fifteen minutes out of Edale and the worst part still lay ahead. I'd seen the High Peak walk John had mapped out and it looked treacherous.

"Come on, Gordon," Phil snapped in his usual irritable manner. "We've only got one weekend, for Christ's sake. I'd like to be home by Christmas."

Gordon gave that smile. You could tell he thought it was winning but it irritated the hell out of everybody else.

"The first rule of hill walking is to go at the speed of the slowest member, Phil." Gordon took off his silver-framed glasses and wiped the raindrops off them. It seemed pretty futile, but that was Gordon; he had an almost pathological urge to waste time, words, anything, like some circumlocutory barrister who was getting paid by the minute. The rain skidded off the bald dome at the front of his head and slicked the greasy, ginger curls at the back of his scalp before eventually rivuleting round to soak his beard. In the wan light his skin glowed a sickly white. It was hard to see what his wife had been attracted to - he couldn't even affirm personality in his defence.

Phil turned away from him, cursing under his breath, and John flashed him one of his cold, cautionary glares. He couldn't help acting the boss, even out of work. Right then I missed Beth more than I had done since the day we met five years ago at a party in some seedy basement bar in the City. But Clapham and the flat seemed a million miles away and I was stuck with three people who I had more than enough of on weekdays. It's amazing the things you do to keep your job prospects fluid.

We set off again with Gordon still smiling superciliously at anyone who caught his eye and Phil muttering grimly to himself. It was a tribute to John that we were all there; none of us really had much in common.

At 38, Phil Metcalfe, the company accountant, was 13 years older than me, but he might as well have been thirty. His suits always seemed aimed at a different generation and he had that timeless haircut - short at the sides and back, but not too short - that was still favoured by barbers who remembered the war. His cheeks were a little gaunt and at that moment his complexion seemed to match the sky above; a grey man for a grey job.

Who am I to talk? Maybe I'm just being bitter, but you get to thinking that way when you're treated like some kid out of school for having interests outside of the crazy world of business software. You know, a life. "Still reading the NME, Sam? At your age?" "You're not going to see a film again, Jordan? You wait till you start a family!" And here I was, letting myself in for an entire weekend of it. I like to punish myself. It's my hobby.

And then there was John Chaucer. He'd never given me a hard time which was probably the main reason why I'd finally agreed to come along. He'd never been particularly nice to me either; he's not the type for backslapping or bawdy jokes, but I suppose running a company you've built up from scratch doesn't make you a bundle of laughs. His face was lugubrious and his eyes heavy-lidded. He looked a little like Robert Mitchum, but there was a real stiffness there so I guess he's more like Mitchum would look if he hadn't spent his early years smoking dope.

"Now how did I do that?"

Gordon had stopped again which irritated Phil even more. He pulled back his dripping shirt cuff to examine his plump, white forearm. A broad purple bruise was bright and clear along the soft underside.

"I don't remember banging it on anything."

John moved towards him with surprising speed for his size and then caught himself. His expression shocked me; a glimmer of fear and then a strange, shaky despair like he'd been told he'd got a terminal illness.

"You're mad. You'll never light a fire in this." Phil was hugging his orange windcheater around him as he stared gloomily at the pile of soggy, mildewed wood piled in the circle of stones between the two tents.

"Have faith, Philip. You always look on the black side." Gordon hunched over the kindling with a box of matches clutched tightly to his chest like he was waiting with a snare for a rabbit to pop out of its hole. "Lighting a fire is a mystical act. Bringing illumination into the darkness. You have to find the mood. Follow a ritual. Wish. Pray. Give promises to the gods of the blaze."

"You talk some bollocks, Gordon." Phil's attitude didn't seem to stop him watching the wood with a feverish hope; he needed a fire as much as all of us. Something to make us forget the incessant drizzle whipped from all directions by the wind that swept across the bleak uplands; something to lift the blanket of claustrophobic greyness.

"Come on now, come on," Gordon muttered under his breath.

"It's all wet, you stupid idiot," Phil cursed.

John and I watched from the opening of the tent we were going to share. There was a strange fascination to the scene like we were looking on some tableau out of time.

Gordon hovered for a second or two more, then he fumbled for a match, struck it once, twice, three times, and flung it into the dark hole under the wood. There was a ringing moment while the smirk started to creep across Phil's face and then we heard the familiar crackle above the sound of falling rain. Gordon turned and showed us all his irritating smile, now coloured orangey-gold. Thick smoke belched up into the growing gloom.

Dinner was chilli from a can heated over the fire and mopped up with french bread. We followed it with swigs from a bottle of Aberlour single malt John had provided as another inducement to accompany him, and after that we felt we had enough fire in our belly and veins to keep us going through the long night.

The tents were pitched in the shelter of an outcropping as twilight began to fall. The argument about who was going to share with who had raged all day and we finally had to settle it in the time-honoured tradition of drawing straws. Of course, no one was happy with the outcome. Then we perched on some uncomfortable lumps of Derbyshire granite under a makeshift tarpaulin shelter and watched the fire while trying to forget the constant drumming over our heads. Every now and then Gordon would dip into the pile of wood he had been locating in sheltered spots all day long, douse a piece in lighter fuel and fling it into the blaze.

"Bloody horrible weather," Phil muttered redundantly.

"Still, we're out of the house for the weekend," Gordon said. "A break from the wife and kids."

Phil agreed. "Sometimes you need to be on your own with a few blokes to get back in touch with yourself. It's a real strain burying all that stuff that makes us what we really are, just so we're acceptable to the wenches." He chuckled which was such an out-of-place sound coming from his dour face I had to double-check it was really him laughing. "They wouldn't touch us if they really knew. Here we can be ourselves," he added.

"Listen to Iron John," I said mockingly, but Phil didn't respond. They were both wrong, I thought, but there was no sense arguing with them. The company of men always made me appreciate Beth more, acutely even. You go through your days struggling to slot into a comfortable routine with your girlfriend and wife and you forget all their strengths, because they're subtle strengths that disappear at close inspection. It's like the lines some ancient race drew all over the Plains of Nazca in Peru. When you're standing on the ground you can't tell what they are, but when you're soaring up high with the gods you can see they're wonderful works of art, hummingbirds and monkeys. It takes some hairy-arsed man grunting, belching and beating his chest before the campfire to recapture your true perspective. That's what I think anyway. Like I said, Phil or Gordon didn't agree. Who knows what John thought? He was a closed book as always.

"How much farther is it to the house?" Phil asked suddenly, stirring us all from our thoughts.

John jumped like someone had stuck a finger in his back. "Oh...we should get there by lunchtime. Sooner if the rain packs in."

"It's been a few years since you've been there, then?" Gordon asked.

"Twenty years."

"Give or take a day or two," I joked pathetically.

"Exactly twenty years. Tomorrow."

"So it's an anniversary," Gordon said cheerily. "Better save some of this malt."

"Nostalgia gets to us all sooner or later," Phil added morosely.

"Why were you so keen to come back?" I asked.

John's heavy lids closed like he was drifting off into sleep and when they opened a second or two later the flames reflected from them liquidly. "I've thought about it more and more over the last few months. Before that, I hadn't thought about it since the seventies. It's funny how things come back to you, out of the blue."

"All part of growing old. The mind starts playing pick 'n' mix with memories." Phil caught himself and added hastily, "Not that I'm saying you're old, John."

The raindrops thudded relentlessly on the tarpaulin. John didn't seem to recognise Phil had spoken. I wondered if he'd had too much whisky.

"I've never sold it. I suppose I should have, really. God knows what state it's in after all this time. The roof's probably fallen in."

"Happy memories, I suppose," Gordon said obliquely. "That's what draws people back."

"I bought it as a holiday home, somewhere to get away from the Smoke, get some fresh air in my lungs, see some greenery. I was doing pretty well at the time. The company had just taken off, within a couple of years of me leaving Oxford. The early seventies was a good time to be young and well-off in London. I certainly made the most of it."

A smile ghosted his face, but it seemed sad rather than reflective of the time he was describing. I wanted to ask him about it, but I knew it was too personal for John. There was something else on my mind which was more acceptable to ask. "You've got a great head for business, John. You've shown that over the last few years. Why did that company go bust if it was doing so well?"

"I lost interest in it. Too many other things on my mind." He took a deep breath like he was coming up for air and then said, "That house was a labour of love. It was a ruin when I bought it, an old hill farmer's croft that hadn't been lived in for a decade or more. I spent every weekend up here, doing it up, getting the builders and electricians in. Cost me an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. When I'd finished it was like a palace. A great little getaway."

"Nice place to bring the totty too, I shouldn't wonder," Gordon said.

"Yes, it saw its share of women." There was a strange inflection in John's voice that I couldn't quite make out.

Then I noticed something that took my mind off it. "Phil, your nose is bleeding."

"Is it?" He dabbed at it and then carefully examined his fingertips in the firelight. It wasn't just bleeding, it was gushing. There was a red smear across his top lip and round on to his chin where it dripped into his lap. "I thought it was rain leaking through the roof."

"Better get a hankie on it, old boy," Gordon said without much sympathy.

Phil leapt to his feet, almost knocking over the shelter. A torrent of water gushed over the side from where his head hit the tarpaulin. "Oh God, oh God, I hate blood. Hate it." He was looking at his fingertips like someone had tried to hack them off.

Some of the blood had splattered on to his shirt collar, already sodden from the rain, which poked above his windcheater. It spread out like a water colour sunset. There seemed too much of it for a simple nosebleed; it was almost like he had taken a punch from a heavyweight.

Phil lurched around like a wounded elephant, under the shelter, out near the fire, and back, constantly dabbing at his nose and checking his fingertips as if he thought the flow would suddenly dry up. There was an edge of panic in his voice as he repeatedly muttered, "Christ, oh Christ."

"Sit down," John snapped with uncharacteristic irritation. "You're only making it worse. Relax. Put your head back." He snatched a long gulp of whisky from the bottle.

Gordon almost had to wrestle Phil down to the ground under the shelter, pinning his arms across the granite boulders with what looked like unnecessary force. "If you panic it just makes the blood rush faster, old chap," he said with a tight smile.

Phil wasn't being comforted. We could all see something was wrong and he knew it. With his head back, the blood flowed over his cheekbones and started to collect in his eye sockets. His eyes rolled wildly and he tried to blink them clear, but it was coming too quickly.

"Here let me." I pulled out my handkerchief and held it tightly against his nose. Instantly I was aware of the odd sensation of the blood almost pumping out between my fingers, or like it was being sucked out.

