Book: Hell's Bells - Wicked Tunes, Mad Musicians and Cursed Instruments (Hell's Series Book 4)categories: Book, Horror Fiction, Dark Short Stories, Horror Short Stories, Stories about Music, Music and Musicians, Creepy Short Stories, Dark Twisted Stories, Dark Fantasy
Rayne Hallabout this book: Thirteen writers have penned dark and twisted stories about musical instruments and the people who play them. The genres are fantasy, horror and more.
THE BELLYDANCERS OF SEDDLESBOURNE PIER
by Rayne Hall
Today's the day of the Seddlesbourne Pier festival, the event that will put Seddlesbourne on the map.
Everything is ready for the surge of visitors, I've seen to that: trading stalls, bouncy castle, merry-go-round, souvenir shop, cafés and tarot booth. The deck has been scrubbed, the information boards polished, the orange life preservers displayed around the railing, alternating with signs instructing "No Fishing" "No rollerskating" "No alcohol" and "No food unless purchased here."
One last check in the mirror. My slate-grey linen suit with a relaxed cut and patterned scarf - conveys that I'm a person of authority, yet approachable. Today success will convince the board members who doubted my suitability for the job. A touch-up dab of lipstick, a final practice of the smile, and I sail out.
Even the weather is as fine as if I had personally arranged it, with a blue sky overhead streaked with the finest clouds, and the water a brilliant turquoise rarely seen on the Sussex coast. The sunlight reflects off the screw heads in the planks, so they gleam like a scattering of a thousand silver coins.
The silk banner and the bunting flutter in patriotic colours. I had the foresight to order them in blue, white and red, so we can use them again for the French market and the Queen's Birthday, without incurring the expense of another purchase. I look forward to telling the board about my choices, especially those members who wanted to sack me because of my alleged lack of creative solutions to budget challenges.
The day will bring Seddlesbourne Pier the exposure it deserves. When the old Edwardian pier burned down a few years ago, the owners opted for a new design in minimalist style: 100,000 square feet of grey planks, uncluttered by buildings, unmarred by ornamentation.
For some reason, the locals have not yet warmed to the new design. Their memories cling to the fancy Edwardian pavilions with copper domes and curlicues.
In my role as the pier's manager, I will open their minds to the inspiring freedom inherent in the absence of features, in the versatility and classiness of concrete cubes. And I will bring money flowing in.
The vast deck is partly filled with market stalls - not as many as I had anticipated, because many traders wanted to witness today's success before committing themselves to future events.
In a minute, the gates will be unlocked and the flood of visitors will come streaming in. I'll smile, give encouragement, receive compliments, answer questions from the press, pose with selfies, and solve any problems with my ingenuity and charm.
I check my watch. It's two minutes past twelve. The stewards must have misunderstood their instructions, and are waiting for my signal before they open the gates. I stride to the entrance, ready to forgive the stewards' little mistake, and to welcome the crowd. My heels clack on the planks.
The gate yawns wide open.
Three stewards in their shiny safety vests stand around purposefully, communication devices in hand. The only sound is the sloshing of water beneath the planks.
The crowd... where is the crowd?
There should be a stream coming through the gates, people thronging around the stalls, and the pier bistro and cafés should be doing a brisk trade.
Seagulls perch on either side of the gate, ready to swoop and snatch the snacks visitors carry. "Kreeeee!" "Rah-ha-ha-ha!"
What has gone wrong? Has my assistant put the wrong time in the advertisement? Did the social media neglect to mention that the pier bistro offers organic sushi lunches and premium Sunday roast?
Whatever slack execution caused the setback, I will not allow it to mar the success of the day. When the visitors arrive late they must feel that they're entering a buzzing scene. I will keep up everyone's spirits until then.
I walk from booth to booth, praising the hand-turned ceramics, the fish carved from reclaimed driftwood, the wire sculptures of seagulls. "Everything ready?" I ask. "This looks great. Fabulous display."
The fortune-teller glowers at me from khol-rimmed eyes, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips. "So where are those throngs of punters you promised?"
I glance at my watch, as if double-checking that the event hasn't started yet. "Just make sure you're ready when our festival is under way."
