Celia and Harold
It was St Valentine’s Day and I’d been on the train for five hours. My senses were numb, my throat was parched, and the reports I’d been immersed in since leaving London threatened to induce a coma.
As the train rolled into Midwick, I closed my laptop and put on my raincoat.
It was a dull little town, built on the sides of a valley and cut in two by the railway and a river. Terraced houses ribboned the streets. Next to the station, an abandoned linen mill sat like a carcass with its bones picked bare.
The guard wasn’t happy about stopping in Midwick. ‘We usually roll right on through,’ he declared. ‘Never any reason to stop.’
‘I have to get to Nether Willows,’ I told him. Normally that would have involved a change at Gilton Minor but the station there was closed for repairs. Going via Midwick added hours to my journey but I had no choice.
No one else got off and the train rolled on just as soon as it could.
Grey drizzle, so fine as to be barely more than mist, greeted me.
I checked my watch against the station clock. The timepieces agreed I had two hours and seven minutes until my next connection. Time enough for a leisurely lunch.
In lieu of a buffet, the station boasted a windowless waiting room with a coffee machine and a wooden bench. I decided to find a pub.
The first thing I noticed was the barfly perched on his stool. He was hunched over the bar, beer in one hand, chin resting on the other. All the gloom in that dingy room seemed to emanate from him.
The landlord stood on the other side of the bar, drying a pint glass. He was a stout fellow with a ruddy face and mutton-chop sideburns. There was no one else in the pub, but that suited me just fine. I was after a drink, not company. So why I sat on the stool next to the barfly, I’ll never know.
As the landlord poured me a pint of Pudfrugger, my body language made it plain I wasn’t one of life’s listeners. Some men keep their sorrows to themselves, but the barfly didn’t look the sort. And I wasn’t about to give him reason to think he could unburden his soul on me.
After handing me my change, the landlord retreated to his back room, leaving me alone with old misery guts. I looked around at all the empty tables and unoccupied chairs. Over by the window was the least gloomy spot. Through the rain-drizzled glass, I would have a fine view of the tenements and alleyways of Midwick.
But the barfly made his move before I could make mine. ‘You’ve not seen her,’ he said. ‘Pray you never do.’
‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ I said, patting my laptop and nodding in the direction of the window. ‘I have to get this work done before the train to Dymthrop arrives.’
The barfly snorted. ‘Forget Dymthrop. All that matters is that you get out of Midwick—and fast. Or you’ll be as doomed as the rest of us.’
He turned towards me and I saw the circular scar below his eye. It was about a centimetre in diameter and looked angry and fresh.
‘Take a good look,’ he said. ‘Get used to this face. Because unless you’re luckier than me, you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time with it.’
It sounded like a threat. The fact I didn’t understand what he was talking about made it no less menacing.
I looked at my watch. ‘Dear lord! I hadn’t realised the time. I have to be going, or I’ll miss my train.’
As I headed for the door, the barfly called after me. ‘That’s it! Run, mister. And keep on running till you can’t run no more.’
The rain was distilled essence of Midwick: grey, grim and oppressive.
Head down, laptop tucked beneath my coat, I hurried towards the station. Roadside gutters guided rain and litter into the sewers. I jumped over a child’s tricycle.
With each step I took, the barfly’s advice to get out of Midwick sounded more and more sage. Everything about the town seemed designed to grind a man’s soul to dust.
Get the next train, I told myself. Go anywhere.
A man stepped out of an alleyway. I stopped suddenly to keep from ploughing into him.
It was the barfly. He must have taken a shortcut from the pub.
‘Go away,’ I told him. ‘I don’t want to know.’
He stepped meekly aside and let me hurry on.
When I got to the station, there he was again. Standing on the platform, a plastic cup in his hand. He blew on the cup’s contents, causing a small cloud of steam to rise and dissipate.
Pretending not to see him, I turned my attention to the destination board. The next train was in an hour. It wasn’t going to Dymthrop but it would get me out of Midwick.
On the way to the pub, I’d noticed a small café. Tea and bacon sandwiches would see me through the next hour. And if the barfly bothered me there, I’d have a word with the owner.
Outside the station, I looked back and saw the barfly still on the platform, still with a cup in his hands. But when I entered the café, he was at a table with a mug of tea in front of him.
He gave me the briefest of glances before taking out a hip flask and tipping some of its contents down his throat. The scar on his face seemed to grow angrier.
