I had the dream again. The battle raged on amongst the bodies of the dead. The wounded writhed around on blood-soaked grass. I was there in the dream as men in armour clashed around me, metal clanging against metal. Men were dying. Someone seemed intent on creating a new army of grotesque gargoyles like those set in stone on Lincoln cathedral.
It was the same dream I’d had since I was a child. It had frightened me then, so much so it forced me to slink into my cousin Lorna’s bed in the depth of the night just to grab a slither comfort. Now I am older, I close my eyes and think of things I like such as hot chocolate and marshmallows on Christmas morning; our brand-new colour TV and my best friend Phoebe.
I had other dreams too, normal episodes of strangeness that played out behind my closed eyes, much like the ones everyone else had. But I knew this dream was different. This one stank. The putrid stench of stale sweat mixed with the bitter, metallic odour of blood was so vivid that when I awoke, my stomach heaved, and my throat gipped to be rid of it. It festered like an unhealing wound and haunted me even when the sun was high in the sky. After seventeen years, I wondered if it would ever go away.
“Anne?” The two-inch thick door muffled my Aunt Lily’s voice. She rapped her knuckles against the wood, repeating my name. “Time to get up, it’s half seven. You’ll be late if you don’t get a move on.”
“I’m up!” I shouted, part of my words lost in the dryness of my voice. “Just getting dressed now!”
She knew I’d overslept again, just like I do every time I have the dream. I told no one about it so my Aunt Lily put my frequent absence at the breakfast table down to laziness. I knew too that as soon as I emerged from the hallway down stairs and entered the kitchen I would get my familiar tut of disapproval as she thrust two pieces of buttered charcoal toast in my hand and handed me my coat. The local broadsheet would block my Uncle Richard’s face, the mud-coloured contents of his coffee cup left untouched, whilst the odd sneaky fly enjoyed the toast that had now gone cold. This morning was no different. Having dressed, washed and done my teeth in a hurry, I was down the stairs in less than fifteen minutes and out of the door. A new personal best.
Then my body hit a broken wall of water. Rain fell from the sky battering anything in its path including me. I threw my hood up though it offered little protection against the onslaught. Hello April showers.
Fighting my way through, I jogged down the street to the bus stop on the main road hoping I hadn’t missed it, my low heels slipping on the slick pavement. I rounded the corner onto the main street just in time to see the bus pulling away with a chug and a whirr of the engine.
“Stop! Please stop!” I waved my arms but by the time I reached the stop itself, the bus had disappeared from view. Deflated, I slunk into the plastic shelter to wait for the next one. There was no way I could make it in time now.
Over half an hour after I had rushed out of my front door, I stood in the foyer of the library, hair matted to my face and skin soaked. My blouse had turned transparent and I could feel shallow puddles forming in the bottom of my shoes. I gave one leg a shake. The dirty-brown carpet tiles darkened beneath my feet.
The clopping of inexpensive heels hitting the hard floor alerted me to the presence of Miss Blythe. She was a short, scrawny woman with skin like worn leather. She came to a standstill just in front of me. One glance up and down and she wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips at my appearance. “Look at the state of you Miss Montague. You look like a-”
“Drowned rat?” I offered.
“Yes well, we have standards here at this library and I expect them to be upheld and you’re late. Again.”
I was about to reel off the reasons when I wondered why I should bother. She never listened to them, anyway.
Miss Blythe dismissed me with a wave of her hand in the air as if she had read my mind. “Do not give me any of your poor excuses. Go to the staffroom and at least make yourself presentable. You can make up your time by staying late and locking up.”
I nodded and headed for the staffroom. As I towelled myself off, a shiver ran down my spine at the thought of locking up. I’d be here on my own and I had a habit of letting my imagination run wild when shadows crept into the library’s corners and spread inwards. The other librarians, Miss Blythe and Mr Harris, would leave at five o’clock and then I would have an hour on my own until I could leave.
The day passed as it always did, at snail-pace and without a hint of excitement. Customers came in drips, only those brave enough to go out into the miserable weather or those seeking sanctuary from it. I performed my usual duties, checking books back in and putting them away again on the correct shelf as I wheeled my trolley around the pebble-dashed building, its wheels screeching like someone was being murdered and with some looks the silent readers gave me, that person may well have been me.
At five o’clock, Miss Blythe and Mr Harris both said goodnight, and the former jingled a set of keys in my face.
“Do not forget to lock every door Miss Montague,” she hissed, dropping them into my open palm.
“I won’t,” I replied thinking of the one time I accidentally left the basement door unlocked and the next morning Miss Blythe had found a man and his dog fast asleep in the children’s area covered in books.
My gaze swept over the library’s floor. Two people were still here as far as I could see so I got myself comfy behind the reception desk where Mr Harris’ backside had warmed the seat from not moving all day. A pile of unchecked-in books sill sat on the desk. I sighed and worked my way through them, adding each one to a trolley behind me ready to put away.
Forty minutes later and the library had emptied. Having checked in all the books Mr Harris left on the desk, I trundled the trolley across the floor to the towering stacks. Twenty minutes was plenty of time to put the trolley load of books away or that was what Miss Blythe would argue, anyway.
The aisles grew darker as though a rain cloud had settled overhead, and I got that same troubling ache of unease I always got when it was my time to lock up. I carried on and weaved around to the next aisle. I was part way down with the trolley behind me when a flicker caught the corner of my eye. I half-turned to see what it was.
My body stopped the same time my heart did.
