The man with the black horseshoe moustache had been allocated one of the breakfast tables that stood in a row against the glass panels. The hotel was so quiet this morning that all of its breakfasters were able to sit, as in fact they did sit, against the glass.
Often, when the breakfasters first approached their table, they would be stopped dead by the view outside. Here, they would grow suddenly self-conscious, as if in this view the world was staring balefully at them and it was becoming ever more unbearable that it did not somehow blink. There were steep, misty mountains mantled in pine forests and below this a picturesque town, with a packhorse bridge hopping over a gleaming river in the foreground and with meadows of emerald grass that rolled all the way up to awaken at the comparative ordinariness of the glass panels. The whole picture was so clean and so clichéd in its perfection that it could have been a frame from an old Disney movie. Yet here it was, in amazing reality.
Wooden bird tables had been lined up outside, in a row that ran parallel with the breakfast tables. The breakfasters could thus sit and watch tiny coloured birds twitch and clatter madly around the dangling pigtails of birdseed. The man with the horseshoe moustache glowered at the pretty birds but he did not break out of munching his food in unison with their pecking.
He was gulping at hot coffee in between mouthfuls of toast. As with all men who wear horseshoe moustaches, the horseshoe moustache gave his eyes a stark, very strained look. His moustache was so fluffy that it obscured his mouth, so that you had to try to read the expression on his lips in the starkness of his eyes.
A Canadian couple in their sixties, a man and a woman, were sitting at the next table along. They had been driving around the country for three days, on some pointlessly energetic holiday, and now this breakfast was their last meal before they returned to the airport. The man tried to strike up a conversation with the man with the horseshoe moustache, in order to make a fine display for his wife. The couple obviously craved relief from each other’s company. The man with the horseshoe moustache also sensed that they wanted somebody to gossip and speculate about once they were back in their car and driving again. The waitress evidently hadn’t been forthcoming enough.
“What brings you to town?” the Canadian man yelped. “Enjoying this beautiful scenery?”
The Canadian woman sat frozen in her seat, with her back to the man with the horseshoe moustache, whilst the Canadian man, who was by far the smaller of the two, had to wrench his neck like a turtle to peek over her shoulder.
“I’m selling hunting equipment,” the man with the horseshoe moustache answered gruffly. “Door-to-door.”
The Canadian man nodded, though as if only dubiously in agreement. The voice of the man with the horseshoe moustache had been honeyishly guttural and with a strange, staccato deliberation tripping over it. “Well, you’ve picked a nice day. We’ll be clear of rain, I hear,” the Canadian man pursued weakly.
The man with the horseshoe moustache munched on his toast without pausing. His nostrils appeared to flare slightly. The Canadian woman then remarked with a kind of obscene, idiotic obliviousness that those tits were bigger than Aunt Betty’s. The man with the horseshoe moustache continued to glower, knowing that he was currently under attack from a world that had taken a sudden interest in weakening him and making him amused. The tits were presumably the birds clattering about on the tables outside and Aunt Betty was presumably some spurious relative, with a garden, at whom the Canadians had stopped over on their tour of the country.
After his breakfast, the man with the horseshoe moustache stalked back to his room and he looked around at its bed and its bathroom. He realised that there was nothing in the room that he had needed to return to retrieve. He then walked back along the corridor and out into the garden and out onto the grass. He was approaching a point where the border of the gigantic forest touched the grass and made something that faintly resembled a shore.
On the dressing table of his room, the man with the horseshoe moustache had left a pile of minor coins, a condom still in its wrapper, a used toothbrush, a wallet packed with credit cards, and a mobile phone that had been only ever used on two occasions, once to call for some takeout noodles.
At first the man with the horseshoe moustache trod very carefully across the forest floor, as if the forest was a room that he knew somebody to be sleeping in. Then, as the intense stillness of the forest cleared and became familiar to him, he began to settle into his skin again and to disregard the occasional pop of a breaking twig underfoot. There was no path but space enough between the trees for him to be able to walk freely.
When was the last time that this man had visited a forest? From his alertness and from how his senses luxuriated in being under the forest’s thick blanket, you would think that he knew enough of forests to appreciate them but not enough to feel at home in them. He certainly knew enough to be aware that forests are never, despite what humans like to tell each other, peaceful places. Or rather, that even when the peace is ostensibly complete, our minds are made to detect beasts lurking in the undergrowth and they cannot cope with any phenomenon as unnatural as tranquillity.
