PART I: Cuckoos Hiding
Never let your guard down – that was Alice’s motto. For temptation was always hiding, waiting for the chance to ruin everything. If you didn’t keep your guard up, the next thing you knew, you had gained a stone in weight and the bosses weren’t so quick to remember your name. Those special projects you had worked so hard to be good at, suddenly started going to that girl in the office you really didn’t like very much, the one who was younger than you, perhaps a little prettier too; the one the bosses noticed was a stone lighter than you.
For breakfast, Alice ate fresh fruit and natural yoghurt.
In the hotel’s dining room, she glared across the breakfast table at her husband. Doug was incapable of understanding his wife’s concerns. He was of the opinion that when on holiday, work could get imperially buggered for guards were supposed to be let down – like the gates of Troy opening up for a big wooden horse. But Doug didn’t have to worry about the soldiers hiding inside that horse, because anyone invading his fortress would only find a tubby, pear-shaped man working alone on his computer in an office that used to be the spare bedroom in their two-bedroom house. The little Doug knew of office politics came from the many arguments he invariably lost with his decrepit printer that he should have replaced years ago.
For breakfast, Doug ate anything that could be fried.
Alice watched her husband shovel a large forkful of bacon into his mouth. He needed a shave. He needed a haircut.
“Are you enjoying that?” she asked across the table, which, unbeknownst Doug, really meant, “You’re as disgusting as the pig you’re eating.”
“Yep,” Doug replied, which, Alice knew all too well, simply meant “Yep.”
Doug took a gulp of tea, wiped grease and egg yolk from his chin, slavered ketchup over a fat sausage, and said, “They certainly put on a great spread, don’t they?”
Alice made no reply because she knew Doug didn’t need one. He forked the fat sausage, and, as he bit into it, began reading a pamphlet that promoted local activities to be enjoyed while holidaying at Odd Place by the Sea.
After a moment’s silence, Doug picked up the teapot to pour himself a third cup and offered to pour one for Alice too.
“No,” she said. “I’ll stick with fruit juice.”
“Come on,” Doug replied, “just one cup. You’re always complaining you’re tired. Some caffeine to wake you up?”
“No, really, I’m fine with fruit juice,” Alice said, but actually meant, “Shut your stupid, pig-eating face.”
And that was the trouble with Alice; she no longer told Doug her true feelings. Doug might’ve believed all was hunky-dory in their marriage, but the truth was his wife had grown tired of spelling everything out to her husband, tired of his complacent ways. She wanted Doug to sense the cracks in their relationship; she wanted him to realise for himself that she was no longer happy living a life where habit had forced love into silence. Doug thought this holiday to Odd Place by the Sea was just a holiday. He didn’t appreciate that it was a make-or-break package deal. Alice’s love for her husband had faltered, and she needed to know if he was willing to fight for their marriage.
“What are you looking at?” Doug was saying.
Alice checked herself. She had been staring into the middle distance, but when her eyes gained focus, she realised she was actually staring at a painting on the wall behind her husband.
She narrowed her eyes. “That painting,” she told Doug with a nod towards it.
Doug gave it a quick glance over his shoulder, shrugged, and then returned to his breakfast and pamphlet.
The oil painting was of a black and pointed tower rising out of the calm, grey sea, like a giant spearhead. There were birds flying around its tip. Rising from the table, Alice moved for a closer look. The birds flew around the tower in such great numbers they looked almost like a storm cloud.
“Don’t you think it’s beautiful?” Alice said.
Doug grunted through the noisy sounds of chewing and swallowing, which Alice understood to mean, “Don’t know. Don’t care.”
“It’s called Cuckoos Over West Spire,” Alice continued, and at once looked puzzled. “Funny choice of bird,” she mused. “Do cuckoos even like the sea? And they don’t flock like this, do they?”
“Hmm,” mumbled Doug.
Alice peered closer at the painting. “Wait a minute … They’re not cuckoos at all. They’re not even birds. They’re people with wings. Like tiny angels.”
“Crazy Golf!” Doug announced.
“There’s Crazy Golf down on the seafront.” He flapped the pamphlet in the air. “We should have a game after breakfast.”
