30-34 St Andrew Square

Aug2017

A shop window. A male mannequin lies back in a sun lounger, a pair of sunglasses obscuring its no doubt glossy dead-eyed stare. Its chest is bare but for a vibrant colourful tie looped around its neck. A pair of beach shorts and sandals complete the sparse ensemble. Colours, bright and summery, permeate the display. The brightest blues, yellows, reds, orange. Objects, some thematic and others downright bizarre, are scattered around the mannequin. Deflated beachballs, buckets and spades, hula hoops, inflatable dolphins and so on. The mannequin slinks back in the chair. A content, factory-manufactured look on its face. Its job was done. Its message clear. Summer.

Across from the shop window sits a tram stop. Bustling, busy, and above all, laced with boredom. Men and women crowd around the shelter, many spilling over onto the platform area surrounding the shelter. Condemned souls. Sentenced. Their expressions tell us this. Some struggle to keep their eyes open, the morning hour pushing down on their eyelids. Others are animated, speaking incessantly into hands-free kits, chanting out jargon-heavy diatribes. Most stare down at their feet, or their iPods, their phones, the occasional book, their faces laced with boredom, awash with an ‘I wish I was anywhere but here’ look. Not even a smattering of glorious sunshine, skipping across Edinburgh’s skyline and trickling into the square, can lift their spirits. Yes, condemned. Sentenced. The morning commute.

A man, mid-to-late twenties, stands to the left of the tram stop shelter, a book in his hand. His fingers resting in the same page it has been for a good ten minutes or so. His hair slightly tousled, his shirt and suit trousers combination – the staple of the male administrative Edinburgh financier class – slightly creased. Both the product of an ignored alarm clock and a desperate rush to adhere to the Monday morning demands. Beside him stands a woman, again roughly mid-to-late-twenties, flicking through her phone, earphones spilling down from beneath her perfectly straight dyed red hair. Appropriately for the weather, she wears a dress, a black and white polka dot dress, her arms and legs effortlessly free to bask in the rays of the morning sun. Bright red lipstick, immaculately applied, calls like a siren beneath her alert, phone-scanning eyes. The lanyard draped around her neck is the only hint that work, likely in the financial sector, awaits her at the end of her tram stop. So the man next to her has decided to himself, at least. And he should know. Given that his gaze has been flicking discreetly between the woman next to him and the shop window across the tram lines from him for the best part of ten minutes. His hands twitching. Eyes flickering. Feet treading back and forward on the same spot, wearing the platform thin. Slowly working up courage it seems.

Eventually the man turns and says something, nodding towards the shop window at the same time. And receives no response. The earphones standing between him and his intended destiny. He tries again, this time louder. The woman turns and looks at him. Unsure. Wondering. She plucks an earphone from beneath her hair.
‘Sorry?’ she murmurs.
‘I was just saying…’ stammers the man slightly, ‘I was just saying that guy there looks like he’s enjoying the sun at least…’ again he nods towards the shop window across from them. His soul simultaneously sighing in response to his terrible conversation starter. His face dropping in disgust with himself as he turns away slightly.
The woman stares at him for a brief moment, apparently contemplating the moment, the line, the man. And then she smiles. Surprising the man. Surprising herself.

The familiar sound of a bell peels as a tram edges onto the platform in front of them.

***

A shop window. Two mannequins, a male and a female, stand next to each in awkward poses. The female mannequin is dressed in long leather boots, thermal leggings and a stylish woolly jumper. And a large black witch’s hat protruding from her head. The male mannequin is dressed in a pair of jeans, a t-shirt-beneath-a-shirt combination and a thin woolly fleece. And a pair of devil horns astride his scalp. Both have slim scarves wrapped around their neck before descending down their chests. The window display awash in pale greens, browns, reds, oranges. Crisp, dying leaves are scattered beneath the mannequins’ feet, pumpkins of all shapes and state of health surround them. Both mannequins stare out of the window confidently. With focus. Their message clear. Crisp. Autumn.

Across from the shop window sits a tram stop. Deserted mainly. The darkness, the pelting rain and the late hour seeing off any potential revellers or crowds, sending them racing to taxis or nearby bars instead. Deserted but for a couple. A man and a woman. Both in fancy dress. The man is dressed as a Ghostbuster, a head of fairly lengthy tousled hair – a product of an after-work nap which left him very little time to prepare for the night in question – the only sign of his standard appearance amidst the bought-at-the-last-minute ghost busting costume. The woman is dressed, in keeping with a good majority of the population of female revellers in the city centre that night, as Harley Quinn. Her perfectly straight dyed red hair the only customisation amidst the cleavagey and short-skirty dimensions of her bought-at-the-very-last-minute costume.

The couple are draped around each other. Kissing furiously, passionately, lovingly. The product of a blossoming relationship and a night of copious alcohol consumption. They break briefly, the woman looking into the man’s eyes with a drunken, sultry look. The man stares up at the electronic display board, trying to will the next tram arrival time down to 0 minutes. Straining with every bit of drunken nonsensical longing in his mind. Well, it was Halloween, he thought. If ever there was a time for some supernatural mind-control nonsense to work then this was it. Unsurprisingly he gives up. Defeated by the obvious lack of any chance of success and by the need to grab the woman once again to resume their kissing. The two entwine once again; kissing, fondling.

The kissing dissolves into an embrace. The woman burying her head into the man’s chest. He kisses her head, pulling her tight to him. As tight as he can. Awash with the feeling that no matter how tight he holds her it can never be tight enough. The woman mumbles something into his chest. She turns her head and smiles up at him.
‘What was that?’ he asks.
‘I said…’ she whispers, ‘I love you.’
The man looks down at her. Struck, despite his alcohol-infused state, by the enormity of the moment. In her eyes he see’s his future, his passion, his love.
‘I love you too…’ he croaks.
The two kiss passionately once again. More passionately than they ever have.

The familiar sound of a bell peels as a tram edges through a collection of sodden leaves and onto the platform in front of them.

***

A shop window. Three mannequins pose together in a ‘family scene’. A female mannequin, a male mannequin and a child mannequin. All three are dressed in several layers of warm woolly clothing. Hats, scarves, jumpers, jackets. Reds, blues, greens. All the colours of winter festivities. The window display is littered with layers of artificial snow. The child mannequin is flailing exuberantly on an old-fashioned wooden sledge. Its ‘mother’ and ‘father’ mannequins stand either side of the sledge. In the corner of the window a bare, sparse, glittery tree lurks. Delicate, barely-noticeable fairy lights loop around its branches. A snowman sits beneath it wearing a fashionable tie and bowler hat combination. The mannequin family are content. Their message clear. Fun. Warmth. Winter.

Across from the window sits a tram stop. Busy. Very busy. The tram stop shelter almost bursting at the seams, struggling to contain the vast quantity of commuters awaiting the next tram. All are draped in winter jackets, winter coats. Hats, scarves, gloves of all colours dot the tram stop, fighting weakly against the biting cold. Icy, spiteful shards of sleet slap against the roof of the shelter. Some finds its way into the shelter itself, chilling those it comes into contact with. The light is starting to fail as the day approaches the latter part of the afternoon.

Huddled into the corner of he shelter is a man and woman. The man’s long hair is slightly tousled, unkempt – due in large part to the weather of the day. His face a beaming beacon of red, his skin freezing beneath the weight of the chill. He holds a woman close to him, an array of shopping bags clutched in his hand as he does so. The woman, with perfectly straight red hair peeking out beneath a woolly pigtail hat, clings tightly to him. An attempt to generate any kind of warmth. She rubs the small pregnancy bump that is her stomach. Instinctively, paternally. Protecting the growing life inside of her from the cold. She pulls her wet gloves off and gives her hands a futile shake. The engagement ring on her left hand clings cold to the skin, gnawing into her bone. The man stares at the shop window across from the tram stop. Paying no mind to his partner as she wrestles with the cold. Communication channels appear broken between the pair.

‘Where’s this fucking tram!?’ snarls the man. ‘It’s freezing!’
‘Well if I do anything to help you in this tough time then just feel free to let me know. M’kay?’ the woman quips back almost instantly, sarcasm forcefully shoving any semblance of jest out of the tone of her voice.
The man looks down at her with a hint of disdain. ‘Piss off’ he thinks to himself.
‘If you’d learn to bloody drive like you said you were going to then it wouldn’t be an issue would it!’
‘Drop it!’ the man snaps back. The two bodies break from one another.
‘I mean I’m only bloody well carrying your child. But no, that’d take some effort, some commitment from you wouldn’t it!’ the woman looks up at him, disgust in her gaze.
Next to them, fellow commuters shuffle uncomfortably, attempting to exude an impression of ignorance and short-term deafness. Sleet continues to slap against the roof of the shelter.
‘Fucking THIS again…’ growls the man.

The familiar sound of a bell peels as a tram edges through layers of slush onto the platform in front of them.

