And ever when Barnbougle’s lords
Are parting this scene below
Come hound and ghost to this haunted coast
With death notes winding slow
The words whirled around his head like leaves caught in a coastal breeze. Frantically thrusting and fluttering through the corridors of his mind; firing brief, erratic sparks of recognition along the way. He knew those words. He was sure of it. Completely. And yet, he wasn’t sure in the slightest. No. But still, he knew them. Or of them. Didn’t he?
He shook his head in an attempt to disperse the half-remembered words. The rest of his body almost immediately followed his lead, shivering in tandem under the strain of the cold night air. He glanced down at his thin, fading overalls, assessing their potential fortitude against the rapidly lowering temperature. An assessment surmised, concluded and curtailed in the briefest of split-seconds. He took one last drag of his cigarette – its final embers a red flitting and ethereal firefly in the evening’s dark – and expertly flicked it over the railing of the Hound Point oil terminal and into the inky blackness of the River Forth below. He stepped forward, his hand connecting with the exposed chill of the railing’s steel, tentatively glancing down toward the water with all the conviction of a committed acrophobe. In a sense it called to him, beckoned him even. Whispered, suggested, murmured; half-spoken fragments, ill-formed and abstract. In another sense it snarled at him, sending fresh waves of chill through his already freezing domain.
He took a step back, composing himself. The cold of the night scraped up and down his cheeks, wove in through his threadbare garments. He glanced to his right; the Forth Bridge thrust its way through the darkness, the palest glimmer of its iconic red coating shining like the dullest of beacons through the evening’s shade. Its beauty undeniable, its grace, unrivalled. A crowning achievement. For the area. For engineering. For mankind itself. A constant reminder of the pinnacles that could and can be traversed in the minds of men. A reaching, soaring feat. A permanent, proud display of all that can be done to both conquer and compliment nature and the surrounding landscape. He turned, taking in a hastily assembled panoramic view of the oil terminal surrounding him. The mass of cold, sterile and nondescript steel seemed to tilt its head in shame, belittled and diminished beneath the weight of comparison next to the Forth Bridge. Regimented. Banal. Beige. It almost seemed to cower in the water – almost wishing to be submerged within the waves – desperately attempting to conceal itself against the backdrop and world-renowned beauty of its neighbour.
The young man shook his head in disgust once more – whether in disgust at the belittlement of his place of work or towards his own fractured and rambling thoughts is questionable – and moved slowly towards the door, the warmth of the indoors tugging at the ficklest of his heartstrings. A howl stopped him in his tracks. A long, piercing, echoing howl. A howl that seemed to plunge and scythe its way across the night sky, tearing open the small cluster of clouds that dared to venture into the freezing air. He stood, frozen. In fear? Perhaps. Why? He thought. A lone man in an isolated oil terminal submerged in the icy cold waves of the River Forth? Without many tasks to occupy him, at the mercy of the night and all its dealings? Sure, that could add the slightest tinge of the macabre to any event or scenario, but he’d covered this shift dozens of times before. He’d heard all kinds of noises when covering this particular shift before. Of course he had. It was part and parcel of the work. An occasional train, blaring endlessly through the night air; cargo ships slowly sleepwalking through the early hours to their eventual destinations; and yes, more often than not, a random bark, hoot or howl from deep within the most shadowed corners of either coastline. But this howl. Something felt different somehow. Something felt…off.
He thrust his hands into the pockets of his overalls, shaking his head once again, and shouldered the door open. A burst of something resembling warm air rushed against his face from inside, dying down again almost instantly, asphyxiated as it was by the external chill. But again, that howl. This time louder, more strained, more…more anguished, perhaps, than the first. Yes, he thought, it sounded pained. Invisible icicles formed up and down his spine, digging in sporadically as small waves of anxiety ebbed and flowed through his veins. He jerked his head around, forcing himself towards the railing again. The door slammed shut behind him with a dull thud. His hands gripped the railing once more, the coldness of their touch minimised alongside the need to stabilise and solidify his trembling frame. He peered into the darkness, simultaneously attempting to carve out the coastline in his vision whilst trying his level best to locate the source of that shudderingly pain-filled howl. His eyes strained, blinking frantically as he tried to evaporate the nigh-on impenetrable darkness before him. Small, vicious bullets of chill shot through his palms at incrementally quickening intervals. He unclenched his hands from the railing, ready to turn back towards the door again when he saw them. Out of the corner of his eye. At first no more than a mere hint, a simple suggestion. Flecks of half-formed dust on the edge of his peripheral vision. A man. And a dog. Walking slowly along the beach. The beach slightly further along the southern coastline. Facing East, their backs turned to the oil terminal, their backs turned to him. Walking slowly. Painfully slowly. Drifting, almost, along the darkened outcrop, the silent-yet-imposing backdrop of Barnbougle Castle towering above them. A regal, assured and yet, altogether, haunting figure at the edge of the vast wooded Dalmeny Estate.
