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

PP201808

 

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…

Gone

Ayla felt the harsh cold of the pillow against her face. The remnants of saliva, spilled during the night, pressing rudely against her skin, invading her slumber. Slowly, lethargically, she dragged her hand from beneath the crumpled mess of sheet and duvet, lodging it between her face and pillow before lazily wiping the damp patch from her cheek. When she felt it. A chill. A targeted, unforgiving chill. Clawing down her spine before splintering through the rest of her body. She shivered. She felt the goosebumps stand to attention across her flesh.

‘Another lovely Scottish summer’s day…’ she croaked to herself sardonically.

The words jabbed against the back of her throat, forcing her to reach for the half-full bottle of water sitting on the bedside table. She unclicked the bottle cap with her teeth before gulping down the majority of the drink. She grimaced as the warmth of the water, left sitting out all night, clashed with her tastebuds. Bleugh she thought as she hammered the bottle back down on the bedside table, the shape of the plastic crumpling slightly. Another flash of cold shot against her exposed arm. She jolted, taken by surprise, and quickly withdrew her arm, sending it back into the comparative warmth beneath the duvet. But even there she felt the cold, her body quivering slightly as she pressed her limbs against her torso. Her nipples hard, raw against the thin material of her nightdress. Her fingers and toes tingled, little pockets of ice threatening to invade the rest of her bones.

Why is it so bloody cold!? she asked herself as she pulled the duvet up to her chin. The forecast wasn’t great but it wasn’t supposed to be this bad!? Maybe the heating’s broken. Yeah that’ll be it. Just what I need. Another bloody bill to fork out for! So soon after that stupid bloody boiler had to be replaced aswell. The thought permeated in her mind for a good 30 seconds or so before she realised that she had, effectively, switched the heating off a month or so before as ‘summer’ – in the loosest definition of the word – had arrived in Scotland. Maybe I was too optimistic, she thought. But still. It’s never been this bad before. Even during the winter. She shivered again, the chill graciously bookending her period of scattered thoughts for her.

Phone. The thought came to her suddenly. The action was usually automatic. As her eyes flickered open of a morn she would instantly reach for her phone. An indifferent, choreographed grasp in order to apprise herself with the news or, more accurately, social media updates she may have missed out on in the preceding handful of hours. But this morning the cold had stifled any such thought. I’ll check the forecast, she thought. Must be another freak wintry wave from Siberia or something like that again. The phone was only inches from where her bottle stood. A quick reach, grasp, retreat. That’s all that was needed. It isn’t hard, she thought. No. One quick movement. The cold won’t matter. 3..2..1….reach. Her body remained still. Her arm refusing to budge. C’mon, she thought. Bloody hell. You’re Scottish girl! Get a grip. You’ve dealt with cold before. Ok. Ok. 1..2..3..REACH! Her arm shot out of the duvet and grasped. She felt the sharp cold of the phone’s casing collide with skin. Her hand recoiled slightly. She fumbled. Sending the phone sprawling to the floor below. She caught sight of it lying on the carpet next to a small pile of discarded clothes. Now a good three feet or so away from the foot of the bed. Shit!

Stop it, she thought. This is silly. Whether it was genuinely this cold, or whether she was coming down with something, the fact remained that she had to get out of bed at some point. At the very least she had to retrieve her phone. A resolve had started to inch through her veins, starkly at odds with the goosebumps continuing to form on her skin. Her legs began to tremble, naked as they were but for a small, light pair of shorts. She tried to pay them no heed. Trying to ignore the sensation burrowing away at her flesh. She’d had the right idea with the phone, she decided. The execution might have been wrong but the plan was solid. A quick, rapid move. That’s all that was required. Like stepping out of a hot shower on a cold winter’s morning and grabbing for the towel. That’s all it was. In a series of quick moves she would roll out of the bed, run to her wardrobe and grab her dressing gown. The fluffy winter one, not the thinner kimono. Yes, it might be unbearably cold for a few seconds or so but once it was done that would be it. Just do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. She repeated this simple mantra to herself, over and over again. Do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. The words, the thoughts, drowning out the first false start. And the second. And the third. Before she finally managed to emerge from beneath the duvet and rolled to the floor. An involuntary scream escaped from her as the malevolence of the cold tore at her skin. She scrambled towards her wardrobe, grabbing her phone on the way, and desperately threw open the doors. She grabbed for her dressing gown, sending a handful of dresses tumbling from their hangers in the process, and quickly wrapped it around her body. The freezing temperatures abating just enough to allow her to calm her nerves.

She grabbed at the pile of dirty washing on the floor and placed it next to her on the bed as she lowered herself onto the mattress. They would do for now. I’ll put some clean clothes on later when this Arctic cold spell buggers off. She readjusted the front of her dressing gown with one hand, wrapping it tighter around her body, as the other hand started flicking through her phone. She opened the weather app. It failed to load. Hmm. She checked the Wifi signal at the top of her screen. Not strong but strong enough. She closed down all her apps and tried again. Nothing. Just the continual whirring wheel that indicated no luck. No Dalgety Bay. No Inverkeithing. No North Sea. Nothing. Location services seemed to be lost. Disabled. Whatever.