***

A shop window. A female mannequin sits atop a bicycle. An empty bottle of lemonade sticks out of the wicker basket attached to the front of the bike. The female mannequin is alone. She wears a straw hat, a long flowing blonde wig cascading out from under it. Her yellow dress is long, flowery. The whole window, in fact, is awash with lemon yellow. The colour of an emergence from winter, a stepping out of the dark months, of stepping into the light. Loose flowers are scattered along the floor along with discarded winter garments (scarves,hats, gloves etc). The mannequin stares out of the window into the distance. Free. Content. Its message clear. Renewal. Light. Spring.

Across from the window sits a tram stop. Bustling and busy as it is every morning in the pre-work rush hour. The daily parade of sleep-deprived, anxiety-laden and boredom-filled commuters make up the population of the platform. Headphones cling to ears like valiant bodyguards, protecting their individual listeners from the need to converse with or acknowledge their fellow human beings huddled around them. A woman yawns as she looks at her phone. Headphones trailing from her phone, disappearing beneath her perfectly straightened black, with hints of a former red dye, hair. She wears a dress. Yellow with white polka dots. In defiance of the slight cold still hanging about the city centre, in solidarity with the changing of the seasons. It compliments her slim, toned figure perfectly. Compliments the sunny, in spite of the temperature, morning. A company lanyard hangs around her neck. She raises her left hand to face, wiping the sleep from eyes with her bare ringless fingers.

A bus rolls past the tram stop on the adjacent road. A man sits on the bus, his head down reading a book. The man has a shaved head. Recently shaved it would appear. The hairstyle of a man sick to the back teeth of dealing with a full flowing unkempt mane of hair. He doesn’t look up at the tram stop. The tram stop is now a no-go for him. Forbidden land almost. Hence the bus travel. Hence the Lothian Bus pass nestling in his work trousers pocket. He casts a fleeting glance towards the shop window opposite the tram stop. He smiles sadly as the bus speeds past, turning his gaze back down towards his book.

The woman looks up as the bus flies past, her gaze caught by the shop window display opposite her. She sees the yellow dress worn by the mannequin and glances down at her own, smiling slightly.
‘At least she’s enjoying herself anyway…’ she hears a man’s voice next to her.
She looks up, pulling an earphone out from beneath her hair, and see’s a man with glasses, roughly her age, smiling back at her nervously. A perfectly gelled hairstyle and a well-tended array of stubble suggests a lengthy morning ritual. She smiles wearily back at him.
‘Yeah…’ she replies, ‘she seems to be.’
The woman slips the earphone back beneath her hair and turns back down towards her phone. The man, disappointed, receives the message and turns away.

The familiar sound of a bell peels as a tram edges onto the platform in front of them.

Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area

A wry smile flickers across Alan’s face. His arms folded, pressed against his store-issued fleece.

‘Martin…pssst Martin’ he hisses.

Martin, crouching by the vegetable aisle, looks up to see Alan gesturing wildly at him to come over.

‘What is it?’

‘Shhh…’ smiles Alan, ‘listen, that old lady over there…she’s chatting with the self-service machine.’

‘She bloody is too…’ smirks Martin.

I know they’re talking about me. Those boys over there. That’s ok though. They can’t see you, can’t hear you like I can.

I’ll keep coming though.

Keep talking.

Every day.

Until we’re back together again.

A Ghost Story For Christmas

July2017

The following is a complete transcript of the interview held with the late horror film Director and Writer Martin Close back in July of this year. Conducted during a short break in filming, the interview relates to the now-shelved and infamous production and remake of MR James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ for the then-intended revamp of the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’ series.

We, at the Telly Times, have deliberated long and hard about whether to print this particular interview or not, fully appreciating the depth of feeling surrounding the affair. We are absolutely aware that, as was demonstrated throughout months of subsequent media coverage, this story did, and continues to, horrify and baffle people in equal measure. There are also those who vehemently decry the affair as a hoax or, worse, a publicity stunt intended to lend the production a mythical quality, or aura, thus enhancing its reputation. On this we take no position. All we can do is simply reproduce the interview transcript in its entirety.

And after receiving permission from Mr Close’s family this is exactly what we have done…

***

Telly Times: So, Martin, snow in July? Explain what this is all about, won’t you?

Martin Close: Yes. In short we’re creating a film for the BBCs ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’ series. A remake of Lost Hearts – a story originally shown back in 1973. It’s an adaptation of an MR James short story. I believe they’re looking to show it on Christmas Eve this year. If not on the day itself. Which gives us, what, five months to get this thing in the can. Hence, snow in July.

TT: Many of our younger readers likely won’t remember, or know about, the ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’ series. Can you explain what that was?

MC: The clue is in the title, really. For a spell in the 70‘s the BBC had a tradition of showing an adaptation of a ghost story, usually an MR James story, they once had Dickens’ The Signalman, late at night on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I assume it was done in homage of the age-old tradition in this country, certainly in Victorian times anyway, to tell ghost stories at Christmas – A Christmas Carol being a prime and obvious example. It was a hugely popular series back in the 70s. The BBC tried a similar one-off production a few years back at Christmas which, once again, was very well received. And so here we are, looking to get the ball rolling again.

TT: Did the BBC approach you regarding this? Or was this an idea you had yourself?

MC: I instigated it certainly. But the BBC were very receptive. I used to love watching the series back when I was a child in the 70s. So much so that I associated the whole idea of Christmas with horror, with ghost stories or tales.

TT: Were the BBC were receptive immediately? Even after the controversy attached to your previous production? (Martin Close attracted significant criticism for events surrounding his most recent horror film, ‘The Hounds of Hove’, in which the marketing campaign involved a mass appearance of dog corpses suddenly scattered around the town of Hove leading authorities to believe a deranged dog-killer had terrorised the town – prosthetics, of course. This of course mirrored the plot of Close’s controversial movie. The production was fined and Close cautioned by the authorities. The marketing campaign for his previous horror production, The Sullied Waves, in which him and his production team discoloured several rivers around a small town in Yorkshire red – reflecting the ‘bloodied’ rivers in the film – attracted just as much controversy).

MC: They were, yes.

TT: No reservations?

MC: Some, likely. I can’t speak for them. You’d have to ask them. But no, I think they realised the quality I would bring to the production. Also, this is a passion project. A genuine passion project of mine. No gimmicks, no quirks. Straight up horror. This production merits complete focus. And marketing campaigns, and opinions on that aside, everyone knows the quality I bring to the actual horror elements of film.

TT: That leads us nicely onto the story, of course. A passion project you say? MR James. The master of the ghost story. He was a big influence on you when growing up, yes?

MC: Absolutely. Huge. Not just through the BBC adaptations. I think I’d read his Complete Ghost Stories a good hundred times or so by the time I’d left school. Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker etc; they all influenced and intrigued me but none held a candle to MR James. There was an eeriness throughout each of his tales; a creeping, sinister, psychological eeriness that stays with you, you know.

TT: And so you went with Lost Hearts. Why a remake? Why not mine his canon for a completely different tale? One that audiences have never seen adapted.

MC: Well, for a start Lost Hearts was last shown on the BBC in 1973. That’s approaching half a century ago so I doubt it’s fresh in many people’s minds. But I take your point. The reason I went with this was simply the impact the story had on me as a youngster. Particularly as an orphan myself. It terrified me. Excited me. Stuck with me long after I’d seen it. The twin girls in Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining are always name-checked as almost being the epitome of creepy ghost children but, by god, the first time I saw the two orphans in the ‘73 version of Lost Hearts, it damn well chilled me to the bone. Horrifying. I loved it. And so I’ve been desperate for a chance to create my own take on it ever since.

TT: Which leads into this location. Unsurprisingly, again, this has attracted a level of controversy.

MC: (Sigh)Yes.

TT: An abandoned orphanage. One that has reported several ‘supernatural’ occurrences over the years. And not to forget a gruesome reported history – torture, murder, abuse – stretching back to when the orphanage was fully operational. Why film here? Many have claimed it shows a lack of respect. Also, there was no orphanage referred to in the original story as far as we’re aware.

MC: You’ve basically answered your own question. This place has a history, a terror attached to it. An…aura. What better place to ensure the actors are in the right mindset? Plus it doubles up well as a stately home, and that’s what we were after for the film of course. Two birds, one stone.

TT: I see. And in terms of the child….

MC: What the f**k are they doing down there!? Hey!! You two! Back up here! We’re not filming yet! Christ sake!

Martin Close at this point stood up to admonish what he took to be the two child actors, hired to play the orphans in the production, claiming he could see them standing silently in the distance, staring back at him. Myself and the photographer turned to look yet could see nothing, only the ornate gates in the distance amid the deluge of artificial snow through a dense mist (created by the special fx crew).

TT: I can’t see anything?

MC: They were just…ah, they must have ran off. Anyway, you were saying…

TT: Erm…yes. Was it…

MC: Bloody child actors! Never work with kids. Animals? Fine. Kids? No.

TT: Ok. I was actually going to ask was it hard to find the right child actors for the roles? The two orphans that is?

MC: Well, not really. There’s no dialogue for them. All they do is stand. Silently. Walk slowly now and again. Scratch a bit. And sit for several hours worth of makeup application. It’s not exactly the most taxing of…bloody hell, they’re there again!? Closer this time! HEY! Get your backsides up here! I’ve bloody well told you!

Again myself and the photographer turned, seeing nothing except the gate in the foggy, snowy distance.

