Fantasy Fiction Mystery


The hall was sparsely furnished and smelled of damp. Electric heaters mounted on the peeling walls gave off a reluctant heat that barely touched the chill atmosphere of the darkened interior. Once, long ago, this had been a vibrant community hall, thronging with people and paved with good intentions. But that was when the neighbourhood was new built, fresh hope still abounded in the   optimistic community settlement, and work was plentiful.

Now though, like the hall’s peeling walls and neglected furniture, the community was similarly afflicted. The work had moved on, the once plentiful jobs had dwindled and disappeared. The bright-eyed professionals had gone with them; now all that remained in the small community were those too old or too poor to follow the pied piper call of civilisation’s advance and development. Now, like the old community hall, the neighbourhood had been left behind, and the long, slow decay was all that was left to look forward too.

Howard Singleton knew all of this. He had lived in the neighbourhood since it had been new-built, worked on its construction as a carpenter, found (and lost) a wife, sired three beautiful children who had all moved on with the world and now lived far away in the prosperous central districts. A thick-set man with balding grey hair, Howard knew that his life had moved to its late Autumn phase, his spring and summer long past, and cold winter beckoning with all its promise of infirmity and slow decline. Howard felt like his community, felt like this hall. His shining best was long gone, and the pathways that remained all dark and downward leading.

Howard sighed and continued to place the rickety chairs in a loose circle, all facing inwards. He had put on the heating as soon as he had arrived, shovelling coins into the ancient meter to free the sluggish electricity that would power the insincere heat and the murky, yellowed overhead strip lights. He always undertook this chore, ever since he had come to his first meeting accompanied by his sponsor, and once tight drinking buddy, Joseph Longman. Joseph and Harold had met on the building sites that birthed this community, and every night following their labour, they would walk down to the little bar at the end of the street and drink beer after beer. The alcoholic fumes dancing for both men as they denied the potential of their lives, and the once pathways they could have walked. This path was easier.

Howard didn’t notice when Joseph first stepped away from the carousel of work, drink, argue, sleep, work, drink. Joseph simply didn’t show for work one day, and so Harold continued his lonely journey into drink-dulled somnolence as a solo affair. As it turned out, his wife also took a different turn with her own affair. This one, with a kind talking salesman from Boston, led her away from her promise-cracked marriage and back East with her children in tow. Harold barely noticed this either. Sunk deep into his new love, his ever-faithful, never complaining and always giving love, the bottle-bound love of amber fire, Harold continued to exist in lonely desperation.

Harold sat heavily down into one of the chairs, wincing as it creaked under his weight, and put his head into his hands. Once a week as he took this self-appointed task, the memories, those that he could still access, would always come flooding back. The odd day missed from work becoming the odd week. The job disappearing along with his final shreds of dignity, and Howard had joined the grey line of drinkers who didn’t care what was in their bottles, burning their throats and stomachs, just so long as it also burnt away memory and care. Joseph had found him there many years ago, slumped over in a stinking alley, a frost rimed blanket precariously attempting to keep him warm enough to cling to life for one more night. Taking him up and bundling him into car, Joseph had driven Harold to his small apartment, and there spent two long months coaxing him back to sensibility and light.

It was in the kitchen of that small apartment, as the two men played cards with a greasy, long-used pack, that Joseph began to talk about his own alcoholism, and the dark fiery pathways it had taken him on, until finally, someone had held out a helping hand that Joseph had grasped.

‘I’m paying that forward now,’ Joseph had grated, ‘as you will pay it forward, if you take my hand.’ And Harold had, gratefully, desperately, and Joseph had become his sponsor at the Meetings they both attended without fail, each and every week, in the damp, dingy Hall. Harold smiled at the memory. Joseph had been gone close to a year now, and Harold was the man who chaired the Meetings in his stead. The man the others looked to when they shuffled one by one into the Hall, mumbling their hellos, and taking their places in the chairs appointed to them.

As they began to arrive now. Harold sat back, and nodded to each of the men who came in and took their seats. At 8pm sharp, Harold began.

‘Tell me why we come here?’ he asked.

‘We come because we have done wrong.’ the men intoned, ‘We come because we have hurt those that did not deserve it. We come because we have wasted our lives. We come because we are lost. We come because we want to be found.’

Harold nodded in satisfaction. The twelve men that sat around him, shadowed figures in the dim light, ages ranging from late teens to late seventies, had been with him since he had taken the Meeting over from Joseph.

‘And what is it we want?’ Harold asked.

‘We want to leave our old lives behind,’ the men replied, ‘We want to be born again. We want to be renewed. If the Spirit wills it and if we give enough of ourselves.’

The room trailed into silence.

One of the men, maybe in early thirties, maybe much younger, drink ravaged features had beaten his youth away, held up his hand.

‘Harold?’ The voice was quavering, but firm in its intent. ‘Harold? May I try the Gateway tonight?’

The other men murmured in surprise, but Harold held up his beefy hand and instance silence fell.

