Friday, March 31, 2017

Of Shadows and Substance - a short story

I’d got the knack of getting ready and leaving the house down to a fine art now. My routine was occasionally thrown out of kilter on the rare occasion that he was lurking somewhere inside the house – more often than not skulking outside my bedroom door, or nonchalantly smoking in my kitchen - but I was both pleased and relieved to say that on that day of all days that hadn’t been the case.

I was running slightly late, truth be told, having hit that ‘Snooze’ button once too often. I hadn’t slept well the night before - I’d caught him sitting on the foot of my bed when I’d finally decided to turn in and I’d had to shoo him out. He’d tried to start one of those portentous sentences of his but I’d kicked him out of the house before he could deliver his ominous soliloquy. He’d started again whilst standing out on the drive, but I’d slammed the double-glazed windows shut before I could make out any of it. He carried on regardless to a non-existent audience, his words thankfully muffled and inaudible through two panes of thick glass. Even with the curtains drawn I couldn’t help but occasionally peer out at him, shaking my head as I watched him mouth empty words to nobody in particular.

After that it was mostly a heady combination of angry adrenaline and fearful trepidation that had kept me tossing and turning fitfully. Sometimes it was more terrifying not hearing what he had to say – that fear of the unknown, those thoughts that reverberate around the lecture theatre of your skull in the dead of night. Christ… Listen to me… I’m starting to sound like him now.

I was determined not to be late for the appointment, no matter what. I’d felt I’d had no option other than to go private when my usually sensitive GP had finally started to give me that look that confirmed he believed that I was insane, and decent private psychiatrists aren’t cheap. I flung open my front door and – luckily for both of us – he was nowhere to be seen. With the foul mood I was in I’d have just elbowed him out of the way mid-monologue anyway.

It had been raining overnight and the weather was as grey as one of his suits and as bleak as my mood. I’d lost my umbrella a few days ago when I’d thrown it at him in a fit of pique and naively hadn’t seen fit to replace it yet, so I was half-drowned by the time I’d arrived at the bus stop.

The one thing you have to appreciate about my situation is that it’s impossible to let your guard down for a single moment. He could suddenly appear at any instant, seemingly from nowhere, giving me no choice but either try to ignore him or simply to run. My options on the bus, trapped in that metal shell, would be even more limited – I’ve lost count of the amount of times when he’d unexpectedly been sitting behind me and I’ve been forced to leap out at the next stop. On top of everything else, he was costing me a fortune in taxi and bus fares.

Oh, I’ve tried ignoring him, but it was next to impossible – some of the things he says can ruin your whole day. No wonder I’m a nervous wreck. Confronting him is pointless too – he just keeps talking, almost as though he’s oblivious to your presence.

I’m not a violent man but a few days ago - at the end of my tether and pushed beyond any reasonable persons breaking point - I had finally snapped. With a cry of impotent frustration, I pushed him into the path of an oncoming taxi. After the bulky black cab had bounced over him, I stared down at the broken corpse that lay on the road, limbs splayed out at impossible angles. A thick muddy tyre-track had ruined both the man and his usually impeccable suit. He stared back at me with vacant accusing eyes.

That was the end of that, I thought. My mood was buoyant for the rest of the day and there’d been a spring in my step. Normality was at last restored. I was just starting to finally feel good about life when I opened my shed that evening and there he was, leaning against my rusted wheelbarrow. Upon seeing me his mouth opened and he carried on speaking from exactly where he’d been interrupted, as though he’d been sitting there in the musty compost-scented darkness just waiting for his opportunity. Completely unharmed, completely unperturbed. I’d slammed the shed door closed and ran into the house, screaming.

The bus pulled up, and I cursed as a displaced puddle splashed over my clean shoes and roused me from my reverie. After confusing the driver by only half getting onto it and glancing nervously around, I finally committed myself to showing my pass. Despite the bottom floor of the bus being mostly empty, I stood. It was safer that way. Easier to make a quick getaway.

