I was spending a week's holiday on the Cornish coast during a period when heavy rains had decided to set in. Despite many false turnings and my trusted jalopy's windscreen wipers faltering against the weather, I had eventually reached the strangely named House Hotel.
What I intended to remember about that isolated place were the famous sunsets across the Cape of Long Chimney, which could be witnessed from the hotel's highest bedroom - oranges and reds spreading and silting their oils above those froth-spumed rocky misshapes which the Atlantic had carelessly left uncovered. Even on days when the shipping forecasts on the Long Wave announced tail to tail storms around the coasts, I hoped that the scuttering clouds would split asunder, at the very last moment, to allow the sun free rein for the few painful moments of day's latest death - thus to build bloodstacks sky high from sea to Heaven's base.
I loitered by the window, yearning for a glimpse of such a sunset. Then, I felt a light touch on my shoulder, just as a rim of fire exploded gloriously and unexpectedly into sight. I turned with a shiver and saw, in the wardrobe mirror, the reflection of the framed picture from the opposite wall. It was a black and white painting - almost blue and white, with dashes of imaginary pink - depicting a busy Regency family: prim and proper children and maidenly ladies, one of the latter preening a little girl's hair and adjusting the ribbon to its optimum setting. I felt that a pussy-cat, curled up like a black rose, needed to be snoozing on the floor to make the whole picture sufficiently cosy.
I returned to the window, shiver now shudder, only to find the sky ink-stained, the chimney on the Cape appearing to be a dead lighthouse or a giant hat-pin in an undertaker's storm-tossed titfer. The mood made me forget the touch on my shoulder. Or was it the tugging at the back of my legs that made me less observant of such trivialities? Strangely as if a loyal dog were pulling its master back into an open grave.
I went to switch on the light in my room. The House Hotel was coming alive below me, dinner gongs in counterpoint. How many dinners were they serving tonight, in any event?
The whispering of my name came from under the bed. The fear was more physical than mental, wrigglings along the spine. Whoever had heard of pet animals talking? How had it strayed into my room, in the first place?
I recalled the day, a tiring day, trekking Cornish cliff-tops and watching the Atlantic rollers wasting their energies as they beached upon obdurate rocks. Like clockwork, they came churning in, one after another, eternity's repeating performance, holding inchoate power and dread in their toppling combs of bubbling surf. The awe in face of such clues to God made me feel unbalanced. I believed to have witnessed myself that day shattered upon Earth's jagged tooth decay.
Then, there had been the girl in the St Ives museum. She was gawky, full of her own sardonic intellectuality. Her companions were an elderly lady who kept plying the other two with lemon sherbets, much to the girl's supercilious annoyance ... and a sleek creature of a man who looked to be a city gigolo type. I knew, I just knew, all three would figure in my dreams come nightfall, unless I did something about it. I killed with my eyes, shot them through with the pain of non-existence. I saw their bodies literally fade as they passed out into the museum's Sculpture Garden. But what was that a lemon sherbet on the display counter, left carelessly by one of them? Surely, a sign that dreams are real. Yet tonight, in the distance, the sea's undersurge still powered on and my sleep was simply constituted of such background noise. The House Hotel had settled down for the night, me included. With neither care nor dream.
"Go to sleep, I say, whoever you are."
And it did. So the ghost must have cared for me, even though its voice was what tree bark should be when turned into sound.
I wake with a start. The House Hotel breathes around me, less than snores but more than sighs. The painting glows in the wardrobe mirror facing the end of my bed. At the dead of night, a strange reversal of time has at last brought the sun up, bleeding into the curtains behind the bed-head ... or is it sparks from the disused tin mine on the Cape fireworking into the black sky from the Long Chimney?
The room's full of shunting red shadows ... and in the painting is no longer the Regency family but that sad trio of people glimpsed in the museum earlier in the day, as so many others are half-seen from the corners of eyes: living Undergrunts with squeezed-up eyes and thin lips, dark companions of shopping centres, seaside resorts, museums and, even, cliff-top hiking paths.
They must have such Undergrunts lurking behind the scenes even in Regency days. But surely not one like the city gigolo (with green eyes higher than any animal on hindlegs) who's now looming closer with each swaying stride. He wields his own long chimney of flesh which begins to return darkness to the room in spurts of black slime.
When I woke in the morning, the Regency family were back in the painting, but now they were looking straight out into the room with imploring eyes. And, now, incredible as it may seem in hindsight, the perspective of time leaves me with the memory that the little girl with the optimum ribbon was no longer in the painting.
As I quickly left the room, something quite low down, with slippery fur, brushed past my legs on to the landing. I feared whatever it was had abducted the girl before returning to taunt me with her cruel absence.
"Another rotten day," said the landlady pointing at the raindrops racing down the hall window. "I expect you'll never be able to see the glorious sunsets that the Cape is famous for..."
I nodded, believing the raindrops to be tears.
I departed House Hotel that day, hoping the weather wouldn't dog me further east. Nor any stray ghosts. Why I cried, too, it's hard to tell. Perhaps the little girl from the painting was intended to be my sweetheart in years gone by. As in dreams, you can never truly focus ... and emotions, like the Atlantic rollers, keep coming back to you, with a strange power which even God cannot end.
In the hotel car park, I discovered an unwrapped lemon sherbet on the driver's seat of my trusted jalopy - and, if I'm not too mistaken, all four doors were still well and truly locked. Not a neat ending, however. It was more of a continuation than a crystallisation. Just like life. An ever-fading memory that eventually peters out into our own eternity of self-ignited darkness. A little bit of Harry in the night.
(Published ‘Elegia’ 1993)