More than five years ago, I took a sabbatical from writing. Since then the facts of the world have become wilder and weirder than anyone could have imagined, making fiction well-nigh impossible. Will I ever write again? As we say in Dundee, Eh havnae a Scooby!*
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…
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 nej… bag 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!
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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.”
“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?
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.”
“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?”
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 – 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.”
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!
I’ll tell you a wee fairy story, if you would like to listen for a few minutes, if you’re not dashing away to watch TV, or play with your computer. It was told to me by someone who we always knew as “Aunt Sheena” when I was a girl on Mull.
You thought I had always lived here in Glasgow? I know I’m old myself – I shall be ninety-one next month – and I seem like I’m Glasgow born and bred, but until I was ten years old I lived on the island of Mull. My dad came here looking for work in the shipyards, and my mum and my two brothers and me followed him.
Aunt Sheena – she was a Gaelic-speaker – wasn’t anyone’s aunt really, that’s just what we called her; and when I knew her she must have been as old as I am now. I mind well how she came to wave me and my brothers goodbye the very last time we got on the bus from Killiechronan, on our way to Craignure for the ferry to Oban, and the train to Glasgow. I mind seeing her getting smaller and smaller in the back window of the bus as it headed down the Salen road. I waved until I couldn’t see her any more. I promised I would try to remember all the stories she had told me.
She was more like everyone’s granny. I suppose she really had been someone’s aunt at some time, but I don’t know whose. And on the occasions when she would come from her cottage to ours, during those long summer holidays when we didn’t have to trek into Salen to school, and when dad was away working and mum was shopping in Tobermory or doing her typing job at the doctor’s surgery, Aunt Sheena would tell us stories, usually about the fairy folk, or spirits, or ghosts.
Och, I knew you would say that fairy stories are for wains. But just hear me a moment. When we lived there in Killiechronan, my brothers and I had no radio – there wasn’t even electricity, and it was years before television came to Scotland. So we had to live in our imaginations. In the winter time it would be books borrowed from the school library. In the summer we would range around the countryside, playing games of cowboys and Indians, Jacobites and Redcoats, Boers, Zulus, knights of old – even I would wield a stick torn from a tree as a musket or a spear. One of our favourite places was the Mausoleum of an old Major General at Gruline, which would be a fort for us to defend or attack, depending on what game we were playing. We would wage our mock battles there until the ghillies from Gruline House came to chase us off. So tales of fairy castles, elf knights, and wandering ghosts just fed that imagination of ours.
And of course the whole landscape of our part of Scotland is full of fairy rocks, magic trees, and so on, if the place names are to be believed. There are things which must be said at odd times, little rituals such as kissing the tip of your fingers and touching your gatepost each time you left home, to make sure you returned safely. These were all part of our lives, and we imagined that they belonged to that time before people came to Mull, when there were magic folk here instead, who hadn’t really gone away, but who slept, or kept guard over the doorways between our world and another world where magic still ruled, and who had to be kept sweet so that they would not creep in to our world and do us harm. I remember how, on the last day that I left our cottage, I kissed my fingertips and touched the gatepost…
Listen, I’ll tell you how I know there are such things as ghosts. A mile or so down the road from our cottage there is a wee kirk, dedicated to St Columba. I was walking towards it one afternoon, and I was about one hundred yards from it when I saw a man open the door and go in. I don’t know whether he actually looked at me, but I could see that he had turned his face in my direction. I thought he must have been the minister. But when I reached the kirk and tried the door I found it shut fast – locked – and no sign of a light inside, no sounds. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I walked round and round the building, jumping up to look in the windows, but it was deserted. Just then a cloud covered the sun, there were a few spits of rain, and a wee wind sprang up. The leaves on the trees started to rustle and rattle, as though hundreds of tiny hands had started to shake the twigs and branches, and I realised what I had done. I had gone round the kirk anti-clockwise. You must never do that, never go round a kirk, or a stone circle, or an ancient cross anti-clockwise. It is such bad luck! As the rustling and rattling grew louder, I felt I had insulted the spirits or elves that guarded that place, and if I didn’t do something very quickly to put matters right, I would be struck blind, or dumb, or daft.
