Illumined by something more than the first stars and the moon, the sky remains bright. It’s as if the night is unwilling to release the sun completely after it has baked the ground hard and warmed the stones of St Andrews throughout the long day. From the air, the orderly skeleton of street and home in neat rows of interlocking white and grey, lead to the fallen cathedral and the Eastern harbour beyond.
Amongst the cathedral’s tombs and graves, still protected by walls beaten by coastal weather for centuries, the lonely sentinel of St Rule’s Tower stands, solid and rectangular between sands East and West, the sea to its front and the town in line behind. Like a stage, the cemetery is lit by the electric lights on the perimeter walls and only awaits its players.
Elsewhere, the slow airs of late summer have drowned the town in deep slumber. Within firm walls and behind curtains that sway and then brush together it is time to sleep. Sacred sleep. Sleep from the heat; sleep after a day in the hot office and shop; sleep from the drowsy meander the day makes towards nightfall; solace in sleep after evening hours endured before flickering television screens. Some of the town lights, however, have refused to wink out; some people read by lamplight or laugh in early-hour gatherings where glass after glass of wine puts back the time for bed; others are unable to settle, and a few will not allow themselves rest.
Maria checks her bedroom door-lock for the third time in an hour before returning to her black tea: no sugar. Cupping the steaming mug, she watches the slice of lemon float in the dark liquid: no calories in citrus fruit. Strained eyes in her thin but pretty face flick across to a brass alarm clock: two minutes to midnight. Would Chris forgive her? His perfect face smiles back from the photograph beside her clock, framed in pewter.
What’s wrong with you? he’d shouted that morning in a voice she often heard bellowing from the rugby pitch—a voice he uses when he demands the ball from a team-mate, when he believes he can reach the touchline and control the game. A voice she hears when he’s drunk and angry and someone has dared disagree in the pub. I can’t touch you anymore. You keep pulling away from me. What’s the matter with you?
But how could Chris even begin to understand? Those big brown eyes, with a solid and ever confident stare, beneath a floppy fringe, would mist at the very first sign of an expressed emotion, or doubt, or inner query, or at anything not as material as a computer or car. Maria envies him: able to charge through life in a blazer and silk tie, his thoughts ordered meticulously like his possessions and neatly-pressed clothes; able to do things that are instantly justifiable to himself, or not do things because they aren’t right, because he says so. There are no abstractions or subtleties in Chris’s life—he can hold the world in his hands as something measurable and tangible, like concrete.
You scare me. Did you throw up again this morning? Christ girl, I don’t understand you. No one can stay awake for that long. It’s not right. It’s not normal. Listen to me, don’t roll your eyes or shrug your shoulders. Get something from that doctor.
But I have had some sleep. And I missed my appointment.
Yeah, for two hours this afternoon while I watched you. I can’t do this everyday. Eat a proper meal and get some rest for God’s sake. I have training and work to do.
Maria hates him. Maria loves him. And at least her anger and hunger may keep her awake for the third night running. But will she end up marrying Chris? They are both in their final year and plan to find work in London. That’s the place for a young man to be. Make some serious cash. Or will she be marrying his father? Maria has heard that same laddishness—whenever his father arrives in his Range Rover to collect Chris for Christmas—barely disguised by his white whiskers and distinguished brandy-breath. Do men really become their fathers?
The little brass hammer on her clock smashes between the bells announcing midnight with a tinny racket. Maria flinches and spills her tea. She rushes across her room, her small and wire-thin body casting strange shadows in a chamber illumined by three strong lights: one in the ceiling, plus two desk lamps. She pushes the clock’s hour-hand forward until one a.m. and stops its clamouring. Then she returns to her chair. The clock’s bell is a look-out and the changing of its noisy guard has become a familiar routine, a successful ritual to stave off sleep—because sleep wants to drift before her eyes, deep languid sleep beneath a thick duvet, so she’s wrapped up and healed in a warm cocoon …
Maria’s head drops across her chest and jars her neck. Snapping herself awake, she stands up, furious. Stay angry, that is the answer. Stay brittle and annoyed at the slightest thing: at every inanimate object, at food, at Chris, at anything. But don’t fall asleep. Just two more days of this, the thesis will be complete, and then she can go home and sleep for a week.
