An Unwelcome Guest
By MARK NIXON
A chill envelops the muted English village of Fenbridge, suspended in the biting November air. Later than he’d have liked, an unremarkable man heaves open the rusting iron gate before his unremarkable home. He grimaces at the shriek of metal scraping the concrete footpath below; his residency in the house long enough for the shrill sound to be familiar, but not long enough to fix the gate.
Equally familiar, and no more welcome, is the stale air inside, which persists despite frequent and vigorous cleaning. He comforts himself with plans to air out the house in the summer, when the bitter winter recedes. Closing the front door behind him, he catches sight of his breath in the air. Perhaps in the summer, he thinks to himself, the house will be finally be warm. The echo of his footsteps breaks the silence of the empty abode, as he makes eagerly to the kitchen for a long-awaited, and well-earned, cup of tea.
Unexceptional in both nature and appearance, he moves invisible amongst the bustle of crowds. Likewise, his newly acquired home stands as a modest example of mass-produced, turn of the century architecture, as innocuous today in the early seventies, as it was when it was founded. Not unlike its sole occupier, the house is lean and narrow, sharing a wall with an identical dwelling; one which remains unoccupied after the departure of its elderly tenant.
Hanging up his coat, he admires his surroundings, still basking in the satisfaction of a deal well done; house prices have climbed sharply since his acquisition, resulting in a market in which a house like this would be out of reach for a man of his means. An easterly wind whistles between the handful of buildings of that pepper the village, lashing over his windows. The kitchen comes alive at the flick of the light switch, revealing breadcrumbs littered across the worktop, belying the otherwise orderly nature of the owner. He slumps against the fridge, weary from his increasingly long hours at the local library. A Yorkshire man by birth, he has moved north, pursuing work and cheaper housing. The quiet life of a non-native bachelor fails to inconvenience him, having always relished his independence above all else.
Beyond the window, at the end of his lengthy, fenced garden lies the village church. Even with the veil of night drawing in, its dilapidated tower pierces the horizon. One could be forgiven for thinking it abandoned, but the occasional glow from its windows hints at life still within. Strewn throughout the overgrown grounds lies long-forgotten tombstones, although collectively they were so few, it could scarcely be classed as a graveyard. A single streetlamp illuminates the ground at the entrance of the building, the trees around it casting listless, melancholy shadows across the frosted grass.
He has noted no visitors to the graves in his time in the house; those beneath the decrepit, weather-beaten stones little but a name or a family tree to the generations who followed. As the kettle rumbles on the stove, he glances out of the window, wondering how such a sad little church can still stand in the face of time, climate and indifference. Thin fingers clasped around a hot mug of Earl Grey, he smiles with relief as the warmth spreads through his hands. It has been a long day.
It was almost five o’clock when he finally turned the keys in the library gates, the brief light of the winter’s day withdrawing around him. A ragged school in its former life, the building’s long arched windows and severe peaked roof loom aloof, and daunting. He finds comfort within its austere, Victorian walls however, the years of culture and life soaked into the brick seeming to warm its interior. He feels no such ease as he approached the church at the foot of his garden.
Still, he ponders, home is but a brisk walk away, and with time to spare, why not take the opportunity to familiarise himself with his surroundings? Knowledge of a short cut would never go amiss.
He makes to pass through the moss-spattered lychgate into the church grounds, when a cold spasm leaps through his stomach, and he catches himself pausing under the arch. A peculiar urge to recant his decision flickers through his mind, as if what he is about to do is somehow forbidden. The sensation of eyes trained upon him permeates his quiet surroundings. The people of Fenbridge seem to know each other’s business inside and out, and despite his detachment, he still draws half-hidden stares wherever he goes. He shakes off the childish unease, but nevertheless feels the urge to look over his shoulder before continuing on.
The retreating sun casts sputtering shadows across the gravel as he treads. As if some invisible door had closed behind him, the sounds of the village dies out suddenly. The glow of the vanishing daylight seems dampened, the warmth of the evening giving way to cool, grey tones. Silence falls across the grounds, and he is starkly aware that he is alone. Pulling up his collar, against his growing sense of unease as much as the evening chill, he finds himself gazing up at the solitary streetlamp he has seen so often from his window.
The crunch of leaves underfoot gives way to another sound. A rustle from the behind him, in the yard he had thought was empty. He turns on his heel as the cold fingers of fear reach into his chest. Hunched over by a crumbling tombstone, a solitary figure stands, motionless. How, he thinks to himself, did someone appear so close by him without making a sound?
Still as the stone sculptures that keep watch over their tombs, and very much alone, the figure rests his slight frame on a black cane, his bony shoulders curled around his hidden face. Clad in what must have once been an elegant suit, age has weathered his attire. His antiquity is embellished by a top hat, sagging upon his pallid head.
Snapping out of his apprehensive gape, the would-be trespasser is suddenly, desperately aware of his isolated surroundings, and wills his legs into motion. His breath rattles out into the cold air, as he claws at the ground beneath him, tearing toward home.
Faltering up to the rear gate, a shiver grips him inexplicably, and the hair on the back of his neck bristle from his skin. He swats at his collar, as if flicking away some belligerent pest. Regret and unease creep into his stomach, and a wish that he had never set foot in the church grounds.
He feels the overbearing anxiety of being pursued at his back, and steels himself to turn and face his imagined hunter. The cobbled lane is deserted. His eyes failing to disprove what his mind knows, his pace quickens again. Turning the corner, a relief floods his muscles as his house falls into view. His shaking hands fumbling for his keys, he strides a little longer. Charging the last feet to the safety of his door, he turns his key in the lock.
A sharp tug at his collar snaps his head backwards. Deathly cold fingertips glance his neck, and he lunges through the door. He throws himself against it, slamming it closed at his back. The thud rings in his ears, and through the sound of his own pounding blood, he could swear he hears a scream.
The kitchen cloaked in the growing darkness of the evening, he opens his screwed-shut eyes, and timidly peers out across the field.
Not a soul stands between him and the looming church, still as it ever was, indifferent to his ordeal. The streetlight above it flickers to life; he has stared for long enough.
He has no appetite tonight, and sleep seems further away still. Instead, he sits long into the night, warmed by the familiarity of his front room, and the cup of tea in his hands. Ever the librarian, he rests a book upon his knee, though none of its sentences seem to materialise in his mind.
His single armchair sits with its back to the door, its tall support enveloping him, comfortingly hiding him from sight. The floor lamp beside him sheds a sphere of light onto his sparse wooden floor. A distant sound turns his attention from his book.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
He turns his head toward the door, but no sooner is he aware of the noise, it stops. He sips at his tepid tea, placing it at his feet as noiselessly as possible.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Louder now; a slow, lackadaisical knock at his front door. His empty hallway amplifies the rap, the sound chilling the very marrow of his bones.
No amiable visitor would call at such an hour, if indeed he has any friends here at all.
Seized with panic, he flips off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness. He sinks into his chair, willing it to consume him completely. He grips the arms of the chair, knuckles white, as the tapping turns to hammering, shaking the very floor below him.
His hands fly to his ears, desperate to block out the sound.
His rigid body softens, and he lowers his hands in time to hear the low, excruciating creak of the living room door creeping open.
Four impossibly long, languid fingers drape themselves around the door, frail and ashen.
Bolting from the chair, he flings shut the door, the fingers disappearing before his eyes. The force thunders through the house. This time, the scream that he hears is his own.