Category Archives: works

prose, poetry, short stories

The Partygoers

partygoers

[This story was originally published in 2014 by the Sarob Press, in The Book of Shadows 2, their second anthology of MR James sequels by various hands. This version has been slightly modified to make it easier to read aloud. There is a link to a spoken version, and some notes at the end reflecting on the ‘morality’ of the story. My thanks to Katie Pamment for the slightly sinister picture of me at the Edinburgh Bavarian Christmas Market in 2012 that provides the heading]

[Here is a link to a spoken version of the story]

Had I been another sort of man, I would have laughed in his face; it might have been better if I had, for both of us.

Professor Bentley was a rackety sort: he occupied the chair in Paranormal Studies which no one with any reputation would touch with a bargepole. The chair had been funded with a bequest from a notably eccentric alumnus, quite possibly as a joke, but the Vice-Chancellor was unwilling to turn it down, though many of us protested that he should. It had done the University’s standing as an academic institution no good at all – “laughing-stock” was a term frequently employed – but as the Vice-Chancellor was keen to remind us, it brought “much-needed income” and “a significant boost to student numbers” .

Bentley’s students, I have to say, were among the silliest young people I have ever encountered. An unusually high percentage of them were nubile young women whose chief attributes were giggling, squealing, and showing their magnificent teeth – which was not unconnected with the fact that Bentley ran a TV show as part of his course. This went out on one of the higher-numbered channels and consisted of visits to supposedly haunted sites by a crew consisting of Bentley, a number of squealing students, and a monosyllabic cameraman given to outbursts of foul language at moments of excitement. It was mostly filmed using night-vision equipment so that everything was tinged with ghastly green. It purported to be ‘a serious attempt to document any sites in England associated with paranormal activity.’

Of course everyone in the College watched it, though few would admit to it. Nonetheless, I was surprised when Bentley turned up in the School of Mediaeval Studies, asking for me by name. I would not call him an attractive man: he walked with a stoop and had lank dark hair that fell over his face so that he was always having to brush it away. His students credited him with “an intense stare” which I suspected was augmented by coloured contact lenses. He had a nervous manner and an odd way of speaking, very precise and clipped.

“I’m just working out next year’s schedule,” he told me, “and I wondered if you could point me in the direction of any likely mediaeval sites.”
“Do you want ones that come with any particular history?”
“Preferably not – even if there is, I’d rather not know it. We want to go in clean, without any preconceptions. More scientific that way.”
That was the point where I should have laughed, I think. It would have saved us both a deal of trouble.

My difficulty was that I didn’t know what to make of Bentley. He seemed so devoid of any sense of irony that I thought it must be a pose – that while we took him for a fool, he was really making fools of us. That was the certainly view of my colleague Cusiter, a profound cynic: “you may well mock Mr Bentley,” he told a young man who was doing just that, “but if you ask me, he does very nicely out of it.”

The notion that Bentley was a consummate charlatan, a species of satirical performance artist sending up the pomposity of academia, was certainly more entertaining than the possibility that he might actually be as he seemed. He claimed never to have read any book of fiction – “and certainly not ghost stories” – and to have been raised by parents whose scientific materialism denied the young Bentley not only the consolations of religion, but anything at all that in their opinion smacked of “fantasy” – which is to say, about ninety percent of the standard adolescent diet. In consequence he was – or claimed to be – wholly without imagination.

“Might I ask why you are particularly interested in old sites?” I enquired.
He looked at me with some surprise.
“Why, because they are the most likely to be haunted.”

I should add, at this point, that Bentley’s approach – on the evidence of his TV programmes – was conventional to the point of stereotype. Ghosts were sought in graveyards, old houses and picturesque ruins, or else in natural sites that had some ancient pedigree – the Druids, the Romans, or Bronze-age settlements. A key concomitant of ghosts, evidently, was their antiquity (It was, as the cynical Cusiter observed, “Just the sort of thing the Americans lap up”).

“I suppose,” I said, “that you expect these places to be haunted by ancient ghosts?”
“I try to keep myself free from expectations,” said Bentley, primly. “But it would be logical to expect ancient ghosts in ancient places.”
“So where do the modern ghosts go?”

I will admit I said this out of mischief, purely for the sake of observing Bentley’s reaction. He cocked his head to one side, then to the other, as if to convey that he was considering the matter from every angle. An odd look of rapture crept over his face that put me in mind of Keats: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken”.

Modern ghosts?” he breathed. “Do you know, I really hadn’t thought about that – where do they go, I wonder?”

And I wondered, not for the first time, how I could possibly take this man at face value – he must be having me on; the alternative was too depressing to contemplate. So I did what one does in these circumstances: I joined in the game. With an equally straight face I said:

“M.R. James had some ideas on that, I think.”
“M.R. James?”
“A fellow mediaevalist. He wrote ghost stories as an entertainment, but I think he must have known about it from personal experience. Listen to this…”

I made a long arm and reached down my edition of James’s Collected Ghost Stories, and read out a passage from “After Dark in the Playing Fields”:

“I find I do not like a crowd after dark – for example at the Fourth of June fireworks. You see – no, you do not, but I see – such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as if they were searching for someone – who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him. ‘Where do they come from?’ Why, some, I think, out of the water, and some out of the ground. They look like that.”

I fixed him with a gaze that I hoped matched his own in intensity.

“That has the authentic ring, don’t you think? That change of person… ‘You see – no, you do not, but I see’ – it has the effect of a mask slipping momentarily, does it not? And the tone of it is quite different from the rest of the piece, which is a jokey sort of thing, not even a proper story. It’s very much ‘tacked on’, as if James felt compelled to say it, regardless of how it fitted – he even makes a point of separating it in the text. It is like some truth blurted out unintentionally.”

Bentley gave a low whistle: I could see he was impressed, or pretending to be. Just for the fun of it, I pushed things a little further.

“James’s thesis is more credible than the conventional one, I think – after all, why would the dead haunt deserted places, ruins and the like? Would they not be much more likely to seek the company of the living? Especially random crowds of strangers where they might pass unnoticed?”

Bentley nodded his head excitedly. I felt the urge to keep going.

“And here’s another thought – have you ever considered the custom of issuing formal invitations to parties? Where does that come from, I wonder?”
“What do you mean?”
“Only that immemorial tradition of the threshold as a barrier which spirits cannot cross – they have to have been invited in. And a party is just the sort of miscellaneous gathering the dead might be drawn to – lots of ‘life energy’ as you might say – intimacy among strangers. You go to parties to meet people, don’t you? Perhaps in former times they were more alive to the possibility that the wrong sort might get in – hence the practice of issuing formal invitations.”
“I’d never thought of that – it’s entirely possible!”

I’ve often found that flights of fancy flourish where there is a receptive audience.

“Then there’s that passage in the Gospel,” I found myself saying, “ – I don’t suppose you’re familiar with it, with your upbringing?”

He shrugged; I searched behind me for a New Testament.

“Here it is: ‘And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he said unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ The savage hostility of that! It’s really chilling, when you consider that only a few minutes before he was issuing a generous invitation to all comers. Clearly there were some guests that were not welcome under any circumstances.”

I don’t know what I hoped for: in a curious way, it was a kind of flirting – you know, when you’re both talking about one thing and meaning another. If Bentley had been a woman, I’d have looked for something in the eyes, some signal in his look that contradicted what his lips were saying, reinforced, perhaps, by a twitch at the corners of the mouth – a mutual recognition that we were playing a game. At the very least there would have been some ambiguity in his response that hinted at more than was actually being said – but there was nothing. He stayed resolutely in character, the unimaginative man surprised by a new idea.

“You really have given me a lot to think about! Thank you!”
“Well, let me know how you get on,” I said. “Perhaps we should start going to the same parties?”

But even that parting shot elicited nothing more than a smile and an enthusiastic nod.

*****

By an odd coincidence, the next time I saw Bentley, it was at a party. He was unusually animated, as if drink had loosened his tongue. He was deep in conversation with some three or four others I didn’t recognise: I don’t think they were students – certainly they were not the usual sort that Bentley was seen with. They seemed to take a great interest in what he was saying, stooping down and looking up into his face. The posture was oddly familiar, but it took me some time to recollect where I had seen it before: a teacher, a woman, talking to a pupil who was intent on avoiding eye-contact – whenever he fixed his eyes on the floor, she would hunker down and look up into his face, forcing him to meet her gaze. There was an element of coercion in it.

I did not see Bentley leave. Neither, it appears, did anyone else. The police questioned everyone who had been at the party; everyone they could find, that is. Bentley they found in a drainage ditch, face down in a foot of water. No one could account for his being there: it was some way out of town and entailed a journey of at least three miles to reach it, across rough terrain. I told the police about the people I had seen with him at the party, but I could not pick them out from any of the pictures they took of those attending. The verdict when it finally came was misadventure: there were no signs of violence and the alcohol levels in the body, though high, were not excessive. Aside from the central mystery of how he got from the party to the distant field unobserved by anyone, and why on earth he was there at all, there was no reason to think it other than an unfortunate accident.

I saw no cause to mention to anyone the conversation I had had with Bentley, and once I had overcome the initial shock of his death I persuaded myself that there was no reason for me to make any connection between the two – in any case, what connection could there be?

