Downstairs things had livened up a little, there now being half a dozen people in the bar area. Scott took a look at the locals and struggled to keep the shocked expression from his face. Ingleton had obviously been isolated for some time, judging by the very familial look about the people clustered around the bar. There was a tendency towards that same toad-like roundness as Alice from the shop, and more facial warts gathered in one place than the witches table at a Macbeth convention. He sincerely hoped they were all from one family rather than a random selection of locals. This seemed increasingly like Deliverance country and he had no desire whatsoever to end up as a reconstruction on Crimewatch. He wandered over to the bar and dredged his mind for something to say to the Toad-People. “Aren’t sheep a pain in the fucking arse?” wasn’t going to cut it, while “Has anyone seen the Wicker Man?” was probably going to give them ideas. Luckily the tallest of the locals saved him the trouble.
“How’st thar fizzin’? Ye mus’ be the one as saw Shub-Niggurath an’ shat hisself.” Scott could only goggle in wonder. He thought his Northumberland accent was hard to follow for a stranger but this bloke put him to shame. It sounded like he was speaking in tongues.
“You what?” he said to the tall Cumbrian. The locals all started chuckling, presumably at the silly outsider’s inability to understand plain English, but the tall bloke might have accused Scott of having congress with an asthmatic goat; there was no easy way of telling.
The man smiled at Scott’s bafflement before apologizing for pulling his leg with the dialect and introduced himself as Nebuchadnezzar -Just call me Nez- he told Scott and went on to regale him with various stories about tourists’ first sight of the demon on the church window. The common theme went along the lines of, tourist seeing the demon, Shub-Niggurath – apparently, then promptly dropping something amusing like a sandwich or ice cream on their clothes. While Nez was plying him with witty anecdotes – “It was chocolate milkshake so it looked like she’d shit herself. Good, eh?” – Billy arrived with Scott’s food and orange juice on a tray. The landlord nodded at Nez and rolled his eyes. Scott took the tray while making his excuses to Nez and moved to a table to enjoy his meal.
He poured a liberal amount of salt, pepper, vinegar and ketchup onto the food, realizing as he did so just how hungry he had been. His stomach growled loudly in anticipation of the meal and he thanked his lucky stars that Billy knew the right way to make pub meals; namely piping hot, filling and in bloody huge portions. He couldn’t remember how anything tasted, having been too busy shovelling heaped forkfuls down his gullet at a pace that experienced competitive eaters would find respectable; it was all that he could do to restrain himself from making pig-like grunts of delight as he did it.
As he chased the last few peas around his plate with his fork, debating with himself the social acceptability of ordering a second serving, he saw the inner door of the pub swing open. Toad-woman from the shop walked in, striding imperiously past Scott and waving to the Chuckle Brothers propping up the bar. A mumbled chorus of “Alright, mam.” and similar gushing salutations, explained the similarity of appearance between the locals he had met so far. He found himself thinking uncharitable thoughts about the fact that Alice had managed to convince someone to sleep with her, six different times. He wasn’t sure there was enough alcohol in the world to make him consider it even once. She made her way to the bar, where Nez immediately leaned in close and muttered to her. She nodded a few times as she listened, shaking her head no at something she heard and then hitting Nez on the head with surprising force. Scott realized he was staring, so patted his pockets for his cigarettes to distract himself from the embarrassing spectacle of the huge bloke getting a dressing down from an old woman. Placing a cigarette into his mouth, Scott made a bolt for the door before things reached the point where a stranger might be a handy target for Nez’s anger and embarrassment to be transferred onto.
Standing outside in the cold night air, Scott took a long drag from his smoke, feeling light-headed as he did so. He wondered if he’d had a smoke at all since the funeral. His mind was saved the trouble of further memories of his grief by the looming edifice of the church opposite, towering over him. An ugly building, he realised, as he looked at it in the full darkness. The spire was slightly off-centre to the rest of the building, not in any way he could put his finger on, but it was definitely wrong, somehow. The spire itself wasn’t the only thing that was wrong. The roof-line appeared to be different heights at different points along it’s horizontal axis, although each time he thought he had nailed down the place that the fault was coming from his perception seemed to shift, making the roof look different again. He took his eyes further down the building, trying to ignore the strange tickling behind his eyeballs that staring at the roof-line had left him with.
