I saw him again, the man in the white shirt. The one behind the door in the wall. He leaned against the wall, the fading light turning him luminous. It looked like the sort of shirt you wear a dinner jacket with. He looked like the sort of man that would wear a dinner jacket, and there’s not many you can say that about. I mean, sure, people wear suits in this town, here and there. Councilmen, lawyers, accountants. But it doesn’t seem real. They always look armoured for the day ahead, separated from the rest of us by some end-of-line grey suit that’s getting tight around the middle from too many client lunches. It’s not them. It’s just what they put on in the morning to tell the world they’re important.
The man in the white shirt, though – he looks like he’s born to wear shirts like that. The way models look, disaffected and scruffy/not scruffy at the same time. I almost looked for cameras, but it was too dark for that. They’d have needed lights, and flashes, but there were none of those around. Just him, standing in the shadows behind the door in the wall, with that shirt a little open at the collar – not sexy, exactly – he really did look like he’d just got home from the opera or something, and thrown his jacket over a chair. But it was sexy anyway, the unselfconsciousness of it.
I couldn’t see his face. I haven’t before, either. The light’s weird, and the wall casts a shadow across his features, so that it’s just a hint of caramel skin and dark hair. I feel as if he’s watching me, so although I glance up to where he stands, in the shadows behind the door in the wall, I don’t linger. I want to, but I don’t. I just steal a glance and tuck it away to examine later, safely home with my door barred against the night and lamps playing amber across the walls. Then I wish I had hesitated – that wouldn’t seem so weird, would it? Pausing as he catches my eye and looking up? Maybe he’d even acknowledge me, raise a hand or nod. Maybe he’d lift his head so the light slides across his face, and I wouldn’t have to imagine it, a melange of movie stars and models.
But he probably wouldn’t. I’m not the sort of person that gets acknowledged, and certainly not by people like him. People that wear formal white shirts like they’re born to them. I pass beneath people’s attention, comfortably insignificant. I can’t even get a coffee unless I just about grab the waiter by his apron. And it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Really. I mean, imagine if I saw him properly, and his eyes were too close together, or he had buck teeth, or – I don’t know. They’re not bad things, but they’re not things that belong to a man wearing a white shirt, standing in the night-time shadows of a wall. Or he might talk, and the magic would be gone, because he would be dismissive or rude, just like everyone else. Or stupid. I think that would be the worst, if he started talking and he was nothing but broad shoulders in a white shirt. No substance. No, it was better like this – I can imagine how he would speak, the smooth tones of his voice and the gestures of his long-fingered hands that accompanied his words. Reality would only get in the way.
I eat breakfast in the sunny spot in the kitchen, watching dust motes floating in the light, and wash my bowl and spoon carefully, setting them in the rack to dry. Then I gather up my bag and my phone and slip my shoes on, and step out into the day.
The sun is warm on my head as I follow the neat points of my shoes across the cobbled streets and onto the pavements, weaving my way between the walkers and wanderers of the early morning town. I can smell hot bread in the boulangeries, and the shadow of the sea, so all-pervasive you have to work to notice it. My route leads me past the wall, and I look up at it, bland and innocuous in the morning light. I hesitate, begin to walk away, then turn towards it and hurry up the steps to the walkway. I have time. I’m always early. Up here, the press of early morning fades, and the scent of the sea comes in strong, pressing back against the already heating land. By mid-morning the smell of the hot streets and the baking earth behind the town will have forced all else into submission, but right now, on the wall, the air is fresh and sharp with salt. I scurry along the walkway, the cut-outs in the ramparts affording little snapshots of blue sky and sun-slashed sea as I hurry along. Around a curve, and there’s the door, the rusted reality of it forcing me to a stop. I don’t know where it leads. I’ve lived here a year, more, but I don’t know where, in this little secretive town, that door goes. Where it comes out. I almost turn back, but scold myself for my indecision. I’ve come this far. So I take the final few steps forward and put my hand on the bars, feeling the flaking metal catch at my fingers, feeling the night chill still clinging to it in the shade. I raise my eyes and peer past the bars, but there’s nothing to see except aged, crumbling rock and a dusty floor with a couple of beer cans huddled together in a corner. The cans make me inexplicably angry, furious at the unknown drinkers that would desecrate this place. It wasn’t for that. Not here. Beyond the beer cans there’s nothing – a corner, shadows. A breath of air drifts towards me, and for a moment I imagine I can smell cologne on it, something expensive and smooth. But then it’s gone, and there’s nothing but urine and salt. I turn away, disappointed but unable to say what I might have thought I’d discover.
