You wear your mask so perfectly,
no one would ever guess,
underneath that false facade
lies a life that you have wrecked
So gentle and engaging
to the unsuspecting eye,
this act of patient kindness
covers up your many lies
Master of illusion,
of deceitful, dirty tricks,
a hidden streak of malice,
violence is your fix
No bone too tough to break through,
no skin too soft to bruise,
you strike each blow so swiftly
with an ever-shortening fuse
You wear your mask so perfectly
but it hides the truth no longer,
a monster lurks behind that smile
but time will make me stronger.
The night sky shimmered above the revellers. Stars adorned the blackened sky like beads of frost on an ocean of treacle. Shards of cold mischievously nipped at the air. But said revellers? Well, they didn’t mind. Of course not. That’s whole the point in being a reveller, the not minding. The whole essence of the conjugated verb, to revel. The entire being of…well, you get the picture. A tedious, repetitive picture no doubt but nonetheless the picture has, I trust, been well and truly gotten.
So anyway, yes, the revellers cared not a jot for the winter’s malevolent cold. No lack of temperature or scarcity of heat could dampen these party-goers’ spirits. In fact, in the true essence of enjoying oneself, the surroundings of all at the gathering had disappeared meekly into the realm of irrelevant. Laughter, screeching, swirling pipes, wailing, singing, dancing, heelin’, beelin’, reelin’, fleein’, meelin’; yes, despite the last lot of those words being very clearly a lazy and inaccurate attempt at onomatopoeia, it’s true to say that all of these sounds burst forth from the ruined, roofless kirk. All of which, incidentally, were cloaked in a bright, fantastic beam of light. ‘Beam’ would be the wrong word to use, in fact. Splurge may more on point? Less a splurge of light however than possibly a boak? Yes, let’s go with that. It was as if a light source had inexplicably boaked a mass of the stuff into the crispy night air, paying no heed to shape nor consistency. Make sense? No? Fair enough.
Right, well, I for one am relieved we managed to get to the end of that paragraph together. Wouldn’t you agree? So, with that in mind, and going on the basis that we are all busy people and all have lives to lead, let’s bash on with this tale in an efficient and orderly manner shall we.
And we’ll do that by cutting through the cold night air, forcing ourselves through the boak of light into the ruined kirk, and by honing in on one character nestled in amongst the oft-mentioned revels. There he stood. A man. Like any other. Well, that’s not strictly true. In fact it’s not true at all. This man, our man, was a warlock. A male witch, so to speak. Only, you see, in the time when this story is set people weren’t as enlightened as they are now so the idea of a male doing a ‘woman’s job’ didn’t sit so kindly with the general public, or magistrates, or lynch mobs. So they went with the name ‘warlock’. But not for the first time in this tale, I digress. Yes, our man was a warlock. But this didn’t make him unique. Certainly not in this party, at least. No, he was one of many warlocks involved in the festivities. And if you think that is somewhat strange, or odd, then you won’t do when I reel off a list of some of the other attendees at this party. There were witches, corpses, pipers, priests (complete with blackened hearts), a trio of lawyers (each with their tongue inside-out), strangled babies, unchristened babies, a man freshly cut from the gallows, another man with a slit-throat, a shaggy black dog, even Old Nick himself, yes, Satan, The Devil, the Deil, etc etc…the list did and could go on. And in terms of decorations; open coffins, tomahawks, scimitars…again, the list did and could go on. But the scene has, I think, been rather well illustrated. And so you’ll understand why I said he wasn’t unique. Even amongst his fellow warlocks he didn’t stand out. The others could be boisterous, majestic, grand. Ours? He liked a party. Yes, of course he did. But boisterous or majestic wouldn’t be the words you’d use to describe him. ‘Sombre’ might be closer to the truth. ‘Reserved’ probably edges even closer. A reserved reveller. Not so great for a party invite but a fine, even-keeled, observational choice as a protagonist. Or, more precisely, a conduit for this story’s narration.
So there he stood. Slumped indifferently against a wall. The whole cold starry night/ruined kirk/horror hullaballoo thing going on around him. Witches, fellow warlocks, corpses, the devil sitting menacingly in a window alcove; all of that.
‘Not long now’ he muttered to himself, a glass of blo…let’s call it wine…a glass of let’s-call-it-wine listlessly swaying from side to side in his hand. ‘Not long to last now’. The words trickled from his throat, unsure of themselves even as he spoke them. The start of parties like this were fine, he thought, but it’s the latter part of them that turn into hellish bloody mess. He cast his gaze wearily from side to side. I mean look at the state of them, he decried in his mind. (He was a warlock, yes, but he wasn’t the type of warlock with enough courage to warrant uttering that kind of sentiment out loud thus invoking his own death sentence.) Screaming, hoisting, jigging. His ears throbbed under the volume of the scene. It sounds like a herd of banshees being throttled by an army of strangled cats, he thought. And horses hoofs? No, no. There’s no horses around here. It’s those hags making all the racket. That’s mainly who it is. The ‘witches’. Bloody wrinkled, thrawn, hideous messes. Well, all aside from that young one with the short skirt that is. She’s a right little stunner, a right…
‘…little beauty!’ he said louder, far louder, than he intended as he thoughts crossed the internal realm and snuck into the realms of spoken.
‘EH!?’ One of the corpses, rather worse for wear, which is perfectly natural for a corpse I would imagine, bumped into the warlock and peered through his sickly yellow eyes at the latter’s own.