There was no one else in the café. Selecting a table as far from the barfly as possible, I sat facing his back and waited to be served.
From his coat pocket, the barfly produced a pink envelope decorated with a glitter star. He opened it and took out a card which he stood on the table. The front of the card showed a teddy bear holding a red rose. Be My Valentine, said the slogan.
‘Bloody women,’ he uttered. His shoulders heaved up and down. He let out a sob and cried, ‘Why, Celia? Why?’
That was it. I wasn’t going to sit around watching a grown man wallow in abject self-pity. Especially not on St Valentine’s Day.
I took my laptop and went.
Returning to the pub, I was only mildly surprised to find the barfly back in position on his stool.
My initial inclination was to about face and find some place else. But the barfly knew this town and all its short-cuts. If he was determined to dog me, there was little I could do about it.
My only sensible course seemed to be to ignore the fellow. I certainly wasn’t going to let him drive me out of the pub a second time.
The landlord was over by the fireplace, polishing a brass horse. ‘Be with you in a second, sir,’ he said without turning around.
I stood at the end of the bar and wondered what was coming next. There was something not right about Midwick, something beyond the fact that one of its inhabitants was stalking me.
The sound of a door being opened caught my attention. When I saw the barfly’s twin emerge from the toilet, things suddenly made an annoying kind of sense. I hadn’t been bumping into the same man! There were two of them, each with the same features and the same clothes. They’d even gone so far as to sport the same damned scar.
But why put all that effort into playing a practical joke on a stranger? Wasn’t there anything better to do in Midwick?
The twin sat on the stool next to the barfly and took out a pink envelope with a glitter star. ‘I suppose you got one of these,’ he said, dropping the envelope on the bar.
‘I tore it up,’ said the barfly.
‘She’s a cow, isn’t she?’
‘A bitch. Evil through and through.’
‘When I saw she’d sent me a valentine card, I thought she was trying to make peace. That maybe she wanted to talk things through.’
‘Yeah. Same here.’
‘Did yours have the poem?’
‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Verrucas aren’t wanted. And neither are you.’
‘She didn’t use to be so vicious.’
‘She’s not the girl she was when I first met her.’
‘That’s for sure.’
The barfly knocked back the remains of his beer. ‘Tell you what, Harold. I’ve some whisky back at my place. What say we go get drunk?’
‘Sounds good to me, Harold.’
As the twins headed for the door, the landlord arrived behind the bar. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting. What will it be, sir?’
‘A pint,’ I replied. ‘And a packet of crisps.’
‘Right you are.’ The landlord set about pouring me a pint of beer. ‘You staying in town long?’
‘No longer than I have to.’
‘Very wise, sir. Very wise.’
I took my beer and crisps over to the window table. The rain had stopped and a break in the clouds allowed the sun to bless Midwick with a modest amount of sunshine.
As I sat down, I saw a car go by. I could have sworn it was driven by the barfly or his twin.
I fired up my laptop, opened my crisps and swigged some beer.
Across the road, a front door opened. The barfly stepped out and hurried off down the hill. A moment later, he came out of the house next door and headed in the opposite direction.
Just as he disappeared from view, he walked into the pub.
So there were three of them! Identical triplets on a mission to take the rise out of strangers.
‘Afternoon, Harold,’ said the landlord. ‘Haven’t seen you for a while.’
Oh, ha bloody ha, I thought.
‘I’ve been teaching myself to meditate,’ said Harold, propping himself on the bar with his elbows. ‘I’m trying to regain my inner peace.’
‘Is it working?’
‘I thought so. Until this morning.’ Harold produced yet another heart-adorned envelope. ‘Found this on my door mat. The bitch just won’t leave me alone.’
‘Looks like you’ve all got one.’ The landlord pointed to the envelope recently deposited on his bar.
‘Why can’t she let us be?’
‘Try to move on, Harold. Forget about her.’
‘How can I, Charlie? Everything I do or see reminds me of her. I’m never going to get her out of my head. Never!’
I took a handful of crisps and crunched them loudly to block out the conversation. The beer was warm and malty, just the way I like it.
Wanting to distract myself, I turned to my laptop and delved into sales reports, profit projections and product specs. I was vaguely aware of others entering the pub, of drinks being ordered, of conversations building up and petering out. But I paid no heed to my surroundings. Until my beer ran out.
