BY MARK NIXON
The wind is relentless.
It has travelled far, across oceans and shore, and traversed the countryside of England. It has bellowed through the city streets of Coventry, and now it reaches the walls of Warwick University.
The communal grounds are empty; landscaped trees provide little protection from the onslaught for the passers-by. The branches bend and dance violently in the air, threatening to break off at moment’s notice. A particularly strong gust causes a branch to swing and slap against the glass doors of the modern campus building. Inside, the receptionist jumps, and soon returns to her work with an embarrassed shaking of her head. Three floors above her is the department of Classics & Ancient History; standing inside the glass wall of the outer office is a slender figure, staring out at the chaos outside. The large pane of glass rattles against the tempest, but holds firm. Not that this reassures its resident, of course.
The figure, Doctor Troughton, fixes his eyes on the empty grounds below and sighs. The weather has left his already distracted mind unable to concentrate on the task at hand. So instead, he waits for it to pass, hands gripped behind his back.
An empty plastic bottle rattles noisily along the concrete ground, before swiftly disappearing from view. With no end to the gale in sight, the scholar gives in to his fate, and returns to his desk. The window rattles once more behind him, and he feels the vibration in the floor. He rolls his eyes at the flimsiness of the building, wondering if it was assembled from flat-pack.
Adorning the walls behind the desk, a selection of framed qualifications hang proudly, perfectly parallel to each other. Anyone walking into the office will be forced to see them in their splendour, the branding of Oxford University clear for all to see.
On the desk itself sits a large bouquet of flowers, resting in a hastily purchased vase. He hasn’t made the effort to find out what kind of flowers they are, but can see they must have been expensive. They don’t emit a smell, which is for the best; it’s something he could not have abided. From within the stems of the flowers peaks out a card reading Get Well Soon. Now close to death, the flowers have begun to droop. He gently rubs a finger and thumb along the petals, causing some to come loose and flutter to the desk. Perhaps he should dispose of them now, he’d had them on display for a week by this point; more than enough time to demonstrate gratitude to the students that gifted them. He’d been pleasantly bemused when accepting the gift, thinking it such a bizarre a thing to give a man. For that matter, when did surviving an assault constitute “getting well soon”?
He turns his attention the computer, and shifts the mouse causing the screen to flicker back to life. He stares at the open text document, and poises his hovering hands over the keys. The word count of twenty five taunts him from the bottom of the page. Dismissing it, he now places his fingers onto the desired keys, and wills them to type. At this time of the afternoon he doesn’t even care what they’d produce, as long as they produce something. Mere weeks ago, the words would have flowed like a gushing stream, but now they fail to come so easily. Without realising it, he reaches for his neck, and rubs gently. Not since before –
A knocking at the door interrupts his train of thought. The knock is heavy and confident; he would bet money on it not being a student.
“Come in,” he bellows from behind the screen.
The door awkwardly opens, slowly revealing the distinctive figure of Professor Irving; a man bald slightly before his time. He fumbles; it becomes clear he has opened the door with his elbow. In his hands are two cups of tea, surely the best way to greet any colleague.
“Afternoon Doctor,” he nods. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up the forearm and his collar button is unfastened.
“Professor,” responds Troughton.
Irving strides in, taking in the surroundings as he approaches. “You still haven’t really decorated much, have you?”
Troughton takes the offered cup; it’s scolding hot. He blows into it and quickly sets it on his desk, the stinging of his fingers staying with him afterward. He looks around his office and hums in agreement.
“It’s so modern here though, all the decoration in the world won’t save it.” He reflects on his choice, Irving had worked here for some time, and he quickly realises his comments may have caused offence.
“Warwick not posh enough for you is it?” His tone is mocking, yet reassuring.
“Very funny,” he scolds. “Anyway, I’ve got the coins. What more do you want?” With a smirk, he nods to the display counter at the opposite end of the room.
“Ah, yes.” Irving wanders over to the back wall.
