Home Alone Too

 

Home Alone Too by Chris Green

Was it a knock that had woken her? Anna doesn’t like being alone in the big old house at the best of times, but knowing that Ron is on the other side of the world makes her more edgy. She takes a look at the clock. It is 3:13. Much too late for anyone to be calling, even if it were an emergency. Perhaps it was the wind rattling the window. She remembers that the weather forecast had not been a good one.

But she is wide awake now. It is too far into the night to be able to go straight back to sleep. She puts on her white full-length Féraud dressing gown and goes down to the kitchen. There is nothing like a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake to settle you when you are on edge. While she waits for the kettle to boil, she has the nagging feeling that something is not right. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but something feels different. She makes a quick check around the front room, the study, the utility room. Although nothing seems to be out of place, it feels as if there has been recent movement. She is familiar with this feeling. It’s not something you can put into words. There’s an energy field, a cold spot, something along those lines. She shivers. She recalls reading that the saying about someone walking over your grave originates from the Middle Ages when the distinction between life and death was less distinct.

She checks the conservatory. The lemon tree seems to have been moved. She cannot be sure, but she does not remember leaving the patio doors unlocked. She is careful about things like this. Ron’s work in security and surveillance has instilled this sensibility in her. But whether she locked them or not, they are unlocked now. And if they are unlocked, then someone could have got in, in fact, they could still be in the house. Instinctively, she picks up the nearest blunt object, in this case, the cast iron frying pan that she left on the hob. There are no obvious hiding places in the house but still, the fear remains.

She switches all the lights on and nervously patrols the rest of the house. She looks behind dressers, in cupboards, under the stairs. Nothing. She takes a torch out into the garden. Nothing. With a sense of relief, she pours the boiling water onto a camomile tea bag and sits herself down at the dining room table. She is about to give Ron a call, but she thinks better of it and puts the phone back in its cradle. There is no point in worrying him unnecessarily. He would not be able to fly back from Singapore just like that, and anyway what is all the fuss about. There is no-one in the house and she doesn’t want to let Ron know that there has been a security lapse, even one so minor.

Anna goes back to bed, but she can’t settle. Rebel thoughts about an intruder keep up their campaign. She tosses and turns. She wishes that Ron were there. He would comfort her. Perhaps they might make love. Making love usually helps to calm her when she is troubled. They say climaxing re-balances the chakras. But Ron is not there, she tells herself, nor is he going to be for a while, so she has to take command of the situation. She must pull herself together.

Ron has probably had his chakras re-balanced out east,’ says annA.

There’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it,’ Anna counters

But you’re resentful and jealous,’ says annA.

If you can’t do anything about something you should let it go,’ her protector offers.

You could even the score.’

But what would that prove.’

Of course, you are on your own and you are scared,’ says annA.

Free your mind from the judgements of others and gently go your own way in peace,’ adds Anna. ‘Things will work out if you trust reason and logic.’

The see-saw continues to rock her emotions. The wind continues to rattle the window. Eventually, at around 6 a.m. Anna manages to get off to sleep. But, after a nightmare about being held captive in a dark, dank basement in Blackheath by a one-eyed hunchback, she wakes up in a sweat. She does not normally inhabit such ghoulish dreamscapes. Her night-time world is typically occupied by people from the office or her friends from her decoupage class or the gym where she does her Pilates – in mash-ups of random everyday situations.

She showers and gets ready for work. Her stomach is churning a little, and she doesn’t feel like breakfast but forces down an oatcake with her cup of tea. She straightens her skirt and puts on a bright summer coat. She fobs her Mini Cooper, but it seems to already be unlocked. Now, this is something she never does. The car is her pride and joy and she would never leave it unlocked. Not even on the occasions, she has to go back into the house for something she has forgotten. She is spooked. The plain white envelope on the dashboard sets her heart racing even faster. It has her name on the front in fine black italic capitals. With trepidation, she picks it up and examines it. Finally, she opens it. It is empty.

She needs to get to work. Her line manager, Maurice, will know what she should do. Even before she slept with him last Christmas he was supportive, and afterwards, even though she didn’t sleep with him again. Maurice is a rock. He will put his arm around her and reassure her. He will tell her that there is nothing to worry about. He will probably tell her it is just someone having a prank. It happens all the time, he will say. She sets off, trying hard to keep this thought in mind.

Another thing she always makes sure of is that the Mini has fuel. She is so cautious that as soon as the level reaches halfway, she fills the tank. But, when the car shudders to a standstill going along the back lane onto the by-pass, she notices that the fuel gauge is registering empty. Why didn’t the red light come on? Emergency Calls Only reads the display on her phone. What is wrong with the thing? She only changed providers last month.

