An Ode to H.P. Lovecraft
With it being H.P’s birthday today, I thought I’d share an old short story of mine which I did in answer to reading a lot of Lovecraft. This is by no means supposed to be part of the Cthulhu mythos, but my own take on madness and the darkness of the British coastline.
I hope you enjoy it (don’t have nightmares).
I’d quickly learnt not to chase his mind, instead waiting for it to loop back around to reality. He mumbled and gesticulated, sometimes wildly as if conducting an orchestra, sometimes wistfully, tired.
There was a howl of human anguish in an adjoining room. Feet passed the door in a hurry. Albert didn’t seem to register the sounds. Against green linoleum and whitewash he sat like an eerie exhibit; head in knees, hairy toes and forearms exposed. A white bracelet displayed his name and a barcode. The movements of his breathing could have been a trick of the eye.
The scream beyond the wall reached its height, was joined by muffled grunts of the staff, and then died away as if the patient were falling into the distance.
The silence allowed me to continue.
“Are you alright, Albert?” I asked in my best calming voice. The smell of pine-smothered urine dried my mouth. “Do you want a drink of water?”
Albert recoiled, knocking the glass from my hand with a flailing foot. To the sound of shattering glass, he scampered away. With his head buried in the corner, only a roll of humped shoulder and one pale foot were on show.
Rubbing at my stunned fingers, I understood why I was here.
Ringed eyes gave him the look of a petrified raccoon; he winced when his dry lips smacked together. Beneath the thin standard-issue pyjamas his chest expanded like a bird cage beneath a tarpaulin.
Somewhere along some distant corridor the cleaner’s buffer whirred. I blotted my damp sleeve against my jeans.
I had little time here. The orderlies would come soon, all sweat and brute force. They would restrain him, tranquilise him if need be, and try to pump fluid into his tired veins. I could already see bruises where the needle had been, spreading like shadows beneath his skin. This man’s delusions were killing him. Sitting in the Asylum’s therapy room, I was certain that they already had.
His hydrophobia was an extension of some delusion. That was simple. How that delusion fit with the Cormouth case was beyond me. The police called for me infrequently; this time to speak with their only witness. But it wasn’t my job to understand the larger picture.
I could still feel where the pillow had ruffled my hair to a cowlick. Waiting for Albert’s next contribution, I absently tried to stroke it flat. I had a feeling that it would be morning before I was reacquainted with my bed. The thought of it growing cold without me seemed horrible.
“I’m sorry, Albert,” I said. “Are you alright to talk?”
“Talk, no. I don’t need to talk,” he said, his voice muffled by the whitewashed surface he pressed himself against.
That was progress, a brief moment of lucidity. The first I’d seen.
“If we don’t talk, how can I help you?”
“I already know,” he rasped.
I made a note of that on my pad.
What does he know? Could I have found an opening so early on?
Following the thoughts of a mad man can be straining for the sane. Constantly fighting against our predisposition to logic; trying to make sense of the nonsensical. Over the years my frustration had gotten the better of me. In years gone-by, I would have been taking a break before my own sanity went the way of the dodo. But I wasn’t ready for that yet. Experience had taught me to enjoy this verbal jousting.
“Shouldn’t you tell me then? So that I can know too?”
“No. No, I won’t. I wa’ worthy. He didn’t take me. I ‘ad to figure it out for myself. You should too,” he said, and fell silent.
Outside, thunderclouds skidded across the sky, the colour of Albert’s bruises. I understood that he must be restrained for his own good, to keep him alive. I understood that his old frame would mark easily with so little water in it. Still, some of the bruises were obviously finger-shaped. I cringed.
“Albert?” It had been a long while since he’d spoken, or moved. I felt my time running short. I repeated, without allowing urgency to enter my voice, “Albert?”
He made a small sound of confirmation but stayed still.
“Can we talk again? I’d really like to know what it is you saw.”
“Can’t ask anyone else can you?” he mumbled.
“No, no I can’t,” I replied. “How come you were left behind, Albert? What made you special?” I thought aloud. Maybe I could draw the conversation around via the how and onto the what.
The room had darkened despite the fluorescent light above, as if the storm were leaking through the window frame.
“I went mad,” Albert stated.
My pen froze half way through a word.
