"Now that's one ugly bastard," Phil announced as he stopped next to an old portrait of an even older looking man with balding white hair and spectacles sitting before a large desk in a large study. "Why the hell do they always have to be sitting in front of book shelves?" he asked in an infuriated whisper. "They always seem to think it makes them look intelligent if they're sitting down with an entire library of books behind them."
"Perhaps he's read all of them," Hal suggested.
"And what if he has? Anyone who can read can go ahead and read a book. That doesn't make them any more intelligent than the man who prefers to observe the world."
"Is that what you do, then, observe the world?"
"I look at it with indifference," Phil answered as he continued scrutinising the painting. The low lighting of Longchester House forced him to squint and strain his eyes. "You can look at the world without observing it just as much as you can sit before a library's worth of books without ever having read them. This man was probably illiterate. He has the look of a lout."
"He seems to have a lazy eye," Hal added. "I wonder why he'd want that depicted in there? If he had a lazy eye in real life then he could've asked the artist to omit it in the portrait. Those books look suspect as well. Look at the spines. Not one of them is thicker than my finger."
"Children's books at best," Phil concurred. "Although the inclusion of his lazy eye in a portrait may show a degree of pride. It shows that he's not ashamed of who he is or what he looks like. Unfortunately for him, though, he just looks like a gammy eyed prick."
"Agreed," Hal said as they both moved further up the stairs.
"Anyway," Phil continued as he chose his steps diligently, not wishing to step upon anything that creaked or grumbled beneath his feet, "this tale at the end of the book. It was a soul searching thing for Longchester, who was in fact as mad as a carton of bollocks. He believed there existed worlds beyond this one."
"Hardly an original idea," Hal submitted.
"It is when you believe that each of those worlds is accessible through a piece of furniture," Phil returned. "Apparently there was once a hole punched in time and space a few hundred years ago through which things poured, all kinds of things, artefacts, furniture and all sorts that came from these neighbouring dimensions, and when the hole was mended..."
"Mended by who?"
"How should I know? A wormhole repair man, an oddjobber, someone passing by who happened to have a wrench on him? So when this hole was repaired," Phil continued, "all the things that had come through remained here in this world or dimension. When these things were touched by certain people, who themselves were most likely touched, they could see into the universe whence it came."
"Whence it came?"
"Yes, that's the proper lingo for it," Phil replied, "'whence' is a good word. It's this way," he added after looking from left to right down a barely lit corridor. "Her room is on the right."
The corridors of Longchester House were of the imposing and closing type, the kind that appeared always to narrow the further one navigated. The older and more frangible residents had taken lodgings downstairs due to an increasing number of accidents in the night due to poor lighting conditions. Upstairs was forever in the throes of dusk, while downstairs the magnificent bay windows ingested much of the daylight and a great many moonbeams at night. Ultimately Longchester House was still a product of its time, a time when candlelight and oil lamps would fraternise with the shadows rather than subdue them. Now occasional electric lamps surrounded by thick crimson shades on tables too wide for the narrow passageways did their best to alleviate the sense of unending palms of twilight, which pressed constantly against the all-too-small leaded windows that dotted the north passageway. Longchester House did indeed own a sense of character, but it was one that thrived too much on mystery for Phil.
"Mind the candle holders," Phil whispered as he brushed past one of the many unused brass holders that jutted from both sides of the wall. "Hit one of these full on with your shoulder and you'll have a mark for weeks."
Hal navigated himself slowly past the ornate brass wall sconces, each one meticulously crafted into mythological beasts all owning claws, talons or open palms into which had been carved niches just large enough for a single resting candle to spend its slowly dissolving existence.
"I thought Longchester was found dead in his chair," Hal whispered after a moment's deliberation.
"He was," Phil returned, "but it was how he was found that wasn't disclosed to the community at the time."
"And how was that?"
"Mouth wide open," Phil said after turning around to face Hal, "and eyes wider than wide with drying blood trailing from the sockets to the cheeks. It seemed as though something was trying to get out of him; either that or it actually succeeded."
"Like what?" Hal asked while wishing for at least a miniscule amount of daylight at that moment.
"The soul, Hal," Phil said. "When I speak you must listen. I already told you about Longchester's theory. In his mind he saw something, another place in another time, and his soul left the body and travelled to that wondrous place."
Hal fell silent. With each possibility trampling upon the next, he suddenly felt a little nauseous, uncomfortable and desperate to vacate Longchester House with as much speed as his limbs would permit.
"Look at you, you're like a schoolboy. It's all bollocks," Phil assured him. "I could tell you that my arse is haunted and you'd be checking me out for weeks afterwards."
"Not very likely," Hal disagreed as he released a breath.
"Longchester was a lunatic who drank too much, believed too much and did too little to snap himself out of it. It was a good bedtime story, though, wasn't it?"
"Campfire stuff," Hal agreed. "You should've shone a torch in your face while you told it. Do we have a torch?"
"Well that's kind of the point, isn't it?" Phil began. "I've never understood the mentality of a burglar who breaks into a house during the dead of night under cover of darkness only then to switch on a torch. Where's the logic? The first thing anyone is going to see from the outside is someone walking around a dark house shining a torch. Look at this wallpaper," he added as he brushed his hand against the thin floral patterned wall. "I bet this hasn't been changed in centuries."
"Did they have wallpaper back then?"
"Of course they had wallpaper. Has the adult Hal suddenly stepped out of his body and fucked off? Are you having an out-of-common-sense experience?" Phil enquired with both palms held out.
"There's someone at the other end of the corridor," Hal announced suddenly in a frantic whisper as he pressed his back up against the wall.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" Phil asked. "I asked you here for a bit of support in what's fast becoming quite an important moment in my life and you're acting as though you've just parted ways with your balls."
"Christ, it's like being in an Abbott and Costello movie! It's a fucking full length mirror, Hal!" Phil whispered close to Hal's face.
"Is it?" Hal asked. "So it is," he added as he passed a hand in front of his face and observed his reflection in the mirror.
"I don't know who thought of putting a full length mirror at the end of a dark narrow passageway anyway," Phil mused. "I swear they're trying to kill off the residents. They have glints in their eyes."
"The staff," Phil confirmed as he walked forward slowly and stopped short of the third door along. "The residents should sleep with one eye open."
"No, it's just an expression, Hal. And when did Popeye ever sleep with one eye open?"
"When did Popeye ever have both eyes open?"
"He didn't. That's the way he was drawn. His character...," Phil stopped himself. "Why the fuck am I standing here discussing Popeye?! I never liked him anyway. I've never trusted anyone who has one eye constantly closed; there's always something sinister being planned behind the lid."
"Have you met many people who've had one eye constantly closed?"
"I've met a few," Phil nodded slowly, "scheming bastards the lot of them."