It’s February, it’s cold and grey and has been raining pretty much non-stop in the UK. My week off is almost over and I’ll be back to school on Monday – although counting down to the move into my new library! To celebrate the latter and cheer up those suffering from the misery of the British weather, I’m offering up a short story I wrote a few years back. It’s first appearance was in Terror Tree’s Pun Book of Horror which I co-edited. ‘The Woman in Slacks’ is also included in my short story collection, The Reckoning, and is a parody of – yes, you’ve guessed it – The Woman in Black. I had a lot of fun writing this and it still holds a place in my heart. Brown polyester, anyone?
The Woman in Slacks
It had been one of those grim, dreary days when Vincent had first seen her. His train had eventually pulled into the station some three hours after it was supposed to and he was tired, hungry and extremely irritable – in other words a typical day’s commute, although one that had sent him to some godforsaken little town on the Norfolk coast. Despite arrangements having been made, there was no one to meet him and the taxi ranks were empty.
In the background a church clock struck twelve. He’d been warned about the witching hour before he’d set off. Pray you get there before twelve, old Mr Tomlinson had said. Once it strikes the hour, you’re on your own. He’d been right. As Vincent dragged his suitcase down the high street, ‘Open’ signs turned over before his eyes. People vanished in front of him. Soon it was just him, his luggage – and her.
She was stood in the archway beneath the old town hall that dominated the market place. It was the slightest of movements that had brought her to his attention. He could not make out her features from this distance but he could clearly see her trousers, coloured the most gruesome shade of brown known to man. It was with an uneasy feeling of dread that he approached this solitary figure. Closing in on her he noticed that the trouser fabric seemed to shine, even on such an overcast day as this. Cheap polyester he shuddered. The curse of mankind. Still, he had no choice.
“Excuse me,” he called as she moved away. “Excuse me, could you …”
She was gone. Bewildered, Vincent gazed around. There were no doors or alleyways down which she could have gone. She had simply vanished into thin air. Across the road an old pub caught his eye, its bowed walls and black timbers hinting at extreme age. The King’s Head seemed to be the only establishment that was still open. Wearily Vincent walked through its doors and settled himself at a window seat in the small dining area. He took out his phone to make a call to the Brewers to explain his late arrival. There was no signal. With a sigh he returned his phone to his pocket.
“Won’t get no signal round ‘ere,” said a gruff voice behind him. Vincent turned round. A grizzled old man sat by the open fire. “Signal always goes when it rains, which is most days. Not keen on the sun much neither, and if she’s walking … well then you don’t stand a cat’s chance.” With that he turned his back on Vincent and resumed his contemplation of the fire.
Slightly nonplussed, Vincent shrugged and picked up the menu.
“Course you could always go to the park and stand on the bench by the duck pond – third one along as you go into the park from the high street. Usually a queue this time of day though, what with it bein’ early closin’ an’ all.”
Vincent turned round again. The old man had gone.
“Don’t worry about old Jack,” said a waitress materialising at his elbow. “He’s harmless enough. A regular walking encyclopaedia of local information. He’s probably gone to join the queue.”
“Why doesn’t he just use the pay phone here?” Vincent indicated a phone on the wall near the bar.
“And let everyone know your business? He wants his privacy.”
Vincent couldn’t imagine how standing on a park bench bellowing into a phone with half the town listening in was any more private than making a call in a more-or-less deserted bar.
The waitress returned with a surprisingly generous plate of steak and chips. He remembered to ask for the receipt. If he had to come to such a place as this then he was determined to get as much as he could out of his expenses.
“That man, Jack,” he said as he took the proffered ticket and slipped into his wallet. “He said you couldn’t get a signal if she’s walking. What did he mean by that?”
The waitress, Emily, according to her name badge, visibly paled and glanced around nervously. “Oh nothing, nothing. That’s just Jack as I said. He can be a silly old fool.”
“Yes, but … she?” he prompted.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got to get back to the kitchen. Can’t stand here chatting during the lunchtime rush,” and with a quick apologetic smile, she was gone.
Vincent gazed blankly around the empty bar. If there was a rush it had certainly passed him by. He leaned back in his chair. A full stomach, comfortable surroundings, it made up in some small part for the dreadful journey. He sipped his pint slowly and surveyed the view from the window. The streets were still deserted but in the shadow of the archway he saw her again, the unmistakeable sheen of those dreadful trousers drawing his eye in, hypnotizing him.
