A story written for TCW Defending Freedom
6 – A terrible fright
THOSE who have conquered disquiet with alcohol and fallen into a nervous sleep will know the gloom and disappointment that attends upon waking two hours later into stark alertness. Barkwright closed his eyes and tried to drift off again but became aware of something that caused a wave of ice to ride up his spine.
There was someone in the room. He heard a shuffling noise. Things were being picked up and hurled down. Barkwright froze. The menacing whisper he had heard on the Leas he heard again now. He heard the shuffling again. Whoever it was, whatever it was, now was moving towards him. The whispering became insistent. Barkwright kept his eyes shut. As a choice between seeing and not seeing, the latter seemed preferable. As he tried to grasp the edge of the bedclothes to pull them over his head, his hand touched what seemed to be the hand of another. In its brief contact Barkwright felt bone and dry old skin and a sharp nail, almost like a claw. He retracted his hand with the speed of a spring. The whispering was close to his face. It was infinitely sinister, a terrible hissing, the words like a curse. There was a dreadful smell of decay.
With an enormous effort Barkwright snapped open his eyes. He lunged for the bedside light and switched it on. The dark figure, hitherto seen only at a distance, now loomed, like a mass of black rags. Its face was largely hidden by a hood but what Barkwright could see of it seemed made of old and rotten parchment. It moved closer, the skeletal hands clawing at Barkwright. Trembling violently, Barkwright cowered on the bed and scrambled back against the wall. The figure pulled its hood back.
Mrs Appleshaw was also suffering with insomnia. She was sitting up in bed doing a crossword when she heard the scream. She knew immediately that this was murder or something not far off it. She woke her husband and got out of bed. She put on her dressing gown and slippers, then cautiously and quietly opened the door a fraction. She saw that the door to Barkwright’s room was open but he apparently was not inside. Mr Appleshaw got his dressing gown on, and the couple went downstairs to reception. They found Barkwright curled on the floor in his pyjamas, sobbing. Borys was crouched next to him proffering a glass of brandy.
‘Good heavens,’ said Mrs Appleshaw.
‘He seems to have terrible fright,’ said Borys.
‘I’ll say,’ said Mrs Appleshaw.
They could get nothing out of him. Eventually he was helped to his feet and on to a sofa in the lounge. He was still there when blessed daylight crept into the room, and still there with a blanket over him at eleven when Dennis Palgrave walked in with Borys.
Palgrave was shocked at the state of Barkwright: ashen, glassy-eyed, jumpy. The sight of his old friend got Barkwright talking, though not clearly: ‘Black horror . . . standing over me . . . flesh hanging off its hands . . . its face . . . its eyes . . . oh God, its eyes – ’ He edged along the sofa towards Palgrave, his hands raised and shaking, as if what he was about to say was of the utmost gravity. He spoke in a breathless voice, exhausted but urgent. ‘We’ve got to put it back . . . we’ve got to put the bloody thing back.’
‘Put what back?’ asked Palgrave.
‘The skull,’ said Barkwright.
Palgrave was almost amused. ‘All right, but let me examine it first, eh?’
‘No!’ shrieked Barkwright. ‘You mustn’t touch it!’
He was terrified of returning to his room but also very sure he must. ‘We’ve got to put it back,’ he said. ‘I – I won’t go down that hole alone but . . . we’ve got to put it back.’ He was full of resolve about that. Palgrave followed him up to the room and wondered if he ought to call a doctor, and whether this little episode would result in Barkwright being sectioned. He knew that Barkwright used to do coke in the Eighties. ‘You, er, you haven’t been taking drugs of any sort, have you, Jez?’ Barkwright ignored that. ‘Have you taken a blow to the head at in the past few days?’ He ignored that, too.
They were outside his room. The door was still open. Barkwright swallowed so heavily that Palgrave heard it, then he walked into the room.
Some months later at a dinner party, Palgrave was talking over wine: ‘So Jez walks in the room like he’s going to face the firing squad and I follow him in. And, of course, there’s no skull to be found. He was in a rare old state, totally lost it, pointing out of the window saying he’d seen things hiding behind trees and this vile monster in his room. So I said, “Okay, let’s go and have a look down this hole you’re on about. Come to think about it, it would be funny if the skull turned up back down there, eh? Now that would be scary.” I meant it as a joke but he wasn’t up for that, absolutely forbade it. Which makes me think it was all an episode from start to finish, some sort of confabulation brought on by stress. Mind you, the staff at the hotel said he actually had gone down some hole underneath Doghampton Pier. I dunno, I just thought, “Let’s get the bugger home.” That’s when the film crew started arriving! No, they had to call it all off. I don’t know if they’ll ever make the rest of the series now. Old Jez is not the man he was, I’m afraid. He was saying all sorts of crazy stuff.
‘After I’d packed his bags and was walking him out to my car we bumped into this old couple he’d buddied up with at the hotel. They asked him how he was but of course he looked like a bloody zombie. He said that this thing he’d seen was like something from a horror film on the television and this old couple said they didn’t own a television. They wished him well and that, and just as we were walking off he stopped and called after them, saying in this little voice, “Do you know, Mrs Appleshaw, you might be right after all – I think there must be something afterwards”.’