“Noisy Neighbours” and getting a story “right.”

 

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“You never know quiet until you live in a Graveyard” – Grayfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh (Note: Incidently, this is also the opening setting for Hillcroft Manor)
Hi guys, it’s been a while since I’ve posted on my official writers blog, having had all of my time eaten up by both my MA at Birkbeck and my newest position as a writer at Talkingcomics.com (please feel free to see my stuff: here).

I thought I’d do a bit of a ‘double-whammy’ here since its been a long time since I’ve posted. Originally I was just going to write about my time in Dublin, particularly my newfound appreciation of the works of the Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, but I instead found myself drawn towards writing about something that I only just noticed in the past few months and which particularly came to my attention upon reading the novel A Dark Place by Peter Straub. That of the art of getting a story “right” – or writing the story that  you originally wanted to tell.

Many writers will tell you that stories are organic; that the characters pull them along their way and act as muses, pulling the story in the directions they choose. I think this is an extremely healthy way of writing and completely endorse it, even if I personally use a slightly more structured approach.

However, sometimes a story just doesn’t come out the way you expected it. Sometimes you’ve got an idea of what you want, but when you actually sit down to write it, something else comes out which you did not intend, nor want. For instance, I’ve been toying with a series of short fantasy stories, having rarely diverged into the genre and wanted to try my craft at attempting one of them just on the off. As I set down to write it, I got into something of a flow and upon finishing it re-read the thing. What alarmed me was just how far off the mark the story was. In one way, it was amazing, as I came to realise that the story I really wanted to tell came after the story I’d written, but in another, it was quite infuriating that I had spent such time on a piece that would never be given the light of day.

This brings me to the second part of this article. I used the example of Straub earlier, who upon writing the story A Dark Matter, also brought out a limited edition of the text, entitled The Skylark, which acts as a longer, unedited version of the story that would later become A Dark Matter. What’s amazing is his openness with this, his willingness to share with the readers the differences between the earlier versions of the text and its final form. It is with this that I would like to introduce my readers to another short story, which I didn’t quite ‘get right.’

The story is called ‘Noisy Neighbours’ and was originally intended as a Ramsey Campbell meets pulpy, EC Comics styled horror story for a competition hosted by The Emerald Magazine. Although the pulpy elements remain and I’m somewhat impressed by the quick reveal of the spirit, I wasn’t fully convinced about either its length, or that at times cliched elements it displayed as well as the ridiculous pace deployed throughout. I quickly realised that this was not the story I wished to tell and binned it… until now.

Although I still have plans to return to ‘Noisy Neighbours’ as a piece of flash fiction, I thought I’d include the original version of the story here for my readers to view, critique or take the piss out of as they see fit, just as Straub did with The Skylark. Here is a story by a young, unpublished hack that would never have seen the light of day, but one that I think will be useful when charting my development as a writer. It will act as a time stamp of an earlier time.

So please, if you’re still reading – go ahead and read ‘Noisy Neighbours’ in its original form!

Please feel free to comment, like and follow me – any exposure and advice I can gain would be of tremendous help to my development!

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‘NOISY NEIGHBOURS’

BY C.J. THOMSON

‘You never know quiet, until you live in a graveyard.’

That’s what Joe Colback said whenever anyone asked about his profession.

‘Isn’t it kinda grim living there?’

‘Doesn’t it get scary at night?’

Those were other questions. Another classic was whether he ever got lonely?

‘I’ve always got company,’ he’d say.

It may have been Tongue-in-cheek, but as the twenty-year custodian of Hilliyard cemetery near Penrith, New Hampshire, Joe never felt alone. He had never had a wife, nor had he needed one. All he needed was his little stone cottage and his Alsatian, Lucille; named after that old Kenny Rogers song.

He didn’t need anything else. Loneliness suited him.

***

One evening, Joe received a phone call.

‘H-hello, is Joe there?’ the woman said.

‘Speaking.’

‘Hi. I’m sorry to call. I’m not sure if you remember me, but my name’s Alice. Alice–‘

‘Alice Sharpe?’ Joe said. ’God, it’s been years! How you keeping? How’s Ronnie?’

‘That’s what I’m calling about. Ronnie’s dead.’

‘Dead? Jeez. I’m sorry to hear. How’d he-’

‘Cancer,’ she said. ‘He passed away last week. Too many cigarettes. He was strapped to an oxygen tank in the end.’

‘That’s awful. I’m really sorry.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Is there anything-’

‘Well, that’s why I called Joe. I was wondering if you’d be able to help me.’

‘Sure, what do you need?’

‘Well, I know you work at the cemetery there in Penrith, so I was wondering if you’d be able to bury Ronnie there?’

‘I would, but you’ll have to talk with Miss Schzott. Her family own the graveyard, so you’ll need to sort it out with her first.’

‘That’s the problem. Ronnie didn’t exactly die rich. I was wondering whether you’d be able to do it… well… whether you could do it for free?’

‘You serious?’

‘Joe I’m desperate. I really need your help. Is there not anything you could do?’

‘I can’t, I’m just the caretaker. Why can’t you get him cremated? It’ll be cheaper.’

‘Ronnie was very particular. He wanted to be buried back home in Penrith. Please Joe. I loved him so much. I don’t want to let him down.’

Joe fell silent. He couldn’t believe it, after all these years! The nerve. How dare she even-

‘Look,’ Joe said, ‘I can maybe talk to the Schzotts and try to weasel you a discount.’

‘Really? You’d do that?’

‘I said I’ll try. I can’t promise anything.’

‘Thanks Joe, I won’t forget this.’

‘Okay. G’bye,’ Joe said, putting the phone down. He shook his head and sunk back into his tired armchair.

‘Why should I help?’ He thought. ‘It’s been years. We were kids when we last met. I barely know her anymore.’

Lucille entered the room and sat at his feet. He ran his thick, weathered fingers through her coat, scratching her neck as she leant against his knee. Old memories came flooding back. Memories of before the graveyard; of skinny little Ronnie with his slick blonde hair and sharp cheekbones. He thought of secondary school and how they’d each had eyes for one girl.

Alice Redman.

How times had changed. Now Ronnie was dead, Alice was a widow and Joe was alone. Then again, perhaps time didn’t change all that much. But maybe it could? Was there a possibility that this was fate? Were the odds now finally stacked in his favour? It was then that Joe decided he would make things right.

He decided to bury Ronnie Sharpe.

***

Alice had aged little in the years since leaving Penrith. Despite being in her forties, she had still retained her slim figure, and while the odd crow’s foot etched the side of her eyes, not a thread of grey was visible in her hair. By contrast, Joe looked ancient. His skin was wrinkled and sun-damaged, his belly bloated from years of drinking Coors light, while what little remained of his hair was now drawn silver. He felt ashamed, almost embarrassed to see her.

‘Joe, I can’t thank you enough,’ she said before hugging him. Her eyes were sincere.

‘No problem!’ Joe said, relieved.

They went from there. Joe paid a grand from his own savings and arranged a discount for the burial. He declined the opportunity to see Ronnie in the chapel. Instead, Joe preferred to remember him as the boy he once knew, rather than the middle-aged man he’d become. His body starved by cancer.

At the funeral, Joe accompanied Alice to the graveside and chaperoned her throughout. The procession was minimal. Ronnie and Alice had conceived no children together, and what little remained of their families were either too old or too infirm to offer any meaningful support.

The grey clouds began to spit as Ronnie was laid into the ground. As the clods of earth fell upon the coffin, Alice clutched hold of Joe’s arm. Her grip tightened as she cried. Joe held her. And he didn’t let go.