I did not think I had let the incident affect me unduly till one day, shortly before Christmas, a colleague asked if I would be attending a seasonal gathering that evening. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you at anything this term – have you become a hermit?” I mumbled something about being absorbed in research, but once I was alone I reflected that – without any conscious decision – I had indeed avoided all but the smallest, most intimate gatherings since Bentley’s disappearance; certainly I had gone to nothing where I could not be sure beforehand whom I might meet. That evening’s gathering, which followed on from a carol service, was of quite the opposite kind: anyone could go and many would, since the standard of hospitality was excellent. I saw that there was no avoiding it: to do so would be to open the door to the irrational.

The carol service, in the college chapel, affected me unexpectedly. I am used to the warm fuzzy feel-good sentiment that goes with candlelight and gothic vaulting and soaring boy sopranos in white surplices transforming banal lyrics into heart-stirring sound, but this was quite different: for the first time in my adult life, I desperately wanted it to be true that the people that walked in darkness had seen a great light. Looking at a wavering candle, I recalled St John: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it – but even as I thought it, the flame guttered and went out.

When the service drew to a close I felt a great reluctance to leave; but the throng pressed about me and I was carried out into the dark. A voice spoke at my elbow and, looking sharply round, I was relieved to see the colleague who had spoken to me that afternoon.

“You decided to come after all! I’m so glad. Remarkable crowd in tonight – the season draws them, I suppose. And the promise of free drink, of course.”

I heard myself laugh and make some fatuous rejoinder. After all, why should I not enjoy myself? ’tis the season to be jolly: nothing banishes morbid fancies like a glass or two of good wine in convivial company. I brushed away all thoughts of Bentley and the yearning I had felt in chapel and set my face firmly to make the most of the evening. What nonsense it all was, I told myself, catching sight of one of the Fellows, a prominent secularist, in jovial conversation with the chaplain, a glass of wine in one hand, the other gesturing extravagantly with a mince pie: there was a man whose example I would do well to follow.

“There’s a man who knows how to enjoy himself,” someone said, right at my ear, but I could not see who had spoken – the way he seemed to voice my thought gave me a momentary qualm.

I reached for a second glass of wine but the tray was whisked away; as I turned in annoyance a man beside me said, “Here, let me offer you this,” and held out a large glass of dark wine. I took it and drank gratefully, aware at once that it was something out of the common run. “Remarkably good, isn’t it?” said the man. He turned to someone at his side and said, “I was just introducing our friend here to this remarkable vintage”. The man nodded and held up his own glass in toast. “To the pleasures to come!” he said.
“That’s a fine toast,” said a third voice, at my shoulder. “I’ll drink to that!”

The volume of sound in the room had increased, so that I was aware of the conversation going on around me, but could not make out the detail of it: when I felt that words were addressed to me, I made what I thought was a suitable reply, though I could scarcely hear myself speak. In any case, it hardly seemed to matter – my new companions, who evidently knew one another, were engaged in that sort of swift flowing exchange where the topic is batted back and forth, skilfully caught and passed on to the amusement of all; only I felt a little left out, being unable to follow exactly what was being said, yet glad to be included in the general bonhomie. It was like being swept along on a powerful tide.

I came to myself on the brink of a dark drop. Half a step further and I would have fallen into a deep canal lock. It was sheer-sided and ill lit. I doubt if I should have managed to get out of it. There was no one with me, and the only sound was the fall of water leaking from the lock-gates. It was an utterly deserted spot. How I came to be there, I have no idea.

I would like to interpret the fact that I was left on the brink of the water and not in it as a warning, rather than a foretaste of what is to come. I remain watchful and avoid gatherings of any sort; I am careful whom I invite to cross my threshold – but I fear it is only a matter of time.

FIN

Here is a link to a spoken version of the story

A Note

[What prompted me to print this story was coming on this note, while searching for something else – I think I must have written it soon after I finished the tale:]

Reflection on ‘The Partygoers’ – it had not struck me how important to the story is the fact that the narrator thinks he is just making something up when he pulls together the idea of invitations, the wedding garment, and so on – he gives his imagination free rein, and does so also with a mischievous and mocking purpose – his impulse to laugh in the man’s face reveals an unpleasant streak, and what he actually does is also unpleasant, though with some excuse – he thinks Bentley must be ‘taking the piss’, so resolves to do the same – but Bentley is actually an innocent, not so much a dimwit as a man blinkered by an undeveloped imagination; and the narrator exposes him to danger…. there are actually two kinds of ‘inviting in’: the narrator, in giving free rein to his imagination, and for no good purpose, allows in those things that can be pictured as prowling around outside, seeking entry – and that is repeated in the party, where we have an enactment of what the narrator has imagined: the ones against whom the door should have been barred have been allowed in, and wreak havoc.

There is sin – transgression – on the part of the narrator, and as a result, the innocent suffer, and we must suppose that he will too… what is his transgression? It is twofold, I think: there is a want of charity in his treatment of Bentley, to whom he attributes the same base motive he finds in himself – he mocks where he should help, or at least be kind. Yes, I suppose that is it, really – at the heart of the tale is his unkindness: by attributing a doubtful motive to Bentley, he gives himself licence to treat him unkindly – so we have to wonder how far he is genuine in suspecting Bentley, and how far he is simply looking for an excuse to be mean to him. I was going to say that his free imagining is the second fold, but I see now that that is the equivalent of the door opening downstairs in Casting the Runes – the process has already begun.

This foreshadowing of the event strikes me as important – sin, perhaps, is an inviting-in of what we should keep out; and the ideas that come to the narrator’s mind (he feels inspired, remember – as if it is coming from elsewhere) when he starts being unkind to Bentley are the means by which entry is gained…

Now, I did not think of any of this in writing the story, and indeed the ideas and connections (between the James paragraph, the notion of invitations, and the wedding garment) came to me unbidden, much as they did to the narrator (I can only plead that my motive was not unkindness) and if you had asked me at the time I might have thought it something of a weakness – these were things I wanted to get in to the story, but had not supplied a satisfactory mechanism to explain them (one could imagine a more studied version, in which these are actually furnished, like the James quotation, from books – i.e. not the NT (as happens in the story) but rather someone who connects the wedding garment with the idea of invitations, and has put all that in a book) – but such an explanation would weaken the story, and to some extent diminish the narrator’s culpability – it is he who makes the connections, and effectively conjures up the partygoers – and in fact I now realise that the ones James encounters on the playing fields are looking for just such as the narrator – they are seeking ‘a way in’, looking for someone susceptible, someone who will let them in…

 

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10 (on the Beaufort Scale)/The Storm

I was reminded of this story by a conversation with Cecilia Hewett (of Cecilia’s Hand-spun Yarn) and Matthew Abercrombie in which the Beaufort Scale came up. I originally wrote it for a man who was compiling an anthology of 1000 word tales, but he seemed to think the honour of being published by him was sufficient recompense for giving him exclusive rights in perpetuity; so now, like the man Belloc encountered who gave his wine away for nothing because he could not get the price he wanted at the market, I offer it to any who want to read. The first version is an expanded one written for a BBC competition; the second is the original, which I think I prefer for its spareness, though I also like the chance to quote each point of the Beaufort Scale that the longer version offers.

[here is a link to a spoken version of this story]

10 (on the Beaufort Scale)

The Beaufort Scale: it’s like poetry.

People talk about the Shipping Forecast, but give me the Beaufort Scale any day – the regular stepping-up of tension, the gradual ascent from calm to storm.

zero – calm. Smoke rises vertically.

I sit at my desk, waiting. Pretending, as always, that I’m not. That I’m just about to start work. That I’m not waiting for him to call.

one – light air – Smoke drift indicates wind direction. Leaves and wind vanes are stationary.

We met at a party last night; exchanged telephone numbers – but don’t misunderstand me. I pitched him my big idea. He’s a publisher. I’m a biographer. Or at least I mean to be. I have done since I was eight years old.

two – light breeze – Wind felt on exposed skin. Leaves rustle. Wind vanes begin to move.

The phone rings.

False alarm! It’s Great Uncle Peter. He has a proposition that he knows will interest me, but there are conditions attached.

– What do you mean, provided I don’t ask any questions? What would be the point of that? I ask.
– What cannot be said can be shown, he says. Wittgenstein, he adds, in case I didn’t know.

I did know – in fact, I’m nearly sure it’s a misquotation – but I say nothing. Great Uncle Peter probably met Wittgenstein. It’s the sort of thing he’d do. A quick mental calculation tells me it’s possible – he must be over eighty now, though my mother (whose uncle he is) likes to say he’s younger than most men half his age – and completely crazy.

Still, I wouldn’t mind turning up with him at some of the publishers’ dos I have to attend, to show the young bucks that come sniffing round what a proper man looks like: tall, spare, elegant – always beautifully dressed, and with the most astonishingly blue eyes. One glance from him would put them all at bay.

three – gentle breeze – Leaves and small twigs constantly moving, light flags extended.

– Come on, Cordelia, I know you’re dying to – besides, I need someone to drive the car. You can drive, can’t you?

Cordelia. Only he calls me that. Because, as a child, my voice was far from sweet, gentle and low. ‘You’ll never be a lady if you bawl like that,’ he would chide. ‘Don’t want to be a lady!’ I would bawl, though secretly I did – but not just any lady.

