He was somewhere else. It was beautiful and happy and smiling. He felt safe there...
"Is this seat taken?"
Anthony blinked and looked up in a vague haze. A face was staring down at him. It was a face he didn't know. "Huh?" he managed to stagger out, his speech slurred. His face suddenly felt very hot. Well done, you're probably making yourself look a right idiot, he thought.
"Crikey. You were miles away" said the face. It belonged to a man about the same age as Anthony, in his late twenties and, although he smiled at Anthony, there was something crooked about the smile, almost as if it was trying to sneer, rather than smile. The eyes seemed to have the same expression in them, too. They were a strange colour, those eyes. Green, but not any green Anthony had seen before in anyone else's eyes. He didn't know why he thought the bloke would be sneering at him because he seemed friendly enough. Not many people took the time to speak to Anthony. Perhaps he wasn't used to it, which was why he thought it, he wondered. All the same, a strange shiver had passed through him for some reason when the guy had spoken.
He realised he hadn't answered and thought he better say something. "Um. Yeah. Yeah, I was. Daydreaming my life away" said Anthony, giving a sheepish little laugh.
"'All that we see or seem, Is but a dream within a dream," said the man, whose eyes twinkled with amusement, then and he let out a little dry chuckle like he was laughing at some private joke, Anthony thought. "Edgar Allan Poe" the man explained. He then proffered his hand at the vacant plastic chair on the other side of the small wooden table from Anthony. "Is it okay if I sit here?"
"Um. Yeah" said Anthony, resisting the urge to gulp. Nobody usually asked to sit with Anthony. It wasn't that he didn't get on with the guys and girls in his team but they always seemed to have better plans at lunch break, leaving Anthony with his crosswords. And his daydreams.
"Thanks," the man said and gave Anthony a broad and winning smile as he plonked himself down into the plastic seat, placing something wrapped in white tissue and a bottle of water on to the table. He looked smart enough, Anthony decided. His suit and tie looked very neat (unlike Anthony, whose suits no matter how well he cleaned and pressed them, always seemed to hang limply on him) but his face was very furry-looking like he hadn't bothered to shave. He had some of the thickest sideburns Anthony had ever seen on a bloke and his ears looked a little, well, pointed, at the top. Anthony then felt a bit guilty for being so critical about him. The guy was trying to be friendly and someone talking to him at lunchtime was an event.
"I haven't seen you here before. Just started?" asked Anthony, trying his best to keep the nervousness he always felt from meeting new people out of his voice. Now he had someone to talk to, he didn't want to put them off already.
"Yep. Today's my first day". Then he reached a hand across. "Jack Maere" he said. Anthony noticed his hand was also very hairy-looking, too, and his nails were dirty and pointed. Still, Anthony didn't want to be rude so he shook it. The man's grip was firm but his hand felt very moist and sweaty. First-day nerves, Anthony supposed. He didn't want to cause offence, so resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his trouser leg.
"Anthony Ryder," said Anthony. "Maere. That's an interesting surname".
The man called Jack shrugged. "It's Old English" he said, followed by a nonchalant sniff. "So, you don't mind me joining you?" He paused, almost as if he felt the need to really think over what he needed to say next. "Um. It's a bit daunting...on your first day".
"No. Not at all. Don't be silly".
"Only" and he leaned in close and gave Anthony a conspiratorial whisper and wink, "I can tell this is the sort of place where you have to know or be someone". He gave a crafty snigger. "Or need a personal introduction to get someone to talk to you at any rate". He flipped his head in the direction of the other tables in the cafeteria.
"You could say that". Anthony found himself grinning. He liked having someone else on his wavelength. He found his eyes wander over the cafeteria at the man's words. Its clinical white porcelain tiled walls and grey tiled floors stared back at him. The set of small wooden tables did not. "The Elite" as Anthony called them. It was a big workplace and like any other big workplace, it all seemed to be filled with little A-list groups and cliques. Anthony had tried joining a table one lunchtime, back when he first started. He had got a few half-hearted smiles but he could see the resentment in their eyes. After half an hour of no one speaking to him, the men just talking about football and the women their plans for the weekend, he gave up the ghost and had slinked off somewhere else.
Anthony turned back and smiled again at the man called Jack but his smile twisted into awkwardness when he saw that Jack had been staring at him with an intense, interested look. He found himself shivering again, for some reason.
"Yes. It seems that sort of place. I saw you on your own, though, and thought you might be...different. More receptive, I mean". Jack waved a hand at the others in the room with a dismissive swat. That's an odd thing to say, thought Anthony. Jack must have seen Anthony crease his eyebrows in a frown because he quickly changed it. "I meant, like-minded. Not someone who needs to court the limelight. There's nothing worse than hearing someone rabbiting on nine, ten to the dozen about absolutely everything that's happened to them. Sometimes it's nice to get a word in edgeways". He gave a friendly laugh.
Anthony smiled again. "Yeah. I know what you mean".
The man called Jack leaned back and gave him a sly look from the side of his eyes. "Sorry, by the way, if I broke up your little reverie". He gave him another smile which showed all his teeth. He closed his mouth again before Anthony got a good look but Anthony could swear they looked vaguely pointed, like his nails.
Not really knowing what to say, Anthony let out a little laugh. "Yeah". Still, he was right. With no one to talk to and to take his mind off of the drudgery of his surroundings, and give himself a break from the daily grind of being an accounts administrator for a bit, he would often let his mind wander and these days they would always wander to the same subject: Claire. These days, when he wasn't working, she was in his every waking thought. And in his unawake ones, too. For Anthony, thoughts of her during the day were an oasis, consumed as they normally were with numbers and spreadsheets.