TT: I really can’t see anyone Martin, where…

MC: Look! (He gestured towards the gate) The bloody two of them, slowly approaching! Creeping!! The child actors! All done up in make up! Even though its hours until their scene for god’s sake! Hey!!

TT: You mean those two…? (I gestured behind him where the two child actors, a boy and a girl, as described, were standing nearby. Close turned.)

MC: What….yes…those…how did…(he turned back, looking past me)…they must have…you two, just bloody well quit it! Ok! Whatever you’re up to! Child actors are ten-a-penny in this bloody business so cut it out! A bit of respect eh! (A mixture of fear and confusion crept across the chid actors’ faces at this point. Close turned back.) Yes. Anyway…go on…

TT: Erm…ok.

MC: Come on now, time is precious here. Especially with these little buggers acting up on set!

TT: Yes, sorry. The erm…the makeup. Yes, the makeup. For the child actors. Was that hard to judge what was right? I mean, we’re talking literal holes where their hearts should be, as per James’ original story. Was it hard to tread the line between something that had just the right amount of horror but something that would pass the BBC broadcast guidelines?

MC: Not really…it’s all about conviction….not willing to compromise your…GET OFF THE BLOODY SET!!! You two! That’s right, the two of you…this is a CLOSED SET! Bugger off before I get someone to kick your a***s! You pair of little…surely someone can see them now!? (he looked at us with incredulity, wheeling around to plead to his crew, being met at all junctures with blank looks)

TT: No…I just don’t…

MC: HOW IS NO-ONE SEEING THIS!? Look…they’ve even…LOOK!…some sinister b*****d has even done them up in makeup to look like….oh god!…they’re coming towards…oh god!…walking…slowly…their…get away…their chests…oh christ!…away…GET AWAY!!…anyone!…help me…their chests…their…someone GET THEM AWAY…

At this point the Director scrambled from his chair, a look of horror etched upon a face rapidly draining of colour. He stumbled before fleeing from the set, heading towards the aforementioned abandoned orphanage.

 

***

As is known by all who have followed the story in the months since these events, a later search for Martin Close in the grounds of the orphanage proved fruitless before the authorities were called in. The search dragged on into the early hours of the next morning. Close was eventually found in a secluded, and locked, room near the rear of the building. His body was slumped over a table, a hideous hole gored in his chest. His heart had been removed and has yet to be found. Authorities concluded that he had been dead for several hours. Filming of the production was immediately and henceforth abandoned.

Many rumours, theories and myths have since emerged regarding the story. A fact hardly surprising when you consider the infamous Director’s penchant for extravagant publicity stunts. One popular theory insists that Close faked the entire incident, using either a significantly lifelike prosthetic for the body or, as others claim, a fresh corpse with relevant plastic surgery performed on the facial features (not all of the theories carry a hint of reality about them as you can no doubt tell…). They believe he will reappear at some point in the future producing horror films under a pseudonym.

Others simply claim that Close committed the ultimate sacrifice for his art, going that one step further for his production, the pinnacle of the publicity stunt so to speak. A move which would enshrine the production in a macabre, mythical aura. Building in status, in infamy as the years go by. A pure horror tale. This theory loses merit however when you consider that the filming schedule was nowhere near complete at the time of the occurrence.

Amid all the theories and the hearsay it must be pointed out that both Martin Close’s family and the relevant authorities (police, coroners, funeral directors etc) strenuously insist that the body was that of the film maker. Of that neither of the parties have any doubt. So much so that a private funeral was held for Close. And given that no suicide note, plans or otherwise, were found they also strongly deny the suicide/sacrifice theory. The family have repeatedly asked that their privacy and their grief be respected.

We at the Telly Times, as stated, take no position on the events that we have described to you. We have simply reproduced the interview transcript in an attempt to clarify our involvement in the episode and to hopefully bring a modicum of closure to it.

A Ghost Story For Christmas: The Troubled Production of Lost Hearts airs on BBC One at 11pm on Christmas Eve.

Red Sky At Night

Written today (June 21st) as part of National Writing Day

 

The sky is aflame.

Ablaze. A fiery hue decorates the night sky above Fife. Red, yellow, orange. Fire. Flame. A furnace at the foot of the heavens. Incinerating the clouds. It awakens me. Stirs me from my half-hearted slumber. As it has done every night this week so far. Five nights now. Mossmorran. The Exxon ethylene plant. Skulking on the outskirts of Cowdenbeath. It’s warning flame burning into the darkness. A beacon calling out across the countryside. The towns. The coast. Engulfing, smothering, suffocating all. The eye of Sauron. Curtains wither, unable to resist the light. It invades the privacy, the seclusion of the bedroom. And yet it inspires. Infuses me with an energy. A vibrancy. Alights the embers of my being. My inspiration. It draws me in, welcomes me, lures me. Like a moth to a…well, you know. It burns through my writer’s block and screams, yells, demands in my ear ‘WRITE! WRITE! WRITE!’

I open the curtains wide, tempted even to tear them from the rail, desperate as I am to submit to the light, to the flame. Invade, bathe, swarm. The room fills with light. I turn and look at my wife asleep on the bed. She barely stirs. Oblivious to the ferocity, the majesty of the flame. Oblivious to the inspiration. I sit down at my writing desk placed directly in front of the window. I gaze at the flame. Its power relentless, its energy undying. Staring. Staring. Worshipping. My mind sparks, burns, replaying a relentless reel time and again. A movie clip. Black and white. Colin Clive, in that famous scene from Frankenstein. He bellows, screeches. It’s ALIVE. IT’S ALIVE!!! My skull pulsing with the words, the images, the demands. The message. Clear. Sent from the flame. It IS alive. I AM alive. I grab a pen and splay out a raft of blank paper before me. And I scrawl. Word after word. Letter upon letter. A continual flood streaming from my fingertips, dripping from my mind. Page upon page, claimed and vanquished. The prey to my predatory inspirations.

Ablaze. My mind, the flame. The fire, my words. My bones shimmering in a frenzy, my blood scything through my flesh with purpose. Frenetic. And I scrawl, write, scrawl. Again and again. Barely moving the pen, allowing the flame to spew through me onto the page. Spilling forth directions, incantations, ingenuity. My limbs, the page, the flame becoming one. One through inspiration, one through the fire. A single entity, a single expression. A single desire. I write. Write. Write. And let the flame, the night, take me.

I awaken.

The morning light streams in through the window, the curtains cast wide. A pool of sweat darkens the pillow. My forehead clammy, evidence of the latter. I scramble up to a sitting position, staring out the adjacent window towards Mossmorran. The flame gone. Absent. Slight tufts of smoke now emanate lazily from the chimney, the tower. I glance down. Fully clothed. Jacket, shoes and all. Bedraggled. Creased. Soaked. In sweat. In grime. In blood. Blood? My knuckles pulse, etched in dried blood. I turn my hands. My palms, red. Awash. I lift up the duvet. Islands of blood dot the bedsheet. I scramble for explanation, for logic. My wife stirs beside me. I quickly pull myself under the covers, concealing myself, the sheet, the mystery. She yawns.

‘Morning’ she croaks, caressing my face. I smile weakly. ‘You look awful, you look like you’ve hardly slept again!? Are you feeling ok?’

‘Thanks. It’s that bloody light at Mossmorran. Keeping me up. I can barely sleep.’

‘Mossmorran?!’

‘The flame at Mossmorran, yes. Every night this week.’

‘Every night this week!? What are you talking about? There’s been no flame? I’d know about it if there was because it usually bloody well keeps me up! You know that. Plus there’d be comments on the local twitter group about it. Folk are always complaining about it. Here, let me have a quick look…’ she swivels and pulls the charger cable out of her phone and draws the latter to her chest.

My wife flicks and scrolls through her Twitter feed as I warily look on. A realisation creeping into my mind from somewhere. What the realisation is I don’t know. And yet something prods at me. Simmers. My body trembles.

‘No’ she says, ‘nothing about it. See? You must have dreamt it. There’s always comments about it if that flame is burning. And the whole bloody sky lights up so I doubt anyone would miss it.’

‘I’m telling you, the flame was burning last night! It’s been burning now for the last five…’

‘Aw jesus…’ she interrupts, ‘that’s another one.’

‘Another what?’

‘Another person reported as missing. An old man. Last seen leaving the pub last night. His wife has just posted on the police page. Always comes home. She’s adamant something must have happened. Bloody hell. That’s the fifth this week! It’s every night! All local. If that’s not scary I don’t know what is!? Horrible. Just horrible’ she says as she steps out of bed.

My mind drifts from my wife’s words, her fears. Under the covers I reach out a hand, feeling a damp patch of blood lingering between my knees. Memories attempt to form in my mind, speeding by, begging to be snared. Colin Clive’s maniacal exhilaration flits in and out. Fragments. Scenes. Shards.

‘Have you been writing again?’ I hear my wife mumble distantly as she approaches the writing desk, stepping in front of the image of the ethylene plant stretching across the window.

