Monthly Archives: February 2014

Force of Habit

‘Mind-forged manacles’, as well as being one of Blake’s most resonant phrases, also shows how well (and succinctly) poetry (and art in general) can express a complex idea that it is difficult to express by standard reasoning.

At the heart of Blake’s phrase is a contradiction, something that is anathema to conventional reason: ‘forging’ is the working of metal by force and, generally, heat; ‘manacles’ are metal shackles used for physical restraint; yet ‘mind’ is immaterial; mental, not physical.

It is precisely in that contradiction that the power of Blake’s metaphor resides: he wants to emphasise the simultaneous strength and weakness of convention, man-made rules, which can bind us as strongly as steel shackles yet are self-imposed and entirely insubstantial – they are discarded not by physical strength but an effort of will, through recognising them for what they are (though that recognition is not enough in itself: it takes a conscious effort of will to break conventions).

(It is important to understand that by ‘convention’ I mean rather more than the trivial, like dressing or speaking in a particular way; I mean the whole vast hinterland of ‘agreed ways of thinking about things’)

The power of the mind is, I  think, generally underestimated and misunderstood, largely because we equate ‘power’ with physical force – so that proof of ‘mental power’ would be something like telekinesis, moving objects at a distance simply by thinking about it.That in turn stems from a narrow view of the world itself, which supposes it to consist only of what is physical: that is the ‘real world’ in which we are so often told we must live – yet the reality is quite the opposite.

Our world consists, to a very great degree, of mental constructs – it is, in other words, mind-forged. Our way of perceiving the world is an ingrained habit of thought more than anything: it is not simply a matter of opening our senses and letting the outside world flood in; our interaction with our surroundings is a continuous act of interpretation, along lines that have largely become instinctive; but as various ingenious experiments show, our minds can be deceived.

For instance, if we watch a mouth making a ‘b’ sound (technically termed a labial plosive: the lips are pressed together then blown apart) then see instead the mouth making a ‘v’ sound (a labio-dental fricative, where the lower lip is first caught behind the top teeth) we will hear a ‘v’ sound, even if the actual sound remains the same; and if the image switches back to the appropriate lip formation, we will hear the sound as a ‘b’ again; this will happen invariably – as long as we attend to the visual cue, it will override and alter the information our ears give us. This is called the McGurk effect – you can try it yourself here.

This also shows how important faces are to us, and how minutely we examine them for information – so it is no surprise that we have the knack of seeing them in chance arrangements (pareidolia is the term, I believe) and also that we interpret things such as cars (with headlights like eyes and radiator-grilles like mouths) as having ‘faces’ (some amusing instances here). We can play with this tendency too: if we take the inverse mould of a face (such as the inside of a mask) we tend to see it as a positive face, which leads to weird effects if it is rotated – we continue to interpret the image as positive, and this causes us to see the rotation happening in the opposite direction to the actual movement (illustrated here).

This is something that has long troubled philosophers – in essence, it is the same thing as the bent stick in water that exercised Plato: what we see (that the stick appears bent where it enters the water) is contradicted by what we know (that the stick is actually straight). This led Plato – and all who followed him – down the path of distrusting the senses, and maintaining a distinction between Appearance (deemed to be deceptive) and Reality (capable of being apprehended only by the intellect). Having spent much of my adult life in thrall to Plato, I now consider that a wrong direction, as I discussed elsewhere.

To be fair, my repudiation of Plato is as much about a change in my own temperament as anything else: when we are young, we are eager that mysteries should be solved; where there is doubt, we yearn for certainty. Now, in age, I find the mystery itself exciting and engagement with it more satisfying than any solution; the one thing sure about certainty is that it is not to be relied on – the best it can offer is a temporary reassurance which allows us to turn to other things. But the real pleasure lies in engagement: as Eliot puts it,

‘For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

I used to find it distressing that, shortly before his death, Thomas Aquinas – one of the most formidable intellects of his (or any other) age, a man who thought hard about God all his life and wrote deeply on the matter – had a vision that prompted him to say “All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” Now, I find that reassuring, and it reminds me of Wittgenstein, at the end of the Tractatus:

‘6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands
me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out
through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw
away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world
rightly.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

Wittgenstein got that right, I think: language is not the best medium for engaging with the mystery, at least not the language of philosophy and rational discourse; poetry will get you closer – like the Blake quotation we started with, or Eliot’s Four Quartets – though my own instinct is that music or art are better tools of expression; but ultimately, perhaps, it is silent contemplation that will bring us closest to understanding.

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The Golfer’s Tale

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Our clubhouse has to be one of the finest in Scotland, even if our course is not as well-known as some – it’s a bit out of the way, so we’ve never had any of the big tournaments here, which is a pity, because it would look well on television – ‘atmospheric’ is a word that is used a lot, especially at this time of year, when you get the first indications that this is no longer late Summer, it’s definitely early Autumn – a touch of frost in the mornings, brilliant splashes of colour in the trees – how they stand out, side-lit by the low angle of the sun! – and those scarves of mist as you make your way home on the back nine and begin to wonder if there’ll be light enough to finish your game. And, as I said, the clubhouse, which exudes oak-panelled comfort.

