THE INVITATION by Robbie Porter
The invitation came in a stiff vanilla envelope and inscribed on embossed, heavy card. Good quality, Jenson Murgatroyd thought as he examined it closely, first one side and then the other, being careful all the time to hold it by the corners so as not to mark it in any way.
Jenson Murgatroyd liked things to be pristine, particularly if they might have some current or future significance.
This invitation did indeed appear to be a most auspicious one. It read:
THE ARCANE SOCIETY
The committee cordially request that Mr. Jenson Murgatroyd join them for a dinner to mark
The 100th anniversary of the Society
To be held at the Bookshop, Mealcheapen Street
On 31 October 2020 at 8pm
A Edwards (Miss)
Included in the envelope was a note on lavender paper, written in best copperplate:
Dear Mr. Murgatroyd,
We do hope that you will be able to join us for dinner next week. The committee are very enthusiastic about your work and would be grateful if you were to read from several of your more recent pieces.
A set not exceeding ten minutes should suffice.
Murgatroyd was a neat man of precise habits and a keen attention to detail; he noted immediately that there were no contact details (“No need to RSVP, then” he reasoned) and although he was quite familiar with Mealcheapen Street he had only a vague recollection of a bookshop there. No matter, he mused. “I will find it easily enough.”
For Murgatroyd this was an unexpected yet propitious turn of events, and his main concern (which he wasted no time now in addressing) were the pieces for this debut performance. He was an aspiring writer who had enjoyed a modicum of success (his own assessment) almost entirely in horror and speculative fiction webzines.
Murgatroyd had no idea how he had come to the attention of The Arcane Society (which he was sure he had heard of, although specific details were somewhat hazy, and while he was on the subject the name A. Edwards also rang something of a bell) but was certain nonetheless that he would give a good account of himself.
So it was that on the appointed evening Murgatroyd collected his papers and buttoned up his coat, turning the collar up against the cold. It was blowing a gale and flurries of snow assailed him as soon as he set foot outside. Keeping his head low and his hands in his pockets, with a satchel tucked tightly under one arm, Murgatroyd began walking towards Mealcheapen Street.
The street curved gently and rose slightly; Murgatroyd, immured against the biting storm, noted that there were no recent footfalls on the delicate blanket of snow. No one passed this way at this time of night, in this weather.
Murgatroyd glanced first right and then left as he passed up the street, trying to discern through squinted eyes the precise location of the bookshop. He found it where he thought it would be, near the bottom and on the right, set (“Bookended”, he mused) between two eponymous charity shops.
The bookshop was Georgian, red brick and two stories high. Casement windows with latticed glass were set either side of the door. Through these Murgatroyd could make out: nothing. He was quite certain of this and for a moment thought he must be mistaken about the time and place. He was perturbed only briefly for although he could hear no sound and discern not a shadow of activity within there was something: a dull shimmering rather like candlelight glimpsed through a thick fog. After all tonight was working up to be a real peasouper. That must be it, he reckoned.
He entered. Sepia lighting cast an eerie glow over the heavy, mahogany bookcases and threw reddish-brown shadows across the flagstone floor. “Interesting atmospherics,” Murgatroyd thought. “They’ve pulled out all the stops for this.”
It appeared that he was the first to arrive. Murgatroyd’s initial impression was how cold it was. His second was how far back the stacks extended. He felt a frisson of excitement and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to browse until the others arrived. He noticed how hollow his footsteps sounded on the bare stone floor; there was no echo, like in a room where the removal men have just taken out the last of the furniture. Murgatroyd realised how strange this was, but wait! Now he was in his element. Here were antiquarian volumes on the occult (using the archaic description ‘Daemonologie,’ Murgatroyd noted with satisfaction, checking out the signs on the bookcases) and another section on folklore (‘Apocrypha’). These rare volumes dating back to the sixteenth century would normally be kept in a secure cabinet under lock and key. Attracted by the heavy, ornate binding Murgatroyd made to draw one off the shelf and examine it more closely.
Just at that moment, a gentle rustling alerted him, and he glimpsed a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. A woman whose poise belied her advanced years was standing next to him. “Ah, Mr. Murgatroyd. We have not met but I am a keen follower of your work. As, indeed, we all are here.” She gestured to the room.
Until this point Murgatroyd had not even registered any other individuals but now suddenly here they were, standing around him in small groups. Moreover, although he might have inadvertently overlooked them, it was quite apparent that they had not failed to notice him. Every eye in the house was focused on Jenson Murgatroyd.
Miss Edwards, for this was clearly she, continued: “There are twelve of us here this evening, all very eager to hear from you. In a moment we’ll start. A member wishes to speak first, and then the floor is yours. Afterwards you must join us upstairs for supper.
“Let’s make our way to the Reading Room.”
The Reading Room was located at the far end of the bookshop and was well appointed for that purpose. It was large enough to host a medium sized gathering, but small enough to be intimate. There were more bookcases and display cabinets, and an ornate fireplace dominated the wall opposite the door. The same sepia lighting cast its reddish-brown pall over all. If Murgatroyd had been pressed for a description, he would have called it “womb-like.”
Miss Edwards took her seat at the head of a small parlour table positioned directly in front of the fireplace and covered for the occasion with a white tablecloth. She gestured for Murgatroyd to sit in the front row; the rest of the company took their places around him. Gradually the chitchat died away and Miss Edwards, hands grasped firmly in front, rose to address the gathering.
“First of all, I would like to welcome all of you that have made it here this evening. It is indeed a filthy night, and conditions for travel less than ideal. Now before we begin, I would like to introduce Mr. Jenson Murgatroyd, who at least has not had to come so far. Mr. Murgatroyd will be familiar to most of you for his [she paused slightly and looked down at her notes] contributions. I am sure that he will give us a great deal to ponder tonight.”
