It had been a late night; another long talk with Ro about their future, another discussion about fault and no-fault, blame and responsibility. Another too-large quantity of wine gone and another hangover sweating itself out through his pores. But, illness or not, Huw had promised Lennie a morning trip to Morecambe and Lennie would not be denied and so to Morecambe they were going.
Every bump in the road sent queasy ripples around Huw’s stomach and made the blood slither in his ears. Even with the car window open the cold autumn air, just picking up the first scents of the sea and tightening his scalp, refused to help his head to clear. When Lennie spoke he missed it at first.
“Pardon?” he asked, not liking the way his voice wavered as it emerged, and wondering if Lennie could tell how rough both he and Ro had felt that morning when Lennie burst into their bedroom with a three year old’s wild, joyful abandon. Or, worse, whether he could tell how rough Huw still felt.
“I don’t want to go to this Morecambe. I want to go to a different Morecambe.”
Momentarily, Huw was stumped. His brain, still coasting on the sour after-effects of alcohol and a miserable, late night, refused to process what his son was saying to him. “A different Morecambe?” he repeated, looking at Lennie in the rearview mirror. The car jolted again and Huw swallowed down an acidic, burning throat of dead wine. Just visible at the edge of the reflection in the mirror, his son stared solemnly at him and said again, “I want to go to a different Morecambe.”
“Well,” said Huw, “there’s only this Morecambe to go to, Lennie. You like Morecambe, don’t you?”
“Yes. I just want to go to a different one today.”
Huw didn’t respond immediately. Lennie, named after his paternal grandfather, shared more with the old man than just his name; they were both given to flights of fancy and, rather more annoyingly, tantrums when they didn’t get their way. This bore the hallmarks of a tantrum’s beginning, and Huw wasn’t sure he could cope with a full-on Lennie rage now.
“Well, why don’t we see what it’s like when we get there?” he asked, placatingly. “I could park somewhere different and we could try and go to some new places if you like?”
“No,” with the start of childish anger in the voice. “Not this Morecambe. A different one.”
“Lennie, there isn’t a different Morecambe, just the one we always go to. This is the only one, I promise.”
“It isn’t!” And with that, Lennie was shouting and thrashing in his seat, the straps preventing him from doing much more than writhing slightly from side to side. Huw risked turning away from the road for a moment, trying to catch Lennie’s eye. Lennie shrieked in a helpless toddler’s fury, his voice spiking and sending a jolt of pain into Huw’s head that dropped, becoming a wave of nausea as it fell through him. “Lennie,” he managed to say, and then he had to turn back to the road, pull across the lane which was thankfully free of traffic, let the car mount the kerb and open his door in one clumsy movement and in one spasming rush he was vomiting. The sound of it swilled around his ears, his own retching and gagging merging with the sound of Lennie’s shrieking before collapsing in on itself like a dying star.
It only took a moment; there wasn’t much to come out except bile and jagged memories. Perhaps Ro and he needed to split up, he thought. Huw couldn’t keep going through this cycle of argument-friends-argument, with all of its attendant emotional and physical ups and downs. He sat back in the seat, took a deep and torn breath and turned again. Lennie was watching him with cool eyes, and Huw managed to think, So that’s how we distract him from his tantrums – just puke!
“I’m sorry, Lennie. Daddy’s not feeling very well,” he said.
“Why aren’t you feeling well?” Quiet and calm; the storm settled and gone.
Because your mum and I don’t seem to be able to go a week without arguing about something, and the arguments are getting worse and I’m not sure either of us can cope with much more. “I don’t know, son. Maybe I have a tummy bug, but it’s gone now. I feel better.” This was true; puking seemed to have cleared some of the bitterness from his stomach, and although the taste of vomit was harsh and unpleasant, it faded as he swilled saliva around and spat it onto the pavement.
“Thank you for bringing me to this different Morecambe, Daddy,” said Lennie from behind him.
Huw turned back to face his son. Lennie was placid now, sitting motionless in his seat. In his neat little dungarees and red jacket, with his legs stuck straight out in front of him, he looked curiously doll-like at that moment and Huw felt a wave of helpless, stifling love. How could he and Ro make such a beautiful thing, such a perfect little person, hold his future in their hands, make decisions for and about him, decisions affecting his entire life, and then not sort out their own differences? It made no sense. Huw smiled at Lennie. Lennie did not smile back.