"Yes..." said Jack. He was giving Anthony that interested look again. Anthony got the strange feeling it was like he was almost being sized up for something and suddenly felt very uncomfortable. He shifted in his seat. "Yes," Jack said again. "And, if you don't mind me saying, I think I know about what". He smiled. And gave a wink. There was something almost lascivious and predatory about it, Anthony felt. He shivered, yet again. "You've got it bad, haven't you?"
"You're in love". Jack continued to smile. It was the "private joke" smile, again.
Anthony felt very uncomfortable indeed now and could feel his face really flushing with heat, so much so that it was positively burning. "Um..." was all he could muster. Still, it was true. He and Claire had been going out together for a while now and Anthony was convinced that he was properly in love with her. He'd never really felt it before so it was unfamiliar to him but what he did know was that he hadn't been happier in years.
Jack held his hands up. "Sorry. Didn't mean to embarrass you".
"That's okay" lied Anthony. His mind floundered to try and find some way to shift the conversation to something he could cope with. Anthony did find the guy curious. What role did he have at CoreTech, "up and coming" software company and one of Anthony's little rural Hampshire town's largest employers. "So, um, what do you do here, Jack? What department are you in?" Sales, probably, he thought. He looked the type. Quite confident with his patter.
"Yes. I've seen that look lots of times before". Jack's green eyes smiled and twinkled again. Anthony didn't know why he couldn't shake the feeling that those eyes had the tinge of a threat in them. He told himself to pull himself together and not to be silly. "It must be nice to have someone that makes you feel like that in your life. Blessed, indeed". Anthony felt there was an edge to Jack's voice now. Hardness seemed to flicker in his eyes for a moment. He nodded to himself, almost like he'd reached some kind of decision.
"Yes...Claire. My Claire" Anthony blurted out before he realised what he was saying. He also realised he'd never called her that before. He felt his face heat up yet again. And then, on a whim, he got out his wallet and showed Jack a picture of her that he kept in there. Jack looked down at a woman in her late twenties, with long blond hair, a kind face, and blue eyes, poking her tongue out in a cheeky gesture. Jack's eyes seemed to burn with that strange interested intensity, again. Anthony found himself quickly putting the photo back.
"You're a lucky man, Anthony. If it's okay to say that".
"Oh, no. Thanks. Yes. Yes, she's special". Anthony felt guilty. He wasn't one of those guys who liked to show off the woman in his life like she was a piece of arm candy, or like he was in a meat market. He wasn't entirely sure why he'd done it.
Jack opened up what was wrapped in the tissue. It was a load of fruit. Is that all he's eating, Anthony thought? Still, they looked nice. There were a couple of things that looked like a cross between an apple and a pear with gorgeous, resplendent golden skin. There were also some large red apples, so fulsome that Anthony found his mouth watering.
"Are those quinces?" asked Anthony, pointing to the pear-like fruit.
Jack gave an artful smile. His eyes briefly sparkled with amusement, again. "Yes. I have...mates...that do a roaring trade in fruit". He picked up a quince and tore into it with his teeth, ripping it open and slurping back the flesh and the juice into his mouth.
Anthony wrinkled his nose. "Er...I miss her, though. Claire, I mean. She's a paralegal and they've got her on this training course down in Southampton. New software system her office has had installed that they've all got to get to grips with. It's her birthday coming up soon, too, and I've no idea what to get her". He also had no idea why he was telling him all this but he found himself blurting it out, all the same.
"How long have you been together?" slurped Jack.
For a well-dressed guy, he has appalling table manners, Anthony thought. He could feel the eyes of The Elite on them. "Nine months," said Anthony. And then, out it all came again, in a blurting torrent. Anthony wondered, briefly, if Jack was making him uncomfortable on purpose to elicit information but told himself not to be silly again. "She's talking about the possibility of us moving in together".
"Ooh-er" said Jack, and stretched his mouth into a joke grimace.
Anthony never understood the need to make banter about the person you were in love with. Personally, he couldn't wait to move in with Claire. He had become fed up with his flat, anyway. It was a symbol of lonelier times and bitter days and nights. "Oh, no. I'm looking forward to it" Anthony rebutted. He found himself grinning like an idiot which made him self-conscious again. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Why was he being so effusive, anyway? He never usually was. Even the members of his team didn't know so much about him as he'd told this guy and he'd worked with them for over two years. "But, as it's getting serious, I don't know how to pitch it, present-wise".
Jack let out a little belch and a cloying smell filled the air. Anthony winced. "What about a holiday somewhere special? Holidays are always a winner. Somewhere romantic".
"Yeah..." Anthony liked the sound of that.
Jack gave a wistful smile. "I've knocked around a bit if you'd like some inside information". And before Anthony could say anymore Jack was regaling him with madcap tales of getting drunk and wandering around the Champs-Elysee or paragliding around the mountains of Crete or smoking a bong in a cannabis coffee shop in Amsterdam on a dare. He certainly got around, which made Anthony feel, like he always did in such circumstances, a little guilty for not doing more himself, instead of spending most of his time in his small rural hometown. Hiding away, he often thought in a darker mood. Still, at least I've got Claire, he would often come back with.
As Jack continued with his stories, Anthony found he was starting to really warm to the guy. He was a seriously funny bloke, who knew how to imbue his stories with the right jokes, some plain silly, others quite dirty, that made Anthony snort with laughter and get interested looks from The Elite. For once, Anthony didn't seem to care. He also felt guilty for the strange feelings he'd had about Jack, too.
After a while, Jack checked his watch with a smile. "Time to get back to it". Then he narrowed his eyes, and they had that strange sparkle in them, again. "Tell you what. I may have something you could give as a gift. I've been wanting to sell it. It's an old family heirloom. Worth a bit. I don't want it and need the cash. You know what it's like. Sentimentality counts for nothing anymore when you have dues to pay. You'd be doing me a favour".
