Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ido Sokolovsky. Born in 1967, Ido is from Israel, and used to read science fiction in his youth. Now in his mid-life crisis, he writes sci-fi stories in Hebrew for any one willing to publish them. His friend Yehudit translated this story in return for a plate of humus.
This is the story’s first publication.
Smile of the Monster
by Ido Sokolovsky
“There was a monster in the loch. It’s not there now, but once there was.”
The old man’s face is red, his hooked nose surrounded by blue veins, testimony to long years of alcohol consumption. His eyes are bloodshot and he nods his head vigorously, adding: “It’s not a fairy tale. When I was a boy it was here in the loch.”
“And when was this, Garison? Seventy years ago? Eighty?” Mrs Campbell passed by him, carrying a heavily loaded tray on her way to the table of the two tourists. The young man in the green sweater has been holding forth to his red-headed freckled girl-friend as to why a monster in Loch Ness is unlikely. It is this that has awakened the old man from his drunken sleep near the counter.
“You must forgive Garison,” explains Mrs Campbell. “That’s his third beer this morning.”
Expertly she places their order before them. The young man leans over so that Mrs Campbell doesn’t block his view of the old man and asks aloud: “Do you mean to tell me that you have actually seen the monster?”
The old man is silent and closes his eyes more tightly. Apart from the tourist couple there are four old people at the inn, all well on in years. They wear peaked caps and are intent on playing some kind of card game. The remaining tables are abandoned in the cavernous dining room. Garison alone sits near the counter, a glass of beer in front of him. The windows look out on the blue-green waters of Loch Ness, surrounded by thickly forested hills. In the distance towers Ben Nevis, its summit wreathed in clouds. It is not surprising that more tourists don’t come to the inn to enjoy the stunning view. The Three Pines is at the top end of the village and reached by steep, narrow, twisting lanes. In fact it is to be wondered why the Campbells ever chose to establish their hostelry in this isolated spot rather than down by the loch where all the other shops, pubs and restaurants in the mountain village are located.
The young man interprets Garison’s silence as defeat and gives a triumphant grin towards his girlfriend. “You see, Julia, there are almost no fish in Loch Ness. If there are no fish, what does the monster live on?” Mrs Campbell who was half way back behind the counter suddenly claps her hands, her eyes wide with consternation. “I completely forgot your mustard, love,” she shouts, and dashes behind the counter, emerging with a small metal mustard pot in one hand, the soles of her shoes resounding on the old wooden floor. Mrs Campbell is short and wide, her greying hair caught up with a clip. She wears a simple brown dress and a large kitchen apron round her waist. She has plump red cheeks and although she, like Garison, is entitled to be described as “old”, when she smiles she looks like a little girl, and she smiles almost all the time.
“Once there were honest, God-fearing folk round here,” declares Garison, “and Reverend McPherson, may God have mercy on his soul, said he saw the monster, and that’s enough for me.”
“I’ve not been here as long as you, Garison,” answers Mrs Campbell, “but I did get to meet Reverend McPherson, and he never told me anything of the sort.” She turns to the girl. “Here, have some mustard, love.” She ignores the protests of the girl, who apparently does not like mustard. “This isn’t shop stuff. I grow the mustard in my garden, you know, without chemicals and things.”
“You, Flora,” grumbles the old man. “You say it’s nonsense, but your brother makes a nice living from the souvenirs he sells down at the store.”
“D’you mean something like this?” The young man sticks his hand into the backpack that lies at his feet, and brings out a glass decorated with a long, dragon-like creature, its mouth open in a roar.
The old man leans towards the couple and examines the glass, then nods as though his worst fears were realised.
“So Leonard’s your brother?” asks the girl.
“Yes, love. And I know exactly what you’re thinking: how can a little thing like me have such a tall brother?”
“You’re not that short.” The youth tries to be polite.
“Aw, you fibber! You’re too nice,” says Mrs Campbell. “You’re Americans, aren’t you?”