Lovers’ Lane, as it is affectionately known, is not what most people would think of as a sinister place. It has arable fields on both sides with well-tended hedgerows, and further along there is a pleasant area of woodland. Anna gets out of the car. The winds that were blowing through the night have died down and there is a stillness in the air. She cannot even hear the hum of traffic that you might expect to hear coming from the dual carriageway. She is about halfway along the lane. She looks up and down. Should she head back home on foot to phone the AA Roadside Assistance from there? Has her breakdown cover lapsed, she wonders? Ron is the one who takes care of these matters and he has been away such a lot lately. Should she wait for someone to come along? Even though the road is not well used, her car is blocking the highway. She can’t leave it where it is. And she hasn’t the strength to move it to a passing place on her own.

Hello, my lovely,’ says a voice from out of nowhere.

It is not the knight in shining armour or the good Samaritan she is hoping for. It is the one-eyed hunchback from her dream. He is carrying some kind of axe.

Dozens of stories she has heard of mad killers on the loose momentarily flash through her consciousness. The one who butchered his killers and kept them in the deep freeze. He escaped from prison a year ago. He is still on the loose. The one who skinned his victims? Was he ever caught, or is it just a character from a film she is thinking of? The cannibal murderer that was in the news recently. The line from the song by The Doors Ron sometimes plays in the car, there’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad runs through her head.

The axeman is over her now. He has raised his weapon. Anna feels she is going to pass out. The last thing she remembers is …….

She is startled by a knock on the driver’s side window.

Is everything all right, love?’ the stranger says. This one is not carrying an axe. He is well dressed and has a winning smile.

What? How?’ she says, as she winds down the window. ‘Where am I?’

Are you all right?’ he asks, in soothing tones.

What happened to ….. the ….. the ….. I was …… What’s going on?’

I’m sorry I startled you,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I need to get by …… and, well, my sweet, you are blocking the road.’

Sorry,’ Anna says, finally realising where she is. ‘I’ve …….. uh. I’ve run out of petrol.’

Start it up. Let me have a look,’ the man says. ‘It may not be the fuel.’

Anna turns the key, and the engine fires up.

Look! See! It started, first time,’ he says ‘And, you’ve got over half a tank.’
Thank you. Thank you. ……. How did that happen? I could have sworn it was empty. I don’t know what to say. I get anxious sometimes when my husband is away.’

You do seem a bit shaken,’ the man says. ‘I understand. I’m alone too. Look! I live just along the lane, there. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea to settle you?’

Yes. I think I’d like that,’ Anna says, meeting his gaze. He really is quite handsome.

I’m Hugo, by the way,’ he says.

Anna notices his shirt is almost the same blue as his eyes. ‘Pleased to meet you, Hugo,’ she says. ‘I’m Anna.’

My house is that white one on the right, past the row of poplars there,’ he says, pointing. ‘The one with the gables.’

I know that house,’ Anna says. ‘The one that used to belong to the mystery writer. I pass by it every day. It has a distinctive tree on the lawn. A cedar of Lebanon I believe. I’ve often admired it.’

Cedrus Libani. It originates in The Levant. In the eighteenth century they used to be planted in the gardens of every stately home in England, but they have fallen out of favour lately, probably on account of their size.’

I’ve read they can live to be over a thousand years old,’ Anna says.

Yes,’ he laughs. ‘This one will certainly outlive you or I. Just pull into the drive, and I’ll be right behind.’

Anna manoeuvres the Mini the hundred yards along the lane to the white house, followed by Hugo in his black Mercedes Coupé. Under the shade of the cedar tree, they exchange glances. Anna feels something is in the air. It is a feeling she has had before, one involving weakness and knees, her weakness, her knees. Inside the house, one thing quickly leads to another. Before she knows it, they are in one another’s arms, kissing.

Perhaps you would like a glass of white wine,’ Hugo says. ‘Or would you prefer red?’

Maybe later,’ Anna says.

As they make their way upstairs, the magazine feature, The Secret Lives of the Ruling Classes, open on the hall table escapes her attention. This relates the gruesome tale of the Victorian serial killer, Lord Derringer. Anna may not discover, therefore, until it is too late, how in the 1860s, the 7th Earl of Derringer brutally butchered his victims with a broad axe and buried them beneath a shady tree, in many respects, similar to the one she can see through Hugo’s bedroom window as she slips off her skirt.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved


Tilting At Windmills

tiltingatwindmills

Tilting At Windmills by Chris Green

There was always something about Karl Oscuro that didn’t fit. You couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was, but from the very first he seemed to be more than just the proverbial square peg. He had a pale complexion and always dressed in black, but then, so did many others. This was becoming a fashionable look around the campus, probably down to the influence of the Midnight television series. Everyone stayed up to watch Midnight.