"You're not a haemophiliac, are you, Phil?" I asked nervously. He squirmed and muttered something which I took to be a negative.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, the nosebleed stopped. I felt that powerful pumping disappear in an instant like someone had turned a switch. Cautiously, I pulled away the now-sodden handkerchief to check the flow.

"It's finished," I said. Phil went limp. "I've never seen anything like that before. Do you always get nosebleeds like that?"

He shook his head. Behind the scarlet streaks that were starting to dry on his face, his skin was chalk-white.

"Just one of those things," John mumbled. "He's probably got thin membranes in his nose. All that exertion of walking..." His voice trailed off and he returned to the whisky bottle once again.

He seemed strangely uneasy, almost anxious, and I had this creeping feeling there was something important he wasn't telling us.

As the others clambered into the tents to prepare for the night, I sat under the shelter and watched the dying fire, listening to the hiss and thud of the rain and wishing I was a million miles away.

I don't know how much later I woke, but the rain was still pelting against the canvas and it was obviously dark outside. There was a diffuse light in the tent and it took a second or two to orient myself and realise where it was coming from. John was buried in his sleeping bag with the top pulled over his head like a hood; I could just see his hands protruding. He had a small torch which he was using to illuminate his wallet. In the perspex window was the photo of a woman. From my oblique angle, she looked beautiful; huge china doll eyes that were black pools in a white oval face, framed by long, shining, dark hair. The picture had the faded glory of a 70s snapshot, garish colours turned dull and real by age. Yet it was a recent addition to John's wallet. I'd seen him open it up many times in the pub after work and that perspex window had always been empty.

A dim, strangled noise echoed out from the depths of his sleeping bag and the torch shook slightly.

"Are you okay, John?" I asked quietly.

The torch clicked off and the sleeping bag closed over his head without a word being said.

Dawn came with difficulty, breaking blindly behind the slate clouds so the only sign of its arrival was a barely perceptible improvement in light. John had us up early to maximise our walking time and as I packed away the tent I suddenly realised I could make out details in the windswept landscape, patches of grey and murky green crawling out of the shadows. After an hour we realised the cold, flat light was the best we were going to get. It was like the sky was pressing down to suffocate the land, and we were trapped between with the rain and the scrubby grass and the occasional wind-stripped tree.

John seemed to be avoiding my eyes over our breakfast of lukewarm baked beans like he feared I might ask him about the photo. He seemed different that morning, harder, more aloof, as if some dam had broken in his mind during the night.

"I don't believe you had to go through all this every time you wanted to visit your holiday home," Phil said bitterly when we'd been walking for an hour and a half. "Isn't there a damned road up to it? How did you get the furniture up there?"

"There used to be," John replied, "but it was little more than a cart track. It ran along the edge of a ridge, but most of it's crumbled away now. It's too dangerous to use."

"Good luck selling it," Gordon said with what I could only describe as a chortle. "I can see the estate agent's particulars now: 'Close to no amenities whatsoever.'"

"I'll never sell it," John said flatly.

"If it was such a good place, John, why did you abandon it?" I asked. He gave me a look like I'd stepped over some invisible line. Then I noticed he was favouring his left leg. "Have you hurt yourself?"

"I must have twisted my ankle," he said defensively. "It's nothing."

"You shouldn't keep walking on it, John. It won't do you any good," Gordon said.

"It's nothing."

The conversation dried up for the next half hour or so as we put our heads down and concentrated on the walking. My face was starting to sting from the constant wetness and my nose was filled with the smell of damp vegetation and sodden clothes. I started to pray that the cottage was in good enough shape for us to light a fire and dry off before the journey back. Nor did the weather help the tension that seemed to be growing among us with each mile we progressed; it seemed to hum with a charge like the air around a pylon.

It was Gordon who broke the silence, his voice trilling out with a hint of mockery. "No wedding plans then, young Sam?"

"We've talked about it. Maybe in a few years' time." I always felt a tightening in my stomach when they asked me about my private life, mainly because I think I sensed they were going to stamp all over my feelings if they could find an opening. It was like they were all so disillusioned with their own lives they wanted to wreck any which didn't have the bleakness they faced each evening.

"Stay single, that's what I say," Phil chipped in morosely. "Don't go wasting the best years of your life." John was a way ahead of us so he couldn't hear when Phil added under his breath, "And you won't have to go on nightmares like this just to get away from the family."

"Did you marry young, Phil?" I'd learned how to ask questions which deflected attention away from me, and they always fell for it.

"I've always been married." His voice sounded like it had lead weights attached; he seemed to be saying, 'I've always been asthmatic', or 'I was born with that disfiguring mark'.

"Oh, come on, Phil. You have to play the game right." I couldn't understand how Gordon could be so perky in the drizzle and the wind. "You mustn't let it bulldoze you down. Marriage is a wild horse that you have to break."

His voice carried on like a cold breeze through the peaks. I didn't hear any of them talking about romance or caring, but maybe all that hearts and flowers stuff was nonsense for the immature. Perhaps there was a sharp lesson lying ahead for Beth and me. I hoped not.

John had stopped near a lightning-blasted tree and was examining the ordnance survey map which was rapidly taking on the consistency of used tissue paper. A faint, battered path drove a browning trail through the grass ahead and then swung sharply to the right between two large outcroppings of black rock. Beyond, the land seemed to fall away disconcertingly. I could hear a sound like constant thunder.

"What's the matter, John? You're not lost are you?" Gordon slapped John on the shoulders which made me catch my breath at the familiarity, but Gordon didn't seem to notice. John stared at the map like Gordon wasn't there.

