Contest #119 shortlist ⭐️


Fiction Horror

“Listen,” urged Fiona. “Don’t you hear it?”

Brian’s brow furrowed as he concentrated. “Sorry, no, I don’t hear anything.”

Disharmony reigned, rare in Brian and Fiona Berriman’s year-old marriage. Whenever they disagreed, it always seemed to be about the damned phonograph. Apart from that, they were the perfect couple, insanely in love, lapping up every minute of each other’s company, filling the gnawing emptiness when they had to be apart by keeping busy and video calling whenever they could.

The phonograph had been an impulse buy. On the second day of their honeymoon, touring Devon, they’d found a charming antique shop next to a cream tea café in a quiet village. They had looked at each other with no need for words, and walked straight in. It had been like Aladdin’s cave. The shop had gone back and back, all kinds of charming pieces lining wall shelves or displayed on tables. Fiona had been drawn to a brass warming pan, beautifully kept with a high gloss polish, when Brian had called out, “Come and look at this.”

It had been like that old record label, with the dog cocking an ear toward a gramophone’s trumpet. His Master’s Voice. It was a perfect example, with a rich, red mahogany base, a red velvet turntable mat and a silvered, segmented trumpet horn.

An elderly woman, stooping slightly, spoke with a rich Devonshire burr. “One of the earliest, sir. Lovely piece. It would add a real touch of class to your living room. ‘Fraid it doesn’t work - mechanism must be broken - but it’s pure quality. I can give you a good price.”

Fiona had looked disbelievingly at her new husband, and then at the new object of his desire. The trumpet was pointing directly toward her. She could see a wildly distorted reflection of herself, as though she were disappearing into a whirlpool, sucked down irresistibly toward terrifying depths. The middle of the funnel’s aperture had been inky black, as though she was staring into a long tunnel with no light at the end. As she had gazed, she had thought she heard a sound, like the roar of the sea from a shell held to the ear. No, not the sea. It was like a voice, distant and sibilant, just too quiet to make out the words. “Brian, it gives me the creeps,” she had said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Brian had been in no mood for budging. “Sweetheart, it’ll look just right in the house. I’ve always wanted one. Pretty please?”

And so, he’d got his way. The old woman had nodded, smiling, as they’d manoeuvred the phonograph into the hatchback, well padded with bubble wrap.

Back in the present, Fiona said, “Brian, it’s the same sound I heard in the shop, when we bought it. Like a voice but just out of earshot. Can’t even be sure if it’s speaking English. God, listen to me. I’m talking like the voice is real. Look, please can we get it out of here?”

Grudgingly, Brian helped Fiona carry the phonograph out to the garage, where they placed it carefully in a corner. Brian insisted on covering it with an old sheet. Fiona turned as they left, taking in the distinctive shape of the trumpet horn under the cloth. At least it was quiet now, she thought.

A blissful week passed, with sunlit lattes on the patio, people-watching together in Starbucks, Brian making Fiona laugh uncontrollably as only he could, she telling him off for embarrassing her while loving every minute with him. Brian would be off on a sales trip from the coming Monday. Fiona hated it when he was away, counting the days, making the house clean and beautiful for his return.

On Monday morning, they breakfasted together and Brian went up to change for work while Fiona stacked the dishwasher. He came back down in his suit with his travel bag. They hugged and he ruffled her hair. “Be good, peeps,” he said. One last squeeze and kiss and he was gone. She nodded, holding back the tears that always threatened when he was leaving. Childish, she knew, but she couldn’t help it.

Right, she thought, as Brian’s car disappeared out of the close in a morning phug of fumes. Keep busy, that’s the way. It’s just a week, then he’s back. Resolving to set about the housework, she picked up her feather duster and headed into the living room.

And stopped. It was there. The phonograph. Brian must have moved it back, from the garage. Why hadn’t he told her? He knew she didn’t like it. It still had that same look about it, with the blue-black void at the centre of the funnel, like staring into a bottomless pit. She stepped back, into the hallway, and closed the living room door, rather hard.

Fiona avoided the living room for the rest of the morning. She cleaned the bedrooms and bathrooms, dusting and hoovering, then wiping the bathroom furniture. She gave the kitchen its best clean since they’d moved in, getting underneath the juicer, toaster, microwave and espresso machine, removing all the crumbs and greasy marks.