Odd, she thought, as she folded one leg over the other instinctively as the cold threatened to sneak between her thighs. She scanned through her social media accounts, caring less and less for the myriad of late night updates that peppered her screen as each one rolled by. And anyway, she hadn’t posted. There was no sign. She closed them down. She glanced at her messages app. No red number cornered the green smudge yet she tapped on the icon anyway. Her name appeared. Melanie. The last message between the two appeared before her eyes. Sent a week or so previously. She’d read it several hundreds of times since its arrival. The words burned into her mind. Each letter, each syllable. The over-riding message clawing at her already shivering frame. Done. No more. Gone. Ayla felt the familiar gathering flood rising to her tear ducts. No, she thought, scolding herself. She locked the phone and tossed it onto the bed. No.

She stepped off the bed and walked across the room towards the window. Again she tightened the cord on her dressing gown, the cold refusing to abate any further. She drew the curtains and opened the blinds. An expected blush of sun and light failed to materialise. She cowered slightly, despite herself, as the room seemed to wallow further into the gloom. She stared through the window, decorated as it was with a smattering of condensation, and saw the fog. Mist. Haar. Whatever the correct term was. It was thin, almost peripheral even. It seemed to skirt the surrounding trees, the roads, the rooftops, without ever truly engulfing. It seemed…no, that’s ridiculous she thought…but it did all the same…it seemed…sinister. Somehow. She shook her head in self-derision and stepped back from the window, proceeding to slowly and delicately pull on the dirty clothes beneath the cover of her dressing gown. Shivering continuously, her teeth chittering along in a silent harmony. I’m definitely coming down with something, I must be. The thought repeated in her mind as she picked up her phone from the bed, automatically checking her messages once again, before stepping out of the bedroom.
She clicked the heating on. Ridiculous, she thought. In the height of summer. Or ‘summer’. The flat began to warm instantly, temporarily filling with the tame burning odour that accompanies the turning on of a radiator or electric fire as winter approaches after a handful of months out of action. That’s better. The mass army of goosebumps gradually began to retreat from her body, clusters at a time. Warmth crept through her skin. She frowned, feeling the unwashed clothes clinging to her flesh. She felt unclean. Restless. A shower, that’s what she needed. As soon as the flat warmed up properly she would jump in the shower and then put some clean clothes on. She glanced at her phone again. The signal seemed to be diminishing. No messages. Standard. She untied her dressing gown chord, feeling the heat begin to claw at her uncomfortably beneath the fluffy material, as she went from room to room in the curtain and blind opening routine that began each of her days. The thin layer of mist greeted her as each curtain was drawn. Pawing at the windows with long, wispy limbs and fingers. She walked into her living room, instantly feeling the cold of the wooden floor bite against the soles of her bare feet. She quickly skipped across to the window, resolving all the while to make her next destination the sock drawer, and loosened the cord for the blinds.

She furrowed her brow at the sight that unravelled before her. It was different. A variation on the usual canvas that greeted her of a morning. The familiar view that had essentially convinced her to settle on this particular flat sometime before. There had been other flats, bigger flats, for less rent, but Ayla’s mind had kept returning to the lapping waves of the Forth and the dazzling red brilliance of the Forth Bridge; the view that this flat had afforded her. It was unrivalled. In most places throughout the world, she guessed. It was inspiring, breathtaking and, after a while, it had become comforting. But this time, it was different. Yes, a thin mist still clawed at the window pane however beyond that it had solidified, for lack of a better word. In fact the mist appeared so dense, so thick, that half of the bridge appeared, quite simply, to be gone.

No, she thought, squinting her eyes at the developing site before her. A trick of the light, perhaps, a trick of the fog. It certainly wasn’t so unfamiliar, anyway. She had woken often throughout the months of winter and spring to discover that the bridge had been completely covered in mist. As if it had disappeared through the night. But the outline was always there if you looked hard enough. Like a thin underlying sketch appearing through the colours of a watercolour painting. But this sight was, somehow, entirely different. The Fife side of the bridge looked intact. Barely touched by the mist. The South Queensferry side however was, well, gone. Not there. As if a gargantuan solid greyish wall had been clipped in place halfway across the structure. No outline poked through the haar. No hint or suggestion of the red paint nudged its way into the foreground. Gone. Confusion reigned in her mind as she tried to compartmentalise, to rationalise, the vision before her.

Another check of the phone. Again, instinctively. This time she couldn’t even say why. She felt an urge within her. To see if they were alright. But who, she thought. To see if who were alright? Her? Melanie? Why would she need to check if she was alright? They’d broken up, it wasn’t as if she would want to…no, this was different though. Why though? Why did it feel different? Her self-interrogation was brought to an abrupt close as her eyes drited from the ‘disappeared’ bridge and latched onto the vision of roughly 40-50 men, women and children standing, gathered at the shoreline.

