Fiction: Selections from Virginia Betts
Outside the Window
Usually, at this time of night, there was a lot more activity. It was too quiet. Something felt wrong.
I hoisted myself reluctantly out of the cosy chair, into which I had sunk, curled up with a blanket and shuffled over to the window. For some reason, I felt as if I shouldn’t draw attention to myself, an irrational feeling, yes but causing me to gently tweak the curtain aside very slightly, to allow a view of the street below with minimal movement.
I smiled to myself. The irrationality of my fear seemed to be confirmed, the street was empty and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But still, the feeling persisted. Wasn’t it too empty? Shouldn’t Mrs Adler across the street have been putting the bins out for the following day?
Didn’t that little family usually take a late evening stroll, trying to settle the kid in the pushchair because clearly she never slept? I’d noticed the mum before, frazzled with dark circles under her eyes. Sometimes the couple were rowing under their breath, with an older child following them, scuffing his feet. He must have been around 12, at that point when they develop a surly expression and pretend they aren’t with the parents. In his case, I could quite understand it.
There was always a lot of movement out in my street. Sometimes, even after the streetlights had gone out, you could hear footsteps echoing on the pavement, voices muttering, and the occasional car. But not tonight.
I returned to my chair, sat on the edge of it, tapping my toes on the rug. Nothing to worry about, surely? It was ridiculous to feel so uneasy. I was probably just anxious because I’d dozed off a bit. Last night, I’d woken in a sweat, dreaming about Vikings, of all things. My lurid imagination can be overactive at times. I started to relax a little. I knew what to do to feel a little calmer; I’d make myself a drink, have a piece of toast and put the telly on. That always worked. It keeps you company if you feel unsettled, the television, puts things back into perspective, like you are reconnected to the world.
I slipped a light cardigan on as it was distinctly chillier than it had been earlier and shuffled off into my tiny kitchen. But even the sound of the tap running, the kettle boiling and the grill pan clanging, sounded abominable in the silence that seemed to hang in the air.
I put my head back around the doorway into my living room. I had that peculiar feeling that someone was sitting there watching me. You know, that feeling when you feel someone behind you and it creeps up your neck, daring you to turn around? But no, I was still alone. I tentatively entered the room and crossed once more to the window. I peered out into the dimly lit street once again. Nothing. For a moment, I was transfixed by the stillness, the emptiness. It was unnatural; it was like the world had stopped. It must have been only a minute, and then I was brutally shaken from my reverie by the screaming smoke alarm.
I rushed back to the kitchen with my heart pounding at my ribs.
“Dammit!” I cursed.
I grasped the grill pan in a panic, dropping it and the charcoaled toast to the floor with a yelp as the hot tray caught my arm. I grabbed the broom and began to whack the alarm in temper. Who would put the thing in a kitchen, of all places?
As I nursed the pink welts on my arm, it struck me that when my inattentiveness had precipitated such an event before, the neighbour from across the hall had always come running, knocking to check I wasn’t about to burn down the building. I braced myself but no one came.
It was odd, I thought. But still, I started again with the toast, this time keeping a watchful eye on it until finally, I settled in front of the television, once more tucked under my blanket.
The television didn’t work. The screen was as silent as the street, black on every channel. I kept switching frantically in my impatience. I reset the Sky box. But still nothing happened.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” I said out loud to no one.
I turned it off altogether and picked up the book I had been reading before I dozed off earlier. But I just could not settle, so I decided to go for a walk.
Outside, there was definitely something missing but I couldn’t decide what it was. No matter. I was wrapped up warmly in my coat and hat and I took up a brisk pace. It felt energising as I breathed in the cold night air and I felt my muscles wake up as I moved. The street glittered with small pools of reflected artificial light and there was a fine mist in the air. The season was just beginning to change and the day had been warm but the nights had still to catch up, the insistent breeze nipping at my cheeks. However, I walked on, feeling much happier.
But before long, I began to feel uneasy again. Although the street was lit, every house I passed was in darkness, every shop, every corner café closed. As I rounded the corner to the marketplace, all of the stalls, as was usual at this time, sat deserted and empty, signalling no clue to the vibrant bustle of activity, life and colour they had embodied a few hours earlier. But tonight, their abandonment was even more eerie. Gone were the colourful coverings, the wares displayed like candy. All that remained were flapping posters, adrift from their fixings, as the wind whistled in between the stark, bare legs of the stalls.
