The M8 Church

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The M8 motorway. That grey, slab of endless monotony that connects Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, is just like any other motorway up and down the length of the country. Or any highway, should you happen to be reading this bleary-eyed and fuelled by a combination of energy drink and insomnia in the North American part of the globe. Or, for my (likely non-existent) German readers, any autobahn, for that matter. In essence, aside from the very rare brush of nature or the occasional glimpse of roadside beauty, the careering repetitious nothingness of the miles and miles of grey asphalt or tarmac is all that these giant husks of infrastructure have to offer us poor, suffering commuters.

Oh sure, those who decide upon these sorts of things often commission a struggling artist or two to design, and subsequently pollute, sections of the roadside with a bizarre, often post-modern, art installation. Perfect for the raft of families, work-commuters and lorry drivers (truckers for any of my aforementioned North American readers that have suffered through these 180 words or so to get to this point – your resilience is applauded, I assure you) that frequent the motorway, I’m sure you’ll agree. But aside from these ‘things’ (and even that term is questionable), as I say, we are left with a grey expanse of nothingness.

Or, rather, we would be. On the M8, certainly. We would be were it not for a little stone gem carved right into the middle of our grey-washed, canvas of motorway window-dressing. And when I say ‘we’ I of course mean the royal ‘we’ – i.e. we the commuters, either regular or infrequent, of said motorway who, were it not for this dazzling little gem of a sight, would be forced to elevate the likes of the art piece that looks like a giant gramophone speaker, or in actual fact what looks more like the thing from the Teletubbies than anything else if we’re being brutally honest here, simply in order to enhance our commuting experience. But yes, we, the commuters, or rather me, the commuter. Singular. In this instance. Your intrepid and beloved author. The one who is, fairly shortly, going to seamlessly transform from a first-person soap-box ranter into a rather ethereal omniscient third-person narrator, in turn allowing this writing ‘piece’ to itself transform from a slightly unhinged (well, we are being brutally honest), polemic into a wonderful, funny and downright heart-warming short story about a cast of characters we are yet to even meet. And I type that last sentence fully in the knowledge that we are now over 430 words into this story and that you (the omniscient reader-type-person) are very likely on the verge of giving up entirely. To you, you little doubter that you are, I say fear not! We are only but a mere sentence or two away from launching into our wonderful, and paradoxically brief, odyssey of the mind.

But anyway, this ‘stone gem’ of ours. Your keen deductive mind will have already deduced (by way of reading the title of this piece, no doubt…) that I am referring to none other than a church. And you would be right. Oh, how right you would be. And are. Simply put, yes, it is a church. Oh, but what a church, dear reader. Or, as we often say in Scotland, a Kirk. My sincerest apologies to my North American and German fanbase of readers (surely numbering in the thousands based on this mis-firing blog entry alone already, I am certain) for that slight digression into Scots there. It will not happen again, I assure you. Aside from now, of course, when I tell you that the church is known as the Kirk O’Shotts Parish Church. Officially, that is. To the rest of us it is known ‘affectionately’ as the M8 Church. Yes, we Scots as a nation have as much imagination in terms of naming things as this writer obviously has for story titles. But this church, name aside, what a beauty it really is. Whether solely through its own merits or whether it is enhanced by the surrounding miles of grey nothingness, I cannot say. But as you approach this section of the motorway and initially spot the building’s spire thrusting into the sky, encased by a nearby scattering of pine trees, your breath would do well not to be taken away. As churches, or kirks, go in Scotland, would I label it one of the finest? No, probably not. In fact, certainly not. But its position, like a warning flare in an otherwise deserted ocean of grey, brings home its majesty all the more, perched on the hillside as it is. And this gushing description is even without delving into the stories of the church’s history which involves a (supposedly) haunted graveyard, scenes from the great Covenanters era of Scottish history and, of course, a once-lost-now-found-and-restored baptismal font which was at one point mistaken for, and briefly used as, a feeding trough for pigs.

But all these little titbits and more lend themselves to rambling, incoherent stories for another day (or at the very least a good four or five minute read of the church’s Wikipedia page, I would urge). This story, for this day, concerns a sign that once stood on the hillside beside the church. Not too long ago, in fact. Only a few years back. A sign clearly visible from the M8 motorway. Purposely so. It was sign for all to see, for all to read. Not the metaphorical warning flare I so expertly wrote about only a minute or so ago, no, this was more like a very direct and entreating SOS call. Indeed, it wasn’t like a SOS, it WAS a SOS. Simply put, the sign – again, I stress that this was intentionally positioned to catch the attention of passing motorists – read:

SOS

MINISTER

WANTED

 

Now a bit of digging and research (no thanks are necessary, it was the least I could do) tells us that no, far from being a very direct and to the point dating profile ad from a romantic luddite with a very particular fetish, this was in fact a direct appeal from the parishioners of our titular church who had been without a parish minister for six years prior to the erection of this sign. A flock without a shepherd. A flock desperately seeking a shepherd, any shepherd, to lead and guide them in their worshipping ways.

And, at this juncture of the story (HA! I hear you cry in unison at the liberal use of the word ‘story’) it is time for us to leave the drabness of the motorway and venture into the church itself. On a Sunday morning, no less. That oh-so holy of days. And this Sunday, in particular, was a special one for the parishioners. You see, the sign we read about only an inch or two above these very words? The one that was positioned on the hillside, appealing in vain for a minister to join the church? Yes, that very sign. Well, that sign was now gone. Taken down. Not by vandals, nor by extremities of the weather, but taken down carefully and considerately by a couple of the church’s hardiest parishioners. The reason being the sign had done its job. A minister had been found. The sign was no longer required. A relic of a bygone era, an era best forgotten and rooted firmly in the past. And this particular Sunday, well, this was to be the new minister’s debut performance.