And here we come to the thing that has obsessed me since I was eight years old, and has me sitting here, waiting for a publisher to call: my big idea. Sherlock Holmes had ‘The Woman’; for Allan Quatermain, it was ‘She’; but in our family, for as long as I can remember, it was always just ‘Her’.

‘Who are we talking about?’ some late-comer to the conversation might ask. ‘Her’ was all the answer that was needed.

So of course I agree to come and promise not to ask any questions.

– Good. One more thing – bring some wet-weather gear. Don’t forget!

And with that, he hangs up.

four – moderate breeze – Dust and loose paper raised. Small branches begin to move.

Great Uncle Peter had been Her lover and Her husband, though when he was Her husband, someone else was Her lover – which made up for the fact that when he was Her lover, someone else was Her husband. Great Uncle Peter was neither the first nor the last, but does have the distinction of being the third and the fifth, having been married to her twice.

She, of course, was always and invariably the first, in any company.

five – fresh breeze – Branches of a moderate size move. Small trees in leaf begin to sway.

Or would, if it wasn’t December. The trees are bare. I meet Great Uncle Peter outside his mews flat, draped in a stylish trench coat, waiting by his car.

Great Uncle Peter’s car is so beautiful I’m astonished he’ll let anyone drive it, least of all me. It’s an R-type Bentley Continental – a proper one, a slipper-back supercar from the nineteen-fifties. It’s a delicate and unexpected shade of blue, like his eyes, which makes me wonder if it was a present from Her – but I’m not allowed to ask.

– Since you’re coming, you might as well be useful. I’m getting too old to drive long distances, especially in weather like this.

six – strong breeze – Large branches in motion. Whistling heard in overhead wires. Umbrella use becomes difficult. Empty plastic bins tip over.

The weather is bad and set to worsen: out in the Atlantic two areas of low pressure have merged and are tracking towards us, bringing the threat of storm-force winds. We are headed right to where they ought to make landfall, on the Welsh coast.

Which is odd, because as far as I can ascertain (and my research has been assiduous) Her foot never so much as touched Welsh soil, let alone the particular place we’re headed for, which as far as I can see, is some way to the back of beyond – so that can’t be the connection.

I can only suppose the date is significant: why otherwise would Great Uncle Peter insist that I drive him (in half-a-million pounds’ worth of motor car) into the teeth of the worst storm forecast in years? Yet it is neither Her birthday nor the anniversary of Her death.

Nor is it either of their wedding anniversaries. In any case, the others are coming too, all seven of her surviving husbands (six, really, as Great Uncle Peter counts as two) plus two or three long-term lovers, so it must be something significant to all of them. Apparently, they’ve been having these reunions since Her death, but the dates vary.

Great Uncle Peter tells me we have to pick up a passenger at an obscure railway station on the Welsh marches. Fortunately his directions are very precise. He belongs to the age before satellite navigation.

– It’s Victor, he tells me. My oldest friend. He tried to kill me once.

I can see he is enjoying my not being allowed to ask questions. I do manage to ask why his friend has chosen such an out-of-the way spot to be picked up from.

– It was the nearest he could get at short notice.

At short notice? Just when did they arrange this thing? I am increasingly convinced that my mother’s estimate of her uncle’s sanity is accurate.

On the narrow road to the station, the swing of the headlights shows trees threshing wildly in the driving rain. I begin to wonder if we’ll make it. Great Uncle Peter seems to relish it.

seven – high wind, near-gale – Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind.

Victor is a small wiry man with a shock of silver hair. He was Her no.4, between Peter and – well, Peter (again). He cannot be a day under seventy-five (though he looks much younger) but like Peter he has that certain something – it’s his eyes, mainly, which are dark and ardent – I know that if he asked me, I wouldn’t say no.

– Your niece, Peter? A very beautiful young woman!
Great-niece, Victor – we are neither of us as young as we used to be!
– Speak for yourself, Peter! It’s kind of you to drive your aging relative on this madcap adventure, my dear!
– I told her she could come as long as she didn’t ask questions.
– O, this is the one you told me about? The one who wants to write the book?

Great Uncle Peter nods, and tells me curtly to watch the road. I don’t need reminding: broken twigs whirl past and the whole car is buffeted by the wind. He has a map out. After a few moments’ study he announces that we should take the next left. It’s a single-track road across bleak moorland.

– It’ll be quieter that way – don’t want any busy-body policeman turning us back: no trees to come down, either.

I nose the Bentley cautiously ahead. Its curvaceous wings fill the narrow way ahead. I add the spotlights to the glare of the main beam.

eight – fresh gale – Some twigs broken from trees. Cars veer on road. Progress on foot is seriously impeded.

Our destination looks well-used to storms, a snug squat stone-built inn on a cliff top. Despite the weather and the time of year, the car park shelters an array of expensive motor cars that would be more at home outside the Ritz or at a Bonham’s auction.

It takes all my strength to open the door on my side; when I fight my way round to the other to let my passengers out, I have to stand behind the wide door with my feet braced to stop it blowing back on its hinges. In the short walk to the inn, we are staggered by the blast. The rain is horizontal.

nine – strong gale – Some branches break off trees, and some small trees blow over. Construction/temporary signs and barricades blow over.

When we are inside, I close the door against the roar with a sigh of relief. I start to take off my jacket and pause in astonishment. In the dim light of the lobby, the two old men have their travelling bags open and – far from divesting themselves of any outer garment – are in the process of donning substantial wet-weather gear. Great Uncle Peter looks at me reprovingly as I stand gaping.

– You did remember to bring your stuff? I told you not forget!

I nod, unable to speak.

– Well what are you waiting for, then? Put it on!

I fumble my way into my weatherproof jacket. Peter and Victor, well wrapped up, disappear through a swing door. I follow them into an obscure lounge to be confronted by a scene of surreal absurdity. Amid the dark oak panelling with gleaming horsebrasses and the green leather settles, eight or nine old men are grouped like some bizarre octogenarian Everest expedition: all of them are swathed in high-class foul-weather gear. One of them is in a wheelchair.

Even in the dim light and their outlandish garb, the faces are familiar: fifty years ago, this would have been the party to be at. I try to calculate what this small assembly equates to, in terms of champagne drunk, column-miles of gossip written, quantities of hell raised.

– You picked a good night for it, Peter! says one.

I think he is being ironic, but the others smile and nod in agreement.

– Your timing was always impeccable, says another.
– Well, says Peter, if we’re all ready, shall we go?

Turning to me, he says,

– You can make yourself useful – push Nikolai’s chair.

I do as I am told and follow the party of old men down the hallway and out into the raging night.

ten – storm, whole gale -Trees are broken off or uprooted, structural damage likely.
(Very high waves with overhanging crests. Large patches of foam from wave crests give the sea a white appearance. Considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact. Large amounts of airborne spray reduce visibility.)

We bend against the wind, taking a cliff-top path that is lashed with spray from crashing waves. At any minute we might be swept away. It is utter madness. I have never felt so terrified nor so exhilarated. Great Uncle Peter puts his lips to my ear and I catch his words between the howl of the gale and the crashing of the waves.

– You wanted to know… what it was like… living with Her?

He sweeps an arm, taking in the tumbling waves, the sea with its white appearance, the large amounts of airborne spray that reduce visibility, the raging storm. Ten on the Beaufort scale.

– This, he says. This is how it was.

 

****

The Storm

– What do you mean, provided I don’t ask any questions? What would be the point of that?
– What cannot be said can be shown, as a wise man once said.

So now he’s (mis)quoting Wittgenstein at me, confirming that he is as crazy as my mother says. So of course I agree to go.

Peter – my Great Uncle – is still a striking figure, though he must be near eighty now. I wouldn’t mind turning up with him at some of the parties I have to go to, just to show the young bucks that come sniffing round what a real man looks like. One glance from him would put them all at bay.

His car is so beautiful I’m astonished he’ll let me drive it: a sea-blue R-type Bentley Continental – a proper one, from the fifties. I guess it was a present from Her but I’m not allowed to ask.

– If you’re coming, you might as well be useful. I’m getting too old to drive long distances, especially in weather like this.

The weather is bad and set to worsen: out in the Atlantic two areas of low pressure have merged and are tracking towards us, bringing the threat of hurricane force winds. We are headed right to where they ought to strike, on the Welsh coast.

Which is odd, because as far as I can ascertain (and my research has been assiduous) She never so much as set foot in Wales, let alone the particular place we’re headed for – so that can’t be the connection.

I suppose the date must be significant, otherwise Peter would not be so insistent that I drive him (in half-a-million pounds’ worth of motor car) into the teeth of the worst storm forecast in years – yet it is neither Her birthday nor the anniversary of Her death.

Nor is it either of their wedding anniversaries. In any case, the others are coming too, so it must be something significant to all of them. Apparently, they’ve been having these reunions since She died, but the dates vary.

Peter tells me we have to pick up a passenger at an obscure station on the Welsh marches. Fortunately his directions are very precise. He belongs to the age before satellite navigation.

– It’s Victor, he tells me. My oldest friend. He tried to kill me once.

I can see Great Uncle Peter is enjoying my not being allowed to ask questions. I do ask why his friend chose such an out-of-the way spot to be picked up.

