“One must be possessed of the Devil to succeed in any of the arts.”
When darkness falls the Devil comes to Whitby.
As the sun fades, an old man sits writing in his study. He has lost track of time, though he knows from the light that it is evening and the day is almost spent. He has been sitting here for hours, his head bowed, spine arched from the back of the chair. The study is warm. The house quiet. The soft sound of pen against paper fills the room.
Outside the great bay windows, the seaside town of Whitby passes him by. Traffic backs up in the road; a line of brake-lights glaring like red eyes through his window. Sometimes, as now, the road is busy. Cars shudder and moan as they inch slowly forwards, exhaust fumes pouring into the cold. If he looks carefully, he can see figures in the drivers’ seats. Faceless shapes press against the car windows, their mouths long, eyes wide, limbs thin and hard from living. Life makes ghouls of most men, he thinks, and skeletons of the rest.
Dusk paints the vehicles orange and deep purple. The sea too catches the last colours of the day, the cold tips of its leaping waves silver and gold. It makes a magnificent sight in the evenings. From where he is sitting he cannot see those waves, but he knows that they are there, just over the hill, behind the Church of St. Mary. He walked there often enough with his old girl, before she passed. Pearl loved the sea. His knee still remembers the grainy dampness, from when he proposed to her on the beach almost fifty years ago. His eyes still remember the glimmer of the ring, so much like the shining tips of the waves.
“Sleep tight,” he says quietly. His breath is barely words. His fingers tighten around the pen, which flies faster down the page.
Outside, the shadows lengthen. The street begins to grow dark. The bay windows allow for light into his study, but there is little of it left. The old man stiffens in his seat, knowing without turning that soon the shadows will reach his chair and then they will not be shadows at all, but other things. It is the same every evening.
Each night the Devil wears a different shape.
The road is not always busy. Sometimes hours will pass without him seeing a single soul, except for the cats that stalk the streets. He has always been more of a dog person. Their last, Russell, was a haggard Highland Terrier. The dog had loved Pearl almost as much as he had. She had chosen Russell herself. He still hears the dog, sometimes, barking at the morning post, although he knows that is not possible.
He hears many things, though he does not hear the Devil when He comes.
The sun is a sliver over the rooftops, then it is gone. Darkness spreads through the room, followed by the cold that accompanies it, and for the briefest moment the old man pauses in his writing. Then the lamp on his desk flickers on. With a cavernous gurgle the radiator revives itself, a wave of warmth spilling into the study. Shadows flee across the walls from the lamplight, scuttling like vast beetles into the corners of the room.
He can feel the Devil standing over him. There is no reflection in the bay windows. He sees only himself at his desk, and the inside of the study reflecting in the blackness of the glass, and the weak, sporadic flashing of the Christmas lights in other gardens down the street.
Sea breath blows down his neck, accompanied by a voice.
His hand is a flurry of movement now. Words spill across the blank pages beneath him. The room begins to spin. He writes more than he has written all day. The words are not especially eloquent or sophisticated but they are honest and – he dares to think – beautiful.
The Devil is by his side now. He can see Him out of the corner of his eyes; a small, naked figure in the lamplight. Sensing He has been noticed, the Devil barks and begins lapping hurriedly at his jeans.
At first the old man flinches. He does not want to look to the figure by his chair but his eyes are drawn there nonetheless. Turning, he looks down. His face contorts, the pen slipping from his hand.
This is the shape the Devil has picked today.
She is not as he remembers her looking. Her hair is matted and wet. Eyes stare back at him from the bloated cushion of her face. Arms that had once been soft and dry are limp and pale, like two starved eels at her sides. She is how they found her, when they pulled her from the sea that cold December afternoon.
Grinning, Pearl licks faster at his legs; long, lapping motions revealing a fat, discoloured tongue. Two beetles tumble from the hollows of her mouth.
Snatching up his pen, he gives himself to the Devil.
Tears fill his eyes as he writes. This is not the hurried scribbling of before but careful, considered work. Sometimes the Devil comes as strangers, or friends he has not yet met. Once, Old Nick wore the skin of his mother, and it had been her, down to the flick of her hair, the age of her eyes, the humble pink of her cheeks. She had passed less than a week before and he could have hugged her and kissed her and spent the rest of forever lying next to her on the hard wooden floor of the study.
Every time the Devil visits, he feels. Sometimes he laughs. Mostly he cries. Always, the Devil drains him dry. Hell hath no fury like a man inspired.
Presently, he realises he is alone. He senses it is very late. The hush of the sea is quiet in his ears. Looking down, he stares at the pages below him, though he cannot bring himself to read them back just yet.
He wonders who is better off; the ghouls who live or the skeletons in their graves.
He rises slowly from the chair. His hands push back against the armrests. Bones crack as he straightens up, and again when he turns. Switching off the light he exits the study, pausing only to kiss a photo of his wife as he passes it.
“Merry Christmas,” he says, “Rest in Peace, Love, even if I can’t.”
Taking himself to bed he falls quickly asleep, and half-wakes only once that night, his eyes wet, to the whimpering of a dog, downstairs.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2012 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.