BY MALCOLM TIMPERLEY
THE ARMY SHRINK ASKED me “How was your childhood?”
“Short,” I said.
Which was as far as that conversation went. Mind you, it was true. So I got out as soon as I could, just like my brother Alan did, probably the only thing we’ve got in common. Talk about non-identical twins, chalk and cheese we were, he was forever by himself with his nose in a book. Never changed, did that. I went from playing on the beach to fighting other kids, then on to booze, whizz and smashing things up, but he was always the same. While I was skiving off school down the arcades on the seafront or off somewhere on the pull, he’d be in the library, worrying about his homework or studying for his exams. I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back he was building his lifeboat. Making sure that as soon as he could, he was out. He disappeared off to university at the other end of the country and never came back. And being a smartarse, he passed all his exams, so he’s a doctor now. I used to think it was funny, him getting into a job where you have to talk to people all day long, what with him being such a nerd, till I found out he was working as a pathologist. I bet he’s got a great slab-side manner.
That left me at home with the gruesome twosome, but not for long. No way was I going to stay in that crappy house, staring at the North Sea in some half-dead shit pit of a town. Actually, that’s wrong, it wasn’t in the town, it was three miles up the coast. And calling it a house is wrong as well, it was more like a shed that smelled of damp and mice. A rotten wooden thing, stuck at the end of a dirt track on the edge of a cliff. It shook like it was going to fall over whenever the wind blew, which it did all the time, it seemed like. So the place was always cold. And dark too, as far back as I can remember there were never enough windows. Even worse was having to share it with those two. There was my old man, who was always half-cut, staggering about with no idea where he was, stinking of piss and punching people. As he got older that sometimes meant people nobody else could see but him, but it had always been people who were real as well, which usually meant me or Mother. Of course she was never drunk, was she? “It makes me clumsy. I can’t be all thumbs when there’s so much of my work to do.” I was never sure what work she was talking about.
There were only two choices in Crapsville-on-Sea, sign up or sign on. So, pretty soon after Alan went, I joined the Army. I left the zombies to rot in their shack by the sea and never heard from them again, didn’t even get a Christmas card. Mind you, I never sent any either. They were both dead to me, I was just glad they weren’t in my life anymore. And I only found out that Alan had become a pathologist because his name came up in something I read online one time about a murder trial somewhere. In any case, pretty soon after I left they shipped me off to Afghanistan, and that pushed them all out of my mind. Mainly because out there my head got stuffed with that much other shit there was no room for anything else.
I did three tours. Well, almost three, I came back early from the last one. Our squad got sent to this so-called secret observation post up in the mountains somewhere. An old fort, stuck on top of a weird-looking hill, sloping on one side, a straight down cliff on the other. It was at one end of this long valley, so nothing could move for miles around without us seeing it. Which is why we we’d been sent there. And why it’d been built in the first place I suppose. It must’ve been hundreds of years old, but by the time we moved in it was a complete ruin, not even marked on the maps. Like I said, it was a secret base. Officially it didn’t exist.
The place was all caved in, so if you leaned on what was left of it, like a bit of old wall or something, it’d either start creaking or just fall over. So, first off, we had to sandbag it and dig trenches. Which was when things started going wrong. What with the heat, the dust and flies everywhere, digging trenches out there was bad enough, but then we dug up a bone. And then another and another, loads of them. And then a skull. Could’ve been five years old or five hundred, I’ve no idea, I’m not a pathologist, I know nowt about stuff like that. What I do know is that after we dug them up everything started going to shit.
We all hated that fucking place. According to the sergeant, the orders were to watch for the Taliban and stop them if they tried anything. So, for days on end, we sat there in this ruin, listening to the wind and staring at the rocks. But right from the time we dug up the bones it was more like we were the ones being watched. We all felt it, and we kept telling each other it was coincidence, like you do when you’re on edge. The wind sounded wrong somehow, as if it had other noises in it that you could almost make out but not quite. Imagine tuning a radio and between stations you pick up a woman, moaning in some weird foreign language. Just for a couple of seconds mind, and then, no matter how much you fiddle with the dial, there’s just static, so you’re left wondering if you even heard her at all. Then our gear started going wrong, like the batteries dying one minute and being OK the next. And the comms were playing up, so half the time we were cut off from the world, and things would go missing or you’d find them somewhere different to where you’d left them. We all got the feeling that something was going to happen, we just didn’t know what.
Then, after we’d been there about nine or ten days, I was on watch one night with Johnno. Great bloke he was, rock solid, seen it all. Best oppo I ever had. It was a really cold night, with gusts of wind blowing the dust around. So how much you could see kept changing all the time, even once your eyes had got used to the dark. Now, some of the squaddies used to call me Mother—it’s a long story and, no, I’m not going to tell you why. It used to really piss me off, got me in a few fights, did that. But somehow it never bothered me when Johnno did it. Respect, I suppose. Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is that the first sign things were going pear-shaped was when I heard Johnno whispering “Mother, are you awake?”
