JANICE IN WONDERLAND
“Do you want me to follow you home in the car?” asked Katie, her best friend.
“I’ll be fine”, said Janice, strapping herself into her motorcycling leathers “I’ve been out on the bike in far worse weather than this”.
“Yes, and fallen off”, said Katie, who could never for the life of her understand why Janice kept her motorbike when she could get a neat little car instead.
“That was in deep frosts”, said Janice “When the roads are icy. It’s very easy to come off then”.
“And now it’s blowing a gale and torrential rain”, said Katie “I don’t like it, Jan. If you were to come off on one of those country roads and concuss yourself you might not be found for hours”.
“You are an old fusspot”, Janice leaned over and kissed her friend in the cheek “I’ll be careful, I promise”.
“Well ring me as soon as you get home, just to let me know you’re OK”, said Katie.
“I will”, said Janice.
The weather was truly awful. The wind was playing havoc right across the country. Janice kept repeating to herself that it was only 5 miles to her own house, and she’d be fine. She’d take it steady, as she had promised her old friend. Stepping outside Katie’s front door was an eerie experience on its own though. Was it her imagination or did the streetlights seem dimmer, and the streets emptier than usual?
Within a few minutes she had reached the edge of town, and then it was out under the railway bridge, past the big out-of-town stores which were situated on the old marshes, and then she was really back in the boondocks once more. The roads were narrow, unlit, lined with trees which were waving madly in the wind.
She was both exhilerated and afraid at the same time. There was no disputing how eerie it all was, and yet she felt curiously free. Alone out here in the dark, with the elements raging all around her. Somehow had once said that “to travel in a car is like watching a movie, to travel on a motorbike is like being in one”. It was so true.
The only real building of note between Katie’s house and her own village was ‘The Rose And Crown’ pub, which was situated bang halfway, its brightly-lit windows a rare beacon of light in the maelstrom of wintry weather. Through her headlights Janice saw that a mini-bus seemed to be stuck at an awkward angle on the roadside. Had it crashed? She was so preoccupied with trying to work this out that a hefty gust of wind knocked her completely sideways, and sent her flying from her bike. She landed with a hard smack on the tarmac of the road.
“Thank goodness you’re conscious. I did wonder, when you suddenly went over like that”.
“Eric’s wheeled it to the side of the road”.
“Can you walk, gal?” came a comforting country voice.
“I-I think so”, said Janice, pushing her visor up.
“Get that helmet off her”, came another voice.
Chunky fingers fumbled at the strap of her helmet and eased it off her head. A stocky woman took her arm and led her gently towards the pub.
“We’ve had a bit of a prang as well”, she was saying.
“You were in the mini-bus?” said Janice.
“Yeah”, said the woman “Coming back from a theatre trip in Bristol. Our driver suddenly swerved to avoid something in the road, and we went onto the side. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the bus is damaged. It won’t be going any further tonight. The people at the pub are taking care of us in the meantime”.
They reached the main door of the pub. A few people were milling in and out, some looked a bit dazed, others were just plainly curious. The hanging-baskets which hung from the doorway were swinging madly in the breeze.
“Filthy night to be out”, came a voice from within.
As she reached the door Janice turned and looked towards the trees swaying by the edge of the car-park. Something, some monstrous thing, was coming out of the trees at her. Huge, like an enormous revolting spider, with a massive, leering gaping mouth. Janice collapsed in a daze.
“Get her inside”, said the stocky woman “She’s in shock”.
The bar was a comforting burr of voices and light. A glass of brandy was pushed to her lips, and she was settled on a narrow bench by the fireplace.
“I saw something out there”, she gasped to the woman.
“It’s the trees waving about in the dark”, said the woman “Enough to spook anyone. Don’t you worry, you’re safe in here. The landlord’s going to see if he can try and get any taxi’s for us, but don’t hold out too much hope. There’s trees down everywhere apparently. Many roads are blocked. We might be stuck here til daylight”.
“I’ll ring Katie”, Janice babbled. But when she tried to activate her phone, she found there was no signal. In fact, the phone wasn’t working at all. Just a blank little screen.
“Damn!” said Janice “Why am I such a bloody fool. I should’ve stayed at her place, but I was worried about leaving my cat you see”.
“Ssh, everything’s going to be alright”, said the woman, unzipping Janice’s leather jacket and fanning her with a beer-mat.
“I need to use the Ladies”, said Janice, awkwardly.
“Upstairs, first floor”, said the landlord, pointing to a swing door at the other end of the bar.
Feeling sweaty and woozy, Janice struggled up the narrow staircase. The pub was very old and built like a rabbit warren, full of nooks and crannies, and unexpected stairways and sharp turns in corridors. On a normal day she would have been fascinated by it. She loved old buildings, and enjoyed exploring them.
She seemed to have been prowling the corridors for ages, and was beginning to panic. Everything felt so disorientating, as though the building had been designed on purpose to confuse her, and throw her off-kilter. Suddenly she saw a door standing ajar and headed towards it. Inside was an upstairs sitting-room. A very pleasent little room, lined with bookcases and old-fashioned portraits.
Standing in the middle of the room, with his back to her, was a man wearing a tweed jacket. He was running his hands through his hair in a tired, distracted fashion, causing it to stand up wildly.
“E-excuse me?” said Janice “Could you tell me where the Ladies is please? I can’t seem to find it”.
The man turned and leered at her. There was no other word for it. He had the face of a dog. A dog with a horrible, sickly leer on his face.
Janice screamed and bolted out of the room. She tried to retrace her steps, but in her panic and confusion simply succeeded in getting herself even more lost. What was this awful place? She had passed it so many times on the road, but had never been tempted to go in.
She tried to find the top of the stairs, but couldn’t. The only staircase she could now find was leading upwards. In her desperation she ran up it. On one landing she found a little sitting area. An armchair, a small table with a reading-lamp on it. Briefly, she paused, trying frantically to get her bearings. This was ridiculous. The building wasn’t that big. And yet, here she was running around it, as though it was the size of Buckingham Palace. Absurd. She felt as if she had strayed into an Escher puzzle, full of distorted stairways and doors that went nowhere.
Another staircase beckoned upwards. Halfway up, Janice became aware that daylight was shining down from her from above. Warm, sunny daylight. Her desperation and fear evaporated, and now she felt nothing but keen curiosity.
At the top of the stairs she came out into a small paved courtyard, lined with beautiful plants in china vases. Warm sunlight bathed her from head to foot. All around her was a town. It didn’t feel like it was in England. It felt more tropical, Mediterranean. Beyond the gleaming white buildings, with their wrought-iron balconies and tubs of vivid red flowers, was a glimpse of the sea in the near distance.
Janice briefly looked behind her at the doorway which led back into the pub, and as she watched, the door slammed firmly shut.