The House In The Woods

PPJan2018

‘Ready…ready….go!’

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.

‘Where the…’

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.

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East

PPABDec17

 

The water rippled, crackling slightly under the gradually emboldening frosty veneer. Light dustings of snow clung lazily to the trees and bushes huddling together around the loch’s perimeter. On the far end of the loch the mountains thrust into the air; grey, crooked silhouettes deep in conference with the heavy, encroaching clouds. The daylight losing its battle, one shadow at a time, with the approaching nightfall.

Iain stood by the edge of the road, his police car recklessly parked on the icy verge only yards behind. He could feel the frost nipping angrily at his shoes, the soles of which had rapidly worn away over the preceding months. Each freezing dart of cold seemingly mocking and admonishing him for his incorrect choice of footwear. He stared straight ahead at the suspect. Iain’s face portrayed a measured calm. A practised façade. His heart, on the other hand, beat frantically. Sporadically.

Murray stared back at him, a weary smile plastered across his tired face. His hair was a mess. Fresh beads of sweat dampened certain patches of his scalp but others sat hard and dry, products of an earlier period of sweat. In one hand he clutched an old woolly tammy. In the other a half-empty bottle of water freshly scooped only minutes earlier from the loch. He held his arms out by his side. Whether in surrender or appeal, Iain was unable to tell. Murray sighed, a mixture of exhaustion and relief flickering briefly through his eyes.

‘Well then brother…’ he said, ‘what’s it to be?’

 

***

At school, and through life in general in fact, siblings always seem to be measured against one another. It’s just how things are. And always will be. Particularly when said siblings reside in a small, secluded town such as Portmahomack, nestled perilously on the edge of the Cromarty Firth in Easter Ross. And for Murray and Iain, this was no different. Behaviour, progression, academic achievements; compare and contrast, compare and contrast. And in this case there was always the sense that, despite the two year age gap in favour of the former, Iain was the mature one. Iain was the sensible one; the one with his head screwed on; the one that would ‘go far’.

Murray was fine with this. He was content – ‘happy’ would be a step too far – to live in his younger brother’s shadow. Academically, at least. School was never really for him. The structure, the rigidity, the conformity all never sat well with him – which, given his career choice later in life, appears somewhat strange. He was the school’s token ‘problem child’. The one sent into the schoolyard each day seemingly by a particularly malevolent and bitter anti-teacher collection of Gods for no other purpose than to simply grind them down and make their working week a living hell. The teachers consequently thanked the deities, one and all, whenever young Murray Macmaster elected to take one of his incrementally increasing sick days off school. A ‘sick’ day which usually entailed a visit to the nearby lighthouse, an alcohol-fuelled frolic with a likeminded girl or two, and a subsequently crudely-scrawled note from his ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ detailing the brief illness. He couldn’t blame his home life, no. Murray’s parents were happily married – on the face of things anyway. They never discouraged him, never beat him, never showed him anything other than the love and care that all children crave. And, anyway, Iain had turned out alright hadn’t he?

As Murray dragged his trail of destruction around the school, Iain kept his head down. He learned. He loved to learn. Loved the validation and confidence that came with the absolute assurance of knowledge and intelligence. He studied, read, planned all through his formative years. In his mind his future path was carved out long before others had even considered a life-beyond-childhood. He grew tall, strong, robust. Physically and mentally he became someone seen as a future leader of the community. A mast that others could tie their sails to, both for educational and social reasons. As Iain’s appearance and aura fleshed out as he advanced through his school years, Murray’s seemed to diminish and wither as drugs and alcohol began to cross the line between childish experimentation into the realms of addiction.

Despite, to all appearances, the ever-expanding chasm between the two brothers in terms of behavioural and academic qualities, the two were always close. Brothers they were in both blood and spirit. Iain had always loved his older brother; always admired his carefree attitude, his seemingly endless reserves of individuality. And when an earlier more timid version of Iain had taken his first steps into the social world of the schoolyard his brother’s fearsome aura had ensured him the space and time to make the smooth and unfettered progression to comfort and confidence. And conversely Murray had never looked on his wee brother’s successes with anything other than pride. Pride that he would rarely let anyone other than his brother see of course, but pride all the same. They were friends aswell as brothers. Increasingly inhabiting two very different worlds but friends they were. As Murray cut short his school life and made the simple transition to the world of short-lived employment and daytime drinking, Iain finished his own spell at school with aplomb and achievement.

For the latter University and a subsequent police training programme followed. For the former, a depressingly familiar spiral into addiction and wasted days ensued. But the two, through it all, remained friends. They would occasionally drink together on the odd night or so when Iain would afford himself a brief respite from the relentless pursuit of perfection. Drinks would flow, declarations of love would reverberate and arms would be hung around the other. Vows made; wherever life could or would deign to take them, they would always be as one. The Macmaster Brothers. Together. Unbreakable. Even women couldn’t tear them apart, they’d say. A fact that was seriously tested at one point when both had designs on Morven, the barmaid at their local. A beautiful, funny woman in her early 20s she held the two of them in raptures night after night. To Iain she was the girl that he could spend his life with; he would provide for her, he would give her the life she deserved. To Murray, at first anyway, she was the best looking lassie in the town. A stunner. A prize to be bagged, to be presented with. But gradually, through the hours and days of relentless drinking, genuine feelings began to develop for her. Morven had always flirted back but these innocent flirtations had, likewise, seemingly turned into some kind of genuine affection. This jolted him slightly, feelings were never part of the equation when it came to him and women. But there they were, all the same. But they remained unspoken, just as Iain’s feelings remained. Neither yet prepared to reveal their true designs. Until the night of the local’s Christmas party that is.

In a small town a pub’s Christmas party is something to look forward to. Possibly not the party itself but certainly the gossip and tales that residually flicker off from the event in the days and weeks afterwards. Scuffles, couplings, drunken states; it’s all good small town gossip. For Murray, however, the party itself presented its chance. His opportunity. His feelings for Morven had awoken a new, fledgling resolve within him to ‘get his life together’ as it were. He would ditch the substances, or at least curb his intake. He would become the kind of man that would deserve a woman like Morven in his life. A new suit was bought, his shoes were shined, his hair professionally cut (rather than taking the clippers to his own head as was his modus operandi); he was ready. He would make his play. Reveal himself. Reveal his feelings. And the plan was a good one. Flawless even. Or it would have been, if he hadn’t have walked in and seen his younger brother Iain kissing the object of his objections. He turned and fled. Angry. Disgusted. Violent. In one split-second tinsel-laden scene he had seen his future ripped out from under him. By Iain. By his own brother.

As Iain’s relationship with Morven grew from strength to strength, his relationship with his older brother seemed to stagnate. For why, Iain could not tell. Murray grew distant, cold. Immersing himself in exercise; finding a new interest in running, swimming, in visits to the gym. He now barely visited the local, choosing to drink (if at all) in the relative comfort of his own one bedroom flat. Iain’s calls would go unanswered. His attempts to reach out dismissed. He needed his brother’s advice; was now the time to propose to Morven? Should he wait until he had finished police training? Wait until he had some money behind him? He needed advice, sage or otherwise. He needed his brother. But Murray was already far down a path that would see the two of them ripped apart before much longer. Thousands of miles of sea and sand between them. Within months a newly-fit and focussed Murray had joined the army. His Blackwatch battalion were off to Afghanistan.

