Warning. This story contains no vampires, no zombies, werewolves, ghouls or ghosts. There is no adult content, no blood, no gore, no rape, pillaging or incest. I was after Gothic Weird, rather than Gothic Horror. Sorry it is more than flash fiction. 2500 words approx.
Tomorrow is my birthday. Tomorrow will be the saddest birthday I have ever known, made all the more poignant when I consider how wonderful the previous 22 have been. This is the first birthday I will have spent alone.
Heavy rain beats a staccato cacophony on the leaded windows of my room. I shuffle the armchair nearer the flickering flames that dance across the logs on the open fire in vain attempt to glean a little of the warmth into my aching bones. Apart from a single, guttering flame from a wax candle and the orange beacon of the fire, the room is in darkness.
I once looked forward to birthdays with immense relish, but, since Alice died, shortly after the last celebration, there is only bitterness.
She arrived at my door on this day, twenty two years ago, in answer to an advertisement I placed in the Yorkshire Times for a qualified nurse to attend my bed-ridden mother. It would only have been a temporary appointment as my mother was not expected to survive more than another six months, such was the virility of the cancerous growth in her stomach.
She stood on the doorstep between the two stone columns that support the porch roof. Traces of white autumn mist hovered like smoke around her shoulders. In contrast to the grey, November day she seemed to glow with an ethereal inner light. The hood of her blue cloak was thrown back from her head, sending honey-blond hair cascading around her shoulders. The thought struck me that here was an angel.
I assumed, the coach in which she had arrived, must now have departed, the driver, probably, hoping to traverse the five miles across open moorland before nightfall. She had only a small wooden trunk on the step beside her.
“You must be Alice,” I said. She seemed a lot younger than the impression she gave from the letter of introduction which accompanied her application for the position.
Lowering her eyes, she clutched the sides of her skirts and curtsied. “Sir, I am so grateful that you saw fit to give me this opportunity.”
Due to the short term of the appointment, there had been only two applicants, so my choice was not difficult. But I thought it best not to let her know. I waved away her gratitude. “Is that all you have brought?” I gestured toward the box, “Only, I expected you to be living in until the inevitable conclusion of the post.”
She looked most apologetic, her large grey eyes turning imploringly to mine. “This is my entire wardrobe, sir. My whole life has been spent being moved from one orphanage to another that I have very few possessions.”
As a music hall singer in her youth, mother owned a surplus of fancy clothing and finery which she would never wear again, and which, I believed, would suit Alice with very little alteration. Alice showed embarrassment at my offer, but eventually accepted it with more than a little grace.
Through the next ten months, Alice performed her duties admirably. I am certain it was only through her love and affection for the patient that mother survived so much longer than doctors had predicted.
Six weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, the sickness made its final claim. I believe the entire population of around 100 villagers attended the funeral service, such was mother’s popularity in the community.
Alice begged me to let her stay until she could obtain further employment, which I was only too happy to allow. Her company was certainly beneficial to my adjustment to the situation, especially being so close to my birthday. We celebrated the day in conjunction with the anniversary of Alice’s arrival with a delectable meal she had prepared without my knowledge.
Perhaps it was an excess of good food and wine, perhaps it was our, now, close tie of being alone in the world, of both being orphans, but that night we became lovers. It felt to me that there was an inevitability in such an arrangement, and within a few more months, I asked Alice to do me the honour of becoming Mrs. Richard Collins. To my intense joy, Alice accepted, and we made arrangements for confirmation of our union at the village church on 10th November 1878.
The orphanages in north of England had no record of Alice’s date of birth. She had been found, abandoned on the steps of one such facility on a freezing January eve in 1859. The staff estimated she was born between October and December of the year before. Alice never knew who her parents were.
A single date for my birthday, her faux birthday being the day we met, and a wedding anniversary seemed a logical arrangement. On our wedding night, we both vowed that neither of us would ever forget this date.
Over the last few hours, the loneliness I feel has become almost intolerable. Being such distance from my nearest neighbour, and on a night like this, I can expect no company. Other than the slow rhythmic tick-tock of the mantle clock, there is only silence in the house. Outside, the rain still beats a tattoo on the glass while a mournful wind hums a low dirge around the eves and guttering of this old house. I feel there is no reason to continue this lonely existence. If only I might find the courage to end it now. The “pop!” of exploding wood in the hearth startles me for a moment before I realize the cause and return to my painful reminiscences.
Each year, our celebrations have been memorable, non more so than that of 1880 when, on the day, Alice presented me with a son. I like to think it was more than coincidence that Edward should choose that day to vacate the cherished warmth of his mother’s womb. He too became part of our celebrations for this date.
But not this year. Not tomorrow.
Having been enlisted in the British army, he was despatched to Africa to serve his duty in the Boer Wars. Five days a go, I received a letter from his regiment to confirm he had died in action. The letter contained his papers and a medal awarded posthumously for bravery in conflict. The following day, I stood at the grave of my wife and placed the medal and letter in a small niche I opened up beneath her headstone. It would be wonderful to think they are now together in some afterlife, but I am not a religious man.
The clock on the mantle whirs its mechanical introduction to the series of chimes before striking the midnight hour. I take a glass and a decanter from the table beside my chair. Pouring a good measure of brandy, I wait for the chimes to end, denoting the beginning of the new day, the day of our joint birthdays and anniversaries.
