Putting the Clocks Back - A Story for Hallowe'en
'That doesn't look right.'
'The junction up ahead. It doesn't match the SatNav.'
Tess had been concentrating on driving down the narrow single-track road, taking occasional instructions from the mellifluous voice of the woman she referred to as 'SatNav lady'. She slowed the car and glanced at the screen. It showed only the line of the road ahead of them.
'That junction's not supposed to be there,' Henry said.
Whatever the SatNav image might show, the road unquestionably forked into two. Both roads curved left, one at a more acute angle. 'I assume we just stick to the main road,' Tess said. 'They probably didn't bother to show the other one.'
'But which is the main road? They look the same to me.'
Henry had a point. Both were single-track roads of a similar width. Both stretched away across the empty moorland, gradually diverging towards the horizon. There was no road sign and no other obvious way of choosing between them. 'I don't suppose it matters much. If we take the wrong one, it'll soon become obvious from the SatNav. They probably end up in much the same place anyway.'
Henry looked doubtful. 'It's easy to get lost up here if you stray off the beaten track. Don't fancy trying to find our way once it gets dark.' It had a been perfect autumn day, with a cloudless sky and only a mild chill in the air. But the sun was already low over the moorlands, casting long shadows across the empty grassland.
'We can't get lost,' Tess said. 'Not with SatNav lady to help us.'
'She's already proved herself fallible,' Henry pointed out. 'But, okay, let's give it a shot.'
After a moment's hesitation, Tess took the first turning, which she thought more closely reflected the route of the road shown on the SatNav map. 'Here goes, then.'
At first, the roads ran almost parallel, but gradually they diverged and the second road vanished over the horizon. After a few minutes, Henry said, 'The bad news is she's let us down again.'
'How do you mean?'
'The SatNav seems to have lost its signal. Just says "searching for satellites". Never known it do that before.'
'Maybe some sort of glitch,' Tess said. 'Mind you, the rest of the world could be engulfed in nuclear war and we wouldn't know.' That had been one of the main attractions of the holiday for her. There were plenty of places up here where you couldn't get a mobile phone signal, or at least where you could convincingly pretend not to. 'She'll probably get her act together soon.'
'Don't suppose there's much we can do, anyway, other than carry on. How far's this place supposed to be?'
'Another thirty miles or so. From what I remember, there were no other villages before then so we won't know whether we're on the right road till we get there. Or don't.'
'Great. Fingers crossed, then.'
'We'll get there eventually. At least we've plenty of petrol.'
'For the moment,' Henry said ominously.
'Shouldn't we be there by now?'
'We ought to be getting close. If we're on the right road.' Tess glanced over at the SatNav screen. 'Still not working?'
'Nothing at all. Maybe you were right about the nuclear war.'
They'd been driving for nearly an hour since the fork in the road. During that time, they'd seen no other sign of life, not even the occasional sheep. There were the pale silhouettes of mountains in the far distance, but otherwise nothing visible except the gently undulating grassland. The sun was close to setting.
'There's something ahead,' Henry said suddenly. 'You think that might be it?'
Tess could just about make out the shape of a large roadside building, still several miles ahead of them. 'It might be, I suppose. Or at least part of the village.' They'd pre-booked a series of hotels and B&Bs across the western Highlands, and had so far enjoyed the random, but generally excellent, nature of the hospitality. Tonight's had promised to be one of the best – a small hotel with a much-praised restaurant that, despite its remoteness, attracted tourists from across the world. There was a more direct route to it from the south, but Henry and Tess had decided to take what was supposedly the more scenic route.
As they drew closer, they saw that the building was indeed an inn of some kind, though not the venue they were seeking. There were no cars in the small car-park but the inn's main doors were open. 'Should we stop and get directions?' Tess said.
'It goes against all my manly instincts,' Henry said. 'But, yes. If we are on the wrong road, they should be able to tell us where to go from here. And next time I'll remember to pack an old-fashioned road atlas, just in case.'
Tess pulled into the car-park and drew up close to the main entrance. An inn sign over the doors read: 'The Road Less Travelled.' Henry climbed out of the car and looked around. 'They can say that again.' He gestured to the sign. 'We've not seen a soul all the way.'