Iain’s heart sank. Afghanistan. Kabul. What possessed him? His brother? The shunner of authority, the carefree spirit. Off to join the army. A six month deployment turned into a year. A year subsequently turned into several. Iain barely received word, good or otherwise, from his brother. Not even a congratulatory letter or telegram celebrating Iain’s marriage to Morven. Or even the birth of their first child, Murray’s nephew. Nor a peep about Iain’s blossoming career in the police force. To Iain his brother was lost. Lost in the sands of the Middle East. Lost beneath a hail of bullets and IEDs. Lost. To Murray, for the first time in his life, he felt as if he belonged. It was a cliché, as staid and reproduced as any other, but he felt a kinship with his army brothers and sisters. An assurance, a confidence that they had his back and he theirs. Betrayal had no place in this life, in that moment. Death, however, sadly did. On his sixth patrol, he and his comrades walked straight into a hail of sniper and machine gun fire. Eight of Murray’s fellow soldiers lost their lives that day. Murray himself suffered a wound to his abdomen however, miraculously, escaped largely unscathed. Physically at least. Mentally, this was just the beginning of a long eternal struggle with PTSD. The images of his closest brothers and sisters being mown down, like a hot knife through butter, only yards from him – their blood staining his shoes, his clothes, congealing into the burning hot sand – would never leave him. For him, the pain was too much. Remaining in the army was too much. For Murray Macmaster it was time to come home.

For Iain solid, dependable marital bliss had buckled somewhat under the weight of life. The three kids. The demanding strain of a police job that seemed to stretch every inch of life out of him. The constant anguish felt daily over his brother’s safety, his life. Him and Morven argued. They fought. They screamed and shouted. The love, the passion that existed at the start of their relationship seemed to have withered as the banal became normality. The job was first. The job was boss. That’s the impression Morven got anyway. Her husband was barely home, barely there to raise a finger to help with their three growing children. The rare spare time he did have seemed, increasingly, to be spent in the pub. Any pub. He barely mentioned his brother to her. Despite her asking him, prodding him, willing him to talk about Murray. She’d always had a soft spot for the older Macmaster brother, stretching back to her student days when she had worked part-time behind the bar of the local. But Iain had made the first move. He had seemed the more solid option. Murray was more mischievous, more exciting, sure, but Iain had a confidence and charm about him that seemed assured. And she grew to love him. Of course she did. But the job. That bloody job. It drained him. It sucked nearly everything from him. His career, and any thought of progression, stalled, almost abruptly, coinciding with his brother’s deployment to the Middle East. He’d put on weight. He became disillusioned. Something inside him had broken then. And for the life of her she didn’t know how to fix it.

Murray had been back in the country nearly five years when he decided to come back home. A string of hostels, bedsits and veterans’ accommodations, and days spent in nothing more than a drink-fuelled limbo, lay in his wake as he made the journey up to the Cromarty Firth from Aberdeen. A man changed. A man fighting to cling on. The memory of his brother gave him the hope that he needed to cling to. A former feeling, a former life to claw back into his own. But the Iain he found was not the Iain he left behind. He looked older, visibly older, strained, less robust than he once more. There was no war, no Afghanistan, no sand for Iain but he looked broken to Murray all the same. They shared drinks with each other when they could, swapped stories, compared tragedies but there was always the feeling that something was being held back. By both of them. The men they had become seemed so far removed from the boys, the vibrant young men, they once were.

The PTSD took hold of Murray as the monotony returned to his routine. The drinking accelerated to a frightening level, showering him with blackouts. Blood stains, wounds, pains that stood without explanation, lost in the haze of his latest drunken switch-off. Scuffles, fights, became a regular occurrence often needing an exasperated, patience-draining Iain to step in and smooth things over. One time when he stepped in between a shoving match, that teetered on the cusp of spilling over into a full-blown fight, Murray seemed to begin to swing for his younger brother. Before stopping himself just in time. Their eyes met. A momentary tension existed between the pair. Unspoken, unresolved issues seem to flare for no more than a moment before the scene fizzled out. In the coming weeks and months it seemed to silently carve a wedge between them. The meetings, the phone calls, the nights out petered out until they became, virtually, two strangers occupying different worlds once again. Unsurprisingly, the final nail in the coffin between the pair came when Murray and Morven slept together.

A marriage already frittering away under the strain of daily existence seemed to gather pace for its descent into the abyss when Murray crept back into their lives. The latter’s behaviour taking more and more from her husband when he had barely anything left to give as it stood. At first Murray had kept his distance, past wounds obviously still fresh in his mind when it came to the once-object of his affections. But gradually, piece by piece, the two developed a friendship. Something, which at first, heartened Iain as he saw his brother and his own children’s uncle take his first steps back into something approaching normal family life. But soon it nagged at him. His wife, the woman who seemed almost indifferent to him these days, seemed to have a spark back about her again. A twinkle appeared in her eye when she spoke to Murray. Something of the girl from the old days reared its head when she laughed with the older of the two brothers. Nags and doubts turned into full blown jealously, up to the point where the situation would become the catalyst for several passionate arguments between the couple. Eventually this drove a despairing Morven into the arms of a half-drunk Murray one afternoon when the kids were at school and Iain was trawling the Highlands on some case or other. Her broken marriage, his PTSD, her depression, his addictions; all came spilling out in one tear-filled therapeutic heart-to-heart. Feelings that were threatened with confession many years previously were suddenly confessed. Out in the open. Unleashed. And sex inevitably followed. Both looking for a feeling of love, of safety, of healing found only disappointment. Guilt. Both were racked with guilt. A factor that, despite swearing each other to secrecy, led Morven to confess all to her husband one teary midweek night. Afterwards Iain had calmly left the house, instinctively walked down to the local, found his brother perched on his usual stool at the end of the bar and punched him. One strong, fierce uppercut that sent his older brother from his stool and sprawling to the floor under a hail of beer, crisps and blood. Iain shook his trembling, bleeding hand slightly as he looked down at his brother. And walked out again. Just as calmly as he had walked in.

The years went by, spinning both brothers from their thirties into their early forties. Not one single word passed between the two. Iain, despite the betrayal, had remained with Morven in a predominantly loveless marriage as their saw their kids off to college and university. They moved out of town, remaining relatively close by, but far enough from the claustrophobic tension to survive. Murray had stayed, taking over ownership of their parents’ house after they left the country to spend their twilight years on the southern coast of Spain. The drinking, the fighting, the blackouts; all remained. The PTSD sat with him, next to him, day after day as he toiled with the strains of existence. The drinking increased. And before long the drugs were reintroduced.