‘Oh…nothing…nothing’ mumbled our conduit.
‘AYE!’ the drunken corpse staggered on unsteadily before finding himself being hurled at breakneck speed into a whirling mushroom cloud of violent ceilidh dancing.
Compose yourself now, our man admonished himself silently, compose yourself. It’ll be over soon. It’ll all be over soon. We’ve almost made it through. And then I can get back to my own spells and curse and general hellish abandon….’oh shit…’
Profanity never came easy to this particular warlock. I mean, after all, profanity was the last refuge of the intellectually challenged wasn’t it? But he could afford himself this one. And a few more to follow quickly on its heels come to think of it…
The reason for such a vulgar diatribe lurked in the shadows by the window. He glanced round in a panic, desperate to ensure no-one else had caught sight of the clearly drunken man peering voyeuristically in through one of the kirk windows; his horse stood several paces behind him. No. Thank god. Well, not he, obviously not him, but thank someone anyway. They were all too consumed in their own devilish merriment to take notice. He tried to gesture subtly to the man. Urging him to flee, to escape, to ride. But all to no avail. The man simply stared. In awe. In fear. In…well there was definitely lust there aswell as he looked on at the young witch with the short skirt. The dirty bugger! Perverted scoundrel! Maybe I should let the rest see him, maybe I should just let them all loose and….no, no. No, I really can’t be doing with another life-or-death chase. It takes it out of you and I’m already bloody fed up and knackered as it is. Maybe if I could just sneak quietly over and…
‘My good man! Hahaha! How are we? How are we? It’s been a while!’ the man cut fresh from the gallows staggered over to the warlock.
‘Oh bloody hell…YES! Fine! YES!’ he was aware of his own fluctuating speech levels, rising and falling with the nerves pulsating through his (admittedly barren) veins but could do nothing to stop them. ‘I’m, yes, I’m very good of course!’
‘Hahaha yes very good, you boring bugger that ye are! Enjoy yersel min! How’s the…erm…warlocking and all that stuff then?’
‘Erm fine, yes. Very fine. And how’s the…how’s your…neck?’
‘Bit sore with this bloody rope tightened around it, aye! Hahaha. Aye.’
The two stood in silence for a matter of seconds. The source of their small talk reserves now having run dry.
‘Well then…’ announced the man, picking up the surplus of his gallows rope from the ground, ‘I need to go for a, ehm, how do I put this delicately…I won’t…a piss my good warlocky chum. I need a piss. So I’ll away outside!’
‘NO!’ our warlock surprised himself with the ferocity of his demand. But if he went outside the man would be discovered and, let’s face it, that was the last thing anyone needed.
‘I said erm…erm…’ he scrambled for an excuse, cursing himself with a brief ‘come on man, you’re an all-powerful, evil warlock, you should be able to come up with a half-decent bloody lie!’ motivational speech, ‘erm…YES! It’s a hellish, ghoulish party. Just do it in here! Haha! Why wouldn’t you. None of these evil beings would care enough to go outside, would they! So erm…so on you go, in here…’ he looked nervously at the man.
‘Aye….aye…Aye!’ each ‘aye’ gained more conviction. ‘Aye, why the hell would I eh! Right, I’m off for a piss over there and then when I’m done I’m going tae hae a shot at that young witch piece o’er there! Haha! Cheers my Warlock chum!’ a friendly clap on the back signalled his exit.
‘Right’ whispered our man, ‘if I can only just get over there to the man without anyone noticing then I’ll just politely say to him, in the calmest set of terms of course, I’ll say; look, my fine fellow, this is not your scene, maybe it’s best if you just head on home now and…’
‘WEEL DONE CUTTY SARK!!!’
Every witch, warlock, fiend, creature and orb turned their heads, their sight, towards the red-faced man staring in through the window at them.
And in an instant, all was….well, do I really need to finish that line for you? Really? Darkness, ok? Where there was once light – remember the ‘boak’ of light – there was now darkness. No lights. Lights out. Oot. Kaput. If you could see through pitch darkness you would have seen our warlock shaking his head in an emotion lodged somewhere between anger, disappointment, exasperation and general annoyance. ‘You stupid drunken bastard’ he said. ‘You stupid, bloody drunken idiot.’
Unspoken thoughts, grunts, commands, passed between the revellers. All blending seamlessly, it seemed, into two distinct thoughts; namely ‘Chase him’ and ‘Kill him’.
‘Ignore him’ offered the warlock sheepishly, trying to disguise the thought’s identity. ‘Just ignore him? Yeah, waste of time, yeah, just enjoy the party. Ignore him. Yeah.’
‘Then it’s agreed! We chase him and we KILL HIM!’ the collective, coherent thought of the group pierced through our warlock’s skull. He sighed. Mournfully and exhaustingly.
The lights burst into the air again. Hungry, violent evil now etched across every inch of the revellers’ faces. All directed towards the now-quivering, the now-scrambling, the now-trying-to-flee red-faced man.
‘Every single time there’s a party’ mumbled our conduit, still shaking his head. A blood-curdling cacophony of noise shot into the ether as they prepared to advance. ‘This happens every single bloody time…’
The early morning sun creeps slowly, silently, patiently above the slopes of Mossgiel Farm, East Ayrshire. The faintest of November chills grapples for prominence in the clean, crisp air. A delicate and occasional drip patters to the earth from the few remaining leaves on an otherwise bare tree. The thaw the only indication of an earlier frost.
