FICTION: The Gentleman by Elena Chapman

The girl lay perturbed on the shabby sofa bed.

“He always wears those green board shorts. His eyes lock onto mine … an insincere smile stretches across his face, mouthing the words – ”

A low muttering from the doctor made Lydia cut off her words and tilt her head towards him.

Dr Blackshaw was slumped on his scarred oak chair, complaining under his breath as he stared at the slow hands of his watch. His wire-framed glasses sat atop his crooked nose and his faded floral tie hung from his scrawny neck. Dark circles inhaled his brown eyes from the sleepless nights following the news of the inertia cancer cells sitting comfortably in his wife’s womb. He blushed a slight crimson as he noticed the girl staring at him; her eyebrows drawn tight and fear dancing between her eyes.

Carry on Dr Blackshaw gestured with his hand.

“Actually, before you start, let’s get you relaxed.” The scraping of his oak chair startled Lydia. Dr Blackshaw’s cold spindly hands adjusted her legs and arms.

He returned to his chair and crossed his right leg onto his left thigh, “Close your eyes and let’s start from the day you first saw this … man.”

Lydia stole one last glance of the white ceiling staring down at her and closed her eyes, drifting back to just over a year ago.

***

England had lost to Croatia in the World Cup and knots of protestors surrounded Westminster anticipating the arrival of Trump. The temperature lingered in the mid-20s, but 2018’s heatwave was beginning to secede. Acres of land were left arid and scarred but the only thing that really bothered me was a lack of sleep and the whispers of a beer shortage.

I was running around the perimeter of the Common on a waning afternoon. I wanted to be at the pub, but my upcoming marathon guilted me into training. A light purple bruise limbered in the sky and rapturing clouds hovered heavily above me; a well needed downpour was long overdue. The birds were in conversation and the wind danced around me. The dry dirt path was littered with yellow leaves and bark crunched and snapped under the soles of my trainers, sending puffs of dust behind me.

A tightness in my belly had been growing during the last few miles and I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to make it in time. I glanced around for a place to relieve myself.

A large green area of lush woodland stood tall in the centre of the Common; a bright oasis surrounded by the illuminating yellow grass. Praying for privacy, I started sprinting my way over, pausing when I found a gap in the trees.

The trees rustled secretly, and the gap exposed roots that slivered across the ground like snakes.

I entered through the gap; my nose instantly wrinkled at the smell of damp and rotting vegetation. Inside, the bowing trees muffled the sounds of car horns. I wandered through the shaded area. The lush green outer seemed just a façade as my feet kicked up more dust. I weaved my way past the tree roots and found a low-lying row of bushes and squeezed myself under.

As I squatted down and relieved myself, rain started to plop down on the ground and the leaves surrounding me began to shake from the rain’s weight. What was at first a sluggish drip rapidly became a heavy downpour bashing the branches this way and that.

I don’t know whether he heard me or saw me or smelt me. All I know is that he found me.

Through the screen of bushes a man’s silhouette rose behind the nettle bush 11 o’clock from where I was. The bush’s arms stretched out across the uneven ground, their fingers stinging and attacking everything in its way. A tingle of goosebumps fleshed my skin and the hairs on my body stood up attentively. I rushed to draw up my shorts, collecting sticks and leaves in my pants.

A handsome, tough built man stood tall, a dark tan plastered across his body. His body cut through the dusty beams of sunlight and dust motes danced around him. His eyes were a bright emerald green glazed over like a streaked window. His dark thick eyebrows were knitted together as he scanned the landscape.

I wiped away a raindrop that fell on my nose and with animal quickness his eyes locked onto mine.

“Young ladies like you shouldn’t stray off the path,” his mouth drew back into a grimacing smile, “do you need the help of a gentleman to show you the way back?”

He offered his hand and began to walk round the nettle bush. His bare chest came into view and bright green board shorts illuminated his dark legs.

Words rose to my lips but were choked off.

A moan rose from the bushes. He snapped his neck towards the sound with the same quickness. The green eyes turned into dark pupils surrounded by gold rings and his smiled dried up. He loosened a low laugh before speeding off on all fours into the trees, knees scraping the dust.

A horrifying shriek rolled through the air. The tree roots started to sliver around in front of me, twisting onto my ankles. I stumbled up, ripping the tightening grip off me and sprinted towards the open Common. The trees started to bend in to meet each other, making the gap I came through turn smaller and the light of the afternoon turn dimmer. Thorns bit into my legs and nettles sizzled my skin. I jumped through the closing hole, heaving my weight onto the beige grass. The twigs trapped in my shorts tugged at my skin and my sweat’s salt stung the cuts.

My throat was tight with fear. I stumbled up onto my feet and ran towards the queues of traffic at the end of the Common. The shouts from cyclists and motorcyclists’ horns faded behind me as I ran in between the cars to the other side of the road.

My breath was short and the asthma I lost as a teen came crawling back up my throat. I stopped and rested my hands on my knees. A sigh escaped my lips when I noted I was a safe distance from the woodland.

I shaded my eyes and noticed The Gentleman standing on the edge of the woodland. He raised his hand and waved slowly. Those final three miles home were the fastest miles I’ve ever ran.