The day passes, as they all do. My feet hurt by the end of it, but I’m used to that – used to the pinch of the too-tight shoes and the ache in my shoulders from lugging bags of laundry up and down stairs. I sometimes think wistfully of big hotels, with cleaning carts and elevators, but I know I wouldn’t like it. They’d be other people, a team. I don’t like that. I like working alone and purposeful, efficient and silent. I don’t want chatter intruding. I just want to be left to myself. I go home and shower, and change out of the uniform into something looser and easier, and eat bread smeared with soft cheese, standing by my window and watching the ebb and flow of afternoon shoppers below me. My eyes keep being drawn past them, to the wall on the edge of town that holds back the sea, and eventually I turn away. I wash the plate and go out again into the lengthening light.
The shadows are deeper now, the iron door still locked. I suppose it’s a gate, really, but its bars have the shape and feel of a door. The stone is cold, as if too old for the heat of the day to reach it. I tug at the bars experimentally, and the chain clanks against the metal. The padlock looks as if it’s seen a dozen stormy winters, blooming with rust and corrosion, and I wonder how it can even open. If it ever is opened. I peer past the bars one more time, then move back down the walkway, pausing to let the afternoon breeze sneak through the gaps in the wall and lift the hair from my cheeks. It’s hot, away from the door. I look back at it again, slouching in its shadows, and for a moment I feel it looking back at me. I shiver and the moment is gone.
It’s late, and the wind has come up. I lie in my bed listening to it wrapping long fingers around the edges of the shutters, giving them a little shake to see if they hold. I imagine it swirling the dust behind the door into miniature tornadoes, dislodging the beer cans and sending them skittering down the walkway like startled beetles. I wonder if the man in the white shirt comes to the door when it’s stormy. I think he might – he looks like he suits stormy nights.
Once the thought has occurred to me, I can’t sleep. I twist and kick in the narrow bed, but the blanket’s too hot and the sheet’s too cold, and eventually I give up. I dress hurriedly, captured by a sense of urgency now I’m actually moving, and pull a hat down over my hair as I scurry down the stairs. Outside, the wind moans, and I’m alive. It’s like I can feel the pound of the waves against the wall, and my heartbeat shouts the rhythm back, while the wind lays hold of me as soon as I step out the door, tugging and pulling at me as I hurry through the sleeping town. No one’s about – the wind chases litter and leaves down alleyways, but even the stray cats have found quiet spots to tuck themselves into. There’s only me, almost running down the cobbled streets, my blood surging like it remembers the sea.
By the time I reach the wall I am running, the way a kid runs, all exuberance and limbs everywhere. It makes my breath come in gasps and my cheeks burn, and I don’t care. There’s no one to see me. No one except the man in the white shirt, behind the door in the wall. I stumble to a stop, suddenly aware of myself again, and pull instinctively into the shadows of an archway. He’s leaning against the door a little, his long fingers wrapped through the bars, and his face as always turned from me. I don’t know what he’s looking at – maybe someone else is out, walking just out of my sight. I doubt it, though. It’s more like he’s looking away from me than towards anyone else. That’s what it feels like, at any rate. I watch him for a moment – the wall casts its shadow over him, and he’s a half-seen ghost, two-tone in the dark. He looks more like a cardboard cut-out than a real person, except it’s so windy I can see his shirt puffing in the breeze. His hair’s probably doing the same, but it’s too dark to tell, black on shadows. As I watch, he gives the door a quick, rough shake. It’s an angry movement, full of frustration and resentment, and the door shudders in the wall. I can hear the clatter of the chain against the bars. For the first time I wonder what I’m doing here, carried by the wind. Staring at some stranger like a creep. My cheeks flare even hotter than the wind could make them, and I will myself to turn away. But he’s just there, looking at whatever he looks at, from behind the door in the wall. That’s weird too, right? So is he a creep? He doesn’t look like one. My mind tries to fill in the blanks of his appearance, reaching for the cheekbones beyond the hair, the nose, the eyes, but I’ve got nothing. My imagination’s peopled with the characters of a thousand books, but it can’t cope with his reality. Or unreality. I don’t know – he just remains a featureless, unknown. I’m suddenly uncomfortable with all of it – the wind-shredded night, the low hook of a moon, the half-seen man, the locked door. I want to be home, in the warm light of my little apartment, surrounded by the familiar smell of books and candles and my self. I take a step backwards, not wanting to turn my back on the man on the wall, and my foot lands on a discarded water bottle. It crunches under my heel, and it’s loud, way louder than it has any right to be in the face of the wind, and the man spins towards me as if I’ve called his name. And I run. I run, carrying with me that thought of caramel skin and dark hair and maybe, maybe the hint of a smile, a wide, hungry sort of smile that terrifies and entices me. I run, and I don’t look back.
