The third in a series of four short stories, inspired by science and written by science communication students at Imperial College.
As well as my love of science I’ve always been fascinated by the supernatural: alien-sightings, ghosts in the attic, the unexplained mysteries that the natural world cannot quite account for. That’s why an unusual article in the psychology journal Perception titled the ‘Strange-face-in-mirror illusion’ (doi:10.1068/p6466) perhaps caught my eye. The paper describes an experiment where participants were asked to sit before a mirror in a dimly-lit room. Afterwards the majority of them described seeing their faces transform before their eyes including into family members, the deceased and even animals. What struck me about this was not the science, although the researchers offer a plausible explanation, but how this experiment really had something of the occult about it. I wondered which explanation a person might prefer: visual illusions produced by your brain physiology or direct contact with the spirit world? Sometimes, I believe, science can appear stranger than fiction.
The moment I saw him, I knew he was different. Not that you could easily put your finger on it. Other people sensed it too I think but they didn’t seem to be conscious of it; just an unsettled feeling at the pit of your stomach, like something was out of kilter. But I recognised it straight away and was drawn, you might say, like a moth to a flame. I’ve always been a sucker for those sorts of differences, the off-beat, the outsiders.
‘The lame-ducks,’ remarked my father wryly, one time.
It was a something-nothing type of evening; all of us crowded into a stranger’s living room with cheap wine and the same old, dreary, tête-a-têtes. Even the décor managed to seem bland and unassuming with its terracotta lampshades and soft furnishings in eau de nil. I’d already made up my mind to go and was about to implement my exit strategy. It’s a tactical retreat that I have perfected over the years, and if I say so myself, I’ve got it down to a fine art. The key is to avoid eye-contact with anyone, even if they directly speak to you. You may choose to respond but the trick is to never look them in the eye. Locate the host, make your excuses and then leave. It’s a strategy that has never failed me to this day. This evening was different, however. Poised to go, my gaze fell on him, standing in the corner of the room. He was talking to another man with a beard, introduced to me earlier as something. Simon? Beside him, a girl with short dark hair and stud in her nose that winked and glittered as it caught the light. His face was animated in conversation, a profile which threw a myriad of shadows onto the wall behind. As I watched though, there was something that seemed to happen when he stopped talking. It was almost as if the mask would somehow slip, not completely, but just enough to give a hint of something else that lay beneath.
Later, I would experience this first hand; his eyes, always attentive and engaged in what you were saying, but never quite looking at you. Like a thousand mile stare they would slide right past, towards something in the distance, unseen. Could I sense all this in that first instance? Perhaps not. But I was intrigued, and headstrong, unaware of the many dark things that inhabit the shadows of this world. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…
Thinking back, it’s easy to think how differently things might have turned out if I’d gone home. Over and over again I play it back in my mind. If only I’d left earlier, if only I hadn’t gone out. But fate is a curious thing and instead, that evening, I found myself walking over there. All faces turned to mine, smiles frozen politely. We make our introductions and exchange pleasantries. I observe him cautiously out of the corner of my eye. His interest in us is waning and at one point he seems on the point of leaving until, for some reason, the conversation turns to our childhood. It was meant to be a throw-away comment, I suppose. The type of thing that isn’t intended to be taken seriously, it leaves the mouth before the asker fully realises that the words have been spoken.
‘What about you? Unhappy childhood?’ Simon asks, turning to me.
‘My mother died when I was I child,’ I blurt out.
Already horrified at myself, I see this discomfort reflected in the faces of Simon and the nose-piercing girl. But his face tells a different story, those eye sliding back towards mine, pearly white teeth glinting in the light.
‘I lost someone too,’ he says.
It really was very odd. To be honest I don’t think about my mother that often. I was five years old at the time she died, so I cannot even say that my recollections of the event are that strong. My abiding memories of the time are always of things that occurred straight afterwards – of a house filled with strangers, strange arms constantly picking me up, a table laden with more food than I’d ever seen before. Even her face in the photograph at my bedside has acquired a sense of unfamiliarity to me. I don’t want to appear cold, but sometimes I think it could be that of a stranger’s.
It was about three weeks after we had been going out that he called me to tell me he was taking me somewhere special. It was one of those beautiful winter days, the crispness of the air made everything appear newly minted but there was still some comfort in the sun. The sky was a pale chalky blue, and as I stepped out of the dark station tunnel, its brightness momentarily blinded me. He was waiting for me, punctual as ever.
‘Come,’ he said, taking my arm. ‘I’ve been looking forward to this moment since we first met.’
‘But where are we going? It’s not fair for you to keep me in the dark like this. I don’t really like surprises.’ I was lying. I’ve always loved surprises.
‘You’ll understand soon enough. It’s not that far from here.’