Arriving unhindered, the luxurious foyer of my new psychiatrist’s office certainly showed why I had to get a bank loan in order to afford just a handful of appointments. There was an elaborately abstract water feature occupying much of the room that would probably have cost me the best part of a year’s wages. Any artistic merit it possessed was instantly nullified by the fact that the sound of trickling water from it just made me want to go to the toilet.

Other than the receptionist I was the only person there, thank God. It would have been typical for him to have been waiting here for me when I’d stepped in. She smiled at me as I walked towards her, but it felt forced – it was disingenuous, a false grin. Working alongside that water feature, she must either be deaf or have a bladder of steel. She gestured silently towards a black leather sofa in front of which sat a marble table, bare except for a neat pile of magazines.

The leather squeaked noisily as I cautiously lowered my weight onto it. I perched awkwardly on the edge of the chair, wary that if I sat back I’d collapse into it and struggle to get back up.

I glanced up at the receptionist who was now studying her perfectly manicured nails with the focused glare of a master safe cracker. It only dawned on me then that she hadn’t even taken my name, which probably meant I was the only appointment for the day.

I flicked absent-mindedly through the magazines on the table. This wasn’t the kind of place where you’d find the Readers Digest or glossy gossip magazines – these were all aspirational catalogues with powerful single word names. Each was the sort of periodical that would have a twelve-page spread dedicated to an expensive sports car that they’d only ever made six of.

The receptionist called my name in a sing-song voice and gestured towards the corridor. I lifted myself off the sofa and awkwardly stumbled past her. I hoped she wouldn’t notice the wet patches on the sofa I’d left behind from my rain-sodden jeans.

It was only when I was walking up the long wooden corridor to Doctor Matheson’s office when my heart sank. He was waiting there ahead of me just outside the door, a freshly lit cigarette between his fingers. His permanent monochrome appearance - which I was almost getting used to now - was a sharp contrast to the plush velvet red curtains behind him. For some odd reason it always offended me that he blatantly ignored enclosed workspace non-smoking regulations.

Looking right through me, he went to speak. I raised an angry finger, a gesture more for me than for him, and threw open the door. I caught a few words before I slammed the door closed behind me, blocking him out.

“Imagine if you wi...”

It was then I was grateful for the luxury of these offices. The stupidly expensive elaborately carved thick oak door I’d closed behind me drowned his words out completely as I slumped back against it.

Doctor Matheson, a true professional, barely blinked an eye at my antics. That said, the coarse thickness of his ginger eyebrows meant he could have had his eyes firmly shut and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

“As nice a door as that is to lean against,” he quipped, gesturing to the red leather armchair in front of him, “Perhaps you’d find a chair more comfortable?”

I looked at the chair and then back to the door, studying around the ornate handle - paying particular attention to the keyhole.

“Do you have the key for this?” I asked, nervously, “I don’t want to be interrupted.”

Doctor Matheson calmly poured a tea for himself and another for me. The silver teapot clanked noisily as he placed it onto the tray.

“Is he out there now?” he asked, sliding a delicate china cup across the table to me, “Did you see him?”

I’d heard that question from doctors before, but always in a patronizing tone of disbelief - of contempt, mockery and half-amusement. Matheson sounded genuine and absolutely sincere and reassuringly not in a way that felt like he was trying to humour me. This was so refreshing after the bad experiences I’d had in the past.

“I’m here to help,” he said, getting to his feet and taking a few steps towards me. His eyes locked on mine, and I could feel the mood in the room change. He'd been so calm and reassuring, but I already knew – and dreaded – what he was going to say next. Don't say it. Please don't say it. Anything but that.

“Let him in.”

My heart froze. I’d spent so long trying to escape from him that the very act seemed alien to me. What would he do? What would he say?

Matheson must have sensed my apprehension. His voice grew quieter and calmer.

“He can’t hurt you with me here,” he assured me, “Let him in.”

My hand clutched around the handle and slowly turned it, my glance occasionally going back to Matheson who was simply smiling and nodding reassuringly. I could feel the mechanism inside the door click as the latch opened and, when the handle could turn no further, I slowly opened the door.