Close to the tree a ploughman struggles manfully with his plough. Straining, wheezing, he grips to the rough wooden handles as the metal thrusts into the soil. Again. And again. Occasionally he halts, muttering to himself in hushed, mumbled tones before resuming his task once more. The wistful, somewhat distracted look upon the ploughman’s face remains as the plough hacks into the earth once more. A youthful, handsome face, one of a man in his mid-to-late twenties. Still, the strain clearly shows. Again, he stops. His gaze fixed inattentively in the distance, the muttering returning. Lines of verse nudge themselves ever so slightly into the realms of the barely audible. Repetitive, broken verse. Over and over. Announcing, correcting, repeating. Announcing, correcting, repeating. Eventually, seemingly satisfied, he shakes his gaze from its aimless resting point. He stares down at his plough, shifting his grip and bracing his arms for the next round of ritualistic menial torture. A startled look glazes over his face as he notices something at the foot of the plough. He releases his grip on the tool, slowly making his way around it before crouching down towards the earth.
‘Och, naw’ he exclaims, a disappointment weaved throughout his voice. His eyes are fixed on an upturned, or rather ruined, mouse’s nest strewn across the soil below his plough. Guilt, tinged with sadness, washes over his expression.
‘Poor wee beastie.’ he mutters.
Out of the corner of his eye he notices a small grey shape frantically darting through the mounds of upturned soil. The ploughman slowly raises himself up, never shifting his stare from the panicked mouse scurrying from the scene. The guilty look subsides enough to allow a fraction of that wistful expression to return.
‘Just a wee, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’ he announces softly before adding emphasis to his voice. ‘A wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie. O, what a panic’s in yer…naw, in it’s……naw, naw, in thy. Aye. O, what a panic’s in thy….neestie? Naw, naw, neestie’s no even a soddin’ word. In thy…in thy…in thy breastie! That’s the one!’
The ploughman allows himself a smug smile before coughing gently in that pompous theatrical way that signals a forthcoming recitation or performance.
‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’ he announces in a dramatically deep booming voice, ‘O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!’
At this the mouse visibly halts. Its frantic escape plan abruptly ceased. The ploughman catches sight of this. He watches as the mouse, a creature not traditionally known for its subtle or measured movements, slowly swivels its small frame around before gazing up at him. Slowly, even calmly, it walks along the upturned earth before halting only a yard or two from the ploughman. Still it looks up, peering straight into his gaze. The guilty wistfulness now replaced by something resembling a mixture of shock, curiosity and amusement. A look which, will presently become clear, is set to flee the scene to be temporarily replaced by nothing but a hideous sense of fear.
‘Here! Who are calling sleekit you big tube!?’ says the mouse.
The ploughman’s expression unsurprisingly now takes on that sense of fear just mentioned. He stares down at the mouse’s furious expression, its belligerent stance.
‘S-sorry…?’ ventures the ploughman.
‘I said, who the hell are you calling sleekit?! You big gormless tube!’ replies the mouse. ‘Aye…aye, I thought that’s what you said.’
‘I added in the ‘gormless’ bit the second time mind you.’
‘You did aye.’
The two continue to stare at each other. One in perplexity, confusion, desperately trying to reconcile the current events with the logic of reason, sense, the laws of the universe. The other in a continual state of annoyance.
‘I cannae be drunk’ declares the ploughman, more for his own benefit than that of his rodent companion.
‘Well that makes a change!’ answers the mouse.
‘I mean I wisnae even drinking last night!’
‘So you say.’
‘Wait. What do you mean by ‘that makes a change’?’
‘Just what I say’ replies the mouse, gradually increasing in annoyance.
‘And that is?’
‘That you’re always supping. The amount of times I’ve seen you hungover, sweating and toiling with that bloody plough, this week alone, is ridiculous.’
‘Aye, weel…I’m no drunk now anyway.’
Again the two look at each other. Sizing each other up. The ploughman’s singular attempt at reconciliation very obviously failing, if his still-dumfounded expression is anything to go by at least.
‘So…?’ says the mouse.
‘Sleekit!? You called me sleekit! At what point, during the destruction of my home, did you suddenly decide that I was displaying sly or cunning attributes? Was it when I was hurtling away, trying to preserve my life?’
‘Ach, no sleekit as in sly, sleekit as in shiny. Your coat, your fur. That kind of thing.’
‘Ok. That’s fine then.’
The mouse pondered for a couple of seconds, internally scrambling to hold onto his anger.
‘Ok then, yes. What about ‘cow’rin’, ‘tim’rous’ eh?’
‘What about them?’
‘Where do you get off calling me ‘tim’rous’ or ‘cow’rin’? You don’t even know me ploughman!’
‘But you were. You were both cow’rin and tim’rous!’
‘Aye well so would you be if a giant metal thing was slicing up your house piece by piece!’
‘Aye weel what’s your point?’
‘Well…’ mulled the mouse, ‘…well no-one likes to be told they’re being tim’rous or that they’re cow’rin do they. I mean come on.’
‘Fair point aye.’
The mouse continues to stare at the ploughman. A slight crack in the mouse’s composure appears visible. The kind of crack that comes from winning an argument far earlier than you expected to.
‘So’ starts the mouse, ‘what now?’
‘Yes, what now?’
‘With regards to what?’
