The telephone in the office rings. I hear him pick up the receiver. My hearing is very acute now. Although I can’t turn to look I can hear every word that’s said. Again I wonder if the others can hear too. I’m sure they can.
‘Hallo? Castle Museum, can I help you? … A youth group? What sort of age range? … Ah, perfect. Both young men and women? I could give you the morning of Wednesday 20th, would that be suitable? … Good, good. And perhaps you could send me a list of the names and ages, I feel if I know a little about my visitors I can make the talk more personal, more relevant … That’d be perfect. Fine, so I’ll see you at 9.30 on the 20th. I look forward to it.’
I hear the receiver click back on its rest, hear him laugh. It’s a cold, quiet sound, full of anticipation. In my mind’s eye I can see him, eyes wide, thin mouth turned up at the corners as he rubs his hands together slowly. He’s satisfied with the arrangements.
It’s very quiet now the holiday season is over. But he’s pleased, he likes the winter. There’s a better chance of finding what he wants in the winter. The clothes are more suitable and he can study the visitors more closely when the museum isn’t too crowded.
Time passes. It’s hard to tell how many days, how many weeks. A few visitors come and go, they gaze at us, remark and exclaim. His tall, gaunt body bends as he smiles and listens to their questions, watches them, sums them up. He does nothing. They’re lucky, unsuitable. Stepping back, he allows them to go on their way. There’s no hurry. He can wait.
One cold morning, a larger group arrives, a motley crowd of youngsters with pads and pencils in hand. They pour in, jostling each other, complaining about the chilly wind, talking, laughing. He greets them, missing nothing, rubs his hands together and says he’s sure the heating will warm them soon enough.
‘We have to keep it steady for the more delicate exhibits.’ He smiles, studying each member of the group carefully, covertly.
I can see them from where I stand. I want to warn them, tell them to leave, go now while they all have the chance. But I can say nothing. I can only watch in silence, listening to snatches of their carefree chatter.
‘You know Sue suggested we should write something about this visit? Are you going to?’
‘I don’t know. S’pose it could be fun. Something creepy. I mean, the castle’s mega old. What do you think?’
‘Great idea. There’s plenty of scope with all those freezing corridors and dark rooms. I bet some gruesome things happened here in the old days! Isn’t there an oubliette somewhere in the west wall?’
‘What’s an oubliette when it’s at home?’
‘A tiny cell where they used to dump people and forget about them. You know, oublier, French for forget.’
‘Yuk. Sounds horrid. We’ll have to ask the curator.’
They follow him to the far end of the museum, furthest away from us. He always starts his tours as far from our rooms as possible. First he shows them the Roman artefacts, then he passes on to the maps and paintings, the model ships and naval instruments. And all the time he studies them closely with icy eyes. Makes his plans.
For a while I can’t hear them, but gradually the noise increases as they move from exhibit to exhibit, closer and closer until they crowd in through the door. Warm now, innocently eager.
They study the scenes that have been so carefully and painstakingly created for them. I listen to him, we all do as we stand here, silent and still, we’ve heard it so many times before.
‘Here we have tried to recreate the port as it was in medieval times. The fishermen are going about their daily business – these three, for instance, are placing the catch in salting barrels.’
He gazes up at us knowingly, reaches out his hand as if to touch the stiff cloth cast in perpetual folds, but his hand does not quite make contact with the fabric. It hesitates, lifts in a fleeting gesture, full of satisfaction, then he goes on.
‘The two main figures are cutting the fish, the young lad to the right is placing the pieces in the barrel, and we are awaiting a fourth figure.’ He pauses, his voice quiet and suddenly chilling. ‘When it arrives it will be placed in this space here and will be breaking up the cakes of salt to be placed in the barrel.’
One of the group remarks on how realistic the scene is, how life-like the figures. A shiver of tension runs through them. Feeling a little nervous, but not really knowing why, they all begin to talk at once, wrapping the disturbing silence in words. With cold, quiet authority the curator interrupts the babble.
‘We make a great effort to create an authentic scene, a great effort. In a way you could say that each of these figures takes a lifetime’s work.’ He smiles and looks up at us, his gaze full of satisfaction. ‘Notice the eyes, one could almost feel they follow one around the room.’
The leader of the group, an older woman, seems a little distracted. She looks at her watch.
‘I’m afraid we’ve only ten minutes left.’ She smiles apologetically, glances at a young man standing next to her, smiles at the curator. ‘David has to get going soon. He’s got an interview at 12.30. Would it be possible for you to run through the rest for us quickly before he has to dash off?’
For a second there’s a flash of anger in the curator’s eyes, but he recovers himself quickly, smiles and nods.
‘Of course, of course.’
I can just see the young man called David. He is about nineteen. His clothes are unusual, a collarless shirt of some rough linen material, a long sheepskin jerkin, his trousers stuffed into the tops of soft leather boots. I feel icy cold. Colder even than I was before.
I see the curator smile, his hooded eyes hypnotic as he gathers them all under his spell.
‘Of course,’ he says again, his voice soft and purring. ‘Well, let me see. I wouldn’t want you to miss the exhibit in the smaller room. Follow me. We’ve just time enough for me to tell you about it.’
But as he speaks he does not look at them all. His gaze rests only on the one called David and, as we watch, the group slowly turns away from the young man. He stands mesmerised, within touching distance of the three of us. He doesn’t follow his friends and they don’t look back. They’ve forgotten him.
The sound of their chatter recedes as he comes towards us, compelled by the inner voice, controlled by a force far stronger than himself. With dread and dragging feet he steps up on to the plinth. With infinite slowness he crouches down. For a second his hands reach out, imploring. His eyes, agonized, look back over his shoulder, but it’s too late, nothing can save him now.
Slowly, relentlessly, the grey petrification takes him until, at last, only his terrified eyes remain lifelike, gazing out on the world around him. He’s trapped forever, knowing, with that dreadful, creeping certainty we’ve all felt, that there’s no escape.
Photo by Sabbian Paine