Darkness pervaded, stalking along each orderly row of skeletal structures, punctuated here and there by watery beams of light. Yet there were corners which were so solidly black, that a fanciful mind could shape-shift sinister scenarios of silent shadows whispering and gliding insidiously from them while your back was turned.
In the street, night had drawn a darker veil over the landscape suddenly and precipitately, taking me unawares. It is peculiar how such an ordinary area by day, can take on such a sinister and threatening undertone when shrouded in black silence with only the merest glimpse of a pale moon peeping between the houses, and an endless black street. In the moon’s diluted gaze, puddles occasionally twinkled. It was impossible to see any stars, and if there were any living creatures about, other than myself, they gave no sign of their presence. All was silent and still.
Beginning to feel even more unnerved, I headed for the square, where I thought I might hope to see signs of nightlife cranking into gear. I wasn’t one for a late night out on the town these days but the thought of some movement, any movement, was comforting right now, in this twilight world. But when I arrived, comfort was in short supply, for the sight I beheld was yet another dark and deserted scene. Where only yesterday, lurid lights on tempting signs blinked and beckoned the partygoer into various establishments, the sound of music’s pulsating beat throbbing and spilling out onto the street, again there was nothing. No sound, no laughter, not a single solitary footstep.
For no logical reason, I quickened my pace, breaking out finally into a trot. Desperately, I scanned the streets for signs of life and as I did so, I was aware of the streetlights being snuffed out, one after another, along their rows, as if an almighty being was blowing out the candles on his giant birthday cake, one by one. Closer and closer came the approaching darkness, and I began to run, stumbling as I did so, feeling all the time as if the shadows were in pursuit of me and fearing that something terrible had happened. I headed in the direction of the one place where I felt assured I might find another living soul: the hospital.
Turning off the ever-darkening street, I came upon the supermarket. I paused for a moment, mesmerised by what I saw: trolleys stood empty and abandoned; parking bays were scattered with empty cars; receipts and even a couple of £5 notes tumbled randomly across the tarmac, seemingly the last vestiges of paper that controls our lives. I shook myself out of my trance and ran on. Up this street, down that road, nothing and nobody anywhere to be seen, even the moonlight appeared to have been snuffed out. At last, I arrived at my destination.
The car park here was similarly deserted. Disturbingly, cars seemed to be strewn about in disarray, doors hanging open as if their occupants had left them in a hurry and never returned. I reached into my pocket; I had remembered to pick up my phone! I tried to dial out to someone, anyone in my contacts but there was no signal, only a blank screen. I made for the hospital entrance.
Bursting through the double doors, I found myself greeted with the same eerie silence that seemed to pervade the whole of the town. Perhaps it was the same in other towns, I thought, with mounting terror. Empty trolleys were strewn about the corridors, empty beds and wards. It seemed as if the whole population had simply disappeared.
Now, the full horror of the situation took hold of me, as I ran through the building shouting and crying, screaming and calling, hoping for any response. And then I saw it. I heard something that sounded like a human voice, a strangled cry for help. I turned and I saw the figure of a woman, hunched in a corner, reaching out towards me in a silent scream as a creeping black shadow grew long across the floor and she was devoured by its darkness.
Blindly, I turned on my heels and ran; back through the building, banging into walls and falling over upturned trolleys, not stopping until I was outside and not even then. I ran and ran without looking back until at last, I was back in my room crouching under the window, jabbing at my phone in futile despair with no streetlight shining through the gloom to comfort me and not a single sound to be heard. It was then that I realised what I had found so odd when I had first stepped outside. There was no birdsong, and no birds.
X X X
Three weeks have passed and I am still here in my room peering occasionally out of the window, wondering when it will be my turn to be taken, enduring the endless uncertainty of my dwindling existence, with only the certainty of being the last forgotten person, perhaps on the whole planet, to be left alive and alone.
Let me tell you how it is. This is the way the world is: we all live inside a giant dome and at night inside that dome, a heavy velour blanket lines the arch. Little stars are sewn on the inside and the malevolent moon really does have a face that watches us below. Our dome, once shaken, sends millions of fine glitter particles down from the sequin stars, showering us with the fall- out. Sometimes the pieces settle gracefully upon us like a halo, sometimes they fall beneath our feet, lost and crunched into eternal oblivion.
