Mort Au Monde


I slept heavily … too heavily by half. For things had crept on all fours through the open door, which I could have sworn I left shut, squawking heads quietly turning from side to side in search of cast-off human meat to suck upon.

         I woke with the dream still going on in a small part of my brain. For I convinced myself that I actually saw a pair of widely set eyes searing the darkness with beams of bloodshot fire.

         But it was no doubt daytime in the real world and I suddenly recalled my own name. Muirfield came back first … then David…

         …and, finally, the place, named St Perrin. With some pain, I. rose from the bed and staggered towards the window … which I proceeded to unshutter with some amazement at the brightness of the sun already shafting along the tips of the distant hills.

         It all fitted somehow. But, for some reason, I could not fathom why my loved one, Marianne, was sleeping in a separate room. I knew that if I walked along the musty corridor from my door numbered 2, I would find a screwed-on plate showing 5. Those who slept between us, those unseen, unnamed chaperones, were only just to be heard stirring in their beds, as I crept past their doors towards number 5. It was dark on the landing, and it was difficult to make out the hazy cross-hatching of the banisters leading down to the lower storeys; I was dizzy for a moment, but gathered myself for meeting my loved one.

         Marianne had allowed her hair to fall to her shoulders since I last saw her at dinner the previous evening. The unrevealing mouth … the deceptive drapes of the night-dress … the hollow in the throat… the peeping toes … all gave me an impression that she had struggled against the odds not to be taken unawares. What gave the game away were the red eyes.

         It was when a deep grunt from further inside her room commanded the shutting of the door, that I decided I ought to return to my own territory, to retrieve different dreams from under the bedclothes, dreams that I could more easily live with.

Hot croissants with coffee are too light for an Englishman. I yearned for toast and marmalade, eggs and bacon, steaming pots of strong tea, honey on the cornflakes, milk by the churn, freshly squeezed oranges. Marianne sat opposite, staring into      her large bowl of coffee, as if she were trying to read the future.

         I could have told her that the past is more mysterious – but I didn’t.

         I don’t know if I’d noticed it before, but her eyes were nearly all white, carrying upon their surface small round yolks of darting brown like particles under the microscope. Unlike most people I’d met, I could not read her soul through such deceptive apertures. It was as if I had indeed been defeated by someone who was using my eyes to race me to the bottom of my own soul.

         “Where shall we go today?” She spoke towards the sounding board of my face. “I think we should take advantage of a sunny day, by going to the coast.”

         “I don’t know. Why don’t we stay in these grounds, and read or something?” I never discovered whether these words of mine made any sense, for her next statement did not follow them on. Even in the most crudely formulated conversations, there is at least a thin thread of logic weaving in and out of the various tangents and non-sequiturs. But, evidently, not in a conversation with dear Marianne.

         “I expect we wouldn’t have come here at all, if it hadn’t been for your Mother, David.”

         I was pleasantly surprised, nevertheless, to hear her use my name when addressing me. This gave me renewed encourage­ment to respond: “Well, it was very kind of her to let us have this place for the summer…”

         “The nights are so long in this chateau. Sleep is insufficient to cover them.”

         What the hell was she talking about? My upbringing had taught me that sleep was not a pleasure, merely a necessity “for entropy to be slowed down”, as my late grandfather had always said.

Well, we did go to the seaside that day, despite the slanting rainclouds that swept in by lunchtime from across the sea. I had been hoping to see some of those old-fashioned girls sun-bathing; in the event, there was just a mass of twirling umbrellas along the promenade.

         Finally, the pair of us resorted to the old part of the town, full of climbing alleys and countless spired churches hogging the skyline. Being abroad had ceased to be a novelty long since, but the foreignness of that place really got under my skin. I felt the whole thing was an episode from an alternate universe, one in which I was the unsung hero and Marianne the singer.

         She cut me dead at every turn, just with her eyes. I felt diminished to the quick, for she only had eyes for complete strangers (or, at least, for people who seemed strange to me). Until I realised that they must have slept in the bedrooms between us … for a fleeting moment, I thought they were distant relations, who had remained incognito, just for the sake of appearances. Like all people not in your immediate vicinity nor party to your conversation, they sounded like Undergrunts, with squeezed-up eyes and thin lips.

         I snatched Marianne’s hands and, running towards the harbour, we were only just in time to catch the last rollonrolloff for England… which carved a slow path into the rising moon. As night came upon us again, we were soon to discover that our respective cabins were decks apart.

         Too late to realise that it was sailing in the wrong direction, Marianne clasped me tight: even her eyes could not hide her fear. And we kept vigil for what could be an endless night, without even resorting to our cabins, calling each other by our names in case we forgot; careful not to betray any emotions that would give the chaperones a reason to come out of hiding.

(Published in ‘Dagon’ and ‘Best New Horror’j