Long Guest and a Briefcase – Richard Kemp

I will tell you this, as it is all I have to tell. It was the afternoon and I had taken lunch in my study so that I might continue to busy myself with correspondence that I had previously neglected. I was going about filling my inkwell when I heard the front bell ring. Not expecting company, I elected to ignore it as I felt it prudent not to eschew my responsibilities any longer. The bell rang a second time and then a third. By now I was striding along the passageway with thoughts of indignation, with whoever it was, clanging away like a hysterical conductor. No sooner had the door opened, the ringing stopped.

I was greeted by a gentleman standing no higher than my shoulders. A small moustache dwelled below his nose and large round spectacles above it. He was clutching a briefcase to his chest with one hand and holding an umbrella with the other. He bowed. ‘My name is Souvenee. I have abandoned my carriage a way back, the driver was of a terrible muddle, so I elected to forge my own path, as it were. I wonder if I may ask for shelter until this terrible storm passes.’

The sky was indeed filled with clouds of the darkest greys, so that to all purposes it looked as if God Himself had flipped all the mountains and hung them over the sun yielding their water to be cast about by every gust and bellow. Where this storm had come from I do not know, as I had given thought to spending time in the potting shed, rather than my desk, as it had seemed such a fine day.

My mind was torn between the idle quill and blank sheets, and the vulgarity of quarrelling on one’s doorstep. Relenting, I ushered him across the threshold and took his umbrella and coat. These are worthy of remark in two ways. Firstly, that although they were tailored to a high quality and must have come from deep pockets, there was a fine layer of dust and every hem was frayed and worn. Secondly, that despite the weather they had been subjected to, they were dry as a bone. He took preference to hold onto his briefcase, which resembled the former items with regards to quality, age and aridity.

Whilst placing the items in the cloak room, I stole a glance through the window. The sky was now clear with not the slightest blemish to obscure the blue and yellow of a fine summer’s afternoon. ‘I say,’ I called, ‘it seems the storm has moved on, or at least the worst of it. It would be a shame if you missed any engagements unnecessarily,’ but I did not receive any response. He was already in the drawing room and was building a fire in the hearth.

Logs had been set and he was placing torn pages of newspaper amongst the wood. He seemed so assured that this was nothing out of the ordinary that I felt it ungracious of me to see it any differently. ‘I would rather yesterday’s paper was used. Burns just as well I’d wager,’ I said. ‘Today is tomorrow’s yesterday,’ he said and using the candle from the table, lit all the pieces of paper as if anointing them one-by-one with blessed wax. Now, I always kept in mind to assist those in need and allow for differences in upbringing. You can’t blame the horse for the stable, I always said but this irked me more than a little. ‘A brandy would hasten the warmth if there is any to be had?’ At this rate I should be lucky to still have my own shoes I thought, but a guest is a guest, whether welcome or not.

I returned with glasses and bottle to find two chairs had been placed by the fire and Souvenee had made himself quite comfortable. His briefcase sat on the floor next to him and his hands, lightly clasped, resting on his paunch. He released one hand to accept the glass of brandy and gestured for me to sit in the other chair. I had to catch myself from thanking him, in my drawing room, to sit in my chair.

We sat together in front of the fire for the rest of the day. After finishing each glass of brandy I found myself pouring another. My guest wove many tales with regards to his memories and travels. His life had been varied and wide with accounts that could bolster many persons’ years. Whether it was the brandy affecting my eyes or the heat from the fire trifling with my thoughts, I fancied that whenever there came a place or name in his telling that was a little foggy or a point he could not quite fathom, he would slide his hand over the case which would quiver. Once the previously forgotten or omitted detail had been recalled and he was once again animating his yarn with hand and jowl, the briefcase would return to its passive state until the next vague recollection would seek clarity.

Eventually the moon hauled itself into place and, I have to confess, that although I had enjoyed the stories and a chance to allow some liquor to round off the sharp edges of the day, I would feel better when this strange man had taken leave. But I could not, in good faith, send him on his way at such a late hour so I invited him to stay the night in the guest bedroom. An offer he happily accepted. ‘I can arrange a carriage for you first thing in the morning, before breakfast.’ I said. Usually I would offer breakfast to guests but this time I felt a bottle of my finest brandy and a soft bed was ample hospitality. ‘Sir you are most kind. Please, as some small token of my gratitude, would you care to choose a trinket from amongst my wares? Not wishing to appear petty and feeling it worthwhile to recompense my inconvenience in some way, I accepted. He slid his briefcase in my direction and raised his eyebrows in a manner that I’m sure he considered to belong to that of a playful friend but to me, felt nearer a conspirator.

I lay the case on the table, unlocked the catches and opened it. Curious as to what treasures he had held so close to him since his arrival, I peered into the leather-lined gloom. To my astonishment it was filled with a preponderance of spiders. Not large specimens as those found in the darker places of the world, but no bigger than a child’s thumb. ‘I must say I find this in poor taste,’ I said but Souvenee merely smiled. The spiders made their way over my hands and up my arms. Due to their size I could pick them off with little effort, and at first, I saw it as no more than an extreme nuisance which would be halted. All the while, Souvenee had lit his pipe and was puffing away quite contentedly. The ungrateful wretch would find the roadside a lesser host and would do so as soon as I was free.

More spiders now made their way past my elbows, to my shoulders, up my neck and began marching into my mouth like an invading horde under the command of their General. I clawed at my gums and behind my lips, dragging out bits of abdomen and leg. Panic built up inside me. There were now thousands of the small dark creatures moving over my entire length. I could no longer open my eyes and my breathing became more desperate as my nostrils soon filled with them. Now flailing at my own body, half blind and half choking, it felt as if my own skin was being frog-marched off my very bones. I do not consider myself a weak man, but I fell under the sheer weight of them all. My screams muffled by countless tiny legs that wound themselves over my teeth and tongue.

I remember nothing that came after, nor before that afternoon. I surmise I was found by somebody at some point and that it was decided I would stay in this room. Each day someone brings me food and satisfies themselves that I am well, which for all I can tell, I am. Left alone for most hours I occupy myself writing letters. I do not know who to send them to or how many I have written but today I fill the inkwell and begin: I will tell you this, as it is all I have to tell.

 

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