He puffs a smoke ring in blatant defiance of the rules which say that smoking anywhere on the pier is strictly prohibited.
I need to post status updates on Twitter and Facebook, showing photos of affluent couples in designer outfits and happy families with wide-eyed children. These pictures will go viral and inspire more people from the vicinity to flock here spontaneously.
But where are the people? Why would the locals miss the opportunity to explore the open space and the exhibition of the pier's renovation history? Where are the week-enders from London, the representatives of the socio-economic groups A and B who will spend their money on the pier's attractions?
Keeping the confident smile firmly plastered to my face, I ask stallholders to pose browsing each other's wares.
Wait - someone is coming. A woman with three children! Several stewards rush forward, and I hurry to greet them too.
The woman marches with purpose, not even looking at the merry-go-round, the ice cream van or the pillar inviting donations for the pier maintenance fund. She comes straight towards me, her face flushed. "Excuse me. Can you tell me where the toilets are? My youngest..."
I point at the concrete cube in the pier's centre, and the woman ushers her flock in that direction.
Ten minutes later, they're leaving, without having bought as much as an ice cream.
The silk banner flutters merrily but lonely in the wind. From the top of the flag pole, a herring gull glances down its beak at me. "Kra-kra, kraha-hahaha."
The silver screw heads in the planks gleam with mocking malice.
Plenty of people are strolling along the promenade, past the pier. Now and then someone pauses to read the signs and peer through the metal bars, but they don't come in.
I need a crowd, fast, or the board will sack me for sure.
The best way to attract a crowd is to have a crowd. Maybe I could drum up some of the homeless people who always loiter along the promenade, with the promise of a hot meal? I can ask the bistro to donate vouchers. But the unshaven smelly winos in their tattered clothes would not convey the pier's upmarket image.
I click my tablet open, browse rent-a-crowd services. When I finally get through to an agency, the chirpy voice at the other end says she would be happy to provide me with a crowd. The fee starts at £5,000 for a small crowd. My jaw drops. That's my promotion budget for the whole year.
"We require at least one week's notice," the voice chirps on. "Oh - same day? Yes, it can be arranged under certain circumstances. The fee starts at £50,000. How far from London are you? What - where? In the middle of nowhere, and you want us to hire a crowd to get there within an hour?"
Her laughter sounds like a herring gull's screech. I click the call off.
I type 'Seddlesbourne, event, crowd, last minute' into the browser's search box. The first entry is a sponsored advertisement for a local hotel, the second a local newspaper report of a council meeting, the third a bellydance troupe.
I open the bellydancers' page. Theycover the Seddlesbourne area and are available at short notice, outdoor performances a speciality. Their fee is just £200, so I scan the testimonials. "They really drew the crowds" gushes the organiser of a church fête, while a bride enthuses, "They brought sparkle and life to my special day."
I click the phone link.
The troupe's leader answers immediately. She says her name is Louise, and she can get the troupe together at once. "We're having a practice meeting in the Seddlesbourne Village Hall right now. We'll be down at the pier in twenty minutes." Her voice has the assertive competence of a natural leader. "No problem at all."
"Two hundred pounds for an hour, all included?"
"£200, all included, for a one-hour show. Twelve dancers, with finger cymbals and tambourines."
This is what I need. I agree immediately and congratulate myself on my resourcefulness. That will show the board whether I have creative solutions to budget challenges!
I start tweeting. "Bellydancers will arrive here at 2pm. Come and watch the exotic beauties shimmy their lithe bodies!"
The dancers arrive, their shimmering costumes a-jingle with sewed-on coins.
"I'm Louise. Where do we perform?" the stout matron asks in a brisk voice. Her steely eyes scan the available space. "Right here by the entrance, or out by the pier head?"
I look at the dancers she has brought with her, the tyres of flesh girding the waists, bare bellies wrinkled with age and stretch-marks.
My heart shrinks, and my mouth falls open. These are not nubile beauties, but fat old hags. Grandmothers.
I manage to maintain a composed expression while I search for polite words. "Thank you for coming. Unfortunately, the kind of act I seek would have to be more... visually attractive."