The round of table banging that followed indicated that this sentiment represented the consensus of the room.
Miss Edwards continued. “But before we can hear from Mr. Murgatroyd, I believe that there is a distinguished member who also wishes to be heard. Therefore, first and foremost, I understand that our colleague would like to talk to us about… [Another pause for perusal of notes] … ah yes, of course. He will be telling us about what was really written on that missing page in The Tractate Middoth.”
Murgatroyd thought, but could not swear to it, that he actually heard one gentleman remark to another, “God’s teeth, the old fellow’s always rolling this one out” and received in response “Indeed. I heard him give the exact same lecture at King’s.” Thinking about it afterwards, Murgatroyd was certain that he must have misheard this exchange.
A tall, thin, kindly looking man of indeterminate years wearing evening dress seemed to appear next to the table and (so Murgatroyd thought) was completely in his element, combining quiet self-assurance with the natural aplomb of a man no stranger to the lectern. Murgatroyd for his own part was too taken with his own nerves to pay much attention, but he did nevertheless pick up the occasional snippet:
“University librarians are martyrs to the dust mite; something ought to be done… I have always taken my vacations alone… I never could abide the seaside… They say Eldred died of heart failure, but the real question must be what brought it on… . Of course it was Rant, any fool can see that… It looked like Hebrew but believe me it took forever to decipher… Anyway, that’s what it actually said.”
Jolted back to reality by the sudden applause Murgatroyd realized that he had been so completely self-absorbed that he had totally missed the whole point of the speech.
Miss Edwards stood again and, beckoning Murgatroyd forward, said, “I think I speak for everyone when I say what a tour de force that was [more boisterous table banging]. You have outdone yourself this evening [cries of hear, hear]. Now it is my very great pleasure to call on Mr. Jenson Murgatroyd. Mr. Murgatroyd if I might be so bold: we have over-run somewhat, so if you could kindly keep to the time limit, the members I am sure would appreciate it…”
Murgatroyd, ever canny, began by paying tribute to the previous speaker. “The Tractate Middoth is one of the best-known pieces by the great M.R. James, and we have just been treated to a unique new perspective on that fine work.”
The stillness that followed this remark reminded Murgatroyd of something someone once said about silence being the perfect expression of disdain. He decided to press quickly on, and as he progressed through his set, he could feel the mood of the room turning towards him. By the time he finished (well within the time limit), he was the recipient of what he thought must be regarded, at least by the standards of this lot, as universal approbation.
Miss Edwards opened a large leather-bound folio volume that Murgatroyd had not noticed on the table before and beckoned him forward. “By unanimous resolution you have been elected to membership of the Society. There is but one formality: If you would like to come up, you may sign the Charter Book.”
If Jenson Murgatroyd had been asked for his thoughts at that moment, he would have been hard pressed to describe them. Certainly, he was taken aback; this he had not expected. Therefore, he approached the table with more trepidation than excitement, for this was just the latest of many things that had been perplexing him tonight.
Miss Edwards proffered a pen and gestured toward the Book. “If you could sign just here… yes, right there.”
Murgatroyd signed with what he thought was a suitable flourish. Then he took a moment to peruse the other entries on the page. The details were ordered into three columns: name, proposer and year of election.
He just had time to take in the entry at the very top of the page.
‘James, Montague Rhodes. Proposed by Amelia Edwards. Elected 1936.’
All types of notions tumbled through Murgatroyd’s head, each falling in upon the other until he was a perfect jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions. He did not know what to think or do. There may have been an involuntary exclamation. He glanced across at Miss Edwards and realized with a jolt that this was the first time he had, in fact, actually looked at her. Or indeed at any of them.
The reddish-brown hue was like a winding sheet: it had helped obscure the all-embracing horror of Murgatroyd’s unfolding predicament.
Miss Edwards stood perfectly still, arm extended at the elbow with upturned palm like a ghastly supplicating mannequin, all the while staring at Murgatroyd with eyes devoid of life and a smile like a rictus grin. Murgatroyd noticed with interest that by focusing he was able to detect a point on the wall beyond her. Miss Edwards was ever so slightly translucent.
Murgatroyd turned to face the rest of the company. They were all standing now and almost imperceptibly began to move towards him, reaching for him. With mounting panic, he realised that they were between him and the door; there was no way out, and in that instant Jenson Murgatroyd became acutely aware of the functioning of his own body: his shallow breaths, and the quickening of his heart.
But even now Murgatroyd’s enquiring mind would not stay still. In those final moments, he was still curious. Above all, he was curious about what it would be like, and what would come after. Then suddenly like a revelation, he realized that he could hear their thoughts.
Monty said, “It has always been a maxim of mine that one should treat ghosts kindly.”
He could hear the others, too.
“You were most impressive. To be elected so quickly; quite the achievement.”
“It’s not so bad you know. There are compensations.”
“It doesn’t do to struggle. Well, not too much. It makes for a much easier transition.”
“At least you didn’t die on stage.”
EXTRACT FROM THE EVENING NEWS,
4 NOVEMBER 2020
Concern is growing regarding Jenson Murgatroyd, aged 37, who has been reported missing. Mr. Murgatroyd was last seen on CCTV walking down Mealcheapen Street at approximately 7.45pm on 31 October. It is understood that he was due to attend an event at the bookshop there, but police enquiries have confirmed that the shop closed some years ago.
Local business owners have confirmed to the Evening News that the interior was recently gutted pending renovation.
Anyone with information about Mr. Murgatroyd’s whereabouts should contact the police.
His disappearance is currently being described as unexplained.