– It was the nearest he could get at short notice.

At short notice? Just when did they arrange this thing? I am increasingly convinced of the accuracy of my mother’s estimate of her uncle’s sanity.

On the narrow road to the station, the swing of the headlights shows trees threshing wildly in the driving rain. Whole trees in motion – point 7 on the Beaufort scale: high wind, near gale. I begin to wonder if we’ll make it.

Victor is a small wiry man with a shock of silver hair. He was Her no.4, between Peter and – well, Peter (again). He cannot be a day under seventy-five (though he looks much younger) but if he asked me I think I probably would – it’s something in his eyes, which are an astonishing blue.

– Your niece, Peter? A very beautiful young woman!
Great-niece, Victor – we are neither of us as young as we used to be!
– Speak for yourself, Peter! It’s kind of you to drive your aging relative on this madcap adventure, my dear!
– I told her she could come as long as she didn’t ask questions.
– O, this is the one you told me about? The one who wants to write the book?

Great Uncle Peter nods, and tells me curtly to watch the road. Outside, I am aware of broken twigs whirling past: fresh gale, according to Beaufort.

Our destination looks well-used to storms, a snug squat stone-built inn on a cliff top. Despite the weather and the time of year, the car park shelters a number of expensive cars. The rain is horizontal. Even in the short distance to the door, progress on foot is seriously impeded.

In the lobby, they open their bags and begin to don their wet-weather gear. Peter sees me gaping.

– You did remember to bring your stuff?

I nod, unable to speak.

– Put it on, then!

I fumble my way into my weatherproof jacket and follow the two old men into the lounge where a number of others are waiting, already dressed for the weather. One of them is in a wheelchair. I recognise some of the faces: forty years ago, this would have been a pretty exclusive party. The volume of vintage champagne they must have consumed in their life times would float a battleship.

– You picked a good night for it, Peter! says one.

I think he is being ironic, but the others smile and nod in agreement.

– Well, says Peter, if we’re all ready, shall we go? You can make yourself useful – push Nikolai’s chair.

I do as I am told and follow the party of old men down the hallway and out into the raging night. If there were any trees, I am sure they would be broken off or uprooted; likewise, if the inn were not so solidly built, there would be structural damage likely.

We bend against the wind, taking a cliff-top path that is lashed with spray from crashing waves. At any minute we might be swept away. It is utter madness. Uncle Peter puts his lips to my ear and I catch his words between the howl of the gale and the crashing of the waves.

– You wanted to know… what it was like… with Her?

He sweeps an arm, taking in the tumbling waves, the sea with its white appearance, the large amounts of airborne spray that reduce visibility.

– This, he says.

(If you are familiar with a fine short story by Octavio Paz, My Life with the Wave, you will see where the idea came from. His tale is very much better, though)

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Not One of the Herd

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My entry for the 2016 Pitlochry Festival Theatre Winter Words Festival ‘Fearie Tales’ competition – unsuccessful, alas, for a second year! My early success (here and here)seems a distant memory – but judge for yourself:

‘So, Reverend Sheila, does the Devil go about like a roaring lion, as the good book says, seeking whom he may devour?’

‘I believe it’s actually the lionesses who hunt, and it’s pretty stealthy work – not much roaring involved. It’s only the ones on the edge of the herd – the weak and vulnerable that can’t keep up – who fall victim; tough luck for them, of course, but good for the lion, and good for the herd too, I suppose. I wonder if the others even notice. Perhaps if you surveyed wildebeest about their belief in lions, you’d get the same sort of answers people give about believing in demons – that it’s the sort of thing parents tell their children to keep them from straying – ‘don’t wander off or the lions will get you’ – but not something any self-respecting twenty-first century wildebeest could believe, grazing peacefully with ten thousand of his fellows.’

‘It sounds to me as if your sympathies are with the lions – and the (uh!) demons!’

‘I only meant that if there are such things, they must have their place in the order of creation, just as lions do. Perhaps it is their job to single out and deal with the souls that the herd would be better off without.’

‘I have a feeling that one might be directed at you, Mr Jowell.’

‘Because I’m a successful businessman – sorry, a ‘ruthless capitalist’ – you mean? That’s just the sort of Marxist-feminist claptrap and New Age nonsense I’ve come to expect from the clergy these days. With all due respect to the Reverend Sheila, I am not a wildebeest – in fact, if I can say so without sounding arrogant, I’ve never considered myself to be one of the herd.’

‘And on that note, we must end our discussion for tonight, ‘Ghaisties and Ghoulies in the Twenty-first Century’. My name is Tam McLinn and you’ve been listening to the Highland Heartland Radio Hour – Good night!’

The Reverend Sheila McCabe, a local woman, was glad to stay behind and share the hospitality offered by her hosts – not for nothing did they style themselves ‘the little station with the big heart’. Mr Jowell, however, excused himself, saying that he had to get back to the city, by which he meant Edinburgh, the centre of his extensive business operations.

To tell the truth, he felt that he had rather wasted his time – he had been in town for an earlier meeting and had found himself on the radio programme through some whim of his Personal Assistant’s, who had thought it would be good publicity; he would have to speak to her about that: he doubted if the total audience for the programme ran to double figures.

To add to his annoyance, he realised that he had not paid sufficient attention to where he had left his car: only when he was out in the radio-station’s unlit car-park – which was commensurate in scale with its importance, having spaces for some half-a-dozen vehicles (only one of which was occupied) did he recall that he had in fact walked there from his earlier meeting; his car must still be in town.

But that brought a further problem – or challenge, he corrected himself, automatically. Where, exactly, was here? This was not the angle from which had approached the radio station, small as it was, and now, in the dark, it seemed wholly unfamiliar. The car park was bounded on two sides by trees; beyond them, he thought he heard the sound of water running. He recollected vaguely that a river ran through the town, but not centrally, more as a boundary on one side, though there were buildings on the opposite bank; but the bulk of the town, he felt sure, was on this side, so his car must be somewhere hereabouts.

Walking determinedy – it had begun to rain, an annoying cold smirr that a cold wind drove into his face – he made his way round the angle of the building onto what should be the front; his recollection was that he had walked some distance uphill to get there, which had made him rather hot. No danger of that now, he thought, drawing his coat closer about him.

McCracken’s Bakery! That had been the name of the premises across the road from where he had the meeting; he remembered noticing it out the window, and wondering briefly if the proprietor might be someone of the same name he had known at school. So all he had to do was find the main street (where the bakery was bound to be, since it was not a town of any size) and his car should be there. Heartened by this recollection, he pressed on.

It annoyed him that he should have forgotten where exactly he left his car: it made him feel inept, even helpless, which was not at all the way he was accustomed to see himself. He began to realise that, for all he made fun of it, the experience of being live on radio had affected him rather more than he cared to admit. He could recall clearly what he had been thinking about on the way to the radio station – much as he would with any business meeting, he had rehearsed possible lines of argument, trying to anticipate any traps he might blunder into, though the novelty of the situation had given it an added edge; what he had paid little heed to, however, were his surroundings, which now in the darkness were even less familiar.

In the absence of any other guide, he stuck to his notion of going downhill, keeping his eye open for anything at all that might trigger a memory, but instead he only noticed how strange and old-fashioned the buildings seemed, with their tiny windows and little doors, often below the level of the street, as if they had been there so long that the town had risen like a tide about them; and those curious gargoyles, more like something you would see in France than Scotland: surely, if he had come this way before, he would have noticed them? But of course he had been preoccupied, he told himself.

At length he emerged into a sort of square, or rather oblong, of a kind that is typical of many Scots towns, with a Tron at one end and an area given over to flowerbeds and parking in the middle, with a roadway on either side and shops giving onto it. In the old days, it would be where the market was held; and the Tron – really the public weights-and-measures office – would have doubled as Town-house and jail; nowadays, it was most likely the Tourist Information Office.

The only trouble was that he had no memory of having seen such a square when he was here earlier – yet surely his meeting had been in the town centre? He looked in vain for McCracken the Baker’s, gazing all around, peering in the poor light (the feebleness of the street lamps was worsened by a thin veil of mist creeping in from the river). He reflected how empty of life the whole place seemed, already shut up for the night; it had an unreal quality, like a stage-set. He was brought up short by the realisation that he was not alone: from within the shadow of the Tron, two indistinct figures were watching him. Doubtless it was a trick of the light, but they seemed oddly-proportioned, curiously tall and spindly.

He had a sudden vision of himself as he must appear to them, an evident stranger gawping about him, with no notion of where he was; he might as well be holding a placard proclaiming ‘I am lost’. Feeling embarrassed – and, if he was honest, somewhat vulnerable – he strode decisively and with an air of purpose towards the nearest opening at the side of the square.

However, no sooner had he reached it than some trick of the acoustic filled the street with the noise of rushing water; he must be heading towards the river. That, he was sure, was not the way he wanted to go, but he was reluctant to turn back directly and expose his indecisiveness again to the watchers by the Tron. Instead, he continued down towards the water’s edge, reasoning that he could make a succession of right turns and find the square once more; he was now convinced that his meeting of earlier in the day had been somewhere on the far side of it.

