Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: Scotland

A Ghost Story for Christmas

I recently had a message from a friend asking whether my short story ‘The Ice House’ had ever been published. Well, yes and no. It was read aloud to an enthralled audience at the Pitlochry Theatre on February 12th 2016. But given that it’s nearly Christmas, and a person who appears in my story had a tradition of delivering a new ghost story to his acolytes each Yuletide, I thought it a good idea to give this tale to you, to chill you on these dark nights around the solstice. Like all good stories, this one is based on true events.

A stretch of the Scottish coastline, though deceptively close to the port of Dundee in one direction, and the ancient city of St Andrews in the other, was a lonely expanse of sand dunes little more than a hundred years ago. Nowadays there is a pinewood and a car park near one end of it, and tracks to walk, but back then it was a solitary, almost inaccessible area. Somewhere, hidden in the dunes and pines, is an old ice-house, once used for storing salmon. A young woman, out for a day’s hike in the summer of 1919, stumbles across it, and awakens an old, dark mystery, the mystery of…

The Ice-House

I knew him as ‘Uncle Montague’, though my father, who had been up at Cambridge, called him ‘James’, or familiarly ‘old man’. I was in fact no blood relative, nor even his god-daughter, but I made him an honorary uncle the first time I met him, and the cognomen stuck. I have the impression he bore it unwillingly, but he bore it nonetheless. I was born as the old century died, just after midnight, in the first minute of 1901, and I was thirty-five when he died. But in 1919, a year in which the nation finally sagged its shoulders when it realised how few young men had returned whole from the Great War, I became a student at the University of St Andrews, reading Law at the University College in Dundee. Uncle Montague, only lately appointed Provost of the famous Eton College, down south in England, did me the singular kindness of coming to Dundee during the summer holidays, and presenting me with an autographed copy of his new book, A Thin Ghost and Other Stories.

“Uncle Montague,” I said, as we strolled around the Geddes Quadrangle, “surely we know, in this age, that it is from the living and not the dead that we have most to fear. I mean, I don’t belittle your imaginative stories, but these are days when cause-and-effect rules, and matters are decided by evidence. Is there a place still for bauchles and brownies?”

“I hear you,” said he, “and yet we are a creature endowed with other modes of perception than a logician would wish us to have. Certainly we are rational, but you mention imagination – of what use is this throwback if we are now all to be purely rational? What purpose does it serve entirely rational men to go to church on a Sunday and hear how Lazarus was called forth from his grave? But they do. And the homeliness of that account is due only to its familiarity, its association with a wholesome power, and they accept it as truth. Would these same rational men view with equanimity the knowledge that one of their own, in search of knowledge, had brought back a man from the dead, in order to learn his secrets? Would they perhaps… why, Elspeth my dear, you’re shivering. If it were Christmas Eve I would invite you to sit closer to the fire.”

“It’s nothing… and now I can see you’re laughing at me!”

“Not at all,” he said, looking at me most directly through his round spectacles. “Elspeth you are a born lawyer, with a brain that is as keen as a rapier when it comes to logic. God knows that is a good quality for an advocate – and may he help whomever may, one day, be your opponent in a Sherriff Court! But there is much more that moves, always has moved, and always will move mankind, be mankind represented by twelve citizens on a jury, one judge on the bench, or one poor wretch in the dock. The latter, my dear, knows that most terrible of fears – that of being utterly alone, the whole world against him, and not just the world seen, but the world unseen of every force that acts upon man. It is not simply the fear of physical harm, nor even of death and oblivion, although every man is aware that he is – as Epictetus has it – ‘a little soul carrying around a corpse’. It is also the fear that goes along with the promise of the survival of the soul, that this very survival is not wholly understood, may often not be wholesome, and may under some circumstances be made to spill its unwholesomeness into our world. On that fear rests every small ritual of safety, every blessing, every childhood rhyme and story. Do you imagine that my stories simply come from my own imagination? No, Elspeth, they all come from that common pit of loneliness, and from the things that, reason or no, emerge from it and, like Coleridge’s fiend, ‘close behind us tread’.”

Of course I laughed at that, and in laughing I hid my shivers until they had abated, by which time Uncle Montague was laughing too, apologising for putting a cloud into the blue sky. His visit had been all too brief, and he was due to depart the next day. I realised suddenly that I would miss him, that I wanted to be as close to him as a real niece might be, that if ever I did feel that terrible tread behind me, his company would be the one I would value most. Nevertheless the summer continued after his departure, here in this sunny nook of Scotland, and the sunshine of the next week or so banished much of the irrational chill his words had left me with. The residue I put down to his skill as a storyteller.

For all my logic, I am a woman of sudden whims, and one day I took it into my head to put on my stoutest shoes, pack a satchel with food, and take the earliest ferry from Broughty Castle to Tayport. It was my intention to strike out from there into the sand dunes along the coast, to see if I could find the March Stone, the boundary marker between two salmon-fishing domains. The following year the dunes were to be planted with conifers, and I wished to see them while sand still whispered in the grasses, while only the sky tented them, and before they were covered by the stillness and sombreness of pines. I drew some glances of disapproval – a young woman alone – but this was 1919 and I was, indeed I am, a modern woman, not deterred by the bad opinions of some any more than I am flattered by the good opinions of others. After an hour or more of walking, casting about for where I thought the March Stone to be, I came suddenly to a trough in between two dunes. In that trough, lying across it at an angle, with one end partly covered by the sand, there was a low building made of stone. The roof appeared to have a domed cross-section rather than a gabled one, and the stones from which it was constructed seemed to be old, far older than the structure itself, and assembled with little logic beyond perhaps the making of the basic shape. I walked around it several times clockwise but could find no entrance, but when I retraced my steps anti-clockwise I found what certainly had been a doorway at one time, but which was now blocked with old bricks and mortar. It lay partly obscured by the build-up of sand and by the sharp dune grasses that grow there. It was nevertheless quite obvious and I wondered how I could have missed it.

A recollection came to me from a childhood tale of how it was supposedly bad luck to circle something anti-clockwise – in effect against the motion of the sun across the sky – as ‘widdershins’ progress was supposedly a part of arcane, magic rituals. I shivered, and immediately chided myself for being so irrational. Without thinking, I reached out and touched the bricked-up door. Whether I then lost myself in thoughts or, tired from my walk, somehow slumbered on my feet I do not know. I had the impression that some charge in the old stones and bricks had entered my body through my fingertips, and worked upon my mind, sending my psyche I-know-not-where. When I pulled my hand away I was cold. A cloud had passed in front of the sun, borne on a strengthened wind, and when it had cleared I realised that the sun was low in the sky. How long had I stood there? I felt something like panic rise in me and began to walk away from the building, back in the direction from which I had originally approached it. I looked back once. The building seemed to crouch and hunch like a living creature. I didn’t look back again, but quickened my pace as though Coleridge’s fiend was truly behind me. I did not care that I had dropped my unopened satchel of food by the building, I simply wanted to be away from there. By the time I reached Tayport – only just in time for the last ferry – I was running. In the boat I was breathless and shivering, and on reaching home I collapsed and was taken to my bed.

Our family doctor was summoned, and all he could say was that I had an unspecified fever. For the next few days I was barely lucid, and my nights were disturbed by dreams. I wrestled with my bedclothes, and sometimes was found sitting on or standing by my bed, or ranging round my bedroom. The doctor said the fever was affecting that part of my brain that keeps a person still whilst dreaming. He offered me a sedative which, in my lucidity I refused and, when raving, batted or pushed away. From time to time I was able to eat, and to talk well enough. I let the doctor know about my dreams, and he said it might help my condition if I noted them down, or described them to him. I told him that some of them were dark, leaving me with little but impressions – such as one where I felt as though I was struggling for my life against waves – but others were very vivid. Three stood out, and I remember them still.

In the first I had the sense of being in a yellowing canvas tent, the door-flap of which was slapping in a breeze, allowing in a slant of sunlight each time it opened. The tent contained two cots, seemingly made of driftwood, and two stacked piles of jumble and gear. I knew one cot and one pile to be mine. The rest belonged to someone else, of whom I was wary. I was taking something from my pile of gear and stowing it hastily under the rough bedclothes on the cot. Then I became aware of someone else obscuring the entrance to the tent. I turned round and found a bearded man in faded and patched antique dress scowling at me. In my dream I recognised him, I feared him but could not show it, so I turned my back on him. At that point I felt a pain in my head so intense that it woke me up, screaming and moaning.