Karl kept himself to himself and didn’t go for any of our organised activities. He didn’t even go to the Student’s Union, but then who could blame him? All those loud malingerers with inflated opinions of themselves. And the odious smell of Lynx mixed with beer. In lectures Karl always sat alone and when he spoke at all, which was seldom, he spoke softly, with no trace of an accent. He was tall and thin, but then my Uncle Angus was six feet seven and he was the most conventional man you could wish to meet. The word was that Karl listened to Bruckner and Mahler on his ipod, but none of us knew this for certain. None of us had got that close.

It was Louise who noticed it first. A group of us were leaving the Technology block in the late November sunshine. We were making our way in small groups or alone in the direction of the old gothic library building, not that any of us were going to the library. It was too early in the term for that. The Autumn shadows were long, but Louise saw to her alarm that Karl did not cast a shadow. She let out a silent scream, tugged at my arm and pulled me aside to point this out. I could see straight away what she was showing me. It was plain as the proverbial pikestaff. Karl had no shadow. All the other students’ shadows were behaving as they should, but Karl did not have one. My God! How was it we had not noticed this before? We were now nearly two months into the term.

Hanging back from the others so as not to draw attention to ourselves, we continued to silently register our horror. We did double takes and triple takes but each time we turned back, it merely became more apparent that Karl’s figure made no shadow. Why hadn’t the other students walking in the same direction spotted it? Karl was still only a few feet away from them. How could they be so unobservant? How had we been so observant for so long? Why could we see it now when the others still could not.

Louise and I made a decision there and then to keep this to ourselves for the moment, just in case. In campus life, embarrassment could take months to live down. Especially after our giant poodle sighting that turned out to be a tree. We did not want to be accused of tilting at windmills again.

I had an arts background but Louise had a science one.

‘What exactly is a shadow, I mean scientifically speaking?’ I asked. ‘Could there be something here we are missing?’

‘A shadow,’ Louise explained, ‘occurs when an opaque or translucent object lets say in this instance a human body blocks light.’

‘I think I get that much,’ I said.

‘As long as there is a light source there will be a shadow, Melanie,’ she continued. ‘Only transparent objects do not make shadows. The light passes straight through, you see.’

She carried on to tell me about umbra, penumbra and antumbra being three distinct parts of a shadow. And how Karl had none of these. The light must be passing straight through him as though he were transparent.

Louise and I decided to skip our early evening lectures and keep a low profile for the rest of the day while we tried to regroup our thoughts. We returned to our flat, situated in on the edge of the old town just a stone’s throw from the campus. In order to shut out as much of college life as possible, we turned off our phones. We did not want to be disturbed by Emma, or Amy or Jade blabbering on about Skins or Misfits, or even Tarquin or Hugh bringing round a cheap bottle of Shiraz and telling us how hot we were.

It is one thing seeing Karl without his shadow but that isn’t half so weird or scary as seeing Karl’s shadow without Karl. While we could not be sure that what we were seeing from our window moving stealthily across the courtyard under the street-light was Karl’s shadow, given the circumstances it did seem to us more than a possibility. The shadow was long and thin and distinctly Karl-shaped right down the shape of the drainpipe trousers and black leather biker’s jacket he was fond of wearing. It moved across the flagstones at walking pace until it was out of range of the light. But there was no Karl.

At first, we were completely freaked out. This was the stuff of The X Files. But we quickly realised we ought to find out what was going on. We needed a reality check here. Another quixotic gaffe would be disastrous.

‘Everyone should have a shadow,’ I said. ‘I have a shadow, you have a shadow. Why doesn’t Karl Oscuro have a shadow?’

‘Who knows?’ said Louise. ‘Perhaps it was a trick of the light.’

‘I know that you don’t think that,’ I said.

‘I guess you are right,’ said Louise.

‘So, we’ll follow him tomorrow and see where he lives,’ I said. ‘And introduce ourselves. He’s probably ……. very nice.’

