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FREE FICTION

DISAGREEABLY HITCHED
Gary Fry


For Ross Warren,
who nagged me to start writing again.
So don’t blame me, blame him.


Hughes had heard of villages being described as sleepy but this one was catatonic. After arriving at 9am and parking in a residential street (to avoid paying and displaying) he’d expected at least some shops to be open. But while strolling along the deserted high street he spotted only closed after closed after closed signs in all commercial doorways.
Perhaps the place didn’t get many visitors this time of the year. Stubbornly unmoving autumn cloud lent the grey façades of terraced property even more sullen secrecy. It wasn’t only the shops refusing to reveal themselves; the low narrow houses – windows curtained, doors sat squarely in solid frames – similarly conceded no evidence of occupancy.
Hughes was on the latest leg of his tour of the Yorkshire Dales. It had been a joy to escape city life for a week – his job in retail, noisy neighbours, an ex-wife bearing a daily grudge – but already half of it was gone. Half was left, too, he reminded himself, drawing on the positive attitude recommended by a counsellor he’d consulted during the messy divorce. But this mental trick failed to suppress his all too typical gloom.
In a window across the street he spotted movement, a figure his height and build peering out through the pane. But then, turning with both anxiety and hope, he realised his mistake. This was himself – leaning forwards to squint, fortysomething eyes struggling to focus – reflected in the dark glass. His sluggish mind recoiled from the sight: pale, portly and carelessly dressed. A hangover from the bottle and a half of red he’d consumed last night had clearly yet to lift.
There weren’t even opening times hanging on the doors. Perhaps the village operated on an ad hoc basis, vendors adjusting to the potential for custom during different seasons. Hughes could understand that in relation to tourist-oriented shops – those selling arts and crafts, other pleasing knickknacks, and holidaymaker foodstuff like toffee and fudge – but what of the ones offering everyday essentials such as newspapers, bread, milk, and the like? Didn’t locals start each morning the way everyone did in the country?
The silence hereabouts was puzzling and not a little unsettling, though Hughes had to remind himself that his nerves were still raw from recent events (along with the methods he’d drawn upon to deal with them). He turned and glanced back up the street he’d just walked, observing nobody milling on its pavements. People made him edgy – it was why he’d booked a self-catering cottage at the heart of barren countryside, a base from which to tentatively explore the area – but, he now discovered, their absence could be as ruthless.
“Hello,” he called, thinking of when he had to raise his voice at work, the unease this always caused him. “Are you all vampires?”
The idea, arising from the child inside he often considered himself, he disowned at once. Hell, the world was full enough of prosaic terrors without resurrecting foolish imaginary ones. He’d just reached the last commercial outlet in the row, beyond which no further property was located, only an untended scrub of grass and hedges. It appeared to be a charity shop, the window displaying a non-uniform selection of items: tatty jigsaw boxes, dog-eared books, VHS cassettes, floral-pattern crockery, and sun-faded photos.
Hughes paced up to the frontage, crouching to inspect. A spider clinging to a web draped across the grimy pane scurried forwards to observe, presumably in response to his faint shadow. The depths of the store were lightless, boasting only overpopulated railings: clothes hanging on hooks like dismembered body sections. The silence within seemed imperious to Hughes, a horror film freeze-framed before it grew genuinely creepy.
He was feeling juvenile again, so he stepped sideways to the front entrance and then gave a manly knock. If staff were inside, they might be in a backroom seeking the power-switch that threw on the lights. Surely someone had already arrived for work today – why else would the door have swung open before Hughes had finished issuing his summons?
The widening gap let out some of the cold air inside the shop, or was a seasonable breeze getting up from behind, persuading Hughes to enter? He couldn’t be certain, but before he was able to ruminate further he found himself edging ahead, over the threshold, body primed for retaliation. But retaliation to what? In his experience, charity shops were run by elderly ladies or those with learning difficulties, neither of whom should be threatening to a grown man. All the same, the farther Hughes strayed into the outlet’s gloom, the quicker his pulse ran.
“Hello?” he called anew, his voice this time resounding in the stale, cool air of the interior, which yielded a smell like foisty furniture. That would come from all the second-hand goods around him, even though he’d have expected them to be washed in advance of trading. “Is anyone here?”
