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The Face in the Wall

by Tom Preston



The house she liked because it was full of shadows. Friends and television show hosts had aggressively advised that plenty of natural light was essential to a healthy modern home, but Glenda always found comfort in dark, angular spaces. To her, they meant shelter. Buying the property had been, she thought, a rather painless process, compared to what she was told to expect by equally aggressive know-it-all colleagues and relatives. She never even met the vendor, who herself had never lived in the property, which led Glenda to suspect the four-bedroom period house was a stubborn family heirloom that generation after generation had never been able to rid itself of. All proceedings had been dealt with through a twitchy estate agent who acted like his very soul depended on the sale being pushed through as quickly as possible, and so it was a mere six weeks after viewing the house that, on a wet April afternoon, Glenda and Lawrence pulled up outside their new home in a dented rental van, peering through the rain at its glistening façade. Bricks enveloped with aged moss and spidery ivy let the house glimmer red and green in a kind of festive rebuke to the rain; the windows were pleasingly dark, Glenda thought, like half-closed eyes on the cusp of a well-earned slumber. She and Lawrence saw the house only once before putting in the offer, when Lawrence had been in a rush to leave for an important client meeting in the afternoon, so they’d skipped a look at the back garden. Glenda only managed a glimpse of it through the kitchen window before they were running for the train station. 


Wearing a small smile she wasn’t entirely aware of, Glenda squeezed the key in her hands.  


‘Shall we?’ she said.


Lawrence sighed. ‘Can we wait until the rain has stopped? We’ll get soaked.’


‘Really, Lawrence?’


Glenda climbed out of the van. Without looking back at him, she walked up the steps and pushed the key into the lock. With a satisfying clunk, it welcomed her inside. 


She got the sense that the architect had intended for natural light to reach inside the house as little as possible; for the outside world’s prying eyes to search blindly around darkened corners and hidden recesses. Glenda found she liked this arch gesture of privacy. Walking down the narrow hallway, she felt as if she had been scooped up into another world.


Behind her, Lawrence was coming up the steps with the first of the boxes. 


‘Can you help me, please?’ he called.


Glenda was already in the kitchen, a nest of crooked 1970s yellow cabinets with a grumpy looking Aga on one side. She opened the flimsy door to the back porch. The garden was a broad tangle, hissing softly under the rainfall. Glenda began down the grassy decline, much longer than she had first thought, curving almost imperceptibly away from the house. She looked back up at her new home, pleased at the scattered pattern of missing roof tiles and stubborn, stocky chimney. A circular window sat in the crest of the roof, in what Glenda assumed was the attic. It was like a watchful eye. Her stomach tightened a fraction. What was she expecting to see? A white hand smearing the glass? A haunted face? She smiled to herself. She already knew that Lawrence, through his tepid excitement and slow packing, didn’t trust this place, but Glenda had found its dreary dampness and isolation a strange comfort; it was what she needed, she was surprised to realise, the first time she had walked down that dingy hallway. 


Glenda’s boots squelched in the mud, worms unearthing between her feet. A skeletal greenhouse with missing glass stood before a raised bed bursting with sodden earth and large, unruly leaves, the weather-smoothed panelling bowing against nature and negligence. Transfixed with what lay just beyond, Glenda climbed over and pushed through the low thicket of brambles to get a clear view of it: a gaunt spine of stone cutting across the garden. It curved away from the terrace, fluid with grey and yellowish hues, like a calcified serpent. Parts of its undulating shape reached high above Glenda’s head, stones alternately smooth and rough to the touch. She followed its curvature, noticing some stones laid at an inset at the wall’s highest point, which she guessed must have once been a window. A very high window, letting in a fraction light. 


Her gaze moved below the window as a scraping sound came from the wall, at a point no higher than her knee. She hunkered down to a cluster of stones, which looked different than the rest – newer somehow, and rougher – but through the mist of the rain it was hard to be sure. 


‘I don’t remember this from the survey,’ Lawrence said.


Glenda shuddered in surprise and turned, immediately to the additional shock of a hooded face watching them from over the fence. 


‘What the…?’


The face dropped from view, followed by the receding sound of wet footsteps.


Lawrence shrugged and said, ‘The new neighbour?’


*


Later that day they were sprawled out on the bed, aching from dragging soggy boxes to all corners of the house. After managing to order a takeaway just before midnight, they collapsed onto the bare mattress, chewing on tough pizza crusts, exhausted.


‘This place is … interesting, isn’t it?’ Lawrence said. 


‘I love it,’ said Glenda.


‘Hm.’