He’d turned to face me, eyebrows raised, a tired smile revealing the man Albert had once been. I’m always ready for the conviction with which mad men speak and I’m unshaken by it. In their minds, what they see is real and true. But when the fisherman’s brushed-steel gaze met mine, I saw nothing but reluctant sanity.
“I went barkin’ loony crazy,” Albert continued without a hint of humour. He shuffled around but stayed hidden behind his knees. “That’s what saved me. When they ran, I stayed. When they screamed, I wa’ quiet. When they fell, I wa’ already on my knees. When they-”
The wrinkles on his brow realigned into a pattern of torture. There was something buried there, I could see it on his haggard face as plain as the suspect stains on his pyjamas. He began to weep in dry sobs, his body not able to spare the fluid.
Was Albert somehow responsible for Cormouth? Surely that was impossible.
His sobs died away. Now he shivered, shook his head as if dismissing reality. I let my fingers caress the file on the table beside me. Images taken by the police; transcripts of Albert’s first incomprehensible statements; reports on what they’d found in Cormouth, or rather what they hadn’t found.
Pinned to the inside cover were photographs of Albert himself. The first policeman on the scene had the foresight to make a record before an ambulance arrived.
In the first picture, Albert lay a little way off, crumpled on a wind-beaten beach. Wet sand piled against his body as if he were melting into the dunes.
Albert’s form in the sand, discarded, a broken marionette.
A close-up of Albert’s unconscious face, and the first time you can make out the sigils on his sand-powdered forehead.
A picture from inside the hospital. The police hadn’t let the nurses remove the markings on his forehead and palms until they could fathom their origin. When archives gave nothing resembling them, it was assumed that they were of Albert’s own design. The blood he’d used to draw them was his own, from a slash in his forefinger.
Albert’s eyes in that photograph haunt me. Standing out from the darkness like a cat’s; every shadow in the room collecting around his eyes and manic mouth, seeming to pour into his wrinkles like a viscous fluid. The deep scarlet design on his forehead. Crouched like a beast in his hospital gown, Albert was a man turned demon. Hard to believe that it was the same sorry figure I saw before me now, head buried in his arms.
I reached inside the manila folder and slid out the only picture without Albert in it. Aerial shots of the beach. Immense trenches had been scored into the wet sand. The lines were irregular, serpentine, leading down to the water’s edge. The spot where Albert had been laid marked by a glowing yellow flag.
A realisation hit me with such force that I caught my breath.
“Albert-” I began, but stopped when I realised that my voice was shaking. I tried again, forcing resolve into every syllable. “Albert, who came out of the sea?”
He wouldn’t raise his head or answer my questions.
My mouth ran dry.
The steady whomp whomp whomp of blood rose in my ears.
My shoes squeaked across the linoleum, the photograph dangling from my fingers. My shadow fell across Albert’s foetal form. Against my better judgement, I crouched. With a gentle touch to his vibrating knee, I implored in a whisper, thirsty for answers but afraid of the fountain.
“Who came out of the sea, Albert?”
His head jerked upward. I fell back, landing heavily.
I hadn’t heard it, but Albert had.
His face contorted; eyes widening, jaw dropped into a skull-like mask. A high-pitched keening came from his throat, like an animal trapped in pain.
With hands pressed to my ears, I still couldn’t hear what Albert had heard. I scrambled for the door. Three burly orderlies shoved me back inside as they made for the crazed fisherman. Taking handfuls of his pyjamas, they lifted him bodily.
The last time I saw Albert he passed by me moving horizontally through the air, his body rigid with fear, whining and wailing like a banshee with a broken heart.
As the echoes of the bestial lament died away down the corridor, I took my seat to steady myself. The quivering in my heart slowly rested, my ears lost their ring, but the tremors in my hands wouldn’t die. I wished that my glass of water didn’t lay in a puddle on the floor. The photograph had fallen there in my panic, its corners beginning to curl in the fluid.
The room had a small sink backed by green tiles and dirty grout. I used it to splash my face, to drink from my hands. The water tasted like chalk. Between my pallid complexion and the tile’s green glow, I looked ill.
I made to leave. The room seemed crowded, and my desire to escape back to the outside world grew stronger. Shuffling my notes into the file any-which-way, I finally heard what Albert had.