Alice stared at her husband for a long moment. “Sure,” she said flatly. “Why not?”
Alice’s morning did not improve after breakfast. It rained and continued raining all day. Not only was Doug’s suggestion of Crazy Golf forced into abandonment, but they also spent most of the day in little tearooms, listening to the rain pattering against the windows. And this meant they had to talk to each other, their conversations full of hidden, ulterior meanings that Alice knew only she understood. They whiled away an uneventfully wet afternoon around the town of Odd Place by the Sea, and were back at the hotel, tucked up in bed, by eight o’clock that night.
Doug played a game on his Nintendo while Alice read.
“Good book?” Doug asked as he went to the bathroom around nine-thirty.
“Hmm,” Alice replied distantly.
Doug started peeing as noisily as a waterfall; a familiar sound that had come to irritate Alice immensely. How hard was it not to pee directly into the water?
“What’s it about?” he called.
“Stuff,” replied Alice.
“Sounds interesting,” Doug said as he jumped back into bed and continued with his game.
Actually, the book was interesting. Alice had found it in a little antiques boutique they’d drifted into that afternoon. It was leather-bound and old, its author unknown, and it concerned the ancient history of the local area. The Myths and Legends of Odd Place by the Sea, it was called. And, as Alice was discovering, the people of Odd Place by the Sea held onto some very curious superstitions.
She didn’t stop reading until she finished the last page, and that was long after Doug had rolled over and started snoring. Her mind alight with myths and legends, Alice lay staring at the darkened ceiling for a further hour until she finally fell asleep, and dreamed of stealing cuckoo feathers from a dark tower in the sea.
* * *
Unsurprisingly, Doug dreamt he was Super Mario.
He awoke to find himself alone in bed. Nothing unusual in that, Doug knew, for Alice was always up before him in the morning. After a shower, he got dressed and went downstairs, expecting to find Alice waiting for him in the dining room. She was not there. He tried calling her mobile, but only succeeded in reaching her voicemail.
“Hi, Honey,” Doug said. “I’m having breakfast. Umm … I’ll try you again after,” and he hung up.
It was later in the morning than Doug had realised, and the other guests had evidently already breakfasted. Alone in the dining room, he filled a plate with the lukewarm remnants of the greasy breakfast buffet, and then took a seat at his table.
“Oh, a late arrival!”
It was Mrs Greyspace who had spoken, the owner of the hotel. With a tea towel draped over her shoulder, she was pushing an empty trolley for collecting dirty crockery and cutlery into the dining room.
“You’re lucky,” she continued. “I was just about to clear away. I’ll get you a pot of tea, shall I?”
Doug smiled appreciatively, and Mrs Greyspace disappeared again.
The hotel was called Ocean View House, and it was situated on the seafront. It was a small establishment, nothing like a grand five-star hotel; in fact Ocean View Housewas so laidback and relaxed that it was the kind of place that couldn’t be bothered to seek any kind of star rating at all. It was more like a homely Bed & Breakfast in an old Victorian house, and, were it not for the sign outside, might have been overlooked entirely.
It was a quiet place in a quiet seaside town; the perfect location, Alice would say, for searching one’s soul for answers to the kinds of questions that Doug couldn’t be bothered to ask.
Doug paused as he coated his breakfast with salt and ketchup.
Lately, Alice had seemed so distant. Doug knew the pressures of her job often got to her, and he had hoped that this holiday might help her relax somewhat, forget the stresses of the real world. Just for a while. But for so long now Alice had been acting as though she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Doug couldn’t remember the last time he and his wife had laughed together, canoodled at the movies, shared an ice cream, talked until the early hours … He couldn’t even remember the last time they had argued.
That was it, Doug decided, resolutely: he needed to get Alice to open up, confess her troubles, and then he would find a way to help her back to normal. He would devise some cunning plan as soon as he had eaten breakfast.
When Mrs Greyspace returned with a steaming teapot and jug of milk, Doug enquired through a mouthful of sausage, “Have you seen my wife?”
“Your wife …” Mrs Greyspace looked distant for a moment. “Oh yes, I think she left a message. Hold on.” She turned to face the door and shouted for her husband. “Reg? Reg!”
“Room twelve! Did she leave a message!?”
