BY MALCOLM TIMPERLEY
Chris had forgotten that Simon was annoying. Simon had been annoying when they first met at medical school. Now, a quarter of a century later, Chris was a corduroy GP while Simon was a pin-striped surgeon. And still annoying. He’d been annoying (and drunk) at the Class of ‘94 reunion, insisting on a long weekend in Scotland – ‘let’s get the band together again, like The Blues Brothers’. And even though Simon and his idea were annoying, Chris had dutifully arranged the trains, the hire car and the holiday cottage.
They were both effectively single, if not legally so. Simon was in the process of being divorced. His marriage to Alison, previously Chris’s fiancée, had finally foundered when she discovered that his weekend private practice sessions were not at the local hospital, but were actually at a theatre nurse’s flat. Meanwhile, Chris had married Anne, who his patients had spoken of as an excellent GP’s wife (‘very quiet and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, rather plain, but loyal, and a doctor needs a wife to look after him and answer the phone…’). Three years back she had developed a sudden illness that was studiously not spoken of, following which, officially, she no longer existed.
And then another illness had arrived which was spoken of, to the exclusion of everything else. Chris then cancelled the trains, the hire car and the holiday cottage. Living and working in Poundshop PPE, obediently applauded by an uncomprehending and increasingly ungrateful public, they trudged through tunnels of twelve hour shifts and random death, emerging from under the rainbow into a world where, two years later, everything was different. Except that Simon was still annoying. Now that they were finally free from lockdowns, anti-vaxers and nightmares, he insisted that Chris dutifully rearrange the trains, the hire car and the holiday cottage. Even now, when gazing from the car at the great nowhere in particular of the Highlands, Simon was still annoying. ‘Chris, just how far down this bloody track is this place?’
‘The email said two miles. In this snow I can’t tell how far we’ve come but we’ve only passed a cattle grid and a ruin. No cottage yet and I doubt we’d have missed it.’
‘Unless you’ve screwed up and this isn’t the right road. It’s been ages since that turn-off, definitely more than two miles, it feels like five or six.’
Chris tightened his grip on the wheel, shook his head and blinked. He struggled to focus through the leopardskin of swirling snow. ‘All right, what about this? I’ll drive another mile from here’, he glanced at the mileometer, ‘and if there’s nothing by then I’ll turn round at the first safe place and we’ll head back to the main road. I’m not turning here, I’ve got visions of sinking into a bog or something. In return, why don’t you phone the holiday cottage guy? The number’s on that paper in the glove compartment. Deal?’ A grunt sounded from the passenger seat. ‘Well, I’ll take that as a yes, then, shall I?’ The slapping wipers were the only reply.
‘No signal,’ sneered Simon, theatrically tossing the phone into the glove compartment. ‘Because you’ve brought us to the arse-end of nowhere. Well done, Saint Christopher. Time to go back, don’t you think?’
‘OK, fine, we must’ve done a mile by now anyway. I’ll find somewhere to turn.’ The car breasted a rise and suddenly there it was – a building, very large and very dark. They stopped and peered through the snow at it. From across the road it peered back.
‘What’s that?’ asked Simon. ‘Surely to god it’s not where we’re supposed to be staying.’
‘It can’t be, the picture on the website was a small white croft. This looks like a barn or something. It’s definitely not the place. But if we’re going to find it, we need to get going, we’re running out of daylight.’
He revved the engine and the wheels whined.
‘Well, come on then.’
‘I can’t, we’re stuck. It’s the snow.’
Chris turned off the engine.
‘Well, what did you do that for?’
‘Because it was just digging us deeper into the snow. We need a shovel or some stuff for under the wheels, bits of wood or something. Come on, we’ll have to try over there, in that barn or whatever it is. Look, I can see some cables, there might even be a phone.’
‘Or maybe some inbred, knuckle-dragging local with a tractor who’ll tow us back to civilisation. Oh, I know, maybe it’s actually a brothel with a cocktail bar, a jacuzzi and a five-star restaurant.’
‘Oh, fuck off Simon. We’re miles from nowhere, stuck in the snow and it’s getting dark. I don’t know what you plan on doing, but I’m not just going to sit here and watch the weather get worse. So, are you coming or are you staying here?’
‘Hmm, tough choice. Staying here where there’s warmth, seats and most of a bar of chocolate, or poking around in some freezing cold aircraft hangar or whatever it is, looking for a shovel in the dark. Assuming we can even get inside the place, that is. What do you think?’
‘I think this is going to be a bloody long weekend,’ snapped Chris. He clambered out of the car, slammed the door and stormed off, then jerked to a halt. Angrily he turned and reopened the door to release his trapped parka.
Simon sniggered. ‘I’m just going outside, I may be some time. See you later, Captain Oates.’ He leaned across, heaved the door shut and locked it. Shut out, Chris seethed at his inability to come up with a retort. He zipped up against the snow and began trudging towards the dark building. After a dozen steps, something compelled him to stop and look back. Through the tunnel-like hood of the parka the car looked out of place, its red the only colour in a monochrome world. Already the windows were steaming up. Some way beyond the car, a ramshackle wire fence shivered with each gust. The steady fall of feathery flakes had degenerated into white waves as the wind accelerated.