So I ran back round the kirk, but this time clockwise, like the sun in the sky. I ran round twice, three times, and the rattling stopped, the wind died down, and the sun came out again. Each time I passed the kirk after that, I dropped a curtsey to whoever guarded it.
But that’s my story, not one of Aunt Sheena’s. The trouble is that, despite my promise, I can only remember snips and snaps of her tales, apart from one. I’ll tell you that one. It’s the legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline.
One rainy day when my brothers and I did not want to go out, Aunt Sheena was there, in my dad’s armchair, nodding, and pursing her lips, the way she always did when she was thinking of a story. I was just bringing a cup to her, and I decided to nudge her towards the story.
“Aunt Sheena,” I asked. “Do you know anything about the standing stone by the road to Knock?”
“Do I know about the Grey Lady?” she said. “Of course. I know all about her. Why – do you want me to tell you her story? All right, gather round, just let me take a sip of my tea. Now then…”
And this is the story she told us:
There once was a man from Ulva, called Ewan MacDaid. He was handsome enough, but very quiet, hardly spoke. At the age of fourteen he had taken work at the Ben More Estate, working for the Factor as a labourer He worked hard in all weather, never complained, always smiled but said very little to the other workers on the estate. He loved to be given work that meant he had to wander up Glen Clachaig, or along Glen Cannel to the shielings at Gortenbuie, whether it was to look for stray sheep, mend a wall, or simply take a message. Solitude was his joy, the quiet countryside of Mull was his love, and work was his excuse for enjoying both. Not that he complained when the Factor partnered him with another man, or put him in a team under one of the ghillies. He simply went along with that, pulled his weight in the job at hand with that good-natured smile, but sat apart to eat his midday food. That was always some grey bread – his mother’s own oat bread made in her oven at home – and a can of water from Loch Ba.
When he was old enough to be let a wee cottage of his own, in the row of cottages in Knock where the other estate workers all lived, his mother used to come all the way from Ulva with a basket of grey bread for him. Of course it wasn’t all he ate – he was allowed his share of snared rabbits from the Estate, and fish from Loch na Keal – but his mother’s grey bread made his eyes light up most of all.
It was a shock to his workmates and to the Factor when Ewan, on hearing of the war between Turkey and Russia, announced that he was away to join the army, and would be leaving soon for the Crimea. He left, an unlikely soldier, remembering of course to kiss his fingers and touch them to the gatepost of the cottage.
He was gone for three years. His mother was often heard to say, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread? Do they have grey bread in the army?” She, poor soul, died before he came back. Neighbours found her on the floor of her cottage on Ulva, her hands covered with oat flour, her bowl full of dough.
Ewan did come back, still smiling but with the boy’s look in his eyes changed into a man’s, and a man who has seen things which no one should see. The news that his mother was not there to welcome him made that look softer, sadder, but still he smiled and said very little. His workmates said, half-joking, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread?”
The answer was that he took two days off work, arranging with the Factor to go without pay for those days, took the next boat to Oban, and returned with a wife. The new Mistress MacDaid – Elspeth – was a bonny lass with high cheekbones, dark hair, and a ready tongue. His workmates teased Ewan for keeping her a secret, and though they all found out that he had courted her while he was billeted in Oban, always intending to ask her to marry him, they let him have his own little joke – “I wed her because she makes good grey-bread.”
For a few years the couple were happy enough. But then Elspeth began to notice that the handsome soldier she had first met was content merely to get on with his job in the hills and glens of the estate, to enjoy his luncheon of grey bread, and to come home to her at night for quiet companionship.
“Have you no ambition, Ewan?” she would complain, and Ewan’s workmates on either side of their cottage could hear her plainly enough, because her voice had become shrill. She chivvied him endlessly – why did he not try for the Head Ghillie’s job, and then even for the Factor’s. He would shake his head, saying he was content with things the way they were, much to Elspeth’s anger.
“I’m the man you married, Elspeth,” he would say.
The day came when he said that once too often, and Elspeth seethed. When Ewan’s next remark was to wonder whether she had ready his wee bit of grey bread for next day, she boiled over into the most terrible rage. She chased Ewan out of the house, cursing, and pelting him with the dozen or so wee loaves she had just baked.
“Grey bread? Grey bread? Is that all you care about Ewan MacDaid? Is that all you can offer me – a life of baking your grey bread? The man I married, are you? Well I don’t see him here, I don’t see the soldier who fought at Sevastopol and Balaclava, and faced Russian guns, the man who courted me bravely. All I see is a little baby crying for his grey bread! God knows why I ever married you, I wish I could be rid of you!”
And she chased him round and round the cottages, pelting him with the loaves. When she had run out of loaves she pelted him with clods, stones, anything she could pick up, with his astonished workmates peeping out of their windows.
And she chased him… anti-clockwise.
That night they lay in bed, he on his right side, snoring, and she on her left, weeping. At last, after two hours of tears, she began to slip into that state where images from dreams begin to crowd in on the familiar things of waking. It seemed to her that there was a draught in the room, and that the door had been half-opened letting in a grey light, a little like dawn but somehow harder; it seemed as though the bedclothes were sliding off her, or as though little pairs of hands were pulling them back.
Then there came the sudden shock of these little hands’ being placed over her mouth, and more dragging her from her bed and into a nightmare.
There was a noise of chattering and laughter, dry as old leaves and pine-needles; the tread of dozens of pairs of feet; bumps and bangs as she was carried out of the bedroom. She tried to call out to Ewan, but he just snored more loudly.
Out of the bedroom she was carried, and out of the cottage into the cold moonlight. She could see the dark shadows of the creatures who carried her, as though they were the silhouette of a thorn-thicket. She hoped she was dreaming, but when they clumsily collided with the gatepost and she felt a pain in her foot, she knew she was not. A wind blew as they carried her along, round and round the row of cottages… anti-clockwise… and leaves and twigs from the nearby trees pelted her face.
Then it seemed that a hole had opened up in the ground, and she was carried down a steep slope and out of the moonlight. How long that terrible ride lasted she could not tell, but at last she felt herself being thrown down, and she sprawled on a hard, stone floor.
But at least she could see. There was a glow from a fire, and from many torches round a hall. And her mouth was at last free. She shook her head to clear it and looked up. Instantly she wished that she couldn’t see at all, and that the hands were still over her mouth so she couldn’t cry out. Around her, leering at her, were the Brownie folk.
Now, put out of your mind the wee lasses who dance around at the kirk hall; and put out of your mind the pretty fairies in story books. These folk, these creatures that surrounded Elspeth McDaid, mocking her, scorning her, were the real Brownie folk. They are not really of our world, they don’t think the way we do, they don’t have the laws of God, much less the laws of science, to rule them. They have no sense of justice or fairness. Oh they can be kind to those folk who respect them, but they can be wilful and wicked too, to good and bad folk alike, especially those who show them no politeness at all.
In the hall where Elspeth grovelled on the floor, there were imps and elves and trolls of all shapes and sizes. There were goat-footed, goat-horned demons; there were tall tree-spirits with skin as white as birch-bark; there were tiny mayfly-fairies like dancing points of light that flittered up to her and pricked her with needles; there were misshapen gnomes and fierce elf-knights; there were nut-brown bauchles who laughed and threw things at her. Worse than all those was the one who sat on a throne in the middle of the hall – the Brownie Queen. She was terrible, beautiful, she shone like polished brass, and her eyes flashed with burning, red anger!
“Who do you think you are, Elspeth MacDaid?” she said, in a voice like the roar of the water that falls from Eas Fors. “Who do you think you are to rage and rage, and chase a man widdershins round your croft? Who are you to throw good food away in your anger? Who are you to shout aloud against the joining of you to your man according to the magic of your land? Give me one good reason why I should not dash your brains out, open the trap door in the floor of my hall, and throw you into hell!”
If Elspeth could have grovelled any more than she was doing, then she would have.
The Queen spoke again. “What have you to be angry about, you who can spend her life in the sunlight as we once did?”
The Brownie folk laughed, but the Queen silenced them all with a voice like a rainstorm.
“Is that all? Is that all? A man asks for his food and you throw it at him? Very well, your punishment shall be that you will work forever, in MY kitchen, baking oat-bread for me and for all my courtiers here. It is the next worst thing to hell, Elspeth MacDaid, and you will never see daylight again.”
“Pity… some pity…don’t forbid me the daylight,” cried Elspeth.
The hall went quiet. The Queen seemed to think for a long time.
“I will have mercy,” she said. “You may have daylight.”
“Oh thank you, thank you,” cried Elspeth, now upon her knees.
But the queen walked over to her, and whispered an enchantment in her ear. She would indeed have daylight, she would have sun and moon, rain and stars. She would stand forever, her back hunched against the cold and heat, in the cow-field by the Knock road. And in that instant Elspeth was transformed into a grey, dour, lonely standing-stone, the one we all know to this day as the Grey Lady.
Of course all Ewan MacDaid knew was that she had gone. He was sad for a while, but his workmates’ wives baked grey-bread for him, and took much solace in the beauty of the lands around the Ben More Estate. And that is the end of Aunt Sheena’s story.
Och I know what you’re going to say. But let me just tell you something else. My own grandson took his wains to Mull last summer for their holidays. One day they parked their car outside St Columba’s kirk, and took a walk down the road. They spotted the standing stone – the Grey Lady – in the field, and my grandson took his new digital camera as far as the barbed-wire fence, steadied his foot awkwardly against a squelchy tussock, and tried five or six times to take a photograph. None of them seemed to come out better than a blur, and the stone seemed to become more and more hunched, as though offended to be disturbed in that way. As he continued to try, he tells me that the sky clouded over and he felt a few drops of rain on him, and the leaves on the trees began to rustle as though hundreds of little hands were shaking each twig and branch. He says that his wains pulled him away, back to the car, wanting him to find a café where they could have chips, and that as they walked away the sun came out again and the wind that had stirred the trees died down again.
But that was just a coincidence, and Aunt Sheena’s story about the Grey Lady is just an old fairy tale. Isn’t it?
Here is another tale for you in the run-up to Halloween. This little railway station in Scotland seems so clean and modern… but is it haunted?
I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.
I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?
I heard a sound as though the sole of a shoe scraped against the platform surface. The lamp at the far end of the platform flickered on and off. There was no one there, not that I could see. The hash from the lamps seemed to accentuate the dark outside them, making it seem as though nothing existed beyond this station platform. There was no movement except for a piece of litter being blown across the platform and spilling onto the track, out of sight, making a scratchy, fluttery noise against the concrete edge as it went. Was that what I had heard?
“Hello,” I called. “Is anybody there?”
There was no answer. And yet I still felt as though someone else was there, or was expected soon. Maybe the bloke from Scotrail would be here shortly. Maybe his shift was an early one, and he would soon turn up and switch on the strip lighting in the glass-fronted ticket office and waiting room. Maybe he would unlock the door to the waiting room and switch on the vending machine. I could get a Mars Bar. I wasn’t hungry but it would pass the time. I peered into the dark, willing a set of headlights to illuminate the station car park. Nothing happened. No one came.
I pulled my coat collar snuggly to my neck, smoothed my skirt, and crossed my ankles. I wished I had a book with me. I wasn’t cold, but I pushed my hands into my coat pockets. In the left one, my fingertips found something small and hard. Whatever it was – a piece of grit, I don’t know – I rolled it in between my fingertips, pressing it, squeezing it, deliberately trying to find sharp edges to graze my fingertips. Anything to occupy some time. I had nowhere else to go. The seconds on the indicator board ticked away. I uncrossed and re-crossed my ankles.
What is it about stations? They should be busy, there should be coming and going. I was certain that this little place with its up and down lines, and its two platforms, and its footbridge, would be full of commuters during daylight hours, people bound for their offices in Edinburgh, or wanting to make a connection to Glasgow. Mid-morning and afternoon there would be shoppers, maybe the occasional out-of-season backpacker. Late afternoon there would be children and teenagers coming back from school in town, and the car park would have four-by-fours or a mini-bus waiting for them. people would be sipping coffee and eating Twix bars from the vending machines, or munching bridies from the wee Co-op. The wee Co-op that was somewhere out there, in the darkness beyond the light hash here on the station. Then in the evening, late commuters, folk going out for the evening, folk coming back, the last train. The lights being turned off in the ticket office and waiting room. The bloke from Scotrail getting on his moped. The sound of its motor dying away. That’s how this station, this platform came to be a little island in the dark, a place where things waited to happen, where someone was expected. Maybe.
But now, on this little island, I couldn’t even see over to the other platform. All the lights seemed to be off over there. There was an indicator board. It glowed, just like the one on this side, but it was slantways on. It gave no real light. I couldn’t read it. If I got up and walked a little way down then maybe I could. I could cross over the footbridge, walk into the dark, and go and read it. It would pass the time. From there, from that dark platform, I would be able to look over at this one, the lighted one. I could, but I didn’t. Here I felt – what? – safe. I waited. There wasn’t really anything to do except wait.
“Is anybody there?” I called again. I still had this feeling that someone was here, or expected. If I sat here, right where I was, the spot on the platform I had become used to, I would see anyone who came. The platform entrance, the ticket office, the footbridge, all of them were to my right. The entrance just this side of the flickering light, the footbridge just beyond it. They were all in my field of vision.
I looked at my watch again, then realised what I was doing and made a little “kah!” sound in my throat, annoyed with myself.
Then I thought I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. The light flickering? I looked back along the platform. Yes, it was still flickering, on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, still throwing the pillar, the bench, and the rubbish bin into sharp relief, and making a silhouette of a man. He was standing there, a tall shadow, hatted, and with a bag at his feet. I hadn’t seen him arrive. Maybe I gasped in surprise, or maybe he had heard my little syllable of annoyance, because he seemed to turn towards me. I heard the sole of his shoe scrape on the ground. I watched as he bent to pick up his bag and began to walk my way. His steps were slow, light, deliberate, almost cautious. He seemed to be made completely of shadow, all I could see of him was three pale patches where the nearest light caught his cheekbones and his chin as he got closer. Nothing more. As for those measured footsteps, I seemed to feel them rather than hear them, except for that occasional scrape, maybe as the sole of his shoe scuffed a pebble or a loose piece of tarmac.
In my left pocket I squeezed the little piece of grit hard. Harder, the closer the man came to me. He stopped a pace or so away from the bench where I was sitting and put his bag down. He gestured towards the bench. He wore gloves. They were dark, like the rest of his clothes. Dark as shadow.
“I hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” he said. “I would have taken the other bench, but the lamp…” There was something old-fashioned about the way he spoke he wasn’t a young man, that was certain. I nodded, and he brought up his hand to tip his hat. Old fashioned again. He sat down, not too close to me, not touching distance, and I was glad. I like my personal space. Once he had sat down I could see nothing of his face at all. He was directly under the nearest lamp, and the shadow of the brim of his hat covered his features entirely. His hands were folded across his lap. His coat was long and shapeless, down to his knees. An overcoat, with the collar turned up, as far as I could see. I couldn’t see much. He didn’t look at me. I turned my head away and looked into the darkness where the other platform ought to have been, but occasionally I glanced at him without moving my head.
It was strange. Even though I was sitting next to him, on the same bench, I felt exactly like I had done before he arrived. I felt that I was alone, but that somebody was there out of sight, maybe watching, or somebody was expected soon. I kept wondering what I would see if I got up and looked at him from the other side. I kept wondering if I looked away and looked back, would he not be there. Would he go as quickly as he had come.
“What time is it?” he asked suddenly.
I looked at my watch. It had stopped, of course, it was showing the same time as before. Why did I keep doing that? I suppose it’s what you do when someone asks you.
“I don’t know,” I said. “My watch… it’s past midnight.”
“Oh aye, it’s well past midnight.”
“The indicator board. It shows the time.”
“Of course. Of course it does. Sorry to have bothered you,” he said. To me it was as though his voice came from a long way away. He seemed to have been cut out from shadow and pasted onto the world. He, the station, everything in it, all now had a flatness, a two-dimensional quality to it.
“No trouble,” I said. I thought I must be getting tired, but for some reason I knew it was important to stay awake. This funny flatness of everything, it must be like those hallucinations you get when you’re about to fall asleep. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I had been waiting here and I wanted to keep waiting and to keep my wits about me. The man was old, strange. Part of me hoped he would go. Part of me felt like if he got up to go I would beg him to stay.
We sat in silence. Another piece of litter scraped and scratched its way across the platform. It teetered on the concrete edge and fluttered as if caught there. I watched it. I kept very still, as though if I breathed I would influence things, I would tip the piece of litter over the edge. I would be like the butterfly wingbeat in South America that causes a storm in Europe. In the flatness, it felt as though I could reach out and pick it up, just like pulling it off the surface of a picture.
