An Uncanny Union
There is something odd going on here, I can sense it in the air like a cool hand pressing on the back of my neck, and creeping around my throat. All of the other guests look the same as though they are duplicates of their neighbour; the same sugar white skin and onyx black hair as though a sea of boot polish has been spread over the tops of a thousand heads. They repeat over and over and over again. And they all appear to be the same age, somewhere in their mid-thirties. The men wear fitted waistcoats, top hats and tails, while the ladies are resplendent in fine silk, chiffon, velvet and lace.
I am careful not to stare at any one person, although I cannot help but feel that I’m the odd one out in my plain mint dress and court shoes; the others sporting lace-up boots and gothic heels which make my eyes water. I feel like I shouldn’t be here; something other, outside of myself and beyond these strangers who currently occupy the same space.
The cathedral is statuesque and capacious sprouting gothic creations which date back to medieval times. I focus on a two-headed gargoyle with twisted features and hideous fangs. I fancy the fangs drip crimson blood onto the pale stone floor and search desperately for a familiar face. But the chalk-faced race are almost one and the same, their features a blurred smudge on top of pristine clothing. There is laughter – distant and infrequent – like sporadic cackles which puncture the quietude surrounding me.
There must be something wrong with the lighting too – over three hundred candles spilling their small orb of luminescence over the sea of liquorice-haired people below, casting terrible shadows across the walls and floor, shadow shapes of dogs and wolves and bears; predatory animals which bark and howl and growl, all with pin-sharp teeth – teeth like needles which pierce and wound.
I look at the few poesies some of the women hold and they are black, the colour of death, of finality. Black roses. Black lilies. Black orchids. Flowers leeched of colour but striking nonetheless. There is a river of them meandering through the legion of bodies like a liquorice ribbon, clutched tightly by daughters, granddaughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. An immortal lifeblood. The ladies are wrinkle-free, waxen-faced; the men have strong jaw lines and perfect bone structures.
What is their secret? I wonder. Special cream?
The air is thick with perfume – a heady floral scent tainted with bracken; a rich earthy scent I could easily drown in. I close my eyes, feeling myself pulled under by the sweetest of aerial tides when I hear a name – Darren. Yes, where is Darren? He told me he was going to park the car. That was nearly half an hour ago.
I reach into my bag, pull out my phone and dial Darren’s number. The signal is bad. After several rings, Darren answers, but all I hear is a static symphony as though Medusa’s serpents have taken over his mobile.
‘Hello? Hello Darren? Can you hear me?’
The phone goes dead. I notice a handful of guests looking straight at me, their eyes like glazed marbles – translucent and knowing. A few of them cough and turn away as though I have committed some terrible faux par. Others make no attempt to conceal their disgust.
Two women, who both look like Bellatrix Lestrange, hiss through their needle-fine teeth at me, while a tall, bland-faced man drapes his arms around them before they all dissolve into the crowd.
‘Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough of this weird shit,’ I say to no-one in particular and head towards the grand oak double doors at the far end of the cathedral.
I push past hordes of people who whisper endearments into their neighbour’s ears and elbow others in the ribs, as I make my way towards the exit. I know now that this is some sort of conspiracy against me.
My hands are like goose feathers on the doors. I push and push but the door doesn’t budge. There is no strength in them, no grip in my fingers which appear child-like, almost babyish. Instead I hammer away expecting another guest to come to my aid but no-one does, and soon my arms grow weak and tired. I let them hang by my side and gaze at the upset crowd. Eventually, a young woman takes me by the shoulders, her fingers like splinters of ice drawing me away from the door, away from salvation and says, ‘A lady like you shouldn’t be getting yourself all worked up like that. It isn’t healthy.’
She pauses, scouring the sea of indistinct faces staring back. The woman appears to be in her early thirties yet her voice is the voice of a crone, an elderly woman who should be at home in her nightgown and slippers. Then her face brightens, her eyes lighting up with pure love.
‘I should know,’ she continues. ‘My daughter was exactly the same when she was your age. Over here, Effie dear.’
She waves a lace-gloved hand above the crowd and soon a tall, slender woman sidles up to her and kisses her on both cheeks. The mother gestures for Effie to show me her hands. I gasp. They are not hands in the human sense but dove-white spatulas with the fingers fused together.
‘What happened?’ I say.
‘A door, just like that one,’ Effie replies. ‘I didn’t know how I got in to the chapel but I wanted to get out so I ran for the door and began clawing away.’
She pauses and puts her hands up in an act of submission.
‘This is what it did to me…but I’m happy, despite these. After all, I have Matthew.’
A short man comes into view, nods once, takes Effie’s hand and leads her away.
‘Her husband,’ her mother says. ‘And you’ll be alright soon enough. Not long to go now.’
But before I can ask her what she means, the young face with the old voice vanishes into the restless crowd. Everyone is now looking at me; their features smudged like oil paintings. One man stares at his watch as though he has the power to command its speed.
‘How did you get in here?’ someone asks. ‘Can’t you remember?’
My head is all fluff and cobwebs, fog and white space. I think back to earlier on in the day and recall Darren in the car, his eyes fixed unwavering on the horizon. He had a contented smile pasted across his face and couldn’t shut up about John and Cynthia’s big day.
‘But I’ve never even met them.’
‘Of course you have. You met them last year.’
I frowned. ‘Did I?’
‘Sure you did, you just don’t remember them.’
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘Actually yeah, I did meet a couple now that you come to mention it, but I’m sure they were called Edward and Helen.’
Darren didn’t respond to this but gripped the steering wheel tighter so that his knuckles were small mushrooms sprouting beneath his skin. I couldn’t remember anything else after this.
A hubbub of noise surrounds me as whispers break free from loose tongues, gossiping forces bringing me back into myself.
‘No, I don’t remember entering the cathedral,’ I say and stare accusingly at the blurred faces. ‘How did I get in?’
I watch as the crowd parts, a wave of icy terror crashing over me to reveal Darren resplendent in a fitted charcoal suit and frilly shirt, except there’s something distinctly different about him. He has glossy midnight hair and talcum powder skin. He looks like all the others. But this is nothing compared to the empty vial fastened around his neck.
‘What’s going on, Darren? What’s all this about? Who are these people?’
Darren smiles and laughs – the howl of a jackal.
‘Questions, questions, so many questions. You’ll be fine, love. Trust me.’
Trust comes out as truss. He advances slowly and spreads his arms wide as though casting an invisible net over the spectators.
‘I should introduce you to my extended family but you’ll get to know them soon enough.’
The crowd lean in, inspecting me and my features, my dress, my shoes. They look me up and down, but most look inside me, at my pure beating heart and whistle. The sound shatters my eardrums, practically lifting the roof off the cathedral.
A sudden gust of wind rushes in, snatching at my hair, tugging at my dress, crushing my chest. I watch as the wind changes my dress, enveloping a carmine silk luxury around me. My hair comes loose, spilling over my shoulders like a tossed auburn wave; the crowd sighs.
Darren smiles – a row of pearl white teeth marred by two hideously long fangs. There is static in the air again, this time accompanied by four generations of hisses, their disfigured mouths snarl and gnash away as Darren pounces, burrowing his ice cold face into my neck, devouring my humanity.