The Red Hour

20:00.

I sense a foreboding tenseness in the air tonight, it hangs like a thick fog before me on these dark and stale streets.

My impaired vision on this warm spring evening stumbles upon the bright red entranceway. A frame of red as though edges licked by flame. Like a mesmerised animal I venture beyond the threshold into the vivid and enticing warmth. A steady and soothing atmosphere washes over me. The smell of mild herbs and spices wafts from an exposed kitchen.

To my left a stage is being set. Busy hands are at work preparing speakers, stands, and microphones. Black cables worm their way around the feet of a lady with fluffy hair and earthen tones. She stands poised to address those gathered. Stretching beyond is a long rectangle embracing varying textures. Sewn and stitched together thick wooden floor boards alive with grain meet equally expressive yellow walls.

A collage of old number plates serves to wall off the kitchen. This lively and natural space betrays its bland white ceiling. Browns and beige, floral and grey, a dozen people blend into the scenery. Gently muffled I hear them chattering among themselves.

At the front, opposite the makeshift stage, a green outdoor setting sits awaiting companionship, displaying its bright umbrella to lure a mate. Sounds of laughter, eating, and drinking—a kingdom totally alien to me thrives in my periphery. Jostling me from my thoughts is the alive whirr of a coffee grinder reaching out in the company of that sweet scent of earthy soil—that deliciously bitter bean—looking up I see in my hand a mug has appeared containing a black acidic oil, short dark and damn fine, and soon within me a new strength reflects its effects from my tongue to my body.

Around me the group has grown to encompass a more lively and rowdy crowd. Milling about as a social family, they mingle and merge to encompass a shared ideal. Joining in song they harmonize and time moves slower still.

Grey hair and beards, bowler hats and fedoras, denim jeans and jackets, guitar bags and harmonicas. Each person takes turns devoting attention to brown bowls filled with roasted capsicum and legume salad. A steady cycle of people approach the stage and perform their tune, sharing a part of their hearts and creative souls.

We are together among the permeating sound—a thick cloud of squeals and clangs, screeches and melodies—which caresses us all equally.

Meandering past my vision is a small pram, the child—wearing a Donald duck t-shirt—stretches out inquisitively, grasping for something to hold on to. When he is freed Donald runs wild.

Suddenly I am conscious of the deafening music and my ears ring with the lyrics of “My handy man.” An onslaught of lyrical double entendre slithers unwantedly through my brain, just as before me Donald’s small hands intrusively slither and claw.

An awkward slapping twang signals a guitar string snapping. And so the fervent strummer retreats to fix her instrument while the next act parades onto the stage. Making repairs the dishevelled guitarist sits hunched, her unkempt and grubby appearance masks her features. Fumbling over intricate repair, her hands clutching wire and plier move in wild motion along with a frustrated tongue mumbling expletives.

Towards the back of the café, past the kitchen, my eyes land firmly on a shadow. I struggle to focus on a figure clad entirely in black sitting alone. My vision is blocked by a dull hanging lantern. From between the swinging orange light and a family of circling flies I catch glimpses of a horrific skinless face.

The sickeningly elastic curves of cheek and jaw ligature are highlighted. Tilted away from the stage its deep red eyes glare at me coldly.

Suddenly alert, I awaken to the warm atmosphere I have stumbled into.

This demon brooding in the corner serves only to dishonour this wholesome shindig. Clutching at the hessian sack throw adorning my seat back I slowly rise. I struggle to look cheery and pleased as I pass the jeaned legs, booted feet, hatted heads and bedraggled hair. My face tenses and contorts with each stitch of denim that I examine.

On passing each pony tail and guitar strap my lips twitch wider, broadening my smile monstrously to express the extent of my pleasure. I slink in retreat through the flame licked archway and a small red clock above me strikes:

22:00.

Haunting me again is that wide and deserted street. I look deeply into the expanding blackness of a nearby alleyway. A garish shape tears free from the darkness and claws wildly at me. It shreds the air with its vicious talons and a piercing roar. I frantically run to save myself. My footfall slams on the pavement and throbs in my ears along with a roaring echo. Slicing through my skull an unnameable horror taunts me in a rasping melodious voice:

 

Piercing the corner of an eye,

with malignant roars I cry.

Cruelty reaching, clawing,

wrenching and crushing. Yours

is a slipping mask of madness.

Tracked and stalked like prey,

I lay bare your darkest fears.

My twisted intent will assail

you along this lamented trail.

Insisted pleas resound and

heighten my malicious joy.

My undying lust for delicious

suffering will prevail. A toy,

I impale you on lofty spikes to

fill the gaping abyss at my

centre. Sweet torture, watch

as I wrench and break each

stake to free a torrent, dark

crimson and viscous flood.

