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Fresh  Air

 Janet Olearski 

Janet Olearski is a London-born author, based in Abu Dhabi. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications including Bare Fiction, Beautiful Scruffiness, The National, Pen Pusher, and Story Cellar, and she has authored several children’s books, among them Twins, Mr Football, and The Sunbird Mystery. She has one unpublished short story collection, entitled Evelyn’s Virtual Diary and Other Stories . Her novel, Foreigner, based on fourteen years of living in Sicily, where she worked as a lecturer at Palermo University, was one of the six shortlisted entries for the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Prize in February 2014.

Everything I’m about to tell you is completely true, though you’ll probably think I’m off my head. But, listen to me anyway, and just take it from me that this is the way it happened. It was like this. It all started one day at the end of November.


I’d stopped for a drink at Ray’s place. A couple of beers, that’s all. I’m not a drinker really. So don’t get it into your head that I’m under the influence. I’m not. I just like to find out what’s happening, see who’s propping up the bar, maybe see who’s new in the neighbourhood. You know … that kind of thing.


I got home late and I saw there were something like six or seven calls registered on the answering machine. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ If ever I have more than three messages in one day, I start thinking something catastrophic must have happened. Anyway, I pressed the Play button and … nothing. It was just, ‘Beep, beep, beep,’ you know, constantly. About twenty minutes of uninterrupted beeping. I played it all the way through while I got changed and put some dinner on. To tell you the truth, I began to feel quite woozy listening to it. And then it was like I had that beeping in my ears all through the rest of the evening.


In the days that followed, the same thing happened over and over. The voice on the answering machine gave me the time of the call, but there was never any number in the caller ID panel. And that wasn’t all. Someone kept ringing my doorbell. I’d answer the door phone and say, ‘Hello? Hello?’ and there’d be no one there. It started to irk me. Well, it would do, wouldn’t it? Who did they think they were, harassing me like that? It was getting stressful. After another few days of that, I thought, ‘I’ll sort them out.’ So, as soon as the bell rang the next time, I ran all the way down the stairs – three flights, mind you – and, gasping for breath, I flung open the front door. No one there! Whoever they were, they were pretty damn fast, probably nipping into some doorway or other before I got down. I looked up and down the street. The lights were on in the all-night launderette across the road. There was a car parked at the far end of the street … most likely Selene doing what she did best. And that was it. The street was empty. The thing that caught my attention then was the mist. I remember standing there on my doorstep thinking, ‘What’s all this fog?’ One minute I could see everything and then the next minute there was this rising cloud of foggy vapour. Yet, in the air, there was a very cool fresh smell, tinged with the perfume of orange blossom. All of a sudden, I felt dizzy. I thought I was going to keel over. I stepped back and slammed the door shut quickly. I had to lean against the wall to get my breath back. I reckoned I must have got myself all worked up and come down those stairs way too fast. It was like someone – I had no idea who - was trying to wind me up. They were out to get me and, from this point on, I needed to exercise more caution.


I didn’t answer the door after that. Whenever the bell rang, I just carried on with what I was doing – having a cup of tea, or watching TV, or something. Come to think of it, I didn’t answer the phone either. It was the thought of being beeped at. But all that was nothing compared to what happened next. And here you really must bear with me, even though none of what I am about to tell you may seem very plausible.


It was one night in mid-December, and I was drawing the curtains when, looking down into the street, I noticed something move by a street lamp. A figure. A man. I stopped for a moment to see who it was, if it was someone I knew. The man was wearing a trench coat, rather like those beige macs that Humphrey Bogart used to wear in the old movies. And he had a Bogart-type hat too. I thought to myself, ‘What does he think he’s doing hanging around a lamp post outside my house?’ And then, as I stared down at him, he suddenly looked up at me, and I tell you, I got the most terrible fright of my life.


You see, the thing was … I said he looked up at me. He couldn’t look. He couldn’t because he had no eyes. He had a face but no eyes. Where his eyes should have been, there was just skin, a sort of mustardy-greenish skin, stretched tight across the bone. It was the most horrible, unnatural thing I’d ever seen. I felt ill. I closed the curtains and I had to steady myself by holding on to the back of a chair. But then I thought, ‘Pull yourself together. It’s probably some poor bloke who’s had an accident.’ There’s this old Polish pilot, who lives down the end of our street and he had his whole face reconstructed. It’s odd, peculiar, but it’s okay when you get used to it. When I thought of that, I realised how unfair I’d been. This wretched man couldn’t help his face after all. He had to live with it. He didn’t need people like me treating him like some hideous outcast. So, anyway, instinctively I leaned over and opened up the curtains again. No one there. It could only have been a few seconds between closing and opening the curtains and he was gone. He wasn’t up the road somewhere either. I looked both ways, left and right. He was just gone. I hadn’t even heard a car start up. I closed the curtains and got ready for bed, but all the time I couldn’t get that face out of my mind. I was trying to figure it out. Who was he? Why was he there? Where had he gone? The whole absurd business was spooking me.


The following night I came back on the bus from Oxford and got in about 11:15. I passed Lorraine exiting from Ray’s place. She had a cigarette bobbing loosely between her lips, her moth-eaten fur wrapped around her. I smiled at her and she muttered some obscenity in return. One of the students from next door was in the launderette. Apart from that, it was quiet. Very quiet. No sign of Selene or any of her clients. Must have been her night off. All around me there was an unpleasant silence. I wasn’t happy that to reach my front door I had to walk back past that same street lamp – the one where I’d seen the eyeless man. As I did so, something made me pause. I stopped and looked down.


At my feet lay a tiny box. I bent down and picked it up. It was a match box from some club or other. You know, the little ones they give away. The outside of the box was white and on the front in ornate green letters were the words, Fresh Air. I guessed that was the name of the club. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I need,’ and I slid the box open. I thought, ‘Yeah, fresh air,’ and then all I remember was a fog, a yellow fog of orange-smelling vapour, and I remember that it came at me in a great blast, a whoosh of soft orange smoke, and I was gone. Completely gone.


I saw the street in a silver and blue light like a lightning flash and, in the flash, I saw the man in the trench coat and three others exactly like him, and all of them their faces covered with that taut mustardy-green skin, and they were coming towards me without moving. I was lying there and they were looking down at me, and I was floating up towards them, watching them with my eyes shut.


And the next thing I knew, I was in here, sitting opposite you at this table in this room. And the thing is, I have this certainty, this absolute certainty that you can’t see what I can see and that you have no idea at all about what’s going on, and that you really don’t know what’s happening to you. I don’t suppose you can even see the coat hanging up over there behind the door. It’s a trench coat. And the hat. I bet you can’t see the hat either. But I can, you see. I can see everything. You can’t see it. You don’t know what’s going on, do you? I do. I can see it all. I can see you sitting at the end of that table, writing all this down and, when you raise your head as if you were looking at me, and when I see that eyeless face that isn’t a face, I feel like the room’s spinning all around me and I feel like I’m going to pass out and all I can hear you saying is, ‘Keep calm. Take deep breaths. You’ll be all right in a minute. All you need is some air.

Fresh air.

That’s what you need. Fresh air.’


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