Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: Scotland

The Girl in the Chiton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, balls!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Possibly. No, probably.”

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

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

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you American?”

“No,” I laughed. “I’m English.”

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

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

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

“Yes, but don’t mind me.”

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

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

“Yes.”

I looked up at the roof of Ballantyne House.

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

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

“None,” I said. “You?”

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

“Had?”

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

“Oh I am so sorry.”

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

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

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

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

“Is that Greek?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t.”

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

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

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

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

“Run!”

“What? What?”

“Run – just run!”

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

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

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

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

There was no sight of her, no answering sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

©Marie Marshall 2008-2020

Vae Victis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The dark,” he said, and pointed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Five,” I said. “Why?”

“Count them, Boss,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The wind’ll pick up,” I said.

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

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

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

“Quiet – listen!” I hissed.

We thought we caught the sound of a scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heads were missing from all four bodies, sir.

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

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

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

__________

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

The Legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline

Never, never go anti-clockwise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is the story she told us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she chased him… anti-clockwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

©Marie Marshall 2011-2020

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

The water of life *

There is a building in our burgh that once was – several generations ago, after it had been a cottage and before it became a warehouse for garments and then a dance studio – a chapel of sorts. Its small congregation was looked down upon by the Kirk, by the Baptists, by the Romans, and by the Episcopalians, and its pastor or preacher, John Michie, was a byword in the town. He was an incomer, along with his family and a couple of members of the congregation, from Clackmannan, and his church was of no noted denomination, save that some said it had been set off from the Sandemanians. One thing was certain, however, was that John Michie was a man who preached sin, and its consequences in eternal fire.

He was dead against strong drink, and preached every Wednesday and Saturday in the street, handing out tracts about the dangers of alcohol, of how it polluted a man’s soul and body, and how pure water was enough for man’s thirst. It was mainly this that made him a byword. He said it himself. “But he has made me a byword of the people, and I have become one in whose face men spit, Job chapter seventeen, verse six. I am now their taunting song and their byword, same book, chapter thirty, verse nine,” he declared. Small wonder, it could be said, because his Saturday preaching was done outside the Johnstone Arms, and his Wednesday at the gates of the distillery. Taunts he endured, sometimes he was pushed and shoved, an occasional stone was sent flying his way. Once a pebble struck him high on the cheekbone, just under his left eye – he never flinched, and his bearing of the wound seemed to make him stand straighter. For all their detestation of him, people said grudgingly that he had the courage of his convictions.

One Wednesday, having had enough of the disruption caused by Michie’s regular visits, the General Manager of the distillery, a Kirk man, came down in person to the gates and harangued him. The precise words of the exchange are not recorded, but the parting shot of Campbell, the Manager, as he ground on his heel and stalked back to his office, was to the effect that Michie was a fool; Michie, to his back, shouted, “Matthew, chapter five, verse twenty-two!”

Campbell had some influence in the Kirk of Scotland, and it was little surprise that on the following Sunday the Minister there preached about the Marriage at Cana, and how Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine, about how this prefigured the coming of the New Covenant and the ending of the Old, in which the injunction had been “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup” according to the Book of Proverbs. Moreover, said the Minister, the Apostle Paul had told Timothy, his fellow-disciple, to take a little wine for the good of his stomach. When he heard of this, John Michie said very little, except he made a remark about people who confused fermentation with distillation.

People thought that perhaps he had been silenced by one better versed than he. However, next Saturday he appeared as usual at the Johnstone Arms. Only this time he did not preach outside. He pushed open the door and walked in. He walked right up to the counter and, in a room that had fallen silent, addressed the landlord.

“I believe you sell whiskey here, is that not so?”

The landlord placed his fists on the counter and leaned forward.

“I do, John Michie,” he said, “and it is my business if I do, and none of yours!”

“Landlord, I wish to buy some.”

If it were possible for a quiet room to become even quieter, then the bar of the Johnstone Arms did. For a second or two, the landlord, stunned, did not move. Then he reached for a glass.

“No,” said Michie, “I wish to buy more than that.”

The landlord raised his eyebrows and reached for a bottle.

“Landlord, please do not waste my time. Sell me a case. I presume you have one in your cellar? Yes? Then sell me a case of whiskey!”

Every denizen of the pub watched this drama unfold, disbelief on their faces. The landlord went down to the cellar and brought up a case of whiskey. Michie paid for it, hefted it onto his right shoulder, and walked outside. Several – most – of the drinkers followed him, watching as he marched up the road that led to the sharp glen cut into the Ochil Hills, at the foot of which our burgh stands. Some then walked after him, others went into the burgh, to passersby in the street and to customers in the shops, saying “John Michie has bought a case of whiskey, and he’s away up the glen with it!” Soon there was a long straggling line of townsfolk following behind the preacher.