I turn, intending to discreetly pull myself out of bed, and feel an object jag into my side. My pocket. My jacket pocket. I creep my hand nervously to my pocket and jerk as it connects with a blade. Pain shoots up my finger. Stabbing. A warmth floods from my hand, still concealed beneath the covers. Blood. Panic, pain, fear explodes within me, dragging me from the bed. I stop. Muddy footprints adorn the bedroom carpet. Leading to the bed. To a conclusion. To me. A shudder echoes through my frame as I look up. My wife stares at me. A clutch of paper thrust from her hand.

‘What…is…this?’ she whispers, fear coursing through her voice.

The paper stares back at me. Pages upon pages. Letters, words, repetition screaming back at me. FIRE FLAME FIRE. FIRE FLAME FIRE. Again and again. Front and back. Decorating every inch of the paper. FIRE FLAME FIRE. FIRE FLAME FIRE.

I pull myself from the bed to a standing position. My wife recoils, her eyes widen, horror clasping hold of her as she looks at me. The paper drops from her hands as she sees the blood drenched across my hands, my clothes. Words catch in her throat. Fear, definitive and absolute, exudes from every pore of her flesh. Her eyes on me. Judging, questioning, cowering.

‘The…the flame…’ I mutter. ‘It’s the flame…’

The Bass Rock In A Storm

IMG_0347Andrew turned and glanced towards the Bass Rock, his drenched waterproof clinging to his freezing frame, negating any warmth once generated by the extra layer. The gargantuan volcanic plug marooned at sea, stared back at the coast of North Berwick with something approaching stubbornness. Stoic. Impassive. Waves battered its side, rain hammered onto its summit and yet, still, it projected strength.
‘Right then, that should be us about ready I’d say!’
He smiled, his long-overdue-for-a-cut mop of grey hair lashed violently from side to side under the ferocity of the coastal gale. He looked up at the man standing before him. His companion. His customer. The crooked imposing majesty of Tantallon Castle ruin peered down at the two of them from atop the hillside. The 14th century ruin standing steadfast in the storm. ‘So, good sir,’ continued Andrew as he placed one foot on the side of a wooden boat that quite frankly had very clearly seen its best days long ago, ‘I’d like to welcome you to the inaugural Bass Rock Catriona Experience trip. So if you’d kindly step aboard the good ship Catriona we can be on our way to…’
‘You can’t be serious!?’ the man’s face, the portion not covered by his tightly zipped jacket hood, was crumpled in incredulity.
‘Deadly, sir. What’s the problem?’
‘This weather for goodness sake! It’s hellish! I’ve seen seabird trips to the Rock cancelled for far less than this! I mean look at the waves lapping against the Rock itself, they’re damn near scaling the full height of the thing!’
‘Ach it’s just a bit of Scottish hospitality, nothing worse. It’ll die down soon enough.’
‘You’re bloody mad! We’ll bloody well drown out there!’
‘It’s only a short trip. Look. We’ll be there in no time. Plus, this is when you can see the Bass Rock at its finest. In a storm. There’s something…something…there’s just something about it in this weather.’
‘Madness. It’s bloody madness!’
‘Well I’m going. That’s all I can say. You’re very welcome to come along. You’ve got your ticket after all. So which is it?’
The man sighed, glancing from the Bass Rock to the boat in rapid succession. The latter seemed to diminish in appearance with every glance, it’s wooden frame wilting under the relentless assault from the elements.
‘Where you go I go. That’s how it is.’
‘Grand!’ announced Andrew his arm thrust towards the man. ‘Now step this way please…’

The boat lunged wildly, a particularly eager wave trying its best to topple the vessel onto its side. Andrew struggled desperately to correct the course of the boat, only just managing to catch himself and smile weakly through the strain. Maintaining his facade of composure. Calmness.
‘So why Catriona? Why the Bass Rock?’
‘What?’ Andrew shouted in retort to the voice behind him, slightly unsettled as to why the man’s voice didn’t appear to be in the grip of panic.
‘I said’ repeated the man, ‘why Catriona? Why the Bass Rock? There’s already trips to the Bass Rock. The seabird centre runs them. And their boat’s a damn sight better than this one!’
Andrew refused to turn, his eyes trained rigidly on the gradually approaching rock before them.
‘Catriona. It’s a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. One of Ian’s fav….no, forget that. Anyway, there’s scenes in it at the Bass Rock! Needed a different angle than the seabirds you see.’’
‘Yes I know but hardly worth a trip is it?’
‘Sorry?’
‘I said it’s hardly worth a trip is it?’
The boat buckled once more, Andrew almost losing his footing as water encroached upon the floor.
‘Well you thought it was worth it obviously! You’re bloody well on the trip!’ his calm facade visibly cracking.
‘I was just curious. To find out why. The angle. Why the Bass Rock though?’
‘What do you mean ‘why the Bass Rock’? It’s iconic. History. Tourism. Etc.’
‘Yes but why now when there’s already other trips to the rock. Frequent trips. Trips that admittedly wouldn’t run in weather like this. But still.’
Andrew thought, for no more than a fleeting moment, that there was a familiarity to the voice. One that brought comfort. Peace. The rain, the gales, seemed to cease for a fraction of a second before resuming. He collected himself.
‘It’s…’ he started, straining to raise his voice above the crashing waves ‘it’s because of a painting. One that we’ve got in the house. My partner bought it. The print that is. He’s the art lover, not me. But this painting. It was by Alexander Nasmyth. Painted in the 1800‘s or so. It’s of Tantallon Castle and the Bass Rock. Both of them. Only it’s in a storm. It’s always fascinated me. Sometimes, more recently, I’ll just sit and stare at it. For what can seem like hours. There’s something primal about it. Entrancing. The isolation of the rock. The solitude. Even against the storm. Even against all that nature can throw at it, it still looks so bloody heroic, so assured in itself. And yet it can’t escape that isolation.’
The man seemed to hesitate slightly. The previous sharp replies caught in the silence. Andrew began to turn, to find the reason for the prolonged silence but halted. Once more turning back to the rock. Approaching and yet not approaching. As if they were caught in the midst of an optical illusion. Finally the man spoke. Softer somehow, piercing through the sound of the storm and all its apparent ferocity.
‘Are you ok?’
‘What?’ shouted Andrew in reply as gust of wind slapped against his face, ‘Ok?! Of course I am! Never better! And anyway, this is better than your seabird trips, mark my words!’
‘In what way? It’ll be the same, no? Circling the island, staring up at the thousands upon thousands of bloody gannets and then heading back. The same.’
‘Because…’
‘Sorry?’ a crack of thunder tore through the skies, seemingly trembling the sea and all within it.
‘Because,’ shouted Andrew, his voice slicing through the extremities with an almost preacher-like power, ‘we’ll actually be going on to the island! Eh! How about that!’
‘Say again? Onto the rock itself?’
‘Yes! Onto the island, amongst the seabirds, into the castle ruin, the abandoned lighthouse, the abbey, the hermit’s….thing…whatever the bloody hell hermits stay on.’
‘Do you have permission for that!? Surely they wouldn’t just…’
‘Never mind that!’ a streak of lightning flashed above them, alighting the Bass Rock.
‘Never mind!? What the bloody hell do you mean never mind!? Of course you need permission, of course you have to…come to think of it how the hell did you get this boat down to the beach? Who does the boat belong to?’
‘That’s not important…’
‘Of course its important! Of course its bloody important! This is bloody madness!’
‘It’s not…’ nothing more than a slight mumble frittered from Andrew’s lips.
‘What?!’
‘I SAID IT’S NOT MADNESS! Ok!! Because I need it! I need it! I need….something! To fill this horrible, empty bloody hole! This nothing! He was my everything! Everything! I’m fucking lost without him! Pathetic! Nothing! He was my strength! My spirit! My reassurance! Everything good about me was because of him ok! And I can’t….I can’t….arghhhh I can’t even find the fucking words to do him justice!!! He was my life! My Ian! And now he’s gone! And I need something, somewhere, anything to shelter me, shield me, let me start to recover or grieve or whatever the hell I’m supposed to bloody do! I just…I…!’
He slumped against the wheel, raising his hand in a half-hearted threatening gesture and then withdrew it. He glanced up. The Bass Rock full of splendour, of dignity, of ferocity, lay before them but still out of reach. Forever outwith his grasp. He dropped to his knees, his head in his hands. Convulsing as the biting cold thrust into his every vein, every pore. He felt a hand caressing his shoulder. Gentle. Comforting. Familiar.
‘Andrew…’
He let his hands drop from his face and started to turn. Again halting. Some unknown force scolding him, admonishing him to cease
‘Andrew…’ repeated the voice behind him, ‘it’s ok to feel alone. To feel scared. It’s not weakness. It’s who we are as humans. We all get scared. Every one of us.’
Andrew could feel his body quivering, goosebumps erupting across every inch of his skin. And yet, there was also a calm. A peace. The storm had, once again, seemingly and inexplicably abated however momentarily.
‘But…I…’
‘I know you need me Andrew. I always needed you aswell. That’s how it works. Right up until the end. I needed you more than you’ll ever know. That’s ok. But we all have our own strength within us Andrew. Especially you. Particularly you.’
He lifted his left hand gently and placed it on the man’s. Yet still he couldn’t bring himself to turn his head, to look back.
‘I miss you Ian. So much. It’s killing me.’
‘I know. But you’ll always have me here, Andrew. Always. There’s nothing that can or will change that.’
Andrew felt a drop of rain slowly inch its way down his cheek. The words, any words, all words, caught in his throat. Refusing him the right of reply.
‘And this madness has to stop. You know it does. Things are as they are. And always will be like this. But I’m always here. Always here if you need to see me. To feel me. I might be out of reach but I promise you there’s nothing that will ever change this. You always, always know where to find me. I’m going nowhere.’ Andrew squeezed the hand tightly, his eyes welding shut in the process, straining to push back against the well of tears threatening to smother his eyelids. His heart pounded, blood rifling through his arteries.

