There is a small pub in North London. Its current clientele are vastly different from the sort that I remember. Now, the people in the pub are normal folk who have jobs, families, not the trapped men and women I remember from my time in the place. You see, I first went into the pub thinking it would be something completely different—as these stories so often start off. I was in the vicinity of the pub one Wednesday afternoon looking for a specific type of bread called challah. It is a kosher bread; sweet, with a golden color.
Going to North London felt like being in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, with towering trilby hats perched atop bushy bearded faces making up most of the pedestrian foot traffic. After buying the challah, and after a lackluster meal at a kosher restaurant, I decided that I would return to the outside world—the world largely free from Lubavitchers prowling the streets in Mitzvah Tanks—and what better way to do so than to go to a pub?
I wanted something relaxed. Something not too busy, but not where I would be sitting alone in a darkened room with only me, some sport on the TV, and the bartender. Of course, it had to be somewhere with some other people inside—I find that thinking to yourself is best done when there is ample opportunity to be distracted by people around you. So, using what I had learned in my time in England, I figured that my best bet would be something off of the main road. Walking away from the groceries and bakeries lettered with Hebrew, I chose a street at random and walked down. The street, it so happened, was called Dark Lane—and, though I had misgivings, I thought this was simply one of those places that had a dark-sounding name, though it didn’t deserve to. (After all, there was a town with the downright Gothic sounding name of Gravesend, and, from what I heard, the dead did not walk the streets in either the day or night.)
At first glance, the street didn’t seem bad at all. In fact, it seemed downright normal. The townhomes lined the streets in much the same fashion they did in the rest of the country; they all had a mini-garden out front with a few flowers and just enough green grass to break up the monotony of stone walls; the people walked the street in much the same fashion they did in the rest of the country (though, remembering back, I now see that they all crossed to the other side of the street when they went by the pub); and, by all accounts, the cars were parked in the same way they were in the rest of the country. As I say, I had no reason to judge this as anything other than a normal street in London. It even seemed to be a fairly posh and popular area, so I judged that the pub I spotted about a hundred yards down the road would be just the right fit for what I was searching for that afternoon. Perhaps, I thought, I could get a semi-cheap bite of pub grub to compliment the pint for which I yearned. If only I had kept the old adage in mind: “Never judge a book by its cover.”
As I walked down the street, heading towards the pub, I felt the air grow colder and saw the sky grow darker. I didn’t think twice, however, as this was England, and the weather had a tendency to leap madly from one extreme to the other with little to no warning. Perhaps, if I had not been so peckish and distracted, I might have noticed something odd about even the people: Perhaps they might have faded in and out of color; or their outlines may have started fading into the buildings around them; or they might have started stretching, like a figure in a Salvador Dali painting. This is all conjecture, of course, but I believe now that if I had been my usual observant self I would have realized that something was awry about the whole block and I could have averted the crisis that was making its way towards me. But, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty.
I walked opened the door to the pub—the front of which was painted black, the name of the pub in gold—and the door shut behind me. There was a sound that could only be described as a vacuum removing from the room all oxygen; and while that would be the proper description, it would, of necessity, be wrong, as I found that I could still breathe. I straightened my jacket, took off my hat, and approached the bar. The barmaid, a younger woman with pale skin, black hair, and gray eyes, who whore a white shirt and black pants, had a glazed-over look in her eyes. “Excuse me,” I said.
She turned and looked at me. Words fail me; she looked at me, that much is true, but she more specifically looked in my general area. The glaze did not leave her eyes, and there wasn’t exactly eye contact through the full time I stood in front of the bar. I ordered a Guinness and she nodded just slightly. Like an octagenarian with bad arthritis, the barmaid stood up, took a glass from behind the bar, and poured the drink.
I looked around. It was a smaller pub than I originally judged. There were five or six other patrons, dressed in all manners of dress. One man wore a zoot suit. Another wore a modern business suit. Another wore what could be described as a country gentleman’s outfit. The women accompanying them were dressed in an equally bizarre array—one looked as if she should have been in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, another as if she had stepped out of Sex and the City and the other looked as if she had been ripped out of a farm only seconds ago. All of them were as nearly dead quiet as one could get without being deceased.
The bartender put the Guinness on the top of the bar. I reached in my pocket to pay, and she shook her head—just slightly. I thanked her and took my beer towards the other end of the bar, to a comfortable-looking chair and a small circular table. I sat, sighed, and looked at the walls. There were six clocks, each showing a different time of day. Underneath the clocks were three calendars: 1891 (November), 1924 (July), and 2004 (March). Each calendar had a date circled in red marker. I looked around the walls for another, working clock, and found none. I pulled out my mobile phone, pressed a button to activate the display, and saw that, not only was I not in a network range, but my clock seemed to have malfunctioned. It was scrolling, and despite my efforts with the settings, I could not fix the problem. I took a sip from my Guinness, put the glass on the table, and that’s when I noticed the picture.
It was an oil painting, done with considerable skill. If I were more than a passing admirer of art, then I would have probably been able to pick out the attention to detail in the painting, the subjects’ anatomical proportions being almost dead-on, the way one of the subject’s face was contorted being a prime example of the understanding of the way the human body changes. Something along those lines, perhaps. But, the only thing I could notice was the glare from the foreground subject’s eye. It was infernal in every sense of the word; one could almost smell brimstone coming from those oil-drops that symbolized eyes. In the teeth, there was just the slightest hint of fangs coming over the lower lip from the top ridge of teeth. The subject stood in a pose of victory, as if he were holding a trophy from a sports competition. He wore a red English hunting outfit, black leather riding crop dangling from his side. In his hands above him, in place of a trophy, there was a black top hat.
Behind him, in the background, there was a shorter, stouter man in a blue uniform that resembled a bell-hop’s. Its brass buttons gleamed in the sunlight streaming in from the room’s windows. This led me to take a look at the room—a momentary reprieve from being caught in the hunter’s leer, one sorely needed to the shock I was to afterwards receive. It seemed to be a large library. Grand, wooden shelves held hundreds upon hundreds of leather-bound tomes. In the center of the room, on a table from which the hunter had taken the top hat from a mannequin’s head, there sat a few books, one of which was open; a small lamp with a green shade was in the center of the table next to a writing pad. If you looked closely, you could see a streak of red leading from the writing pad, to the edge of the desk, down to the floor, and on to the next monstrosity the painting presented to its viewers: Whereas before I only saw the bell hop, now I saw that over which he stood. It was the corpse of a man in a black suit. His back had been ripped open and the bellhop was in the process of ripping out a part of the man’s spinal cord, all of the blood and gore detailed exquisitely in the low tones the painter had chosen for the painting. I looked still closer at the painting and saw that, dripping from a long, almost viscous cloudy-white string from his lip was a tendril of drool, about to make contact with the gaping wound in the man’s back. I looked at the frame of the picture and saw that it was called “A Sacrifice and Its Reward.”