“Causality,” he said.
He didn’t repeat what he said. I realised I hadn’t moved since he had sat down. In my left pocket that little piece of grit was still tight between my thumb and index finger. I peered into the dark. I could make out nothing. He said nothing. He was silent for at least ten minutes, motionless. The piece of litter still fluttered at the edge of the platform.
“I know this will sound strange, but I have something I want to say to you,” he said suddenly. I looked at him. He might have turned his head towards me, but I still could see nothing. His hat still shaded his face. Looking at him was like looking into the darkness where the other platform should have been. I peered, I tried to make out something of his features as he talked. I listened to his old, faraway voice.
“Ghosts. Ghosts do exist. The spirits of dead people, spirits that can’t rest. The French call them revenants. That means the ones who come back. The ones who keep coming back. They can’t help coming back, again and again, to a place, to a particular place. They are compelled to come back because they have left something undone, something incomplete. Sometimes they know what it is, often they do not. But they all want one thing. They’re all aware of this wanting, some more than others, for some it is just a vague restlessness. But that one thing they want is someone else, someone to tell about what they have left undone. They want someone to listen, or to see. Some tell their story, others act it out, running through the events up until a certain moment, in the hope that if someone hears or sees they will understand. Then the ghost will be able to rest. But often this telling or showing becomes a puzzle, pieces that don’t fit, a mystery, incomprehensible, and even the ghost does not understand. That is why we hear stories about ghosts wailing. So much pain. Such endless torture. Like rolling a stone up a mountain only to see it roll down again.”
“Sisyphus,” I said. “Yes, Sisyphus. I know that story. It’s familiar.”
He paused, and then went on.
“Again and again they come to one particular place. They don’t know why. That’s the stone being pushed up the mountain. Between their visits to the place, they forget. That’s the stone rolling down. If there is someone there, in the place, a ghost will appear to them, may try to make them feel the same pain, or understand it somehow, or perhaps try to make them the one who gives them rest, assuages their pain. Who can say what ghosts really think or feel? I don’t think they want to frighten anybody, but they do. That’s their curse. So people stay away from those places. The ghost’s pain will then be like the tree falling in a forest. Because there is no one there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. But it falls nevertheless.”
I looked at him, at the darkness and shadow, at the platform, the flickering lamp, the pillar, the bench, the rubbish bin, as it all seemed to become flatter and flatter. Why was he telling me all this?
“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “Have you got some kind of unfinished business yourself?”
“You could say that,” he replied. “You could say there is something I need to do. You could say I need to… reach out to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
It was true, I didn’t. How could I? How could I understand this strange man whose face I couldn’t see, who seemed to have been cut out of shadow and pasted onto the surface of a flat picture. This man with his old-fashioned manners and bizarre stories. This man in the little island of diffused light in the middle of a great sea of darkness. I kept my left forefinger and thumb tight on the little piece of grit. It hurt. There was such a lot of pain in my left hand. I couldn’t understand the man so I focused on that pain. I think I cried out.
I heard the rails begin to whisper and sing. Somewhere in the darkness there was a pinprick of brilliant white light. It quivered. It grew bigger. It was coming… nearer. As it came the singing in the rails grew louder. Suddenly the flatness was shattered, the white light burst upon my eyes, flashed, passed, roaring, screaming, so fast… so fast… a terrifying noise that filled the whole world, filled my head. A body, a vast, hard, long body like a beast, an insane beast, howled and hurtled past. I was standing. The man was standing too. His face was lit up by the passing lights. It was just a face, nothing more. A man’s face. I could see his lips moving.
“The sleeper to Inverness.”
I reached out my hand to him. He did the same. Our hands passed through each other. The beast, the train, had gone by. The forgotten pieces of litter spiraled in its wake and fell back into the darkness. The singing in the rails died away.
“It would be so easy for someone to stand too close to the edge of the platform,” he said. “Someone with news to tell. Someone with people waiting at home, people to make smile. It would be so easy to trip or to slip and to be caught in the bow-wave. Or it would be so easy for someone who could see nothing but pain, to look into the darkness over on the other platform, and simply to walk towards it. So easy.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.