Glenda hadn’t located the lightbulbs, so she’d lit candles while they waited for the pizza to arrive, and watched fondly as the shadows and angles of the room shimmered and danced, like the house was giddy to have them as guests. 


‘Glenda?’


‘Yes?’


‘Do you want to talk yet?’ 


‘No.’


‘Can we make love?’


‘No.’


‘It’s just … the candles, new house…’


‘No, Larry, I’m too tired.’


‘You never call me Larry,’ Lawrence said, amused.


‘Don’t I?’


Lawrence turned onto his side and pulled her towards him. He pushed the hair out of her eyes and rested his palm on her cheek.


‘I still love this face, you know,’ he said. His breath smelt of hot cheese and garlic. ‘I’m so happy we did this.’


Glenda smiled through his lie.


‘What do you think that wall in the garden used to be part of?’ she blurted out.


*


The next morning Glenda weaved her way through the bedlam of boxes and heaps of clothes to the kitchen, following the smell of coffee. She poured a cup and stepped into the back garden. The day was bright, with a soft bite of heat from the sun, like the season had shifted overnight; air thick with the moist scent of soil and rampant photosynthesis. She began her way down towards (and thinking of nothing but) the ruined wall at the bottom. 


Approaching the greenhouse, she saw a figure through a gap from one of the missing panes of glass. She recognised Lawrence’s tousled bed hair. He was facing the wall, still in his pyjamas, and he was talking. Glenda stepped over the flowerbed to move closer. Lawrence was alone, but still he was talking, chin to chest, in a breathy, unnerving whisper; she was unable to make out the words as they rolled over his tongue, shaken free by the violent twitching of his neck. 


‘Lawrence?’


He didn’t turn, but the whispering stopped. He raised his head. Glenda felt a thin spasm of fear jerk through her legs. She couldn’t see his face. Like he wouldn’t show it. His coffee cup lay abandoned in the grass.


‘Are you alright?’ 


Lawrence turned. For a chilling moment he looked unrecognisable, his features flat and empty – a grotesque picture hanging against the old wall. Glenda backed away in dread and surprise. Then Lawrence blinked and smiled his familiar smile.


‘Morning, Glen! Breakfast? How about poached eggs? You know, I was thinking we could start with the living room today. What do you think?’


He kissed her on the cheek as he passed, on his way back to the house. Glenda, hand shaking, picked the coffee cup out of the grass. The wall looked remarkably immaculate in the morning sunshine, despite its evident age. Glenda looked down to the cluster of stones below the window. They were dry now, but three of them – of varying misshapen sizes, in a vague triangular formation – looked darker than they had before, compared to their neighbours. 


Hearing a wooden creak from behind, Glenda turned to see the hooded face who had been watching them the previous day. This time the man didn’t flee, but straightened up above the crooked fence slats. He lowered his hood, revealing a smooth, bald head.


‘It’s fascinating, isn’t it?’ he said, as if Glenda hadn’t spotted him. 


‘Were you spying on me yesterday too?’ she demanded.


‘Spying? No, no!’ he said, ‘looking – yes. I meant no offence. I was a little embarrassed for you to meet your new neighbour in that way. That’s why I ran off. I’m Peter. Welcome.’


‘Thank you.’ Although instinct told her he was harmless, she nevertheless found Peter’s face unsettling. She guessed he was in his late fifties, but his face was smooth, yet not in a youthful way. His age lurked in his eyes and in his disappearing hairline. His face was not just smooth, Glenda realised with increasing trepidation, but unnaturally flat. Just as Lawrence’s had been only moments ago.


‘Do you know anything about this wall?’ she said.


Peter’s smile widened. 


‘Constructed using a mixture of sandstone and limestone,’ he said. ‘Built in the eighteenth century. In regular use until the early twentieth. It was bombed during the Second World War, you see, and never rebuilt.’


‘Do you know what it was built for?’


‘To keep things in,’ Peter said. The corner of his mouth twitched. ‘I must get back to some errands. Have you explored the town yet?’ 


‘No. We moved in yesterday.’


‘I recommend the library.’


‘Hang on a sec–’


Peter’s head dropped from view. Glenda sighed and sipped her coffee, which was cold.


*


‘I won’t be long,’ she called down into the dark.


Lawrence’s dusty torso appeared at the bottom of the cellar steps, his face blurred in shadow. His chest heaved with a sigh. 