On this particular evening we had a guest. He was in a funny sort of mood, somewhere between exasperation and amusement, and he was holding court with whoever would listen, which included most of the usual suspects, though I could see a small group keeping themselves to themselves over in the alcove.

‘I suppose you fellows know Hamish Endicott?’ said the guest, whose name was Ralph.

We acknowledged that we did indeed know Hamish, who is one of our leading lights.

‘I see he isn’t here yet,’ said Ralph, looking around, ‘which rather confirms my suspicions that you are the victims in this as much as I am. I don’t suppose he’s concealed about the premises?’

He made a mock search under the table and behind his chair.

‘Hamish and I go back a long way,’ he informed us, resuming his seat,  ‘which maybe entitles him to take something of a liberty. I’m not sure I’d put up with it from anyone else, but coming from Hamish – well, there’s something of the artist about old Hamish.’

We expressed some surprise at this revelation of our friend’s character: artistry is not something we had accounted among his accomplishments.

‘Now, I’m not saying I’m smart enough to have tumbled to it from the start,’ Ralph went on, ‘but I think I can piece it together pretty well now – and as I say, sore as I might be on a personal level, I still have to admire the artistry of it.’

At this point Sandy, who likes to be clear about things, interjected in his mild tone,

‘Do you think it might help if you gave us some idea what you’re talking about?’

The man fixed Sandy with a beady eye, as if he suspected him of being ironic, then decided that with a face like that he must be one of nature’s innocents.

‘What I see now,’ he continued, ‘- and what makes me realise how well-planned all this was – is that the first move was made last night. You know, I’m sometimes accused of lacking refinement, but let me tell you, I can appreciate artistry as well as the next man. Subtlety, that’s the thing – nothing too blatant, nothing obvious. O no. Just the slightest hint, dropped like a seed to bear fruit later.’

He took a sip of his malt and glared round the company, but seeing we were all still in the dark, went on.

‘Last night, Hamish fetches me from the station and on the way to his place he suggests we play a round next day – of course he’s seen I have my clubs and knows I’m a keen golfer. “You’ll like our course,” he tells me. “It’s one of the oldest in Scotland – tremendous scenery; very atmospheric. Said to be haunted.”’

At this, light began to dawn on the assembled company. Old Paul, the Hon. Sec., looked disapproving – he’s a great one for the reputation of the club, so maybe he took a dim view of that kind of talk, but the rest of us liked it well enough – heads were nodded sagely, looks and smiles exchanged.

‘Naturally enough,’ Ralph continued, ‘I ask him what the story is – but here’s the master-stroke: he says he doesn’t know! He knows of it, but has never actually heard it himself – maybe we’ll be able to get one of the older members to tell us in the clubhouse over a beer – or even a glass of malt!’

He held his up; we toasted one another, not for the first time. I saw Sandy signal discreetly to the barman – a tale of that sort needs lubrication. Old Paul continued to look as if he’d swallowed a wasp. Ralph was in full expository mode.

‘That’s what you might call the set-up, or planting the seed. Our aim is to play a round next morning then have lunch to reflect on it, but suddenly Hamish ‘recollects’ that he has some business to attend to, so why don’t we play in the afternoon instead?’

He looked round us all again, a bit like a teacher checking the class is attending.

‘Now that,’ he emphasised with a stab of the finger,is what I’d call setting the stage or preparing the ground.  Instead of the bright morning, we’ll be going out in the afternoon, with the old course doubtless looking at its most ‘atmospheric’ and the light beginning to fade just when we’re furthest from the clubhouse and it all starts to feel a bit lonely…’

There were more nods of appreciation at this, and I have to admit our visitor had a point. The configuration of our course is rather odd – it’s pretty well triangular with an area of old woodland in the middle, a relic of the Caledonian Pine Forest. The first six holes are homely enough – the clubhouse is visible all the way if you glance back, while over to the right you can see the tail of the town and the road: reassuring evidence of civilisation. But then you make a sharp left into the middle six, and the terrain changes abruptly – there’s nothing but moorland between you and the mountains, and there’s a real sense of remoteness, of being on the edge of the wilderness. At the end of that stretch you have to cut through the woods to pick up the home six, which is the most ‘atmospheric’ part of the course, winding as it does through what we call the Fairy Glen, with low hillocks shouldering in on either side.