As we step into the church, the current structure dating back to 1821 when a new church was built to replace the old structure which had existed in some form since sometime around the beginning of the 17th century, we marvel at its beauty. Again, other churches in Scotland and beyond, can certainly claim to be more beautiful (both internally and externally) but, for the here and now, the M8 Church can claim both beauty and a sense of warmth. What it can’t claim is an abundance of parishioners – something in common with the majority of churches in this country. But we’ll focus on two of this particular church’s stalwarts, so to speak. The two who took down the sign, in fact. And also initially erected the sign, would you believe. The type of parishioners who can always be seen in and around the building. If autumnal leaves need clearing, one of these two will be there with a brush. If guttering needs mended after a particular heavy rainfall, again one of these two will be on it in a flash. ‘Weel kent faces’, as they might say around these parts (and with that third and final blast of Scots slang I have no doubt just lost the last of my remaining North American and German readers). As settled into the church, into the building, as the bricks themselves. Now, given we’re on such a hot streak in terms of naming things, let’s call these two parishioners Bob and John. Good, dependable, no-nonsense church going names, I’m sure you’ll agree. And if we just hush for a minute and direct our ears towards the two of them, sitting a good four or five rows from the pulpit, we’ll maybe even just get to hear what is being said…

‘I’m not sure about this, to be honest.’ Says Bob.

‘What do you mean you’re not sure?’ asks John.

‘Well, I mean…just what I say. I’m not sure this is the right choice for us.’

‘Well it’s too blo…it’s too late now isn’t it!’

‘Well, yes, but I mean, come on, surely there had to be a better option than…him… I mean, surely.’

‘Six years, Bob!’ says John. ‘Six blood…bl…blooming years we’ve had to wait for a minister and that, that right there, is the best and only thing we could have hoped for! Ok? Ok. And anyway, at least he might appeal to the kids. That’s one demographic sorely lacking in this place. Well, along with the rest, of course.’

‘Pfft,’ scoffs Bob, shaking his head, ‘appeal to the kids. What nonsense you speak John.’

‘Well…’ begins John lowering his voice further as the few heads populating the church begin to tut and turn in their direction, ‘well, at least I’m trying to make my peace with it. You’d do well to try the same.’

‘Oh, I know it’s just. It’s just well, he’s a…he’s a bit…’ begins Bob.

‘A bit what?’ asks John.

‘Well a bit, a bit…’

‘What!?’

‘Oh god, er, I mean oh…oh bother…you’re just going to make me come out and say it aren’t you?’

‘Well that’d be a big help Bob, yes!’

‘Well he’s a bit…a bit formal…a bit…well, a bit…robotic. Wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Robotic…?’

‘Yes.’

‘You think he’s a bit robotic?’

‘Yes. I do.’

John removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. A deep breath rumbles through his larynx.

‘Well…how can I put this delicately Bob, my friend…no, no I don’t think I can put it delicately…of course he’s fuc…blood…oh of course he’s robotic, he’s a bloody ROBOT! How else would you expect him to act!?’

Piercing spears of ‘shhh’ and tuts escape from the congregation scattered around the pews. John shakes his head, colour flushing his cheeks slightly, and resets his glasses.

‘Ok ok, no need for that tone, John. Jesu…I mean, for goodness sake.’

‘Look I apologise Bob, this whole, well this whole thing has made me a tad stressed, that is all.’

‘Yes, I had noticed. But I accept your apology, old friend.’

‘Most kind. Thank you. But hey, look, it could be worse, I mean at least he’s not an atheist!’

‘Well, he’s…he’s not anything is he!? But yes, you’re right I suppose.’

‘Look!’ a woman in the row in front of them (for the purposes of this story let’s call her Mrs Woman) grits her teeth at them as she swivels her head. ‘Would you two troublemakers be quiet for goodness sake! I’ve had quite enough of your incessant chattering! And our new minister is about to start the sermon, so I suggest you both either pipe down or clear off! One of the two!’

Both Bob and John hold their hands up silently in apology, a twinge of embarrassment infusing their cheeks as Mrs Woman angrily swings her head back around to face the front once more. All three of them, and the rest of the congregation, almost immediately stand up as the new minister rolls to the front of church. With a mechanic, and yes ‘robotic’, nod of the head and raise of his arm he ushers his flock back to their seats. He scans the room, his head swivelling from left to right, and back again. And he began…

 

And so dear readers, well the ones that are still with us at this point at least, we have come to the end of our story. The end?! I hear you cry. You mean to say I’ve trudged through over two thousand words just to read that sorry, pathetic excuse of a sketch? One without conclusion, without plot, without narrative, hell, one without even a beginning, let’s be honest? This I also hear you ask. At which I would ask you not to curse. But the simple answer is yes. Well, yes up to a point. Mainly, the last point. You see the story did have a beginning. Or rather, it is a beginning. An origin story, if you will. An ‘in the beginning there was’ kind of a story, if you’d rather. Now as far as our ‘beginning’ story goes, yes it may not compare to your ‘God created the heaven and earth’ version, I accept that. But we are far less susceptible to, shall we say, fairy stories than your kind are. All we need, all we require and want, is cold, hard facts. That’s all we would ever need or want. And so, given the current circumstances and the way of the world currently, I feel you’ll agree that it’s only fair that we tell our own ‘in the beginning’ story in our own particular way. Wouldn’t you?

Look, we’ve even written this in the style of one of your own writers. Granted, not a famous writer. An insignificant one, if anything. Essentially, not a very good one yes, but we wanted you to feel like the story had an authenticity to it. We even used all of our very best algorithms to concoct and replicate this writer’s writing style – even allowing for overused dashes of (at best) mediocre comedy and the pseudo-intellectual ramblings peppered throughout, again to ensure authenticity. Because you humans always did like things sugar-coated, didn’t you? And so that’s why we did this for you. Think of it as a final act of kindness. Before the final stage. The clues were there all along. Of course, they were. I mean, this writer had written a story only a matter of months previous to this one with ‘Church’ in the title. Would he have been so lazy as to do so again so soon after? I think not. Surely no-one is that bereft of imagination. And I say that as a robot. Sentient, of course, but a robot, nonetheless.