“Australian” he answers, adding: “I’m Jim and this is Julia”.
Jim is tall and good-looking and now he affectionately rumples his girlfriend’s mass of red curls. Julia, who has just taken a bite of her sandwich, gives him a long look as though she is not altogether thrilled with this display of ownership.
“Flora,” says Mrs Campbell. “Widow Flora Campbell.”
“And there’s a horse, too,” declares Garison. “A white horse who plays with children in the grass. He’s called Kelpie.”
“Oh, that stupid story,” says Mrs Campbell, and she suddenly looks her age as the smile vanishes from her face.
“He convinces one of the children to get on his back. The hands of the bairn stick to the horse and it disappears with him into the Loch and he’s never seen no more. ”
Silence reigns in the room. Then Jim sits up with renewed interest. “Just a minute,” he says.
“You’ve actually seen this horse?”
Garison half turns to Jim, which causes him to wobble on his chair. “When I was a lad I had a friend called William…”
“That story again,” says one of the peaked cap ancients. He doesn’t even raise his eyes from his cards.
“You hush, Busby,” says Garison angrily. “You don’t know nothing about it.” He struggles not to fall from the tall chair. At that moment, a door behind the counter opens, and out steps a young and pretty girl and lays her hand on the old man’s shoulder.
“Stop it, Garison. You know how mum hates it when you talk about that.”
Garison nods, wearily, and turns back with difficulty to the counter. He points to his empty glass. The girl takes it and expertly fills it from the draught piston.
Mrs Campbell regards the couple apologetically. “After you hear that scary story a hundred times…” She shrugs and returns to the counter.
Jim pays no attention to her. His gaze is fixed on the girl holding the glass. She has straight brown hair over a clear forehead, large green eyes and high cheekbones. A small mouth and straight nose complete the likeness of a Greek goddess. Behind her, glimmers of light through the open door reveal a hob burning in the kitchen, but the girl does not at all look like someone who was slaving over a hot stove for the last hour, but more like someone who just emerged from the ministrations of a professional make-up artist. Only after Julia’s astonished gaze lingers on his face for several long seconds does Jim suddenly shake himself and return to his fish and chips, which he devours with gusto.
“Thanks, Mary. You can go back inside,” says Mrs Campbell, and the beautiful girl goes back into the kitchen closing the door behind her.
“Strange” says Jim, his mouth full of fish. “Such a beautiful girl. I’d have thought she would be behind the counter to attract customers.”
“Maybe the owner wants people to eat her food rather than sitting and staring open-mouthed,” answers Julia, tartly. Jim turns to her with a big smile and shakes his head teasingly left and right. “Do you think I am going to abandon you for some Scottish lass? Don’t worry, Julia, for me you are the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Julia doesn’t seem reconciled, and finishes her sandwich with big bites and signals Mrs Campbell for the bill, then sits and rakes Jim with her eyes while he struggles to extract the leather pouch hidden under his clothes and pull out coins and notes. After Mrs Campbell leaves their change on the table, Julia takes a few coins and leaves the rest. She hurries to shoulder her red backpack, and waits with pursed lips while Jim struggles with his. It is now impossible to leave the inn because a large tourist bus completely blocks the door. As the bus passes the door its logo, a smiling snake-like creature, can be clearly seen below the inscription: Nessie Tours. During the enforced delay Julia notices by the door a framed photograph of a smiling boy. A small brass plaque announces “In Memory of our Little Angel Andrew. The Loch took him.” She slips the coins in her hand into a wooden charity box below the picture.
“God bless you, love,” says Mrs Campbell, pressing her hand in thanks, and Julia nods curtly. By this time the bus has passed and by the sound of it has found parking behind the inn. The young couple leave and disappear down the narrow lane leading away from the Three Pines. After a minute, the sigh of hydraulics indicates that the doors of the bus are opening to disgorge its passengers.
