Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: prose

Vae Victis!

Listener, are you familiar with the sayings of soldiers? They say “A soldier can only be defeated in battle or in bed”. Are they right – who can tell? But no matter where defeat comes, there is a sadder, more terrible saying that encompasses it: Vae victis – Woe to the vanquished!

I have seen these things and I swear to these things, sir, by Mars, by Jupiter the Best and Greatest, and by Mithras, in whose service I hold the rank of Lion – I mention this only in case there are brothers present who can vouch for my honesty, sir. My name is Marcianus Gallo, I am a Roman citizen, an Optio – chosen man – attached to the fourth Flag Unit, second Century of Gaulish Auxiliaries, stationed at Bertha, where the Almond joins the Tay. I beg leave to report, and to state my case.

It happened at the last winter solstice, sir. My unit had lost the lottery and drawn duty manning the watchtowers along the road to the south west, where it runs along an old ridgeway used by the natives for gods know how long. It is straight, like one of our roads, and had been cleared of trees for fifty paces each side, and the tree trunks used for the watchtower stockades.

My boys – my unit, sir – grumbled a bit about missing the celebrations in the native settlement around the camp, but they’re good lads… well, sir, they were good lads, I mean. We all get on well with the natives. It’s easier when the soldiery and the natives pray to the same gods – to Belenos and to Cernunnos and the like – and when the languages are close enough to get by, with a bit of camp Greek and Latin thrown in. At solstice, the natives light great bonfires, sir, and they sing, and dance, and drink, and everyone has a good time. If you ask them why, or what god they are honouring, they’ll shrug, and say it is to keep bad things away – bad thoughts, nightmares, things like that – but they won’t say anything more than that. No, they’ll grab you by the hand and pull you away to dance with them.

Anyway, it was our luck – our fate – to miss out on that, and we marched out of Bertha on the eve of solstice, up over the place they call the Badger’s Den, and on to the ridge road. The boys we were relieving were all smiles, and hurried off back down the road. I split us up into threes, sent most of them on to the other watchtowers with instructions who was to man which one, and I stayed in the first with two of the auxiliaries under my command, sir. Their names? They had Gaulish names, sir, but their Roman names were Rufus – he had red hair, sir – and Aper, the wild boar. Good lads both, sir. I sent them for more wood for the beacon and for our own camp fire, and stood a watch on the step of the palisade.

The last of the returning guard we had relieved marched back along the road – a little more smartly when they saw an Optio was watching them, sir – just as dusk began to fall. I watched the beacons light up further down the road. You can see a long way down the road because of the trees having been felled.

It was a clear night, sir, and while there was still a smear of dirty orange on the horizon, where the sun had gone down, the stars came out like some god had thrown a great handful of road grit into the sky, and the moon shone like a lantern. It was freezing cold, and we wrapped ourselves in our cloaks and stayed close to the fire. Whoever was on watch stood as close to the beacon as he could. We ate a little of our rations – nothing to drink, sir, because no one wants to go to the latrine when it’s that cold! You cant really sleep either, not when it’s that cold, but Rufus and I were propping each other up, back-to-back, and Aper was up on the step, stamping his big feet and blowing on his hands, maybe cursing under his breath, wishing his watch was over and that it was Rufus’ turn. Yes sir, I know, most unsoldierly, but you have to realise that sometimes discipline has to be light when it is cold and there are few of you, and if it kept him awake and alert, I wasn’t going to pull him up. Begging your pardon, sir.

I was getting drowsy, sir, and Rufus was elbowing me to keep me awake – as per my instructions – when I suddenly realised that Aper had gone silent, and wasn’t stamping his feet any more. I thought he had fallen asleep propped against the stockade, when I heard him speak.

“You’d better take a look at this, Boss,” he said… I know sir, but like I said, it’s informal up there on a winter night.

I got up, stretched my aching legs, thought myself a fool for getting stiff and drowsy, and joined him on the step. I looked out to the south west, where he was looking. I couldn’t see anything.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” I said.

“The dark,” he said, and pointed.

I looked, and then I could see what he meant. It was like an obscuration by fog, sir, but it was like no fog I had ever seen. With fog on a moonlit night, in this part of the Empire, you get a sheen first, as the moonlight reflects back off it. This bank of fog was black as Tartarus. Blacker. It was as though someone had built a wall, or thrown a dark curtain up between us and the stars in a section of the sky.

“I’ve never seen weather like that,” said Rufus, who had joined us on the step, to see what we were looking at.

“I don’t like it,” said Aper. “Is it getting closer?”

We stared and stared at it for several minutes. At one moment, yes, it seemed as though it was moving, at another it seemed stationary. We couldn’t tell, and we couldn’t agree, whether it was a long way off and towering into the sky, or much nearer to us and closer to the ground; but we were staring into the dark at something dark, and our eyes were playing all kinds of tricks on us.

Then Rufus said, “How many beacons should we be able to see from here?”

“Five,” I said. “Why?”

“Count them, Boss,” he said.

I did. There were four beacon fires visible down the straight ridgeway, burning brightly and fiercely against the blackness. Number five should have been in sight, but it wasn’t there. We strained to see it, hoping it was something simple – maybe the lads manning that watchtower had let it go out, and would re-light it in a moment. We waited, and waited, while nothing happened. Then number four suddenly winked out.

We looked at each other, then back towards the south west.

“It’s closer,” said Aper. “I’ll swear I can see fewer stars.”

“If something is happening, like an attack from one of those marauding tribes from the North,” I said. “Then there’ll be a runner back from one of the towers soon. It’s standard drill.”

“Even the wild Picts from the mountains have no magic to make the stars go out,” said Aper.

We waited and watched. No runner came. I wondered whether to send one of them along the road to see what had happened, but they were both peering at the sky, as though they were watching for more stars going out. I didn’t fancy my chances of being obeyed if I gave that order. Rufus and Aper were standing as still as statues. They must have been cold – I was like a block of ice myself – but they gave no sign. They just watched, with their faces turned half upwards, a look on them which was one part attentiveness one part fear, like two hounds sniffing the air for the wolf-scent.

Then the beacon on watchtower number three seemed to flicker. We held our breath, and watched as it faded to an ember, and died. None of us spoke, none of us really knew what to say. I felt that if I broke the silence at that moment, it would not matter what words I said. I could offer no explanation, no encouragement, not even a supplication to the gods. I could not even have brought myself to say what each of us saw and knew, but dared not admit we saw and knew – that the darkness now appeared to fill at least one third of the whole sky, and had crept nearer along the road, and was moving, moving towards us.

The beacon of the second nearest watchtower went out when none of us were looking. One moment it was there, and none of us seemed to have looked away; but then it simply wasn’t there. Rufus gasped, and the sound choked off, gurgling and dying in his throat.

“Lads,” I said, as calmly as I could. “There is an explanation for this. The cloud comes low along this ridge, and heavy rain comes with it. In a few minutes we’ll all be under the canopy in here, watching it drip, watching it put out the beacon.”

“Where there’s rain there’s wind,” said Rufus. “Do you hear any wind.”

“The wind’ll pick up,” I said.

We strained to hear wind, to smell rain on the native pine trees. There was no sound, and the air which we breathed in was freezing cold, and numbed our sense of smell. Then the beacon at the next watchtower disappeared.

“What was that? Did you hear that?” said Aper.

“What? What?” said Rufus, catching at the sleeve of Aper’s tunic and shaking it.

“Quiet – listen!” I hissed.

We thought we caught the sound of a scream.

Maybe all three of us should have run at that moment. We didn’t. We just got down from the stockade step, sat beside our camp fire, and did nothing. We sat there and waited, instead of standing and waiting. None of us dared say the things we were thinking – that the nearest watchtower was only one thousand paces away, and that was how close the darkness was now, closer maybe. I didn’t dare give them any words of encouragement, I didn’t say we’d sit it out, let the darkness pass, and go to find out what had happened at first light. I sat there, struck dumb, between my two soldiers, also struck dumb, feeling as though we were hunched together on a small island of fire-and-beacon light in a great, dark ocean…

Then suddenly Aper sat bolt upright. His sharp ears had caught another sound, and his right hand went to the hilt of his sword. I looked at Rufus, wondering if my face looked as white as his, we began to hear scratchings and low voices outside, and then a scrape, as the gate to the stockade began to inch open.

We scrambled to our feet, pulling out our swords and pointing them towards the gate. We stood shoulder to shoulder, and I shouted – maybe more loudly than I should, and with a bit of an edge to my voice – “Halt! In Caesar’s name, who goes there?”

The gate swung slowly open, and there were two figures standing there, barely lit in the light from our beacon. For a moment it seemed they could have been shades, sent from the Underworld – it was the night for it – as the flickering flames made grotesque shadows on their faces. It was as though their features swam before our eyes for a moment or two, before resolving into something more recognisable – the faces of two young native, a girl and a boy of maybe twenty years of age. They looked cold and frightened, at least the girl did; the boy was huddled under her cloak, leaning against her, his eyes not showing any emotion, barely showing any sign of life at all. For a while we forgot everything else, put our swords away and pulled them inside. Aper put the bar on the gate, while Rufus and I got the two youngsters to sit by our fire and take some of our rations. The girl ate like she was starving, but the boy just mumbled a bit at his food. Rufus is the best of us at the native language, and got names out of them. The girl was Guenhumara, or something that sounded like that. The boy’s name was unpronounceable, but Rufus said it meant Son of the Bear, and he was her brother. Aper laughed, threw an arm round the lad, and declared him his brother too.

“Bear and Boar, that’s what we’ll be, young warrior, eh?” he said, and yes, he got a flicker from the youngster’s eyes and the ghost of a smile.

For a good while, their presence cheered us. We talked. Well, mostly Aper, Rufus, and I talked. We couldn’t get much out of the girl, and nothing out of the boy. She would answer questions with a word or two, and it seemed they had been hurrying up from the next valley, trying to get to Bertha, where their family were, for the celebrations. But they’d got lost somewhere, and found themselves on this ridgeway, in the dark. When Guenhumara ran out of things to say, she was content to show us the metalwork of the brooch, or the carvings on her bead necklace, and to encourage us to talk about our soldiering equipment and weapons. And as we talked, and shared our rations, it felt as though everything was going to be all right. The beacon stayed bright, the camp fire was warm, and even the boy was nodding and smiling a little.

Then there was a lull. I looked up at the sky, to see if I could see any stars, but all I could see was the moon, dimly shining high above us. Then a shadow seemed to spread over it, and its face was hidden. We became silent, and in our silence we heard a sputtering and hissing, and we watched in horror as the beacon fire was extinguished, as though an unseen hand was slowly pouring water onto it. The brightness of our own camp fire dulled to red, and threatened to go the same way as the beacon. Suddenly the girl grabbed the neck of my tunic with both hands, and shook me, crying out in bad Latin.

Orate ad deorum! Canete! Canete!” she shouted. “Pray to the gods! Sing! Sing!”

She knelt before the fire, started clapping her hands, and singing an absurd little song in her own language. Rufus and Aper picked it up, and I went “La-la-la” with the tune. The boy rocked back and forward in time to his sister’s clapping. The fire flared up, and for a minute or so burned brightly again, and we grinned at each other – forced grins to go along with our singing – willing the fire to stay bright and keep us safe. But the brightness was only short-lived, and soon began to redden and fade. Our singing became desperate. I could hear panic in the girl’s voice, and it felt to me as though a metal band was tightening around the stockade. I knew that the darkness was closing in on us again. Guenhumara’s singing turned to a moaning.

Suddenly the bar on the gate shattered, and it was flung wide open! The last thing I saw as the fire died, was the boy jump to his feet, dash to the opening, and immediately fall backwards like a felled tree. Something… rolled towards the fire… Guenhumara screamed… and everything was black.

I can remember very little else, sir. The darkness pressed on me like a great weight, a living thing, and I thrust and slashed at it with my sword… I’m sure… I think.

They tell me I reached Bertha, alone, babbling like a man demented, just before dawn. They tell me I had gashes on my legs, which I suppose I must have got scrambling up and over the stockade in my panic, and scratches all over my face and hands, from tree branches ripping at me. I had one great gash on my neck, which no one can explain, sir. Look, you can see the scar from it. I told the Centurion and everyone what I remembered, and in the morning he marched me, under escort, up to the ridgeway to investigate. There was no sign of anyone in any of the watchtowers – the men were all recorded as deserters – except in the one from which I had escaped. There they found the bodies of two auxiliary soldiers and two young natives.

The heads were missing from all four bodies, sir.

I told everyone I hadn’t done it, sir, but there was blood on my sword, and they didn’t believe me. I know you don’t either, sir. I knew from the start you wouldn’t. But it is all true, I swear, by Mars, and by Jupiter, and by Mithras the soldiers’ god. Sir, I am not a coward, no matter what they say. Send me now to a battle, order me to charge alone into the thick of the enemy and die a soldier’s death, and I will do it. Even, if I must, sir, I can face the shameful death of being stoned by my comrades. I am not afraid, sir. Death will blank out the memory of that awful darkness that pressed in on me, that night at the watchtower. It was a darkness of terrible power. It robbed me of my name, of all my memories, all knowledge of sunshine, the power of speech, of thought itself, and replaced them all, sir, with fear… total, utter fear. I felt in my head, rather than heard in my ear, terrible words repeated and repeated….

Woe to the vanquished… woe… woe… to the… vanquished… sorry sir… can’t stop the tears, sir…

Listener, it is nothing to you that many lifetimes ago, a forgotten soldier was executed for cowardice and murder. Much of the old, straight road he matched along is now under your hard, grey asphalt, and the fierce headlights of you car push back the thickest darkness. But there is a point where your road turns left, and if, on a clear night in midwinter, you are tempted to stop by the wooden gate, and take to footpath which runs straight along the Gask Ridge, just to see the bright stars without the ghastly glare of your town lights, make sure it is not the one night of the year when it is the custom to sing and make merry in your towns and villages. If you do not, it is not stars you will see, but utter darkness, and you will hear those words “Woe to the vanquished… woe.. woe to the vanquished.”. For I am She Who Walks The Ridge, on the longest night of the year. The solstice… is Mine!

__________

©Marie Marshall 2008-2020
Yes, I know the story is more appropriate to midwinter, but I couldn’t resist telling it to you.
The image is a detail from an illustration by the late Ron Embleton.

The Legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline

Never, never go anti-clockwise!

I’ll tell you a wee fairy story, if you would like to listen for a few minutes, if you’re not dashing away to watch TV, or play with your computer. It was told to me by someone who we always knew as “Aunt Sheena” when I was a girl on Mull.

You thought I had always lived here in Glasgow? I know I’m old myself – I shall be ninety-one next month – and I seem like I’m Glasgow born and bred, but until I was ten years old I lived on the island of Mull. My dad came here looking for work in the shipyards, and my mum and my two brothers and me followed him.

Aunt Sheena – she was a Gaelic-speaker – wasn’t anyone’s aunt really, that’s just what we called her; and when I knew her she must have been as old as I am now. I mind well how she came to wave me and my brothers goodbye the very last time we got on the bus from Killiechronan, on our way to Craignure for the ferry to Oban, and the train to Glasgow. I mind seeing her getting smaller and smaller in the back window of the bus as it headed down the Salen road. I waved until I couldn’t see her any more. I promised I would try to remember all the stories she had told me.

She was more like everyone’s granny. I suppose she really had been someone’s aunt at some time, but I don’t know whose. And on the occasions when she would come from her cottage to ours, during those long summer holidays when we didn’t have to trek into Salen to school, and when dad was away working and mum was shopping in Tobermory or doing her typing job at the doctor’s surgery, Aunt Sheena would tell us stories, usually about the fairy folk, or spirits, or ghosts.

Och, I knew you would say that fairy stories are for wains. But just hear me a moment. When we lived there in Killiechronan, my brothers and I had no radio –  there wasn’t even electricity, and it was years before television came to Scotland. So we had to live in our imaginations. In the winter time it would be books borrowed from the school library. In the summer we would range around the countryside, playing games of cowboys and Indians, Jacobites and Redcoats, Boers, Zulus, knights of old – even I would wield a stick torn from a tree as a musket or a spear. One of our favourite places was the Mausoleum of an old Major General at Gruline, which would be a fort for us to defend or attack, depending on what game we were playing. We would wage our mock battles there until the ghillies from Gruline House came to chase us off. So tales of fairy castles, elf knights, and wandering ghosts just fed that imagination of ours.

And of course the whole landscape of our part of Scotland is full of fairy rocks, magic trees, and so on, if the place names are to be believed. There are things which must be said at odd times, little rituals such as kissing the tip of your fingers and touching your gatepost each time you left home, to make sure you returned safely. These were all part of our lives, and we imagined that they belonged to that time before people came to Mull, when there were magic folk here instead, who hadn’t really gone away, but who slept, or kept guard over the doorways between our world and another world where magic still ruled, and who had to be kept sweet so that they would not creep in to our world and do us harm. I remember how, on the last day that I left our cottage, I kissed my fingertips and touched the gatepost…

Listen, I’ll tell you how I know there are such things as ghosts. A mile or so down the road from our cottage there is a wee kirk, dedicated to St Columba. I was walking towards it one afternoon, and I was about one hundred yards from it when I saw a man open the door and go in. I don’t know whether he actually looked at me, but I could see that he had turned his face in my direction. I thought he must have been the minister. But when I reached the kirk and tried the door I found it shut fast – locked – and no sign of a light inside, no sounds. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I walked round and round the building, jumping up to look in the windows, but it was deserted. Just then a cloud covered the sun, there were a few spits of rain, and a wee wind sprang up. The leaves on the trees started to rustle and rattle, as though hundreds of tiny hands had started to shake the twigs and branches, and I realised what I had done. I had gone round the kirk anti-clockwise. You must never do that, never go round a kirk, or a stone circle, or an ancient cross anti-clockwise. It is such bad luck! As the rustling and rattling grew louder, I felt I had insulted the spirits or elves that guarded that place, and if I didn’t do something very quickly to put matters right, I would be struck blind, or dumb, or daft.

So I ran back round the kirk, but this time clockwise, like the sun in the sky. I ran round twice, three times, and the rattling stopped, the wind died down, and the sun came out again. Each time I passed the kirk after that, I dropped a curtsey to whoever guarded it.

But that’s my story, not one of Aunt Sheena’s. The trouble is that, despite my promise, I can only remember snips and snaps of her tales, apart from one. I’ll tell you that one. It’s the legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline.

One rainy day when my brothers and I did not want to go out, Aunt Sheena was there, in my dad’s armchair, nodding, and pursing her lips, the way she always did when she was thinking of a story. I was just bringing a cup to her, and I decided to nudge her towards the story.

“Aunt Sheena,” I asked. “Do you know anything about the standing stone by the road to Knock?”

“Do I know about the Grey Lady?” she said. “Of course. I know all about her. Why – do you want me to tell you her story? All right, gather round, just let me take a sip of my tea. Now then…”

And this is the story she told us:

There once was a man from Ulva, called Ewan MacDaid. He was handsome enough, but very quiet, hardly spoke. At the age of fourteen he had taken work at the Ben More Estate, working for the Factor as a labourer He worked hard in all weather, never complained, always smiled but said very little to the other workers on the estate. He loved to be given work that meant he had to wander up Glen Clachaig, or along Glen Cannel to the shielings at Gortenbuie, whether it was to look for stray sheep, mend a wall, or simply take a message. Solitude was his joy, the quiet countryside of Mull was his love, and work was his excuse for enjoying both. Not that he complained when the Factor partnered him with another man, or put him in a team under one of the ghillies. He simply went along with that, pulled his weight in the job at hand with that good-natured smile, but sat apart to eat his midday food. That was always some grey bread – his mother’s own oat bread made in her oven at home – and a can of water from Loch Ba.

When he was old enough to be let a wee cottage of his own, in the row of cottages in Knock where the other estate workers all lived, his mother used to come all the way from Ulva with a basket of grey bread for him. Of course it wasn’t all he ate – he was allowed his share of snared rabbits from the Estate, and fish from Loch na Keal – but his mother’s grey bread made his eyes light up most of all.

It was a shock to his workmates and to the Factor when Ewan, on hearing of the war between Turkey and Russia, announced that he was away to join the army, and would be leaving soon for the Crimea. He left, an unlikely soldier, remembering of course to kiss his fingers and touch them to the gatepost of the cottage.

He was gone for three years. His mother was often heard to say, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread? Do they have grey bread in the army?” She, poor soul, died before he came back. Neighbours found her on the floor of her cottage on Ulva, her hands covered with oat flour, her bowl full of dough.

Ewan did come back, still smiling but with the boy’s look in his eyes changed into a man’s, and a man who has seen things which no one should see. The news that his mother was not there to welcome him made that look softer, sadder, but still he smiled and said very little. His workmates said, half-joking, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread?”

The answer was that he took two days off work, arranging with the Factor to go without pay for those days, took the next boat to Oban, and returned with a wife. The new Mistress MacDaid – Elspeth – was a bonny lass with high cheekbones, dark hair, and a ready tongue. His workmates teased Ewan for keeping her a secret, and though they all found out that he had courted her while he was billeted in Oban, always intending to ask her to marry him, they let him have his own little joke – “I wed her because she makes good grey-bread.”

For a few years the couple were happy enough. But then Elspeth began to notice that the handsome soldier she had first met was content merely to get on with his job in the hills and glens of the estate, to enjoy his luncheon of grey bread, and to come home to her at night for quiet companionship.

“Have you no ambition, Ewan?” she would complain, and Ewan’s workmates on either side of their cottage could hear her plainly enough, because her voice had become shrill. She chivvied him endlessly – why did he not try for the Head Ghillie’s job, and then even for the Factor’s. He would shake his head, saying he was content with things the way they were, much to Elspeth’s anger.

“I’m the man you married, Elspeth,” he would say.

The day came when he said that once too often, and Elspeth seethed. When Ewan’s next remark was to wonder whether she had ready his wee bit of grey bread for next day, she boiled over into the most terrible rage. She chased Ewan out of the house, cursing, and pelting him with the dozen or so wee loaves she had just baked.