“Sir, sir. Are you alright?”
Vincent jumped. The man he’d identified earlier as the landlord was looking anxiously down at him.
“You were looking a little peaky sir. I was just wondering if you were alright?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” said Vincent hastily. “Thank you for your concern though.”
“Well you can’t be too careful nowadays. Only last week we had a customer – a man about the same age as you – sat here gazing out the window, like you, and when I came over – well, he was dead like. Had a heart attack. Frightened the life out of me I can tell you.”
“I’m sure it must’ve been quite a shock,” said Vincent slightly disturbed by the conversation.
“It was that,” agreed the landlord, nodding his head emphatically. “Got me and my staff onto First Aid courses pretty sharpish after that I can tell you.” The landlord waved his arm at the wall behind the bar where a range of First Aid certificates were proudly displayed.
“That’s very … reassuring,” said Vincent, slightly at a loss for words. Time for a change of subject he felt. “Tell me. I keep seeing this woman in the street. She’s out there now, under the arch. I was wondering if you knew who she was?”
The landlord peered out of the window. “No one there now I’m afraid. What did she look like?”
Vincent shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know really, I couldn’t quite catch her face, but her trousers … they were truly terrible.”
Like the waitress, the landlord’s face had gone white. “Can’t help you there I’m afraid. I’d better get back to the bar, things to do. A pub doesn’t run itself you know.” Then he was gone.
Vincent glanced at his watch. The afternoon was drawing on, time for him to get moving. Brown trousers would have to wait. A local taxi firm had stuck their card above the phone in the bar. Vincent called a cab. The landlord watched him silently as he left.
“Where to guv’nor?”
“Lych House, do you know it?”
“Oh, the Brewer’s old place do you mean? Yes I know it. Lucky you called me now. Any later and the tide would be in and you wouldn’t have been able to get out there today.”
“Didn’t you know? There’s been a lot of erosion in these parts. Lych House is gradually getting cut off.”
The sky hung heavy with rain, black clouds pressed down on the bleak landscape as the taxi sped through it. Puddles became deeper and wider in the rutted roads but the driver didn’t slow down. It was as if he wanted to get the job done and over with as quickly as possible.
“Do you want me to wait?” asked the cabbie when they finally arrived.
“No, no. I’ve arranged to stay over for the night.”
“You’re … staying … over?”
“Yes. The family want me to go through some old papers. They said I’d have everything I needed to be comfortable.”
“I hope they included some holy water and a wooden stake in that,” said the taxi driver.
“Nothing, nothing. Just my little joke.” The cabbie avoided his eyes. “I’ll come over tomorrow morning to take you back.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll give you a call when I need you.”
“You’ll be lucky,” said the taxi driver. “No phone in the house and no signal either.”
“Ah. Alright then. I’ll um … see you in the morning.”
The taxi drove off leaving Vincent to take in the full grimness of Lych House. It was certainly an imposing building but it had most definitely seen better days. Rotting window frames barely contained the glass which visibly moved in the howling wind. The door didn’t seem in much better condition either and the brickwork was beginning to crumble away. He found the key he’d been given and turned the lock. The door groaned in protest, grudgingly allowing him in. It smelled damp and musty. If it hadn’t been raining he would have flung open the windows. Vincent left his case in the hall and examined his new surroundings.
The rooms seemed barely habitable with peeling wallpaper and noticeable splodges of mould on the ceilings. One small room, obviously a study, was in slightly better condition. A fire had been laid ready in the hearth, matches placed by a storm lamp on the coffee table. A comfortable looking camp bed had been made up. His host’s thoughtfulness had extended to a kettle and the necessities to make a hot drink. A cool box contained milk and beer.
An envelope had been placed on his pillow. It contained a welcome from his clients. They hoped he would find everything he needed in the study. A hot meal could be had using the microwave they’d left him for the purpose. Vincent glanced around. It was sat, rather incongruously, on the Victorian sideboard. Some ready meals had been buried beneath the beer. Amongst the general instructions was a strange warning – on no account was he to go upstairs during the hours of darkness, no matter what he heard – or thought he heard.