He scrambled along the railing, desperate for a closer look. Again, he knew not why. A matter of yards up against a distant of several hundred yards was never likely to affect any significant change in sight, anyway. Still, he moved, thrusting his stiffening limbs towards the most easterly point of the oil platform, before resting his hands on the railing. Again, he peered. His heartbeat dropping. Just enough. Quietened and placated by the realisation that it was that dog, the one slowly ambling along the beach, that must have howled. For what reason, he did not know. And as to why this particular man was walking his dog in the dead of such a cold night on such a potentially hazardous trail, he cared even less so. Just to see them, to acknowledge them, was all he needed. To rest his pulse. To warm his body, even momentarily. And yet…they were gone. At least, he couldn’t see them. It wasn’t a big beach, if anything it was barely a beach, more of a slight smattering of sand, so where could they have gone!? It was seconds. Barely even that. That’s all it took for his echoing, clanging footsteps to carry him from his previous spot to the one he inhabited. He turned his head right, knowing not why, his gaze seemingly dragged, once again, towards the pitch darkness of the sea waves below. Again, they seemed to whisper, to hint. To entreat. It was calming, enveloping, entrancing. His mind began to drift, untethered, before a further howl regained his flagging senses. His neck jerked; his head jolted violently back towards the view of the beach. When he saw them. Once again. Barely further than a yard or so from where they were before. The man and his dog. An older man than him as far as he could tell. Middle-aged possibly. The night’s coastal shadow inexplicably failing to obscure the man’s flock of greying hair. Walking slowly. As glacial as before. The grand structure of Barnbougle Castle continuing to tower over and peer down towards them. As they walked the howl echoed deep into the distant chasm-like horizon. The howl. That howl. That piercing, spine-scraping howl. And yet the dog still walked slowly, peacefully, without complaint. The sound of the howl somehow completely detached from this particular dog’s lungs and general location. It walked. Alongside the man. Simply, walked. Slowly, gradually, quietly. Step after step after step. And yet, despite the continual steps taken, they barely seemed to move. If at all. Continual forward movement, yes, but maddeningly they seemed to remain in the same spot, the same intimidating backdrop shadowing their every step.
And ever when Barnbougle’s lords
Come hound and ghost to this haunted coast
The scattered words danced and cavorted through his mind. Returning like an icy gust of wind. The chill, coincidentally, also returned in abundance, completely bypassing any pretence of warmth that the young oil worker’s overalls once projected. Hurriedly, he ungripped the railing and walked briskly back towards the door, pushing it open with his trembling hands. One last glance back towards the beach was met only with darkness. Darkness and nothing more.
The door slammed behind him as he stepped inside, weak strands of warmth collided violently within him up against the stubbornly embedded and strengthening cold. He looked around the room. Its mundanity comforted him. The myriad of greys – walls, pipes, dining tables – signalled a calm, unfettered atmosphere. Even the dimming and slightly flickering lightbulb, apparently living on borrowed time, sent a shot of calm through him. The chill remained, yes, but this was safety. For now, at least. He prodded the door behind him with his elbow, confirming its closed status. Locked. Steadfast. His whole body, until then locked in a vice-like grip of contorted anxiety, seemed to exhale in relief as the tension released. The young man ruffled his own hair as he moved towards the table in front of him. He pulled out the chair from beneath said table, the chair scraping uncomfortably against the hard floor, and sat down, clutching onto the half-drunk cup of coffee before him. He took a drink, his face folding into displeasure as the cold, stewing mixture plunged slowly down his throat.
He slammed the cup down on the table, his tongue frantically prodding away at his lips in an effort to discard the beads of cold coffee taste scattered across them.
‘Yes, the coffee here always was rather…rather lacking, shall we say.’
The young man froze. A voice. The voice. An elderly male voice. From behind him. Almost directly behind him. His body temperature plunged yet again, almost as if he had been encased in a block of ice. Or at least plunged headfirst into the black inky depths of the freezing Forth. The voice was strange. And yet, familiar. Was it? He was sure he didn’t know it and still…there was a definite familiarity about it. Its cultivated tone, the clipped syllables. The young man forces his eyes shut, admonishing himself for this futile line of thought in light of the developing situation. Who was this man? How did he get in? How could he get in? Was he confused? No, surely not. This is a bloody oil terminal, for god’s sake, he thought, not a random house in a nameless street. You don’t just walk onto an oil terminal platform out of confusion! No, there’s a motive here, and not a pleasant one. Damn. Damn. If only some of the more senior guys had been here. Like…like…damn, what’s his name…the big one, the….damn, it’s a simple enough name, why can’t I…!? No. Steady yourself, don’t panic now boy, he commanded himself. He sounds elderly, you’re a young man in his twenties; unless he has a weapon of some description then you’ll easily overpower him. Surely to god. Weapon. A weapon! He looks at the coffee cup in front of him and slowly reaches his hand out towards it. The silence in the cold, steel-heavy room seems to smother the moment, weighing it down with an expectant gaze. His fingers curl delicately around the cup’s handle. They grip. Tighter. Tighter. His knuckles flare with a calcium-charged whiteness. The young oil worker pulled the cup closer to him, ready to wield his makeshift weapon. He slowly began to stand, his head turning in unison as he raised the ceramic mug above his head ready to crash it down on the intruder when…
‘Oh, don’t be silly son. Sit down.’ He felt a hand gently touch his back, calmly ushering him back down into his seat. ‘I can assure you I’m no danger to you. Plus, that thing wouldn’t work on me anyway so just sit back down.’
The young man folded back into his chair, the cup colliding with the table. His senses almost paralysed, strangled by this strange voice. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure walk slowly past him. Gradually it formulated into an old male figure. A thinning pile of grey hair clung haphazardly to his scalp. The man’s face was infused with an almost scarlet glow. He looked warm. Too warm. He looked…old. Frail. And yet, there was a strength about him, a confident way of carrying himself which belied that frailty. But that face, again, it seemed familiar. There was something about it that…
‘Well, boy, how are we then?’ the old man slowly sat down across from the young man, smirking somewhat at the younger’s crippled mass of confusion.
‘What do you mean how are…who are…what’s your name…I mean, how, HOW did you…?’
‘Ah,’ continued the old man, ignoring the younger man’s utterings, ‘I still have a soft spot for these days you know. I liked it here. Oh, to my father it was no more than attempt to toughen me up, to make me ‘experience the real world’ as it were. To show me he ways of the ‘common man’, as it were. But to me, no, it felt like I had a meaning. Or something like that anyway. It gave me a purpose, for a small time at least. God, that must have been, what, a good fifty years or so now that I was working here. Doing this shift.’ He nodded towards the younger man. He smiled, looking around the room curiously.
The young man relaxed slightly, amused by the old man’s now obvious confusion. He must have just wandered here, of course he had. How? He hadn’t a clue. But it’s no more than a confused, possibly senile, old man who has somehow or other found his way in here.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ the young man began, ‘but I think you must be confused. You shouldn’t be in here, it’s a very dangerous environment especially for a man like yourself…’
‘Oh, do be quiet, boy.’ The old man replied with a curt directive. ‘I told you I used to work here. I still know these controls, this environment, as you put it, better than anyone. And besides, nothing dangerous can or will happen. To either of us.’
‘I’m sorry sir,’ continued the young man, a sprinkle of annoyance toughening his tone, ‘but I can assure you, you haven’t worked here. Maybe in a boat or something a long time back but not at this particular oil terminal, no. Not the Hound Point terminal. Certainly not fifty years ago, it’s only been open for two! This is 1977, not 1927 or whatever year you think we’re in, so why don’t I just open the door and I’ll take you back to the shore and…but, in fact, yes, hold on, how did you even manage to get in here anyway? Let alone out to the oil terminal, I mean…’
The elderly man smiled, closing his eyes briefly as he nodded.
‘You spend most of your life waiting for specific moments,’ continued the old man, oblivious, ‘or at least you think you do, waiting for your ‘shot’ as it were. Waiting, just waiting. And then when it’s finally there you realise that all that came before is the stuff that you’ll really remember, that you really cherish.’
The young man’s annoyance blossomed even further. ‘Ok look sir, I don’t know why you’re here, but you shouldn’t be. I’m going to have to ask you to leave, ok?’
‘Ok then,’ the old man said quietly, not budging an inch from his chair ‘I see how this is going to go.’
