Certain that if she opens her bedroom door she would be greeted by the same beating of drums and carnival costumes that got her out of bed, Francesca seeks another exit. Querulous and clumsy, as she always is when hauled forcibly from her dreams, she opens her second floor window, steps cautiously onto the desk in front of it, and steadies herself for the difficult plunge. But what she experiences isn’t falling at all, rather it is a pleasant collapse, as though the page were intentionally crumpled to such an extent that she could easily place the soles of her feet onto the thick careening grass below.
The garden is quiet, but for the distant put-put-putting of toms; this is the second night in a row she has been awoken by the hubbub beyond her door, she hopes it doesn’t become a regular occurrence.
She looks up at her window; the silhouette held in it has a familiar shape; she’s sure she’d recognise it in an instant, if she could only pluck its features out of the darkness. But the night doesn’t give, and the semblance dissolves wraithlike into the room behind it. With a shrug she shakes sleep’s remaining shackles, braves the brisk night air and heads towards town.
The route is usually a familiar one, but where once it was direct now it is circuitous. Francesca becomes further frustrated with each new unexpected turn. She would much rather be back in bed, asleep, but thinking about it is pointless, and so she continues her monotonous plod. Presently, below a lamppost, which seems to rise up like an iceberg out of the gloom, she comes upon a man circling a shrub, beating away at the base of it with a large stick.
“You, there”, she calls out to him, her voice echoing disconnectedly through the darkness, “what the devil are you doing?”
“Beating around the bush ma’am”, comes his candid reply, “it’s my job, you see.”
He doesn’t look up at her when replying, just goes on circling the bush, like some enchanted maypole, the flickering light flashing a dubious glint on the top of his unclad head. Bemused, she leaves him to his nonsensical enterprise and moves on. But she doesn’t get very far before she sees something far worse than a man harassing brambles.
Sitting at the foot of a hillock, at the top of which is a solitary silver birch, she spies a man engaging in the painful process of pulling out his own eyeball. She has no idea what is causing him to attempt this perplexing expulsion and, horrified, there is nothing she can do but look on and wait for the inevitable outcome.
Once successful, the man, who now has a dangling tangle of threads in place of his parted peeper, pitches his dismembered eyeball far into the night air. From beneath the birch, a young woman she had not previously noticed dashes down the hillock, with her hands eagerly extended, in pursuit of the rogue oculus. It would seem this is the night for nonsense; she looks up at the cloudy sky and supposes the moon must be full behind it.
Francesca turns her back on the farce and, hounded by a prickly sense of foreboding at what she might discover next, quickens her step along the dark deceptive path.
Clinging to the hope that Freyja will soon return is what keeps her going, but, like breath’s blush on a frosty pane, her most cherished memories threaten to vanish with each withering minute. This is the first time she has left the house in weeks; she has become reclusive, reluctant to go out lest the memories dissolve completely.
She had at first been furious, an agitated heap of torn letters and reticent walls her only witnesses, but that type of anger is difficult to sustain, especially where Freyja is concerned. Next, she went about inventing excuses for her absent partner, but her tame efforts were severely lacking in imagination and subsequently briefer than her anger, leaving her with nothing but a muddy puddle of depression to languish over. Now she spends most of her days in bed, staring up at the ceiling and listening to music which reflects her bleak existence. A complicated chorus of reverberating hums; the sombre chant of an oncoming funeral procession distracts her wistful thoughts.
Francesca steps aside, she feels out of place in her nightdress, and isn’t sure whether she should pay her respects somehow. Following a few brief moments of hesitation, she removes her nightcap and waves it courteously as the sorry congregation stalk by. She is lucky enough to have never been involved in a procession such as this, and, surprised by her own curiosity, she decides she wants to get a good look at the casket. But what she expects to be is not.
At the rear of the horse-drawn hearse, flanked on either side by a chain of mournful shadows holding daisies at their chests, there sits a solemn sallow fellow, where one would usually find the coffin, eating dandelions by the root and giving spoons away. When he thrusts a piece of silverware in her direction, she shakes her head and then stares at the ground, hiding her disappointed face from the passing parade. It is in this pose, with her gaze fixed firmly on her slippers, that she waits for the remainder of the procession to go by.