Vincent went over to the grimy window and cleared a hole in the dirt. It was still dark from the rain clouds but night had not yet fallen. Curiosity piqued, Vincent went upstairs. There were three bedrooms, all empty of furniture, a rather disgustingly-stained bathroom and a small room at the end of the corridor which, from the fading border of fluffy bunnies, had once been a nursery. The only item in there was a rocking chair. He shrugged his shoulders and went back downstairs. It had suddenly occurred to him that a toilet was a necessity. What if he should need one in the night? Returning to the study, he re-examined the letter. At the bottom of the page he noticed a small PTO. He flipped it over. Toilet facilities can be found outside. Outside? He stuck his head out the back door. Unceremoniously positioned in the middle of the yard amongst a pile of building material was a portaloo. Someone had also thoughtfully hung a key and toilet roll by the kitchen door. Vincent didn’t fancy the idea of such a night trip – perhaps a bucket could be found.
Back in the study once more, he lit the fire, brewed a cup of tea and started to work his way through the boxes of papers that had been left out for him. There was nothing exciting there, dry legal documents, barely legible land deeds. It all had to be catalogued and sorted. He was thinking about taking a break when he pulled out a pile of old letters, these were personal correspondence.
Dear Rosemary, began the first one. I am sorry to have to say goodbye to you like this but I couldn’t think of any other way. You really are a lovely girl and I’m sure one day you’ll find the right man, I’m afraid that it’s just not meant to be me,
Yours Affectionately, Roger
PS. You really should ditch those trousers that you’re always in. I mean, polyester, and THAT colour. Really darling!
Vincent thought of the woman under the arch. He picked up another letter.
Dear Rosemary, I’m sorry to have to …
It was almost identical to the first except that this was signed Geoffrey and he too delivered a parting shot at the trousers, this time complaining of the static shocks he received when close to her. Didn’t she realise they could seriously damage a man’s chances of becoming a father?
The next letter was from Jack. Vincent wondered if he was the same one that he had met in the pub. Somehow he found it hard to picture him as the courting kind. Perhaps when he was younger. Vincent checked the date, it was thirty-odd years ago. That made it a bit more feasible. He too complained about the trousers. Beneath the letters was a small diary.
14th Feb. Valentine’s Day. No roses or chocolates for me. Just a cowardly letter from Roger finishing with me. He even had the nerve to criticise the clothes I wear. Polyester is so easy to wash. Bet he has someone to do the laundry for him.
The next entry was a month letter and recorded her response to Geoffrey’s missive and then after another month there was a reference to Jack’s letter. And so it went on. Many more entries detailing her breakups – she must’ve worked her way through half the town’s male population he thought – before it finished on a final one.
31st October. The whole town’s laughing at me. They think I don’t see them but I do, sniggering behind their lace curtains, making sarcastic remarks about elasticated waistbands. If only they’d try them themselves I’m sure they’d change their minds, I mean I’ve got plenty of spares. It was a lucky day when that Transylvanian cargo vessel broke up on the coast and they all washed up. And that strange sailor was a real gentleman. There was no need to tell the authorities about him was there? He just needed a bit of time to recover before he set off to sea again. And he’d been no bother, no bother at all. In fact I never saw him during the day. He kept himself to himself. Like I said … a real gentleman. Not like the others, they need to be taught a lesson …
Vincent rubbed his eyes. This was all such a long time ago, and yet … he glanced at the clock. It was ten already. Where had the time gone? Time to try the facilities. Wearily he hauled himself out of his seat and headed out into the yard. Thankfully the earlier storm seemed to have eased somewhat. He entered the plastic cubicle and sat down. There was a loud rumble from somewhere and then the ground began to shake. He grabbed at the side of the cubicle to steady himself but still the growling continued. It was as if pressure from something deep below was building up and getting ready to explode. He tried to stand only to tangle himself up in his trousers as he did so, they remained resolutely around his ankles. The portaloo started to rock from side to side. Maybe it was kids, it was nearly Halloween after all.