John Michie wasn’t a big man, but he was wiry and tough, and even with the burden of the case of whiskey his pace up the steep glen was hard to match. The path, laid alongside the pipeline that carried the burgh’s water supply from the burn, was narrow, and the drop to the torrent below often sheer. As a result, the preacher kept ahead of the following crowd. When they eventually caught up to him, after a forced march of about an hour, he had stepped onto a rock in the middle of the burn, just below an artificial weir, and just above where an intake had been built to divert some of the water into the pipe. There he sat, the case open, and a whiskey bottle in his hand. The gathering crowd watched as he unscrewed the cap of the bottle.

He poured the contents into the burn.

“That’s a waste of good whiskey!” said one of the younger men in the crowd, and made as if to loup onto the rock himself. But Michie took up another bottle with a reverse grip, testing it as one might test the weight of a handy weapon.

“A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength, Proverbs chapter twenty-four, verse five,” he said, and the young man decided not to intervene after all. In fact every single one of the preacher’s pursuers, come in ones and twos to that place where the hand of man first interferes with the wildness of the burn that runs through the steep-sided glen, simply stood and watched as he emptied the contents of bottle after bottle into the water.

Eventually the crowd was joined by Sergeant Turnbull. Or rather they made way for his slow approach; Turnbull being a man of some girth, and what is more another incomer, from Lothian, his stripes and his exoticism gave him a cachet in their eyes, and so they showed him a good deal of deference.

“John Michie,” he said, “Can ye no see what it says on yon notice?”

water supply for MarieThe preacher looked across to where the policeman was pointing – a sign stating that anyone found polluting the water supply would be prosecuted – and nodded. “I see it fine,” he said, emptying the last whiskey bottle.

“I shall have to arrest you, then.”

“Aye, I think so.”

Packing the empty bottles back into the case, and hefting them once again onto his right shoulder, the preacher followed the Sergeant on a stately progress back down the glen. The others stood back to let them pass. In answer to the occasional quizzical glance, the Sergeant jerked his thumb at the case and said, “Evidence.”

Two days later John Michie stood before the Procurator Fiscal at Alloa Sheriff Court. When asked how he pled to the charge of emptying bottles of whiskey into the water supply of the Burgh of Alva, he said only, “Guilty.” The Procurator Fiscal had been minded to fine the preacher twenty-five pounds, but because of his plea and his obvious subjection “unto the higher powers” as scripture has it, the fine was reduced to seventeen pounds and ten shillings.

If anyone thought this was the end of the extraordinary episode they were wrong. On the day after his appearance in court, John Michie caused a handbill to be circulated widely in the burgh – pinned to posts, handed out to all and sundry by members of his little congregation. The headline on it ran thus:

“THE LAW DECLARES WHISKEY TO BE A POLLUTANT.”

The text below was an honest account of the preacher’s actions, his deliberately disobeying the precise words of the sign, his subsequent appearance at the Sheriff Court, and his guilty plea. And of course no one would gainsay the headline, because it was literally true. It is not recorded whether this actually altered anyone’s drinking habits, but the story is always retold with a smile, and a note that no one ever called John Michie a fool after that. For a while his little congregation was even a person or two larger, and it is said that, with a twinkle in his eye, he preached less about hell fire and more about baptism, and about the pure water of life.

__________

*I was sent the photograph which accompanies this story, with the suggestion that I could probably find a story in it.

Da Trow i’ da Waa

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

trow 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I couldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stories? Du wants stories?”

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

“I’m da trow, da trow i’ da waa.”

“The troll in the wall?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, dat it is,” said the trow.

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

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

“Tell me! Tell me!” I said.

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

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

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

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

“What are we doing?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Du’s gyaain’?” I said to the trow.

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

“I’m stayin’,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Whit den… fir da trow… in da waa?

Whit den?

‘Westward’

In 1924, at Port an Eilean Mhoir on Ardnamurchan, the remains of a Viking ship burial were found.
__________

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No home,” it said. “Never home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.png

__________

© Marie Marshall

2016… 2017…

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

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

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

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

Images are ©

The Emerald…

… the story of the last Scotsman in the universe!