When he reached the riverside path he was surprised by the nearness of the water: it came high up the bank and flowed at great speed, with that ominous smoothness of surface that rivers in spate can have. Had it been raining while he was in the studio? He was nearly sure that it had been dry as he walked up from his meeting. Still, this was steep country, he told himself: it would not take long for a cloudburst in the hills to show its effects here.

After walking further than he thought he would have to, he came in sight of a bridge across the river, an elegant wrought-iron affair painted white, probably Victorian; the water was well up the slender columns that supported it, only a foot or so below the walkway. What troubled him was that he recognised it: of all the things he had seen, it was the first that was at all familiar – had he not, in fact, crossed it at some point? – yet he felt sure his meeting had been on this side of the river.

Determined to pursue this conviction, he turned right, taking the road that led away from the bridge to what should be the Tron square, but again he found himself walking further than he expected. Surely he should be on the square by now? But at least the surroundings were familiar – he felt a growing certainty that he had come this way before; why, there was that little cobbler’s shop with a boot hung outside which had caught his attention earlier and made him wonder what sort of trade a cobbler could do in this day and age in a little town like this.

He had overshot the square by now, he felt sure, so he took the next right, and reckoned he was now running parallel to it on the other side, and to his relief it was a broad street of the sort where many businesses might be housed; and there about half-way down was a sign with a wheatsheaf – had he noticed that before? what an old fashioned place this was! He almost hurried towards it, and found to his delight that the sign on the shopfront said McCracken’s bakery. Delight was no exaggeration: he laughed aloud, and turning, was pleased to spot the premises where his meeting had been earlier. He was surprised at his own elation: he had not realised quite how anxious he had become about the whole thing.

But where was his car?

His first thought – his immediate thought – was that it had been stolen, and he felt a sudden surge of anger and reached for his phone, wondering whether he should report it to the police first or use an App to try and find the nearest acceptable hotel. Then a wave of doubt swept over him: he was not in Edinburgh, where the theft of a large and powerful car like his might happen; this was a douce Scots market town, little more than a village really, already shut down for the night – hardly the happy hunting ground of the opportunist car thief; a car like his would stick out a mile, and besides, it was rated among the most secure on the market.

Then he remembered: of course, he had arrived earlier than he thought, and had actually parked on the far side of the river, which was nearer the main road, thinking to stretch his legs and catch a breath of fresh air before his meeting: it had been a pleasant sunny morning. His smart-phone had assured him of the location of his meeting, but what he had not allowed for was the fact that, by the time it was done, it was easier to walk the short distance to the radio station than go all the way back to the car-park and find his way from there.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness – I’m getting old, he thought, I can’t keep up – he headed down a side street and back to the Tron Square. Here he was surprised to find a bus, brightly lit and laden with passengers – the last of the drinkers, he supposed, or whatever else passed for entertainment here. It was in the act of departing and even as he watched, the last few revellers squeezed boisterously aboard, the door slid shut, and it rumbled off. The revelation that there were others here beside himself but that now they were going away left him feeling strangely bereft: he wished he could have been among the colourful press of humanity squeezed onto the brightly-lit bus, amid a clamour of overloud voices and an atmosphere of alcohol-laden breath, instead of alone in this deserted square.

Or not quite deserted: a glance across to the side street he had taken earlier, now filled up with river-mist, showed the elongated silhouettes of two figures, back-lit by a streetlight. Of course he had no reason (apart from their odd proportions, doubtless an effect of the mist-diffused light) to suppose them the same as he had seen earlier, lurking in the shadow of the Tron, and even if they were, no reason to think ill of them, but all the same he headed round the flank of the Tron building (which was indeed, as he now saw, the Tourist Information Office) and sought a lane which he hoped would take him back to the road he had followed up from the Victorian bridge.

His surmise was correct: he saw the cobbler’s shop with relief, and set off down towards the river, aware of a mounting anxiety as he approached the bridge. What did he fear? that it might be shut? surely the water could not have risen so much in so short a time? But no, the bridge was open and empty. He quickened his pace towards it.

As he passed onto it he did not look directly but registered out of the corner of his eye two figures approaching along the riverside path to his left; with a fear he could not account for, he hastened his step till it was almost a jog; he found himself searching his pocket for his keys. There they were! he took them out and held them ready. As he neared the end of the bridge, a change in the vibration underfoot told him that someone had stepped onto it behind him. He did not look back, but strode up the deep lane with ivied banks on each side and overhung with dripping trees.

The car park entrance was near here, surely? he could not have missed it. With rising panic, he hurried on. Then, much to his relief, he sensed rather than saw an opening to his left and plunging through it, found himself in a slick-shining tarmac space occupied by a solitary car – his own. With an anxious laugh, he pointed his key-fob and clicked: to see the lights flash on in response was like being greeted by an old friend.

In a moment, he was inside, surrounded by the luxury of walnut and leather, strapping on his seatbelt, turning the key in the lock and pressing the starter button. The engine gave a muted snarl and he sprang away with a squeal of tyres and a spray of water, but by the time he had reached the exit he was laughing at himself. A glance in his mirror told him that the car park was as empty as before; his fancied pursuers had been no more than a pair of late-night friends going home, most likely a courting couple.

He swung the car out into the road, surprisingly relieved and light of heart: he told himself that he was getting past the age for late-night travelling. The powerful beams picked up the road ahead as he swept along; he turned on the radio, but could not get reception, so switched to the CD player. It had been an interesting day, he conceded, but not one he would like to repeat: he no longer felt equal to the demands of going to strange places; he preferred to stick with what was familiar. And that woman minister with her absurd talk of lions and wildebeest! It had unsettled him more than he cared to admit.

It was some time before he glanced at the mileometer (he always made a point of checking how far he had travelled, to claim it as an expense). He saw to his surprise that he had already gone much further than should have been necessary to reach the main road; somehow, though he could not account for it, he must have missed his turn. Looking ahead, he saw that the road had narrowed: indeed, it seemed little more than a track. He slowed down. He would have to find somewhere to turn: he had clearly come the wrong way, and was now in the middle of nowhere without the least idea of how he got there.

Then he looked in the mirror, and saw the lights of a car coming swiftly up behind.
FINIS

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For the Ferryman

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(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.’

‘hem.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘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?’

‘Tell me.’

‘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.’

FIN

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.

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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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City of Desolation, Chapter 21: Across the Abyss

Jake’s attempt to cross the nightmare bridge began badly and soon got worse. So steep was the initial descent that the only way to do it was to clamber down ladder-fashion,using the wooden slats as rungs. Unfortunately, the slats were too wide to grip easily with his hands, while the gaps between them were too narrow to admit his feet beyond the slightest edge of the tip of his toe: every change of position was an agonising fumble for a toe-hold while his fingers clung desperately to the rough wood.

He had not gone far when he missed his footing altogether, hung for a moment with his full weight supported by the extremes of his fingers, then went rasping and slithering downwards at great speed, his whole body pummelled by the undulating slats, his chin abraded and his fingers lacerated by the friction of his fall. As he slid backwards down the narrow track an even greater fear came on him, that any attempt to stop himself by catching at the ropes on one side or the other would skew him sideways and sling him off the bridge altogether to leave him hanging over the void.

When at length the easing of the slope slowed him and he was able to bring himself to a stop, he looked up and saw that he had come a long way: the ledge where the bridge began was high above him and seemed very far away. He lay for a long time face down, clinging to the walkway, unable to slacken his grip in the paralysis of fear.

When finally he moved again it was by crawling backwards, as he did not dare turn round or attempt to stand lest he should slip in doing so and fall through the space at the side of the bridge: he could not bring himself to abandon the reassuring solidity of the slats.

After an age of miserably slow progress, he forced himself to kneel, then pulled
himself upright and at last, with infinite slowness – his knuckles white with gripping the side ropes – he manoeuvred himself round to face the way he was going.

The sight made his head reel and his stomach heave: he had come scarcely a quarter of the way across. In front of him, the bridge swooped down to its lowest point, then rose up, up, up with a steepness almost vertical to the huge dark rampart ahead. All about him yawned the abyss: he dared not look down.

He stood a long time,completely daunted, unable to put one foot in front of the other.

In the end, it was the rain that came to his rescue: it began as a chill drizzle, but soon developed into a battering downpour that drenched him to the skin and cut off any view beyond a couple of feet with a hissing curtain of wet. Cocooned in drenching misery, he shuffled onwards, fearing to raise his feet from the slippery slats.

Soon he was chilled to the bone and could think of nothing beyond the mechanical action of moving his arms and legs: he could not tell if he was even making progress; for all he knew he might be stationary, his hands and feet slipping constantly in an illusion of forward motion.

The wet cold must have numbed his imagination too, and with it his fear, because
when he came to a point in the bridge where the slats were missing and the void gaped a footstep in front of him, all that occurred to him was that now he must either turn back, or work his way along the side, his feet on the lower rope, his hands on the upper.

Since there was no question of going back, it was a simple matter of logic that
he must make his way along the slippery swaying rope, and he set out to do so in the same dogged manner that had driven him on through the rain. Some way in he found that a length of the footrope was missing, so he swung his legs up over the handrope and inched his way along it, hanging upside-down over the abyss.

There was a tricky moment extricating himself at the other end where the slats resumed – the bridge began to sway alarmingly as he shifted his weight, and for a time all he could do was hang on until the oscillations ceased.