“What did she say!?”
“Gone to West Spire!”
“Oh, that’s right,” Mrs Greyspace said to Doug. “She’s gone to West Spire.”
Doug swallowed a mouthful of tea. “Where?”
“West Spire. You know—” Mrs Greyspace nodded at something behind Doug.
He turned and saw a painting hanging on the wall. It was called Cuckoos Over West Spire, and showed a black tower rising from the sea with a flock of birds flying around its tip. Hadn’t Alice said something about this painting at breakfast the day before?
Mrs Greyspace said, “That’s where she’s gone.”
“Oh,” said Doug. “It’s a real place, then?”
“Oh yes. It’s just along the coast a-ways.”
Doug peered closer at the painting, especially at the birds. A vague recollection stirred of Alice saying they weren’t cuckoos at all. “Are those angels flying around?”
“No.” Mrs Greyspace said flatly. “They’re cuckoos.” Her face became stony. “Make no mistake about it.”
Doug was surprised by her sudden change in demeanour. “Oh,” he said, wondering if he had said something to upset her. “I see.”
“There’s a steam engine runs along the seafront to West Spire.” The hotel owner gave him an appraising look. “If you want to go, that is.”
“Yes, I do.”
“As you like.”
“Don’t mention it.” Mrs Greyspace pursed her lips. “Now, I don’t mean to hurry you, but I need to get the dining room ready for lunch.”
She strode from the room, and Doug stared after her. He suddenly didn’t feel like eating his cold breakfast.
Outside, another rainy day had arrived.
The steam engine to and from West Spire ran three times a day: morning, noon and evening. It was a small, one carriage train, driven by a portly fellow called Archie, who had a round face and ruddy cheeks, along with a habit of continuously trying to loosen his neckerchief. A return ticket cost Doug two pounds, and he was the only passenger on the midday trip.
Doug settled down in his seat, intent on using the journey as time to think up a way in which he could ease his wife’s problems; but the chugging of the train, the tapping of rain on the window, and the distant rush of the cold, grey sea, quickly lulled him into a nap. He stayed asleep until Archie prodded him awake. Drooling and crumpled on the seat, Doug stared up at the engine driver, confused for a moment as to where he was and what he was doing.
Archie pulled at his neckerchief and announced, “Last stop.”
“Oh,” said Doug, “we’re here already?” He looked out the window at the grey sea. A dark, pointed tower rose from the waters in the near distance. It looked just like the one in the painting hanging in Ocean View House. “So that’s West Spire, eh?”
“That’s right,” Archie replied. “Come on, I’ll take you across.”
Taking Doug across entailed a short ride on a small and rickety boat, propelled by a rather weak outboard motor. The rain had lessened to a fine drizzle, and, although the sea was calm enough, the flimsy boat rocked and swayed Doug into a bout of motion sickness. To take his mind off his queasy stomach and the nauseating smell of oil from the puttering outboard, he examined the height of West Spire. It seemed an ominous place that reminded him of the dark tower that belonged to an evil lord he had once fought in some computer game or another.
The closer the boat sailed to West Spire, the more the structure seemed to loom. On its smooth, black surface, there were no windows or carvings at all. Why would Alice want to visit such a grim place? Did it somehow represent her state of mind?
The boat came alongside a small promontory at the base of the tower, and Archie motioned for Doug to disembark.
“I’ll be back at five,” the engine driver-cum-boatman said. “But I don’t hang about, so if you want to get home tonight, don’t be late.”
And then, without so much as a smile or a wave, Archie puttered back towards shore, leaving Doug alone on the promontory.
He leaned back and stared up at West Spire. With a puffing of his cheeks, he climbed the steps to the entrance: huge double doors as black as the rest of the tower, and they were already open a crack. Doug pushed his way in.
He had expected admission kiosks, information desks, coffee bars, gift shops, and floor after floor of attractions with milling tourists; but the interior of West Spire was deserted, gloomy and utterly hollow. The dark, circular wall rose and narrowed conically until disappearing into the shadows high above. From what Doug could see, arched alcoves were recessed into the wall, here and there. At ground level, to Doug’s left, there was a single wooden door. It was closed.