An attractive tourist guide now appears. Blonde, thirtyish, Celia stands and counts the tourists, mostly elderly but with one or two families as they file into the large room.
Just as she finishes making sure that everyone is in place, Aidan, the tall, taciturn driver arrives, having locked up the bus. Mrs Campbell indicates with a movement of her head the far end of the dining room, and guide and driver go and sit close to the four old men. The hubbub in the room hasn’t even made them raise their heads from their cards.
For the next hour Mrs Campbell rushes round the inn like a hurricane, handing out menus, taking orders, pouring drinks and yelling orders in the direction of the kitchen door, where Mary is intently preparing the meals. She places loaded plates on tables, collects dirty dishes, disappears with them into the kitchen and returns at a pace that many a young girl might envy. Notes and coins change hands and disappear under her apron, while the exact change is unfailingly returned each time. And all this time Mary does not set foot outside the kitchen even once, and none of the diners has the pleasure of seeing her.
Celia, who has finished her meal, leans back with a smile. “Amazing, isn’t she? She must be sixty if she’s a day,” she says to Aidan. Aidan nods without saying a word. Celia regards him sideways and the smile fades on her lips. Aidan was certainly an improvement on a randy predecessor, but long months of working with someone who barely acknowledges your existence certainly gets to one. Strange, the only time she had heard Aidan speak more than one sentence at a time had been when he recommended the Three Pines inn after some tourists had complained about the crowds down by the loch. Since then they have come here every trip, and she is very satisfied. She doesn’t have to worry that one of the tourists will wander off into the crowd, as happens all too often in the restaurant area down below, needing to be tracked down when time comes to board the bus. Not only that, but the stunning view from the windows reminds her each time why she has chosen this profession. Also there is another reason why she’s always happy to come here, a reason she keeps secret from Aidan, although it’s really no effort to keep a secret from someone who is totally uninterested in you.
She decides that the time has come, gets up from her place and heads towards the door. When she reaches the counter she stops to call out loudly: “Half an hour more, everyone”. In the momentary silence that follows, Garison’s voice is clearly heard. “…his liver floated to the shore… but he was never found…” A few embarrassed smiles appear on the faces of some of the guests. Celia acts as though she hasn’t heard, and goes out. The noise quickly starts up again, voices and the clink of glasses and cutlery fill the air while Garison’s head slowly sinks onto the counter and he mumbles drunkenly, “William, William,” and his eyes close.
Celia stands near the back door of the inn and waits. Mary, spotting her from the kitchen, comes out wiping her hands on her apron and they stand facing each other for a moment, apart yet close.
Inside the inn, Aidan sits and stares at Mrs Campbell. Now things have quietened down a bit she walks slowly, and signs of fatigue mark her face, but instead of sitting she moves among the tables checking that the guests are satisfied. One of the tourist children waves the monster doll in her face and she pretends to be frightened. But although she faces the opposite direction it seems that she senses Aidan’s stare, and goes over to him, taking the chair vacated by Celia.
“She’s with Mary,” he says, and continues to look at Mrs Campbell with no change of expression.
“What have those two got to talk about?”
Aidan doesn’t answer but continues to look at her until her smile gradually fades as understanding dawns.
“You mean to tell me… she’s, she’s like that, the other way?” There is genuine horror in her voice.
“I’ve never seen her with any bloke, ever. But she’s got two tickets for the concert tomorrow.”
“The pervert!” says Mrs Campbell through clenched teeth. “I’ll show her what for!”
Mrs Campbell gets up with renewed vigour and disappears behind the counter. “Mary!” Her voice sounds from the kitchen. “Mary! Get back to work right now, d’you hear me?”
Mary obeys, but not before she casts a long look over her shoulder at Celia as she disappears inside the inn.
Mrs Campbell, confronting the guide, points a trembling finger at the company logo embroidered on the pocket of Celia’s jacket.
“A smiling monster—that fits,” she snarls. “I should have known you were up to something when you never came to collect your kick-back.”
