where the writers are
Short Stories I-IV
Short Stories I-IV
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

David gives an overview of the book:

A selection of short stories. 1) 456 - Will the hunter become the hunted? A man pays the price for his arrogance.2) Human Nature - An animal victim is given a voice in this tragic tale of animal cruelty.3) Susan - A chilling tale of suffocating 'love'; just when does devotion become obsession?4) Jarls of the Ocean - Will a warrior be judged as a hero? A fighter faces an epic adversary. 
Read full overview »

A selection of short stories.

1) 456 - Will the hunter become the hunted? A man pays the price for his arrogance.
2) Human Nature - An animal victim is given a voice in this tragic tale of animal cruelty.
3) Susan - A chilling tale of suffocating 'love'; just when does devotion become obsession?
4) Jarls of the Ocean - Will a warrior be judged as a hero? A fighter faces an epic adversary. 

Read an excerpt »

456

 

Deep in the Yorkshire moors, intentionally far from the nearest town or village, stood the home of Howard Barker. Now in the twilight days of his life, Howard remained on the very edge of solitude, his last link to civilization being the weekly visits of the housekeeper – Mrs Jones.

From outside the house looked derelict. The walls were irreparably cracked and on the verge of crumbling, while the foundations nervously held the structure together. The gates at the bottom of the drive were rusted and groaned their disapproval in the high winds coursing through the hills. West of the house was a roofless barn, the interior infested with rats and the ground now uneven and covered in murky puddles.

Howard Barker had lived the rich life but now in his final years the privilege of money offered little comfort. He was fat from wine and good food, his clothes had sunk into neglect and his lungs barely functioned with the daily abuse of nicotine and smoke they were offered. Alone in this isolation, Howard contemplated his life, the list of highs in his youth then the increasing lows of his maturity. It had been a life of two halves.

It was a cold October day when Howard learned the fragility of mortality. It had been raining that morning but in the afternoon the weak sun managed to break through the dark clouds overhead. It was enough of an incentive for Howard to sit outside in the garden, a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky in tow. He had turned to whisky only recently – the years of drinking wine had built up his immunity and it took many bottles before he felt the slightest tingle of inebriation. With whisky it was different – just a few glasses numbed his senses and he could try and forget his nostalgia.

Howard longed for his youth. Ever since his marriage he felt life had never been the same. He had loved the chase of the village skirt, whether they were single or not; the best were always taken, it made him feel more proud to have another man’s woman, even for a single night. Howard had seldom been refused what he wanted. Drinking and women went hand in hand; he didn’t need alcohol to build up his courage to approach a woman, he just loved a drink, but he wouldn’t succumb to the bottle’s stranglehold until he was certain of some company for the night. They were wonderful days. Who needed the excitement of the city when you could enjoy all the vices in the countryside?

When Howard stepped into his thirties he bowed to the obligation of marriage. He saw it not as a full-time commitment but simply as a means of keeping his wealth and home in the family. His wife, Diane, had loved his money but all she gave him in return for the make-up, dresses and shoes were two daughters - no sons, just daughters. Howard hated her for that. One son was all he asked for, yet after their second daughter was born, Diane lost all interest in sex and Howard knew the marriage would soon run its course. It lingered on for eight years, only collapsing into dust when Diane found Howard on the back seat of his car with her best friend. Howard didn’t care then and he certainly didn’t care now.

Howard’s one monogamous love that he embraced in his twenties and remained faithful to into his sixties was fox-hunting. He felt like a king as he rode through the village and out into the woods. Did not the medieval kings hunt deer with their nobles? He adored the chase just as they had – the hungry hounds’ lust for blood, their teeth dripping with saliva and their aching legs driving ever onward towards their next victim. It was sheer poetry – the ideal blood sport, but now it was over.

Tony Blair with his hopeful grins and uncertain hand gestures had brought Howard’s first love to an end. In the space of a year Labour put paid to fox hunting and arthritis ended Howard’s dreams of ignoring the new legislation. He retired to his home with his wealth and whisky, finding no solace in his existence anymore.

