Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green
Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off, but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a SleuthFest conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might, but if Penny is honest, not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted it, but now she finds it irritating.
She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.
The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days, so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She unhooks the security chain. Still, she can see no one, but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But there is no indication of who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?
Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering, but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth is moving, but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From around the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.
Matt is surprised to get her call and alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.
‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.
Penny hollers down the phone some more.
‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you!’
He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.
‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’
‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’
‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.
‘Well! He was, Matt.’
‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’
‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘He’s gone. He disappeared, just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates? Is that the word I’m looking for?’
‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.
‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’
‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’
She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside, but it is nowhere to be seen.
‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.
‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’
‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’
Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed, because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.
‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She is certain it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant, or someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.
With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.
‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just that I wasn’t expecting you.’
‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’
‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.
‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I tried calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’
Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.
‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’
‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’
A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance, complete with the clippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment, but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.
The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty-three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.
Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it, so she can see what’s inside. But she’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thank you and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.
Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.
She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be empty, but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo-jumbo, but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.
‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is eager to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol around but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round, but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’
‘Thank you for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’
‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.
‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.
‘Sorry, Sir. I was asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’
‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’
‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’
‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’
‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here, and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells, Parades End.’
‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’
‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’
‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’
‘You mean, those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.’
‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.
‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’
‘Meta what, Sir?’
© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved