By: Tim Jeffreys

(From Issue #1 July 2020)

Shirina couldn’t help but see herself and her husband through the eyes of the middle-aged man sitting in the hotel lobby lounge chair. He was watching closely as they entered. It made Shirina feel a bit self-conscious about what they were wearing. That morning, Ben had insisted on dressing in shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops despite the grey skies and drizzle they’d woken up to back in England; whilst she had been anxious to put on her new yellow daisy-patterned sundress, hat, and sunglass. She laughed as Ben mock-struggled with their suitcase when it caught in the glass doors. Ben laughed too, faux-scolded her and play-slapped her bottom for not helping, making her shriek. Then he draped his free arm around her waist as they approached the reception desk. The greying, forlorn-looking man sitting watching them looked so despondent that Shirina could only imagine how to his eyes, she and Ben must have appeared to glow.

She looked over her shoulder at the man as Ben tried out his Portuguese on the receptionist. The man still watched them in a half-disinterested way but it was clear whatever thoughts he had were turned inward.

“Hello,” she said.

The man shifted in the chair, focused his eyes, and nodded his head to her in response.

“We just got married,” Shirina said, trying to excuse the radiance she imagined herself and Ben exuded, as if it were something that had to be apologised for. “Are you here on holiday too?”

“I’m waiting for my wife,” the man said.

“Where is she? Getting ready, I suppose?”

“No, she went out into the garden.”

“Oh,” Shirina said, turning to her husband. “Did you hear that, there’s a garden.”

The receptionist raised her eyes and gave Shirina a hard look. “Not for you.”

“Sorry?”

“Is closed.”

“Oh. But that man just said his wife is…”

“For you is closed,” the receptionist said, using the tone of one who didn’t want to be argued with.

“That’s a shame.”

“Is five minute walk to beach,” the woman said. “We have pool, games room, tennis court. You will find plenty to do. Is lovely here. Lots of young couples like yourselves, yes? Newlyweds, like you. Very lively hotel. You have the honeymoon suite.” She gave Shirina an efficient smile as she handed a pass key across the desk to her. “Top floor. Enjoy your stay.” 

Searching for the lift, they took a wrong turn and ended up in a gloomy dead-end corridor. Retracing their steps, they passed a set of double doors above which a sign read, ‘O JARDIM’. Shirina, who had picked up some Spanish during her gap year in Costa Rica volunteering for sea turtle conservation, recognised ‘Jardim’ as being similar to the Spanish word ‘Jardin,’ which meant garden.

“It must be through there,” she said to Ben.

“What?”

“The garden that man was talking about.”

“Garden? Really? I’m going to have a look,” Ben said. Then before Shirina could stop him, he strode over to the doors and twisted the handle.

“Locked,” he said. He rattled the handle with both hands to be sure.

Shirina grimaced. “Don’t.”

“What?”

She glanced back towards the lobby. “She said we’re not allowed.”

“But it’s locked.”

“Leave it alone. You’ll get us in trouble.”

She saw a familiar devilish look on Ben’s face. It was a look he got whenever he had been forbidden from doing something.

“Maybe there’s another way in.”

Shirina swatted at him, saying in a hushed voice, “Just forget about it. If it’s closed, it’s closed.”

“Didn’t that man say his wife was out in the garden?”

“Yes,” Shirina said. “But he must be mistaken.”

Shirina was struck by how modern the hotel was. So much glass and chrome. And what the receptionist had told them appeared to be true; the hotel did seem to be mainly occupied by young couples. They passed a few of them as they walked the corridors. Tall bronzed men on the arms of petit blondes, or dark-eyed, dark-skinned girls with their muscular beaus, all walking along with a youthful luminosity of their own. When Ben finally found their room, situated at the very end of the third-floor corridor, Shirina coo-ed with delight.

“I still feel bad that your Dad’s paying for all this,” she said.

Ben stood over the bed, grinning at two towels, each having been twisted into the shape of a swan. “Don’t be. He can afford it. And anyway, he loves throwing his money around.”

“And you?” she said, closing the door and joining him by the bed. “What do you like?”

He turned to her, grinned then caught her by the waist and pulled her down onto the mattress, flattening the towel-swans. “I like you.”

Though she didn’t want to admit it to Ben, within a week Shirina was bored of the beach. She lay on her side, her head propped on one hand, using one finger to flick tiny pebbles she found in the sand. Her shoulders ached with sunburn. She was bored of sex too. Ben was insatiable; he wanted to do it three or four times a day. She liked that he couldn’t keep his hands off her, but she couldn’t help feeling they were overdoing it. The previous day, after she’d eaten too much at lunch and gone back to their room to lie down, she’d pushed his hands away when she felt them sliding up her thighs.

“We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us,” she’d snapped. “We don’t need to do it until we’re sore.”

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on your honeymoon?” Ben said.

She laughed at him.

Watching him now, diligently building a castle in the sand like a five-year-old, she felt a twinge of guilt. His tirelessness, his limitless enthusiasm was what she loved about him. People had said they were too young to get married, but she’d known as soon as she met Ben that she’d found the right man. Reaching out a hand, she stroked her fingers through the golden hairs on his calf.

“Do you think you’ll always want me?” she asked. “Even when I’m old and fat?”

Ben glanced up, one corner of his mouth cocked in a crooked smile. “Of course, I will. We’re soulmates.”

“You’ll never want anyone else?”

Ben lay down beside her and kissed her. “There’s no one better. Not for me.”

“You’re sweet.”

Sitting up, he looked at his watch. “Should we head back to the hotel? It’s almost lunch time.”

Shirina didn’t have to be asked twice. At once she stood and began rolling up her beach towel. Ben gathered up the rest of their belongings and was off plodding up the sand before she could get her sundress on. Perhaps he’s just as bored of the beach as I am, Shirina thought. And we still have a week left to go.

When they got back to the hotel, Shirina saw the forlorn middle-aged man sitting in a chair in the lobby, just as he had on the day of their arrival.

“Still waiting for your wife?” Shirina said to him, trying for an amiable tone.

But the man, in a dispirited way, said: “Yes. She’s out in the garden.”

“Still?”

The reception desk was unmanned, so Ben went behind it to retrieve their room pass. He made a face at Shirina when she told him off.

“You’re such a child sometimes,” she said.

“You’re a child.” He slapped her backside, making her whoop.

“Don’t.” Shirina was still aware of the man watching them.

On their way to the lift, they somehow ended up in that same dead-end corridor. Ben halted. “Look,” he said. He pointed towards the double doors with the sign above that said, ‘O JARDIM’. One of the doors was standing slightly ajar. Not ajar enough to see what was beyond, apart from a thin strip of bright light, but very clearly unlocked and open.

“Come on,” Ben said. He dumped the bag and beach umbrella to one side of the doors.

“Wait,” Shirina said. But Ben was already yanking open the doors and allowing sunlight to flood the dark corridor. Shielding her eyes with one hand, Shirina heard Ben draw a sharp breath. Already he was stepping through into the brightness beyond.

“Ben…”

“Look at this.”

“We shouldn’t…”

It took a few seconds for Shirina’s eyes to adjust, but even then, she still couldn’t believe what she saw. Beyond the double doors was a lush expanse of greenery. A few stone steps led down into the garden from where they stood, before the land rose in a moderate slope. Shirina blinked. She couldn’t remember seeing a garden so beautiful in all her twenty-five years. A variety of trees filled her vision with different shades of green, and there were all kinds of flowers growing in abundance all the way up the slope. A stream cut diagonally across the hillside, tumbling at points in little waterfalls over a step. Shirina was drawn forward, almost against her own will, marveling at everything about her, and discovered a paved path with yellow and white flowers growing to either side of it. A fat bumblebee buzzed over the heads of the flowers, and she thought she saw something furry moving amongst the undergrowth. A cat? She continued along the path until she reached a spot where the stream pooled.

“Oh, Ben,” she said, dipping her hands in the cool, clear water. “It’s magical.”

Ben looked towards a cluster of ferns. He pointed. “I saw something. A deer, I think.”

“Ben…look at this place.”

They ran on along the twisting path, giggling like children and delighting in everything they encountered. There were several stone statues of men, women and children, some half-hidden by bushes and branches. There were other figures too, topiary figures, who stood by the side of the path, surprising them.

When they reached the top of the hill, they saw that the slope fell more steeply on the other side to a long grassy meadow planted with widely spaced oaks. The stream widened into a river as it wound between the oaks on its way to whatever lay beyond the horizon. The tall oaks were mirrored in the glassy surface of the water. Shirina looked at Ben. Her mouth hung open. She couldn’t speak. Then she noticed there were figures in the landscape below. A child, whether boy or girl it was hard to tell from this distance, sat waist-deep in the river at the curve of a bend. Nearby, a woman sprawled naked in the dappled shade under one of the oaks. She was turned to them, her body fully on display, as if she’d been waiting. Another naked woman sat in the grass a little further along the river’s banks. She too appeared to be looking back at them with an air of anticipation. Shirina glanced at Ben, hoping he hadn’t noticed either of the women. But he was staring.

Further away, just discernible, a naked man leaned against the trunks of one of the trees. There were other figures beyond him, sitting in a circle in the centre of the meadow, but they were too far away to be identified as men or women.

Managing to shake off the stunned inertia that had rooted her to the spot, Shirina roused herself and took hold of Ben’s hand.

“Let’s go back.”

Ben turned his head. His jaw worked. His eyes were wide. He pointed into the valley below. “Down there…those people. Women. Women and…”

“Let’s go back. We shouldn’t be in here.” With some effort, she turned and began leading him by the hand back the way they’d come. He stumbled, resisting.

“Did you see them? They were…”

“Let’s go back. We’re not allowed in here.” She tugged harder at his hand. “Ben…?”

They found the paved path again and walked in a daze back to the door through which they’d exited the hotel. Once they were back inside, and stood waiting for the lift, everything seemed so absurdly functional and normal and dull that Shirina thought she must have imagined the garden. Ben kept glancing over his shoulder, a confused look on his face. Whenever she caught his eyes, his mouth opened as if he wanted to say something, but then he’d shake his head and look away.

When they returned to the ground floor after showering and dressing for lunch, Ben insisted he wanted to see the garden again but to Shirina’s relief the double doors leading out to the garden were now closed. She said nothing as Ben stood looking at the doors. She knew he wanted to try the handle, see if the doors were locked, but something prevented him. Perhaps fear? But what was there to be afraid of? She had to take his hand and lead him away.

They were mostly silent throughout lunch, avoiding each other’s gaze. Returning to their room, Shirina felt Ben’s hands on her before they were even inside the door. She didn’t resist when he ushered her towards the bed. Afterwards, he still seemed restless. It was as if some heat had gotten into him. She pretended to sleep and watched him through her eyelashes as he got up from the bed and paced about the room. He went to the window several times. He looked at her with some deliberation clear in his expression. After a while, he began to get dressed. Then without a word he went to the door and opened it. He stood in the door space for a few seconds. She wanted to say something, stop him, but before the words were out of her mouth, the door had closed softly behind him.

#

When Shirina woke, she called out for Ben but there was no response. The silence of the room disturbed her. A dream remained fresh in her memory as she stumbled into the ensuite bathroom to throw water on her face, a dream in which she and Ben had walked in the garden behind the hotel. She’d dreamt of how they had reached the crest of that lush green hill and looked down into the valley below and saw the women and children sprawled out naked by the river. She held onto Ben’s hand as they stood there. Then one of the women raised herself and made a beckoning gesture. Ben had looked at Shirina, and Shirina could see in his eyes that he was asking permission.

“No,” she’d said, shaking her head. “No. You’re my husband.”

But the woman continued to beckon, and Ben let go of Shirina’s hand and started picking his way down the hillside, moving cautiously at first before breaking into a run. He didn’t look back.

“Ben!” she’d called after him. “Ben! What are you doing?”

It was at this point that she woke.

The dream left her with a dull ache in her chest.