What was that? A figure? Doing what? Listening? Smelling? He wiped his glasses and looked again, but the snow swept back in. Now he could see no further than the car with its misted windows and the Simon-shaped blur within. For some time he squinted into the churning whiteness until it drew back, revealing the wire fence but no more. He shook his head, scratched his forehead, sighed at his advancing baldness, and headed towards the building. It was taller than a house, larger than a barn, and painted a tarry black. Sliding doors took up most of the front face. Above them hung a pair of antlers flanked by two round windows, well positioned for observing incomers. Feeling small and vulnerable under the imagined gaze, he tugged the handles apart. He stepped through into the darkness, and the doors closed behind him with a satisfied click.
Later, inside the car, Simon was startled by tapping on the window. He pawed away the condensation, then wiped his hand on Chris’s vacant seat. A smeary-looking figure in a parka cupped its hands to the glass and peered in. ‘Oh look, it’s Nanook of the North, back from the dead,’ Simon sneered. ‘Any luck? You’ve been gone long enough. Anyway, I’ve saved you some chocolate. Here you go.’ With a smirk, he sprang from the car, chocolate in hand. The wind snatched the door from his grasp and slammed it into the hooded figure, sending it tottering backwards a dozen paces. After several stooped, wheezing seconds it coughed, pulled itself erect, then strode off towards the building.
Simon saw nothing of this. His face stinging from the snow, he had ducked back inside the car, thrown the chocolate aside and was rummaging for a coat. ‘Hey, look, I’m sorry if you’re pissed off, but there’s no need to give me the silent treatment.’ The wind snatched at his coat as his frozen fingers fumbled with the buttons. He struggled to sequence them, failed, swore and slammed the car door. ‘Hang on a sec, I’m coming. Let’s see what you’ve found in that barn. Christ knows, it’s got to be warmer than out here.’ He gave up trying to fasten his coat and looked up, just in time to see the sliding doors closing. ‘All right, suit yourself,’ he muttered. Gusts tore spitefully at his flapping coat and he stumbled and tottered by turns. Suddenly, the snow seemed to be everywhere. All he could see for certain was the building. He staggered on, gulping down razor-cold air, numbness rising as the damp invaded first his designer trainers, then his designer jeans. It would be fine if he could reach the building, maybe they could just sleep there, it’d be safe enough, surely.
Shivering, he pulled the handles and tumbled inside. The doors rolled shut behind him and he stood panting in the gloom. His breath was still misty, though the air within was quiet and a little warmer. It smelled of wet straw, mould and something alien, something like stale perfume. The only noises were a constant low hum and, every so often, a plunking sound. He assumed water was dripping somewhere. Gradually his eyes adjusted to the dark. What had appeared from outside to be a two-storey structure was simply one vast, cold, dark space. Anaemic light from the high windows disclosed an assortment of rusty tools on a darkly stained workbench, beneath which lurked a jumble of oily machinery. He could only guess at its uses. He knew little of the country or what people did there, but enough to wish he was less imaginative. Here and there, ropes dangled from the rafters like creepers, one of them bearing a medieval-looking hook. In the stillness it swayed, pendulum-like, as though very recently unloaded. Rows of denture-white boxes resurrected memories of a church he had visited as a child, where marble tombs had lined the walls. Picturing them containing things long dead, he had walked only in the middle of the aisle, as far from them as possible. The humming increased, red lights blinked on and he realised the caskets were chest freezers. He stepped forward. Crunch. Lifting his foot uncovered a pair of broken spectacles, just like the ones Chris had always worn.
‘Chris? Chris?’ His voice hung before him in a cloud. Beginning to sweat, he tried again, louder. ‘Chris! Where the hell are you? Come on, stop pissing about.’ There was a rattling as the wind clawed at a loose roof panel, trying to get in. No longer able to contain his rising restlessness, he grabbed a handle and lifted the lid of the nearest freezer. He waved away the icy mist it exhaled and forced himself to look inside. It was packed with heavily frosted polythene bags. He scraped away the rime, revealing crimson chunks of frozen meat. Dry mouthed, he released the lid. It fell shut with a lifeless thud.
But wait, there were antlers above the door. Of course, venison. They went out, shot the deer, brought them here, butchered them and froze the meat. This must be some sort of storage place. Obviously. Relief flooded back. Shivery and grinning nervously, he heaved at the next freezer lid. With a creak it yawned open. More polythene bags. More meat. And, bound with rusty wire, a pair of hands, clasped as though in prayer. He stared down into the icy casket, frozen. Unheard beneath the humming and unseen in the gloom, the lid of the freezer behind him lifted slowly and a parka-clad shadow clambered out.
Some time later, the sliding doors opened once again and a figure stepped outside. Through the tunnel-like hood of the parka, the car was now merely a white lump, another vague shape. A snowdrift, perhaps. Satisfied that all was now well, she let the sliding doors fall shut, slid the iron bolts home and strode away. Within a few minutes her tracks were lost to the whiteness and it was impossible to tell that she had ever existed at all.
© Refrigerate After Opening, 2022, 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" by Bag of Bones Press, amongst other places). He also presents his tales live, most recently at the 2022 Edinburgh International Book Festival. He haunts Twitter @MalTimperley.