“Grey bread? Grey bread? Is that all you care about Ewan MacDaid? Is that all you can offer me – a life of baking your grey bread? The man I married, are you? Well I don’t see him here, I don’t see the soldier who fought at Sevastopol and Balaclava, and faced Russian guns, the man who courted me bravely. All I see is a little baby crying for his grey bread! God knows why I ever married you, I wish I could be rid of you!”

And she chased him round and round the cottages, pelting him with the loaves. When she had run out of loaves she pelted him with clods, stones, anything she could pick up, with his astonished workmates peeping out of their windows.

And she chased him… anti-clockwise.

That night they lay in bed, he on his right side, snoring, and she on her left, weeping. At last, after two hours of tears, she began to slip into that state where images from dreams begin to crowd in on the familiar things of waking. It seemed to her that there was a draught in the room, and that the door had been half-opened letting in a grey light, a little like dawn but somehow harder; it seemed as though the bedclothes were sliding off her, or as though little pairs of hands were pulling them back.

Then there came the sudden shock of these little hands’ being placed over her mouth, and more dragging her from her bed and into a nightmare.

There was a noise of chattering and laughter, dry as old leaves and pine-needles; the tread of dozens of pairs of feet; bumps and bangs as she was carried out of the bedroom. She tried to call out to Ewan, but he just snored more loudly.

Out of the bedroom she was carried, and out of the cottage into the cold moonlight. She could see the dark shadows of the creatures who carried her, as though they were the silhouette of a thorn-thicket. She hoped she was dreaming, but when they clumsily collided with the gatepost and she felt a pain in her foot, she knew she was not. A wind blew as they carried her along, round and round the row of cottages… anti-clockwise… and leaves and twigs from the nearby trees pelted her face.

Then it seemed that a hole had opened up in the ground, and she was carried down a steep slope and out of the moonlight. How long that terrible ride lasted she could not tell, but at last she felt herself being thrown down, and she sprawled on a hard, stone floor.

But at least she could see. There was a glow from a fire, and from many torches round a hall. And her mouth was at last free. She shook her head to clear it and looked up. Instantly she wished that she couldn’t see at all, and that the hands were still over her mouth so she couldn’t cry out. Around her, leering at her, were the Brownie folk.

Now, put out of your mind the wee lasses who dance around at the kirk hall; and put out of your mind the pretty fairies in story books. These folk, these creatures that surrounded Elspeth McDaid, mocking her, scorning her, were the real Brownie folk. They are not really of our world, they don’t think the way we do, they don’t have the laws of God, much less the laws of science, to rule them. They have no sense of justice or fairness. Oh they can be kind to those folk who respect them, but they can be wilful and wicked too, to good and bad folk alike, especially those who show them no politeness at all.

In the hall where Elspeth grovelled on the floor, there were imps and elves and trolls of all shapes and sizes. There were goat-footed, goat-horned demons; there were tall tree-spirits with skin as white as birch-bark; there were tiny mayfly-fairies like dancing points of light that flittered up to her and pricked her with needles; there were misshapen gnomes and fierce elf-knights; there were nut-brown bauchles who laughed and threw things at her. Worse than all those was the one who sat on a throne in the middle of the hall – the Brownie Queen. She was terrible, beautiful, she shone like polished brass, and her eyes flashed with burning, red anger!

“Who do you think you are, Elspeth MacDaid?” she said, in a voice like the roar of the water that falls from Eas Fors. “Who do you think you are to rage and rage, and chase a man widdershins round your croft? Who are you to throw good food away in your anger? Who are you to shout aloud against the joining of you to your man according to the magic of your land? Give me one good reason why I should not dash your brains out, open the trap door in the floor of my hall, and throw you into hell!”

If Elspeth could have grovelled any more than she was doing, then she would have.

The Queen spoke again. “What have you to be angry about, you who can spend her life in the sunlight as we once did?”

“My man…” stammered Elspeth. “My man… he wanted his… grey bread.”

The Brownie folk laughed, but the Queen silenced them all with a voice like a rainstorm.

“Is that all? Is that all? A man asks for his food and you throw it at him? Very well, your punishment shall be that you will work forever, in MY kitchen, baking oat-bread for me and for all my courtiers here. It is the next worst thing to hell, Elspeth MacDaid, and you will never see daylight again.”

“Pity… some pity…don’t forbid me the daylight,” cried Elspeth.

The hall went quiet. The Queen seemed to think for a long time.

“I will have mercy,” she said. “You may have daylight.”

“Oh thank you, thank you,” cried Elspeth, now upon her knees.

But the queen walked over to her, and whispered an enchantment in her ear. She would indeed have daylight, she would have sun and moon, rain and stars. She would stand forever, her back hunched against the cold and heat, in the cow-field by the Knock road. And in that instant Elspeth was transformed into a grey, dour, lonely standing-stone, the one we all know to this day as the Grey Lady.

Of course all Ewan MacDaid knew was that she had gone. He was sad for a while, but his workmates’ wives baked grey-bread for him, and took much solace in the beauty of the lands around the Ben More Estate. And that is the end of Aunt Sheena’s story.

Och I know what you’re going to say. But let me just tell you something else. My own grandson took his wains to Mull last summer for their holidays. One day they parked their car outside St Columba’s kirk, and took a walk down the road. They spotted the standing stone – the Grey Lady – in the field, and my grandson took his new digital camera as far as the barbed-wire fence, steadied his foot awkwardly against a squelchy tussock, and tried five or six times to take a photograph. None of them seemed to come out better than a blur, and the stone seemed to become more and more hunched, as though offended to be disturbed in that way. As he continued to try, he tells me that the sky clouded over and he felt a few drops of rain on him, and the leaves on the trees began to rustle as though hundreds of little hands were shaking each twig and branch. He says that his wains pulled him away, back to the car, wanting him to find a café where they could have chips, and that as they walked away the sun came out again and the wind that had stirred the trees died down again.

But that was just a coincidence, and Aunt Sheena’s story about the Grey Lady is just an old fairy tale. Isn’t it?

__________

©Marie Marshall 2011-2020

The photograph of the ‘Grey Lady’ is indeed from Mull, but from Quinish, not Gruline. Naturally enough, I couldn’t find one from Gruline!

On the Platform

Here is another tale for you in the run-up to Halloween. This little railway station in Scotland seems so clean and modern… but is it haunted?

I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.

I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?

I heard a sound as though the sole of a shoe scraped against the platform surface. The lamp at the far end of the platform flickered on and off. There was no one there, not that I could see. The hash from the lamps seemed to accentuate the dark outside them, making it seem as though nothing existed beyond this station platform. There was no movement except for a piece of litter being blown across the platform and spilling onto the track, out of sight, making a scratchy, fluttery noise against the concrete edge as it went. Was that what I had heard?

“Hello,” I called. “Is anybody there?”

There was no answer. And yet I still felt as though someone else was there, or was expected soon. Maybe the bloke from Scotrail would be here shortly. Maybe his shift was an early one, and he would soon turn up and switch on the strip lighting in the glass-fronted ticket office and waiting room. Maybe he would unlock the door to the waiting room and switch on the vending machine. I could get a Mars Bar. I wasn’t hungry but it would pass the time. I peered into the dark, willing a set of headlights to illuminate the station car park. Nothing happened. No one came.

I pulled my coat collar snuggly to my neck, smoothed my skirt, and crossed my ankles. I wished I had a book with me. I wasn’t cold, but I pushed my hands into my coat pockets. In the left one, my fingertips found something small and hard. Whatever it was – a piece of grit, I don’t know – I rolled it in between my fingertips, pressing it, squeezing it, deliberately trying to find sharp edges to graze my fingertips. Anything to occupy some time. I had nowhere else to go. The seconds on the indicator board ticked away. I uncrossed and re-crossed my ankles.

What is it about stations? They should be busy, there should be coming and going. I was certain that this little place with its up and down lines, and its two platforms, and its footbridge, would be full of commuters during daylight hours, people bound for their offices in Edinburgh, or wanting to make a connection to Glasgow. Mid-morning and afternoon there would be shoppers, maybe the occasional out-of-season backpacker. Late afternoon there would be children and teenagers coming back from school in town, and the car park would have four-by-fours or a mini-bus waiting for them. people would be sipping coffee and eating Twix bars from the vending machines, or munching bridies from the wee Co-op. The wee Co-op that was somewhere out there, in the darkness beyond the light hash here on the station. Then in the evening, late commuters, folk going out for the evening, folk coming back, the last train. The lights being turned off in the ticket office and waiting room. The bloke from Scotrail getting on his moped. The sound of its motor dying away. That’s how this station, this platform came to be a little island in the dark, a place where things waited to happen, where someone was expected. Maybe.

But now, on this little island, I couldn’t even see over to the other platform. All the lights seemed to be off over there. There was an indicator board. It glowed, just like the one on this side, but it was slantways on. It gave no real light. I couldn’t read it. If I got up and walked a little way down then maybe I could. I could cross over the footbridge, walk into the dark, and go and read it. It would pass the time. From there, from that dark platform, I would be able to look over at this one, the lighted one. I could, but I didn’t. Here I felt – what? – safe. I waited. There wasn’t really anything to do except wait.

“Is anybody there?” I called again. I still had this feeling that someone was here, or expected. If I sat here, right where I was, the spot on the platform I had become used to, I would see anyone who came. The platform entrance, the ticket office, the footbridge, all of them were to my right. The entrance just this side of the flickering light, the footbridge just beyond it. They were all in my field of vision.

I looked at my watch again, then realised what I was doing and made a little “kah!” sound in my throat, annoyed with myself.

Then I thought I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. The light flickering? I looked back along the platform. Yes, it was still flickering, on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, still throwing the pillar, the bench, and the rubbish bin into sharp relief, and making a silhouette of a man. He was standing there, a tall shadow, hatted, and with a bag at his feet. I hadn’t seen him arrive. Maybe I gasped in surprise, or maybe he had heard my little syllable of annoyance, because he seemed to turn towards me. I heard the sole of his shoe scrape on the ground. I watched as he bent to pick up his bag and began to walk my way. His steps were slow, light, deliberate, almost cautious. He seemed to be made completely of shadow, all I could see of him was three pale patches where the nearest light caught his cheekbones and his chin as he got closer.  Nothing more. As for those measured footsteps, I seemed to feel them rather than hear them, except for that occasional scrape, maybe as the sole of his shoe scuffed a pebble or a loose piece of tarmac.

In my left pocket I squeezed the little piece of grit hard. Harder, the closer the man came to me. He stopped a pace or so away from the bench where I was sitting and put his bag down. He gestured towards the bench. He wore gloves. They were dark, like the rest of his clothes. Dark as shadow.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” he said. “I would have taken the other bench, but the lamp…” There was something old-fashioned about the way he spoke he wasn’t a young man, that was certain. I nodded, and he brought up his hand to tip his hat. Old fashioned again. He sat down, not too close to me, not touching distance, and I was glad. I like my personal space. Once he had sat down I could see nothing of his face at all. He was directly under the nearest lamp, and the shadow of the brim of his hat covered his features entirely. His hands were folded across his lap. His coat was long and shapeless, down to his knees. An overcoat, with the collar turned up, as far as I could see. I couldn’t see much. He didn’t look at me. I turned my head away and looked into the darkness where the other platform ought to have been, but occasionally I glanced at him without moving my head.