One night Murray found himself in an argument with one of his drinking companions (one you could never label a ‘friend’) at the local when a word, just one word, seemed to trigger the older Macmaster brother. Some afterwards claimed it was ‘Afghanistan’, others ‘Morven’, some said ‘psychopath’. One or two others swear it was a comment mocking his ‘pig’ of a brother. Whatever it was the perpetrator soon found himself on the floor of the pub, blood spilling from his head, a broken glass shattered on the ground next to him. Murray had fled the scene, angry at himself and terrified of the likely consequences. Despite being far over the limit he jumped in his car and drove. He drove. Away. Away from the town. Away from the county. He headed west.

Shortly after Iain, whilst on duty, received a call on his shortwave radio advising him of an incident, a possible attempted murder, at a pub in Portmahomack after which the suspect had fled the scene in a blue battered Fiesta. The description of the suspect was given. Iain had become used to calls of this nature. It was after all a job he had trudged through for the best part of his adult life. But the description of the suspect, the description of the vehicle; both made him shudder. It was Murray. It was his brother. His older brother. The brother he hadn’t uttered a word to in almost ten years. Murray. He confirmed the details and set off in pursuit.

 

***

‘Well then brother…’ said Murray, ‘what’s it to be?’

Sarge…sarge…come in…do you have a visual on the suspect…sarge?

A crackly voice slipped into the air. Iain’s finger hovered over the talk button on his police radio before withdrawing. He continued to stare at his brother, taking in the bedraggled mess presented before him. Desperate, lost, broken.

Nearby a branch snapped, its weary limbs worn away by the biting cold, sent tumbling into the icy depths below.

Sarge…sarge…repeat…do you have a visual on the suspect…?

‘You’d better answer them brother…they won’t wait for ever…’ the calm in Murray’s voice betrayed the panic creeping into his eyes, now subtly darting from side to side in assessment of potential escape routes.

Iain gently pressed the radio button and pulled the speaker slowly to his mouth, ‘…I’m on the banks of Loch Dughaill, Wester Ross…heading to Skye…’

Ok sarge…and do you have a visual on the suspect…?

Iain stared ahead. Unblinking. Unmoved. A thousand memories thrashing wildly about his head. His brother. Afghanistan. Morven. School. Friendship. Betrayal. Life. Family.

…Sarge…?

He exhaled. Slowly.

‘…No…’

…say again Sarge?

‘No…no visual on the suspect…’ he noticed a bewildered smile-cum-confusion plastered over Murray’s face, ‘he must be too far down the line…I…I thought I had him…but no…turning back now…heading back east…the boys in the west can take care of him…’

He lifted the finger off the speaker button and turned the radio off. All the while staring at his older brother. A look briefly passed between them. A look of family? Of reconciliation? Of comradeship? Maybe even disappointment. As the years drifted by neither would ever be sure what.

Iain nodded slightly. Murray, gaunt and shivering, reciprocated. Iain turned and scrunched his way back to his car. He opened the door and turned. His brother was gone. The loch glistened back at him, the ice particles sparkling on the water as if a starry night’s sky had fallen to earth. A gentle breeze crept through the bare branches. As his car receded into the distance the lochside returned to its silent, sombre slumber.

Ghosts

There are ghosts in this town.

Thousands of them. Believe me. I should know. I’m one of them.

Now, I’m not talking about the kind of ghosts that appear in the raft of horror scare movies that flood out of Hollywood each year or even those that stalk the pages of Penny Dreadfuls or Stephen King books. No. I’m talking about those of us that walk the streets of a forgotten town, virtually unnoticed. Ourselves forgotten, ignored, relics of a previous life. Banished from the lives we once knew. Struck out from the existence that gave us our meaning, our identities. Our purpose. We drift through the deadened streets, our footsteps echoing through the silence, aimless and shorn of recognition.

Those of us that are still here that is. Those of us that still refuse to – or, at least, are unable to – leave this dying town. There’s not many of us though, I’ll grant you that. And there’s fewer and fewer of us as the days, months and years drift by. They say something like 30 or 40 thousand people have left this town in the last five years or so alone. Leaving to start again, perhaps. Fleeing the contagion of disillusion, maybe. But more than likely just searching desperately for the tiniest hint or prospect of a job opportunity.

It wasn’t always like this. The boarded up clapboard houses. The shops permanently shuttered. The factories, windows broken, exhausted and lifeless. Graffiti, rust, rot ruling over all. No, it wasn’t always like this. Not when the town’s steel mill was still in operation, anyway. Back then the town thrived. Businesses prospered, neighbourhoods grew, lives were built. All thanks to the steel mill. The steel mill WAS the town. In its heyday it employed upwards of 50,000 men and women of all ages. The vast majority, if not all, came from the town itself. Every morning around 8am the town’s doors would open en masse, spilling out thousands upon thousands of workers as we made our way to the mill on the edge of town. The soaring chimneys, visible for many miles around, summoning us like a beacon. I’m told it was a sight to behold, this mass migration of bodies. Much like a giant collection of birds flying south for the winter months only multiplied tenfold. And then every evening at 5pm every one of us would trudge back out through the factory gates again, shuffling back to the life part of the supposed work-life balance.

It was no-one’s dream job, no. No-one would claim that. But it was our livelihood. It let us make the transition from schoolboy to adult. It let us move out of our parents houses. It let us own a house of our own. It let us take out the girl we had set our sights on. It let us marry that same girl and start a family with her. It let us hit the bars every Friday night, letting us relax with a few cold ones after the rigours of the working week just past. It didn’t make us rich, no. Far from it. But it let us live. As Springsteen once sang ‘factory gives us life’. And in this town nothing was truer than that.

Until it suddenly wasn’t. We’d all heard the rumours of course but you didn’t want to believe them. I mean, most of us had known no other life than the steel mill. We would finish school at 16 in June and then a few weeks later we’d be walking through those factory gates, ready to begin the rest of our lives. That was certainly the case for me. I was barely a week out of school before my first day at the mill. But we’d heard rumours before. If the mill could survive the de-industrialisation era of Regan and Clinton then we could and would survive anything. We chose not to believe it. Decided to continue in blissful ignorance, if you like. An ignorance that was shattered to pieces one freezing cold Monday morning when we arrived to find the gates padlocked. We stood in our thousands, shivering. Waiting. Worrying. And then the word came. The mill had shut down operations. For good. Sold. Overnight. Just like that. Operations moved south of the border. Out of the US. All in the name of ‘cost efficiency’. It was for the good of the company, for the good of the economy. Etc etc. There was anger that morning. Vitriolic, unhinged, understandable anger. If it wasn’t for the police turning up then I honestly don’t know what would happened. I saw grown men – men you wouldn’t dare say a wrong word to in a bar or anywhere else – crying that morning. Tears flooding out of them. Almost as if the life was draining right from them. Me, I was numb. The cold had something to do with it maybe but it was more than that. How do you tell your wife? How do your kids? How do you tell yourself that you’re worthless? How do you reconcile the fact that to the company that you have given your life to you are nothing more than a faceless number, a bottom line crossed off a page all in order to boost that company’s profits just a smidge more. You can’t. Quite simply. You can’t.

