Inside the pub light flooded from the fluorescent bulb overhead, making for a surprisingly bright and airy atmosphere for a place so far out in the country. The bar was at the very back of the room, facing the entrance, while the room itself was one large, open space with no kind of partition or dividing wall to separate a bar from a saloon or lounge area. There was no carpet, just slightly sticky beige linoleum that sucked a little at his trainers with each step, before releasing them with a small, but audible, squelch. Above the bar, the wall was covered with a huge collection of beer mats, some of them quite racy, advertising beers of all descriptions. The cheery look that the beer mats lent the place was offset nicely by the barman. A short, wiry looking bloke with a crew cut and tattoos, who glared at Scott’s every step of progress as if Scott owed him money. He was also devoting a lot of attention to Scott’s crotch, to the point where Scott was wondering what kind of pub he had wandered into. Then he remembered why his crotch might be the centre of attention. He pointed at the offending damp patch.
“This? That’s orange juice.” He waved the empty bottle. “I was sat in the churchyard waiting for this place to open, I went to take a swig and saw the window, and it gave me a bit of start.” Scott shuddered at the remembered image. The barman just nodded, although the corners of his mouth twitched upwards a little, before settling back into his charming “bugger off” glower. Scott reached the bar as he was explaining himself and saw the barman take a step backwards.
“What are you having?” The barman asked, twisting his face in disgust. Christ! Is hating strangers a professional thing round here, or just a casual hobby? – Scott wondered.
“Do you do food?” He was surprised to hear a surly tone in his voice.
“Depends, do you have money?”
“Yes!” Scott was getting testy now. The barman just raised his eyebrows in question. Angrily Scott reached into the inside of his jacket and whipped out his wallet, slapping it on the bar. No reaction from sour-chops behind the pumps though. With his temper threatening to snap, Scott took a deep breath and opened the wallet to show the collection of neatly divided ten and twenty-pound notes. Finally, the barman perked up a little.
“Certainly do, mate. Shepherds pie and veggies, or pie and chips.” With a sigh of relief Scott asked for the shepherds pie and a glass of orange juice. The barman asked for the money upfront and Scott handed over a tenner. As he rang up the sale and handed over the surprisingly meagre change, Scott asked him,
“Does everybody in this village mistrust strangers?” The barman looked thoughtful before answering.
“Not usually, no. But, it’s pretty hard not to when they look like shit and smell even worse. Especially when they wander in with what looks like a piss stain all down their jeans. No offence, mate.”
“Don’t hold back, or anything. Say what you really mean.” Scott replied, very much offended. The barman disappeared through a door into what Scott assumed was the kitchen, muttering something about not asking if you didn’t want an answer.
When he returned and told Scott the food would be half an hour or so, Scott broached the subject of renting a room for the night. The man was surprisingly eager to accommodate and after quoting a price that was high enough to re-ignite Scott’s earlier headache, introduced himself as Billy. While introducing himself, Scott belatedly remembered that the troglodyte from the shop had told him the blokes name; he cursed himself for an idiot and wondered what the hell was wrong with him that day. He asked Billy if he could use the room straight away and what time the shop closed, so that he could buy toothpaste, razors and so on.
Billy told him the shop was already closed, Alice always closing at five-thirty on the dot, every night without fail. Scott felt his heart sink at the thought of everyone he met in this place thinking he was some sort of tramp. Billy must have read his expression and taken pity on him, because he told Scott soap and shampoo came with the room and he would lend him one of his own razors. Scott thought he would kiss the bloke out of gratitude. After getting his room key, checking there would be hot water and the directions to the bathroom and guest room, Billy pointed him to a door beside the bar marked “staf olny” in thick black marker, on a piece of cardboard stuck there with a carpet tack. He couldn’t help but double take at the sign. Before he could get through the door he heard Billy’s voice behind him.
“Not my sign, by the way. The barmaid, Gemma, did it for me. She’s as thick as pig shit, but cute as buggery.” Before he could stop himself Scott blurted out,
“I’ve done time, mate. In my experience buggery is anything but cute.” He tensed up waiting for Billy to throw him out. People usually did, when he let that nugget of info slip out. Billy just stayed silent for a few seconds, before letting an enormous belly laugh.
“You’re not wrong, mate. Five years in Strangeways taught me that.” Billy gave him a long look. “You don’t smell like a nonce to me, so I’ll let you stay. Don’t nick anything that’s going to be too heavy to get up the stairs when I replace it.” Scott nodded his thanks and said that he wouldn’t.
“That’s good.” Billy told him. “I wouldn’t like to chase you down and break your arms.” Scott looked closely at Billy, seeing some of the gang tattoos hidden amongst the other works of art on his forearms and thought the shorter bloke might actually try it. He retreated through the door knowing exactly where he stood, feeling pleased he had gone down for drug dealing and not because he was a raging kleptomaniac.