"Much farther?" I interjected quickly before the tension broke into outright annoyance.

John shook his head. "Not too far, but the terrain's rougher. It'll be hard going. I was just..." He paused to moisten his lips; despite the rain streaming down his face they seemed to be bone dry. "There are some falls just over there." He nodded towards the outcroppings. "Spectacular...beautiful... In the summer, when the weather was good, I used to sit next to them and watch the sun set."

"Bit girly for you, John, isn't it?" Phil said disinterestedly.

"Not if he had company, eh?" Gordon nudged Phil theatrically. It caught Phil off balance and he had to stick his hand into the wet grass to stop himself going flat out. He cursed loudly and put John between him and Gordon.

As we moved towards the falls, John hung back until he was several yards behind. Gordon and Phil didn't seem to notice; they were engaged in some rapidfire return I couldn't hear clearly, Gordon's voice irritatingly sing-song, Phil's leaden and bludgeoning.

All of us grew quiet, though, when we passed between the outcroppings and saw the view; it was breathtaking even in the gunmetal atmosphere beneath the lowering clouds. The land fell away from our feet in a dizzying wall of black granite to the lush Derbyshire countryside far below. White water plumed out from a subterranean stream just beneath us and dashed and glistened in an arctic tumble down the cliff face. I took a few paces back and gripped on to an imaginary wall. I had a head for heights like Bernard Manning had feet for dancing. Those patchwork fields and ribbon roads looked too much like my childhood trainset, an optical illusion that could almost tempt me into believing it was just a small step down.

"Come on. We haven't got time to hang around." John was edging along the path behind me. There was a steeliness in his voice and out of the corner of my eye I could see him slinking by with his head down.

"Now, now, old chap. How can you pass by a view like this? It's marvellous. It's probably the high spot of the whole trip." Gordon stood with his hands on his hips looking out towards the horizon, and then he took a few steps and peered over the edge. My knees buckled slightly.

"Don't do it, Gordon," Phil said hopefully.

"This is damned good," Gordon continued. "That water, it's like milk. Mother's milk. I fancy a bit of that, don't you, Phil?"

"Whatever you say."

Gordon scratched his head for a second or two and then fumbled around for his canteen which hung on a strap from his rucksack. "You know, I'm going to get me some of that mother's milk."

Phil looked at him dumbfoundedly. "You're bloody crazy."

"No, there's a path down over the rocks to just below the falls. You can see it. People must use it all the time."

Phil shook his head, and I didn't feel I could move one way or the other, but Gordon had no qualms about climbing over a large boulder and dropping down almost out of sight. Somehow I found it within myself to shuffle forward. There was, as he said, a small pebble-strewn path which wound down to just below where the falls burst from the rocks. The boulders that lined the route were too big for him to tumble over accidentally, but beyond them the cliff face fell away precipitously.

"Bloody idiot. Holding us up more." Phil dragged his fingertips along the wind-smooth edge of a rock. "They're so black, like those ebony African masks everyone used to have in the sixties."

"I wouldn't know about that, Phil."

"Get him away from there!" John had come running back to the lip of the falls, his eyes blazing, his face scarlet with anger beneath the hood of his windcheater. "Get the bloody fool away from there!" He held back, his arms quivering like he wanted to throw himself forward, but couldn't.

Phil and I looked at him curiously.

"Hey! Look at this!" Gordon was waving and grinning and holding the canteen above his head like a Grand Prix trophy. He was right next to the falls, and the white foam flecked his face and mingled with the grey rain. "Mother's milk! I'll fill it to the brim!" He shouted to be heard above the roar of the water.

"John says come back," I yelled to him.

He might have heard and he might not, but he wasn't doing anything about it. He leaned over precariously and thrust the canteen into the depths of the icy torrent.

It was suspended there for a second or two and then suddenly and inexplicably his left foot skidded on some pebbles and shot into the water. Gordon teetered for an instant until his right arm windmilled and clung on to an overhanging rock. His curses floated up with the spray.

"Be careful, you idiot," Phil yelled. His knuckles were white against the boulder on which he was leaning.

Gordon looked up at us again and unveiled his irritating grin to prove he was all right. But as we watched, his stare became fixed, then curious, and the grin began to break up. After a second or two his expression was one of puzzlement and growing fear.

"What's going on?" John barked. He had backed away from the edge until he was pressed against the outcropping.

"Are you okay?" Phil shouted.

Gordon's left leg was still stretched out into the falls; I couldn't understand why he hadn't withdrawn it. His right leg dragged on the pebbles towards the water, almost imperceptibly, but the reaction on Gordon's face was like he had been shot.

"Good Lord, he's going to fall." Phil was up and moving. I was frozen by the expression on Gordon's face which was growing more terrible by the second.

"What's going on?" The anger had left John's voice now and had been replaced by a wet pitifulness.

Gordon's foot skidded again, almost an inch this time. It was curious. The path wasn't sloping; it was almost like he was dragging it himself. Despite the terror on his face which made me feel sick to see, he looked almost comical with one leg and arm stuck out into the water and his other hand clutching on to rainslick rock for dear life.

"Hang on, Gordon. I'm coming." Phil clambered over the boulder and slid down on to the path. It wouldn't take him long to reach Gordon.

"What's going on?" John repeated weakly.

"Phil will be there in a minute, Gordon. Don't worry," I shouted to reassure him.

