Malcolm Laughton

The January Selected Writer is Malcolm Laughton

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by Malcolm Laughton

Tomorrow Never Comes was the title of the mural painted on an interior wall of the café bar. Marcus slugged at his bottled lager, considered the name, and studied the mural. It should really be a Mexican theme, not a Scottish one, because the mural portrayed the Dance of the Dead on the Day of the Dead.

He glanced at his watch. Quarter to Two. Elise was late. He looked outside, his attention drawn to the smokers who stood in the open-air, blinking in the sudden sunshine and dragging on their cigarettes and vapes. Sunshine had followed the clearing of heavy rain, and in that early sunbreak, the fallen rain—in puddles, pavement and wall sheen—reflected an annihilating glare that dazzled and made the smokers’ outlines blur into nothingness.

Marcus pondered as he stared out through the big plate-glassed window into the street. The town of Finnieston had been gentrified since he’d briefly lived here. He remembered a tenemented, working-class parish in a heavy-industrial Glasgow of ship building.

But that Glasgow had been dying, even those years ago—the ghost-like presence of factories and cranes had lingered as monumental sheds and metallic skeletons. And, now, even that lingering shadow of the Past had almost completely departed.

The tenements remained. He looked at the Victorian and Edwardian structures, recalling an even earlier Scotland of stone buildings with their red and blond sandstone. Slightly morbid in mood, sitting alone, with old memories of others gone, waiting for Elise—Marcus felt drawn back to the Dance of Death painted across the long sidewall opposite— when someone, from the corner of his eye, caught his attention.

Hoping it might be Elise, Marcus looked back through the café window. A woman with long, chestnut brown hair and a lost expression on her face, stopped at the window, peering in, as if looking for someone. But it wasn’t Elise. Nor could the brown-haired woman have seen who she was seeking; as after a moment or two of hesitation, she moved on. For an instant, Marcus caught an afterimage of her reflection breaking into a mirrored multitude of people peering through the window,  then the odd displacement was gone. He turned back to the mural.

Tomorrow Never Comes should have been titled Dance of Death. The artist had granted it a Robert Burns motif. Marcus raised an eyebrow at that. Thought it out of place. Or perhaps it’s in place, he mused, a universal theme adapting to the locality.

The mural was graphic. In Auld Kirk Alloway—that famed and ruined wee church—stood open coffins from which the shrouded stepped. Candles burned, clutched in skeleton hands, and dripping bloody knives, murderer’s bones and sundry yellowed skulls sat upon the holy table. Outside hung a gibbet, the hanged man still locked within, his eyes and mouth agape—a last choked breath caught between life and death. Around the sky, the borealis moved in shimmering ethereal green and violet. The shrouded, witches, bogles, and warlocks jigged, stepping in time to bagpipes and fiddles played by old, hoary, long-haired dogs and goats. And in the center, Tam and Cutty Sark danced. Tam, red-faced, drunk, entranced wistful, leaning into the witch’s embrace, in a close, slow dance; Cutty, thin, ashen faced, her eyes big in deep sockets, her long legs pale under her short, pearl-white, silken chemise.

Marcus looked away, through the window into the busy street, hoping to see Elise. He glanced at his watch. Half Two. Time flies, even while it seems to drag so slowly, waiting for your loved one to arrive. To pass a further wee bit of time, and from a casual curiosity, he looked round at neighboring customers. A couple sat at the adjacent table. When he strained a little, he could overhear their conversation.

Death by Chocolate? I can see why it’s called that,” said the man. “That cake’s huge!”

“Well, I thought you might just help me,” replied the woman.

“Well, I just might.” He scooped up a chunk of rich dark chocolate with a fork.

Wearied, Marcus turned back to the window. A vintage bus rumbled by. A double-decker—green and orange—from another era. He almost expected to see a clippie—a bus conductor, in other times—hanging onto the steel grip pole at the door-less entry at the back, pavement side, corner of the vehicle. But he saw neither tell-tale cap nor uniform jacket and badge.

Everything else outside belonged in the present day: pedestrians deep in tune with their headphone tracks; cyclists dodging cars on the road, or dodging pedestrians on the pavement; young mothers pushing buggies with crying babies. It was a pell-mell of the everyday: flowing, rushing, dashing, drifting past.

Then, as if the Transport Museum had opened its doors to its entire collection, more vintage vehicles—buses, trams, outdated yesterday’s cars—trundled, rumbled, rattled past.

Marcus looked around at the other customers. Some registered nothing. They were chatting, eating, talking. Others, staring outside, also watched the vintage flow. He saw their expressions change, in unison, to shock, disbelief, and wonder. Marcus turned back to the window.

Outside, a building moved, sliding as if on some invisible lubricant through the solid surface of tarmacked cobblestones, obscuring the tenements across the street, bulking huge, displacing the norms of street geometry. It was too heavy and solid to be some preposterous carnival float.

Marcus thought he recognized it from his childhood, a since demolished gargantuan of Victorian Glasgow. Octagonal top towers, set upon massive square towers, from whose heights winged gargoyles projected; a hundred Norman styled arched windows peered out from within Roman arched wall settings; pinnacles and peaked roof turrets. It was a convergence of styles and periods set into an over-the-top, Nineteenth Century architectural extravagance.

The building, he remembered, had been impossible to maintain or sell, long lost and demolished. He leaned forward and looked upward, to take in all its giddy details as it continued its slow, impossible, majestic promenade.