Who were they? Why were they there? How had she missed them? Again her mind raced, latching onto and then discarding question after question. The figures were huddled – even from where she stood Ayla could see them seemingly shivering against the effects of the cold. But still, their focus appeared fixed. Robust. On what lay across the shore from them. On the thick, impenetrable, blanket of mist. Why? It’s mist, she thought. Even on the most gorgeous of sunny days you’d only have a handful of passers-by soaking up the view, so, again she pondered, why? Where they lost tourists? No, surely they’d keep walking towards the bridge, or further into town maybe. But the bridge…the bridge. She looked up at it again. And again the image baffled. It was almost as if she was looking at the bridge as it had been mid-construction, far more than a century before then. Only…only…she could swear that another slight part of the bridge had been eaten by the fog in only the last minute or so. From her distance it seemed to be only an inch or so but in real terms, well…

She checked her phone again as she pulled on her jacket. Again, she elected to pluck her ‘winter’ garment off the hanger, neglecting the lighter jackets she had been used to in the preceding days and weeks. She emptied her pockets – a handful of receipts and a belatedly-received Christmas card from months earlier (when she had last worn the coat) spilled onto the counter. Phone. She opened up her Recent Calls list and selected her name, Melanie. She hovered over the Call button. Why wouldn’t she be ok, she thought, I’m being silly…she’ll…no, why am I doing this!? Stop. She slid the phone into her jacket pocket and scooped a woolly hat from one of the coat hangers. She caught a brief waft of dust, a musty scent, as it passed by her nose on the way to her head – again, a victim of clothing neglect in the previous handful of months.

She grabbed her keys, unlocking the door, and stepped out of the warm flat and into the cold of the morning. She’d managed only a dozen or so paces before halting slightly. Again, the spectre of Why hung over her. Why, she asked. Why was she going down there!? Why was she bothering? It was mist. Fog. Haar. Shit weather. That’s all. And who knows who these people were!? It could be a religious cult. Weirdos standing waiting to wave at a passing cruise liner, perhaps. Anyone. But still, something, something, she knew not what, told her to continue. To join the others. Ayla shook her head slightly. A seeming gesture of realisation, one that told her how irrational her actions seemed. But the urge, she thought, there’s an urge to walk on. To see. To discover. A purpose. Something she’d frequently struggled to obtain. More so in recent months. Move. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, tightening the jacket around her, and walked forward into the increasingly thickening mist.

‘What’s…what’s going on…?’ she asked tentatively as she approached the group.
A host of silent faces turned towards her. They seemed to slowly eye her up and down before turning away again.
‘What’s going on…?’ she tried again. The faces remained turned away, continuing to stare at the dense block of mist across the water. ‘…anyone?’
‘Gone.’
‘Sorry?’ Ayla turned to see a small elderly woman standing next to her. She was wrapped in a thick grey coat, the hood of which obscured a large portion of her face. Her eyes, taught and fearful, peered out from beneath the cover, staring straight ahead into the mist.
‘It’s gone. All of it. Gone.’
‘Gone?’ she asked. ‘What’s gone?’
‘Gone.’
‘What’s…I mean, it’s not gone, it’s just fog, isn’t it? What do you mean it’s gone…?’
‘It’s not fog. Look at the bridge. Look at the mountains. They’re gone.’ Ayla turned towards the voice of a middle-aged man who, as seemed to be the norm, bothered not to turn towards her, staring straight ahead into the gloom as he spoke.
‘I…I don’t understand…’ she mumbled. ‘What is…’ she broke off her own sentence as she scrambled to pluck the phone from her pocket. No, this wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal. She’d have to call Mel. She’d…just call. She’d call her. Just quickly. Just to disprove…to disprove what she didn’t know…but she had to all the same. She headed straight into her Recent Calls list and dialled – shorn of any of the reluctance that had accompanied such a move in the previous weeks. She held the phone to her ear, the cold tingling down the slight piece of exposed skin on her wrist. Nothing. No ringtone. No engaged tone. No call failure beeps. Nothing. She pulled the phone from her ear and checked the signal. Miniscule. But there was a signal there. She tried again. She looked at the faces surrounding her as she waited for any sound, for any acknowledgment from her phone that a call was being attempted. They continued to stare. A mix of fear, confusion, resignation populating their gazes. Maybe she as right about the cult thing after all, she thought. Nothing. Still nothing. Shit.
‘Excuse me…’ she began.
‘Where do they live?’
‘I’m sorry…?’
‘Where do they live?’ the question snapped out from a woman roughly the same age as Ayla, late twenties she would say, standing a couple of feet to the side of her. Her hair was tied up in a just-woken-up-and-not-ready-to-face-the-general-public style but her eyes were glazed, once again staring straight ahead, imbued with that same mix of fear, confusion and resignation.
‘Erm…where do who live?’
‘Whoever you’re trying to phone?’ still not a flicker of a look towards Ayla.
‘I don’t think that’s…’
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘Sorry, what…?
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘It…’ Ayla looked at the woman’s unflinching stare as the words seemed to spit out from her mouth robotically. She thought about protesting, reasoning, pleading, anything. And then instinctively, somehow, thought or knew better. ‘It is, yes…Edinburgh.’
‘Then you won’t get through.’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘You won’t get through to them.’
‘Why…’
‘Or anyone south of here.’
‘South? I don’t under…’
‘We’ve all tried. You just won’t.’
‘Gone.’ Ayla shook slightly as the elderly woman repeated her mantra next to her. ‘Gone. Gone.’
She felt the fear rise in her as she turned frantically from the elderly woman and tried her phone again. Nothing. Nothing. Still NOTHING! Was she safe?! Of course she was. But. But they just said…they just said. No. The thought of something happening to her…oh, god, no…No! Confusion. Anxiety. Fear. Restlessness. Clawing at her. Within her. All explanation, all rumination falling by the wayside. Again she looked at those around her. The stoic deafness, the robust muteness remained. Again she glanced at the bridge. Gradually, incrementally fading into the mist. She looked again towards the mist itself – it was growing thicker, edging closer, of that she was convinced.