"Um..." I don't know...I've only just met you, Anthony thought. You could be a con merchant...
Jack jingled a hand in his pocket and placed something metallic on to the table. Anthony looked at it and his jaw dropped open. It was a circular necklace of strong gold links with a golden clasp (which Anthony just knew by looking was the real deal). It had an emerald setting in the centre which shone with such radiant lustre, Anthony found it difficult to pull his eyes away from it. It looked old, too. Ancient, even. More the sort of thing that archaeologists would dig up from the ground. "Wow. It's...beautiful..." he found himself gabbling out. He knew Claire would love it. It had character and age and history, not some smart piece bought quickly in a high street jeweller. Claire liked honest things, things that had a story to them.
"Yes. It's very old, too. Very old, indeed. And very precious. Perfect gift for the precious someone in your life, don't you think?"
"Um. Oh, no. I could never afford it". It looked like he would need to take a mortgage out to buy it.
"Don't worry. I'm after a quick sale. Shall we say two hundred knicker?"
"Wow...but it must be worth far more than that..."
"Probably but you've been kind to me on my first day and like I say I'm after a quick sale. So, what do you think?" He raised an enquiring eyebrow that dared Anthony to buy it.
Anthony looked at it again and thought of the light in Claire's eyes when he gave it to her. It filled him with a warm buzz. "Um. Well, yeah. Of course, I'm interested" he blurted out before he really knew what he was saying.
"Brilliant". And Jack nodded as if it was a done deal. "I'll see you here same time tomorrow, then. Bring some cash and it's yours".
But Jack had already sauntered away.
Anthony's chest hurt. It felt compressed. Right across his ribcage, it felt like something heavy was clamped down on it. He found it difficult to breathe like he had a chest infection. He rubbed at it.
"Are you alright, Anthony?" It was Michelle, his boss.
He turned and looked at her, dressed as she always was in a business suit so sharp it could have drawn blood. To the team, Michelle was God. She never mixed with the rest of them on the office floor, preferring to pull the strings from her office and only mingling with the mere mortals when she needed to kick someone up the arse. Everybody knew she wanted her time in Accounts to be a rung on the ladder to greater things and nobody else would ruin those chances. If she was by his desk, it could mean he was in trouble. Perhaps she's doing one of the inspections she does, check everyone is doing what they're supposed to, he thought? Perhaps I missed a memo about it? They don't always seem to find their way to me.
"Anthony?" she said when he hadn't responded. It was just one word but she knew how to invest as much interrogative authority in it as possible.
"Um. I'm fine, Michelle. Bit of indigestion from lunch".
"Oh". She narrowed her eyes. "Well, I hope it won't make your work performance suffer. I've been meaning to have a chat with you about that".
"Oh?" He suddenly got a sinking feeling in his gut.
She threw a massive folder down on to his desk. It was the very definition of thick and it landed with a heavy, fat slap. "This is your performance report, Anthony. Quite frankly, you're flagging. You don't seem to be able to keep up with everybody else and meet your targets".
"Um...But..."For some reason, Anthony then lost the power of speech. He opened his mouth but nothing whatsoever would come out. He just made this choking noise. His chest felt even tighter, too.
"I'm sorry to say this, Anthony, but you will need to buck up your ideas. I mean, you should have finished typing up those financial statements by now". She pointed at the screen with a harsh stab of her finger.
He turned back and looked at the computer screen but, for some reason, nothing made sense anymore. It was like all the rows and columns on the spreadsheet had become deformed. The words and symbols and numbers had no meaning or context and just looked like mad squiggles. In fact, they seemed to make his eyes hurt when he looked at them.
"Er..." was all he could manage.
"Come on, Anthony. Everybody else can manage and keep up. It's just you". She pointed to beyond his desk at the rest of his team and he looked up. Everybody from The Elite of the cafeteria was there, sat at their familiar tables and they were all smirking and sniggering and pointing at him. Why did the scene look so familiar to him?
"What a fucking loser," said a ginger-haired man with two young women sat next to him, an arm around both of them. Anthony thought he knew him but not from work. Hadn't they gone to school together? Hadn't he used to bully Anthony? Anthony had this vision of his head being shoved down a toilet.
Then, all of a sudden, he felt odd but couldn't put his finger on why. He looked down at himself and quickly realised what was wrong. He was completely naked. He let out a little gasp. I can see my willy and balls flopping against the leather of the computer chair. That's...not...right...And why do they suddenly look so...so small...My willy can't be bigger than a thimble...
"Come on, Anthony. You're not impressing anyone with that" said Michelle.
The shock of being undressed in front of everyone hit him like a jolt of sickness to the stomach. He shot to his feet, fully exposing himself now to the crowd. The laughing from them became orchestral and the insults flew like flies on carrion.
"Geeky loser!" said the ginger-haired man again, followed by much merriment from everyone.
"I heard he's supposed to have a girlfriend," said one of the two women with him, with a disgusted snort. They looked familiar too, now he thought about it. Weren't they from school, as well?
"No?! Someone fell for that weirdo? What, does she need to be sectioned?" said the other, followed by an evil snicker.
"Come on, Anthony!" insisted Michelle.
"Er..." The strange symbols on the screen were giving him a headache now.
"Punching above his weight or what..."
"Stop it..." Anthony found his voice but it was really difficult. It was like his mouth didn't want to move. The laughter was so loud it hurt his ears. His bare feet hurt too and he looked down and saw he was on tarmac and when he looked up he realised he was back in the playground at school and all the children and the bullies were pointing and laughing at him, so he closed his eyes and the tightness in his chest got worse and worse...
