Delta Vega, planet of ice / that Kirk & Spock visited against advice / (Scottie has failed to beam them back twice)
they’re tied to a rock / bruised & shocked / up against the clock / shivering / acting tough but not delivering /
set phasers to defrost, says Kirk / with a smirk / just before a Drakoulia sets to work / with something like a giant spork / so totally brutally / that when Scottie / foul-mouthed and stroppily / checking his readings microscopically / chucks a handful of raw Trilithium / to jazz up his skanky tanks of Dilithium / and the transporter beams wail & warble / and the tractor beams treble & wobble / and the sliders redouble without any repetition of the earlier trouble / suddenly the transporter floor / is spattered with matter and assorted gore
the first lieutenant vomits into a bucket
fuck it, says Scottie / fetch us a mop / who’s next up for the captain’s job?
life’s like a high dive from a board
the crowd applauds
you do two pikes and a half tuck
hit the water slick as a duck
the judges deliberate
you score an eight
(all done scientifically:
aggregate score over degree of difficulty)
Parkinson’s disease has robbed Alan of facial expression, but from his sparkling eyes I can tell he’s very keen to tell me how he met his wife. Her pictures are everywhere in the flat, a studio portrait of a young woman leaning forwards in a serious, three-quarter pose; shots of her in a wedding dress; cuddling babies; making a speech; holding a hat on her head on the deck of a boat – all with a kind of Doris Day glow, and vastly outnumbering the various other family photos dotted about the place.
‘She died ten years ago,’ he says. ‘I just want to be with her now. Not in a creepy way. It’s just how it is.’
‘I can understand that.’
‘Do you want to know how we met? It’s a funny story. Have you time?’
I tell him I definitely want to hear it, but can he sit down first. ‘Because honestly, Alan – if I hadn’t been standing here with my wicket keeper’s mitts on you would’ve pitched head first into the bookcase. I can fetch whatever you need. Come on! Let me help you to a chair.’
‘Just a sec,now – just a sec,’ he says, turning stiffly on the spot and almost plunging backwards into a pile of records.
‘Whoa! Look – why not have a seat here? I’ll make you a drink and then we can talk about what to do next. And you can tell me how you met your wife.’
He seems to accept this, but instead of heading for the nearest sofa, leads me across the cluttered flat to a dangerously low Ottoman.
‘This’ll do,’ he says, shuffling carefully into position, and then, whilst he’s still miles away, unexpectedly launches himself backwards stiff as a puppet whose strings have been snatched up to throw it back in the trunk. He catches me off guard. I grab the front of his shirt to stop him whacking his head on the wall. The shirt makes an impressive ripping noise.
‘Don’t worry! Don’t worry!’ he says. ‘It’s a cheap old thing. I’ve got hundreds. I’ll just go fetch another…’
He starts trying to get up again. It’s a job to stop him.
* * *
What with one thing and another, Alan needs to go to hospital. Whilst we sit together waiting for the ambulance, he finally gets round to telling me the anecdote about his wife.
‘You wouldn’t think to look at me now, but back then I wasn’t entirely hopeless. I was studying architecture at university. A good friend of mine was doing medicine. C’mon Alan! he said. There’s a party at the local hospital. All the hot nurses will be there. Well I couldn’t say no to that, could I? Turns out it was a big old psychiatric hospital in the suburbs, which put me off a bit, but – well – hot nurses and all that. So we sneaked inside, and there was a long, long corridor, the kind of corridor you see in your dreams, that goes on forever. And coming down this corridor, floating towards us out of the light, were two of the most gorgeous nurses you’d ever seen in your life. One a redhead, the other blond. And we were both so dumbstruck we couldn’t do or say anything, we just sort of stepped helplessly to the side. Except there was fresh wax on the floor under the radiator, and I was wearing my shoes with the shiny soles. So I went flying arse over apex and ended up kicking the blond one in the rear. Two years later we were married. So whenever anyone asks me, How did you meet your wife? I tell them I was in a psychiatric hospital and I kicked one of the nurses.’
‘Who’s that trip-trip-trapping over my bridge?’
snarls a troll
with a twitch
and a shout
leaping up and out
onto the decking
to be collecting
‘It is I, PR Goat Gruff’
says a goat, looking glam
in the medallion of a ram
an astrakhan coat
and other things of equal note
his hooves covered in glittery tat
his horns pushed up through his bowler hat
‘I’ll gobble you up!’ snarls the troll
suddenly not looking certain at all
scratching his head, his arse,
‘I’m not supposed to let anyone past!’
‘Love it! Adorable!’ says PR goat.
‘You totally get my vote.
You’ve got a job and you do it.’
The troll shrugs
gives his wig a tug
‘I get through it
Some days better than others.
But I’ve got this fetish about udders.’
says the goat
leading the troll
over the moat
to the other side
where the goat confides
about politics & exit polls
banknotes & boltholes
security files & payrolls
loopholes, media controls
and the dead sea scrolls
‘where my Ts and Cs are writ!’
laughs the goat, quite a bit
‘What?’ says the troll, not getting it
Fast forward three goat years
The troll appears
leader of the government
‘Friends! Goats! Countrymen!’ he roars
as troll police lock all the doors
and he grabs the parliamentary mace
swinging it about the place
‘Whoever crosses me gets THIS in the face!’