At this point, the barman reappeared bearing a fresh tray of drinks and I saw Sandy negotiating reinforcements in due course. Ralph continued,

‘The plot, as they say, thickens. Arriving at the clubhouse today, I’m met by the steward, very apologetic, who tells me Hamish can’t make it, he’s been held up, and please will I have a good lunch at his expense and he’ll see me on the first tee? Well, that’s too bad, I think, but at least the lunch is excellent. Of course I hang around afterwards expecting Hamish to appear so by the time I’m out on the course it’s already deep into the afternoon and I am not in the best of moods.’

Again he gave us a raking glare, and sipped his whisky before he went on.

‘There I am, all on my lonesome – instead of a companionable round with an old friend, indulging in the usual wide-ranging erudite discussion between shots, I have a solitary trudge into the gathering gloom on an unfamiliar course, already thinking the worst of the world. The first few holes are about getting it out of my system, and by the third I’ve pretty well expended all my abusive vocabulary on the subject of so-called friends who fail to fulfil their golfing commitments and I notice I’ve actually made my best start to a round in a long time, probably because I’ve been concentrating on abusing Hamish and not worrying about my game as I usually do.’

This brought nods of recognition and murmurs of agreement, which threatened to digress into general golf-talk, but Ralph kept a firm hand on the tiller and soon steered us back.

‘So now I’ve cheered up a little and I reflect that I’m the the lucky one, enjoying a nice round of golf while poor Hamish is tied to a desk or whatever he’s up to. You know how it is – you get absorbed and for a time you’re ‘in the zone’ – not thinking about anything, really, just playing. So you don’t notice at first how the atmosphere of the place has begun to seep into your bones. Then you look around and for the first time it strikes you just how lonely it is – you wonder if you’re the only person out on the course, though you think you glimpse somebody up ahead, just slipping out of sight. It’s then that the seed that was planted the night before begins to sprout – I mean about the place being haunted.’

There was a pause, and we all sipped our drinks, picturing ourselves out on the lonely middle six. Ralph went on,

‘By the time you reach the twelfth green, you’ve begun to wonder if the light will hold out and whether perhaps you wouldn’t be wiser to call it a day and head back to the clubhouse. Then it occurs to you that the next hole is the thirteenth and if any golf course has a haunted hole, that would be the one…  and you realise that you can’t possibly turn back to the clubhouse now  – “and where did you say the light began to get bad? just before the thirteenth? O, I see!”  – so you follow the finger post that points to the wood and as soon as you step in among the trees it’s evening and a curtain of silence descends…’

Here there was another pause, as he raked us with a sceptical gaze.

‘It was in the wood that I first began to piece it together – I mean what old Hamish had been up to, with his casual mention of haunting and his missing lunch and sending me out alone on the course into the failing light…  so when I emerged from the trees, I was already expecting something to happen. And of course the first thing I see is that dark pool – what do you call it? – the lochan with its layer of mist… and I think, all this needs now is for me to turn round and there waiting on the thirteenth tee will be a mysterious figure…’

Another pause; drinks were sipped all round, except by Old Paul, I noticed, who hadn’t touched his, and looked very white and strained. Ralph gave us a steady  stare, with just the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

‘So I turn and there he is!’

He set down his glass with a crack. We all jumped.

‘I don’t mind telling you, that gave me a start!’ Ralph said with a smile. ‘Why I didn’t notice him right away I couldn’t say – young chap, no more than a boy, really, very thin and pale – the sort that looks in need of a good feed, as my old mother used to say. His eyes are fixed, not on me, but on something over my shoulder. He lifts his arm and points; “look!” he says. Behind me, the sun is shining directly down the little glen – its rays catch the blanket of mist on the lochan and kindle it to golden, dazzling light. It’s beautiful.’

He sipped his whisky, a rapt look on his face, remembering the sight. He looked round everyone, very slowly, the same slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. He had called Hamish an artist, but he knew a few tricks himself.

‘I can see you’re ahead of me,’ he said. ‘I look round with the dazzle in my eyes and the young man is nowhere to be seen, leaving me alone in the twilight with an eerie feeling.’

He paused to let this sink in, savouring the look on everyone’s face – which in most cases was pitched between scepticism and wonder, apart from Old Paul, who seemed almost happy for the first time. Then Ralph gave a sudden shout of laughter and slapped his knee.

‘Your faces!’ he exclaimed, ‘Priceless!  Come on, chaps –  haven’t you ever seen a scary movie? When they climb the dark winding stair and come to the door at the top and they pause for a moment, then one of them opens it slowly and –  BANG! something jumps out – we all jump too, but that’s never the monster, it’s just a jack-in-the box or a tailor’s dummy that someone’s left behind the door for some reason – the art of anti-climax, you see, to relieve the tension so you can start to build it again. I told you at the start, this is an artist we’re dealing with.  Of course the young man is still there! He has his ball teed up and his driver in his hands, so naturally I suggest that we go on and finish the round together. “I’d like that,” says he. “To tell the truth, I’d be glad of the company – it gets a bit…  lonely out here” I notice the hesitation, as if he was about to say something else, but changed his mind.’