It didn't work. His face was now so contorted it was almost unrecognisable.

He raised his head to me, his eyes wide and staring, and croaked, "Something's got hold of my ankle."

As the words died, his body jerked like the crack of a whip and he fell sideways into the water and then down, bouncing off the black granite like a rubber ball, sprays of red mingling with the white.

Phil was rooted in horror. I turned away and covered my mouth in a sudden surge of nausea. Away behind me, I saw John, the blood draining from his face, the awful knowledge even though he hadn't seen.

Phil was shaking like a tree in a gale. I grabbed his arm, but he shook me off.

"We've got to get back. Phone the police, ambulance... God, who's going to tell his wife. And his children...God." Flecks of saliva flew out of his mouth and splashed John and me.

John looked past him, through the rain and out towards the grey horizon, and then he slowly shook his head.

"No? No, we're not going back?" Phil's voice was a shriek of incredulity.

"No, we're not going back."

"You can't do that, John. For God's sake, the man's dead! He's lying there on the rocks."

"We're not going back."

"How can you say that? How can you even think about going on? We..."

John went off like land mine. He was a big man, but I was still surprised at how easily he hauled Phil off his feet with his meaty hands buried in Phil's windcheater. John shook him furiously for a second like a dog with a bone and then threw him backwards where he sprawled winded on the wet grass and rock.

"He's dead. A day or two more won't make any difference." John's voice was a stone wall with no chinks for disagreement.

"I can't believe you." Phil's voice cracked and there were tears in his eyes. "Why is getting to the cottage so important?"

John turned coldly, like some robot, and started to walk on.

"John," I said tentatively.

He whirled, his fists bunching, ready to counter any resistance forcefully.

I felt a coward, but I knew I couldn't stand up to him, not on my own. Yet there was something I needed to know. "When you came back, shouting for was like you knew something was going to happen."

He looked deep into my face, searching, like he was trying to read my mind. I couldn't recognise the man I saw in his eyes. He was an alien, some bug-eyed pod person that had snatched his body. He moved away from me, all emotion locked within, and started to stride out across the uplands.

"Look, I can't go on any more," Phil whined. He dropped his rucksack to the ground with a shrug of his shoulders.

We had been walking for a good hour in silence before he had started to complain. I didn't listen to him at first; I think I was in shock. I was too confused, trying to work out what was happening, what was wrong with John. I felt pathetic and broken and stupid, and I wished Beth was there. And I couldn't shake the expression on Gordon's face when he knew he was going to die, that wide-eyed, stupid, 'what have I done to deserve this?' look that turns tragedy into comedy. One other thing, too, rattled through my mind - his words: "Something's got hold of my ankle."

John turned round furiously, but Phil looked like a beaten dog who could no longer respond to punishment. Still, I thought John was going to kick him, just to see if he would move.

"My back's in agony," Phil said pitifully. "Will you take a look at it? It feels raw."

"Come on, Phil," I said wearily. "I want to get through this and back as much as you do. There's nothing that could have hurt your back. It's probably just a sore muscle."

"Just have a look, will you?"

He pulled off his windcheater and sat on his rucksack, the rain flattening his thin hair to his head, turning his pink nylon shirt transparent.

"All right. Pull up your shirt. I'm not touching it."

He peeled the material tenderly off his back and rouched it up under his armpits. When I saw his skin between his shoulders and his waist I think I must have caught my breath because he instantly cried out, "What is it? What is it?"

"Jesus, Phil, it looks like someone's been using your back for a butcher's block."

It was a mass of purple bruises and livid, red cuts, some of them oozing blood. I rethought my initial metaphor and decided it looked more like he'd been mauled by a big cat. Some of the cuts went in broad parallel sweeps of four like he'd been swiped by talons.

"When did this happen?" I asked incredulously and a little sickened. "How have you been able to walk from Edale in this condition?"

"In what condition? Just tell me what's wrong, for Christ's sake."

I described what I saw and his face took on that same dumbfounded expression Gordon wore at the end. He reached out behind him to feel it and winced when his fingers brushed a raw patch.

"There was nothing wrong with me when I left the car," he said pathetically. "It seemed to be happening while I was walking. My back felt sore. It was like someone was scratching me."

John walked over to us, examined Phil's back and shook his head. Then he said to me as if Phil wasn't there, "There's nothing we can do for him. She's marked him."

"Who's marked me?" Phil looked from John to me and back like he was watching a tennis match.

"What is it, John? What aren't you telling us?" He wouldn't meet my eye.

"She's marked him," he said again.

I started to walk after him to repeat my question when I heard a sound like breaking dry wood behind me and a howl of pain from Phil. I spun round and he was rolling on his back on the grass clutching his left leg. I rushed over and tried to help him, but his face was twisted in pain so I turned to his leg where he was trying to hold it, then whipping his hands away like they had been burnt.

Gingerly, I pulled up his sodden trousers. He howled again and thrashed from side-to-side, but I managed to get them over his knee.

His shin was broken. Not just broken, snapped in two. The bone jutted out, white and red-smeared through the skin. My stomach churned.

"What happened, Phil?" I asked weakly.

He levered himself up to look and then passed out.

John was standing away, watching us obliquely like we were two lovers in the park. He didn't seem at all concerned at Phil's injury.

"Put up the tent. We'll leave him here," he said coldly.

"We can't."

"Put up the tent."

"You can't leave him in this condition, for God's sake! He could go into shock. He might die."