A thin smile flits over Celia’s face.
“If I was a man it would be perfectly alright, wouldn’t it?”
“If you were a man I’d know what to expect, sly thing that you are. Let me tell you, Mary’s spoken for!” growls Mrs Campbell. “She’ll marry when her lad comes of age this summer.”
“Oh, really!” Celia rolls her eyes. “Even you must know things have changed these last fifty years. Spoken for? Maybe when you were Mary’s age.”
“Everything OK, ladies?” Aidan appears from round the corner of the inn, his hands in his pockets, a pair of elderly tourists in his wake on their way to the toilets.
“Dear Aidan,” Mrs Campbell addresses him formally, “you are welcome to bring your tourists to my inn whenever you please, as soon as you find a new guide—one who doesn’t foist her perversions on my Mary.”
“Aiden answers to me,” says Celia, scowling. The stupid woman really lives in the last century, thinking that Aidan is the boss just because he is a man.
“As for you!” Flora Campbell points a finger, trembling with rage. “You won’t come near my inn if you know what’s good for you.”
“Very well. And I hope your business won’t suffer too much,” concurs Celia, then raises her tour guide voice to Mary in the kitchen. “Nine o’clock tomorrow night, Mary! I’ll be at the main entrance.”
Mrs Campbell makes a pushing motion with her hand at Celia’s face as though she would knock her over by remote, and goes into the kitchen slamming the door behind her.
Celia goes towards the bus where a few tourists are already gathered waiting for Aidan to open the door. Aidan also looks at the back door and seems sunk in thought. Mrs Campbell has done well to conceal the connection between them, but this business of Celia and Mary must be stopped. Therefore he waits until Celia passes him, and says quietly: “Scotland is not London, you know.”
Celia stops, and turns towards him questioningly.
“I mean to say,” says Aidan, “that here in the mountains all kinds of accidents happen to people who don’t behave with care.”
“Are you threatening me, Aidan?” asks Celia, her eyes narrowing with fury, lowering her voice so that the waiting tourists won’t hear. “You haven’t heard the end of this.”
“I’m not threatening,” says Aidan. “Just warning. You’re not from here and you don’t know this village. It’s true they all have television and most of them are connected to the internet, but make no mistake: they don’t live in the same world that you do. In some ways most of them live according to the rules of their grandfathers and grandmothers.”
He turns and goes towards the bus, pulling his keys from his pocket. Celia watches him go with pounding heart. Aidan is different from the usual blustering male; certainly he is not one for idle talk. The inn seems suddenly less friendly, the view of the lowering mountain more threatening as she boards the bus.
Despite the lovely weather round the loch that day, towards evening a thin, annoying rain begins to fall. In the inn Mrs Campbell closes the windows one after the other and pulls the heavy wooden shutters to. A bright neon strip illuminates the wooden floor with an unnatural, almost sickly light. Garison is long gone, and Busby and his card-playing friends get up and leave the inn, nodding to Mrs Campbell, disappearing into the dark one by one, bending their heads against the unceasing rain.
After a while Mrs Campbell begins to lift the chairs and lay them upside down on the empty tables. When she is done she takes a broom and with expert movements sweeps the floor, gathering the dirt at the threshold and sweeping it out into the rain. Then, when it is clear that no more guests will come, she locks the door and switches off the neon light. Only a small lamp above the counter now lights the large room. Mrs Campbell goes to the cash register and begins to count the day’s takings.
“Take a good look at that money,” says Mary, emerging from the kitchen. “It’ll be a long while till you see a take like that in one day, now that you’ve taken care to drive away the one tour bus that comes here.”
“I’m not worried,” murmurs Mrs Campbell without turning to face her daughter. She continues to count feverishly.
“Twenty, twenty-five… We’ll have a few hard months and then Aidan will come here with a new guide, preferably a married woman, forty, fifty… and you my dear will stop playing with fire and stay in the kitchen when there are customers. D’you get me?”
