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A short story

by Adrian Rogers

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 the mystery.

    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 changed -

    "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...


Copyright Adrian Rogers - 2001


( First printed in the ghost story issue of SHORTZ, Vol.1 No.4 )


Last updated 13th May 2008

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