The Remarkable Case of Mr Vincent Shrigley

I roused myself from a reverie to find that the seat opposite me in the railway carriage now had an occupant: a smallish man dressed entirely in brown, proffering a paper bag. His face under its chestnut felt bowler was creased into a smile; an old but serviceable suit covered his limbs; the ensemble was completed by a scuffed pair of boots. Above his head on the rack was a well-used case, for samples perhaps as he looked the type to be a travelling salesman; but one never knows on the railways. His smile faded and he sighed.
"Lord, I love sweets. Humbug?"
I took one from the white paper packet, and he rustled two or three at once into his hand and popped them into his mouth. We sucked in silence for a while; the train shuffled to a halt at a tiny rural station, and seemed to give up the ghost. Nothing moved on the bare platform: the sun beat on the defeated fields on either side, and a newspaper placard told us what we already knew: No Rain For Six Weeks.
"Only six weeks," said my new acquaintance. "They think that's something. But I've been somewhere where it never rains. Not ever." His accent was that city mix, a tinge of cockney in a mouthful of acquired vowels. He looked a little embarrassed at his disclosure and shifted in his seat as he collected himself. "Shrigley," he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Shrigley's my name. Vincent Shrigley. Humbug?" I declined the offer this time and asked him what he had meant about the drought - he had travelled perhaps, to some forbidding desert on a placement abroad? He crunched a sweet and looked levelly at me, guessing my thoughts.
"Not me, I've never left England", he told me. "Margate's about the furthest I've penetrated into foreign parts. A Bromley boy through and through, that's me. But there's somewhere special that I go, you see."
A look came into his eyes as he said this, the same faraway look you see in one of the fellows at the club when they talk about their time in India or some such. I sat a little forward in my seat and asked him to go on. Mr Shrigley, it seemed, was beginning to intrigue me.
"D'you know," he said, "I've never told a soul about this - not even Mrs Shrigley, I can't think why, even when she's on at me to stop buying these damned sweets. But here we are in the middle of nowhere, baking among all these fields, and I'm getting just a little of the feeling that I get - there." This last word, one felt, he would have prefixed with a capital letter. I waited for more.
"I suppose I used to worry that it would go away, if I told anyone. Well, we'll see about that - but it feels real to me, no doubt at all." He stopped, and looked out of the window. It appeared that we might be marooned on this stretch of track for the afternoon. The usual sounds of an English summer were subdued, almost absent.
"Do you visit the dentist?"
I must confess I was left speechless for a moment by this question, coming apparently apropos of nothing. Then I assured him that I did make occasional trips to my dentist, though with nothing like the regularity that was expected of me.
"The chair," he said with an ecstatic grin. "My favourite place on God's green earth." He paused to observe my incomprehension, which was rapidly becoming astonishment.
"It's the gas," he said. "D'you ever have gas? Amazing, wouldn't you say?"
I told him that I had had gas on occasion, but apart from a little nausea I found little or nothing to amaze me.
"Ah, but you're wrong", he said. "The gas - it's the gas that takes me There. This time the capital letter was palpable.
"I s'pose I'm only out for a matter of minutes, but to me it seems like hours, and the longer the better. And as soon as I'm back Here, I want to go back There. Bromley just doesn't do it for me anymore, you might say."
I began to understand what he might be telling me, and settled back to listen. I could see that it might take time.
"It's a rum place," he said. "At least I thought so at first. And quiet. So quiet." He paused here and looked out of the smeared window across the silent fields.
"It's like a desert. Sand, and rocks and the occasional patch of scrub maybe. A rusty red soil, like I've heard they have over in Africa. And the sun - well, it's different. Not so strong, somehow. A touch smaller, redder. It doesn't burn me, that's for sure. And that was all I saw the first few times: then the nurse was telling me to rinse out and handing me a napkin.
"So I had to go back, of course. Next time I took good care to notice details - something flying high up, away over some hills, and the feel of the air, soft and dusty; kind of a cinnamon smell to it there is. And it's dry, so dry - never a cloud in the sky, you see, except sometimes a few wisps, pinkish sort of. No sign of any streams or rivers - I don't reckon it's rained there in years.
"And then I started to explore the place. Nothing seemed too far off, even the horizon looked to be a bit closer than it usually is. So I set off walking, and that was rum too. It was easy only difficult, if you take my meaning. Moving your feet in that place is almost effortless, but planting them in the right spot is harder, and I twisted my ankle badly putting my foot in a crack a couple of times before I got the hang of it. I headed roughly towards the hills I could see on the horizon. Thought they'd be close by, but I was wrong there. They must have been bigger than I thought they were, because I didn't reach them, not for a long time. I remember though, being impressed by the quiet. No people, no animals, except that flying thing I'd seen once, and there was no sound out of that. It was strange, but I grew to like it. Sometimes I was there and I'd spend an hour at a time sitting on a rock, staring at nothing, or letting sand run between my fingers. And then I'd find myself back in the old chair with the nurse looking at me in a queer way.