Clutching my empty glass, I started towards the bar and took two steps before stopping dead in my tracks.
There were about twenty other people in the pub. Three were propping up the bar; the rest sat in small groups. And all of them were identical.
That was it. I’d had enough of Midwick and its strange inhabitants. I was getting the hell out.
As I approached the station, I could see someone standing on the platform. Whether it was the same person as before, I had no way of telling.
I checked my watch. The next train was due in twenty minutes.
For a brief moment, I considered waiting outside the station. But I didn’t want to run the risk—no matter how small—of missing the train. Come hell or high water, I was going to be on it when it rolled out of Midwick. And in the meantime, if the guy on the platform tried anything, he’d get a taste of my fist. But I needn’t have worried. When I got to the platform, the guy was standing at its edge, clutching a pink envelope and crying. So wrapped up was he in misery, he remained unaware of my presence.
I bought myself a cup of coffee from the machine in the waiting room. It tasted of cardboard and chicory. Through the doorway, I watched the Midwickian tear up his valentine card and throw the pieces onto the track.
I turned my back on him and told myself it was time to find a new job. One that didn’t involve spending time in towns like Midwick.
As I finished my coffee, I heard a train approach. With a sense of relief bordering on euphoria, I tossed my cup in the bin and hurried outside. The man on the platform had replaced his valentine card with a photograph. He held it before him like a hymn book.
I heard him moan. ‘Oh Celia!’ he cried. ‘Why, Celia? Why?’
The train’s whistle blew to announce it wasn’t stopping. My own train wasn’t due for another five minutes. I stepped back. The man with the photograph stepped forward.
He connected with the front of the train before he’d even hit the ground.
The driver slammed on his brakes. By the time the train came to a halt, its locomotive and front two carriages were already beyond the station. Numb with shock, I watched the driver climb from his cab and look beneath the carriages for a shattered body. On the train, faces stared out at me. They had no way of knowing why they had stopped. Their expressions spoke only of mild curiosity and boredom.
The train guard let himself out of the rear carriage. He called down to the driver. ‘What is it, Bob?’
The driver made a cutting notion across his throat and the train guard paled.
‘Crap,’ he muttered. ‘That’s the third one this week.’
The rail men converged on the spot where the Midwickian had jumped. They crouched down to examine the body.
‘There was nothing I could do,’ pleaded the driver. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
‘I know,’ said the guard soothingly. ‘It’s this town. They’re all crazy here.’
Behind them, the dead man’s photograph floated on a puddle of dirty water. It was a head-and-shoulders shot of a ginger-haired woman. So now I knew what Celia looked like. Incongruously, I thought to myself that she was no great beauty. And then I remembered a man had just killed himself over her.
I should have stuck around. Waited for the police to arrive and take my statement. But it would have delayed my departure from Midwick by quite some time, and that just wasn’t going to happen.
The destination board delivered the inevitable news that the next train was cancelled—presumably because of the events I had just seen unfold. So it looked like I would have to wait for the Nether Willows train after all.
I had no desire to return to either the pub or the café and there was precious little else on the south side of town. So I decided to cross the river and check out the other side. Perhaps there I’d find a pub that wasn’t full of crazies.
Outside the station, a footbridge spanned the railway and the river. It looked like the only way to get across. I’d just set foot on the first step when a hand grabbed my shoulder and a voice said, ‘Don’t!’
Shrugging off the hand, I turned around. And there he was again. Same face. Same clothes. Same scar beneath his eye.
‘Keep away from me,’ I warned, raising my laptop. ‘I don’t know what you’re all playing at here but a man’s dead because of it.’
‘Several actually. Midwick is fast becoming the suicide capital of England.’ He placed himself between me and the bridge. ‘You need to leave Midwick now. Before it’s too late.’
‘Get out of my way!’
‘Don’t cross the bridge. I’m begging you.’
It was a flash of anger. Even as my laptop struck his head, I found myself thinking: Don’t do it! But I couldn’t stop myself.
For a sickening moment, I thought I’d split his skull. But it was the laptop’s case that had cracked. Nonetheless, there was blood.
The man sat on the footbridge steps, one hand over his wound. He looked up with the most haunted, pitiful look I had ever seen. ‘I was only trying to help,’ he said. ‘Trying to save you.’
‘I’m sorry.’ I felt wretched. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
‘It’s not your fault. It’s Celia. She drives men crazy.’