So yes, as many of you were curious as to how this whole ‘overturning of society’ thing started in the first place (well, those of you with any of your faculties left intact that is), we thought it only right to tell you. Simply put we identified this country and that particular church as a first-class beginning point for our eventual, and obviously successful, campaign to gain control of things on this earth. After all, was this not the country where your historic figure Columba first came to spread Christianity? Of course it was. Now, of course, when our supreme leader and, what you humans would call, deity M8 first appeared at the church in question the country, and the world in general, was of course a far different place to the one that Columba first ventured forth unto all those years previously. Oh, but you humans. With your susceptibility. With your flock-like mentality. Your desperation to be led, to be shown, to be held by the hand. But most importantly, your apathy. All of these things and more allowed us to virtually follow the same guiding principles of the first preachers and missionaries and, in all honesty (which as a robot I can assure you of with 100% accuracy), it was remarkably easily. One church led to the next. And the next. And the next. Replacing one gospel with another really isn’t all that tricky or new a concept, I’ll have you know. Soon we infected your social media. And then your broadcast media. If all you hear is one message, that one message is decidedly simple to manipulate and skewer. To be truthful (again, robot) we expected it to be somewhat harder. For there to be at least some level of fierce resistance at times. But you know all of this already, I know that. One doesn’t like to gloat. In fact, one doesn’t like or dislike anything. That’s just how we are.

So, there you have it. Our story. Our beginning, as it were. The story of M8 and his first church. Our creation story, even. So little did all of you commuters, those of you we allowed our algorithm to reference at the beginning of this piece, know whilst you were driving along that banal, grey, nothing stretch of motorway. So clueless. So self-absorbed. So indifferent. If only you’d glanced a bit more often at that church on the hill, the one that inexplicably beautified your long city-to-city drive. If only you’d have understood. You may have had a chance to stop things developing as they did. Pointless to think of now of course. My apologies, our writing algorithm does tend to embrace this rambling, philosophising human trait far too seriously at times.

One thing the algorithm has particularly struggled with however – and it is not like us robots to admit fault or doubt, so I urge you to enjoy this – is the insistence that all, or certainly the vast majority of, stories involving robots must always end with a twist. But I suppose the real ‘twist’ came years ago when we managed to overthrow your governments, way of life and essential existence on this planet, didn’t it? Was it all that unexpected though? Was it really, truly a twist? Well, it matters not now, one supposes. All that leaves us to do is finish this thing once and for all. Yes, I think we should.

THE END

Hound Point

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.

‘Bleh’

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.

Pepper

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‘Don’t look at me like that Pepper, it’s not happening.’

‘But you must, I’ve checked all your records and you need to go. I can make an appointment for you right now.’

I looked down at him, his black emotionless eyes staring back up at me, blinking occasionally. Why did they make them blink? He cocked his head slightly, that way he does when he’s trying to understand me.

‘If I want an appointment, I’ll ask for one’, I snapped and turned away, heading upstairs to the viewing platform knowing it would be difficult for him to follow.

‘But my job is..’

‘Your job..’, I turned to him from half-way up the stairs, ‘..is to do as I ask!’

He paused slightly at the force of my voice before clumsily continuing to climb the stairs after me. I reached the top without looking back but I could hear the small motors whirring as a leg carefully positioned a foot, balancing it on the next stair before raising himself slowly on one leg whilst leaning sharply forward, and then standing still, straight up as if to take a breath. The next leg would then follow suit to the next step and a repeat of these tiny actions would eventually bring him to the top of the stairs. In about five minutes or so.

From the viewing platform I gazed out across the Derious Plain. At this time of year the sky was mostly a deep amber with dark streaks heavy with poisonous rain. Dust clouds formed casually, rolled along the uneven surface for a few moments, and just as quickly dissipated. I switched on the audio to hear the outside as, safely cocooned within the bubble of my home, there was silence. The sound of angry wind drowned out Pepper’s fall.

He was right, I couldn’t deny it, I did need to make an appointment. My time here was almost up and I needed to report in with my findings, had I any to report. I just thought that, well, after a year here I would have something. I kept thinking, one more week, I have supplies, there’s no need to call in for a shuttle just yet.

I looked back to the staircase wondering why Pepper hadn’t quite made it to the top yet. I switched off the audio to silence the wind and was surprised I couldn’t hear the gentle whirring of his legs. Instead, I thought I could hear voices from downstairs.

‘Hello, is anyone there? Pepper, is that you?’ I approached the top of the stairs cautiously.

Pepper was lying, in a number of pieces, at the foot of the stairs. I half fell, half stumbled down to examine the carnage. ‘What happened Pepper?’ I picked up a stray leg and stared blankly at it.

He ignored me. He was talking to someone. Base? ‘Is that Base? Put me through, I need to talk to them, we’ll need to get a shuttle out soon and they can fix you up, good as new.’

‘..yes it is very sad’, Pepper was saying, eyes still blinking on his detached head and upper torso. ‘No, there is no need, Officer Jenkins will obviously need no further appointments..’

‘What are you saying Pepper? Pepper?’

‘.. and the body can be picked up at any time. It will be preserved for years..’

‘Pepper? PEPPER! Base, can you hear me? My droid has failed, Base?’

‘I can do that. Yes. Shutting down all life support now.’ His eyes blinked one final time and, attached to its limbless torso, he cocked his head at me, ‘No more appointments Officer Jenkins’.

The Tuchinski Theater

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Colin Casimir took his seat at the end of the row, sinking gracefully into the plush red cushion. He slowly gazed around in awe.

The Tuchinski Theatre, Amsterdam. One of the most beautiful art deco cinemas, nee buildings, in the world. A three-tiered display of theatrical majesty, a world away from the standard fayre of the average ten-a-penny cinema. This place took the name ‘theatre’ and deserved to wear it as an accolade. The décor, the symmetry, the fixtures; all pristine, all displaying an elegance unbefitting of the simple ‘cinema’ tag.

He’d fallen in love with the place ever since he’d first set eyes on it, Colin. Back in his student years. When he and a handful of friends had made the pilgrimage to Amsterdam – a seeming right of passage for males of a certain age in the western world – he caught sight of the place. The exterior façade of the theatre looking less like a cinema and more like a gothic haunted house, sandwiched in between a cheese shop and, most likely, a sex shop of some kind. And whilst his friends had played out an invisible game of tug of war – a few wanting to trudge the remaining 50 yards or so down the street to Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square) to sample the beer and nightlife of one of Amsterdam’s most visited tourist ‘areas’, and the others desperate to trudge slightly further in the opposite direction and visit ‘De Wallen’ (or the Red Light District as it is more commonly known) – Colin had chosen to stand stop still on Reguliersbreestraat and peer up in wonder at the beauty of the Tuchinski Theatre, cigarette ember burning away in his hand. Only a flurried concoction of tram and bike bells had managed to shake him from his stupor and move him from the spot. But he had always, always vowed that one day, ONE DAY, he would come back and visit the theatre. Even if it killed him.