In the second dream everything was dark. Strangely there was nothing visual at all in this dream, and in fact for a moment or two I thought I was back in the dark sea. I became acutely aware with all my other senses, however, and realised that I was in a still place, not in the grip of a tempest. I could feel an ache in my head, I could feel a coldness against my back and a roughness covering me, and I could smell the sea… no, a smell more familiar in the harbor of the small fishing town where I was born, but staler. I reached out pushing away what felt like straw, hearing it falling away from my face. As I moved I also felt the shifting, slippery, cold surface of ice beneath me, and heard pieces groan and shatter. Stretching out my arms, I barked my knuckles against a hard, cruel surface. It was stone. I realised I was entombed somewhere, and in terror I began to claw at and beat against the walls, waking when my terror was at its highest point.

The third dream was the strangest and most terrifying. I found myself standing in a prison cell. I knew it was not mine. It was dark except for the light from a stub of candle that must have been left burning when occupant of the cell fell asleep on his bunk. I looked down at him, and recognised the same bearded man I had seen in the tent. He opened his eyes, then gaped at me in horror, calling out in a language that was neither English nor Scots, but that I nonetheless understood as my own.

Gud hjælpe mig. Nej! Nej!” he croaked. Sitting up and thrashing his arms in my direction, he went on shouting hoarsely. “Gå væk! For Guds skyld, gå væk! O nejbag mig Satan!”

I stretched out my hands towards him. I saw them, bloodied, crooked like talons, and – this is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the dream – I knew that whatever I was in that dream, I had ceased to be human.

Time, and perhaps the telling of the dreams, worked upon me, and over the next few days the fever and nighttime restlessness abated, until I was recovered. During my convalescence I wondered about what I had experienced, how it had overthrown my rationality completely. I even considered, and was on the point of proposing, a return visit to the old building in the dunes in company, when a letter arrived for me which persuaded me otherwise. Its contents were as follows.

My dear Elspeth,

This is just a brief note to you on a matter that you might find of interest. A letter turned up amongst some papers through which I was looking whilst researching an unrelated matter. Written in 1780 from an address in Dundee, it concerns a legal case in the city earlier in that century, shortly after the first Jacobite uprising, though it is not a full court record but rather some recollections by the writer. Perhaps you will discover fuller details in some public office in your city. I shall précis it for you, though it will sound a little like something from one of my own stories; it is supposedly a true account, and is an illustration of the fear beyond reason, that you and I discussed that day in the Geddes Quadrangle.

In the year 1717, the Danish brig Astrid ran aground, just south of Abertay sands, in a severe storm. All but a handful of the crew were able to come ashore. The ship’s master and mate being among the drowned, the remaining sailors had no one among them to act in authority. However they managed to construct tents from the debris and canvas of the wrecked vessel, and set up camp amongst the dunes. There they remained for several months, in a little republic of their own, not having the means of removing elsewhere, living off seabirds’ eggs, coneys, and fish from Morton Loch. Though they held what amounted to councils regularly, their democracy was not without its internal suspicions, for it had been thought that the captain had had a cache of gold coins. There was speculation that this had not been lost in the wreck, but had been brought ashore and hidden by one of them. One seaman, Silas Østergaard by name, suspected the man who shared his tent. That man, Adam Kjær, had been the captain’s steward, and had been seen by Østergaard in proximity to the master just before the shipwreck. However, he did not voice his suspicions, because he wanted the gold for himself. It was alleged that one day he had attacked Adam Kjær, found and taken for himself the cache of gold, and had incarcerated Kjær, not caring whether he was alive or dead, in an ice-house in the dunes, where salmon was sometimes stored and preserved by the chill of ice taken from Morton Loch in winter. Alerted by an informer amongst the Danes, the authorities in Dundee sent a troop of militia to the dunes. Østergaard was arrested with a pouch of gold coins in his possession; he was taken in chains to Portincragge – that is, I believe the old name for Tayport – and from there by ferry to the old Dundee jail to await trial. Adam Kjær was not found. Østergaard was questioned closely by officers of the Sherriff, but adamantly denied any part in his crewmate’s disappearance, claiming moreover that the gold was his own. Thirteen days after his arrest, he was heard screaming in his cell late at night. When his cell door was opened, the terrified Østergaard, his eyes wild and his hair standing up on his head, claimed that he had been visited by Adam Kjær’s vengeful ghost, and that he now wished to confess to his comrade’s murder.

The old ice-house was opened, and a body was found in there, its fingernails ragged and bloody from tearing at the walls. There was no decomposition, though whether that was due to the preservative qualities of the ice or because the sailor had survived thirteen days of incarceration before succumbing, the science of the day could not say. The ice-house was sealed and never used again.

Now, how was that for a tale? Truth stranger than fiction!

Your affectionate ‘uncle’,

M R James.

The Girl in the Chiton

It’s Halloween today, and this is the last ghost story I will be sharing with you. It’s a long one and, in a subtle way, a gentle one. Thank you for reading.

The American woman descending the front steps spoke, in an irritating voice.

“This is so not a Queen Anne house, I don’t care what they say!”

Actually, if I am honest, there wasn’t anything that irritating about her voice. It was just that she was wrong. And loud. Her voice was a well-modulated, New England contralto, and I suppose that on another occasion I could have listened to her for hours in quiet conversation. But to me – my degree was in architecture – loud and wrong equalled irritating.

The moment I approached Ballantyne House in my hire car, catching my first glimpse of it along the gravel drive, the place felt right. It was those satisfying proportions of the early eighteenth century, the awakening of the age of science. The house was beautifully oblong, too small for a stately home but too big for a manse, mathematically perfect in red brick with a tall, tiled roof. So untypical of Scotland, but so appropriate to the age which saw the legal establishment of the United Kingdom, when Scottish gentlemen imitated the airs and graces of their English counterparts. I loved it at once. But then I love the beauty and harmony of mathematics. I remember making my colleague Tony Fleming laugh when I drew a graph for him – it was a simple, inverted parabola, crossing the x and y axes at zero – and then wrote down the equation which expressed it. From that equation, with its harmonious, chiming simplicity, I went on to extol Einstein, the high priest of order…

“Tony, nothing, absolutely nothing, is chaotic. Nothing is left to chance,” I had said. “At the back of everything there is order, there are rules, and everything obeys those rules.”

“What about the stuff we can’t explain?” had been his reply.

“That’s simply stuff we haven’t found out the rules for yet. Maybe we never will – but the rules will be there whether we find them or not.”

“Hannah,” he had said. “You’re a geek.”

“Oh, balls!”

“I don’t want to know why you were barred from the Brownies.” That had been his parting shot, as he went for coffee break.

Tony is irritating too. He doesn’t take me seriously. I do take myself seriously. It’s still a man’s world in architectural design and in marketing and in all the other sexy pies the consultancy we both work for has a finger in, so I have to take myself seriously. I vie for attention proactively, so I have to be right. I expect that is the real reason I found the American woman so irritating for being wrong. I longed to say out loud to her, “OK so it isn’t what you Americans call a Queen Anne house, it has no bay windows, no variety of surfaces, no multi-storey turrets, no myriad styles of casement, no projecting upper-storeys – in short it isn’t a Victorian travesty, named in crass ignorance. But it’s what is called a Queen Anne house here in the country which had Anne as its Queen. It’s the kind of house which was built when she was Queen. Ergo, it is a damn Queen Anne house!” But I didn’t. Instead I went inside, into the hallway, and looked with relish at the elegantly-banistered staircase that swept its way up to the first floor landing, and I reflected that the American woman with the loud, wrong opinion had been on her way out, and would therefore play no further part in my life.

The blurb for Ballantyne House, where our company was hosting a working weekend break in honour of Mr Ohira, our Japanese client, and for several other business contacts, made much of the concept of enjoying a stay as a guest in a country house. The full Downton Abbey routine. Corporate money came here to play at being old-time class. Pathetic, I guess, but I had to play along. It was a change, the surroundings were pleasant, and the architecture was wonderful. The house had either hardly been touched in its three-hundred-year life, or it had been carefully restored. Apart from basic things such as chairs, beds, and so on, which had been selected for the ergonomics and economics of modern comfort, the fixtures, fittings, and decorations appeared to be original. There was even an oil painting of a wigged and armoured Sir Alexander Ballantyne, the first baronet, who had served as an aide to the Englishman John Churchill when the latter had been made Lord Eyemouth. He had hitched his wagon, by luck or by design, to the man who had gone on to become the Duke of Marlborough. At that time in history, any Scot who knew which side his bannock was buttered on looked southwards. No matter what had befallen the family since, Sir Alexander had made the right choice then, and the style of the house reflected it.

