The rain was easing off and Joe was calming down. He looked over at Shelly. She had her arms folded across her chest and was staring daggers through the windscreen. Joe took a deep breath.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked. He knew that she didn’t. She had thrown the map at him five minutes ago and told him that he should read it if he thought that she was doing such a terrible job. Shelly didn’t give any indication that she had heard him. He scratched at his beard and knew what he had to say.
“I’m sorry.” He waited to see if it had any effect, then said it again. She turned to face him.
“You’re an arsehole, you know that?”
“No, I don’t know where we are. It’s getting late, Joe. We should really stop somewhere.”
Joe agreed with that. His eyes were getting tired and he didn’t want to still be out here if the rain started up again. He arched his spine as much as the seat allowed and wondered how much longer he could cope.
So it was a stroke of luck when the headlights picked out a sign on the side of the road. A wooden sign with a statement written in black paint.
“THE QUIZMISTRESS BED AND BREAKFAST. NEXT LEFT.”
He turned to look at Shelly, who was cracking each of her knuckles one by one.
“What do you think,” he asked. “Too good to be true?”
“Somehow I doubt it,” she replied.
So, he thought. She was still angry. She got this way on an empty stomach. They hadn’t had anything to eat since they’d stopped for an early lunch outside of York. Now that he thought about it, his stomach was rumbling too. He hoped that The Quizmistress was open.
He took the next left and felt the difference in road surface almost instantly. He slowed right down and took things carefully, and before long they had parked in front of The Quizmistress. It looked like any old country pub but a laminated notice had been hung under the sign that swung in the wind, with ROOMS AVAILABLE printed in Times New Roman font. Joe wondered how they changed it if rooms were ever taken.
He poured himself out of the car and was surprised at how quickly Shelly was out and on her feet. They grabbed the bags from the back seat and headed inside, moving quickly to get out of the biting wind.
The inside of The Quizmistress certainly smelled like a country pub. The scent of decades of spilled stale bitter and the faint memory of cigarette smoke greeted them as they opened the door. A stick-thin young woman with bad skin and short black hair wearing a stained white kitchen t-shirt that was much too big for her looked up as the door slammed behind them. She turned and muttered into the open door behind her and an elderly bald man in thick-rimmed glasses and a red cardigan pottered out to greet them. He walked straight past them, wiping his hands on a checked tea towel and came to a halt behind the front desk. He took a moment to arrange himself, cleared his throat, and then looked up at them through his spectacles.
“Yes please, how can I help?”
“We’d like a room, if there’s one going.”
The man flipped open what Joe correctly guessed to be “The Book” and traced an invisible line down the page. He stopped suddenly, clucking his tongue. Then he looked up, grinning.
“There certainly is, there certainly is. You’re our only guests tonight!” He went about listing the various requirements for staying the night before pausing.
“Now I assume, since you’re here, you’ll be wanting Room 3, right?” he asked. Joe looked at Shelly and shrugged. The man leaned forward. “Room 3, her room. The room? Don’t tell me you’ve not heard the story.”
Shelly was grinning. Joe could tell without looking at her that she was grinning. The man was looking back and forth between them, like a puppy waiting to fetch a ball. Joe slowly shook his head and the man slapped his palm down on the desk, causing a cap-less biro to slide down the book and fall to the floor.
“Haven’t heard the story and you still found your way here? Well how about that! Did you hear that, Tess?” He grinned wide, displaying the yellow teeth of a smoker who took his smoking seriously. Tess made no response, having disappeared from sight. He pushed his shoulders back with visible effort and cracked his knuckles. He belonged on a stage, or at least he thought he did.
“My name’s Eli. I’m the owner here, and I’ll tell you the same story that they told me when I came into it, sixty years ago. Sixty…You don’t know how the Quizmistress got its name? The place was built at the end of the 19th century. Older than it looks, eh? Anyway, some bright spark saw some money in it, apparently because so many travellers seemed to end up getting lost around here. There used to be all sorts of stories about that too. A strange light leading them astray, a mysterious siren lady who promised them all sorts of unearthly delights if they would only leave the road. Utter rubbish, of course, no one’s ever proved it. But the inn got its name because they’d hold games nights to attract people who weren’t lost as well as the soaked and bedraggled. Oh yes, they’d have cards, they’d have darts, and they’d have the quiz night.
Might not sound like anything now but back then, it was quite the draw. Now, a big part of that draw was the Quizmistress herself. Miss Annabelle Moor was the lady in charge. Beautiful woman. Long red hair, always wore a bright blue dress, enjoyed a drink or two as she read the questions. She was as much of an attraction as the night itself. The place got a reputation. A good one.
