21. Through the keyhole


Perfectly satisfied that the Nottingham Forest manager, troubled Yorkshire batsman, Factory Records head honcho, frontman of The Fall and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet actor were fully ensconced in departure preparations, wily Peter O’Toole quietly ascended the wide carpeted staircase with I-won’t-be-a-moment deftness. He was nearing the summit when a shrill training-ground voice atom-bombed the busy silence. “Eh, hold it right there! Where do you think you’re off to?” It was Brian Clough.

O’Toole halted as if he’d been caught in a POW camp’s spotlight and turned slowly to offer an explanation, arms raised. From his lofty position, he noted five pairs of burning eyes, while Smith had gone the extra mile by partly pushing his denture from his mouth to enhance his expression of surprise.

“I believe I dropped my wallet upstairs,” O’Toole lied, meekly pointing skywards. “I’ve looked everywhere for the bugger.”

“Ohh, no you don’t,” Clough called, shaking his finger. “You must be some basket case to be visiting that bloody room on your own. Did your mother never tell you that curiosity killed the cat?”

“Mummy told me that and much more,” O’Toole smiled. “Daddy, on the other hand, was more a gambling man.”

“What’s your game?” Clough asked, striding to the foot of the stairs.

“I’d like to be a busy, busy bee, being just as busy as a bee can be,” answered O’Toole. “Now, if you’ll excuse me for a few moments, I’d like to say bye-bye to our host – the light-emitting Orthrus.”

“Loiterin’ wi’ intent,” Boycott accused, which O’Toole thought was accurate enough. “You could be puttin’ us all in peril, all for want of childish inquisitiveness. Whatever it is, it obviously wants to be left in peace – as do I! It’s like pokin’ a stick at Doberman Pinscher… that’s on steroids.”

“I’ll accompany him,” Wilson stepped forward, “to make sure he doesn’t go needlessly rattling anyone’s – or anything’s – chain. I’m on this earth to experience things, even if these things are not of this earth. Pity I haven’t got a film crew here. It would make a good shaggy dog story.”

“You’re nuts pair of yer,” Boycott stated.

“Anyone else for tennis?” O’Toole asked.

“And get mauled again, no ta,” Smith spoke. “I’m gonna keep an eye on my cups filling with water. Drink meself fitter. Get this headache shifted.”

“Listen, we’ll give you 15 minutes, then we’re through that door,” Boycott announced. Next, like a conjurer at a Butlins holiday camp during a sensational Saturday-evening show, Boycott pulled a cricket bat and stitched leather ball from his bag.

“Eh, is that the instrument you used to clobber that gobshite last night by that phone box?” Clough laughed.

“Aye, it is,” replied Boycott. “To be ’onest, I’d forgot I’d brought them. No wonder me bag felt so weighty on that walk yesterday. Now, Smithy, be a good egg and stand that stool up near fire. That’s us wickeeet. Healy, sunshine, put my ’at on floor up other end. That’s where you bowl from. Are you any good at deliveries? I’m first man, of course. I’ll declare at ’alf century and show you ’ow it’s done. Shouldn’t take me long.”

Smith and Clough dutifully took up their positions in the “outfield”, placing themselves at the far end of the hall. Silly mid-off would have been suicidal. They expected a lively contest and were not to be disappointed. However, this was a cruel twist of events for keen cricket fan O’Toole and he found himself in turmoil. Did he want to miss out on an impromptu match with the great Yorkshire and England batsmen or did he more strongly desire tormenting a slavering supernatural beast?

“We have an appointment with beings from another dimension,” Wilson reminded O’Toole and gestured with his hand. “Please sir, after you.”

“Good man!” O’Toole winked. “Let’s not waste a second. We observe – see what piqued Hitler’s interest – and we bugger off.”

The Oscar-free actor and the servant of Granada TV paced purposefully along the landing, glancing down to see Boycott take the crease with his bat under his arm. A consummate professional, Boycott made a great spectacle of the occasion. He narrowed his eyes to judge the distance to an imaginary boundary and tapped his bat on the parquet floor to ascertain the ground conditions. Just as O’Toole and Wilson entered the darkness of the dusty, cobweb-strewn first floor corridor, an almighty cloccckkk was heard as leather struck willow, followed by the sound of breaking glass.

“Put me down for six!” Boycott could be heard shouting from the hall. “At ’Eadingly it would’ve dropped in Kirkstall Lane!”

The door to the children’s bedroom alarmed O’Toole and Wilson, not least because strips of yellow light could be seen blazing from its edges. O’Toole licked his lips, reached for the handle, paused and applied pressure. To his dismay, it was locked. He yanked the handle and gave more force but the door remained firm.

“Let’s not push our luck,” Wilson said.

O’Toole thought this through and finally nodded.

“Wait a second,” Wilson added, and gathered internal strength by running his fingers through his wavy brown hair and lowered to his knees. He then pushed his left eye up to the keyhole. “Well, the funny thing is, there’s no key in the lock,” he reported.

“What can you see?” O’Toole asked.

“It’s interesting,” Wilson said.

“Elucidate,” O’Toole demanded.

“Yeah, hang on, hang on… The light’s on. It’s bright in there. Curtains are drawn. Now, remember the ventriloquist’s dummy? It’s alive and it’s playing with the dolls house. And… oh fuck, it’s seen me. It’s looking at me.”

“Move aside,” said O’Toole.

Wilson sat back against the wall, eyebrows knitted with bewilderment. “The fucking ventriloquist’s dummy was moving. Extraordinary. Fucking creepy. Very fucking creepy.”

