(This year’s entry for the Fearie Tales competition at Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words festival, but no hat-trick for me, alas, as it didn’t make the cut – a shame, as I think I like it as well as any of my successful entries. But judge for yourself:)
‘Well, I’ll be damned! Is this place inhabited at all? and is there any chance of a drink?’
‘Can I help you, sir?’
‘Why’d’you keep it so infernally dark? I can barely see a thing!’
‘You’ll find your eyes adjust, sir, as you become accustomed to your change of circumstances.’
‘Change of circumstances? O, I suppose you mean after the daylight outside – not that it’s exactly bright out there! I swear I never saw such weather. ‘Dreek’ – isn’t that what you call it in these parts?’
‘Aye, dreich sir – you could say that.’
‘And hadn’t you thought of getting a decent footpath made?’
‘Across the moor, d’ye mean sir? Did you find it hard going, then?’
‘If you call slogging several miles through the plant equivalent of razor wire ‘hard going’ well yes, I’ll say it was.’
‘Och, the whins do you mean, sir? They can be a bit jaggy. But no if you’re properly equipped, mind.’
‘Well if I’d been able to find a stout pair of walking boots and some thick woolly socks be assured I’d have sat right down and put them on, but there’s rather a shortage of retail outlets hereabouts – in case you hadn’t noticed – and they’re not the sort of article you’ll find just lying by the wayside, are they?’
‘It seems not, sir. Tsk! No proper boots or socks! that would have made for harsh going right enough.’
‘I’ll say it did! I’m damned if those devil-plants haven’t pricked me to the bare bone, a hundred times over!’
‘Just as you say, sir. Now, what can I do for you?’
‘Well I take it – and I have to say I’m just guessing here, on account of the complete lack of any signage – but am I right in supposing that this is an inn of some sort?’
‘Just so, sir. The Ferryman’s, some folk call it, or else The Crossing – on account of the old ferry.’
‘And you, I take it, are the proprietor?’
‘Mr Carron, at your service.’
‘Well then, Mr Carron, I’d like a room, if you please, and before that, a decent dinner – I’m famished! – and before that – well, something to drink wouldn’t go amiss.’
‘I do not wish to be rude, sir – but are you sure you have the means to pay?’
‘Now look here! I’ll have you know that I – that I, um, appear to have come away without my wallet… now isn’t that the damnedest thing? I’ll swear that I – maybe in another pocket? must have slipped out on that hellish moor – wait a bit, here’s something! O, that won’t get me far! It would appear, Mr Carron, that all I have is this coin – though where I picked that up I have no idea. It looks like an old penny, but it’s so worn it’s hard to tell.’
‘I should hang onto that, if I were you, sir. You may have need of it, later.’
‘Ha ha, very droll, I’m sure. Now look here, Mr – er – Carron: as I’m sure you can tell, I am a man in very good standing with the bank – in fact (and you’ll just have to take my word for this, of course) I used to be a banker. So you can be assured, my credit’s good – you needn’t worry about that. Payment is guaranteed – it may just take a little time.’
‘Indeed, as you say, sir – I don’t doubt that you will pay, one way or another.’
‘Well, I’m glad that’s sorted! How about that drink – should have a whisky, I suppose – wine of the country, eh?’
‘There you are, sir. Might I ask how you come to be here? Given that you’re so ill-prepared for the journey?’
‘Ah, yes – the ‘no luggage’, you mean? and the – um- the unsuitable, so to speak, footwear? Well, that’s a bit of an odd story – if you have time?’
‘O, I have all the time in the world, sir.’
‘Mm – good! Tell you the truth, I’d like to try and piece it together myself – make a comprehensive narrative of it, if you will. There’s something there I can’t quite put my finger on. I know when it started – it was when I began taking walks – for my health, you know – they say it’s as good as going to the gym.’
‘Are you sure about that, sir?’
‘Well, it’s what they say, anyway – brisk thirty minute walk -’
‘O, I wasn’t querying the efficacy of a good walk, sir – I know that well enough. I meant, ‘are you sure that’s where it started?’ – your story, I mean.’
‘What the devil -!? Of course I’m sure! It’s my story. isn’t it? It starts where I say it does – I’m damned if I start it anywhere else, for you or anyone!’
‘Just as you say, sir. It was just that it seemed to me you were starting quite close to the end.’
‘Look, do you want to hear this story or not?’
‘By all means, sir.’
‘Well – as I said – it started when I began to take a daily walk. To understand what I’m talking about, I need to tell you that where I live now – I’ve only recently moved there, never mind why – anyway, it’s very much in town, and to be quite honest, the prospect of tramping the streets did not fill me with the greatest enthusiasm. Too much a reminder of my old work, I suppose – all that property. That’s what I specialised in, you know – I’m retired now – repossessing property, foreclosures – all these feckless people who couldn’t keep up their mortgage payments for some reason but still seemed to think they could go on living in the same house. Ridiculous! ‘Take a look at the small print there, matey – does that say ‘your house may be in danger if you fail to keep up your repayments’ or does it say ‘if you break your promise and stop repaying all that money we loaned you we’ll just let you and your family go on living here out of the goodness of our hearts’? That’s not how the world works!’