Perhaps the closest thing to an extravagance in the office, the wooden counter stands just above waist height. A three-sided glass casing is built into the surface, small halogen lights illuminate a modest collection of ancient Roman coins.
Irving looks closely. “Don’t go too mad though, ey?”
Troughton laughs. The wind howls outside, and rattles the window once more; he waits for it to settle before answering. “So, you didn’t just come here to bring me tea, did you?”
“No, I haven’t been reduced to tea boy just yet.” He returns his attention to his colleague. “Drinks. Tonight. How about it?”
He should have known. Since his recent return to work, every passing colleague at some point or other has offered to be there. He had privately flinched at the forthrightness of it all. When did everyone get so touchy feely? Yet in Irving he saw a colleague he dared to call friend, and a night socialising seemed an attractive prospect. The question remained however; would there be any topic of conversation other than the incident at Anworth? His contemplation takes place in real time, and Irving apparently feels it necessary to sweeten the deal.
“Come on. You could do with a distraction.” He remembers the ace up his sleeve. “It’d be a great excuse for me to open that Cognac.”
Troughton’s interest piques; “The Courvoisier Imperial?”
“The very same.”
“Then you’ve twisted my arm.”
“Naturally!” He starts to head for the door “Look, I best crack on. Let’s say eight o’ clock. Do you still know the way?”
“I’ll see you then.”
The door slams shut, and Troughton is alone once more. His hands return to the keyboard and he quickly types not one, but two words.
A smile erupts across his face; that wasn’t so hard after all.
Over the next few hours, the sound of typing is rivalled only by the howling gale outside. Each word seems to bring the promise of normality once more, and Troughton soon loses himself in his work. The cup of tea cools down, and remains untouched by the end of the day.
It is shortly after six when Troughton climbs into his car. The storm was no longer content with simple wind, but now started to unleash rain on the city below. The thick clouds bring twilight faster than the sun had intended. Sometime later, Troughton drives beyond the limits of the city and follows the country lanes towards Irving’s remote residence. He would come close to privately mocking his colleague for committing to such a long commute, but remembering the gorgeous cottage that is Irving’s abode, acknowledges that he would do just the same.
The wind pushes the rain sideways, leaving the windscreen unusually clear. While he remains a confident driver, the narrowing of the roads combined with the wind lashing against the side of his car causes Troughton some unease. He slows down and grips both hands firmly on the wheel.
He brakes for a tight corner, and despite his caution, the wheels skid ever so slightly. Suddenly, for the slightest of moments the wind stops and there is only the rain bouncing off the surface of the road. In the few seconds it takes Troughton to regain full control of the car, he catches sight of something by the side of the road, something that causes his stomach to lurch and his eyes to widen.
At first, he thinks he sees a pedestrian on the side of the road; but immediately, he knows this to be false. Wisps of black form the hazy yet recognisable shape of a figure; looking almost like a dense collection of mist.
Yet, it isn’t an easily explained phenomenon, this he knows deep down in his bones. In the moment his eyes look upon it, it raises its shapeless arms. The gesture was clearly not to threaten, but to catch his attention.
Please stop. It seems to say. Please!
The arms cross over the place where a face would normally be, and Troughton increases pressure on the brakes. The car skids past the figure, its rear end crossing onto the opposing side of the road. Eventually the vehicle stops, and more down to luck than skill, fails to stall. He catches the reflection of his own dark brown eyes as he scans the area behind him through the mirror. Thankfully, he sees nothing. Only an inexplicable sense of melancholy remains, looming over this part of the road.
Feeling somewhat safe, he gulps and places a hand on his chest. The thumping heart feels as if it’s about to break out of its confines, and he gasps aloud in an involuntary effort to regain his breath. He turns in his seat and looks directly at the bend for a better view, the mirror hadn’t lied.
He is most definitely alone.
The wind returns as instantly as it had left. It shakes the car, snapping Troughton out of his daze. With a trembling hand, he grips the wheel once more and drives on. As he leaves the bend in the road he hears a howl behind him, and he prays it is simply the wind.