O’Toole steadied himself and placed an eye up to the lock. He scanned the room with a Popeye sweep but to his agitation failed to spot anything of note. He was ready to question Wilson’s journalistic prowess when there came a scuffle from the room and the noise of wood on wood.

“Did you hear that?” O’Toole murmured in low, secretive tones. “But I still can’t see… Ah, what’s this?”

The view through the keyhole suddenly darkened and, in a flash, a wide-open eyeball appeared in shadow, looking straight back at O’Toole. The thespian launched backwards through shock and ended up sprawled on the grubby floor as if he’d been thwacked by Frank Bruno.

“What happened?” Wilson excitedly enquired.

“It’s on the other side of the door!” O’Toole shout-whispered. “Inches away from us.”

Wilson’s blood ran cold and his hair stood on end. He realised he was in fight or flight mode. Despite this, his news-yielding instincts took the fore and he decided to take a last view through the keyhole to corroborate O’Toole’s account. To his revulsion, he saw the face of the dummy framed perfectly by the aperture, it’s face contorted into a wild, evil, dreadful smile, lips a stretched “v” and it’s eyebrows angled to accentuate its terrifying features. It waved its stubby finger at Wilson: you’ve been a naughty boy.

Wilson grimly smiled and turned to O’Toole. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

O’Toole nodded. “I think we’ve seen enough.”

Wilson wonkily stood. Noticing that O’Toole was having problems with his ageing knees, he offered a hand. At that point, the door opened with stunning violent force and the duo found themselves bathed in light. Wilson was able to stagger away from danger but, looking over his shoulder, saw with horror the outstretched fingers of the dummy seize O’Toole by the ankles and began tugging the actor of Irish descent into its grisly playroom.

“Come with me – ha-ha-ha!” the dummy snarled with a curiously well-spoken manner.

“Wilson,” O’Toole squirmed. “If I’m going to end up in Hell, I’d rather go under my own steam!”

Wilson grabbed O’Toole by the wrist and there began a crazed tug-of-war, Factory Records chief versus crazed possessed dummy. The puppeteered prop’s smile intensified and it seemed to be gaining dominance. Wilson, acting rapidly and overcoming extreme fear, span round on his backside and flicked a Nike accurately into the centre of the dummy’s perverse kisser. O’Toole sprang free and scrambled clear, this time having no difficulty finding his feet. Wilson grabbed the door with both hands and eagerly pulled it shut before the dummy, nursing a shattered nose, had time to retaliate. The two ran literally like their lives depended on it.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the main hall, Boycott pounded a Clough delivery at full toss and smashed the maroon ball towards the back wall. Healy had already decided that to place any part of his body in its path would lead to the pulverisation of bone.

“It’s yours!” Clough bawled.

“Howay man,” Healy laughed, “it’s going the speed of sound!”

The ball remained arrow-true on its upwards trajectory and obliterated a wooden wall panel before vanishing.

“Your grandmother could’ve caught that in ’er pinny!” Boycott shouted.

“She’s welcome to it!” Healy responded.

“And that’s another six for Boycott,” the batsman commentated. “There’s no stoppin’ Yorkshire captain today! He’s immense! And ’e recognises roar of crowd!” – and Boycott waved his bat.

Smith grinned at the complete mayhem and wanton destruction he was witnessing. This was more like it. There then came a satisfying clunk as the ball landed at ground level inside the wall cavity.

“I’ve another ball in me bag, Brian,” Boycott announced. “Just reach in.”

Healy attempted to retrieve the lost ball from the wall, if only to postpone more danger at the hands of Boycott and his thrashing bat. He manoeuvred his arm down through the gash in the plastering but instead collapsed headfirst into the damaged space. Turning to free himself, he glanced to his left only to see a skull emerge out of the grey dust, it’s skeletal jaw swinging open as if it was screaming – “Yaaaaaah!” Then black beetles escaped from its mouth and eye sockets. “Wuuuuh!” Healy panicked. Things were little better when he looked to his other side. A bony hand landed chummily on his shoulder. All of a sudden he was dancing with the dead, skulls busily arriving out of the blackness like rush hour at Newcastle Central rail station, mouths opening and gaping, “Yaaaaaah!”, “Yaaaaaahhh!”, Yaaaaaahhhhh!”, and beetles clicking. As Healy began to accept his fate trapped among ribcages, period costume and shiny black insects, Clough’s hand grabbed him by the collar and tugged the actor free from the chattering corpses.

“What’re you buggering about at?” Clough chided.

“There’s dead bodies everywhere, look, man!” Healy pointed out.

“So what?” Clough testily answered. “I need my fielders alert and ready!”

Clough heard a commotion from behind and saw a blur of movement as O’Toole and Wilson zoomed down the stairs as fast as their legs could carry them – O’Toole choosing to slide down the banister on a bottom cheek to speed up his descent.

“We need to go!” O’Toole waved, “and I mean right now!”

Healy batted the dust from his bike leathers and his eyes swivelled waiting for a command from cricket captain Clough.

“Twenty-four not out!” Boycott totted up, then slung his bat in his bag, rapidly zipped it up and collected his hat from the floor.

Wilson skidded into Hangingbrow Hall’s entrance and flung open the heavy wooden door. They each dashed into the rain, expertly slaloming the array of pots and pans of water laid in the grass, and on to the safety of the woodland and Smith’s Back Passage.

Breathless, coughing, choking, but still jogging, they gradually regained their senses.

“Did anyone pick up my contact lens solution from fireplace?” asked Boycott.

“Or any matches?” Smith added.

Go to Chapter 22: Smith’s Back Passage.