Then one night a pair of travellers, Mr and Mrs Creverly, arrived to find the place deathly quiet. They came in through the front door and weren’t greeted by anybody. They walked through into the dining hall looking for someone to take their bags and found the bloodied corpses of the inn’s clientele. They were stacked in piles of three, lying across each other. The floorboards were slick and slippery. The woman stayed downstairs while her husband went upstairs to check for survivors. When she heard him scream she ran out of the inn and into the road. By some incredible stroke of luck she found a passing patrolman who listened to her story, looked her up and down and went for reinforcements.
They found Annabelle Moore in room number three upstairs. She stood by the window, staring out at the night. The man’s body lay on the floor, cut to ribbons. They said that she turned when she heard them come in. They said that they were more scared by the look on her face than the bloody knife in her hands. She started to scream, flailing her hands in the air, running towards them…”
Eli stopped, leaning back with his hands on the desk like a preacher in the pulpit.
“Then what?” asked Shelly. He raised his eyebrows.
“Then they killed her. Only way to bring her down, they said. The woman said that she saw them carry Annabelle Moor’s body down the stairs and out of the inn in a procession. She said that Annabelle’s knife hand was still twitching.
It was a year later that anybody saw Annabelle again. The inn had changed hands three times, with many a coat of paint sitting on top of all that blood. So when a bedraggled traveller came along and the innkeepers saw that rooms one and two were occupied, they thought nothing of giving them room three.
Until he ran screaming down the stairs in the middle of night. He’d seen Annabelle Moor, stood by the window. When he got the courage to sit up in bed she turned, flailing with that kitchen knife, running towards him.
Everyone who’s ever spent the night in that room has seen her. And no one has ever spent the whole night, to this very day.”
Joe glanced at Shelly. The look on her face was just too precious not to indulge her.
“We’ll take room three,” he told the man, who grinned back at him.
“Of course, sir. We’ll wait to see how many hours you last before we bill you.”
Joe grinned. He was enjoying this. He hadn’t expected to be so entertained; the evening had started out so unpromisingly
“By the way, are you still serving food?” asked Shelly. The man nodded.
“Come down in an hour or so, we’ll make sure you don’t face the spirit of Annabelle Moor on an empty stomach. Tess, help them with their bags, then you can go.”
He gestured at the barmaid, who had emerged from behind the bar without their noticing. She didn’t look at them as she picked up their cases and led them up the stairs. As Joe closed the door on her, she coughed and slipped him a crumpled piece of paper. Before he could ask why she had turned and gone.
He shut the door and watched as Shelly started to unpack.
“Do you think it’s true?” he asked.
“Of course not,” replied Shelly without looking up. “It’s just a nice story to get the tourists in.”
“Hmm. I suppose you’re right. Seems like a nice enough room, doesn’t it”
“Of course it does. It’s just a room.”
“Look at this,” he said. “The barmaid slipped me a note.” He smoothed it out on the bed and read it. “‘Get out while you still can’ Wow, that’s a bit above and beyond, isn’t it?”
“How sweet of her to care. That’s all part of it, Joe. She’ll get a couple of quid extra from the old man tonight.”
“If it had worked, I think she would have. But it didn’t. Shall we go and eat?”
“Let’s. Are you ready?”
They left their room and walked downstairs together.
As they entered the dining room it took Eli a moment to realise that something was wrong. But he did realise.
They chased him into the kitchen. After slamming through the door he careered into the oven, knocking a pot of soup off the hob and onto the floor, which he promptly slipped on. He went down hard onto the tiled surface, his jaw cracking.
Joe picked him up. Shelly swept the table clear and together they laid him down. Shelly tied his hands and legs, Joe chose a knife from the many options lying in front of him. When he had made his selection he picked a large skillet off a hook by the door, dropped a hunk of butter into it, and placed it on the hob.
“I love cooking with gas,” he murmured, as he turned the oven on and Eli started to cry.
“Is it really true,” asked Joe. “Is it really true about the ghost?”
“It’s all true,” said Eli. “It’s all true, I promise, I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“It’s all bullshit, Joe,” said Shelly. She was getting that tone in her voice again. She was hungry; Joe knew how she got when she was hungry. “It’s just tourism. Don’t you think someone would have come back to haunt us by now if there was a fucking afterlife?”
“She’s got a point,” said Joe to Eli. “Although the way we do it might make coming back a bit difficult.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Eli, “But please don’t.”
“You’re a storyteller,” said Shelly, “so we’ll start with your tongue. Your throat. Then we’ll get to the heart, and all the rest. Butter’s burning, Joe.”
“I’ve got it under control,” he said. “Tell him to open wide.”
When they had eaten, they went back upstairs, peeled their soiled clothes from their bodies, and lay on the bed. They had wasted nothing. They had collected the bones and put them in the large saucepans. Joe had said he might make stock in the morning if they had time. Shelly rested her head on his chest.
