The Pilgrim’s Way

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Sitting on the edge of the bed, Duncan pulled one boot off carefully. ‘Ow, ow, ow, ow.’ He wriggled his toes and sat back on the bed, grimacing. A voice from the en-suite of the small twin room sounded agitated.

‘What’s wrong now? What on Earth can possibly be wrong now?’

Duncan stared at the en-suite door, which was slightly ajar, while he unlaced his other boot. ‘It’s my feet, they’re fucking sore, what do you think is wrong?’

‘My God, complaining again. Why did you come on this walk? Eh? Eh? Why? You’d done nothing but moan, moan, moan, moan. First it was your shoulders, the bag was too heavy, then your knees coming off that first hill, then the rain, then the cold, and then a million other things and now, with one day to go, your feet!’

Duncan imitated the voice, quietly, ‘then it was this, then it was that, then it was your nagging, then it was you being unbearably happy all the time’. He pulled off the other boot, ‘Ahhhh!’ he exclaimed rubbing his foot gently.

‘I CAN hear you, you know. You shouldn’t have come.’

Duncan sat quietly for a moment before shouting at the en-suite door. ‘Let’s do The Pilgrim’s Way, you said, one last long-distance path before we’re old and decrepit, you said, it’ll be good for our souls, you said. Well my soles are not fucking happy.’

‘It’s meant to be hard, that’s why the Pilgrims did it. It’s not a Pilgrimage otherwise. It’s not a jolly rambler’s outing along a forest path. In 560AD when the first Pilgrims did this route, they would have done it in bare feet. Some did it on their knees you know, as an act of penance to ask God for forgiveness for their sins. You should think of that instead of complaining about your top-of-the-range Gortex boots.’

‘You and your bloody religion’, Duncan spat, ‘I could be home curled up in front of the telly right now instead of nursing two raw, blistered and extremely painful things I used to call feet!’

‘Heathen! I’m going in to the shower now.’

At the sound of the shower, Duncan slowly balanced his weight onto his feet, and stood. ‘God that hurt, and yes, you annoying deity, it IS your fault’, he mumbled out loud. He hobbled over to the window which faced west over a small wooded valley. The sky was turning red. ‘Shepherd’s Delight’, he sighed, ‘Always fucking happy with a red sky’.

‘Toast with scrambled egg and smoked salmon’, Duncan beamed at the bemused waitress the following morning.

‘Is that all it takes to make you happy? Smoked salmon? You should have brought a couple of packs to nibble as Scooby Snacks along the way.’

‘Well’, Duncan laughed, forgetting his feet for a moment, I’m so sick of stodgy porridge and greasy fry-ups floating in pig fat that this will be the best breakfast since that kipper on Day 2. What a lovely surprise. Haven’t had toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon since the girls were small.’

‘Last day. Feeling more positive this morning?’

Duncan smiled softly across the breakfast table, ‘Very positive’, he replied. ‘With only about, what?’

’Ten miles.’

’With only about ten miles to go, we might even be finished by lunchtime. Could be celebrating with a lunchtime pint.’ He laughed. ‘Stop frowning, I’m due a pint.’

Later, as Duncan’s hunger grew once more, what was left of the The Pilgrim’s Way diminished and that lunchtime pint began to look promising. Close to the very end of the route, before leaving the trees and heading into the village that marked the normal finishing end of the footpath, a life-size wooden statue of a monk stood in a small clearing, marking the spot where the particular saint that the pilgrimage had spawned had been martyred.

‘Don’t you feel it? The energy? The power of God in this wood?’

Duncan stared at the wooden effigy. ‘Why is it that religious people are ‘martyred’ and not just murdered like everybody else?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well’, Duncan continued, ‘he was laid upon by a gang of thugs who caved his head in with a big rock for no apparent reason. Why’s that ‘martyred’?’

‘It was assassins who killed him for his religious beliefs.’

‘Says the Church!’ Duncan was starting to get quite agitated. ‘To date there has been no proof that these ‘assassins’ were in the employ of anyone and no reason has ever been given for them being hired by anyone anyway, it says so right here on the plaque, so that simply means he was set upon and mugged, doesn’t it?’

‘Priests wouldn’t have been mugged in that way. It would have been God’s will to have him martyred.’

‘Oh come on now!’ Duncan was starting to shout. ‘You travel from Ireland, walk half way across the country to this Godforsaken place, preach for 20 years, 20 YEARS, and in repayment, your God, your fucking forgiving all-loving God sends a couple of random thugs after you to cave your head in with a rock to make some kind of fucking point? Some gratitude that is. So then, what happens then? The Church makes up some stupid miracles, attributes them to you, canonises you, and suddenly you’ve been ‘martyred’ and fuckwits like me follow some random route that he might have walked, feeding the commercial industry along the route and making this Saint Whatshisname famous, meanwhile trying to feel good about myself as though I were a fucking hero. What a complete waste of time.’

Duncan was now staring at the wooden statue square in the face. ‘Well that’s not how it works’, he shouted, while its blank, unmoving face stared back at him. ‘Other people are more saintly you know, more deserving and if there’s a God, if there’s a fucking God in there,’ he knocked heavily on the wooden skull of the statue which remained stubbornly stoic, ‘IF there’s a God, then what was the cancer all about eh? What was your point in that particular case eh? ‘Cos I’ll remind you of the miracles if you need me to? Bringing up those kids with next to no money. Making sure they were fed, educated, happy. Me! Looked after me though I didn’t deserve it because I’m a drunken waste of space. All those things even when you inflicted that horrible disease, that crippling torture that was endured with a fucking smile every sickening day saying she deserved it, it was your will. Well she didn’t deserve it and you don’t get to make a martyr out of her because you work in mysterious fucking ways’, which is a complete cop out by the way for covering up your lack of existence.’

Alone in the clearing, he sank to his knees in front of the statue which continued to stare blankly ahead, over the top of his woollen bobble hat into the empty distance.

Duncan wept.

The Monk Man

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‘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.