Feeling his nerves calm, Troughton sits back in his chair and breaths in deliberate, heavy breaths. What had he seen? A ghost? Some sort of spectre?
He scowls, and stops the train of thought immediately. Whatever crazy things he had experienced in the past, he could not conceivably entertain the thoughts of such preposterous things.
He had seen nothing, absolutely nothing, he is sure of it. Some undiagnosed post-traumatic stress no doubt. None the less, he decides to allow his irrational side the reassurance it demands; he looks in his rear view mirror once more, and is glad to see only the empty road behind him.
“Enough!” he says aloud, and picks up speed. The diesel engine roars, he would be there before he knew it.
The roads begin to twist and turn and soon the hamlet shimmers into view, hazy at first under the cover of the rain, but soon becomes clearer as he draws closer. Reassurance begins to rest more naturally upon his shoulders as he presses on.
Irving’s residence has made him the envy of his peers; having never married or started a family, he had the means to seek out a rustic and somewhat secluded home. Troughton could see himself in a similar situation later in his own career, and the thought brings a much needed smile to his face.
Before long, he pulls up to the cottage. By now the dark is gathering quickly, and he was glad to be off the roads. As the engine switches off and begins to tick, a strong blast of wind bellows past the car, reminding the lecturer that stepping out will be unpleasant. As he leaves the safety of his confines, he is immediately pushed from behind, as a gust hits his back. Instead of toppling over, he uses the momentum to turn it into a soft jog; saving his embarrassment for any nosey neighbours. He jogs over to the cottage notes the lack of a pathway leading to the door. Instead he is forced to step onto the grass, and he grimaces as feels the squelch of mud shifting beneath his shoes.
The cottage stands nestled between overgrown bushes and brambles, while ivy has slowly consumed the wall facing the road. It looks as if it has stood there for easily over a hundred years. Troughton wonders if in another hundred, if nature would reclaim this small area entirely?
He quickly reaches the front of the house, the doorway illuminated by a single lamplight above, the bulb inside betraying an otherwise Victorian appearance. He hammers on the wooden door with a closed fist. As he waits, he firmly grips his arms around himself and shudders. Soon he hears a latch unlocking and the door open. Without invitation he rushes in, and he hears the chuckle of Irving.
Troughton scowls in response with a look that conveys language he would never use. “Quite,” he replies in the end.
“Come on, I’ve just managed to get the fire on.”
Over the evening, the living room has filled with the rich smell of smoke. As the wind outside rustles the wet trees and passes through the cracks in the windows, it brings with it the smell of pine. The aromas bring back pleasant memories of childhood holidays for Troughton, and he takes in a deep breath. He has dared to loosen his tie and unbutton the top two layers of his shirt; truly this is the most relaxed Irving has ever seen him.
To the left of the room is a large bookcase, made from sturdy oak. Leaning against it, glass tumbler in hand, stands the host himself, Professor Irving. Though in these thick, ancient walls he insists on Philip. Some years older than his colleague, it has taken Troughton well over half an hour and two glasses of cognac to get past that social nicety.
In the middle of the room rests the large log-fuelled fireplace; its crackles mix with the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece and offers soothing tones.
“And this…” announces Irving, a slight slur to his voice, “I dare say, is my more fun collection.” He slides a heavy hardback from the shelf and offers it to Troughton.
Troughton takes the book and upon glancing at the cover, raises his eyebrows.
“I, Robot?” he smiles. “Philip, I had no idea you read anything but book archaeological works.”
Irving takes a sip of the cognac.
“Never knew I had a personality, you mean?”
The two laugh, as Irving sits down and top up his own glass. The bottle had started the evening full, but now was easily half way empty. He offers a refill to Troughton, who extends his glass forward.
“What about you anyway, Geoffrey? Reading anything good right now?”
The educated man’s small talk. He finishes the glass and places the decorative bottle back on the coffee table.