That night, and for many nights after, my sleep was haunted by dreams of The Gentleman approaching out of shadows, growling gentlemen are just patient wolves. A soft stir of echoes repeated those words and I kept seeing those emerald eyes transform to gold rings with that shriek following me.

The next time I saw him, the dirt paths had turned to sludges. I was running past a leaf-choked pond towards the crossroads. A howl was trapped in the wind’s throat. As the green man turned red, I leaned against the street light to rest.

A rustling sound grew steadily behind me and all of a sudden leaves started to stick onto my legs. At first I cursed thinking it was just a bit blustery. Snapping sounds began to fill the air as leaves were stripped off the surrounding trees and swirls of orange, brown and yellow gripped onto my legs, tightening and tightening until I started to feel my legs losing blood. Panicking, I tried to tear off the leaves, but they stayed clenched and leaves from the pond joined the group.

As I tugged helplessly at the leaves, the house opposite drew back its curtain. The Gentleman was standing there, highlighted in a pool of light. He waved at me. His green shorts sat on his hips. A smile stretched across his face, bearing perfectly white and straight teeth.

He mouthed that word gentleman slowly, again offering his hand. I ran as fast as I could away from the house, the weight of the leaves forcing me down to the point where I was scraping my knees across the gravel, my hands fumbling for anything solid to hold onto. The veins in my legs bulged as I writhed against the growing grip. The days of hill training had made my thighs strong and eventually the leaves began to loosen their grasp. I fell from the off-balance and sprinted off without ever looking back.

December was when I saw him next. I was plugging away on my laptop, nursing a coffee at The Hope. I surveyed the slice of Common from my oak table. Snow weighed down on the trees after a recent powder.

Suddenly, the snow started to blow capriciously; knots of people shuffling through the sludge held onto their hats as the wind raged flakes around them. A white penumbra screen engulfed the Common in a matter of seconds.

I saw his shorts first. They probed the whiteness of the landscape. He was strolling across the Common towards me. His bare feet traipsed across the crust of snow. The only difference in his appearance was a dusting of white that sat daintily on his dark hair.

A prick of fear rose through me and my heart took a frightened leap. My mug shattered on the edge of the table. The boiling water scorched my legs and the white porcelain loosened a strip of red blood on my index finger.

He gave his slow wave. Then a gust of wind slammed open the café’s door and hooted right into my ear – I’m a gentleman but I’m losing patience.

The drifting hum of conversation at The Hope turned silent and gawping eyes were on the dregs of coffee soaking my jeans. I staggered up, dropped a note on the table and hurried out of the back door.

The Gentleman’s gold rimmed eyes came closer and closer to me in every dream. Most nights I was ripped out of sleep in sweaty convulsions. Black circles began to ring my eyes and I was constantly snapping glances back over my shoulder everywhere I went.

Throughout the past six months I’ve seen him more and more frequently, but he never came any closer until last week. He used to just wave and mouth gentleman and offer his hand. Now he’s coming closer and I sometimes see him two or three times a day. Sometimes he’s the man making my coffee at my local cafe. Sometimes he’s a man in my work meeting. Sometimes he’s the man begging on the street. But he’s always in his green shorts. Always insisting he’s a gentleman. But …

***

“… I know he wants to hurt me.” Lydia whispered, and steadied her eyes open, adjusting to the blinding ceiling.

“Well, Miss Lodge.” Dr Blackshaw coughed, his voice growing richer, “You should have stayed on the path, shouldn’t you? You needed the help of a gentleman to show you the way back and you didn’t let him.”

Lydia snapped her head towards the chair. Instead of Dr Blackshaw’s frail frame sat The Gentleman. His green shorts clung onto his legs, his right ankle sat atop his left muscly thigh. His emerald eyes glistened, and he dropped her a wink. A snarl touched the corners of his lips, his eyes now turning as purple as the sky when Lydia first met him, the gold rings brightening.

He uncrossed his long legs and stood up leisurely.

Lydia twisted off the bed in the direction of the door. Her mouth ripped into a scream, but nothing came out. The Gentleman pressed his finger to his lips – shhh.

The Gentleman hoisted the oak chair above his shoulder and edged towards Lydia. His shadow towered over her and she scrambled into the corner, closing her eyes and raising her hands in terror.

Suddenly, the room’s door teetered open and a woman stared at them, “Is everything okay in here?”

The Gentleman looked at Lydia as she uncrunched her eyes and lowered her arms and then switched his gaze to the woman in the doorway. Silence spun out for a minute, then a chuckle rumbled up his chest. A smile tickled at the corner of his mouth as The Gentleman offered the woman his hand.

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Elena Chapman

Elena Chapman Photo

With several years of academic writing behind her, Elena Chapman saw an opportunity to express her creativity through short stories. Elena was raised in Bristol and now lives and works in London. An avid reader, Elena has always enjoyed writing and hopes her stories will become a strong voice for females by challenging society’s stereotypes. Elena’s passion for running often features in her work.

If you enjoyed ‘The Gentleman’ leave a comment and let Elena know.
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