It didn’t take long for the town to start fading. To start dying. If the majority of your residents are without work it stands to reason that the local economy will be affected. And boy was it affected. And fast. Businesses struggled, businesses tried to adapt and eventually businesses left. Upping sticks to another more prosperous town, one still revelling in its own blissful ignorance. The high street, such as it was, started to lose its colour, its vibrancy, its custom. The shutters, the boards, the For Sale signs sprung up at a rapid rate. Houses began to empty, some simply abandoned. The town saw a sickening surge in suicides in the months and years after. Crime rates, alcohol abuse, drug abuse all increased. The thing is, when you rip the heart out of anything it shouldn’t surprise you when the life sustained by that heart starts to suffer. Starts to die. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the Rust Belt’ banded about a lot more these days. And it makes sense. You see the thing about rust is that when it sets in, when it is truly exposed to the harsh realities of time, it starts to fester and infect all around it. It poisons all it touches, rendering it irredeemable, confining it to history. Quite simply; a death sentence.

I take a seat on the bench across from the factory gates. As I do most days. The vast brick monster of the steel mill towers above me, casting a shadow over the street and its surroundings, as I stare across at it. The padlock, rusted and long-since broken, still hangs from the frail gates as they squeak ever so slightly and sporadically at the whim of the faint breeze. The mill itself, which once was a target for vandals or just kids looking for something to pass the time in a town bereft of entertainment, stands neglected. Forgotten. I lay my lunch box next to me and open it, the chill nipping at the tips of my fingers. Cheese. Always with the cheese sandwiches, my wife. And the wholemeal bread. I unwrap them from the cellophane and take a bite. She still makes my lunch every single morning, you see. Of course, for the last few months she thinks I’ve been going to the ‘New Skills’ course at that Community College just out of town. And I did, for a few days at least. They try to teach you computer skills, technical abilities, skills to ‘prepare you for the digital age’. But that’s not me. It’ll never be me. And lord knows we need the money but just who in the hell is going to take on someone like me these days? I mean, with jobs as rare as they are these days, what employer, faced with a choice between a young college grad with his life and career ahead of him or her, and computer skills coming out of their ears, or a man in his late fifties with nothing but 35 years or so in a steel mill behind him, is going to plump for the latter? And even if, by some miracle, they did take me on just how in the hell am I supposed to put my faith in any kind of feeling of job security? How can I give my all for a company when the last one cut me adrift, without a second thought, after a lifetime of work? Rust isn’t always visible you know.

So I’ll continue to walk these streets. I’ll continue to sit on this bench. And I’ll continue to eat the lunch that my wife lovingly prepares for me each morning. Every day. Eventually she’ll find out. Eventually she’ll realise the truth, of course she will. I’m not hiding. I’m not sneaking about in the shadows. I’m here, in this spot, every single day. Almost like a grieving spouse turning up to their deceased partner’s graveside, day after day. And there are others like me. I’m certain of it. Familiar faces. I see them wandering the town. Some of them, at least. Others stick to the darkness of the local bars. Drinking their way through the hours they used to surrender to the mill.

Clinging to memories, clinging to life.

Yes, as I said, there are ghosts in this town.

 

Wedding Song

She gently presses her right foot down on the break pedal. Her left, trembling slightly under the strain of poised repetition, remains firmly clamped on the clutch pedal. A gentle sigh slithers out of her nostrils as her mouth remains closed, unamused. Another yard gained, she thinks to herself sardonically. Another yard gained in this never-ending funeral march of shuddering cars. The morning commute.

She glances from left to right, from landscape to neighbouring car. One paints a picture of encroaching winter; the trees skeletal and bereft of leaves, the farmland and distant hills glistening with the decoration of gradually thawing dew. The other works almost as a reflection; another female sits stony faced in her car, bored, unamused, head and neck wrapped warm with hat and scarf, remnants of an earlier defensive strategy against the early morning chill. A fellow victim, she thinks, a fellow traveller on this perpetual tarmac-laden nightmare. A temporary kindred spirit, even. Until she flicks that indicator light on and tries to jump in front of me, she thinks as she riles herself slightly with the hypothetical scenario. Her ‘kindred spirit’ can sod off if it comes to that.

Too warm now, she decides. She spins the temperature knob anti-clockwise, allowing it to settle halfway around the gauge. Perched finely between blue and red. She flicks her windscreen wiper up a notch, letting it clear the last of the fading condensation from the glass, before flicking it off again. Another sigh trickles from her nostril as she sees the clock on her dashboard pass the hallowed 09:00 start time for her work. Another late start.

‘I’ll be lucky to make it in for 10 at this rate!?’ she spits as she raises her fist in pent up frustration, allowing the anger to dissipate only at the last second, sparing her steering wheel from an underserved assault.

She angrily rips the hat from her head, freeing her scalp from the multiplying strands of heat which had been nipping at her in tandem with her growing frustration. The brake lights of the car in front dissolve suddenly into the dull, sweet colour of progress. Her hopes rise. Movement. Forward. Onwards! Before the bright red lights flash back on again, blinding her slightly and momentarily, the car jolting to a stop without the taking of any precious yards or even inches in the ongoing tussle. Aaaaargh! She allows the screams to rattle about her mind aimlessly, the whitening knuckles on both her clenched hands the only indicators as to the anger filtering through her.

‘Fuck it!’ she snarls, reaching over to the handbag sat on the passenger’s seat and rummaging harshly for her iPod. She untangles the cable wrapped carelessly around the device and connects it to the USB port. Music! Songs! Anything, she thinks, I’ll listen to any damn thing so long as it takes my mind away from this eternal ordeal! Not that though…or that…she skips through a myriad of songs as the tracks shuffle and flicker briefly on her car’s dashboard display. That’ll do, she decides, I’ve not heard that in ages, as a pop song from her youth blasts through her speakers. She turns the volume knob up slightly, the thundering bass pulsing through her bones, engulfing her snug 1 litre car. She fails to notice the scowling look from her once-potential ‘kindred spirit’ in the car to her right as the juddering sounds of early 90s pop music sneaks out of the red metallic shell, through the crispy morning air and to the earlobes of said ex-kindred spirit. She belts out the lyrics, word for word, note for almost note – her voice still slightly crippled by the phlegmy croak of the early hour. God, she exalts to herself, it’s been years since I’ve properly heard this. When was this released? I must have been, what, Primary 7? No, First Year of High School? Second maybe? Ah what a time, she smiles, as the summery tones course through her veins, filling her with a hundred thoughts, dreams and feelings not felt since those younger days. Things were so much easier then, her smile fades slightly. Choices, decisions, the little things, the big things, just…well…everything. The brake lights in front fade again, catching her attention but not her hopes. Only for the car to begin moving. Slowly, gradually, but moving all the same. Flustered by this almost unexpected turn of events she scrambles for the gearstick and pushes it from neutral into first, the rev of the engine screaming hideously as her feet slip between the pedals. As she slowly edges forward the sound of her youth fades to a close.