‘A poor way to make a living, if you ask me, turning folk out of their homes.’
‘Well, I didn’t ask you, and it wasn’t poor by any means, I can tell you! It set me up very nicely, thank you! retired at fifty-five with a handsome bonus and a tidy pension – not to be sniffed at! And anyway, isn’t that rather a sentimental way to describe it? I prefer to think I restored to the bank the security that was its proper due when people broke the terms on which they had originally borrowed money. I didn’t turn them out – it was their own folly did that. I just brought home to them the consequences of their actions. And in any case, that has nothing to do with the story.’
‘Does it not, now?’
‘No, it doesn’t. As I was telling you, I didn’t much relish walking through town, though I was determined to do my thirty minutes, so the first few times I just went at it hard and fast, kept my head down, maintained a brisk pace. Then one day, just along the road from where I stay, I noticed a sort of lane between two houses – I suppose I’d always taken it for the entrance to one or the other of them, but in fact it was neither – it was a narrow, twisting lane that ran between two hedges at first, then two high walls, and eventually came to a set of winding steps leading downwards.
‘When I came to the foot, I was surprised to find myself in a wood, with the sound of running water near by. There was a path of sorts – not very clearly marked out – that I followed to an ornamental bridge. The stream ran underneath, clear brown water, and up ahead the path twisted away among the trees. I went on till I came to a fork in the way. I chose the right hand-path – it led uphill, you see, so I thought that was better for my health.
‘Some way up the hill I came to another fork: the left hand path plunged down into the dell – back to the stream, I judged – but I wanted to keep going upwards. But just as I reached the top…’
‘As you reached the top?’
‘…There was a man – at least, I think it was a man – standing with his back to me. He wore dark clothing from head to foot with one of those – what do you call them? – hooded jackets, with the hood up – so I could not be entirely sure – that it was a man, I mean. The path was narrow and he was straddling it, so I would have been unable to get past unless he moved… and, well, it occurred to me that I’d probably come as far as I needed and that if I retraced my steps it would mean I’d get home having done the half-hour I set out to do, so I turned back.
‘All the same, it irked me, that man standing where he was. I felt sure there must be another way out of the dell so that I could make a circular walk without doubling back, and I resolved to come back the next day. You will think me foolish, I know, but for some reason that encounter on the path unnerved me, so this time I took a different route – that is, I started out the same way uphill, then took the left hand branch down towards the stream.
‘It’s silly, I know – what reason had I to suppose I’d meet him there again? In any case, the downward path was no good – it fetched up beside the stream just where it formed a deep pool at the foot of a vertical cascade and there was no bridge, so short of wading across – and it looked too deep for that – or clambering up the waterfall, I’d have to go back. Then I spotted a very narrow path that went up the bank to my right – hardly more than a line in the grass, really, and very steep and overgrown, but it headed the way I wanted to go, so I clambered up. It was steep! By the end, I had to use the young saplings as poles to keep myself upright, and my feet kept slipping on the wet slope, but I reckoned I could see the lip of the main path not far above my head.
‘I had to scramble pretty well through a bush to get to it, but I made it – and guess what?’
‘There it was again – the same dark figure, with its back to me, barring the way ahead.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I know it sounds stupid, but you weren’t there in that overgrown dell with the light starting to fail and that figure on the path, standing dead still with its back turned – it felt, well, ominous is the only word that springs to mind. Not for love nor money would I have tried to pass him: I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; instead, I did what I had the day before, and went back the way I’d come.’
‘When was that?’
‘Two, maybe three days ago? That’s the part I’d like to get clear – I seem to be missing a piece somewhere. I do remember not feeling so well when I got back home and drinking rather a lot of whisky. The next day I felt pretty cheap so I decided not to go out at all. The thing was, that second encounter had jarred me quite badly, and I began to dread the possibility of any further meeting – for some reason I felt that a third encounter would be significant in some way – rather as it is in the stories one reads as a child: don’t things always happen in threes in them?
‘So the next day – or was it the next again? I steeled myself to go out but I’d already made up my mind that I’d stay well clear of that damned dell so when I came up to the entrance to the narrow lane I just walked smartly past. Today I was going to stick to the pavements and the quiet suburban streets.