John strode over and punched me so hard on the side of my head I thought my skull was coming off my spine. When I picked myself up off the grass a moment or two later, Phil and Gordon's tent was out of its bag and John was assembling the poles.

"John..." I pleaded.

He shook his head repeatedly. "She's marked him. That's it. At least he'll have the tent to keep him dry."

"If we're quick we can pick him up on the way back," I said hopefully.

John shook his head again. "He'll be dead when we come back."

"You've got to tell me what's happening, John." I felt a growing sense of dread that lay heavy on my disorientation. Most of all I feared for John's sanity. He wasn't my boss any more, that calm, tersely-spoken hard worker who was dedicated to his programs and his marketing schemes and his end of year accounts. I couldn't tell what he was going to say or do from moment to moment any more. Violence seemed to be bubbling just beneath the surface, visible in a repressed movement or a flicker of an eyelid. I wondered what terrible thing could have happened in his head to change him.

He didn't answer me at first, although I hadn't really expected a reply. Not a word had passed between us in the twenty minutes since we had left Phil in dazed agony in the tent. I tried to convince myself he really would be okay until we returned, but I didn't fool myself. I was more concerned with my own well-being and trying to prevent John going any further over the edge. That didn't make me feel too good about myself. I tried to pretend you have no say when self-preservation comes into play.

When John did finally speak, it was like he was continuing a conversation which I hadn't been party to. "I'm really not a bad guy, Sam."

"I know you're not, John." I tried to make my answer as bland as possible; I didn't want to say anything he could possibly take the wrong way.

"Sometimes you can hurt people without realising. That's not bad, surely, if it's not conscious. Can you be held responsible for your own blindness? Or stupidity?"

My legs were aching and I felt a blister working its way into raw life on my right sole. Peering through the rain, I tried to see some sign of the cottage, anything that might give me hope of an ending, but there was nothing apart from the sky and the land and the downpour. Yet when I glanced to one side over the rolling scrubland, I had the faintest sensation of movement in the misty distance, a dark smudge, like someone was shadowing our progress. I looked at John and saw that he had noticed it too. His face was like the granite around us, holding the fossils of his emotions.

"Tell me, Sam. Do you think you have to commit a real murder to be haunted? Or is psychological murder enough?"

"I wouldn't know, John."

I prayed it would be over soon.

There was grass and rain and muddy sky and then there was the cottage. It seemed to appear suddenly like it had been thrust out of the protective folds of the land where it had been brooding silently for years.

I called it a cottage, but it wasn't, not any more. It looked like it had been blasted apart by a bomb. Rubble was everywhere, lumps of stone returning to the land from where it had been claimed. There was no sign of the roof. A third of one end wall stood with one gaping window, and enough of the remaining walls to show its outline around the flagged floor.

I wanted to say: "We've come all this way...through all that suffering...for this." I left John to wander among the broken stones and stand alone with his thoughts in the skeleton of the building. I hoped it was enough to put to rest whatever had been tormenting him so we could return to the warmth and dryness and light.

When he walked back over to me after ten minutes I realised there was little hope of that. "We'll pitch the tent there," he said, pointing to a spot amid piles of stone next to the front of the house. I shook my head and wearily started to unpack the metal poles.

Some semblance of the old John returned when it was finally up and we had kicked off our soaking boots to sit inside and look out at what must have been the view from his front door.

"Nice spot, John."

He nodded. "I used to love it here."

"Pity about the house."

"The weather up here is terrible. You have to constantly keep making repairs or everything gets torn down."

"I suppose the locals must have made off with the furniture."

"I suppose."

"Still, it must have been one hell of a storm."

There it was again, in the dim middle distance, almost lost against the dark peaks at the point where they rose up steeply from the uplands. Even squinting I couldn't make out if it was a black, leafless tree or just an optical illusion in the shifting light and shade of the landscape, but it looked like a solitary figure, standing still, watching us. I had a sudden sensation of abject loneliness and despair.

I must have shivered, for John said, "We can light a fire soon. That will get the cold out of our bones."

By the time we had found enough dry wood to get the fire blazing, it was mid-afternoon. Night was never far away at that time of year and already it seemed the gloom was growing deeper, although it was probably just my mood. John kicked around the ruins for a while, and then we heated up cans of stewing steak and new potatoes. I couldn't eat much. I kept thinking about Phil and Gordon.

At just after 5pm, we set up the shelter in front of the fire and sat under it on the front step, with the remains of the whisky. The familiar staccato sound of the rain above my head made me feel strangely nauseous.

"It never used to rain this much when I was coming up here," John said. "All I can remember is the sun behind the peaks and warm nights walking back from the falls."

"It probably did rain a lot, John. The mind plays strange tricks with memories. It only selects the good."

"Oh, I remember the bad, Sam." He took a long swig of whisky. "It's probably hard to tell now, but I was a real lad when I was younger. I liked women. I loved women. Chatting them up, getting off with them. It wasn't a game. It just gave me a thrill to have them, to know that they'd fallen for me. I used to lose interest as soon as I knew that. I still don't really know why."

"The thrill of the hunt."

"Too simple. It was more to do with proving to myself I was a good enough person to be liked, I reckon. Anyway, I seemed to be very good at it. I know I'm no oil painting, but women used to go for me. There was one girl though..." His voice trailed off into the drizzling rain. I watched the dark creep up behind the peaks while I waited for him to continue.