“Oh no, no time for that. I’m far too busy writing. Or at least trying to.” He slumps into his chair, his mood now changed thanks to the depressive effects of alcohol.
“Ah yes, Publish or Perish as they keep reminding us. Still working on your Northumberland piece?”
“Well, somewhat. Thought I had a breakthrough with the new discovery last month.”
“Ah.” Irving looks to the floor, wondering if he should push such a delicate subject. After swilling the liquid in his glass he takes a large gulp and exhales loudly; soothing his agitated throat. “I don’t suppose they’ve found anything new then?”
“No,” he draws out the word, with a disapproving tone. “They haven’t found anyone that fits the description.”
“Well then!” Irving raises his arm, the force of which so inelegant that he spills some of his drink over the edge. “A toast, to your recovery, and continued health.”
Troughton smiles and meets Irving’s glass with his. “To my continued health.”
They drain their glasses and slam them on the table. Troughton offers a slight cough as the rich cognac burns its way down his throat. The aftertaste is strong, but extremely pleasant.
“I must say Philip; damn fine Cognac.”
The evening passes quickly and soon to be forgotten. The bottle now stands mostly empty at the table, and will serve as a reminder of their escapades tomorrow.
Troughton lies uncomfortably on the couch, his legs dangling over the edge. His neck, pressed unnaturally against the arm of the couch, promises to make him suffer for days to come. Still, he feels tired enough to fall asleep, if only the room would stop spinning.
The sound of the wind outside grew louder and more wild, one final push before finally relenting. In his drunken state, Troughton has visions of the roof tearing away, and scattering across the fields beyond. He chuckles to himself and just as his eyes began to lower, he hears the distinctive howl from earlier once more. He was not meant to hear it, but the roaring wind has carried the sound from far away; carried from the bend in the road. It goes mostly unnoticed by the drunken scholar, and he slips into unconsciousness.
He wakes some hours later, jolted out of a nightmare. The winds have ceased now, the new silence seeming all too strange. He bolts upright and scans the room, trying to locate the noise that has woken him. The room is blanketed in darkness, the absence of streetlights allowing for the night to truly take hold. Although his life over the past few weeks has been absent of strange goings on, Troughton still harbours of deep fear of waking during the night; of waking to see someone watching him.
Relief comes in the shuffling footsteps of Irving in the single bedroom. Troughton exhales and rests his already aching neck back against the couch arm. He listens for the door opening, presuming the night’s drinking had reached his friend’s bladder, but it never comes. Instead, he can just about hear the clang of the blinds being disturbed, then the sound of curtains being quickly drawn. The last thing he hears before falling back to sleep, is the restless pacing of Irving’s footsteps.
The next morning he stirs, with a groan. A blade of sunlight pierces the gap between the curtains, blinding him. He sits up straight to face away from it, and as the blanket slips from him, he realises that he is still fully clothed. His head is heavy, soon his hands have to support the weight of it as he hunches over. He fumbles for his glasses on the floor and slips them on, the blur not entirely removed by the corrective lenses. He sees the clock on the wall and notes the unnaturally early hour.
He hears a shuffle from the bedroom, and without looking he knows that the door is open. He raises his head from his hands.
His call elicits no reply.
He groggily stands with audible effort and walks to the doorway. Inside he sees Irving standing in his pyjamas, staring out of the window, the blinds and curtains fully open. His eyes, unmoving in their gaze, focused intently on something outside. Here is a man consumed by what his sight is fixed upon, as if he were watching some gorgeous blonde undressing through her window. Yet, there was an unease to him, and judging from his cold expression, something amiss.
“Philip, are you okay?”
“No, not really.” He speaks in a whisper, as if speaking to himself rather than his guest.
Troughton walks over to him. The rising sun pours into the room, touching it in every corner and now almost blinding his freshly sensitive eyes. He stands by Irving’s side, scrutinising his expression.
“There’s someone watching me. Over there, do you see him?”
Bemused, Troughton turns to the window and looks across the small field over the road.