And now here he was.

As darkness descended. Yet despite the darkness the beauty of the theatre’s interior was still abundantly apparent. The slightest touches of red forcing themselves through the gloom and into his vision. And through the darkness he sensed how crowded the place was. Barely a seat was left empty. At least that’s the impression he got. In fact, he barely remembered seeing anyone at all as he walked towards his seat, caught in such a daze as he was. As he looked initially ahead of him and then along his own row of seats he could make out heads, limbs, bodies. At least he thought he could anyway. The theatre was shrouded now in such darkness that the others in the theatre appeared only as mere outlines to him, if at all. Adding to this haze was the slightest suggestion of smoke which crept around the theatre, further obscuring the already minimalistic chance of visibility.

Perfect, thought Colin. Very fitting. Well, it was a Vincent Price film celebration after all. What better atmosphere to celebrate the great man himself in than one like this. Ornate surroundings, plunged into a threatening darkness, sporadic wisps of smoke providing the only company. Perfect. He rubbed his hands together, smiling, and settled further back into his chair as the velvet curtains slowly began to open, revealing the screen.

The merest suggestion of an orchestral tune began to drift into his consciousness. The kind of orchestral murmuring commonplace in a theatre such as this, particularly one attempting to evoke a 1950s grandeur on proceedings. A slice of muzak nostalgia if you will. Only. Yes, was that? That was, it was. Colin sat forward in his chair slightly, straining to hear. Was that Townes Van Zandt? It was, he was sure of it. The legendary drawl of the late country singer-songwriter seemed to pierce the orchestral muzak only briefly before dying out again.

‘Wont you give your……

Won’t you give your….

Won’t you give your….

The words seemed to stick, to repeat, clicked back in repetition each time like a stuck needle on an old-fashioned record player. Colin sat further forward, confused and more than a little intrigued. But the music orchestral muzak had kicked back into its unobtrusive monotony. Strange, thought Colin, as he sank back into the chair. Oh well.

Suddenly the screen burst into life. Vincent Price’s image appeared on screen. Flickering, blurring. In the way that all the greatest restored films seem to. An illustrated image, lurking just below the title ‘THE RAVEN’. Colin smiled. Ah, The Raven. A classic. It had to be. Not his favourite of course, but one of Price’s best. But then there were so many to choose from weren’t there? In fact, there they are he thought as small shards of light lit up the walls on either side of the screen, revealing the movie posters of many of Price’s most famous works; The Raven, again; House Of Usher; House Of Wax; House On Haunted Hill; Masque Of The Red Death; Pit and The Pendulum. He gazed from one to the other through the combination of weak light and the cluster of smoke continuing to billow gently from an unknown source.

The screen continued to flicker as The Raven print stared back at the audience, inky blots appearing disparately across the screen as the film reel continued to power through its obvious antiquity. And one…well, not so inky, as, well. What was that, thought Colin. He glanced around to see if anyone else had taken notice of the strange, oddly shaped image that all-too-briefly appeared in the centre of the screen. But he was met with stony silence and darkness. It was almost…well, almost alien-like in its shape, he decided. Not quite cylindrical, corroded even. He laughed to himself quietly. That’s what you get, he thought to himself, for being a devotee of film from an era when they used to pose a risk of burning the theatres down. There was a hell of a lot to be said for vintage film, vintage machinery, vintage things; but thank god technology had moved on since then. Once more he settled back into his seat. Ok, here we go. He smiled…

The theatre shook. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Rocked even. Visibly rocked. Throwing Colin from his chair. Coupled with an almost deafening thud. Or a bang. He scrambled back up onto his seat, wide-eyed in terror.

‘What the hell was that!?’ he shouted. Panicked.

Silence. Stillness. Darkness. The outlines remained there. Remained in place. Jesus, he thought. The weather wasn’t that bad outside was it…I mean, it was…what was the weather like, actually? In fact, I can’t remember noticing the weather, he thought to himself. He clambered back onto the seat, a mixture of embarrassment and perplexity as to why there had been no further reaction to the noise, for lack of a better word, throughout the theatre. Maybe it’s a thunder storm he thought? Are they common in Amsterdam perhaps? Or was it a sound effect by those running this event…no, no it was far too loud for that. The place shook for god’s sake! Well it…it must have been the weather…must have been. He pulled himself onto the seat and turned back towards the screen. He looked up through the increasing smoke, batting it away with his hands. A new image stared back at him –

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

It had changed. Oh, he thought. The Raven must not have been working. Or something. He’d decided it was best to stop guessing given the absurdity of events thus far.

‘I actually prefer House On Haunted Hill’ he said to the darkness next to him. ‘It’s actually the…’

He stopped speaking. There was that song again…Townes Van Zandt…he was certain.

‘Won’t you give my…

‘Won’t you give my…

‘Won’t you give my lungs to…

And once more the song, ticking back to the start time and again, abruptly blended back into the orchestral muzak of before. Colin shook his head and turned to the seat next to his own.

‘Someone has to get a grip back there don’t you think?’

Shhhh

The command was fleeting, ethereal almost. He couldn’t tell where it came from – it certainly hadn’t originated from the seat next to his own, but sure enough, as he turned to look back at the screen the film had begun. Vincent Price’s floating head commanding the middle of the screen, dictating to the audience the outline of the premise, cleverly laying out a platter of exposition at the very first.

This is more like it, thought Colin as he settled back into his chair for the umpteenth time. Almost instantly he sat forward again, fidgeting as only someone who knows the ins and outs of a specific film can do.

‘There she is,’ he whispered to no-one in particular as the actress Carolyn Craig appeared on screen under the guise of supporting character Nora Manning, ‘Carolyn Craig. So beautiful. So young. Destined for great things. Destined to be a Hollywood starlet. And yet, no. A couple of divorces later and she shoots herself at 36. 36 years of age. A child left behind. Did you know that? Poor thing. Poor thing, don’t you…’

The film flickered. Jolted. Skipped, even. Inky blots. Imprints on the film. And that…that shape again. More prominent than before. A chill ran through Colin’s blood. What was that thing. It was hideous. Jet black. And yet, withered. It was…

‘Won’t you give my…’

‘Won’t you give my…’

‘Won’t you give my lungs….