It was on the very edge of perception but must have sounded like Death’s drum beat to Albert. It pounded on his fragile psyche until he could only take solace in his own head. I heard this softest sound and never have the hairs on my neck risen so high so fast.
Against the asylum’s high windows, the storm’s rain had begun to patter.
I span around, heckles raised.
Pebbles. Just pebbles scuttling in the wind.
My raised collar did nothing to stop the gale, so harsh it seemed to blister my skin. On the greyest stretch of English coastline in existence, Cormouth clung like a barnacle; pressed into the bedrock by a constant rolling thundercloud, hemmed by an unforgiving sea. The nearest town was over twenty miles inland. Except for this beach, anyone wanting access to land would need to scale sheer cliffs that crumbled like biscuit.
Cormouth was a museum to itself. No signs of a mass exodus could be found by the professionals, and who was I to contest their conclusions? Still, I’d come to Cormouth seeking answers on the word of a madman. I had a strong suspicion that I might just be “barking loony crazy” myself.
Cormouth made the national newspapers, the networks, and even international news to a certain degree. And that’s what bothered me. With so many crazed enthusiasts of religion or cults, why hadn’t someone come to Cormouth? There were no visitors, no candles or shrines to the lost; there had been no looting, nothing vandalised. The latter was my greatest surprise.
Every home was as it had been left. Belongings, clothes, food on tables. Every door was unlocked, and I’d already wandered through many of the rooms. I’d call it a ghost town, but I had a feeling that even ghosts would have left this place alone.
If all that could be believed, then why not the faint flare of Albert’s sanity?
That look of his. It had convinced me that something happened here, on the very spot where I now stood on Cormouth beach; something that made Albert so afraid of water that he dehydrated himself to death. He’d done all that without telling me a single thing. All I needed was his eyes and the sound of his wail.
A gale whipped at the sand, occasionally lifting a cyclone of dancing grains. They peppered my matted hair and damp coat. There was nothing left to be seen of the enormous, serpentine trenches which had been here when Albert was found. The sea had taken them.
I’ve been to Auschwitz. I’ve stood in those long grey chambers. I’ve felt pressed on every side by the weight of the suffering which has lost none of its potency despite the years. Some people are moved to tears by it. Even someone naïve of the atrocities would feel it; an aura of anguish.
Similar could be said of Cormouth beach.
I didn’t know what had happened there, what had happened to Albert. But by every primal instinct that linked us as human beings, I shared his fear. A sense of imminent finality, of ending, settled on me. It stripped away my civility, leaving me on the edge of what was left of my prehistoric nerves. I was a monkey, wary for the sound of predators I couldn’t see.
A part of me wanted to stay away from Cormouth overnight, even though the sullen skies meant that sunlight never truly came. But another made me stay; Albert’s part. I’d found his cabin, unpleasantly close to the sea, and decided to stay there. If I was ever going to find a solution to Cormouth’s mystery, I’d need to stay as close to Albert’s movements as possible. The constant duality in my mind screamed and argued that I should be away from this place, far away. I’m not sure if it was stupidity or resolve that made me take up bunk on Albert’s living room floor.
The scent of wet rope and salt was everywhere.
There was little in the way of ornaments in the old fisherman’s home. One of everything could be found. One plate, one cup, one fork. The opposite of the Seven Dwarves’ cottage. No photographs, no trinkets, no letters from a bygone age. It was a vulgar place to exist. I felt like modern man stepping into the cave of a Neanderthal. There seemed little that could link me to Albert other than the inexplicable dread he’d infected me with.
I explored. Or rather I pried and snooped. That was the only reason I found the cellar door hidden beneath a rug made of sacking. I suppose stereotypes have to come from somewhere.
Where steps led down to a dank space beneath the house, I discovered why Albert’s life above seemed so drab.
First, I found something that I didn’t expect to be there. A light switch.
The wind hooted between double doors at one end of the room, setting the single bulb swinging. Shadows flowed and broke like waves on Albert’s small fishing craft. A pair of wooden runners beneath the boat’s hull would make it easy to slide out of the doors at high tide.
I wondered how close the water came to the other side of those doors.
Netting hung from the ceiling filled with all manner of nautical paraphernalia; none of which I understood the use of. To a man born and bred on dry land, this was a trove of unusual artefacts. The same might be said of Albert if I’d taken him to my office filled with books of psychiatric theory. As I pondered how a man enamoured by the sea could become so afraid of its primary ingredient, I shuffled around the room.