The grass of the clearly forgotten field has grown long and turned pale as the cover of the trees robs them of sunlight. Brambles and briars circle the clearing, the overgrowth posing a challenge for any experienced gardener. Despite all this, with the sun gleaming through the gaps in the woodland, it would otherwise be a lovely view. As Troughton searches the view ahead, a shudder passes over him as he spots the unnatural element.
The watcher in the field.
A figure dressed in black stands facing the cottage; close enough to see that it is a man, but too far away to make out any discernible features. The sun gleams from behind him, making his dark presence a black hole against the sea of light. From this distance, the figure looks like the pupil of some large, bright eye. Through some effort, Troughton is able to identify that the watcher is dressed in a large black overcoat and bowler hat, a testament to fashions gone by.
As the two look out at the intruder, Troughton senses an unease setting upon himself. A heavy weight on his shoulders, as if some tall and strong person were trying to force him to the floor. Once more, he finds himself breaking the bonds of earthly matters, and looking upon the face of something unnatural. To look upon such things would be enough to break any man’s rational resolve. Yet Troughton’s mind stands above most, and he scowls at his own gormless stupidity. Surely, this watcher is but a man. He breaks the silence.
“It’s some rambler,” he says dismissively, looking at Irving sideways.
“No, it’s not.”
He squints and leans forward. “I rather think it is, some weird local with a penchant for walks at six in the morning.”
“It’s really not.” Irving’s voice begins to show his agitation.
“Well what makes you so sure?”
Irving opens his mouth, but his voice fails him. He wets his lips and tries again.
“He’s been around for a few weeks or so now.” His voice trembles at first, before stabilising. “At first I assumed the same thing you did. Some oddball. But he just appears every so often, never actually going anywhere. I just see him sometimes, staring at me. And I don’t like it.”
“Have you tried talking to him?”
“At first I shouted over a few times.”
“Not a thing.”
“Thing is Geoffrey, I rather think-” he pauses, deciding whether to finish the thought “-I rather think that he’s not quite alive.”
Troughton laughs. “I beg your pardon?”
This time, Irving turns to face him. “I thought you, of all people, would understand.”
“After what you said about the lantern in Anworth. You saw something –“
“We’ve been over this, Philip –“
“You’ve given me your rehearsed explanation.”
Troughton stormed off into the living room, and slumped upon the couch. There, he grabs his shoes and began to slip them on.
“Let’s find out, shall we?”
Irving stands by the door frame, his face a mix of fear and confusion.
“Oh yes.” Troughton fastens the final lace of his shoes. “Let’s find out, you and me, right now. Get your dressing gown.”
Some minutes later, the two venture outside, Irving wrapped in his gown. They head to the pavement at the side of the house and catch sight of the small field once more. They cross the road and step onto the field.
The watcher stands motionless, unmoved by their approach.
The leaves glisten with moisture, and as they pass the bushes, they see that they have disturbed some wildlife as the furious rustling emits from their side.
The rising sun glared into their eyes, forcing the two men to glace at the ground; a saving grace, as neither felt entirely comfortable looking the figure in the eye. As they approach, both can see eye contact would be hard, as the watcher is glancing to the floor, his hat hiding his features.
Now mere metres away from the figure, Troughton turns to look at Irving whose face is drained of all healthy colour.
“Excuse me.” Troughton calls to the figure, his voice confident. He is not rewarded with an answer, and a little agitated he raises his voice. He is not used to being ignored.
The figure does not reply, nor stir. It stands unmoved, as if the confrontation were not taking place.
Irving, inspired by his companion’s resolve, steps forward. “Care to explain yourself?”
“You see Irving? Just some fool who can’t even answer a bloody question. Making us doubt our own bloody sanity!”
In his anger, Troughton takes another step toward the stranger, about to place a hand on him. For what purpose he doesn’t know, but he doesn’t get the chance to find out.