Not to judge by the unfailing silence. Hughes frowned, disguising his disquiet as confusion, most urgently to himself. Now, halfway into the outlet and subsumed by most of its dark, he glanced around. He spotted an untenanted till-point to his left and a display table to the right. He moved towards the table, intrigued by what he’d just noticed on top. His heartrate suffered another headlong lurch.
“My God,” he said, stooping to look closer at the time-swallowing thing. The queerness of his surroundings was suddenly forgotten. He heard his breathing coming with involuntary gasps.
Here was an Action Man sat in his trusted plastic Jeep. Hughes reached forwards to grab the guy, tugging him free from the cramped seat. The boots Hughes recalled were such a bugger to get on and off caught on the steering wheel, causing the figure’s outfit to ride up over a moulded muscular torso. Would that Hughes had been blessed with such physique! The toy’s eyes swivelled via movement of a button in the back of his crewcut head. Hughes, making the facsimile guy look left and right and then left again, smiled at the sudden joy of rediscovery, of reacquaintance.
Of course it wasn’t the very same model he’d owned as a child, rather another of a mass produced range. All the same, the patch of alopecia this one suffered on its crown, along with a missing rubber finger from its trigger-pulling right hand, came uncomfortably close to disabilities his own had once suffered.
“Common faults,” he said out loud, the better to convince himself. “Manufacturer shortcomings. Uncharacteristic vulnerabilities.”
His final phrase assigned too much sentience to the Action Man, so Hughes poked him back inside the Jeep and quickly withdrew his hands. The way his words had filled the space nearby reminded him of his location, but before he retreated he wanted to know how much the item was selling at. A price tag on the vehicle’s bonnet was somehow visible amid clustered shadow: “£1.50.”
It was ridiculously, temptingly, cheap for such nostalgic fare, but who might Hughes pay? He turned to examine the rest of the shop, seeing nothing but more and more stock. He fancied that there was a doorway at the rear of the store, but as the showroom remained untroubled by anyone other than himself, he couldn’t be sure. Then, still privately disturbed by the toy’s overfamiliar injuries, he started to leave.
He’d got halfway back to the exit when temptation grew too strong. He stopped at a rail full of women’s blouses, the kind his mum had once worn, and then swiftly lifted a tag from the first one’s hanger. “50p”, it read, and if this seemed anachronistically affordable, the second’s price made him reel some more: “25p.” Christ, the place was practically giving stuff away, and what use would that be to any charity organisation?
Hughes moved on, closer to the door which had swung shut after his earlier violation. Before reaching for the handle, however, he glanced at more items for sale on a shelf screwed to the wall. These were ornaments and trinkets, all bespeaking a bygone era, the tacky trends and fashions of the 1970s and 80s – the years of Hughes’ boyhood. He lifted one from the middle of the haphazard display, turning it immediately over. “17½p” read the label stuck to the bottom of the pot dog, and that was when, after promptly returning the curio, Hughes hurried away.
Outside again he wondered how any store could sell products marked up in discontinued currency. When had the half-penny coin been struck from circulation? It was certainly during Hughes’ youth, and what sense did it make to conclude that the pot dog had been patrolling that shelf for over thirty years, waiting for a caring owner? Moving away from the outlet, Hughes glanced into its window one more time, and on this occasion realised how dated the objects there appeared. VHS cassettes? It was 2020, for God’s sake.
He now felt disturbed but at least he was out in the open. However grim the sky seemed intent upon remaining, what was likely to befall him in freshly minted daylight? Up ahead was one possibility, a sudden shift of a curtain in the upper storey window of a residential terrace. Had a woman whose face sagged in every place it could, and in quite a few it shouldn’t – the way his mother had come to look a decade earlier, while conceding ungraciously to cancer – just peered outside at him?
Hughes refused to grant that image permanent headspace; instead he hurried back along the still deserted pavement. He couldn’t bring himself to drop his vision, and now found himself prey to a sequence of misperceptions. The cat he saw curled up in another shop display had moved no more than the stuffed birds and vermin around it, its predatorially feline urges stilled by a taxidermist’s knife. Two mannequins welcoming him into the next outlet had borne neither his facial features nor those of anyone closely related to him: like brief treacherous expressions, his passing reflection had merely slid across the surfaces of round, smooth, featureless heads. The hand that fondled the doorframe of a third store didn’t lack an operator; it wasn’t the beast with five fingers that had frightened Hughes so badly as a child. There was an arm attached to it, and a body attached to that: a whole human to contend with. Just then, Hughes felt mercifully relieved.