It was strange. Even though I was sitting next to him, on the same bench, I felt exactly like I had done before he arrived. I felt that I was alone, but that somebody was there out of sight, maybe watching, or somebody was expected soon. I kept wondering what I would see if I got up and looked at him from the other side. I kept wondering if I looked away and looked back, would he not be there. Would he go as quickly as he had come.

“What time is it?” he asked suddenly.

I looked at my watch. It had stopped, of course, it was showing the same time as before. Why did I keep doing that? I suppose it’s what you do when someone asks you.

“I don’t know,” I said. “My watch… it’s past midnight.”

“Oh aye, it’s well past midnight.”

“The indicator board. It shows the time.”

“Of course. Of course it does. Sorry to have bothered you,” he said. To me it was as though his voice came from a long way away. He seemed to have been cut out from shadow and pasted onto the world. He, the station, everything in it, all now had a flatness, a two-dimensional quality to it.

“No trouble,” I said. I thought I must be getting tired, but for some reason I knew it was important to stay awake. This funny flatness of everything, it must be like those hallucinations you get when you’re about to fall asleep. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I had been waiting here and I wanted to keep waiting and to keep my wits about me. The man was old, strange. Part of me hoped he would go. Part of me felt like if he got up to go I would beg him to stay.

We sat in silence. Another piece of litter scraped and scratched its way across the platform. It teetered on the concrete edge and fluttered as if caught there. I watched it. I kept very still, as though if I breathed I would influence things, I would tip the piece of litter over the edge. I would be like the butterfly wingbeat in South America that causes a storm in Europe. In the flatness, it felt as though I could reach out and pick it up, just like pulling it off the surface of a picture.

“Causality,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

He didn’t repeat what he said. I realised I hadn’t moved since he had sat down. In my left pocket that little piece of grit was still tight between my thumb and index finger. I peered into the dark. I could make out nothing. He said nothing. He was silent for at least ten minutes, motionless. The piece of litter still fluttered at the edge of the platform.

“I know this will sound strange, but I have something I want to say to you,” he said suddenly. I looked at him. He might have turned his head towards me, but I still could see nothing. His hat still shaded his face. Looking at him was like looking into the darkness where the other platform should have been. I peered, I tried to make out something of his features as he talked. I listened to his old, faraway voice.

“Ghosts. Ghosts do exist. The spirits of dead people, spirits that can’t rest. The French call them revenants. That means the ones who come back. The ones who keep coming back. They can’t help coming back, again and again, to a place, to a particular place. They are compelled to come back because they have left something undone, something incomplete. Sometimes they know what it is, often they do not. But they all want one thing. They’re all aware of this wanting, some more than others, for some it is just a vague restlessness. But that one thing they want is someone else, someone to tell about what they have left undone. They want someone to listen, or to see. Some tell their story, others act it out, running through the events up until a certain moment, in the hope that if someone hears or sees they will understand. Then the ghost will be able to rest. But often this telling or showing becomes a puzzle, pieces that don’t fit, a mystery, incomprehensible, and even the ghost does not understand. That is why we hear stories about ghosts wailing. So much pain. Such endless torture. Like rolling a stone up a mountain only to see it roll down again.”

“Sisyphus,” I said. “Yes, Sisyphus. I know that story. It’s familiar.”

He paused, and then went on.

“Again and again they come to one particular place. They don’t know why. That’s the stone being pushed up the mountain. Between their visits to the place, they forget. That’s the stone rolling down. If there is someone there, in the place, a ghost will appear to them, may try to make them feel the same pain, or understand it somehow, or perhaps try to make them the one who gives them rest, assuages their pain. Who can say what ghosts really think or feel? I don’t think they want to frighten anybody, but they do. That’s their curse. So people stay away from those places. The ghost’s pain will then be like the tree falling in a forest. Because there is no one there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. But it falls nevertheless.”

I looked at him, at the darkness and shadow, at the platform, the flickering lamp, the pillar, the bench, the rubbish bin, as it all seemed to become flatter and flatter. Why was he telling me all this?

“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “Have you got some kind of unfinished business yourself?”

“You could say that,” he replied. “You could say there is something I need to do. You could say I need to… reach out to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

It was true, I didn’t. How could I? How could I understand this strange man whose face I couldn’t see, who seemed to have been cut out of shadow and pasted onto the surface of a flat picture. This man with his old-fashioned manners and bizarre stories. This man in the little island of diffused light in the middle of a great sea of darkness. I kept my left forefinger and thumb tight on the little piece of grit. It hurt. There was such a lot of pain in my left hand. I couldn’t understand the man so I focused on that pain. I think I cried out.

I heard the rails begin to whisper and sing. Somewhere in the darkness there was a pinprick of brilliant white light. It quivered. It grew bigger. It was coming… nearer. As it came the singing in the rails grew louder. Suddenly the flatness was shattered, the white light burst upon my eyes, flashed, passed, roaring, screaming, so fast… so fast… a terrifying noise that filled the whole world, filled my head. A body, a vast, hard, long body like a beast, an insane beast, howled and hurtled past. I was standing. The man was standing too. His face was lit up by the passing lights. It was just a face, nothing more. A man’s face. I could see his lips moving.

“The sleeper to Inverness.”

I reached out my hand to him. He did the same. Our hands passed through each other. The beast, the train, had gone by. The forgotten pieces of litter spiraled in its wake and fell back into the darkness. The singing in the rails died away.

“It would be so easy for someone to stand too close to the edge of the platform,” he said. “Someone with news to tell. Someone with people waiting at home, people to make smile. It would be so easy to trip or to slip and to be caught in the bow-wave. Or it would be so easy for someone who could see nothing but pain, to look into the darkness over on the other platform, and simply to walk towards it. So easy.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.

“The sadness of ghosts is that they are awake while most of the world sleeps. They slip back into nothingness with the day. They sleep, if you like. It’s a sleep without dreams. It’s a sleep in which they forget everything. They know this. They know it’s going to happen. It’s part of the pain.”

I still said nothing. I still couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew I ought to say something to him, but it wouldn’t come. I knew I ought to reach out again, but I couldn’t.

“There is so little time,” he said, his old face lit up by the amber lights of the indicator board as he looked at it. “Ghosts sleep at dawn. It’s almost dawn.”

Dawn? I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.

I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?

I was alone on the platform. Waiting. Waiting.

__________

©Marie Marshall 2012-2020

Chagrin

Most of you will not know this story. My first tale of a haunting… well, it may have been a haunting… was written in 2007, and was one of the first winners of the Fearie Tales contest at Pitlochry. It has undergone several revisions and rewrites since then, but it is now here for you to read, in the run-up to Halloween. An old man in Edinburgh walks between dreams, memories, and the fleeting presence in his life of a woman with red-gold hair. Enjoy.

__________

I have moved from waking to sleeping, and from sleeping to waking so many times, it is now difficult to tell the difference, and one is as familiar to me as the other, and as strange. I understand this is to do with becoming old, and I am surely that, and have been for a long time. For instance, it might have been last night I woke up to hear my late wife calling out, in her rising, questioning tone, “Charles?” I wanted to answer her but my mouth was dry, as mouths often are in dreams, but not in waking; also it was not her name, Eleanor, which was on my lips, but another’s, and even that was caught away, as though seized by a passing zephyr and lost somewhere. I know I lay awake, or maybe still asleep, and sought to recall it in the dark. Names, memories, all haunt me as ghosts would; I live in a haunted world, old age, peopled by such things, and find it difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when I did not.

And it may have been yesterday (except I knew it could not have been) that I walked past the hoarding at the end of my street, the hoarding saying “Persil 62 – as new as 1962”, and boarded a bus bound for Corstophine. On the hill by Craigcrook Castle I kicked up leaves as though I was a child. The leaves rose and fell like a mane of red-gold hair, the autumn sky reflected blue-as-eyes in the far-away Forth, and I was stopped by the miracle of a memory. A love, long in the past, forgotten, recalled… and a snatch of song.

Lord knows why, the other day as it might have been, I came back to Corstophine instead of being, once again, the only visitor to Eleanor’s grave. I have tended that grave, and have neglected it in favour of visits to the hill, in memory of the tenderness that Eleanor and I once shared, and of the fruitlessness of that tenderness. And now, that folding-over of time, that trick of memory in which I thumb idly through my mental journal and flick it open at random pages. But on each page is a clear image, an image of burning immediacy, clearer than yesterday, clearer than today’s own, dim morning.

Such as riding home on the tram, and having my eyes drawn to a woman on the pavement; a woman pale and tired from the burden she carried in her womb, but nonetheless serene, her head held high, a cascade of red-gold falling on her shoulders almost wantonly, her clear, blue eyes purposefully on some horizon not encompassed by the urban landscape, her sage-green coat open, her white, strong hands laid tenderly upon her fullness. Or so it seemed to me. Surely it could not have been yesterday that I pressed through the crowded tram, leapt off at the next stop, and followed her? I am not capable of pressing and leaping these days, but this pursuit of her is so bright a picture in my mind. The sudden, torrential rain, the thunder, the hurrying folk with umbrellas raised or collars hastily turned up; but still ahead of me, as I dodged this way and that around the cursing fellow-pedestrians, a sunlit patch of red-gold, lank in the rain but gleaming like a precious nugget or like a vision of the Holy Grail, pulling me through the streets. There is a moment in this picture-show of recollection in which the high, iron railings to my right were struck by a lightning bolt, blinding me, hiding even the blessed, golden mane from my sight, a divine warning that I am too close to something I should not touch. Only afterwards, when I found myself before a black door which, I was convinced, she had opened to gain entry to a particular house in a Georgian terrace, did I reflect that I had come so very close to death. That realisation did not stop the scene rolling on, did not stop my pushing against the unlocked door, and going in. An Etoile marble hallway, a winding staircase, echoes of footfalls above. I know I climbed the stairs, and that part way up a burly, female figure barred my way, and a firm but gentle voice, with a hint of Irish in it, said, “Mannie, she needs her rest.”

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un instant,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie
.”

What relation all this bears to the memory of sitting at a kitchen table, sharing a cup of tea with this Irishwoman, I do not know. Very clear now is the recollection of her little pastries – she plied me with them, eager for me to taste them, to eat my fill – crescent-shaped, tasting of almonds and honey, while upstairs, or maybe in the next room, I thought I caught the sound of footsteps, a snatch of song, or sometimes a high voice calling out for me. But that is all, and the memory shifts and shifts. I stood by a public bench by the Water of Leith. It was and is familiar, it was and is empty, and I am sad.

Where does this come from? The memory of standing before a row of houses, which may well have been the same Georgian terrace, looking at them in ruins, blackened fingers of brick and stone, pointing obscenely to the sky, terrible as sea-stacks. I seem to recall, as I stood there uncomprehending, hearing a passer-by saying, “Zeppelin raid, Mister.” And again seeing a smart, new hotel in what could have been the same spot. Then a later visit, when the instruction “Somewhere this side of Corstophine” failed to impress an otherwise helpful cabbie.