‘With regards to you obliterating my house and leaving me homeless. What now?’
‘Well…I…I…I’m no sure to be honest wee yin. I’ll eh, I’ll build you a new one maybe? Aye, I’ll build you a new one. How does that sound? And I’ll make sure to avoid it when I’m ploughing the field in future?’
The ploughman smiles gently, if not timidly, awaiting the mouse’s reply. A reply, he predicts, sure to be drenched in warmth and an undying gratitude.
‘Don’t be so damn stupid, ploughman’ answers the mouse dismissively. ‘For a start, you’re never paying any attention when you plough this field! You’re forever muttering those poems of yours. Quite good by the way I must say but that’s beside the point. So no, you’d just tear through my nest yet again. No, we can’t have that. And secondly, you might be good at verse, ploughman, but you’d be useless at building a nest. Just because your lot think you’ve conquered nature it doesn’t mean you actually have. So no, try again.’
‘And don’t call me wee yin you patronising oaf!’
‘My apologies. Haud oan…you said you like my poetry?’
‘Is that all you’re taking from what I said?’ asked the mouse, its features screwing up in incredulity.
‘No, not all, no. But you like my poems aye? Which ones in particular?’
‘Of for god’s sa…yes, they’re fairly good, ok? That one you muttering about for weeks, the one with the dogs in it, that’s…’
‘The Twa Dugs?’ interrupted the ploughman.
‘That’s the one, yes. Yes I liked that one. I thought, here’s an intelligent, humorous young man, rare you find that in the fields. Of course then you completely destroyed my home so that shows how daft I was to think that, doesn’t it!’
‘Very kind of you’ comes the answer, an answer completely bereft of acknowledgment for the latter part of the mouse’s response, ‘Aye, very kind indeed.’
‘Humans.’ scoffs the mouse, gently shaking his head. ‘The slightest bit of flattery and that’s you won over. How you became the dominant species I’ll never know.’
The ploughman disappears temporarily to that wistful place of his, for no more than a few seconds, accompanied by a sense of gratification, before returning to the conversation.
‘Ok,’ he announces, rather more cheerfully and less racked with confusion than he had been only a minute or so previously, ‘how about this then; I’ll mark out an area around that tree just over there. A clear mark that I cannae go past with the plough. A wee fallow area perhaps. And you can build your own nest up there. Aye?’
The mouse turned his head towards the tree and perused the area for a good minute or so, muttering to itself occasionally.
‘…nice bit of a shade…yes, hmm…warmth in the winter perhaps…room for burrowing…yes, yes…nice view…’
The mouse eventually turns back to the ploughman.
‘Right then, yes. I think I can cope with that. Yes.’
‘But mind here,’ declares the mouse, a stern look now adorning it’s face, ‘you better be paying attention when you’re ploughing near that tree in the future ok? You hear me!’
‘Aye, aye, of course I will.’
‘The best laid schemes of mice and men eh’ said the mouse half to itself, half to the ploughman.
‘Sorry, what was that?’
‘Nothing. Never mind.’
‘So…! So are going to get on with it or what!? Need I remind you that I am currently homeless? Of no fixed abode. Oot oan ma erse, as it were!’
‘Naw, sorry, naw, of course. I’ll get started right now.’
‘Good, that’s what I like to hear. What’s your name anyway, ploughman? Just incase I have to take up a complaint with you over shoddy workmanship, for example.’
‘Oh, its’ eh, it’s Rabbie. Pleased to meet yer acquaintance.’
‘Rabbie, eh. The heaven-taught ploughman.’
‘Sorry, what was that?’
‘Nothing, never mind.’
‘Right. And your name is?’
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid man, mice don’t have names!’
‘Oh, oh of course not. No.’
‘Well anyway, it’s getting close to lunchtime so I’ll be off.’
‘Aye you’d best be.’
‘I’ll expect that work to be done by the time I’m back foraging by the way so get right to it.’
‘Shall do, aye.’
And with that the mouse scurries off at a furious pace, one of its various senses undoubtedly detecting the lunch it spoke of only moments earlier. The ploughman stares at the mouse for a few seconds as it disappears off into the earthy horizon. He nods his head slightly before slowly turning to trudge his way up to the tree in question. Muttering to himself all the while.
‘Wee sleekit, cow’rin tim’rous beastie…o, what a panic’s in thy breastie…’
Four and twenty months of pain,
secretly you hide your shame
Splintered by a web of lies,
this family tree condemned to die
Four and twenty years destroyed,
erased by lust,
turned to dust.
The car started first time, which was rather surprising. April fumbled for a moment with the gear stick and slowly moved out of the garage and into the open. Immediately, the sound of the rain hammering on the roof hit her ears and she paused in the driveway for a moment. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. However, she took a deep breath and, clicking the remote to close the garage door, slowly made her way into the street and drove off.
The windscreen wipers were now on full speed, but it was still difficult to see. The constant thumping on the roof, the hiss from the radio and the wash from traffic as it passed close by worried her. She had made her decision, however, there was no going back, she was going to go, she was going to see the place one last time.
There was a loud noise, of a sudden. It reminded her of that first time when she’d met Graeme in the small air-raid shelter.
I was so frightened, she remembered, not knowing if it was perhaps my house that had been hit, perhaps next door, perhaps a street away. Father was away, in France I’d been told, and Mother was rushing around helping everyone else, as usual. Graeme had spotted me and came over, putting his arm around me. He might only have been 17 or 18 himself at the time but he was so kind.