A man stood at the other end of the aisle. The shadows obscured his face though a moonlit glow emitted from his form like silver. He didn’t move or even seem to be breathing and though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was watching me. Do I turn and run? Do I speak to him?
A bitter chill descended that had my bones clattering together, my breath left my mouth in gasps of white vapour.
He took one step towards me and then another.
“Stop!” I managed to shout out.
He did and stretched out a hand.
“It’s time to come home,” he whispered.
I staggered back to escape his grasp only to trip over my own feet. As I fell, I pulled books off too and they all landed on me with a thud. I pushed them onto the floor to find that the man had gone.
“What are you doing down there?”
My heart pounded, and I clung onto the shelf edge for support. A face peered over me, red hair trying to free itself from her hood. My best friend, Phoebe. She leaned against the bookshelf looking down at me with an amused smirk on her face.
“I have to say, you’ve looked better. Had a scare?”
I pushed myself back up onto my feet. “You could say that.”
Phoebe’s eyebrows furrowed as she continued to scan my face. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” a nervous chuckle followed her words.
“I’m not so sure I haven’t.”
Phoebe rolled her shoulders. “This place is dead anyway, you should have locked up ages ago.”
“I can’t,” I moaned pushing thoughts of the strange apparition to the back of my mind. “Miss Blythe always checks my clocking-in card.”
“Can’t you say you were sick? You look terrible. Have you had any sleep at all? The deathly white skin and the dark eyes is not a good look for you. You look like Death’s Bride.”
I undid the top button of my blouse and tugged the restricting collar away from my neck. “Thanks,” I muttered feeling conscious, since Phoebe was unusually immaculate this evening. Her shiny mass of loose, red curls softened the harsh angular features of her made-up face.
Together, we walked back towards the reception area.
“Did you have the dream again?”
She must have realised I faltered. “I’ve never told you about any dreams.” I was stunned. Was it a lucky guess?
“Erm you did. Well, you must have because how else would I know about it? Anyway, it’s just that with how crap you look, y’know I thought it must have been that.”
My tongue juggled with a few different replies to her question, but I couldn’t choose one. I stared like an idiot. If I’d told her, I would remember. Phoebe must have grown bored of waiting for an answer, she shrugged as we crossed the vast expanse of brown carpet tiles towards the desk.
“Have you asked your Aunt if you can come to Barnet with us next week?” she sounded hopeful of a positive answer.
“I haven’t asked yet,” I replied. “Promise I’ll do it as soon as I get home.”
Truth was, the only plans I had for my week off was to laze about the house and watch a new show that had started called The Two Ronnies with Uncle Richard, which was the only thing he had mustered any excitement for since Doctor Who started a few years ago.
Phoebe seemed to waver a little. “It’s ok. But it would be nice if you could come. You know how much of a pain Nell can be and Gran is… well she’s just Gran.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
After that, Phoebe and I locked up and travelled together on the bus home. Orange streaked the sky and after a long boring shift I was glad the comfort of home was within reach. I said goodbye to Phoebe at the end of my street and uttered another worthless promise that I would ask Aunt Lily about going to Barnet next week.
“Make sure you do,” she had said, turning on her heels and heading for her own home in the street behind mine.
“What about Anne?” I caught Lorna moaning as I stepped through the front door and threw my keys down on the sideboard. “How come you don’t make her go to college?”
“Anne’s destiny lies elsewhere,” Aunt Lily muttered somewhat dreamily and when I left the hallway to greet my family in the dining room, she was staring up at the ceiling in a daze.
Lorna slumped over the table resting her chin on her hand. She clicked her tongue when she saw me and looked away. We were close as children, but our relationship had fractured beneath the pressure Aunt Lily place on her and the freedom she granted me.
I ignored her and hung my coat up before settling down with the three of them ready for tea. A plate of sausage and mash sat waiting for me. Uncle Richard grunted an acknowledgement in my direction.
Phoebe’s request wouldn’t leave me alone, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask if I could go to Barnet. I put a spoonful of toad-in-the-hole in my mouth.
“How was work, Anne?”
I nodded as I rushed to send the food down my throat. “It was ok. Quiet. I spent most of my shift putting books away from the previous days.”
Aunt Lily’s eyes narrowed. Uncle Richard had moved the television set closer to the table so instead of his eyes being glued to the newspaper they were now transfixed on the moving pictures on the screen.
Lorna twirled her mountain-high mashed potatoes with her fork and every now and again would feign interest in one of our conversations and at points offered her own. “Did you know Charles Manson has been sentenced to death?” she said.
“Lorna, can you please not discuss that horrendous man,” Aunt Lily shivered. “Especially not in front of Anne.”
“I am sixteen!” I argued back. Of course I knew who Charles Manson was. Everyone did, it was all over the newspapers. “It happened ages ago too. We all know what he did.”
Aunt Lily slammed her knife and fork down either side of her plate. “Nothing associated with him will be mentioned in this house and that will be the end of it. I don’t want you to have nightmares, Anne.”
I glanced at her. If only she knew.
“I had a telephone call today from Phoebe’s grandmother. Lovely lady, so very polite. Anyway, she asked if it was ok for you to go to Barnet with them next week. She said they’re visiting family, so I said yes for you. I’m surprised you didn’t mention it earlier.”
Caught out. I shrugged. “Guess I forgot.”
“It might be nice for me and you to go shopping and then we could get you a few new things.”
A weak smile flickered on my lips. She was trying to be nice thinking it was what I wanted. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had an overwhelming sense of foreboding tracking its way through my system, like something waited for me on this trip down South. I excused myself from the table and threw up the contents of my stomach down the toilet.