The four of us waited in the bar, in the capital of an ex-Communist country that didn’t exist when I was born. The walls were decorated with Coca-Cola mirrors and pictures of American icons; the other patrons wore denim jackets, like they were time-travellers from the eighties. The whole country seemed tacky, but flights were cheap and the exchange rate allowed you to act like an arsehole. Wikipedia listed the country’s legendary churches and traditional cuisine, but all we wanted was cheap beer, mostly the same brands as back home. And, of course, the other entertainments. Here, for the price of a big night in England, you could spend a whole weekend taking advantage of other people’s poverty.
In the bar were me, Ant, and a pair of Anthony’s geeky friends, Paul and Stan. Paul was excited, saying it was his first stag night. I was less excited because I’d met the other three who were coming, Barry, Charles and Garry. Or, as they preferred, Bazza, Chazza and Gazza.
Paul, Ant and Stan had been pissed when we reached the bar, but I paced myself as best I could, staying a couple of beers behind. I was only here because Olivia made me promise to look after Ant. Once Bazza arrived things would be out of control, and I’d have to hold on until it ended.
“Ey up, big man!” Bazza jeered as he came in with his mates, forcing everyone to notice him. The other patrons sneered from under their caps before hunching back over their tables. Most of them were playing cards and didn’t want to be disturbed. We shouldn’t have been there.
Barry grabbed Ant in a headlock, rubbing the groom-to-be’s head with his knuckles. “How’s the lucky boy?”
Ant punched Barry hard enough that he let go. “Planning to have a nice quiet night. Not too rowdy, you know?”
“Come on, it’s not like you get married often, is it?”
“Not like you, Bazza” yelled Chazza. “Whore!”
Paul and Stan tensed up and gulped their beer. “Nice of you boys to finally make it,” I said.
“We’ll catch up in no time,” said Bazza, “Don’t you worry, lad.”
It’s not like Ant had a choice about who came on his stag night. The three amigos were part of the package with Olivia. She thought her brother was the charming and professional salesman he mostly seemed to be. She’d never seen him paw under-age girls in bars or be dragged out of clubs by three bouncers. Olivia had never seen Barry pass out and piss himself in bus shelters or start fights for a laugh. I’d seen all these things and only tolerated his presence to protect Ant.
Gazza came over with a tray of drinks, beer slopping from the glasses. Standing among the pints were seven shots – tequila most likely. We were forced into a toast and I studied Paul and Stan. Ant’s colleagues weren’t suited to this sort of night. I was amazed they weren’t puking already.
“Hold your hand out!” Barry ordered Ant. The other patrons were watching. Some of them glared, loathing us and our money.
“What are you going to do?” asked Ant. His attempt at a grin failed.
“Come on, trust me. I wouldn’t hurt you, mate, you’re family. Or you will be – if you survive the night!”
Ant held out his right hand, fist closed.
None of us had noticed the handcuffs, but then that was the idea. Barry tapped the back of a cuff on Ant’s wrist and it swung round, closing with a click. The other end was attached to Barry’s left arm. The rest of us were grabbed roughly and attached to one of Barry’s cronies, who then grabbed someone else, cuffing us into a line. I felt sorriest for Stan, who was handcuffed the wrong way round so he had to twist to see anything the rest of us looked at.
I was at the end with my left hand free, Gazza standing beside me. I lifted my beer to finish it and Gazza jerked the handcuff, pulling me off balance so that I spilled beer down my front. The ape bellowed a laugh to get the others’ attention, pointing at the damp patch on my shirt. Bazza and Chazza didn’t hear, since they were trying to order drinks. Some of the card players had left, probably looking for somewhere quieter. Only the bar staff wanted us here, because they were overcharging us for each round. I said nothing, figuring they deserved the bonus.
“You do have keys for these, yeah?” asked Stan.
“Yeah, there’s keys, mate,” said Barry. He guffawed: “Back at the bloody hotel, right!”
His cronies were in hysterics, Chazza slapping his thighs and high-fiving Gazza, barely noticing how it dragged the rest of us about. “We’re together for the duration,” said Barry. “No-one sleeps till we’re all done for the night!”
And there I was, handcuffed to a bunch of rugger lads in a city I never wanted to be in. Every other time I’d been out with Barry I could get a taxi home if I wanted. Now I was stuck with them until they were finished. My only hope was that they were insensible before we all got into trouble.
As we staggered through the city streets, pulling each other this way and that, the residents watched, appalled. We drank in cheap dives, occasionally passing other English stag parties who ignored us. The bars didn’t turn us away, just raised their prices as we became more obnoxious. At one place Barry dragged us onto a dance-floor, making us jerk about to euro-techno. The other patrons retreated to the side and glared. Bazza, Chazza and Gazza didn’t even notice. I felt ashamed.