‘LOOK!’
The sudden shout shook her. A tremble of cold pierced her spine. She turned. All of those surrounding her seemed to be becoming animated.
‘Look’
‘Look there…’
‘Over there, yes…’
‘Look!’
Ayla followed their excited gazes, plunging her vision into the mist where, yes, yes, she could see an outline. Yes. A boat. It looked like, no, it was, a boat. A small wooden fishing boat, if she had to guess. Emerging from the grey canvas. And what appeared to be two figures on board. Headed towards them. Lapping lightly, rocking from side to side in time with the steady waves. The excitement, the anticipation grew. The faces around her shunting from the deadened masks of resignation into ones settling into something like hope. It was silly she thought. It’s…I don’t understand. It’s only mist, it’s surely only mist. There’s no cause for panic. Nor hyperbole. There’s surely no need for this kind of hope. And yet, in spite of herself, she felt herself begin to latch onto a feeling somewhere in the realms of hope. This boat, this small wooden vessel, bearing down on them, seemingly only just staying ahead of the approaching mist, seemed to infuse her with a warmth, a sense of future. She looked around the strangers next to her and felt a kinship, as irrational as that thought appeared. She saw the slightly contorted smiles, the jittery anticipation, the anxious hope and she understood.
‘Someone help them, get down there…’
She heard the call from amidst the group as several began to advance towards the edge of the shoreline to meet the boat as it drifted slowly to shore.
‘Here we are, here it comes…’
Ayla looked up as more and more of the assembled group made their way towards the incoming vessel. Out of the corner of her vision she caught sight of the bridge. Or what was left of it. The world famous red landmark had all but disappeared now into the fog. The structure almost completely submerging in the gloom. She felt her chest tighten as she followed the edge of the mist and realised how close it now was to their position on the coastline. Her fears flared up once again. This wasn’t just mist, she thought. No. She knew. This was something else. This was…this was. Her train of thought was broken by a gaggle of screams bursting from those gathered beside the boat. Her chest tightened further. She felt her stomach lurch.
Slowly, almost as if in a daze, she walked towards the boat, passing through the others, now in various stages of revulsion and panic. Tears dripped down the elderly woman’s face. The girl who spoke of Edinburgh was bent over, vomiting on the ground. The middle-aged man’s face was awash with a dread, the kind of which she’d never seen before. Dozens of others gripped by fear, twisted and skewered by the various stages of grief. But still Ayla walked on. Until she reached the boat. Gentle, indifferent, waves scratched at its base.

Even before she glanced up she knew what she would see. How, or why, she knew not. But sure enough as she lifted her gaze into the vessel, her eyes settled on the grotesque corpses of the two sailors. Their skin almost rotten, flesh singed very nearly all the way to their black, charred bones. A look of terror eternally carved into their expressions.
The screams loudened behind her. Unbridled levels of panic filled the air in a crescendo of fear. Her eyes slowly, almost lazily, inched down from the corpses towards the floor of the boat. She could feel her eyes widen in her own grasp of terror as she saw a thin burst of mist creep into the boat. Only temporarily obscuring the word scraped frantically into the wooden floor.
She mouthed the letters. She tried to scream but her lungs, her vocal chords, failed to respond. The word playing over and over in her head.
One syllable.
One word.
A warning.

‘RUN’

Murder On The Fife Circle

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8:29amA two-carriage train stutters into Dalgety Bay train station. 14 minutes later than its intended arrival time. A mass of commuters begin their slow traipse towards the doors in anticipation of their opening. Forming clusters. Ragged triangles of bodies judging their every step and move, waiting to burst onto the train and claim any available or seat or space in the daily space-deprived, sweat-inducing carnival that is the rush hour Fife to Edinburgh train service.

Trees, fully in bloom, resplendent in their greenery, in their foliage, surround the station’s northern platform. Unmoving. Silent. Ornamental.

Eventually the doors shunt open, signalling the stampede of bodies to follow. The crush. The swirl of selfishness as every man and woman nudge, bump and shove their way onto the train with varying degrees of success.

 

8:30amWith every seat already claimed long before, the aisles and gangways burst at the seams with standing passengers. The areas between the doors strain under the weight of bodies. Cheek to jowl, toe to toe; glum looking commuters come into contact with one another. Space to move, air to breathe; both are minimal.