“It’s all the same Morecambe, Lennie,” said Huw. “Look, it’s just like it is every time we visit.”
“No, it’s the different one,” said Lennie and there was a finality in his voice that Huw really didn’t have the strength to argue with. He twisted back, intending to drive on, but something brought him up short.
At first he couldn’t work out what it was. Through the windscreen, he saw the road and the side of the library and the carparks and the small train station platform and in the distance a grey sliver of the sea framed between the large supermarket and cinema. Morecambe, as ever.
There were no cars on the road or moving along the seafront, no people going to or from their vehicles in the carparks, nothing. Certainly, Huw wouldn’t have expected much activity this early on a Saturday morning, but even out of season, Morecambe tended to have visitors at most hours of the day.
“This is much better, Daddy,” said Lennie, his voice the self-satisfied sound of a child that had got its own way. Huw ignored him for a minute, instead looking more carefully around him at the town he had come to know so well over the past few years. It seemed the same at first glance, but the closer he looked the more he saw little things that jarred. The library’s square-edged shape was blurred with what looked like moss or hanging vines clinging tightly to the brickwork. The surface of the almost empty carpark was rippled, as though the concrete had settled in some of the bays and was being pushed up from beneath in others. What cars there were appeared abandoned, covered in leaves and litter and streaks of dark, oily dirt. At least one sat on deflated tyres whose rubber puddled around metal rims that were dark with rust. Further away, the superstore and the cinema both looked overgrown, dark with the same kind of hanging or climbing plant that was smothering the library. Huw wondered if this was some new kind of hangover, an effect of alcohol poisoning that made him see things that were not there, or maybe just magnifying what was there to absurd levels. Certainly, Morecambe was run-down, but this looked more than that, lost and abandoned.
Huw went to pull the door shut, seeing as he did so his pool of vomit on the floor. It had already dried and formed a skin over itself, had darkened so that it looked weeks-old rather than minutes. He stared at it carefully. No smell reached his nose from the pool. Beyond it, his saliva had also dried, leaving just a stain on the dusty pavement. He wondered briefly whether it was a result of dehydration, then dismissed the thought as ridiculous. Dehydration caused his headache, it wouldn’t make his puke or spit dry any faster. This is stupid, he thought angrily. I’m spooking myself because I’ve got a self-inflicted injury, nothing more. I should learn to control my drinking when I’m arguing with Ro, and if I can’t then I should at least learn to take the consequences like a man! He put the car into gear and pulled out into the road, driving carefully and looking straight ahead until he had passed the carparks with their deserted cars and uneven surfaces and fat white questing roots gathering in the sunken bays and slithering out from gaps in the concrete.
Roots? No. He had seen nothing of the sort. It was just rubbish blowing across the concrete apron, or some odd effect of the sun making shadows or shapes that moved as he passed, made worse by his misfiring senses. I’m not safe to drive, probably, he thought. We need to stop and get out of the car before I crash. A walk will definitely do me some good.
Huw pulled into the carpark he and Lennie used on their trips out. It was past the library, nearer to the sea than the shops, but like the earlier ones it, too, was almost empty. There were a couple of cars huddled on its far side, close to the back of the Winter Gardens theatre, but he ignored them. There were no roots coming out of cracks in the concrete, and although its surface was uneven, it was no worse than normal.
Normal. Huw liked normal.
“Can we get out, Daddy?” said Lennie, startling Huw.
“Certainly can,” replied Huw with a cheerfulness he did not feel. He still could see no movement, no people walking about, no birds in the sky. Even the clouds that hung above their heads, dirty grey clusters that looked like sodden kapok, were still. When he got out of the car, his feet sent dull sounds across the open expanse of ground that returned from the theatre’s rear wall in flat, empty plosives. The noises of him opening the boot and getting out Lennie’s buggy, taking Lennie from the car and installing him in the buggy and finally locking the car settled into the air around them, reflected in toneless whispers by buildings that were themselves a flat monochrome not far removed from the colour of the sky above them.
