The small church had stood on the site for the best part of a thousand years, high on the cliff overlooking the bay. Tonight the man had been standing in front of its arched double doors for what felt like an age but had been only minutes - time seemed to have slowed. He feels uneasy, nervously looking behind him; his horn-rimmed spectacles reflect the light of the full moon. A strong wind from the sea buffets him. The aging trees around the overgrown graveyard lean and creak menacingly. Something is wrong, he knows it with every fibre of his being, but cannot explain why or what. The moon is too large and feels out of place, he has never seen this church before but somehow he knows he has visited it often. Checking his pocket watch, it’s two in the morning - it’s always two in the morning - he nervously reaches for the iron ring on the door; turning it, the latch clicks open. As he steps across the threshold into the church, the candles on the altar flicker into life, illuminating the whole interior which now appears so much larger to him – more like a cathedral in size - vast and imposing.
His sense of foreboding was growing, twisting in his gut. The altar seemed to call to him and he felt inexplicably drawn toward it. The symmetry of the vertical columns and the horizontal pews reminded him of something, or somewhere. His vision started to shift, everything felt blurred – no, not blurred, but reflected somehow. As if watching the world reflected in a lake, with its moving surface distorting the images within. The columns were now larger and more impressive, with carved bull’s, or horse’s heads at their apex, stone carvings of lions but with the faces of men - bearded men - some of the beasts had wings carved into their flanks. They all faced the aisle, replacing the pews, like a mirage in a desert. He now realised it was not the candles but the moon that illuminated this desert scene. He had reached the altar and as he stood before it the moon seemed even larger as it hung there low in the sky, seemingly close enough to touch.
“Good morning Kay!” a voice said. Kay tore his eyes from the moon, and looked in the direction of the voice. As he did so the church closed back in around him; he was standing in front of the altar, with the light of the candles flickering on his face.
“Archie! How the devil…?” Kay exclaimed with genuine surprise, Archie was sitting in a brightly striped deck chair and was dressed in his favourite Morris dancer’s outfit; his white shirt and britches were decorated with red, yellow and blue ribbons. On his head, a Bowler hat similarly decorated but with a large black feather tucked through the ribbons.
“Not too bad,” Archie interrupted, “given the circumstances” Kay walked over to the left aisle; Archie was casually sitting there by a side door and looked to Kay as relaxed as anyone might be sitting watching the sea.
“You’re looking great Archie, how long has it been: fifteen, sixteen years?”
“Nearer eighteen ol’ boy!” Archie replied with a cold smile, his public school education not quite masking his regional accent.
“So what are you doing here?” Kay asked, and somehow knew he didn’t really want him to answer.
“Well its funny you asked that, I, or should I say ‘we’ have a duty to keep singing the songs, and performing the dance, oh and to observe of course”.
“Observe what” Kay by now was slightly confused.
“Well right now… that”, Archie gave a slight nod in the direction of the ante-chamber. The door to the room was wide open - Kay realised he hadn’t noticed before, which he thought was strange given he’d been standing right next to it. Inside a thick fog or smoke obscured his vision; something was moving inside but he couldn’t tell what.
“What is it? I can’t see a thing”, Kay shot a glance at Archie and then returned his full attention to the movement.
“May I make a suggestion?” Archie continued without waiting for a reply,
“If you remove your glasses, you will be able to see ‘it’ far easier”.
“But… I don’t wear glasses” Kay snapped, putting his hand to his face, his fingers finding to their disbelief the pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.
“But, but this makes no sense, I don’t need glasses, why am I wearing glasses… See ‘what’ easier?” Kay’s eyes looked from the spectacles he was holding back into the room. The smoke-or fog-like substance inside the room started to move and swirl and appeared to roll and tumble towards the door. Kay was fixated and before his eyes the substance became less like moving clouds and more similar to dirt or sand. Picking up speed as it whirled and tumbled Kay felt the first specks of grit stinging his skin, the wind grew stronger as if pushed before the growing curtain of dust. Now the storm of sand and filth was all that Kay could see - it was still some distance away but it was massive, vast and all consuming, and then he spotted ‘it’ moving within the huge sand storm. All at once Kay realised it was too late; as he started backing away from the door ‘it’ was accelerating toward him. Archie continued to sit and watch silently, unmoved by Kay’s obvious plight. As the wave of sand broke over Kay, engulfing him, smothering him and shredding his clothes, sand filled his mouth, his nostrils, his ears and throat, he was blinded, his eyes burned. His skin was agonisingly torn from him in tatters, he tried to scream but there was nothing. Then in the darkness through burning eyes he saw ‘its’ face, it was beautiful and he knew its name...