***

In the following weeks, Joe began to see Alice more often. He invited her for coffee, just to see how she was holding up. That led to a meal, a drink at a local, then a walk in the local woods with Lucille. With Ronnie gone, she decided to downsize from her rented home in Claremont to a flat near to where she’d been brought up. She got a new job and Joe helped her move.

After several months, their friendship blossomed into something more. For a man who assumed life as gravedigger had made him repellent to women, Joe found a new lease of life. Now he had another to care for; the woman of his dreams in fact. As he found himself kissing those same lips he had so fantasised about during puberty, he began to wonder about the possibilities for the future. At a time when the pages of his life had once seemed to be running out, it was a shock to find that there were still fresh stories to be told. They rarely spoke of Ronnie. Whenever Joe brought him up, Alice was dismissive. He felt guilty in one way, sleeping with his old friend’s wife, but then wasn’t this what Ronnie would have wanted? Wouldn’t he have wanted his wife to be happy?

By coincidence, it was around this time that strange occurrences began to happen around the graveyard. One night, after dropping Alice off, Joe returned home to find handprints on the window pane; as though someone had breathed on the glass and left them there to see. Doors slammed during the night. Windows were smashed at odd, uncertain hours and Lucille began to growl and whine, reluctant to go for her evening walks. As Joe wandered the yard, things would move in his peripheral vision, while beyond the rows of old moss-eaten crosses and collapsed statues, a lone figure would bask in the moonlight, disappearing in a blink.

For a while he thought nothing of it. Only the cliché that his eyes were playing tricks on him. He carried on as normal, continuing to live his life with Alice.

Then it all changed.

***

It was raining that night.

Joe had slept for hours, waking only upon hearing what sounded like footsteps creaking on the stairs and landing. A door slammed shut.

‘Lucille?’ Joe said, ‘here, girl!’

The dog wasn’t at his feet where she usually slept. He looked at the clock. Four zeroes flickering red on the dashboard. The smell of tobacco perfumed the air. Lucille barked. Downstairs.

‘For Christ’s sake. Lucille!’

As he sat up, Joe saw it. The shock almost stopped his heart from beating, before sparking it to life in fast, locomotive thuds. Bloodshot eyes pierced from the shadows, while a spindly body sat straight and upright at the end of the bed. It was a familiar figure, lit pale in the moonlight and dressed in a leather bomber jacket and jeans. Its face was gaunt and tired, a look of terrible malice chipped into its marble features.

‘Ronnie!’ Joe said.

‘You Bastard.’

‘No, you’re dead!’ Joe said, gasping for breath

The vision sprang forward and fastened its cold grip around Joe’s windpipe, lifting him off his feet and into the air, slamming his head on the ceiling.

‘I’m here for her Joe.’

‘Y-you mean Alice?’

The dead man nodded.

‘Please, you have to understand. She came to me for help- she had no one else to turn to!’

‘It’s too late for that. What’s done is done.’

His grip tightened.

‘Ronnie, please! She wanted to come home, back where she’d been brought up.’

‘She always wanted to come home,’ the spirit said. ‘I told her there was nothin’ here for us but she wouldn’t listen.’

‘But, sh-she said you wanted to be buried here? Back home!’

Did she?’ the apparition said, a twisted grin crippling its face. ‘Alice always was a good liar. Tell me Joe, what do you really know about her?’

‘W-what do you mean?’

‘Well, for instance, did you know she’s a murderer?’

The words split Joe like an axe.

‘Murderer?’ Joe said.

‘Yeah. She killed me.’

‘W-why? What did you do to her?’

‘What makes you think I did anything? I got in the way, if you must know the truth. Just like you will if you’re not careful.’

‘How did she? How did Alice-‘

 ‘That doesn’t matter,’ the spirit said, relinquishing his grip. ‘What matters is why I’m here. You’re going to bring her to me.’

‘Bring her to you?’

‘Yeah. I want her here, in the grave with me.’

‘You want me to kill her?’