‘How what’s going to go?’ the young man’s face screws up in confusion once more. He glanced at the cup, considering reclaiming it as his makeshift weapon. ‘I’m telling you sir, I’ll need you to…’
A howl. Another deep, longing howl spread across the night air. His body clenched in momentary shock before relaxing slightly. That damn dog, he thought. I mean seriously, who walks their dog at this time of night? Or morning, come to think of it. But that howl…he glanced round and looked at the door. Yes, it was shut. Fully shut. But the howl…the howl seemed louder than before. Even with the door shut. He looked up at the old man, expecting to see some semblance of fear etched across his face. But no. That smile. That calm, knowing, smirking smile. Unfettered and unruffled by the hideous howl emanating from the night air. He feels it necessary to calm the old man, whether he needs calming or not, in an effort to try to gain some authority in the situation.
‘It’s ok,’ he said, looking up at the old man, ‘it’s just a dog on the beach. Nothing to worry about.’
‘I’m not worried.’ The old man smiled, almost wearily. ‘And it’s not a dog on the beach. There’s no dog on the beach.’
‘Look sir, I’m telling you, there’s a dog on the beach, I saw it only minutes ago. With its owner. A man.’
‘I’m sure you did, boy. But there’s no dog. There’s no man. On the beach or anywhere else.’
‘Sir.’ The young man felt the heat of anger flow through his blood yet again, fighting off the, until then, omnipresent chill. ‘Look, I can assure you, there is a dog on the beach. You won’t convince me otherwise. I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but you are quite obviously confused. There was, and is, a dog on that beach. And moreover, this oil terminal has only been here for two years. Not fifty or so. Now I’ve already asked you, very politely, to leave here so please don’t make me ask again.’
‘Christ.’ The old man scoffed, shaking his head dismissively. ‘I forgot how embarrassing it looked.’
‘How what looked?’
‘When I, when you…never mind.’
‘No, let’s not ‘never mind’, I demand you tell me what the hell is going on right….’
‘And ever when Barnbougle’s Lords
Are parting this scene below
Come hound and ghost to this haunted coast
With death notes winding slow’
The young man’s eyes widen. In recognition. In fear. In terror. The words. Those same scattered fragments of verse. The ones that keep returning, keep fluttering through his mind. Barnbougle. Hound. Ghost. Those words. Those rhymes.
‘Those words,’ he whispered, ‘how do you…where do you know them from?’
‘We’ve always known them. Us. You. And Me. Always been tied to their words, their premonition, so to speak. And moreover, that dog that you claimed to see on the beach, that’s your dog.’
‘My dog? But I don’t have a…I’ve never had a…’
‘No but you will. Or you did, at least. Or…I’m not sure on the timeline to be honest and how it all works. I’m as new to this as you obviously are. But yes, that’s your dog. Or was.’
‘Look sir, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about so…’ the young man’s nerves continued to fray at a rapidly quickening pace, another long continuous howl, again louder than the one before, interrupting his stumbled and stammered words. ‘…so, so please just leave here, it’s too late for any of this nonsense.’
‘It’s too late for a lot of things, boy.’ The old man smiled sadly. ‘In fact, it’s time.’
‘Look, I really MUST insist that…’
The young man froze, mouth ajar, his jaw seemingly bereft of the strength or desire required to close. His eyes darted from left to right, hungrily taking in the scene around him. A bedroom. The lights, the fire, the colours. The oil terminal room, the oil terminal itself, gone. And before him, a bed. A four-poster bed. Decadent, opulent; at one with the room surrounding it. An occupied bed. The covers rising and falling in laboured, lessening thrusts.
He looked to his right. The old man was standing next to him, staring at the bed. A sad, resigned look holding court in his expression. The young man turned, startled. To his left a middle-aged man, the very same middle-aged man from the beach, stood, his dog sat next to him. Their feet covered in wet grains of sand. Both staring solemnly at the bed in front of them. The young man scrambled for words, grasping for clarity. But the words would not come. No more. No longer. All he could do was stand. And watch on. As the covers ceased rising, ceased falling. The howling continued, engulfing his ears, gripping his mind. The fire in the middle of the room crackled its last.
The three men, identical in face but for the varying rigours of time, and the dog stood side by side watching on. Resigned. Aware. Ready. As the desperate howling eventually petered out into the night air the figures gradually vanished.
The Lord of Barnbougle Castle lay motionless in his bed, departed from this world and summoned into the next by those familiar words. By that all-too familiar howl.