Charles cursed his bad luck as he shoved his feet into his slippers; snatching up his oil lamp from the dresser, lighting it and then setting off down the corridor. Accompanied by the weasel-faced man from room six he quickly climbed the stairs towards the source of the screaming. Most of the guest-rooms’ doors were open, their occupants staring concerned or curious up the stairs towards room eleven. As Charles passed each of the doorways he made platitudes and politely asked the guests to go back inside, it was too cold a night to be standing about in their night-clothes. Whether concerned, confused or just plain angry the guests of the hotel slowly went back to their beds. Room eleven; he knew it would be trouble.
“Should have known better… blasted Americans!” he mumbled to himself, cursing the day he’d rented the room to Mr Elms. The screaming was so loud now, so chilling, the weasel-faced man scurried away to his room. Charles was suddenly concerned, his annoyance at being woken to deal with a troublesome guest replaced with fear. This was not going to be one of the usual instances of a spat between lovers or an abused prostitute; these shrieks of terror were otherworldly. Outside the door of room eleven, Charles paused; his hand hovered, about to bang on the door. Paralysed with fear - what would he encounter? He slowly closed his hand into a fist, and as he did so a small amount of his courage returned.
Then it stopped.
Outside room eleven Charles stood silently, confused, alone on the landing; the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. The only thing he could hear was the gentle hiss from his lamp, a clock ticked away on one of the lower landings. He knocked.
“Mr Elms… Mr Elms are you ok Sir?” Silence answered him. He tried the door; it was unlocked, which was a relief as in all the excitement he’d forgotten to bring the master room key.
“Hello Mr Elms… It’s the manager Sir; we have had some complaints about the noise! Is everything ok?” Charles hated this part of his job; entering a guest’s room uninvited, not knowing what he would find inside. His eyes scanned the room.
Willem K. Elms served as an officer in the Canadian Corps during the Great War. He had witnessed all the horrors of the Western front, advancing with his men through ‘no mans land’, through the barbed wire and the withering machine gun fire. He had survived bayonet charges, artillery barrages and gas attacks. Broken and bloody, so many of his friends and comrades had been left on the fields of Flanders; their blood mixed with the mud and residue of the mustard gas attacks. The weapons-fire drowning out their screams of pain, their prayers, and those pitifully calling for their mothers, he had known their names and mourned their passing. He knew he would always be haunted by what he had witnessed and by the terrible acts he had encouraged in his men. They had fought harder than he could have asked them and he had taken pride in their achievements. Willem had suffered flashbacks and nightmares for years after the war had ended; but nothing for over six years now, until two or three months ago. Then he started dreaming of the church on the hill, as time passed the dream turned to nightmare, and then tonight… night-terror.
“What’s your name?” Willem whispered,
“Cha... Charles” he replied nervously standing at the far end of Willem’s bed,
“I’m very sorry; will you tell them… will you tell them all?”
“Of course, Sir, Are you sure you’re… Ok, you look…” Charles trailed off he didn’t know how to tell his guest that he looked awful, disturbed, terrified. Willem’s wide eyes were looking straight through him, to a far off place.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Sir… Do you know what the nightmare was about?” Charles thought for a moment “Did you serve Sir, was it about the war?”
“I did, but it wasn’t about the war… it’s been getting worse” Willem wiped the cold sweat from his brow.
“Can I get you a drink Sir? Scotch maybe?” Charles was looking for an excuse to leave the room, he had forgotten about his bed, he was feeling deeply uncomfortable as Willem’s haunting eyes pierced him. He made to leave. Willem gave him the slightest of nods, saying nothing as he finally averted his gaze to look nervously about the room, paying close attention to what might be concealed within the shadows.
With dawn’s light Willem finally found within himself enough courage to leave his bed and seek out the toilet. For over three hours he had sat motionless and in silence, terrified of every sound, and at last, with his bladder screaming at him, he was forced creeping from his room to the communal toilets. The floorboards creaked with almost every step and each time he froze, expecting to have alerted some unseen horror to his presence. It had taken him almost thirty agonising minutes to make it to the toilets, and afterward he raced back to his room locking the door behind him. A short while later, Willem decided that he would have to go and find the church from his dream. Archie was trying to tell him something, he was sure, and was now convinced that his sanity depended on it.
As he packed his bag he paused, remembering the artillery blast that had thrown his friend through the air leaving him broken, against the debris of a cart. Willem had stopped, briefly looking down at the shell of the body that used to be Archie, tears had welled in his eyes. Wiping away an unexpected tear Willem leaned forward, picked up his bag and walked out into the crisp Winter’s morning. He had apologised again as he checked out of the hotel. Charles wished him well, but wasn’t at all sorry to see him go.