Today Howard was too old and frail to hunt and too weary and incapable to chase skirts the way he had in his youth. Even the housekeeper, Mrs Jones – the last link to the sumptuous world of femininity – could not ignite the dying embers of his wilting lust. In her early sixties, she was the unwanted reminder to Howard of the increasing void between the happiness of his youth and the bitterness of his contemporary deterioration.

* * *

Mrs Jones had cleaned the house that morning but Howard had spoken little to her. He was lost in Churchill’s account of the Second World War; the events of the conflict with the brave young soldiers gave rise to Howard’s nostalgia once more. By midday he could read no more and, seeing the rain had stopped, wanted to relax in the garden. He was onto his second glass of whisky when he heard it.

Slicing through the whistling wind was a piercing howl. It seemed to be coming from the north, but Howard could see no silhouettes or anything on the surrounding hills. He grimaced as he stood, the arthritis in his knees was torturing his legs and his brittle bones made him bitter and in further need to be subdued by whisky. He grabbed a large branch propped against his chair – a makeshift walking stick – and made his way slowly down the garden path.

The grass was overgrown, the weeds were in the ascendancy, the bushes were in need of attention and the fish in the garden pond were all dead. Howard’s dislike of people – many of the villagers had voted Labour – made him cautious and untrusting towards most, all to the detriment of his now neglected land.

Howard used his walking stick to hack the overhanging branches of trees and encroaching bushes aside. The howling on the moors grew more intense with his every step. Whatever was making that sound was close by. Howard passed beneath a stone archway leading to the bottom of his garden and immediately hugged himself. The breeze down here made him colder than he had ever been before. The top end of the garden was more enclosed by the trees but that couldn’t explain this dramatic change in the temperature.

The howling sounded again, briefer this time, but followed quickly by an unwelcome growl. Must be a stray dog or something, Howard thought. He looked at his trembling, wrinkled hands and longed to be ten years younger. At least then he could have held a gun and sent this damn dog scurrying towards the hills. Nevertheless, he continued on, undeterred by this disturbance.

At the bottom of the garden, wrapped helplessly round a barbed wire fence, struggled the source of the howls. It was a fox; its once pristine coat was torn to shreds, its eyes stared at Howard with fear and the slightest glimmer of hope. At first, Howard felt a twinge of sympathy but this was soon replaced by revulsion. This fox reminded him of what was missing from his life. He had been happiest when on the hunt and here was a tormentor sent to laugh at his pitiful existence. It was too much for Howard. He stepped forward and raised his stick high, intending to bring it down on the fox’s skull.

Before he could strike the fox the wind picked up and made Howard uncertain on his feet. He looked to the east and trembled at the cold and strength of the breeze. He had never felt anything like this before; he imagined this to be the equivalent of the gales on the tip of Everest. When he turned back to the barbed wire fence his heart nearly stopped. The fox was gone. Not only that, but the wire was simply rusted without a single drop of blood. It wasn’t possible. How could the fox have freed itself? How could it have not left any trace of its blood when the fence was the only thing holding it together?

Howard turned uncertainly back to the house. He moved as quickly as his legs would allow but was stopped in his tracks by the sight of the dead fish floating on the surface of the murky garden pond. It wasn’t their lifeless forms that surprised him – he’d forgotten he even had them – it was the way they were positioned. Grouped together, the fish remained still, beyond the movement of the currents and their bodies formed a number on the surface – 456. Howard squinted and read the number aloud to himself. 456. What did it mean?

Howard shook his head and made for the table where he retrieved his whisky and cigarettes. He would need them tonight – the whisky would provide inebriation and help him forget these strange events, the cigarettes would steady his nerves while he waited for the drink to take effect.

Inside the house, Howard locked the door and secured five separate chains. No one would be getting in tonight, he thought. Howard looked outside and found it was raining again. He was eager for another look at the garden so made his way to the kitchen. From a distance he thought he saw movement on the garden path – a dog or something dashed from one set of bushes to another. Howard thought his mind was playing the most perplexing of tricks so waited until he reached the window surmounting the sink before forming his own conclusion. He heard the eerie whistle of the wind against the pane and leaned over the sink until his nose was almost touching the glass. Raindrops slammed against the window, they ran from the heights, conjoining with their neighbours before running out of sight. Howard stood transfixed by their movement when, suddenly, from the darkness below something leapt at the glass and for a second he was eye to eye with glowing red pupils, fixed with purpose and intent. Howard toppled back, landing against the kitchen table and somehow keeping his balance.