You will be a meal of blood!

 

Exhausted I pant and flounder as freezing wind gouges at my nose and eyes.

That disembodied message hideously reverberates through my head and I fall clumsily into the gutter. Uncomfortably splayed in a puddle I stare down at my reflection. It begins to wriggle and worm. Looking closely I notice my face is twisted and decayed.

Doubtful of my sanity I scramble to my feet and nervously continue my journey.

Through glimpses past my long billowing coat I see that the ground has transformed from sodden concrete besmirched with the filth of countless feet to the luscious green tones of the natural world’s most blissful growths.

Emerging into a circle of trees I take a moment to breathe. Towering in the near distance is an awning of steel and timber yawning forth from an unnatural platform.

Blocking my vision is a small sea of arranged silhouettes, their black shady forms stretch across the grass, lunging forward to escape the light. Darkened banners sweep in the wind grotesquely contorting blood red insignias of demon skin. Those twisted shapes of dark shades glide across the green expanse toward me, easily crossing the ravenous gulf where filthy concrete juts out of earthen soil.

Ecstatic merriment and chattering breaks me free from my horror. This once abominable gathering of putrid forms morphs as I blink. Now clearly I see another friendly sea of denim, beards, and boots. Indistinguishable from my previous journey, surely this ensemble stalked me through the alleyways.

Again they mock me with their camaraderie. Perhaps the clean white ceiling of my past venture has been wrenched free leaving only a brooding and swirling red sky. My feet come to a stop and I slightly stumble as my nose meets a roughened brick wall. This beautiful wall is wearing a thin row of rectangular windows as jewellery.

Finally I keep myself still from what feels an endless voyage of madness.

My eyes dart wildly from supple wood to corrugated metal sheeting. I am now safely encircled by some twenty people clad in familiar denim adornments. With every turn my vision is bombarded by plaid. I have stumbled into a hootenanny. This small community of friends and like-minded music fans have gathered to boot scoot. Young and elderly alike socialise, sharing their troubles and tastes.

A stocky puppy sniffs at my ankles. Two more of the cute creatures approach before the three of them withdraw to gallivant free in the fresh damp grass—carving broad circles, bouncing and chasing in a playful game. Their barking and howling pierces through cheery laughter and overlapped conversation.

Music flows in waves from the stage. Large speaker boxes with cables tethered to microphone stands surround a small brown piano where a diligent pianist stays safely ensconced; no doubt warmed by his lively task for the night.

Bright light spews from numerous poled halogens casting highlights and lively shadows in a wide beam. Green and white plastic chairs spread in a complex pattern between the stage and a long table that is clothed in a check pattern.

I fixate on the table as it catches and insidiously ensnares my vision. Stretching to its edges is a regimented pattern of red and white squares. Twisting and distorting they form all manner of shapes that move and dance to the rhythm of “Don’t fence me in”. Mesmerized by the cacophonous light and movement swirling before me I hastily scribble garbled words in my note pad.

The word “raffle” distantly rings in my ear and I become totally enthralled with the prize, a raw chicken carcass. It sits on the table and I swear it has begun to twitch and move.

I blink, and abruptly the bird has broken into a lively burlesque performance. It twirls and parades across those ever moving red and white squares—seductively waving its small wings and exposed bony stumps—revealing its breast to me.

I struggle to free myself from the captivating strip tease of its peeling skin. My hand shakes as I make a note to question the bird.

“Over the edge … ovum the eggs … a flightless birds legs …” I uncontrollably mutter to myself as I feel my mask of sanity slipping.

An accusatory tone drags me from my delusions and back to reality “we’ve got ourselves a culture spy over ‘ere.”

My stomach knots with thoughts of the black figure that haunts me. Under the brim of a large cowboy hat small brown eyes look through me. Inches from my face is an enormous beard of varying tones that undulates as the inane jabbering continues. “I saw you scribblin’ in that notepad of yours … I don’t much like the way you’ve been eyein’ that chook … It’s got a life of its own … greater than the sum of its parts …”

I back away in heightened confusion as this stream of words is disgorged in my general direction. I clumsily navigate blindly around a corner. I am almost certain that the deranged madman was just another aberration intended to push me further into the clutches of that demon of despair.

Now in front of me there is just a lifeless park—lit only by the red in the sky.

That once joyous kingdom is gone.

All that is left is the fading scent of a woman’s perfume. My nose greedily devours that lingering trace of humanity. As I squint I see her. In bright flowing clothes she serenely traverses the space between shadowy forms, before disappearing into the darkness.

Standing in the pouring rain I glance at the face of my watch, it glistens and drips as it strikes that ominous hour:

00:00.


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