1

I met the last Scotsman in the universe in a bar on Cargo, a hole of a planet about sixteen jumps from Galactic Home. You can’t get much further away. There’s only one more jump in that direction, and that drops you by a cluster of unimpressive, wobbly rocks on the edge of a supervoid. Cargo isn’t a whole lot more impressive than that, it’s just a planet where people dump stuff, stuff that might, or might not, go on to the prospecting stations on Coral or Juke, the two other planets in the same system. Anyhow, that’s where I met him. Mack Gregor Elcho was what he called himself. He was much like any of us that turn up in such places – those of us with a shred of dignity try to smarten up our one suit, our one shirt, our one pair of dirtboots, and those without don’t. I guess Mack Gregor Elcho was on the cusp. He had a beard, because he said all Scotsmen had beards, and he wore a skirt woven from some obscure sideworld fibre. He carried his scrip, which he kept fingering and shifting, on a hide thong round his neck. His eyes, when he bothered to hold your gaze, seemed to have a cold fear lurking in them, as though he was not only on the cusp of desperation there on Cargo, but also of insanity.

And he had an emerald.

He showed it to me. It fitted into the palm of his hand. I had never seen an emerald as big as that in my life, not anywhere, not even on Gemstone Five, not even in the markets and bazaars of Jackson’s Moon, not even in the crown of the Merovingian Queens in the Great Museum of Innsmouth City on End-All. I wondered why the hell he held onto it – and oh brother did he hold onto it! – why he didn’t sell it, buy himself a handsome skirt and scrip and dirtboots and book a jump back to civilisation. But he didn’t. He showed it to me for a brief second, then closed his fist on it again, and it winked at me, deep green, between his fingers. I couldn’t keep my eyes of that glint of deep green, and he knew it.

“Buy us both a drink, laddie,” he said in his strange accent, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”

That was an invitation hard to resist, so I didn’t resist it. I weighed up the few roundels of base metal that I had, the dull discs that pass for currency out there on Cargo, and blew them on a shot of hard liquor for us both. I pushed his over to him, and told him to go on. He did. Thus.

“Laddie, I was the last man to leave the planet of Scotland. It’s a world that has some kind of curse on it, for folk either worked themselves to death under its blue sun, or died young of despair, or left as soon as they had siller enough to their credit. All who left, few enough of them at the end, gave up the name of Scotsman, gave up our lingo, gave up our names and our way of dressing. Where they are now, who can say? I’m the last one to keep his Scotland name, the last one with tales and songs of the old place, the last man to wear skirt and scrip.”

“I had a place kept for me on the very last evacuation jumper, and if I did not take it, I would be marooned there for ever. But I had to make one last quest. I had heard a tale… in a bar much like this except that the owner was nailing boards over the windows and pouring the last of his liquor into glasses for us last-gaspers… of this emerald. This very emerald. It was to be found, I was told, way off in the jungle, in a castle called Elcho. Yes, a castle with my name on it! How could I resist? I fuelled and provisioned an abandoned, ramshackle skimmer and, despite the protests of the other last-gaspers and of the Captain of the jumper who said he would not wait for me, I set off along the coast towards where the castle supposedly lay. I skimmed until I found the mouth of the bronze, oily river Tay, where it spews its metallic water into the sea. There I turned inland, and wound my way along the river, as the grey jungle closed in on me. To one side the great Kinnoull Volcano rose, filling the air with acrid dust, choking the filter of my mask and fogging my visor. I knew that the castle was to be found on the other side of river, and from time to time I had tantalising glimpses of something rising above the great ferns and weeds that made up the jungle, but as soon as I caught sight of it there would be a bend in the river, or a higher patch of vegetation, or a drift of smoke and dust from Kinnoull, and it would disappear again.”

“At last I figured that I must be close enough to it to attempt a landing. That wasn’t easy, as the jungle didn’t just grow down to the Tay, it overhung it. Tendrils hung down that looked as though they might snake out to grab, and things moved and rustled in the overhanging limbs and stems. But I found somewhere where the ferns and weeds had died back, and I cut the skimmer’s drive and beached it there. Walking on the dead vegetation was like walking on corpses, stepping on what felt like human arms and legs. Something told me to go back to the skimmer, to get out of there and join the others on the jumper. But equally something – greed, I guess, and stubborn curiosity – drove me on. Keep in mind, laddie, that these two feelings pulled and tugged at me all the time. I cut through the living jungle with a small plasma-spade, using it like an axe, leaving a fingertip-to-fingertip trail behind me, ignoring the scuttling and snarling in the untouched vegetation. I don’t know how long I kept this up, but it got to the point I was sure that the charge in the spade was about to give out and I would never find the castle. I was close to despair at that point, the tears of frustration being the only thing to wash the sweat out of my stinging eyes, when suddenly the grey ferns gave way, and I came out into a clearing. It was a place of bare, hard, blue dirt, as though the jungle somehow didn’t dare grow there. And in the centre of it stood Elcho Castle.”