Between tins of Gelcoat, spools of line, and a host of floats that filled every inch of surface was an old ledger. Cardboard-bound and cover-stained, the book sat alone on Albert’s makeshift workbench. Any other objects stood at a respectful distance. That I should find a book here seemed a miracle. I had to read it.
Taking the stool by Albert’s workbench, I began to swipe aside tools and objects to make room.
The workbench, fashioned from a pair of old planks, struck out at me with a splinter. The wooden needle was wide and the force of my own hand drove it deep. I yanked, just wanting it to be out and swore under my breath. A healthy bloom of blood rose to the surface.
Outside, the wind had risen further, the doors now emitting an eerie howl that seemed endless. The temperature had dropped another few degrees, surely past freezing.
I sucked at my finger as I opened the scrapbook.
Not a single date or word was inscribed anywhere. Drawings filled the pages, crammed into tight rows. The diagrams were stylised as in ancient Incan depictions; detailed but simplified. Beasts like nothing I could ever conceive merged with wailing and thrashing men and women. Tentacles or tails; masses of teeth and eyes seemed to make up the bodies of the creatures.
Thumbing through the ledger, I made sure I only touched the edges so as not to wake the beasts that squirmed on the paper. Still, the blood from my pricked finger spilled more than once. I tried not to think about it but I was never comfortable leaving behind my life’s fluid pressed between those hungry pages.
Albert must have been mad for a long time before the end of Cormouth. I wondered if he was ridiculed by the townsfolk, called names by the children, or seen as the town’s charge and humoured. These small communities tended to stick together. I certainly hoped that was the case for Albert. Still, how could a man create such a story in only pictures? The imagination it took, despite his madness, must have been exquisite. I would have liked to meet him before the twist of his mind.
The tale in the scrapbook rolled on. The humans stopped being eaten, at least so often. Many of them were depicted prostrate before the creatures. The thought struck me that Albert may have been illiterate. Was this the man’s attempt at a novel of some fantasy? Lord of the Rings for those who couldn’t read? The thought amused me, and I found myself comforted by it. If this was a work of fiction, there was nothing to fear. Nothing except the creeping sense that I was fooling myself.
The story seemed to come to an end abruptly with no real reason. There were simply no more pictures. I was compelled to find out what happened. The story had gripped me more than any literary work ever could. They say that humans thrive on material that scares them, for fear is just another type of excitement. Rollercoasters, horror movies, a scary book. My body was thrumming with fearful energy as if I’d done all three simultaneously.
At the back of the scrapbook, beyond the pages that Albert had never used, was a lump that told me something was hidden there. Another drawing, folded in four. It was, for the most part, blank. A single line writhed its way across the page. One word was inscribed above a swift circle.
It was Albert’s drawing of the Cormouth coast, the circle marking home. Further along the coastline, around a bend in the crumbling cliffs, was another word.
Who was Alice? Could Albert have had a wife? And if so, what became of her?
Overnight, the wind had dropped to a chill breeze; the sea steadied to a tentative undulation. Storm clouds still blocked the sun’s warmth and light. From my position on the cliff top I could see Cormouth to my right and the drop of the cliff in front and to my left.
My gloves worked the knot out of my neck. Albert’s floorboards weren’t the most comfortable place to sleep.
Fumbling at Albert’s map with woollen fingers, I managed to open it up. Alice was here, somewhere here. I risked a stroll to the cliff edge, looking for some marker of burial. There was none.
The sea had receded, exposing dragon-spine rocks that footed the cliffs. The wind knocked loose boulders to be swallowed by the surf. The resounding crack of stone on stone and harsh battering of the sea assaulted the ears. I had no clue about tides or when they should rise and fall, but as I walked from Cormouth I had noticed the sea slowly being dragged away from land.
It seemed that luck was on my side. With the sea pulled back from the rocks, I could see where Alice lay.
I should have done more research before stepping out; I should have searched again through the few photos I’d found in Albert’s home. I should have tried to find documents with Alice’s name on them. But I hadn’t. With thoughts of the scrapbook and the images it contained, of Albert and the blood-sigils decorating his body, I was swamped with a desire to find Alice wherever she may be. I’d rushed out, unprepared.
