It began with a fire.
‘Paranormal activity’, he said. ‘That’s what started it – ghosts, demons’.
The phone line crackled and I held my breath.
I heard him tut, and sigh, then say,
‘Or maybe you think he died of Spontaneous Human Combustion?’.
There was a pause.
‘I’m not trying to scare you’, he said.
As I replied, a chime of déjà vu flit through my mind like an echo.
‘I wish I could help’, I said. ‘But no – I don’t believe in the supernatural. There are reasons why fires kill people but leave little damage’.
‘One reason is drugs and alcohol’, I thought, but it seemed too insensitive to say.
He muttered to himself – fuming; incensed.
‘You’re wrong’, he said. ‘Wrong. The building is haunted. There’s an evil presence.’
His voice was raucous. I shifted in my chair.
‘Tristan’, I said in a soothing tone: trying to appease, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your uncle’.
I felt a prickle of guilt because I wasn’t particularly sorry. He’d been a nightmare to work for – I had no good memories of Felix. He was manipulative; vengeful. It was just like him to leave trauma in his wake.
Overcompensating for this unkind thought, I felt obliged to add,
‘What can I do to help you?’
I heard him mull.
‘Actually’, he said, ‘there is something…’
The next day, a relentless heatwave scorched the streets. It was hotter than the yawn of a dragon and twice as lethargic; I drifted like a sleepwalker in a mirage. Oxygen hung like gauze.
When I arrived at the shop, when I pushed the door ajar and heard the bell tinkle, I groaned, annoyed that I’d agreed to this. ‘I’m too nice’, I thought. As I paused on the threshold, I remember a drop of sweat fogged my vision so I descended the stone stairs groping in a blur; and with every step, the temperature plummeted. At the base of my spine, a sheen of perspiration chilled in a clammy pool. When I reached the cellar, I was shivering.
I smelled the familiar mustiness: the deep odour of dank abandonment. I had emerged into the storeroom, the basement of an eighteenth century building. I blinked under dim lights. Cluttering the place was a tangle of tables, racks and shelves full of dusty vintage junk.
‘Hello?’ I said, addressing myself to nothing in particular, and from beside the ornate fireplace at the far end, a man stepped forward. He was wearing a garish tie-dye T-shirt with a lotus flower motif. His features were angular, with a jutting nose and chin reddened either by wine or sun, and he moved with the flailing gangliness of a Punch puppet.
‘I’m glad you’re here’, he said in a slightly accusing tone. His voice reverberated around the subterranean space.
‘Tristan,’ I said, faking a bright smile. ‘Hi. I don’t think we’ve met before’.
After we’d shaken hands, he explained the task – because I used to work there, I was to catalogue his uncle’s collection of antiquities, highlighting the best pieces. He’d decide if he wanted to keep them, or if not, go to auction then start an aromatherapy business instead.
‘Where exactly was the fire?’ I asked.
‘On the top floor,’ he replied. ‘The firemen say the building’s alright, but…I’m sure it’s haunted. I know it is’.
He pursed his lips as he peered around. ‘This place is like a horror film’, he said.
I nodded, again peeved with myself for offering to return, but I made an effort to sound positive.
‘His curiosities are just weird, not frightening’, I said, ‘but I do think it’s best to get rid of them’.
He smirked as he sloped past.
‘Maybe I enjoy being frightened’, he said.
I heard his sandals slapping up the steps and I caught a faint whiff of patchouli oil in his wake, then he was gone.
Alone in the cellar, the bulb filament hummed. I rubbed my bare arms and surveyed the room, hoping to open the small back window but it was locked. Outside in the sunken yard, a jungle of tangled weeds encroached into tiles with grasping tendrils.
I cast an eye around the junk. I tutted. Felix had horribly macabre taste; his collection consisted of morbid oddities from all over the world – gruesome artefacts, sinister and grim. I didn’t want to see them again, let alone have to touch them. He owned a set of tribal shrunken heads, still with long lustrous hair. He kept a zoo of monstrous taxidermies – creatures cobbled together for grotesque impact, like the wings of a magpie sewn on the torso of a tabby kitten. He displayed body-snatched skeletons of medical freaks for sheer ghoulish curiosity. I shuddered at his Victorian sepia photographs of dead children. I shut my eyes. Who could collect such horrors.
In order to leave sooner, I swooped into action. I scribbled rough notes and took photos. I worked fast. I tugged and heaved at the objects with clammy palms, handling them as little as possible. Sweat laced my upper lip, then froze there: a chill seeped from beneath the stone floor regardless of the heatwave. The air was stale. A miasma of stench embedded the fabric of everything in the basement – the walls, the rugs, the books. It hung heavily, both in the air and in the mind – rank, degenerate, feral: like the reek of dying foliage, like the sly musk of fox nests.