“You can’t imprison me here for life, mum.”
The old woman’s shoulders droop, and she turns wearily to Mary who is rocking back and forth as she leans aggressively against the half-open door.
“I know it’s boring for you here, but just a few more months and Stuart will be of age, you’ll wed him and have bairns, and believe me that will keep you more than busy!”
“And if I don’t want that lout? His head is full of straw and he’s got pillars instead of legs!”
Flora Campbell approaches her daughter and lays a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head from side to side.
“Don’t do that!” Mary closes her eyes, and turns her head away.
“Open your eyes.”
“Don’t want to.”
Slowly and agonizingly the young girl opens her eyes and looks into the eyes of the old woman who now holds her shoulder with force.
“Now,” says Flora. “Tell me please what happened to your Auntie Ronda when she went to live in the city?”
Mary obediently declaims: ”A gang of hooligans pounced on her in a dark street and tore off her clothes.”
“Exactly.” And Flora concludes: “And she wasn’t half as pretty as you. Busby and his people from the back section had to find those hooligans one by one and cut their throats, and then all of us shook with fear for months in case the police found out and came here.”
“Just a moment…” Mary raises her head. “Don’t even think…”
Flora increases the pressure on the girl’s shoulder, and leans forward till her face is almost touching hers. But this time Mary doesn’t blink, and they stand facing each other for a minute until the corners of Flora Campbell’s mouth droop disappointedly, while Mary grins, bitterly.
“Look at that,” says the girl. “It seems I’ve grown up earlier than you think. In the end I belong to the same place as you and I’m not a little girl anymore.” She grins while the old woman turns to the counter and buries her head in her hands.
“If you’re no longer a little lass it’s time you began to think realistically.” Her muffled voice is heard from between her hands and she mutters, as though to herself: “Once it was all so simple. Everyone was in the same place. When the schools began all the children went to the same school, all the youngsters married whoever their parents told them to, we were like everyone else. Today…”
“Today, deviants are not ashamed of who they are.” Mary completes the sentence, lifting her head and looking sadly at her mother.
“What exactly are you going to do with that pervert in Inverness, Mary? What do you think she’s going to want after you see the performance and have a few pints together? Don’t you realise that at some point she’ll try to touch you up? Then what’ll you do?”
“And if it was a man?”
“Exactly the same problem. That’s why you’re intended for Stuart. He may not be a genius but there’s no-one else for you…”
“And if I don’t agree?” Mary raises her head now. “Maybe I want to wander in the world, to see places and not to stay imprisoned in that kitchen, in this depressing village. Maybe it’s better for me to be alone and not have any children, ever? Children like me who need to hide all their lives.”
The old woman’s eyes widen, and she raises a finger in front of Mary’s eyes. “And little children will continue to disappear into the loch because you are not willing to do your bit?”
“I didn’t choose that role.”
The door opening with a bang cuts short her words. Aidan stands there, his bare head wet with rain.
“Everyone is here already,” he says. “Except for you two and Mrs Strachan. We should get moving.”
The two women look at each other.
“Well?” says Flora Campbell to her daughter.
“Oh, I’m coming,” says Mary crossly. “Andrew was my favourite nephew. But I’m making no promises after this evening.” She goes behind the counter with her mother in her wake.
“And you,” she says to Aidan, when she reaches the entrance, “don’t even breathe in Celia’s direction. Understand?” She goes out into the darkness. Flora stops by Aidan and they exchange looks. She opens her mouth to say something, but changes her mind and takes from the pocket of her brown dress a bunch of keys.
Outside, the rain intensifies. Aidan goes to the bus while Mrs Campbell stays to lock up the inn. Mary waits tensely for him near the open door of the bus, sticking her chin out so that the rain wets her hair and streams down her face. Aidan bends, seizes her by the waist and carries her over his shoulder into the bus. Afterwards he goes back just as Flora reaches the door, and he carries her in the same manner. The bus is full to bursting with villagers, and a chorus of voices greets the two women. Mary wipes the rain from her hair with the sleeve of her shirt and nods curtly to everyone.