Wedged between the rocks with sea foam slipping down her broken sides, Alice lay beaten.
I ran. Seeking a way down to the beach, I scuttled along a worn path and down to the sand. Cormouth disappeared from sight beyond the cliff.
I stopped. As my feet met the beach, a sweat took me. My mouth flooded with saliva as if I were about to vomit. I pawed at my clothes in an effort to release them, almost dropping to my knees. Finally my scarf fell away and the toggles on my jacket released. I let the sea spray prickle my skin as I gulped down great lungfuls of air.
My throat dried to a crisp by the ambient salt, I coughed and coughed until I could do nothing but hold my aching ribs and ignore the line of drool that came from my mouth.
I’ve never felt so ill. My face seemed swollen; baking hot.
But it passed. Slowly I regained my constitution and felt the cold once more. I remained doubled over but fastened my jacket. My scarf had blown away and I took a slow stroll to retrieve it. It rolled and slid along the ground at the breeze’s will, drawing me away from the cliffs. Finally I snatched it from the ground and shook loose the sand.
Wet sand sucked at my shoes as I hugged the cliff, making toward the rocks where I clambered with hands and feet, never once finding a flat place to rest.
A grinding crack.
Shards of stone peppered me.
My shoes sent me slithering down into a foaming mouth between the rocks. Seaweed grasped my jacket and water soaked into my trouser bottoms. Another piece of the cliff had fallen from above to be pulverised not fifteen feet from where I crouched. Plastered to my face like the seaweed on my shoes, I brushed my hair aside for the hundredth time. With the sound of battering waves, brine blinded me. I spat out a mouth full of salt.
This was ridiculous. What was I doing out there, alone? This was how people died. There would be no coastguard or lucky coincidence to send a heroic dog walker my way. I should have gone back. And I would have gone back if I hadn’t seen Alice.
An errant wave draped her body with foamy lace. Water leaked out through a gaping wound in her side. She’d collected a shroud of seaweed and a starfish clung to her slender frame. Pieces of her hull were scattered around her like dropped firewood.
Although she’d been driven across the stone spines to her death, there was still too much precarious ground to cover if I wanted to touch her. I turned away, wondering why I’d let myself be drawn here for a glimpse of another man’s wreck.
I checked the cliff face for falling rocks, and made back toward dry land. I must have walked past the cave on my way to Alice, but I hadn’t seen it. Unless you stood where I did then, facing as if returning to the beach from the wrecked boat, a crease in the cliff’s side hid the dark entrance entirely.
I saw it as Albert must have, and followed in footsteps once again.
I’ve never been the type of person to seek out a gym; I’ve certainly never been a gymnast. Crouching and twisting to enter the cave’s entrance, every part of me complained. At first I wondered how Albert had managed this same entrance and realised with horror that he probably did it better.
Night comes fast and unexpectedly in Cormouth. Fogs rise like dough at the slightest whim of the weather. That’s why I already had the torch in my jacket.
The ground inside the cave’s entrance sloped upward, and I had to stay crouched to move along the passage. Wet grit, deposited as the tide infiltrated the cliff each day, crunched beneath my feet. I probably didn’t have long here. If I found myself trapped by the tide, it was doubtful there was another exit.
As I climbed, the silt slowly gave way to a smooth stone floor and I could stand upright. Looking back toward the entrance, it became obvious that the passageway had been crafted. The walls were too smooth, the slope too regular.
I must have climbed steadily for a good fifteen minutes before the cave opened up. Even then the weak light of my torch didn’t reach the other side. Taking three steps forward, searching the ground for chasms or footfalls, my torch touched water. A pool occupied at least a little of the chamber floor.
I didn’t step to the edge, but returned to the wall instead.
My hand trailed along the stone and I slowly allowed myself to believe the room had been made as the passage had. The surface was too even, too perfectly shaped for it to be otherwise. Still, I wouldn’t let myself think about who would carve such a place deep in a seaward cliff.
I almost fell.
I’d been staring into the dark, my mind wandering so far that I’d stopped checking the ground for obstacles. In my puddle of torch light was a gift from Albert.
I dared to follow it away from the wall, risking losing my bearings. My curiosity was making me a risk-taker. If this had been a day only a week ago, I would never have to come to Cormouth to begin with, never mind clamouring out onto the rocks or exploring some long-forgotten cave. Long forgotten except for Albert, of course.