"Angela Callis. She joined the company as a secretary. I knew I was going to hire her the minute she stepped through the door. Big eyes, long, dark hair..."

"Is she the photo in your wallet?"

He nodded, and almost as an afterthought he pulled his wallet from his pocket, took out the picture and handed it to me. I stared into her pale, beautiful face as he spoke.

"I began making moves on her the moment she started, but she wasn't having any of it. I was baffled. I'd never experienced it before. I'd sit for minutes watching her at her typewriter, wondering what was going through her head. She wasn't frosty or anything like that. She was like a closed book, like whichever part of her controlled her emotions had been switched off. I don't was like a red rag to a bull. She became an obsession. I had to get her to go out with me. I tried everything - flowers, chocolates, flattery, innuendo - it all washed over her. Then, just as I was about to give up, she relented. She agreed to go out to dinner with me, and that was when I knew I had her."

"You sound very...predatory."

He looked guilty. "I suppose that was how I was...back then. After that dinner she agreed to another one, and then another, and then the cinema, and then the theatre. It was like she was desperate to give herself to me, but she was holding back all the time. It was the sex that changed it. That night, about a month after the dinner, it was like a dam broke."

"I know the type."

"No, you don't. Not like her. She put her trust in me, in a way that's almost too big to describe. She took her character, her mind, her hopes, her dreams, her psyche, wrapped it all up and handed it to me. We had a great time, lots of wild dates. I fell in love with her, I think, but I never gave her anywhere near what she gave me. I had never experienced anyone who could give so freely. And I caused it. I gave her the key and convinced her to unlock the door."

Night had fallen. The darkness that covered the uplands was impenetrable. No comforting headlamps flared then disappeared. No street and house lights twinkled. There weren't even any stars. There was just the dark and the rain.

"It was just like playing one of those computer games you like," John continued. "I passed through different levels of her, each time getting closer to the heart. In the end, she gave up everything. Every last drop."

"That must have been quite a responsibility." I held my hands up to the fire, trying to leech some warmth across the wet space between us.

"I didn't realise that at the time. You know what men are like - they only learn their responsibilities to women through maturity. Angie was just another girl to me. And I was already starting to get bored with her. That sounds too callous. I liked her a lot, but once the chase was over she didn't excite me any more, and that was what I wanted - excitement."

"You dumped her?"

"Angie was a very troubled girl. Very troubled. She had been terribly abused by her mother, physically. Beaten so badly she had been hospitalised several times. Her mother's favourite torment was to tie Angie's wrists and ankles together behind her back and lock her in a wardrobe, sometimes for a whole weekend. There was more, so many terrible things I can't even bring myself to talk about them, and it went on from when she was a toddler until she found the strength to run away from home."

"Jesus." I stared at the face in the photograph, at the cold eyes that locked everything inside, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her.

"Her entire childhood was a catalogue of the most awful kinds of physical and psychological violence. The only way she had been able to cope with it and go out into the world was to lock it away, become emotionally numb. Those walls she had built were only weak and I'd helped knock them away. You see, I realise now what must have gone through her head when I kept making my advances. She thought my profession of love meant something...I don't know...deep."

"True love?" I stared into the heart of the fire. "That's the only kind, isn't it?"

"Not when you're that age, Sam. She thought my love meant I was going to help her with her burdens. She wanted me to save her...from her memories...from a view of the world that was dark and despairing. She trusted me implicitly to do that."

"And you dumped her."

"I brought her up here for one last weekend together. I thought we'd have a good time, give her some great memories before I ended it."

John had been rubbing his leg for some time. Gradually, he rolled up his trousers to inspect the skin in the firelight. There was a large yellowy-green bruise across his calf like it had been lashed with a belt. He pulled his trouser leg down without seeming to give it a second thought.

"How did she take it?" I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.

"She killed herself." The words were like lead weights dropped into a pond. After a second or two, there seemed to be echoes deep in the night. "She hung herself in the kitchen while I slept. She left a note. She couldn't face living now she'd brought down her defences. It was impossible to rebuild them."

He pulled out his wallet again and handed over a cracked, old piece of paper. I unfolded it carefully and read it by the firelight. It said in strained, upright script: "I wanted to live with you and sleep with you and die with you. You gave me a kingdom of sunshine and hope, and now all there is is rain. Love, Angie."

"How did you feel?" I asked, hating him a little, knowing I wasn't being fair.

"How do you think I felt?" There was a whiplash in his voice. "Finding her body was the worst moment of my life. Cutting it down...awful, just awful."

I suppose I could understand his increasingly bizarre actions during the day. He was looking for some kind of absolution from an act that haunted him down the years and the strain of it must have unbalanced him a little.

"And you came back here to deal with your guilt. Why did you leave it so long?"

"Because two months ago, she came to me."

I turned to look at his face reddened by the light of the fire. His bald statement chilled me. "What do you mean?"

"I woke in the middle of the night, sweating. She was standing at the end of the bed, staring at me with terrible eyes. Her face was as white as a skull."

"A ghost?"

"I've seen her several times since then. Always so accusing... And I started to get injuries - bruises, cuts - like the injuries she told me her mother had inflicted on her. That's what happened to Gordon and Phil. She caused it."

"John, I can understand how you feel," I began, trying to mask my disbelief, "but you've got to realise this was probably all in your mind. Your guilt as the anniversary of her death approached..."