As the train slowly sets off the merest jolt sets in motion a perilous balancing act for the standing passengers. With nothing to hold onto for support, the vast majority of these poor souls bump into one another. Those standing in the aisles judder, scrambling frantically to latch their hand onto the roof racks for support. All the while looking down at the seated passengers with more than a hint of resentment. And no little anger.

 

8:32amThe temperature throughout the train rises. Sweat begins to form and drip from many of those clustered together in the aisles and gangways. Annoyed sighs and murmurs audibly begin to trickle into the air.

 

8:33amThe rain speeds past its next scheduled stop of Inverkeithing. Several dozen passengers are left disgruntled, many hurling profanities at the passing train, as they linger on the platform. Those on the train look in with a mixture of bemusement and, for some, relief. No announcement accompanies this impromptu decision.

The temperature continues to rise. Jackets, shirts, dresses begin to lightly stick to the skin of some of those standing. Disgruntled, sleep-deprived, unsmiling sardines forced together in a joyless journey.

 

8:35amA passenger, a bespectacled male in his mid-to-late forties, cries out in pain and collapses in the space between the end of one aisle and the area between the doors. The mass of huddled bodies means no-one sees a blood-strewn penknife being withdrawn from the unfortunate victim’s lower torso.

Screams break through the carriage as blood is seen spilling from the collapsed man. He drifts rapidly into unconsciousness. His breathing laboured to the point of barely being there.

Panic begins to spread. Shouts of ‘Stop the train!!’ and ‘He needs a doctor…’ intermingle with others suggesting someone, anyone, makes their way towards the driver and/or conductor (should the latter even be on the train) to inform him or her of the situation.

But no-one budges.

No-one.

All seemingly too worried about giving up their space. All too concerned about losing an inch in this, by now, daily battle. The hysteria swiftly dies down. A few disgusted expressions emerge on the face of some before fizzling out to blend in with the mass of sheepish, slightly-ashamed-but-not-nearly-enough, faces turning down towards the floor.

In the aisle the stabbed man, lying in a dark pool of his own blood, splutters his last breath. Unaided or assisted in his death throes.

 

8:37amAnother passenger screams and collapses to the floor. Again with blood seeping from the torso. Again, the withdrawn pen-knife is not seen. This time the victim is a younger blonde woman, aged somewhere in her twenties. Blood trickles down her dress as she crumples to the floor not far from the dead man. The carriage maintains an icy, surreal silence. A muffled beat and vocals can be heard as her earphones fall lazily from her ears. Blood splutters from her mouth as she lies in agony.

A smattering of gasps and screams are heard throughout the train but just as swiftly die out. Glances are exchanged. But no action is taken. Aside from a slight shuffling of feet as the others adjust their footing to make space for the victims.

The woman attempts to cry out but can muster no more than a gargled noise that dissolves into silence.

 

8:39amThe train slows down as it approaches the North Queensferry station. There seems to be a collective brace amongst the passengers, possibly ready to spill out of the train as soon as the doors open. Fleeing in terror, in an attempt to get help.

But no, as the train stops and the doors open no-one moves. Paralysed less by fear and more by an irrational determination to complete their journey. A handle of passengers attempting to board the train are rebuffed, ignored even. Their angry remonstrations are met with silence. The doors close. An uneasy shared silence again tightens its grip within the carriage as the train slowly moves off towards the Forth Bridge.

 

8:45amThe train careers past Dalmeny station, again paying no heed for the multitude of passengers waiting to board. Angry, shocked faces are seen only in a blur as the carriages speed by.

Within the train three more passengers lie dead on the floor close to the first two victims. All three stabbed in quick succession. Two younger suited men and one woman in her late fifties. The floor swims with blood. The stench of death permeates the train. Still a bizarre, stifled silence holds dominion. But the faces. Once sheepish, many are now contorted in absolute fear. Silent tears stream from the faces of some. A gripping terror places its spectral hands around all.

 

8:49amAs the train rattles past the airport another passenger is stabbed. This time this particular victim (being seated at the end of the aisle) slumps forward onto the table in front of them, blood spilling from their side. The heavily bearded man, somewhere between his late twenties and early thirties, collapses to the floor of the aisle, his corpse careering against the legs of those tightly-packed together between the seats.

This time the bloodied-knife is spotted disappearing back into the mass of bodies by some. Violent cries greet this latest killing. Staggered lurches of fear escape from the throats of those up and down the train. Screams of ‘Help!!’ ‘No no no’ and other such exclamations pepper throughout the carriages.

 

8:50amSlowly, methodically, a small middle-aged man – bags skirting his eyes, his posture hunched ever-so-slightly – steps over the corpses and calmly sits himself down in the now-vacated, and blood-drenched, seat.

He casually places the bloodied knife on the table in front of him. For all to see.

He closes his eyes and slumps back into the air. A satisfied sigh accompanies this move.

The other passengers look on in disbelief.

Panic spreads. The volume rises.

Screams, shouts, cries, screeching fill the carriage as a contented smile spreads across the man’s face.

 

9:01am – Grief-stricken commuters file off the train at a busy Waverley Station. Many run, fleeing for safety. Others throw-up on the platform as soon as they step off the train. The stench of the dead victims, the horror of the situation, being too much for them to contain in the depths of their throats. The murderer remains on the train, sitting calmly as all others depart.