‘That’s my troll!’ smiles PR goat
then exits down the Thames in a boat
I’m a troll / fol-de-rol
I’ll swallow you & your followers whole / I’ll feast on your tweets / your cosy cliques / your clicks / your likes / your go-pros on your mountain bikes / you crossed the bridge for the last time, mate / I’m the faceless demon waitin’ at the gate / the curious shadow on the camera plate / the psychopath on the cycle path / livin’ it large with the crazy laugh / hiding in the tall grass / on the dark side of the pass / yaaaasssss / I’m the creature beyond all knowing / feeding on the instagoats coming and going
I’m a troll / fol-de-rol
sipping warm milk from a bird-shaped bowl / that I hold / cold and anonymous / in poisonous claws / behind locked doors / busily working away at the keys / scrolling & scrawling obscenities / with inappropriate emojis / all over your stories / your tragedies / your memories / forget it! / don’t you get it? / I was born with a snout / for sniffing you out / I know the perfect combination of verbal abomination that’ll make you shout / it’s like a pig with truffles / I’ve got an instinct for anti-social scuffles / the irony is I’m highly empathetic / I just choose not to act on it / you know – you millennials make me laugh / you had no idea at the start / all the jeers & sneers you’d be hosting / when you published your site and started posting
I’m a troll / fol-de-rol
quietly playing my role / taking my toll / pushing your buttons with my buttons / just your average kind of sadist, really / your Nigel, Norman or Mavis Dearly / typing away with tea and scones / humming along to Norah Jones / my only, lonely aim in life / to seize the moment & twist the knife / as far below the line as I can reach / and then screech / and clap / and happily sit back / with a thumping heart / to wait for the weeping & wailing to start / and then / when it’s reached its peak / I’ll slowly extend a sneaky beak / and neatly / and very discreetly / drink deeply / from where the tears flow thickest & most sweetly
I’m a troll / fol-de-rol
Isla is sitting with her stork-thin legs up on a stool, watching telly. It’s another property programme, the kind where stressy couples are helped to find somewhere to live. I don’t know where this particular couple have gone – maybe to weep in the garden – but the experts, a man in a tailored beard and mohair coat, and a woman in primary colours and teeth so white they look like gum shields, are sauntering shoulder-to-shoulder down the hall, the man being enthusiastic about the coving, the woman scathing about the electrics.
‘Look at him!’ says Isla. ‘Who’d buy a house off him?’
‘I wouldn’t even buy a coat.’
‘My husband was handy with a screwdriver.’
‘He’d sort that place out in no time.’
‘Sounds like someone to know.’
‘That’s why I married him. One of the reasons. Now then. What have you come to do? More blood, I expect. Why’s everyone so interested in my blood? What’s so special about it?’
‘They just want to see how your kidneys are doing.’
‘My kidneys? I’m ninety-five. How d’you think my kidneys are doing?’
‘Quite. Still – you can always refuse. You don’t have to have these things done, Isla. Just so long as you understand what it is you’re refusing.’
‘Oh I understand alright. I understand all too well. Come on if you’re coming, then. You’ve got a job to do. I don’t want to get you in trouble.’
She bunches up her sleeve and stares at the telly whilst I set up.
‘What did you do before you retired?’ I ask her.
‘I was a writer, dear.’
‘Oh really? What did you write?’
‘They were called partworks. I don’t suppose you know.’
‘Isn’t it where you buy a magazine every month on a particular subject? And you get stuff with it, like bits of a model car or a boat or something, and you gradually put it all together, until by the end you’ve got a model of the Ark Royal that cost pretty much the same as the original.’
‘You’ve got it! A friend of mine did one about planes. You’d get a sweet little balsa wood version, which looked quite fun to chuck around outside but mine always crashed first time, so it was a bit of a swizz.’
‘Did you have a specialist subject?’
‘Not really. Fashion. Arts and Crafts. Hobbies, that sort of thing. Knitting. It paid the bills, and I liked digging around in the library. Ouch! That smarts!’
‘I thought you were supposed to say sharp scratch? I should know. I’ve watched enough hospital programmes.’’
‘I thought I’d get you whilst you were distracted.’
‘Well it didn’t work, did it?’
‘Maybe I should write something about nursing and you should read it.’
‘Every little helps.’
Isla’s friend June coo-ee’s, knocks and breezes in. She’s as emphatically made-up as the housing expert on TV, with orange lipstick, tan coloured foundation that ends in a line just below the chin, and hair that seems to stay pointing forwards when she turns to close the door behind her.
‘Just thought I’d pop by,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know you had company…’
‘I don’t,’ says Isla. ‘He’s taking blood.’
‘Oh. Well. That’s nice. I won’t get in your way.’