'That's what I like about it,' Tess said as she joined him. 'Listen to that.'
'I can't hear anything.'
'Exactly. When was the last time you experienced silence like that?'
'By the time this holiday's done I'll be longing for the noise of inner-city traffic. Okay, let's see if they can help us get back on the straight and narrow.'
Inside the building, Tess found herself in a an old-fashioned but hospitable-looking bar. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the relative gloom, but then she saw that the room was furnished with dark wood tables and chairs, and decorated with the usual array of pub brassware. The place looked as if it hadn't been redecorated in several decades, but was none the worse for that. There was no sign of anyone behind the bar.
'Hello? Anybody here?' She glanced back at Henry, who was gazing round the room in apparent admiration.
'Decent-looking place,' he said.
'Your sort of place. Nice cosy country pub. I'll never get you out of here.' Tess walked over to the bar. There was no sign of a service bell. 'Hello!' she called again.
After a few moments, a woman emerged from a door at the rear of the bar area, apparently by coincidence rather than in response to Tess's call. She stopped in the doorway and blinked at them. 'Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting anyone just yet.' She had a soft Highland drawl.
'We were just passing.’ Tess was unsure why she was sounding apologetic. 'We wondered if you might be able to give us some directions.'
The woman was still staring at them with an expression Tess couldn't read. It struck her that she couldn't have guessed the woman's age. She seemed middle-aged, Tess supposed, but only because she couldn't obviously be characterised as either young or old. Her clothing seemed similarly indeterminate – a pale blue dress that presumably had been chosen for practicality rather than elegance, but which somehow still seemed incongruous in this environment. 'Where do you want to go?' she said, after a pause.
Tess gave the name of their destination. The woman frowned. 'You can't get through from here, I'm afraid. Not any more.'
'What do you mean? Is the road closed?'
'There's no way through.'
'There must be some way we can get there,' Tess said.
The woman shrugged. 'Not from here. Not as far as I know.'
'You mean we'd have to go all the way back to where the road forked?' Henry said. 'There must be some other way.'
'Not from here.'
Tess turned to Henry. 'What are we going to do? If we go all the way back, it'll take ages.'
Henry was gazing round the interior of the inn. 'Do you have accommodation?' he asked the woman. 'Available rooms, I mean.'
The woman gazed back at him. 'Tonight's when we put the clocks back.'
Henry blinked at the non sequitur. 'I suppose it is, isn't it? Last weekend in October, or whatever it is. Good job you reminded us. But do you have any rooms available?'
'We're busy,' the woman said, gazing round the empty room as if daring him to challenge her. 'But we've one room left.'
'We could stay here, then,' Henry said to Tess. 'I don't fancy setting off again. Especially in the dark.'
'What about dinner?' Tess said.
'We do dinner,' the woman said, unexpectedly. 'I can reserve you a table, if you're staying.'
Tess glanced at the woman suspiciously, wondering if the supposed road closure might have been a ruse to keep them here. 'I don't know…'
'Why not?' Henry said. 'You don't want to be driving again tonight, do you? And to be honest I'd prefer a good honest old pub like this to some over-priced bistro.'
Tess knew there was no point in arguing further. 'We need to contact them, though. Let them know we won't be coming.'
Henry was checking his mobile phone. 'Still no signal. Do you have a phone we can use?' he asked the woman.
'There's one in your room. Dial 9 for an outside line.' She paused. 'I don't know if you'll get through.'
'Seems hard to get through to anywhere from here,' Henry said. 'But thank you. Not many hotels have phones in the rooms these days. I suppose you have to with the state of the mobile signal up here.'
The woman gazed back at him blankly, as if he were speaking a foreign language. 'Shall I show you to your room now?' she said.
The room was more pleasant and comfortable than Tess had expected. It was on the second floor, under the eaves, with angled ceiling corners and a narrow skylight over the bed. Like the rest of the inn, it had an old-fashioned air, with its flowered wallpaper and chintz curtains. But it seemed clean and in good repair, and the front window offered a fine view of the open moorland.
'That's perfect,' Henry said. 'Thank you.'
The woman was already disappearing back down the stairs. 'Dinner at seven,' she said over her shoulder.