The British Transport Police rush onto the train almost immediately after the last passenger departs and apprehends the unresisting offender. He calmly gives his name as his arms are held tightly behind his back, the murder weapon pushed from the table. Les Mahagow. 54 years old. A long-time resident of Dalgety Bay.

As he is led from the train in handcuffs, surrounded by four policemen, he is smiling as he passes by the devastated passengers. Smiling calmly and with supreme satisfaction.

‘I finally got a seat’ he can be heard saying. ‘Finally. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Just a seat. Not crammed in, not standing, just a seat. I never ever get a seat. Never. But now. Finally. Finally. That’s all I ever….

…all I ever…

“LES!”

…ever…

“LES! FOR FUCK’S SAKE. THAT’S YOUR TEA READY! STOP PLAYING WITH YOUR TOYS AND GET YOUR ARSE DOWN HERE! LES!!!’

Les’ attention is abruptly shaken. He stares down at the model train set beneath him. It runs the length of the attic. A sprawling, expansive model, complete with hills, trees, commuters and even a miniature replica of the Forth Bridge for good measure. The room is dark but for a small lightbulb draining its way down to the finish. He removes the old-style conductor’s hat from his head. Still in a trancelike daze. He looks at the train on the track below. The two carriage train. He can almost feel the sweat clinging to his body, virtually smell the scent of blood hanging in the air.

“LES!! THAT’S YOUR TEA READY!! FOR GOD’S SAKE!”

“Erm…’ he dusts himself down and switches off the light, allowing himself one last look at the train set. ‘I’m…coming. Erm…just coming.”

“WHAT!?”

“I said I’m just COMING!” his volume increases towards the end of his answer as his throat begins to regain some semblance of liquidity.

 

‘Just coming, aye’ mutters his wife as she strolls across to the cooker and turns the hob dials off. ‘I better you bloody are you dirty get. Away up there playing with your little fucking toys. A big child that’s all you are. Pathetic.’

She hears her husband’s footsteps slowly drifting down the stairs as she lays the two plates of food on the table of the adjoining dining room. She flicks on the small portable TV on in the corner of the room, automatically switching the channel to BBC1 for their annual nightly dose of Reporting Scotland.

She hears her husband’s footsteps slow to a halt as they approach the kitchen.

“C’mon Les, your tea will get cold if you dither any bloody longer!” she says as she shovels a forkful of food into her mouth.

Tonight on Reporting Scotland…

She listens with one ear for her husband as she keeps her gaze fixed on the TV. Still no sound. She shrugs, disinterested.

‘…and, Murder on the Fife Circle. We have the latest from the scene as several commuters were tragically murdered on their way to work this morning…

“Jesus…” she mutters, laying the fork down slowly next to her plate.

She stares at the TV. Transfixed by the horror of the story.

A flicker in the periphery of her vision catches her eye.

She feels a shiver creep through her as she looks up to see her husband standing motionless in the doorway.

The House In The Woods

PPJan2018

‘Ready…ready….go!’

The stick flies from the man’s hand, careering into the gathering of sparse leafless trees, each one dripping lazily with dew, by the side of the path. His dog, a young border collie, bounds breathlessly from the man’s side in search of the object. It splashes through a sizeable puddle, spraying his owner’s jeans and his own coat, in the process. Spattered with dirt the dog returns triumphantly, stick firmly wedged between his teeth, looking up at the man in expectation. The cycle repeats.

As they edge further along the single track path the man pulls his coat tighter, electing to fasten the top button, as the winter chill begins to nip. Slight flecks of darkness seem to burrow their way into the air; a signal that evening shall soon be announcing its presence. He looks at his phone, checking the time. I’ll give him ten more minutes, he decides. He looks up. The desolate winter scene stares back at him. Bleak. Unforgiving. And dog-less.

‘Where the…’

The man presses two fingers to his lips and whistles – the effectiveness of which is hampered somewhat by the gloves adorning his hands. ‘Charlie?’ he shouts. ‘Charlie!’ He sighs and trudges forward, following the barely-visible collection of paw prints scattered across the sodden ground ahead of him. ‘Stupid mutt!’ he curses to himself quietly. The prints take him to a clearing carved between two drooping trees. The trees are arched like two geriatrics holding onto one another for support. It creates a welcoming archway. He notices the remnants of a wire fence nestled against both trees. Disparate, cut, strands of wire stick out from rotting fence posts.

He steps through the clearing, branches jagging slightly at his skull. ‘Cha…’ he begins in a booming shout before cutting himself off as he catches sight of his dog sitting quietly only thirty yards or so along the path. ‘C’mere boy, c’mon, time to turn back.’ The dog remains still. Refusing to budge. ‘Come on boy, let’s go!’ reiterates the man, irritation starting to creep into his voice. Still the dog sits rigidly. Unmoving. What’s wrong with him, the man wonders. He notices the lack of stick in Charlie’s mouth. And a silence. Definitely a silence. For a dog as vibrant and as full of (seemingly endless supplies of) energy as this one the silence was, he had to admit, unnerving. As the man steps forward, simultaneously pulling the dog lead out of his jacket pocket, Charlie gently straightens himself up and begins to trot quietly to the left.