“Hey! he cried. “Pack it in.” There was only a shrill laugh in reply and the toilet continued to move. Any minute now he thought and it would go over and then he’d really be in the …
The cubicle slammed down, the door flying open as it did so, spewing Vincent and its more unsavoury contents out into the night. The rumbling stopped and silence rolled over the house again. Trembling, he bent down to pull his trousers up only to jerk his hand away in disgust. Whatever they were covered in he didn’t want to know and gingerly stepped out of the offending garment. He left them lying there by the prone cubicle. A bucket. Next time he would definitely use a bucket. He quickly made his way back to the kitchen, washing himself down as best he could at the sink. As he dried himself he noticed something hanging over the back of a chair. It was a pair of brown, polyester trousers, complete with elasticated waist. No chance he thought. Lucky I brought spares with me. He turned his back on the trousers and returned to the study. The first thing was find his deodorant, a good spray with that should remove the rest of the smell.
He sat down by the fire, enjoying its warmth. It was a good time to indulge in some of that whisky his clients had so kindly left him he thought and swiftly knocked back a glass. What had happened? A freak storm, that was all, which just so happened to have rather bizarre consequences. Logical, it was all perfectly logical. And the trousers in the kitchen? They must’ve been there earlier, he just hadn’t seen them.
He poured himself another glass and leaned back in his chair. He would just sit quietly for a while and then he would …
Crash! Vincent jumped up so quickly that he knocked the whisky bottle over. He watched in horror as an unfortunate wet patch spread across his trousers. With a sigh he stepped out of the clothing and draped it over the side of a chair. They would soon be dry. True, they’d smell like a brewery tomorrow but that was a million times better than the garment he’d abandoned outside. He still had another pair of jeans as well as some pyjamas. There was a dull thud outside the door and the lamplight flickered alarmingly. Vincent moved towards the door and slowly turned the handle. He held up the lantern to illuminate the corridor but could see nothing, only a never-ending darkness. At his feet was a small mound. Slowly he bent down to examine the object. Trousers. Again. And these most certainly had not been there earlier. He stepped back quickly and slammed the door shut. He could see no bolt or lock and so dragged a chair over and propped it beneath the handle.
The letter had told him not to go upstairs and despite hearing rather sulky footsteps stomping overhead, Vincent thought that was fine by him. He could never understand those horror films where the characters went off into the darkness to investigate strange happenings. They always died, or became possessed, or both. He had no intention of succumbing to such stupidity. He would stay here, in the study, and not go anywhere until it was light. But first he’d put on some trousers. It was going to be bad enough if he did end up running screaming from the house but if he did that and wasn’t wearing any trousers, oh the humiliation.
As if on cue the window blew open. A huge gust of wind sent his papers whirling, clothes spinning. Something brown blasted in through the window, heading straight for him. He ducked at the last minute and whatever it was went straight into the fire causing it to hiss and spit. Vincent ran across to the window to secure it once more and pulled the curtains to, shutting out the night. Returning to the fireplace, a small fragment of smoking material fluttered onto the hearthstone. He could make out the words 100% polyester.
Vincent backed away, stumbling over his suitcase and landing on the camp bed. He pulled out a pair of jeans, disturbing his pyjamas as he did so. Hadn’t he placed them under the pillow earlier? He could’ve sworn he had. Carefully he lifted up the pillow. There, where his pyjamas should’ve been, was yet another pair of those bloody trousers.
Perhaps it was time to get drunk, after all wouldn’t you if you were being haunted by a ghost with a brown polyester trouser fetish? What had the taxi driver said? He’d hoped I’d brought some holy water and a stake. Well he didn’t have that, but there was a bible on the bookcase, he’d got a crucifix – admittedly he’d bought it for Susan so it was a bit girlie – but she wouldn’t mind if he wore it in the meantime. He grabbed the book, slipped the necklace over his head and dragged the armchair over so that its back was against the wall. Nothing would be able to creep up behind him. Then both the lamp and the fire went out. Somewhere in the house a clock struck midnight, yet the clocks he’d seen earlier had all stopped.
“This is not happening, this is not happening,” he moaned, repeating the mantra over and over again. Now something was pulling at his legs, tugging at his jeans. He swatted the unseen hands away with the bible. There was a howl in the darkness and his invisible attacker backed off but the respite was only temporary. Back came his assailant, this time grappling with his belt, his fly buttons, desperately trying to tear his trousers off him. It was a nightmare parody of some much more enjoyable evenings. He tried not to think of what it might lead to.
“No,” he shouted. “No! Don’t you understand that when a man says no, he means no?”
Silence. Somehow he managed to dress himself again whilst retaining a firm grip on his bible. Whatever was attacking him didn’t like that book and he was damned if he was going to let his one weapon go. He fished out his crucifix and pointed it into the darkness. “Begone foul fiend,” he cried, trying to ignore how ridiculous he sounded.