Looking back to the window, Howard saw those eyes, bright and red, watching him, waiting for his next movement. He couldn’t move. Those eyes held him, he was at their mercy and they could have decided his life or death with the slightest blink.

Howard’s gaze was only turned from the window when one of the taps suddenly turned. Hot water came gushing out into the sink and steam rose towards the ceiling. As the window clouded and the watchful red eyes out in the rain became hidden by condensation, Howard’s jaw dropped as discernible on the glass was a number – 456. It was the same number he had seen on the surface of the garden pond but he still didn’t know its meaning. Howard turned off the nearby light and made frantically for the living room.

He relaxed in his armchair, poured himself a whisky and lit two cigarettes with his trembling hands. The first he finished within minutes, the second he savoured, taking his time to exhale the smoke, allowing the nicotine time to kick in and steady his nerves. The whisky felt bitter in his mouth and the first glass went down with a struggle. On the second his body embraced the warmth and his mind began to forget all the things he had seen thus far.

Once more relaxed, Howard felt ready to get drunk but he wasn’t at the stage where he didn’t notice the cold. Mrs Jones had brought logs for the fire, all he had to do was light them and he could enjoy the rest of the night. Howard struggled to his feet and knelt awkwardly before the fireplace. He tried to light one match but a small gust of wind came down the chimney and extinguished it.

Turning to the next match, Howard grinned, nursing his third cigarette between his teeth and, shielding the flame with his free hand, moved it towards the pile of logs. His eyes were fearful and his cigarette fell from his mouth when he saw, lurking in the shadows at the back of the fireplace, those same red eyes that had watched him through the kitchen window. He fell back as they came forward; logs were scattered across the carpet and soot fell in heaps from the body of the trespasser.

In the dim candlelight of the living room, Howard could see it clearly. The red eyes had faded in the surrounding candle flames but the mutilated head, the ravaged body and the filthy fur were still discernible as the remnants of a fox. It wasn’t the same one Howard had seen struggling in the barbed wire but it still defied the laws of nature. Its body looked as if it had been ripped to shreds and fastened back together by a nervous seamstress.

The fox was dripping reddened saliva from its mouth, but its dirty and bloodied paws were stagnant and dry. It did not advance towards Howard, merely growled and only threatened to attack at any moment. Howard reached for his walking stick and tried to strike at the fox. It caught the stick between its teeth; its fangs split the timber in two as if it had bitten through paper. It cast the splinters and torn wood aside and watched its prey closely.

Howard reached for the arm of his chair and managed to stand again. He held onto the walls and made his way slowly out of the living room. Out on the hall he heard a second growl coming from the kitchen. The fridge door was open, its contents lay scattered across the floor – vegetables, fruit, even healthy yoghurts that Mrs Jones had brought specially – they were all strewn far and wide. Guarding the kitchen like the flanking statues outside ancient Egyptian tombs were two more foxes, both with blazing red eyes and each with a body that seemed to be turned inside out. Like their counterpart in the living room they didn’t move, they just watched.

Howard turned towards the front door and found another fox guarding that means of escape. To its left was an antique grandfather clock that had come to a halt. Its three hands pointed towards three distinct numbers – 456. What did any of this mean? Was this a dream?

Howard reached for the nearby handrail that led him upstairs. The four foxes that had secured the ground floor formed an orderly line at the base of the stairs. They didn’t attempt the ascension and for a moment, Howard believed he was safe. He reached the top of the stairs and made for the bathroom.

Turning on the light, Howard looked in the mirror. His face was pale, he desperately needed to shave and his eyes were drowning in tears. He turned on one of the taps and drank two cupfuls of water. On the third he glanced to his left and dropped the glass, shaking as it smashed against the toilet seat. On the bathroom wall, written in blood was that number again – 456. Underneath in dripping letters was a simple question – Do you remember?

