This is going to end with my girlfriend telling me she’ll never go out with me again.
I know this and yet I move inexorably towards it.
Not because I don’t want my girlfriend to come out with me. Not because I’m some kind of masochist. It’s because I’m an idiot. I’m stupid. I may deny it sometimes. You’ll see that for yourself. But, deep down, I accept it as the truth. I let stupid things happen, and then it’s too late.
My girlfriend’s name is Angharad. She’s Welsh. She’s got brown hair which falls just below her shoulders and she sometimes dyes it other colours. Sometimes not. She’s into all the same music as me, especially Autechre and Julian Cope. Our favourite Leonard Cohen song is The Captain. Another thing we share is a love of the films of both The Marx Brothers and Aki Kaurismaki. You don’t meet many girls like Angharad. I haven’t anyway. It was weird the way the more we got to know each other, the more it seemed we’d known each other all along. When we moved in together we had so many duplicate CDs and DVDs and books. We loved it. We have them on shelves on either side of the TV. Synchronicity. Another thing about her is that she doesn’t like her name to be abbreviated in any way, shape, or form. She’s Angharad.
We’ve been together now for two years. Just over. We had an anniversary recently. We spent a couple of nights in a hotel by the coast. Did all the romantic things; walking along the cliffs at sunset, eating an expensive meal, sitting on the sand and watching the sun come up. I say we spent a couple of nights there, but the reality was that we spent the nights out, being together. We spent the day time in the hotel, with the curtains drawn tight and the lights off, curled up together in bed.
Angharad has been encouraging me to do more writing. She’s talked about it ever since she first found one of my notebooks lying on the floor in my bedroom. She doesn’t go on about it. She’s not over the top. But she likes what I’ve done and she knows I enjoy it. She’s even drawn pictures to go with some of them, and we’ve talked on and off about doing either a graphic novel or an illustrated book for kids. Maybe both. So when I told her about an online writer’s group I’d come across, she thought it looked interesting and told me that, yes, I should totally give it a go. “But,” she added. “Don’t give them any money.”
“I’m not stupid,” I told her.
Sometimes I forget.
“Of course you’re not,” she said and kissed my cheek.
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure at first. I’m not much of a joiner. Angharad and I both have friends, family too, but as a general rule we tend to prefer it when it’s just the two of us. I decided to give it a go though, and for the last, more or less, four months, we’ve been sharing tips and advice and work shopping each other’s pieces. All of which is good, but the best thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s given me a reason to actually sit down and get things finished, which has always been my biggest problem.
So, I’ve been far more productive these last four months, and enjoying the feeling that the productivity brings. Which isn’t to say that my writing has necessarily taken any great leaps forward, but having an audience feels good. Everyone in the group is supportive and friendly. Not overly so though. Not enough to be off putting.
And then a couple of weeks ago, the idea of a writers’ retreat came up.
I wasn’t sure. It seemed quite full on to me. Everybody else seemed really into it though, so I agreed to join them. The idea was to rent two neighbouring log cabins in the New Forest and spend a three day weekend writing, work shopping, discussing, and relaxing.
Angharad asked if she could come along and do some painting, and the others agreed, as long as she’d be willing to do a picture for each of us to accompany our stories. Angharad was crazy about this idea. The date was set then, with the six of us going along from the group, and Angharad to make seven. We agreed we would each bring a story along to read on the first night around a campfire, even Angharad. The rule was that it didn’t have to be a horror story or a ghost story, but they were strongly encouraged.
For the next ten days, I really struggled.
I’ve never written horror before and every idea I had seemed to be a rehashing of a movie or story I knew from somewhere else. Angharad told me that didn’t matter, and that her own story, which she would not let me see, was a proud rehash of some of her favourite scary movies. Two more days passed and I was starting to panic. Then, on the Wednesday evening, Angharad sat me down at my desk. She put Confield on, which is both of our favourites, and came and stood over me. “You’re going to sit here and write,” she told me. “I’ll bring you up a cup of tea every forty five minutes and snacks from time to time. You can leave your chair to change CDs and go to the bathroom. Any questions?”