The man with the horseshoe moustache was surprised to arrive at the bank of a glassy river, which glided swiftly and deeply, with scarcely a cluck, below the forest floor. He had been surprised by its stealth and its noiselessness. Without a flicker of hesitation, he kicked away his boots, he wrenched down his jeans and pants and kicked them away too, he grimly unpeeled his socks and he threw his shirt after them. He left them all lying across the ground, for the elements to toy with for months and years to come. Next, he trod cautiously into the quick, stealthy river. The water never rose above his navel. When he reached the other side, he walked out without shaking himself dry, with water pouring messily from him as he walked.
His feet were soon bloody but he ignored this. He also ignored the cold from the river, even though it caused his teeth to dance in his mouth. He kept on stalking through the forest. Whereas he had looked gaunt and tall in his clothes, he seemed swarthier when naked. He had copious black hair that spilled down from his neck and went on to roam all over him like lichen on a tombstone. This caused his horseshoe moustache to lose its prominence – to become an additional detail rather than his standout feature.
A pinkness had stolen into his face that had not been there before and he was gradually working the jerk out of his stroppy, stalking walk. He might have looked fresher, perhaps in his thirties say, but for the starkness that still lingered in his straining eyes.
Reassuringly, the forest was thickening. That mental numbness or torpor, which you experience whenever your mind is bludgeoned with the monotony of an unspoiled landscape, started to break over the man with the horseshoe moustache. He sensed that if he kept walking, at this rocking tempo, through the monotony of this forest, then civilisation would lift from his mind, and he would no longer remember the cartons of greasy food and the WhatsApp and the different skylines in town after town and the silent well of his hotel room late at night. Suddenly, though, he heard human voices, brightly twittering, and, even more annoyingly, the scrunch of boots on a manmade path. An unnatural screen of trees had risen to his left and the path was clearly running behind it.
Looking through the leaves, he saw a family of hikers. There were a mum and a dad, both with garishly coloured trekking poles, and two small children, a boy and a girl, and then, amazingly, a ginger cat parading behind them.
Once they had passed and they were all walking with their backs to the man with the horseshoe moustache, he clambered up an oak tree to puzzle over them. They had looked and sounded like sane people. Why would they bring a cat on a hiking holiday and how did they get it to stay with them without a leash? As the cat started to slow its walking, apparently losing interest in the family, the man with the horseshoe moustache realised that it must be a cat from a cottage nearby. It had merely met the family in the path.
The little girl, who was trailing the family, turned to wave goodbye to the cat. Then she looked up and straight into the tree and straight into the eyes of the man with the horseshoe moustache, who was splayed naked over its branches like an orangutan. The little girl jumped, spooked, and the man with the horseshoe moustache could not help shivering instantly in response, as if he was in that moment her shadow. Then he squashed his face into a roughish sneer, before dropping dexterously out of the tree.
“Mummy!” the little girl squealed. “There’s a pirate in the tree! A real pirate!”
Both of the parents stopped and looked at her and then they looked at each other.
“There’s nothing there, sunshine,” the mother called uneasily. “Come over here please.”
“It was real! I saw it! I saw a real pirate in the tree!”
“Come over here, honey. There’s nobody in the tree.”
“I saw him. He made a face at me.”
“Look – you can see – there’s nobody there.”
With a visible shifting of mental gears, the father decided to reassert the high-congregational authority of common sense. “Katy, I’ve told you before, we won’t include you in our jokes and games if you’re going to keep making things up like this. You will have to have your own games, by yourself.”
“It was real, I saw him!”
The little boy, who had been thrilled that the whole family were unexpectedly ganging up on his sister, now worried that the balance in his favour was tipping too far. “Maybe there was a man,” he chipped in fairly. “I did think I heard something.”
Half a century later, at a Halloween party in Oregon, when her children and niece and nephew had turned out the lights and it was that time to tell ghost stories, Katy would briefly remember the man in the tree. The memory of him had roosted in her mind and it had never risen and flown clean out of its rooms as billions of other similar, random incidents had done. It was now rather like a scene formally commemorated on a gilded porcelain plate and although she could still see its details perfectly, she wondered at its accuracy and even doubted that it had been ever real. This picture confused her, with its overlapping reality and its unreality. Yet it was automatically reissued, with its colours touched up, on every occasion that somebody mentioned the supernatural.