He was by now on the upward slope, and the greatest challenge lay ahead, where the final ascent of the bridge grew steeper and steeper, so that at some point he would have to make the decision to scale it like a ladder. Before he could block it out, the memory came back to him of what had happened on the descent, and he had an excruciating vision of himself slipping back perpetually when he reached a certain point, until he became too tired to continue, and finally let himself slip headlong into the emptiness below.

He wondered if perhaps he ought to rest, but the fear of turning over in his sleep and rolling off into the void so terrified him that he decided to press
on.

When he reached the critical point, he took off his shoes and hung them around his neck, reasoning that his bare toes would make more of the minimal holds available. Whether because of that, or perhaps because the slats were more widely spaced, he found he made better progress on this side – he had also evolved the technique of gripping the ends of the slats with his hands, which gave a surer purchase – but the fear of slipping was always on him, and it grew as the steepness of the slope increased.

Now he had to revert to curling his fingers over the top of the slats again, and his whole world, his entire existence, was reduced to the repetition of the same
sequence of tiny movements: right hand, left hand; right foot, left foot; right hand, left hand –

Then his right foot missed its toehold and flung him off balance so that his right hand slipped too and for the space of a heartbeat he hung one handed, his toes scrabbling to regain their hold, and then he saw that he could not support his weight in that position and for a full second before it happened he knew he must fall.

In that second a voice in his head told him plainly and calmly that his only hope was to abandon the slats altogether and try to catch the ropes that joined the bridge deck to the hand-ropes, which were like the rungs of a rope ladder, but too far apart to use for one; he saw that he must twist to one side or the other as he fell in order to grab at them –

and then he did fall, and his foot encountered a side rope almost at once and slipped off it again, so that he came down painfully straddling it, but with one hand gripping the hand-rope, so that he was able to hang on, though he could not prevent himself from swinging far out into space: the shoes round his neck unwound and he saw them falling, falling, falling until they were the merest speck – and for a space it was as if some part of him had fallen with the shoes, and was falling still, looking up at the bridge and the boy who clung there.

For a long time he sat astride the rope, cursing and weeping by turns, too terrified to move; then he fell silent, and saw that he had a choice: he could let go now, and follow his shoes down into the darkness below (were they still falling? What would it be like to fall so far, for so long?) or he could resume his climb, and keep going until he reached the top or his strength gave out.

All right, I’ll do that, he said, as if there was someone else there who had actually offered him these choices and was waiting for his reply. He imagined this person’s being pleased at his decision, and proceeded to explain to him how he was going to manage it – I’ll get a hold with my left hand, here, then move my left foot here – then I can pull myself up until my right foot is on the rope, and I can put my right hand up there –

It was simple, really: all he had to do was keep on repeating the same movements, concentrating all the time, and he must surely get somewhere in the end.

And in the end, he did: at last there was no more bridge to reach for, but instead a hard, sharp lip of rock, onto which he pulled himself gratefully and with a final effort dragged himself away from the edge before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

When the rain woke him, he had no notion of how long he had been asleep – it might have been days, or only minutes – at any rate, it had been long enough for him to recover sufficient strength to stand up and propel himself along the broad stone roadway in the lashing rain.

As he went, the feeling of solid ground beneath his bare feet sustained him: whatever might lie ahead, he told himself, it could scarcely be any worse than he had already gone through on the bridge. He wondered, looking down at his toes, if his shoes were still falling.

He had followed the roadway through the vast arched tunnels that pierced the
buttresses twice already and could see the third looming up ahead when he was forced to a halt: the road in front of him was riven by a huge fissure hundreds of yards across; from far below he could hear the roar of water, and thought he could just make out, a lighter patch on the darkness, a cloud of vapour spray.

The wall on his right hand side was pierced at intervals by doorways, and to the first of these he now retraced his steps. He passed through a short tunnel, its roof just a little way above his head, its walls in easy touching distance; it ended in a flight of steps leading downward.

Don’t go down, Ulysses had said, but Jake could see no alternative. He went
cautiously down the steps and soon emerged onto a flat stone pavement. His first
thought was that although he had come indoors, as he imagined, it was still raining; his next was that the depth of darkness was less here – a sort of murky brown twilight prevailed, and he felt sure that if he gave his eyes time to adjust, he would be able to see his surroundings.

He stood and waited in the drizzling rain.

As his vision cleared, he saw that the rain was very localised, and indeed seemed to be falling only where he was: he took a few steps to the side, and found himself in the dry. Looking up, he saw that the shower of drops seemed to issue from a leak somewhere high above.

He was standing on a long stone pavement reminiscent of a railway platform, but beside it, where the railway should have been, there was a canal of dark water, bounded on the other side by a low parapet: there was empty space beyond. In the brownish murk – it was like being inside an old sepia photograph – he could just make out that he was on the edge of a great ravine or gulf on the other side of which was another vast stepped rampart like the one outside; but here, the space
between was not empty, but criss-crossed by a fantastic network of stone bridges
supported by impossibly tall arches. These were at every level: looking up, he could make out at least four layers above him; looking down, he saw that the bridges were in fact aqueducts, carrying canals across the gulf – there were perhaps half-a-dozen layers or more visible below.

To one side of the platform, he saw that the steps he had descended continued in a downward spiral; the other side ended some way off in a blank wall. Looking at the dark waters of the canal, he wondered what manner of craft travelled on them, and for what purpose.

As he watched, his eye was caught by something on the surface, and he saw that it was a raft of debris, a kind of mat of twigs and rubbish. What struck him
was that it was moving, very slowly but quite definitely, to the left.

He knew enough about canals to realise that was unusual: they were supposed to be level, without any current. Was it possible that in this incredible place the canals were tilted very slightly, in one direction or the other, to create a current that boats could move along?

As he was wrestling with the stupendous feat of engineering that would be necessary to create such a system, as if to confirm his surmise, a dim light appeared to his right and he saw that it was on the bow of a barge, the head of a long train of them, that was slowly gliding towards him.

Avoid the canals, Ulysses had said. Don’t go down.

It seemed now that he could only avoid the canal by taking the spiral stair, which certainly went down a lot more rapidly than the canal; and the canal at least went to the left. He crossed the platform and clambered on board the slow moving train of barges, settling himself in the bow, behind the light.

He must have fallen asleep again: when he woke, he was in darkness, though up ahead a weak horseshoe of light hung like an arch for the barge to pass through, only it never seemed to draw any closer. Had they stopped moving altogether? He reached up his hand and it brushed rough stone: he must be in a tunnel. The light ahead was thrown by the bowlamp; it served only to deepen the darkness around it, and gave no gauge of whether they were moving or stationary.

He reached up again, letting his hand trail against the roof, and in time became convinced that they were still moving, though very slowly.

So we will get there eventually, he told himself: I am in a long dark tunnel, but it must end sometime, and I will come out into the light. He visualised the end of the tunnel up ahead: a pinpoint of light that would slowly grow until it assumed the shape of an arch, gradually becoming larger as it drew nearer: even when it was still very far off, he would be able to see it, and would know that the tunnel must end eventually.

So there is always hope, he told himself, and settled back to wait.

As he sat crosslegged, eyes gazing into the darkness, he must have passed into some sort of trance-like state: he seemed to have become detached from his body, so that he now heard his own breathing as if it was a little to one side of him. The sensation was odd, and rather disturbing; it made him catch his breath to think of it – and when he did, the breathing beside him carried on.

There was someone sitting beside him in the dark.

Fear like paralysing cold washed over his scalp, then encased his neck and chest: he found it difficult to breathe. Who or what was beside him? He feared to reach out his hand, dreading what it might encounter – what if it was something scaly, or worse, covered in hair? He shuddered. Then a voice spoke, close to his ear.

– I don’t think this tunnel comes to an end, do you?

It was a slightly hoarse, insinuating voice – not pleasant, but the fact that whatever it was could talk filled Jake with relief. This lessening of his fear made him bold enough to answer

– Every tunnel has an end.

– Not this one: it goes down and down into the dark.

Something in the tone of the voice, and also the situation, stirred a memory of long, long ago: he had just started school and was sitting on a wall at playtime when another boy came and sat beside him and began talking, in the same sort of pretend-friendly way, about all sorts of bloodcurdling things.

He’s trying to frighten me,thought Jake, and the scale of his fear reduced still further: he knew how to play this game.

– How do you know? he asked.

– I live here

– So do I, ventured Jake.

The response was a low laugh.

– You do now.

– You wouldn’t know if a tunnel had no end, because you’d never reach it to
find out – you’d just keep on travelling.

– What do you think we’re doing now? asked the voice.

Jake began to feel slightly unnerved.

– The only way it could have no end is if it’s circular, he said firmly, and even then it must have an end because it had a beginning.

– What makes you think that?

– I remember going into it, back there.

Despite the dark, he gestured behind him.

– You’ve been asleep.

Jake did not quite know what to make of this sudden change of direction.

– So?

– So all that about going into the tunnel could have been a dream.

– It wasn’t!

– If you think about it, that’s just what you would dream about if you were
caught in an endless tunnel.

– I didn’t dream it! he shouted.

