As soon as they entered the town of Holihaven, walking from the railway station with their luggage, a church bell began to ring, its single deep note echoing through the darkness.
‘What narrow streets!’ said Phrynne.
‘They follow the lines of the old city,’ said Gerald. ‘Holihaven was once one of the most important seaports in Britain.’
‘Where is everybody?’
Although it was only six o’clock, the place seemed deserted.
‘Do you think we’re in the right street for the Bell Hotel?’ said Gerald.
‘Probably not,’ she said. ‘But there’s no one to ask.’
The single deep notes of the bell were now coming more frequently.
‘Why are they ringing that bell?’ she asked. ‘Is it a funeral?’
‘Bit late for a funeral,’ he said. ‘I hope it isn’t going to ring all night.’
‘Look! We’ve passed it.’
They stopped and he looked back. She was right. They walked back and entered the hotel. A woman who seemed to be the landlady came forward to greet them.
‘Mr and Mrs Banstead?’ she said. ‘I’m Hilda Pascoe. Don, my husband, isn’t very well.’
Gerald felt full of doubts. He had chosen the hotel from a guide book and was already regretting it. It was partly Phrynne’s fault for insisting that they go somewhere he did not know for their honeymoon.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Phrynne. ‘What’s the trouble?’
‘It’s always the same trouble with Don,’ said Mrs Pascoe, then hesitated. ‘It’s his stomach,’ she said.
Gerald interrupted, ‘Could we see our room?’
‘So sorry,’ said Mrs Pascoe. ‘Will you sign the hotel book first?’ She passed the book to Gerald. He wrote his name and address, and noticed that the last visitors in the book had been several weeks ago. ‘We’re always quiet in October,’ said Mrs Pascoe, watching him.
‘Are we alone in the hotel?’ asked Gerald.
‘Except for Commandant Shotcroft. He’s resident.’
‘What’s that bell?’ asked Gerald. Apart from anything else, the sound was much too near.
Mrs Pascoe looked away quickly. ‘Practice,’ she said.
‘Do you mean there will be more of them later?’
She nodded. ‘But let me take you to your room.’
Before they had reached the bedroom, the whole peal of bells had begun. ‘Is this the quietest room you have?’ asked Gerald. ‘What about the other side of the house?’
‘This is the other side of the house. Saint Guthlac’s church is over there.’ She pointed out through the bedroom door.
‘Darling,’ said Phrynne, her hand on Gerald’s arm, ‘they’ll soon stop. They’re only practising.’
Mrs Pascoe said nothing. Her expression indicated that if Gerald and Phrynne chose to leave, they were free to do so.
‘What time’s dinner?’ Gerald asked her.
‘Seven-thirty. You’ve time for a drink in the bar first.’
She went away.
‘Actually, I like church bells,’ said Phrynne. She stood by the window looking down into the street. ‘There’s still no one around.’
‘I expect they’re all in the bar,’ said Gerald.
‘I don’t want a drink. I want to explore the town and look at the sea.’
Mrs Pascoe was not around when they went downstairs, nor were there sounds of anyone else in the hotel. Outside, the noise of the bells seemed to be immediately over their heads.
‘Do you think the sea’s down there?’ shouted Phrynne. She pointed down the street, which seemed to end in nothing. ‘Come on, let’s run!’
There was nothing for him to do except run after her. Then she stopped and held her arms wide to catch him. The top of her head hardly came up to his chin.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ she said.
‘The sea?’ There was no moon, and little could be seen beyond the end of the street.
‘You can smell it,’ she said.
‘I certainly can’t hear it.’
She turned her head away from him. ‘The bells echo so much, it’s as if there were two churches.’
‘I’m sure there are more than that. There always are in old towns like this.’
‘Yes,’ cried Phrynne, delighted. ‘It is another church.’
‘Impossible,’ said Gerald. ‘Two churches wouldn’t practise ringing on the same night.’
‘I’m quite sure. I can hear one lot of bells with my left ear, and another lot with my right.’
They had still seen no one.
She held his hand. ‘Let’s go down on the beach and look for the sea.’ They descended some steps on to a stony beach. ‘We’ll go straight on until we find it.’
Gerald was less keen to walk across the large, slippery stones in the dark.
‘You’re right, Phrynne, about the smell,’ he said.