‘Well that was worth the wait…’ the sarcasm melts from her voice, filling the car with her scorn, ‘…was maybe a good four of five seconds of travelling time there…’ she glances down at the time on her phone exaggeratingly for her own benefit, ‘yep, a good four or five seconds I would say…at this rate I should make it into work at about…’

The words, the skit, drop from her mouth as she hears the first clangs of the next song creep out of the speakers. Her expression drops, the colour drained from it almost instantly. Our song, she trembles. Our wedding song. For a moment she is entranced, locked in paralysis by the lush strings, controlled by the measured beat. A car horn, erupting briefly and malevolently from amidst the gathered vehicles, breaks the spell, wresting her mind from the song’s meaning. She turns the volume down slightly, some part of her unwilling, even afraid, to allow the bass to throb against her bones as the previous, more carefree, tune had done. A tear trickles down her cheek. A rogue unexpected tear, almost unshackled by feeling or decision, an automatic reaction sent scurrying down her face as if it had been under the spell of a hypnotist and prompted only by the song’s opening notes.

That’s when I knew. The thought infects her mind. Dark. Dull. Poisoning. That’s when I knew I didn’t love him anymore.

The song had once brought so much joy, so many memories. It was their first dance; it was their wedding song after all. In the years following, whenever it would unexpectedly nudge itself onto a radio’s playlist or onto her iPod’s shuffle, it was as if the song’s notes would tug at the corners of her mouth. A smile would break out, spreading across her face on cue. She remembered his face, his smile. She remembered her smile, her happiness. The feeling that everything had clicked. Finally. And eternally. She’d remember the whispered ‘I love you’, his hands around her body. She’d remember the faces, the smiles, the smells, the clutter on the tables. The deserted dance floor. Apart from them. The two of them. Just the two of them. Her. And him. Together. Always.

But slowly, gradually, frustratingly, the memories started to blur each time she heard the song. The happiness of the day, of that dance, started to become infiltrated somehow. It seemed, somehow, artificial. Buried beneath the rubble of years of daily strain. Of arguments. Any joy brought on by the first chords of the song were quickly wiped away by the damp cloth of unpaid bills. Any happiness brought on by the first soothing vocal swiftly brushed aside by the bristly stab of failure to compromise. Before long the only things to linger were grudges rather than memories. A moment so happy, so joyful, such as that dance, with that song, now nothing more than a moment of nostalgia. To be tucked away alongside a favourite toy, children’s TV programme or the taste of a now-defunct fizzy drink or teeth-rotting sweet. Nostalgia. No longer a moment that infuses every other, now just a postcard from a previous time. A previous feeling.

And then one day, maybe six months previous to then, maybe longer, she’d heard the song again. And that time even the tint of nostalgia had dimmed. They were different people. Different actors in a strangers’ play. When the lush strings cascaded around her mind, and the memories of the dance flickered by one by one, she saw only another her, another him. Two beings not even loosely connected to the man or woman currently existing in their bodies. Connected not by love but simply by image. Conjoined not with passion but by the choices they made. And it was then she knew. It was then she knew that she no longer loved him.

She crunches the handbrake up and palms the gearstick into neutral as the traffic settles back into its frozen image of congestion. The last bars of her wedding song softly fade into the darkness of the sound system. Her hand shoots up to the dashboard and hovers over the Back button. Something in her telling her to play the song again. To try to regain that feeling? To claw back the memory, to reclaim it? To confirm her blank feeling of loveless nothingness? Her finger trembles slightly as she holds her finger only a millimetre or so from the button. Unable to press it yet equally unable to withdraw. In her mind the dance replays over and over, the music slowing and faltering until a warped, tuneless dirge sprawls through each image. She see’s the face of her husband. Of the man she married. Of the man she kissed goodbye to this morning. Of the man she’ll kiss hello to again tonight. Of the man she no longer loves. Of the man she is certain no longer loves her. She see’s it and let’s her finger drop meekly away from the dashboard, allowing the next song to freely step into the car and fill the dreaded, demanding silence threatening to engulf her.

As the next song harmlessly tip-toes into her consciousness she keeps her eyes trained on the brake lights ahead, willing the journey to progress, to alter, to end. She turns the volume down another slight, half-turn or so. The beat now whispering hoarsely for attention or recognition as it slips out of earshot. She looks left again. The hills, the bare trees, the beautiful desolation. And looks right. The reflection. Her mirror image; frustrated, bitter, defeated. She turns back suddenly, afraid to look, afraid to accept. With a rapid movement she rips the cable from her USB port, silencing the music, banishing the images from her mind. She throws the iPod into her handbag, prodding it down to ensure its landing in the out-of-sight out-of-mind chasm of darkness.

Silence, she decides. For the rest of this ride, no matter how long it takes or how mad it drives me, silence.

The brake lights fade as the car in front edges forward slightly. She releases the handbrake as she prepares to claim another yard or so on this unending, unrelenting, unforgiving journey.

The Super Amazing Marvellous Comic Book Hero Man

SurfersParadise

 

DARKNESS!

Embrace it. Allow it. Immersed within it. Darkness. Every superhero, every vigilante, needs a shade of darkness tinting their soul. My eyes closed, my mind existing with the darkness. Calm, serene, placid. Thoughts racing through my mind. Villains to vanquish, days to save, hearts to win. Perched, a hint of strain whispering out from the muscles in my leg, threatening to soil my meditative state. My hand clutches tightly for support, veins pulsing, threatening to hack through the skin of my wrist. Strength. Unrelenting strength. Immovable resolve. I sigh, content, warmed by the darkness, and slowly open my eyes…

WOW!!

The city stretches out below me. Vast, sprawling, intricate. Buildings of all sizes burst into the air as far as the eye can see. A thousand varying steps thrust out before me. A million windows glittering and reflecting at every height as the mid-morning sun timidly creeps out from behind the obligatory cloud cover. To the right the ocean nudges the coastline, the limited beach, ever so gently. Almost threatening to unleash its tide but never quite following through on its threat. One hundred something stories below cars, buses, lorries weave their way through the streets, feint blasts of angrily-battered horns make their way up to me. Pedestrians gather, scatter, mill disparately through their own lives, problems and mornings. Nothing more than specs. Dots. Ants, even. Ants aimlessly burrowing back and forward, listless in direction, aimless in ambition.

And I perch here. On the edge of this roof. A slight breeze brushes through my hair. Fading tiles quiver unsteadily below my rigid feet. Hundreds of feet above the ground. Above them. Looking down on them. Looking down on all. Watching over. Protecting. Saving. They’re beginning. Beginning to realise my worth. My cause…

KAPOW!!

They never saw it coming! A one-two, straight from the shadows. No time to prepare. No time to reconcile. This is how I operate. This is how WE operate. All vigilantes. All superheroes. Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock; they spend their life in the shadows. Cloaked by the night, veiled by the city. Ready to pounce, to liberate. The villains, they’re different. They hide in plain sight. Eased by their arrogance, their treachery. Strengthened by their belief that they’ll never be caught. Tried. Convicted. Defeated. But the shadows is our dominion. Our territory. In the dark we are all the same. Sightless, unsure, afraid perhaps. We are equal, unbound by the constraints of the daylight, unfettered by the power that comes with our daily existence. I look at all those ‘glittering’ windows. Behind everyone a crook, a criminal. In this part of town anyway. The Financial District. The cesspit of the city. The swamp of society. Fraud, extortion, embezzlement stalk the halls and staircases of these buildings. The stench filters all the way from the ground floor reception to the upper reaches of these sky-scraping behemoths. Particularly in this building below me. More so than most.