Into the flow of these memories sharper than today, suddenly others are flung, inapposite, startling. Eleanor, returned from an outing with a bereaved friend – a visit to a spiritualist medium – frowning. “She calls herself ‘Dona Andalu’. It was all a waste of time. Told us nothing about Margaret’s poor Geordie. All she would do was look at me and say, ‘She is of the Djinn and bore him a son’!”  Why did I flinch at that, and why is some kind of guilt now making the memory even sharper than most others? Why did I search my mind for some recollection of my tour of duty in Palestine, trying to remember whether I had opened any ancient bottles or rubbed any lamps, broken Solomon’s seal somehow and let a genie escape? And why did the fact that there was no such recollection seem to stoke more shame in me than the fact that my love for Eleanor had, at some undefined moment, become commonplace and banal, though far from incomplete?

There have been so many times, I now recall, that I have seen children, and even adults, with red-gold hair and with eyes as blue as the sky. I had not realised until today how my gaze has always been drawn to them, unless this is a false memory illuminated in retrospect – but if so, no such memories can be relied upon – and how I searched every face to see if I recognised it. Did that young Gordon Highlander officer, in the times of austerity and sandbags, really tip his Glengarry to show curls of burnished brass? Did he really wink a blue eye at me as he strolled along with a pretty girl?

This is the clearest scene of all, and it has just come back to me in its entirety. I approached a public bench, on it there sat the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her ensemble was sage green, her hair red-gold, her eyes sky-in-the-lake blue. She wore no hat, neither was her hair up; it simply hung loose, rich, glorious, fast, wanton… Her glance was friendly, but there was an innocence there in her eyes which gave the lie to the wantonness of her display. I raised my hat, and asked her if the seat next to her was taken. She motioned towards it with a delicate hand gesture, and I sat by her. We talked. I told her my name. She told me hers, in an accent which could have been French. “Chagrin”.

“It means sorrow. I know that is strange, but it goes back a long way in my family.” She said. And then she sang, quietly, for me.

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
J’ai toute quitt
é pour l’ingrate Sylvie.
Elle me quitte et prend un autre amant.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
Tant que cette eau coulera doucement
Vers ce ruisseau qui borde la prairie,
Je t’aimerai, me r
épétait Sylvie,
L’eau coule encore, elle a chang
é pourtant.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.

She sang with her own name on her lips, as though the great sadness of the song was in her heart, and I listened, holding my breath and with my pulse seemingly stilled, for as long as it took for the last laissez vibrer of her singing to fade. But at me she smiled, and her eyes smiled too with shades of cerulean that defied my gaze and my powers of description; but I knew at once that I loved her, and desired her, in a way I had never known before and would never know again. When no one was looking, we kissed, daringly for the time, and I unbuttoned her sage jacket, seeing the gold pentacle at the neck of her blouse. I felt entirely safe, completely loved, detached from the world. I cannot – for the life of me – remember making love, there or anywhere else. I do remember a tremendous sense of loss, of bereavement, and I remember standing, looking at that same park bench, empty. I also remember reaching behind myself, at the next bath night, and running the back of my hand awkwardly over deep scratches or weals on my back. Images of harpies, or strange, crying birds came into my mind then – grey images of broken gravestones in the Dean Cemetery, and my dodging of rain-soaked people on the city streets flowed into a near-nightmare of running, hawking for breath, between obelisks, weeping angels, frowning busts, stoneworks in mockery of classical elegance and gothic piety. And always ahead of me, but never close enough to see clearly let alone catch, the spilling red-gold that could have been her glorious hair or a trick of the queer Edinburgh light at the time of year when the sun scarcely rises above the brim of my hat. I was running after escaping love, my soul possessed by longing, and behind me, overtaking me, always the panting and the hoofbeats of fear and loss…

All that having been exhausted as soon as it was recalled, my last vision does indeed belong to today, to as recently as five minutes ago, or less. Or I am entirely demented in my old age. I have been walking, as I so often do now, by the Water of Leith, lost in thought. I hardly noticed a nanny with a child in a push-chair, hardly noticed her burly figure, his red-gold hair. Only when they had passed did it occur to me that I had heard an Irish voice say, “There goes your grand-daddy!” When I looked around they had gone, as surely as my dreadful nightmare images had disappeared, all those years before.

But… but… on the far side of the water, just now, I saw them, and a saw a whole family of children, running to a woman who had her arms outstretched to greet them. Even at that distance, they called up an intense pang of recognition in me. Their hair… their eyes…

It could have been though – most likely was – the leaves I had just kicked up, as red-gold as a young woman’s hair, and the sky-blue, eye-blue water.

__________

©Marie Marshall 2007

Da Trow i’ da Waa

My agent got in touch with a request – would I share the winning story I wrote for the  ‘Fearie Tales’ competition at the 2014 Winter Words festival in Scotland. Well, I do tend to hoard my stories, believing that one day I’ll publish a collection. But in this case I’m happy to oblige. By the way, some of what follows is written in the voice of Shetland, and all of it is true…

trow 1

It all started when I moved into this cottage in Shetland. No I guess it all really started – it’s getting difficult to remember – when I found I couldn’t write. My imagination was bare and barren. My agent suggested I rent a hideaway miles from anywhere, somewhere without distraction, and maybe that would cure my writer’s block. So I trawled through the internet looking at cottages to let. I picked this one, a nameless little house by a nameless bend in the road, on the island of Yell.

I can remember it was a day of speckled weather late in April, yes, just a couple months ago. A day when clouds scuttle like so many lice across the sky, and when the sun lies to you with those brief moments of warmth before it hides, letting a wind chill your neck and rain spatter your shoulders disdainfully. Well, here I was, watching the minibus – so warm inside – becoming smaller and smaller, while I stood there with a rucksack, a suitcase, and a bag of ad-hoc groceries, at the end of a short track up which a small, grey house stood. The noise of the van’s engine died, and all I was left with was the sound of wind in my ears. For three-sixty degrees all around me there was no landscape, only sky. What people had told me about Yell was true, then.

With the grocery bag digging into my fingers and the suitcase wheels dancing and dragging over the ruts and ridges of the track, I walked towards the cottage. The sky was reflected in its milk-and-water windows. They reminded me of the eyes of a blind woman I’d seen the day before in Lerwick. She’d been there outside the Solicitors’ office where I’d picked up the house key. No way could she have seen me, and yet she kept her face towards me as I passed, and looked as though she was about to speak. Maybe that was my imagination, and maybe it was my imagination that made me hurry, half-stumbling, preferring for some reason to look out of those windows rather than be looked out at. By whom? Why did my imagination choose moments like this to work but then desert me when I wanted to write?

The key was stiff in the lock. The door swung inward and clattered against the wall, wrenching the key from my fingers and making me wince. Inside, the house was silent, cold, furnished sparsely with things that were sound enough, clean enough, but didn’t belong. They all looked as thought they were left over from somewhere else. A clock ticked. A fridge-freezer hummed – at least that meant there was electricity. I dumped my luggage in the hallway and ranged from room to room.

“Hello?” I called as I pushed each door open, as though I expected someone to be there.

I felt better after a cup of tea and my clothes stowed away. The whistle of the kettle had made the place a little more like home. My groceries would have to stretch until the mobile shop came around, but I wouldn’t starve. I picked a bedroom, one which seemed to be over the kitchen extension. The internal wall was stone, grey, undecorated – obviously once the outside wall. I looked for a WiFi signal for my laptop, but there was none. “Damn… oh never mind.” Nor was there a signal for my mobile phone. The landline, according to the card pinned to the wall, would only work for calls to the estate agent, the taxi firm, and the emergency services – there were no plans to have anything else installed as the owners were thinking of disposing of the place. So what? I had come here for isolation and that’s what I’d got. I had come her to write.

And I couldn’t.

I sat for about three days – between sleeping, making small meals, brewing tea, and looking out of the window at the wind nagging tufts of sheep-wool on the barbed-wire fence, and listening to Radio Four on a crackly radio – staring at the laptop screen and eventually playing solitaire. I began to talk to myself. I muttered, sometimes I yelled.

“I want some stories, some bloody ideas, anything!” And then I waited, listened, as though I expected an answer. Sometimes I stood for minutes on end listening to those small sounds that populate what we too often consider to be silence, straining to make sense, voices, words of them. But if such were there, then they were beyond my hearing. At night I lay awake, and though I felt exhausted my mind would not be quiet – I was bombarded by disjointed thoughts, images, and ideas – until the shushing of the wind around the house eaves sent me into a doze. Some days ago, during one of these dozes, one that was to me more like a trance than anything else, the images seemed to coalesce. There was a wicked, grey, rough-skinned face before me, its eyes glittering, its teeth sharp.

“Du wants stories?” it said, as clear as anything, clearer than any dream I have ever had, had ever had in that little house, so clear that it woke me. I stared into the blank darkness, as though I was trying to make that face re-form. I switched on the bedside light and looked into the half-shadows it cast. I got up, walked over to the wall, peered at it and ran the palm of my hand over its rough surface, trying to make out bumps and depressions which might have been the simulacra of a face. I don’t know why I did this – I couldn’t possibly have seen the wall in the dark, yet it was to the wall that held me.

“Yes, I want stories,” I found myself saying out loud. There was no answer. I stood there, getting cold, until it was light.

Another day came and went without inspiration, another day of looking out at the sky, listening alternately to the wind and the crackly radio. The most creative thing I did that day, the closest thing to writing, was to set out a list of groceries I needed from the mobile shop. In the mid afternoon I began to long for night, aching for another sharp, clear dream in the hope that inspiration would come. I opened a bottle of wine I had been saving and had drunk most of it by mid evening, as though that would help. Then, as the daylight faded outside, I shut the curtains against what was left of it, placed pillows along with cushions raided from downstairs against the bed-head, propped myself up facing forward. I stared hard at the wall opposite, the wall I had examined closely the previous night, and switched out the light.

For what seemed like half the night I sat there with my sleepless mind bombarded by thoughts again, despairing of sleep ever coming, eventually drifting as though on that shushing wind. Then…

“Du wants stories?” The wicked, grey, rough-skinned face was there again, in the darkness, but standing out from the darkness as though the darkness itself was a kind of reverse-light in which a dreaming, trancing person could see. Not only it’s face was there this time. I could make out the hunch of its shoulders, and its crooked, grey fingers gripping the bedstead.

“Stories? Du wants stories?”

“Who are you?” I wanted my voice to be a challenge, but it was no more than a croak, as all dreamers’ voices are.

“I’m da trow, da trow i’ da waa.”

“The troll in the wall?”

“Da trow i’ da waa. Da stane is i’ da waa, da waa is i’ da hoose, da trow is i’ da waa, an’ da trow it is wha has stories ta tell.”

“Why are you here? How are you here?” I asked, trying to moisten my dry mouth as I spoke. There was something repelling about this creature, yet something fascinating. I felt as though I had deliberately summoned it from somewhere, I wanted it to go, I wanted it to stay. I wanted the dream to be over, I wanted it to last.