Mother smelled of warm straw. I breathed her in, taking her scent deep inside to freeze the moment. One day, Mother took a bath and never came downstairs again. “She is with God,” said the lady as she led me from my world into ‘care’. Trapped, unable to articulate it, I shook my fist at the sky. “I hate God,” I said, though I was only repeating a new word. I didn’t know what hate was and I imagined heaven was a white bandstand floating high above the clouds. How did all the people fit?
“Take that, you bastard,” said my 26-year-old self, shaking my fist at the sky, as the clouds rolled in and the white flakes floated over the body of little Lilly, a few feet below the surface.
My earliest memory in my new home is of a svelte black cat. I remember her rasping tongue juxtaposed with her sensuous, velveteen coat. Years later, when I heard about a man in Africa whose arm was licked down to the bone by a lion while he slept, I recalled that tongue, a miniature version of the larger, more dangerous beast. I watched in fascination as she set upon her victim. The leather pads shot out spiteful knives to pierce and rip the flesh, jelly bursting from the wound like an over-ripe fruit. Those paws were wonderful weapons, cleaving fragile skulls. Inside the head of her prey was exquisite; a flower in bloom. There was less blood than I imagined; I wanted to know how all creatures bled when you cut them.
I considered: did a cat always land on its feet when you threw it from a top floor window? How long could an animal live without food? There seemed only one way to find out. The cat went missing. Whilst nobody heard her desperate, whining mewls, it seemed she ceased to exist. I went every day to monitor my experiment.
In the playground, I’d earned minus points. My politeness; my tangled feet; my lack of team effort. I stood at the edge, watching, waiting. I was an observer of aliens, stupid-featured people who waddled in my way. I studied them, recognising their inferiority. I eavesdropped, longed to be them, but I despised them.
As I lit the fire around the cat’s body, I was seduced; I wanted to lick the flames. I tried to see dancing figures, searched for faces of the dead but instead I saw my own face reflected, returning the eyes of a creature like Frankenstein’s, bound to solitude. I learned not to fear but to create fear; I grew powerful. They knew which hand ignited that tiny funeral pyre but they could not prove it.
A voracious reader, I devoured knowledge whole with the Python’s avarice. Biding my time, my experiments grew daring. In failing light one summer, a small runt played my game. Tied to a tree, his face blanched to waxy pallor. Fear reduced his features to a mask. Reality was suspended and I observed. How long would it take for him to succumb? Weak overpowered by strong, this is the rule of the game. Such was my power that I relinquished it, untied the ligatures, and released him. He left confused, grateful and beholden, owing me his life.
I took myself to the limits but never crossed the final boundary; the line drawn because of my connection to this suffocating, limiting existence. I needed to free myself; I needed to reaffirm my conviction. ‘There are always two’, the voices echoed, ‘a master and a servant’.
Sarah had Willowy limbs and black hair with a childish, sporty build and always seemed a little lost. Her face wore a hooded appearance at times, the eyes remained impassive. If there was inner turmoil, it remained hidden. It was the trait that drew me to her, mirroring my talent for secrecy. I hid behind a veneer of tranquillity; I sensed a soulmate. I knew she recognised the same in me, and so was a suitable lieutenant. I could expound on my theories and I had someone to chart my progress. She was a curator of my books and journals and I groomed her for her role. Like the proverbial falling tree in the forest, did anything exist without a witness? My genius required an audience to make it real.
Sarah brought him to me the first time I saw it through. A young man she had shared a drink and confidences with. I don’t know what I intended until the moment arrived but I had to prove myself. Limits only exist in the mind. Forget limitations, make your own morality, and liberate free will. Sarah lapped up these words as if they were from a prophet. That day she wore a coral choker that seemed to slice her neck neatly in two, anaemic beads of blood from her beheading shining liquidly against the waxen flesh.
He was laughing ‘pleased to meet you’ when I twisted the knife deep into the sinewy neck, almost severing the spinal cord. His eyes rolled back in his head as the blood curdled and foamed from his mouth. He spasmed violently and uncontrollably, beginning the macabre dance as he staggered back like a half-living rag doll, his final gasp mimicking the sound of water being sucked into a drain. I found the answer that all creatures bleed differently when you cut them.