His eyes slowly began to open, the Bass Rock forming in his vision once again. The biting cold of the storm replaced by a mildness, one threatening to veer into an uncomfortable warmth. The clothes, previously festooned to his body through sheer wetness felt lighter, freer, drier against his skin. As his eyes readjusted to the light the Bass Rock appeared to retreat. And retreat. At an alarming rate. Until it settled in the distance. Stoic amid the storm, the ruin of Tantallon Castle perched to its left on the cliff edge. Oil. Paint. Canvas. His painting. Staring down on him as he gazed back up at it. He tasted the salt in the tear as it encroached upon his lips. His left hand clawed at the limp vacant woolen material of Ian’s jumper wrapped around his neck and shoulders.

He sighed. Deeply. Agonisingly. And pulled himself up off the chair. He continued to stare at the painting. Allowing it one last lingering look.
‘That’s it.’ he whispered to himself. ‘Enough’.

Passing Place

‘Fresh Mussels’. At least that’s what I think the very dishevelled, bearded man is scrawling onto the wooden board in white paint. In fact, it is. ‘Fresh Mussels’. That shows you the kind of place this is I suppose. A sleepy, at-their-own-pace, sell-what-you-can-when-you-have-it kind of place. Of course, the fact that I’ve got time to read the sign as I wait at yet another bloody Passing Place somewhat hammers home that point. This isle, Mull, is full of the buggers. Passing Places that is. Not mussels. Or it might be, I haven’t a clue. First time here you see. 38 years of age, lived in Scotland all my life, and yet this is my first experience of the Inner Hebrides. Shameful I suppose. Took the Calmac from Oban this morning. Early morning. Far too early in the bloody morning if you must ask. Early enough to be high-jacked by the seemingly self-appointed tourist representative for Mull when I nipped into the shop at Craignure once the ferry landed. Nice woman, yes, but by Christ I could write an anthology about the place after that chat. Oh you have to try this restaurant; say hello to Jill the postie and be sure to let her pass you on the road; watch out for any white tailed sea eagles etc etc. I only nipped in for a bottle of juice! Having said that, I’m glad she warned me about the eagles. Jesus, I thought I was being attacked by a bloody pterodactyl just back along the road. A wingspan of 8ft!? That’s bigger than this motor! A bright red motor at that. A big bright red, slow-moving, passing-place-stopping target. Fills me right up with confidence that one. And you can couple that with the random sheep sauntering casually along and across the road at various points along the journey. I tell you, if the animals and wildlife of Mull ever decide to gang together and try to seize control of the place I doubt the humans would stand a chance.

‘Aye, aye, you’re welcome’ I raise my hand in acknowledgment at the passing car as I sit, foot firmly on the clutch, at what must be, I assume, the four millionth Passing Place I’ve come across so far. Stunningly beautiful place this though, I have to admit. Serene yet majestic all at once. Calm measured solitude. Something I could be doing with at this point in my life. Ah look at that. That’ll be Ben More (More? Mhor? Moore?) the island’s Munro slap bang ahead in front of me. Breathtaking. All fed by, what was it she called it, Loch na Keal, on the left hand side there. I can see why he decided to move here. It’s a different life here. Another setting. Another world. A different…atmosphere, almost. Well, certainly compared to my flat just off bloody Union Street in Aberdeen city centre, that’s for sure. You barely get a moment to come up for air in a setting like that. Here it’s nothing but air. Calm. Settled. Yes, I certainly can see why he moved here anyway. Understandable in certain ways. Doesn’t make him any less of bastard mind you.

Mr Hughes. Alan. Our nice, friendly neighbour Mr Hughes. Mr and Mrs Hughes. Pillars of the community. Liked by all. Never a harsh word spoke about either. Strange that, in a place like Aberdeen, where the bastards have a harsh word for damn near every bugger. No kids of their own of course but you were never to ask questions about things like that. Alan was always quick to come out for a game of football on the street, or at the park round the back though. I mind once he offered, quite clumsily now I think of it, to take me to Pittodrie. Not my two older brothers though, just me. My Dad was a Celtic man you see whereas I was a Dons supporter through and through. As was Alan. It never happened of course. I can remember my Dad being mightily pissed off when I broached the subject with him. I just assumed it was an Aberdeen-Celtic thing. At the time I never assumed there was anything more to it. Why would I? But of course when I start to piece things together that was round about the time my folks started arguing relentlessly. Fighting. Swearing. Screaming. And suddenly any interaction with Mr and Mrs Hughes ceased. Literally overnight. My Mum had been good pals with Mrs Hughes, Gina, for a good number of years. They’d often nip round to one another’s for a fly cup now and then. But again, that ended abruptly. Ah shit, it’s started to rain, that’ll make this drive all the more enjoyable right enough! But aye, there was one night in particular I mind a vicious argument between my folks. Then the door slammed. There’s me peering out the slit in my bedroom curtains watching as Dad marches around to Mr Hughes’, battering at his door, calling him every bloody name under the sun. My Mum chasing after him in her nightdress. Catching sight of me and screaming up at me to ‘go to bloody sleep! Shut those bloody curtains! Now!’ I never did get the full story, I was too bloody frightened to ask. And then very soon after that Mr and Mrs Hughes moved away. Out of the street. Gone from our lives. I vaguely recall my old man, I think, snidely commenting one day that he’d heard they’d ‘split’. ‘Hardly surprising’ I remember him saying. I couldn’t understand why given they always seemed happy together but again I never bothered following it up. Relations at that point between me and him were far from perfect and were about to go downhill rapidly. But that was that.

Or so I thought. Until my Mum’s deathbed revelation, that is. Well, hardly ‘deathbed’, but it was in her final few days anyway. Always one for the dramatic was Mum. She thrust a piece of paper in my hand as I sat by her bedside. ‘Andy Hughes’ written on it. And an address. And a phone number. Confused, uncertain, perplexed. The whole gambit of ‘eh’ ran through my mind. Swiftly followed by an outpouring of ‘What’s this for?’, ‘Why have you given me this?’ etc. But all she would say, all she would repeat in fact, was ‘Just phone him Mark. Phone him. Just phone him. I’m sorry. I’m sorry son, I’m sorry.’ No elaboration. Nothing else. But then there was nothing else she needed to say. Why just me? Why not Ian and Peter aswell? It was obvious. Loaded with a hundred questions of course but obvious nonetheless. It’s damn near impossible to shove something like that to the back of your mind but I had to. To get through the funeral. The grieving. To say goodbye to my Mum. But it was always there. Nagging. Gnawing. Waiting.

So I phoned. And we spoke. And both of us knew. Neither of us explicitly said it but both of us knew. Through the condolences. The half-uttered, meaningless platitudes from one to the other. The banal ‘what are you doing with yourself’ type questions. And just like that we agreed to meet. In any normal circumstance it would be ridiculous, nonsensical. But we agreed all the same, both of us knowing why. I agreed to come to Mull, fancied seeing this renowned island rather than letting him traipse up to the pokey bugger of a flat I call home. And that was the call done. No remonstrations, no apologies, no volleys of abuse at the bastard for fucking off out of my life at such a young age and not even bothering to try to make any kind of contact since then. Nothing. I’d bottled it. He’d bottled it. Just like he’s bottled the last 38 years of my life. I’ll tell you though, my Dad, or at least the man I thought was my Dad, might have been an absolute bastard to me growing up, a horrible fucking bastard of a person in fact, but at least he had a fucking spine. At least he stuck around, John. At least he gave a shit. Suddenly it becomes obvious why he was how he was with me. With both of us, me and Mum. Bastard. No, bastards. The two of them. Look I know it can’t have been easy for Mr Hughes…or should that be Dad?…no, Mr Hughes. I understand that but…come one for…I…ah, I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m here. In Mull. Prepared to meet him. To talk to him. To do whatever my brain decides to do. Shout? Swear? Talk? Accuse? Who knows. He knew what ferry I was getting on but we never actually arranged a meeting place or time or any of that nonsense. I would phone ahead and let him know I’m on my way down but there’s bugger all signal here for me. Unsurprisingly. So that’s why I’m inching my way down to Fionnphort at the foot of the island. Off to meet Mr Hughes. Alan. Dad. That bastard. All things to one man. To this man. Ah jesus, that rain is battering down now! The bloody wipers are barely moving it’s that heavy! And oh joy, here’s another car. So in I go once again. Into yet another bloody Passing Place.

 

Passing Places. Perfect for this type of weather. Thundering down with rain. I can’t even begin to imagine trying to negotiate past cars on this road in this weather without these Passing Places. A nice shiny wee red card that one. Well, everything’s shiny in this rain isn’t it. Haven’t seen that one in this area before. Maybe Barbara’s got that new car she was threatening to buy for so long. Or it could be a tourist on their way down to catch the ferry to Iona. Good luck in this weather pal. You’ll need it. I strain my eyes but can’t make out the driver in the red car thanks to the shower of rain pelting both our windscreens. Just a raised hand. Ah well, thanks all the same kind sir or madam. Bloody awful weather this.

Just as well I’m on my way to pick him up. Mark. My son. The son I’ve not seen in over 30 years. He never asked me to of course but I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. This road is bad enough for a first timer let alone in this weather. His ferry should be in by now so he’ll likely be sitting waiting in his car. Or at the pub possibly. I don’t know if he takes a drink or not. It’s no use being out in rain like this though. So aye, call it surprise, call it whatever. I’ll meet him there and drive him down to the house for a sit down. Or join him in the pub. If he’s there. If he drinks obviously. Ah bugger it. It’s fair to say I’m a bundle of bloody nerves.

Right out of the blue that phone call. I didn’t even know who it was at first. How could I? I was sad to hear about Sandra. Very sad. We were never star-crossed lovers or love’s young dream or anything approaching that but there was something. There was definitely something once. We found each other. Needed each other. She was loaded down with two kids, getting no help from John. He used to treat her like garbage but you don’t say anything do you, it’s not your place. And then there was me and Joan, the first and only Mrs Hughes. Ah the perfect couple. To the neighbours at least. Always with a smile, a kind word. A shared joke. So perfect that we could barely stand the sight of one another after a few years. We were both to blame for that though. No. I’m not blaming her. She was a good woman. It was my fault. Entirely. I broke our wedding vows. Happy marriage or not, that’s unforgiveable. But Sandra. Me and Sandra. Sandra and I, we just…got one another. It was good. Stressful but good. For a while. And then of course we found out about Mark. A ticking timebomb. Joan and I never had kids of our own of course. She wasn’t able to. I’d always told her I was fine with that, happy that it was just the two of us. But I’d always wanted. There was always a part of me that wanted a son or daughter of my own. I told Sandra we could run away, start a new life, come clean. Anything it would take for us, the three of us, to be together. I would tell Joan everything. Confess all. Chapter and verse. But she wouldn’t have it, Sandra. She was married. She had two children that she couldn’t and wouldn’t uproot for the sake of a fling. And besides it all, no matter how much of cruel nasty bugger John was, she was adamant that she still loved him. I was heartbroken. Heartbroken. I didn’t just lose Sandra but I’d lost a son. My son.

And then Mark was born. Their third son. John’s ‘third’ son. I watched him grow up on that street. Right before my eyes. Rolling past the window in his pushchair. Walking, running. Kicking his first football. It was agony. He was there. In my life. And yet I couldn’t get near him. Sandra wouldn’t let me. As far as she was concerned he was John’s and that was that. An end to it. But I would fight back. Bit by bit at a time. I would talk to him and his brothers, him and his pals, about football. Even join in now and then when they had their kickabouts. I would speak to him whenever he’d pass. Trying to get to know him. Trying to make any connection I could. And then came the offer. The tickets. For the Dons game. John blew up. Called me all kinds of names. Kiddy fiddling pervert peado this, that and the other. I was to stay the bleep away from him and his two brothers in future or he’d effin kill me. There’s only so much I was willing to take. I lost it. Hit him back with the truth. Right there. With Joan sitting next to me. Completely oblivious. Unaware. He went for me. If it hadn’t been for Joan stepping in between us and physically restraining him I haven’t a clue what kind of damage he would have done. She got him out of the house before quietly stepping back inside and asking me if it was true. A few hours later of course there was the rammy in the street where he marched along for round two, Sandra in tow screaming at him, at me. Joan saying nothing. Silent. And that was it. We moved away very soon after. Joan was adamant. It was either that or the marriage was over. So we did. To Mull. Of all places. You couldn’t get much further away from the North East. And less than a year later the marriage was over. Inevitable really. I don’t blame her. I blame myself for all of it.

Maybe I should have tried harder. Should have attempted again, and again, to force my way into Mark’s life. There’s no maybe about it in fact, I absolutely should have. If I had my chance again I would…I’d…in all honesty I’d probably do the same thing all over again. Not through choice or intention, no, but simply because I’m a coward. I was scared. Scared Sandra wouldn’t want anything to do with me? Scared John would kill me? Scared Mark wouldn’t want anything to do with me? Probably all of the above and more. Coward. And I’m still at it. I could have told him. On the phone. The other week. I could have just told him as clear as day. ‘Mark, I’m your father, son.’ But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Christ I’m not even sure I will today. But I have to. Must. I’m a bloody coward though so who knows. A 68 year old coward, how’s that for you. That’s why I’m glad he phoned. God knows how Sandra managed to get my number but I’m glad she did. If the roles had been reversed and I’d had Mark’s number I very much doubt I’d have had the courage to pick up the phone. Or dial the number anyway, that’s for sure. Oh there’s Jill out with the post. I’ll nip in here and let her pass.

At least it’s drying up now. You get them here. These sporadic, hellish rainstorms. Here one minute and gone the next. Even the sheep don’t bother retreating for them any longer. Ah, Donald’s got a fresh batch of mussels in I see, shall have to nip in there on the way back. That’d be a nice fresh taste of Mull for Mark I’d bet. If he likes mussels that is. Or fish in general. So much. So much to talk about. To hear about. 30 odd years of my boy’s life that I’ve not got the slightest inkling about. He mentioned working on the rigs. That must take him all over the world. Some life I’d expect. Interesting. Unlike mine. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mull. Its home. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But it’s hardly the most exhilarating of places. Especially now I’m retired. Although I think that was the point when Joan moved us here. There was something about this place that I took to instantly though. It was quiet, so peaceful. Serene. You really could have solitude here. Even when Joan left me, headed back to the mainland, I never once thought about leaving. It worked. For me. For who I am. Hiding? Maybe. Probably. But I found my life here. I would have given it all up in a second if Sandra or Mark had asked me to mind you. In a heartbeat.

Here we are. Craignure. And that’s the sun coming out. That’s the second season of the day, still plenty time for the other two before we’re done. I scan the seafront, scouring for any new or ‘visiting’ cars or vehicles. Nope. Just the usual few. I’ll maybe nip into the shop and ask Arlene if anyone’s been in before I try the pub. That’s if she’ll let me get a bloody word in edgeways. And that’s another ferry coming in. Ready to dump another load of sightseers on the island before setting back off again. Probably set for Tobermory up north. That’s all we are on the south of the island, one big passing place. That’s a good idea mind you, I’ll maybe see if Mark wants to take a drive up to Tobermory. That’s if I can find him, of course.

The Tall Grass

Extract taken from the Visit Scotland website;

The  picturesque Perthshire small town of Aardraven sits south of the River Tummel and South East of the majestic Loch Tummel – source of the former. Often missed by commuters as they travel either North (to the Cairngorms) or North West (to the West Highlands), Aardraven is perhaps best known for the small cluster of near-perfectly preserved 18th century buildings, courtesy of renowned architect William Adam, situated in the town’s ‘High Street’. Particularly famed is the majestic baroque-style and oft-photographed Aardraven Town Hall. Adam was also responsible for the design of Aardraven House, the imposing Category A-listed country house which sits on the outskirts of the town within the 3000 acre Aardraven Estate. The Estate is owned by John William Archibald, Laird of Aardraven, and his family. Once a working estate, employing a staff of hundreds, part of the ground within the estate now lies derelict and overgrown. Despite this the beauty of Aardraven House cannot be underestimated and is a must see for any travellers willing to head off the beaten track during a trip up north. Try to catch a glimpse of the house and its surrounding estate as the sun sets, in turn creating a truly stunning and evocative silhouette against the tranquil background.

***

Letter from John William Archibald to the Aardraven Community Council dated 24th May;

The Much Honoured John William Archibald, Laird Of Aardraven
Aardraven House
Aardraven Estate
Perthshire

To Whom It May Concern

It will come as no surprise to you that I am quite outraged at the manner of your previous letter informing me of the imminent ‘transfer’ of part of my estate into the ownership of the community for, as you term it, ‘sustainable development’ and the plans to ‘erect a community beneficial Ecovillage’.  Whatever the bloody hell that is.

This will NOT stand. This kind of gross insult to my name, and my family’s name, is beyond the pale. I can assure you with absolute confidence that this land, all 3,000 acres of it, belongs to myself, the Laird Of Aardraven, and my family. This will NOT change and letters of this ilk will not impede upon this irrefutable fact.

You state that ‘as per the raft of previous correspondence’ the project has been unanimously voted through, agreed and passed without any objection from myself or my estate. I can assure you that this is a scandalous falsehood. Your previous letter is the first I have heard of this ludicrous and very probably illegal venture. Socialists like yourself and that tinpot parliament in Edinburgh may very well wish to impose Land Reform on those of us who actually generate the wealth within this country but I can promise you that this cannot and will not apply to this case or to my land.

The law of ownership, under the Act Of Prescription, will prevail and when it does, swiftly and fiercely, I will be expecting no less than a full, frank and grovelling apology from yourself and all in this town that dare to question the legitimacy of my land and my family’s name. I have always kept a distance from the townsfolk of Aardraven, happy to let you dwell within your charming little town, but let me remind you that I am Laird, no less, of this area and have a good sight more sway than any council or committee that you wish to assemble. I remind you; this land, all of this land, WILL remain within my family’s name. Of that there is no doubt.

Yours,
The Much Honoured John William Archibald, Laird Of Aardraven

***

Letter from Irene McPhee, Chair of Aardraven Community Council, to John William Archibald, Laird Of Aardraven, dated 26th May;

Dear Mr Archibald

Thank you for your recent correspondence (dated 24th May). It was good to finally hear from you regarding this matter – we, and many others as I will outline in this letter, have attempted on numerous occasions to contact yourself, or any representative of your Estate, in relation to this matter.

I feel that I should clarify a couple of points noted in your letter.

1) The lower Aardraven Ecovillage project is a fully approved sustainable development intended to enhance both our town’s tourist potential and our town’s environmental credentials. Using a variety of renewable energy sources, including the Hydro Electric plant on the banks of Loch Tummel, we intend to fully power an Ecovillage which will provide facilities including shops, restaurants, museum space, educational facilities and upwards of 200 much-needed new housing units. All of which has been fully costed, funded and approved by the Community Council of Aardraven, the Scottish Government and has been verified by our legal representatives as viable and adherent to the law of the land.

2) You state that our last letter (dated 29th April) was the ‘first I have heard of this ludicrous and very probably illegal venture’. I will answer the legality part of that quote in point 3 below. As to this being the ‘first’ you have heard of the scheme, I would like to refer you to raft of previous correspondence from our Council dating all the way back to January 12th last year. Enclosed with this letter are no less than 42 letters from ourselves relating to this matter, many of which ask for an urgent response, and a further 23 from the Scottish Government outlining the terms of the agreement and requests for consultation from yourself or your representatives.

3) The legality of the scheme is absolutely not in question I can assure you. I would like to quote from the Land Reform Act (2016) in relation to this matter. We, or any community or charitable body, are able to request the transfer of a section of privately owned land should the transfer ‘further the achievement of sustainable development and be in the public interest’, and if the transfer is ‘likely to result in significant benefit to the community and is the only practicable way of achieving significant benefit’. In both cases this has been agreed as fact. The act also states that Scottish Ministers will seek the views of the owner with the right to sell…on any application. They have attempted to do so many times, as have we, and set deadline after deadline in terms of asking for a response. None of which was forthcoming until now.

To repeat what I, and others, have stated in many of the previous letters to yourself Mr Archibald, we absolutely do not seek to cause a feeling of disharmony within this transaction. Neither are we attempting to ‘steal’ or purge land from yourself. The handful of acres earmarked for this development is, as you know, within a section of your land which is vastly overgrown with weeding, tall grass and other aspects of foliage. We completely respect your right of land, your right of ownership, but with the land as rundown as it currently is our proposal would be to regenerate the land, allowing it to help rejuvenate and enhance our town and bring in much needed revenue. Please be clear that this is not a comment on your, or your staff’s, upkeep of the land.

Please feel free to contact myself or any other members of the Community Council on the numbers provided on the back of this letter. Failing that our next Community Council meeting is being held on June 6th and you are, of course, very welcome to attend and discuss any concerns you may continue to have regarding this matter.

Yours sincerely
Irene McPhee
Aardraven Community Council Chair

***

Extract from John William Archibald, Laird of Aardraven’s, personal diary dated 30th May;

Nonsense. Absolute bloody nonsense. Spoke to that woman from the local mob on the phone for a good hour or so today. Waste of time. A broken record. Repeating the same over and over again. Quoting the new land thieving act again and again. As if she believed it would influence me in any way. Bloody idiot. Disrespectful. That’s what her and all her kind are. I’m the bloody Laird of the Estate for christ sake! Cottars the fucking lot of them. There never would have been this kind of behaviour in my father’s day. Or his father’s And so on. No. There was a fear back then. A respect. An Ecovillage for god’s sake. This is wild countryside. Not a plaything for sandal wearing hippies. On and on about the letters they’ve sent me. Tens. Dozens. Multiple. How the bloody hell should I know what letters they have or haven’t sent me. There hasn’t been the time. Or the staff. There’s been other considerations. Other problems. Problem. That doesn’t leave me the time. I can’t hire staff. I’ve tried that. And look how that ended. No. I can’t. The land must stay within the family. I will not let it go. I cannot. I’m 78 years old for god’s sake. Too old for this carry on. Too worn down. They can’t see that though. It will stay in the family. I’ll attend their silly little meeting. I won’t flinch from this.

***

Taken from the minutes of the Aardraven Community Council Meeting dated 6th June;

Irene McPhee (Chair) – Ok, now we turn to the next item on the agenda – The Lower Aardraven Ecovillage Development.

JW Archibald – Yes now, yes. I’m here to have my say finally. If you people will let me that is. Trying to shove this down my bloody throat. That’s what you lot are doing. I can assure you I will not consent to this. I will contact my solicitors and I will…

Irene McPhee (Chair) – Mr Archibald, sir, as I reminded you on the phone the time for consultation and legal involvement has been and passed. We sent numerous…

JW Archibald – Oh do shut up you silly woman. Numerous letters, numerous letters. That’s what you keep repeating time and again. A man of my stature cannot be expected to read or respond to every correspondence can he.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – Mr Archibald, if you insult Irene or anyone else here once again I am afraid I will have to ask you to leave.

JW Archibald – Oh be quiet. I am having my say. God, the amount of money I and my family have put into this bloody town and this is the kind of disrespect I have to contend with. Well I will not stand for it. That land is my land. My family’s. You will not steal it. Rest assured.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – The land is derelict Mr Archibald. In a state of ruin.

JW Archibald – My own land is my own land. What state it is in matters not to you or anyone other than my family.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – But the rest of the land is fine. Just that portion, that area. It’s an utter mess. It’s a sight and a half. That’s why we’ve proposed this Mr Archibald.

JW Archibald – It is my bloody land. I’m almost 80 for god’s sake. I can’t be expected to tend the entirety of my land at this age without any staff can I.

Irene McPhee (Chair) – Mr Archibald, we fully understand this and this is one of the reasons for this development. It will enhance the land, enhance the area, enhance…

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – Why do you have no staff Mr Archibald? Sorry for interrupting Irene but I’m just curious.

JW Archibald – That is none of your business. And I resent the further intrusion on my affairs. Apologise now.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – I do not intend to offend Mr Archibald, I’m simply asking. You used to have a whole string of staff at your disposal. It diminished over the years of course but still.

JW Archibald – This is entirely none of your business. I will not repeat myself again.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – Are you in financial difficulties Mr Archibald?

JW Archibald – What a scandalous thing to say you bloody little…

Irene McPhee (Chair) – I apologise Mr Archibald. Iain, that is completely out of order. Mr Archibald’s finances have nothing to do with this affair.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – I meant no offence Irene, I’m only asking because this development would help alleviate those troubles, bring in some extra revenue you know. That’s all.

JW Archibald – You can wipe that bloody smirk off your face you impudent b*stard. The disrespect here is sickening. You wouldn’t have dared talk to my father or his father in this manner. No, not a chance. They would have thrown the lot of you off this land and replaced you with bloody sheep without so much as a second thought.

Iain Findlay (Community Council member) – It’s a bit much to be advocating a return to the Highland Clearances Mr Archibald. And you speak of family, well you’ve no wife, no heir, no one to inherit the land as it stands. So, let’s be honest, in a few years time…

At this point the meeting was suspended due the threat of a physical altercation between JW Archibald and Iain Findlay, the former throwing his cane violently towards the latter. Both were escorted from the town hall.

***

Extract from John William Archibald, Laird of Aardraven’s, personal diary dated 6th June;

Bastard! Bastards! The lot of them. Especially that snivelling little bloody shit of a man. No heir? No bloody heir?! Where the hell does he get the gumption to say a despicable thing like that to me. No heir!? I’ll bloody well show him. Show the lot of them. No heir? Well they’d get a bloody shock if I…no. No. No. I won’t. Can’t. Those insignificant bloody nobodies!! Who they hell do they think they are. Just who the hell do they think they are talking to? Disrespecting. Staff? They dare to question me about my staff? My own staff!? They’ll get nothing out of me there. Nothing. Private business. Private land. My bloody land! Stupid little bloody crackpot council meeting. Christ’s sake what a joke. The Banana Republic of Aardraven. Well they’ll be hearing from the solicitors, that’s for sure. Worst of all it wasted my bloody time. Took me away. From this problem. The eternal bloody problem. Precious minutes. Wasted. Well I’ll make sure no more time is wasted. They WILL NOT take that land!!!

***

Official Notice of land transfer for 20 acres of Aardraven Estate to Lower Aardraven Sustainable Development Initiative dated 10th June;

FAO – John William Archibald, Laird Of Aardraven

The agreed and legally ratified transfer of 20 acres of the southern section of your Estate for use in the Lower Aardraven Sustainable Development Initiative will take place on 20th June.