‘I want you to bury her Joe. Bury her with me and I’ll never bother you again.’

‘No, I can’t- I won’t do it. You’ll have to kill me first.’

‘No I don’t,’ the spirit said. ’You’re gonna do exactly what I want. All I have to do is stay.’

‘What do you mean stay?’

‘You’ll see Joe,’ it said. ‘You’ll see.’

With those words, the spirit stepped back and disappeared into the shadows, as though it had never been there. For a moment, Joe lay shivering in his bed clothes. Long finger marks now decorated his bruised neck. The cold touch wouldn’t go away.

Then the footsteps returned. On the stairs at first, followed by the downstairs hall. The kitchen door opened and Lucille began to bark, before a terrible yelp echoed throughout the house followed by a deep, violent thud. A shrill, diseased laughter emanated from the darkness.

And it didn’t stop.

***

In the following weeks, the smell of tar and tobacco followed Joe everywhere. Plants began to wither and die around him, whilst scratches of red graffiti appeared on the cottage’s granite walls.

Bastard, the words said.

I’m not going anywhere.

You know what to do.

Kill her.

At night it got worse. Raising itself from its crypt, the spirit would torment Joe as he slept. Fresh soil dirtied his bed sheets as the vision whispered from the end of the bed.

‘She’s a leech.’

‘She’ll use you. Just like she used me.’

‘She’ll leave you.

‘Do you think she wants to stay with someone like you?’

Joe asked whether he could stay with Alice. She agreed, but even then the spirit lay with them, cradling his breathing wife in its dead, varicose arms.

‘She’s thinkin’ about me y’know,’ it said, stale, fetid breath, washing Joe’s face. ‘She’s thinkin’ about how I used to love her. How I used to do it better than you.’

He thought about telling her. Explaining how he was going mad. That he was being tormented by the ghost of her dead husband. The spirit dissuaded him.

‘She won’t believe you.’

‘She’ll have you committed. Do you want that?’

Kept awake by the mass ravings of his neighbour, Joe began to lose weight and developed a nervous shake whenever he stood still. As it grew more noticeable, Alice told him to see a doctor, who gave Joe pills that made him sleep. But even they didn’t make the nightmares go away. He began to grow distant, barely keeping his commitments to the graveyard around him. Worst of all, his suspicions about Alice grew.

Was she a murderer? Did she really kill her husband? If she did, then what was the motive? Was it mercy? After all, she had said Ronnie was on a ventilator when he died. Then again, maybe he’d been abusive? Who knew what kind of a man Ronnie Sharpe had become since he’d left Penrith? If his spirit was any indication, then perhaps it was clear.

He needed to know the truth, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. The shame of questioning was too much. He could lose her forever. So he kept it bottled inside him instead. He repressed it.

Weeks turned into months, and Joe began to use drastic methods to be free. He tried to spare Alice by killing himself instead. Yet each time the spirit prevented it. It took the razor from his grasp, plucked the poison from his mouth and tore the rope from around his neck. The bloodlust was now insatiable. The dead man would get what he wanted. Nothing would stop that. And so, weak and desperate, he called Alice and invited her to his home.

He would prepare them supper.

***

Joe stirred a saucepan and picked a bottle of merlot from the bottle rack. He uncorked it and poured two glasses.

‘Use the Rat poison,’ the voice said.

‘I can’t.’

‘Use it and I’ll go away!’

‘I won’t, I-’

‘Did you say something Joe?’ Alice said, peering in from the sitting room.

‘Nothing,’ Joe said, ‘lemme just come in there to talk.’

He left the wine and joined her on the sofa. A fire crackled, lighting the room. She wore a navy dress, not dissimilar from one she wore as a teenager. Joe had always liked it, only now, he wished she hadn’t picked it.

‘Are you okay, Joe?’ Alice said.

He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, ‘No. Alice, there’s something I need to ask you about.’