But the living room stayed uncleaned. When Wendy from next door popped in at eleven, they made coffee in the kitchen, then sat out in the garden to drink it and compare their woes and dreams. In the afternoon, Fiona nipped into town, avoiding Starbucks because it would make her miss Brian. She picked up a few things, grabbed a sandwich and was back by mid afternoon. 

Time to brave the living room, she decided. She was being silly. Frightened of some old gramophone. Honestly. Duster in hand, in she went, and was soon about her business. She dusted the phonograph first. No problems, no sounds. Then she hoovered the carpet and polished the sideboard and shelves. Everything was OK.

That evening, she didn’t feel very hungry so she just made herself a mug of instant soup and sat down in front of Netflix with a glass of Prosecco as the sun set. She found a spooky Spanish movie, dubbed and subtitled, about a haunted house full of ghostly voices. The movie didn’t do much for her and she turned it off after half an hour. That was when she heard the phonograph again.

How had she let it get behind her? She’d been fully focused on the film, forgetting the thing on the sideboard. In the quiet after the TV, it seemed more noticeable than ever, a low, hoarse whisper - possibly more than one voice - intoning just below an intelligible level.

She swung around to face it, and the voices stopped. The trumpet still looked for all the world like a tunnel straight to Hell. Fiona finished her wine in the kitchen and retired for an early night.

The next morning, she knew what she needed to do. She found the dust sheet from the garage, then draped it over the phonograph on the sideboard. She grunted as she lifted the heavy base, hugging it to her. The trumpet swung slightly as she lifted the wooden frame, and she thought she heard a syllable of the distant, hated, sibilant voice, before she told herself it was her imagination. Taking care not to put her back out, Fiona placed the thing in the same corner of the garage and left it there, closing the door.

The morning wore on. She tried her best to stop thinking about the phonograph, but the more Fiona endeavoured to push it out of her thoughts, the more stubbornly it remained, squatting malignantly, the outline of its trumpet under the dust sheet in the garage of her mind. The voice seemed to be there too - she couldn’t be certain she wasn’t daydreaming it but, if it was a hallucination, it was a most persistent one.

Fiona’s mind kept returning to the day they had bought the phonograph. She remembered the place clearly - Clovelly, it was named, a picturesque North Devon village with a cobbled main street and the most gorgeous sea views. She found herself looking it up on Google Maps. What had the shop been called? Some strange name. She searched for antique shops in Clovelly and soon found it. Esoterelica. The landline number was listed. She dialled and it rang. And rang. No answer. Strange; you’d expect a shop in a tourist village to be open, mid morning on a weekday in August. Fiona dialled again. Same, no response.

Back to Google Maps. Four hours, twenty-seven minutes, with typical traffic. It would be a long drive in her little car but she had to know about the phonograph. What was its provenance? Where had the shop lady got it from?

Fiona pushed the thought away. It was a stupid idea, driving all that distance to ask a question she probably wouldn’t get a helpful answer to. And what about the cost in petrol? Brian would hit the roof. Yet, like an obsession, it kept coming back to her. The sheeted gramophone with its sinister blue-black trumpet-hole refused steadfastly to leave her mind’s eye.

Fiona stretched and locked her car at Fleet services on the M3. She was well on her way now and she desperately needed coffee. Costa satisfied her caffeine craving and, after a quick visit to the ladies’, she was back on the road. The traffic wasn’t too bad. Fiona had always loved long road trips, with the sense of freedom and being in control. She clicked on Bluetooth audio and the first track on her fave playlist wrapped mellifluously around her - Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again.

Clovelly was just as she’d discovered it with Brian last year. Same blue skies, whitewashed buildings with black timbered windows. The GPS guided her to Esoterelica without a fuss. She heard the little hatchback tick contentedly after its mad motorway dash from South London. Fiona pushed open the door and blinked as her eyes adapted to indoors. The shop was unchanged, winding backward from the road, the collection just as she remembered it. There was even a space where the phonograph had been. Fiona felt relieved to see that; all too often, so-called antiques had been mass produced in Beijing or Chennai, with the next off the production line placed on sale before the gullible customer with the ‘unique piece’ had time to close his car boot.

“Can oi ’elp you, dearie?” It was the same elderly lady, dressed exactly as before, with the same Devonshire accent.

“Good afternoon,” began Fiona. “It’s nice to see you again. I don’t know if you remember, but I was here with my husband, about a year…”

“Oh, yes, my dear. I remember.” The voice seemed different, somehow. More confident; more in control. “You and your handsome young man bought a genuine antique phonograph. A very good choice, if I might say. How are you getting on with it?”