“I don’t think so.”
“And one more thing,” she added. “I’m disconnecting the wi-fi until you’ve finished, so your laptop is a glorified word processor,” she held out her hand. “Phone please.”
I handed it over. She bent down and kissed me.
In the end, I wrote a story like this, which started with me saying that at the end of the story, my girlfriend would tell me she didn’t want to go anywhere with me again. It told the story of a writers’ group and the retreat they organised. Only, when the main character and his girlfriend got to the retreat, although things seemed ok to start with and they read stories around a camo fire and had fun, it turned out that the group were actually a demonic cult who had tricked the narrator into joining their group so he would meet them in the woods to be sacrificed. As for his girlfriend who came along too; she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By the end of the story, everybody except the narrator and his girlfriend were dead and, well, you know what the girlfriend had to say about matters.
It was supposed to be a dark comedy. It had blood and demonic worship, so I hoped it ticked the horror boxes, but more than that, I hoped it would make the others laugh.
We arrived in the New Forest at about lunchtime on the Friday and settled into our cabin with Kara and Gav, the other couple who were attending, both of whom were in the group. Karl, Yoshi, and Mel, the three single attendees, were in the cabin next door.
We spent the afternoon lazing around the cabins and exploring the woods.
It was fun. I like nature as somewhere to visit, and enjoy an occasional afternoon of climbing trees and kicking through undergrowth. Still though, I can’t imagine not living in a city.
Evening rolled into night and the seven of us sat around the fire. We drew numbers to pick the order of the stories, and I was last.
By the time the other stories had finished, I was looking forward to mine. I thought the others would get a kick out of hearing how Angharad and I managed to overcome each of them and come out as survivors.
It didn’t work out like that though.
As I read the part where the fake writing group drugged the narrator and his girlfriend, that is to say, Angharad and myself, I thought I could sense a shifting in the atmosphere. Whenever I looked up, they were exchanging looks, mouthing things to each other. I was sure I wasn’t imagining it. When I got to the scene where Angharad overpowers and wrestles a hammer out of Gav’s hand as he’s about to hit me with it and then uses it to cave in his skull, Gav, rather than laughing, got up and went into his cabin, shaking his head.
“Should I stop?” I asked, looking around.
“It’s ok,” said Kara, smiling awkwardly. “He’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Maybe we should just leave while they’re sleeping?” I asked Angharad as we lay in bed. “It might be for the best.”
“It’s fine,” she told me. “Everyone was tired, and they’d been drinking. Don’t worry about it.”
The comments on my story had been subdued at best. Mainly, though, it wasn’t at best. Mel described it as “contrived,” adding; “it felt like you were trying too hard to be clever and throwing in gimmicky meta tricks.”
There wasn’t really any way to argue with that.
“Do you think I should have changed the names?” I asked.
“I’m not sure the names are the point, really,” Yoshi said. “But, now that you ask, from a legal standpoint, it’s probably best not to use real people’s names.”
I laughed. “You guys won’t sue me though, will you?”
“That’ll be difficult,” said Gav, who had indeed come back out. “Seeing as how we’re all dead.”
I laughed again, and so did the others. Except Gav. I got the impression he didn’t like me having Angharad kill him.
It seemed like the other group members didn’t know how to take my story. Karl had said the violence was unnecessarily graphic, which I suppose had been particularly valid when it came to his own demise. I’d thought that was the point, and part of what would make them find the story amusing, but I guess I’d misjudged that.
Angharad stayed quiet throughout the critique and looked a bit embarrassed and then the night had broken up pretty quickly after I finished, and so here we were. To be fair, there weren’t many better places to be than curled up in bed with Angharad.
That night, though, was chopped and shaken by weird dreams. My memories of them are scarce, scattered across a number of short bursts of sleep which left me with a disjointed collage of images.
I woke up at one point and sat upright, looking around the darkness, trying to get some sense of equilibrium. I felt a hand on my arm and luckily didn’t lash out, as was my first reaction.
Angharad was sitting up too, looking at me.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“You were talking,” she said.
“What was I saying?”