He paused to sip his drink and give the audience another once-over.

‘The young fellow stands for a bit and shows no sign of starting to play – it’s as if he’s waiting for something; he has that distracted look, like he’s counting in his head. Eventually I say, “Are you actually going to hit that ball, or just stand all day looking at it? It’s your honour, you know.”  That stirs him: he looks down the fairway, then says “There’s a dog-leg here – you can’t see the green, but It should be all right now.”  While I’m still trying to work out what he means by that, he hits a pretty fair drive, smack down the middle and a good distance. That puts me on my mettle and I do the same and go striding off after it, but I have to pause to wait for the young fellow to come up – he seems to take forever to gather his gear. Just my luck, I tell myself – when I do get myself a partner, he turns out to be a real slowcoach.’

The barman arrived with Sandy’s reinforcements on a tray. We helped ourselves, and Ralph continued.

‘When at last he does come up and we move on together, I ask what he meant by being “glad of the company” – I’ve begun to suspect where this is leading, you see. He takes a while to answer, then says, “You’ll probably think me foolish. But there’s actually a story about this golf course.” “O, really?” I say, all innocence, “what is it?” Again, he takes a while to answer.  “The story I heard is that you come up on someone – sometimes a solitary figure, sometimes a foursome. It – or they – wave you to come through, or invite you to join them – only you mustn’t do that.” “Why not?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know – something terrible happens, I suppose.” We walk on for a bit while I think about that. It’s not much of a story, but that’s the clever bit. “That makes sense,” I say, “because I suppose the only people who ever tell the story are the ones who’ve declined the invitation.” By this time we’ve reached our balls and for the first time, we can see the thirteenth green.’

He took another sip of his whisky.

‘The green is some distance away and there’s a party of four already on it. As soon as they see us, one of them makes a beckoning gesture, inviting us to come on. I’m just about to signal back when the young man puts his hand on my arm. “Don’t!” he says.  Seeing us hesitate, the man who beckoned repeats his gesture, and another joins in. Maybe it’s just the way the light falls at that time of evening, but I have to admit there’s something ominous about it, that group of figures in the dusk, still as statues, two with their arms raised, summoning us. And the young fellow seems genuinely spooked. So I cross my hands and make a sort of negative gesture, like this, shaking my head at the same time. All the same, I can’t quite believe what I’ve got myself into. “I hope we’re not going to have to do this all the way back to the clubhouse,” I say to the young fellow. “No,” he assures me, “That’s it now. We won’t be troubled again.” All the same, I have to admit, I was a bit of a slowcoach myself when it came to playing that hole, and I was more relieved than I cared to admit when we reached the next tee and there was no-one else in sight. Where could they have gone, I wonder?’

He smiled round at all of us.

“I have to hand it to old Hamish, as a piece of theatre it could not have been better managed. I hope he slipped a couple of tens to the young fellow, because he certainly earned them. He must have been waiting around long enough for me to put in my appearance, and he certainly played his part to the hilt – never once let his mask slip, right up to the last hole – which I won, by the way. I asked him in for a drink – I reckon he deserved it – but he just shook my hand and said “I’ll see you soon.” As for the phantom foursome, I suppose they’re pals of Hamish, and if my eyes don’t deceive me they’ve been keeping themselves to themselves at that table over there in the alcove.’

He stood up and set down his glass.

‘All in all, a very nice piece of work. But now I need you to point me in the direction of the facilities.’

Just as he was disappearing towards the gents, one of the party who had been seated at the alcove came over on his way to the bar.

‘Who’s the visitor?’ he asked.

We explained that he was a friend of Hamish’s.

‘Is he all right in the head, do you think?’ the man asked.

‘He seems sane enough to me,’ said Sandy. ‘He certainly knows how to spin a yarn! Why do you ask?’

‘It’s just that we waved him through at the thirteenth,  but he point blank refused to come on –’

‘Well, there’s a reason for that,’ laughed Sandy. ‘You should ask him yourself when he comes back from the gents.’

‘I’d like to hear it,’ said the man, ‘because it made no sense to us – you know how quickly the light goes at this time of year; we’d already decided to pack it in and head for the clubhouse, so we thought it only manners to ask him to join us – but he seemed determined to carry on by himself.’

‘By himself ? He was…  on his own ?’

‘That’s why we asked him to join us. Though he was behaving a bit oddly – waving his arms about, gesticulating – as if he was talking to someone. I wondered if maybe he was on one of those hands-free phones.’

We looked at one another in silence.

‘I’m sure he’ll be back in a minute,’ said Sandy.

Old Paul shook his head.