‘And they were quiet! I don’t think I saw a soul all the time I was out – and the fact it was a pleasant day made that all the stranger: not a mother out with a push-chair, or a woman hanging out washing, or a pensioner taking a turn up to the shops to fetch his newspaper – it began to feel like one of those scenes in a film, where the stranger comes into what looks like a prosperous ordinary town and gradually realises the whole place is deserted. That idea took such a grip on me that by the time I had turned for home, I was scrutinising every house and garden that I passed, just in the hope of seeing some sign of life – but there wasn’t so much as a cat or dog; and by that time I’d have been grateful to see – or even hear – a single bird; but there didn’t seem to be any of them, either.
‘Then I turned into my street and I did see someone.
‘A dark figure was standing with its back to me, just outside my house. He was so positioned that I could not reach my gate without passing him.
‘I suppose I panicked. I mean, talking about it now, what could be easier than going up to my own front gate and in through my own front door? So what if some fellow – who might not even have been the same person, for heaven’s sake! – happened to be standing in the street? What was that to me?
‘But all I know is that I turned tail and ran. The one idea I had in my head was to get as far away from that place as possible, so I went to the station and bought myself a ticket to Inverness – not that I intended to go there; it was just the farthest away place I could think of that I could reach that day. I had some foolish notion of covering my tracks, so I meant to get off at one of the little stations in between. And then what? I’d have a little holiday, I told myself, let my frayed nerves settle, get things in perspective.
Once I was on the train, the idea began to grow on me – it was still a beautiful day, and we were passing through some spectacular countryside. Why had I never thought of this before, I asked myself – if exercise was what I was after, I could go walking in the hills, with an apple and some sandwiches in my rucksack, drink out of mountain streams and not come home till evening, stay at some small hotel or guest house where I could have a hot bath and come down to a pleasant, well-cooked meal…’
‘You make it sound heavenly, sir. So that is what brought you here, then?’
‘Well… not entirely. You see, even before I got off the train, I had already earmarked the place I wanted to stay – we were up near the top of the pass now, and I could see it a good way off from the curve of the line, against a backdrop of tawny folded hills and hazy purple peaks, with here and there a glint of water from some stream or lochan – one of those four-square Highland hotels in whitewashed stone with the westering sun glinting on its windows. That’s the place for me, I thought – paradise! I could see myself walking up to it in the evening sunshine, and the friendly landlady in her apron waiting on the step to greet me and welcome me in…
‘But when I stepped down onto the platform, I saw that there was someone ahead of me. At the far end – the way I must go, if I wanted to reach the white hotel – a figure was standing, with its back to me. It was clad from head to foot in dark clothing and wore a hood.
I stood there a long time waiting for it to move, but it just stayed there, stock still, barring my way. After a bit I slipped off at the other end of the platform, crossed the line, and soon found myself on that infernal moor, with my clothes cut to ribbons – and here I am, with nothing but a single penny in my pocket.’
‘And you best hang onto that, sir – you’ll be needing it soon. For the ferryman.’
Commentary: Doubtless many will recognise the references to the traditional Lyke-wake Dirge at the outset – the whinny muir, the opportunity to puy on ‘hosen and shoon’ and what it depends on, and the sharpness of the whins in consequence; these combine with the opening words ‘well, I’ll be damned’ to suggest that this is no ordinary journey and no common hostelry. It is a device I have used before, at the start of my third book, City of Desolation, and in both cases it was partly suggested by an excellent George Mackay Brown short story (whose title eludes me) that uses the same idea, though his character is rather more deserving than mine and makes a happier passage. There is (or used to be) an inn near Pitlochry Festival Theatre called The Ferryman’s so I thought that a suitable reference for a Fearie Tale to be read there, but again there is a deeper significance, echoed in the landlord’s name, Carron, which recalls Charon, the infernal ferryman whose task is to take the souls of the damned across the river Acheron or Styx (depending which version you prefer). Traditionally, Charon required a small fee – an Obol, in Greek, I believe, which was a little coin with an owl on it; this is usually translated as a penny. It is notable that the main character never dares to challenge the dark figure who repeatedly bars his way: so no-one compels him to take the path he does; it is his own fear and guilt that drives him, and ultimately his lack of courage that damns hims. He first meets the stranger having taken the right-hand path, which is traditionally more auspicious; it also leads upwards. A second time, it is the narrow path he takes, only to be baulked once more – and traditionally and scripturally, the path to heaven is a narrow one, as expressed in Thomas the Rhymer:
‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns an briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness
Though after it but few enquires.’
The final time that he is baulked it is at the station, having just had an uplifting vision of walking among the hills – ‘you make it sound heavenly, sir’ – but though he can see the hotel in the distance and feels sure he will be welcomed there, his own fear turns him back. We must assume that at some point in the story the main character has passed from life to death, though there is no precise indication when; but the eerie quietness of the suburban streets (something I have always found disquieting) sounds an ominous note, and perhaps his inability to reenter his own home signals the final transition – that is what prompts the journey that ends at the inn.