The figure raises its chin, allowing the shadow of his hat to leave the lower half of its face. Never before had Troughton been so reminded that the body is simply a shell of organs and bones. The skin is thin, grey, and inconceivably dusty. The face looks as if it has rotted away, and been left to decay. What remains of the lips are twisted in a hideous scowl; in judgement of the two men, or perhaps just one. To look upon the face brought an ache to Troughton’s eyes, which he knew was not related to the night before. The two men glance at each other, and silently agree to leave the stranger be.
As they walk swiftly away, they feel the grass splash at their ankles. Troughton looks back once more and sees that the watcher has gone. Their pace picks up and without speaking, they head back to the cottage.
Irving slams the door behind them and fastens the lock.
“You don’t think I knew that wasn’t just a man?” his voice rises. “Are you convinced now?”
Troughton throws up his arms in defence. “Look, I’m willing to acknowledge that there are some things in this world that just,” he struggles, “that just don’t make sense. If you’d seen what I’ve seen you’d want to hide from the truth –“
Irving grows consumed by own distress, cradling his head in his arms before letting off an outburst.
“I killed someone Geoffrey,” he whimpers.
“Last month, just before you went away. I hit someone on the way back from work.”
Troughton’s expression draws grave, he knows where; but he has to ask.
“Just up the hill, there’s a sharp turn in the road.” His voice drops to almost a whisper. “There was some pensioner walking across the road, he saw me before I saw him.”
“Did you stop?”
Irving begins to sob.
“Irving!” He snaps.
“Did. You. Stop?”
Irving falls to the floor and rests his back against the couch. “He knows. That bloody thing knows.”
Troughton looks down at the crumpled mess that is his friend and colleague, and takes his coat off the rack.
“Irving, I don’t know what that thing is, but I have this strange feeling that if you take responsibility, it will leave you alone.”
Irving only replies in sobs as Troughton leaves, slamming the door behind him. He heads for his car and steals a glance the field. For now, the watcher is gone.
Troughton’s drive home is untroubled, despite bracing himself before the turn in the road.
Upon reaching home, he makes up his mind; he will give Irving the weekend to do the right thing.
Sleep came uneasy to him over the next few days, as did progress on his project. Monday finally arrived, and as he fastened his tie in the mirror he looks himself in the eye and promises himself the day will not end without setting this right.
Once more, Troughton finds himself lost in his thoughts as he stares out of the glass walls of his office. He has put out a notice that he isn’t to be disturbed, and after spotting Irving’s car in the car park that morning, seeks to confront him after his morning lecture. Today the weather is quite pleasant, nature’s reward for endurance of the storms.
He glances down at the courtyard, now crowded with the passing of students and faculty members alike. This normality brings him some comfort; the university is alive once more, and he begins to think that maybe he could feel more at home here soon.
At that moment, something catches his eye in the building opposite.
In the office opposite him, stands a familiar figure.
Only this time, there is no sun to mask his details. No longer does he look down to the ground, but straight forward. Straight at Troughton.
The face is something Troughton will see every time he closes his eyes. Every quiet moment alone. Every time he wakes in the middle of the night.
The face is thinner than any living thing could possibly inhabit, the cheeks not only hollowed, but almost transparent as stretched grey skin pulls over bone. The eyes are wide and penetrating, but entirely white. Even without iris or pupil he knows the feeling behind them.
Troughton’s own eyes widen and he is forced to ask himself: is it watching him now? Has he waited too long?
The answer comes immediately.
A large shape of black flashes into view, right in front of the glass and passes with as much speed as it appeared.
There is a scream and Troughton steps up to the glass, his forehead presses against it.
On the floor below, is the body of a suited man sprawled in an unnatural position. A spray of blood settles on the pavement, fresh from a the cracked opened skull. A crowd gathers around the body while the rest of the pedestrians erupt in panic.
“Philip,” he whispers. “No…”
Troughton looks back to the opposing office; the watcher is nowhere to be seen, and his gut tells him that he may never see it again.
At least, not in the flesh.