A maid and a porter disguised as a footman – yes, Downton Abbey style – had taken my bags to my room, and I had followed them. Warm, fresh air flowed in through the half-opened sash window, making the curtains gently billow, and introducing the scent of newly-mown grass. I stood for a long while, looking out over the formal gardens with its unusual avenue of two parallel beech hedges which led, after a good couple of hundred metres to a small, round lawn with a central sundial. That morning I had been in Amsterdam. I had eaten my lunch quickly on board a KLM jet. At Edinburgh I had changed my Euros back to pounds and picked up the hire car. On the drive down here my head had been ringing from the noise made by a disabled man, who was being wheeled, almost flat on his back, around the baggage carousel at the airport. He had found a note, and had sounded it out with every exhalation, like an automatic foghorn. Everyone had ignored him, even his carer. No one had wanted to appear crass enough to complain, un-British. After fifteen minutes his note had modulated slightly into what I was idiotically fancying to be the first line of an Arikara death song. I repeated it as I drove; even with the car radio turned up as loud as I could stand it, I sang that demented riff over and over again. Such is the state of my mind, normally; there is always something seething there, as though I fought a running, verbal battle with an internal kind of Tourette syndrome. Now, at the window of my room, I took deep, slow breaths, and strained to hear birdsong. Finally it filtered through. There was a lot, in fact, though a city girl like me couldn’t hope to identify them… wait… there was a jay in the woods beyond the formal garden, and I caught sight of a silent heron gliding over the trees to where the river Teviot – I supposed – ran towards its confluence with the Tweed. This was beautiful, this was an interlude of peace in my life, and I was beginning to wonder why I had never noticed before what refreshment such a period could bring.

It was brief. Footsteps, loud laughter, conversations, the bump and clang of clumsily-wielded bags against inconveniently-placed fire extinguishers, all told me that Tony and the rest of our team had arrived by minibus from Berwick station. Time for me to shower, to change, and to get ready for dinner. Corporate life bursting back in on me.

Dinner came and went. Digestifs came and went, as we relaxed in the library and the drawing room, sunk into chairs and sofas. I bagged a chaise longue – I always wanted to sit on a chaise longue. Staff stood around, only semi-visible and probably totally Polish, as our conversation turned, casually but deliberately, to deal-making. That much at least was true to the image – for us the flunkies did not exist, unless we wanted a refill. Breakfast the next morning was a come-as-you-will affair, with hot and cold dishes arranged on the sideboard. I leapt upon the kedgeree – how long had it been since I had eaten kedgeree for breakfast? The whole weekend seemed to be navigated by the seamarks of food or refreshment, almost masking the serious business. But no one forgot that we were no interbellum house guests, we were KM StanierMunro LLP and clients, and deals and money were what we were all about. On Saturday afternoon, our CEO James MacMichael and Mr Ohira even disappeared and did the golf thing. Tony and an associate of Mr Ohira joined them. I was invited, but I do not do the golf thing, and I do not hang around in the clubhouse while other people do it either. Minus one point to me, in this game.

Instead I stayed in my room. I think I slept for a while too. I certainly stood at my window again, watching the shadows of summer clouds drift across the formal garden and the woods beyond. Occasionally fellow guests strolled into the garden and out again. In my half-awake state I imagined the paths between the flower beds populated with folk in the various costumes of the past three hundred years, until I caught myself at it, and laughed myself awake and out of that mood. My busy mind at it again.

The next buoy I sailed around was a light afternoon tea on the terrace. I was one of only a handful of people who bothered, and again I found myself gazing at the garden. When I returned to my room, I found my dress for that evening’s shindig laid out on my bed.

We really were going for it, packing business and the whole country house thing into a couple of days. I had already made arrangements to follow the minibus to the A1 on Sunday afternoon – the driver knew a short cut – before driving to Waverley, where I was due to leave the car; that was the measure of my waning commitment to this weekend. Maybe on Monday I would post my CV on the web, or ring around contacts in one or two of our rivals and sound them out. I didn’t feel like going to the costume party that evening, but all our get-up had been pre-hired from an expensive firm, and I would be expected to dance – a little too much like a professional hostess for my liking – with Mr Ohira.

My costume was very simple – I had chosen it myself – a classical Greek chiton. I tried it on. Its lines were perfect. It all seemed to be suspended from my shoulders, and gathered naturally at my waist, where I tied it lightly with a cord of braided cloth. It came to my ankles, and I had a pair of espadrilles which would go nicely with it. I tried other accessories – pendants and so on – but nothing worked, so I decided to do without jewellery. In the catalogue, the dress had looked like white linen, but in reality the fabric seemed a little sad, and I wasn’t sure I liked the faint smell, even though it seemed clean. But I hung it at the window, and let the breeze play over it for a couple of hours, while I took my time over showering and getting ready. My most outdoorsy body-spray made me want to kick myself for being excessively girly, but the finished effect wasn’t far away from what I wanted.

Mr Ohira, beaming and erect, made a grand entrance into the main salon in full highland regalia. I managed to avoid most of the dancing myself, but when the Scottish dance band started their stint, I did partner him in a foursome reel. I actually enjoyed it, though I silently thanked heaven I had remembered to pack my sports bra!

Tony is superb at his job, but sometimes he can really lose it. He looked good in evening dress, a sash, and a black cloak lined with red satin; even with his hair slicked back and a set of false fangs he was still quite dashing as a Transylvanian boyar. When the joke of pretending to bite some of the female guests and most of the staff began to wear thin, and after he had lost his fangs in a glass of Bordeaux, he forgot that you should never mix grape and grain, and began to be a bit of a liability. He made a couple of remarks about “the MacTojo tartan”, and “Toshiro MacPhoney” a little too loudly. Mr Ohira was too much of a gentleman to indicate whether he had heard, but I felt a nudge from Napoleon (James).

“Lose Vlad,” he said. “Impale him if you have to.”

I won back the point I lost for not doing the golf thing. I got hold of Tony’s arm. “Come and thrash me at snooker,” I said, and dragged him away as unobtrusively as I could. In the billiards room we found that Robin Hood appeared to be thrashing Al Capone at snooker, so that was no-go.

“Hannah, have I been making a tit of myself,” Tony asked.

“Elegantly phrased,” I said. “And accurate.”

“Possibly a good idea if I made myself scarce for the rest of the evening, then, and hope I fade from our guests’ memory.”

“Possibly. No, probably.”

I watched Tony make his way to the main staircase, his cloak flowing behind him. At the foot of the stairs, he turned, grinned, swirled it about himself and took the stairs three at a time. Idiot. By this time I realised I was leaning on the wall, holding myself off, stiff-armed, with one hand. I hadn’t exactly been ignoring the drinks this evening either. I was tired, and the regular thump of the reels’ quarter time was calling back into my head the persistent chat of the disabled man. I found myself humming it in time to the beat from the next room. Suddenly, taking a turn on the terrace seemed a fine idea.

Outside, I leaned on the worn, stone balustrade. It was midsummer, and the evening was light. A backscatter of apricot sunlight illuminated the clouds to my right, and over half the sky. The rest was still the smoky blue that comes before twilight, and a single star – a planet no doubt – shone steadily at the horizon, over the woods. The breeze, though cooler, was pleasant on my skin, and the other scents of the garden mixed into the lingering smell of cut grass. The formal shapes of the garden were still clear, and the twin beech hedges bisected the scene. My eye went to the sundial and beyond. There was only the slightest movement in the trees, the barest rustle of leaves drifted across to me, and the occasional cry of a late-roosting bird. The relentless death song that had pounded in my head began to attenuate and fade.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it.”

It was a statement, rather than a question, and it came from a young woman – a girl really, barely out of her teens – who was leaning on the balustrade too, about a metre to my right. Her sudden presence startled me, but then I felt silly.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. You made me jump.”

“No, I’m sorry if I startled you. Perhaps I should try to make more noise as I approach people.”