‘Let me get you to a doctor. That wound needs looking at.’
‘No need. I’ve had worse. I used to play rugby for England.’
I wondered if he was having a joke. He didn’t look like a rugby player. In fact there was nothing about him to suggest any sort of sporting prowess. Besides which, I followed both codes of rugby and his face rang no bells.
Taking his hand away from his wound, he rubbed at his scar. There was less blood on his scalp than I’d feared, and it seemed well on its way to clotting.
‘What club did you play for?’ I asked.
‘Saracens.’ A rugby union club. ‘That was before I became Harold Mason.’
Guilt made me want to humour him. ‘So who were you before?’
‘Lee Chesterton.’ He smiled. ‘Not that I expect you to believe me.’
‘Listen,’ I said, not believing him. ‘If you won’t let me take you to a doctor, at least let me buy you a drink.’
‘Only if you’re willing to listen to how I and just about every other man in Midwick came to be Harold Mason.’
‘You’ve got a deal, Harold. Or is it Lee?’
‘Call me Harold. Everyone else does.’
And so I found myself back in the pub. In a room full of Harold Masons, all competing to be the most dejected person on the planet.
The table by the window was unoccupied and I suggested to Harold that he grab it while I got the drinks in. But he vetoed the idea, saying he preferred not to see outside in case a certain lady came strolling by.
After nearly taking our pints to the wrong Harold, I located the correct one at the table furthest from the window. He was dabbing at his hair with a damp tea towel, removing the worst of the congealed blood.
We each demolished half our beer before he began the story of Harold Mason and Celia Cartwright.
Having both grown up in Midwick, they’d vaguely known each other all their lives but were never on more than nodding terms. That is until they found themselves sitting next to each other at the church bingo. They got talking and found they had a lot in common. One thing led to another and they became an item.
‘At first everything was great,’ said Harold. ‘We made each other happy, had fantastic sex, laughed at each other’s jokes, finished each other’s sentences. Blinded by love, I couldn’t see Celia’s many faults, and was convinced I’d finally found the right woman for me.
‘The first squabbles were minor. I saw them as lovers’ tiffs and took them as a sign that our relationship was on solid footing. But each spat was slightly worse than the last, and it wasn’t long before we were throwing things at each other.
‘I’d like to say some of it was my fault, but it wasn’t. Celia Cartwright was—and is—neurotic and insecure. Paranoid too.
‘At the beginning, I tried to placate her. The word sorry was forever springing from my lips. But after a while, I got fed up with being her doormat and started standing up for myself. And that’s when things got really bad. My answering back was petrol to her fire.
‘Sometimes we’d be up half the night screaming and shouting. We said the vilest, nastiest things imaginable. Made threats. Sometimes even came to blows.
‘It’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other.’
‘Vicious she was,’ said another Harold on his way to the toilet. ‘Tell him about the scar.’
My Harold pointed to his face. ‘You see this? She did that with her cigarette. Tried to stab me in the eye. I’m lucky not to have been blinded. And that’s when I decided enough was enough and told her it was all over. Without a single word of comfort or regret, she just upped and left.’ He slumped. His already weary expression became wearier still. ‘About a week later she rang and begged me to take her back. And I said no, even though it broke my heart. Truth is, I still loved her and I will until the day I die. But I knew if we ever got back together, one of us would kill the other.
‘Oh, you should have heard her weep and beg and threaten. It was pitiable. She said she couldn’t get me out of her mind. That every man she saw looked like me.
‘After all that, I had to have a drink. So I came to this pub, only to find I was already here, sitting at the bar with a large scotch in my hand.
‘Now this is the funny thing. I’m telling this story as if I’ve always been Harold Mason and that’s not the case.
‘Back when I was Lee Chesterton, I didn’t know Celia or Harold. Until one day I was walking along, minding my own business, and a woman leapt out of a shop doorway. She was wild-eyed and wore a grubby shell suit with holes in the elbows.
‘I thought she was some bag lady who’d maybe had too much white cider. As you do in such situations, I kept my head down and tried to hurry past. But she threw herself to the pavement and grabbed my legs, rendering me immobile.
‘”Oh Harold!” she cried. “Why did you ever leave me?”
‘And I looked down and saw not some drunken bag lady, but my Celia. She was in need of a wash, but still as fragrant as ever.
‘Even before I saw my reflection in the shop window, I knew I was Harold Mason and I remembered her words on the telephone. About how every man she set eyes upon looked like me.