There was a mocking laugh. His attacker didn’t think too much of his effort either and then both lamp and fire flickered back to life. He glanced at his watch. It was one o’clock. How many hours to dawn? Three? Four? It was going to be a long night. Regretfully he pushed the beer away. He needed to stay sober and awake. Coffee.
By the time daylight had begun to seep through the curtain, he was a nervous wreck. His heart was pounding from the caffeine hit it had taken and his legs were twitching and jerking manically. He got up and walked around the room again. The fire was out. It had been smothered by a delivery of trousers somewhere between the hours of two and three. He preferred to remain cold rather than go near those garments. It was a sleeping monster, any minute now they would launch a four-pair attack. His hand cramped. He had not let go of the bible once. It was getting light, surely he would be able to put it down now so that he could massage a bit of life back into his fingers and he was still wearing his crucifix after all.
Very slowly, he put the book on the table, keeping his eye fixed on the dead fire all the time. As he wriggled his fingers, he felt himself start to tingle. At first he ignored the feeling, it was just his circulation re-establishing itself. Then the tingling became a prickling. He glanced in the mirror and was shocked to see that his hair was standing out in all directions, just like that experiment everybody did at school with a Van der Graaf generator.
The chair under the door handle toppled forward and the door banged open. He grabbed the bible once more and stepped out into the hallway. The air felt as if it were alive with static. He had to get out of the house but which way? Memories of the portaloo incident returned, that ruled out the back door.
He took a deep breath and ran for it, chanting the only prayer he knew – which happened to be from the funeral service, he had been to rather a lot of funerals lately. It wasn’t very comforting but still it was better than nothing he thought. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he intoned. He was at the front door. Don’t look back, don’t look back, he told himself. He looked back.
All the way up the stairs and beyond, as far as the eye could see were pairs of brown polyester trousers. There was a low humming sound, it almost sounded like … no, it couldn’t be … yes ‘100% polyester, elasticated waist, comfort fit, 100% polyester, elasticated waist, comfort fit,‘. Again and again. He struggled with the door, the rain had warped the wood and was stopping it from opening. Behind him he could hear the mass move, creeping down the stairs, coming to claim him. Any minute now his attacker would be trying to pull his jeans off again. He gave another tug and the door gave way once and for all. He sprinted out into the morning air and freedom.
The tide hadn’t gone completely out but it was shallow enough for him to run through. He kept on, even though his heart was hammering and his lungs felt as if they were about to burst. Finally, when he thought he could run no longer, he saw a car coming towards him. It was the taxi-driver. Vincent flagged him down and jumped in.
“My god mate, you alright? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Yeah,” he replied breathlessly. “I think you could say that.”
The cabbie looked at him thoughtfully. “You know you should really get out of those wet things as quickly as possible. Hang on a tick, I think I’ve got something in the boot that’ll just do the trick.”
The taxi-driver got out of the car and rifled around in the boot for a minute before reappearing.
“Here you go mate. 100% polyester, elasticated waist, comfort fit.” The cabbie’s eyes had glazed over.
Vincent started to tingle again. His hands fumbled uselessly with the seatbelt. The taxi-driver had started the engine but he wasn’t going back to town. Instead he was heading for Lych House. The cabbie looked in the mirror and smiled at him. “She’s waiting for you, you know. She’s been waiting a long, long time for you.”
“Who? Why the Woman in Slacks of course.”
Vincent felt his belt start to unravel. Slowly his fly buttons popped open and then his jeans were tugged fiercely off. The window opened and his denims were tossed outside with a triumphant laugh. The brown trousers were reverently pulled over Vincent’s shaking legs, up around his waist.
“100% polyester, elasticated waist, comfort fit,” he murmured, smiling happily as he stood once more at the door to Lych House. A woman’s hand reached out and took his.
“Ah Vincent. I’m so glad you’ve come back. And I must say you look divine in those trousers. They really are to die for.”
Vincent allowed himself to be led back inside.
Those who subsequently saw him on the few occasions before he disappeared completely commented on his attire. “You know he never wears anything but those awful brown trousers? Even tried to get me to wear them, slipped a pair in my briefcase but I dumped them pretty sharpish. Wouldn’t be seen dead …”