Not wanting to believe that Ben had returned to the garden, she hoped to find him somewhere in the hotel. Perhaps he was in the bar having a drink, but when she went there she couldn’t find him amongst the early drinkers. The thought nagged. Could he have really gone out there again, into that garden, without her? She went to the reception desk, but again, nobody manned it. The middle-aged man was in his usual seat in the hotel lobby. Shirina approached him, thinking if anyone had seen Ben it would be him, ever watchful.

“Have you seen my husband?”

The man blinked and roused himself. “Husband?”

“My husband, Ben. Tall, blond-haired guy. You’ve seen us together.”

The man shook his head.

Shirina sighed. She was about to walk away when she halted and looked again at the man. She realised in that moment that he was the only guest at the hotel she’d encountered who looked older than thirty. That’s if he was a guest at the hotel. All he ever did was sit there in that same chair in the lobby.

“Still waiting for your wife, are you?”

“She’s out in the garden,” the man said.

“Why don’t you go and get her?”

The man’s eyes widened. He shook his head again, said, “No. No. I couldn’t.”

“Is there something you’re afraid of out there?”

His eyes narrowed. “Your husband hasn’t gone out in the garden, has he?”

“He might have. What do I do?”

The man cast his eyes around the empty seats surrounding him. “Wait. You’ve just got to wait.”

Now it was Shirina’s turn to shake her head. “I can’t do that. I can’t. I have to find him.”

Leaving the man, she crossed the lobby and entered the dead-end corridor which led to the entrance to the garden. The doors were closed. She thought how much of a relief it would be to find they were locked. If they were locked Ben couldn’t be out in the garden. He’d have to be somewhere else—either he’d gone for a walk, or he was out by the pool, or perhaps someone had invited him for a game of tennis or…or…

Her hand shook as she reached for the handle and turned it, hoping for resistance. But the handle turned easily, and she was able to swing the door open with minimal effort. Sunlight flooded in from outside. She could feel the warmth of it on her face. After glancing back towards the lobby, biting at her lip, she stepped through and let the doors swing closed behind her.

It must have been later than she thought, because it was twilight in the garden. The sky was full of pink light along the crest of the hill, and the trees had turned to silhouettes. As she picked her way along the paved path, something black flitted across her vision—a bat, she thought. She ducked her head. The only sound was the flow of water in the stream, splashing as it cascaded over the little waterfalls.

She became aware of how alive everything was around her. The leaves seemed to breath, and she had an odd sensation that the flowers were watching her. In fact, she felt as if the whole garden was aware of her presence. Half-way up the slope of the hill, she caught a movement in her peripheral vision, alarmed, she twisted her head around. Ten feet or so from the path, a topiary figure of a man stood amongst a bed of purple flowers. Though the figure had no face, the head was angled towards her as if looking over his shoulder at her. She was sure that a moment ago, when she’d first noticed the figure, the head had been turned another way, facing back towards the hotel in the same direction the body was angled. She froze and stared at the figure, her breath caught, as if she were daring it to move again. No, she thought then, shaking her head, No. I imagined it. It didn’t move. I’m being silly. How could it move?

Yet she couldn’t help looking back when she neared the top of the hill. For a moment, she was sure that the statues and the topiary figures were in a different position than they had been a moment ago. She thought of a game she’d played as a child, a game called Sly Fox, where one person had to stand at one end of the garden and be the Sly Fox and the other players would creep up on them and aim to tag them. But if the child being the Sly Fox turned around, the others would have to freeze. Freeze like statues. Just like these statues. Just like…

She shook the thought from her mind. Ridiculous. Though, it was hard for her to turn her back on the statues and topiary figures. In her mind’s eyes she saw them coming to life the moment she put her back to them. She saw them beginning to creep up the slope in her wake. A cold shiver went down her spine at the thought, but she refused to look back, dismissing the thought once more as ridiculous.

Another thought persisted.

There’s something wrong here. There’s something wrong here in this garden. This isn’t normal. It doesn’t feel right.

Her heart began to beat fast. She was scared, realizing what she might see in the valley on the other side of the hill. Reaching the top of the slope, she scanned the meadow below. It was hard to see much of anything in the diminishing light, so she scrutinised the area thoroughly before deciding it was unpopulated.