Almost a week had passed since they moved in, and Lawrence had spent the last two days clearing the cellar, often cursing and grunting loud enough for Glenda to hear from the top floor, which she suspected was less to do with manual effort and more with her refusing his late night advances when she was half asleep. For one, she wasn’t ready for him again. Secondly, she wasn’t as gullible as he thought she was. Glenda knew he hadn’t got rid of the second phone; on the fourth night, after she flicked away his hand and rolled away, he’d received a flurry of messages, the eagerness of the correspondence only emphasised by the alert tone she did not recognise. The repetitive rustling of the duvet had soon followed.


Glenda was eager to get out of the house before returning to work in the next few days, and Peter’s enigmatic suggestion of visiting the town library had been shyly lurking in the back of her mind.


‘I thought we were doing this together, Glenda,’ Lawrence said. ‘I want us to do this together. Don’t you?’


‘I won’t be long. Just a few errands to run. Post office. Stuff like that.’


By the time she was out the door, dark clouds had blossomed like fungus over the sky. The house sat on an isolated street just north of town, which itself was no more than a scatter of grey, grubby buildings, though with its second hand bookshops and coffee roasters and attempts at fine dining, it was not entirely without charm. 


As the deluge of rain began, Glenda located the library – a squat structure attempting to modernise and encourage the pursuit of free knowledge only to be let down by the rusting sign and the missing first R from “Library”. The small librarian pointed her in the direction of the computers, providing her with a login to the glitching database of the county archive and records. Glenda navigated to a section covering town development and residential expansion, punching the name of her new street into the search bar. It returned one brief mention of the terrace, buried in the middle of an article. The end of the sentence in question read, “…and it was shortly after the annual council meeting that construction of the terrace began, circa 1880, backing onto the grounds of Gladsmere Prison.” Glenda searched for Gladsmere Prison, which crashed the database. She asked the librarian, who rolled her eyes, clicked her tongue and led Glenda into a small room with a dusty microfilm machine. 


‘Use this,’ she said. Glenda half-expected her to add, with a cackle, If you dare! ‘The article is from 1915 in The Chronicle. I remember because that bald fella kept coming in to read it.’


*


When Glenda left the library it was almost dark, the rain easing off to a gentle hammering. Her head was still filled with the blotchy images of the microfilm machine. She made a detour down a quieter street, glancing through a coffee shop window as she went, to see Lawrence embracing a woman with a shock of curly red hair – a sight all too familiar from the photos on one of his secret screens. 


Glenda stopped dead in the street. An acidic taste erupted in the back of her throat. 


She looked in again. It wasn’t Lawrence. A smaller, skinnier man, with a blonde woman. 


Pulling her hood tight around her head, Glenda lit a cigarette from the old pack she kept in her coat, pushing her mind back to the inky newspaper images, the clunk of the machine as she wheeled over in seconds the endless pages of stories, lives and losses of those long forgotten. It hadn’t been difficult to find the article, not with a headline like “ESCAPED GLADSMERE PRISONER, CONDEMNED FOR DEATH, KILLED IN HOME INVASION'”, dated April 17, 1915, with a faded picture of an emaciated young man who oddly did not look afraid, only jaded. The story went that Charles Fitzgerald (pictured) was convicted of fatally poisoning his wife Norma in an attempt to inherit the considerable fortune of her late father, the Earl of Pladchester. The jury delivered a guilty verdict on Fitzgerald in less than two hours and he was sentenced to death by hanging. Two weeks after the conviction, seventy-eight-year-old Belinda Carlisle made a call to the local constabulary, declaring she had gravely burnt an intruder in her cellar, who had quickly died from his injuries. Detectives discovered that the man in question had tunnelled his way into her cellar from Gladsmere Prison, surprising her as she retrieved another bottle of sherry from her stores. In a panic she had struck the intruder with her lamp with such force that it broke, dousing Fitzgerald’s face in paraffin. A spark from the naked flame ignited the paraffin and burnt away most of his face. He was unrecognisable, only identifiable from the prisoner number sewn into his uniform. 


Charles Fitzgerald always maintained his innocence.


*


Glenda felt a melancholy nag in her gut as she entered the house, laced with a deep, weary hatred of Lawrence. She had tried, she really had. He had not. It had been his idea to move in the first place. She had embraced it. Glenda moved down the gloomy hall, closing her hand around the doorknob of the cellar door. She didn’t have the strength to ignore it any more. His false promises, a renewed erotic interest in her, groping for her hips in the dark while he groped back into a dishonest past he had never really departed, while Glenda had only just managed to shut the door on it, let alone lock and bolt, throw away the key. Why had she acted along in the lie?