The man with the horseshoe moustache now walked on askew, mindful to keep the path over his shoulder. The forest continued to thicken and its firs began to heap up hugely and to become like shaggy spires. Soon he was rewarded with an immensely rolling silence, of an almost orchestral richness and broadness, and it swelled majestically, climactically, whenever he stopped to gaze around at the firs. Lately, everything in this forest was grand – a black slug exposed on the forest floor looked as plump and as grand as a lord mayor.
By now, the scratchy ground was replaced with moss and drenched clover that hugged water thickly around itself. One fir, covered all over in water droplets, seemed to be poised before him like a ravenous crystal chandelier.
The forest was now dazzling in its sticky greenness. The colour appeared to foam up alarmingly from out of the forest mulch with the same raw power that snakes writhe or that panthers pounce with. The filling of so much space with the same colour should have been monotonous but it was somehow too alive for monotony. A fiery green.
Minutes later and the forest had settled down again or else its beauty had been only a sort of fleeting giddiness for the man with the horseshoe moustache. He was soon on higher ground, where the forest grew scrubby and its firs no longer twinkled. Under the base of one tree, he was relieved to spot something that he had been keeping an eye out for a while: a crop of plantain. There were also some dandelion leaves. He wolfed on this flimsy material, wishing that he had some river water to wash it down with. It was not a meal but it might detain his hunger and slow it down for a bit.
The man with the horseshoe moustache crossed the scrubby hilltop and re-entered where the forest resumed. As he stalked through these new trees, he heard a sharp movement, as if the forest was suddenly clearing its throat, and he turned around to see a stag hurtling down on him with bobbing antlers. In his shock, it seemed to the man with the horseshoe moustache that he had distinctly made eye contact with the stag and held it. For a second that seemed unbearably prolonged, he drank this vision in, and then he wheeled himself around, twitching like an elderly man, and he began to run.
His heart was jammed in his mouth so that he couldn’t take a breath. He waited to be torn from his feet – to feel an only spectrally imaginable reorganisation in his system and to look down to see a bloody antler protruding from his chest. His mind felt oddly dry, as though he was waiting merely to watch some violence in a cartoon, and his consciousness hovered over his own body with this terrible, naïve curiosity. Then he grew aware that the stag had overtaken him and that it was bounding far ahead. It was running almost drunkenly, with a crazy, distressed twist in its running.
The man with the horseshoe moustache registered a weasel winding mazily through the ferns at his feet. Without knowing exactly why, he knew that he had to run with this weasel. Two foxes and a family of rabbits were darting pell-mell beside him, the fox meekly and with its head lowered. An owl that was partially on fire flew over his shoulder and then hit a tree trunk, where it exploded in a soggy shower of sparks.
The man with the horseshoe moustache could feel the heat of the fire pressed against his ankles and the bare backs of his feet. Yet he slowed and picked his steps more conscientiously. He knew that if he tripped on anything, then the missing second or so could be all that death required to snuffle him up.
A little fire was racing at his heels, chattering gaily to itself. He sensed that the branches over his head were already on fire and indeed fluttering pieces of fire were already falling around him. One smacked off his horseshoe moustache and for a moment he was wiping at it, burning his fingers. Even when it must have been extinguished, he was still wiping at it feverishly. He ran faster as he felt a glow of pain spread over his feet and then pierce them like two needles.
Finally, his eyes took in the unremarkable reality that there was an opening and a river up ahead. He felt no gratitude at this gift that the world had welled up to bestow on him, only a vague, sullen suspicion about what might be expected of him in return. He ran up dutifully to the river and waded into it without a splash. It was shallow but very wide and the wind did not feel powerful enough to fan the flames across to the far bank.
Standing up in the river, he turned back to watch the fire. It looked smaller and meaner now, hanging its lanterns along the riverbank, though flames still rose clearly above the treetops, like the roof of some fabulous dancing orange building. Above this, smoke spiralled and spiralled diabolically. He knew that the fire was conspiring to hypnotise him into watching the churning smoke forever and so he tore his eyes away.
The fire was groping around, setting fire to random trees on the riverbank and searching for a bridge across the river. The man with the horseshoe moustache waded back as the air became intensely shiny and its heat pressed at him.