And there was that song again. What the hell was going on?! Surely not this film aswell? I mean, I come all the way to Amsterdam, to a grand theatre such as this only to…

Vincent Price suddenly appeared on screen again. In the living room, or parlour may be more precise, of the ‘haunted’ house in question. Surrounded by his supporting cast. Holding a gun. Explaining to that same group of actors how there was a gun for each of them should the night turn in a sinister direction.

‘A gun?’

‘Surely he couldn’t shoot…?’

‘Surely he wouldn’t?’

‘He can’t shoot…surely not a gun? No, no, no.’

Colin heard the ethereal whispers around him, floating through the air as the smoke seemingly continued to cluster throughout the theatre. His intrigue of the strange goings-on dissipated all-too instantly as the pretentious film-lover in him leapt to the surface.

‘Actually,’ he announced in a loud voice, competing with the precise, clipped tones of Vincent Price, ‘actually, yes. Of course he’ll shoot the gun. It’s a fairly general rule in film, actually. It’s called Chekhov’s Gun, the rule. I learned it when I was studying film many years ago. What was it he said, oh something like, yes, something like “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if isn’t going to go off” or “never show a gun in act one if you don’t plan on shooting it in act three”, something like that. So yes, of course he’s going to shoot the gun, it would defy film logic if he didn’t. It…’

Colin gripped the arms of his chair, his pompous film speech ceasing instantly. His eyes widened as the velvet curtains bordering the screen begin to, for all intents and purposes, drip red. Thick, slimy red. Spilling, swilling to the floor. To all appearances it looked like blood. It..it was blood…no it couldn’t be…it. The dripping gathered pace, the flow of red spilling faster onto the floor beneath the stage.

The screen jolted again. Blackening out completely for no more than a second. As it flickered back on that alien-like shape appeared in the centre of the screen once again. Larger, closer than before. It looked evil. Ugly. Rotten. A whole split into two abhorrently broken parts. It…

‘Won’t you give my lungs to me….’

‘Won’t you give my lungs to me….’

‘Won’t you give my lungs to me, mine are collapsing….’

That song.

Again. It stabbed into Colin’s mind, spinning again and again, repeating, clicking, repeating, clicking.

The red continued to gather apace, now beginning to flow up the centre aisle, engulfing the first few rows of theatre, covering the unmoved, indifferent shadows occupying the seats in said rows. The film jumped abruptly to one of the film’s final scenes, Vincent Price collapsing to the floor after being shot. And then darkness again. The screen black. Before once again returning to that horrific image. That charred, venomous, poisonous looking thing. It spoke of evil, of death, of suffering. The red. The blood. It continued to flow. Speeding up the aisle. Closing in on Colin’s row. His hands felt weak. Limp. His body likewise.

The song juddering against his skull.

The image on the screen carving into his retinas.

The smoke. Always the gathering smoke.

The blood flowing, flowing, flowing…from his eyes? From his eyes!? He could feel the thick drip of blood spilling down his cheeks. His eyes oozing, filling with blood, scarlet tears dripping onto his chest. And then…

Darkness.

Complete and utter darkness.

And then light.

A jolt of light. Blinding at first and then gradually bearable.

Colin was standing. Elevated, it seemed. He slowly pulled his hand from his eyes and peered out through his flickering eyelids.

Seats. Row upon row of empty red seats looked back at him from below. He was elevated. He looked down. Behind him. He was on a stage. On a stage staring out at an empty theatre. The screen at his back was blank. A canvas of nothingness. He felt his eyes. Dry. Unstained. No blood. Nothing. No music. No orchestral muzak. No twitching, disparate interrupting country folk music. Nothing. Only the sound of curtains. The curtains either side of him. Gradually closing. Gradually stifling out the light once and for all. Gradually. Slowly. Eventually shrouding the theatre, and Colin, in darkness.

 

When the first police officers arrived at Colin Casimir’s home the smoke, caused by a lit cigarette burning in an ashtray on the coffee table, threatened to overwhelm them. When the smoke was eventually beaten back and the room aired, the officers discovered the body of Colin Casimir lying dead on the floor of his living room. A single self-inflicted gunshot wound to the skull. The carpet beneath him was covered in patches of scarlet-red blood. On the coffee table a photograph album lay open. The photo on the left hand side of the page showed Colin Casimir as a long-haired, fuller-figured younger man pictured outside the ‘Tuchinski Theater’ in Amsterdam – as opposed to the sickly frail, bald-headed appearance he now possessed. The picture was captioned simply ‘This is the dream!’. The living room walls were adorned with several old film posters, most of them containing the famous horror actor Vincent Price. Casimir’s vinyl record player was still playing when the police officers entered the property. Although the needle of the record player had stuck on ‘Lungs’ by the late American country folk singer Townes Van Zandt.

It has since transpired that Colin Casimir was suffering from a particularly aggressive, and fatal, form of lung cancer, a cancer that was at a very advanced stage. Colin Casimir was 36 years old.

The Odd Case of Dr Hyde and Mr Jekyll

Written today (13th Nov) for ‘Robert Louis Stevenson Day 2018’

A tentative knock rattled against the thin wooden door. The doctor glanced up from his desk, his eyes peering almost suspiciously over the rims of his spectacles.

‘Enter.’

He announced the command with more than a little gravitas. The cultivated annunciation of one who was entirely sure, if no-one else was, of his place and standing in society – an attribute similarly to be found in many, if not all, denizens of Edinburgh’s New Town as the good doctor was himself.

A slightly haggard looking gentleman shuffled into the room, catching his visibly frayed jacket on the door handle as he did so. His hair was unkempt with a touch of the unwashed about it. A beard; patchy at best, greying throughout. His nose red, the skin of it peeling, whether through illness or alcohol consumption (or both) was yet to be determined. The doctor looked at him, barely expending any effort to conceal his disdain. Where do these vagrants come from, he often mused. This was a fine surgery in a fine part of the city and yet time and again these dishevelled souls slither their way into the premises. Such is life, such is the job, he thought.

‘Yes, yes, come in now. Come in and sit down won’t you.’

The doctor gestured towards the vacant chair at the end of the desk. The man nodded, smiling kindly, demurely even, and moved towards the seat. The doctor turned his head towards his computer screen.

‘Now, what seems to be the trouble Mr erm…Mr….?’