3“It was a ziggurat of grey-blue stone, with a way – part ramp, part stair – that wound upwards to the topstone, in which an apparent doorway gaped. The air was heavy and still. Even the dust from the volcano seemed to shy away from this place. As I climbed the sloping path cut into the side of the castle, I was aware of the eroded carvings on the walls. Figures seemed to dance, to bow, sometimes to stand erect like guards; but all seemed to be gesturing upwards, urging me on. It felt as though these figures had been waiting for no one but me to come here and climb this winding path. But this was a structure unlike anything I had ever seen on Scotland. It was unlike the castles and granaries and towns that generations of Scotsmen had built in the south, since the planet had first been peopled. It seemed to be made of living stone, not of Scotland Iron and off-world concrete like any civilized building had been until everything had started to crumble from neglect. It was old, far older than our generations. It felt durable, almost eternal. The erosion spoke to me of not of centuries but of millennia, or of hundreds of millennia. Who had built it? What civilisation had been here before the first Scotsman? What people had they been, who had left no other trace on the planet apart from this everlasting place?”

“When I reached the topstone, the final stupa, and stood before the dark maw of the opening I had seen, I hesitated. The fear I had felt urging me to go back was now stronger than ever. But also that insatiable feeling that I should go on had increased. I gripped my spade, hit the on-button again to make it into a torch to see by, and stepped inside the chamber. I was surprised to find that I didn’t need any extra light. Something in there was making its own illumination. At the far end of the chamber something was glowing green. It was this emerald. The story had been true.”

“I stepped towards it, and found myself teetering on the edge of a void, my right foot swaying over black nothingness. I had been so intent on the emerald that I had not seen an opening in the floor. Sweat streamed down my body, prickling as it ran. Whimpering in fright, I sat down on the lip of the opening. I cried, I laughed, sanity slipped away a little as I realised how close to death I had come, rather than to a fortune. Recovering myself after a few minutes, I picked my way carefully round the opening, until I reached the emerald. I had thought it might have been fixed somehow, but in fact it lay cupped in a hollowed-out niche in the stone. All I had to do was to pick it up. And I did just that.”

“Laddie, it continued to glow. It threw a light onto the walls. There were carvings there, just like those on the outside, but less worn. They beckoned and gestured, but not upwards this time, rather they pointed towards the opening in the floor, in which I saw steps leading down. As though under an unspoken obligation or command, I held up the glowing emerald and walked down into the interior of the castle. I reached the first level down, where I stopped, held up the emerald, and looked around. Beams from the jewel shone onto the carvings on the wall. Before my eyes was an incredible scene. It was the meeting of two races. One race, the hosts, had faces that were like the lemurs of Azimov Seven, dog-like, mouths turned up in smiles. They were bowing in welcome, honouring an embassy from a second race. Tall, erect, proud, the second race was unmistakably… human. I walked round and round this level, taking in the details of the carving, studying, making mental notes, imagining myself stopping the flight of the last jumper and leading an expedition back here to study this archaeological marvel. A fascination had almost swept away my fear. But then something caught my attention. I held the emerald close and looked intently at the lemur-faced people. There was something sly in their eyes, there were backward glances, furtive looks shared with each other, their smiles seemed suddenly less those of welcoming hosts, but more of smirking conspirators. My fear returned. What was I seeing?”

“Ah, but don’t think that fascination died, laddie! I could see another opening in the floor, and another set of steps leading down. I followed them – what else could I do? – into the second level down. In a chamber larger than the last, the walls had carvings of the lemur-people setting a great feast before the human ambassadors. They brought to their seated guests great chargers full of food, goblets of drink. They waited upon their guests with courteous bows. They toasted their guests and were toasted in turn. The guests sat and reclined at their ease. As they consumed the feast, a troupe of lemur-women danced for them. It seemed a noble celebration. But again in the eyes of the lemur-folk were the same knowing, conspiratorial glances. I wanted to warn the human guests that they were in some kind of danger, but how could I warn figures of stone?”

“The walls of the third level down made me gape. The feast had been cleared away. The lemur-people were now debauching their guests, coupling with them, mating with them, pleasuring their bodies. And still… still… those smug looks of conspiracy passed between them. It was as though the lemur-people themselves had made these carvings themselves, to show how clever they were. Or maybe some third race was responsible for this show, and had placed the carvings here as a warning. But why, and to whom? I was, as far as I knew, the only human ever to have set eyes on them. I can tell you, laddie, it was with my heart in my mouth that I went a further level down. Aye, I did, though…”

“The walls of the fourth level… how can I tell you how the sight of them paralysed me, how that prickle of terror broke out all over me again. By the light of the emerald this is what I saw.”