I worked like this for a while until I reached the fireplace, where there was a stack of large framed pictures. I flipped through them. They were 1970s kitsch reproductions of oil paintings; each one showed a sentimental close-up of a blonde little boy in various tragic poses. He was gazing out at the viewer with a resentful expression, weeping large blue teardrops. I immediately recognised the image.
I padded upstairs to the empty shop above, carrying one to show Tristan.
‘Ever heard of The Crying Boy curse?’ I said. ‘It’s an urban legend – a painting believed to start fires wherever it hangs’.
He sprang from behind the counter like a jack-in-the-box. He gawped at the picture and then at me.
‘But’, I said, ‘It’s ridiculous! How irrational – to fear an inanimate object. How could it possibly ignite anything?’
I chuckled at the absurdity.
But Tristan was thrilled.
‘Wow’, he said. ‘Wow. Let’s put it on the wall. Let’s test its powers’.
I eyed him with frustration; I bit my lip – he was obviously as odious as his uncle. Hiding my pique, I took a tea break.
Outside the shop, the sudden heat prickled my brow like a delirious fever. I wandered windless streets under a savage yellow glare. All around Hastings town, the hot weather seethed: kicking up a stink. Putrefying blocked drains, decomposing bin bags, spongy melting tarmac – it all ponged. I tried not to inhale.
In the mirror of a parked car, I caught my reflection. My skin was mottled a crustacean pink – taut as a mask; and a muscle beneath my left eye twitched in despair.
On my return, the bell jangled above the door. Tristan was by the chimney stack. He didn’t smile and neither did I.
I took a deep breath.
‘I’ll stay a bit longer’, I said, ‘but then I’ll need to leave. I’ve given my advice – it’s up to you how you proceed now’.
He nodded, and mumbled.
I hesitated at the top of the steps, feeling the drop of temperature goose my flesh.
‘It’s spooky down there, isn’t it’, he said, without looking at me.
I detected a slight mocking inflection in his tone; a strange timbre.
There was a pause and he continued.
‘I heard you stopped working here because it frightened you too much’.
I lowered my gaze to the floor. My cheeks flared.
‘I admit, it was creepy’, I said; remembering. ‘It left…a crawling feeling, like picking insects off yourself’.
I’d given an honest, sincere answer. I glanced up to see if he’d understood but he was leering a diabolical grin. I could see my answer pleased him.
As I descended the stairs, I realised I was heading in the wrong direction. I’d spared enough of my time today. I meant to collect my things then email him a professional opinion. I meant to leave in the next five minutes. But in the cellar, the atmosphere had changed, as though I’d sunk into the landscape of a dream. A shimmer of haze hovered at eye level. Beneath the fug of mildew was a new scent – mysterious and primordial, like overripe exotic fruit with a rotten core. It hung in a visible mist. To my horror, all of The Crying Boy paintings were now nailed to the wall by the fireplace. I gaped at the blatant provocation. Through a glowering frown, I scrutinised the brush strokes. And something odd happened. Time seemed to stretch like an opaque golden syrup; to slow to a glowing crawl.
From the west facing window, a slant of amber sunset bled into view betraying the hour. In the shaft, I saw sailing motes of gleaming dust, silken threads of glossy cobweb…and a wisping curl of smoke. I stiffened. With a trembling finger, I traced it back through the air to the fireplace, where I shifted a tapestry covering the grate. A plume of dark smog hit me in the face – I spluttered and reeled, and through stinging tears, I saw the flicker and glint of an ominous ember of flame.
At that moment, the worst thing happened – I froze. Deep down, I heard my pulse thump; I felt my tense breath shrink; I tasted sour dread. But I’d forgotten how to move.
A lull fell, and I breathed it in. My thoughts slurred and melted to slush. The air quivered like a cloud of moths skimming their wings, dredging a diaphanous torpor. The room seemed to ripple; to undulate as though under waves, inside an aquarium of swaying fronds. I became aware of a petrifying truth – that one by one, the curiosities in the cellar had sparked into unnatural life. In jerky movements, they began to writhe and twist. The taxidermy wrestled itself – it clawed and snapped, biting its own limbs. The shrunken heads cursed and smothered each other, strangling with ropes of hair. Everything in the room thrashed, whipped and snaked in a jagged pirouette. Then all eyes swiveled towards me: bulging like slug feelers – stalking. Evil inched forward with intent. My stare was glued on the paintings of The Crying Boy – in every one, he was kicking on the canvas to escape his confines. He was scratching at the sides with his tiny nails; ripping with his baby teeth. He was hissing; he was screaming like a demon.