Marcus, in need of reassurance of his senses, turned to the comfort of fellow witnesses. All patrons now watched, peering through the window, or exchanging astonished glances. The man with Death by Chocolate was gaping, fork suspended midway to wide-open mouth.

Marcus stared back through the window as the huge bulk of the building passed by. Other buildings trailed behind it, a panorama opening in width and depth. He saw fine buildings, neo classical with Corinthian pillars caught in a web of low, crowstepped gabled Old Dutch style tenements.

A jumble of ramshackle wooden cottages with thatched roofs went by and distant, central, like a fulcrum, the Gothic spire of Glasgow Cathedral. There—in shocked disjunction—were concrete blocks and towers, and great metal shipyard cranes over half-built ocean liners.

The buildings flowed and circled in contrary directions and eddying spirals; like tides, and rivers, and an uncertain sea. For periods, greenery showed, and saplings and old gnarled oaks pressed up against the window, twigs and leaves scraping and brushing the glass. Then the buildings and plants lost form, and colors flowed, and metallic shapes moved as if compelled within a horizontal lava lamp.

“But look at the wall!” someone cried.

Marcus turned, as all other heads turned, to look at the mural.

Tam and Cutty dance in each other’s arms. They were moving, no longer imprisoned in the stillness of paint. Behind the dancers, the clouds drift across the face of the moon; and the borealis lights perform a slow accompaniment to a silent music.

Cutty Sark’s pale skin was like the moon, her hair silver, her face young—she had closed her eyes as if in some dream. Tam’s face is red and lively; he laughed at a hidden joke. All around, in the background, the witches and warlocks moved to their own step, and Tam’s alter ego, set upon his mare, rode across an arched bridge pursued by another Cutty Sark. Saint Elmo’s Fire, from a distant storm upon the horizon, danced and skipped along the horizon, reaching and entangling the dancing Tam and Cutty until their bodies were lost in an ion haze.

“Outside! Look outside!” someone called, her voice too distant, too displaced.

Marcus turned to look. He saw flow: borealis, storm, the dance of ions, shifting shorelines, stars, nebula, clouds on a summer day, hills rising and falling, clouds on an autumn day—flows of nameless shapes, rivers of time running, ebbing, waxing, in contrary directions like a brush swirled in a jar of water colors adhering to the real. Marcus felt himself and Time begin to drift in the slow storm.

People were panicking. Marcus saw them as if through the lense of an old bottle washed in from the sea. He saw people pressing up against the inside of the window, with the desperate motions of bees and moths as if hard glass might yield into open air. Others, driven in dread, pressed against the closed door.

Like bile in his gorge, Marcus felt his own panic rise. He reached out for Elise, but she wasn’t there. He stood up, pushing his chair back, hearing it clatter onto the floor, and ran for the door.

The men in the café were in front because they had pushed their way ahead of the women. He joined the press of men, a wall of hunched hard backs. Marcus tried pulling at the other men but couldn’t find purchase, and the press of men held the door shut.

Suddenly he heard screaming, and saw terrible movement. A man wielded a metal chair. Like a two handled axe, the man raised and hacked with the chair on the press of men, on backs, shoulders, and heads. Men broke away from the press, pushing Marcus to the floor. He scrambled backward, away from the mayhem.

A remaining three stood struggling at the door, until the biggest man pulled and opened it, falling out into the street, evaporating in a swirl of borealis light. Marcus turned his head slowly as a sundial, and saw others frozen into their own personal moment, alone forever it felt to him. Others suddenly danced—some with another customer in a slow waltz. Some with witches, warlocks, skeletons, and grinning hanged men gibbet-freed.

Marcus—his panic exhausted—rose from the floor and, as if caught in the slow frames of an old camera, stood a long moment. In the very center of the café, he saw a tight-circled knot of people turning rhythmically one way and then the next, all as one, their arms raised above their heads waving like an enchanted forest of limbs, fingers wiggle waggling to touch hidden notes in the air. Marcus thought he glimpsed the Death by Chocolate couple deep in the tangle. Then, losing himself, he moved to join the dance.


Elise stood outside looking in, caught in that odd old feeling called déjà vu. She saw only a shop interior: an old bar top, shelves, scattered fallen chairs, a smear of fading, flaking, peeling paint colors across a wall—but she felt there had been something, someone else there before.  That something had happened to exclude her…almost as if, had she been a moment earlier, she might have caught it.

Elise peered deeper, pressing up against the window until the tip of her nose touched glass, catching the faint blurry outline of her reflection looking back at her. Through the dusty window, in the shadowed interior, she saw a people-deserted space, the old color on the wall suggestive of figures, nothing more.

She pulled back. In the dust on the inside of the window, she thought she saw shapes, as if the Past had left its imprint on the glass. But her eyes could make no real sense of the patterns.

So sad. Elise felt caught in a sudden deep unbidden mood of melancholy for an unspecified loss. She tried to remember—feeling a memory, a lost presence, on the cusp of remembrance. But the remembrance slipped away from her and was gone. She wiped a tear, gently shook her head, sighed, and moved away.

Malcolm Laughton lives in Glasgow, Scotland. His stories have previously appeared in The Horror Zine Magazine; Supernatural Tales; Electric Spec; Eulogies II, Tales from the Cellar; Bards and Sages Quarterly; Dark Horizons, the Journal of the British Fantasy Society, Abandoned Towers, and other magazines.