He opened his eyes. His body felt damp with sweat. His mouth was dry. He blinked and realised he was in his bed, in the dark, beneath the covers. "Oh" he moaned. His chest still felt tight, though, like there was something really pressing down on it. Was he even able to breathe? Panic tugged at him. "Aagh!" he managed to gasp out and tried to sit upright. As he did, he heard this dull, thudding noise, like something small, yet heavy, had flopped on to the ground. He stared around at the darkness of the room and suddenly heard the pattering scamper of small feet, across the carpet. An icy shiver shuddered through him when he heard that. Letting out a little scream of panic, he flailed his hand out and switched on his bedside lamp.
Nothing. Just his bedroom stared back at him. There was nothing else in there, apart from the laptop on the desk in the corner and his wardrobe and bedside table and the closed curtains, covering the window. There was a heavy earthy smell in the room, though, for some reason, like the scent of a forest or old, ancient places. He felt like opening the window but that would let the sound of the traffic in. And he didn't really want to get out of bed.
"Oh God," he mumbled and massaged his head with his fingertips. That had been a bad one. He hadn't had anything like that for years. It had been so vivid, too. And the tightness...He rubbed at his chest but it felt okay now. It was like something had been squatting on there...Had the nightmare been so powerful he'd had a full-blown panic attack? Don't say something like that was going to start up again.
As he rubbed his chest, he remembered what he thought he'd heard. He shook his head. No. But the thought wouldn't go and picked and prodded at his mind, regardless. Suppose he had mice, or worse, rats, he thought? He didn't want to but knew he wouldn't be able to get off again if he didn't look. He shuffled out of bed and crept around the room, looking in all the corners and pulling back the curtains from the window. There was nothing, so he drifted back to bed. Overactive imagination, still fresh from sleep, he told himself and slid between the covers.
He tried to think of something nice, to distract his mind off of the dream. So, he thought of Claire, which relaxed him a little but it made him glance over at his bedside table. The necklace glittered in the light from the bedside lamp. He found that he was staring quite deeply at the emerald setting and it was difficult to tear his eyes away. Another cold shiver ran through him, for some reason.
His thoughts drifted back to lunchtime. He had drawn the money out from the cash machine on his way into work that morning and Jack had shown up again, and while the chatter from The Elite droned on, Jack had counted the money and had handed him the necklace. Jack had said he couldn't hang about as he had to leave work early for an appointment and as he was making his excuses, someone, a woman from The Elite, came over and asked to borrow a chair, and when he looked back, Jack had gone. Anthony got a shock when he saw that Jack had forgotten to take his money. It was just lying on the table, in the envelope, Anthony had put it in.
He sighed and put out the light and tried to settle back into sleep. I'll see Jack at lunch tomorrow and pay him the money then, he thought. It will all work out.
He closed his eyes but, try as he might, the dream wouldn't leave him. It had been so real, so familiar...
He never did get back off to sleep.
"Cor, you look rough," said Kripesh from HR, fixing himself a quick coffee in the cafeteria.
"Thanks," said Anthony.
"Sorry, but you don't half look tired," he said, with an apologetic laugh.
"I had a rough night. Didn't get much sleep" said Anthony and he briefly closed his eyes and rubbed them.
"Oh. Sorry to hear that. Not got something on your mind?"
Anthony shook his head.
"Only, if you need to talk, that's what I'm here for," said Kripesh and he threw his arms wide and gave Anthony a cheery smile. Anthony liked Kripesh. He was one of the good guys. He always found time to talk or make conversation with Anthony and always seemed to be interested in what he had to say. The tieless blue suit he wore made him seem far less uptight than the others. As did his gelled and styled dark hair. I'd never be able to pull that off, thought Anthony.
"Actually, there is something you can help me with, Kripesh. Jack Maere. Is he not in today?" Anthony had waited at their "usual table" but Jack hadn't turned up.
"Who?" said Kripesh, frowning.
"You know. The new guy. Works in..." And that's when he realised that he didn't have the faintest idea what department Jack worked in. A nervous, sickly feeling started up in his stomach. "Um. He just started the other day".
Kripesh gave a bemused shake of the head. "Never heard of him. News to me". Then he gave a bitter scoff. "But then, they never tell me a bloody thing these days. I only work in HR and it's my job and all that".
Anthony smiled. He knew, though, that Kripesh was only half-joking and it wasn't all the usual workplace banter. He'd told Anthony once about some of the comments he'd heard others make when they thought he was out of earshot. PC they were not. Anthony felt ashamed when he heard that. Perhaps that's why I like Kripesh, he thought. I know what people talking about you feels like.
"Jack Maere...?" Kripesh shook his head. "No. If he has started here, no one's told me".
"Only I...owe him some money..." Anthony patted his shirt pocket, where the money was dutifully stored in the same envelope.
Kripesh shrugged. "I'll look into it for you. You know what department he's in?"
Anthony shook his head. "No. He never said..." The sickly feeling started to turn into full-blown nausea. Empty stomach, that was all, he told himself. He was about to tuck in to his lunch when another bugbear came to mind. He found he had to give it voice. "By the way, Kripesh...Er...There's been no complaints about my performance has there?"
He gave Anthony a funny look. "No. Far from it. Why do you ask?"
"Do you know what, Ant...I'd get an early night, tonight. Catch up on some sleep. You're making me feel tired just looking at you".
"Yeah...Maybe I will..." he said. He looked at his sandwiches. His stomach felt hungry but he found he had lost his appetite.
"Hello 'hun," said Claire, over the video call, her voice brimming with exuberant excitement, a bright, affectionate smile on her lips, and happiness dancing in her eyes.
He gave her a thin smile back.
"Nothing," he said, with a covering laugh. "Just feeling a bit knackered. Had a bad night". He forced a cheeky smile. "Probably miss not having you lying next to me".
"Ooh. Patience, patience..." she whispered, in a flirty tone that made Anthony properly smile now.