‘An honest sea smell,’ she said.
He thought it was more like the smell of something rotten. After what seemed a very long time, Phrynne spoke again.
‘Gerald, where is it? What sort of seaport has no sea?’
She walked on, but Gerald stopped and looked back at the lights of the town. He was shocked to see how far they had come. He turned to look at Phrynne but could hardly see her.
Unexpectedly she gave a sharp cry.
‘Phrynne!’ he called.
She did not answer.
Then she spoke more or less calmly. ‘It’s all right. Sorry, darling. I stood on something.’
He struggled up to her. ‘The smell’s worse than ever.’
‘I think it’s coming from what I stepped on. My foot went right in, and then there was the smell.’
‘Let’s go back. Yes?’
‘Yes,’ said Phrynne. ‘But I’m disappointed not to see the sea.’
‘The whole place is a disappointment,’ he said. ‘We’ll go somewhere else.’
‘I like the bells,’ she replied carefully. ‘And I don’t want to go somewhere where you’ve been before for our honeymoon.’
Back at the hotel, they went to the Coffee Room and sat at a table under a lamp which was hardly bright enough to cut through the shadows. At first they thought they were alone, but then saw a man sitting by himself at an unlighted corner table. In the darkness he looked like a monkey.
‘Why are you here?’ he asked them.
Phrynne looked frightened, but Gerald replied quietly, ‘We’re on holiday. I suppose you are Commandant Shotcroft?
‘No need to suppose,’ he said. He switched on the lamp nearest to him. He had finished his meal and Gerald realized that he must have switched off the light when he had heard them approaching. ‘I’m going anyway.’
‘Are we late?’ asked Phrynne.
‘No,’ said the Commandant in a deep voice. ‘I like to eat alone.’ He stood up. ‘So perhaps you’ll excuse me.’ Without waiting for an answer, he walked quickly out of the room. He had short white hair and a sad round face.
A second later his head appeared round the door again. ‘Ring,’ he said, and disappeared once more.
‘Too many other people ringing,’ said Gerald. ‘But I don’t see what else we can do.’
The Coffee Room bell made a noise like a fire alarm.
Mrs Pascoe appeared, unsteady on her feet. She seemed to have drunk a large amount of alcohol. They ordered their meal and Mrs Pascoe served it to them.
‘Coffee is served in the next room,’ she told them when they had finished.
They went into the next room. The noise of the bells came from all around. After two cups of coffee, Gerald suddenly said. ‘Every church in town must be ringing its bells. They haven’t stopped for two and a half hours!’ He stood up. ‘I think I’ll get us both a drink from the bar.’
The bar was as empty as everywhere else in the hotel and the town. There was not even a person to serve him. Annoyed, he struck a brass bell which he saw hanging there, and Mrs Pascoe appeared at a door at the end of the bar.
He ordered a brandy for himself and a whisky for Phrynne. Mrs Pascoe’s hands were shaking so much that she could not open the brandy bottle. Gerald did it for her, then she poured brandy into a glass. But when she reached for the whisky bottle, she knocked the brandy bottle on to the floor and smashed it.
A fat, red-faced man appeared at the door at the end of the bar. He held on to the doorway with each red hand, and began to shout at Mrs Pascoe. He was too drunk for his words to make any sense, and even across the bar his breath smelled strongly of whisky. Gerald assumed this was Don. He saw that Mrs Pascoe was about to start crying and something made him say, ‘Sorry about the accident.’
Mrs Pascoe looked at him. Slow, desperate tears slipped down her cheeks. ‘Mr Banstead, can I come and sit with you and your wife for a few minutes?’
‘Yes, of course,’ he said. It was not what he wanted, but he felt sorry for her.
They were in the other room when she remembered the whisky for Phrynne. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Gerald told her.
Phrynne had fallen asleep in the chair. Gerald thought that she looked very beautiful. Commandant Shotcroft was standing silently behind her, looking down at her.
‘Will you join us?’ Gerald asked him.
The Commandant did not turn his head and seemed unable to speak. Then in a low voice he said, ‘For a moment only.’
The events in the bar had made Gerald forget about the bells. Now, as they sat silently round the sleeping Phrynne, the tide of sound swept over him once more.