“Ah, hello there,” he said, stopping outside the shop halfway back to his car, where the autumn chill felt more insistent, cooling his tell-tale cheeks. “I was beginning to think I’d wandered into some sort of abandoned village.”
Once the owner had the open door secured against the inner wall, Hughes got a good look at her … or did he rather mean him? The person was so old it was difficult to determine the sex. The clothing didn’t help, a careless mishmash of dated garments favoured by the elderly: pants, shirt, flat shoes. White hair failed to cling to the figure’s scalp, but that was an affliction that could beset males or females at this advanced age. At least the sir or madam remained mobile, thin limbs flexing with unfeasible angularity. One back-curled forefinger, its knuckles tumescent with arthritic bulges, beckoned Hughes that way.
“Plenty of us here,” the shopkeeper said, the voice like the croak of someone who breathed in as much nicotine as oxygen. “Come and see if we can offer you some pleasure.”
Despite its allusion to a presently absent plurality, the invitation seemed friendly and well-meaning. Once the wo/man had shuffled back from the entrance, Hughes paced inside, glad at last of some company on a morning when he’d been feeling tender. A moment later the outlet’s lights sprang into action, startling Hughes with their vividness. He hadn’t realised how dim the day had grown, but now something else preoccupied him.
How had the shopkeeper reached the rear of the lengthy property in the time it had taken Hughes to cross just the threshold? That was presumably where, behind a reclosed door, the light switches were fitted, a good twenty feet from the shopfront. Of course the figure now headed back towards him looked nimble in the way naturally slender people did, but Hughes had neither seen nor heard any rapid movement away.
“So what can we tease you with?”
Tease and not tempt, thought Hughes, glancing around and suddenly becoming aware that he didn’t yet know what kind of a store he’d entered. The sexless shape in his peripheral vision halted only a yard short of him, clutching together hands as narrow as insect legs. Hughes experienced a ripple of unease in his guts, but nonetheless observed the vendor’s wares.
It was jewellery of every stripe, rings and necklaces and bracelets and charms. All were displayed in cabinets and counters which excluded proverbial light fingers with locked panels of glass. Refusing to look at the figure beside him, Hughes stepped forwards, politely observing the silver and gold set in beddings of velvet. He had no intention of buying anything because he had nobody to buy for. And he’d never been fond of drawing attention to himself with such trivial trinkets.
“All tastes are catered for here,” said the voice from behind, another bestial rasp powered by ineffectual lungs.
Hughes, unreasonably troubled by these words, flicked his gaze from display to display, checking out the stock and wishing that he wasn’t being given a hard sell, that he could just talk about the Yorkshire Dales and how much he’d enjoyed spending time in the area. Did all his relationships have to involve underlying agendas? His upbringing certainly had, a single mother playing emotional games with a mind yet to understand otherwise, and this had been replicated later, once he’d finally left home and met another wo—
At that moment the thoughts stopped dead in his skull. He looked directly at the thing but was unable to register its import. For several long seconds he stared at it, the visual image failing to connect to hefty traumatic baggage he’d hauled around in his psyche for months. Then it came at him with blunt force.
This was the wedding ring he’d given his ex-wife twenty years ago.
He couldn’t be mistaken; although the Action Man he’d scrutinised earlier had suffered damage common to many, no other ring could resemble this one. It hadn’t been a mass market product, rather uniquely handmade by a craftsman back in Devon. At the time, Hughes had been so besotted, so transformed by the experience of communion with another, that he’d abandoned his usual quibbles about cost. The price had been little short of a grand, a considerable sum now, let alone at the turn of the century. He’d paid it with a willingness exceeded only by his desire for what the ring signified.
“Hey, where did you get this from?” he asked, pointing at the guilty cabinet while glancing back over one shoulder. He didn’t have to look as far as he’d expected. The figure lurking behind was now almost pressed up against him, its lumpless body smelling faintly of rot.
