I was encouraged. Five minutes of watching the room revealed constant movement, people glancing at the pictures, seldom pausing for more than a few seconds; except for number fourteen. Here they stopped and stared intently at the image within the frame, leaning forwards to examine its detail, intrigued by the faint focus of despair. It was my creation.
“The Hole. There’s someone in there.”
“A little nightmare.”
I shifted my position to see most of the picture. At first look it was unremarkable: a view of a ground level opening in a wall, a small arch of battered brick in a scattering of pebbles and weeds, three metal bars fixed top to bottom against a dark interior. It took a closer look to make out the presence inside, fingertips at the bars, a deepening of the shadow that created a faint outline of a human figure. The face was almost pressed against the grill, lines of shade conveying a sense of despair. A human soul imprisoned in a dark hole. Once again I took pleasure from what I had done.
Leo slipped around the edge of the group, placed a red sticker beside the title and gave me a sly smile. The picture had sold. One of the viewers affected a disappointed groan. I looked around the room, saw no other stickers and knew that I was the first. A couple of the other artists had noticed and shot me brief looks, confused combinations of congratulation and resentment. I couldn’t resist a self-satisfied smile.
A couple of the viewers moved away, a couple more joined, and I turned to drift to another part of the gallery. Then I heard a whisper from behind.
“Why have you done this?”
I turned back and saw that all of the group were looking at the picture. I was surprised that any of them knew it was my work.
“Sorry,” I said. “Did someone just ask me a question?”
Their only replay was baffled expressions and shaking heads. It made me think I had misheard so I turned back, took one step, and heard the whisper again.
“Why am I here?”
This time I ignored it.
I found myself in the dark, bare feet on damp earth and straw, gasping as I searched for any source of light. Something sharp touched my foot, to my side something else cracked. I swung around, mumbling “Who? Where?” then back towards a glint that had suddenly appeared. I moved forward, stumbling on a hard shape, then brushing at a thick wetness beside my leg. The glint disappeared. A tortured hiss came from behind me.
“Why am I here? Why have you done this?”
I threw out an arm, swung into the dark, tried to run a few steps then saw the glint reappear and threw myself forwards. My eyes opened to the sight of the lightshade on my bedroom ceiling. For a minute or two I was still scared.
That afternoon I dropped into the gallery, interested to see if mine was the only work that had sold. One more had found a buyer, a drawing of a cherry tree that cost a third of the price of mine. I was meant to tell myself this wasn’t a competition – just a bunch of local artists supported by a new gallery – but I felt smug. My picture had touched something in the people who had seen it, strongly enough to bring me almost a grand. Leo guessed why I had come along.
“Enjoying your little victory?” he asked.
“I’m curious to see how my fellow artists have done.”
“I’m expecting a few more sales.”
“And what about afterwards? You said there might be a complete show for one or two.”
“I’ll make up my mind later.” He gave me a faint smile. “But if you can sell that quickly …”
He went to his office to answer the phone. I glanced at the other works again, but didn’t pretend any modesty. Mine was a cut above. I stopped to admire it again. Every detail was as I remembered, but there was something vaguely different; something grim, intense, as if the imprisoned body was pressing its face against the bars. Maybe the sale made it seem stronger.
Leo was still on the phone. I went to the office, waved a goodbye, then to the exit. As I opened the door my ear caught a whisper floating across the gallery.
“Let … me … go.”
I felt an anxious scuttling across my chest, turned around and saw nothing. Suddenly I felt eager to be somewhere else.
It was Saturday. I spent the afternoon in my studio, working on a painting I felt sure would be in Leo’s gallery within weeks. Then met some friends for drinks and a feed, went home feeling mildly drunk and flopped on the sofa. I felt the scuttling again.
I was on the ground, hands across my shins, face pressed against my knees and fearing something I didn’t understand. I knew I was back in the Hole but it seemed darker, the walls closer, oozing a suffocating malevolence. I shivered, moved my eyes in search of light, sensed a disturbance in the air. My fingers crept upwards and pressed against my forehead. I rattled at my thoughts, tried to make sense of where and why, knew only that this was a punishment. Then I heard a shuffling from behind, along with a slow, quivering breath. The scuttling circled my chest and I rolled forward, pushing to crawl on hands and knees to get away. The breathing followed me, licked at my ears and laced them with pleading words.
“Why did you do this to me?”
I stood up, tried to run and stumbled into a wall of slimy brick. Fingers brushed my shoulders as I spun and tried to get away from the presence. It words clutched and slithered into my ear.
“Let me out of here!”
I threw out my arms, fell into space, bent double and took in a deep, grimy breath. I could hear the shuffling behind me again, a fresh burst of breath rolling onto my shoulders and touching my neck. Something pressed at my hips. I stood up straight and my eyes were suddenly filled with a source of light, the curved window with three bars a few steps ahead. A heavy breath wrapped itself around my face and I sensed the figure was ready to clamp around my sides. I threw myself towards the window, eyes filled with light, and grabbed two adjacent bars. My grip tightened, forearm tensed, I rattled and pulled at the bars and felt nothing but the rigid clamp of ground and brick. The breath thickened around my face and I felt a weight against my back and a hand on my shoulder. I pressed my cheeks against the bars.
“We can’t escape,” said the voice. “You made this place too dark, too strong.”
Then a cold, clammy finger slid up the side of my neck and clawed behind my ear. I screamed, rattled at the bars, felt a crack and a sudden loosening. I pulled at one bar and pushed at the other, felt them snap free and a rushing of light and air into the Hole. Then I felt arms and legs on my back, shoulders, pushing me down as they scuttled upwards and out to freedom. For a moment I was still, my face pressed against the side of the window and fingers clawing at the ground, before I turned my face to the light. Then I felt myself lifted upwards, my eyes opened and I stared at my bedroom ceiling.
Leo kept ringing all day, but my head was too scrambled to take any of the calls. It was late afternoon when I was close to the gallery and decided I shouldn’t put him off any longer. He greeted me with an angry stare.
“What have you been playing at?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“You must have got into the gallery during the night and changed the picture.”
“I don’t have a clue what you’re on about.”
“So what’s that?”
He directed me towards the picture. There was something odd about it. I moved closer and felt my chest flip. It was similar to my creation – the brickwork, weeds and pebbles – but instead of three bars on the window only one was still in place, another on the ground, the third out of sight. A closer look showed there were small fractures in the bricks and holes in the ground where they had been set. The darkness inside the hole was just that, just a murky layer of dark grey. I moved closer, looked hard into the window and saw no vague outlines of hands, a body, a face. The prisoner had gone.
“I want to know how you did it,” said Leo.
He took a deep, severely irritated breath.
“Alright, so get the other one back.”
“Don’t mess me about. There’s a buyer who wants what was originally on that wall. That means several hundred pounds for both of us. Neither of us can afford to get sniffy about that.”
“I know, but I’m sorry, I can’t replace it.”
For a moment I thought of telling him about my nightmare, the desperate whispers I had heard from the picture; then I realised that would make things worse.
“Sorry, just can’t do it.”
I turned towards the door.
“If you walk out now you can never show your face in here again.”
“I know. I apologise.”
I knew that Leo meant what he said, and that there wasn’t another proper gallery in our little town. But I opened the door, felt the noise and smell of the street in my face, and a massive sense of relief.