I remember looking up into his soft, brown eyes and melting. I felt safe for the first time in years. I think I fell asleep in his arms. What was I then, 15?
Outside, lights, colourful lights merged together in the wash of the windscreen. It reminded her of the first time she’d come to Hopeside Manor.
I remember seeing the house for the first time. Gosh, it was huge. I mean, I knew Graeme was from a wealthy family, but this! This! There were lights in the garden! Who would have guessed you could have lights in the garden? And meeting his mother for the first time, my she was a stern woman.
I remember being introduced to her, rather formally I thought. I think I might have curtsied I was so nervous. I spoke to her about books and how upset I was that the library had had to close.
‘A terrible mess this war isn’t it?’ she’d said, and then I remember so distinctly her turning to Graeme and saying, ‘She’s very pretty Graeme, wherever did you find her?’
I remember Graeme holding on to me tightly then, squeezing my hand to reassure me that all would be fine, he was always reassuring me that all would be fine.
There was a sudden stillness outside, save for the patter of the rain, quieter now. A small tear escaped from her eye as she remembered him more.
Then he had to go away, called up on his 19th birthday. I thought I’d die.
‘Wait for me’, he said, as he walked away in his uniform. So handsome. I have a picture still, somewhere, of him in that uniform, looking so young. I thought my heart would break waiting, always waiting for letters, for postcards, for the war to end.
The rain continued. She seemed to be stuck in a traffic jam now as nothing was moving.
I remember going down to the docks, when the ships sailed in. I remember looking at every single man as they came off that boat wondering if I’d even recognise him. Worried that he’d no longer love me. When I saw him finally, my heart almost stopped beating and I couldn’t move. I stared at him as he simply strode over to me, smiled his big cheery smile and held me so close I couldn’t breathe. I remember his first words to me on that return, ‘Marry me April, marry me now and let us never be apart again’.
Now, outside, there were strange sounds. Could it be bells? Why would there be bells? She remembered the bells ringing out at her wedding.
Growing up as a girl on a little estate, who would have guessed I’d ever have a huge society wedding? I still don’t know, to this day, what that dress cost but it was beautiful, and so heavy to wear. We stood there, together as man and wife on the steps of that massive church and I felt as though I were a princess in front of adoring crowds. My only wish would have been for my father to have given me away, but he never returned from France.
Were there now the sounds of crying? A small child?
When Jane was born I was the happiest woman on the planet. She was a difficult birth but it was such a long time ago I almost can’t remember. She’s been good to me Jane, best daughter a mother could ever have asked for. It was just after she was born we moved into Hopeside Manor and made it our home. How long did we stay there? Long after Graeme died.
The cars were not moving. The rain had not stopped completely but the windscreen wipers were no longer moving. It seemed calm for some reason. Someone was at the door. Why would someone be trying to get into her car?
Something snapped the day Graeme died. It was peaceful, sitting at his desk in the small library, Hamish curled at his feet keeping them warm, but the paper unread and the tea cold. When I saw him I knew straight away, and I think Hamish knew as well. He lifted his head and looked at me, and flopped back down.
I sat with him for a while and chatted about Jane and the children, how they wanted us to spend Christmas with them that year. But I loved Christmas at Hopeside, and besides, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to leave it. I don’t think I was ever the same again.
The car door opened and for a moment April was confused. She murmured something about, ‘a Graeme come to reassure her that it would be alright’.
It was Jane who finally persuaded me to leave Hopeside and into the small bungalow. It was closer to her place and I could see the grandchildren more easily, though Iain had gone to the University soon after I moved in. Hopeside was too difficult to look after, the servants all but gone, and it was sold. I read in the news some time ago there’d been a fire and it had burnt to the ground, which upset me greatly. However, I still wanted to see it one more time but it doesn’t really matter now that Graeme’s back.
The ambulance finally arrived and April was carefully removed from the wreckage of her car. Who knows what went through her mind in those last few moments of her life, but to everyone who saw her, it looked as though she’d died peacefully, with a gentle smile on her face.
Fear stands tall,
Grief remains hidden
behind a plastic smile
Anger fights to
Blame asks where
shall I lie?
Doubt replies here,
for who could love
this broken body?
Pitch black, cloying darkness.
Drought. Scraping at my throat.
I steady myself and walk, warily, towards the lectern. My footsteps thud against the cold wooden floor. Their echo bounces off the walls lying submerged within the darkness. I reach the lectern. I steady myself, clutching at the podium with both hands.
Full, beaming light. A spotlight. Targeted at me. On me.
I lay out the notes before me. Their order, their sequence, sent awry in the fumbling fidgeting chaos of the previous minutes. My collar nags at my increasingly, and uncomfortably, warm neck. Settle, I try to tell myself. Just. Settle.
I find the strength to look up. Instantly I am temporarily blinded by the light. By its majesty. All its artificially created majesty. I thrust my hand up to shield my eyes. This reduces my two-handed support structure to one . I feel the strength slipping.
I hear a cough. Singular. Isolated. Taunting. I look out but darkness is still all I can see. Within the darkness I see slight movements, yes. Outlines, fragments, shapes perhaps. But mainly darkness. They’re there though. I know it. I sense it. I feel it.