FIN

 (This is a slightly-revised version of the story read by Dougal Lee at Pitlochry Theatre 0n 21 February 2014 as one of the ‘Fearie Tales’ series that forms part of their excellent Winter Words Festival. Below, there is a commentary on the origin of the tale and why I felt the need to modify it:)

My niece, Carrie Shannon, is a shrewd business woman. One day in Dundee we were discussing my writing and I mentioned that I had a few things on hand, including a Fearie Tale for Pitlochry, which I hadn’t started yet. I’d enjoyed success the year before with my story An Each Uisge The Water Horse) ‘Why don’t you do something about the Ryder Cup?’ she said, having a good sense of what’s current – the Ryder Cup is at Gleneagles this year, and Perthshire is making a big thing of it.

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Golf courses feature in a few ghost stories, notably M R James’s ‘O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad‘ and there is another – whose title eludes me – that is set on a golf course (with a neolithic barrow on it, if I recall). This is no surprise: golf-courses (like the one in my story) can be ‘atmospheric’ – they are surreal, managed landscapes (am I alone in finding wide expanses of close-mown grass disquieting?) and offer great potential for metaphor with their civilised fairways hemmed in by wild rough into which the unwary can easily stray. They are also places (like waiting rooms and public transport) where the mind wanders and musing is done, and that too makes them good starting points for ghost stories.

So I wrote the story, rather hastily, as the deadline was close and I had other things pressing me. I should say that the essence of the Fearie Tale is that it is read aloud, in the bar area at Pitlochry Theatre, by two fine actors, Dougal Lee and Helen Logan. Now, there are subtle differences between a story as it appears on the page and as it is heard by an audience; for instance, the visual cues afforded by the printed page – paragraph breaks and the layout of speech – are lost, so that something which is clear in reading can be lost to the ear.

Though Dougal did his usual excellent job, it struck me in listening to my story that there were things that might have been better – in particular, I felt that at times the transition from one speaker to another was not signposted well enough. Reflecting on this afterwards, I concluded that the fault stemmed chiefly from the decision I had made to cast the whole of the story in the present tense.

Ironically, I had done this because the tale was to be read aloud, hoping to lend it immediacy – the situation on the Theatre Bar, I reasoned, closely mirrored that of the clubhouse, where the tale was set. It was only in thinking more deeply on it that I saw that this analysis was flawed – for all its apparent simplicity, the time scheme of this story is actually quite complex. There are three distinct time zones: there is a present in which the narrator of the tale speaks directly to reader; there is a past in which Ralph recounts his tale in the clubhouse; and there is a second past in which Ralph’s tale takes place, out on the course.

In casting the whole tale in the present I had blurred the distinction between these zones in a way that was only apparent once the tale was read aloud: on the page, I think it worked well enough. In addition, I realised that my preferred layout of direct speech (modelled after James Joyce’s) works better for the eye than for the ear. The Joycean method drops all the clumsy paraphernalia of inverted commas and introduces speech by an inset dash, with a comma or full stop to mark the end, and a new line, with similar dash, for a new speaker:

– History, said Stephen, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

– Is that so?

The attraction of this, for me, is twofold: it does away with the clutter of speech marks, and it also makes it easier to dispense with insertions like ‘he said’ ‘she replied’ and so on, which I have always found intrusive in dialogue, which ideally should consist of the words actually spoken and nothing else. On the page, if there are only two speakers, it is generally easy enough to follow who says what; however, it is in reading aloud that these signposts come into their own, a point I had neglected.

In the version of the story that appears above, I hope I have remedied these faults: I have given the narrator two tenses – the present where he speaks direct to the reader, as in his introduction at the start and his description of the course later on, as well as some remarks he makes in passing about the various characters, such as Sandy. The rest of the time, his narrative is couched in the past tense. Ralph, however, speaks always in the present, both when he is speaking directly to his audience (as at the start when he asks if they know Hamish) and when he is recounting the tale of what happened on the course – which might have been put in the past, but I wanted to keep his voice as distinct as possible from the narrator’s, so that the transitions which had struck me as blurred in the original version would be clear. In addition, I have inserted more ‘signposts’ of the ‘he said’ ‘Ralph continued’ sort, to make clear who is speaking at any given time. I hope I have succeeded.

A second slight change is to the ending. As my brother James pointed out to me, there is something of a loose end in the matter of the ominous foursome that they see on the thirteenth green; what becomes of them? Of course you can argue that since they are supposed to be ghosts it is all right for them to disappear, but there are two things wrong with that.

The first is that ghost stories should always leave room for an alternative explanation, or at least for doubt, because in essence they are trying to persuade us to believe something incredible: we may want to believe it – or at least entertain the possibility – but if we are confronted directly and asked to give our positive assent to the existence of ghosts and suchlike, most of us, I think, will shake our heads, however regretfully. (That is why it is always a mistake to show the ghost or monster or demon for anything longer than the merest glimpse: to confront it squarely is to reject it – disbelief cannot be suspended so long). Suggestion is always much more effective; the best ghost stories work around the margins of possibility – you are ninety-five per cent certain that this tarred post in the middle of the field must always have been a tarred post, but it is the five-percent doubt that perhaps it was something else a moment before that disquiets you

[for the source of that particular illustration, see here , one of M R James’s unfinished stories]

The second thing that is wrong, of course, is that the foursome in the story are not ghosts after all – so what did become of them? as I originally envisaged the story, the contact with them was going to be more sustained – perhaps they would glimpse them at the thirteenth, and close in on them gradually, with mounting tension, till at some later point – perhaps the seventeenth – the invitation to join them (or ‘play through’) is extended and declined. However, I quickly realised that this would make the story too long and too repetitive – as well as involving me in rather more description of golf than I cared to attempt.