He was still there, his cigarette barely touched. It was though time had remained suspended in the moments since I'd closed the door on him. I leapt back as he suddenly strode towards the door, a determined expression on his face. He neatly stepped into the room, refusing to acknowledge either of us. Staring at a fixed point in the far wall as though performing to an imaginary audience, he took a drag from his cigarette and began to speak.

"What fragile mysteries can be found lurking within the darkest realms of the human psyche? This seemingly ordinary psychiatrist’s office, workplace of the well-meaning Doctor Ray Matheson, may well be the conduit used to unlock secrets that would be best kept secret. Secrets that are best kept… within the Twilight Zone.”

There he stood, dressed in a neat 3/2 grey sack suit, satin tie and a white Oxford spread collar shirt. A perfect greyscale facsimile of Rod Serling, the famous – and long dead – presenter and creator of The Twilight Zone. He stepped out of the room, job done. I slowly pushed the door closed behind him, my hands sweaty, my knuckles a pale white. It gave a satisfying click as it shut.

“Was he there?” asked Matheson, a gold-nibbed fountain pen poised above a notepad that had seemingly appeared from nowhere.

I bit my upper lip and nodded.

“And has he gone now?”

I nodded again.

He patted the armchair in front of him.

“Come and take a seat. Let’s talk about him.”

I slowly lowered myself down into the comfortable leather of the armchair, relaxing slightly now. That particular encounter hadn’t been too bad, all things considered, and it wasn’t likely he’d reappear during the course of this session. Matheson smiled at me encouragingly, and went to speak.

There is one textbook question, appropriate given the circumstances, with which any such conversation must begin. I’d rehearsed the answer a million times, knowing full well what he was about to say. I'd almost started answering before he'd asked.

“When did this all start?”


I’d had a full time job then, back in the days when I wasn’t a bag of nerves, wondering where he’d appear next, what sinister or loaded utterances he’d make in that gravitas-laden voice of his. It was just a few months back, but it felt like years now. A lifetime ago.

“There are things we all take for granted; a normal life, a house, a well-paid job, friends, the occasional holiday.”

I remembered it word for word. The first things he’d ever said – all delivered whilst I was standing in a queue at the post office to sort out a passport application. I’d thought it to be a joke at first, an impersonator who’d painted himself in varying shades of grey, attempting to get a rise out of us. I ignored him, not wanting to encourage the prankster, waiting for a reaction from somebody else in the queue.

But nobody else batted an eyelid. He sparked up a cigarette and not a soul reacted. Staring right through me, he continued.

“But what is normal? What if normality was just a fragile concept, something to be tossed aside like so much detritus? Sometimes the journeys we set off on are not the ones we'd expected – where your passport is stamped and your baggage is jettisoned off as you prepare for your voyage to… The Twilight Zone.”

I did what any Englishman would have done when confronted with such an absurdity. I kept my head down and did my best to ignore him hoping that he'd go away. I swear he winked at me as I made my way out of the Post Office.

And from that date onwards he'd just appear. Sitting on the edge of my desk or the corner of my bed, on the seat behind me on the bus or next to me in the cinema. No introduction, always just… talking. In that way that made everything just… scary.

"Scary? Do explain," said Matheson, his right hand a blur as he scribbled down copious notes.

"Try to picture the scene," I said, shrugging, "You're just about to tuck into your Sunday Dinner you've spent the last two hours making. Up pops Rod bloody Serling with 'A typical Sunday roast dinner. What is the cost? The average cow will eat nearly ten thousand pounds of grain in its abruptly shortened lifetime, all for the insatiable appetite of one self-centred Englishman. All in the name of that most quintessential of English weekend tradition. But traditions come with their own high cost… in the Twilight Zone'. And then he just sits back, looking smug. And your appetite is suddenly gone and there’s nothing you can except to scrape your roast dinner into the kitchen bin, suddenly terrified by the ill-omened nature of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings."