Howard’s gaze went from the number and the question to the base of the bathtub. Staring up at him were two more foxes in the same state as the others – neither should have been alive but somehow they moved and breathed with perfect ease.

Howard now had only one more place to go. He passed the top of the stairs, ignoring the quartet of foxes that were now climbing the steps and moved painfully slowly towards his bedroom. He reached the precipice of despair when he saw another pair of foxes sitting on the pillows of the double bed. The sheets were covered in blood as were the carpet and rugs. To the right of the bed was a large mirror with the number 456 smeared on the glass.

The growls and staring red eyes of the foxes were now as familiar as the furniture. It was the reflection in the mirror that now attracted Howard. The interior of the room was perfectly captured in the glass but the foxes were not visible. Howard looked at himself and was almost sick. He saw himself as a young man in a red jacket and white trousers, ready to go out on another hunt. Howard collapsed when the clothes in the reflection were stained with blood and the face of his young self appeared to have been attacked by a savage animal – cuts, scratches and gouges blemished his face.

Lying in a heap on the ground, Howard looked around him as, one by one, the foxes closed in. As their numbers increased the number 456 finally became significant. 456, he thought. That’s how many fox hunts I have seen. As the foxes’ eyes were level with his own, he welcomed the darkness that followed.

* * *

Howard opened his eyes and found he was no longer in his bedroom. Overhead he could see the weak sun breaking through the branches of deciduous trees. His sense of smell was invigorated; so many scents he could pick up in the air, but one distant aroma seemed unnatural to him.

Howard stood carefully and found he was in the middle of woodland. How had he got here? The foxes couldn’t have just dragged him this far, so what was he doing here? The singing birds overhead provided no answers; in fact the only thing that seemed remotely familiar was that strong wind – the wind of death – that went right through to his bones.

The sound of running water drew Howard to the west. He was still in a daze, unsure of anything save that his throat was dry and he sought any means to quench it right now. He soon came to a small river and drank greedily. When the surface settled his eyes grew wide. Where his reflection should have been was the image of a fox, not bloodied like the ones back at Howard’s home, just a normal fox with a clean coat and young, innocent eyes.

Before Howard could accept what he had become he heard the unwelcome sound of horses’ hooves galloping against the earth and the growls of bloodthirsty hounds that had picked up his scent. As he struggled with his new found instincts, Howard dashed north towards a steep set of hills hoping to throw the pursuers off his scent. Fatigue soon worked against him, the horses and hounds seemed incapable of losing their strength and perseverance. They kept on coming until they wore Howard down. As the hounds closed in for the kill Howard knew what it was to be a victim of the hunt. He knew of the sheer terror, of the body’s need to defy its constraints and push on one last mile to safety, and finally the acceptance of this inevitable and cruel fate. Howard felt all of this then fell into darkness.

* * *

 When Mrs Jones arrived at Howard’s home the following week she found there was little, if any, work for her to do. The interior was simply spotless, no sign of the disturbances that had plagued Howard the week before. Throughout the house Mrs Jones searched, expecting to find Howard drinking or smoking bitterly in some dark corner but he was nowhere to be seen. She found work had been done in the garden, the autumn leaves had all been swept away and a group of fish were alive and well in the depths of the pond. Was this Howard’s doing? She thought.

Mrs Jones made her way to the bottom of the garden and stopped in her tracks. There was a gap in the barbed wire fence and stood just in front was a young fox that watched her carefully. She knew foxes weren’t too dangerous but that didn’t stop her being afraid. Mrs Jones was even more taken aback when the fox seemed to give her an acknowledging nod before it turned for the gap in the fence and raced away.

Into the distance the fox ran, seeking solace away from the far-reaching hands of civilization. Mrs Jones waited until it had disappeared behind the surrounding hills. No one ever saw Howard Barker again. 

elenchera's picture

Note from the author coming soon...

About David

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, and first conceived the idea of the Elencheran Chronicles at college in 1999. I spent ten years compiling the history of Elenchera, resulting in 47,000+ years of events, 500+ maps, 2000+ pages, several short stories and many much-...

Read full bio »