She smiled, and turned to look at the garden. I looked at her. She was dressed in a chiton like mine. Her hair, which was a muted red-gold, was gathered up, and tied with a trailing ribbon high up on the back of her head. She had a pale face with a flawless complexion which made me very envious, and a straight nose. As I took in her profile, I felt as though she could easily have stepped off the side of an antique Greek ceramic. Her bare arms and neck made her outfit seem, at once, more naked yet more innocent than mine.

If she had been at the costume party I hadn’t been aware of her. I would have noticed someone else in the same get-up as myself, I would certainly have noticed someone looking that good in it. Maybe she was a latecomer.

“I haven’t noticed you here until now, I mean here at Ballantyne House,” I said. “Are you a guest?”

“I’ve been coming here since I was a child,” She said. “My name’s Cassie, by the way.”

“I’m Hannah – hi!” I said, holding my hand out. She took it firmly and shook it.

“Are you American?”

“No,” I laughed. “I’m English.”

“Oh,” she said, and looked a little embarrassed.

I turned round and levered myself up to sit on the balustrade, turning my head to look at her. She was looking out at the garden, and sometimes down at her hands. Her left foot was cocked out behind her, causing part of the skirt of her chiton to fan outwards, as she rested her toes on the flagstones. She seemed shy, about to say something. There was a sense of poise, part learned, part natural, yet also something gauche and ingénue. I felt as though I was seeing, viewing, something I had lost, or something I had always lacked – not just her prettiness, but something which now caused the strange words “an old soul and a young heart” to come into my mind. It is unlike me, the city girl, to be such a poet.

“This is my favourite place in the entire house and grounds,” she said, looking out over the gardens. “I come out here to look for patterns in the garden. I trace lines with my eyes, over and over again, following the shapes. I try to hold them in my memory, and then recall and retrace them. It is as though the shapes all have meanings, and they tell me things. And see the sundial? I used to go there at night, and pretend the shadow cast by moonlight showed me what time it was… somewhere else… a different world or something. Does that sound weird?”

“Yes, but don’t mind me.”

“If it’s too dark to see the shapes and patterns in the garden,” she continued. “I come out here and look at the stars. And I do the same thing with them, tracing patterns over and over, committing them to my memory and then retracing them.”

“Do the stars tell you things too?” Why was I asking her this?

“Yes.”

I looked up at the roof of Ballantyne House.

“Unless I am much mistaken,” I said. “Due north is over there. If this was mid winter, maybe the polar stars would be visible from right here. But the house is in the way, and it’s too light anyway. The Egyptians called them ‘The Eternals’, because they held their positions while the other stars wheeled through the skies. They equated them with their gods. I can see why. There’s a wonderful orderliness to them.”

She looked at me. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“None,” I said. “You?”

“I had a sister, a younger sister called Dorothy.”

“Had?”

“Yes,” Cassie said, looking down – I thought she was about to cry. “She died when she was four.”

“Oh I am so sorry.”

Cassie said nothing for a while, then: “It’s very difficult. Very difficult to say this. I was standing right here, and I saw her. But I knew I didn’t really see her. She was making her way through the garden to the woods. And then it was as though I could see her pushing through the woods, and all the time she was looking back at me, as though she wanted to make sure I could see her. But she wasn’t really there. I knew she wasn’t really there, but that I was somehow meant to see her. I was only six myself, and I didn’t really understand. I wanted to call out to her, but no sound would come from my mouth. I wanted to run after her, but it was as though there was a wall stopping me from going that way. All I remember being able to do was run and tell Mama. I remember saying, ‘Mama, Dorothy is down by the river’ and Mama saying, ‘Hush Cassie, Dorothy is nowhere of the sort, she is in her room asleep’. She didn’t believe me. And by the time she actually did realise Dorothy was missing, and then all that frantic searching, and the police coming, and then when someone actually found poor Dorothy stuck under a tree root in the Teviot…”

She stopped, shivered, and clasped her arms around herself. I leaned across and touched her shoulder gently.

“It seems like you blame yourself,” I said. “You shouldn’t. You were very young, and frightened by what you had imagined.”

“No, no,” she said, shaking her head as though I had failed to understand. “It’s not that. It’s like when my cousins George and Simon went off to war. I was standing here, and suddenly I saw them both. One was lying across the other. They were both very still. Their arms and legs were bent awkwardly. I begged them not to go, but they laughed. George said, ‘Oh really, Cassie, times Danaos et dona ferentes, and no mistake’.”

“Is that Greek?”

She shook her head. “No it’s Latin, it’s a mis-quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid. But I said to George, ‘It wasn’t Cassandra who said that anyway, it was Laocoon, and look what happened to him!’ But George laughed, and so did Simon, and they went off anyway… They never came back.”

“Oh dear,” I said, instantly feeling that was a lame response. “Was it Afghanistan? Iraq?”

She looked at me, but said nothing. Then she looked down and stood in silence for a while.

“Sometimes I feel as though I should have knocked them unconscious and hidden them to stop them going,” she said. “I felt like it. I felt desperate. I wish they had believed me. If only somebody believed me, just once.”

“Cassie, why are you telling me all this?”

“I feel as though you’re really listening to me.”

I looked at her for a long while. It was touching that someone I had only just met had opened up to me like this.

“Cassie,” I said eventually. “I don’t believe in prescience. I’m sorry, but I don’t. It defies all the known laws by which things work. I don’t say this to hurt you. I know that what happened to you was one hundred percent real to you. I can’t take that away from you, and I wouldn’t dream of trying. If you want to tell me more about this, I’ll be right here and listen, and I won’t scoff. Even if I doubt the objective event, I would never doubt the subjective experience.”

She looked into my face. “Hannah, will you meet me here at the same time tomorrow? We can talk again then.”

I shook my head. “I have to leave tomorrow. I have to take my hire car back to Edinburgh. It’s all arranged.”

“Please don’t leave. Please stay. I know you don’t believe in prescience, but couldn’t you just stay as a favour to me?”

“I can’t.”

We stood and sat in silence for a while. I began to wonder if I was quite right in the head, or if the drink and the night air had made me a little crazy. What was I doing, talking like this to a youngster I hardly knew anyhow? I was about to say something and go inside again, my peaceful time alone having now been somewhat disturbed, when she smiled and changed the subject entirely.

“Have you been down to see my sundial? Come on, let me take you. Let me show you.”

She reached out and took my hand, giving it a little tug to urge me to jump down from my perch. Her impulsive and friendly innocence worked its charm on me instantly, and I allowed myself to be led off, down the steps from the terrace, and into that arrow-straight avenue. Cassie kept hold of my hand as we walked, and I reflected that this was the first time I had held hands, as if with a playmate, since I was very, very young. We strolled slowly. The avenue was wide enough to accommodate us side-by-side, but narrow enough so that we could reach out and touch the hedges if we wanted to. They were taller than I had expected them to be, cutting off the rest of the garden from sight, and thick with the broad, dark-green escutcheons that are beech leaves. I couldn’t make out any gaps ahead, merely the shadowy, green path leading to the sundial, and beyond that the deepening dark of the woods. Cassie cast a look behind me, and told me to brush my chiton where I had been sitting on the balustrade. Then we strolled on in silence for a while. The sundial seemed as far away as it had been before.

There was a moment of change – there must have been. If some kind of chaos had been creeping up on me, I hadn’t seen it coming, and suddenly everything was different. I noticed Cassie looking up at the sky, and then she looked at me with something in her eyes that seemed too controlled, too determined for panic. She tugged hard on my hand.

“Run!”

“What? What?”

“Run – just run!”

We ran. We ran in the only direction we could, straight down the grass path between the tall hedges. We ran against a cold wind that had sprung up, chilling my bare arms, and against the sting of hard raindrops, as a desultory shower hit us, as though skirmishing for a squall. The sky was dark, the beech leaves rattled at us like so many dry, wooden clappers, ripping off and slapping us in the face – now brown and sere rather than green. The path was wet and slippery, patches of grass worn or torn away, shining with mud. It became difficult to keep my feet as I ran, dragged along by Cassie, who gripped my hand with a painful tightness. Breath knifed in my lungs, and escaped from my open mouth in gasps. My pulse began to thump in my head, and I caught, as if in far off echo, that demented death song again. Through the raindrops that pelted my face, and the tears of effort, I could see the sundial getting closer. It was just like that – as though we were running hard to stand still, and the world around us was doing the rushing, hurtling towards us. My mind revolted against all this, even as I ran. “Why are we running away from the damn house? Why are we running away from shelter instead of to it?”

