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In the summer of 2008, I took a job at the Museum of Rural Life, situated in the beautiful countryside of Kent, England.
They called it a museum, which suggested exhibits in glass cases and marble floors and 'don't touch' signs, but it actually put me more in mind of a farm or a very small village. It was an open-air attraction, with pens for sheep and cows, and peacocks roaming the site freely. There was the old wagon building, which they sometimes rented out for corporate functions and meetings and so on, an old mill, and a few other curios. There was also a duck pond populated with twenty or thirty ducks, of which only three were owned by the museum – the rest had just turned up over time, and nobody could make them leave.
I worked in the gift shop and the tearoom, and loved it. The museum was owned by a kindly old man called James who personally assumed the role of head chef in the tearoom kitchen, even though, truth be told, he was a little too old for it and had difficulty keeping up with the pressure. Later, I learned that he had a drinking problem, but he never bought it to work with him, and was in general good-natured - sometimes downright mischievous.
People came from all over to visit the museum in the rolling green hills of Kent, also known as the 'garden of England'. Sometimes I would arrive at work early and just loiter at the duck pond, taking a moment to feel grateful that I was being paid to work in such a picturesque setting. It was hard to imagine anything aberrant or malevolent existing there.
I thought I'd met everybody who worked there. Kayla and Steve, who worked the gift shop and tearoom with me; Jessica, the good-looking Marketing Manager; John, the hard-to-read, sometimes friendly, sometimes prickly Operations Manager; the farmhands, the security guys – everybody seemed easy to get along with, easy to work with.
But there was another man who worked there. I didn't discover this until I'd been at the museum for a month or two. Nobody seemed to notice him, and I couldn't understand it. Because if you looked at his face, it was all you could do not to stare.
He was the gardener there, and I never once saw him talk to another member of staff. He had his own little shed at the back of the museum land, and he spent a lot of time in there. Doing what, I don't know. Maybe he lived there. I was ashamed to be afraid of him, but his face genuinely frightened me.
I couldn't get it out of my mind, but if I tried to bring it up with another member of staff, to try to gently find out who he was, or why he looked that way, I would just get puzzled responses.
“Why does he look like what?” said James, when I asked him.
“You know. Like that.”
“I'm not sure what you're getting at.”
It was like that with everybody. It began to seem as though nobody else had noticed his otherworldly appearance – but how could such a thing be possible? How was it possible to look at Mr. Face, as I began to think of him, and not be horrified?
I couldn't even find out if he had a name. Everybody knew him, and everybody knew he was the gardener, but I couldn't find anybody who knew who he was, or who'd employed him. As far as I could tell, he'd always been there. He didn't bother anybody in his shed, and he was good at the gardens, and that was that.
Maybe I was going crazy, but I couldn't accept that not one single person seemed to have any curiosity about this. Didn't anybody else find it bizarre that nobody on the site knew what he was doing there?
I started to become obsessed with Mr. Face. I started to get the impression, somehow, that I was alone in seeing him that way. Everybody else, insofar as they noticed him at all, seemed to just see him as a normal guy.
It was the eyes that did it. His face was otherwise normal – middle-aged, lined, perhaps handsome. But the eyes...
The eyes weren't human.
They were black. Big, much bigger than a man's eyes should ever be, and black, featureless and glassy. They were the size of limes, and heavily lidded. You needed to look at him for no longer than a millisecond to know that no human has ever had, or will ever have, eyes like that.
“He must have a name,” I said to James. “Come on!”
“Everybody's got a name,” was the vague reply.
I looked out of the window and watched the gardener slowly and methodically watering plants, one-by-one.”Mr. Face,” I whispered to myself.
“What?” said James.
“I call him Mr. Face,” I said, turning from the window, a little ashamed of myself.
James' brow furrowed. “Why Mr. Face?”
I had the same conversation, or variations on a theme, with several other staff members, until I was completely certain that I was alone in this. Was I hallucinating?