‘She’s a murderer Joe,’ said the voice, ‘You can’t trust her.’

‘What?’ she said.

‘Well, I wanna know what happened to Ronnie.’

‘I told you what happened. He had cancer.’

‘Yes, but what he was like when he died?’

‘Why?’

‘I just- I need to know if there was anything else I could have done. To help him that is.’

‘Ask her what it was like to murder her dyin’ husband.’

‘I don’t want to talk about this,’ she said, attempting to sit up.

‘Please Alice.’ Joe said, grabbing her arm. ‘I need to know.’

Alice closed her eyes and thought for a second.

‘Okay,’ she said, before breathing in and sitting down. ‘I’ve always loved Ronnie. But he was different when he died. So distant. Manipulative. Far from the man I’d married.

So she killed me.’

‘He was suffering Joe,’ Alice said, her eyes beginning to well. ‘In his last days, I just- I just wanted to ease his pain. To bring him home.’

‘I didn’t wanna go.’ 

‘Ease his?’ Joe said, ‘did you-’

‘-No’ she said, snapping me a stare, before wiping a black trail of mascara from her cheek. ‘I- I wanted to do what was right. I wanted his funeral to remember who he was. In happier times, before we left Penrith. I loved him so much. I had to let him go- he had to let go of me.’

The voice was silent.

‘You understand, don’t you Joe?’ she said.

Joe brought her close and held her, ‘I understand Alice. And I’m so sorry.’

He kissed her and walked into the kitchen to pick up the wine.

‘Do it. Do it now.’

***

Joe moved Alice from the house with great difficulty. Although grief had sapped some of his strength, she was still heavier than he’d expected. Steam puffed from his mouth and Tears ran from his eyes as he moved her across the moonlit cemetery towards her husband’s plot, where he eventually placed her on the dew soaked grass. He picked up his shovel and began to dig. Thirty-six inches of depth with only twenty-six inches of soil; the minimum requirements for a grave. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to go any lower. That familiar scent of nicotine filled his lungs.

‘Bury her deep,’ the spirit said.

‘I did what you said,’ Joe said. ‘Now you have to keep your end of the bargain.’

‘You have my word.’

The grave was deeper than he’d predicted. As his shovel struck the wood of Ronnie’s Coffin, Joe climbed out the hole and looked toward Alice. Her body was rigid and lifeless, black eyes open in shock. He cradled her for a moment and kissed her. She was cold. Joe covered her in a bed sheet and lay her on top of Ronnie’s coffin. After replacing the dirt on top he collapsed, rubbing his muddied fingers across wet, wrinkled cheeks.

‘It’s done,’ he said. ‘Now go. Leave me alone.’

The spirit nodded.

‘G’bye Joe,’ Ronnie said, before disappearing into the dark.

As the moon drenched him in its witchlight, Joe Colback began to realise something. He was alone again.

***

Later that night, Joe thought about death.

Relief had been replaced by guilt and everywhere he looked he saw her eyes. Those wretched, painful eyes; shocked and hurt by his betrayal. He walked to the Kitchen cabinet and picked up the poison before studying the label.

Strychnine. If it was good enough for Alice, it was good enough for him.

He poured a glass of wine and walked into the lounge. Sitting in his chair, he scooped the white powder and mixed it into the drink.

‘Joe.’

Joe looked to the window, where he caught the glimpse of a familiar face, staring in through the window pane. The sight caught his heart to explode, his arm hairs standing on end.

Tired, hateful eyes, burning through the glass. Blonde hair, a navy dress and those etched crow’s feet, scars on chalk white skin.

‘Bastard,’ the face said, streams of red erupting from its mouth. ‘You Bastard.’

‘God, no!’ Joe said, scattering the powder as he fell over a nearby coffee table.

‘That’s the easy way,’ the corpse smiled, her teeth pink and soiled. ‘You have to stay here. With me.’

Alice.

END

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