I cough to clear the dryness in my throat. It stands its ground, mocking me almost. You’ll have to do much better than that. I cough again. The same. Why didn’t I bring water? How could I be so stupid? I swallow. Gulp. Exhale. I begin…
My resounding, booming declaration rebounds of the mic, squealing feedback pierces my ears in response. I wince. I adjust the mic slightly.
‘January!’ I repeat, this time softer. ‘A month we should celebrate! I declare this to you all here, now, and forever more. All you who have come to the great Month Exhibit, the world-renowned and universally-loved institute of M.E, I ask you to join me in an outpouring of love, respect and celebration for the month of January. The month of renewal, the month of beginnings, the month of resolutions! Resolutions to do better, to BE better, to be something, someone, anything new. To flush out the past, the previous year, and start afresh. To be what you need to be, what you wish to be and all that you can be. To be…’
‘Shite month.’ a voice shoots out of the darkness.
‘I’m…I’m a sorry?’ I stutter.
‘January.’ comes the reply. ‘It’s a shite month.’
‘I erm, I appreciate your feedback sir but if you’d just let me explain that…’
‘Too cold.’ Another voice sears out of the chasm of darkness. This time from the opposite end of the auditorium. ‘And dark. Aye. Too dark and cold.’
‘Miserable.’ chimes in another voice in agreement.
‘Bleak, shitey, cold, horrible, depressing little pissy crappy shitehawk of a month!’ elaborates another in a voice remarkably similar to the ones before.
I feel my confidence trembling. Dissolving into a black bitter pool of anxiety.
‘Gentlemen, if you’d just let me explain. It’s, it’s…like I said…it’s the chance for renewal. All the stress of the festivities are done and…’
‘It’s pish!’ shouts another. ‘Christmas being done and that! Aye, pure pish!’
‘He’s right!’ agrees another voice, again floating from another area of the darkness. ‘You can’t be arsed with Christmas and al that beforehand but then you get used to the colours eh. You get used to the festive…what’s the word…the festive spirit. So tae speak. You take the decorations and tree and that down after Christmas and what are you left with? Fuck all, that’s what! The hoose is bare, the walls seem bare. Boring. Cold. Naw mate, you can stop yer speech because it’s just…well, it’s all just pish.’
‘It’s just all so…bloody exhausting.’ utters another hoarsely.
‘The thought of having to do it all over again. It’s just…it’s just exhausting. That’s what it is.’
‘No no no no’ I stammer hurriedly. ‘It’s the month for planning, the month to decide, the month to take your life by the scruff off the neck and ensure that this is the year, YES, this is the year that the pieces will fall into place! So I say here and now that…’
‘What happens when they don’t?’ a calm voice echoes around the room. One filled with arrogance, with conviction.
‘I’m sorry…I’m…sorry, what?’
‘What happens when the year starts to go like any other?’ responds the voice. ‘What happens when you get to April or May, say, and you’ve found the year is just as drab and non-eventful as all the others before it. And all the others yet to come, no doubt. What happens then? When all your resolutions are forgotten? When all your plans have went the way of the leftover Christmas food and drink, hmm? What happens then?’
‘Well…’ I begin, ‘look, you’re all missing the point. The point is if our attitude is more positive, if we approach the year with optimism then…’
‘But it’s dark!’ shouts a voice.
‘And cold! Freezing fucking cold!’ cries another.
‘And ages til payday when you’re already skint!’
‘I mean, like, really really shite!’
‘And more of the same!’
The voices roll into one. Relentless, chanting, persistent. I step away from the lectern. The heat claws at my skin. The voices claw at my mind. At my nerves. I try to summon up the words, the articulation, the reasoning. I try to summon the energy to defend the month, to defend January. To defend my resolution. Once so strong, so assured. Now so feeble and broken. I look into the darkness. Look into the voices.
I walk away from the podium, throwing my notes to the ground as I walk off stage. The voices chattering, colliding, nagging all the while.
‘Fuck you January’ I mutter.
Yes, fuck you January.
The stick flies from the man’s hand, careering into the gathering of sparse leafless trees, each one dripping lazily with dew, by the side of the path. His dog, a young border collie, bounds breathlessly from the man’s side in search of the object. It splashes through a sizeable puddle, spraying his owner’s jeans and his own coat, in the process. Spattered with dirt the dog returns triumphantly, stick firmly wedged between his teeth, looking up at the man in expectation. The cycle repeats.
As they edge further along the single track path the man pulls his coat tighter, electing to fasten the top button, as the winter chill begins to nip. Slight flecks of darkness seem to burrow their way into the air; a signal that evening shall soon be announcing its presence. He looks at his phone, checking the time. I’ll give him ten more minutes, he decides. He looks up. The desolate winter scene stares back at him. Bleak. Unforgiving. And dog-less.
The man presses two fingers to his lips and whistles – the effectiveness of which is hampered somewhat by the gloves adorning his hands. ‘Charlie?’ he shouts. ‘Charlie!’ He sighs and trudges forward, following the barely-visible collection of paw prints scattered across the sodden ground ahead of him. ‘Stupid mutt!’ he curses to himself quietly. The prints take him to a clearing carved between two drooping trees. The trees are arched like two geriatrics holding onto one another for support. It creates a welcoming archway. He notices the remnants of a wire fence nestled against both trees. Disparate, cut, strands of wire stick out from rotting fence posts.
He steps through the clearing, branches jagging slightly at his skull. ‘Cha…’ he begins in a booming shout before cutting himself off as he catches sight of his dog sitting quietly only thirty yards or so along the path. ‘C’mere boy, c’mon, time to turn back.’ The dog remains still. Refusing to budge. ‘Come on boy, let’s go!’ reiterates the man, irritation starting to creep into his voice. Still the dog sits rigidly. Unmoving. What’s wrong with him, the man wonders. He notices the lack of stick in Charlie’s mouth. And a silence. Definitely a silence. For a dog as vibrant and as full of (seemingly endless supplies of) energy as this one the silence was, he had to admit, unnerving. As the man steps forward, simultaneously pulling the dog lead out of his jacket pocket, Charlie gently straightens himself up and begins to trot quietly to the left.
‘Where are you off to now!? Here Charlie, come…’
Again his speech is halted. Once again prompted by the vision before him.
‘How the hell did I not notice that!?’ he announces in confusion as the sight of a colossal ruined mansion house towers above him. Roofless, its crooked outline cuts into the encroaching dusk like the serrated edge of an uneven saw. Through the vacant, glassless windows lie piles of rubble. Faded plastic signs affixed to various sections of the building warn of the fragile structural danger the building possesses. No longer a home, no longer a house. Now nothing more than a shell. A tattered frame. Derelict. Desolate. Ruined. And yet it evokes an eeriness. The man feels it as his mind whirls into gear. He’s heard about this house, he thinks. Yes, he’s sure of it. ‘Charlie, come here boy…’ Stories. About this house. He’s certain. ‘Charlie, here!!’. He whistles again but as he looks up he sees his dog burrowing his snout purposefully into the base of a wooden door towards the side of the house. A small growl seems to escape from him as his burrowing gathers pace. The door won’t budge. The growling increases.
‘Charlie!! What is it boy!? Don’t be so stupid, come here!’
He steps forward with the lead, metal clip open and ready to latch onto his pet’s collar, when he hesitates, his brain finally achieving finality in its frantic join-the-memory-dots exercise. ‘That’s it!’ he declares. This is the house, he thinks almost too cheerfully, this is the one. His mood drops, the eeriness slithering malevolently back into the equation. ‘Yeah, that’s it…’ he mutters again, all confidence now drained from the tone. ‘The stories…’ he mumbles, ‘…stories…’
Every house has its stories to tell of course but this one? This one has far more than most. And as a fraught expression inches its way across his face, the stories, the rumours, the tales all start to collide into one another in the man’s mind.
It was the 1920s. It was, he was sure of it. That was when the financial magnate lived here. Him and his family. What was his name? Ahh, what was his name? They called him the ‘Next Andrew Carnegie’ he knew that much. The house was famed for the parties they threw here. The elite would travel from all over the country to attend the events. Champagne, caviar, dancing, hunting, singing, course after course after course, servants, butlers, opulence, ostentatiousness; the lot. The wealth that used to inhabit this place must have been enormous. The convergence of both ‘new’ and ‘old’ money. His ‘country dwelling’, that’s what it was. A palace of wealth, a paradise of the upper class, an ultimate display of decadence. And then one day it ended. Just like that. In 1929. The Wall Street Crash. He lost everything. Most of them did. Stocks, bonds, capital; all decimated in the course of one single day. There was a party in full swing that day apparently and then, suddenly at the drop of a hat, the place just fell silent. Dead. Gone. Names and faces never seen or heard from again. Cars abandoned in the driveway. Food, drinks, all left untouched in the dining room. Like the Mary Celeste. People said they fled the country, escaping debtors, escaping clients. Too afraid to face their respective realities. It was hushed up. The authorities, the elites; they never spoke of it, never referred to it.
But then there was the boy…the young boy. Only a few years later. He was playing with his friend. Scoping out the, at that point, still fairly-intact but deserted house. It was never on the market you see, just boarded up. His friend spoke of there being a latch that, seemingly, led down to a lower level – presumably the kitchens or cellars. It was solid steel. Impenetrable. Unlike the rest of the house which was understandably starting to decay under the strain of neglect. The roof and walls starting to reveal the extent of the punishment wreaked on it by seasons of unmitigated weather. But the boy, the boy…he fell. Through the floor. He’d been jumping up and down. Or running. Or playing. Or something. And went straight through a weak, rotting, section of the floor and fell straight into the lower level. His leg broken. Unable to move. Stranded. His friend couldn’t get down, there was no way. He’d be stranded too. He ran for help; it was at least two miles to the nearest village. And when he arrived back with a couple of the local villagers they found the boy sprawled out, unconscious, on the wildly overgrown front lawn. How had he managed to clamber out of that cellar? How had he managed to summon the strength? His leg was mangled, surely throbbing with pain. An explanation was needed. But not forthcoming. The boy never spoke again. That once sprightly, adventurous, mischievous boy never spoke again. He drew. Oh he drew. Pictures. Horrifying sketches and pictures, it was said. The same ones again and again. Pictures of skeletons, a dozen or more, hanging from ropes. Gaunt hollow sockets where their eyes should have been. Fragments of charred, rotting flesh dripping from their bones, bloated rats nibbling at their feet. They grew darker, more detailed, intricate. But still the same scene again and again. The bodies, the skeletons, hanging. Death. He uttered not a word. He simply drew. Even when he was carted off to the local asylum he continued to draw. Day after day. Many wondered, more speculated; was this the vision that he greeted him in the cellar? Had this horrifying scene been nestling in the lower reaches of the mansion house all this time? Or had the fall simply triggered an already troubled mind? Again however, just as before, secrecy and conspiracy became the order of the day. The site was closed off for a time, the hole in the floor allegedly boarded up and the affair never once spoken of publicly or officially.
At least that’s the how the stories went anyway. Stories that had no doubt grown arms, legs, paragraphs, twists, sequels and prequels throughout the near century between then and now. But, thought the man, but…the stories, the rumours, they never really stopped. You heard tales of kids, adults even, clambering into the ruin as the years progressed. Eager to seek adventure, to prove their courage, to discover the truth; whatever they nominated the reason to be. And the stories never turned out well. Stories of broken legs, of macabre unexplained sightings, of mysterious scratches appearing on arms, legs, torsos. There was the homeless vagrant that was discovered dead in the grounds of the ruin, dead not from the cold as reported but from a massive heart attack. There was the story of the girl who apparently ventured through a window into the house, many decades back, to retrieve a poorly-thrown Frisbee and who was never seen or heard from again. There were others. Too numerous or vague to list or really believe in. Nothing more than urban myths probably. But the job was done, you knew to steer clear of this house. This ruin. It became ingrained within you. It was a fact. Hard and true. Avoid. Ignore. Forget. To the point where many seemingly had forgotten. God, thinks the man, there was even the story of the dog that ran in there one day and was found the next, butchered, its innards splayed across the site. I mean a dog, who the hell would…Charlie!
He looks up, a surge of revulsion swilling through his mind at the possibilities, the potential, the horrible morbid horrendous possibilities…and he sighs. Relief. Love. Fear. All condensing into one long, heaving sigh. Charlie continues scrapping and burrowing at the door in front of him. ‘Jesus’ the man poured scorn on his fears, his nerves. Get a grip of yourself, he thinks. Get a bloody grip.
‘Come on Charlie, I mean it this time, time to go’ he nods to the darkening canvas filling the scene around them as he steps towards his dog. He grabs hold of the collar, steadying himself, as he lowers the lead towards the clip. Charlie snaps. At the man. At his owner. At his hand. His head turned towards him for only a split-second. A hideous snarl suffocating a face ordinarily so benevolent and loving. Lips receded, baring every single tooth, every segment of gum. Eyes populated with violent, vicious hate. The man balks, stepping back instinctively. Fear clutching at his throat. His mouth hangs open, clamped apart by the shock of the incident.
‘Woah boy!’ he manages to utter, desperately trying to claim back any control of the standard pet owner-pet relationship balance. ‘What the hell is it!? Come on, come on now…’
Still the dog scrapes, burrows, bites. Paying no heed to his owner. All to no avail. The door steadfast. Immovable. The man feels a shiver tip toe up and down his skin. His head darts from side to side. Suddenly acutely aware of the dense, dark silence weighing upon the exposed grounds. BARK! ‘Jesus…’ Charlie’s angry, snarling bark rifles through the man’s nerves. BARK! And again. The man looks down at his pet. Any hint of placidity, of vitality gone, replaced by a snarling, angry, feral obsession. For whatever or whomever lies beyond or beneath the door. The area around his nose shines red raw, the manic actions drawing the slightest drops of blood. BARK!
‘Right!’ shouts the man through a haze of fear and anger, ‘come…ON!’ He yanks roughly at his dog’s collar, violently pulling Charlie away from the door. The latter snaps, snarls, barks. It pulls, using all it’s strength and more, in order to try and burst back to the door. The pull jerks the man’s arm. He lets out a wild scream, sure that his arm has dislocated. Fire rips down his arm. Red hot fiery pain. But he holds firm. His own strength straining at bursting point as he roughly yanks Charlie step by staggered step away from the ruin. The snarls subside gradually. The snapping peters out. ‘Come ON!’ Each pull of the collar sends a burst of agony shuddering through the man’s bones. He manages to clip the lead on to the collar. Pulling with all he has. The snarls now completely morphed into yelps, the tug of war now a one-sided display of strength and power. Eventually the yelps pierce the man’s train of thought. His anger subsides as they reach the arched clearing he negotiated earlier. He leans down and gently caresses his dog’s head. He pulls him close to him. ‘I’m sorry boy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ Charlie licks his owners face gently. Whether in apology or through thanks or submission is not clear. The man is grateful either way. He looks back at the ruin. The house. The house in the woods, he thinks. Yeah, the house in the woods. I’ll be sure to steer well bloody clear in future, don’t you bloody worry about that! Pain pulses through his veins. His arm feeling like a bag of loose unconnected bones rattling into one another.
‘Come one Charlie boy’ he whispers through the pain, cupping his dog’s face in his hands, ‘let’s get back to the car and get your Dad some help for this arm…’
The words are met by the slightest of growls in response. Charlie’s ears propping up in alert as he continues to stare into his owner’s eyes. ‘What is it now…’ for the final time the man’s words are cut short as he hears the hinges of a door creak open slowly, agonisingly. He glances above Charlie’s head. The door. The door. The one Charlie was obsessed with. Slowly, patiently it starts to open. The hinges creaking louder. Louder. A cold gust of wind careers past the two of them, almost knocking the man to the ground. BARK! BARK! BARK BARK BARK!!!
Scrambling, slipping, snarling, the man and his dog bundle through the opening and disappear frantically into the darkness. The reverberating, echoing sound of a heavy, creaking door belligerently slamming shut follows them tauntingly into the night.