"Don't worry." Louise's voice has lost none of her competence. "They'll look grand. Once they move, the effect will be spectacular. And with the finger cymbals and tambourines and everything, people will love it."
"Two hundred pounds for... for ... " Not finding a politically correct word for 'old hags' I simply say, "... is too much."
Louise purses her painted mouth, thinking. "We'll bring the crowds, that's what you want, isn't it?" Then her blue-metallic eyes gleam. "I'll tell you what. Instead of a fixed fee for the performance, you pay for the audience we attract. Two pounds per person. Do we have a deal?"
I think fast. If these grandmothers really draw an audience of any size, two pounds a head is a bargain. If not, it costs me nothing. Besides, twelve moving bodies on the deck are better than none, whatever their shape and age - the perfect creative solution to a budget challenge.
Louise raises her arms, clinking the metal disks on her thumbs and middle fingers. Chink-chink-chink. The other women gather around her, weave into formations.
Hips undulate, arms snake, skirts swirl.
From a distance, they don't look too bad. The costumes, brightly coloured satins studded with sequins, shine in the sun and draw attention away from the wrinkled flesh. Wide skirts spin like waving wheels, revealing layer upon layer of shimmering satin, billowing like multi-coloured flames. Sequins send sparks of sunlight in the air.
Chink-chink-chinke-di-chink, the finger cymbals tease.
Rat-tat-rattatat, the tambourines reply. Doumtek doum-doum tek, ratatatatat.
The colours arrest my eyes, the rhythm catches my breath.
Already, people spill through the gate, drawn by the music and movement.
Those finger cymbals ring with a magic nobody can resist.
I raise my smartphone and snap photo after photo, but can scarcely pull myself away for long enough to share them online.
"Bellydancers in action!" I tweet. "They're fantastic. You have to be here to believe this!"
I capture videos with soundbites, too. I had never thought to describe music in terms of colour, but the tambourines create silver sounds, and the finger cymbals ring with pure gold.
Dozens, hundreds of visitors crowd around the dancers, mesmerised. They, too, take photos and tap messages.
And more people keep coming, a rapid stream from both sides of the promenade. They stare, open-mouthed, enchanted and enthralled.
I hurry up to the viewing platform on the central concrete cube. I simply must take photos of the mass of people, to prove this success. These bellydancers are sorceresses, the best hire ever.
Even from up here, those magical finger cymbals keep me mesmerised in their spell.
"Seddlesbourne Pier Festival is a huge success! At least 4000 people here, probably more! You must see this!" I tweet, attaching pictures from above.
Below, there's scarcely room to move. People stand tightly packed everywhere - young and old, couples and families. I wonder briefly whether the sheer number may cause safety concerns, but the structure is designed to withstand any weight or weather, and our insurance covers events with an unlimited number of spectators.
I resolve to pay the troupe a big bonus. Surely with numbers like this, the payment per head doesn't apply.
Suddenly, the music stops. Stillness descends, like the magic has suddenly been withdrawn.
The hour of performance is up. The spectators turn into customers. They gather around the vending stalls, take their kids to the merry-go-round and purchase double-scoop ice creams. Queues form at the tarot reader's booth, and the bistro does a brisk trade.
Word about this event will spread, and there'll be no shortage of traders wanting to rent space at the next event.
I push through the crowds to the troupe leader, accepting compliments from spectators and stallholders on the way.
"This was fantastic, Louise. I'll book you again when we have the Queen's Birthday in June, and the French Market in August." I hold out six crisp white-and-red £50 notes and smile."Here's your fee, with a bonus."
Louise purses her lips and raises her chin. "Eight thousand pounds, please."
The water under the pier sucks and slurps.
"Don't be ridiculous." I wave the bank notes. "Here's three times your fee."
"We agreed two pounds per head. With four thousand people, that's eight thousand pounds."
I remain firm. "There weren't anywhere near that many people on the pier. A few hundred, maybe..."
Her eyes harden to blue steel. She holds up a tablet, showing my tweet: "At least 4000 people here, probably more!" and photos from the crowds above.
Sudden dizziness threatens my balance. There's no way I can pay that. The stall holders, souvenir shops and cafés are making money, but the pier got not a penny.
I try to reason. "I can probably pay you more next time, but for now, this is all I can do."