As strange as Doug found West Spire, stranger still was the absence of other people, most notably his wife.
“Hello!” he called, and was stunned that in such a hollow place his voice created no echoes whatsoever. “Alice?”
He flinched as the door to his left opened. A figure appeared, dressed in a hooded robe much like a monk’s habit. The figure approached, and although Doug couldn’t make out a face in the hood’s shadows, he decided it was a man by the way he walked.
“Can I help you?” the man said, in a quiet voice.
At first, Doug didn’t reply. There was something in the man’s voice that rang a faint bell of distant memory. The man was a similar height and build to Doug, and stood surprisingly straight even though he clearly carried some deformity on his back – a hump, Doug reasoned – that pushed the habit up around his shoulders.
Realising that he had been staring, Doug said quickly, “I’m meeting my wife here. She’s a slim lady with brown hair, not very tall – have you seen her?”
“Hmm,” said the man. “Perhaps you could give me her name?”
“Ah, yes. I believe I know the lady you mean.” Again the man’s voice tickled Doug’s memory. “Please, if you’ll follow me.”
He led the way to the door from which he had emerged, and stood to one side, allowing Doug entrance to the room beyond. Doug stepped inside and frowned. The room was as gloomy and empty as the main building he had just left. As he turned to the man with a questioning expression, Doug was met by the door closing in his face, followed by the telltale clunk of a key turning in a lock. He tried the door anyway. It wouldn’t budge.
“Hey!” Doug shouted. “What are you doing?”
But there was no response other than the low thud of bigger doors closing and a bigger lock being fastened. Realising that the man, whoever he was, had trapped him inside West Spire all alone, Doug’s mind began sprinting towards full panic.
And that was the moment he heard the Sound.
PART II: Cuckoos Abroad
Alice returned home to the city and settled down to life with New Doug. He was a vast improvement on Old Doug. He was clean and tidy and showered regularly. He shaved every morning, and used products to smarten-up his hair. He listened when Alice spoke; he was sympathetic to her concerns, and took an interest in her passions. With a healthy diet and daily exercise, he slimmed down to a well-sculpted physique that he waxed of unsightly body hair; and regular use of a sun-bed turned his pasty skin to golden-brown. Last thing at night, he told Alice he loved her; first thing in the morning he woke her with the gentlest of kisses and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. As for the sex in between … Alice didn’t know where New Doug found the energy, but it was verygood energy.
As a result, Alice’s work life improved. She became more focused and determined than ever, while at the same time adopting a more relaxed attitude towards colleagues. She became popular in the office, helpful with advice, open to suggestions – even with the girl she did not like very much; the one who was younger than her, and perhaps a little prettier, too. With Old Doug gone, an improved Alice emerged, a less ruthless Alice. Her obvious people skills drew her to the attention of the bosses, who gave her that well-deserved promotion to manager. Alice’s life had at long last reached a state of perfection, and she had West Spire to thank for it.
Only once did Alice and New Doug argue. It was a strange conflict of opinions that occurred one evening while he washed the dishes after dinner, and she read a magazine at the kitchen table.
Alice said, “We should go away this weekend. Just the two of us.”
“Sure,” said New Doug. He looked over his shoulder and gave his wife a smile of champions. “Sounds a fantastic idea.”
“Where shall we go?”
“How about you decide?”
For Alice, her husband had made yet another excellent suggestion, and she pondered over a suitable location to spend a weekend. She clicked her fingers. “I know, what about Odd Place?”
By the sink, New Doug visibly stiffened. “What?”
“You know, Odd Place by the Sea. It’s such a nice little town, but we hardly saw any of it last time.”
“I said no!” New Doug smashed a plate on the kitchen floor to emphasise his refusal. “I can’t go back there,” he growled.
“Okay,” Alice said slowly, startled. “It was only a thought.”
New Doug’s smile returned to his face. “That’s great,” he said as he cleaned up pieces of plate from the floor. “Why don’t you find somewhere else? Go and have a think about it while I make you a cup of green tea.”
And they never spoke of Odd Place by the Sea again.
* * *
The Sound wasn’t exactly music; there was no melody or rhythm, nor could the instrument upon which it was played be identified. It was a chime, or a chord – strummed or hammered or blown – repeated, never altering, and it came from somewhere distant.