‘You mustn’t think that he’s always like that,’ Mrs Pascoe said, meaning her husband. ‘We ought never to have come here. We were happy in South Norwood.’
‘What made you leave?’ asked Gerald.
‘Don’s stomach. The doctor said he needed sea air.’
‘We went down on the beach before dinner,’ said Gerald. ‘We couldn’t see the sea anywhere.’
‘I never have time to look at the sea,’ said Mrs Pascoe. She glanced uneasily at the Commandant, then stood up. ‘Now I must get on with my work.’
When Mrs Pascoe had left, the Commandant spoke.
‘He was a fine man once.’
The Commandant nodded. ‘They didn’t leave South Norwood for the sea air. He got into trouble. He wasn’t the sort of man to know how rotten people can be.’
‘A pity,’ said Gerald. ‘Perhaps this isn’t the best place for him.’
‘It’s the worst,’ said the Commandant, a dark flame in his eyes. ‘For him or anyone else.’
Phrynne moved in her sleep and both men remained silent until she was breathing steadily again. Against the silence within, the bells sounded louder than ever. It was as if the noise was tearing holes in the roof.
‘It’s certainly a very noisy place,’ said Gerald, quietly.
‘Why did you have to come tonight of all nights?’
‘This doesn’t happen often?’
‘Once every year.’
‘They should have told us,’ said Gerald.
‘They don’t usually take visitors. When Pascoe was managing the place, they never did. This is Mrs Pascoe’s doing.’
‘I expect she thought they needed the business,’ said Gerald.
‘At heart women are creatures of darkness all the time.’
The Commandant’s bitterness left Gerald without a reply. After a moment he said, ‘My wife doesn’t mind the bells.’
The Commandant stared at him. ‘Take her away, man,’ he said fiercely. ‘Now. While there’s still time. This instant.’
‘They can’t go on practising all night,’ said Gerald.
‘They’re not practising!’ the Commandant said coldly. ‘They’re ringing to wake the dead.’
Gerald’s face went very pale and he turned to look at Phrynne. His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘What happens?’
The Commandant, too, was nearly whispering. ‘No one knows how long they have to go on ringing. It varies from year to fear, but you should be all right until midnight. In the end, the dead awake. First one or two, then all of them. Tonight even the sea moves back. You’ve seen that yourself. In a place like this there are always several drowned each year. This year there have been more than several. But most of them come not from the water but from the earth.’
‘Where do they go?’
‘I’ve never followed them to see. I’m not mad.’
There was a long pause.
‘So you advise me to go,’ said Gerald. ‘But I have no car.’
‘Then walk,’ said the Commandant. ‘She’s young and strong. Twenty years younger than you and therefore twenty years more important.’
‘Yes,’ said Gerald. ‘I agree… What will you do?’
‘I’ve lived here for some time now. I know what to do.’
Suddenly Phrynne sat up. ‘Hello,’ she said, not completely awake. ‘What fun! The bells are still ringing.’
The Commandant stood up. ‘You’ve still got time,’ he told Gerald. Then he nodded to Phrynne, and left the room.
‘What have you still got time for?’ asked Phrynne, stretching.
‘Nothing important,’ said Gerald.
‘Sorry I’m so sleepy. Shall we go for another walk? That would wake me up. And perhaps the sea has come in.’
Gerald found it impossible to explain to her that they should leave at once, walk all night if necessary. Even if he were alone, he probably wouldn’t go.
Mrs Pascoe appeared at the door leading to the bar. She was carrying two glasses with steam coming from them.
‘I thought you might both like a hot drink,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ said Phrynne. ‘How nice. Oh, I think the Commandant’s forgotten his book.’ The book was on one of the chairs near her.
‘Shall I take it up to him?’ Gerald asked Mrs Pascoe. He suddenly wanted to ask the Commandant more questions.
‘Thank you,’ said Mrs Pascoe. ‘Room One.’
When Gerald knocked on the Commandant’s door, there was no reply. After the third knocking, there was still no answer, so he gently opened the door. He looked into the room and gave a little gasp.
There was no light on, but the curtains were pulled back from the open window and the noise of the bells was deafening. The Commandant was on his knees by the open window. His face was partly in his hands, but Gerald could see his expression. It seemed full of pain.