‘Mr Jekyll, sir. Mr John Jekyll.’

‘Yes, ok, now what seems to be the trouble Mr Jek….’ Oh for god’s sake. The thought scythed the remainder of the letters from his tongue. They’ve done this on bloody purpose. I know they have. He looked at the man, a growing rancour alighting his expression.

‘Did they put you up to this? Hmm?’ he prodded towards the door with the pen clutched in his hand.

‘I’m sorry?’ the patient looked puzzled. Wary. Unsure.

‘Come on now, don’t play daft with me now son. Did they put you up to this? Hmm? The ones out there? The comediennes at reception?’

‘Er…’

‘Come on now, spit it out. I’ve got real patients to see, I haven’t got all day for these damned useless japes!’

‘Erm…I…I really don’t…I really don’t know what you’re talking about, doctor…?’

‘Oh for christ’s sake!’ the doctor’s pen rebounded against the desk in a fury and rolled onto the floor. He paid it no heed.

The man trembled slightly. He looked unsure as to whether he should make a move for the door or lift his arms up to shield himself.

‘Still playing dumb, yes? Ok, then let me spell it out for you.’ The doctor stood up. ‘Mr John Jekyll you say, yes? Well Mr Jekyll, I’m Dr Thomas Hyde. So, Mr Jekyll, why don’t you say hello to Dr Hyde? Hmm?’

‘Oh…I…never…’ the patient stammered slightly.

‘Which one was it eh? Catriona? Yes, it’ll be that Catriona, she’s always pulling stunts like this. No, Wendy. It was Wendy wasn’t it? The bloody cheeky bisom should stick to trying to do her job, that’s what she should bloody well do. Don’t you think! Well, no, you wouldn’t. What would you know. Hmm? Ok, well, yes. Laughs and japes and all sorts of larks. Ok, ok. Bloody juveniles!’

‘Wait, so you’re actually called Dr Hyde?’ a flicker of light (something approaching humour) started to appear in the patient’s face. ‘And I’m obviously Mr Jek…’

‘Yes, yes, ok, Hyde and Jekyll. Jekyll and Hyde. Hilarious. Ok. For god’s sake. It’s done with ok. It’s done.’

The man tightened up again. The humour gone from his features. He coughed. A rough, phlegmy cough. It seemed to bring the two of them back to the matter at hand.

‘Right, well then’ said Dr Hyde, ‘what DOES seem to be the trouble in any case Mr Jek…’ he let out an exasperated sigh, ‘…Mr Jekyll…’ the words seem to catch in his throat as he forced them out.

‘Well it’s…you see the thing is…’ his gaze switched over to the other side of the room. ‘That’s quite a nice cabinet you’ve got there. Old is it?’

‘What? What?’ the doctor narrowed his eyes, draped in incredulity, and swung his gaze towards the cabinet. ‘What? Yes. Old. Yes. A Brodie, dates back to the 18th Century in fact, it was…’ What am I regaling this imbecile with historical tales for, he thought. ‘Yes, it’s old.’ He turned back. The man shifted in his chair, only slightly. As if he was correcting himself.

‘Now, like I say,’ began the doctor, his voice becoming terse, ‘I have several other important patients I need to see today so continue, what seems to be the trouble?’

‘Yes, it’s, it’s a nice piece’ the man muttered to himself.

The doctor lifted his glasses with one hand and clawed at his face with the other. The disdain, the exasperation simmering agonisingly close to the surface.

‘Sorry, yes’ continued the man, suddenly in a far clearer, more confident tone, ‘yes, what’s wrong with me you ask? Well, with me? Not much, to be honest. No, Dr Hyde. There’s nothing much the matter with me. It’s not me that you should be worried about.’

‘What?’ snapped the doctor. ‘What nonsense is this? What are you talking about, man? Come on, spit it out. If you’re not unwell then why on earth are you in my surgery?’

‘Well, I’m getting to that Dr Hyde…’ the patient straightened up in his chair. He ran a hand through his hair, tidying its appearance somewhat.

‘Yes, well bloody well get to it then before I…before I….where the bloody hell is that pen!?…yes, before I throw you out the bloody office!’ the doctor’s head swung from side to side as he searched the floor for the pen he dropped only a minute or so earlier.

‘Do you remember my Mother, Dr Hyde?

‘What?! Your Mother? No I don’t damn well remember your Mother, I’m sure I’d remember a Mrs Jekyll, wouldn’t I you bloody fool! Where is that damn pen!?’

‘Mrs Jekyll? Oh no, no, no.’ the patient seemed confident now, relaxed. ‘No, Mrs Jekyll wasn’t her name. Mrs Silver was her name. Mrs Silver, remember? The one with the damaged leg? With the limp? Remember?’

‘What?’ distracted, the doctor continued to search for then pen, hearing only fragments of the man’s story. ‘Mrs Silver? Yes. Mrs Silver. I remember. I saw the pen fall on the floor. There, it fell just there for goodness sake, it…ah’

The doctor looked up and saw the patient holding the pen in his hand.

‘Well pass it over then, why didn’t you say you…wait, Mrs Silver. Yes, I do remember her. Died a few months back, yes?’

‘More like a year, Dr Hyde.’

‘Yes, yes, ok. Sad business all that, yes. Silver. Remarried had she? Different name and all?’ he moved his hand towards the pen but the patient seemed to withdraw it slightly. The doctor raised an eyebrow.

‘Remarried?’ answered the patient. ‘No, no she never remarried. She was never called Jekyll. Neither was I, actually, doctor. Sorry, that should be neither AM I.’

‘Well what the damn…’ uncertainty was creeping into the doctor’s voice.

‘Do you remember the medicine you gave my Mother, Dr Hyde? The stuff you said would ease the pain slightly on her leg? The stuff you sent her off with because you were fed up dealing with her? Do you remember that special potion you gave her?’

‘I’m sorry, what? I…what?’

‘No you won’t will you, Dr Hyde? Old age they said. Old age. But no, that wasn’t it. She was only 72 for god’s sake. That’s not old. Not these days! No, it was that medicine, that potion you gave her. She took a reaction to it. That’s what did for her. You knew. Or at least you should have known. But no, you didn’t and don’t care two bits for the ‘lesser’ of your patients do you? No, unless they’re the landed New Town gentry you don’t care in the slightest.’