“I lived ance in a knowe, as dae aa trows. But men cam an’ pu’ed doon the knowe, an’ took the stanes of the knowe ta build Windhoose – the auld Windhoose that’s na dere ony mair – an’ whaar da stanes went da trow went. Da Laird o’ auld Windhoose wis auld, mad Niven, a wicked man he wis, mair wicked even dan me! I mind a time he wis owed money by a man, an’ dis man’s wife dee’d. An’ auld, mad Niven caa’d the widower ta Windhoose, an’ telt him ta dance and ta play da fiddle. Na matter hoo da widower begged, auld, mad Niven wouldna be denied. An’ sae da man played da fiddle and danced, and aa the time he played an’ danced he wis weepin’ sair. An’ auld, mad Niven lauched and lauched ta see him play an’ dance an’ weep aa tagither. An’ at da end o’ da day auld, mad Niven cancelled da man’s debt. Noo, is dat a story?”

I went to say yes, it was a story, but the trow had gone. I was sitting in bed, my arms and shoulders cold, my hand gripping the short column of the bedside light which I must have switched on in my sleep. The dream, the sleep, the trance, call it any or all of these, was gone. And even before it was light I was on my laptop, a story flowing into a word document about the old, mad Laird of Windhouse and his cruelty to his tenants. When it was light, I looked out of my bedroom window, to the West and to the North a little, to where the horizon hunched a little. There, like two unformed imp-horns, I could make out the twin gables of a ruined house. Later, I went out, hirpling across fields, startling angry, piping gulls and orange-billed shelders as I went, until I found a better vantage point to stare at the ruin. It was half a mile away or more, its great, glassless windows and gaping doorway like the eyes and maw of a skull. It made me shudder and trimmle, and I felt the pull of the little house with the blind, milk-and-water-eyed windows. I turned and made my way back in haste, wondering where I had got words like ‘hirple’, ‘shelder’, and ‘timmle’ from.

The next night I fell straightway into a deep sleep. No sharp dreams came to me, but then I seemed to hear a rhyme chanted.

Da hoose is aa alane,
Da trow is in da stane,
Da stane is in da haa,
Da trow is in da waa.

I woke up. I was sure I was awake. I switched on the light. My bedroom was the stark place it always was. I got up and went onto the landing, looking down the stair into the dark hallway. Over the finial at the bottom of the bannister I had draped my coat – I could see it humped there, catching a little of the light from the open door to my bedroom, showing up grey against the black. Its sleeves moved, grey fingers, clutched the bannister rail. Its hood had two glittering eyes and a grinning mouth full of sharp teeth. It spoke the trow’s rhyme to me.

trow 3“I was at Windhouse,” I said from the top of the stair. “Is that the house you told me about, where old, mad Niven was?”

“Na, na, I telt dee dat een wis pu’ed doon. Its stanes wis tae’n ta build da new hoose. Dat wis da hoose du saw dastreen. But du didna gyaa right up ta it, did du!” The trow’s grin was wide, as though it was taunting me.

“I went close enough,” I said. “It’s a strange place.”

“Aye, dat it is,” said the trow.

“You told me the stones from your knowe were taken to build old Windhouse. How come you’re here in this cottage?” I asked.

“Auld Windhoose was pu’ed doon eftir auld, mad Niven dee’d. An’ dey took da stanes ta build new Windhoose. Den, whan new Windhoose becam a ruin, dey took some stanes ta build dis cottage, an’ some o’ da stanes day took wis fae mi knowe. An’ here I bide, for noo. But new Windhoose was aaways a place o’ blude, a place o’ murder, a place o’ hauntin’.”

“Tell me! Tell me!” I said.

I stood at the top of the stair, and the grey, grinning trow stood at the bottom, and it told me every tale it could think of concerning ‘new Windhoose’. And as it told me these tales in its soft, scratchy Shetland voice, I fancied that I stood at the gates of Windhouse itself, looking up its stone steps to that maw of a doorway and the sightless eye-sockets of windows. Then suddenly it was as though the whole house was lit up, full of people moving too and fro, dancing, debauching, sating every kind of lust, murdering, spilling blood that ran down the stone steps and soaked my feet. As quickly as that vision had come it faded, and was replaced by one of the house standing mute in the rain that came driving off the North Atlantic in the grey of day. Ahead of me a servant girl trudged up the steps. At the great door she snappered – stumbled, I mean – leant hard against the door jamb to recover her balance, and pushed the door open. As she entered she half-turned to look back at me, and I could see that her face was the face of a corpse. But I couldn’t take my gaze off her as she disappeared up the staircase inside. Then a tall, grim man in a black frock-coat and a stovepipe hat brushed past me, making me shiver at his touch. He too mounted the steps, went inside, and disappeared into the blackness. Next I saw a great, shapeless thing ooze round the side of the house, and a man dressed like an old-time seafarer burst out of the house to attack it with an axe. Once more this was only a fleeting vision, because now I found myself walking up this deserted stone steps to the great, ruined doorway, and entering the house in great fear. I wanted to run but couldn’t. instead I began to tear at the rotten wood of the staircase, throwing the shattering pieces behind me. As I tore at it, opening the dark space inside it, bones began to spill out. I revealed human skeletons piled inside the cavity, contorted as though the people they had once been had died there in agony or fear. Other visions flashed past – a great skeleton seven feet long with horns showing at its skull, the bodies of sheep torn open, a great dog that came running to me as though I were its mistress, but which disappeared as soon as I bent down to stroke it…

“Dere’s a price ta pay fir aa dis!” said that soft, scratchy Shetland voice. At that moment I seemed to be standing at the great doorway of Windhouse looking out, out to the grey fields and moorland beyond, down the stone steps to the stone gatepost.

No, I was not. I was at the stop of the cottage stair looking down to where my coat hung on the bannister, grey in the early morning light. I was stiff, cold, but I knew what to do then. For the rest of that day I existed on cups of tea – I didn’t even get out of my pyjamas and dressing gown – while I typed and typed everything I had seen in the night’s vision, everything the trow had told me, fashioning it into story after coherent story, or at the very least making notes for later. By the time evening came I had not eaten, I had not dressed, I had not washed, such was my excitement. I wanted the trow to come, I wanted more stories.

I was just clambering into my bed at dusk, when I realised that the trow was standing there already. It held out its hand to me, and I took it, feeling its cold, bony hand in mine. It led me round the bed and began opening my wardrobe, pulling out the dressing-table drawers. Not knowing why, I did the same. The trow began to take my clothes and put them on the bed.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

“Packin’ dy claes. As du wid say – packing your clothes.”

“But I’m not leaving,” I said. “I’m staying. I want more stories.”

“Dat’s richt, du is stayin’. Du can hae aa the stories du wants – as du wid say, all the stories you want – ivvery story dere is here. Aa dyne.”

I looked at the trow. I saw it was wearing my coat. Through the window I could see the headlights of the taxi from Lerwick…

“Du’s gyaain’?” I said to the trow.

“Aye,” said the trow, snapping shut the suitcase.

“I’m stayin’,” I said.

“Aye,” said the trow, picking up my laptop. “As du wid say – you’re staying. For the stories.”

Da hoose is aa alane,
Da trow is in da stane,
Da stane is in da haa,
Da trow is in da waa.

Ootside, da taxi’s horn beeped, an’ da trow turned, left da bedroom, lookin’ at me…

Da writer wis here ta write, but noo sho’s gyaain’. I ken dose een, hard an’ glitterin’ as ony diamond. An’ I ken dat grin, dose teeth, hard an’ sharp as ony steel. Dey wis my een, but… da trow has tell’t its stories. Da writer is awa. I wis da writer ance. Da trow has tae’n mi place. Da stane is in da hoose… an’ I am in da stane… da stane is in da waa… but if dis hoose should faa, like a’ da odders…

Whit den… fir da trow… in da waa?

Whit den?

Voicebox

 

Voicebox

…..I’m not sure when I became aware of the voice, I mean really aware. I’d had the feeling that there was something going on for a while, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. No, literally, I couldn’t put my finger on it, even though I poked and prodded myself, examined myself for lumps, pressed places on my body to see if they were painful, that sort of thing. Then I realised I could hear a voice.

…..Now, I know what you’re thinking. The P-word. The S-word. No. See, I took this to a professional and, frankly, she was nonplussed, couldn’t make sense out of it. As long as I wasn’t hearing commands to dress in armour and fight the English, and I wasn’t. It wasn’t like that at all. It was ordinary, banal I guess.

…..At first it was just a vague murmuring, like I could hear someone talking through a wall. I thought it was a weird buzzing in my ears – you know, tinnitus – but though I couldn’t make out words I could tell from the intonation that it was speech, definitely speech. And it wasn’t actually in my ears as such, more like I was taking this through-the-wall stuff with me wherever I went. It shifted, but only slightly, sometimes seeming to come from my right, and then my left. It got clearer, and then it faded again as I tried to catch what was being said. Then I did catch something. Just like that, one morning, I made something out.

…..“Can you hear me?”

…..“Yes, I can. I can hear you,” I said, and instantly wished I hadn’t because I was in a shop and I said it out loud. Several people turned and looked at me, as you’d expect. I had to hurry to the ladies’ in the shopping centre and lock myself in the cubicle nearest to the wall and keep my voice down as soon as I heard anyone else coming in. This was before I realised I didn’t have to answer out loud.

…..“Good. I’m glad you can hear me at last. Honestly, you are bloody awkward in the extreme. I’ve been trying to get you to hear me for a dog’s age!”

…..“Who are you?” I asked. I was scared of getting an answer to that, and now I come to think about it that’s a question the voice has never answered. “Where are you?”

…..“Where do you think I am?”

…..That was a good question, of course. As I said, this wasn’t like the voice-in-the-head thing. It had a definite direction, a place if you like. At this moment, as I sat on the loo seat in the ladies’, the voice seemed to be coming from just below my right shoulder, at the front, behind my collarbone. And here’s the funny thing – as time has gone on, it has always occupied some place or other in my body, a definite box, a cube about four centimetres square. I can feel the shape inside me, its sides, its edges, its corners, it’s definitely there without pushing anything else out of place, if that makes any kind of sense. I know, I know, this makes no sense at all.

…..“This makes no sense at all,” I said.

…..“When did anything ever make sense? I mean really?” Something I would get used to after a while was this voice’s habit of answering a question with a question. It wasn’t all the time, just enough to be mildly annoying. And there was the one question it kept avoiding, I mean the who-are-you one.

…..I haven’t talked much about the voice to anyone except that professional I mentioned… and you. What’s more, I realised a few things about it quite early on. Firstly, I’m the only person who can hear it. I guess in that respect it is, well, at least similar to what people think of when they think of paranoid schizophrenia, but there is still this outside quality to it, a direction like I said. I know it’s coming from this cube-like shape in me, but it’s still like it isn’t. Secondly I found that I didn’t have to answer it out loud. It’s always been convenient to do it like that, of course, and that runs the risk of people looking oddly at me, but I got round that by using a set of those mini earphones with the lead running into my pocket, so that people would think I was using a smartphone. Speaking out loud means that I’ve organised my thoughts, you see. As far as I know, the voice can’t actually ‘read’ what I call my ‘background thinking’ – or if it can it has never said so – only the thoughts I actually direct at it. Thoughtspeak, if you like. Oh God, that sounds so George Orwell, doesn’t it! Sort of Big-Sister-is-listening-to-you, haha.