It is somehow all connected to this room in New Hall and the university. Maria refuses to believe she’s mad, or frigid as Chris says when baffled and hurt that she will not open her bed-clothes to him, as she has done every other night since the first year: back in those halcyon days when their sweat would dampen the clean white sheets, and her hot face would nestle across the broad chest of the man two blonde girls had fought over at the K.K ball. They made love everywhere: in the afternoon, late at night when tipsy and adventurous, and first thing in the morning, all sticky and basic. He had selected her; she had said no. He had pursued her indefinable airs and quick tongue, sensing something unknowable but within the classification of a suitable girl. And eventually, she had succumbed to his hesitating attempts at romance, until the tall figure was her own: handsome in the classic sense and always in control. And so they had loved and then slept. Slept through heady summer afternoons, as she lay on his hard and flat stomach, when her whole body became heavy with a pleasing, satisfied fatigue.
Maria jolts awake. Leaden eyelids spring apart. A noise startles her and now it’s too late. Something scrabbles on the wall outside, beneath her third floor window. A whimper detaches from the back of her throat.
Desperately, she wants to run to the door and escape the prison cell, tinted a pastel shade, that once was her little home and now only seems to trap her in a stink of new carpet. But her skin is alive with a familiar attack of cold pin-pricks: not quite pain, but a spread of numb, bloodless, lethargy.
After moving as far as the bed, she collapses upon it, her brain starved of oxygen and blood. Phosphorescent lights explode in her sight. Maria hauls air into her lungs and claws her fingers on the thick red duvet, before each digit switches off, one by one, until she is still, deathly still, except for the heart-beats and startled breaths inside.
The curtains are closed but she senses it out there, grinning as it hangs from the ledge like some giant bat. And the sounds of something dragging itself up a wall find their way into her room. Then she hears the voice: a low babble and incoherent mumbling of old words and … her name, ‘Maria.’ It makes her want to change her name. She’ll remember the rasp of its tone if anybody calls her Maria again.
The lights go out. There is just one click and they are all doused together. Enveloped with panic, she feels the voice again, creep through her pores like winter cold, to freeze her bright spirit until it shatters, until she does not know herself amongst the vile things that chase other vile things through her imagination. Maria closes her eyes. She cannot abide it; the thought of seeing it will snap her mind like a dry twig.
Out there, in the dark room, the curtains swish over a window she remembers locking. Who opened the window? Did it make her? There is the thumping sound of its weight dropping to the floor after it has spilled over the sill, followed by the rustle of something moving across the floor to her bed.
She hears a hiss of excitement from somewhere near her feet. A sniff too and then the fumble of thin, anxious limbs as they begin the search. Maria tries to scream, and pushes her heavy muscles to move her arms and legs, but they will not obey. She can stand no more. Her eyelids unroll. Her lips part and she sucks at the air, to suddenly pull the stench of a slit whale belly into her mouth.
Something dark smothers even the faint light that seeps beneath her door. The smell is unbearable and her stomach convulses, sending an involuntary seizure up to her mouth.
Something prods the bedclothes. Then its movements quicken the moment it finds the shape of her legs beneath the duvet. Now it’s pulling itself up the bed. On to the bed. She can’t bear to look and shuts her eyes. But the dark creates an anticipation the safe cannot imagine. And as she senses its rise above her, the exhalations that come are tainted with eagerness.
The hard cold thing between Maria’s hands is a gravestone.
She wakes, bent over. She struggles to breathe and flashes her startled eyes about—a pretty deer stunned by the high beams of a sleepwalk. A forest of tilting headstones stretches off in every direction, only rearing up in their shadowy processions to mill about the thick perimeter walls, or to part by the eroded Cathedral remains and lonely St Rule’s Tower in the centre of the churchyard.