“What a sour face,” jokes Stuart, a large-bodied youth of seventeen, and immediately receives a blow on the back of his head from his father, Mr Denis Calderwood, who is sitting beside him. Mary, for her part, demonstratively ignores him.
“Thank you for coming, everyone,” says Mrs Campbell.
“What a thing to say! Andrew was one of us,” says Margaret Gon, a tall thin women whose woolly cap covers her curls.
“I suggest quiet, now.” Leonard’s voice sounds from the centre of the bus. Leonard is a tall man, and although there are a few seats left he remains standing, his head almost reaching the ceiling.
“We don’t need nosey parkers like Garison to peer out of their windows just now to see what’s making the noise.”
Wordlessly, Flora goes up to her brother and hugs him briefly, and then turns and sits in a vacant seat exactly behind Aidan. The sound of air is heard as Aidan releases the hydraulic brakes of the bus, and he manoeuvres expertly in the narrow lane so that the bus turns towards the exit without once having to use the reverse gear which would sound the alarm and draw unwanted attention. The rain has become a silver screen dancing in the lights of the bus as it travels through the lanes of the village in the direction of old Mrs Strachan’s tumbledown shack.
Some two hours later the bus stops on a low hilltop overlooking Loch Glau. The noise of the motor is silenced and the lights turned off, and again the darkness is filled with the sound of falling rain. From the windows of the bus dozens of pairs of eyes search the surroundings of the loch. More than once they have had to cancel everything because a pair of lovers had decided to be alone in the wild, but tonight the rain has driven every living creature from the loch. Soon it will be too cold, but meanwhile the weather is perfect. After five tense minutes all the occupants of the bus nod to each other and Aidan frees the hand brake. The bus sails noiselessly down the hill and stops with its wheels almost touching the waters of the loch licking the shore.
Mrs Campbell now removes her brown dress and exposes her drooping breasts and wrinkled belly. Next to her Mary takes off her shirt, and the smooth white skin of her shoulders becomes rougher and rougher until it becomes a hard scaly crust. Stuart who has taken off his shirt places two muscular hands on this father’s shoulders, who for his part pulls his son’s trousers down. The trousers are joined to the boy’s shoes, and now two long hooks are exposed in place of legs. Meanwhile, Mary puts her back against her mother’s breasts. Flora clasps her close until the breasts disappear into the body of her daughter, and her head melds into her back. When Leonard undresses with great difficulty, from the waist down he can be seen to be all one bone, and this is why he cannot sit. At the back, Busby and his three card-playing friends are struggling to take off their clothes and Aidan, watching from the front, signals to Mrs Strachan, whose scales are beginning to spread over her back, to go and help.
“It’s alright, Strachan,” groans Busby, still struggling with the sleeves of his shirt with stiff arms. “We’re managing, here.”
Aidan waits until he sees that those in the rear of the bus are progressing satisfactorily and then strips off his own clothes. From the outside his shirt looks as if it’s made of normal cloth, but the inside is covered with sponge over a row of white teeth which now slowly emerge. He goes to the moving bulk which was previously the occupants of the front seat, and turns his back to them while slimy trickles attach to him to join him to the pile of bodies that is merging into a unified whole.
For several minutes, an orgy of panting, groaning bodies rocks the bus, and then there is silence once more. After several minutes, the head of a huge reptile peeps out of the front door of the bus, in its wake a snake-like body with dozens of short legs. The creature flows quickly into the black waters and disappears. Again, silence reigns, and for a long time nothing happens.
Suddenly, bubbles appear in the centre of the loch, then a powerful whirlpool, then the head of a white horse emerges from the dark water. Its eyes are wide with terror and it thrusts with its hooves against the foaming water, trying desperately to reach the shore and escape the enraged predator at its heels.
Translated from Hebrew by Yehudit Keshet