…..Oh yes, that’s another thing. The voice is female. It sounds a lot like me, only not quite. It can put on a ‘telephone voice’ when it wants to sound pompous, but basically if I imagine what a person would look like talking the way the voice does, it would be a middle-aged woman a lot like me.

…..However, it knows things I don’t. For instance, I went in for a pub quiz and it fed me answers on football, death metal, and astrophysics, and I don’t know anything about any of those subjects. I thought this was great, and the team I was on won everything in sight. I even thought about going in for one of those big prize game shows on TV. But the voice must have got sick of this, because after a while it started to feed me the odd wrong answer, and then a whole string of them during one quiz and I fell out with me team mates. I kind of fell out with the voice too at that point.

…..“I don’t want to be Betty-no-mates,” I complained.

…..“You’ve got me. I’m your mate.”

…..I suppose it was, in a way. For a while. When I was lonely we would have conversations. When there was nothing worth watching on the TV, I would sit in the living room with one table lamp lit, hugging a pillow, maybe sipping from a glass of wine or picking from a box of chocolates, and the voice and I would chat. I told it my life story. It seemed patient, it seemed to want to listen. I never considered that it was part of me, part of my own mind talking to me, because while I talked about my life it would listen, it would be surprised, delighted, angry, whatever, when I told it about things good and bad from my childhood. It would tell me what it would have done under the same circumstances, and that was always something totally new to me. Another think the voice would do, was to sing duets with me in the shower. I’m a soprano, a rather weak soprano, and the voice is a contralto with much better control than me. It would harmonise. I had to teach it the words and tune to some of the songs I knew – that’s another sign, I guess, that it isn’t my own mind talking to me.

…..You remember I said it moved about? It wasn’t always just under my right clavicle, it could be anywhere. I suppose it was most disturbing when it lodged in my head. I made it plain I didn’t like that, so most of the time it was somewhere in my torso. Once it stubbornly decided to stay down there. God, I don’t know why I’m being so coy about this – I don’t know why I was so coy with the voice either, after all it’s female, it’s just that I didn’t and don’t like it being down there. It just feels somehow like I’m being invaded, violated. I suppose I was and am being invaded anyway. But down there kind of brings it home to me, you see?

…..We did have some really good times, by the way. Those conversations would go on for hours sometimes, and when I ran out of things to say, the voice would tell me stories. They were good stories too.

…..But I still didn’t know the why and the who and the how of it all. Was I some kind of experiment? Was the voice some kind of alien entity? Was I going barmy? I put this to the voice and it just laughed.

…..“Why not just accept me – make the most of what you’ve got! When you were a kid, didn’t you always fantasise about having a secret friend? Well, now you’ve got one. What was your secret friend’s name? You can call me by that name if you want to.”

…..See, to me that was taking things a bit far. The voice already knew such a lot about me, I had told it things from my life I’d almost forgotten about, and some things much better forgotten if I’m honest. Now it seemed like it was asking to take over one of those things, like it was tired of just being a voice inside me and wanted to be a permanent part of me. I think that was the time it started to occur to me that the things I didn’t like about this situation were adding up. The evasions, the moving down there, the secret friend issue. One day it was telling me one of its stories and it seemed familiar, then I realised it was made up from something I had told it from my own life. Well, we had a blazing row. We’d had niggles before, but this was a mental screaming-match. Only it wasn’t just mental. I must have been yelling out loud, because a neighbour of mine knocked on my door to find out if I was okay.

…..I decided to see if I could ignore the voice. I was surprised to find that, yes, I could. It was no effort at all not to reply out loud, just a bit harder to shut down the talking-by-thinking thing, and it didn’t always work. Sometimes I relented and replied, but not as much as before, and when I got really good at not speaking to it, I noticed that it actually began to fade a little, became more muffled again. I cut it off completely, and after a while it was back to that almost inaudible murmuring.

…..The voice did try to attract my attention. Sometimes I was sure I could hear a kind of pleading tone to the sound. But I suppose I just hardened my heart. Once it tried to – I don’t know – make me feel how sharp its corners and edges were, but somehow I got the knack of smoothing them out again, as though I had a plane or some sandpaper in my head. What’s more, I found I could stop it moving about, in fact I could move it myself. I banished it to my right calf, where it remains. I can feel it there now, like a patch of pins-and-needles.

…..I got in touch with my friends again, stopped being a loner, became more sociable, went of girls’ nights out. Life became normal again.

…..Except sometimes, usually at night when I can’t sleep and I can feel that shape and hear that murmuring, I feel guilty. This has all been like falling in love and falling out again. I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish this was nothing but a story.

The Garden at the End of the World

1

“You ought to get that garden seen to. Tidied up a bit.”

I can remember hearing that said to an elderly person I visited once, when I was a child. I loved visiting the elderly. I loved especially obtaining permission to go and wash my hands, so that I had an excuse to explore as much of their house as lay on the route between the back parlour and the bathroom. I used to dare myself to open a door and look in – perhaps to a bedroom, a spare bedroom with cases and boxes stacked, a bed with a flat, level, chenille spread that looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed for years, a wardrobe with a mirror in which I could glimpse the fur coat or the bathrobe that hung on the back of the door I had just opened. I might treat myself to a frisson of fear, fancying that the movement of that coat or that robe was due not to my opening the door but to some animation of its own; or I might simply wonder when last it had been worn, and when it had moved due to the whim and will of the once-young, now-elderly person downstairs, or to that of a dead loved- or hated-one. I might, if I felt brave, walk as quietly as I could, wary of the telltale creak of old floorboards, into the room to see whether any of those repositories of the silent past – the boxes, the cases, the wardrobe – would open. Once or twice I dared to brush my hand against the black suits with shiny lapels, the gowns, to make them sway, to see them in my mind at some cocktail party or dance. I even wondered what it would be like to put on one of these man-size suits or woman-size dresses, whether I would feel weighed down and small in them, or whether I would be possessed by the dancing gentleman or lady who had worn them.

Downstairs their might be a front parlour, cold and undisturbed save for the ticking of a clock or the buzzing of a forlorn bluebottle at the window. I would look at a sea-green collection of glass paperweights with their bubbling patterns of ferns and fronds blown into them, a painting of a harbor, a fragile case of Murano figures, a row of framed photographs with their anonymous faces looking out of, and at, a world that had long gone. I would search the photographs for any resemblance to the elderly house-owner, wondering if I would recognise the eyes of a bridegroom or a bride, or the cheekbones and curve of the mouth of someone in a uniform cap. If the front parlour was curtained I would never draw back the drapes, I would let the room sleep. I would, however, press my face to any chink that allowed in the green light of the garden beyond…

Everywhere in an elderly person’s house was still and cold. The kitchen, where the tap dripped, smelled of hard water and the day before’s cooking. The dark hall always had angles and shadows, the plaster head of a jester leering from the wall, a painting where a patch of threatening sky lowered over top-burdened trees and the figures suggested in a bottom corner were too small before nature’s enormity. A door I passed by on an earlier visit might turn out to be a broom cupboard, and the handle of an antique vacuum cleaner might tumble out to fall against me with a clatter.

“What are you doing?” such might be the words called to me from deeper in the house, or “You took your time!” when I arrived in the back parlour. But more often nothing would be said.

2If I had found houseplants my absence would have been stretched out longer. On finding an Aspidistra or a Meyer lemon, a Clivia or a Kalanchoe, or a Christmas cactus, I would use my fingertips and my lips to navigate and explore it. I would dare to move a pot slightly so that a plant would face more towards the echoing greenery outside; I would gently lift a vine of trailing Hedera and reposition it, draping it over a chair-arm or along the narrow top of a folding table. I would whisper to it – just a gentle hiss of breath in harmony with the leaves’ rustle as they caught and brushed against a man-made surface – I trained myself to feel the slight trembling of each plant, convinced myself that it was the beating of some life-force, or a coded language. I would whisper back, “I know, sister. I know.”

3I liked the silence of the elderly people I visited. Grown-ups in their prime might have taken it for vacancy. I took it for serenity, and equated it with the silence and serenity of their houseplants. Outside the French window, through which an elderly person gazed, there was always a garden that was more ocean-scape than domestic. The little light that fell on the elderly face would have the green of the laurel or the rhododendron that pressed close to the window, the green of the overgrown grass and the dandelion leaves, the green of the moss-covered York-stone flags, the green of the trees beyond. The elderly person was a submariner to me, looking longingly at the emerald light, wishing to be part of it, the only reminder of their life on the surface being a dancing little rainbow when the shifting sun caught an imperfection in the glass. Where other children would have become bored and restless, would have mithered for a glass of orange squash or a jeely piece or to go out and play or to go home, I sat, and loved to sit, as long as the elderly person was content to have me there, content to have me share their closeness to the unruly garden, to the ocean-scape that formed a barrier between them and the noise and bustle of the world beyond. If the window was open, and the breeze that came to us did so in the same measure as the movements of the leaves, so much the better – we would both be alive to that other world, the garden world, we would share but say nothing.

I have remembered all this recently, though my childhood visits are decades in the past and I myself am not too far away from the age of those whom I visited. Well, let’s say I am closer to them than I am to my vanished childhood. It may well be that the envy I once had for the elderly’s serenity and solitude brought me to this house in which I now sit.

There is a loch that suits the metaphor ‘an arm of the sea’. To the south of it sits an equivalent arm of land, one of the more westerly of Scotland. The two arms stretch out, as though willing to embrace, but blindly missing each other. On that ness, on the shore of that loch, sits my house. The brae behind it is close enough to shelter it from the gales that sweep in from the South-west, but low enough to allow sunlight. The higher hills on the other side of the loch often break the winter weather from the North. The loch itself traps the warmth of the Gulf Stream. It is an ideal place for a garden.

It is all the more ideal by there being little chance of a visitor by land. The nearest track peters out half a mile away. A few visitors come, or rather did come, by boat. The temperate conditions here mean that exotics thrived – a marvel this far north – and that drew a handful of tourists to the little jetty. I never minded too much their wandering round the garden’s sparse gravel paths, well to the front of the house, so long as they did not wander too close and disturb my privacy. There was a tin nailed to a fence-post for their donations as they left, and Alastair who owned the little motor-launch that came up from the Lochmore Hotel would regularly leave me a cut of his fares. But Alastair was old, and when he died no one took on his business. If I needed word from the world, or supplies of something, I had a rowing boat of my own which I could scull down to Lochmore. But if living in this house with its garden has taught me anything it is that I don’t need much from the outside world. If I have needs at all.