And so I did what needed to be done.

WHAM!!

The authorities will be dealing with the culprits now. Led away. In cuffs. In chains. Their eyes filled with tears, fear dripping from their trembling lips. Ruing the day I ever entered their lives. Cursing my very existence. My cause.

I see them far below, gathering, huddling. Ants. A few have spotted me I bet. Many will be cursing, more will be in awe. Such is the life of the superhero. You take the hatred with the love. The villainy with the adulation. But I will not hide. No longer. Those who try to discredit me, to bad name me, will not succeed. The people need to see their hero. They need to see the one who will always have their back in these poisonous times. They need someone they can trust. Someone they can look up to. Someone who allows them to live their life without fear, without torment.

That someone is me.

My cause.

Me alone.

I AM THE…

 

 

‘…WHISTLEBLOWER!’

‘WHAT!?!’

‘I…SAID…THAT’S…THE…WHISTLEBLOWER!’ a suited man screeched through the everyday city sounds – car horns, a pneumatic drill, a myriad of lorries reversing seemingly simultaneously – in an attempt to be heard by his colleague standing next to him.

‘What? The one that snitched on his colleagues!?’ came the softer reply as the drilling ceased momentarily – the attention of the ‘driller’ arrested by the sight of the man currently perched a hundred-odd stories in the air on top of the high-rise towering above the streets below.

‘Yes.’

‘How do you know it’s him?! He looks like a bloody ant all the way up there!’

‘It’s him. He ran through the office before we were ‘evacuated’.’

‘What’s he doing!? Is he going to jump!?’

‘Who the fuck knows!’

‘Why would he jump!? I mean, it’s the others that’ll be spending their next four or five decades cooped up behind bars, not him?’

‘Doubt it.’

‘Why would you say that?’

‘Because that bastard was in as deep as any of the others! That’s why! He embezzled millions! Price-fixing, money laundering, the lot. He only turned grass when he was caught!’

‘Bastard. But surely he’s done a deal? You know, to exonerate himself?’

‘Only for a handful of the charges, not for the rest. There’s a whole host of charges against him. The other bastards are guilty as sin, and deserve to fucking rot, but this guy? This bastard was the worst of the lot! Pensions, savings, mortgages. Everything. There’s no way the prosecutors could let him off without charge. No, he’s got a long, long stretch ahead of him I would think.’

‘If he makes it that far…’ nodded the colleague distractedly as he turned to see police officers running from a hastily parked patrol car and forcing their way through the now-large assembled mass of onlookers. All craning their necks, some shielding their eyes from the glare, as they stared skywards.

‘It’s always the quiet ones,’ the suited man rubbed his neck to relive the strain as he stared toward the heavens ‘well…it’s the arrogant, brash bastards aswell but the quiet ones are the ones that surprise you.’

‘I don’t think I ever worked with him, come to think of it. Never even came across him.’

‘I did, once or twice. Quiet one. Worked towards the back of the 33rd floor, in ‘the shadows’ as we call it. One of the light bulbs there has been knackered for years you see and never replaced so it’s slightly darker in that part of the office. He would slink about like a bloody phantom sometimes. Odd bugger. Not very sociable. The only thing anyone seemed to know about him was he was a massive comic-book nerd. And even that’s only because he would wear Superman or Captain America or whoever-the-hell t-shirts on dress-down Fridays. Every week a different one, without fail.’

‘Superheroes for god’s sake!’ scoffed the colleague. ‘He’ll need a bloody superhero to get him out of this mess!’

‘Yeah, he’s…oh shit…’

The crowd surged, sporadic screams and intakes of breath shooting into the air, as the figure perched on the building roof hundreds of feet above them suddenly let go of the pole he had, until now, been clinging to so steadfastly for the best part of an hour. He seemed to edge forward ever so gradually, raising himself slowly to a standing position. His arms suddenly outstretched.

Stomachs, hearts, throats in the assembled crowd took another lurch as he edged closer and closer to the edge. A dark cloud crept slowly above the building as the speck of a man, arms outstretched as if preparing to take flight, stepped off the roof of the building.

Ninth

IMG_7740

As a collection of dark clouds drifted overhead the kirk cast a shadow over the gravestones scattered around its perimeter.

Gravestones of all shapes, sizes and conditions. Fading stones slanted as if under the force of a gale force wind; slightly newer curved additions standing proudly and solemnly in a patch of ground that was never truly available to begin with; more ornate, gothic examples, decorated with cherubs or angels rendered eerily demonic by the strains of weather and moss throughout the centuries. All thrust through the thin soil of the kirkyard, jutting out like a set of jagged, unkempt teeth. The kirk building itself was, by comparison, pristine. Weathered by age, certainly, but it still had that arresting beauty that any churches and cathedrals of its kind, constructed in a certain era, has. Built with care, with beauty and image reigning supreme over practicality. Its location – nestled on the edge of a glistening loch whilst encased by a gorgeous-yet-secluding set of trees and greenery – only added to its grandeur. Had someone, anyone, been aware of its existence then it would certainly have been a must-see on most, if not all, of the local tourist trails. As it was it stood calm, patient, unsullied. Protected from the scars of gentrification, untouched by the hordes of amateur photographers.

A man, slightly on the older side going by his roadside-slush-in-the-winter grey head of hair and his rose-splashed cheeks and nose, ambled slowly out of the shadows, large sweeping brush in hand. His expression was stoic with more than a subtle hint of ‘I’m fed up with this bloody job’. He brushed, swept, pushed at the scattered leaves piled by the side of the path that skirted the kirk’s exterior. He was thorough, complete in his work, ensuring every single leaf, every single stray autumnal splash of deviation was removed from the kirk’s grounds. He had the air of man who knew his work. And who had known his work for many a year. Possibly even decades. He did the work not for the love of it, not for the prospect of attracting visitors, but for the sake of doing a job well. You could never describe him as proud of his work, no, but there was a certain dignity there that is hard to pin down. It was a job and one he would do well. Day in, day out. He stood the brush against the wall of the kirk and cast an eye towards the scattered gravestones. He sighed before stepping out towards them, leaning down to pick up any pieces of ‘litter’ from the base of said gravestones. Of course, with no visitors of the human variety around these parts, any ‘litter’ was strictly limited to the odd stray bit of bracken, a few discarded berries carelessly spilled from the mouths of overflying birds perhaps, or, of course, the aforementioned and frankly mischievous autumn leaves.