“I’m not sure,” she told me. “I couldn’t make it out. I think it was names.”
“I don’t know.”
I was still having difficulty sleeping when the sun came up. I felt the things I’d seen in my dreams were there, just around a mental corner, and I could reach them with a little more effort. Angharad told me to try writing it down, anything from the dress that came to me, that it might help me get things straight. When I sat down though, nothing would come. Whatever I’d been dreaming, it was lost. The specifics that is. All that was left was a numb feeling. An unease.
That day, we started with our writing exercises, did some work shopping, it was fun. The atmosphere still seemed a little off to me though. It wasn’t anything I could exactly put my finger on. I just felt that the others were slightly distant. Whispering things that I wasn’t a part of. Exchanging looks. I rationalised it with the fact they’d been together as a group for quite some time before I joined. They’d been on numerous retreats, just the five of them, before this.
I was to find out the real reason why at the very end of the day.
Midnight was the time they’d agreed on to make the sacrifice.
Angharad and I came too tied to a tree.
It was a tall, dead tree, the branches trimmed off and strange symbols engraved all over it. I couldn’t see that at first though as we were tied at opposite sides with our backs to the tree, our arms stretched out behind us, overlapping and tied together.
Around the outside of the tree were sculptures of strange horned, multi limbed creatures made from bones and wood, each one holding a flaming torch. The members of my writing group were chanting, moving around us in odd, jerky movements. Their faces were painted or something, though it was hard to see clearly as they moved between the darkness and the flickering flames.
“Are you ok?” I asked Angharad, but it came out as a meaningless slurred sound.
I tried moving my mouth again, but something wasn’t right. It was heavy and numb. I knew Yoshi was a dentist, so I guessed that I’d been injected with something. In amongst the chanting, I heard a noise which I took to be Angharad experiencing the same problem.
Luckily for us, Angharad was wearing a ring I’d bought her a couple of months ago. It wasn’t expensive, but she liked it. It was like a metal bird’s skull with the beak curving over the joint. By bending her finger, she managed to use the tip of the beak to cut through the rope, which was old and had loose threads. A real oversight by the demonic sacrificers.
From that point onwards, it was bedlam.
Running. Hiding. Blood. Bodies. Fire. More running. Violence. More bodies. More blood. Running again.
You can imagine.
So… that brings us to now. Angharad and I are sitting side by side by the side of a lake, covered in dried blood. I can’t move my left arm at all. There’s no pain there anymore though. I don’t know what this means. We can both speak again, but it still feels weirdly unnatural. Around us is nothing but trees and water and the soft, natural sounds that come with them. It’s like the world is normal. It’s like we’re the only people left in it. Everything resetting.
Even though we’re fairly sure everyone back there is dead, we ran and ran through the woods, holding hands even though it slowed us down and caused us to stumble continually. We didn’t want to get separated. And then we got to where we are now, and we both fell again, but this time we stayed down. We breathed heavily and we ached and we relished the fact it meant we were still alive. I don’t know how much time has passed since then, but the first hints of light are breaking into the sky.
“Are you ok?” I ask her. Again. For maybe the tenth time.
“Still no,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess not.”
“What do we do next?”
I’ve been avoiding this thought. I have no idea where we are. I have no idea what to do.
“I want some coffee,” I tell her. “And a hot bath.”
“I can throw you in the lake,” she says.
Angharad holds out her arms, which are shaking. I’m not sure which blood is hers, and which from the others. “Probably not,” she says.
“I guess I have a story to write,” I tell her.
She nods her head. “Why couldn’t you have just joined a group that was after your money?” she asks.
“I don’t know why you’re complaining,” I tell her. “It was more fun than your cousin Catrin’s wedding.”
Angharad sits up. She punches me, hard, in the chest.
“Ow,” is all I can think to say, which pretty much sums it up, actually.
It’s not like I didn’t see this coming. I told you, remember.
She shapes as if she’s going to hit me again but, thankfully, changes her mind. She’s stronger than she looks. You should have seen the way she took Gav down. She stares at me, her face boiling with fury. “I’m never going out with you again,” she says.