He shook his head. "I know what I saw. And I knew what I had to do. Come back here and make my peace if that was possible. I couldn't do it alone. That's why I had to bring you all with me."

And Gordon and Phil paid the price, I thought bitterly.

"Still, John, I can't believe in ghosts."

He looked away from me gloomily.

We sat in silence like that for what must have been half an hour. I didn't feel like talking any more and John was lost to his brooding, the two of us, poor, pathetic, lost boys out in the cold. After a while, I began to be aware of a change in the atmosphere. Nothing I could put my finger on, but it made my spine tingle. The first tangible signal came out of nowhere, a distant rumble of wind. It seemed to be blasting towards us across the uplands, getting louder and louder, hurricane force. My breath caught anxiously in my throat as I listened to it and then a second later it ripped the shelter up into the air, and roared the fire into a tower of sparks before extinguishing it.

John and I were frozen to the stone step in the rain and the all-encompassing dark; my heart was thumping double-time, my breath caught in my throat. Gradually, as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I thought I saw a movement on the other side of the smouldering ashes of the campfire.

I felt John groping for my arm. "She's here," he said hoarsely.

"I can't see anything," I whispered, peering into the night.

"Her face. Oh God, her face! So terrible. Like a skull."

"John, I can't see anything."

"She wants me, Sam. She's beckoning. Don't let her get me. I'll do anything."

"John..." I fumbled for his arm, but suddenly I realised he was no longer next to me. "John?"

I thought I sensed frantic movement in the dark around me. It could have been John alone, stumbling around in the grip of his psychosis, but I had the awful feeling there was more than one person.

Run, I told myself, but I knew that was a mistake, on the uplands, in the dark, and I had been a coward for too much that day. I hurried around the area in the rain, calling out John's name, stumbling over rocks and cracking my bones. And all the time I could hear noises off in the night, awful sounds punctuated by John's agonised cry, but when I ran in their direction there was never anyone there.

After a couple of minutes I crashed madly into the tent and tore it down. While I was floundering around in the folds of plastic, I remembered the torch in John's rucksack. Scrambling around through the puddles that were building on the flattened tent, I eventually found it and clicked it on.

The light played wildly across the grass and stones, images flashing then disappearing like a lunatic strobe, and then I got my bearings and turned and shone it into the depths of what had been the house.

Frozen in the beam like an animal in torment was John. His eyes bulged and his face was hellish red with the blood from a hundred cuts. His mouth was wide in an O of horror and mortal dread. And there was something else, behind him and around him, a cloud of black, something...something...a hand, bone-white. I held the light on the scene for a moment too long. A face, turning towards me, white like the moon, hideous, so hideous, eyes black pools of malice. Looking at me, mouth opening...

I dropped the torch and ran. My mind was a mass of fizzing sparks without any conscious thought. I sprinted, fell and winded myself, got up and ran in a different direction, did the same. And then I was running and running, not knowing where I was going, desperate to get away, out into the night. When the cottage was far behind me and I was lost in the dark, I heard John's screaming, like the cry of a curlew, like the life was being sucked out of him, rising up and up and up before it was suddenly cut off.

That should have been an end to it. I slowed to a walk, thoughts starting to appear in my head like bubbles on a pond. John, Gordon and Phil had been punished, but I had been spared. Why? Because I loved Beth so much, and would do nothing to harm her? With relief, I thought that was probably it.

But then I happened to glance behind me and I saw it sweeping across the uplands towards me like a thunderstorm, that white, hideous face shrieking silently.

The fear filled me so much I thought my heart was going to give out. Driven by the terror, I ran as fast as I could, looking back every now and then, only to see it behind me, always at the same distance, however fast I was going.

Her eyes bored into my mind, accusing me, accusing all of us, promising damnation.

And I ran on and on, and then I could no longer feel the ground beneath me, and I was falling like the rain, and the last thing I saw was that cold white face in the night.

I woke with the dawn. My whole body was in agony from an intricate network of cuts. I was suspended in a gorse bush halfway down a sharp incline that ended in a nasty mess of granite boulders. The only reason I was there to see the rain had stopped was blind luck. It took me a good hour to extricate myself from the bush and climb down, and the better part of a day to make it back to civilisation. But I would never, ever escape what I saw that night.

This morning I had a nasty purple bruise on my forearm. I noticed it after breakfast. It could have been an accident, of course, but I don't remember banging myself. Last night, I had an argument with Beth, a stupid one brought on by the stress of what I'd been through, but some harsh words were said. And this morning I had the bruise.

Sometimes I even think I see her, in the mirror or out of the corner of my eye. I want to scream out: I'm not like them. I've done nothing wrong, but at the last minute I manage to convince myself it's all a trick of my mind.

It doesn't seem fair. John went back for absolution, but he had really been summoned back for punishment. Did he really deserve what happened to him? How can you be expected to cope when you don't know the rules? When you're just trying to do the best you can, but you're hamstrung by immaturity or your own nature? Wouldn't it be terrible if that didn't count for anything. No mitigating circumstances anywhere in life. We're responsible for everything we do, even when we're blind to the repercussions. All of us, guilty and damned.

I look at the bruise and I wonder if she's here watching me, waiting to mete out her terrible vengeance. The awful thing is, I'll never know, for the rest of my life, until I suddenly glimpse that white face again.

© Mark Chadbourn 1996, 1998.

This story first appeared in issue 3 of Squane's Journal.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)

top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]