"You rejected our fixed fee. The pay-per-head arrangement was your choice."
Money. Budget. Creative solutions. Board members' recommendations for renewing my contract. Everything that had seemed so shiny a moment ago dissolves like salt in the sea, carried away by waves. I must not lose ground.
"What arrangement? Prove it!"
Her face tightens. The frown deepens the lines of her skin. Suddenly she looks a hundred years old.
Should I pity her? "£800. That's my final offer."
"Your final offer? Are you sure?" The hardness in her pupils melts, dissolves to a dreamy gleam, like a thousand blue crystals dancing in her eyes. "As you wish."
Instead of taking the bank notes, she slips the loops of her cymbals over her fingers.
Then she clicks. Ticke ticke dak da, ticke ticke dak ta.
The other dancers exchange glances, then join in. Ticke ticke dak da, ticke ticke dak ta. The volume swells.
So they're performing some more? That suits me fine, but they're not getting more money out of me.
Louise now varies her playing. Whereas before, the two disks of each hand worked in pairs, now all four weave a complex pattern of to and fro between the hands. The others keep the basic rhythm, and then the tambourines join with a rapid, hissing rattle. The volume swells.
Clearly, I've triumphed over their unreasonable demands. I'll send the £800 electronically, and that will be it.
Now Louise lifts her hands high above her head, and vibrates the two disks on her left hand inside the other pair. the result is a bright, shrill sound, almost painful to the ear, yet commanding attention.
Obviously this is the signal to her minions, because they all shimmy in single file after their leader who dances away from me, towards the pier head.
Excited at the continued performance, the spectators leave the vending stall, abandon their half-eaten meals in the bistro, slide off the merry-go-round horses and hurry down from the viewing platform. They follow the dancers towards the pier head, laughing, skipping, dancing, hopping with the rhythm, like a thousand rats scurrying after bait.
This music is more mesmerising than what we heard before. If that is the bellydancers revenge, it suits me fine.
I ascend the steps to the viewing platform to keep an eye on things. The climb takes an effort. It is as if the music was drawing me in the other direction, like a powerful magnet.
The bright sounds travel through the air, and hit my ears with their rhythm: Ticke ticke dak da, ticke ticke dak ta, clink clink tata rrrrring. The music pulses in my veins, thuds in my throat, makes my muscles twitch with the need to dance. I clutch the railing at the top of the viewing platform with both hands, because this is the only way I can resist the lure of these sounds.
When they reach the end of the pier, the dancers line up in two rows on either side of a bench. But they keep up the chinking and clinking, and the spectators keep moving onward. What's going on?
People can't go further. There's the metal railing, and then the turquoise sea.
Wait - what is this man doing? He swings his leg on the railing and... disappears.
I blink the hallucination away. If he had fallen into the water, I would have heard a splash. Instead, there's nothing but silence. No, not silence, but the throbbing relentlessness of the finger cymbals.
Their tempo increases: ticke ticke dak da, ticke ticke dak ta, clink clink tata rrrrring, the hellish bells command, faster and faster.
Bodies press forward and onward, in a rush to get... where?
Now a woman climbs onto the bench, and another. A child. A couple, holding hands. Now the tarot reader. Three safety stewards. From the bench onto the railing and then... nothing.
No splash in the water, no bodies hanging from the edge of the pier. Instead, a swirl of silver mist that pulses with the rhythm. Pumping like a giant heart, it devours the people who climb into it.
Dozens, hundreds, thousands of spectators are hurrying through the espalier of sorceresses, driven on by the ring of their mesmerising instruments. Even from the distance, I can see their expressions of stupid bliss as they dance into their doom.
I have to stop this, to call for help. To hold my smartphone and type the codes, I have to let go of the railing.
The magnetic force pulls me away, down the steps, propels me towards the pier head.
With the rhythm pulsing in every fibre, the blood boiling to the sound of cymbals, my muscles obey. I dance, dance, dance.
Bright brass disks glint maliciously in the sun as they greet my arrival between the dancer's avenue.
The swirling vortex awaits.
Ticke ticke dak da, ticke ticke dak ta, clink clink tata rrrrring.
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