We were offered our opportunity the following day. Karl was just leaving the campus by a side entrance into Bygone Street, striding out with his lumbering gait. The unseasonable late afternoon sun was once again behind him, but still he cast no shadow. There were not many people about, so Louise and I had to tail him from a respectable distance, so as not to arouse suspicion. Bygone Street turns into Yore Street and it was here that we lost him. It was not so much that he disappeared into thin air as there was a choice of several four storey nineteenth-century buildings into which he might have vanished. Divided into a warren of smaller units by exploitative landlords, this block would be housing perhaps hundreds of students. It would not have been easy to discover which one Karl had disappeared into, had it not been for the movement of a curtain on the lower ground floor of number 9. We caught a glimpse of the profile of a tall dark figure pulling them shut.

The following morning we lay in wait nearby, ready to accidentally bump into him. He recognised us and slowly we began to strike up a conversation with him as we walked to college. We chatted awkwardly about famous landmarks, motorcycles, and saxophones. We moved on to paintings. This was more fruitful ground. When I had time I liked to paint and it transpired Karl too was a keen amateur artist. He told us he had often visited the galleries since he had been here. He had a particular fondness for the work of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. He loved the provocative kitsch of Magritte’s paintings, the whimsical juxtapositions of everyday objects. He explained that Surrealism had been outlawed in his country. It was only since coming here that he had come across it. I asked him if he liked Dali. He hesitated in his reply. I wondered if this might be because of all the foreboding shadows in Dali’s paintings.

I needn’t have worried. At that moment, the sun broke through and gave us the opportunity we were looking for. Our shadows were there standing up to be counted, but Karl’s was conspicuously absent from the party. When we pointed out this out in the nicest possible way, Karl was unexpectedly forthcoming.

‘In the country I come from,’ he said. ‘It is not uncommon for people to lose their shadows.’

With this, Karl began to tell us horror stories of shadows being forcibly cut from their owners by unscrupulous surgeons, broken down and dissolved by ruthless experimental chemists or driven away by arcane psychiatric practitioners.

‘How awful,’ I said. ‘And something like that happened to you?’

‘No. It was different for me. I managed to keep my shadow, but ironically it left me the moment I stepped off the boat having arrived here,’ he said. ‘Not so much as a by your leave. Perhaps it thought its chances were not good and it became fearful of what might become of it if it stayed with me. So I have not had a shadow since I’ve been here. I have learned to live with this but I am aware that from time to time people like yourselves must notice. That is why I keep myself to myself.’

Louise and I looked at one another. Was the time right?

‘I think I may have seen your shadow,’ I blurted out.

Karl was visibly shaken. ‘You can’t have,’ he uttered. ‘That is impossible.’

‘Perhaps your shadow has come looking for you,’ said Louise.

‘Are you sure it’s mine? Where did you see it? Where was it? Tell me,’ said Karl, urgently.

‘It was long and lean and was the same shape and size as you in the clothes you are wearing,’ I said, gesticulating to him. ‘And, it was making its way across the courtyard beneath our flat in Yesterday Street. It was lit up by the streetlights.’

‘Where’s Yesterday Street?’ said Karl.

‘It’s on the other side of the campus about half a mile from here,’ I said. ‘It’s in the old town, close to our flat. We can take you there if you like.’

There is a network of cobbled streets, Tudor buildings and the ruins of a castle on our side of the campus. This was part of the original walled city and it is steeped in antiquity and folklore. For much of the day, the three of us explored the narrow roads and alleys searching for Karl’s shadow, sheltering occasionally from an unwelcome November rain shower. We all realised there was no chance of seeing a shadow while there were clouds overhead. Karl continued to open up and gradually we got to know him. We found out he had come to this country to escape a vicious regime in his own. He explained that back home there was a clan system in place and the ruling elite looked down on the Oscuro clan and persecuted them mercilessly.

‘Only to find the same here,’ I joked. ‘It can happen even in a democracy.’ Quentin Thief’s elitist government had just been re-elected with a large majority, with just 35 per cent of the vote. Daily we were getting announcements on how they planned to deal with ethnic minorities and the poor. Shadow surgery had yet to be suggested but Quentin Thief was not a man you could trust.

Late in the afternoon, the sun came back out. We sat on a bench on Antediluvian Street by the old preparatory school building, that Brycks and Mortimer Developments had acquired to convert into retirement apartments. We watched the long shadow’s of passers-by, all neatly in step with their owners. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of a rogue shadow, darting behind the stone wall between the museum and the old saddler’s. Was this the moment we had all been waiting for? Karl became excited at the sight of his shadow. Understandably so, this was the shadow that he thought he had lost for ever. He lapsed into his native tongue. As for Louise and I, we felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. We really had no idea what to expect.