He still couldn't quite believe it when he thought about it. To think, it had just been a chance thing. Coming out of a pub to get a bit of fresh air one Saturday night after getting a bit dizzy from boozing too much of the boredom away on his own. She was out there, having a crafty fag. Or she was trying to. Her lighter wouldn't work. She had turned and asked if he had one and their eyes met...And that was it. And now here they were. He often said he needed to pinch himself to prove he wasn't dreaming.
They flirted a bit, funny lovey-dovey stuff, which he always liked. Then, she spoke about her day and asked about his.
"I'm getting to grips with the new system. Don't think it'll present too many problems. Should make things better. I'm already seeing ways it could improve things". Her eyes took on a more serious, yet confident, look as she spoke. She cared about things, did Claire. He liked that she cared about things. Not many people did anymore.
"That's great, babe".
"No news or hot gossip then?" she asked in a laughing voice.
He wanted to tell her but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He was frightened she'd think him neurotic. He didn't want to burden her with his baggage, either. "No. Sorry".
"They may let us out early Friday afternoon, so we should be able to meet up later on in the evening". She grinned and her eyes sparkled.
Anthony smiled by way of response.
"And everything is okay, isn't it?" Her face was still smiling but concern flickered on it.
No, I'm not okay, babe, to be honest. I owe a weird guy a lot of money. And I think I might have the onset of panic attacks like I had when I was a kid. "Yeah, of course. Just a little tired" he lied.
"Well, if you're sure..."
"Don't worry about me. I'm perfectly fine. I'm just missing you, that's all.
"Ah, sweet" she said. "Love you," she said.
"Love you more," he said and kissed his fingertips and placed them on the screen.
She blew him a kiss back. He felt like sighing. What does she see in me, he thought?
"Bye," she said.
"Bye". The video call ended.
He glanced over at the necklace still lying on the bedside table. It gleamed, once more, in the light from the bedside lamp. When he stared at the emerald setting, his eyes seemed to drown in it. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Shaking his head, he put the laptop away, got back into bed, and turned out the bedside lamp, lying on his side, with his back to the necklace.
He tried to drift off but the dark bothered him. Every creak or rustle would make him suddenly gasp or sit up in bed with a start. After a while, he turned the light back on.
He didn't know where he was. It was somewhere in the country, though. There were lots of open fields and trees and bushes about. Cows and sheep were grazing nearby. There was the odd lulling moo and baa. It must have been summer as the trees were in full leaf and the sun was warm and shining.
He was stood in a grassy field, while wheat grew all around nearby. An ancient-looking barn was stood near him. Its red coloured wood looked as rickety as hell and looked like a serious gust of wind would blow it over. He thought he recognised the place but didn't know where from. It had an open space for an entrance and inside the floor was covered in hay.
He wandered in. A heady, earthy scent met his nostrils. More like a forest smell than a barn, though. Light poked through holes in the red walls, casting glints of light over the hay. He found himself grinning a silly grin and his face going hot because he suddenly remembered where he'd seen the place before. It was one of his dream places. A place his mind had conjured up in his head years ago, whenever he was having one of his adolescent sexual fantasies. His mind had visited the place a lot with some of the girls from school or college, none of whom he ever asked out in real life. Had the place been a real place, then, after all? Where had his head thought it up from?
When he heard the voice, his heart skipped a beat.
"Hello, 'hun," it said. There was a husky, seductive quality to it.
He turned. It was Claire. She was dressed casually with a white blouse top and jeans. She also wore a golden necklace, with an emerald set into it, around her neck. It was very familiar but for some reason, his mind didn't want to locate the memory of it.
She came over to him and wrapped her hands around his neck and kissed him full and warm on the lips. When she pulled away, she smiled at him and winked. He felt his penis twitch and the air was had suddenly become much hotter. He also found he had started to breathe heavily. Still smiling, she started to remove her clothes in slick, lithe movements, taking care to place the necklace down with a gentle pat on to the hay. Becoming aroused, he found himself removing his own clothes, except his movements were more jerky and awkward than hers had been. At one point he almost tripped over as the jeans he wore got wrapped around his ankles.
When they were fully naked, they began to kiss and fondle, cajoling one another with sensation until they sunk to the floor of the barn where they rolled around in the hay, giggling and gasping, touching and kissing. The hay felt itchy and scratched his naked skin, but he didn't mind it too much as it was offset by the warmth of Claire's body and softness of her skin.
Eventually, they stopped and looked at one another. "I love you" she mouthed at him. He did the same and she drew him towards her. The ecstasy he felt after entering her built and writhed within him...
"Yes..." he sighed with a little moan.
And then he made a choking noise.
A stabbing iciness suddenly burned his penis and he felt like he'd plunged it into a load of snow. He pulled out, straight away, in a spasm of shock. Looking down, he screamed.
He realised he had been making love to a corpse.
His throat gagged at the sight in front of him. Its flesh was swollen and bloated and was covered in a greenish hue, like the colour of mould. A festering, faecal smell came off of it in huge wafts. Its face, its horrifying, insentient face, of sunken staring eyes and mouth of rotten, yellow teeth, was smiling at him. A cruel, malignant smile.
A tight band of nausea clenched his stomach. He realised now that his chest hurt, too. It felt compressed like something was sat on it. He rubbed at it and found he was gasping for air.
The dead thing in front of him coughed out a rasping wheeze and he realised, with sickening horror, that it was going to speak.
"Did you really think a loser like you could have someone like me?" it burbled, making the fetid odour in the air worse. "I'd rather be dead than let you touch me. You pathetic little saddo".
Then its mould green throat shifted and constricted and an evil sound like the gurgling of ancient drains erupted from it. Anthony realised it was laughing and made the hideous, croaking noise at him over and over and over...