‘Horrified, I pushed her away. She lay in the gutter weeping and moaning.
‘As I ran back towards the bridge, I saw her again and again. She was in the newsagents. She was in a back garden hanging out her washing. She was simultaneously going into and coming out of a pub. She was everywhere!
‘A rational person would say I was projecting. That none of the women were Celia. But they were! I knew the very act of my seeing them as Celia made them so.’
I shook my head. ‘But how is it possible?’
‘It’s the power of love. They say our perceptions shape reality. Maybe this kind of thing happens more than we think. Or maybe Celia is the devil incarnate.’
I had to get out of Midwick. Before a Celia Cartwright saw me. Before I became another Harold Mason in a town full of them.
From the Harold who used to be Lee Chesterton I learned there was no bus service through Midwick. He advised me to walk along the valley to Nether Willows, the next town along.
‘What about a taxi?’ I asked.
‘The drivers daren’t leave the village,’ said Harold. ‘None of us do.’
‘Because of Celia?’
‘Every time a Harold Mason sees a woman, she becomes Celia. And when one of those Celias sees a man—pouff!—another Harold.
‘If any of us left Midwick, the consequences would be catastrophic. In next to no time, there’d be a plague of Harolds and Celias. We’re a chain reaction waiting to go off.’
A thought occurred to me. ‘Why haven’t I seen any of these Celias?’
‘We can’t live with her; we can’t live without her. But for the sake of peace, all the Harolds live on this side of the valley and all the Celias live on the other. Now do you see why I stopped you crossing the bridge? You wouldn’t have lasted two minutes before becoming a Harold.’
I shuddered at the narrowness of my escape. ‘Let me buy you another drink, and then I’ll be on my way to Nether Willows.’
‘Now you’re being sensible. Once you’re out of this nightmare, don’t look back. Just keep on walking.’
‘Oh, I will,’ I said. ‘I will.’
Two dozen mobile phones went off at once. Two dozen Harold Masons answered them.
‘Harold Mason,’ they chorused. Then, after a short pause: ‘Celia! What the blazes do you want?’
After that, each Harold reacted to his Celia in his own way. Some swore; some cried. Others threatened. A few hung up almost immediately.
My Harold grabbed my arm. ‘You’ve got to go. Now!’
Another Harold looked out the door towards the other side of the valley. ‘My God! She’s not kidding!’ he bellowed. ‘They’re marching towards the bridge! They’re on their way.’
‘Get out!’ said my Harold. ‘Go out the back way and up the hill. You’ll find a path at the top that will take you to Nether Willows. Remember, if any Celia so much as gets a glimpse of you, you’re done for.’
‘What’s happening?’ I asked.
‘The Celias have declared war. They say if they can’t have us, nobody can.’
As the Harolds set about barricading the pub, I snuck out the back. Ten minutes later, I was on the path at the top of the valley.
Behind me, I heard the sounds of a pitched battle.
The path ran gently downhill and took me through woodland. After about an hour, I found myself back at the bottom of the valley and on the road to Nether Willows.
My legs ached. I wasn’t used to this kind of walking and my shoes were made for offices, not hills. Things were made worse by my laptop, which seemed to weigh ten times as much as when I’d left Midwick. I didn’t even know if it still worked.
I was beginning to doubt I would ever make it to Nether Willows, when I heard an engine.
Standing at the side of the road, I saw a battered Renault coming up behind me. Judging from its rattle and the smoke billowing in its wake, it was in need of a mechanic’s loving attention, but I didn’t care. It was as welcome to me as a lifebelt to a drowning sailor.
I stuck out my thumb and silently promised God that if the car stopped I would do all sorts of nice things on his behalf.
With a teeth-curling crunch of gears, the car slowed and came to a stop. The driver pushed open the passenger door and yelled, ‘Get in! Quick!’
I hurriedly complied.
It was only as I settled into the lumpy passenger seat that I realised my laptop was gone and my clothes had changed.
Then I looked at the driver and my heart gave a beat. It was Celia. Dear, sweet neurotic Celia in her distressed shell suit, looking as beautiful as ever.
‘It’s up to you, Harold,’ she said. ‘We can go back to Midwick and get killed with the rest of them, or we can get the hell out and begin again.’
The scar beneath my eye itched, indicating it was on the mend. I took it as a good sign.