I don’t sleep – the wind no longer sounds playful. It sounds full of threat, and when the shutters judder I imagine long cruel fingers scratching at the frame. The white shirt seems less sexy now, and more sinister. I don’t even know why – it was something in the way he waited in the empty night, his predatory stillness. I know I didn’t want him to see me. He did, though. I know that, too. And it scratches at the pit of my stomach like something living. I roll and curl in the covers, and get up short-tempered and anxious.
Sometime between my night-time run and the sunrise, clouds have rolled up from below the horizon. They’re heavy and dark, and the wind moans around the streets, the joyousness of the night gone. It’s a spiteful sort of day, and at work I break a vase, and spill coffee on my uniform. When I go home I skirt the wall like something living, avoiding the sight of the walkway and the door. Fear makes my mouth taste sticky.
I clean my apartment in the afternoon, not for any reason other than it gives me something to do. But my mind won’t shut up – it worries at the night gone like a terrier, waiting for something to give. Eventually I shove the mop into the cupboard hard enough to knock my shopping bags to the floor, and slam the door shut on all of it. I walk out the door without bothering to change or brush my hair, taking the stairs at a clattering jog and shoving out into the street. I walk fast, pushing past meandering tourists and chattering mums, ignoring their sniffs of disapproval when I bump into them. I don’t care. Just for once, I don’t care. I have other things to worry about.
I take the steps up to the walkway two at a time, and hurry along inside the ramparts, my hand sliding along the worn railing. I don’t know what I’m going to find, what I even think I might find, I just know I need to find it. I swing around the curve in the walkway and come to a sudden, breathless stop. The door is ajar. The padlock is still there, but the chain just hangs, suspended lazily from a bar. The beer cans are gone, blown away or tidied up, I don’t know. I step closer, my heart see-sawing in my ears, and peer into the shadows. There are footprints in the dust, half smoothed away by the relentless wind, and I can’t tell if they’re coming or going. I take another step, my footfalls soft, as if I might still be unnoticed if I were quiet enough. I know that’s not true, though – the shadows beyond the door loom at angles that make no sense, and the wind whispers like it has secrets. I wrap my fingers through the bars, trembling, and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness beyond. They don’t, though – if anything it seems to get darker, as if something were rising up between me and the last shards of afternoon light. I push the door to with more violence than I intend, wrapping the chain firmly around the bars. It’s only then that I realise the outer bar of the door is torn and twisted, pulled apart like I’d tear a baguette. Flaky rust and corroded metal patter to the ground in the wake of the door’s movement, and I step away from the gate, my eyes on the expanding dark beyond. Then I turn and almost run. The only reason I don’t is that running draws attention. I’m not sure any longer whose attention I’m avoiding – those of the shuffling, eddying populace below, or the far too watchful eyes of the thing I saw last night.
Because I know now that it wasn’t a man.
I pass the night awake and watchful, giving up on sleep to pace the room, checking the latches on the windows and the shutters beyond them. They rattle, sometimes, but I tell myself it’s the wind. I’m praying it’s the wind, but I don’t believe it. How can I? He’s out. The long years of wind and salt conspired against the heavy iron door, until finally those hard hands had ripped it apart. How long had the creature on the other side waited, biding his time, for the way to be opened for him? Who had shut him in there, and who had been meant to watch over him? A thousand questions, and no answers.
This day is worse even than the one gone before. When I open the shutters, clinging to them to stop the raging wind from snatching them out of my grip, they are whole, but I swear I smell that same hint of rich cologne as I push them open and peer down at the street. I dress, and leave without having breakfast, hurrying down the suddenly sinister streets with my eyes on my shoes, stealing glances at the wall that looms over us all. Is he in there? Did he escape last night? I can taste panic sour in the back of my throat, and I swallow it with difficulty.