Anthony tried to scream then but nothing came out and his lungs felt like they would rupture...
He screamed himself awake, managing to fling himself out of bed at the same time. Hollow agony shot through the parts of him that connected with the floor as he hit the ground with a hard thump. But he didn't care about the pain just then. Nor did he care when he heard something weird. It was a soft thud from the other side of the bed like something had fallen or dropped off of it. Whatever it was, he couldn't worry about it. He had a more pressing need.
He limped to the bathroom like his life depended on it, thrust open the toilet seat with an almighty yank, dived his head in, and the Spaghetti Bolognese he had made for tea gorged its way up his throat and burned its way out of his mouth.
When it was over, he sat back on the laminated bathroom floor and choked and gasped and sighed. The memory of the Kubrickesque nightmare bit at his thoughts, like it had teeth. His eyes were wet and, he soon realised, with a chill lurch, that his pants and groin were soaked, too. The dirty smell of urine stung his nostrils. He limped reluctantly back into his bedroom, clutching at straws, but when he saw, with the bedside lamp still on, the dark, damp patch on his bed sheet, it proved that he had, indeed, wet the bed.
"Fuck" he moaned. Then he burst into tears.
Kripesh from HR looked up from behind his desk at the sound of the grim voice coming from the entranceway to his office. To be honest, he was glad of the temporary distraction. Quite frankly, his mind felt like it was losing the will to live. He had spent all morning carrying out his regular check on the sickness absence forms to see if anyone had been having more time off than they should be and it was getting to him. He also deliberately avoided staring at the mountains of paperwork and yellow post-it reminder notes stuck everywhere around him as he looked up because it depressed him too much. Instead, he blinked at the shabby form stood in front of him.
"Shit" he gasped. He couldn't help it. Anthony looked terrible. His face was as pale as death and there were dark circles under his eyes. "You look like my head feels," said Kripesh, quickly trying to cover up any social embarrassment.
"Had another bad night".
"Perhaps you should see a doctor".
"Jack Maere...the guy I spoke about yesterday," said Anthony, "did you find out what department he worked in?"
Kripesh frowned. Then he remembered. "Oh, yeah...that guy you were on about". He gave a vigorous shake of the head. "Sorry. Nobody's heard of him. I checked with payroll for you and no one of that name is listed as being on there. I double-checked the records for you but we've had no new starters in over a month. I was a bit relieved, to be honest, though I might have cocked up. And, I didn't think even Management would be so underhanded that they would sneak someone in under my nose". He tried to give Anthony a bantering smile but Anthony looked even worse.
"So, who was he?" Anthony muttered. More to himself, Kripesh thought.
Kripesh grew concerned and furrowed his brow to appear more serious. "What exactly happened?"
Anthony told him about a necklace and money that hadn't been handed over. Surely it wasn't worth having sleepless nights over, he thought, but then he always thought Anthony was a very "driven" sort of guy. It made him feel bad but he had been shocked when he'd discovered he'd had a girlfriend. "I don't like to say this but...could it have been another member of staff that you don't know, using another name? It's a big place".
"What would be the point of that?"
Kripesh shifted in his chair like he had backache. "Well...You know what people are like? Maybe it was a joke". I expect you're used to that sort of thing he thought but didn't say. Still, he knew what that was like. He found himself thinking of the dog shit that used to be shoved regularly through his parents' front door. "Or maybe someone was trying some sort of scam..." he said, hoping to make it better but probably making it worse.
Anthony gave a distracted nod.
Kripesh felt a little awkward. So, he started to ramble on. "He could have come in from outside, saw you sat at a table on your own, and tried to scam you. I've always said security is lax here. Maybe this will be my chance to finally get those key cards brought in, despite Management's cries about the cost".
"The necklace was genuine, though. It's not a fake or anything. I mean, it's a real antique".
Kripesh shrugged. "His loss, then. Whoever he was. I definitely think I'll speak to someone about beefing security up, though, just in case. And if it is an existing member of staff and you see them about the place, come and see me about it".
"What do you think I should do with the necklace?"
"You could take it to the police, I suppose. Perhaps it's stolen. At the end of the day though, mate, I wouldn't lose any sleep over it".
"Huh..." said Anthony with a bitter scoff.
"Everything is okay with you, isn't it, Anthony?"
"Thanks for your help anyway, Kripesh" said Anthony.
Kripesh rummaged through the shambles of his desk for the number of a counselling service the company used. "Because if it's not, then I can..." but he stopped. Anthony had already sidled away. Kripesh felt vaguely uneasy for the rest of the day. He found himself taping up his letterbox when he got home which was something he hadn't done since before he moved house.
Another nightmare had come again that night, of course.
This time he had been in a church and was marrying Claire. A vicar intoned the marriage service while Anthony felt joy flutter inside him. Claire's white wedding dress looked lovely and the congregation of his and her parents and her friends were a wall of smiles and tears. When the vicar finished and the vows had been exchanged, Anthony was about to lift his bride's veil, when he became aware that the congregation had started jeering and laughing. He couldn't see them but he knew, just knew, that the bullies and Elite people were there now, instead. He felt a little light-headed and dizzy. His chest hurt. He still lifted the veil but screamed himself awake again when he saw the face of the corpse, its dead mouth grinning, underneath.
As he woke, there was a brief flutter of movement across his chest that made him sit up with a jolt. He heard a definite soft thud and the shiver-inducing scampering of little feet once again.
Anthony threw himself up out of bed, then. "Why can't you leave me alone?" he found himself yelling. His breathing heavy and trembling a little, he found his eyes drift towards the necklace, still led on his bedside table. No, he thought, closing his eyes. That way madness lies. It's a rat or a mouse or something. Calm the fuck down...
