Lost and Lonely Moments



Lost and Lonely Moments

  

The communal room had the distinctive, bitter smell of a retirement home. Lilac soap, boiled cabbage, and pine fresh disinfectant. The light was bright, more than making up for the grey, dismal, drizzle of the afternoon beyond the big gallery windows that looked out over the 'Lively Garden', with the raised beds of vegetables and flowers.

Leishman was sat in his corner, staring, not out of the window, I realised, but at the patterns of the droplets on the window. He was a sturdy man, stalwart, with shoulders squared, and clothes that were pressed and ironed to razor creases. His white hair was thinning on top, but bushy behind his ears, his full beard neatly trimmed.

“Mister Leishman?” I asked.

“You must be Greenman,” he said, without looking around. “Has anybody offered you a cup of tea yet?”

“No. May I sit?” I asked, evenly.

He nodded, so I took my seat, and took my phone out of my pocket, and set it to record.

“Do you mind if I record this?” I asked.

“For your book?” He asked.

“For a blog.” I saw his raised eyebrow, and tried again. “For my page on the Internet.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Do you mind if I ask where you found my name?”

“I was researching... something,” I said, quietly, “and made a request under Freedom of Information, and in the papers I received in response, your name was mentioned, with two others.”

“Colin,” Leishman said, “and Benji. I was just a lad back then. It was basic training for my National Service, in Nineteen Sixty. I nearly missed it. My kid brothers did, but I got thrown into the army. It wasn't the worst job I had, but I can think of things I would have rather have spent my time doing, even without... well... even without the day you want to talk to me about.”

“Would you be comfortable with me asking my questions?”

He snorted. “No. I'm never comfortable thinking about it, getting nightmares about it, but... There's a part of me that has always hidden this, and always denied it, not just because it turns my stomach to ice water, but, because the only people who would believe me are... weird.”

My smile faltered.

“Until,” he added tactfully, “your letter.”

“You were on a training exercise?” I asked. “In Mortemouth Valley?”

“Oh yes. Way finding, with maps and compasses. Dropped on the Downs, and told to find our way to barracks, across country, using a map, compass, and our wits.” He grinned. “There were meant to be four in a group, but Sam busted his leg and was out of action, so we were the odd three. We hopped out the truck, on a bitterly cold day, the ground hard with frost, and the air biting at our cheeks. Our packs were heavy, but at least we didn't have to carry a gun around that day. At first, with our spirits up, the day wasn't bad. It was a bugger of a walk, and it was a trudge, of course, but we joked, and we walked, and Benji always said, there aren't many jobs where you get good money to walk in the countryside, with birds singing, frost on the ferns, and a clear sky.”

“When did it stop being quite so idyllic?” I asked.

“When we saw the church spire.” He stared at me in the reflection. “There wasn't a church spire on the map. I was sure our course was right, but Colin didn't take it well. He could not see a spire, amongst a woods, on the map, which meant either we had bad information, or we were so lost, we were off the map. The solution was simple, of course. We would walk to the church, read the sign. So, we took a track off the path, went down into the village.”

He paused, and for a moment something flickered behind his eyes.

“Do you want to tell me about the village?” I asked.

“The first thing we noticed was the quiet. The bird song, the sound, all trace of everything, just... faded away, and this stillness fell over us. As the track emerged from the woods we stepped onto a road, but it was... broken. Reeds of grass and nettles poked up through cracks and potholes in the road. The village itself was like any other in the Downs. A square, a church, a few terraces of cottages and a post office, but it was all... wrong. The gardens were overgrown, and vines clung to the sides of the buildings, pulling the cement from between the stones, and there was moss over the tiles, and... frost on every window. The cars were all old models, all rusting and covered in weeds, falling apart.”

My heart ran cold. My blood chilled. Unwelcome memories stirred at the back of my head. The smell of rot, and the cold bite of frost.

“We walked through the town, and there was nothing moving, no birds, cats, or bugs,” Leishman continued. “I don't know what drew me to one of the cottages, but, I brushed the frost off the window, and stared inside. It was dark, and murky. There was no dust, but everything in the house, the chairs and bookcases, the ceiling, it was all decaying away, covered in spots of black jelly-like mould, and there were strings that I thought were spider webs, but they were fleshy, like...”

“Fungi?” I suggested.

He nodded. “Yes. We felt sick. We moved on, and hurried to the church. The sign was overgrown, and peeling, but it was Morteford Church, on Morteford Street. The road ran past our route, and we had been where we expected, but there was no village on the map, just a few scattered buildings that did not even have a name, so they didn't register as a hamlet.” He smiled, sadly. “We lingered a few moments, just enough to be sure, by the map, and we headed back towards the route. I... think that perhaps we were trying very hard not to ask why the church looked ready to collapse, with broken windows and graves choked with brambles and nettles. We did not want to say what we feared, because that would make it too real, so we walked, marched, as quick as we could, towards a path that would take us towards the route, and towards the pick-up point, and a nice safe barracks, just as quick as we could.” He stopped, and let out a long breath. He looked at me. “You do not seem surprised?”