But, you ask, how did we relieve ourselves? Seven at a time, against a wall. Me too. It’s not as if I could stop this once it was in progress. We’d stagger into an alley, get our cocks out and urinate. Barry or his mates teased Stan for being pee-shy, and all he could do was pretend to be amused. Drunk, I told myself this wouldn’t last forever. Tomorrow it would be a memory, a night I’d never have to live again.
After the dance-floor debacle we went looking for another place. Gazza was jabbering about a brothel he’d heard of on the city outskirts. Bazza needed to piss again, so we were dragged into another alley. Paul leant his head against the wall as he peed and passed out like that until Chazza kicked him. Standing there, piss pooling around our feet, I prayed for the police to turn up. A night in the cells would be better than this.
We were dragging each other out of the alley, Bazza and Chazza arguing about where to go next, when we saw the man. He had a thin moustache, and his head was topped with spiky blond hair. He was massive, larger even than Barry. If he’d taken us all on, even sober and hands free, the stranger might have won. And he had us drunk, handcuffed, and trapped in an alley.
“Who’s in charge here?” the man asked. His accent was thick, but his words were clear.
We all faced him, except for Stan. Back to front, he was left staring at a wall.
“My mate Ant’s getting married.” Paul swayed as he talked.
“No, not the groom. Who’s in charge here?”
“I am, mate.” Bazza seemed less drunk now. He moved to the front, offered the stranger his hand, pulling Paul’s along with it. “How can I help you?”
The stranger smiled. “Your honeymoon party, right?”
“Stag party, mate, stag party. You wouldn’t see me married to any of these losers.”
“Losers, ho-ho.” The stranger laughed like he’d only read descriptions of laughing in a book. “So, you gentlemen would be interested in ladies, right? Some fun? Celebration?”
“Damn tooting,” said Gazza
“He means we’re up for it,” said Bazza. “Well up for it, pal.”
“So, where is this place, mate?” said Gazza.
“Is on, how you say, city outskirts?”
“Oh, yes,” said Gazza. “We are well up for that.”
Drunk as I was, I realised two things. First, that I could do nothing to stop us from going with this man. Second, that the stranger spoke better English than he pretended. The whole thing was an act. If I was sober, I might have worked out how to warn Barry of this without the man noticing. Drunk, I said nothing.
“I call my cousin,” said the stranger. “We get in his vehicle, drive out to this place. Is an adventure. You have money?”
“This is going to be worth it, right?” Barry grinned.
“Damn too-ting.” said the man. “I go get truck.”
The stranger led us out the alley. He waved and a pair of headlights switched on. A vehicle drew up. The cab looked old and the back was open, fenced slats around the sides. The man let down the back and helped us to scramble in. Paul said he might be sick, and Chazza told him to get over it, and not to ruin things for the rest of us.
“Tap on the window if you need something,” said the stranger, chaining the tailgate shut. He joined his companion in the cab. The lorry’s engine coughed a couple of times then we set off.
We drove for ten minutes and the buildings became smaller and more spread out. “We’re not in the city,” I pointed out to no-one in particular.
“Probably just greenbelt,” said Gazza. When there was a chance of getting laid, Gazza was fearless. I’d seen him start dancing with flirtatious girls in sight of their boyfriends and all his mates, not caring about the risk.
Nobody spoke as the roads became bumpy. We’d definitely left the city and the sky seemed to be lightening. Ant, Paul and Stan were sleeping, and Bazza had finished puking over the side. Gazza was telling Chazza about a brothel he knew in Brighton, but I couldn’t tell if Chazza was listening or sleeping. I seemed to be the only one who was worried: what if Barry didn’t really have the keys? What if we got stranded and didn’t make it to the airport for our flight home? What if something bad happened?
He wiped his mouth with his T-shirt and focussed on me with his third attempt. “Hey, all right. You’re OK, you know that?”
“Barry, we’ve left the city and we’re in the countryside.”
Bazza sighed. “Look, don’t worry, mate,” He was slurring his words. “It’s going to be OK. If they wanted to rob us, they’d do it in the city. They wanna have us a good time and go back tell our friends what a wonderful time.”
The journey probably wasn’t as long as I thought. We couldn’t see much from the back of the truck, just the road ahead lit by headlights. The pair in the cab didn’t speak to one another and never looked round. Barry puked some more, and Stan started to shiver, his teeth clattering. I was drunk and chained to some deeply unpleasant men in a foreign country, with nobody I could rely on. I was scared. I was used to my life being small and simple and I felt overwhelmed. I regretted not trying to put my foot down when it might have helped.
We pulled off the road onto a small track leading through a forest. Headlights shone between the trees. Is this where they rob us and slit our throats, I wondered. Please God, I prayed drunk, please let Barry tell us he has the key on him. Let this whole truck journey be some prank Barry cooked up. Don’t let us be driving through a forest with strangers, wearing handcuffs.