“The sadness of ghosts is that they are awake while most of the world sleeps. They slip back into nothingness with the day. They sleep, if you like. It’s a sleep without dreams. It’s a sleep in which they forget everything. They know this. They know it’s going to happen. It’s part of the pain.”
I still said nothing. I still couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew I ought to say something to him, but it wouldn’t come. I knew I ought to reach out again, but I couldn’t.
“There is so little time,” he said, his old face lit up by the amber lights of the indicator board as he looked at it. “Ghosts sleep at dawn. It’s almost dawn.”
Dawn? I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.
I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?
Most of you will not know this story. My first tale of a haunting… well, it may have been a haunting… was written in 2007, and was one of the first winners of the Fearie Tales contest at Pitlochry. It has undergone several revisions and rewrites since then, but it is now here for you to read, in the run-up to Halloween. An old man in Edinburgh walks between dreams, memories, and the fleeting presence in his life of a woman with red-gold hair. Enjoy.
I have moved from waking to sleeping, and from sleeping to waking so many times, it is now difficult to tell the difference, and one is as familiar to me as the other, and as strange. I understand this is to do with becoming old, and I am surely that, and have been for a long time. For instance, it might have been last night I woke up to hear my late wife calling out, in her rising, questioning tone, “Charles?” I wanted to answer her but my mouth was dry, as mouths often are in dreams, but not in waking; also it was not her name, Eleanor, which was on my lips, but another’s, and even that was caught away, as though seized by a passing zephyr and lost somewhere. I know I lay awake, or maybe still asleep, and sought to recall it in the dark. Names, memories, all haunt me as ghosts would; I live in a haunted world, old age, peopled by such things, and find it difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when I did not.
And it may have been yesterday (except I knew it could not have been) that I walked past the hoarding at the end of my street, the hoarding saying “Persil 62 – as new as 1962”, and boarded a bus bound for Corstophine. On the hill by Craigcrook Castle I kicked up leaves as though I was a child. The leaves rose and fell like a mane of red-gold hair, the autumn sky reflected blue-as-eyes in the far-away Forth, and I was stopped by the miracle of a memory. A love, long in the past, forgotten, recalled… and a snatch of song.
Lord knows why, the other day as it might have been, I came back to Corstophine instead of being, once again, the only visitor to Eleanor’s grave. I have tended that grave, and have neglected it in favour of visits to the hill, in memory of the tenderness that Eleanor and I once shared, and of the fruitlessness of that tenderness. And now, that folding-over of time, that trick of memory in which I thumb idly through my mental journal and flick it open at random pages. But on each page is a clear image, an image of burning immediacy, clearer than yesterday, clearer than today’s own, dim morning.
Such as riding home on the tram, and having my eyes drawn to a woman on the pavement; a woman pale and tired from the burden she carried in her womb, but nonetheless serene, her head held high, a cascade of red-gold falling on her shoulders almost wantonly, her clear, blue eyes purposefully on some horizon not encompassed by the urban landscape, her sage-green coat open, her white, strong hands laid tenderly upon her fullness. Or so it seemed to me. Surely it could not have been yesterday that I pressed through the crowded tram, leapt off at the next stop, and followed her? I am not capable of pressing and leaping these days, but this pursuit of her is so bright a picture in my mind. The sudden, torrential rain, the thunder, the hurrying folk with umbrellas raised or collars hastily turned up; but still ahead of me, as I dodged this way and that around the cursing fellow-pedestrians, a sunlit patch of red-gold, lank in the rain but gleaming like a precious nugget or like a vision of the Holy Grail, pulling me through the streets. There is a moment in this picture-show of recollection in which the high, iron railings to my right were struck by a lightning bolt, blinding me, hiding even the blessed, golden mane from my sight, a divine warning that I am too close to something I should not touch. Only afterwards, when I found myself before a black door which, I was convinced, she had opened to gain entry to a particular house in a Georgian terrace, did I reflect that I had come so very close to death. That realisation did not stop the scene rolling on, did not stop my pushing against the unlocked door, and going in. An Etoile marble hallway, a winding staircase, echoes of footfalls above. I know I climbed the stairs, and that part way up a burly, female figure barred my way, and a firm but gentle voice, with a hint of Irish in it, said, “Mannie, she needs her rest.”
“Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un instant, Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.”
What relation all this bears to the memory of sitting at a kitchen table, sharing a cup of tea with this Irishwoman, I do not know. Very clear now is the recollection of her little pastries – she plied me with them, eager for me to taste them, to eat my fill – crescent-shaped, tasting of almonds and honey, while upstairs, or maybe in the next room, I thought I caught the sound of footsteps, a snatch of song, or sometimes a high voice calling out for me. But that is all, and the memory shifts and shifts. I stood by a public bench by the Water of Leith. It was and is familiar, it was and is empty, and I am sad.
Where does this come from? The memory of standing before a row of houses, which may well have been the same Georgian terrace, looking at them in ruins, blackened fingers of brick and stone, pointing obscenely to the sky, terrible as sea-stacks. I seem to recall, as I stood there uncomprehending, hearing a passer-by saying, “Zeppelin raid, Mister.” And again seeing a smart, new hotel in what could have been the same spot. Then a later visit, when the instruction “Somewhere this side of Corstophine” failed to impress an otherwise helpful cabbie.
Into the flow of these memories sharper than today, suddenly others are flung, inapposite, startling. Eleanor, returned from an outing with a bereaved friend – a visit to a spiritualist medium – frowning. “She calls herself ‘Dona Andalu’. It was all a waste of time. Told us nothing about Margaret’s poor Geordie. All she would do was look at me and say, ‘She is of the Djinn and bore him a son’!” Why did I flinch at that, and why is some kind of guilt now making the memory even sharper than most others? Why did I search my mind for some recollection of my tour of duty in Palestine, trying to remember whether I had opened any ancient bottles or rubbed any lamps, broken Solomon’s seal somehow and let a genie escape? And why did the fact that there was no such recollection seem to stoke more shame in me than the fact that my love for Eleanor had, at some undefined moment, become commonplace and banal, though far from incomplete?
There have been so many times, I now recall, that I have seen children, and even adults, with red-gold hair and with eyes as blue as the sky. I had not realised until today how my gaze has always been drawn to them, unless this is a false memory illuminated in retrospect – but if so, no such memories can be relied upon – and how I searched every face to see if I recognised it. Did that young Gordon Highlander officer, in the times of austerity and sandbags, really tip his Glengarry to show curls of burnished brass? Did he really wink a blue eye at me as he strolled along with a pretty girl?
This is the clearest scene of all, and it has just come back to me in its entirety. I approached a public bench, on it there sat the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her ensemble was sage green, her hair red-gold, her eyes sky-in-the-lake blue. She wore no hat, neither was her hair up; it simply hung loose, rich, glorious, fast, wanton… Her glance was friendly, but there was an innocence there in her eyes which gave the lie to the wantonness of her display. I raised my hat, and asked her if the seat next to her was taken. She motioned towards it with a delicate hand gesture, and I sat by her. We talked. I told her my name. She told me hers, in an accent which could have been French. “Chagrin”.
“It means sorrow. I know that is strange, but it goes back a long way in my family.” She said. And then she sang, quietly, for me.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment, Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie. J’ai toute quitté 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 répétait Sylvie, L’eau coule encore, elle a changé 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.
I’m currently working from home. That’s a necessity, not a luxury. I’ve been pretty inactive as a writer for some time, I confess and for reasons I won’t bore you with, but I’m afraid the covid-19 lock-down won’t give me any extra opportunity. Setting up working from home, and managing my work from here rather than from a convenient office, will actually take up at least as much time as a ‘normal’ day of commuting and office time. The only advantage is I get to put on my playlist.
It is with shock and grief that I heard last night that on the 13th of March, our friend, and chief editor, and long-term associate of P’kaboo, Leslie Noble, lost his fight against cancer.
He fought this illness like a champion, keeping spirits high, taking care of his granddaughters, tackling new projects and looking after his friendships. He was one of the most vivacious people I’ve ever come across. P’kaboo lost an amazing author and editor; for me personally, a close friend crossed over to the other side. My children lost one of their favourite authors.
Les, your fight is over and it is good that you are no longer in pain. May you rest in peace. May your family find comfort. Our deepest condolences.
I know, as you believed too, that you are around, still looking out for your loved ones and your friends. We shall meet again beyond…