My agent got in touch with a request – would I share the winning story I wrote for the ‘Fearie Tales’ competition at the 2014 Winter Words festival in Scotland. Well, I do tend to hoard my stories, believing that one day I’ll publish a collection. But in this case I’m happy to oblige. By the way, some of what follows is written in the voice of Shetland, and all of it is true…
It all started when I moved into this cottage in Shetland. No I guess it all really started – it’s getting difficult to remember – when I found I couldn’t write. My imagination was bare and barren. My agent suggested I rent a hideaway miles from anywhere, somewhere without distraction, and maybe that would cure my writer’s block. So I trawled through the internet looking at cottages to let. I picked this one, a nameless little house by a nameless bend in the road, on the island of Yell.
I can remember it was a day of speckled weather late in April, yes, just a couple months ago. A day when clouds scuttle like so many lice across the sky, and when the sun lies to you with those brief moments of warmth before it hides, letting a wind chill your neck and rain spatter your shoulders disdainfully. Well, here I was, watching the minibus – so warm inside – becoming smaller and smaller, while I stood there with a rucksack, a suitcase, and a bag of ad-hoc groceries, at the end of a short track up which a small, grey house stood. The noise of the van’s engine died, and all I was left with was the sound of wind in my ears. For three-sixty degrees all around me there was no landscape, only sky. What people had told me about Yell was true, then.
With the grocery bag digging into my fingers and the suitcase wheels dancing and dragging over the ruts and ridges of the track, I walked towards the cottage. The sky was reflected in its milk-and-water windows. They reminded me of the eyes of a blind woman I’d seen the day before in Lerwick. She’d been there outside the Solicitors’ office where I’d picked up the house key. No way could she have seen me, and yet she kept her face towards me as I passed, and looked as though she was about to speak. Maybe that was my imagination, and maybe it was my imagination that made me hurry, half-stumbling, preferring for some reason to look out of those windows rather than be looked out at. By whom? Why did my imagination choose moments like this to work but then desert me when I wanted to write?
The key was stiff in the lock. The door swung inward and clattered against the wall, wrenching the key from my fingers and making me wince. Inside, the house was silent, cold, furnished sparsely with things that were sound enough, clean enough, but didn’t belong. They all looked as thought they were left over from somewhere else. A clock ticked. A fridge-freezer hummed – at least that meant there was electricity. I dumped my luggage in the hallway and ranged from room to room.
“Hello?” I called as I pushed each door open, as though I expected someone to be there.
I felt better after a cup of tea and my clothes stowed away. The whistle of the kettle had made the place a little more like home. My groceries would have to stretch until the mobile shop came around, but I wouldn’t starve. I picked a bedroom, one which seemed to be over the kitchen extension. The internal wall was stone, grey, undecorated – obviously once the outside wall. I looked for a WiFi signal for my laptop, but there was none. “Damn… oh never mind.” Nor was there a signal for my mobile phone. The landline, according to the card pinned to the wall, would only work for calls to the estate agent, the taxi firm, and the emergency services – there were no plans to have anything else installed as the owners were thinking of disposing of the place. So what? I had come here for isolation and that’s what I’d got. I had come her to write.
And I couldn’t.
I sat for about three days – between sleeping, making small meals, brewing tea, and looking out of the window at the wind nagging tufts of sheep-wool on the barbed-wire fence, and listening to Radio Four on a crackly radio – staring at the laptop screen and eventually playing solitaire. I began to talk to myself. I muttered, sometimes I yelled.
“I want some stories, some bloody ideas, anything!” And then I waited, listened, as though I expected an answer. Sometimes I stood for minutes on end listening to those small sounds that populate what we too often consider to be silence, straining to make sense, voices, words of them. But if such were there, then they were beyond my hearing. At night I lay awake, and though I felt exhausted my mind would not be quiet – I was bombarded by disjointed thoughts, images, and ideas – until the shushing of the wind around the house eaves sent me into a doze. Some days ago, during one of these dozes, one that was to me more like a trance than anything else, the images seemed to coalesce. There was a wicked, grey, rough-skinned face before me, its eyes glittering, its teeth sharp.
“Du wants stories?” it said, as clear as anything, clearer than any dream I have ever had, had ever had in that little house, so clear that it woke me. I stared into the blank darkness, as though I was trying to make that face re-form. I switched on the bedside light and looked into the half-shadows it cast. I got up, walked over to the wall, peered at it and ran the palm of my hand over its rough surface, trying to make out bumps and depressions which might have been the simulacra of a face. I don’t know why I did this – I couldn’t possibly have seen the wall in the dark, yet it was to the wall that held me.
“Yes, I want stories,” I found myself saying out loud. There was no answer. I stood there, getting cold, until it was light.