Closer and closer came the circular lawn, and as it did, I became blinder, more breathless, more aware of the noise in my head. Then I caught a glimpse of Cassie’s face. There was an expression of grim determination on it, and I felt her suddenly yank on my hand, and let go.

That was enough to jerk me off my feet, as I slipped in the wet. I lurched forward, stretching my arms out stiffly. I was somehow aware, by a sense other than sight, of the upright of the sundial passing right in front of my face. Then I felt a jar as I hit the ground, and a dreadful pain shot up my left arm. I rolled over, and as my vision cleared a little, I realised I was sitting with my back hard against the base of the sundial, looking back down the beech alley, towards Ballantyne House. It was unlit, a black, barely-visible silhouette against an indigo sky, in which the Eternals now glittered like bright jewels on a coronet, and seemed to mock me. I fought for my breath.

“Cassie!” I called, hoarsely. “Cassie!”

There was no sight of her, no answering sound.

I don’t remember anything else, until I staggered back into the house, which was – mercifully – lit again. I was helped into a chair, and people fussed round me. Mr Ohira looked very concerned, and James MacMichael wanted to send for an ambulance. I waved all this away irritably.

“I fell over, that’s all,” I said. “It’ll take hours for an ambulance to get here, hours for it to get back to the nearest hospital, and then I’ll be sitting round in A and E until some over-tired nurse can see me.”

“Hannah, your forehead is bleeding,” said James.

“I’m okay,” I insisted. “That’s only a graze. Look, the hotel’s bound to have the number of the local GP.”

That was that. The doctor came, agreed with me about the graze, pronounced my left wrist unbroken but badly sprained, and gave me a sling and something powerful for the pain. I slept until late the next morning, and came downstairs in a panic, late for breakfast. I fussed around, making arrangements for my drive to Edinburgh, until James and the hotel’s duty manager cornered me. James wouldn’t hear of my driving with a sprained wrist, and the duty manager offered to accommodate me for a few days – for the rest of the week if necessary – free of charge. James accepted on my behalf.

“I think they want to sweeten you up, in case you’re thinking of making an injury claim,” he said, once the manager was out of earshot. “The weekend has been a success anyway. All the loose ends of the deal are tied up. You did your bit for us – thank you, Hannah – you hit the ground running after the Amsterdam meeting, and you deserve a break. We’ll get the hire car picked up, and worry about getting you home later.”

A couple more points for me, then. Perhaps I wouldn’t tout my CV round after all.

Once everyone had left, and I had waved Tony and the gang away in the minibus, I relaxed. I had a Queen Anne house not exactly to myself, but at least now it could be the sole object of my attention. I could admire the proportions of it with the dedication of a geek, and I did this from every angle. I even walked down the grass avenue between the beech hedges to the sundial, and I stood on the terrace as twilight came, as though I was daring Cassie to appear, daring her to be something more than a product of slight concussion. She didn’t appear.

On Monday morning I turned my attention to the indoors, and roamed around everywhere I could get access to, looking at fireplaces, doorways, mouldings on the ceiling, pictures on the wall. In one corridor my attention was taken by a small picture in a simple frame. A young woman in profile, bare-armed, wearing a simple, draped garment; her nose was straight, her hair gathered high on the back of her head, and her gaze distant. I stood and looked at it for ten or fifteen minutes, until I realised I was blocking the way of a chambermaid with a trolley. I apologized, and asked her if she knew anything about the picture. She shook her head.

“I go for the duty manager,” she said, in a heavily-accented voice, and walked quickly down the corridor before I could tell her not to bother. The manager arrived a few minutes later, lap-top in hand.

“Ms Broad, good morning. I understand you have a query about one of the pictures,” he said. “We have them all on a database, and I have a download with me.”

I pointed to the picture. “What can you tell me about this one?”

He put the lap-top down on a semi-circular table and tapped on the keyboard. Then he read out what was on the screen, turning it towards me.

“Yes, this was one of the pictures acquired with the property. It is listed as ‘Girl in a chiton, circa 1920, pencil and watercolour wash’. There’s nothing more about it as far as I can see, nothing to identify the sitter.”

“How about these initials, bottom right – ‘CB’?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe the artist? Would you like me to see if I can find out anything else? It’ll probably be a wild goose chase, but I can try.”

“No, I… hold on a minute,” I said, as my mobile rang. It was Tony, asking after me, and letting me know that everyone had got back safe and sound. The only incident worth mentioning had been that the short-cut the minibus driver knew had taken them over a level-crossing where, unknown to them, the barriers had failed. They had crossed it, and a few seconds later the East Coast Express had thundered through. Their near-miss had made it onto local radio, apparently, although Tony and the others were back home by then and hadn’t heard it. It had obviously been a slow news day – that was Tony’s opinion. It was only after we had said our goodbyes and our see-you-next-weeks, and after I had folded my phone in two and slipped it into my pocket, that the following thought struck me. I had been due to follow the minibus – how close would the express have come to me? How much of a news item might I have been?

I know I must have stood with my eyes unfocussed for a moment or two. Maybe my face went white.

“Are you all right, Ms Broad?” said the manager. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I recovered myself. “No. It’s my wrist, and I bumped my head. I’m a little disoriented, which way is it to the lounge? I’m ready for morning coffee and shortbread. There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I said, as we moved off down the corridor.

Under my breath, mostly to myself but also to any unseen, unknown ears which might hear the smaller sounds of the world, I added,”… only the stuff we haven’t found out the rules for yet.”

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©Marie Marshall 2008-2020

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!

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©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.

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.

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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.

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©Marie Marshall 2007

The Two Magicians (Child 44)

12I have returned, once again, to the Child Ballads. This is my reworking of the song we know in Scotland as ‘The Twa Magicians’; it concerns a woman whose virginity is tried by a persistent suitor, the magical lengths to which she will go to preserve it, and the magical lengths to which he will go to take it. It exists in many versions, but in most the woman is a high-born lady and the suitor is a blacksmith. With this one I can ‘hear’ a tune not dissimilar to Ralph Stanley’s version of ‘Matty Groves’, but paced up and with a picked banjo accompaniment. I love the phrasing of folk songs, I love the patterning and balance, I love the peculiar syntax and the way that narrative connections often get lost in the transmission from singer to singer, and this is what I try to capture in my adaptations.

It’s of a lady highly born
and silken soft her skin,
And to her door a blacksmith came
to beg her let him in.

You lusty, dusty, coal-black smith,
sing me no lying song.
You’ll never have my maidenhead
that I have kept so long
.
No lusty, dusty, coal-black smith
will share my marriage bed,
I’d rather lose my young life
than lose my maidenhead.

It’s she with skin as white as silk,
and he with coal-black hair
Says marry me my darling one
and be my lady fair.

It’s she’s become an old oak tree
all standing in the wood,
And he’s become a woodman bold
to fell her where she stood.

It’s she’s become a salmon grey
all swimming in the book,
And he’s become a fisherman
to catch her with his hook.

It’s she’s become a silver star
all shining in the night,
And he’s become a thundercloud
to hide her out of sight.

It’s she’s become a tiny fly
all buzzing in the air,
And he’s become a spider bug
to catch her to his lair.

It’s she’s become a corpse so grey
all in her coffin bound,
And he’s become the cold, cold clay
to cover her around.

It’s she’s become a hare so swift
all running on the plain,
And he’s become a greyhound tall
to fetch her back again.

It’s she’s become a praying nun
all dressed in grey and white,
And he’s become a canting priest
to preach to her all night.

It’s she’s become a barquentine
all mizzen, main, and fore,
And he’s become a captain bold
to steer her back to shore.

It’s every step that she has took
there’s he took two as well,
And where they both have vanished to
no tongue can ever tell.

You lusty, dusty, coal-black smith,
sing me no lying song.
You’ll never have my maidenhead
that I have kept so long
.
No lusty, dusty, coal-black smith
will share my marriage bed,
I’d rather lose my young life
than lose my maidenhead.

‘Westward’

In 1924, at Port an Eilean Mhoir on Ardnamurchan, the remains of a Viking ship burial were found.
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We buried Hoskuld, our captain, on the north coast of that ness the Gaels call Àird nam Murchan – the Ness of the Great Seas – on a day when axe-blades of sunlight cleaved the heavy clouds, and arrowheads of rain spattered us as though shot by the defenders of some dark and forbidding broch. We sacrificed the smaller skiff for his funeral, being fewer than when our expedition set oar to water in the little fjord where the River Stjør licks the lips of the sea. We used our axes and ship-mending tools to scratch a narrow trench in which to sink it, and we placed Hoskuld’s corpse in it, with his spear, sword, and axe laid beside him, and a shield over him, all as befits a Jarl; for although our little home-village and the outlying farms nestling at the foot of the tall, steep mountains that narrow the arms of the sea was a poor one, Hoskuld, our leader and captain-adventurer could fairly be called its Jarl.