The wire snaked upwards through the air for a few inches as if floating, and there was the plug, and the generator. I don’t think I hesitated a second. In this place, lost in time, such a modern thing as electricity melted any qualms I’d normally have.
After only one false start, the generator reacted to my prodding and fired into life.
All around the room, lamps flickered alight.
The chamber was circular and far more vast than I could have imagined in the dark. The pool took up the entire centre of the room. It couldn’t have been as deep as it appeared. It looked as if water had been lifted from the depths of the ocean and planted here, bringing an impenetrable darkness with it. Thoughts of what might lay below made trickles of sweat run down my collar.
I turned, instead, to the walls.
All along the smooth surface, faded and peeling in places, were row upon row of paintings. It took no genius to recognise them. I walked around the room, maybe ten times or more, reading the story without words. Where Albert’s ledger had ended, the walls continued. Men and women farmed crops, built homes and even fished from rafts in great teams.
A small group of men appeared, all wearing white robes. Whenever the creatures of tentacle and teeth emerged, so did they. The men in white presided over the sacrifices of women and children.
I found myself checking over my shoulder.
The pool sat defiantly still.
Despite the generator’s steady chug, I could hear the gentle lapping of the pool’s shores.
Trying desperately to ignore it I stayed engrossed in the wall paintings. Such a vibrant depiction of life for these people and the Gods they worshipped. I thought of Albert, a man of the sea, finding this place. Coupled with his seaside superstitions and old tales of beasts beneath the waves (maybe some latent schizophrenia) Albert had started to believe. He copied the paintings, studied them, but had never spoken of them to others. If he had, Cormouth would have become an archaeological Mecca over night. Albert had managed to find something unheard of in the scientific world. An ancient civilisation that thrived on the coasts of England.
The story changed again.
A woman appeared. A woman in red clothing.
With the woman at their head, masses of men and women were shown marching to the sea with spears and shields. The creatures were set upon; the men in white cast into the sea. At some point in their history, this ancient people had stopped believing in their Gods.
With the Red Lady at their head once more, the people were shown with carts, children and horses all headed in the same direction. In the distance, on the final picture, a row of trees.
The generator popped and chugged, setting the lights flickering for a moment. Its dial told me it was nearly out of fuel. I’d waited too long. If it was possible, the pool seemed to have crept further into the chamber. Ink-black water now licked the generator’s feet where there had been none before. I panicked. The tide must be rising and I had to reach the exit before I was trapped entirely.
Far too late.
The sea poured into the cave in pulses. Water flooded toward my feet as I watched. I retreated back into the chamber. The generator was giving some disconcerting chugs now. I debated briefly whether to turn it off and save what was left of its power, but decided against it. If it shut down now, it might never come back on.
I checked my pocket. The torch was still there. I’d need it soon, no doubt, and I swore at myself for not bringing spare batteries. Still, if I’d had the forethought necessary for this entire trip, a laden donkey would have had to carry the equipment. I searched the walls once more, while there was still light.
Though the pool slithered further into the room, it never met the walls. I could see from the line of deposited sand on the ground and a lack of water marks on the walls. Priding myself on my Holmes-esque ingenuity, I set myself down to wait out the night.
I woke in such darkness that it laid heavy on my chest. I sucked in one thick breath, fumbling for the torch beside me. It was gone. I was left in the darkness with only the lapping of water for company. I winced as nothing touched my outstretched foot.
The torch. It had to be somewhere!
In my panic, I almost sent the torch skidding out into the darkness. It had rolled only a few inches from where I’d left it, but enough to cause panic. I tore off my gloves to click on the switch.
At the edge of the thin beam, water ebbed and flowed not inches from where my feet had been. As the tide rose outside, so did the chamber’s pool.
Somewhere in that pool stood the generator, now empty, silent. I would have poured my life’s blood into it for the sake of a little light. I checked my watch. It was early in the morning, just after midnight. I tried to remember what I knew of the moon and tides. How long would it take for the tide to retreat? Could I be here for hours? I was certain the torch wouldn’t hold out that long. And when the time came to leave, could I find my way to the exit in the dark?
Reluctantly, I turned off the torch. I would need the battery for my escape.