“Barry, listen to me.” He looked up from dripping puke onto the road. “Do you have the keys?”
“Yeah, course I do.”
“Can I have them?”
“Back at the hotel, aren’t they?”
“Great, Barry. That’s just great.”
I thought he was asleep, but Ant saw the lights first. “Over there!” Everyone turned to see a couple of cars stood outside a wooden palisade, headlights shining onto an open gate. Beyond were a cluster of buildings. The truck stopped at the gate, then moved slowly through. I looked at the cars as we passed but couldn’t spot any people in the glare. I’d not seen any signal to proceed, but someone had obviously checked us out. Whatever this place was, it was very well organised.
The truck parked outside a small barn and the engine was turned off. The driver leapt from the cab and lit a cigarette while the blond man we’d first met undid the chain on the tailgate. The links slid onto the floor.
A woman walked up and stood beside the man. She was beautiful, like a dead movie star.
“My name is Jones,” said the man. “This is my sister, Helen.”
Barry was leaning over the side of the lorry once more so couldn’t speak for us. Instead it was left to Ant: “Hi. Where are we?”
“It’s a resort,” said Helen. Her voice was clipped, no emotion to it. “It has been here since the old days. It is, how-you-say, a relic?”
She stood back while Jones helped each of us down. Everyone had to raise their arms to avoid dragging the next person off. Once we were all on the ground we huddled together, closer than before. Barry, Garry and Charles no longer fooled around.
“Who put you in handcuffs?” asked Helen. “Not Jones I am thinking.”
“No, not Jones,” said Ant. “It was a joke.”
“A joke?” She considered it before shaking her head. “Come on Jones, we ought to get going. It’s late, and these men have had a long journey.”
We trudged across dirt to the lit-up square between three buildings. They were made of grey stone, and the window boxes and painted eaves failed to look particularly decorative.
I used to have a friend who claimed she was ‘sensitive’. She couldn’t visit somewhere without saying she felt ‘something bad’ there or detected ‘a presence’. Approaching the middle building I shivered and wondered if this was how she’d felt all those times. Something had happened here, something so loathsome that being here made me want to turn and run. But I couldn’t run, because I was chained to Garry.
Inside the building was a small waiting room. The walls were bare, painted cream, and a few plastic chairs sat opposite a metal desk. Behind that desk was a young man in a white shirt who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen. Helen spoke to him in their language and I couldn’t tell anything from their tone of voice. The kid nodded, made some notes, then opened a drawer and passed Helen a key. It had the number 6 on its fob.
“How much is it?” asked Barry.
Helen looked at us and narrowed her eyes. “There’s plenty of time to discuss that. You’re all together, right?”
“Do we have a choice?” I asked.
Helen smiled. “There is always a choice. Jones?”
Jones stepped in front of us. He held a pair of bolt cutters. They’d make short work of our fingers, I thought.
I decided to take advantage of the chance to be free. “Cut this chain off me now and I’ll wait here.”
“Come on,” said Barry. “Don’t be a loser.”
I sighed. “I’m done, guys. I’ll wait here until you’re finished.”
“You’ve come all this way for nothing?” asked Garry.
“I never wanted to come here at all.” I raised my hand, tugging Garry’s with it. One snip and I was free, although I still wore the cuff. I watched, sure some of the others would ask to join me, but Ant, Stan and Paul were too drunk, too horny or too tired to protest. Olivia would be furious if she knew, but I was too exhuasted to care.
“Very well,” said Helen. “You wait here. The rest of you, follow me.”
She led the other six through the internal door. I caught a quick glimpse of thick red carpet and grey walls, then they were gone.
“Do you have any water, please?” I asked the young boy.
He smiled. “Certainly.”
He returned with a tray, carrying a jug of water, a glass and a box of aspirin. I examined the box. The writing on it was English. I figured they were safe to take, certainly less dangerous than the headache that was coming. I swallowed a couple.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“This used to be a village.”
“The war, right? Something happened?”
The teenager didn’t pretend his English was poor. “No. It was in the nineteen eighties. Nobody knows what happened. People arrived here one morning to find everyone dead. One hundred and twenty-nine people, beaten to death and burned.”
“Where are all the buildings? The roads? This can’t be all that’s left.”
“The buildings had vanished. Just a pile of bodies in the middle of the woods where there were once roads and homes. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out what happened.”
I’ve never been so scared in all my life, but I forced myself to refill my glass and take a long sip. “The others, they think this is a… do you know the word ‘brothel’?” The boy nodded. “There are no girls here, are there?”
“There’s Helen. But not how you mean, no.”
We sat in silence. I was too tired to run and, even if I wasn’t, where would I go? Even if I made it out of the room, I’d never make it to the airport.
