It was early spring, before the green had leached out of
the grass, when two friends S saw a hostel nestling unassumingly in its wooded valley.
Humpbacked hills bulked above the treeline, and it was hard to visualize them bleaching to
pale beige with a hint of burnt cream in summer. The two men were standing by an iron gate
- with a path dropping away on their left through the valley across a creek by a wooden
bridge, and up to the front door of the hostel. The overall color effect of the woodland
was dusty olive, and water in the creek glittered under the late afternoon light slanting
against the hills. A large rectangular patch of woodland on the far side of the valley had
been cleared to make space for the hostel in its centre, surrounded by lawns of almost
Bowling Green smoothness.
"We might as well spend the night here, there's no point in
going any further today."
"Agreed, it's strange though, we're both assuming this place is
a hostel, but why?"
"I don't know. There's nothing to say it is, and it's not
marked on the map, but somehow I know it's a hostel."
"I see what you mean"... They looked at one another, then
across at their destination. It looked so tidy and respectable in its cleared patch -
almost unreal, tempting them to shut their eyes and open them again to see if it was still
there - which it was, inviting hut enigmatic in day's decline...
... And the landlord shared in this enigma. A short,
fat man in baggy gray trousers and a striped shirt - with a butcher's apron overall, he
greeted them with quietly smiling pleasantness, bowing them to the counter to sign the
visitors book. And somehow, in this setting the friends could not feel surprised by him,
anymore than he was by them when they signed their names -
They found the accommodation to be that of an old
fashioned youth hostel, divided into male and female dormitories at the back of the
building, but they deposited their kit without comment on the ~lotted bunks, before
following the landlord back to the lounge to join the other guests. Everyone was friendly
- but in a subdued fashion with no raised voices, and when the dinner gong was sounded
they all trooped into the dining room to sit at a long table. The food was simple,
substantial, and old fashioned - what in less fat conscious days would have been called a
good feed. Table talk was a discreet, oddly intellectual murmur, with none of the
cheerful, anecdotal qualities expected from holidaymakers. Afterwards they drifted back
into the lounge for coffee and a welcoming television where, without dissent all watched
the current affairs program Four Corners in complete silence.
No one seemed disposed to linger into the small
hours, but before going to bed the friends went out onto the lawn - walking around the
house in the moonlight. It was built of local stone, with chimneys at either end, a gray
iron roof, and an iron roofed front verandah. Under moon and starlight it was subtly
transformed. The walls and chimneys appeared to have lapsed into black shadows, while the
gray iron roof had the washed out pallor of the moon. There were few lights within the
house - sinking into its own private sleep and what their were looked unnaturally pale...
though when they went back inside everything looked normal.
It was just after midnight - according to the moon's
transit when Nemo woke suddenly into a state of instantaneous awareness. The male
dormitory was at the northern end of the house - built on a north-south axis, and his bunk
was close to the northern wall. No one else was awake, and the only sounds coming from the
room were the breathings of sleepers, yet he had been woken by a shouting voice. He looked
across the room at Copal, who was fast asleep. Twisting round, he sat up - his heart
thudding. There it was again, a shouting voice from behind the north wall, echoing through
the dormitory, but no one seemed to hear it. Surely they could not all have conspired to
feign sleep in order to ignore it?
There was no more sleep for Nemo that night. A
window was open, through which moonbeams poured into the room, traversing the dormitory,
illuminating first one sleeper, then another, without waking any, while the voice
continued shouting. He could distinguish words but not meanings, as if the shouter was
using a language no one else could know. The voice was loud and vigorous, but without any
sense of urgency, as if its owner was shouting for the sake of shouting. Yet Nemo was in a
cold sweat - sitting there listening. The voice did not always come from quite the same
place, feeling sometimes closer to him than at others. Once it almost shouted in his ear
through the wall before moving away again. He was afraid to wake anyone because the voice
had him under a spell - meant only for him.
A cock crowed at dawn and the voice fell silent.
Over breakfast the conversation was as polite and subdued as ever, and no one gave any
indication of having heard anything untoward. After breakfast Nemo persuaded Gopal to sit
with him on the front verandah, to discuss the night's experiences... but Gopal had heard
nothing'... you must have'." expostulated an exasperated Nemo - "this thing kept
me awake 'til dawn."
"Well, I'm sorry", replied Gopal mildly -
"but I heard nothing, and I don't think anyone else did either.'
"I don't believe it'." snapped Nemo -
"it's a conspiracy, and I'm going to speak to the landlord'."
"No, my friend" said the landlord politely
- "I heard nothing, because there is no 'shouter behind the wall"'...
"Shouter behind the wall?" queried Nemo
suspiciously - "why did you use that expression 'shouter behind the wall'... do you
know more than you're telling?"
"I know nothing", answered the landlord -
"because there's nothing to know."
Nemo was not satisfied, but masking his feelings booked the two of
them in for another night, without consulting his friend. Gopal though was indifferent,
willing to go along with him when Nemo declared his intention of getting to the bottom of
Their opportunity came later in the morning, when the landlord drove
off in a battered old ute to do some shopping. Quickly - seeing that they were alone the
two friends slipped into the dormitory. Nemo went straight to the north wall -"This
is where it came from, now help me shift these bunks and we'll sound the wall." This
they did in the morning silence, putting their ears to the wall and tapping with bare
knuckles, but the sound fell dead, and the ensuing quiet seemed to mock their efforts,
until, on an empty stretch of wall beyond where their bunks should have been, the sound
"I knew it!" said Nemo triumphantly - "this bit's not
stone. Let's put the bunks back, and I'll show you."
They carefully tapped the designated area. The sound had changed.
Stone had given way to wood, and a hollowness that hadn't been there before -
"Now do you believe me? Obviously our dormitory doesn't go
right up to the outside wall. This wooden part must be the door to another room...
"The whole being covered with that hideous green and purple
wallpaper we have to endure" interrupted Gopal, but Nemo wasn't listening
-"Don't you understand?" he persisted, but Gopal interrupted again -"No I
don't, and neither do you. So what if that's a concealed entrance, it's not our business,
so let's leave well alone and get on with the day!" However they both knew the matter
wouldn't rest, but lie between them - like an unavoidable fate.
Daytime and evening passed quickly, and all retired
to bed at about the same time. Again the house sank into its natural slumber, but Nemo
remained alert, determined to solve the mystery. Midnight came and went. Again moonlight
spilled into the room, spreading from one sleeper to the next like a passing wave. Then
the shouting began.
Nemo looked around. No one was awake. He looked
towards the hidden door, there was a bar of light at floor level that was not the moon -
"Of course" he said softly - " a
door, however well hidden is unlikely to be quite flush with the floor in an old house.
So, there's a room, with a light"...
Slowly, drawn by the light, he slipped out of bed -
padding softly towards the hidden door. The voice was still shouting, the sleepers still
sleeping. The bar of light was growing, becoming a crack running up the wall... He was
unable to draw back.
Gopal tossed and turned, rising through the sea of
sleep to a half waking doze - to hear what sounded like the subdued creak of a door
opening, then closing again, before sleep reclaimed him... Until all awoke to the scream
as dawn reared its head, and a cock crowed into the dying echo of that scream. They stared
at the wall that was a door, it was shut - the patterned wallpaper spreading from wall to
wall unbroken, but a thin trail of black smoke seeped along the floor from under the
hidden door, and Nemo's bed was empty.
It was Gopal who - pulling on some clothes ran to the phone, but the
line was dead. It was Gopal who ran heedlessly up the drive with confused ideas about
getting help. It was Gopal who, looking back saw nothing but unbroken woodland across the
valley. Of the hostel there was no sign...