It seems she’ll never reach town, and has forgotten why she’d even decided to go there in the first place. Like a wake of restless vultures, a persistent cloud of misfortune has been hanging over her; first Freyja left, then a colourless nothing devoured all outside her front door, and now this. Francesca turns off the main road and heads down a tight alley. She longs for somewhere to rest her weary feet and, a little further along the serpentine passage, she spots a public house. Perhaps someone inside can tell her where the town is.
On her approach, she notices two figures looming in the doorway, the shocking appearance of the nearest instantly seizes her attention. No body, just a pair of beady black eyes swamped by a mishmash mass of ears; she can’t help but stare. Thankfully the astonishing collection of cognisant lobes is too busy watching its partner struggling to open a can, to notice her wide-eyed glare.
“Excuse me sirs, what’s in the can?”
Not the first strange, yet direct, response she has received tonight, and they ignore her completely when she asks them the distance to town. Instead of wasting her time trying to gain a meaningful explanation as to why anyone would be interested in a can of worms, she steps inside. Her mother would be able to pump more information out of them; she has always been good at that sort of thing.
Just the other week, an engineer came round to fix the boiler; once he was finished, Francesca asked him what the problem was. In response he mumbled for a few minutes, and then wrote a large bill. It was a substantial amount of money he was asking for and she wanted more of an explanation before signing the cheque, but he refused to give her any details. So she dialled her mother’s number and handed him the receiver. It only took a couple of minutes, but once her mother had finished with the dastardly drudge, the bill was halved. She even overheard him say exactly what the problem was, and the process he went through to fix it. Apparently there was a peacock feather caught in one of the pipes, the mystery of how it got there still hasn’t been solved.
The pub is full of the type of red-faced raucousness synonymous with late night drinking; there are people singing, dancing on tables and in general making complete ninnies of themselves. Having left her room to escape a similar commotion, she’d like to get the necessary information and leave the rabble behind as soon as possible. Barging her way past a party of Chinese tourists, who begin whispering amongst themselves the second she walks by, she makes her way over to the bar. Once there, having waved the barman away, she sits beside a kind-looking gentleman, who is pouring a pint of beer onto a tiny tin whistle. She finds him quite charming in his suit and bowler hat but, tired of the lunacy she has been confronted with tonight, doesn’t bother questioning his action, and restricts herself to asking for the information she needs.
It would seem people have a problem with looking her in the face tonight, for he doesn’t look up from his wet whistle, just points to a door behind the bar, perhaps he means for her to ask the manager. She thanks him and then hops hastily over, aided by her stool.
Francesca steps through the door and finds herself surrounded by an ostentatious crowd of carnival folk. Through the unruly flurry a trio of overzealous men, clothed in garish masks and an overabundance of colour, reach out their long pale fingers to her. She puts her own hands over her ears, to block out the cacophonous fanfare, and vigorously declines their offer. But, ignoring her refusal, they grip her around the wrists and draw her into their jubilant celebrations.
She finds herself being passed from partner to partner, dancing foxtrots and tangos and goodness knows what else. In her haste to escape the clutches of the whirling multitude, she stumbles over a sweaty scissors-holding man sitting in a corner, cutting an expensive-looking embroidered rug into small pieces. Confused as to why such a simple task is causing him to perspire so heavily, she apologises and, picking up a broom she finds propped beside him, hurriedly sweeps past.
An inexhaustible whirligig, the swaying caper continues regardless of how jaded she is, she staggers from pillar to post, in desperate need of reprieve; it seems there is an endless supply of dancers, all shrouded in extravagant attire and waiting in line for their turn.
Above the surging multitude an indecisive clock frantically flaps about, before settling itself down on a doorframe at the far side of the room. She recognises the chipped paint on the frame immediately. Exhausted, she forcibly pulls herself away from the boisterous assembly, and struggles towards her bedroom. Once inside, she slams the door shut, a futile barricade against the ongoing pandemonium, and, riddled with fatigue, collapses onto her bed.
Curtis Ackie is a young British-born novelist, short story writer and poet, based in Zagreb, Croatia. He has written and self-published three books: a novel, entitled The Door to Freedom, a collection of short stories, entitled Goldfish Tears, and Dark Matter, a book of spellbound poetry. His fiction is primarily concerned with the magic of dreams as escapism, and can be found on his website http://www.poutingbear.com.