Maybe I should go back. Ben isn’t out here. How could he be?

Something drew her onwards. She began picking her way down the hill into the valley. It was quiet under the oak trees. The grass was littered with leaves, and she saw a few more fall as she walked. Busy looking about her for any sign of life, she accidentally put one foot into the water. Her feet were bare apart from flip-flops and the shock of the icy water surprised her so much that she let out a little yell. Retracting her foot, she turned on the spot with a sudden sense that her cry had disturbed something. She was acutely aware that she was no longer alone.

“Hello?” she tried. “Is someone there?”

Now, there was no denying it, her heart hammered and she was finding it hard to breath. She tried to convince herself she had to return to the hotel. A horrible thought came swiftly: What if they had locked the double doors? What if she couldn’t get back inside?

She’d begun walking back towards the hill, when she stopped, sure that she had heard breathy laughter. She turned her head to the trees on either side of her. There was a rustle of ferns, and then something leapt out at her. She screamed and ran. She had only gone a short distance when she realised she was running the wrong way, heading deeper into the meadow and away from the safety of the hotel. She could hear the hot, heavy breathing of her pursuer. Whatever it was, it laughed as it chased her, as if this were a game. Throwing a glance over her shoulder, she screamed again, behind her was a small, naked, malicious-looking man. He had a hairy face and body, and on his head, what looked like horns. She glanced back again to be sure. Yes, they were definitely horns. Even more alarming, she noticed too that he had a large, protuberant erection; a ridiculous thing that bobbed as he ran and was pointed straight at her. She screamed and ran harder. She could hear the quick thud of his feet—hooves? Why did it sound like hooves? Then there was his grunting laughter. She could almost feel his hairy hands snatching at her back.

She thought she heard him grunting words. “C’mere. Hey, girlie, c’mere.”

“Leave me alone!” she wailed. “Leave me alone! Please.”

She sobbed now, hoping that this was all some kind of nightmare, and that in a moment, she’d wake up. She’d wake up in the hotel bed with Ben beside her.

It was unclear how long she ran through that seemingly endless meadow, but at some point she realised she could no longer hear the nasty little man or whatever it was behind her. Without slowing, she looked around and saw that he was gone. After checking all around her, she stopped and doubled over, panting for breath, keeping one eye out for the awful little man’s re-appearance.

Righting herself, she looked around again. It was now almost full dark, and all she saw about her was flat meadow. Which way was the hill? The garden? The hotel? She had no idea. She began walking in what she hoped was the right direction. She was trembling and couldn’t prevent herself from giving off a low, querulous moan.

Something defiant asserted itself then. She took a deep breath, wiped the tears from her face, and raised herself upright. I have to get out of this, she thought. I have to get out of here. I’m finally going to start my dream-job in web-design soon. And I want a house, and children. A long life. I want to be happy. I want to get out of here. She kept this internal monologue going, reminding herself of normal things and of what she planned to do with her life. Scanning the ground at her feet, she noticed a large flat stone and bent to pick it up. She smiled to herself, weighing the stone in her hand. If that funny little man comes near me again, I’ll smash his fucking skull. She knew she was most likely not going to find her way back to the hotel until daylight, but she kept walking, turning as she did, wary of staying too still.

She’d only been walking a little while when she became aware of a noise. It sounded like a jet engine passing overhead. She looked up to find it but realized the noise was coming from somewhere else, somewhere on the ground. Following the sound, she came to a spot where the ground banked downwards. Her mouth fell open. At the bottom of that slope, where the horizon should have been, there was a great, black, swirling hole, a hellish pit of churning clouds. She could feel the pit sucking at her as she stood there, the wind pulling at her clothes and hair. Then, on a sand bank in front of the pit, she noticed the outline of a figure, just a shape, a silhouette. She didn’t know how—perhaps something in the figure’s stance—but she knew this figure was Ben. She began to rush forward, calling his name, but the sucking wind from the pit took her voice and drug it down into its spiraling bowels. She felt the pull of it grow stronger the nearer she got. Looking into those dark, churning depths made her head feel light. By the time she reached the sand bank, the pull was almost enough to lift her off her feet, and she was sure that at any moment she would be heaved screaming into the void.