Standing before the fire, and raising my glass to the picture of my bride hanging on the wall, I break the silence following the twelfth strike with, “Happy anniversary, Alice, my love. As we vowed twenty-three years ago to this day, we will never forget.”
I drink, long and slow, letting the brandy engulf me in its warm and heady fire. Refilling the glass, I raise it again to the smaller image hanging beside the first. “To our first and only son, we both wish you a very happy birthday, wherever you are now.”
I am about to drink again when there comes a sudden rap on the front door of the house. So startled am I that the glass falls from my hand to shatter on the stone hearth. Who could be calling at this time of night?
As I explained, the house is so far from the village and with such inclement weather as to be almost inaccessible to the local community. Perhaps some traveller from further afield has become lost on the moor, and seeing a light from the window seeks shelter and a little food. However, this seems unlikely as the house is not situated on a marked route between any of the towns. I dally so long in thought that I almost convince myself it could only been the wind blowing something heavy against the door.
And then the knock is repeated, even louder than before.
Attempting to shrug off my concerns I take the candle and walk to the door. “Just a moment,” I call, “but being almost asleep, and you knocking so gently, I believed it was no more than the wind.” I place the candle where it should be protected from the sudden rush of air as I open the door and turn the key in the lock. “I am so sorry to keep you…”
The small amount of light escaping onto the porch shows me there is no one there. I throw the door open wide and step out onto the porch. A pale half moon makes a feeble attempt to light the scene through ragged clouds.
“Hello! Is anyone here?”
The wind plucks my voice and hurls it into the darkness as if it is no more than a scrap of paper. The only response is the groan of swaying branches in the tree that rises like a sentinel at the corner of the house. Even the lashing rain now falls in gentle splashes on the pools of water beyond the awning of the porch.
“Strange,” I murmur to myself. “I could have sworn…” I turn back into the house, closing the door behind me. As I step into the lounge, I stop in utter amazement. There, in the arm chair on the far side of the hearth, the chair that Alice always claimed as her own, sits the largest black cat I have ever seen.
“Hello, and who might you be?”
Speaking as if expecting the cat to answer, I can only assume that it slipped past me in the dark when I opened the door to look out. The cat stares at me with large, limpid green eyes as if she has the answer to all of life’s mysteries. I am unsure how I suddenly know the cat is female. We, as a family, have never had cats, although Alice told me many times she was fond of the creatures and we should get one to control the population of small rodents that occasionally come in from the fields during the cold months.
“I wonder if you would like some milk.”
Walking through to the kitchen, I pour a little from a jug into a small bowl. The cat has silently followed me as if she understands. I watch her drink.
When she has finished, I follow her back to the lounge where we retake our respective chairs.
For some reason, I am beginning to wonder if Alice sent the cat to me. Yet how can this be? Alice has been dead for almost a year. And yet I wonder. Has the cat been sent to me as an anniversary present? We both made the vow never to forget the date. I shake my head. This feels surreal and stupid. The cat watches me all the time which makes me uncomfortable as if there is something I fail to understand. I would like to know if she has a name.
A half hour passes. A heaviness in my eyes reminds me it is time for bed. The cat, however. holds me in some sort of spell. Would it not be discourteous to leave so early?
At last, the cat gets up, stretches by arching her back, and jumps to the floor. She glances at the clock, which shows a few minutes before one, as if she has an engagement for another function to attend. With head and tail erect, she pads silently to the front door, then turns and glowers at me still sitting in my chair.
“You want to go back out into the night, do you?”
There really is no need for me to ask. I walk to the door and hold it ajar. She steps through the gap then turns and sits so that I am unable to close the door.
“Well, go on then. Shoo!”
There is no response other than that silent feline stare. Even an attempt to move her by gentle persuasion with my foot yields no success. I have no intention of using force sufficient to risk hurting her. The vicious claws she occasionally flexes warns me against such action. I can only leave her for now and return to my chair in the hope she soon goes.
Before I can make myself comfortable, she is beside me, clawing at my leg. I sigh and get up to close the door. The fire having gone out, the temperature in the room is already falling. The cat forces her way between my feet almost causing me to fall. When I recover, she is again in the position to prevent it closing.
Her action makes me wonder if there is something preventing her from leaving the house. Ignoring the damp and cold, I pull the door open wide. The pale glow from the moon and few stars limits my sight to the immediate view of the steps and the shadows of shrubbery in the garden.
The cat moves to the top of the steps as if she is about to descend, then turns to stare again at me. Realization hits me like the sudden glare from a lightning flash. She wants me to follow. I reach inside to the back of the door where my winter cape and hat hang from a hook. Garbed against the worst of the weather, I remove the keys from inside, then close and lock the door. The cat moves like a darker shadow in the dim light while I try to follow without falling.
The dark shape of of a coach with two horses appears in the shrouds of mist. All remains silent, motionless, as if they are unreal. Clouds of mist from my breath blur my vision. I can see no driver, but the cat leads me to an open door. Without a sound, the door closes as I enter, like the closing of a cell or prison. There is no sound of horse’s hooves, no crack of a driver’s whip, no creak or groan from the wheels, but my senses tell me we are moving. At this moment, my senses also tell me I will not be coming back. Today is my birthday.