I write this by the guttering light of a candle, melted down so far, it’s mostly wick and puddle now. The darkness around me billows and retreats, billows larger again as a draft creeps in near my feet.
My nib scrapes against this paper, though I can barely read what I am writing. I ignore the repeated, demented, banging that I cannot tell if outside on the street or within this very house. I steady my hand so as to spill no more ink, and start at the beginning, with Thurwell bursting into the Club, a train of snow in his wake. Burton and I beckoned him to join us by the hearth, and sent for brandy. Neither of us had seen him since his return to England, and while he answered our many questions, I took the time to examine the changes five years abroad had wrought on the man. Never thickly set, he had dropped a weight of flesh from his bones but was finely dressed, moustache well waxed, beard curling from his thin chin in an upward hook.
“Gentleman,” he said, raising his tumbler in a toast. ‘To old friends.” In the dancing rosy firelight, his face had a positively Moorish aspect so that his eyes and teeth flashed all the whiter by contrast. “And tomorrow, my lambs, you must come to my rooms, for I have brought back mementos that I believe may amuse, things,” he looked around, “not suitable for such public galleries.”
“Photography?” asked Burton in a loud whisper, prompting the curiosity of an elderly gentleman sat nearby.
“There could be photographs, if you would like,” smiled Thurwell, throwing the rest of his scotch down his throat and rising to leave. “Tomorrow evening. Ten o’clock. And you can leave your hymn books at home.”
We arrived together, having dined first at the Club. Thurwell’s rooms were not dissimilar in style to the establishment we had recently departed: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, oxblood leather chairs, deep stained woods, roaring fire. We made pleasantries, a smile carving our host’s face ever wider as Burton’s impatience became increasingly apparent.
“Come then, gentleman, I’ll toy with you no longer. Bring your drinks through to the drawing room. I have dismissed my staff for the evening so that we might have some privacy.” I could not hear the rest for the noise of the heavy curtains he now drew closed, before turning back to us. “Don’t look so nervous, gentlemen! This is all for spiritual gain!”
“Oh, really?” groaned Burton, his face unable to contain his disappointment. I, too, wondered if we had been invited for a lecture on missionary work after all, but, as it transpired, at that very moment, we were both abysmally mistaken as to the true meaning of Thurwell’s last phrase.
He clapped a pair of finger cymbals.
I did not see Burton again until the Spring. He had withdrawn completely from society, his household refusing visitors, officially citing pneumonia. When, on a fifth attempt to see him, I finally managed to force my way past his housekeeper, I found him in bed, hair and beard shaggy, luminous with sweat, his sheets and nightshirt mottled with mildew.
He was not pleased to see me, and attempted to flee through the nearest window, without pausing to open it first. I persuaded him back into his filthy bed, at which point conversation quickly turned to that night at Thurwell’s.
“He must have drugged us,” Burton said, his voice almost too low to be heard.
“We were not drugged.”
“I remember nothing after arriving. The first thing I know of, a police officer was escorting me home from Westminster Bridge. Apparently, he found me standing there in the pouring rain, staring at the Thames. I could have died of fever!”
I watched him without reply until finally he looked up and met my eyes.
“You remember everything, Burton. It is all across your face. And if you went to Westminster Bridge, for whatever purpose, you made your own way there after I had brought you back here.”
We sat without further word, the only sound that of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece, until I made my excuses and left.
Later that night, I heard, he took a razor to his wrists.
As for myself, that night at Thurwell’s was the first of many. Every time, returning home by dawn’s cold light, I was tortured by remorse, which I felt as a physical pain. Thurwell revealed to me my true nature, and the world I had thought to know collapsed in flames.
I neglected my Church. I learned, on my own, of the anguish that could be experienced in this life, even by a faithful Christian soul. I could not endure my own reflection. My nights were sleepless, my sheets trod to shreds. As a child, I had suffered night terrors, fearing monsters under my mattress. Far worse was the adult awakening to find the beast inside the bed.
And yet my compulsions, at least for a while, would repeatedly conquer my horror. I racked my brains as to how I might keep myself from making further visits.
I write this now behind the only solution I could muster. A solid wall, whose construction I, in fright, half undid several times before its completion. I scarcely had the strength of character to hold myself, whimpering, in a ball until the firmaments dried.
It is inexpert; my room beyond can be dimly glimpsed through flaws in the masonry and the wind moans through, but at low ebbs I have drawn blood, grinding myself against the brickwork, and it will hold.
I shall finish this record and then start to pray.
I shall pray that what Thurwell released does not follow me to the next world. Nor lead me there either.
Wax-caked teeth gnaw the lining of my cheeks, then my lips return to silent pleading.
Up against the chinks in my wall, Thurwell and Burton whisper my name to come play.
About the Author
Nick Black’s stories have been shortlisted for various competitions, including the Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the 2013 Spread the Word Prize.
In 2014, he was invited to read a couple of stories at the first London Short Story Festival, including “Lottie’s Wife” (published in the Flight Press collection ‘Edgeways’.) Another story, “Terry”, was published online in Litro Magazine in December 2014.
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