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Christmas Eve, 5.24 p.m. by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Christmas Eve, 5.24 p.m. by Simon Kurt Unsworth“Can we sit? For a moment?”

Elise sat, smoothing her uniform. Illness affects more than the ill, she remembered, more than the ill. She was here not just for the poor woman in the room above them but for her husband as well.

He was old, and drinking red wine from a balloon glass, its smell rich and aromatic. He saw her watching him drink and said, “I don’t usually do this.” Elise said nothing.

A heavy bang came from somewhere above them, followed by a series of quieter taps. Elise looked up at the ceiling, at the cobwebs in the corners and the lampshade with its skin of dust, and started to rise. “No,” said the man, “please, I was up there only a few minutes ago. She does this all the time, bangs on the floor with her stick, calls for me. She forgets that she’s just seen me.”

Elise lowered herself back down into the seat. The room’s only Christmas decoration, a tree half-covered in listless tinsel and drab baubles, drooped in the corner. Outside, it was growing dark; this was Elise’s last visit and she was looking forward to getting home. Around her, the house’s night-time breathing was muted, all soft swallows and gentle settles. The man took another sip of his wine.

“She was so beautiful,” he said quietly. “Still is, really. She was full of life, so quick, until this thing came along and took hold of her. At first it was silly things, forgetting where she’d put something, calling someone the wrong name. We used to laugh about it.”

Elise nodded; it was a story she’d heard before, refracted and refolded and in different hues but essentially the same. People watched as their loved ones altered, disintegrated, became someone else. “Now, I’m all she has,” said the man, “although she doesn’t know me. She calls me, although she can’t remember my name.” As if to prove it, the thumps and taps came again from the upper room, following a long, dragging exhalation that might have been a shout. From some other place in the house, a clock started chiming; moments later, its companion on the room’s mantle joined it.

“I watched and I couldn’t do anything,” said the man when the clocks had finished their mournful singing. “She forgot more, then she became frightened and would wander. I had to lock the doors of our home to prevent her leaving in the night. She became unable to toilet herself, unable to eat, to bathe, to dress.” He took another sip of wine, and then tilted the remaining contents of the glass into his mouth. Another series of bangs came from above them and another cry, long and formless.

“She forgets,” he said. “She always forgets. I go and clean her and feed her and sit with her and brush her hair and make her comfortable, and then I come down here and she calls me within moments because she forgets all the time I was with her.”

“Yes,” said Elise, businesslike, and rose. “Perhaps I could go and see her?” Her watch swung against her breast like the tap of a tiny fist, the glints from its face catching her eye. Late, it said, you’re late.

“Of course,” said the man. “I’m sorry, I’ve been keeping you. I know you’re busy.”

“No,” said Elise, not wanting to mean yes but meaning it anyway. “Shall I find my own way there?”

“I’ll show you,” said the man and rose. He was tall, taller than her but stooped, his hands and face as white as cuttlefish bone except for the red stains around his lips. He led her out of the room.

The banging was louder in the hallway, as were the calls. Elise had heard it before, the liquid slip of a voice whose ability to form or remember words was decaying. It filled the stairway around them like dark, oily waves.

“Sometimes, locked her in her room, just so I knew where she was,” said the man as they reached the top of the stairs. “Can you imagine, having to lock up the person you love like some kind of prisoner? She’d bang on the walls and scream and cry, but what could I do? I hated myself for it, and for being grateful when she finally couldn’t walk any more and had to stay in her bed.”

The banging was louder now, more insistent. “Then she started to call me,” he said, “constantly calling me, calling anyone. I sometimes think it’s her, the real her, trapped in the centre of this helpless thing, trying to reach me, to find a way back. I can’t stand it.” The stick banged, the voice called out again.

Elise didn’t know what to say. The man went to the nearest door and opened it. Through the entrance, she saw the old woman’s wasted body lying motionless on the bed and the pillow covering her face. Her stick lay, out of reach, on a chair by the bed.

“I love her,” said the man and began to cry, and the sound of banging grew louder and louder.

WRITTEN BY SIMON KURT UNSWORTH
ILLUSTRATED BY RICH SAMPSON

Simon Kurt Unsworth writes horror stories. His most recent collection Quiet Houses came out via Dark Continents and was up for our Short Story Collection of the Year Award. Simon has had numerous short stories published, with a new collection planned from PS Publishing in 2012 and a further collection from Spectral Press in 2013.

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1 comment

  1. That’s quite the eerie chiller, bit of a hair-neck-raiser within a brief and effective moment. Excellent moody illustration as well. Great stuff!

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