He stood watching for some time, unable to move and unable to decide whether or not the Commandant knew he was there. Then he put the book on the bed and went quietly downstairs.
Mrs Pascoe had started drinking again. She stood near the fire, a glass of whisky in one hand.
‘How long before the bells stop?’ Gerald asked as soon as he came into the room. He had decided. They must go. Their excuse would be that it was impossible to sleep. ‘You should have told us about this – this annual event before we booked the room.’
Mrs Pascoe drank some more whisky. ‘It’s not always the same night,’ she said, looking at the floor.
‘We’re not staying,’ said Gerald, wildly.
‘Gerald!’ said Phrynne.
‘Leave this to me, Phrynne.’ He turned to Mrs Pascoe. ‘We’ll pay for the room, of course. Please order me a car.’
‘Don’t go,’ said Mrs Pascoe. ‘Not now. It’s too late.’
‘Too late for what?’ asked Gerald.
Her face was pale. ‘You – you wanted a car. You’re too late. You’ll be all right if you stay. Really you will.’
Gerald put a hand on Phrynne’s arm. ‘Come on.’
They went first to the front door. To Gerald’s surprise, it was unlocked and opened easily. Outside the building the whole sky was full of the sound of bells.
Phrynne moved close to him. ‘They’ve been ringing too long,’ she said. ‘I wish they’d stop.’
‘We’re packing and going,’ said Gerald. ‘I needed to know whether or not we could get out this way.’
He tried to shut the door quietly, but it made a small noise and he hesitated with it half-shut. Suddenly, something dark and shapeless, with its arm seeming to hold a black cloth over its head, went quickly down the narrow poorly-lit street. It made no sound at all, and Gerald was very relieved that only he had seen it. With a trembling hand, he shut the door much too noisily.
Soon they were in their room with the door locked.
‘Oh God!’ Gerald said, dropping on to the bed. ‘It’s crazy out there!’
‘Yes, it’s crazy,’ said Phrynne, almost calmly. ‘And we’re not going out in it.’
He did not know how much she knew, guessed, or imagined. And any explanation from him might be dangerous. He was now less frightened of the bells continuing than of them stopping.
Then one peal did stop, and Gerald sat up straight on the side of the bed. Almost at once another stopped… and another… until there was only a single bell ringing. It rang six or seven times. Then it stopped, and there was nothing.
Gerald’s head was full of echoes.
Phrynne turned away from the window and started to take off her dress. ‘Let’s go somewhere else tomorrow.’
Sooner than usual, they were in bed and in each other’s arms. Gerald had been careful not to look out of the window, and neither of them suggested opening it.
He had been afraid to look at his watch since the bells stopped, not wanting to count the hours till daylight. He could not forget the Commandant kneeling at the dark window, or the thing he had seen in the street.
Then passion drew a curtain over these memories. The old man at the window was unimportant; the street had been empty. The world was his and Phrynne’s alone.
Time passed, and Phrynne lay close to him. Suddenly he heard feet moving in the road outside, and a voice calling.
‘The dead are awake!’
At first Gerald lay listening, then jumped up and run to the window. A man in a seaman’s jacket was running down the street, coming into view at each street lamp. As he shouted his message, he crossed from side to side, waving his arms with joy.
‘The dead are awake!’
Behind him, men, women, and children came out of their houses. Most were dressed and must have been waiting in silence and darkness for the call. Some advanced in groups, arm in arm; others ran happily, waving their arms above their heads. All cried out again and again, ‘The dead are awake! The dead are awake!’
Gerald became aware of Phrynne standing behind him. ‘The Commandant warned me,’ he said. ‘We should have gone.’
Phrynne held his arm. ‘Nowhere to go,’ she said. But her voice was soft with fear. ‘I don’t expect they’ll trouble us.’
Quickly Gerald pulled the curtains across, leaving them in darkness. ‘We’ll just wait till it’s over,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter what happens.’ He went across and pressed the light switch, but the light did not come on. ‘The electricity has failed.’
He guided her back to the bed.
‘They were going towards the sea,’ she said nervously.
‘We must think of something else,’ said Gerald.
The noise was still growing. The whole town seemed to be marching round the streets, getting closer, moving away again, shouting the same dreadful words again and again. They began to shout together, like crowds at football matches, and their different words were shouted, though Gerald could not hear what they were. Finally, the shouting changed to singing, and the crowd began to approach again, slowly and steadily.
‘What the hell are they doing now?’ Gerald said.
The crowd seemed to be returning up the main street from the sea, gasping for breath, their footsteps strangely uneven. Time passed and more time.
Phrynne spoke. ‘I believe they’re dancing.’
She moved slightly, as if she thought of going to look.
‘No, no,’ said Gerald, and held her fiercely.
There was a huge bang from downstairs. The front door had been violently thrown open and they could hear the hotel filling with the singing crowd.
Doors banged and furniture was knocked over as the group moved through the darkness of the building. Glasses, cups and plates smashed. Phrynne screamed. Then a heavy shoulder crashed against their door and pushed it down.
The living and the dead dance together.
Now’s the time Now’s the place. Now’s the weather.
At last Gerald could hear the words.
Hand in hand, through the open doorway, the dancers came in, singing wildly. Happy, but exhausted. More and more of them until the room must have been full.
Phrynne screamed again. ‘The smell. Oh God, the smell!’
It was the smell from the beach, and here in the tightly packed room it was unspeakably horrible.
Phrynne was beyond control, screaming again and again. Gerald tried to hold her, but one of the dancers struck him so hard that she was knocked out of his arms. Instantly it seemed that she was no longer there. He struggled after her, but a huge arm knocked him to the floor, beneath the wildly dancing feet.
But soon the dancers moved on, from his room and from the building, and before long there was nothing but the darkness and the terrible smell. Unable to think or move, Gerald felt so sick that he had to battle with unconsciousness.
At last he struggled into a sitting position and put his head on the torn sheets of the bed. For a while everything went black, then he heard footsteps coming down the dark passage. The Commandant entered, holding a lighted candle.
‘She’s safe. No thanks to you.’ He stared coldly at Gerald.
Gerald tried to stand up. He was terribly bruised, but deeply relived to hear that Phrynne was safe.
‘Is it thanks to you?’ he asked.
‘She was caught up in it. Dancing with the rest of them.’ The Commandant’s eyes shone brightly in the candle-light. The sound of singing and dancing had almost faded away.
Still Gerald could only sit up on the bed. ‘Were they… were some of them…?’
The Commandant seemed disgusted by Gerald’s weakness. ‘She was between two of them. Each had one of her hands.’
Gerald could not look at him. ‘What did you do?’ he asked in a voice that sounded unlike his own.
‘I did what had to be done. I hope I was in time.’ After a slight pause he continued. ‘You’ll find her downstairs.’
‘I’m grateful,’ said Gerald.
‘Can you walk?’
‘I think so,’ replied Gerald.
‘I’ll take you down.’
There were two more candles in the room downstairs. Phrynne, wearing a coat that was not hers, sat between them drinking. Mrs Pascoe moved about, collecting broken glass.
‘Darling, look at you!’ Phrynne’s words were wild, but her voice was as gentle as usual.
Gerald pulled her into his arms. They held each other silently for a long time. Then he looked into her eyes.
‘Here I am,’ she said, and looked away. ‘Don’t worry.’
Silently and unnoticed, the Commandant had already gone.
Phrynne finished her drink, still not looking at Gerald. At the door she pulled off the coat and threw it on a chair. Her night-dress was so torn that it hardly covered her, and Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe staring with envy at Phrynne’s pretty body.
‘May we take one of the candles?’ asked Gerald.
But Mrs Pascoe continued to stand silently staring. So they went back up through the broken furniture to their room. The Commandant’s door was shut. And the smell had almost gone.
Even by seven o’clock the next morning, much had been done to return everything to normal. But no one seemed to be about, and Gerald and Phrynne departed without speaking to anyone.
When they reached Station Road, they saw some men silently digging behind some gates. A sign said that it was the New Holihaven Cemetery.
In the mild light of an autumn morning, the sight of the silent workers was horrible, but Phrynne did not seem to find it so. Indeed, her cheeks reddened and for a moment her soft mouth became even more beautiful, more inviting.
She seemed to have forgotten Gerald, so that he was able to examine her closely for a moment. It was the first time he had done this since the night before. Then, once more, she became herself. But in those few seconds Gerald had become aware of something dividing them which neither of them would ever mention or ever forget.
– THE END –