Each time the Sound rang, the sweeter it was to Old Doug’s ears. It seemed to call to him, to fill him with a desire to hear it again. So content was he to sit in the empty room inside West Spire and listen to the Sound that he even forgot to think of Alice.
Time passed and Old Doug sat in dreamy contentment. So deep and encompassing was his state that he did not register the itch on his shoulder blades at first. But, attuned, it seemed, with the distant Sound, the itch grew more irritating with each chime, until it cut through Old Doug’s dreamy state, and, maddeningly, always remained just out of reach of his scratching fingers. The itch soon became a constant ache that flared painfully to the pulses of the Sound. Old Doug groaned and wept as nodules swelled on his shoulder blades and grew into long appendages that prickled with fire as feathers sprouted from them.
Not until the Sound had encouraged the wings on Old Doug’s back to reach maturity did the door to the room unlock.
It was not to escape West Spire and return to the world he had known that dominated Old Doug’s thoughts. When he exited the room and spread his wings to their full length for the first time, it was finding the source of the Sound that he most desired. Leaping into the air, and spiralling upwards, he flew higher and higher inside the dark tower, up into the shadows and beyond, until it seemed that surely the inside of West Spire must be taller than the outside.
On occasion, Old Doug stopped to rest his wings, perching on the ledges of alcoves in the wall; and there he found food waiting, strange fruit both like and unlike those that he knew – blue oranges, silver bananas, black apples – and he ate them all until his hunger was sated. When the Sound called to him again, he spread his wings and leapt into the air once more.
Upwards his journey continued, until, at long last, he reached West Spire’s highest point and could go no further. There, he found a wooden door on the back wall of the last alcove. The Sound, more sweet and powerful now than ever, was coming from beyond it.
Folding his wings upon his back, Old Doug approached the door, and pressed an ear against it. The Sound vibrated the wood, and these vibrations entered Doug’s head and induced dreams of distant places.
He saw cities of mist, high in the clouds, inhabited by sky spirits who waged war on the stone giants dwelling in the mountains below. He stood upon beaches of glass dust watching monsters the size of blimps breaking the surface of the ocean before falling and sinking into the depths once more. He found treasure hidden in jungles of trees that fed on flesh and harvested knowledge. He walked grassy plains that stretched further than the eye could see, where creatures made of earth lived in burrows beneath the hills. He rode mammoth animals across desert plains in search of water; and he visited dark palaces carved into the faces of obsidian cliffs.
With all these dreams and visions, the Sound beckoned to Old Doug, called to him, promised adventures of love and courage, wonders and perils. But fear stayed Old Doug’s hand, and he did not open the wooden door to reach the source of the Sound. Every instinct told him to do so, that he wanted nothing else; yet, deep in his heart, his fear dictated that he could not pass through this door alone. And with a sudden misery that could only come from loneliness, Old Doug remembered his wife.
* * *
Every day when Alice returned home from work, a nutritious meal had been prepared for her. If there was housework to be done, she never had to lift a finger. The television only showed her favourite programs, and the radio was always tuned to her kind of music. Any bill that needed to be paid, or errand that needed running, was already taken care of. Her decisions and demands were always met with unswerving agreement, even when she knew she was being unreasonable. In the eyes of New Doug, Alice could do no wrong.
After a perfect year in a perfect life with a perfect husband, Alice experienced a strange phenomenon. Searching the bookcase for a good novel to read, she came across her copy of The Myths and Legends of Odd Place by the Sea. With a wry smile, she slipped it out. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she purchased this old, leather-bound book, and she owed it so much; but when Alice opened it, she found the pages blank. Every single word had been entirely erased. Then, as she stood bewildered, the book disintegrated to fine dust that slipped through her fingers and settled on the floor like ashes from an urn.
And it was while staring incredulously at the dust still on her hands that Alice became disturbed by an altogether different sensation. Something was missing, something that used to be in the house, but wasn’t there anymore. Whatever it had been, it had left behind the Silence.