Fiona nodded, impressed at the accuracy of the lady’s recall. “Yes, that’s right. We still have the gramophone. What I came to ask is, do you have its provenance? You see, it’s silly, but…”

The old lady interrupted. “Not silly at all, dear. I can tell you exactly where it came from.”

Two hundred and seventeen miles to the east, in Fiona and Brian’s garage in Morden, Surrey, the old lady’s voice reverberated tinnily around the empty garage, emanating from the phonograph’s trumpet, muffled slightly by the dust sheet. “Not silly at all, dear. I can tell you exactly where it came from. The phonograph was the only piece that survived the Rosewood House fire in 1903. It was kept and handed down by servants and their descendants and eventually came to us. I’m glad you have found it a good home.”

Fiona shook her head. “Actually, I don’t want it in my home.”

An observer in Brian and Fiona’s garage in Morden would have heard a trebly, quavery voice say, through the phonograph’s trumpet, “Actually, I don’t want it in my home.” That same observer might also have registered the pained, rasping sigh that followed, as though from long-dead, brittle, papery lungs.

The old woman smiled. “Antiques find their owners, dearie. I know the phonograph is happy with you. I can feel it.”

In the distant garage, echoing, empty of all feeling, “I can feel it.”

Fiona couldn’t face the drive back to Morden that evening. She’d noticed a bed-and-breakfast down the road and she checked in there. The thirty-something landlady was happy to rustle up beans on toast for supper; the bath water was hot and the queen-size mattress engulfed Fiona in its luxuriant depths. She was asleep in no time.

Brian Berriman turned his key in the lock, doing his best not to drop the flowers, watching for twitching curtains around the close. The hour was late. The sales trip had gone well and he’d been finished days earlier than planned, so he’d decided to surprise Fiona. Where was she? Was there something she hadn’t told him? Brian knew she’d expected him to be away a full week. What was she up to?

He snapped on the hallway light. “Fiona?” No answer. There was definitely no-one at home. Brian made straight for the kitchen and cracked a beer. Flopping down in his favourite living room chair, he reached for the TV remote and straight away noticed the space on the top of the sideboard. Where was the antique phonograph? Had she put it back in the garage? Brian pulled out his phone and called his wife’s number. No answer. He guessed she was probably asleep somewhere with her phone on silent.

A man with purpose, Brian strode into the garage and whipped the dust sheet from the gramophone’s horn. It was just as it had been. The polished red mahogany; the lustrous metallic funnel. He bent and took it in his arms, then bore it proudly back, setting it in pride of place on the sideboard. Satisfied, he went to bed.

An hour or two later, a soft, sibilant, trebly and tinny voice spoke urgently into Brian and Fiona’s home, from the dark bell of the phonograph. 

In their separate beds, Fiona and Brian Berriman slept obliviously on.

Fiona sailed along the M3, not planning to stop. The breakfast had been everything she’d expected from a Devon B&B and she needed nothing more. She’d seen the missed call from Brian but knew better than to phone back too early in the morning if he didn’t have to get up for work. Cruising in the middle lane, she speed-dialled Brian. It rang out. Ah well, he was probably sleeping off a hangover.

They should prepare you for this when you get married, Fiona thought, as she sat, numb, crouched on the kerb opposite the smoking ruin of her home, wherein lay the still-smoking body of her husband. The policewoman who’d tried and failed to console her stood ineffectually nearby. They had confirmed it was Brian whose body they had found in the house and they were going to bring him out as soon as it was safe.

Much later, after the funeral, Fiona was to learn from the insurance assessor that just one item had escaped the conflagration - an antique gramophone with a highly polished trumpet bell and a broken mechanism.

November 12, 2021 22:06

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Bruce Friedman
15:23 Nov 20, 2021

Wonderful story, Rob. Rich vocabulary with some words unknown to me in the U.S. (e.g. phug) and excellent pacing. Loved the ending. Award richly deserved.


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Amanda Lieser
18:30 Nov 19, 2021

Hi Rob! This piece was so great. It certainly deserved to be short listed. It was perfectly creepy and eerily beautiful. I love that you chose a newlywed couple for this piece. They were wonderfully cast. I couldn’t read this piece fast enough; it was just the right amount of scary. Thank you for writing this story!


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Amanda Fox
15:56 Nov 17, 2021

So creepy! I love this kind of story, and you told it very well.


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