“Do you want to put the money in the ticket machine?”
“No, thank you.”
Huw crouched by Lennie, peering at him. Usually, Lennie loved to put the money in the slot, laughing as each coin fell into the machine’s guts and then pressing the large green button that produced their ticket. Today, however, he simply sat in his pushchair and stared about him, a faint smile on his face.
“Hey,” said Huw gently, “are you okay? Does Daddy get a kiss? Are you sure you don’t want to help me get a ticket?”
“No,” replied Lennie, emphatic, peering over Huw’s shoulder. “I’m looking.”
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; the ticket machine’s slot was rusted closed, the black strip clustered with an orange bloom that resembled ferrous moss. The digital display was dark and the pricing information sign next to the machine streaked with oil or some other heavy, dried liquid. Huw gave up trying to push his money into the slot, deciding that if the council expected him to pay his parking fees they ought to at least ensure that the machines were working. Besides, he didn’t like the way the coins were coming away from the slot streaked with rust, and he liked even less the way the rust transferred itself to his fingers and wouldn’t rub off, instead leaving pale orange patches on his skin that felt slimy and unpleasant. Walking away from the machine, pushing Lennie, Huw tried again to come up with some rational explanation for what he was seeing and experiencing. Perhaps there was some event happening that he had not heard about, and everyone was attending? No, not everyone would go. Besides, the superstore that he and Lennie were just passing as they moved towards the seafront would still be open, and it was not. Its illuminated sign was dark, the great revolving doors shut and still. One had a cracked star across its glazed face, brittle fragments of glass hanging from the damaged section and littering the ground in front of it.
The cinema was no better. Its doors were shut and filthy with mud and dust that obscured the foyer beyond and reduced the large advertising stands to formless shapes that lurked just at the edge of Huw’s perception. When he leaned closer to the paneled door, trying to peer through the dirt and make some sense of what he could see, he glimpsed the food counters and ticket desks. The desks were hazy with dust, and the trays behind the clear counter of the food stall were black with some kind of fungus that spilled out around the Perspex and crawled down the counter and onto the carpet below. Had the cinema and the store closed and Huw missed the news about it? Morecambe was definitely moving, developing and growing, but things shutting, being abandoned? Had he and Ro really been so mixed up with each other that they had missed such major changes happening on their doorstep? Surely not.
“This is fun, Daddy,” said Lennie, unexpectedly. “I like this Morecambe more than the other one for now. I’m glad we came.”
Lennie’s voice sounded odd. Normally (ah, God, for something normal! thought Huw miserably), he was an excitable child, serious about things although never less than joyful, but the voice coming from the buggy in front of him was somehow flat and withdrawn. Emotionless. Huw leaned forward over the top of the buggy so that he was looking down on Lennie. Upside down, his son’s face stared back at him, his eyes pale against skin the colour of old parchment.
“I don’t think I like it,” replied Huw. “It’s very quiet, isn’t it? Perhaps we should go home and play a game?”
“No, Daddy,” said Lennie patiently, and Huw had the oddest feeling that their roles had been reversed and that he was the younger person there and Lennie the older one. “We’ll find people soon, or they’ll find us. You’ll see, this is a much better place than usual!” As he spoke, Lennie’s face grew animated for a moment, a great smile stretching his lips to reveal a mouthful of small, white teeth. Huw nodded carefully, aware of the pulsing, sick waves of the hangover still beating in his skull.
“Okay. We’ll go up around the corner and we’ll see what’s happening, but if things don’t change, we’re going home. Deal?”
“Deal!” said Lennie, but the excitement in his voice never seemed to reach his upside-down, unblinking eyes.