As I round the corner, I see police cars and men in blue uniforms holding back the press of people that want to walk the city walls. There’s yellow tape on the walkway, incongruously festive. I hesitate, tune in to the excited conversation humming among the crowd. Murder, they whisper to each other, murder. It’s like the muttering of the sea on a rocky beach, but it’s a hungry sea. It’ll devour anything it touches. I turn and slip away unnoticed. Like I said, I’m good at that.
My boss is angry, angry at the girl that got murdered, angry about what it says about his town. What was she doing there? He asks me, while I avoid his eyes and tidy around him. In the middle of the night, on the wall. She must have been drunk, or high. I don’t answer him, and eventually I turn on the vacuum cleaner to drown out his squawking. I’m starting to feel angry myself, but not at the girl. No, not her. At him, the creature in the white shirt, posing as something beautiful. I wonder if the girl had been beautiful, too. Maybe she’d imagined them beautiful together, and then he’d gone and broken it, scattered it to dust on the ramparts. I hate him. And I hate that my own curiosity has tied me to him. I’m so used to being unnoticed. Why did it have to be him that noticed me?
I try to leave on time, but I can’t. People can be pigs, when they want, and it seems the wind has driven them to extremes. Someone ground cigarettes out on the carpet in one room, and in another someone poured champagne over the curtains. And when I finally finished the rooms and started my last job of the day, down by the sauna, someone had apparently mistaken the changing rooms for a toilet. I wanted to find them and rub their nose in it, the way you do a puppy. But I just tie a cloth over my mouth and nose and put a second pair of gloves on over the top of the first, and deal to it. It doesn’t keep the smell out entirely, but it helps.
And so, when I leave, the shadows are already stretching eager arms over the town. I taste panic again – I’d almost forgotten amidst the grind and filth of work. I pick my pace up, hoping I’m not too late. Knowing I dare not be. My hands have touched the bars of that door, and he saw me standing watching him, when the wild wind first came. He has my scent. I have to hurry.
There’s a policeman leaning against the wall below the walkway. He’s looking at his phone, not at me, but I still can’t get past him. The yellow tape stretches and purrs in the wind, and some has already come loose, whirling like carousel ribbons from the railings. I shift from one foot to another, looking up the stairs at the dark smudge of the door in the wall. I need to get up there. It’s almost dark, and I have a heavy duty lock and a length of chain in my hands, long enough to wrap the door frame to frame.
There’s movement up there, and I almost start forward, to warn the policeman, but he’s already looking up, as if alerted by a sound I can’t hear. The creature in the white shirt moves down the walkway with the insouciance of a cat, and this time I can see the way his hair curls at the collar of his shirt, the way the wind plays with it, like a lover might. Something twists inside me, sending my mouth dry, and I lick my lips as I watch him. I can see the line of his jaw, the fullness of his lips – the policeman is holding a hand up to him, telling him to stop, I think, but the gesture looks less commanding and more inviting, like he’s offering to dance. The creature in the white shirt stops a step about the policeman, and leans forward, putting a hand on the other’s shoulder. The policeman lowers his arm, an uncertain smile curling at the corner of his lips, and the creature shifts his hand to the man’s chest. I see the policeman jerk, see the sudden swirl of blood lofted by the wind, and the spell breaks. I turn and bolt, but not before the creature lifts his gaze and smiles at me. His eyes are just as beautiful as I had feared, and he holds the policeman’s heart in one long-fingered hand.
I sleep – I can’t help it. I’m so tired. I barricade the door with a dresser, and shift the wardrobe in front of the window, then my bed in front of that. My sleep is fitful and full of horrifying dreams that give way to panicked awakenings. But when my phone says dawn is close and I get up, there has been no smashing glass, no broken door. Just the rich, musky cologne on the stairs, sending a shiver to my belly. I slept fully dressed, so now I just pull on trainers and pick up the chain, holding it like a weapon with the lock swinging loose by my side. Part of me wants to stay inside until the sun is high and bright, then just pack a bag and get on a train and get the hell out of here. But the part of me that understands the things I can never really articulate – the part that’s bitterly realistic when I watch the slow-moving couples walking the beachfront, or the groups of laughing, drinking friends sprawling large and beautiful across the sidewalk tables – that part of me knows that now he’s out, he will not lose my scent. He’s ancient, and patient, and hungry. I pull the door behind me and set off at a run, the lock heavy and reassuring in my hands.