“I promised Ant’s fiancé I’d look after him,” I said. “It’s his wedding next week.”
“Oh.” The boy walked to the front of the desk and sat on it. He stared at me and I looked at the ground. I thought of my last time going out with Barry. Before he pissed himself at the bus stop, he’d been following a couple of girls, asking them to come back to his flat, daring their boyfriends to stand up for themselves. He deserved what came to him, so did Charles and Garry, but Paul, Stan and Ant were with them. It didn’t seem fair. I had to do something.
“Ever wonder why you’re here?” asked the boy.
“Why you’re here, now, and not safe in bed at home?”
“Questionable decisions. Lack of moral courage,” I smiled. “I’d give anything to be at home right now.”
The boy took the water jug and drank two or three swallows direct from it. “We make a million choices in our life. The future seems open, but the past is inevitable. Yet imagine if you arrived here from your own future: would you see your choices as unlimited? Or would you do the same thing as before? Would go back home, or join your friends?”
I was too tired for philosophising. “I just want to take my friends and go.”
“Your friends: they’re the three smaller ones, aren’t they?”
“Yes. I want to make sure they’re safe and sound.”
“It’s done,” said the teenager. “Pass through that door and keep going, then you’ll find them.”
I stood. The teenager waited, patient. “Just get them?” I asked.
He waved towards the door. I thanked him and opened it, the broken chain of my handcuff clanking against the handle. Beyond was the carpeted hallway with its grey walls, a small room at the other end. On a table I saw six pairs of handcuffs. All were closed and undamaged, except for one, which I could see was missing the cuff I wore. I closed the door behind me and felt a little safer.
Eleven handcuffs, six chains. I approached the table. All of the cuffs and chains were undamaged. They’d been tight when Barry and his mates had slipped them on, no way you could ease them back over your hand – I knew that because I’d been trying long enough. I picked up the twin of the handcuff I was still wearing and slipped it in my pocket. At the other end of the room were stairs leading down. I could see the floor below, some way down, a clean patch of concrete. The only sound was the hum of a distant machine.
Halfway down the stairs I turned and looked back, but the light was bad, and I couldn’t see the room I’d passed through. I gripped the other handcuff, planning to use it as a knuckleduster if I had to.
At the bottom of the stairs was a small room with white plaster walls. The concrete floor was pristine. On the far side was a metal door with no handle. And, in the middle of the room were Ant, Paul and Stan, asleep and snoring.
It took little time to wake them. “Where are we?” asked Ant, rubbing his eyes.
“I don’t know,” I told them. “But it’s time to go.” I pointed towards the stairs behind me. “Go back the way you came and wait for me outside.” Deep breath. “If I’m not there in ten minutes, head back without me. Go to the airport, go home.”
“Where are you going?” asked Stan.
“I’ll be ten minutes. Go.”
The three went up the stairs, weaving a little in their still-pissed state. Once they’d left, I went up to the door. What had the teenager asked? Why are we here? What choices would we make if we knew better?
I banged on the door with the handcuff I’d picked up. The metallic boom was louder than I’d expected. I stepped back and waited. Had there ever been a village here, or was the teenager trying to scare me? Maybe it was all a joke. I still wanted it to be a prank, even though this was too strange for someone like Garry to think up.
Helen opened the door. She smiled when she saw me. “You came back for the others?”
“I need to know what’s happened.”
Behind her was a corridor. At its end was an arch, through which I could see starlight and the silhouettes of buildings. I could faintly smell smoke.
“The village that used to be here has been moved. The people who once lived there were left behind, dead. But this village hid itself, and we have found a way in, through this corridor. We’ve been trying for years to re-establish contact. Those other three, they’ve gone in. I don’t know if they’ll come back, but you’re welcome to wait for them as long as you need to.”
“But they were drunk. What use is it sending them in?”
She shrugged. I’d have been angry were the gesture not so weary. “Who else should we send? We’ve been trying for over forty years, and we have lost our best to this place. The ones who came back were useless afterwards.”
Any minute now, the other three would be leaving, just as instructed. Ant was safe, as I’d promised. Drunk as they were, they’d remember little of this place. I was not so lucky. I couldn’t imagine what I would say. How could I explain losing three companions on a stag night?
“Helen? Is that your real name?”
“No. But then yours isn’t James, is it?” She was right.
“I’m going to look for them. Will you be here when I get back?”
“We’ve been waiting decades already. If you return, I’m sure I’ll be here.”
So, I walked down the corridor. I could see the village, or whatever it had become, in the distance. Somewhere fire flickered and the smell of burning became stronger. I could hear something, not quite music, like metal striking metal. I wondered: if I came back from the future to this moment, would I still walk down that corridor? What choice would I have?
James Burt lives in a wooded valley beside a river where he writes odd stories. He keeps a weblog at www.orbific.com“