Around the corner and they were on the seafront, Lennie silent and observant in his pushchair while Huw pushed. As they walked, he became more and more uneasy. Even here, where usually there were throngs of people, the roads and pavements were empty. The seafront kiosks and stores were closed, their windows covered by grills in whose slotted faces leaves and paper stuck and against whose bases more rubbish gathered. The beach beyond the sea wall was empty too, the sand unmarked by footprints. It was a strange colour, as though it had faded in bright sunlight or been too long in the water and had some of its vibrancy leached away. The sea itself was a dank grey, its surface untroubled by waves and lying smooth and glassy. Huw had never seen the ocean in Morecambe like that before; it looked unnatural, painted and artificial rather than the moving, energizing thing it usually was. The whole place looked false, somehow, as though they had stumbled into a film set made to scale but with all of its angles subtly wrong. Things at the corner of Huw’s eye looked just out of kilter, resting against each other in ways that they should not, as if the construction had been made by someone who had seen pictures of Morecambe, studied it but never been there and never seen how its buildings and streets and walls connected. Huw looked around, an impotent anger filling him. What the fuck was going on here?
They were coming to the Midland Hotel now. The grand white structure was encrusted with scaffolding, the metal struts crawling over its surface. At least that was normal, thought Huw. The work to refit the old hotel had been going on for months now, and was one of the town’s talking points; boards around the perimeter showed pictures of how the hotel would look when it was finished, but the actual work was hidden from view apart from the top few floors. It was supposed to look half-formed, yet even here, things seemed wrong. In recent weeks, the old hotel had been repainted or resurfaced, and the newly-white walls had gleamed behind the scaffolding cover like a tooth behind a brace. Now it was darker again, streaked with grey and green patches that looked unhealthily damp. The surrounding boards had warped and one or two had come loose from their neighbours, revealing at the front of the hotel an expanse of cracked concrete and flowerbeds choked with brambles and dead, twisted plants. He did not know why but Huw also had the distinct impression that the scaffolding had become brittle, would collapse if the least weight were placed upon it.
They left the Midland behind them without speaking, which was itself an oddity; when they had walked past the hotel on earlier trips, Lennie liked to tell Huw what he thought was behind the wooden barriers, coming up with wilder and wilder ideas that made Huw laugh. Today he passed it in silence. Huw, looking down surreptitiously at his child, saw that Lennie’s eyes were fixed firmly on the sea, ignoring everything that they walked past. There was a grin playing at his lips, but it was one Huw did not like; it looked hungry and hard and anticipatory. Lennie’s tongue poked out from between his lips and in the dull light it looked too dark, black where it should have been at worst a deep fleshy red. Then, as though becoming aware of Huw’s attention, Lennie looked up and smiled more broadly.
“I think we’ll see people soon,” he said.
“Do you? Who? What people?” asked Huw.
“People,” Lennie repeated as though that explained everything. “You said you wanted to see people. You will soon.”
“How do you know?”
“Can’t you hear them? They’re not far away now.”
Abruptly, Huw wheeled about, turning them back the way they had come. He began to walk fast, not letting himself run but coming close to it. This whole place was wrong; the look of it, the feel of it and the smell of it were all wrong. There was no sea scent, no salt or water odours, just a smell of rottenness and decay that had been building as they walked. They passed the Midland at a controlled dash, and Huw ignored that fact that the ‘after’ pictures on the hoardings showed a place that was corrupted and blighted and not their normal artist’s impressions of the intended gleaming edifice. Lennie began to giggle as his buggy bounced up and down, but it was not the giggle of a happy toddler. This sounded as though it came from some other place, from some other person, someone taut and humourless. “Son,” Huw gasped as he rushed, “please tell me what’s wrong. Please!”
“Nothing Daddy,” replied Lennie, only his voice was harsh and sharper than it should have been. “We came to the different Morecambe, just like I asked. Thank you, Daddy!”
Huw tried to ignore the changing timbre of his son’s voice, just as he had ignored the things he had seen and was trying to ignore other sounds he could hear. Try as he might, however, he could not help but hear them. There was a distant rustling and hissing, the sound of feet shuffling and stepping along, the murmur of voices. After his experiences of the previous minutes, Huw would have expected to be glad to hear the sound of other people but he was not. The rhythms of the noises were wrong, as though there were too many legs trying to walk and not enough space for them to walk in. The murmur of voices rose and fell, but in it were rumbles and cries that sounded like no recognisable words. Huw wanted to be gone from this Morecambe, back to the banal miseries of his life with Ro where their arguments were about money and sex and domestic chores, where Lennie was a cheerful child whose voice wasn’t rasping and raw and where Morecambe was a seaside resort finally beginning to win the battle to reinvent itself for a new kind of tourist. Huw fled back, heading for his car and for the life that he knew even if he didn’t like it.