‘Brian,’ Harold spoke softly, ‘Are you sure? You know what that means, don’t you?’

Brian nodded his head. ‘I know Harold. I have been over this so many times in my head, and…and I think I am ready.’

Harold smiled. ‘Alright Brian. Stand and make your case.’

Brian’s chair scraped against the pitted wooden floor as he stood. With slow, hesitant steps he began to walk towards the far end of the Hall, the furthest from the entranceway, and a place where shadows twisted and danced. Set in the cracked and peeling wall, was a rough wooden door, blackened with age, marked with mildew and mould.

Brian stopped before it, cleared his voice, and began.

‘I know I have done wrong with my life, and I know I hurt all the people who ever loved me, and I pushed them away. I lost myself in my despair, and I blamed everyone for it, except me. The drinking was an excuse to behave how I wanted. I wasted every chance, and every opportunity to change. I understand now it was always my choice, always in my power to change my path. I see it now. I’m ready for what comes next, whatever it is. I will face it, and I will be true.’

‘Go on, Brian.’ Harold’s voice echoed from the end of the Hall, ‘You know what to do.’

Slowly, tentatively, Brian reached out his hand, felt for the cracked door knob, and began to turn it. The doorframe vibrated, softly at first, and then growing, a single harmonic note began to reverberate, the low thrum of a bell pealing, volume rising, painfully, crashingly, and then the Light.

The door blazed with a blinding white light that filled the room with its brilliance, banishing shadow and thought. And the door opened, and the door closed.

Silence and shadows fell back into place. The door sat amidst the peeling paint, black with age, studded with intent. Brian was gone.

The men began to clap, faster and faster, smiles lighting up wasteland faces. Harold grinned and nodded, tears pricking his eyes. Later, when the men had each haltingly told their stories once again, drank their coffee and smoked their last cigarettes, and made their way back out of the Hall, back into the depressed and sagging street, Harold began to stack the chairs again. He hummed to himself as he did so. A fine night’s work, a damn fine night’s work. The Gateway did not open often, only once before had Harold witnessed it; the night that Joseph had passed through.

Harold chuckled to himself, when the outer door swung open and the chill night air swirled into disturb the dank, but now grudgingly warming room. A young man, dressed in soaking wet jeans and tee-shirt staggered through into the Hall, his face contorted with confusion. He looked wildly around before sagging to his knees on the roughened wooden floor.

‘Here now, fellah,’ Harold soothed as he strode over to the trembling figure and hooked his strong hands under the man’s armpits, lifting him easily back to his feet. ‘I got you, I got you. Here, sit down.’

Harold helped the man to sit on one of the remaining chairs. The man’s eyes darted back and forth, panic flickering in flaring starts.

‘What…where…I don’t know…I think I’m lost, but…’

‘It’s ok son,’ soothed Harold, ‘Just take a moment, get a deep breath and calm yourself down. Boy you are wet!’

‘I…I know. I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know where I am!’

Harold nodded and unfolded one of the chairs he had been stacking, sat himself down facing the young man and waited patiently.

‘I was up on the bridge, you know the one over the Thames, the big one…what’s its name? I can’t remember, my head is full of fog.’

‘Don’t worry son,’ said Harold, ‘It will pass soon.’

‘I was, was playing around with Katie, my girlfriend. We were really out of it, dancing on the road, and then she said let’s get up over the rail, dance right on the edge…and we did. We, we fell? I remember falling, the cold, the water. It was so hard, I went so deep, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see. Where’s Katie, where is she?’

The man started to rise, but Harold reached across and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, sitting him down again.

‘Ladies have a different Hall,’ said Harold, ‘At first. You drink or drugs, son?’

‘Both. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t messed up. My mum, she tried, but I ran away. I’m just broken, and no good.’

Harold sat back, one passes on, and another comes through, he thought.

 ‘Well son, we need to get you dry and warm, and we need to get you a place to stay. You may be here for a while, but maybe, just maybe, I can help you move you on. But you have to want it, have to believe it, have to crave that change for the better. But we can talk more about that back at my place while we get you fixed up. Come on, I don’t live far from here.’

The man slowly rose with Harold, watching as the older man moved around the room, flicking the switches on the wall-mounted heaters, their red-hot elements fading into sullen black.

‘Mister? What’s that door there? The one at the back. It feels….funny.’

Howard looked up, turned his head towards the black, aged door, and then looked back at the man.

‘It’s the way out, son. It’s the doorway onwards from this place.’

Harold pulled on his coat and began switching the lights off. The night-chill was already invading the space and Harold’s breath was making plumes of pearly mist.

‘But, where is this place? I feel so lost.’ The man’s voice was plaintive, scared.

‘Come to the Meeting with me son, every Thursday at 8pm sharp. Maybe we can work that out together. We are all lost boys here’.

Harold led the unresisting man back out into the night. He did not bother to lock the doors to the Hall.


January 03, 2021 08:33

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