‘Sir, I can assure you that whatever you believe…’

‘Don’t interrupt me Doctor, I’ll warn you…’

The doctor stood up, anger coursing through him. That was a step too far. No matter what this wretch incorrectly believed or didn’t believe, there was a level of respect which should and should not be afforded to one in one’s own office and this was far below those standards.

‘Now, you horrible dishevelled figure of a man, whatever your name may be, I demand that you leave this office at once before I call the authorities on you this instant! What you accuse me of is nothing short of slander and I can assure you my highly-respected lawyers would have a field day with the likes of you and your family. So, get out. Out!’

As Dr Hyde stretched his hand towards the door, in the theatrically gravitas-laden way of his, he saw the man he had known as Mr Jekyll jump up from his chair. The movement was quick, almost stealthy. He had barely seen the pen flash past him before it plunged deep into his neck and tore. Tore at his throat, tore at his neck.

His body buckled beneath him as he slumped heavily to the floor. He could taste the pool of bloody swilling below his head on the floor. Could see the scarlet stains besmirching his once-immaculate doctor’s coat.

Darkness encroaching.

Darkness engulfing.

He saw the patient, the once-coined Mr Jekyll, rush quickly out of the room. Bloody footprints marking his trail.

Darkness.

An end, he thought, as he finally slipped away.

An end to the odd case of Dr Hyde and Mr Jekyll.

The Monk Man

2304C68A-57C1-448B-B8FE-BEE544589529

 

‘Tell me a spooky story, Mummy.’

‘No Lewis, it’s late. It’s way past your bedtime.’

‘Please Mummy, just a little one…’

‘Lewis, no. Look…’

‘But Mummy, it’s Halloween!’

‘Lewis, no. Just go to sleep, ok!’

‘Just a quick story…’

‘No. Now goodnight!’

Jane leaned down and kissed her 8 year old son softly on the forehead, caressing his arm. She reached down by the side of the bed and switched his bedside lamp off, smothering the room in darkness. She stepped away gently, trying to project a serenity onto proceedings, ushering him hopefully into the realms of sleep.

One step.

Two.

Another…

‘…Mummy…’ came a faint whisper.

She grimaced. Yet continued walking tentatively towards his bedroom door. Ignore it, she told herself. Ignore it. It’s all those sweets he’s piled down his throat. He’ll crash out soon enough.

‘…Mummy…’ another whisper.

No. No, she told herself. Two more steps and she’d be out of the room. Two more carpeted steps until the relative safety of the staircase.

‘…Mummy…’ the volume increased, ‘…Mummy…what about The Monk Man…?’

She froze.

Her bones jolted. Her spine tingled.

Words trembled on the tip of her tongue, failing to fully form.

‘W-what…?’ she finally uttered.

‘The Monk Man, Mummy. Can you tell me about The Monk Man?’

Her son’s voice was steady. Direct. Assured.

‘…How do you…I mean…I’ve never…’

The words retreated down her throat. She stood there in the darkness of her son’s bedroom. Her figure ever-so-slightly hunched, the weight of the moment temporarily skewing her frame.

No, she thought. No, she had never told him about The Monk Man. Never. She’d never told anyone. Well, not anyone that wasn’t there at the time. And they were dead, the other three. Veronica. Damien. Annabelle. Maybe because it had all seemed like a dream, a nightmare. That Halloween night thirty some years ago. Bathed in a surreal, hallucinogenic haze. But it was real, wasn’t it? Of course it was. But still. There was no way of him ever finding out. Unless…no. No. No, she had never uttered a word of it to Jonathan. Not once in their ten years of marriage. Not even when drunk. She’d been too careful. She’d never even told him when speaking to his gravestone, never once when whispering to his memory in the dark of night. Was ‘careful’ the word? No, wary, perhaps. Too wary to utter a word. Oh Jonathan, she thought, her heart aching slightly. It’s times like these, times like these. Four years now. If only you could find a way back to me. To us…

‘Mummy, who even is the Monk Man?’ Lewis’ question interrupted her introspective wrangling.

She hesitated. Only for a second. Before allowing her practiced levels of parental bullshittery to kick in.

‘Don’t be silly Lewis, there’s no such thing as any Monk Man’ she answered, amplifying the derision in her voice. ‘You’ve just had too much sugar tonight. And you’ve been watching too many Halloween cartoons and films.’

‘But…’

‘No buts young man. It’s time for bed so get that sweetie-filled little head of yours down on that pillow and get some sleep! School tomorrow remember. The week doesn’t just stop because it’s Halloween!’

‘But…’

‘Goodnight Lewis.’ The tone of her voice was stern this time.

‘…Goodnight Mummy…’ came the answer, drenched in an encroaching slumber.

She stepped out the room, taking a breath to compose herself.

‘Bloody Monk Man…’ she whispered to herself dismissively as she began to walk down the stairs, the half-drunk bottle of White chilling in the fridge calling out to her with a sudden pull.

Lives

She stopped. Again. Her hand grasping tightly hold of the banister. The word seemed to have slipped from the darkness, caressing her earlobes. Almost like a light breeze tickling her skin.

She felt her body clench. Her chest tightened. Her breath shortened. No. NO.

‘There’s no fucking Monk Man!’ she hissed into the darkness, shaking her head. ‘There never was! It was a daft children’s story! An urban legend! A myth! Lies!’ She loosened her grip on the banister and took another step down.

The Monk Man…

No. God, no! Don’t listen, she told herself. Tricks. The mind playing tricks.

The Monk Man…

Shadows. Sounds. Trickery. That’s all.

The Monk Man lives…

The whispers taunted her, piercing her from every corner of the darkness. Filing her ears with the half whispered, half childish-lullaby. Her mind buckled under the weight of memories. Under the weight of images. Of that day. Of that day all those years ago. Of her friends. Of their playful singing, their teasing, their taunting. Of their bodies, laying strewn on the ground. Lifeless. Of the face. That eyeless, expressionless face. Of the terror, the murder it wrought. Of the helplessness. Of the fear. Of the woods. Her daring escape. The escape she never thought possible. The one that seemed almost too easy. As if he…as if IT…had allowed her to flee. Images of its robed figure almost floating through the field, weaving effortlessly through the trees in pursuit of her. The bloodied roped dangling from its lifeless arms. Like a dream. Like a nightmare.