“There are people coming Daddy,” said Lennie, his voice harder than it had any right to be. Huw let out a cry when he heard it, keeping his eye on his car and his mind on the thought of escape. If he could drive back, back to the place where this had started, he could get home, get Lennie back, get away. Something had happened when he puked; he had brought them somewhere, so reversing their trip would surely allow them back. Wouldn’t it?
He fumbled his keys as he approached the car, dropping them in his haste to point them at the vehicle. Bending to pick them up, his face came level with Lennie’s. Huw let out a tiny, torn cry when he saw his son close-to; his face was desperately pale and veins like worms rippled across his forehead. Like everything else around them, he was wrong, Lennie but not-Lennie, his son but not his son. He looked distorted, pushed out of shape from within, sweating and sickly but with eyes that glittered with a horrid, terrible alertness.
“Where’s my son?” said Huw, still scrabbling for the keys.
“I’m here, Daddy. Don’t you recognize me?” replied Lennie in his proper Lennie voice, childish and high. “Why don’t we wait here for the people?”
“What people?” And the keys were in his hands and Huw was pressing the button to release the door locks and opening the door.
“The different Morecambe people, silly. They’re almost here.”
Huw did not respond. Hurriedly, he unbuckled the unprotesting Lennie and moved him to his car seat. Even if, God forbid, it was not his son, he could not leave him behind. Huw could take him back, Lennie could be his son again. He could. Lennie, watching with a detached expression on his shifting, changing face, said, “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
Lennie started to cry, fat tears rolling from his eyes down towards his jutting bottom lip, a gift from Ro’s side of the family. The sobbing sounds were good, almost real, but not real enough. Huw knew his son well, knew the noises he made in almost every circumstance, and what was coming from his mouth now was simply not good enough. Another fake, another falsehood, mimicry that had technique but no emotion in it, and then Lennie was in and Huw was running around the car to the driver’s side and getting in.
The car started with a twist of the key. With the door slammed shut, the distant sounds were muted but still audible. They rose and fell, with the rasping shuffle sometimes in the ascendant before being drowned by the grumbling and roaring like muffled voices. Under it was another sound, or rather, other sounds. There was a grinding, like metal being dragged against metal, coming from the direction of the train platform. From further away, Huw could hear the ocean heaving even though, when he looked, the strip of grey sea visible between the far buildings was motionless. He pressed his foot onto the accelerator, letting the engine roar its response to the encroaching sounds, and then drove. The car jolted and bucked as it bumped across the carpark and Huw could not help but turn, say “Are you okay?” to Lennie, concerned that the bouncing may have hurt him.
“I’m fine, Daddy. You look poorly,” replied Lennie, the not-Lennie voice trickling from his mouth and his not-Lennie eyes gleaming.
“I’m fine too,” said Huw. “We’re both fine. That’s good.” Just mindless chatter to distract him from the sights around him, from the fat white roots that he could see sprouting at the edge of the carpark and which hadn’t been there before, from the air that hung too low above them like old sacking, and then they were out of the carpark and into the street.
The metallic grinding sound was louder here. The road ran parallel to the train track, separated from it by a width of pavement and a heavy line of trees and fencing. Behind the trees, something dark moved unhurriedly along, a black mass of shadow that slowed as it pulled up to the platform. Huw caught the shriek behind his teeth, trapped it there to prevent it escaping, and accelerated back along the road. Whatever it was behind the trees was long; a train, Huw thought, catching sight of dirty glass and rusting metal between the tree trunks as he drove. Behind the glass, he had the impression of movement, of figures pressing against the grimy glass and smearing dampness across its inner surface.
