When this popped into my head it was a dark horror tale, but I don’t think that’s how I write really. That said, long-time readers may find something familiar in this story.
Now, can I get through a short story without turning it into yet another novella? let’s find out.
I am not accustomed to seeing a man run into a public house screaming bloody murder.
In my experience, this usually comes at the end of a particularly good evening, after a few pints of real ale and a carafe of Barnsley’s finest. The man that burst into my local, however, seemed to have gotten his evening a bit arse-about-face, doing the drinking at home and invading the pub like a dervish.
As the wide-eyed yobbo crashed through the door, the collected clientèle managed to lock eyes with each other. In one of the more modern establishments this would be difficult, jam packed with young people sipping cheap liquor like it was iced tea, but The Duke had no such problems. Being of the old school, The Duke only had twelve clients, and we met each other’s gaze with the well-practised look of manly fear.
When the socially different enter a situation that, by its very nature, is social, the more gifted people present will always slip into this look. It is a look that says ‘you may be my best friend, my wife, my son or even a servant of the lord himself, but right now I would rip out my own heart if it meant that the newcomer would sit next to you and not me.’
Unfortunately, my hands are not of sufficient resilience to punch a hole through my rib cage, so the man sat next to me.
He ordered an American beer, which I found somewhat depressing, and paid for it with coins. As he slammed each piece of tarnished nickel onto the bar, I got a good look at him. He was younger than me, although in fairness that’s quite easy nowadays, and positively dripping with sweat. His eyes were so bloodshot that for a moment I thought some sort of plant was growing inside his head, sending needle-thin tendrils snaking around his eyes. That would have explained his laboured breathing too, I supposed, but wasn’t the most likely of explanations.
I watched as he downed his drink in one, a feat of which the difficulty comes from the vile taste of the colonial tipple. It was then, as he used his forearm to wipe the foam from his lips, that our eyes met. I swore to myself, I had made a young man’s mistake; in situations with the socially different, a British man may successfully ignore the offender so long as eye contact is avoided. It’s a rule, so long as it cannot be proved you have seen them then it is perfectly polite to ignore them until they go away. It is a mistake the young often make, drinking up the visual eccentricity as though they’ve been in a drought, but a man of my age should know better.
I heard the other patrons chuckle quietly as the moist man swivelled on his bar stool to face me. I swallowed hard and tried to turn away, but it was useless. A damp hand gripped my shoulder and a blotchy face swung into view once more.
‘Blink!’ it demanded.
‘Bloody well blink!’
Naturally, I blinked. The man signed and sat back.
‘Thank God,’ he blasphemed. ‘I was worried you was in league with him!’
‘Pardon?’ I said once again, somewhat stunned by the man’s tenuous grasp of grammar.
He frowned conspiratorially, an expression I hadn’t been sure was possible before, and his eyes flicked at the other patrons. ‘He was looking at me, staring, for hours. I saw him, just watching me, not taking notes or anything. He just sort of sat there, stock still, never once blinking, just watching me from the mirror.
You will have experienced, I’m sure, that moment when you realise just how futile a conversation is with a particular party. You feel your manners evaporate, something behind your eyes falls away with an audible clunk, and you feel your mind detach itself from the issue, realising that it is surplus to the requirements laid down by person B. This happened to me the moment he mentioned the mirror.
‘That would be your reflection, my friend,’ I said.
‘No! No, no, no!’ he bellowed. ‘Because I know, see, I know he’s always looking at me, even when I’m not looking at him. Besides, he don’t even look like me, not really.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Well, I mean, I know what I look –’
‘No, I mean how do you know he’s looking at you even when you aren’t looking at him?’
He faltered for a moment and chewed on a thumbnail. ‘Because… because he was always looking at me when I looked back.’
I sighed. ‘Yes, that’s how mirrors work.’
‘Aaah, but no! Because he doesn’t look like me! Look, I’ll show you!’ he spluttered, then he grabbed my arm.
It should be noted that, when I myself was young, I was a world class boxer. I never actually competed of course, too busy with work (the nature of which we will come to in good time), but I was scouted by the colonials to fight their world champion, a man by the name of Kingdom Bale. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. Anyway, as time took its toll on me, I lost most of my prowess, and at no moment before or since had I rued it quite as much as when the sweaty child of bedlam dragged me into the wash room.
As the door slammed behind me, I was surprised to find myself feeling proud that the land lord had maintained such clean facilities. Then the fear started to bubble in my belly, and I began to tense up. It would be foolish to believe I could beat the man in a fight, but I would damn well try if I had to.
He dragged me across the room to the basins. Above each hung an individual mirror, set flush into the marble-effect wall. He thrust me towards the mirror. ‘Look!’
I looked. My own reflection stared back me, wrinkled but refined, and over my shoulder leered another. At first I thought it was the man, and that he had been talking bunkum, but something appeared wrong. I couldn’t place my finger on it, but there was definitely a certain detachment between the face in the mirror and that of the man standing behind me, a certain spectral disconnect that registered only in the back of my mind.
‘Can you see it now?’ he asked.
Only he didn’t ask, not immediately. Oh, the man certainly did, that much was true, but the reflection did not. It lagged behind, almost imperceptibly so, but definite. There was but a fraction of a second between the speech and the reflection, but there it was, and my blood started to run cold.
By profession I was a Phantasmagologist in my youth, studying the various spooks and spectres that people would occasionally report. True Phantasmagoria is strangely abundant in London and its surrounding settlements, and I used to be the man who documented such things. As such, it takes a lot to chill my blood.
I leant in closer as the reflection finally caught up with its silent master, and I observed. It was his reflection, at least in form, but something was askew. The face was all in place, same chin and nose and mouth, same cheeks. It took me embarrassingly long to spot it, but there it was, there was the alien element.
I glanced back at the real man to make sure.
I was right!
‘Oddly enough, mister…’ I ventured.
I blinked. ‘Hyde? Seriously?’
‘Yes. Why, is it important?’
The man was clearly not a big reader. I ignored his question. ‘Oddly enough, mister Hyde. You may have stumbled upon the only man in London who can help you.’
‘Really? You believe me? Oh thank God! Can you see it, can you see what I mean? It’s not me, the reflection, it doesn’t look like me!’
I ran a withered hand over my beard and turned to face the reflection once more. ‘Oh, indeed, mister Hyde. You certainly do not have cracked porcelain eyes.’