The early sun hasn’t reached inside the walls, and I see the two police that were left to replace their slaughtered fellow sitting in the car, drinking from a thermos and chatting. I keep close to the wall and trust to my usual anonymity to protect me. It does – I pick my way around the sticky shadow of police blood and patter up the stairs, then move down the walkway as quick as I dare. The hills inland are awash with orange light, but ahead of me the door gapes dark. I find more blood just outside it – the girl’s, I suppose. I loop the chain through the frame, shivering with fright and cold, and stretch it to reach the other side.
I don’t know what alerts me – a sudden deepening of the early morning chill, perhaps, or maybe the sound, on the threshold of hearing, of a stone moving under a stealthy foot. I throw myself under the chain and through the door, and fumble the lock into the links. I don’t close it, not yet – I look up at him. He looks amused, his hands in his pockets. There’s blood on the cuffs of his shirt.
-What are you doing? He asks.I don’t answer. I look at his shoes. I see shoes more than I do eyes. It’s surprising what you can tell about people from their shoes. His are old, worn soft, and splattered with dark droplets. I shiver.
-Open the door, he says.I tighten my grip on the lock. His words echo inside my skull. I don’t like it.
-Look at me, he says.
I don’t. Eyes are weird. And his – I don’t want to see his.
-Look at me, he says again, and the echo is loud enough to make me cringe backwards. You need to open the door. Now.
The last word snarls across my mind, and I yelp, slamming the lock shut. He grabs the bars, shakes them, and for a moment I’m afraid he’ll tear them out of the stone, until I remember he had to wait through the slow passage of years for the metal of one worn bar to rust before he could break out. The stone won’t give. I lift my gaze a little, looking at the soft creases in his trousers. There’s dust in them.
-Open it, he says. Open it!
I lift my gaze a little further, looking past him at the sky. It’s getting lighter. From here, I can see sun gilding the tops of the churches. It’s going to be a beautiful morning.
-Come on, he says. You don’t want to be alone in there, do you? Let me in. We can be together.
The tone of his voice says he knows that’s what I want, and part of me does turn towards it like a flower towards the light, but that hard part of me doesn’t. It knows what people like me are for, and we’re not for that sort of thing. I bring my gaze back from the sky and let it rest on his shirt. His chest looks broad and powerful. It must have been, to break the door apart. But that was working at one point for, what? Decades? Longer? He won’t break it now.
-Open it, he says, and I’ll give you the world. You’ll be my queen.
My lip curls – I can’t help it. I’m nobody’s queen, and I’ve never wanted to be. I’m the watcher in the corner, the listener of secrets, the silent walker of the world. And I want nothing less. I meet his eyes finally, and his smile unfurls, white and perfect. He is beautiful, I’ll give him that, and he believes in his own power as only the beautiful do. They don’t understand that there are things that beauty can’t touch. I point past him.
-The sun’s coming, I say, and my voice is rusty with disuse. Better run.
His smile slips, then breaks. He glances behind him, at the sun burning the roofs of the town, then back at me, and his voice is calm when he speaks.
-You silly child, he says. You think you’ve got it all figured out. And now you’re in there, and I’m out here.
His smile touches the corner of his lips again, and I feel a sudden, bowel clenching surge of fear.
-I didn’t ask for this, he says. Remember that.
He turns and begins to walk away, the sun slicing through the ramparts to pick out russet undertones in his hair. I almost call him back. I’m deeply aware of the darkness at my back, the breath of air whispering from deep within the wall. As if hearing the words I never spoke, he turns to look at me. The sun slides off his cheekbones.
– Here, he says, and pulls something out of his pocket, walking back to drop it on the dusty stone before the door. You’ll need this. They’ll be hungry. And he walks away without looking back again.
I look at the heart he has dropped, at the stain creeping across the stone around it. For the first time I consider that he might not have broken the door. That he might have been gatekeeper, not prisoner. I touch the lock and wish I had not left the key lying silent on the kitchen bench, then I slide to the floor, rest my arms on my knees, and wait.
I wake to the dark, and the sound of soft, deliberate movement deep beneath the wall.
This story came from the photo above, by my lovely and talented friend Sophie Benoit. Check out her work here.