‘Where are you off to now!? Here Charlie, come…’

Again his speech is halted. Once again prompted by the vision before him.

‘How the hell did I not notice that!?’ he announces in confusion as the sight of a colossal ruined mansion house towers above him. Roofless, its crooked outline cuts into the encroaching dusk like the serrated edge of an uneven saw. Through the vacant, glassless windows lie piles of rubble. Faded plastic signs affixed to various sections of the building warn of the fragile structural danger the building possesses. No longer a home, no longer a house. Now nothing more than a shell. A tattered frame. Derelict. Desolate. Ruined. And yet it evokes an eeriness. The man feels it as his mind whirls into gear. He’s heard about this house, he thinks. Yes, he’s sure of it. ‘Charlie, come here boy…’ Stories. About this house. He’s certain. ‘Charlie, here!!’. He whistles again but as he looks up he sees his dog burrowing his snout purposefully into the base of a wooden door towards the side of the house. A small growl seems to escape from him as his burrowing gathers pace. The door won’t budge. The growling increases.

‘Charlie!! What is it boy!? Don’t be so stupid, come here!’

He steps forward with the lead, metal clip open and ready to latch onto his pet’s collar, when he hesitates, his brain finally achieving finality in its frantic join-the-memory-dots exercise. ‘That’s it!’ he declares. This is the house, he thinks almost too cheerfully, this is the one. His mood drops, the eeriness slithering malevolently back into the equation. ‘Yeah, that’s it…’ he mutters again, all confidence now drained from the tone. ‘The stories…’ he mumbles, ‘…stories…’

Every house has its stories to tell of course but this one? This one has far more than most. And as a fraught expression inches its way across his face, the stories, the rumours, the tales all start to collide into one another in the man’s mind.

It was the 1920s. It was, he was sure of it. That was when the financial magnate lived here. Him and his family. What was his name? Ahh, what was his name? They called him the ‘Next Andrew Carnegie’ he knew that much. The house was famed for the parties they threw here. The elite would travel from all over the country to attend the events. Champagne, caviar, dancing, hunting, singing, course after course after course, servants, butlers, opulence, ostentatiousness; the lot. The wealth that used to inhabit this place must have been enormous. The convergence of both ‘new’ and ‘old’ money. His ‘country dwelling’, that’s what it was. A palace of wealth, a paradise of the upper class, an ultimate display of decadence. And then one day it ended. Just like that. In 1929. The Wall Street Crash. He lost everything. Most of them did. Stocks, bonds, capital; all decimated in the course of one single day. There was a party in full swing that day apparently and then, suddenly at the drop of a hat, the place just fell silent. Dead. Gone. Names and faces never seen or heard from again. Cars abandoned in the driveway. Food, drinks, all left untouched in the dining room. Like the Mary Celeste. People said they fled the country, escaping debtors, escaping clients. Too afraid to face their respective realities. It was hushed up. The authorities, the elites; they never spoke of it, never referred to it.

But then there was the boy…the young boy. Only a few years later. He was playing with his friend. Scoping out the, at that point, still fairly-intact but deserted house. It was never on the market you see, just boarded up. His friend spoke of there being a latch that, seemingly, led down to a lower level – presumably the kitchens or cellars. It was solid steel. Impenetrable. Unlike the rest of the house which was understandably starting to decay under the strain of neglect. The roof and walls starting to reveal the extent of the punishment wreaked on it by seasons of unmitigated weather. But the boy, the boy…he fell. Through the floor. He’d been jumping up and down. Or running. Or playing. Or something. And went straight through a weak, rotting, section of the floor and fell straight into the lower level. His leg broken. Unable to move. Stranded. His friend couldn’t get down, there was no way. He’d be stranded too. He ran for help; it was at least two miles to the nearest village. And when he arrived back with a couple of the local villagers they found the boy sprawled out, unconscious, on the wildly overgrown front lawn. How had he managed to clamber out of that cellar? How had he managed to summon the strength? His leg was mangled, surely throbbing with pain. An explanation was needed. But not forthcoming. The boy never spoke again. That once sprightly, adventurous, mischievous boy never spoke again. He drew. Oh he drew. Pictures. Horrifying sketches and pictures, it was said. The same ones again and again. Pictures of skeletons, a dozen or more, hanging from ropes. Gaunt hollow sockets where their eyes should have been. Fragments of charred, rotting flesh dripping from their bones, bloated rats nibbling at their feet. They grew darker, more detailed, intricate. But still the same scene again and again. The bodies, the skeletons, hanging. Death. He uttered not a word. He simply drew. Even when he was carted off to the local asylum he continued to draw. Day after day. Many wondered, more speculated; was this the vision that he greeted him in the cellar? Had this horrifying scene been nestling in the lower reaches of the mansion house all this time? Or had the fall simply triggered an already troubled mind? Again however, just as before, secrecy and conspiracy became the order of the day. The site was closed off for a time, the hole in the floor allegedly boarded up and the affair never once spoken of publicly or officially.