Somewhere in the darkness, a sound woke me. My head jerked upward, slamming into the stone and setting my ears ringing.
Outside, sea battered rock. The chamber was filled with echo upon echo of booming and cracking noise.
In a space between the crashing waves, I heard it. The sound of wet movement.
Boom after boom deafened me. I tried to strain my ears past the din.
It came again.
A small sound like the thrash of an eel on stone.
I wriggled away, forcing my shoulder blades into the wall, trying to remove myself from the pool’s edge. My feet slid on grit. In a momentary break from the racket outside, the minute crunch was enhanced to an avalanche by the darkness.
There was the scrape of sand from across the chamber.
I sat perfectly still, holding my breath, clutching the blind torch to my chest.
I held my breath as long as I could, letting out only a shuddering breath when my body screamed for it, and prayed that the sounds of high tide would drown it out.
There was only the smell of salt.
No sound. No movement.
Something touched my shoe.
I almost screamed. Biting down on my lip, I tried not to move. Adrenalin pounded until I was senseless. Writhing tentacles filled my skull.
The beat of the sea was my heart; the rocks my crumbling mind.
The cave’s freezing air seemed to such at my breath, making me pant.
Nothing grasped for me out of the darkness.
Every time a wave met the cliff, I flinched, covering my ears. Soon I was curled against the chamber’s wall, arms over my head.
I made a shaky pact with myself that imagination was the key. I had obviously been woken from a dream, the movement of the pool seeming louder than it was. This darkness, this chamber; they rendered me a child. But I didn’t call for mother. I didn’t light the torch.
A small part of me was happy not to see what might be searching the darkness with cold limbs.
I must have fallen asleep again. There was something about the salty air, how it tightened my skin, that made me so tired. Or maybe it was the fresh air. I’d been thinking of my mother without realising it. She always told me that fresh air made you tired.
I don’t know where the courage came from, but I lit the torch.
The pool had pulled away from me; the tide was low.
I moved as quickly as the dark would allow. With one hand on the wall, torch searching the ground, I circumvented the room.
There, in my path, in the sand, serpentine lines scored into the sediment.
My torch followed them, down to the pool’s edge.
My god, I ran; stumbling over myself in the gloom, torch flashing across the ground, the walls, striking the pool in flares.
When the wall disappeared, I almost fell.
The passage took me down and down.
And, eventually, daylight peeked in through the cave’s entrance.
As the light grew, I think I ran harder. I can’t really remember, but I was soon scrambling out over the rocks.
I only stopped running once free of the beach. My throat was dry, my mouth tasted like tin. Scurrying up the cliff’s slope, distancing myself from the sea, I let myself rest for a while.
Wind deafened me, making noises in my ears that weren’t there, but had me searching over my shoulder time and time again. I sat on the grassy cliff top, letting the dew soak into me. I shivered but didn’t care.
I wanted rid of that place; I’d had enough.
Nothing of the night would come back to me. Nothing of paintings, markings on the ground or the midnight sounds would replay. I sat dumb to the world.
Clouds fought each other for dominion of the sky. Below, waves tested the cliffs for weakness as if seeking to eradicate the land.
By the time I reached town, the sun had found a gap between clouds and horizon, spearing light across the sea and painting thundercloud underbellies with red. Cormouth was bathed in flame-light. Walking down the main street’s gentle slope, I had to shield my eyes.
Every doorway and window glared; cracks in stone and mortar made grins and gaping mouths until every house in Cormouth seemed to be tasting, laughing, sneering. There was no doubt that I had to leave. My car was parked on the outskirts of town and I intended to drive it as fast I could; to play deafening music until that sea, that wind and that god-forsaken place were far behind. I just had to collect my things from Albert’s cabin.
I don’t know what I’d expected to find there, what answers, what reasons for Albert’s madness. There was nothing but ghosts and paranoia. Empty homes that would never see life again, waiting for the wind to break their windows and open doors until inside was the outside. Roofs would let the moon and rain into halls and bathrooms. Grass would replace carpets, sand would pile in living room corners. Beds and chairs would stand like the skeletons of ships.
I shouldered Albert’s door and swept through the living room collecting my few belongings, wandering in circles so that I never had to stand still. With my duffle bag full, I checked my pocket for car keys and finally stopped with my hand on the door.
