Scott slowed down considerably as he entered the village, scanning the buildings as he went for some sign of a shop or other business were he could get directions to Carlisle, Penrith or somewhere else that he could find a motorway from. In the back of his mind was the thought that perhaps there was a bed and breakfast or a hostel in the village, somewhere that he could get a meal, a hot bath and sleep off the remains of an almighty hangover. Not far into Ingleton he spotted a small shop, obviously open for business judging by the lights and the grandmotherly shape behind the counter.
He pulled over outside and climbed out of the car, realizing as his body protested against the movement that he hadn’t left the driving seat all day. His lower back ached, his hips cracked loudly and he could feel pins and needles down both legs and his buttocks were numb from the seat. The thought that he had been so distracted that he had never once pulled over for a break, or to stretch his legs for a few minutes was strangely disturbing to him. The idea of travelling any further when he was in such a fragile mental state didn’t sit well with him at all; he felt himself begin to panic a little about the possibility that Ingleton would be too far off the beaten track to have anywhere to stay overnight. Stop whittering like a wet hen and get on with it – he told himself, walking through the door as he did so.
Inside, the shop was like a scene from his early childhood. The shelves were made of steel frames nailed to the wall, similar to the kind used for filing away document boxes in offices. Each shelf was filled with the sort of goods that just didn’t seem to appear in most of the corner shops in his own town these days. Suet, bun cases, those strange biscuits made like a Swedish sandwich of very soft shortbread and sickly pink mallow. He was almost tempted to buy some from pure nostalgia, and he would have if he didn’t vividly remember the bloody awful taste of the things. Before he could get lost staring at things like aspic jelly or cartons of still cola with a pile of red straws beside them however, the shopkeeper spoke up.
“Can I help ye, son?” Scott turned towards the woman and had to stop himself from gaping. Easily sixty years old if she was a day, the woman was wearing a cream frock, -because that’s what it was, not a dress- and one of those tabard aprons that no one wears any more except school dinner-ladies and Nora Batty. She even had a headscarf. He felt like he had stepped through a time warp to 1979.
“Erm, yeah. Do you have a fridge by any chance?” he said. The woman pointed to what looked like a huge sheet metal casket tucked into the far corner of the room.
“Don’t touch the bacon, it’s off.” She told him.
“I’ll bear that in mind.” As he walked over to the fridge, he marvelled at the woman behind the counter. He thought that she was possibly the most spectacularly ugly woman he had ever laid eyes on. Every thing about the old shopkeeper appeared round. From her spherical face, with its round eyes and little “o” of a mouth to her round flat boxer’s nose. Her body was also fat, but in the way that men who drink too much beer get fat, so that her stomach was bloated and rotund. Scott thought she was built like a snowman.
The fridge was another blast from the past. There were no plastic – or even wax – cartons of milk in there, just a few lonely pint bottles of silver-top. There was no bottled water, no energy drinks and no Coke or Pepsi. Sandwiches were in short supply and microwave burgers and hot dogs were conspicuous by their absence. There was however some bacon wrapped in wax paper -about which he had been forewarned-, some very hard looking cheese wrapped in Clingfilm and, in a vague nod to modern convenience food, an unwrapped sausage roll on a white plastic tray. Scott wasn’t going to trust it, based on their care and handling of raw meat god only knew how long it had been there. He was about to walk away from the fridge altogether and pick up one of the warm plastic bottles of dandelion and burdock from the shelves when behind one of the milk bottles he spotted a glass pint bottle of orange juice. He didn’t know that milkmen still delivered those. He picked it up and walked back to the counter at the front of the shop just a few feet from the door, perfectly placed to apprehend thieves. Trusting people out here – he thought. At the counter he was struck once again by the shopkeeper’s incredible lack of good looks.
“Is that everything?” she asked him. He shook his head and asked for twenty cigarettes as well.
“Do you know if there’s a boarding house or a bed and breakfast in the village, by any chance?” She considered the question for a few seconds, giving Scott the chance to think further about how jaw droppingly hideous the woman was at close range. He revised his earlier appraisal, deciding on closer examination that she was less like a snowman and more like an enormous frog.
“Nothing like that no. Billy over at the pub sometimes rents out rooms though.” Scott spotted a wart flapping loosely under her chin. “He might let you stay the night. We only take cash from strangers mind. Don’t bother if you’ve only got cheques or cards.” Briefly hypnotized by the dancing wart, Scott was busy changing his mind again to think she resembled a toad more than a frog and realized she was waiting for him talk again.
“Oh, yeah. Erm, wart-WHAT, what time does he open?” Toad woman looked at him like he was simple. The wart started to jive again.