The portico and it’s ranks of tortured souls was all but invisible behind the shadows cast from the orange light from the street lamp outside the gate, so he turned his attention to the windows. The arched panes of stained glass were marked with imagery, but it was too dark to make them out clearly. His mind drifted back to that afternoon and his strange hallucination in the yard. As an echo of the sense of desolation that had overcome him stirred in his mind, he found himself glad that he couldn’t see clearly the icons depicted. The unsettling way the half obscured scenes seemed to writhe in the orange flicker of the street lamps was unnerving enough in itself.
His cigarette was only half finished, but Scott felt an overwhelming urge to be back inside. Back amongst people, noise and normal light. He threw his smoke to the pavement and ground it out beneath his heel, telling himself that it was making him woozy after so long without nicotine, anyway; shredding his nerves and making him jumpy about nothing. Even as those thoughts scuttled through his mind, Scott felt a presence behind him. A prickle ran down his spine as warm breath blew against his neck; he was no sooner aware of the presence when he felt the breath blowing against his neck again. He remembered the horrifying apparition from the bathroom and his blood ran to ice, as he saw clearly in his mind’s eye the thing standing behind him, tentacles protruding from it’s mouth, reaching towards the back of his exposed neck.
Scott barrelled forwards, away from the noise, whirling around as he did so, an exclamation of horror bursting involuntarily from his mouth as he turned to see the creature he was convinced was standing behind him. As he saw where the noise came from, Scott was left baffled once more by the state of his own mind.
Standing on the step of the pub’s porch, lit up like a Madonna by the overhead sodium bulb, was a pretty young woman wearing a look of obvious trepidation and concern. Her long, jet black hair framed her heart shaped face, her head cocked to one side as she looked at him; her pale blue – almost grey – eyes were wrinkled in what might have been worry, or even outright fear. She opened her mouth, hesitated for a second, then spoke.
“Are you OK?” Scott just goggled at her for a few seconds, his heart still pounding while adrenalin flushed out of his system. “Mister? Are you all right? You look pale.” Scott tried hard to gather his thoughts so as to speak coherently, worried about looking like a complete idiot in front of yet another yokel.
“Where the hell did you come from?” He barked, far more aggressively than he’d intended. The woman looked baffled by his question.
“My house.” She told him, confusion writ large on her face.
“What? What?! I mean how did you get up those steps behind me! I never saw or heard anyone coming along the street.” The woman, simply stared at him as if he was a particularly simple child.
“My house is down there.” She pointed along the road, in the direction of the shop, outside of which Scott’s father’s car was still parked. “I came up the steps from that way.” Scott had managed to gather his wits a little, so spoke more softly this time.
“Well, you should put a bell around your neck, or something.” He smiled at her. Comprehension dawned on her then, a look of beatific revelation crossing her pretty face.
“I’m not wearing high heels.” She told him in a confident, almost happy, tone.
“I always wear high heels normally, so you wouldn’t hear them clicking down the street. Because I’m in my flat shoes you weren’t listening for me to come to work in my stilettos.” She smiled brightly at him, as if this explanation somehow made perfect sense.
“But I’m not from here.”
“I know.” She gave him the errant child look again. “I can tell from your accent and the fact I’ve never seen you before.”
“So why would I be listening for you coming to work?”
“I know you wouldn’t. That’s why you never heard me coming.” She smiled again at him. “Are you coming inside?”
Scott replayed the conversation in his head, trying to see if there was something in there he’d missed that would make it all clear to him. He simply nodded his head when nothing became apparent and joined the young woman on the porch, holding the inner door open for her as he did so. She squeezed past him, smiling her thanks as she did so and started talking to him again as he followed her into the unusually large space that was the only room that seemed to be open to the public.
“Do you like bells?” She asked.
“What?” Scott asked, feeling off balance; as if there were two separate conversations going on. The one that was happening and the one the woman thought was happening; he was pretty sure he wasn’t one hundred percent up to speed on either of them.
“Bells. Do you like them? You said I should I wear a bell necklace, but I like the one I’m wearing. Jet’s a really nice stone. My mam says it just looks like coal, but I think it’s really nice and matches my hair. Do you think the bell should be silver or gold?”
Scott opened his mouth to explain what he’d meant by her wearing a bell around her neck, but decided against it, in case the conversation veered back around to high heels once more. Instead he trailed into the pub behind her, letting her stream of chatter wash over him; perhaps a pint would clear his head a little.