Mack Gregor Elcho took a breath, a swig of his liquor, and went on.
“On the walls of the fourth level, laddie, the conspiracy had been launched. The human guests, where they had sprawled in lust, were now trapped, pinioned, bound. They were being subjected to all kinds of torture at the hands of the lemur-folk, who sunk teeth and claws into them, pierced them with instruments of torment. The humans’ faces were contorted in a rictus of agony, or frozen in screams. They writhed, struggling to escape, but impotent to do so. It was a scene of total horror, and it was made more horrible by the smug satisfaction in the faces of the lemur-people.”

He paused again, picking up his glass and looking at it but not drinking from it. His other hand clutched the emerald as tightly as ever. I broke the silence and said that I imagined he would now tell me what was on the fifth level down. He sighed, and with his eyes still on his glass, he went on.

“Laddie, you have no idea how I have tried to hide behind glasses, and bottles, and needles, and tokes, and cyber-probes, and every trick known to sentient beings, short of suicide, to eradicate from my head the nightmares I have every time I shut my eyes. Every sleep-cycle they come, and they won’t stop. Yes, yes there was a fifth level, and I looked down into it, laddie. I didn’t go down, otherwise… well… who knows. But I looked into it. And do you want to know what I saw? I saw… moving down there… tormented and tormenting, locked into an eternal scene of torture, the writhing, agonized humans, and the lemur-folk reveling in their pain, rending them with teeth, claws, knives, complicated instruments, licking their blood!”

“I have no idea how, but I must have climbed back into the daylight, fled from that unholy place back down the path I had cut through the jungle, not caring about any danger from jungle creatures or the hanging tendrils of predatory plants. I must have piloted the skimmer back to the jumper port. I vaguely recall hands tugging me inside the last open hatchway and the hatch slamming shut behind me. When at last I came to my senses, I was three jumps past Scotland, lying in a filthy bunk, my right hand buried deep under my tattered clothes, clutching this emerald in my fist.”

The self-styled last Scotsman in the universe stopped, pausing for a long time, fixing me with a gaze that was watery but piercing.

“Do you believe me?” he asked.

I took a deep breath.

“No. No, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a word!” I said loudly, pushing myself back in my chair. “For a start, who could have told you about the emerald except someone who had already been there? Why didn’t this person take the jewel for himself? No, I don’t believe you! There’s no such planet as Scotland, no such river, no such jungle, no such volcano, no such castle. If there were, you would take back your lousy emerald and leave it where you found it. If it is an emerald at all. Look at you, you’re a space-tramp, a derry, a has-been. If that was a real emerald you would be a rich man with a jumper of your own, not some old chavo in a skirt and scrip begging drinks in bars. It’s a worthless piece of glass, and you’re trying to get me to buy it, or something like that. Last Scotsman in the universe – ha! ”

He waved his fist in front of my face, the jewel still glinting between his fingers.

“Oh it’s true right enough,” he said. “Every last word is true. But I can’t put it back, and I can’t sell it. Laddie, you believe me… I can see it… you believe me!”

“No, no!” I yelled. “I don’t believe you!”

But I did, you see. I believed it all, from beginning to end. That is why, I guess, the last I knew of Mack Gregor Elcho was the swish of the airlock of that bar on the planet Cargo as he left. And this emerald tight in my fist. That’s what my belief brought me. That and his nightmares. Every sleep-cycle I take every step of his journey, I live it, I live every moment. I am myself, if you like, now the last Scotsman in the universe, and my own name, the one I have carried throughout the whole of space from one end to the other, is scarcely relevant. I know, sure as I know my own unshaven face in a mirror, the same bronze, oily river, the same volcano, the same jungle, the same planet Scotland. And the same dreadful ziggurat of blue stone under a blue sun, in which, in sleep after sleep, I see the same proud human embassy debauched, seized, and tortured by the lemur-people, the same blood, the same agony. Oh brother, the torture in my mind is as great as theirs. It’s eternal, it never stops. And it’s all as true as true can be, it’s as true as this emerald you see winking in my hand, as true as its green light, as true as its awful fire that reveals what should never be revealed, the truth at the heart of that cursed planet, Scotland…

Hey… buy me a drink now. And hey… do you believe me?

Do you believe me?

Do you?

2

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

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

girl-gang

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

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

I’ll let you know what turns up.

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

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

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

‘Pitlochry, as the dread hour approaches.’

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

theatre2