Another day came and went without inspiration, another day of looking out at the sky, listening alternately to the wind and the crackly radio. The most creative thing I did that day, the closest thing to writing, was to set out a list of groceries I needed from the mobile shop. In the mid afternoon I began to long for night, aching for another sharp, clear dream in the hope that inspiration would come. I opened a bottle of wine I had been saving and had drunk most of it by mid evening, as though that would help. Then, as the daylight faded outside, I shut the curtains against what was left of it, placed pillows along with cushions raided from downstairs against the bed-head, propped myself up facing forward. I stared hard at the wall opposite, the wall I had examined closely the previous night, and switched out the light.
For what seemed like half the night I sat there with my sleepless mind bombarded by thoughts again, despairing of sleep ever coming, eventually drifting as though on that shushing wind. Then…
“Du wants stories?” The wicked, grey, rough-skinned face was there again, in the darkness, but standing out from the darkness as though the darkness itself was a kind of reverse-light in which a dreaming, trancing person could see. Not only it’s face was there this time. I could make out the hunch of its shoulders, and its crooked, grey fingers gripping the bedstead.
“Stories? Du wants stories?”
“Who are you?” I wanted my voice to be a challenge, but it was no more than a croak, as all dreamers’ voices are.
“I’m da trow, da trow i’ da waa.”
“The troll in the wall?”
“Da trow i’ da waa. Da stane is i’ da waa, da waa is i’ da hoose, da trow is i’ da waa, an’ da trow it is wha has stories ta tell.”
“Why are you here? How are you here?” I asked, trying to moisten my dry mouth as I spoke. There was something repelling about this creature, yet something fascinating. I felt as though I had deliberately summoned it from somewhere, I wanted it to go, I wanted it to stay. I wanted the dream to be over, I wanted it to last.
“I lived ance in a knowe, as dae aa trows. But men cam an’ pu’ed doon the knowe, an’ took the stanes of the knowe ta build Windhoose – the auld Windhoose that’s na dere ony mair – an’ whaar da stanes went da trow went. Da Laird o’ auld Windhoose wis auld, mad Niven, a wicked man he wis, mair wicked even dan me! I mind a time he wis owed money by a man, an’ dis man’s wife dee’d. An’ auld, mad Niven caa’d the widower ta Windhoose, an’ telt him ta dance and ta play da fiddle. Na matter hoo da widower begged, auld, mad Niven wouldna be denied. An’ sae da man played da fiddle and danced, and aa the time he played an’ danced he wis weepin’ sair. An’ auld, mad Niven lauched and lauched ta see him play an’ dance an’ weep aa tagither. An’ at da end o’ da day auld, mad Niven cancelled da man’s debt. Noo, is dat a story?”
I went to say yes, it was a story, but the trow had gone. I was sitting in bed, my arms and shoulders cold, my hand gripping the short column of the bedside light which I must have switched on in my sleep. The dream, the sleep, the trance, call it any or all of these, was gone. And even before it was light I was on my laptop, a story flowing into a word document about the old, mad Laird of Windhouse and his cruelty to his tenants. When it was light, I looked out of my bedroom window, to the West and to the North a little, to where the horizon hunched a little. There, like two unformed imp-horns, I could make out the twin gables of a ruined house. Later, I went out, hirpling across fields, startling angry, piping gulls and orange-billed shelders as I went, until I found a better vantage point to stare at the ruin. It was half a mile away or more, its great, glassless windows and gaping doorway like the eyes and maw of a skull. It made me shudder and trimmle, and I felt the pull of the little house with the blind, milk-and-water-eyed windows. I turned and made my way back in haste, wondering where I had got words like ‘hirple’, ‘shelder’, and ‘timmle’ from.
The next night I fell straightway into a deep sleep. No sharp dreams came to me, but then I seemed to hear a rhyme chanted.
Da hoose is aa alane,
Da trow is in da stane,
Da stane is in da haa,
Da trow is in da waa.
I woke up. I was sure I was awake. I switched on the light. My bedroom was the stark place it always was. I got up and went onto the landing, looking down the stair into the dark hallway. Over the finial at the bottom of the bannister I had draped my coat – I could see it humped there, catching a little of the light from the open door to my bedroom, showing up grey against the black. Its sleeves moved, grey fingers, clutched the bannister rail. Its hood had two glittering eyes and a grinning mouth full of sharp teeth. It spoke the trow’s rhyme to me.
“I was at Windhouse,” I said from the top of the stair. “Is that the house you told me about, where old, mad Niven was?”
“Na, na, I telt dee dat een wis pu’ed doon. Its stanes wis tae’n ta build da new hoose. Dat wis da hoose du saw dastreen. But du didna gyaa right up ta it, did du!” The trow’s grin was wide, as though it was taunting me.
“I went close enough,” I said. “It’s a strange place.”
“Aye, dat it is,” said the trow.
