Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Beneath Doghampton Pier


A story written for TCW Defending Freedom

5 – The wind can play tricks 

AFTER dinner Barkwright drank brandy in the lounge with the Appleshaws. With the spirit inside him, the figure on the lawn became something he wanted to challenge personally. That odd feeling, that he was being stared at, worried at him beneath the cognac haze. Nevertheless, when the Appleshaws announced they were having an early night – the ornate French clock on the lounge mantelpiece showed it was not yet ten – Barkwright decided to go for a post-prandial stroll on the Leas. It would be just the thing to get some fresh air, and he might see how the intruder was getting into the hotel grounds. Then he would be able to get Borys to nab the little oik next time. Barkwright fetched his coat and marvelled at the word ‘oik’ appearing in his thoughts. ‘That’s not very democratic,’ he mused. In his brandy glow Barkwright became expansive: if this intruder were apprehended he, Barkwright, would not be harsh, would not make a big thing out of it. He would inquire into the person’s background and, perhaps, try to help him overcome his inevitable problems. He would be master of the situation.

The evening had turned chilly and a light sea breeze pushed leaves along the street outside the hotel. Barkwright turned into the deserted Leas. The Victorian street lamps were hazy in the autumnal evening air. The wall that bordered the hotel lawn did not look particularly easy to shin up. As he walked he examined the wall for holes or damage but no point of entry suggested itself. Barkwright stopped and looked out to sea. Apart from the sound of the waves below it was very quiet. In the distance the pier was lit up. He would get the film crew along here, he thought; there were some excellent shots to be had.

A noise behind him disturbed his thoughts. He turned, expecting to see someone, but there were only leaves rustling across the path. He faced the sea again, and a little while passed. He breathed in deeply. Once again he heard the noise, this time more audible. It was a sort of whispering, seething sound. Barkwright felt a chill up the back of his neck that was unrelated to the temperature. There was someone behind him now, he knew that for certain. He bunched his fists in his overcoat pockets. The whispering was accompanied by the sounds of movement. The person behind was coming closer. The seething sound was resolving itself into words, but words in a tongue unknown to Barkwright.

In rising alarm he whirled to confront the stranger – but there was nothing save the slight movement of the leaves. He walked rather briskly back to the hotel. A few minutes later in his dark room he hurried to the window, where he spent the next ten minutes intently studying the lawn and environs for any sign of the intruder. There was nothing untoward. He drew the curtains, switched on the lights. He did not feel like going to bed so went down and had a large brandy brought to the deserted lounge. He could see through to the dining room and the windows that gave on to the lawn. He moved to a sofa opposite. The clichés of many potboilers appeared in his mind: the wind can play tricks; the sound of leaves behind you can give the impression of someone following you, but that whispering, those strange words . . . he took a drink and roused his mind to sense. Well, he said to himself, it wasn’t whispering, was it? He would quiz Dennis about it. Yes, that’s what he would do.

He felt better for thinking that and went up to bed on the strength of it. In the lift he thought how eerie old hotels were at night, how they clanked and wheezed. He found himself thinking about ghosts. How, he forced himself to think jovially, would you even know a ghostly footstep from a human one? People were always walking about in the middle of the night. He came out of the lift smiling at this thought.

His smile vanished when he opened the door of his room and found the lights were off. He distinctly remembered leaving both the main light and bedside light on. He crossed to the window, parted the curtains and looked out on the lawn. He looked carefully at the trees, the wall, the Leas beyond, but he could not see the figure. After splashing some water on his face he got into bed and opened a book about ancient Rome. He found it hard to concentrate on the words: his eyes kept looking round the page at the window. Eventually he put the book down and turned out the light.

To be continued.

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Robert James
Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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