David had observed the long narrow room before. Late at night, sitting in his car at the traffic lights, he would look up at the building opposite. Each time, the room on the second floor attracted his attention. Its large windows were without curtains or blinds. Around the edge of its ceiling, hung strings of pink, yellow and green coloured lights, flashing in endless repetition. Pink, yellow, green, off. Pink, yellow, green, off. Jagged shadows jumped and chased each other across the walls before the room went black and the sequence started again. At the end of the room, closest to the traffic lights, the silhouette of a man’s head faced the wall. He seemed to be sitting and watching something. The room was apparently empty, except for the flashing lights, as if prepared for a Christmas party whose guests had not arrived yet. David thought the room must be part of a student flat. The flashing lights and the man’s silhouette, which was obviously a dummy, were probably some kind of installation art form. A comment on high density living, or the nature of university life, or some such thing. His thoughts usually advanced no further before the traffic lights turned green and he drove away.
Tonight, lonely and unable to sleep, he walked through the city. Margaret had arrived home late, flushed and unrepentant, and of course they argued. He was boring, never initiated anything, always engrossed in his books and his writing. She needed more from life, something brighter, more exciting than endless nights discussing literature or going to dull plays to meet dull people who all agreed on the failings of television. He pointed out it was his critique of the books and the plays that paid for everything, including her. The argument had become loud and hurtful and ended in an exchange of insults, Margaret finally leaving through a slammed door. If her exit was not to be permanent he knew he would have to do more than send her a text message offering reconciliation, but he felt weary and almost relieved that it could be over. He had organised himself a drink and slumped into his chair, but drinking his way through a bottle of scotch would not bring him any nearer a resolution and he decided a walk would help him think. He picked up the mirror on the sideboard to look himself over. It was a present he’d brought from South Africa for Margaret, but of course she hadn’t liked it. The curio shop owner in the back streets of Cape Town told him it was from an old Swazi Samgoma, a sort of local doctor come wizard who used it to unmask demons. He had told her she could use it to put on and remove her makeup, but she hadn’t appreciated the joke.
The city centre offered distraction but not the opportunity of introspection and so he moved away from the clubs and bars with their clouds of students, to wander into a quieter area of mainly showrooms and low-rise flats. It wasn’t until he was standing at the traffic lights that he recognised the intersection and found himself across the road from the building and the room.
Now he looked up, the lights were flashing and the mannequin’s silhouette, as always, faced the end wall. He watched for a while; – Pink, yellow, green, off; Pink, yellow, green, off, – but became bored with seemingly endless repetition. He was about to continue his wandering when a movement focused his attention on the window once more; the head turned to look down at him causing him to recoil and he realized he was looking at a man. Their eyes met and the man mouthed something. David thought he looked familiar, somebody he’d met somewhere before. He raised his arm in greeting and the man’s head seemed to nod his mouthing becoming more animated. The traffic lights turned green and he crossed the road to the entrance of the building.
The foyer was lit by a single, dim bulb. It provided just enough light for him to see through an archway to a staircase beyond. The stairs doglegged up into a dark, double volume space. One wall of the staircase was built entirely of square glass bricks through which the night and the city lights refracted as he climbed. It reminded him of the multi-faceted eye of a giant insect, watching implacably while its victim meandered into striking distance. When he reached the half landing something moved in the gallery above. In the silence, it sounded heavy and made a skittering noise on the linoleum tiled floor. He felt his skin crawl as he stopped on the gloomy stairs and turned to look back. The foyer was barely visible and a long way down. The room was closer with its warm interior and flashing party lights. He smiled at his reaction to the noise, it was probably somebody’s pet, and he continued climbing the stairs.
When he reached the gallery he stopped, out of breath and hot from the climb, and looked to either side down the dark, tunnel-like corridors. He couldn’t remember the building being that long, but again there was only one dim light on the wall of the gallery, so the length of the corridors was unclear. A soft plinking noise, similar to the sound of wooden keys on a toy piano was coming from the only visible door. He went over and knocked. The door was not latched and it swung open into the room. The shadows jumped across the walls and the ceiling as the lights flashed. He called out but there was only silence. Opposite the door, under the large window, there was an office chair, its seat slowly turning on its pedestal. On the wall in front of the chair, hung a portrait sized mirror in a tangled twine frame. The room went black and the light sequence started again. He entered the room, under his feet loose parquet tiles played in soft concert as he moved to the window and looked down on the street below.
The city was still, no cars, no people, and the traffic lights seemed fixed permanently on red. Only the shadows in the room moved as the coloured lights flashed. David felt tired, weary to his soul and he sat in the chair looking at his reflection and the long empty room behind him. It went black, then pink, then yellow, then green. He turned his head to look out of the window; the city had reanimated and across the road a man stood looking up at the room. David thought he recognized him and called out, but he could not make a sound as he moved his mouth. The man raised his arm in greeting and walked over towards the building. David tried to stand up but his body felt heavy and he sagged back into the chair. Again, he tried to call out. Behind him he heard a soft plink on the parquet tiles. The room went black, then pink, then yellow, then green. He was paralyzed. Only his eyes could move to look at the reflection in the mirror. The flashing lights slowed and the shadows jumped towards him in a chaos of jagged spines and curled proboscises. A forgotten smell from his childhood filled his open mouth, a smell of old insects kept too long in crumpled, cardboard matchboxes. The room went black. Something large brushed his cheek. Pink. A drop of warm mucus dripped onto his skin. Yellow. He heard a man’s voice at the door. Green. Strong skeletal limbs plucked him from the chair. Black. He tried to scream.
Margaret arrived at their flat the next morning determined to talk through their relationship issues. She knew David would try and avoid the confrontation, he always did, but she would insist. They couldn’t continue in this rut of almost familial squabbling. Where was the romance? Why was he taking her for granted?
The door was unlocked. She rolled her eyes and shook her head at his habitual absent mindedness. Inside, the flat was dark and there was a musky smell she couldn’t quite identify. She called out his name as she made her way across the lounge to the French doors. She pulled aside the curtains, then stood back in surprise. The doors were wide open to the garden. What on earth was going on? She called out his name again but the garden was empty and almost eerily quiet. Turning around she was dazzled by the morning light reflecting off a mirror poking up over the back of his old club chair. Curiouser and curiouser she thought. He must be sitting in the chair watching her in that bloody awful mirror he had brought back from Cape Town. Bit of old tat, the mirror’s backing was half gone and the ‘frame’ was made up from dirty, tangled, home-made twine. She walked around the chair to confront him and staggered back gagging on a shriek of horror, holding up her hands to block out what she saw.
He was sitting slumped in the chair, an empty whiskey bottle in his lap, staring into the mirror he was holding up in front of him, his lips pulled back over his teeth in a rictus of fear. A thick web joined the mirror to his face and a teeming mass of small multi coloured insects were busily crawling in and out of his nostrils and mouth. His eyes bulged out of their sockets and while she was watching one of them burst like a wet balloon and dozens more of the insects poured out onto his cheek. A barely audible gurgle escaped from his throat and she realized he was still alive.
Her body clenched in terror and she barely felt the sting on her ankle. The room began to grow dark and she thought how quickly the day had gone by. She’d never noticed the lights around the ceiling before, they were like Christmas lights, flashing pink, then yellow, then green then off, and then pink, then yellow, then green, then off. Over and over. She felt tired, and leaned against the club chair for support, she was so very weary. In the corner of her eye she saw movement. Something big skittered in through the French doors. She tried to call out.
You can find another short story by John Lee Langton When Freda Met Sally here.