The Silence became more acute with each passing day, and Alice began to feel it prickling on her skin. She felt as she did when important work had been left half-finished for the weekend; or when she spoiled herself with an indulgent meal at an expensive restaurant, but had forgotten to order an Irish coffee after the sweet. The Silence tapped at her brain as though reminding her of things incomplete. Try as she might, Alice could not put her finger on the reason for its being in the house.
The day arrived when the Silence became such a maddening irritant that Alice could stand it no more, and she became obsessed with discovering its source. Alice’s search began downstairs, but the Silence was not to be found in the kitchen or the dining room; nor was it present in the lounge or small, downstairs toilet. She felt she was growing warmer when she climbed the stairs, but found no joy in the master bedroom or bathroom. Not until Alice stood outside the spare bedroom did she sense the place from which the Silence radiated.
The spare bedroom served as New Doug’s office. Only when Alice opened the door did she realise that she had not entered this room since returning from Odd Place by the Sea over a year earlier. New Doug sat with his back to the door working on a computer. His desk was tidy, and his papers were well organised. There were no stacks of dirty plates; no mugs half-filled with cold, mouldy tea; no stale smell that was crying out for a window to be opened. The office was immaculate.
A click sounded, followed by a low hum. Alice looked at the printer that sat beside the computer. Its lights flashed and a single sheet of paper slid onto its tray, smoothly and without problem.
“You’ve bought a new printer,” Alice said.
“Yes,” New Doug replied.
“What happened to the old one?”
“It didn’t work properly.” New Doug gave his wife a dazzling smile. “I threw it away.”
Alice continued to stare at the new printer. The old one had been the first and only printer that Old Doug had ever owned. It had been dysfunctional for years, but he refused to give up on it, even though he was continuously shouting at it, kicking it for screwing up sheets of paper and smearing the print. That printer was like his best friend, Old Doug used to say, and they had an understanding. Alice would joke back that given the way he smelt, the printer was probably his only friend.
She began laughing. New Doug laughed with her, even though he couldn’t possibly know what Alice found so funny.
“Shall I make you a cup of green tea?” he asked, wiping tears from his eyes.
“No. Thanks.” Alice sobered. She chewed on her bottom lip as she finally understood the source of the Silence.
“Are you feeling all right?” New Doug asked, with the perfect measure of concern.
Alice stared at the printer again. “I have to go on a business trip,” she lied. “Tonight. I have to go on my own, I’m afraid. Is that okay with you?”
“Of course it is.” New Doug didn’t question his wife’s announcement, or ask where she was going. He smiled again and nodded understandingly. “Shall I pack you some sandwiches for the journey?”
Alice drove through the night. The Silence followed her from the house, as if it had infected her, embedded itself into her head, like an eerie emptiness that could not be filled no matter how loud she turned up the radio. It urged her on, forced her foot down harder on the accelerator pedal, and she did not stop – even for toilet breaks or refreshments – until she arrived at Odd Place by the Sea sometime after dawn.
She found a parking space on the seafront, close to the little station from which the steam engine ran alongside the beach. The engine was resting beside the platform. There was no one in sight. Ensuring she had a clear view of the station, Alice sat at a window table in a café on the opposite side of the street. Alone with the Silence, she sipped an espresso.
She was half-way through her third cup when a man arrived at the station. Her heart skipped a beat as she watched him climb into the steam engine’s driver’s compartment. The Silence flared in Alice’s head as she left the café and ran across the road.
Archie, the engine driver, pulled at his neckerchief as she approached. “Hello there,” he said. The expression on his round and ruddy face suggested he recognised Alice from somewhere. “What can I do for you today?”
Alice smiled anxiously. “One ticket to West Spire, please.”
Archie had to wake Alice when they reached their destination. She had been dreaming of the Silence as a void of nothing that made her forget who she was. Out of the window, in the near distance, she saw the dark and pointed tower of West Spire rising from the sea.
“Come on,” Archie said. “I’ll take you across.”
The sun was shining in a blue sky, and the sea was clear and calm as the little boat puttered towards West Spire. As soon as the vessel touched the promontory at the tower’s base, Alice disembarked and headed for the entrance. She barely heard Archie saying that he would be back at midday for the return trip, and she pushed through the tower’s huge double doors.