'And I hope you have a very enjoyable stay with us,' Tess murmured sarcastically. She looked at Henry. 'Are you sure we're doing the right thing?'
'Look on it as an adventure.'
'As opposed to enjoying a pleasant meal in a well-regarded restaurant? Goodness knows what we'll get here.'
'It's the only option, though. Unless you want another long stretch on the road in the dark.' He picked up the phone from the bedside table. 'Speaking of which, let's try out this relic from the 1970s. What's the number?' He dialled 9 and then, as Tess read out the digits, the number of the restaurant. 'Dialling tone,' he said. 'That's promising.' He waited. 'No, just getting unobtainable. Read it out again.' He tried again then shook his head. 'Must be something wrong with their phone or line.'
Tess shrugged. 'We can try again later, but there's not much else we can do. Might as well just relax.' She walked over to the window. 'Really is the back of beyond. Not a sign of life out there.'
'I thought she said they were busy.'
'She said the road was closed, and we believed her.' Tess shrugged. 'I suppose they have to get whatever business they can up here. Surprised they've survived.'
'Maybe we'll be surprised,' Henry said. 'If places like this are still here, there's usually a reason.'
'If you say so. Right, I'm going to get a quick shower, then we can think about heading down.'
'Sooner the better,' Henry said. 'I could do with a pint. I'll go down and bring up the luggage.'
When Henry returned a few minutes later with their cases, Tess had already emerged from the shower and was sitting by the window in her dressing gown. Outside, the twilight had thickened, the sky a deep translucent mauve.
'We might be misjudging this place,' Henry said as he dumped the cases by the bed.
'Car park's beginning to fill up. Mind you, looks like it could be some sort of classic car club. A few interesting specimens out there. Getting a bit livelier in the bar, too.'
'As long as nobody expects us to talk cars.'
'Hope not. But we might need to dress a bit smarter than usual. Seems to be a suit and tie brigade.'
'Oh, great. Just what I needed. Okay, I'll see what I'm got.'
'I can manage a tie,' Henry said. 'Beyond that, they'll have to take me as I come.'
They both finished dressing and Tess stood in front of Henry in the black dress she'd brought mainly to wear in the restaurant they'd intended visiting this evening. 'How do I look?'
'You look great,' Henry said. 'Shall we go and brave the throng?'
The hubbub from the bar was louder than they'd expected as they descended the stairs. There were twenty or so men and woman gathered around the various tables, almost all of them middle-aged and in relatively formal dress. It looked more like a funeral than an evening out, Tess thought, but perhaps that was how people were up here.
Henry approached the bar and ordered a pint of ale for himself and a gin and tonic for Tess. Some of the other guests standing at the bar glanced at him, but without any evident hostility or even curiosity. The woman who'd greeted them earlier served him the drinks without speaking. 'Do you want me to pay now or can I add them to the room bill?' Henry asked, but she'd already turned away to another customer.
'I suppose that answers my question, anyway,’ Henry said to Tess. 'She's an odd type, isn't she?'' He took a sip of his drink. 'Beer's decent, though. Shall we sit over there?' He gestured to a table in the corner.
'Why not?' Tess said. 'As long as we're not stealing some local regular's usual seat. I imagine you can get lynched for that.'
'Let's risk it.'
He led the way over to the table. Again, some of the other guests glanced up as they passed, but there was no evident surprise at their presence. That shouldn't be surprising, Tess thought. After all, they surely encountered no shortage of tourists up here. But somehow this place felt more isolated than anywhere else she and Henry had visited. Some of the guests were already beginning to move through into the dining room at the far side of the bar. 'Do you think everyone eats at seven, or was that just the slot that was allocated to us?' she asked Henry.
'I don't get the feeling that flexibility's one of this establishment's strong points,' Henry said. 'My guess is everyone does what they're told.' He looked at his watch. 'It's still only quarter to. Maybe they don't want to risk being late in case they get no dinner.'
'We'd better be careful then.' Tess sipped at her gin. 'I'm hungry.'
They finished their drinks and made their way over to the entrance to the dining room, where they were greeted by a lugubrious-looking man in a dinner jacket who directed them to a table by the window. 'Do you think he's her husband?' Henry whispered. 'They make a lovely couple.'