The man placed his bundle of ‘litter’ into the antiquated steel bin by the stone wall at the entrance to the grounds. A wrenching screech and clatter followed as he let the lid of the bin perform its duty. He sighed once more, banging his hands together to relinquish them of dirt or other substances, before looking towards the gathering clouds above. The darkness was closing in, he thought. And there’s rain on its way. Again! That’d make it twice as bloody hard to shift those leaves tomorrow, he moaned to himself. Some of those other buggers had it far too easy compared to this place. The scenery is immaculate but, I mean, come on! On the rare occasion that it’s not raining it’s pouring down with that schizophrenic every-direction-at-every-moment rainfall. As if to bookend his internally ranted monologue, he sighed. Again. He turned and trudged towards to opposite end of the kirkyard, caring not for the graves or gravestones he trampled underneath. He arrived at, what was evidently, the grandest gravestone in the kirkyard itself and leaned down. The gravestone – for lack of a better word – towered over him. Ornate, decadent, illustrious. Words fail to do justice to the majesty of its design. Intricately carved, containing symbols, words (in both Latin and English), cherubs, demons even, one could be forgiven for thinking it a monument rather than a burial site. The man strained, cursing beneath his breath, as he seemed to push against one of the larger foundation slabs covering much of the base of the grave. He pushed, his face reddening even further than it originally was which is quite an achievement in itself, his veins bulging and prodding at his skin. Eventually the stone budged. And then completely gave way.
‘Never gets any bloody easier!’ he grumbled to himself as he used his arm to push himself up from his kneeling position.
He casually looked from side to side, his face continuing to show no emotion above and beyond one of severe indifference to all and everything, and stepped into the grave itself. He lowered into the burial plot, as if stepping down a flight of stairs. As he advanced further into the ground he began to pull the slab back over his head, with no little effort, to close up the grave once more. The darkness closed over him as the gravestone shunted back into place. The kirkyard above stood impassively, clean and silent. Silent but for a very quiet, and barely audible, weary sigh emanating from beneath the soil.

‘Another bloody day and what do I have to show for it?’ the man muttered to himself as he walked carefully down the large concrete spiral steps. ‘A freezing cold pair of hands that are only about to get colder! That’s what. I spend all day up there. Cleaning, raking, organising. Waiting. Maybe a little decent conversation wouldn’t go amiss when I get down here. Just maybe. But who do I have to talk to? Bloody politicians, embezzlers, scammers. You can’t trust any of those treacherous bastards. Hence why they’re down here in Treachery of course but still. It hardly makes for good conversation does it!? Someplace the Ninth. What about that sleazy bugger over in Second? Does sod all throughout the day, barely lifts a figure to keep his facade looking clean or tidy, and yet he gets to share his evenings with Helen Of Troy and Cleopatra and those sorts. Lust for goodness sake. He fairly landed on his feet didn’t he! Or even that lucky sod over in Fourth. Yes, Greed is awful and there’s some right awful ones down there with him but he’s underneath Vegas for goodness sake! Whereas I’m stuck here in the arse-end of one of the coldest bloody places on earth. Probably. And that’s the warmest part of my day. A lake of ice for god’s…I mean, for bloody hell’s sake. A lake of bloody ice. I’d put in a transfer request but he’d probably send me somewhere like Third, Gluttony, where it teems down with that horrible sleet constantly! Oh it was far better back in the straightforward ‘fiery pits of hell’ days. We knew where we stood then. All had a job to do, all equal. Torture, fear, shoveling bastards into the fire; easy. Nice. But then he has to go and read that bloody book. Fiction. Bloody fiction. He didn’t have to follow it to the letter though, did he!? ‘A bit of a change would do us good’ he said. Something different after all these thousands of years. A bit like moving the couch somewhere different in your living room apparently, makes you feel ‘different. Good different.’ What a load of bloody nonsense. I tell you, if I ever meet this Dante character I’ll…well I’ll…oh never bloody mind.’

The main approached a large, extremely thick, concrete door and stopped. He hung his head and sighed a deep, tired sigh. He took out a large woolly scarf from his jacket pocket and wrapped it tightly around his neck, allowing it to creep up past his chin. With both now-gloved hands he pushed the door open.

The plummeting temperature hit him immediately. As it did every day. Icicles magically formed around his person almost instantly, hanging from his scarf and earlobes. This time his sigh formed a ice-cold speech bubble of mist in the air in front of him.
‘Ah, my good man,’ came a sharp, booming voice from the centre of the ice, ‘come in, come in. How was your day? Hmm?’
‘The same as always Boss.’ the reply was nothing if not glum.
‘Oh cheer up for goodness sake. Your always so bloody morbid. So dour. You should take some enjoyment in your work my good man. A lot of good men would kill for a position like yours…well, die as the case may be, but you get my point.’
‘Yes Boss, I’m sure those bast…those guys over in Second and Fourth are very jealous of me indeed. Very very jealous, yes. Even whatsisname over in Eighth, with all those fraudulent buggers, I’m sure he’d be desperate to spend eternity working in a sub-zero frozen lake. Yes, I’m fairly certain of that.’
‘Oh stop your whining for goodness sake. You’re here because you’re so good at your job, my man. That facade up there, that churchyard, is spotless. Immaculate. I’ve told you before. That’s what we want. We want to put on a nice clean looking facade. A good show. We don’t want people discovering us after all do we? No, that’s how wars start. And between you and me we’ve got a lot of evil buggers down here but I wouldn’t place much money on them being decent fighters. I doubt even your man over in Greed would either. And he loves a wager. And there’s plenty of insidious sods up there who I bet you would quite fancy a crack at my job. So, no, what you do is very important. And you’re as good as there is or ever has been.’
‘So promote me then, Boss. Even just give me a little secondment over in, hmm let me just have a shot in the dark here and pick somewhere completely at random, Lust maybe?’
‘A promotion? Don’t be daft, man. You’re already in Ninth, there’s nowhere higher you can go. Plus you get to work with me, the Boss, the Head Honcho, each day. No-one else has that privilege, do they?’
‘That’s because you’re frozen into the ice, Boss.’
‘That’s besides the point, my good man. You should open your eyes and see how good things are sometimes.’
‘That’s another thing, Boss. I mean, I get the whole Nine Circles of Hell thing and separating out the evil and so on. And I know you wanted it by the book, as it were. But did you honestly need to go the whole hog? I mean, frozen into the ice? It’s not very practical is it? And I’m fairly certain that Dante bast…that Dante fellow…had you being punished by being frozen into the ice. I just don’t see the point of you permanently being in there if you’ve….’
‘Well erm…’ there was an uncomfortable silence for a good few seconds, filled only by the sound of the freezing temperatures trying their best to form the air particles into ice, ‘ well…yes…there’s just some things you don’t need to know , isn’t there, my good man. That’s why I’m in the chair…the ice…the metaphorical chair…look I’m your Boss, ok. And that’s it. Now, get yourself to work my good man, no rest for the wicked and all that eh. There’s been a few election cycles recently, leadership contests and such, so treachery has been overflowing don’t you know. Busy night ahead my man. So on you go…’
‘Yes, Boss…’

The man glanced round at the frozen tundra surrounding him and sighed. In the distance he could hear very faint blood-curdling screams echoing through the night. Lucky bastards he thought, likely getting singed to a crisp in some place that’s not a frozen sodding lake!
‘What a life’ he mumbled to himself as he shuffled along a path of solid ice, trying desperately not to lose his footing, ‘what a bloody life.’