The air was thick with the forest smell, again, but the light of the bedside lamp revealed nothing out of the ordinary. He shuddered and found himself darting his head this way and that about the room but all there was to be found was heavy silence.
He couldn't face searching the room again or going back to bed. So, he took himself off to the living room and put the TV on. He was grateful when it got light which meant he could get ready to go to work.
He had wanted to take her out somewhere for the night, celebrate them being back together after being separated for a week and a half. She had wanted to spend an intimate night in instead. Mind you, he was happy to be round at hers and away from his flat for a bit, anyway. He insisted he cook and whipped up a pretty decent chilli con carne for them both. She insisted they share the washing and wiping up, though. Then they retired to the living room and sat nestled into one another's arms, on the settee with the TV on and the sound down. She spoke about the training course, cracking some insanely funny socially observant jokes, like she was always able to, which cheered him up. He didn't speak much. He could tell it bothered her but she didn't say anything.
Still, having her with him again made his mind feel a little easier. He let himself soak up her warm kindness, her passionate good-nature, and openness like he was imbibing medicine.
It relaxed him so much that when she took him by the hand and lead him into her bedroom, he felt okay about it.
They undressed and got into bed and started to kiss and play and pet but Anthony's penis absolutely refused to become aroused. It just hung there, flaccid and lifeless. In the end, he rolled over on to his side, away from her, in embarrassed disgust.
"Sod it" he muttered.
"Hey," she said and kissed him on his naked shoulder with a soft peck. "It's alright. You've probably put yourself under too much pressure to perform, what with us being away from one another. And you said you've been tired. You look tired". She rubbed his arm with her hand. "It's not going to make me think less of you, you know". She kissed his shoulder again.
He let out a heavy sigh. "Do you think I'm punching above my weight?" he blurted out.
"What?" Her voice hardened with concern. "What's brought this on? Has someone said something to you?"
He sighed again and rolled over on his back and faced her. "It was a bad dream I had the other night. Got me to thinking".
"Well, don't" she said. She stared right into his eyes, then. "I love you, Anthony Ryder. I hate that phrase 'punching above your weight'. It's offensive. Who decides who should love who? I don't care if you're some Adonis hunk or Quasimodo's love-child. You're a great guy, Anthony. You're sensitive, caring, kind". She gave a smile as her voice softened and she rubbed his chest and playfully plucked at some of the hairs. "It's the person I'm interested in, not the looks. Not that you're bad looking, either, if you need me to say it. You need to have more confidence in yourself. I mean I don't regard myself as some princess or goddess. We all have strengths and flaws, all of us". She pinched his arm with a teasing tweak.
He gave her a thin smile. "Thanks."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Now, what's really going on?"
He looked at her eyes, at the heavy concern and well-meaning love in them and it just came out of him in a cathartic tumble. All of it. Wetting the bed, the dreams, the self-doubt... When it was over, he felt dizzy with relief. He knew, in that moment, she would never judge him about things like that because he realised she really loved him, which was quite a heady sensation for him to feel.
For a moment, Claire stared off into the distance, as if in a daydream. "'We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits..." she muttered.
"Huh? Oh, it's from a poem I read at uni. 'Goblin Market' by Christina Rossetti". She shook herself, although to Anthony it looked more like a shiver. "Don't know what put that in my head". But her eyes said that she wasn't sure about that. "You should have told me about all this earlier," she said with a hint of reproach and rubbed his arm again.
"Sorry. I...I didn't want to spoil the evening..." And then he remembered. He got up and switched on the light and went to his hold-all that rested on a chair by her wardrobe.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
He remembered he had brought it. He hadn't known why at the time. Some sort of instinct had made him do it, though. "The necklace," he said, as he removed it from the hold-all.
She screwed her face up in instant disgust.
Anthony's brow furrowed, so he looked at it. His jaw dropped open. The necklace had changed. It was no longer the sparkling jewelled wonder it had been when he had put it in. It was rusty, for one thing, really stained up with it. The links were stiff and unyielding. He could tell now the gold wasn't real gold and it was all tarnished. The jewel was glass and had a massive crack in it. Worse was the smell. It gave off this nasty smell, like dead metal.
"That's..." he gasped. "That's not possible!"
"Good job you never paid anything for it," said Claire, with incredulity. "It's just some old tat".
"But...but, honestly, babe, it didn't look like this when I put it in the bag. Nor when I bought it".
She didn't say anything. She didn't need to. The concern in her eyes spoke volumes.
"I...I don't understand..." He felt a bit light-headed. He thought his legs would give out as the room seemed to spin around him.
Claire got up out of bed, slipped on a dressing gown, and plucked it from his fingertips with a confident tug. Then, while he stared at her with a bemused gawp, she pushed back the curtains of her window and tore it open. While he covered up his modesty with his hand, she threw her arm out wide, flinging the horrible, decayed joke of a necklace out into the night air. He heard a sharp clatter and tinkle.
"Bugger," she said. "I was aiming for the bins. Oh, well". She shrugged and closed the window, pulled the curtains, turned around, and dusted her hands. "Good riddance to bad rubbish". Then she gave him a reassuring, beaming smile.
The dizziness left him. "I love you" he found himself uttering. His knees still felt a bit wobbly.
She came over to him and touched his face. "Out of sight, out of mind," she said with a meaningful stare. "I don't know what's been going on but let's discuss it all in the morning with a clearer head". She removed her dressing gown and took him back to bed, holding his hand in hers. "Come on". She kissed him on the cheek and ruffled his hair. "Don't worry. You're not alone tonight. I'm here".
Anthony had the best night's sleep he'd had all week.
He was feeling pretty pleased with himself and didn't mind the silly loved-up smile that was on his face when he arrived back in his flat and saw himself in the mirror of his bathroom as he gathered up some necessaries. He found he was whistling to himself and there was a bit of a spring in his step, too.