'It's all weirdly formal, isn't it?' Tess said, looking around her. 'As if we've intruded into some society's annual dinner.'
'Maybe there'll be speeches. Pleasant enough room, though. And the menu looks okay, if you don't mind being transported back to the 1970s.' The room was decorated in a similar style to the bar, with dark wood and red velvet furnishings, and light glinting on brassware in the darker corners. It felt welcoming and comfortable. The two waitresses gradually making their way around the tables looked as if they wouldn't have been out of place in a 1950s Lyon's Cornerhouse.
The food proved to be in keeping with the style of the room, but the quality was unexpectedly high. Tess had a starter of chicken liver pate while Henry opted for an old-fashioned prawn cocktail, both ordering Tornedos Rossini as a main. 'I love this kind of food,' Henry said. ‘You don't see it much on menus any more. Classical stuff, and a decent list of French wines too.'
'It's very tasty, anyway,' Tess said. 'And no foams or crumbs or soils in sight. We might have made the right decision, after all.'
They declined desserts and were told that coffee would be served in the bar. Henry ordered an additional single malt for himself and a port for Tess, and they made their way back to the corner table they'd occupied previously.
'Goodness,' Tess said, when the coffee arrived. 'Proper petit fours. Haven't seen those in years either.'
'They've obviously hung onto the good stuff up here,' Henry said. 'Decent malt, too. I've really been surprised by how good this has been. I wasn't expecting it at all.'
As he spoke, a man sitting at the neighbouring table turned to smile at him. 'Ach, we always keep the best stuff to ourselves.' He seemed an elderly man, with swept back grey hair and gaunt features, although Tess would have struggled to determine his age with any precision. He had a strong Highland accent, stronger than any other she'd heard on their trip.
'I'm afraid we've been awful rude,' the man went on. He made a sweep gesture with his hand, apparently taking in the rest of the room. 'Most of us are locals here. A few incomers, of course. I take it you're visitors?'
Tess nodded. 'Just passing through. We're here by accident, really. But we've had a lovely evening.'
'Passing through,' the man echoed. 'But you're most welcome. Most of our incomers were once visitors who came here by accident.' He waved his hand to the group on the table beside him. 'Would you perhaps care to join us for a wee nightcap or two? I'd be delighted to treat you to another dram.'
Tess exchanged a glance with Henry. 'That's very kind of you. I'm afraid I'm rather exhausted so I was planning to head off to bed now. I don't know whether Henry…' She was hoping that Henry would follow her lead, but she knew him too well to expect he would willingly turn down the offer of a drink, not to mention the opportunity to mingle with the locals.
True to form, he said, 'I'm happy to stay for another one, if you want to get off to bed.' He turned back to the man. 'But, please, let me get this.'
The man shook his head. 'No, no, no. You're our guest. The least we can do is offer you a wee dram as a gesture of our hospitality.'
Tess decided to leave them to it. She waved a goodnight to Henry, knowing he'd probably be there for an hour or two yet, assuming his new acquaintances stayed that long. Then she wearily made her way up to their room, leaving the warm hubbub of the bar behind her.
Tess wasn't initially sure what had woken her. An unexpected light, a sudden chill, and somewhere the sound of scratching.
At first, she thought she'd been disturbed by Henry finally coming up to bed, but she couldn't feel the warmth of his body beside her. Instead, she felt unexpectedly uncomfortable and cold. Still only half-awake, she forced herself to open her eyes.
The bright light was a full moon, shining directly down through the skylight above the bed, bathing the room in a stark silver light. The skylight was badly cracked, she noticed, wondering why she hadn't spotted that earlier.
The scratching came again from somewhere very close by, somewhere to her left. She turned her head to see what was making the sound.
A large rat was sitting on the edge of the bed, clawing steadily away at the mattress.
She screamed, flinging herself off the bed away from where the rat was sitting. She screamed a second time as her feet touched the hard, cold floor.
Tess had no idea what was happening, whether she was awake or trapped in some all-too-realistic nightmare. The room had changed. The floor was no longer carpeted, but had been stripped back to bare floorboards, with only lines of nails along the edges to show where the carpet had been. The wallpaper was peeling from the walls, and the windows were cracked and broken. There was no furniture other than the bed, which held only a bare, stained mattress.