“That was lovely,” she said.
“Most gratifying,” he said. “God, I can barely move. I’m such a pig, but it seemed a shame to waste anything.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said. She closed her eyes, and heard Joe’s breathing slow as she fell asleep.
When she woke up the room was freezing. She took a moment to realise that she hadn’t left the curtains open when she had fallen asleep and sat up straight.
A figure stood by the curtains. Shelly knew who it was. But it wasn’t looking out of the window. It was looking at her.
“You killed him,” it said. “You killed my Eli. He was mine. All these years, looking after him. He inherited this place from his father, and his father before him. Eli was different. Eli wasn’t scared of me. Eli would talk to me. From the time he could talk, Eli would creep into this room and talk to me. The one friend I’ve had in more than a century. And I swore that I would keep him safe from the dark. It never left. Hungry. Waiting. And I protected him. Eighty years spent keeping him safe from it. And then here you come, and you kill him. But I’m here now. I’m here.”
“You’re real,” said Shelly.
“Yes,” she said. “Wake up your boyfriend.”
Shelly shook Joe awake. He came to, grunting and complaining, but fell silent when he saw the almost-transparent red-headed figure at the foot of the bed. She was weeping.
“I was no murderer. You need to understand that, you need to know that before what happens next. I could see what they could not. What killed my boys that night, only I could see it. It came for them that night, and I was so scared, I ran up the stairs, I ran to hide in this room. When they found me, it was still there, grinning at me, right behind them, they couldn’t see it. I was trying to save them, but they couldn’t see it. But I’ll make it visible to you. I don’t need to protect him anymore.”
The figure drew herself up to her full height, taller than Shelly could have thought possible. She seemed to fill the room from floor to ceiling. The bedroom door rattled on its hinges.
“Wake up, Eli.”
A sudden pain in her gut. Shelly grabbed at her stomach. This was not possible. The contents of her stomach weren’t just churning, they were moving. With purpose. Grasping at her innards. Pushing their way back upwards. She tried to shout but her throat was clogged with the half-digested flesh. Joe was making choking sounds, scratching uselessly at his chest.
“Just hold them still, Eli. Hold them still so they can see what’s coming.”
Annabelle moved to the door. She took a deep breath and smiled.
“Let’s see some flailing,” said Annabelle Moor, and flung the door open. As the floorboards creaked Joe and Shelly found themselves able to scream.
So, this was a horror one. And it was a bastard to write.
The title came from my Fohnhouse colleague and occasional nemesis Martin Parsons, after a reference to the certainly not flailing quizmistress of the New Empress Film Quiz, Helen Cox. I had an idea that it could be the name of a pub. Then, because I'm me, I thought, "Oh, how about a ghost story?"
Then I thought, how can I make a ghost story more interesting? Which is when I settled on the idea of having these three segments: the ghost story (a lot of fun to write), the nasty murder, and the mad ending. As usual, I toyed with the idea of making it gorier but I think that the ideas are nasty enough, to be honest. One day I'll write something with buckets of blood, but as I was writing it I wanted to make it as horrible as possible, and this was how I decided to do it.
The final final novel edit is waiting to be started. In the meantime, there's the grossly under-edited thing I called a novel a few years ago that I'm interested in getting back to, there's the Anna Land script I'm working on with Ben "Treppenwitz" Sheppard which is in dire need of a second draft, and there's a script-y thing I'm working on with that Martin Parsons which I'm quite excited about. They're all quite different writing experiences. Anna Land is a challenge because it shouldn't be dialogue heavy, it's all quite restrained, or it should be. So I can't go off on flowery monologues like I'd like to. The nameless Parsons collaboration needs to be attention-grabbing and will need to have plot, which is something I struggle with (though I'm getting more comfortable with it). The Lovely Creatures edit is tough because finalising anything is a difficult thing to do. And the previous "novel" was written so long ago I don't know whether it's worth saving yet.
But it's also all fun. And I feel a great compulsion to do it. So swings and roundabouts, really.
In my film journalism news, I did my first interview today. Sorry, Dave McKean. You could probably tell. In addition to the sites already mentioned, I'm also writing bits and pieces for Cinetalk, which is also aces.
This April's supposed to be the month when I'm sorting myself out a bit, so we'll see how that goes.
In the meantime, let me know any title suggestions and I'll see what I can do!
I hope you enjoyed the story. It's a bit of a mad odd mess but I quite like it.
Oh, finally, I know I'm prone to rambling and moaning but I was very touched by the people who let me know that they liked last week's story and the people who shared it. I write in a bit of a vacuum because there's really no other way but it means a lot to hear that someone's enjoyed a story of mine. So to everyone who Tweeted me (I'm easy to find) or Facebooked it, thank you very much. You guys are the best. For realzies.
Here's a song: