The Night Post
by Die Booth
“THE NIGHT POST has arrived, sir,” Carter said. Alfie watched his unhurried progress across the lawn which stretched, manicured, into the distance where the house stood. For what felt like a long time but was probably only seconds, it seemed that he approached without getting any closer; a skipping film frame, doomed to repeat. Alfie shut his eyes, willing the notion away. When he opened them, Carter’s shadow dropped across him, stark in the monochrome sunlight and he turned down the corner of his newspaper to squint up at him and ask, “Where’s Cora?”
“Playing by the stream, I believe, sir.” That patient, placid voice was an anchor. Alfie nodded. He folded the newspaper in half along practised creases, the headline announcing Westminster Abbey Hit. Laying it on the grass, he unmoored from his deckchair, wiping the back of his hand across his brow that felt hot, despite the blood-temperature air. Halfway to the house he looked back towards the stream: the bank, higher on this side, gave the illusion that the fields went on uninterrupted to the flat horizon. It was punctuated only by the striped canvas of his chair sagging into the grass and Carter’s shadow walking away, leaping longer with every step. Colourless clouds slid across the sun. Their shadows, swallowed by nothing, winked out.
It was always summer, but never truly light, as if the world was covered with a layer of ash, a draped veil of mourning. Alfie couldn’t remember any summer like this before, yet this one seemed to be going on forever: he never thought he’d long for the damp sulk of autumn. At dinner, when he presented the salver, Carter didn’t speak, merely held it out, expectantly. On it was an envelope, plain and greyish, with no address or stamp. Alfie picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was damp to the touch and moist like the spongy top of a mushroom, an effect not diminished by the fungal scent of the wet glue stretching from the paper in clinging ribbons, like skin coming away from a burn. Alfie stared at it. “Maybe we should let it dry first.” That prompted a raised eyebrow—perhaps at the delay, perhaps at 'we'. Alfie shook his head, pressing his lips together. He looked back at the letter. He couldn’t tear his gaze from it. “When did it arrive?”
“I’m afraid I’m not precisely sure, sir.” Carter’s voice was, as ever, the same soothing cadence. “Sometime between ten a.m. and noon.”
“How did it get here?”
“Somebody brought it up, sir.”
ALFIE WOKE SOAKED in sweat, the bedclothes twisted about his legs, binding as a winding sheet. It was never dark, always the same grey half-light reaching between the curtains. Wiping the wet heat from his forehead, Alfie grasped at the retreating streamers of his dream. But they dispersed, like smoke after fire.
“TEN A.M, SIR,” Carter said.
Alfie stared at the plate of fried eggs in front of him. The grease seemed to congeal as if sped up, soaking into the rafts of toast. Something about it made him feel nauseated: it was too…organic. The viscid yellow eyes of the yolks looked morbidly alien. He focused instead on his dressing gown sleeve, the twist of red piping braid letting out a puff of loose silk. He moved his other hand, slowly, pinched the trailing thread between thumb and finger and gave a gentle pull. Was alarmed at how suddenly the whole thing unravelled. “Where’s Cora?”
“I believe, sir, she is playing by the stream.” Carter cleared his throat discreetly. “The night post has been, sir.”
It was just as before. Alfie pulled at the flap, wet glue peeling free along all the seams so the blank envelope fell away from the contents entirely. He picked at a corner, the fibres of paper furring at his touch. Unfolded it with care—not quite wet, but pulpy enough to tear. A gutter smell, almost earthy, of places underground, emanated. The letter was no letter: the paper was blank. It gave Alfie a dropping feeling in his belly, a nagging tug of recollection that he didn’t want to recognise. He looked up at Carter. “Who brought it?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, sir.”
“How did they get in?” Following Carter’s glance he saw, across the hardwood parquet of the grand hall floor, a wet trail surely too widely spaced to be footprints, all the way to the staff door.
“The cellar, sir,” said Carter.
The trail, Alfie noted, was not just water. A dark stain, like melt-water after city snow. A sludge filthy with soot, in the summer, in the countryside, without any rain.
“Lock it,” Alfie said.
THE SILENT SUN shone on. His chair lay like a grounded flag, grass the same flat, blank expanse as the sky. He strolled towards the landmark of his seat which grew slowly closer, his shadow sliding thinly before him. Sitting slung down in the sway of his chair, he picked up the morning paper. Chamberlain Hails Peace in Our Times. He settled to read.
The newsprint swam and drifted.
He dreamed of black snow falling softly, covering a vast expanse. On the edge of his vision, a speck—his daughter—bent to retrieve something, flitted a short length of the stream bank. She stood up and stopped and, wavering, waved. Alfie frowned, tried to focus, and beckoned back. He heard her laughter. “Daddy, look!” The light was a sodium burn to his eyes. “Look!” she repeated impatiently. A flower formed before his face, a quatrefoil of white petals like an unfolded envelope, like an explosion.
“It’s very pretty, darling.” His own voice seemed far away, separated by a vast distance of years.