It was then that I realised that having the foursome decide to call it a day at the thirteenth because of the bad light not only tied up the loose end, but makes the ending of the story neater too – or at least I hope it does. If you want to judge for yourself, here is original text, as read by Dougal Lee on 21 February 2014:

Our clubhouse has to be one of the finest in Scotland, even if our course is not as well-known as some – it’s a bit out of the way, so we’ve never had any of the big tournaments here, which is a pity, because it would look well on television – ‘atmospheric’ is a word that is used a lot, especially at this time of year, when you get the first indications that this is no longer late Summer, it’s definitely early Autumn – a touch of frost in the mornings, brilliant splashes of colour in the trees – how they stand out, side-lit by the low angle of the sun! – and those scarves of mist as you make your way home on the back nine and begin to wonder if there’ll be light enough to finish your game. And, as I said, the clubhouse, which exudes oak-panelled comfort.

On this particular evening we have a guest. He’s in a funny sort of mood, somewhere between exasperation and amusement, and he’s holding court with whoever will listen, which includes most of the usual suspects, though I can see a small group keeping themselves to themselves over in the alcove.

– I suppose you fellows know Hamish Endicott? says the guest, whose name is Ralph.

We acknowledge that we do indeed know Hamish, who is one of our leading lights.

– I see he isn’t here yet, which rather confirms my suspicions that you are the victims in this as much as I am. I don’t suppose he’s concealed about the premises?

He makes a mock search under the table and behind his chair.

– Hamish and I go back a long way, which maybe entitles him to take something of a liberty. I’m not sure I’d put up with it from anyone else, but coming from Hamish – well, there’s something of the artist about old Hamish.

We express some surprise at this revelation of our friend’s character, which is not something we accounted among his accomplishments. Ralph goes on,

– I’m not saying I’m smart enough to have tumbled to it from the start, but I think I can piece it together pretty well now – and as I say, sore as I might be on a personal level, I still have to admire the artistry of it.

At this point Sandy, who likes to be clear about things, interjects in his mild tone,

– Do you think it might help if you gave us some idea what you’re talking about?

The man fixes Sandy with a beady eye, as if he suspects him of being ironic, then decides that with a face like that he has to be one of nature’s innocents.

– What I see now – and what makes me realise how well-planned all this was – is that the first move was made last night. You know, I’m sometimes accused of lacking refinement, but let me tell you, I can appreciate artistry as well as the next man. Subtlety, that’s the thing – nothing too blatant, nothing obvious. O no. Just the slightest hint, dropped like a seed to bear fruit later.

He takes a sip of his malt and glares round the company, but seeing we’re all still in the dark, goes on.

– Last night, Hamish picked me up from the station and on the way to his place he suggests we might play a round the next day – of course he’s seen I have my clubs and knows I’m a keen golfer. ‘You’ll like our course,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the oldest in Scotland – tremendous scenery; very atmospheric. Said to be haunted.’

Now light begins to dawn on the assembled company: Old Paul, the Hon. Sec., looks disapproving – he’s a great one for the reputation of the club, so maybe he takes a dim view of this kind of talk, but the rest of us like it well enough – heads are nodded sagely, looks and smiles exchanged.

– Naturally enough, I ask him what the story is – but here’s the master-stroke: he says he doesn’t know! He knows of it, but has never actually heard it himself – maybe we’ll be able to get one of the older members to tell us in the clubhouse over a beer – or even a glass of malt!

He holds his up: we toast one another, not for the first time. I see Sandy signal discreetly to the barman – a tale like this needs lubrication. Old Paul continues to look as if he’s swallowed a wasp.

– That’s what you might call the set-up, or planting the seed. Our aim is to play a round next morning then have lunch to reflect on it, but suddenly Hamish ‘recollects’ that he has some business to attend to, so why don’t we play in the afternoon instead?

He looks round us all again, a bit like a teacher checking the class is attending.

