October Scares: Two

The Landlady short story by Roald Dahl.

The Landlady by Roald Dahl has haunted me for over half my life.

I first read these thirteen pages of creepiness way back in 2004 for year 8 English, and I still remember the double whammy of horror it hit me with. First wham: crazy taxidermist lady poisons attractive young men so she can keep them forever in her home. Second wham: Roald Dahl writes stuff for grown ups?

I wasn’t sure if between now and year 8 English I’d augmented the gruesomeness of it in my head, distorted it out of all proportion, made it darker, made it grosser, but I can safely say I hadn’t.

The Landlady is still terrfiying.

And the more I think about it, the more I realise most of Roald Dahl’s stories are – at least a little bit.

Third wham.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<

Sky Painter

Some nights she found it hard to paint the sky – matching it just so to how everyone had come to think it should look. Some nights she didn’t have to paint it at all – those nights were hard too, hard on her itching painter’s hands. She would stare at the top of the clouds and wonder what to do. Sometimes she would doodle across them, patterns of all different colours and shapes, patterns only she could see. Sometimes she would burst with anger and boredom and tear great, bright gashes through the air. She always regretted those and erased them as fast as she had made them, roaring with all the air in her lungs. And sometimes she would paint it just the same as on a clear and crystal night, because practise makes perfect and perfect was how people thought it should be.

There were nights, however, that she could paint the sky just how she wanted to, nights when no-one would notice the stars were missing.

Those nights, she would pour her whole soul into the moon, big and bright and shining. She would swirl the glowing, glossy emulsion round and round until she was dizzy and heartless and soulless, and when there was nothing left to paint with she would fall, swoop, glide to the ground and walk until her feet were sore – which happens quickly when you hardly use them – glancing up at her whole life, hoping, when the time came, it would fit back in under her ribs and skull.

Mostly, it did fit.

Some nights, there were pieces of it that didn’t.

And on those nights, she would scoop up the pieces of her life and soul and heart she had no room for any more and scatter them across the ground, hoping, when the time came, they would brighten someone’s dark.

Always, they did.

Full moon on a misty, foggy night in Dorset, England.

ghost trains

I used to know a train was coming.

I could hear it wailing in the distance, its metal wheels clickety-clacking closer and closer. I knew that soon the whole world would be roaring with a whoosh of steam and a shriek of sparks.

The earth would rumble and my bones would shake and a train would definitely come.

But when I told my mum she’d laugh gently and carry on picking the blackberries growing by the path.

No trains, Pippin. Not any more.

And I would look at the mangled metal at my feet and know that she was wrong. I could feel it. Somewhere in front of us, somewhere close, a train was coming.

*

Now. Now it’s different.

I look at the rusted, twisted tracks at my feet and I can’t feel the train. I don’t hear it screaming and I don’t feel the ground trembling. My stomach doesn’t sink and fall and churn, my heart doesn’t pound.

The air stays quiet. No sparks. No steam. No wailing.

Now I only see old tracks that poke up out of the earth, threatening to trip me up if I’m not careful.

I don’t know a train is coming any more.

But then.

Maybe now is when it will.