He reached with his fingertips and explored where his moustache had been burned. His fingers fell through the hairs and touched a bare spot. A clearing.
Once safely on the far side of the river, he felt sleep plucking restlessly at him. At this time of the day he normally sat in a bar and let his eyes settle on a television screen. He would experience a dazed downtime, in which he could always hear his mind mumbling, as if it was talking to itself away in another room. He knew instinctively, though, that if he slept now, with wet skin, he would awaken shivering and nauseous. He had to keep walking until his body was dry again.
He followed the riverbank, stepping amongst the rocks and around the basins of reeds. Once he heard an unearthly screeching in a tree above him and, stupidly, he clenched his fists, thinking that a bird of prey would come swooping down into his eyes. But it was only a jay, erupting ineptly amongst the branches.
As the air started to cool, the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache retreated from the river, back into a section of the forest where the firs were very lofty and spaced widely apart. There was a mild cathedral solemnity humming under these trees. The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache sat down and then he sat very still. He continued to sit very still, as if he was waiting to hear a distant shout, and then his body relaxed and he was asleep.
He was called to himself again by far off human voices. It was twilight and a new chill was rolling in from the river. The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache was suddenly fed up with this forest. He whimsically decided that he immediately wanted back all of things that he had thrown away: clothes, heating, hot food, and a mobile phone. But he sat patiently and listened to the voices. There were only two, both male and both adult. Some of the tree trunks ahead pulsated with a golden light and behind them there was a restless gobbling sound. Then, sharply, he smelt the smoke from the campfire.
The men both worked for a DNA storage facility that was in a town that was many towns away from the one that the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache had departed that morning. There were only a handful of workers at this facility and these were the only two who were of the same age. Or rather, there was another male worker, who was slightly younger, but he was married and had three children. Whenever the two men invited him hunting, he was happy enough to join them but they still felt guilty, as if they were selfishly hogging him and stealing him from his children. These men had come out on this holiday alone, with guns, beer, and mushrooms. If you were looking on a map, then they had drifted down the river whereas the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache had been following its course upwards.
Earlier, these men had happened upon a magnificent pigmy waterfall. They had sensed that something was up – the river in the minutes before the waterfall had run so rapidly that it could have knocked a man off his feet. The waterfall had gushed hissing with a scramble of sharp volleys and detonations over a marvellous jumble of striking boulders. There was a broad pool below where the men had made an impromptu, celebratory decision to strip and bathe. This had cheered them up on this increasingly sorrowful holiday of theirs. They had enjoyed being naked with other and throwing water over each other. It felt good to be in a space where you could do and say anything, with no cameras or supervisors monitoring them, and no timetables to follow, and no tasks that had to be organised by priority, and no eight hundred television programmes that needed to be watched to be able to hold up one end of any conversation in a bar. This waterfall was so remote that it could not have received visits from humankind three times a year.
After they had bathed and dressed, the first man went to the space in the forest where they had previously leaned their guns up against the trees. Here, he got the campfire started. The men had shot two pheasants and they would tear strips of meat from these and cook them up in cans with canned potatoes and baby carrots. They had whisky and once they were nicely drunk they would proceed to cross paths with the mushrooms.
There is little to be gained in recording their conversation. Over the last few years, these two men had got to know everything about each other and they had shared their views on every conceivable topic. Moreover, they both probably knew, in their blood and bones, that if some restructuring in their workplace one day separated them, they would both go where it took them and their friendship would be instantly obsolete or surplus.
After they had eaten, they would usually sit in a defeated silence, smiling awkwardly at each other or looking out over the trees. This evening, however, after they had got drunk, the first man had started to ramble away about some private crisis that he was experiencing. This was something awful and unmanly, a compulsion in which he would climb up onto a roof in his neighbourhood, at night, and peer down through a skylight at a woman sleeping in her bed. He would hunch there, watching her, and for hours he couldn’t reason himself out of this state and down from the roof again. He was increasingly sickened and frightened by his own behaviour. The second man murmured noncommittal sympathies, wondered why he was being told this, and tried not to listen.