Jake could hear the note of desperation in his own voice. The insidious thought crept into his mind that the voice might be right – how did he know how long he had been here in the dark? How could he be sure that everything he thought he remembered was not just a dream he had just wakened up from? Perhaps he had done this before –

perhaps this was all he did – travelled in the dark, slept for a time and dreamed, woke and travelled on.

– How do you know you didn’t dream it? asked the voice.

He tried to be calm. He’s just winding you up, he told himself, like your brother used to do coming home from church when he would say he had the doorkey even though you knew you had it in your pocket, but he managed to sound so certain that you got angrier and angrier and always ended up pulling it out of your pocket to show him, and then you felt a fool because he’d made you do it, just by his tone of voice –

this recollection cheered him. I didn’t dream that, he thought: part of him could still feel the intense frustration of all those years ago, though he could laugh at it now. He did laugh, aloud. Two can play at that game, he thought.

– But the tunnel has an end now, he asserted boldly. I just made it have one: I

can do that, with my mind. I just think of a thing and there it is.

– Where is it then?

Was it just his fancy, or did the voice seem a little less sure of itself?

– Just up ahead.

– I don’t see it.

– Wait and see, he said, as smugly as he could.

And it is there, he told himself: every tunnel has an end, like a little pinpoint of light that slowly gets bigger. Instead of straining his eyes into the dark, he closed them, and concentrated on the pinpoint of light in his mind’s eye. It gets bigger and bigger, he told himself, until you begin to be able to make out its shape, like an inverted shield hung there in front of you –

a slight, disgruntled sound from his invisible companion made him open his eyes again. There ahead, just as he had imagined it, was the shield of light. Soon the interior of the tunnel had lightened enough to allow him to make out the brickwork overhead, and at last the train of barges emerged into the open again.

He turned and saw that his companion was a boy who, by his size, was younger than he was; but his face had a wizened, aged look, and for a moment Jake wondered if he was a boy at all and not some kind of midget. He was swathed in rags, and his skin was filthy.

– I was just joking about the tunnel, he said.

– I know, said Jake.

– Are you going to the city?

– Yes.

– It’s lucky you’ve got me with you then – this is where you want to get off, just up here.

The barge was gliding in alongside another platform, with stairs leading down from it, though none, as far as Jake could make out, leading up.

– Well, hop off then, if you’re for the city, said his wizened companion. That
stair on the left is the quickest way.

His voice was friendly, even warm. Jake considered. Avoid the canals and don’t go down. He shook his head.

– I don’t think so, he said.

– You’d better jump now, or you’ll miss it, said the other.

– Nah.

– I’m telling you, this is the stop for the city! his tone was harsher now.

– Changed my mind, said Jake. Don’t think I’ll go to the city after all.

His companion lapsed into a sulk.

– That’s what you think, he said after a time. I was just joking you – the city’s still up ahead: the canal stops there. You can’t go any further.

– I know, said Jake, with infuriating sweetness.

They entered another short tunnel from which they emerged into a vast space like a railway terminus: overhead there was a huge vaulted roof of steel and glass, while on the ground canals like flooded railway lines ended in long channels between platforms. Everywhere there was a great bustle of unloading and movement, and Jake was in no doubt that this must be his objective: only the proximity of a great city could generate this kind of activity.

– Over there, said his companion, emerging from his sulk. Go left!

Jake saw that the canal branched up ahead, like a letter Y; further on, each branch also forked, so that the approach was like a river delta.

– left, left! yelled his companion.

– How? shouted Jake.

– The tiller!

He pointed back: Jake saw that there was indeed a long tiller arm that came almost the length of the barge. He jumped up on the canopy had put it hard over.

– No, no! The other way – push it right to go left!

– Sorry! said Jake, wrenching it back in embarrassment.

The bow caught in the jaws of the left hand channel; the barge bounced from one wall to the other, then slid in. His companion made a contemptuous noise.

– Where’d you learn to steer?

Jake, on his mettle, was determined to do better next time.

– What way now? he asked.

– Just keep going left. The terminal we want is on the far side.

He made a better job of it this time, though he still scraped along one side. He

concentrated furiously at the next branch, and made a clean entry. He grinned in

triumph at his companion, who grinned back.

– This is it coming up, he shouted. I’ll go astern to unhitch – you steer the barge into the caisson.

– The what?

– The caisson, shouted the other, darting nimbly along to the other end of the
barge. That big iron thing at the end of the line!

Looking ahead, Jake saw that the canal divided once more, into two branches of
unequal length: the left-hand one was shorter, and seemed to terminate in a big iron tub that was open at one end; the right-hand one ran past this, ending in a solid gate.

– Which one is it? Jake yelled back.

– Left! Left! came the shouted reply.

Jake steered left, and felt the barge move forward with a sudden lurch: looking back,he saw that his companion had detached the train and tied it to a bollard, so that he was now moving alone into the waiting dock. He took particular care in steering a centre course and was pleased to enter without touching either side; however, there was no way of stopping the forward motion, and he had to be content to run into the far end of the caisson, which he did with a resounding boom.

At almost the same moment, he was aware of a whirring noise behind him, and looking round he saw an iron gate descend to block off the entrance: he was now floating in what was effectively a giant bathtub. He looked round for his companion and saw him come running up, grinning and waving. Jake gestured to him to come aboard, but instead he turned aside to a huge lever – taller than he was – on which he swung with all his might.

There was a rumble of machinery; the tub jolted, slopping the water so that the
barge dunted the side. For a moment, Jake could not work out what was happening,
then the motion became unmistakable: the entire caisson, barge and all, was rolling sideways down a steep ramp.

– What’s this? he yelled to the figure who stood beside the lever, a grin splitting his face.

– It’s called an incline plane, he shouted back, gleefully. It takes you down!

– Down where?

But the caisson was descending at such speed that the boy was lost to view over the top of the ramp; Jake clung to the side of the barge in terror. He thought he heard a distant shout of ‘just joking you!’ from above as he plunged away.

He had been descending for some time, without slackening speed, when he became
aware of a noise coming up to meet him – a mechanical rumble, overlaid with voices shrieking. All at once another caisson swung up from the darkness below and shot past him on a parallel track, the barge it was carrying laden with figures like the wizened boy, hooting and jabbering and pointing scornfully at Jake. As their caisson climbed away from him, they leaned over the side and waved to him in mocking farewell.

He shot downwards into the dark.

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An Each Uisge (The Water Horse)

written as a “Fearie Tale” for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words Festival 2013

(where it was admirably read by Dougal Lee on 2 February (an auspicious date -James Joyce’s birthday))

LFC

– Looks as if it was fished out of a canal, I say.

He doesn’t like that, the man behind the counter, a big fellow with a beard and a shaggy black mane, gloomy as his shop; probably thinks I’m trying to lower the price, but really it was just an observation – it does look as if it has spent some time under water, and you always think of canals when you imagine people pitching old bicycles into water (along with supermarket trolleys and bedsteads, for some reason)

– There’s no canals near here, he says.

Apart from the Caledonian, I think, but say nothing, fearing to give offence – after all, he is a native, by his accent: I have only lived here twenty years, which round here means you’re scarcely in the door. And he looks the touchy sort who might on a whim decide to sell me nothing at any price – how else to explain a shop that does so little to accommodate the buyer? Nothing priced, everything piled up in no sort of order, enamel basins, umbrella stands, coal-scuttles, standard lamps, stuffed birds in glass cases, a zinc bath full of clocks – and my object of interest, a very big, very old bicycle frame.

– There’s a box of bits goes with it, says the man, after we have agreed a price.

I shake my head. I do not want a box of bits. I already have enough bits at home – all I need is a frame. What I want to make is a straightforward bitsabike – bitsa this, bitsa that – a mongrel concoction I can have up and running right away. I am not interested in assembling a period piece, for the simple reason that I can see myself in two years’ time, the bike still incomplete and unused, while I scour the country for those last few original components that will add the finishing touch, without which it simply won’t be complete. I have been here before, you see, and know all about the siren lure of authenticity. But the bearded fellow is stubborn.

– It belongs with the bike, he insists. Included in the price.

Then let me have the frame for less, I think, but say

– Too awkward to carry: I haven’t a car.
– I’ll bring it round. Are you far?

Far enough, as it happens, but that doesn’t bother him. He seems anxious for me to have it.

– It all goes together, he insists.

There is an edge to his tone that suggests further refusal would be unwise. For a moment, I am stubborn enough to resist – why is he so eager? but the shop is remote and the man is bigger than me, of an uncertain temperament, and I do want the frame – so what if I have to take the bits as well? It’s not as if he can make me use them!

Once I’m on my way – I insist on taking the frame with me, in case he has second thoughts – I realise that all he was anxious about was clearing a bit of space – he could certainly do with some!

Yes, that’s all it was, I’m sure – why should there be any sinister motive?

*

Well, the bike is a great success. I’ve rigged it as a fixed gear – no freewheel, so if you back-pedal, it goes backwards – in theory; in practice it serves instead of a rear brake. The sensation is quite different from a normal bike: you work with it, rather than controlling it – it’s more like a living thing. You really need to concentrate when you ride it – no bad thing – which has a peculiarly liberating effect: on my other bike I always set out to go somewhere; on the fixed I’m content to let it take me where it will.

If only I could persuade my publisher to take a book on fixed-wheel cycling rather than Highland folklore!