Wemyss Caves – A Fife Horror Story #2

The wind from the eastern reaches of the Forth crept up across the pebbled beach, clambered over the long grass and hissed violently at the entrance to the cave. The lone figure inside of the cave shuddered, the cold slicing into his flesh, and attempted to pull the ripped rags tighter to his body. The damp broadsheet newspaper page he’d earlier procured as cover clutched cold to his back, evidently enforcing more harm than good on the shivering man.

‘Just my luck…’ stammered the man as he tossed the paper aside, no longer equipped to perform as a cover or as fuel for the fire he intended to construct. The mini gusts of wind that managed to find their way into the cave carried the paper to the dark recesses of the opposite end of the dwelling. ‘Fuck off’ snapped the man as a final farewell.

He touched his glove-less fingers to his face, wincing at their icicle-like touch against his rasping cheek. He used the same hand to reach inside his cacophony of garments – jacket,fleece, scarf, vest and so on – and pulled out a can of supermarket own-brand super strength lager.
‘Here’s tae you!’ he smiled sardonically, raising the can to the yawning chasm of darkness surrounding him. ‘And tae all the touristy fellows that discover this reeking tramp pished and laid oot during their Wemyss Caves tour the mora mornin’ tae!’
The pale yellow liquid dribbled down his lips, soiling his unkempt beard in the process, as his eyes closed in what could have been a mixture of relief and ecstasy. He felt the drink burn in his chest, flaring up with all the consistency of bile. Any warmth was better than no warmth at all, he concluded. His eyes, stinging wet amid the punishment from the freezing temperature, began to glaze as he worked his way down the can. Before long, sleep took him.

He awoke sometime later, he knew not how long later, with a feeling of warmth caressing one side of his face. He eyes still shut, he wiped the drool from the corners of his mouth expecting the heat, the warmth, to disappear as he did so. It did not. Slowly he began to force his eyes open. His eyes struggled at first to adjust to an unexpected light flickering before him. The source of the heat. A fire. He pulled himself up to a sitting position, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, and stared at said fire. His stare denoted incredulity. A touch of disbelief even. Both of which switched suddenly to confusion. Had he made this himself? Did the lager do it’s job so well that he couldn’t remember fashioning what, although admittedly was a rather small fire, was a very decent concoction of heat? With nothing, by the looks of it, but twigs and stones? Jesus, he thought, was it getting that bad? His memory, his brain, had taken a punishment over the years he knew yes, but blackouts? He continued to stare at the flames before him, distracted only by a hot surge of vomit working its way quickly up his throat before ceasing on his tongue. He spat out the culprit, the taste wrenching against his taste buds as he did so.

‘Fuck it!’ he decided. Who cared how it got there, the main point was he had heat. He stretched his arms out in a v-shape, straining the bones in his upper body, and slumped back against the wall of the cave, ready to embrace the homely comforts of the flame.

When he caught sight of them.

He jolted slightly, knowing not why. He squinted his eyes and peered through a darkness poorly lit only by the threadbare, flickering flame, towards the wall opposite him. As his eyesight finally settled on the wall of the cave the flame from the fire seemed, somehow, to alight the section of wall opposite him perfectly. Almost as if a spotlight had been manually turned on for his benefit alone. An oddity certainly given how fragile the flame had been only seconds before. He ignored this and concentrated on the wall once more. Carvings? Surely not.
‘Naw, that’s definitely carvings’ he muttered to himself as he raised himself to his feet and began to shuffle over to the area in question. It can’t be though, he argued back to himself, this is the Doo Cave after all. There’s never been carvings in here. Pigeons? Aye. Plenty of those buggers. But carvings no. All the others, aye, that’s what the caves were famous for; the pictish carvings scrawled into the walls dating back thousands of years. But not this one, not the Doo Cave. And he should know, he declared to himself, given that he used the thing frequently. In fact, he’d looked at the wall only a couple of hours or so before, as soon as darkness had descended, when he’d ambled into the cave. And there was certainly no bloody carvings on the wall then!

He stepped towards the wall, inadvertently kicking his discarded can aside in the process, the carvings gradually revealing themselves in the flickering glow. A fire. That much was clear. One of the carvings was clearly fire. Made sense, he supposed, given fire was such an important part of life back then for the Picts. Not like today eh, he scoffed to himself as he glanced back at his only source of heat and light. But there was definitely a carving of a fire. A rather small one. And…was it a tool next to it? A small misshapen thing, possibly cylindrical at one time, maybe not, lay next to the fire. It added nicely to his general fog of confusion. A sudden burst of darkness, a flicker of the flame perhaps, brought on by a sporadic gust of wind or something else, cloaked the wall in shadow. Only momentarily, only for the slightest of split seconds. It forced him to spin round instinctively, to check his surroundings. He saw something. At least, he thought he did. A crooked, blurred shadow, on the wall he had been sitting against only moments earlier. It seemed to recoil, to slink back into the greater mass of darkness as his head snapped around. He could feel the chill returning to his body as he stood frozen, statuesque in the centre of the cave. And then the wind howled, adjoining with the distant sound of crashing waves. It consoled him. The weather he thought, it was the weather, nothing else. A nearby tree possibly, rainfall, rubbish blowing across the beach. Anything. It was the weather. He uncoiled himself from his momentary lapse of fear and turned back towards the wall.

And froze once again.

Shivers, trembles, fears all accumulated within him, paralysing him in terror. A new carving had appeared on the wall. Next to the fire. A malevolent looking, hunched, somehow shadowed figure. Carved, almost chiseled even, into the cave wall. A blackness draped over it. Innocuous in any other setting perhaps. But it held him comatose with fear. A feeling amplified to extremes by a shadow suddenly plastering itself to the wall, dashing the carvings in a bleak canvas. It moved slowly along the wall, silently at first before synchronizing with the lightest sounds of footsteps crunching along the ground. The man tried to engage his brain, his limbs in a desperate attempt to turn and flee but the shadow, the moment, the fear had seized him in a vice-like grip. The winds outside shrieked their protests, scratching at the exterior of the caves, as the fragile flame gasped its last. The darkness took him.

A handful of days later an early morning tour group quickly trotted into the Doo Cave as the winds and sleet bouncing off the Forth cut at them like a thousand unrelenting claws. The tour guide prepared himself for his recital, ready to regail the assembled group of how pigeons were historically kept in this particular cave,when his gaze was arrested by a series of markings on the wall. He walked towards the markings, allowing himself a beneath-his-breath curse at the reprobates and hooligans who had left their empty beer can and the remains of a fire in the centre of the cave causing him to stumble slightly.
‘Hold on a minute…’ he said, shakily to himself. A tangled web of nerves and excitement slipping from his throat. He took out his glasses from his pocket and slipped them on, ‘now these are new! And yet…they’re pictish, look at the style, the age of the stone, the age of the carvings!? How have we never noticed this before…!?’
The tour group quickly hurried towards their guide, huddling round him, and looked at the carvings so effortlessly holding every fibre of his attention. A small fire. An small, bent cylindrical object, possibly a tool, alongside it. And a man. The carving of a man. A bearded man, seemingly covered in several layers of clothing. Alongside the fire. Alongside the object.

A man.

A bearded man.

Carved into the stone.

Etched into the wall.

For now. And forever more.