The Site Manager for the project will be in touch with you before then to agree the procedural requirements and the timetable involved in the development. We will strive to ensure throughout that the minimal amount of impact is inflicted upon yourself and the remainder of your grounds during this time.

***

Letter from John William Archibald to both the Aardraven Community Council and Scottish Government dated 17th June;

The Much Honoured John William Archibald, Laird Of Aardraven
Aardraven House
Aardraven Estate
Perthshire

To Whom It May Concern

This absolutely will NOT stand. This land, MY land, cannot be procured. Cannot be stolen. I fully intend to involve my solicitors in this matter – this was my intention weeks ago however certain personal affairs have accelerated in and required my immediate attention. I will instruct them to enforce an immediate block on this development. You say this has been legally ratified but I GUARANTEE that my legal team will find a flaw in your argument.

This is theft. Pure and simple. I have read your so-called Land Reform Act and quite frankly consider it with the contempt and disdain it deserves. It’s an odd, bitter piece of legislation I must say. Revenge for your crofter forefathers being tossed out of their straw dwellings back in the 1800s is it yes? Either way it is a relic. Pathetic. Theft. We, the families that own these ‘estates’, are about the only thing that brings money into this paltry little outpost of a country. You should thank us for wanting to live rather than taking the more sensible route down to the more prosperous English countryside.

I could go on but I won’t. I’ll only say this CANNOT and WILL NOT happen. I will use any means and force necessary to prevent it from happening. This land absolutely MUST remain in my family’s name. Expect to hear from my legal team post-haste.

Yours,
The Much Honoured John William Archibald, Laird Of Aardraven

***

Extract from John William Archibald, Laird of Aardraven’s, personal diary dated 19th June;

THE END. The final chapter. All these years of seclusion, of suppression. All futile. The festering wound about to be ripped open once more. My name. This family’s name. Threatened with ruin. Degradation. Tomorrow is when they’ll discover it. When they start that daft little project of there’s. Mechanical equipment, diggers, cement lorries have already started arriving ahead of the commencement. Waiting. Overshadowing all. The wolves at the door. Ready to rip the tall grass to shreds. To plunder that land. MY Land. What should be my own private dwelling. Untouched by any other. PRIVATE! Personal. Out of sight, out of reach of those others. The problem now becomes unmanageable. They’ll know soon enough. Questions. Recriminations. NO! This land CANNOT be relinquished. Defiance. Protest. Yes. I’ll fight against this scorched earth insanity! Anything to prevent them. Those bloody solicitors. If only I’d had the time to contact them. They would have put a stop to this debacle. This affront. But the problem just wouldn’t allow it. Consumes all. MY TIME. MY ALL. What chance of escape? To flee into the acres. To flee into the countryside. I know this estate better than anyone. Better than these philistines. Parasites. But to flee would mean…no. I cannot risk. Or must I? The darkness thins, the dawn is approaching. Judgement…

***

Extract taken from the Police Scotland report written by DCI Robert Fyvie in relation to the incident at the Aardraven House Estate on June 20th;

Having spoken to several of the construction workers it has become clear that the Allan Baig, the Site Manager, having already attempted to contact Mr John William Archibald in the last week or so, knocked on the latter’s door several times early in the morning in an urgent attempt to ensure a smooth handover. No answer was forthcoming (this includes dozens of unanswered phone calls made to Archibald’s landline). At this juncture Mr Baig explained that he looked in several windows of the property and, eventually due to no further response, proceeded to the back of the property. Mr Baig arrived at the back at the house to find the back door ajar. Again he knocked several times, once more to no avail. Mr Baig then entered the property, calling out to Mr Archibald. It transpired that the property was empty or ‘abandoned’ in the words of Mr Baig. According to the latter a loaf of bread was left open on the kitchen counter, a buttered knife lying next to it, and a near-empty open bottle of Single Malt sat on the kitchen table. It appeared as though a sudden, hasty departure had been made. Mr Baig at this point thought no more of it and returned to the site to commence work.

The crew then cordoned off the land in preparation for the work – at this point it should be noted that the land had previously not been properly surveyed due to the initial silence and later intransigence on the part of the land owner, Mr Archibald, which led to a reliance on historic plans of the estate being used to scope the work before arrival. At this stage several members of the Aardraven Community Council, and other members of the community, arrived to witness the beginning of the development. At around 9:30am the first construction vehicle moved into the field and commenced digging the land. Moments later Mr Baig, standing nearby, called for the vehicle operator to cease after he noticed an ‘object’ protruding from the soil. Upon closer inspection it was found to be skeletal human remains. Mr Baig urged his crew and the community members to retreat from the field. As he moved into the field to closer examine the remains Mr Baig stumbled over a mound of dirt obscured by the tall overgrown grass and weeding. This in turn led to his discovery of further human remains. At this point Mr Baig hastily exited the scene and contacted the police.

Upon further inspection of the site we have discovered at least 20 shallow graves containing human remains buried in the field beneath the overgrown collection of grass, weeds, nettles and other foliage. Many of the remains have decayed to the point that, without the confirmation of a forensic report, I am confident to say they have been in the field for many years, possibly decades. Others appear to be more recent fatalities. All work on the site has, of course, ceased indefinitely until such times as our investigation is fully concluded.

I and many of my fellow officers approached Aardraven House with extreme caution only to find it, as Mr Baig had earlier reported, empty. At this point we conducted a search across the estate looking for John William Archibald, owner of the house and said estate. Mr Archibald was found an hour or so into the search, approximately three miles from the house, by the banks of the River Tummel. It is believed that he had fled the estate in the early hours of the morning. His condition on discovery was extremely grave and it has since transpired that he is suffering from hypothermia. Due to his condition, and his advanced years, he is currently in a critical condition on life support at the High Dependency ward in Perth Royal Infirmary.

Found with Mr Archibald was a man thought to be in his late 50s/early 60s. The man, the name of whom we are still to establish, clearly suffers from mental health issues, severe problems with his speech and had to be approached with the utmost caution as he was gesticulating violently in defiance of our officers. The limited amount of information we managed to obtain from Mr Archibald before he slipped into a critical condition, and subsequent research and initial tests, have, we believe, established that this man is Mr Archibald’s son. Mr Archibald has never married and was never known to have any children. A quick check of census information seemed to support the latter conclusion. Mr Archibald’s younger sister, Annabelle Archibald, did live in the property for many years however she passed several years back. At this stage the identity of the man’s mother has not been established.

The man has since been remanded in custody for questioning.

***

Extract from article entitled ‘AARDRAVEN HOUSE OF HORROR’ taken from The Courier newspaper, dated June 29th;

The man, now believed to be 59 years of age, known only as ‘Boy’ to the authorities, and son of John William Archibald, Laird of Aardraven, has been arrested and charged with 20 counts of first degree murder. Men, women and children, the majority of whom are said to have worked on the Aardraven Estate over the years, are said to be among the victims.

John William Archibald, who remains in a critical condition at Perth Royal Infirmary although he is currently off life support, has been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in the covering up of the crimes and burying the remains within the grounds of his estate.

Sources from within Police Scotland have revealed to us that ‘Boy’ was, they are now certain, born of an incestuous relationship between Mr Archibald and his youngster sister Annabelle Archibald. The birth of the child understandably brought shame on the family and they subsequently took measures to conceal the matter from the public withdrawing further and further from public life – their widowed father Robert Samuel Archibald, previous Laird of Aardraven, died from heart complications only one year after what is now understood to be ‘Boy’s year of birth.

Thanks to snippets taken from interviews the authorities have ascertained that ‘Boy’ was kept locked away in a room in the East Wing of the house for large portions of his life. As deep-seated mental health issues and brutally violent tendencies began to reveal themselves as he approached adolescence, Mr and Mrs Archibald struggled to contain their child. The issue grew significantly worse as the years progressed. Mrs Archibald died in 1997 thought, at the time, to be as a result of natural causes. This verdict is now being re-examined in light of these recent discoveries.

A police timeline seems to suggest that ‘Boy’ committed his first murder in his late teens, bludgeoning an elderly farm worker to death with a pickaxe in the kitchen of Aardraven House after escaping from his room one day. Mr Archibald has allegedly confessed to the burying of the man’s body, and all the others, under the cover of darkness within the section of his land recently earmarked for the Lower Aardraven Ecovillage development. Several of the remains are expected to link conclusively to a number of open missing persons cases stretching back as far as the 1970s. The sources have thus far refused to entertain or comment on the rumours that many of the remains were subject to signs of cannibalism.

The discoveries of course account for the rapidly diminishing staff numbers over the years leading to the more recent situation of no staff at all working on the Aardraven Estate. So much so that the estate had seemingly ceased all operations. This may explain the estate’s alleged erratic and perilous financial state. The estate is, by all accounts, on the verge of bankruptcy.

A spokesperson for the Aardraven Community Council has confirmed that, as of now, the plans for the Lower Aardraven Ecovillage have been put on hold indefinitely. Many believe the plan will be fully abandoned in the coming weeks or months as the gruesome details of the story fully emerge and entirety of its impact is felt upon the town as a whole.