Later, after the mushrooms, the second man was sprinting through the forest at top speed. This was his hallucination: his head was expanding and contracting, with the awful staggered kick of a beating heart. One second it was as wide as an 82-inch television screen and the next it was as small as a walnut. Or rather, he felt as if he could put out his hands and touch the sides of his head and it would be the size of a gigantic screen, whilst a second later it would be like a walnut nestling in his palm. He ran through the trees, shrieking to himself, knowing that if he could only reach the river and plunge his head into the cold water, then his head would cool down and it would stop its ballooning. The river was bright in the moonlight and when this man reached it, he got down on his knees and put his face, and then his whole head, into the water.
Suddenly, he worried that he could not take his head out of the water. Then he panicked. He tried to push back but there seemed to be nothing to push back with and his head remained locked obstinately under the surface. He then understood that all that he could do now was to wait. The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache was kneeling beside this man, jerking his arm behind his back and holding his neck firm.
Once this man had drowned, the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache hauled him out of the river and rolled him on to his back. This confirmed to him what he had already largely guessed: that the man was too small. His shirt sleeves would barely come up to the elbows of the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache – his trouser legs would be stranded ludicrously above his ankles. The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache would have to kill the man’s friend as well.
He still stripped this man of his wallet, his credit cards, and his phone. He didn’t have any pockets to put them in yet but he laid them out hopefully beside the riverbank.
He poked about around the river until he had found a rock with a weight that felt good in his hands. The man’s friend was sitting unnaturally upright beside the campfire, looking bleary-eyed and very frightened and strangely, for such a large man, like a dismayed small child. He watched the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache as he stalked towards him. What he saw was a face that was contemptuous and inhuman and as impossible for him to speak a word to as that of a bird of prey. In a single contemptuous movement, as though he was whipping down a blind at a window, the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache stepped up before this man and stove his head in with the rock. These clothes were too baggy but they would fit better than the first set. The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache paid no mind to the bloodstains and skull tissue on the clothes as he pulled them off.
A more imaginative man, who felt pangs of guilt or superstitious dread, would have rolled the two men’s bodies into the water to be washed downriver. But the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache sat by the warmth of the campfire and he chewed on the cold remains of the men’s stew. All this whilst the second naked corpse was propped up against the tree along with the guns several feet away.
The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache sat awake by the fire until the day was beginning to prowl in the sky. Then he set off walking again. A pair of boots was hanging around his neck by the shoelaces. He would put them on once he was back in civilisation, for form’s sake, but in the forest these floppy things would rub against his bare feet and irritate them. The bases of his feet were already as hard as clogs.
It was mid-morning when he arrived at the recognisable outskirts of something. This turned out to be a one-street, one-bar town and mostly just a launch-pad for hikers. The bar was open but nobody was inside apart from the barman. He was standing behind the till with a spray bottle of blue cleaning fluid in one hand and a cloth in the other, polishing all of the dozens of whisky bottles in the gantry. He wore a smile on his face that appeared to have been permanently folded there. It looked rather like the meaningless semblance of a smile that a photographer might accidentally capture on a crocodile.
“Been out walking?” the barman asked, assuming a confidential friendliness that was as casual as a nod. “It’s pretty early to be back. You want to get the drinks in early?” He winked at the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache, eyeing up a potential crony to spend his shift chatting to.
“I’m fed up with the forest.”
The man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache ordered a beer, which, to a man who drank as much spirits as he did, might as well have been bottled air. He seated himself in a corner and, for the first time, he looked over one of the phones that he had taken. He needed to call his employer.
The barman did not give him a second glance. To him, the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache looked like one of those very private, very selfish men who are miserly when spending the truth about themselves amongst other people. Men who would come and go and sit in the corners looking at their phones and never stand at the bar and blithely sing out the story of all their days as though it was the summer’s stupidest pop song.
“Is that the library? Can you please get me…?” And the man with two thirds of a horseshoe moustache named a particular librarian.
After a spot of bright ballroom music, a lady’s voice, very merry and taunting. “Phew, what a relief. We all wondered what had happened to you.”
He ignored her. “I’m bored. I want a new book to read.”
He could hear her smiling. “Oh, it’s good that you’ve phoned. There happens to be one available.”
“An easy book or a difficult book?”
“One that you will find familiar, I’m sure. But it’s a book that you’d flick through, rather than knuckle down to read completely.”
“Will you hold it in reserve for me?”
“No problem, sir. Here’s the title – I know that you won’t need to write it down – Mystery on 14 Dundas Street.”
“Mystery on 14 Dundas Street. Thank you.”