Upstairs he found the bathroom and guest room easily enough. The bedroom was small, a carpeted box room really, containing a single bed, a bedside cabinet, a chest of drawers not much larger than the cabinet and other than the curtains and a small porcelain sink unit, nothing else. It was very reminiscent of the pre-release cell he had spent his last few months in, in H.M.P. Durham. The bed was made, turned down and the window was open. There was a small cake of soap in its own wrapper and a sachet of shampoo on the sink unit, plus towels on the rack hanging on the door. There was even a little plastic tumbler for a toothbrush. Scott couldn’t help wondering if they left the rooms permanently made up, in case of lost travellers. This close to the Lake District they must get the occasional pillock like himself wandering off the beaten track. He grabbed the soap, shampoo and towels and headed for the bathroom.
The bathroom was a bit less Spartan than the bedroom, but not by a much. It was also very obviously Billy’s own bathroom, judging from the shaving equipment and deodorant sitting on the shelves beside the mirrored door of the wall cabinet. The toothpaste and brush in a tumbler sitting on the sink were a dead give-away as well. He turned around to lock the door and caught sight of himself in the full length mirror attached to the back of it. Bloody hell! – He thought, seeing himself for the first time in several days. He was far from impressed with what he saw.
He was a dishevelled, unshaven mess of a man. His skin was pale and his face looked drawn and haggard, while his thick hair was ragged and greasy, sticking out from his head at all angles. His eyes were bloodshot, with black rings under them and when he leaned forward and exposed his teeth, his gums were coated with a film of white gunk from lack of brushing. He lifted his arms up and gave himself a sniff, making himself recoil in disgust at his own stench. Even his clothes were a mess; he was wearing his faded, blue plaid work shirt, his fishing jacket – which happened to be just like the anorak-cum-combat jacket favoured by the discerning tramp on the go – and his jeans did indeed look they had piss all down the front, although the damp patch was rapidly drying. He was only thirty two, but looking at his reflection, he would have guessed himself ten years more than that at least. If he had a brown bag with a bottle in it, he would be the perfect stereotype of a homeless alcoholic. He turned his back on the human wreck staring at him from the mirror and stripped down for a shower.
After washing his hair and ten minutes of vigorously scrubbing his skin he felt almost human again. He stepped out of the shower and helped himself to a little of Billy’s toothpaste, cleaning his teeth, gums and tongue as best he could with his index finger. When he had gargled and spat, he dried his hair and tidied it up using his fingertips as a makeshift comb, before taking the razor Billy had been kind enough to offer. As he scraped several days of growth from his face, the man in the mirror started to look more like the person Scott knew when he had started drinking nearly three days ago.
While he was shaving the last few hairs from his neck he heard Billy’s voice, shouting from downstairs that his food was almost ready. Forgetting to take the razor from his neck when he shouted his acknowledgement, Scott felt a familiar sting as the blade took hold of his skin and he saw blood well up at the point where the razor was still embedded in his flesh; he looked down at the sink and watched droplets of his blood fall into the grey water, mingling with the foam and loose hairs. As he stared, he felt a sensation he hadn’t felt for more than five years; the prison-taught ability to sense someone trying to creep up on him undetected. His eyes flickered up to the mirror and widened in shock at what he saw reflected there. Standing in the open doorway was a hideous apparition of twisted humanity.
The creature stood slightly taller than Scott’s six feet in height. It had pale white skin, so translucent that he could make out the shape of its internal organs, laced with intermittent patches of brown that looked like liquid stains. While almost human shaped, its legs looked jointed backwards like a bird and ended with feet that were human at the heel, yet where toes should be was an enormous single claw. The nightmare didn’t end there however; in place of arms it had long rope-like tentacles that hung nearly to the floor, each one tipped with vicious, hook shaped appendages and the centre of its chest was marked with what appeared to be a small second head, shaped like a bird of prey, complete with lank feathers. The second head hung limply, opening and closing its mouth in silence.
Above all of that was a face unlike anything Scott could have imagined existed; a wrinkled, lipless mockery of a human face with long needle thin fangs and wide perfectly round eyes without lids or brows. It had no nose that he could see, merely two round holes contracting and expanding ceaselessly. It opened its mouth, wider than Scott thought was natural, and from the orifice came more tentacles, reaching a foot in length, accompanied by a gargling hiss.
Scott turned around quickly, letting out a brief yelp of horror and raising his fists in a defensive posture. He stood staring dumbstruck at his own naked body reflected in the mirror on the closed door, chest heaving and wild eyed with fear. The bathroom was empty, apart from the pile of clothes in front of the door where he had thrown them to block the door in the absence of a bolt. He slumped down onto the toilet seat and cradled his head in his hands. He sat completely still for a moment letting his breathing return to normal, and questioning the strange visions that had overwhelmed him twice in the space of just over an hour.
An acid flashback was his first justification for the things he was seeing, but he dismissed it immediately. He would have remembered any trip bad enough to leave images like those things in his subconscious. The creature obviously wasn’t real either, nothing could have left the room and closed the door behind itself in the time it took him to turn around in fear; and besides his clothes were just where he had left them, not shunted to the middle of the floor where they would be if the door had opened. He reasoned that one of two things was happening to him; he was having hallucinations brought on by too much alcohol and not enough food or sleep, accompanied by delayed shock from his father’s sudden death two weeks ago, or he was going bonkers. Either way he thought, the things weren’t real so he could ignore any more weird sights and focus on getting himself pulled together before heading for home tomorrow because, whether the freaky shit was real or not, he wasn’t spending any more time than was absolutely necessary in this grim little dump.