“Ben!” she yelled. “Ben!” But it was useless. The wind from the earthly maelstrom was now a deafening roar.

She ran to him and grasped hold of his arm. He was just standing there, on the edge of that sand bank, staring mesmerised into that fathomless pit of spiraling darkness. She had to shake him out of his trance.

“Ben! What are you doing?” she screamed. “What are you doing?”

He looked at her as if he didn’t recognise her. His face showed nothing. But he didn’t resist when she began to lead him away. All she wanted to do was get him away from that hole before they were both swept up from the ground and sucked into its depths. When she could no longer feel the pull of the wind or hear the churning of the pit, Shirina realised she was crying. She still gripped the large flat stone tightly and she was more than ready to smash it down on the head of anyone or anything that tried to get in her way.

The dark of night surrounded them, and the garden was nearly silent. Shirina led Ben by the hand towards the sound of the river. It was the only guide they had. They could follow that back to the garden and back to the hotel, that’s if they could just work out which way they were supposed to go. A full moon now sat high in the sky, like a white bulb, and by its dim light they could at least see the ground around them. Shirina looked to Ben’s face. His eyes were glazed and staring. His expression was stamped with incomprehension. She waved a hand in front of it trying to bring him to his senses.

“Ben?” she said in a soothing voice. “Ben, are you all right?”

His eyes focused on her. His lips moved. “It…it just waits there.”

“What?”

“It just waits. It waits there. At the end of all this.” He threw out his arms to indicate the surroundings. “It just waits. That darkness. That—that pit.”

“We have to get back,” she said. “We’re on our honeymoon, remember?” She tried to laugh but it sounded choked and off-kilter, crazed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ben said. “We’ll have to come back.”

She stopped walking and her eyes searched his face. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

He shrugged, dropped his head and glanced away.

They followed the shimmer of moonlight on the surface of the river, avoiding the dark outlines of the oak trees. Dead leaves crunched under their feet. How can the leaves be falling? How can it be autumn? Wasn’t it summer in that garden? Wasn’t everything ripe and blooming in that garden? And yet here in this meadow, the oaks are already shedding their leaves. How can that be?

Her heart leapt when she saw a rise ahead of them. She threw down the stone, grabbed hold of Ben’s hand and began to run. Together, they scrambled up the slope and even in moon’s sallow glow they recognised the lush garden before them. They hurried through it unmolested and before long they were at the double doors and finding them – thank God! Oh, thank God! – unlocked and stepping back into the hotel. Shirina could hear the dull thud of music from the bar. She had to take a moment to adjust. This, she told herself, was reality. This…this was normal. What was out there, in that garden, that was…something else. That was some kind of dream. They had wandered into a dream, a fantasy.

When they walked through to the lobby, there was no one there, no one at the reception desk; just that middle-aged man in his usual chair, sitting up now and looking at them in query. Hopeful. Shirina wondered what he saw now when he looked at them. Was it still that youthful glow, or had that been dulled, tainted somehow? She wanted to say something, to comfort him, but all she could do was shrug and shake her head, unsure why she was doing it. She watched him sink back into his reverie.

#

The next morning, she woke fully dressed in the hotel bed. She couldn’t remember anything beyond arriving back at the hotel. Dead leaves were stuck to her feet and her dress was torn at the hem. She looked at her face in the bathroom mirror. There were more leaves tangled in her hair, and her cheeks were grimy with dirt and the tracks of tears. She noticed too, something she hadn’t seen before. In her fringe, there was a thread of grey. Just a single silver strand.

Ben called to her from the bedroom. She went to him. He was propped up on his elbows, squinting against the light, looking lost and baffled.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It was a dream, that’s all.”

He cocked his head at this but said nothing. There was something new in his eyes. She noticed something she was sure hadn’t been there before, something old. Sitting down on the bed, she stroked the fingers of one hand across his forearm.

“Don’t ever think about leaving me,” she said.

Ben shifted his gaze and didn’t reply.

End.

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