"I could see how that could be distracting when…"

"And another one. You're on a date with that girl from Procurement who you've fancied for weeks and have finally summoned up the courage to ask out. You're getting a bit cosy on the sofa and she goes to the bathroom to freshen up. Then Rod Bastard Serling is suddenly there in the doorway with a 'Love can be as sticky as a vat of molasses, as unpalatable as a hunk of spoiled yeast. It's an act which can see us sharing that most vulnerable of activities – sharing a bed and sleeping – with a virtual stranger. A person who we know very little of – potentially a person of dubious hygiene and health, of unknown temperament and history. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Exhibit One: a case history of a lover-boy who should never have fallen for one who drags you headlong into… The Twilight Zone'. There are few things capable of ridding one of an amorous mood so quickly."

"Do you think it is Rod Serling?"

"What? Do you think I'm mad?", I barked, suddenly very aware of both of our roles, "Rod Serling died in the mid-seventies, a good half a decade before I was even born. And it's not just Rod Serling – it's like a black and white telly version of him. I swear if you look at him long enough you can see grains of static there."

"So, if you accept that it's just a figment of your imagination, then that is half the battle. Acceptance is…"

"It's not as simple as that," I interrupted, "Some of the things he says... they're prophetic. Thanks to some of his omen-laden speeches, I've avoided a works dinner that gave everybody else who went food poisoning, avoided getting in a mate's car which got into an accident that left him crippled, all sorts of things."

"So, this… version… of Serling is actively helpful?"

“Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. That could be the luck of the draw, because he's pretty much warning me about everything these days. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. He's pretty one note, to be honest. I'm having to ignore him because If I didn’t, I simply couldn't function as a human being. There doesn't seem to be anywhere I can go where I'm rid of him. I just want him gone, Doctor Matheson."

"You have to appreciate that this kind of therapy can take a very long time. With no guarantee of results. I suspect you sometimes appreciate his company."

"With all due respect, that's nonsense. You try living for a single day with that man constantly appearing in your life as the voice of impending doom. I've got the money, Doctor Matheson, if that's the issue."

“Calm down. I assure you, I’m trying to help.”

I sunk my face into my hands, suddenly aware that my breathing was rapid and panicked. I was safe here, at least for the time being. I concentrated on the loud rhythmic tick-tock tick-tock from the grandfather clock that stood next to the door, gradually relaxing my breathing into following the same pattern. Slowly and surely, I eased myself away from the impending panic attack.

“If you will, imagine the complex mechanisms of a clock…” came the voice from in front of me. I pulled my hands away from my face to be confronted by Rod Serling, now sitting there in the place of Doctor Matheson. Of the Doctor himself, there was no sign.

“An intricate arrangement of cogs and dials, all working together towards a unified purpose…”

I staggered to my feet, holding on to the chair for support as I felt my limbs buckling beneath me. Serling stood up as well, tapping an unlit cigarette on the back of his hand.

“…that purpose being to chart one of the oldest mysteries to mankind…”

He was up and to his feet by the time I’d made it to the door. Unable to wrest my eyes away from him, my shaking hands struggled blindly with the door handle. Eventually it turned in my hand and I fell through the door, running straight into somebody who’d been in the unfortunate position of standing right outside. They didn’t budge, as solid and unmoving as a rock.

It was Rod Serling staring down at me, an all-knowing smirk etched on those homochromous features.

“…the mysteries of time itself.”


I turned and ran, carried forward by sheer momentum. My legs stumbled but thankfully I remained upright, arms flailing wildly for balance. The receptionist - undoubtedly roused by my shrieks of alarm - managed to drag herself away from her beauty regime long enough to step out into the corridor to see what all the fuss was about.

As she stood in front of me, perfectly lipsticked mouth agape, her form shifted and wavered. Edges warped and morphed, white-noise static shadows gaining substance. Where there had once stood an attractive twenty-something dressed in bold primary colours was now a black and white woman. Anachronistically dressed in nineteen-fifties fashions; pleated skirt and an angora sweater hiding those conical breasts that only women of that era ever seemed to have. All sanity-wrenchingly topped off with the bizarre anatopistic features of Rod Serling.

“Mankind travels through the pre-determined route map of his existence…”

Something inside me finally snapped. Without slowing I reached forward and grabbed his head, slamming it violently into the receptionist’s desk. The body fell limp as I pushed past it, now falling through the doors that led out onto the street.