He led me down a busy street, our strides perfectly in unison, leaves crisp underfoot. Thoughts darted randomly through my mind: restaurant, café, bookshop, a park or private garden, a place owned by a close friend, a secluded graveyard. All of these seemed plausible enough but somehow even then it seemed to me that I knew that they were all wrong. We turned off the busy road, right and then right again, onto a side street. Rows of Edwardian houses on both sides of the street, several stories high, some of them looked as if they had been converted into offices. Nothing about it to suggest the extraordinary, several cars were parked up along the pavement. As I looked up at the sky, however, it seemed to me as if the sounds of the city had somehow become distorted, still present, but like a soundtrack playing far away. He paused in front of one of the houses. My eyes turned questioningly towards him but his gaze was fixed firmly straight ahead. Perhaps it was my imagination but it seemed as though a small sigh escaped his lips. I hadn’t realised how stiff he’d been holding himself until that moment, when it was as if his whole body relaxed.
‘Are we going in?’ Even my voice sounded strange to me, as if it belonged to someone else.
He rang the nameless buzzer and the door immediately unlatched. The room beyond reminded me of a doctor’s surgery waiting room: tasteful but sparsely furnished except for a couple of armchairs, a small table and a reception desk. On the wall was a reproduction of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. On the unmanned desk lay an open book and a ball-point pen.
‘As this is your first time, you’ve got to sign-in.’
The curious sense of anticipation I’d been feeling suddenly solidified into something more like uneasiness.
‘What are we doing here? I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t worry. All will become clear in just a moment. This place is very special. But it’s not the type of thing that one can easily describe or explain. It’s something that can only be experienced with your own eyes.’
Taking my arm again, he led me into a small room, an antechamber, firmly closing behind us the door to the reception. We continued through a doorway at the opposite end. A set of steps led out onto a much larger room. The only light came from candles, making it very difficult to see anything at first. As my eyes began to adjust to the dimness, the dimensions of the room seemed strange until I realised that this was caused by a row of gilt-edged mirrors that ran along three of the walls, giving the impression of tunnels of identical rooms stretching off infinitely in all directions. In front of every mirror was an armchair, some of which were occupied. The candle light came from ordinary church candles that were spaced evenly between the chairs throughout. Apart from this, the room was empty, leaving a gaping rectangle of floor at its centre onto which the long shadows of the chairs were magnified.
That ever insatiable human curiosity held me fast.
No one took any notice as we entered the room. Not even an upwards glance, so transfixed were they by their own reflections. I’d be hard pressed to describe any of their features. The flickering candlelight emphasised the shadows of their faces giving the impression that the eye sockets extended much further back into the head than was normal. Nor was the room silent, no voices were raised but some of them were speaking, soft indistinct mutterings, directed at the image in the mirror. I caught the sound of gentle sobbing coming from one of the corners of the room. My body must have tensed. Maybe he sensed that it was ready to flee even as my eyes were unable to tear themselves away, because his hand gripped mine tighter as we walked wordlessly across the room towards one of the empty chairs. I took my place; a pale face stared back at mine.
‘All you have to do is look. The first time we met, you told me that you had lost your mother. What if I told you that you might find her here today, in this very room, in that reflection. I’m not talking about magic, or witchcraft, or any of that nonsense. This is an ordinary room, this is just an ordinary mirror. But something extraordinary happens if you are willing to look.’
Perhaps it was the effect of these words, or something else, but my eyes were unflinching as the shadows across my face lengthened even further, eyes receding until they become like pinpricks. He continued,
‘This place saved my life. When I lost her, I couldn’t see a way in which I could carry on. I was willing to give up, anything seemed better than that pain and I was prepared to do anything, anything, that might numb it, even if that meant giving up on everything else. Until, that is, I found her again. Here.’
It was the first time I can recall ever hearing something that sounded like emotion in his voice. The face in the mirror is no longer recognisable as my own. Of course I know it must be, but something strange is happening as I watch, the features becoming distorted. The bridge of my nose appears to lengthen out and then the tip, becomes bulbous, like that of a clown’s. My left eye recedes into nothing while the prick that is my right begins to grow at an alarming pace until it is three times its ordinary size. I look on in horror as it transforms into a face like that which a pantomime villain might own; a large gaping forehead that compresses the features downwards towards a ridiculously small chin.
‘I come three times a week to visit her. But it wasn’t just her I discovered again, I’ve been visited by many others who were lost to me. I like to think I’m on good terms with many of my ancestors.’
Flickering in and out, I see many new faces; my mother appears but is quickly replaced by my father, grandmother, cousins, and people whom I’ve never met before; a young boy with dark eyes, a young man with a round face, a haggard old woman, the nostrils becoming wider and wider until I realise it is that of a pig’s. Unable to move my head, my neck feels taut. I fight a rising panic as I realise that I cannot look away.
‘We all come here, to find that which we have lost.’
And I shut my eyes.
Flora Malein is a student at Imperial College studying for an MSc in Science Communication and an editor of Refractive Index. The fourth and final story in this series will be posted in the 2nd week of July.