They were approaching the place where Huw had vomited. He pressed his foot harder on the accelerator pedal, hoping to coax more speed from the vehicle. Lennie laughed from behind him, an empty sound against the throated growl of the engine. Huw did not look around. The car sped up, rolling past the darkened pile of puke on the pavement. Huw clenched himself, tightening his grip on the wheel and praying with his whole body that he could get back, go home. For a moment, just the briefest of moments, there was a flicker in the air and Huw saw Morecambe, his Morecambe. It flashed with colour, loud with energy and movement. The buildings were solid, unadorned with plant growth, the roads smooth and solid. No train moved behind the trees, and no white roots rippled their way across the car park. There were people. Huw shouted, a cry of triumph and then Lennie hissed and the image fell in upon itself, crumpling away to a grey nothing. The different Morecambe rushed in to fill the space it left, its bleak walls gathering in around Huw as he brought the car to a shuddering halt. He craned around, staring out through the rear window, hoping to still see the remnants of the brighter place, but it was gone. Lennie giggled again, bucking in his seat as mirth shook his tiny body.
“We can’t leave yet, Daddy,” he said brightly, “we haven’t met the people!”
By the train station, indistinct shapes moved. They milled out from the entrance, spreading like oil to fill the street. Huw had the impression of squatness and width, of arms that were just too long and bent in the wrong places, of legs that writhed and of features that were moist and eager. He looked again at Lennie, the not-Lennie that had taken his son’s place, and saw that he had managed to undo the straps of the safety seat.
“We came to a different Morecambe, Daddy, just like I wanted to. Don’t you like it?”
“No,” said Huw.
“I do. Thank you for bringing me here, Daddy. It’s nice that you brought me when I wanted to come so much.”
Huw opened his door and climbed out of the car, backing away on legs that felt like brittle fracturing twigs. “Why did you want to come here?” he asked, watching as the tiny figure clambered between the car’s front seats and jumped delicately to the floor.
“Because we’ve been here so long,” said the not-Lennie, no longer making any effort to sound or act like the Lennie that Huw had helped create, that he loved with all his being. Its voice was hoarse and the poor, beautiful flesh of Huw’s son was already distorting into a new shape. “We made a different Morecambe and we try to use it just like you use your one, but it’s not the same. No one comes here so it’s empty apart from us, and it’s not as good as your Morecambe. It feels different and it smells different because we can’t make it like you do. We can’t make it work. We can’t make proper colour. We can’t make it real.”
“I’m Lennie, Daddy!” said the thing in front of him in a tone of mock indignation. It grinned again, its lips stretching far, too far, back from teeth that were still small and white but now too numerous. “Don’t you recognize me?”
“You’re not my son.” Saying it made it hurt worse than a hangover, worse than every pain he had ever felt. “Give him back. Please!”
“But he wanted so much to come somewhere different, and you were so ill and were almost here anyway because of how you felt, so we just pulled you through to where you both wanted to go. You’re the first ones we’ve managed! Do you like our different Morecambe?”
“Don’t be nasty. It might not be as good as your Morecambe, but we did our best – even though we’re not made for creation, only other things. We watched for so long, kept seeing the other Morecambe but couldn’t get there no matter how hard we tried, and then you and little Lennie came along and look! You helped us make a door so now we can go through and finally visit yours. Isn’t that nice?”
The crowd gathered.
Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in 1972 somewhere in the northwest of England, on a day during which no mysterious signs or portents were seen – something that’s been a source of constant disappointment ever since. He spent most of his early years growing and hasn’t stopped yet, although he’s swapped upwards for outwards these days. He currently lives with his wife and child in Lancaster (just below the Lake District), which is a good place to live if you like that sort of thing – it has a river, some shops and pubs, a number of good pizza restaurants, and lots of roads of varying quality. He writes when he’s not working, spending time with his family, cooking, walking the dogs, watching suspect movies or lazing about. His stories have appeared in the Ash Tree Press anthologies At Ease with the Dead, Exotic Gothic 3 and Shades of Darkness, as well as in Lovecraft Unbound, Gaslight Grotesque, The Black Book of Horror 6, Never Again, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21 and Black Static magazine. His story ‘The Church on the Island’ was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #19 and The Mammoth Book of the Very Best of Best New Horror. His first collection, Lost Places, was published by the Ash Tree Press in March 2010 and he had collections due out in 2011 and 2012, from Dark Continents and PS Publishing respectively.
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