It had stopped raining now, the newly emerged sun shining off the glistening tar of the roads. An expensive sports car drove slowly past, an overly loud radio booming out what at first sounded like a profanity filled rap track, but turned out to be anything but – they were the carefully enunciated words of Rod Serling.

“…mostly unaware of the forks in the road, the eddies, gyres and currents that carry us along…”

As it slowly passed me by, the car shimmered and mutated from an expensive boy racer penis-replacement into a nineteen-fifties Ford Fairlane. I staggered back away from the road, stumbling into a group of people and losing my balance.

My back hit the pavement and I lay there for what felt like an age, my eyes screwed tightly shut. I knew what I'd see if I opened them, and I clung on to that fragile gristle of sanity for as long as I could. The voices of the crowd – complaining and concerned at first – were beginning to speak in chorus. Female voices deepened and children's voices slowed as they all began to carefully synchronise with one another, a dozen voices eventually speaking as one.

"…but we're about to find that all paths, regardless of the traveller, the length or course, eventually all end up…"

Don't say it. Don't say it. Don't you bloody dare say it.

"…in the…"

I threw myself onto my feet and barged through them, human bodies scattering like bowling pins. With my eyes tightly shut I hurled myself away from them in desperation, screaming at the top of my lungs so I didn't have to hear those words.

When I finally did open my eyes it was too late to do anything about it. The black cab (driven by Rod Serling, obviously) didn't have time to avoid me. The first thing I noticed with the collision was that all of the wind had been knocked out of me, and I only had time for a single thought when the back of my head connected with the concrete kerb, a thing that heads aren't really designed to do.

"A black cab, just like the one I'd pushed Rod under," I thought, blackness creeping in at the periphery of my vision.

"Nice twist."


I awoke to blackness. There was a loss of sensation, as though I were floating in a void. Was this what death felt like? Perhaps I was in a coma? I imagine the reaction of most people, if they found themselves in this situation, would be to panic.

Not I. I closed my eyes (for what little worth that was), breathed in deeply (again, a pointless act) and listened. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.


Wonderful, blissful silence.

No dry delivery of portentous dread. No expository cautionary tales.

Just an infinite black void.

But then something appeared, right in the centre of my vision. A white dot of light, accompanied by a shrill piercing tone. It wavered, blurring and then becoming focused again.

A voice in the darkness, American, emotionless.

"There is nothing wrong with your television set."

What? Who was that? The voice seemed to be coming from everywhere, louder than God.

"Do not attempt to adjust the picture."

A dread realisation began to dawn.

"We are controlling transmission."

No. This can't be. Not after all this. I began to scream aloud in defiance, hoping to drown out the voice. But it drowned even that out.

"We will control the horizontal"

The wavering dot of light became a shaft of brilliance, exploding left and right, burning a line on my sight. With no physical form to speak of, I couldn't cover my ears. Couldn't cover my eyes. I had no choice but to witness it all.

"We will control the vertical"

The dot erupted from the top and bottom to become a solid line of illumination, burning with an inner energy. And then everything erupted into light, maddening vistas and impossible imagery dancing across my vision. Huge waves of energy pulsed and ebbed and I could only watch and scream dementedly, my last tattered vestiges of sanity ripped away.

"You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits".


SCENE: We're standing behind two doctors who are peering through a window into a padded cell. The occupant is collapsed in one corner and is sitting quite still. A track of drool trails out of his lips, and his eyes appear glazed and empty.

DOCTOR OSWALD: How long has he been like this?

DOCTOR HASKIN: For a few weeks now. He was ranting when we picked up from outside Matheson's office, but that didn’t last long. He just went quiet. He's locked in that brain of his, and I don't think we'll ever be able to get him out. We can just feed him and hope that one day… just one day…


VOICEOVER: The human brain, the most complex mechanism in existence. And like all mechanisms, capable of being damaged, or broken beyond repair. And like an automobile, if you suffer a breakdown, just be sure you don't break down in…

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