“Hello?” she called to the shadows of the hollow interior. She remembered the lack of echoes, but this time they seemed to deepen the Silence in her head. “Is anyone here?”
Alice flinched as the door to her left opened, and a figure wearing a hooded cloak emerged. Although a face was hidden by the depths of the hood, Alice judged the figure was a woman by her build and the way she walked towards her. This was proved correct when the figure reached her and said, “Can I help you?”
Alice didn’t reply immediately. There was something in the woman’s voice’s that rang a faint bell of distant memory. The woman was a similar size to Alice, and stood surprisingly straight, even though she clearly carried some deformity that gave her two humps on her shoulders.
Realising that she was staring, Alice quickly gathered herself, saying, “I left a man here, some time ago. My husband.”
“Hmm,” said the woman. “What’s his name?”
Alice’s eyes became pensive. “Old Doug.” She smiled sadly. “You can’t mistake him. He doesn’t shave as often as he should, and his hair always looks as if it needs a cut … or just a good combing would do.” Alice chuckled. “He’s round about the waist with narrow shoulders. He looks like a pear.”
“Old Doug,” said the woman. “Yes, I believe I know the gentleman in question.”
Alice snapped out of whatever reverie had gripped her. “Oh. Good. I need to see him. I read this book, you see. It told me what to do, but I think I made a mistake.”
“I understand,” said the woman.
Alice’s face brightened, but then clouded. “Only …” She bit her bottom lip. “Only there’s the problem of New Doug. He’s still in my house, and the Silence is driving me mad.”
“Don’t worry about that, madam,” said the woman in her voice that was somehow so familiar. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Most certainly. I’ll go to him as soon as I’m able. Now, if you’d like to follow me.”
Alice was led to the room from which the woman had emerged. Alice’s heart raced; just to hear the sound of Old Doug’s voice again would surely overcome the Silence in her head. But when Alice entered the room, she found it utterly empty, and suddenly the woman had closed the door and locked her in.
“Hey!” Alice shouted. “What’s going on?”
There was no reply. Alice tried the door, but no matter how hard she pulled and shook, it would not open. She heard the heavy thud of much bigger doors being closed, followed by the low clunk of a much bigger lock. With tears springing into her eyes, Alice realised that the woman, whoever she was, had trapped her inside West Spire, leaving her all alone. Her breath became short. Alice headed towards blind panic.
And that was the moment when the Silence was interrupted by the distant ringing of the Sound.
When Old Alice’s wings reached maturity, she found the door to the room unlocked. She rushed out, leaping into the air, rising up into West Spire’s shadowed heights. Not one thought did she spare for escaping the dark tower; her sole desire was to find the source of the Sound.
Up and up Old Alice flew, much higher than she thought she would be able to go, and she kept on rising and rising. She rested in alcoves along the way, where she found strange fruit to eat. Always beckoned by the Sound, Old Alice’s wings carried her upwards, until she could go no further, and she discovered a wooden door on the back wall of the last alcove. The Sound originated from beyond this door.
Old Alice pushed her ear against the wood, and just for a moment dreams and visions of distant places danced and swirled inside her head – but only for a moment. Fearful of what she saw, of what she heard, Old Alice wrenched her ear from the door. She covered her mouth with her hands and backed away. Though she might desire what lay on the other side, though the Sound promised so many wonderful things, it also terrified her.
“I’m too scared to go through, as well,” said a voice.
Old Alice spun around.
A man hung in the air, held aloft by the slow beating of his wings. His face was unshaven, his hair messy, and his pear-shaped body was as naked as Old Alice’s.
“Doug,” she whispered, and he smiled.
She spread her wings and soared from the alcove, colliding with her husband, covering his face with kisses. And above West Spire’s shadowy depths, they made love.
Afterwards, they lay entangled on the alcove floor, listening to the Sound which came from beyond the wooden door.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Doug said.
“But somehow terrible,” Alice added. “What do we do next?”
As if in reply, Doug stood up and helped his wife to her feet.
“Together?” he whispered.
Alice nodded. “Together.”
Hand-in-hand, they approached the door. The Sound seemed sweeter than ever, eager to welcome them. Their hands clasped, Doug and Alice pushed the door open and spread their wings.