She giggled. “It’s for you.”
“Thank you. I shall wear it in my buttonhole.”
“Like a bridegroom!”
It was becoming harder to see, the white glare blotting out everything else. He frowned then smiled. Blinked against the light. The newspaper, fallen open in his lap, felt heavy as damp rags. The headline read Italy Surrenders Unconditionally. He ran a hand over his face. He rubbed his eyelids, until he saw sparks.
“I THOUGHT IT best not to move anything, sir,” said Carter.
Alfie stared at the door. Above him the ceiling of the hall seemed to soar: taller than he recalled, as if there were no roof at all. He refused to look up and see, knew that if he leaned back he’d fall. The walls around him seemed to retract. The door…The staff door, still locked, oozed oily moisture beneath. A greyish envelope had been pushed under, in a slick of black sludge, into the hall. “Would you like me to retrieve it, sir?” Alfie nodded. He took it from Carter’s steady hands and opened it in silence. The blank contents revealed, even when held up to the windows, only questions.
HE LAY IN bed with his eyes open, staring at the featureless white plaster of the ceiling for what felt like hours, until he was certain it must be past ten a.m.
“Ten a.m., sir,” Carter said, as he served eggs.
In his dream, Alfie had seen a field. It was dark with the artificial night of disaster, flat and vast and featureless but for one massive beam that stuck from the ground in the distance like a sign post. The sky was black, the ground and its single sentinel were black, and yet it still stood silhouetted, as if against the ghosts of flames. He reached for it. Tried to run towards it, but felt his legs caught like he was wading through submerged weeds. Then the distance suddenly closed and he saw up close the charred surface of wood, bubbled and split, felt a hot blast, heard a booming crack like sails raising, the hiss of water blanching to steam.
“The night post,” he said.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Alfie looked up at Carter, outlined, a lean shadow against the breakfast room windows. He schooled his voice to ask, “The night post. Has it been delivered?”
“Yes, sir.” There was a touch of something almost like sympathy in that calm voice.
Alfie said, “I want to see how they’re getting in.”
THE STAFF DOOR led to a corridor that Alfie knew he’d been down before—could recall walking down often, in fact—but the feeling remained where clear memory did not. Like visiting a childhood home but instead of finding it half-remembered and smaller-seeming, discovering it loftier and twice as foreign.
The corridor ran to the kitchens, he knew, with doors leading off to the pantry and the laundry and finally emerging near to the orchard. But it seemed too long. Too echoing. Here and there, the painted plaster was punctuated by a framed print, maps mostly, that he did not recall and found he had no wish to stop and study. To stop, even for a moment, might mean to lose sight of Carter’s back as he strode ahead, and Alfie was gripped by an irrational fear of being left alone.
On the stone flags of the floor, dark, wet marks measured their passing, led their path. Presently, the marks stopped. The men stopped too. A plain locked door stood to their right. The bolt rasped as it slid aside and opened upon a rectangle of night. Steps led down. They had no light.
“No. Allow me.”
Carter stood back to let him take the lead. He felt in the gloom for the wall, but couldn’t find it. Just precarious, slippery stone underfoot as he inched into darkness, until his groping hand found a metal rail and clung to it. The descent was like their journey down the corridor. The absence of light drew in on him, smothered his mood, until he could no longer tell the distance travelled or the size of the space around him, aware only of the solid stairs beneath his feet. It felt like those dreams that afflicted him, as though he had climbed carefully down for hours, into the inky domain of Hell itself, although it could only have been a few minutes. His frayed nerves played tricks. The damp odour of all cellars filled his lungs, cut with something else, a harsh, woody smell. He knew—hoped—Carter was just behind him, but all he could hear was his own breath dragging in his lungs—the laboured panting of a desperate man—and the occasional plaintive drop of liquid. It was only when he was certain that there could be no more stairs that his eyes began to adjust and discern a feeble, grey light winking in through windows of above head height. He realised with a jolt that, despite their extended descent, the ceiling was no higher than an ordinary cellar’s; the steps went no further down than ordinary cellar steps.
Pausing, he allowed himself to acclimatise. The windows, set in long shallow banks just beneath the ceiling, were flung wide open as if to let something in. Outside them was choked with green foliage, he presumed, at ground level in the gardens. He was not quite on the lowest step, Carter waiting, patient and quiet at his back. The floor of the basement was flooded with water that he knew, despite the darkness, was black. How deep he could not tell, nor where it had come from. There was no inlet or outlet that he could hear, just the echoing ring of solitary drips falling. Just his breath, and his heartbeat in his throat. He clenched his jaw and felt around with one toe for the next step and the next. The water invaded his shoes, icy cold, climbed his trouser legs, until he was standing on the ground in about a foot of it.
“Do you require assistance, sir?” said Carter from the third stair.