No sooner had we got a fix on the shadow however than it vanished. Being two-dimensional, shadows can disappear behind other shadows or make their way into places that we cannot reach. But there were other questions demanding answers. Were we talking material world here, or was this the realm of the spirit world? Was any of this really happening? Here and now? There were many things that Louise felt we could no longer be sure of.

After keeping us on tenterhooks for what seemed like hours but may have been a matter of seconds, the shadow appeared again from its hiding place. To our greater astonishment, it was now accompanied by a second shadow. This one was of a female form. The two shadows began shadow dancing.

‘Oh My God! That looks like Valentina,’ said Karl.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Valentina. Valentina Kohl, a girl that I used to see back home. She was training to be a dancer. The rulers encouraged performing arts. This should have helped to protect Valentina. But unfortunately, like the Oscuros the Kohls too were a persecuted clan.’

‘And Valentina came over on the boat too, did she? Louise asked.

‘That’s the thing. I don’t know what happened to her. You see the Oscuros and the Kohls may have both been out of favour with the elite, but they were also rival clans. A bit like the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet by your William Shakespeare. Valentina and I had to meet in secret. When I knew I was leaving, I was hoping I would see her one last time, but the guards prevented it.’

‘If this is her then she may have come over too,’ I said.

‘I’m certain that it is her,’ said Karl.

‘Well, what are we waiting for?’ said Louise.

‘I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen here. I don’t know how to get my shadow to come back to me and I don’t know where I might find Valentina.’

While we wanted to see this as a half empty view, we conceded that he did have a point. Things had suddenly become more complicated.

‘Supposing you were able to find Valentina, then you and Valentina could try to recover your shadows together,’ I said

‘But how am I going to find Valentina?’ said Karl.

‘What about social media? Kohl is not a common name,’ said Louise.

‘I’m afraid that it is a common name in my country.’ said Karl. ‘I had a look on Facebook and there were nearly fifty Valentina Kohls.’

‘Well, there you go then.’ I said.

‘Don’t you think I didn’t try that,’ said Karl. ‘None of them were the right Valentina Kohl.’

‘We will help you,’ I said, but I had to admit I did not know where to start.

We thrashed out the possibilities and agreed that we would continue to meet, but Louise and I never saw Karl again, or his shadow. He vanished without a trace. No one seemed to know where he had gone. In fact, the few people we asked around the campus did not know who we were talking about. In the end to save ourselves more embarrassment we stopped asking. Karl did not even show when in another twist of fate Valentina Kohl turned up at our local pub, The Blind Poet. Her band, Chimera were fabulous. Valentina had a voice like the singer of the Cocteau Twins. And she danced like Kate Bush. As she danced, she cast a shadow under the stage lights.

We were able to speak to Valentina after the set. She had not heard of Karl Oscuro.

‘I do not know this Karl Oscuro,’ she said. ‘Is he a taxi driver maybe?’

I told her I did not think so unless he had done it as a summer job.

‘He is at college with us,’ said Louise. ‘At least, he was.’

‘I think that he has a good name, though,’ said Valentina. ‘Perhaps one of you is a writer.’

I don’t know what to believe anymore. When I start to think about it, strange things have been happening since that week back in July. Neither Louise or I have any recollection of the events of the week. To this day no one can explain what happened to us. All I can recall is that we were on a backpacking holiday in Morocco and our coach got lost in the desert. I do not even know why we were in the desert. We were travelling from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Desert was not on the itinerary. Something must have happened to take us off course. The whole week disappeared thus.

Louise sometimes questions whether we even went to Morocco. She says she does not remember being on a coach, has no recollection of Casablanca except that it was a film, and thinks Marrakesh is a song by Crosby Stills and Nash, whoever they are. She says if we were on a coach that got lost there would have been others to corroborate our story and it would have been on the news. She thinks we may have spent the week busking in a Paris subway. She says that she has a vague recollection of Sacha Distel giving us a 50 Euro note. When I tell her that Sacha Distel has been dead for over ten years, she says ‘Oh well, so it goes.’ It can be difficult to get a grip on reality sometimes.

Whatever really happened, since that week we have encountered all manner of weirdness, people walking through walls, the television switching itself on in the middle of the night, a caracal sleeping at the foot of the bed, that sort of thing. I came home one day to find a cumulus cloud in the front room. Louise tells me the rubber plant sometimes talks to her. I suppose we should be prepared for occasional surprises until these anomalies sort themselves out.

‘Oh my God, is that a porcupine in the fridge, eating the cottage cheese?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved