Her mouth was full of something. It felt like too much tofu had been stuffed in, pressing hard against her tonsils, making her gag. Anastasia leant forward on all fours against the ballast on the railway track and coughed. She felt panicky—was she going to choke this time? She couldn’t be sure whether this had happened before, physically, or only in the recurring nightmare she had where a strange gloopy substance like too much chewed chewing-gum populated her mouth. In the dream, it was thick and sinewy and she would pull it out line by stringy white line. She had long been fascinated by Victorian photos of séances, the ectoplasm emerging in foam-like tendrils from the mediums.
Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe and tried frantically amid fits and spurts of coughing to get whatever this was out of her damned mouth. She was bent double spitting now, and large chunks of what looked like soil were ejecting outward like loamy vomit. “Surely this couldn’t be soil?” she thought, “it must be clumps of dried blood and food”, maybe all the salad she’d been eating had solidified. North East England’s coast had never had much for vegans and she didn’t care for eating chips that had been fried in the same oil as fish. Whitby was a fish scale and greasy chip kind of town. She looked at the brown-black lumps she had spewed up and felt the need to turn away from the sight of it. In the early evening light, she could see the back of Prospect Hill from the tracks, her holiday home with the quaint name of Lorelai Cottage. It made her uneasy that her accommodation was named for a Siren who lured sailors by song to crash their boats on the rocks.
She walked up the hill to the house and turned the big old metal key in the front door. She slung her black velvet jacket on the sofa and thought about what to eat. She decided on soup and wholewheat bread as that’s what she happened to have left. She cut two slices of bread and placed them on a small white plate. Reaching into the drawer, she took out the rusty tin opener and proceeded to open the “lentil veg” soup. Gazing out the window, abruptly her hand slipped and the tin can lid sliced into the inside of her wrist, a long gash that was pumping blood everywhere, even on the bread! Unnerved and heart racing, she ran upstairs to the hot press to get the first aid kit, clumsily opening the door and then the box with the lint. She wrapped it tightly around the wound but not before spurting blood all over the towels. Now looking like a failed suicide attemptee, she leaned her head against the hot press door.
Feeling faint, she wanted to splash her face with cold water. The sink was tiny so she ran some lukewarm water in the bath and dipped her head under. Abruptly she felt her head being pulled under the water! It felt like something had caught hold of her hair. How could this be happening when there was only four inches of water? Is the hair stuck in the plughole? She tried to scream and the water flooded her mouth. She frantically pushed at the ceramic base of the bath and managed to dislodge herself, staggered backward, and somehow got caught in a piece of looped metal hanging on the back of the door, a hanger someone had been using to free up the pipe in the bathroom sink. Before she realised what was happening it was around her neck and in her confusion she rushed forward, tugging at the misshapen metal. It cut into her pale skin and, crying now, she was able to lift it back over her head. Feeling foolish, she looked in the mirror to see a mark around the front and left side of her throat that resembled a hangman’s noose. She sighed. Perhaps these accidents were happening because she was overtired and stressed? She had come here to de-stress after all.
She went back downstairs. No longer hungry after the sight of blood-soaked bread, she decided to go back out. She walked down the hill past Bagdale Hall, a Tudor manor house erected in 1516 and said to be haunted by a child crying in empty rooms and a strange dark shape flitting up and down the stairs. Continuing on toward the train station, she swung left toward the swing bridge. She liked the white fairylights along the pier. Crossing the bridge into Whitby’s Old Town, she glanced up at the stars. The thought came to her that the stars we see are dead, having exploded long ago or faded away like the wishes of youth. Wishing upon a star is death upon death. She tottered along in shoes that weren’t made for walking on cobblestones, passing jewellery shops stocked with large and small circles of Whitby jet like a pod of seals’ eyes glinting black in the moonlight.
A sweet shop with faux old-fashioned front displayed rows of peppermint rock candy, England’s proud equivalent of saltwater taffy, famed along America’s mid-Atlantic coast. Chocolate Draculas hung amid gummy bats, alluding to the town’s inspiration to Bram Stoker, seem like forgotten Halloween candies. On Church Street, at the base of the 199 Steps, she peered up. She felt cold but decided to go up to the Abbey because she liked it up there at this time in the evening—no people looking at skull and crossbones on gravestones this late at night. Up she went like she had the previous evening, but she was surprised to find she was breathless only a quarter of the way up. Perhaps she was weak after her shock earlier? She sat on the bench to her left but now bewilderingly dizzy felt compelled to lie full length on the bench, rigid and pale. On feeling better and having no idea what time it was, she stood up and took some steps back down.
From her vantage point, she could see an old woman pushing a pram along the cobblestones with great effort. She thought that she might help her and hurried down the steps. The woman glared at her suspiciously and Anastasia was taken aback to see that the pram contained two rather fat mongrel dogs. “Those benches aren’t for sitting on”, said the woman accusingly, “that’s where the pall-bearers put the coffin if they needed a smoke on th’way up” she said, smiling a toothless and creepy smile. Anastasia smiled and, not knowing what to say, walked on past the woman and back the way she had come, crossing back over the bridge. Pausing at St. Ann’s Staith railings, she saw a poster on the side of a chip van advertising whale watching, the image of a majestic whale in breach, and she imagined the live scene, whale leaping high into the air and crashing back into the murky depths, tail and fins slapping hard on the ocean’s surface.
She went up Golden Lion Bank and, as she was about to turn left up Skinner Street, her eye was drawn to something glinting to her right. Following the twinkle of light toward the opening to a ginnel, she saw that the glinting was reflection from an old-fashioned streetlamp affixed to the wall on a can top that a seagull was moving around the ground. Through the lane’s tapered gap she could spy a vignette of the Esk River and Sandgate beyond.
She turned to continue up Skinner Street. “Even your rapist said you’d go far”, said a husky man’s voice and then a sound like a low barking wheeze full of menace. Anastasia stopped dead. The words shocked her more than the fact they were coming from a bird taller than a Labrador. “How did you…?” Anastasia’s words were failing her.
“Oh I know many things” said the Herring Gull, his yellow-bead eyes glaring at her within their custard-coloured leathery orbital ring. “What are you doing here?” he said. “I’m on holiday”, she answered, her voice sounding incredulous and thin. “No—I mean here”, said the bird, throwing his wings open dramatically into a five-foot wingspan like a Victorian stage magician “in this realm of the living”. Anastasia felt nauseous and her heart was pounding so hard in her chest that it physically hurt.
“We’ve been trying to take you back down ever since you were born”, he said, rubbing his three-inch sharp nasty-looking beak against a cobblestone. Anastasia began to undergo what she had only read about in Mind-Body-Spirit section books on Near-Death Experiences; her life, or instances of it, were flashing before her eyes like photographs with associated surges of intense emotion: almost drowning in her baby bath, slitting her throat at aged 7 on a crazy-golf club that had broken to expose a jagged piece of metal as she fell on it, being hit by a car in Mallorca when she was 14, almost haemorrhaging to death the first time she had sex like Silvia Plath’s Esther in The Bell Jar.
The rapid kaleidoscopic vision of snapshots was interrupted by the gull’s raucous laughter. “You’re not supposed to be here! They sent me like this because they didn’t think you’d respond to an angelic form”. Anastasia supposed he was right in that as she didn’t believe in angels.
She had always felt disconnected, disengaged from life and unable to form meaningful relationships. Her mother had put it down to shyness, the doctors to depression, but Anastasia knew it was something deeper, something underlying her very existence. She had considered killing herself but never actually acted on it; “suicidal ideation” she was told that was. She met the gull’s eyes as he pointed his wing down the alley. “Unless you want to continue to live this half-life in shadow?” he said, his voice seeming softer now, empathic. Anastasia was compelled to stare ahead, trance-like. Instead of Sandgate and the glimpse of St Ann’s Staith she had seen when fist she’d looked, she saw a black mass moving more like lava than water, like molten Whitby Jet, she thought. The Ferryman was sitting with his head downcast in the grey rowboat. The old lantern that was on the wall was now on a stick held by the robed boatman.
Heavy steps of a man trotting down the hill broke Anastasia’s reverie. “Y’aight luv, yu lost?” he said loudly in his thick Yorkshire accent. “Not anymore” said Anastasia as she stepped into the laneway and followed the gull towards the boat.
Jenny Butler writes about horror, magic, and mysteries. She has had short stories published in various places including Literary Orphans Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream Magazine, Corvus Review, Tales from the Forest Magazine, The Roaring Muse, Mulberry Fork Review, Firefly, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Some of her previously published work can be read on her website www.drjennybutler.com. You can find her on Twitter @jenny_butler_