“Half past five most nights. Six o’clock on the others.” Scott looked at his watch and made it twenty to five. He paid for his purchases, unable now to take his eyes from the wart. He asked about parking, not wanting to offend any of the locals by taking a space that might have been in the family for generations. She told him, with a great flurry of improvised dance from the wart, that the pub had a car park. Somewhat grudgingly she also added that there was a bench in the churchyard and that it was something of a local landmark. He thanked her and left, intrigued as to whether she meant the church was the landmark or the actual bench. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer – he thought – Mind you, that wart really knew how to boogie.
The pub was called The Slumberer and was at the far side of the village, directly opposite the church. Scott parked up and wandered over to the church for a smoke and a much needed drink of orange. The building was huge; at least that was his first impression. As he examined the old piety parlour a little closer, he realised that it wasn’t especially large, more sort of, disproportionate to the community it served; a whopping great edifice of grey stone, that dominated the village like a prop forward at a dinner-dance for midgets. The portico was surrounded by relief images of what looked like souls in torment, or maybe souls with chronic constipation. Whatever it was, the souls didn’t seem to be enjoying it much. He decide to leave them to it and wandered around the side of the church to find the bench, thinking it would have to be a pretty special bench to outdo the ranks of the dyspeptic dead at the front. As it was the bench was stuck at the back of the building, a greenish, rickety old thing, just like every other municipal bench he had ever seen. He was a little disappointed; he had been half expecting a Gothic stone masterpiece surrounded by more souls of herniated sinners. Scott sat down and felt the familiar, though now slightly lessened, ache as he imagined his father chuckling about the reliefs. He raised the bottle of juice to his mouth and froze in the action, stunned into mental silence by the image that greeted him as his eyes lifted from the ground for the first time since spotting the seat.
The back wall of the church was dominated by a vast window of stained glass, positioned perfectly to catch the last few rays of light before sunset. Almost half of the wall was taken up with the enormous portal, so that it dominated the eye completely, making it impossible to view the wall without the eye being drawn to the image picked out with minute detail upon it. The scene depicted was of a gigantic creature, somewhere between a spider, an elephant and an octopus, trampling minuscule human shapes beneath its feet. Other humans were visible, being transferred to the things mouth with long tentacles, which sprouted from the black space of the gaping hole itself. While other details were present, Scott was unable to focus on them, finding his eye constantly pulled back to the unsettling icon of the hideous, demonic presence looming above him.
It filled his vision utterly, seeming to grow before him, until nothing existed except him and the beast. He imagined it real, standing almost as tall as the fells which surrounded the village, feeling his back turn cold as he pictured himself staring into the negative space from where the tentacles emanated, as thick as tree trunks and supple like silk cord; reaching out toward him, implacable and unstoppable. Sharp pain exploded behind his eyeballs, lancing toward the back of his head, while his teeth began to ache violently, as if each one was trying to force itself out of the socket that held it. The sensation of falling overtook him as he stared into the void of the creature’s maw, the certainty of damnation and the sense of his own ruin welled up inside him, taking any and all hope of salvation from him as swiftly as he had fallen under the beast’s spell. He tried to scream but no sound would escape him except for a tiny nasal squeak, the sound he made as he woke from nightmares. A sudden dull pain in his testicles and a feeling of spreading damp across his groin, forced him to look down at his own body.
He was still on the bench in the churchyard, the picture of the beast was just that and his bottle of orange juice was in his lap. More than half of the liquid had poured over his groin and upper thighs. At least he hoped it was orange juice. He rubbed his fingertip on it and gave it a tentative sniff, Probably juice – he thought. Looking around to see if anyone had spotted his mishap, he noticed that it seemed darker than a few seconds ago and checked his watch, trying to ignore the way his hand shook as he raised it to eye level. Deliberately not noticing his hearts staccato pounding, he saw that was twenty to six, almost thirty minutes since he had first sat down for a drink. For a few seconds his mind reeled at the thought of losing more than half an hour of his life to a religious vision of hell, before he recovered his wits enough to think it through clearly.
Memories of his teenage years flooded back, mental images of he and his mates sitting on the wooden benches dotted around the edge of the local football field, dropping acid tabs and washing them down with bottles of O.J., just like the one he was now wearing most of. What a bloody time for a flashback – he told himself. He knew that’s what it was, an acid flashback brought on by grief, tiredness, stress and a serious lack of meals and fluids, not at all helped by the hangover he had nursed all day. Unnerved badly and wet around the weasel, he hurried to the front of the church to see if the pub had opened at half-past. Unless it was opening at six, of course. Lights in the window and an open door told him all he needed to know. He downed the remainder of his orange and bolted out through the church gates, with a final glimpse at the tormented souls around the portico. He thought he had a sense now of how they felt and wanted none of it.