– It’s just not the right book for me, I moan to my agent. I’m a rational man, a member of the Humanist Society: how can you expect me to write about kelpies?
– Any book your publisher actually wants is the right book, says she. What’s a kelpie?
– A malignant spirit that haunts lochs and streams in the guise of a horse. If you climb on his back, he carries you off to his watery lair and tears you to pieces.
– O good, you’ve begun your research. Keep at it, she says, and puts down the phone.

But keeping at it is not so easy, now that I have the fixed gear bike. I go where it takes me, cycling for the sake of it. Today I noticed an inviting gap in a wall and nipped through it, on impulse. I found myself in a wood with lots of little tracks twisting in and out among the trees and in a moment I had the sensation of being completely (and agreeably) lost. It’s remarkable how even well-spaced trees (silver birch for the most part) still cut down your view in any direction, and then of course there are the bushes which crowd in on you, more than head-high. I must have been in there for a good half-hour or more, yet I do not think I ever used the same path twice. I was surprised to find just now, looking at the map, how small a patch of ground it occupies; roughly triangular, bounded on all sides by houses. I wonder why it was never developed?

My research proceeds in a desultory fashion. One kelpie story (I’m a bit stuck on them, for some reason) gave me an idea – in it, the rider saves his life at the expense of his hand, which he has to cut off because it won’t let go of the kelpie’s mane. That put me in mind of the old punishment for thieves, and made me wonder if the whole kelpie thing wasn’t perhaps intended as a discouragement to horse-thieving. The Kelpie, of course, is a shape-changer, able to assume whatever form he thinks will tempt the unwary traveller – how might he appear nowadays? Maybe I could sell my publisher on the idea of rational explanations of Highland folklore? Worth a try!

Well, good news and bad news: I fear I have succumbed to the temptation of the “box of bits”. I can plead necessity in my defence, but only partly. When I went to take the fixed out this morning, I found that the front wheel was badly out of true, and indeed closer inspection showed that several spokes were broken. How could I have failed to notice that yesterday? The machine is virtually unrideable. So there was nothing for it but to raid the famous box, which I had stowed in the cellar as soon as the bearded one brought it – out of sight, out of mind, or so I thought – but it got to me in the end! The good news? I found a pair of wheels that, for all their age, were remarkably straight and true – and with wooden rims, would you believe! I was only going to use the front, but then I saw the rear was rigged with a fixed gear too – in fact, it probably predates freewheels – and they do sort of go together. It means I’ve had to discard the front brake, which I meant to do anyway – makes me more at one with the bike (or more at its mercy, if you prefer). And it rides beautifully.

Back to my wood again! It really is extraordinary how quickly you lose all sense of direction there – even when you must be close to the perimeter, you never seem to see the outside world: when you stop (I try not to) you could be in the heart of a forest. (I suppose it could be the remnant of an ancient forest – just one of those left-over bits of ground that never got built on, for some reason)

Something else that contributes to the illusion of expansiveness, I’ve realised, is the variation in level within the wood – though the land around is pretty flat, among the trees are unexpected dips and hollows. That’s something you notice on a fixed-gear without brakes: a sudden descent can be, well, exhilarating – excitement mingled with just a touch of fear. On one occasion I was hanging on for dear life, twisting and turning among the trees, bumping over exposed roots, skidding on fallen leaves, when at last (though it can only have been a matter of seconds, really) the ground levelled out and I found myself at the bottom of a deep dell, with some sort of pool just visible through a grove of trees. It was so unexpected that I wish now I had stopped to take a look around, but I was a bit high after my crazy descent and didn’t want to cool down.

When I got home, I felt so exhilarated with my ride – the new, or should I say old wheels have made such a difference to the ride – so responsive, almost as if it was alive – that I decided to restore the rest of the components. I’d no sooner made my mind up to do this than I was suddenly fearful that none of it would be usable – the cellar felt so damp (something I’ve never noticed before) that I was sure it would be all rusted; but to my surprise, though it felt wet to the touch – a protective layer of oil, perhaps? – it was all in remarkably good condition: all the metal parts are finished in some sort of dark coating of a kind I haven’t seen before, so I suppose that’s kept them good. I have to confess that I put it all together in a sort of frenzy, as if it was the one important thing I had to do – not an opinion my publisher or agent would share, I’m sure! Anyway, it’s completely authentic now, apart from the saddle – there was none in the box. I’ll have to keep an eye out for something suitable.

On the book front, I find that (according to some authorities) the kelpie is strictly speaking a river spirit: its counterpart that haunts lochs and pools is called in Gaelic an Each Uisge (the water horse) and is by all accounts a much more dangerous creature, far surpassing it in cunning and malignancy.

*

An odd experience this morning: I was out on my other bike and decided to try it in the wood. For some reason I could not find any of the entrances I normally use (there are several, all a bit hidden away – gaps in walls, or up lanes between houses) and had to go in by the main route, a tarmac path. Before I knew it, I was through to the other side, with no opportunity to turn off having presented itself. Yet in the afternoon I went back on the fixed, through the usual hole in the wall (which I found with no bother). I ended up in the dell again, but I must have been mistaken about the water – there was no sign of any (unless, of course, there is more than one dell?).

I think I must be working too hard. I realised today that over the past week or so I have been conducting a series of experiments without ever admitting to myself what I was doing. In the mornings, I try to reach the wood on my other bicycle, yet rarely seem to make it – on one occasion, a man I didn’t like the look of went in just ahead of me, so I made that an excuse to turn aside; another time, there was a formidable black dog lurking in among the trees, apparently without its master. If I do get in, I never seem to stay long – there doesn’t seem anywhere to go, apart from the main paths which just carry you straight through. Yet returning on the fixed-gear in the afternoon I can happily lose an hour just roaming – and I never seem to meet anyone.

*

There is something a bit edgy about being in the wood, now that Autumn has set in – the low angle of the sun makes you think how soon it will be dark, and there are scarves of mist lying on the damp ground. I have established that there must be two dells, because this afternoon I saw the water again, beyond the grove of trees. I would have stopped to investigate but the light was going and I was troubled by the absurd notion that I might get lost – I say “absurd” because I know perfectly well that the wood occupies only a small area and any determined attempt to leave it would succeed; and yet there is a strange reluctance to do anything like that – you feel you have to stick to the paths, like some sort of game, so you always spend much more time in there than you intend. It takes a real effort of will to come away.

Reflecting on these things in the comfort of my armchair, I realise that in all this there is an element of complicity on my part – I allow myself to be deflected when I am on the other bike – it is almost as if I am searching for an excuse not to go in – just as I play at being lost on the fixed wheel, when all the time I know I could find my way out if I wanted to. I’m sure there’s a rational psychological explanation for it all, and that it’s bound up with this blasted book I am managing not to write.

The only progress I’ve made is the discovery that, according to some sources, the Each Uisge sometimes had a human accomplice – this would be someone who had struck a bargain with it to save his own life. In return, he had to promise to keep the Each Uisge supplied with victims. I wonder if that could be rationalised as some hard-case employed by local horse-owners to protect their beasts? I suppose such a one would be paid by results, and wouldn’t be above a bit of entrapment to line his own pockets, luring likely lads into temptation by pretending to collude with them, only to turn on them? It would be easy to see how countryfolk would come to regard such a one as a sort of devil’s accomplice –

But who’s that at the door at this time of night?

Well, that is a turn up for the books! The man from the junk shop! He hovers outside on the step, holding something in his hands that I can’t make out. I invite him in. He crosses the threshold and thrusts a package at me, done up in brown paper and string.

– Thought you’d be wanting this, he says. I came across it in the shop – it belongs with the rest.
– Thank you, I say, somewhat taken aback.

His gaze lingers a moment at some point behind me, where I know the bike is leaning against the wall. There is an odd glint in his eye that reminds me of our first encounter in the shop and makes me eager to see the back of him. Only when he’s out the door do I turn my attention to the parcel. What can it be? It’s certainly heavy enough.

Well, how about that? It’s a saddle! It certainly looks authentic, though I can’t say I’ve ever come across a cover like that – it isn’t smooth, like leather, it has a sort of fell to it, like some sort of animal skin.

*

Funny how these things always take longer than you think – a whole morning just to fit a saddle! But I have to admit it looks well – and so inviting! Once you were on that, you feel you’d never want to get off! I was all ready to go – make the most of the daylight – when I saw the other package on the floor – just a small thing, in a twist of the same brown paper the saddle was in – I must have dropped it there last night. Bit of a mystery – seems to be caked in black wax, but these two projections look familiar – of course, they line up with the holes in the head-tube – it must be a badge of some sort! There now, it’s slipped into place, must be some sort of spring fitting, it seems quite secure – but I’ll need to get that wax off to see what it is.

Mm, no maker’s name – that’s a bit unusual – but the badge design is certainly distinctive – someone should be able to identify that for me. Must send a picture to the Boneshaker, the VCC magazine. How would I describe it? A sort of hybrid creature: the rear half is a fish, its scaly body twisted round in an improbable but artistic loop; the forequarters are those of a horse.

How it gleams!

That is it finished, now.

Pity there isn’t a lamp-bracket: I really ought to rig a lamp before I go. The light fails insidiously on these November afternoons; the colour seeps out of everything, and before you know it, all is dark.

FIN

 

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