One morning, I arrived early as usual, and took my usual place at the duck pool, my hands resting on the rustic wooden fence, but was a little surprised to note the complete absence of ducks. There wasn't a single one to be seen. A cold mist curled across the water; it was getting late in the year.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and turned to head off to the gift shop and start the day, but there, planting seeds in a patch of soil a few yards away, was Mr. Face.
I froze. It was still too early for anybody else to be here, and to get to the shop, I would have to walk alarmingly close to him. I stayed at the fence, weighing my options, when he looked up at me.
Instantly I was struck with revulsion at his black, buglike eyes, and I may have reflexively taken a step backward, my back pressing up against the fence. If he was offended, he didn't show it.
Fighting to control my fear, I managed a weak, “'Morning.”
Slowly, he stood from the soil bed. When he stopped moving, he stood absolutely immobile, the way that insects do, and spoke to me with a voice that was surprisingly soft and slow. “Why do you call me Mr. Face?”
I looked at his face, and somehow couldn't bring myself to tell him why. "I don't know," I said.
"You don't know my name, do you?" His mouth moved in time with the words, but the sound seemed to be coming from somewhere else.
“W-what's your name?"
He paused for a moment, and then said, "Mr. Face will do just fine."
He made my skin crawl, but then I felt ashamed of myself for being afraid, because maybe he was just a nice man with a deformity, but then I looked again at his face and became sure that he was no such thing.
I knew what he was.
I turned at the sudden sound of a car pulling up – it was John, the Operations Manager, arriving for work. When I looked back at Mr. Face, he was crouched over his seeds again, as though he had never moved. I found that I was shaking; I couldn't tell where I'd interpreted it, but the words of Mr. Face had unmistakeably carried a threat as their subtext. However he was fooling the others into believing he belonged in our world, it wasn't working on me.
I didn't like John very much, but I was pretty glad to see that car. I wondered if he had seen Mr. Face talking to me, and if anything would be said. But when the car door opened, I froze.
John had the eyes, too.
He looked just like Mr. Face.
He smiled, glassily, and with the exact same dreamy, faraway voice, said, “Good morning.”
I lost it. My rucksack fell from my shoulders, and I ran. I ran and I ran and I ran, pounding the gravel path underfoot and gulping down great stinging mouthfuls of bitter November air, not knowing where to go. I was heading further into the museum grounds, expecting at any moment the hands of one of those things to grab at me. My saliva began to taste like blood, the way that it does when you've run too far and need to stop, but I could not. They'd find me. I was certain of it.
I thought of running into the tearoom, or the gift shop, but what if the others were like them, too? What if James or Kayla were just like Mr. Face?
Then I saw it.
I could hide in the shed.
I stopped in a panic. I suddenly knew that the shed must contain a terrible secret, the key to understanding Mr. Face, and I was afraid. But as the silence of the cold winter morning crept over me, I realised that I was alone. Nobody was chasing.
I knew in that moment that they would certainly kill me, if they could, and they probably would, whatever happened. But I needed to know what was in that shed. I had to see it.
I approached it with caution, as if afraid of what it might do - as though it were a wild animal. To my surprise, when I reached the door, still panting heavily from the run, I found that it wasn't even locked.
I looked around.
I opened the door nervously.
I don't know what I was expecting to see. Part of me was expecting, hoping, to see a normal garden shed – full of tools, shelves, buckets, watering cans, spiders, and perhaps a bicycle with a bent wheel. Part of me was steeled against some possible horror – the unknown grotesque. I was definitely unprepared for what I saw, which was that the shed was entirely, completely empty.
I wheeled around in the space. How could this be? Mr. Face spent most of his time in here – what did he do?
Perhaps it didn't do anything in here. Maybe the thing called Mr. Face simply stood here like a statue, the way spiders do: moving nothing, doing nothing, thinking nothing.
I slumped in the corner, shaking, not knowing if I would scream or cry, and hugged my knees. What would I do?
I looked at the window, and my heart stopped.
It was looking at me through the glass.
It had found me, and there was nowhere to go.