What was the point of this? Not the leaving; I knew deep down and high up why I was leaving, but to leave with nothing would be pointless. Dropping my bag at the door, I made for the cellar. I never wanted to see Cormouth again, or even speak of it if it could be helped, but someone might. What Albert had found in those caves was nothing short of incredible. At the very least I should take his book to show someone.
The stairs creaked as I descended; the wind hooted. Sunset bled in through the ill-fitting seaward doors. If I wanted to be out by nightfall, I’d have to hurry.
I sat at Albert’s workbench, taking in the taste of the air, and couldn’t help but open the book. I thumbed the pages like a child’s flick book cartoon. Pictures of people fluttered along, giving them movement.
Something pounded the cellar’s doors with such force that I let the book fall from the bench as I span around.
The room had gone momentarily dark but sunset slowly faded back through the cracks.
I couldn’t move; had no idea what was happening.
The doors rattled again, the light blocked out.
It came again. The doors strained on their hinges and settled back; the light obstructed by some great bulk. A chain hung across the doors clanked and shivered.
The last red light of day dying and flaring like a beacon as I crawled back until the workstation dug painfully into my spine.
The sound was incredible, like the sea was screaming somewhere beyond those doors. I clasped arms over ears. Light pulsed with every strike that shook the cellar. Nets above swung and jostled, water leaked in under the doors and sea wind danced around the room.
The book lay open on the ground, thrashing limbs and writhing beasts coursed across the pages. Screams seemed just beyond hearing; the roar of battle. Above them all, the voice of a woman in red calling out words I didn’t understand. If the pounding would only stop, I was sure I could hear them.
The doors were buckling, the chain straining its rusted links.
I must have screamed, but the sound of sea and wind, the hammering of wood, drowned it out. I fell to my knees, folding myself until my forehead touched the ground. The din never stopped long enough for my ears to recover.
I couldn’t hear, couldn’t think.
I screamed silently.
To the sound of splintering wood and a final blast of scarlet sunset, I passed out.
I woke, sprawled on the workshop floor. Shreds of the seaward doors hung from their hinges; shards of wood peppered the room.
My extremities were blue and salt crystallised on my stubble. I hugged myself, willing body heat to return.
My legs forced me up in jerks. Most of the workshop’s oddments were strewn on the floor. Upturned pots left sticky puddles that had collected fishing lures like flies in treacle. I fumbled my way along, holding on to the wall. The workbench had been torn from the wall, and now lay upturned against an opposing wall. Touching my head, I found a tacky mass where it had hit me.
There was no way I was getting out by the stairs. Something had smashed them, snapping each sturdy beam in half. The doors to the beach were the only option.
Stepping over the threshold, I came down to the wet sand.
Albert’s little boat littered the sand, its hull torn to toothpicks.
Trenches scored in the shore, decorated with seaweed bunting, led up from the water’s edge. Looking out across the mess of flayed sand, slick green and splintered wood, I felt sick. My legs threatened to fail me. But the algae-slick wall of Albert’s home held me up. Where Cormouth’s road met the sand I hurried upward, away from the beach, the sea. Past destitute homes, a darkened village shop, a town hall. Up and out of Cormouth.
My car was still there, leaning where I’d bumped it onto a grass verge.
I managed to turn the key, and crank the heat.
Exhaust fumes, turned to smoke signals by the cold, attracted attention.
As the engine sputtered on the last drop of petrol, a police officer on her way past Cormouth found me slumped across the passenger seat.
For a week I endured hospital rations and psychological probes. I told them nothing about sounds in the dark, of slithering trails or pounding doors. I was exhausted, they said, dehydrated and hypothermic. They said I was lucky to have been found on such a remote road. They said I shouldn’t have gone alone.
I nodded, thanked them, and ate the largest portion of Humble Pie I could stomach. I was just fascinated by the case, I said. I had to know.
They smiled, and nodded as if I’d said the right thing, and told me my dedication was honourable.
Albert’s book has been found, and taken away. Archaeologists probe the cave chamber by day, but never stay beyond high tide. Ruins have been uncovered where Cormouth used to be, all along the cliff top and to the beach below. They say a significant discovery has been made; enough to make the world forget about an abandoned fishing village that once stood there.
I suggested they credit Albert.
Embrace the weird, my friends
Thanks for reading.