I tried to see what he was on about, really hoping there was nowt, and there almost was. But not quite. It was hard to make out, but I got the idea that there was a grey shape, maybe two hundred yards away. I couldn’t tell for sure though, so I pulled the goggles on, not that I wanted to. To me, it’d always felt weird, the way night vision gear changes everything, so you’re looking into this green haze, especially when there’s clouds of dust and stuff around. Like a creepy version of the sea mists I remember from back home. But yeah, there was a figure out there, definitely, and that creeped me out more. Standing dead still in a sort of cloak, it looked like. With a hood, so you couldn’t see a face, though it was probably too far away anyway. But close enough for Johnno to try calling out a couple of times. Nothing happened. Then we tried using thermal imaging gear instead and that’s when I started getting really spooked. Because whatever that thing was, it had no thermal signature whatsoever. I mean, nothing showed up. Which is just impossible. I put the night vision back on and there it was again, stood in the green soup. Swapped back to the thermal gear and there was nowt.
I never bothered with many lessons at school, especially not the science ones, but even I know that anyone showing up as visible should show up on thermal as well. It’s obvious—if you’re alive, you’re warm. By now the hairs on my neck were all stood up. I had the night vision on when Johnno started yelling again, louder this time. Two white spots lit up inside the hood, like eyes flipped open, and then it started moving towards us. And not walking either, just sort of drifting. Johnno fired a couple of warning shots in the air but it kept on coming. And staring. The way it didn’t blink had me scared in a way I still can’t really explain. People started moving up behind us, the shooting must’ve woken the others. I remember Johnno standing up and he let go with a whole clip, then more shots were coming from all over. Last thing I knew, I was shouting back at a roaring, crashing sound. After that everything collapsed, I remember falling and then nothing.
Once they’d dug me out of the rubble I was Medevacced to base. They said I’d lost it and every time I came round I was raving, so for days they just kept drugging me up, right up till I got back to hospital in Scotland. A couple of the others came back with me. In boxes. They’d been cut to bits. One of them was Johnno. When they told me I cried like I was a kid again. Officially they said it was a rocket attack. Eventually, after ages, I got out of the hospital, and the Army too. Medically discharged with a thank-you letter and a pension that was enough to pay for a roof but not food as well. I ended up spending days moping about in a bedsit and nights working as a security guard. I had some shrapnel in my head somewhere, a taste for booze and pills and what the Army shrink called PTSD. He said that was why I kept getting nightmares. About digging up bones and people in bits. And why sometimes I’d get really jumpy. Mind you, most of the time I was feeling angry and like I was spoiling for a fight. You know, I must’ve been the only night watchman who actually wanted to meet a burglar; someone I could beat seven shades of shit out of with no comeback. But it never happened.
What did happen was that I got an email from Alan. I’ve no idea how he found me after all those years, and it doesn’t matter anyway. He said he had a wife now and a kid, as if I gave a toss. And he told me how great he was doing, helping the police with their enquiries and cutting up bodies. But then he said that wasn’t why he was writing, as if I couldn’t guess. No, the real reason was to tell me the terribly sad news that our parents had died (it’s OK Alan, I can handle it). They found the old man in the house, he was long dead. They reckoned that, most likely, someone had killed him, and from what bits were left, it looked like he’d been put through a mincer. I thought it was funny that Alan hadn’t been able to figure it all out; so much for being the whizz kid pathologist. Mother, well, she’d just vanished without a trace. The police had got nowhere and eventually decided that they must’ve had a drunken fight and he’d come off worse. After that, they reckoned she’d either fallen in the sea or thrown herself in. Whatever. But what with how long it took for the police to draw a blank, then the time for her to be declared legally dead and then Alan spending ages tracking me down, it was now three years later. Not that I cared. To me, they’d been dead for ages, this just made it official. I wasn’t exactly cut up about it.
But then came the weird bit. Alan went on to say that we were now the joint owners of that godawful tumbledown wreck on the cliff. Like I said, about the only thing we’d ever agreed on was that neither of us wanted to set eyes on the place again. So I guessed that, like me, he’d want to just sell it and get rid. Which he said he did, but the problem was that he didn’t know how much of it there was to sell. See, just like everything else in my wonderful life, it’d been falling apart too, bit by bit. Coastal erosion he said, something else I never learned much about at school. According to Alan, round there the sea was eating away ten feet of land every year, some years even more. The solicitor who had the will had told him that the garden was long gone, it was probably half way to Holland by now. When he’d last visited, the building was coming apart and falling into the sea as well. Every storm took another bite, so he said it wouldn’t be long before the whole lot vanished, if it hadn’t already. Next time they updated the maps they’d be redrawing the coastline like the house had never existed at all.