4It really is remarkable how the garden has repaid me for allowing it to be wild. I have learned, sometimes by trial and error, what fruit, what berry, what exotic nut or seed can be eaten; what sap can be tapped and distilled; what leaf or shoot is palatable and nourishing. The garden has allowed me to take sparingly, to re-seed, to re-plant and to husband what I do not need, spreading it to rot down and feed. Every day has been one of learning and coping, and I have become lean, also – I like to think – wise and serene like the elderly folk I knew in the past. I became self-sufficient, or rather the garden and I became sufficient to each other.

It came as a shock, then, when I heard a loud “Hullo?” from outside. I thought I might have been dreaming, or heard the limb of a tree creaking, or the bellow of a stag and mistaken it for a human voice. But no, there was someone here.

Robertson, he said his name was. A reporter from Glasgow. I didn’t ask how he had reached my seclusion. How he had breached it.

“I am right,” he said. “It is you. You know, people have been saying for years that you had died. You left all your fame – maybe notoriety is a better word, eh? – you left all that behind you and disappeared. My, my, this really is the end of the world out here!”

“It is about as remote as one can be on the mainland.”

“Your house is difficult to spot,” he said.

“So much the better.”

“I mean,” he went on, “it’s pretty much camouflaged by the ivy or whatever growing up the outside – that green against the green of the trees and bushes. I gather you haven’t been seen at Lochmore for some time. How have you been living?”

“I get by.” I explained to him as sketchily as I could how the garden sustained me, how we sustained each other, how the garden produces nourishment to last me all year long. He wanted to know whether that was all; he doubted that anyone could live a purely vegetarian lifestyle on that basis alone. I confessed to him that, no, one couldn’t, and that I had foraged the loch shore for shellfish, being careful to leave more than I take – my principle whether it be fruit, fish, or flesh. “Some time ago I took down the fence that surrounded the garden. I destroyed – nullified – the boundary between the cultivated and the natural. Broom and heather and fern penetrated the garden. Hardy azaleas and apples and strawberries colonised the wild. I let my jetty rot, fall, and be covered with seaweed. I let my maritime exotics explore the shore on their own. Once a deer fell, just outside my back door, and I had a season of meat, before the garden overgrew what was left of it.” Beyond that, I confessed, I relied upon the tumble of the wild garden through my French window – the apples, wild raspberries and blackberries, beech nuts, nettles for soup, the mushrooms that could be eaten without harm, though some brought fierce dreams to me.

“You always had a unique way of seeing the world, with or without hallucinogens,” said Robertson, with a mocking grin. I began to hate him. “What was it exactly you did, again? What was it lost you your place and your reputation in the world…”

“I disremember,” I said, but he ignored me.

“The ethics of your experiments were questionable, to say the least. The ‘science’…” I could hear the quotation marks around that word as he spoke it. He said it again. “The ‘science’ was roundly contested, disputed, denounced as pseudo-science. The fact that your assistants didn’t know what you were doing until it was to late. The unexplained…”

The unexplained what? Did Robertson ever finish that sentence? In any case, what could there be to explain? How could I, how can I, express that deep, vein-deep, consciousness-deep connection between the plant world and the human that my theories had proposed and my experiments had explored? Robertson had cited ethics – I know, I know, the debatable area between the hunger for knowledge and the morality of how to satisfy it has always been a dense and contradictory jungle. But this had been much more than knowledge – my grail had been the essence of being, the marriage feast of nature, the triumph of sap and blood! The child-me had born the adult-me, the person who was part mystic, part scientist, the person who dared, who reached out…

How long is it since Robertson came here? I don’t know. I have ceased to ask what time is, anyway, or to consider the ticking of a clock when seasons are the only real and relevant measure of time – and they circle round and round, again and again, in a garden where the end of the world is its beginning, and the beginning its end. Robertson never left, of course. He sits opposite me, where he sat when his last sentence trailed away, and when his last breath failed. I can make out his eye-sockets, where new foliage has grown through. I can see the shape of his shoulders, his thighs, his knees under the waterfall of green that has seemed to flow through the French windows, left standing open to the garden since before his coming. What stopped his words, his breath, the flowing of that red, oh-so-human sap in his limbs? The blood-metal of my rusty secateurs that are lying beside my chair? The purity of the sap in the cup that has fallen beside his? The stifling of nature’s motes and spores borne by an insistent breeze through the open window? “I disremember, I disremember,” I repeat to myself in a whisper; and the garden whispers back to me.

Somewhere in the house there was a muffled and distant crash – how long ago was that? – which I thought was probably the old chimney, weighed down with creeper and rocking in a stronger-than-usual gust, falling through the roof. No matter. What could it matter?

It is as I said – I leave, or give back, more than I take from nature, from the garden. And now I give to it my childhood memories, the look, the feel, the name of the precious houseplants that exist only in my head. I give the Red Shamrock, the Crassula ovata and the Sago palm, the Lemon Cypress and the Dracaena Marginata, the Peace Lily and the Rhapsis excelsia. I give the knowledge I uncovered as an explorer of the symbiosis of plant and human. I leave it all here, giving it all back to secrecy to this garden at the end of the world. Is there a beginning in this end?

Is there? I do not know, I do not know. The tumble of nature has blown in dry leaves, husks, dandelion parachutes and Spinning Jennies, dust and scents, grey light and emerald green. It has ceased to give me sustenance. But there is no more need for sustenance, there is only need to give back to the genius loci of the garden. The Green Man? Mother Nature? Whatever. It has been a mystery, it has always been a mystery, but now I hear the wind, I hear the rattle of those dead leaves, I hear the sigh of leaf against evergreen leaf and the answering echo from the ruined cave of my house. And at last I understand the language, I hear with utmost clarity what is being said. There is a torque of ivy pinning my wrist to the chair arm, but why would I want to move? A tendril – at last, at last! – brushes my cheek. It is the touch of a lover.

5

©Marie Marshall 2018

A script to finish, a man to burn, a drum to build…

During my sabbatical from novel-writing, I haven’t exactly been idle. Here are a couple of things that are going on right now.

girl-gang

Turning my short story ‘Axe’ into a screenplay. I had been working closely with a Scottish screen-writer to turn my short story ‘Axe‘ into a drama for TV or the ‘big screen’. Currently, many scenes have been written, both from the story itself and from additional narrative material I have provided – and it’s looking good!

However, the screen-writer has had to pull out, for unforeseen private reasons, and he’s not certain whether he’ll be able to take up the task again. I fully understand the reasons he gave me, and he left the ball in my court as to what to do next. Between us we have a substantial amount of material. I think my choices are as follows:
1. Do nothing, in the hope that the screen-writer may be able to resume the project at a later date; this of course runs the risk of the whole project stalling completely.
2. Try to finish the script myself; this is not my area of expertise, and I am, after all, on a writing sabbatical.
3. Get together with my literary agent and look for another screen-writer; my previous collaborator would be okay with that, but it would need someone who could build seamlessly onto the work already done.

I’ll let you know what turns up.

I Tamburisti di FIREnze. If you don’t already know about Burning Man, find out about it. It’s a festival, for want of a better word, or rather an annual gathering of people in the middle of a desert in Nevada, USA. Whilst there, people perform, make things, share, live together, interact, laugh, work, and generally enjoy themselves. But the main thing is that they do so entirely without money transactions, or even barter transactions. Everything that is provided is a gift entirely without strings, given in the hope that everything will be paid forward in some way. It seems to work, right down to the clearing away of site debris afterwards.

renThis year the theme is The Renaissance. I was contacted a few days ago by the Project Coordinator of ‘Camp Thump Thump’, a group that regularly attends Burning Man, giving lessons in drum-making and drumming, letting people build, play, and take away their own drums. For 2016 the group has adopted a theme based on renaissance Italy – the time of the Borgias, the Medici, and Leonardo da Vinci – and have reinvented themselves as I Tamburisti di FIREnze for the duration of this year’s Burning Man. The Coordinator asked me to provide some Renaissance-flavoured text for their use, and I have been working on pen-portraits of (fictitious) 16c Guild-members for her.

I’m not yet sure whether or how my work will be used, but again if it is, I’ll let you know.

The wheat-child

wheat-childThe Sun came to the Earth and had a child with her. That child was a field of wheat, and it grew from its mother towards its father, becoming more and more golden.

The wheat-child learned from its mother and father how to mind its manners and show respect to its betters. So when that fierce knight, Sir North Wind, moved through the field in his shining steel armour, the wheat-child bowed to him as he passed. And when Lady South Wind came with her warm kisses, the wheat-child bowed to her. And when Boyar East Wind strode in from the Steppes, singing mournful songs, the wheat-child bowed to him. And when Widow West Wind let her tears fall on him, the wheat-child bowed to her.

But one night, while the Earth slept and the Sun was away on business on the other side of the world, the cruel landlord Squire Frost patrolled the fields, and because such as he walk silently, the wheat-child did not bow to him. Squire Frost was angry at the wheat-child for not showing respect, so he called on all his labourers, the Hailstones, to come with their scythes and sickles and reaping hooks to lay waste to the field and kill the wheat-child.

In the morning, when the Earth awoke and the Sun returned home, they saw the wheat-child lying on the ground, and their sadness was great. The Earth made to quake and to throw up mountains, and the Sun made to cover everything with fire, but suddenly they saw, in a corner of the field, one solitary stalk of wheat that Squire Frost’s cruelty had treemissed. So the Sun and the Earth called upon their friends the Four Winds, and together they made seasons to nourish all that was left of the wheat-child. And eventually that single stalk of wheat became a great Tree.

The great Tree grew straight and tall, and lived longer than any child of Sun and Earth ever had, even longer than Empress Slow of the Galapagos, whom the Tree could remember as a tiny tortoise when he was already as tall as a hill. The longer the Tree lived the more the Sun and the Earth whispered a secret to him, and that secret is that trees need not bow to anyone.

What’s that, little one? Yes, I expect the great Tree is living still. Unless some one has cut him down. Now go to sleep – even the Sun and the Earth have to do that, so why shouldn’t you!

Peace, War, Honour, and Death

Peace, War, Honour, and Death – a fable

Honour 1It happened that War saw a beautiful woman, whose name was Peace. Desiring her, he took her away to live with him. But Peace was never happy, and when he asked her why, she answered that it was because she was cold, for though War is hot he can never pass his warmth on to anyone.

One day a knight, whose name was Honour, rode by.

“This man serves me,” thought War, and called out to the knight, “Sir Knight, take off your cloak and give it to my lady Peace!”

The knight stopped, took off his cloak, and unsheathed his sword. Having cut his cloak in two, he put one half of it around Peace’s shoulders to warm her, the other half round his own, and rode away. From that moment, to his name was added Martinus Martianus, Warlike, and the word Generous was written on the cloak about his shoulders, for it takes an act of generosity to give warmth to anyone.

Soon the knight found himself in a battle, as all of his kind do. There he met with impartial Death, as one day do we all, good and bad. Death caught the knight with his scythe and he fell. The knight’s halved cloak was not enough to soak up his blood, which flowed like a stream. The stream became a great river of clear water, known as Generosity, and it flowed through the desert known as Indifference…

You ask me why? It is because, little one, all things are held in the Great Balance, and it must be so. Time for you to go to sleep, for sleeping and wakefulness are held in the Great Balance too…