At least that’s the how the stories went anyway. Stories that had no doubt grown arms, legs, paragraphs, twists, sequels and prequels throughout the near century between then and now. But, thought the man, but…the stories, the rumours, they never really stopped. You heard tales of kids, adults even, clambering into the ruin as the years progressed. Eager to seek adventure, to prove their courage, to discover the truth; whatever they nominated the reason to be. And the stories never turned out well. Stories of broken legs, of macabre unexplained sightings, of mysterious scratches appearing on arms, legs, torsos. There was the homeless vagrant that was discovered dead in the grounds of the ruin, dead not from the cold as reported but from a massive heart attack. There was the story of the girl who apparently ventured through a window into the house, many decades back, to retrieve a poorly-thrown Frisbee and who was never seen or heard from again. There were others. Too numerous or vague to list or really believe in. Nothing more than urban myths probably. But the job was done, you knew to steer clear of this house. This ruin. It became ingrained within you. It was a fact. Hard and true. Avoid. Ignore. Forget. To the point where many seemingly had forgotten. God, thinks the man, there was even the story of the dog that ran in there one day and was found the next, butchered, its innards splayed across the site. I mean a dog, who the hell would…Charlie!

He looks up, a surge of revulsion swilling through his mind at the possibilities, the potential, the horrible morbid horrendous possibilities…and he sighs. Relief. Love. Fear. All condensing into one long, heaving sigh. Charlie continues scrapping and burrowing at the door in front of him. ‘Jesus’ the man poured scorn on his fears, his nerves. Get a grip of yourself, he thinks. Get a bloody grip.

‘Come on Charlie, I mean it this time, time to go’ he nods to the darkening canvas filling the scene around them as he steps towards his dog. He grabs hold of the collar, steadying himself, as he lowers the lead towards the clip. Charlie snaps. At the man. At his owner. At his hand. His head turned towards him for only a split-second. A hideous snarl suffocating a face ordinarily so benevolent and loving. Lips receded, baring every single tooth, every segment of gum. Eyes populated with violent, vicious hate. The man balks, stepping back instinctively. Fear clutching at his throat. His mouth hangs open, clamped apart by the shock of the incident.

‘Woah boy!’ he manages to utter, desperately trying to claim back any control of the standard pet owner-pet relationship balance. ‘What the hell is it!? Come on, come on now…’

Still the dog scrapes, burrows, bites. Paying no heed to his owner. All to no avail. The door steadfast. Immovable. The man feels a shiver tip toe up and down his skin. His head darts from side to side. Suddenly acutely aware of the dense, dark silence weighing upon the exposed grounds. BARK! ‘Jesus…’ Charlie’s angry, snarling bark rifles through the man’s nerves. BARK! And again. The man looks down at his pet. Any hint of placidity, of vitality gone, replaced by a snarling, angry, feral obsession. For whatever or whomever lies beyond or beneath the door. The area around his nose shines red raw, the manic actions drawing the slightest drops of blood. BARK!

‘Right!’ shouts the man through a haze of fear and anger, ‘come…ON!’ He yanks roughly at his dog’s collar, violently pulling Charlie away from the door. The latter snaps, snarls, barks. It pulls, using all it’s strength and more, in order to try and burst back to the door. The pull jerks the man’s arm. He lets out a wild scream, sure that his arm has dislocated. Fire rips down his arm. Red hot fiery pain. But he holds firm. His own strength straining at bursting point as he roughly yanks Charlie step by staggered step away from the ruin. The snarls subside gradually. The snapping peters out. ‘Come ON!’ Each pull of the collar sends a burst of agony shuddering through the man’s bones. He manages to clip the lead on to the collar. Pulling with all he has. The snarls now completely morphed into yelps, the tug of war now a one-sided display of strength and power. Eventually the yelps pierce the man’s train of thought. His anger subsides as they reach the arched clearing he negotiated earlier. He leans down and gently caresses his dog’s head. He pulls him close to him. ‘I’m sorry boy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ Charlie licks his owners face gently. Whether in apology or through thanks or submission is not clear. The man is grateful either way. He looks back at the ruin. The house. The house in the woods, he thinks. Yeah, the house in the woods. I’ll be sure to steer well bloody clear in future, don’t you bloody worry about that! Pain pulses through his veins. His arm feeling like a bag of loose unconnected bones rattling into one another.

‘Come one Charlie boy’ he whispers through the pain, cupping his dog’s face in his hands, ‘let’s get back to the car and get your Dad some help for this arm…’

The words are met by the slightest of growls in response. Charlie’s ears propping up in alert as he continues to stare into his owner’s eyes. ‘What is it now…’ for the final time the man’s words are cut short as he hears the hinges of a door creak open slowly, agonisingly. He glances above Charlie’s head. The door. The door. The one Charlie was obsessed with. Slowly, patiently it starts to open. The hinges creaking louder. Louder. A cold gust of wind careers past the two of them, almost knocking the man to the ground. BARK! BARK! BARK BARK BARK!!!

Scrambling, slipping, snarling, the man and his dog bundle through the opening and disappear frantically into the darkness. The reverberating, echoing sound of a heavy, creaking door belligerently slamming shut follows them tauntingly into the night.