“You told me the stones from your knowe were taken to build old Windhouse. How come you’re here in this cottage?” I asked.
“Auld Windhoose was pu’ed doon eftir auld, mad Niven dee’d. An’ dey took da stanes ta build new Windhoose. Den, whan new Windhoose becam a ruin, dey took some stanes ta build dis cottage, an’ some o’ da stanes day took wis fae mi knowe. An’ here I bide, for noo. But new Windhoose was aaways a place o’ blude, a place o’ murder, a place o’ hauntin’.”
“Tell me! Tell me!” I said.
I stood at the top of the stair, and the grey, grinning trow stood at the bottom, and it told me every tale it could think of concerning ‘new Windhoose’. And as it told me these tales in its soft, scratchy Shetland voice, I fancied that I stood at the gates of Windhouse itself, looking up its stone steps to that maw of a doorway and the sightless eye-sockets of windows. Then suddenly it was as though the whole house was lit up, full of people moving too and fro, dancing, debauching, sating every kind of lust, murdering, spilling blood that ran down the stone steps and soaked my feet. As quickly as that vision had come it faded, and was replaced by one of the house standing mute in the rain that came driving off the North Atlantic in the grey of day. Ahead of me a servant girl trudged up the steps. At the great door she snappered – stumbled, I mean – leant hard against the door jamb to recover her balance, and pushed the door open. As she entered she half-turned to look back at me, and I could see that her face was the face of a corpse. But I couldn’t take my gaze off her as she disappeared up the staircase inside. Then a tall, grim man in a black frock-coat and a stovepipe hat brushed past me, making me shiver at his touch. He too mounted the steps, went inside, and disappeared into the blackness. Next I saw a great, shapeless thing ooze round the side of the house, and a man dressed like an old-time seafarer burst out of the house to attack it with an axe. Once more this was only a fleeting vision, because now I found myself walking up this deserted stone steps to the great, ruined doorway, and entering the house in great fear. I wanted to run but couldn’t. instead I began to tear at the rotten wood of the staircase, throwing the shattering pieces behind me. As I tore at it, opening the dark space inside it, bones began to spill out. I revealed human skeletons piled inside the cavity, contorted as though the people they had once been had died there in agony or fear. Other visions flashed past – a great skeleton seven feet long with horns showing at its skull, the bodies of sheep torn open, a great dog that came running to me as though I were its mistress, but which disappeared as soon as I bent down to stroke it…
“Dere’s a price ta pay fir aa dis!” said that soft, scratchy Shetland voice. At that moment I seemed to be standing at the great doorway of Windhouse looking out, out to the grey fields and moorland beyond, down the stone steps to the stone gatepost.
No, I was not. I was at the stop of the cottage stair looking down to where my coat hung on the bannister, grey in the early morning light. I was stiff, cold, but I knew what to do then. For the rest of that day I existed on cups of tea – I didn’t even get out of my pyjamas and dressing gown – while I typed and typed everything I had seen in the night’s vision, everything the trow had told me, fashioning it into story after coherent story, or at the very least making notes for later. By the time evening came I had not eaten, I had not dressed, I had not washed, such was my excitement. I wanted the trow to come, I wanted more stories.
I was just clambering into my bed at dusk, when I realised that the trow was standing there already. It held out its hand to me, and I took it, feeling its cold, bony hand in mine. It led me round the bed and began opening my wardrobe, pulling out the dressing-table drawers. Not knowing why, I did the same. The trow began to take my clothes and put them on the bed.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Packin’ dy claes. As du wid say – packing your clothes.”
“But I’m not leaving,” I said. “I’m staying. I want more stories.”
“Dat’s richt, du is stayin’. Du can hae aa the stories du wants – as du wid say, all the stories you want – ivvery story dere is here. Aa dyne.”
I looked at the trow. I saw it was wearing my coat. Through the window I could see the headlights of the taxi from Lerwick…
“Du’s gyaain’?” I said to the trow.
“Aye,” said the trow, snapping shut the suitcase.
“I’m stayin’,” I said.
“Aye,” said the trow, picking up my laptop. “As du wid say – you’re staying. For the stories.”
Da hoose is aa alane,
Da trow is in da stane,
Da stane is in da haa,
Da trow is in da waa.
Ootside, da taxi’s horn beeped, an’ da trow turned, left da bedroom, lookin’ at me…
Da writer wis here ta write, but noo sho’s gyaain’. I ken dose een, hard an’ glitterin’ as ony diamond. An’ I ken dat grin, dose teeth, hard an’ sharp as ony steel. Dey wis my een, but… da trow has tell’t its stories. Da writer is awa. I wis da writer ance. Da trow has tae’n mi place. Da stane is in da hoose… an’ I am in da stane… da stane is in da waa… but if dis hoose should faa, like a’ da odders…
Whit den… fir da trow… in da waa?