As well as his weaponry we left him a knife and a whetstone from our native Norway, a drinking horn, some meagre dishes of porridge, and the bronze cloak-pin he had seized from a slain Ulsterman during a raid on Donegal. Then we filled the bows and stern with stones as is our custom, and piled the earth in a mound over him. Thorvald, our singer with the high voice, chanted of Baldr, the god slain by a spear of mistletoe, and we stood for a while, all trying to remember Hoskuld’s face as it used to be, before it had become little more than a bleached skull with a mouth set in a grin – a mouth from which few recognisable words had come, but much keening – and with eyes that stared past us to some horror only he could see.

Hoskuld’s dog, whom he called ‘Hopp’, would not come back to the longship with us, but stayed ranging round the mound, whining, occasionally scratching at the raw, brown earth. I tried whistling to him, slapping my thigh, and calling “Come on, Hopp! Good dog, come on!” but he only yelped at me and went back to his ranging and whining.

“Leave him, Skorri,” said someone. “We can’t stay here. Ours are not the only ships in the Minches – Mac Somerled is Lord of these waters, and no doubt the Gaels will already be sending word from clachan to clachan that we are in their sea, and he’ll be readying his galleys.”

So leave him we did. Even so he came for us as we pulled away from the shore, barking, howling, skipping round in mad circles with foam flecking his jaw. Mad he must have become, and none of us would now risk taking him in the longship. Even when we had pulled so far out that we could no longer see him, we could hear his howls, until one was cut short and we heard no more. We shivered and looked at one another. I do not know how many of us were thinking that it would be a clean and honourable end for us if Mac Somerled’s galleys did catch us, for there was a doom upon us, perhaps as great a one there than had been on the dead, buried Hoskuld.

When we had set out – a larger boat and a smaller skiff – from the Stjør village, Hoskuld had insisted on taking Hopp. One or two men grumbled that there was little enough in the way of provisions for our crews, but Hoskuld silenced them with a glance. Indeed we had had two years when harvests had been bad, and salmon and herring scarce. It is only such things that drive us out to range the seas around the kingdoms of the English, the Gaels, and the Irish, looking for food to carry home, or gold, or a couple of Gaelic slaves to barter at the river-mouths of the Baltic. Once or twice we have come looking for better land to farm, maybe thinking of sending back for our wives and children; but these lands are spoken for, being by-and-large claimed by this king or that, and the clans and tribes seemingly owing allegiance now to something greater than themselves. Some of those clans have names that are as Norse as ours – Thirkell, Gunnr, even Somerled – though their Jarls now speak the outlandish Gaelic and have forgotten their old kin from the fjords. The land they call Alba, though it is still wild, is changing – and with it, our own lives.

2.pngAs Hopp’s howling and barking died, so suddenly died the daylight. Someone struck a flint to his axe-head and kindled the iron-banded torches fore and aft. They guttered in the wind. I had been chosen as Captain in Hoskuld’s place, though I could tell that the others thought there was little to choose between myself and anyone else. I am no Jarl, and all wished Hoskuld had lived, or if not Hoskuld then his younger brother Solmund who had died in the Donegal raid, or one of the wheat-haired sons of Eyvind lost to great ocean rollers when one dived overboard to save the other, or even one of our axe-brothers who fell during the last day of slaughter at that Gaelic clachan. How long ago was that now? Any of those would have made a better captain than I for such a desperate band as we now were. We had stood out a little to westward from Port an Eilean Mhòir – the harbor of Mikill-Ey as we called it – where Hoskuld’s corpse now lay. No light from any Gaelish peat-fire could be seen through the gloom, but we needed to be at sea, as though we now feared the land.

“What orders, Captain Skorri?” asked Thorvald eventually, as the strengthening easterly wind drove us aimlessly away from the ness. I could almost hear resentment in the way he had said ‘Captain’, and gladly would have cursed him and said “I do not care – let us drift, choose another captain, let us sink – I do not care!” But instead I gave us a heading.

“Set the sail,” I said. “Haul it as close as you can and keep the wind to our steer-board. We’ll round the great Winged Island these Gaels call Eilean a Cheo, then North-East to Hvarf-ness. There, if the wind veers, we’ll sail for home, by the Orkneys.”

“If it’s against us?” queried Thorvald.

“We have oars. We row.” I said. “For now, let’s set that sail as I have ordered.”

On board a Viking longship, a captain, even a Jarl, does not simply give out orders and stand back to watch. I seized a halyard with the others and did my share of the hauling, and that seemed to settle their mood a little. It was either that – my establishing myself again as one of them – or the thought of home. We had left our fjord in mist and drizzle, and our village in poverty and hunger, but as my own thoughts turned to my wife Gudrid, and to the barefooted, noisy children who ran in and out of the bustling boatyard, I saw them only in sunshine, their cheeks fat and pink with good health. I wondered whether the others shared this vision, each seeing his woman and his children, happy under a blue sky.

We were foolish of course to be out at sea on a night like this and I had been foolish to order it – we should have been safe in some inlet until morning – but there was that fear. Where had it come from?

It had come, of course, as a consequence of the clachan raid. None of us had expected resistance at the little settlement. Each village we had come across had been poorer than the last, and this one was the poorest. In each place the Gaels had fled, giving us the freedom to take what little they had. We didn’t even bother to pursue and take as slaves the handful we saw scrambling up the hillsides. This time, however, it seemed as though desperation had bred a madness in this particular flock of ragged Gaels; farmers had found wicked little swords somewhere, boys and old men had armed themselves with hoes and reaping-hooks, women had taken up flails or kitchen-knives, and perhaps there were even a couple of wild and well-armed warriors there who had stopped on the way to some Gaelic chief’s hall. For whatever reason, they flew at us, and though we hacked many down they did not back away. Even little children buzzed around us like wasps, throwing stones, jabbing with sticks.

Then a strange figure came out of one of the hovels, and as it did so the sound of the fighting muted, sword- and axe-blows seemed to cease, our eyes as well as the Gaels’ seemed drawn to it. Bent at first, the figure straightened. Long, grey-white hair, as long and as grey-white as Langfoss, fell from its head, over its face, over its shoulders, over its earth-brown clothes. It leaned on a staff, as wandering Odin does, and its face was lean and pale, almost the same colour as its hair. I paused in belabouring a villager – and he paused also – to watch her. Her? To me the figure looked like a woman but more, I thought, more like a Dark-Elf from Alfheim, or a corpse from Hel, the land of the dead, nothing that could be called ‘him’ or ‘her’. A breeze sprang up from nowhere, and the sweat on my body grew cold, I couldn’t tell whether that was from fear or from the chill of the wind, but I saw others shiver as I now did. The breeze blew back some of the hair from the figure’s face, and we saw the eyes. They were milk-white and blind.

And yet they saw! How else could the figure have moved slowly and deliberately, through those locked in combat but now pausing as it passed, unerringly towards Jarl Hoskuld? How else could the figure have stopped a blade-length from the Jarl and turned its face directly to his? But this it did. More, it raised its right arm. From the loose, falling sleeve a slender, white forearm rose, scarce more than skin on bone it seemed. The fingers spread wide, seemed to direct themselves at Hoskuld’s forehead. The figure opened its mouth, said a few words in the Gaelic tongue. Everyone – everything – else was silent.

Then it spoke again, very clearly, but only a handful of strangely-accented words in our own language.

“No home,” it said. “Never home.”

For a few long seconds Hoskuld stared. Then, breaking free of his immobility, he swung back his axe, and brought it in an arc as wide as the rainbow bridge to Asgard must be, up and then down in a killing blow. It struck the figure upon its skull. The figure fell. It crumpled, rather, or dissolved, so that its form on the ground was little more than a mound of earth over which rainwater flowed. Hoskuld stared at it, then around him, and filled his lungs with air.

“Blood!” he cried in a great voice. “Blood!”