“I have spoken to others, who saw the same,” I said.

“There were others?” He asked.

“Hitch hikers, in the sixties, a couple of workmen in the early seventies, some boy scouts later in the decade, and two kids on their way to a rave in the nineties.”

He mused on that. “I see.”

“You went back to you barracks?” I asked.

“We made it to the edge of the village,” he said, slowly, “before he let us see him, but I am sure he had been watching us the whole time. He stepped out of the shadows of a building, and watched us leaving. A tall man, bald and pale. The bits of him I could see, which was not much, was very pale, and covered in these yellow-ish pink-ish sores. He wore a great coat, dark grey trousers, and... what might have been a gas mask, though the design was plastic and painted red, so it didn't look like the ones we had trained with.” He shivered. “Colin always said he had a gun tucked in his belt, but I didn't see it. He just stared at us, and I got the feeling he would be ready to kill us if we lingered, so we kept bloody moving.”

“And?”

“And we went back to barracks, and asked if anybody else had seen it, but nobody had. The sergeant heard us, and heard mention of the sores. He thought maybe there was somebody in need of help, so he, and the local doctor, got me to guide them back. I knew where the village should have been, but...” He trailed off.

“All you found, were the few scattered buildings on the road,” I said. “Not enough to be a hamlet?”

He nodded. “Yes. I like to tell myself it was my imagination, but I would swear I felt his gaze on us, as the sergeant demanded to know what kind of games I had been playing, telling stories. He thought I was lucky not to be reprimanded, but I think I was lucky to get out of wherever I had been.”

One of the staff approached, to give Leishman his cup of tea, and offered me a coffee. I hesitated, before answering, unsure if I should accept or not.

“He'll have a coffee,” Leishman said.

“Please,” I agreed. “And thank you.”

The woman smiled and walked off, briskly.

“When did you see it?” Leishman asked.

I looked at him.

“That's why you are doing this, why you are asking people, and making freedom of information requests, and writing a web page, isn't it?” The old soldier puffed out his cheeks. “I understand lad. I spent a long life after visiting that... Morteford, that place, that... other place. It took me a long while for me to stop thinking about it, for it to stop haunting my every moment, and a lot longer for it not to be there, ready to breathe on my shoulder, and make me question. In time, as I lived more of my life, it was less and less of it. But...” He glanced at me. “It never goes away, it just gets buried deeper. When did you see it?”

I told him.

I was nine.

My mother’s car broke down. We walked down the road, through a thunder storm, in search of a house with a phone. Instead of the few houses around a farm we passed every day, we ended up in the overgrown village. Mum was furious with herself, unsure how she managed to get lost, and if she would find her way back to the car.

Seeing the village was ruined, we turned to leave, but He was blocking our way. Tall, thin, ragged and skeletal, in a plastic gas mask, patched and tattered greatcoat, boots and combat trousers. Mum tried to speak to him, and he ran at her, armed with a bill hook. Mum grabbed my arm, and we sprinted away, but I couldn't keep up, and he caught my shoulder.

His hands were raw, covered in sores. He tried to pitch me over, and his nails sliced through my plastic rain coat, and into my shoulder. The rough nails tore at my flesh. I stumbled and fell. My mum swung about and her handbag knocked the gangly thing off his feet. She dragged me after her, and I flew back to the car, bouncing and stumbling behind her. This time I had to keep up, or she would have pulled my arm from my socket.

We sat in the car, the rain hammering the roof, the doors locked, shivering with fear, unsure what to do. My uncle drove past, and stopped when he saw us. He threw us in his van, and sped me to hospital.

Mum had been white as a sheet until we were way past where the village had been.

The police looked for the man in the mask. They found nothing, of course.

For three weeks I fought for my life against a fever. Some of the others I had found who lost their way, had not been so lucky. The fever had claimed them.

“You haven't seen him since, have you?” I asked. “The Masked Man?”

Leishman shook his head. “I never found my way back, and I never saw him again.”

“So...” I looked at him. “He let you forget?”

Leishman stared at me. “Let me...”

I sighed. “I hoped you knew the secret.” I glanced out to the rain. “You know my number, if you ever... want to meet the rest of us?”

He grunted and nodded.

We drank in silence, until my coffee was gone. I set aside the mug and made my excuses. Leishman went back to watching the rain.

“Who are you looking for?” I asked.

“Birds.” He shrugged. “They feed on that table. I guess the rain will keep them away, but you never know.”

I smiled, and said nothing.

I let him remain, like everybody else around us, blissfully unaware of the diseased and crooked figure who watched us from the shadows at the corner of the garden.

Behind the lenses of a plastic gas mask, yellow and red eyes burned into my soul. I could feel them, even from that distance.



TE Hodden



TE Hodden is a writer from Kent in the UK. He trained in engineering and fulfils a specialised role in the transport industry. As a writer he is best known for his romantic fiction published in several anthologies, but is also the writer of short romances in the Threadbare Hearts range, and horror stories in the Fallowgrave series.

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