The rat had vanished, presumably somewhere under the bed. Frantically looking around her, Tess saw the pile of clothes she'd removed earlier sitting in a crumpled pile on the floor. She'd left them folded on an armchair but the chair was no longer there.
Still unable to comprehend what she was seeing, she hurriedly began dressing, her eyes fixed on the space under the bed in case the rat should reemerge. She had no thought now apart from desperately wanting to get away, but retained sufficient presence of mind to grab her handbag, which was still lying by the bed where she'd left it earlier.
Still alert for any sign of the rat, she pulled open the bedroom door and stepped out onto the landing. It was darker without the moonshine from above, but she was able to make out the top of the stairs. The setting out here had also changed, the carpets and furniture now gone. She ran her hand along the wall and found a light-switch. She pressed it but, as she'd half-expected, nothing happened.
This is just a nightmare, she thought. This is a nightmare from which, any moment now, I'll awake to find myself back in that bed, with Henry lying beside me.
She made her way cautiously across to the top of the stairs. Below, there was nothing but further darkness, but she saw no option but to continue down. She descended carefully but with a growing sense of panic, gripping anxiously on to the bannister and testing each step as she went. She reached the first floor landing, and felt her way cautiously around to the next flight of stairs.
She'd thought she might see some light as she descended, but there was nothing. She reached the foot of the stairs and peered into the room she had left only a few hours before. Her eyes had become accustomed to the dim light, and she could make out the scene relatively clearly.
The bar had changed as much as the upper floors. The tables and chairs had gone, leaving only random piles of unidentifiable junk in various corners. The floor had been stripped of its carpet. The bar itself was untouched, but the shelves at its rear were empty.
There was a figure standing by the entrance to the inn, nothing more than a silhouette in the darkness.
'Hello?' she called. 'Can you help me?'
The figure raised an arm as if to beckon her over. 'Tess.'
'Henry? Is that you? What's going on? What's happened?' She began to cross the room, stepping carefully to avoid any debris on the floor.
As she approached, Henry turned and walked out through the doors. She hurried after him, careless now of any risk. One of the main doors was open, and she could see the moonlit night beyond. 'Henry!'
She followed him out of the building, then stopped to look back. In the cold moonlight, the inn looked long abandoned, its lower windows covered in security panelling. The main doors had clearly been boarded up but were now standing partially open.
Henry was standing by their car, which remained where they had left it the previous evening. She hurried over and fumbled for the keys in her handbag, fearing she had somehow left them back in the building.
Finally, she found them and unlocked the car. She climbed into the driver's seat and waited until Henry had sat himself beside her. 'I don't understand,' she said. 'What's happened?'
'They put the clocks back tonight,' Henry said.
'I just want to get out of here.' She started the ignition and then drove the car back round to the car park entrance. She'd expected Henry to say something more, but he was silent, presumably as shocked as she was. It occurred to her then that their luggage must be still back in the ruined bedroom, but she had no desire to return for it.
At the car park entrance, she hesitated momentarily then, recalling what had been said about road closures, she took the road back in the direction they'd come. That was the safer option, she reasoned. She glanced over at the SatNav screen, which now seemed to be working, but she couldn't immediately relate what it was showing to the road they were on. It didn't matter, she told herself. If they continued along this road, they'd eventually get back to where they started.
She had already noticed that the road was in worse repair than she'd noticed earlier, much of the surface broken and washed away. She tried to avoid the worst of the potholes, but the ride was becoming rougher with every mile. Finally, she saw that the road ahead had virtually vanished, declining first to a rough track and then to little more than piles of stones overgrown with the moorland grasses. She slowed, trying to judge whether it was feasible to continue. 'We must have missed a turning,' she said to Henry. 'This isn't the road we came in on.'
He shook his head, his expression suggesting regret and sadness, rather than the bafflement or anxiety she'd expected. 'It is the road,' he said. 'They put the clocks back last night.'
'I don't understand,' she said. She turned to him and reached out for his hand. As she took it, she realised how cold he was. Colder than she'd ever known. Colder, she suddenly thought, even than the grave.
© Alex Walters 2023