‘New blouse?’ says Isla, rolling up her sleeve and buttoning the cuff.
‘Yes! Do you like it, Isla? I got it at the market. I was worried it might look a bit hippyish. And I wasn’t sure about the fit. You can’t really try these things on there, can you? Not with everyone walking by.’
She smiles at me, like she’s just caught me walking by. I blush.
‘Paisley,’ says Isla.
‘Yes! That’s right!’ says June. ‘Gosh – don’t you know a lot about a lot? Isla used to be a writer,’ she says to me.
‘Yes. She was just saying.’
‘Persian,’ says Isla. ‘The pattern, I mean.’
‘I thought it was Scottish.’
‘That’s just where they started making them in the eighteen hundreds or thereabouts. The soldiers brought back shawls from the East Indies, and the Paisley weavers copied the design.’
‘Oh! How fascinating!’ says June, smiling at me so broadly her lipstick crackles. ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Have you still got the receipt?’ says Isla.
Seriously. Why do I watch films like The Innkeepers?
Maybe it’s the same principle as eating a hot chilli. You can’t exactly say you’re enjoying it halfway through. And you sweat a lot. But there’s a sense of achievement when the plate’s clean.
The thing is, I’m an easy target when it comes to ghost stories. I’m the markiest of all marks – the realist / atheist / humanist who blanches to the root when they see the shadow of a dressing gown back of the door.
I’m not saying The Innkeepers was the best spooky film I’ve seen (I’m making a distinction between horror and ghost films, although actually they’re on a sliding-violin scale of shiverity). I thought The Babadook was scarier, probably because there was a feeling the whole thing could have been a psychotic episode. Under the Shadow for the same reason (those two films being good companion pieces – or bad companion pieces, depending if you like the genre or not). TI was more like a mash-up of Clerks and The Conjuring. But this is just bravado of course. I was horrified most of the way through, and when it finished I thought that’s it, I’m not watching another ghost story. Until the next one.
So as a way of marking the event, I thought I’d run through a few points that occurred to me about The Innkeepers, and all the other films like it – more for me than anyone else, to get it clear in my head. Because if I ever found myself in a similar situation, or maybe a hyper-real dream where this sort of thing was going on, I’d instinctively know what to do and when to run (short answer: It’s never too soon to start running.)
- Don’t go down the basement.
- If ever you’re standing outside an old hotel that’s full of character and charming period detail, and you hear a chuntering soundtrack ease in, and then glissando violins – that’s probably a sign to go AirBnB.
- Working night shifts is bad for your mental health. Don’t be persuaded that it’ll give you plenty of time to work on ‘projects’ – especially if that project has anything to do with contacting the dead.
- If a retired actress checks in to your hotel, and twenty minutes later gets out a crystal pendulum and says she’s given up acting and moved into spiritualism, thank her politely for all those movies you liked her in and then GO BACK TO THE FRONT DESK.
- I’m serious about the basement.
- If an old man of few words appears at the front desk and asks to be put in room 323, even though you politely explain that the hotel is in the process of shutting down, that this is its last weekend of trading, and so all the rooms on the third floor are now closed, and the old man insists – really, be very firm on the matter. Say it’s a health & safety issue (which, BTW, it turns out it totally is), offer him a very nice room on the second, and if he still insists, give him the number of a motel on the edge of town run by the Bates family. He’ll fit right in there.
- If there’s a camera pointed at a rocking chair, and the lighting is moody, grainy, indigo &c, and the camera slowly moves in… that’s probably a good time to close your eyes and hum High on a hill there’s a lonely goatherd or something.
- Side note to point 8. Squinting doesn’t make it any less horrible. You have to shut your eyes the whole way. And sing louder.
- Okay. Let’s talk about the basement.
Basements are and always will be places of terror. It’s just the way it is. Conservatories are hot. Kitchens are busy. Bedrooms are more or less soporific. But basements are reserved for scenes of relentless domestic horror (the fact that some become ‘man caves’ only proves the point). You could design a basement to flood with light the moment you open the door. A disco ball and music start up. You could have a rule no-one is allowed down the basement in parties smaller than twenty, each party to be accompanied by a priest with a semi-automatic crucifix (and not just any priest – it has to be a priest with real-world experience of these things, someone who’s also a fully qualified counsellor, a black belt in Aikido, with a gnarly sense of humour, and crucially, a priest prepared to sacrifice themselves so you can make it back up the goddamn stairs). You could have all that and it’d STILL be the worst room in the house. Especially if there’s a boiler and lots of old junk. (BTW – never keep old junk in the basement. Just burn it or give it away. I mean seriously. It spooks the place up).
But if there is a basement, and you feel obliged to go down into it, THREE TIMES (even though a spiritualist with a crystal has SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU NOT TO), don’t be surprised the lights don’t work, and the door slams behind you, and the old guy’s there, and you fall down the stairs, and end up running and stumbling through loads of old basement junk (see what I mean about the junk?), and so on – well, what can I say?
- The takeaway from all this: DO NOT GO DOWN THE BASEMENT.