The stars and streetlights struggle to penetrate the ground where Maria stands, all thick with black grasses and mildewed stone figurines. She’s barely able to see her own legs or to distinguish the hard shapes that corral her inside this thick copse of worn tombstones. Every object seems indistinct but almost alive—as if vibrating from the hidden energies of night. To her right, a thick wall, encrusted with upright tombs, dulls the sound of the sea. To her left, forlorn St Rule’s Tower stands beside the chipped and spectral silhouette of the Priory’s east gable, which joins the dark archway straight ahead of her.
Dank smells fill her nose and mouth: a thick and cloying reek of decay, wet leaf and dripping urn. A place summer has forgotten. Here and there, dotted like false hopes in the black, drowning sea of forgotten names and worn markers, a luminescent halo rises off new marble, a final sign from the newly dead, the last brightness from lives gone and never destined to return.
Standing straight, Maria’s entire body shakes from nerves and the breaths she takes quickly. She moves a leg and bangs a naked shin on stone, solid and impatient with living flesh. Pain revives her enough to still her confusion and, immediately, her instincts advise flight. She should not be down here, miles from New Hall, with no recollection of having arrived. It is too dark, too quiet, and too still—a place of finality and reluctant rest, not for the living and never at night.
Moving clumsily, she crosses wilted flowers and avoids sloping gravestones, to reach the path running under the arch. It cuts between the cathedral and the western cemetery, and leads to the main gate. One of her fingernails catches on a leaning headstone, then her knees scratch against an edge of another stone that has crumbled, and finally she stubs the toes of her left foot against a square marker, hidden inside the cold grass. Never has her body felt as weak and vulnerable as it does amongst these hard rocks that long to shipwreck a body fleeing for the locked gate.
Memories come back to her when she least wants them to, making her recall the whispers in her room, and the dark presence that issued them. She will definitely see the American doctor tomorrow. Why did she have to fall asleep and miss her appointment that afternoon? If she’d gone she might not be here. But right now, she has to get out. There is a police station on North Street, by the cinema where she fell in love with Ethan Hawke, and there are taxis down there too. Just get out, and get out fast.
But Maria only makes it to the path, near the ruined cloister, and not much further. Because something is moving in the ruins, amongst the flat tombs, near the old and vanquished altar. She sees a shape. It is hunched over, and lopes across the flattened grass and the paving stones where the building once broadened out in the shape of a crucifix. It moves quickly, craning a head back to test the air with a face that is mercifully indistinct. She can feel no strength in her legs.
Desperate, she wants to bolt toward the gate and Dean’s Court beyond, where South Street and North Street meet. She should shout for help too, and wave her arms in the air. There is a car outside Dean’s Court—a black car, an Audi with tinted windows, and its tiny red brake lights are on so someone must be inside it. But she stops herself. For a moment, nothing in the world will allow her to remove her eyes from the exposed cathedral innards. This is how people must feel, she thinks, when they come face to face with a bear in a forest, or a leopard in a jungle. They freeze.
There is more movement in the remnants of the hallowed walls—a flit from shadow to shadow. Something is leap-frogging over the smooth stones and then darting left and right as it draws closer. Once more her instincts beg her to flee, but she realises she’ll have to cover the thin gravel path, one hundred feet long, to reach the gate and the safety it promises. And it’s so far away and she’s never been good at running. Sobs rear up inside her and tears smudge her vision.
Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Run!
Pointed stones stab into the soft palms of her feet, so she screws her toes up and runs awkwardly on the balls of her heels, moving her arms in flutters to sustain a balance. She tries to keep her vision steady and focused on the gate, on sanctuary, but something pulls her eyes to the side—the left side, where the remains of the cathedral glower and seem to raise their last standing stones like arms above wailing faces. Something is keeping pace with her, crouched over but moving as if it glides. Every step she takes brings it closer in an effortless streak to the apex of an invisible triangle where their paths will meet. But she tries, she really tries to reach the gate despite the cuts on her feet. An attempt at escape is better than facing it back amongst the stones and shadows.
Screaming, Maria flings an arm out when it comes for her. It sweeps forward like a black sheet blown by the wind, across the jumble of stone and the milky patches of grass. And it comes so fast. She tries to pull her body into a tight defensive ball, and she wants her eyes to remain shut, but, at the last moment, as it moves into its embrace, she can’t help looking and she finally sees the hungry thing’s face.