Alfie gritted his teeth. He kept his eyes to the opposite wall. “No, it’s all right. I can manage.” Wading towards the windows was like fighting a tide, the greasy water sucking at his ankles, pulling like hands. Things caught against him as he moved, moulded to his shins and clung as he tried, panicking, to shake free—and then realised that it was only newspaper. Sodden newspapers, floating on the surface, ink dissolving into smears. He pressed on, each swishing step stirring up a grave scent of rust and wet ash, the greenhouse reek of mould-streaked glass. He had to shake his feet, first one and then the other, to rid himself of what clutched at them. Climbing onto a workbench that ran the length of the wall, he shut each window firmly. Nothing was getting in. Nobody was getting out. He splashed down into the flood and grabbed, skimming handfuls of pulpy paper, piling it onto the bench. Carter watched, offering no comment as he climbed back up. As he pulled apart the pages and packed them into the cracks around the window frames. Plastered the glass over with it until what little light down there was blocked out completely and he could only shuffle back towards the distant rectangle of light at the top of the stairs.
THAT NIGHT, ALFIE dreamed again of the vast, lonely field, forever in the grip of unnatural night. Of the huge, charred wooden beam like the mast of a grounded ship, listing in a sea of wind-raked grass. This time it was easier to get to it, as if the place remembered him or perhaps he remembered it. Placing a hand against the beam, he felt its heat blistering his palm, but the thing was wet, too. It left a sooty stain on his skin that he couldn’t rub off. He turned away. Gazed across a lengthening span of frayed decades, fading to darkness in the distance, and felt at his back a
furious wall of heat, pressing him forwards. He squinted, felt his
eyelashes singe, his skin tighten. At the edge of the field he could just discern the bank of a stream, higher on this side, giving the illusion that the fields went on, uninterrupted, to the flat horizon. The water steamed, vapour soaring up into the darkness like ghosts. From somewhere far away he could hear a child crying, the heart-deep wail of terror and loss. He’d never heard such a terrible sound in his life. And yet it was familiar. It reminded him of his own voice.
When Alfie woke, it was to a darkness so complete that he feared he was somehow back in the cellar, that the sweat soaking his mattress was the creeping oily tide, that the feverish heat radiating from his skin was the heat of a blaze, raging out of control. He stared at the patch of darkness where he knew the curtains must be and he felt a sick sense of recognition. Like coming home to an empty house. Like coming to a home that was no longer there.
“NINE A.M., SIR,” said Carter.
Alfie looked at the clock, noticed it had stopped at ten. Ten p.m. or ten a.m.? He tapped his feet, wondering, and left his breakfast untouched. “Has the night post arrived yet?”
“The night post, sir?” Carter offered him a politely inquiring look.
He hid his uncertainty with a smile. “I mean, the post. Has the post been delivered yet?”
Alfie looked down at his plate. The eggs were scrambled today. They looked almost appetising. He lifted his fork, realising suddenly that he was starving.
When he’d bathed and dressed and come back downstairs, Alfie checked his watch. It was nearly ten forty. The salver in the hall was empty but he asked anyway. “Not yet, sir,” Carter said, and Alfie’s chest felt strangely light, in a way that was at once both hollow and freeing.
When he stepped out into the garden, the glare of the sky blinded him as surely as darkness, even as he shaded his eyes with one hand. A cloudless expanse of white, it seared the colour from the grass so his first few steps were on instinct alone. Gradually, it resolved itself to blue. When he’d blinked the shapes back, he saw, by the stream, Cora running back and forth, her arms outstretched and flapping, miming flight. It felt like ages since he’d seen her. The stream felt nearer today. The walk to his chair seemed less far. As he lowered himself into the striped canvas seat, he wondered briefly why, when he sat there day by day, the chair legs never seemed to sink into the turf. It never blew over or weathered. He picked up the newspaper at his side and shook it open. The headline read, Yorkshire Estate Hit by Offloaded Bomb. He read and re-read it, until the words started to blur and lose meaning and a long shadow fell over the page. Folding the newspaper in his lap, he looked up and asked, “Has the night post been?”
“No, sir,” said Carter. “I doubt that you will see another night post.” Alfie nodded. A slight breeze had picked up, ruffling the news-pages and lifting his hair from his forehead; he brushed it back with one hand. Carter did not move from where he was standing, at his side.
They dropped into silence a while, watching Cora play, reflections of water playing across her face. Then Alfie picked up his newspaper, unfolded it, and began, again, to read.
Die Booth is a haunted ruin from Chester, UK, who enjoys loud music, exploring dark places, and telling lies. You can read his stories in places like Lamplight Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, The Fiction Desk and Fundead Press’s ‘Exquisite Aberrations’ anthology. He likes producing hand-made, limited-edition flash fiction zines and his short story collections ‘My Glass is Runn’ and ‘365 Lies’ (the proceeds of which go to the MNDA) are available to buy online, as well as his first novel ‘Spirit Houses’. He’s currently working on a collection of spooky short stories featuring transgender protagonists, and ‘Making Friends’ a new short story collection, is due out soon
© 2020 Die Booth