– Now that, he emphasises with a stab of the finger, is what I’d call setting the stage or preparing the ground.  Instead of the bright morning, we’ll be going out in the afternoon, with the old course doubtless looking at its most ‘atmospheric’ and the light beginning to fade just when we’re furthest from the clubhouse and it all starts to feel a bit lonely…

There are more nods of appreciation at this, and I have to admit our visitor has a point. The configuration of our course is rather odd – it’s pretty well triangular with an area of old woodland in the middle, a relic of the Caledonian Pine Forest. The first six holes are homely enough – the clubhouse is visible all the way if you glance back, while over to the right you can see the tail of the town and the road. But then you make a sharp left into the middle six, and the terrain changes abruptly – there’s nothing but moorland between you and the mountains, and there’s a real sense of remoteness, of being on the edge of the wilderness. Then at the end of that stretch you have to cut through the woods to pick up the home six, which is the most ‘atmospheric’ part of the course, winding as it does through what we call the Fairy Glen, with low hillocks shouldering in on either side.

The barman brings a fresh tray of drinks and I see Sandy negotiating reinforcements in due course. Ralph continues,

– The plot thickens: when I arrive at the clubhouse today, the steward appears, very apologetic, to say that Hamish can’t make it, he’s been held up, and please will I have a good lunch at his expense and he’ll see me on the first tee? Well, that’s too bad, I think, but at least the lunch is excellent. Of course I hang around afterwards expecting Hamish to appear so by the time I’m out on the course it’s already deep into the afternoon and I am not in the best of moods.

Again he gives us a raking glare, and sips his whisky.

– There I am, all on my lonesome – instead of a companionable round with an old friend, indulging in the usual wide ranging, erudite discussion between shots, touching on every topic under the sun, I have a solitary trudge into the gathering gloom on an unfamiliar course, already thinking the worst of the world. The first few holes are about getting it out of my system, and by the third I’ve pretty well expended all my abusive vocabulary on the subject of so-called friends who fail to fulfil their golfing commitments and I notice I’ve actually made my best start to a round in a long time, probably because I’ve been concentrating on abusing Hamish and not worrying about my game as I usually do.

This brings nods of recognition and murmurs of agreement, but before it has the chance to digress into general golf-talk, Ralph goes on.

– So now I’ve cheered up a little and I reflect that I’m the the lucky one, enjoying a nice round of golf while poor Hamish is tied to a desk or whatever he’s up to. You know how it is – you get absorbed and for a time you’re ‘in the zone’ – not thinking about anything, really, just playing. So you don’t notice at first how the atmosphere of the place has begun to seep into your bones. Then you look around and for the first time it strikes you just how lonely it is – you wonder if you’re the only person out on the course, though you think you glimpse somebody up ahead, just slipping out of sight. It’s then that the seed that was planted the night before begins to sprout – I mean about the place being haunted.

There’s a pause, and we all sip our drinks, picturing ourselves out on the lonely middle six.

– By the time you reach the twelfth green, you’ve begun to wonder if the light will hold out and whether perhaps you wouldn’t be wiser to call it a day and head back to the clubhouse. Then it occurs to you that the next hole is the thirteenth and if any golf course has a haunted hole of course that would be the one…  and you realise that now you can’t possibly turn back – ‘and where did you say the light began to get bad? just before the thirteenth? I see!’  – so you follow the finger post that points to the wood and as soon as you step inside it’s evening and a curtain of silence descends…

Another pause, as he rakes us with an sceptical gaze.

– It was in the wood that I first began to piece it together – I mean what old Hamish had been up to, with his casual mention of haunting and his missing lunch and sending me out alone on the course into the failing light…  so when I emerged from the trees, I was already expecting something to happen. And of course the first thing I see is that dark pool – what do you call it? – the lochan with its layer of mist… and I think, all this needs now is for me to turn round and there waiting on the thirteenth tee will be a mysterious figure…

Another pause – drinks are sipped all round. Except Old Paul, I notice, who hasn’t touched his, and looks very white and strained.

– So I turn and there he is!

He sets down his glass with a crack.

– I don’t mind telling you, that gave me a start! Why I didn’t notice him right away I couldn’t say – young chap, no more than a boy, really, very thin and pale – the sort that looks in need of a good feed, as my old mother used to say. His eyes are fixed, not on me, but on something over my shoulder. He lifts his arm and points; ‘look!’ he says. Behind me, the sun is shining directly down the little glen – its rays catch the blanket of mist on the lochan and kindle it to golden, dazzling light. It’s beautiful.

He sips his whisky, a rapt look on his face, remembering the sight. He looks round everyone, very slowly, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. He might call Hamish an artist, but he knows a few tricks himself.

– I can see you’re ahead of me – I look round with the dazzle in my eyes and the young man is nowhere to be seen, leaving me alone with an eerie feeling.

He pauses to let this sink in, savouring the look on everyone’s face – which in most cases is pitched somewhere between scepticism and wonder, apart from Old Paul, who looks almost happy for the first time. Then Ralph gives a sudden shout of laughter and slaps his knee.