What physical and mental sensations occurred as this happened? My heart thumped so hard I thought it would leap from my chest and lay pulsating on the floor. An icy arrow lurched at the speed of sound through my veins. The power and the glory. God was dead. He did not stop me. The pathetic police search unearthed nothing. I even helped them, expressing my concern, the art of which I had practised in the mirror until I believed it. I could sense, however, that Sarah wanted more. The bed loomed between us like a vast, chaste canyon. So, I gave her what I could. I gave her Lilly.
When little Lilly awoke in her comfortable home that crisp morning, it was snowing. The first thing she did was to look out of the window of the small, terraced house; she saw a magpie. To Lilly, it was a portent of doom. She chanted the mantra that was so entrenched in her. “Good morning, Mr Magpie, I hope you and your family are well.” It would be safe now.
The heavy sky gathered over the hills that bright morning. It cracked; more snow fell softly, creating eerie muffling. Snow collected on Lilly’s coat and nestled on her eyebrows. Fresh, untrodden snow has purity until it becomes unhallowed grey slush. The cold bit the young girl’s fingers and nipped at her cheeks; blood hurried away from the surface, giving her the complexion of a porcelain doll. Then, through snow’s shroud, she saw Sarah, the car door open invitingly. “Need a lift, Lilly?” Sarah asked casually. “Weather’s suddenly turned, hasn’t it?”
Black and white smile-to-smile eight-millimetre grainy flicker. A plea, a scream, she has her 15 minutes of fame. The celluloid legacy of Lilly, now beneath the snow, those images retrieved which finally betrayed me.
Sarah led them to their discovery. She wore shame beneath the mask of deception, a Chinese box of encased emotions. A careless name scribbled on a notepad. An ill- placed photograph marking the place in a romantic novel.
At 5 am, a furious commotion woke us. The door was blasted off its hinges by hob-nail boots. A cacophony of shouting wrenched us from our beds. Identify this, identify that. “Yes,” I told them, “I recognise that. Yes, I do know that girl in the photograph. Yes, I took it.” They tornadoed through my possessions and journals... two ignorant words: ‘sick pornography’.
In the midst of chaos, Sarah took flight. She slipped from my grasp onto the street. I heard the screech of inevitability and the second commotion of the morning led to Sarah, lying in the road, a snow angel, blood fanning from her sides like wings, her choker broken and the coral beads scattered on the tarmac. She was still breathing.
Sarah was vilified and renounced her faith in me, turning to another, more palatable one, a higher power, cynically working her ticket to freedom. I graciously accepted my fate, glancing heavenwards to the only piece of sky I was to see for many years. But rage still burned brightly, gaining deeper intensity over time.
They keep coming to the white room containing a table, myself and the person opposite. They’re trying to unearth more buried secrets, exhume them from my mind’s makeshift grave. They seek the truth but as I point out, truth is only another viewpoint and can divide into a prism of refracted alternatives.
I have Zapruder-thoughts; silent cine-flickers frame-by- frame. I had a dream once. I dreamed of the sandman climbing a telegraph pole with a sack full of sand, me in my cot-barred prison. I want to sleep before he comes. He only does his job but I don’t like him. I know he loves his work. Back, back, back they take me. Everything has happened before and none of this has happened yet.
But look. Here is my mother and she is holding a bottle labelled ‘Dr Patternson’s famous pills – for irregularities of every description’. She examines the medicine. The wind blows, the clouds scud by, the world turns, the moon rises and the sun sets a thousand times. My existence hangs in the balance. She puts it down again and makes her decision. I will be born.
A tiny speck of glittering dust drifts down from above and settles.
Outside the Window and Eternal Recurrence First published in The Camera Obscure (Austin Macauley, 2022)
Virginia Betts is a tutor, writer and actress from Ipswich. She specialises in neurodiverse learning styles, being neurodiverse herself. She has had poems, stories and articles published in literary journals, won prizes, and published a story collection, The Camera Obscure, and Tourist to the Sun, a collection of poetry. She is a regular guest on BBC radio and a professional actor and performer. She formed The Dead Poets, has played Kate Bush and is currently rehearsing to play Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth Barton in The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey by Suzanne Hawkes (Black and White Productions) and writing her next books. Virginia is a member of The Writers Guild, Suffolk Writers, The Wolsey Writers and Equity.