And the fighting continued, but with each of us Vikings suddenly berserk. My pulse thundering in my ears like Thor’s hammer on its mountain-anvil, I clubbed down the villager in front of me with the back of my axe-head, then hacked at his neck with the blade, until his head rolled away. All around me, my axe-brothers and shipmates were swinging and jabbing with sword, and shield-edge, and fist, and knife, and heavy blade. The villagers were giving way, throwing aside their weapons, beginning to run. We took up Hoskuld’s cry of “Blood!” and cut them all down, every single one, every man, every woman, every child. We spared no one. Even then, even when that slaughter was over, Hoskuld, his helmet, face, and mail sark the bloodied colour of the sunset, still gave his terrible cry, and we set about butchering every beast in the clachan. That was not enough for our Jarl, as he – then we at his example – began to cut and tear down every hovel, every byre, every beast-pen. It was as though the simple curse laid upon Hoskuld by the brown-clad, white-haired figure was so terrible to him, that he had to obliterate every trace of anything connected to it.

Afterwards we stood around. I think we were shocked at the utter devastation we had made in laying waste to this little, poor, community. We took nothing from it. There was nothing to take. But when we looked at Jarl Hoskuld, already we saw the stare and grimace of a cursed man, a mask instead of the face of the captain-adventurer we knew and had followed. To a Viking, a curse is a serious thing, often working unseen; this was the first time I had ever seen the evidence of a man’s doom with my own eyes. If the Norns truly twine the thread of a man’s fate, then Hoskuld’s was severed, sheered apart from his life, its ends fraying in the wind.

As we walked by the corpses, pulling turf roofs and stone walls down upon them, or throwing them along with their meagre possessions into the midden-pit, or piling logs upon them and setting fire to the pile, no one could swear that there wasn’t one corpse with long, grey-white hair. But equally, no one could swear that there was. Perhaps that’s why, later, as we sat around our camp fire, no one dared to look up, for fear of seeing an extra person in our number, next to the muttering, keening Jarl Hoskuld, its hand on his shoulder. And perhaps that’s why no one stared into the darkness for too long, for fear of seeing an eldritch walker stride into the firelight. And perhaps that’s why no one spoke during daylight, if they thought they saw, out of the corner of their eye, the shape of someone sitting on a rock, or walking across the narrows of one of Alba’s fjords without either disturbing the waters or sinking. And perhaps that’s why no one mentioned a still shadow that turned into a tree, or a running shadow that turned into a fox, or a mist that swirled, gathered, and faded. At least… I never spoke of such things. Hardly anyone else spoke at all, except of everyday necessity – hauling a rope, foraging for food, digging a grave.

So, all the night after we had buried Hoskuld and abandoned mad Hopp, we fought the wind. When dawn came – grey, cold, dull – we found ourselves no further north, simply stuck there in the Minches, going nowhere, making no headway, no matter how close-hauled we were, no matter how we pulled on the oars. I heard several of our crew groan, and one curse. I saw little light in anyone’s eye, as I looked from one man to the next. When I spoke to them it was with a kind of mildness.

“Come on, friends, brothers,” I said. “One more try, eh?”

And they gave one more try, but with only half a heart, and we slipped, drifted, looked desperately at the shapes of the islands and the mainland never seeming to vary. Hope died in us. Doom came over us. By the end of the day, when sunlight died, a thin rain soaked us, and the fore and aft torches barely gave any illumination at all. I was glad that they didn’t, because I now hated to see my shipmates’ faces. I scarcely recognised them now. There was no more Thorvald, no Ottar, no Frodi Hard-head, no Frodi the Small, no Ulf, no Magnus, no Isleif. There were only bare, white skulls, hair wisping back from them in the wind, to reveal mirthless grins and staring eyes. There was only doom. There was only madness. And I was glad there was nothing shiny to see my own face in, because I knew that if I had looked, I would have seen the same thing. So, when one man took his knife and slit his own throat where he sat, and another clasped his axe and sword to him and stepped overboard, I could not have named either of them.

The Gaels tell of one of their Dark Elves – they call her the Bean Sith, the Fairy Woman – and they say she walks amongst the dead, the dying, and the soon-to-die, lamenting. Others say that she can be seen washing the bloody clothes and armour of slain warriors, like one of the Valkyrja. Others still that she is a bringer of curses, and it is not she who keens, but those she has doomed. On our longship now, that is the only voice that can be heard. I do not dare open my own mouth, for if I were to hear my own voice, I would lose the last fingerhold I have on life, and fall into madness. I long to call my wife’s name, but I dare not even try that.

I know madness will come, nonetheless, or maybe death before it – much better death before than after. My last actions while in my right mind have been gestures of surrender to the East wind. I have lashed the steering-blade amidships, I have set the sail square, I have headed the ship between the outer islands of Uist and Barra. We shall sail westward. We shall go into the black ocean where the waters boil and there is no daylight, from which no ship returns. We shall go to death, to the cold of Hel or Niflheim – for us there shall be no Valhöll – we shall go to where dead Hoskuld waits for us, but without cheer or greeting. Westward, westward, driven by the merciless, murdering wind. Wordless, wordless and keening, men doomed and nameless. And we shall never go home. Never, never home.

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© Marie Marshall

2016… 2017…

Wow, what a year for the world 2016 has been, with all the good guys checking out. Even the arguably worst person to die in 2016 was passionate about public health, public education, and anti-colonialism. I keep trying to stop myself hoping that if the carnage continues into 2017 we lose some of the bad guys too, but – hey! – I don’t like to indulge in that kind of Schadenfreude.

2017 is, as yet, an unwritten page. I do know that the Winter Words festival in Scotland has been shortened, so presumably the ‘Fearie Tales’ competition will be tougher. I have a story ready to go, as it happens.

In 2016, I suppose my major writing project was, in response to a request, to come up with a text for the ‘history’ of I Tamburisti di FIREnze for this year’s Burning Man (see previous news items here). I thought you would like to see how some of that turned out, so there follows some images of the Renaissance section of the book. Enjoy.

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Images are ©

‘Pitlochry, as the dread hour approaches.’

I don’t appear to have a ‘reblog’ function, so I can’t re-post my agent’s report on the reading of my short story ‘The Ice-House’ here. So, please click the photo of Pitlochry Festival Theatre at dusk to be taken there.

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Hear ‘The Ice-House’ at Pitlochry!

Ice House

A stretch of the Scottish coastline, though deceptively close to the port of Dundee in one direction, and the ancient city of St Andrews in the other, was a lonely expanse of sand dunes little more than a hundred years ago. Nowadays there is a pinewood and a car park near one end of it, and tracks to walk, but back then it was a solitary, almost inaccessible area. Somewhere, hidden in the dunes and pines, is an old ice-house, once used for storing salmon. A young woman, out for a day’s hike in the summer of 1919, stumbles across it, and awakens an old, dark mystery…

That is the premise for my eerie short story ‘The Ice-House’, and if you come along to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre on Friday 12th February, you will hear the whole tale unfold, as it is read out to the audience there by actor Helen Logan. Yes, once again one of my stories will feature as a winner in the Winter Words Festival‘s competition – ‘Fearie Tales’.

The time, 9.30pm. The venue, the River Room at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. I dare you to be there!

 

 

It doesn’t hurt to ask, but don’t build your hopes up.

watchOver six months ago several things came to a head seemingly all at once. Firstly the flying of the Confederate flag – or rather its lowering – became an issue all over the southern states of the USA. Secondly a prominent activist was outed as trans-racial. Thirdly, Harper Lee’s publishers released Go Set A Watchman.

The latter was significant to me. Harper Lee had always been a heroine of mine, for writing one of the monuments of American Literature – To Kill a Mockingbird – and then retiring. I wanted to do the Scottish equivalent, but as soon as I published my second novel that was out of the question anyway – that fact always makes me smile.

With the near-coincidence of these three things, it occurred to me to write a short story, set in 2015, in which a young female couple, one of whom is of mixed racial heritage, have a rendezvous in the Alabama town where one of them has her roots. Together they see how the town has coped with the realities of the twenty-first century. The central event in the story is the lowering of the Confederate flag at the town’s courthouse; but also the couple visit, in passing, an elderly lady who can remember her childhood in the town, during the Depression. My story remained unfinished. I had planned it as a tribute to Harper Lee, and it only really made sense if I could call the elderly woman ‘Jean Louise Finch’. This was, as I say, to be a serious story and a tribute, not ‘fanfic’. So I did the polite thing and got in touch with Ms Lee’s publishers to ask permission, leaving the story unfinished.