I moaned and teetered backwards, knocking over piles of books, scraping tables sideways on the stone floor. My focus darted wildly around the room, at the livid flicker in the eye sockets.
I lunged at the steps; tripping and wheezing. I scrabbled up them on all fours, veering with bovine clumsiness. At the top, I swerved for the door. I pulled hard, I pushed hard. I tugged and tugged, thinking it must be stuck – expanded in the heat: jammed. But no, it was locked. The shop was empty; darkening. Tristan was gone.
Behind me, I heard dreadful shambling thuds and scuffs in the stairwell and a long drawn-out clawing on the powdery stone wall.
I screeched and hammered on the door. I snatched up a chair and swung it against the window, but the wooden leg just broke off with a clatter and rolled about on the bare floorboards.
But it was then that I saw him. Tristan appeared outside in a pool of lamplight. He sauntered into view from the shadows.
‘Open’, I begged, my mouth ash dry.
He scowled a venomous glare, and a sneer spread across his lips: a dangerous reptilian snarl. He shook his head in a slow deliberate taunt, wagging his index finger.
I dropped the shattered chair and I grappled for a missile. There was a large geode of amethyst crystal being used as a doorstop; I heaved it onto my shoulder and lobbed. It landed with a crack, fracturing a feathery line at the foot of the glass.
Tristan had forced the lock open by then.
‘Stop that’, he yelled.
He blocked the exit, slammed the door and shut us both inside.
‘Let me out’, I said, tussling him.
He bellowed in my face and shoved me.
‘None of this is real’, he said. ‘Don’t make me smack you’.
I staggered backwards. The walls of the shop were curling and squirming. I knuckled my eyeballs.
He strode to the fireplace and yanked at a length of string in the chimney flue. From a hole to the lower level, he hauled something up which clanged against the brickwork – a brass incense burner.
‘It’s not illegal in this country,’ he said, flipping the lid to show burnt resins, powders and flower corpses.
Under the gaudy street lights, he gloated – a hideous jeering clown.
Through chattering teeth, I stammered.
‘I…I…came here to…help you,’ I said.
‘And you have’, he replied, ‘I’ve plugged my nose with tissue so I don’t smell it, and with secret cameras, I’ve filmed you hallucinating. It’s been hilarious’.
His voice was manic, like the inflation and collapse of a balloon.
There was an astounded silence.
‘But why?’ I roared.
‘Because…I like horror films?’ he said. ‘I’m the director and you’re the starlet?’
He tittered, entertained by his own answer. I sobbed, gulping for air. And for a few moments, the two sounds filled the gloom.
Then he softened his tone and spoke with a scornful affection, cooing my name again and again.
‘Rosie, Rosie, Rosie’, he said. ‘Sweetie. Prepare yourself for a shock – you and me do this regularly. Felix died months ago. You’ll blackout soon and you won’t retain any of these memories – not of me, nor of this. I’ll put you in a taxi and get you home. Sometimes, you’ll attack me when I reveal this much – you’ll kick me with your little feet. And sometimes, you’ll just snivel and curse like The Crying Boy. So calm down: I’m just a nightmare you had – a proper stinker. But drug-induced amnesia will be the next stop on your trip today. Thanks for coming! And bye for now.’
I have no idea what happened next, but I found myself at home.
And now, I’m writing this story: recording it. My memory has frayed into threads; I’m spooling them up from inside a labyrinth. Images are fading from colour to sepia to blur – they’re dissolving like an ink drop in a deep lake. I can’t even be sure I’ve remembered what happened. I sit here at the open window, inhaling the night. Bats scatter across the failing sky, now the livid colour of a purple bruise.
I’m still hallucinating: my pupils are dilated. I must be careful to ensure the oven is off, the door is properly bolted. But I have the strangest sense of déjà vu, that I’ve done this all before, that in the morning, I’ll wake to find objects have moved and things are missing, as though I have a ghost. This story will unwrite itself, disappearing page by page. And on my pillow, on my sheets will be a smell, a smell I can’t explain, a smell I particularly dislike – the faintest trace of patchouli oil.
I slip downstairs to the main entrance to check it’s locked shut, and as I turn to tiptoe back up to my flat, I stumble and bash my shin. The ground floor apartment door opens a crack and someone asks if I’m alright.
Trying to act normal, I reply, ‘Yes, thanks. Sorry. I’m just very tired’.
His face is in shadow but he’s wearing a tie-dye T-shirt with a lotus flower on it. And I’m certain I’ve seen him somewhere before.
*Previously published in the Summer 2019 Issue of Dusk & Shiver
Aviva Treger studied Ancient History at University College, London then later trained as an actor with Questors Theatre in Ealing. She’s recently returned to her home town of Hastings and finds its folklore and seaside landscape to be powerful inspiration for strange short stories.