"And then one time something happened. I was walking towards the hills - they were much nearer now, you could see details in the rock faces - and away over to the left I could see dust rising, maybe blown by the wind, I thought. Only there was no wind. Then in front of the dust I could see something moving, a dark thing coming across the desert; getting nearer. There were sounds, too: a rumbling and a thudding, and now I could see what it was, it was a horse, a horse galloping in my direction. Well, that struck me and gave me a queer turn, I can tell you. I hadn't seen a blessed thing up until then - and now this. Scared me, it did. I remember crouching, looking for somewhere to hide maybe. Then I saw the next thing, and that knocked me for six - there was a man on its back. The nearer they got, the queerer it looked: the man was all in black, with a black cloth over his head and face like an Arab, and he was lying along the horse's neck and urging it on, and the horse going hell for leather across the red sand kicking up clouds of dust. They weren't coming towards me anymore, just aiming to pass me by, and as they got near I straightened up and shouted, something like 'Hi, you!' just to see what would happen, really. Well, the horse faltered, the man turned his head a little bit towards me, and then they were off again, faster than before if possible. Didn't go off in a straight line either, they veered over further and further towards the bottom of the hills, and all I could do was stand there and watch them go. The horse turned into a speck and then it was gone, the dust cloud settled and there was nothing to see anymore. I just waited, listening to that eerie silence, but nothing more happened. The sun shone as usual, the hills were there all red and brown and quiet, and I thought, best be getting over there. So I started out at a jog trot, but soon gave that up because it was rough going. I calculated a few more hours walk should do it."
Mr Shrigley paused at this point to put yet another humbug into his mouth. He crunched it vigorously, swallowed the fragments and continued his narrative.
"Took me a few more sessions in the old chair to reach the foot of those hills, it did. Lumme, I never knew it'd be so far! But it was worth the walk, believe me.
"I saw it at first from quite a way off, but couldn't make out what it was. It's made of the same stone the mountains are made of, so it's camouflaged you might say. A big tower, fifty, seventy feet high. Solid looking, like a castle keep, but different, couldn't put my finger on it at first, but then I noticed, no door that I could see, no battlements, all very plain. Built on the first of the foothills, like a watchtower. When I realised what it was, I was quite a ways off, and just sat down to look. No sign of the horse or his rider. But as I sat there staring at it, trying to puzzle everything out, there was a movement. Something waved, or bobbed up and then down again, behind the parapet at the very top. Not a sound came, but then I saw it again, like a sleeve or a flag flapping. I got up and went closer, and as I did I saw now that there was a window, just one, high up near the top. Very small, and dark inside by the looks of it, though you couldn't tell really. By now I was almost in the shadow of the thing, and I walked all round it to find the door. But there was nothing - nothing there, can you believe it? How you got into the thing was beyond me. Then I thought, maybe you didn't get into it: maybe it wasn't for people at all. So to give it one last go I went back to the side where the little window was, and I was just about to shout something - I don't know what, anything would have sounded daft in that place - when - when - she looked out."
Here he stopped, looking a little pale; he sucked in his breath and let it out again slowly. At that same moment, there was a hiss of steam and the train lurched into motion again.
"She was only in the window for a moment; a couple of seconds maybe. But I remember those two seconds like nothing else I've ever seen, re-live them in my head over and over. I don't know how old she was, young or middle-aged, I don't even remember the colour of her hair. It was the look on her face; I've not seen anything like it before or since. Fear was most of it, plain terror, but that wasn't all: desperation and longing and surprise and anguish all mixed up together. I'll never forget it. And then she disappeared and I was just standing there, except a second later I found I was just sitting there and they were asking me to spit into the basin.
"And that was last week: and I've been desperate to get back ever since. Got another appointment soon though. They've got to put me under again, I'm making sure of that. Lord, I love a sweet." He rustled his paper bag confidently.
"But I don't know what I'll do. I've got to get into that tower - simply got to. How? I just don't know. But I'll think of something."
The train faltered and slowed; there was a squealing as the driver applied the brakes. Mr Shrigley jumped to his feet and reached for his case.
"Here's my stop. Sorry to burden you with all that; but it was such a relief just to tell someone. And it can't go on too much longer, see. It just can't."
He was out of the door by now, and turning to me with a strange grimace. I looked, and saw that all his visible teeth were gleaming, perfect: false.
I tugged at the window, pulled it down and leaned out.
"Wait!" I cried. "What will you . . . ?"
But the platform was empty and he was gone.