– Your faces! Priceless!  Come on, guys –  haven’t you ever seen a scary movie? When they climb the dark winding stair and come to the door at the top and they pause for a moment, then one of them opens it slowly and –  BANG! something jumps out – we all jump too, but that’s never the monster, it’s just a jack-in-the box or a tailor’s dummy that someone’s left behind the door for some reason – the art of anti-climax, you see, to relieve the tension so you can start to build it again. I told you at the start, this is an artist we’re dealing with.  Of course the young man is still there! He has his ball teed up and his driver in his hands, so naturally I suggest that we go on and finish the round together. ‘I’d like that,’ says he. ‘To tell the truth, I’d be glad of the company – it gets a bit…  lonely out here’ I notice the hesitation, as if he was about to say something else, but changed his mind.

He pauses to sip his drink and give the audience another once-over.

– The young fellow stands for a bit and shows no sign of starting to play – it’s as if he’s waiting for something; he has that distracted look, like he’s counting in his head. Eventually I say, ‘Are you actually going to hit that ball, or just stand all day looking at it? It’s your honour, you know.’  That stirs him: he looks down the fairway, then says ‘There’s a dog-leg here – you can’t see the green, but It should be all right now.’  While I’m still trying to work out what that means, he hits a pretty fair drive, smack down the middle and a good distance. That puts me on my mettle and I do the same and go striding off after it, but I have to pause to wait for the young fellow to come up – he seems to take forever to gather his gear. Just my luck, I tell myself – when I do get myself a partner, he turns out to be a real slowcoach.

The barman arrives with Sandy’s reinforcements on a tray. We help ourselves, and Ralph continues.

– When at last he does come up and we move on together, I ask what he meant by being glad of the company – I’ve begun to suspect where this is leading, you see. He takes a while to answer, then says, ‘You’ll probably think me foolish. But there’s actually a story about this golf course.’ ‘O, really?’ I say, all innocence, ‘what is it?’ Again, he takes a while to answer.  ‘The story I heard is that you come up on someone – sometimes a solitary figure, sometimes a foursome. It – or they – wave you to come through, or invite you to join them – only you mustn’t do that.’ ‘Why not?’ He shrugs his shoulders. ‘I don’t know – something terrible happens, I suppose.’ We walk on for a bit while I think about that. ‘Well, that makes sense,’ I say, ‘because I suppose the only people who ever tell the story are the ones who’ve declined the invitation.’ Now we’ve reached our balls and we can see the thirteenth green for the first time.

He takes another sip of his whisky.

– It’s only a short distance away and there’s a party of four already on it. As soon as they see us, one of them makes a beckoning gesture, inviting us to come on. I’m just about to signal back when the young man puts his hand on my arm. ‘Don’t!’ he says.  Seeing us hesitate, the man who beckoned repeats his gesture, and another joins in. Maybe it’s just the way the light falls at that time of evening, but I have to admit there’s something ominous about it, that group of figures in the dusk, still as statues, two with their arms raised, summoning us. And the young fellow seems genuinely spooked. So I cross my hands and make a sort of negative gesture, like this, shaking my head at the same time. All the same, I can’t quite believe what I’ve got myself into. ‘I hope we’re not going to have to do this all the way back to the clubhouse,’ I say to the young fellow. “No,’ he assures me, ‘That’s it now. We won’t be troubled again.’ All the same, I have to admit, I was a bit of a slowcoach myself when it came to playing that hole, and I was more relieved than I cared to admit when we reached the next tee and there was no-one else in sight.

He smiles round at all of us.

– I have to hand it to old Hamish, as a piece of theatre it could not have been better managed. I hope he slipped a couple of tens to the young fellow, because he certainly earned them. He must have been waiting around long enough for me to put in my appearance, and he certainly played his part to the hilt – never once let his mask slip, right up to the last hole – which I won, by the way. I asked him in for a drink – I reckon he deserved it – but he just shook my hand and said ‘I’ll see you soon.’ As for the phantom foursome, I suppose they’re pals of Hamish, and if my eyes don’t deceive me they’ve been keeping themselves to themselves at that table over there in the alcove.

He stands up and sets down his glass.

– All in all, a very nice piece of work. But now I need you to point me in the direction of the facilities.

Just as he’s disappearing into the gents, one of the party who had been seated at the alcove comes over on his way to the bar.

– Who’s the visitor? he asks.

We explain that he is a friend of Hamish’s.

– Is he all right in the head, do you think?

– He seemed sane enough to me, says Sandy. He certainly knows how to spin a yarn! Why do you ask?

– It’s just that we waved him through at the thirteenth, but he point blank refused to come on –

– Well, there’s a reason for that, laughs Sandy. You should ask him yourself when he comes back from the gents.

– I mean, the light was going, and we could see he was playing on his own –

– On his own?

– Yes, though he was behaving a bit oddly – as if he was talking to someone. I wondered if maybe he was on one of those hands-free phones.

– I’m sure he’ll be here in a minute, says Sandy.

But though we wait a long time, he doesn’t reappear.

FIN

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