Hughes could imagine his ex-wife selling the ring after the divorce – more than imagine, actually; he’d expect that of her – but it showing up here, 300 miles north of their former home, was as likely as the toy in the other shop having once belonged to him. Something peculiar was certainly afoot, but Hughes’ mind was so tangled, so crammed with coppery panic, that he was unable to determine what. He’d have to persuade the jewellery shop owner to explain, asserting himself in the process.
“Can you please tell me how you came about this ring?”
“Oh, that one’s taken your fancy, has it?” the wo/man replied, that voice still failing to betray its chromosomal origin. It might be the outcome of testosterone or rather a growl of feminine decrepitude.
Hughes was about to reply when he perceived two things at the same time. First, his companion had plucked a small key from one trouser pocket and was now poking it at the cabinet’s tiny lock with hands that looked barely up to the task. Hughes was put in mind of chicken flesh draped over a carcass once all the meat had been stripped from the bone. More unsettling, however, were the sounds from elsewhere, principally from the upper storey of the property he occupied, but weren’t there also similar noises arising from the street outside?
In both cases it sounded like people – many people, in fact; maybe a whole village’s worth – coming to see what the current brouhaha betokened. Unsteady footfalls, too heavy to belong to animals and yet too light to imply healthy humans, scurried along the upper floor just as they shuffled beyond the store’s entrance. Soon they grew closer, a collective aural encroachment which, as Hughes refused to glance anywhere but directly ahead, became tyrannically suggestive.
As the vendor plucked the offending ring from its silken seat, Hughes suffered a sudden mental image of all the folk living and working on this side of the street climbing into connecting attics, stealing across to the jewellery shop, and then dropping from a hatch in the first-floor ceiling, the better to descend another level to the ground like a troop of zestful simians. Meanwhile, homeowners and staff from the opposite row of terraces emerged from their properties, scampering from pavement to pavement to peer inside this outlet, faces hideously bunched together, a menagerie of unconvincing flesh.
But Hughes, despite too much pink and not enough hair writhing in his eye corners (he was sure the door at the rear of the shop had just yielded to an infirm mob), observed only the ring.
The unisex figure now standing intimately alongside him held out the treasonous article. It was exactly the one he’d had made long ago, even bearing the soft dent in its gold from when his ex-wife had caught her hand on a kitchen appliance. He’d loved her back then, showing concern for her injury; a lack of reciprocal compassion for his own needs – some normal, others admittedly bespoke – had eroded that down the years. 
“Ask me the question,” said the impossibly narrow shape still invading his personal territory.
Did s/he mean the one Hughes had already asked twice, about the source of the ring? He was about to make a third attempt, but then his curiosity betrayed him: he glanced left and then right and then left and then right again. Although the focusing capacity of his ageing eyes proved inadequate to the task, he managed to take in at least some of who had come to watch this spectacle develop.
One lot of the visitors was grouped around the front window while the other had clustered at the back of the shop. Most looked female, and all looked old – so old it was hard to believe they hadn’t drawn the attention of the media: the world’s most aged concentrated population. Hughes could only assume most glanced back, though his effort to detect eyes within clownish folds of skin – they glinted neither in daylight nor under the glow of bulbs – was met with disturbing frustration. One, he noticed, was lifting a lid with a hand suffering almost as much sag. Then Hughes snatched his gaze away, back to his palsied suitor.
“Ask me the question,” s/he said again, and on this occasion, as s/he poked the gnarled third-left finger into the vaginal ring, Hughes suddenly understood, with horror, what she wanted of him.
No,” he said, shrinking away from this scene but only mentally; his limbs remained too stunned to fulfil his characteristic cowardice. “No, no, no.”
The shop owner’s free hand took one of Hughes’, the grip like that of a father he’d never known – surprisingly firm, aspiringly loving.
“Well, I’ll answer anyway,” the voice went on, already boasting a tone fashioned by the shape of a smile.
Just then, Hughes didn’t wish to hear what would surely come next. But with no obvious way out of the room, he had no choice.
I do,” the figure added with resolute pride.
And that was when the impromptu guests – travesties of sinew, puppets animated by guile, folk surely like Hughes’ late mother who “loved a good wedding” – started applauded with senile delight, the sound of sluggish claps redoubled by so many stray parts of them.
Hughes sensed what little of his mind remained cogent slip into irrevocable derangement.