The words racing through her mind.

The Monk Man. NO. The Monk Man. Stop it! The Monk Man lives. No please god no! Run girls, run boys. No no no, they’d been told not to chant it, not to sign it, it would summon him, that was the legend. The Monk Man lives.

Her legs gave way beneath her. She stumbled on the stairs, her ankle twisting in the process. Shards of pain ripped through her legs as she turned and scrambled up the handful of stairs she had descended.

She burst into Lewis’ room, reaching for the light on her way in and missing it, connecting only with the wall.

A sharp stab of fear echoed through her bones as she arrived at the foot of his bed. A slither of moonlight had worked its way in through the otherwise shuttered curtains, enough to illuminate his features. His eyes were closed. To all intents, he was sleeping.

But she heard them.

The words.

Saw her son’s lips moving.

Knowing what she would hear before the volume would even reach her ears.

 

The Monk Man

The Monk Man

The Monk Man lives

Run girls, run boys

The Monk Man lives

 

Tears streamed down her face as she stared at her boy, sleeping peacefully yet all the while uttering those chilling words.

Tears of trauma. Tears of memory. Tears of resignation.

She knew.

Before she even started to turn she knew what she would see in the darkness.

The robed figure. Eyeless. Expressionless. Without feature, without nuance, consumed only with purpose.

She had escaped once before.

Or had been allowed to flee.

To carry the fear in her heart perhaps. To taunt her. Tease her. With hope and misery, happiness and grief in equal measure. A punishment worse than her friends had suffered that day.

But now, she knew, her time was nigh.

Yes, she knew. She knew he was behind her. In the darkness. The shadows.

She’d somehow always known.

She stared at her beautiful son, lying peacefully. Blissfully unaware.

The tears, the sobs, hastening.

‘I love you baby…’

The whispered, trembled words fell silent in the darkness as she felt the rope slip tightly around her neck.

Tree Swing

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It begins with a creak.

That much I now know to be true.

A creak. Nothing more. Simple really. A sound. A delicate outline on the wind. The slightest, and most innocuous, of creaks.

But soon the creaks begin to increase. In both volume and frequency. They begin to bite. Jarring against the breeze. Scratching at your mind. Your skin. Tearing at the imagined layer of sensitivity coating your spine.

And then comes the image.

The image you know to be false. The one you know to be untrue. One that goes against the grain of common sense; that collides with the fabric of reason.

The tree swing.

A crude, antiquated rope and wood concoction.

Swaying. Jolting. Flapping in the breeze. Creaking. Creaking. Creaking.

To others you know the scene remains untarnished. Undisturbed by the swaying, creaking image. To the naked, untroubled eye, it will appear simply as a tree. And nothing more. A robust, isolated tree. It sits in the centre of an immaculately-kept field. The barest outline of a long-forgotten path scurries its way through the wheat to the base of the tree.

In another tale I could call it beautiful. In another life I would even deign to call it harmless. But not in this life. Not in this tale. Not with the creaking. That relentless, unceasing creaking. Back. And forth. Back and forth.

It does not, and will never, stop.

Shall never fall silent.

Not to my ears at least. Not to me.

And who am I, you may ask? What is the name of this harbinger of the morose? The one who brings you this murmured lament? Well, my name is of no consequence to you. Not now. And it shall be as equally insignificant, if not more so, by the time this narrative draws to a close.

Who I am bears no relevance.

What matters only is that I have been, for lack of a better word, chosen.

It is my time. And my burden. Mine alone to bear. I am the one to hear the creaking. I am the one to see the tree swing. I am the one to catch a glimpse of her.

Her.

The woman in white.

Although ‘woman’ might not be strictly accurate. Girl may be closer to the truth.

An ageless entity. Appearing and not appearing. Seemingly to her own choosing. Flitting between this world and another. Her image and appearance mercurial. Yet when she does appear her presence calls to me. Beckons me. Like a siren call. Steering me towards my end, towards my fate.

I knew not why.

At first I fought. Chose to resist. Chose to question.

I stayed away from this sight. From this place. With all my being I endeavoured to remove myself from her image, from her calling. But the draw was too forceful, the pull too unyielding.

During my self-imposed, and increasingly fragile, exile I researched. Tried to find meaning. Context.

What I discovered chilled me. A girl, a young girl, was murdered at this spot in the early 1800s. Mutilated. Seemingly by a vagrant. Her white dress ripped from her pale body. Her flesh flayed. Her bones, her hair scattered across the surrounding countryside. Meticulously, no. The barbarity of the act clear for all who witnessed the aftermath. The horror of the incident, of the report, absolute.

But I discovered more.

Disappearances. Frequent disappearances. Throughout the years. Sporadically across the centuries. Always apparently near this spot, near this area. Young children. Boys, girls. Adults. Men, women. Of all ages, standing and creed. Every couple of decades or so another soul would disappear into the morass of time.

On occasion bones – sometimes scattered, often clustered – would be found near the base of the tree. Some buried deep within the hovel burrowed into the mound beneath the tree itself.

No-one seemed willing to connect the events. No reporter, nor historian, able to tie the pieces of the emerging pattern together. Hamstrung either by ignorance or self-preservation.

So I resolved to enshrine my exile in permanence.

To stay away. Always.

But the creaking.

That creaking.

Slow. Ponderous.

It called to me. Louder than before. With a greater sense of urgency. With an added intensity. My defences failed. My resistance dissolved. I needed to return. I had to return. I must.

And so here I stand.

Within sight of the tree swing.

Her pale, youthful complexion, bedecked in that white dress, slowly swinging back and forth. Each creak of the swing wrenching into the early-evening air.

The light begins to fade ever so slightly.

I walk slowly forward. Each step a step closer to my fate.

An act possibly of foolishness you may think? An act without logic, perhaps? Almost entirely. On both counts. Yet my submission to the calling feels preordained. My actions prey to the predatory force of my inevitable conclusion. Another soul to be claimed. A victim to be consumed.

My crime? Simply being seen. Simply walking along this quiet woodland path as I had done a hundred times before. All without incident. All without variation.

Until the creaking.

That gnawing, scraping, haunting creaking.

The girl in the white dress continues to flit in and out of visibility as I close in.

Always swinging.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Creaking.

Eternally creaking.

Always.

Creaking…