Chilly moisture hung in the static air of the cellar. Using the torch from her phone, Glenda scanned the walls, some bricks cracked and crumbling, all of them covered in a black, fungal film. She found a brick that looked redder than the others. She dragged the rusty shelving unit away from the wall, paint pots and cloudy mason jars wobbling, shining the torch again to observe other newer bricks, which must have been smeared in later to fill a breach in the wall. She imagined a blackened hand pushing through the bricks and mortar, bloody fingers clutching for freedom. 


Glenda turned in a circle to find her bearings. The cellar wall with the new bricks faced the back of the house, which of course meant the garden, and the old wall. Gladsmere Prison. Is this where it happened? Fitzgerald clawing through to what he thought was liberty, only to literally face flames and a swift, agonising death – at the hands of a startled, tipsy old lady searching for sherry. Perhaps he had it coming, Glenda reasoned bitterly, after murdering his way to a fortune he had no claim to, whining for the lucrative tit of Pladchester from behind a mask of false affection, commitment and love.


Peter, suggesting the library, knew Glenda would go looking for answers about the wall. But why did he want her to? Glenda held the light up to the brickwork. The newer bricks were wreathed, not with black slime, but scorch marks. 


The memory of Lawrence’s big arms around that woman with the stunning red hair leered out of the dark. Glenda shook her head because it hadn't been real. But then, who’s to say it wasn’t happening right now, somewhere else?


A creak pierced the dark. Fear seized Glenda as the torchlight caught a feeble figure standing at the bottom of the steps, one hand outstretched. Lawrence whimpered. Glenda inched forward. The phone light illuminated the dark hollows where the eyes used to sit in his head. 


‘I told you I was sorry, Glenda,’ he whined. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? And now you do, you do … this?’


‘I don’t…’ Glenda began, her voice stolen by the shock of what she was witnessing.


Lawrence’s nostrils were closing. With a wet crunch, the ridge of his nose sank into the rest of his face. Glenda realised the grotesque process had begun that morning five days ago, when Lawrence had been staring, talking, to the prison wall, his face vacant, his eyes – usually so sharp, searching – missing something. He screamed, ‘How could you do this to me, you frea–?’ before his mouth clamped shut. White shards of tooth sprang from his mouth before the lips flapped closed. His face was gone. 


Silence filled the cellar. Glenda held up the light, terror and disgust giving way to fascination, as she watched Lawrence’s facial muscles squirm and pulse under a single stretch of skin over his head. She reached out a hand to touch him, aware that it wasn’t out of pity or concern for him, but something closer to relief. Even satisfaction. 


Glenda came to her senses in that cold darkness, surprised at her own callousness, as a voice broke through from above.


She climbed the cellar steps. A crowing laughter was vaulting through the house. At the bottom of the garden, a solitary orange light skipped back and forth, making the prison wall appear to quiver in the dark. It was a lantern held by Peter, who was dancing below the window cavity, jubilantly crying out to no one, ‘This is it, Fitz! This is it! Was this one yummy? Was he yummy enough, Fitz?’ Then he raised a bottle of clear liquid and inverted it, emptying the contents over himself. Peter picked up the lantern again and broke it on his head, which blossomed into an orb of flame before he slumped, dead, on the grass. The flames of his burning head had fizzled out before Glenda found the courage to move her legs. Clouds of dust floated out from the wall by the triangle of stones beneath the window, as they scraped and shifted into two hollow eyes, a flexing mouth; others tremored into place - a row of grey teeth, weather-smoothed eyebrows, a pockmarked chin. All to form the grinning face of Charles Fitzgerald, trapped within the last wall of Gladsmere Prison. Lawrence’s face was gone, Peter’s burned away, and Fitzgerald’s was returning. Was Glenda’s next?


The face began to speak.


Glenda, however, wasn’t listening. The initial revulsion of Peter’s sacrifice was already beginning to wane, and she thought the face in the wall looked helpless and pitiful, even comical. It reminded her of Lawrence at the height of his gaslighting days, a time when Glenda thought she was going insane, literally pulling her hair out, trapped on a carousel of fury and guilt while Lawrence fucked his way through multiple business trips he was never reimbursed for. 


Yes, it was a pitiful face Glenda was looking at now, but that didn't stop her from picking up the bottle of white spirit beside Peter’s melting scalp and reaching into her pocket. She turned back to Fitzgerald’s crumbling face, raised the bottle and flicked on the lighter.



 


Tom Preston (he/him) is a writer from Dorset, UK. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Online, Horla, Dark Horses Magazine and Dagda Publishing. Two of his poems were featured in Forward Poetry's 'Light Up the Dark' edition. He lives in London.


He can be found on X: @tomp_reston


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