"I think you should stay with me for a couple of weeks. Get away from that flat and the morbid creepiness it's taken on in your mind" she had said. "It'll be a good trial run for when we move in together". It was saying that that had put the spring into his step.
However, there was an add-on but it was a kind one.
"I think you should see a doctor. It's not okay to be having terrible nightmares every night" she had also said. "Just in case there's anything, you know, going on". Oh, she was being diplomatic but he could feel the anxiety in her tone of voice. "I'm not saying you're going doolally, I'm just concerned about you. It might put things into perspective for you".
Of course, he had attempted to argue at first: "It might get out that I'm having...problems". "I've been here before. I was a bit of a loner and straight-A student and was bullied at school." "I know how people can be". "How they judge you". "How they talk about you".
But it all fell on deaf ears. "Who gives a bugger what other people think?" was her response. "I care for you. Surely that's all that matters?"
He truly had never met anyone like her. It sold him on the idea, though. That, and the very real and very powerful love in her eyes as she said it.
His lips stretched open further in a smile as he thought about it now. He found himself rubbing his chest, which had not had a flicker of tightness in it for over twenty-four hours. It had been a little tender to the touch the previous morning but felt better today. So, he continued with his whistling and skipping about the place, while he gathered up belongings he would need. He went into his bedroom. He'd need spare clothes and his laptop...
The whistling died on his lips.
The necklace was back. It was lying on his bedside table, just lying there like before, like it owned the place. It was all rusted and decrepit and rotting as before, too.
"What the...But she got rid of you...Claire got rid of you..." he found himself saying. There was a tearful quality to the way he spoke. A cold shiver shuddered through him. For a moment, everything seemed to go quiet and deathly still. It was like he himself had become rigid, unmoving, although he got that dizzy sensation again like the room was spinning around him. He quickly realised he wasn't breathing, either. This made him gag and his breath soon came out again in thick gasps.
"No..." he whimpered and stuttered out.
He closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. Opened them again.
It was still there. He knew it sounded silly but he felt like it was laughing at him.
He closed his eyes again. He tried to focus on something, anything...
("I love you, Anthony Ryder").
He found a smile creep on to his lips. He stared back at that evil unreality and pointed at it. His finger didn't shake once.
"No. You're not going to do it to me. I'm still asleep, then, am I? Is that it? Still dreaming? Still at Claire's?" He shook his head with palpable vehemence. "It's not going to work. You're trying to scare me again, aren't you?" He reached over and grabbed it. It felt heavy in his hand. Cold and heavy. "I know none of this is real. Just nightmare and neurosis. You see, I've realised something. I have a wonderful girlfriend who loves me and I love her. I don't need the approval of others. I don't need to worry about others' acceptance because I have hers. She thinks well of me, she believes in me and that's good enough for me. I'm not going to feel scared of this big bad world anymore and you're not going to make me, either!" He shook the necklace with some force. "So, come on, bring it on! I don't care! Strip me naked! Bring on the corpse woman! Get all the nasties from my childhood to come back and bully me! I don't care! Do your sodding worst! It...won't...work!"
When nothing happened, he shook the necklace again. "Fine. Have it your own way. I've had just about enough of this shit".
Still clutching the necklace, he waltzed out of the flat. "I'm not scared. I'm going to prove it". One of his neighbours was on the landing and he gave Anthony a funny look. He was a guy Anthony had never got on with. Always playing his TV loud late at night and Anthony swore he was a dealer because some very unsavoury people used to come calling as well. He curled his lip at Anthony with abject surliness. This being a dream, Anthony didn't care. Usually, the guy intimidated him but not now. Anthony shrugged, jangled the necklace in the guy's face, and stuck two fingers up at him. The guy's face became a flash of anger but Anthony felt free and empowered and just skipped down the stairs and danced out the front entrance and out onto the pavement in dizzy exhilaration.
"Oof!" went a voice.
He had collided with a man in a business suit who looked very irritated, indeed. His face was as red as a tomato.
"Watch where you're bloody going. Twat" said the man. He looked like he wanted to thump Anthony, hard. Again, normally Anthony would have apologised and been all cowed. But this wasn't "normal". So, he just waved the necklace in the man's face. The man didn't seem to notice it and just kept staring with naked aggression.
"You'll have to do better than this," said Anthony. He sounded delirious but decided not to care. "What are you going to do? Turn into a zombie and try and shag me?" he said, with a little giggle.
The man let out a nasty growl. Anthony just shrugged and danced out into the road.
It was always a busy road, a main road, in fact, which is why Anthony usually kept his window shut at night. He was half expecting something like what happened next but didn't care because he knew none of this was real and was just mind games and he was sick of it.
A white van came roaring down the road, at speed, towards him.
Anthony would normally have been exploding inside with panic but not on this occasion. As the van kept on coming, he just gave a shake of his head. "You're really trying, aren't you? Come on then! See if I bloody care! I'm fed up with being bullied!" Then he spread his arms wide, almost in benediction, ready to receive it.
He was feeling pretty pleased with himself when the first of two things occurred to him that allowed a stab of fear to cut into his thoughts.
The weight in his hand had suddenly gone. He flicked his eyes over and could see his hand was empty and the necklace had seemingly vanished into thin air.
And, as he flicked his eyes back to the van that was juggernauting towards him, the driver's face a mass of panicked horror, he realised something else and the stab twisted deeper.
The tightness in his chest...It hadn't been there earlier. He found his hand rub his chest. No oppressive weight was on it at all. And he knew what that meant. His bowels started to ache.
It was far too late to get out of the way. Defeated acceptance fell over him, then. He always knew he would never win in the end.
As the van bore down on him, he knew with a dreadful certainty that, on this occasion, he wasn't dreaming.