Well, seven months later, long after I had forgotten about the project, I got my answer. No. Not only could I not call the elderly character ‘Jean Louise Finch’, I could not use any character names out of To Kill A Mockingbird or Go Set A Watchman. That’s fair enough, I guess. Not only that, but I could not call the town ‘Maycomb’. Okay, I can see the logic in that, given the interdict on character names. But apparently I could call the town ‘Monroeville’ if I wanted. Well thanks, I know I could – any writer is free to set a story in a real place – but the point would be lost. In any case, seven months after the event(s), the moment for the story has passed. It remains unfinished.

But I thought I would share a passage with you, just for the heck of it. Very little else of the story has been written, and now probably won’t be; so what you have here is a little insight. The accompanying pictures are of the old and new courthouses in Monroeville – and just to be clear, the new courthouse can be seen to be flying the Stars-and-Stripes and the Alabama State Flag, not the Confederate flag, which was another reason why fictionalisation was necessary. By the way, the story was to be called The Standard of the Camp, which is a reference to Numbers 1:52 and Numbers 2:2 in the Bible.

*
monroeville1

Judith parked the car a few blocks away, and we walked hand in hand, joining one of the little streams of people approaching from every direction to swell the small crowd in front of the building. It was indeed a small crowd as a proportion of the population – only a few hundred – but unless a person had a reason to wish to be there for what was, after all, only a minor piece of history when taken with the bigger picture, why make a fuss and stir yourself? To Judith and me, with our own union being also a small part of a bigger picture, there was a reason to come. There was to be no ceremony. Simply, at six o’clock, the Confederate flag was to be lowered from the flagpole outside the courthouse, never to be raised there again. It was to be an occurrence, that’s all.

“Has that flag always flown here?” I asked Judith.

“Not sure,” she said. “The way I heard it, it wasn’t raised anywhere at all until the nineteen-twenties. There’s a picture somewhere of the old courthouse during World War Two, and it had the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole, and another picture taken during the Cold War that shows the same. Someone told me that a group of local politicians pushed through some measure when Obama got elected President. But hell, I’ve hardly ever been down this part of town before, so I wouldn’t know.”

“I guess people didn’t really notice until it became an issue.”

“You got that right!” said someone near me.

I get that. When something is just part of the scenery you don’t notice it. Then one day it’s gone, maybe a tree is cut down or a building demolished or something new built, and the best you can do is wonder what’s wrong with this picture. The Stars and Bars on a biker’s jacket or tacked up in the back of a neighbor’s garage can just be scenery. Until someone decides to become a semiotician, and – bam! Just how important to us all was disposing of this symbol? Apparently it was important to APT and WSFA as they had cameras there, so it was potentially news.

The clock at the old courthouse began to strike the hour. A side door of the newer building opened, two uniformed court bailiffs came out and began to walk diagonally across the lawn towards the flagpole. The buzz in our little crowd died down. I could see that a reporter from one of the TV stations had stationed herself between the cameras and the flagpole and was talking into a microphone. There were no salutes, there was no fuss, one of the bailiffs untied the hoist from its cleat, and began to hand-over-hand it. The flag began to descend, slowly. As it did, a knot of men nearer the front began to chant.

“USA, USA, USA…”

I could see a veteran’s cap, I could see a biker’s bandana, I could see a couple of hand-held Stars and Bars being waved.

“God, they say we Americans have no sense of irony, and they’re right,” said Judith.

“Look at another way, honey,” I said. “The way these guys see it, the ideal of the United States is that the whole is not greater than its parts, there is no over-riding principle that can impose itself on a constituent state, and indeed upon the right of an individual’s expression. In some way that’s what they believe in. In their view of history, that’s what the Confederacy was fighting to establish and the Union was trying to crush.”

“That’s an extraordinary opinion to come from an African-American,” said a voice behind me. I looked over my shoulder at the woman who had spoken. I hadn’t heard any hostility in her voice and I couldn’t see any in her face.

“I guess I’m repeating something I heard from someone here in town,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. To me that flag is just what they say it is – the symbol of white supremacy – and although I’m not from these parts myself, I’m glad to see it taken down. It’s just that the person who gave me that idea also told me that something like nine out of every ten Confederate soldiers had never seen a black person, let alone owned one. They didn’t decide what the flag meant. Somebody else did.”

“Hmm.”

Judith nudged me, and I turned back. People had their iPhones out, taking pictures of the lowering. Some were taking selfies.

“You want a picture?”

“Nuh-uh. No thanks.” For many reasons I did not.

The flag came to the end of its journey. The guys chanting fell silent. I stood on tiptoes to watch the two court bailiffs detach it from the hoist and fold it without any flourish. One of them tucked it under his arm and they began to walk back towards the courthouse. What would happen to it now? As long as it never flew again, did I actually care? Judith and I turned to go.

monroeville2

*

I recall a similar thing happened when I had an idea for a full-length adventure novel featuring a character created by a fellow-Scot. Her creation was not a pleasant character, he was in fact the arch-rival of her protagonist. But I saw in him the potential lead in a story about a cynical adult wizard. So I wrote to her publishers and asked for permission. And of course the answer came back in the negative. Now, I am all for authors protecting their intellectual copyright, given current social and commercial circumstances. I feel no rancor to either Harper Lee or to JKR because their people said no. Indeed, my cynical adult wizard – Agent Delta of the Chthonic Intelligence Agency© – still exists on my virtual drawing-board, is not named as anyone in any other work of fiction, inhabits a milieu nowhere near any boarding-school, and may come to life in a way that infringes no copyright.

1On the other hand, when I got in touch with Irvine Welsh and asked if I could use his name as the central character in an epic poem – Welshday – in which he journeys through the city of Edinburgh in the company of an inebriate detective and a living statue, in a tribute to James Joyce’s celebration of ‘Bloomsday’, he replied “Why not! Go for it!”. All of which leads me to the point of this post: it doesn’t hurt to ask. Countless authors have based novels and stories on pre-existing characters – the Flashman novels, James Bond novels by Kingsley Amis and William Boyd, and so on. Sometimes a living author will hand on the baton willingly to a successor, and the worst that can happen is that they’ll say no.

As it happens, Welshday was never finished either. I know the concept of unfinished writings seem strange, almost like the idea of failure. But I draw the analogy with a painter’s studio – no one finds it strange to find drawings, sketches, studies, and unfinished works there, so I have no qualms about admitting to countless novels, stories, and poems that never made it (yet!) to completion. In fact Welshday gave rise to some good stand-alone poems, so here’s one of them for you. Our journeying hero and his inebriate companion visit a bar in Leith, where they are accosted by a Russian seafarer who claims to be the only survivor from the sinking of the submarine Kursk. It’s a sestina:

 

Old Rimbaud said, “Let’s go and take a glass
of whiskey in a jostling pub I know.”
I, like a sodding numpty, dogged his steps,
And tracked him to a clapped-out, frowsy dive,
Where half the clientele were missing ears –
the other half were shouting to be heard!

We’d been there half an hour when I heard
a Russian sailor tap the falling glass;
he grabbed my sleeve, said “This is for your ears
alone, no other bugger has to know.
I heard my skipper calling dive-dive-dive,
as I slid down the conning-tower steps…”

Old Rimbaud, blootered, sunk down on the steps;
the Russian bellowed at me, to be heard.
“The air inside gets hotter when you dive,
the sea is slagged and dark as bottle-glass.
The ghost of every bugger that you know
floats by, and there’s a pounding in your ears!”

His sliding, slootered accent hurt my ears.
I thumbed my belt and slipped some salsa steps;
I said, “Now tell me something I don’t know,
no half-arsed, half-cocked tale already heard,
no shite enigma darkly in a glass,
no bonny buck-and-wing, no duck-and-dive!”

He scowled at me and, miming a crash-dive,
resumed the tale that battered at my ears,
while I, to ease my pain, sucked at my glass.
“Kolesnikov took all the proper steps,
and we went aft – perhaps you might have heard –

but when you’re frigging shark-bait, boy, you know!”
I shut him up, and said, “Here’s what I know –
no fucker made it home from that last dive –
They all asphyxiated, so I heard!”
He laughed, he jeered, I stopped my ringing ears,
and sat down with old Rimbaud on the steps,
to spit at all the demons in my glass.

When ghosts well from a glass you always know,
You’re sitting on the steps of some sad dive,
and though you stop your ears you’ll still have heard!