Obviously, nobody in their right mind was going to buy it, so it wasn’t exactly much of an inheritance. The lawyer said the best plan would be to go and see if there was anything we could salvage from the place before it disappeared for good, and then just forget about it. And, since we were joint owners of what he called a depreciating asset, he’d told Alan to get in touch with me to see if I wanted to go and check the place over too. Which explained the email; I doubt I’d have ever heard from him again otherwise. But even though I couldn’t remember there being anything worth having there, I emailed him back to say I’d go over and look at it. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure why I did, to be honest the last thing I wanted was a trip back there to rake up old skeletons. Maybe it was just to piss him off, I don’t know. Then next day I got another email, this time from the solicitor, telling me that when I went I had to call in at his office first, for some legal reason or other. I suppose being divorced must feel like that, only talking to each other through some lawyer somewhere.
At any rate, that’s how I wound up back in that dump of a town again. It was pissing down with rain when I got off the train. I know that plenty of seaside places have seen better days, and none of them look great on a rainy day in November, but it all looked even more dismal than ever. There didn’t seem to be as many people around as there’d been years before, and now they all looked sort of spongy. The solicitor had that chapel-of-rest look too, especially with the shiny patches on his suit and his greasy hair. Even his dandruff was grey. He wouldn’t tell me anything about the house until I’d identified myself, and once I had done he said that it had pretty much fallen down. And in his considered opinion, I’d had a wasted trip. But if I still wanted to see the place he’d give me a lift out there, as a special favour. But only because he was going that way to see some old witch who couldn’t make it to the office, and he wasn’t offering me a lift back either. Jumped up little prick he was, I’m surprised he didn’t bill me for the petrol.
So we drove a couple of miles up the coast and I got out of his 4x4 on the road, by where the track led off, up to the house. He didn’t say goodbye, he just disappeared off into the mist. It was pretty obvious he was pissed off about me jumping and grabbing onto the seat every time he drove through a pothole. But the last time I’d had a bumpy ride like that, we’d hit an IED. The guy driving lost his legs but I didn’t, so I was able to walk along the track. Lucky me. It was all exactly the same as when I last saw it. Just as steep, muddy, misty and wet. And when I reached the top of the cliff I was as short of breath as ever. Nothing had changed. Except the house.
It had gone. Well, pretty much. One wall was still there, wobbling right on the edge, with a few planks that hadn’t fallen yet sticking out of it into space. They were like flagpoles, with long strips of torn off wallpaper flapping in the wind. It made me think of those fake towns they have on film sets, where the buildings are just wooden fronts propped up with nowt behind them. Somewhere below I could hear the sea munching away at the cliff that, when I’d last seen it, had been miles away beyond the bottom of the garden. I was stunned. It was like one of those dreams where something’s been changed and you’ve no idea what to do about it. My hair was plastered to my head, the rain was dripping down my neck and my shoes were leaking, but I didn’t notice any of that. I just stood there, soaking wet, staring at it, or what was left of it. After I don’t know how long, I stepped forward onto what used to be the porch and reached for the door handle, but it sort of backed away, and I couldn’t get to it. I stretched out further and further, then suddenly there was a gust of wind and it swung open. Through the doorway, out to sea, all I could see was green mist, but for a split second I thought I could see a figure. Then there was the sound of splitting wood, it was a cracking noise like gunfire, and I jumped back, shouting. There was roaring and crashing and everything caved in.
It’s cold here. I’m on my back, face up, in a hole. It must be a deep hole, the sides stretch up for miles, it looks like. But I can see the sky up there. Or at least, I think it’s the sky, there’s a grey shape, way above. This must be what it’s like in a grave, it smells like one. My head’s stuck so I can only look up, and my arms and legs don’t work any more, but the sides of the hole keep moving. I can hear the waves. Everything’s falling apart, bit by bit. Things are pushing themselves out of the soil above me. A bone. And then another and another, loads of them. And then a skull. “Mother, are you awake?”
© Cliffhanger Ending, 2023, Malcolm Timperley
Malcolm Timperley studied medicine at Liverpool University, and after more years than he likes to remember as a psychiatrist, is now a writer and heritage steam railway signalman, living in the Highlands of Scotland. He has published non-fiction (railway history), comedy (he was short-listed at the 2020 Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards) and horror (lately in Horla, Frost Zone and 206 Word Stories: A Horror Anthology and This is Too Tense, both by Bag of Bones Press, and Tales from the Ruins by Black Beacon Books, amongst other places). He also presents his tales live, most recently at the 2022 Edinburgh International Book Festival. He haunts Twitter @MalTimperley