The Dream Sea Refugees,(Part 1 – The Exile, the demon executioner, Lord Aesc)

“Screeching, pleading voices, echoing around my mind, wild and untrammeled, lurching for meaning, scrabbling for a peck of hope. Mortal minds clawing at my flesh, clinging to me like drowning rats, pulling me under. For I am the ever to thee’s one day and I know there is no hope – neither meaning nor hope in this world that chews up life, pulps flesh and grinds bones to dust, incinerates bodies, turning them to ash before a being has any notion of what it is and why it is…Yet I go on and on and on ad infinitum”

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1.Rivers of Blood

Pity the immortal for his pain,

Tis eternal’

The Grenlore

1968

Sharp winds whistled around the choking, blackened, industrial heart of Birmingham. They haunted the factory units that stood along the derelict Fazeley Canal and sent their rusting roofs a clattering. It was bitterly cold for late April. The radio announced that the whole world was in turmoil, but no one could hear. It was too noisy in the thumping din of the workshops to decipher its message. Men hammered metal on metal, machines thrummed and grinded.

The sky grew leaden above them and through the doors that opened onto the towpath, snow began to flutter down. Within minutes it was cascading over the city. It swirled and danced, landing on puddles of black oil. It cloaked the low bridges and froze up the lock gates. Soon the sooted cityscape was transformed into a winter wonderland. The men stopped working one by one to marvel at the freak weather. When all the machines had fallen mute, all that could be heard was the crackling wireless, some merchant of doom spitting out poison and warning of rivers of blood. Then the sound of cracking and splitting, as the dark and lifeless waterway became brittle and opaque with ice that groaned and snapped at the sudden state change. It was when they saw the body; its nakedness, white as alabaster but for countless livid, open wounds. As the men gathered to gawp at the body of a man trapped, face down in the ice, red flowers of blood bloomed and pumped and trickled. Someone said that he must be alive, that the body wouldn’t bleed if it were dead. Another pointed out that the face was entirely submerged in the icy water. No one could quite decipher whether it was the ice that was moving or the body. A burly man with arms like hams lay down in the snow and stretched to try and grab the frozen wretch. His fingers danced tantalisingly close the head of matted hair. Other men moved to help, kneeling on the first so that he could safely extend his reach. The icy snapped suddenly and the body was flipped. The men recoiled in shock and horror. Now the man stared out of a halo of ice, pale unflinching eyes against the snowflakes that settled on its lashes. After the men had caught their breath someone sighed an exclaimed,

“Dead as a dormouse!”

The others frowned at him, feeling certain that the phrase if not the sentiment was inaccurate….and yet the body bled and bled. Thick, dark globs of veinous blood pumped over the ice and under it, it formed dark stringy clouds, refusing to be diluted. No one felt able to reach out to the ice man now for fear those frozen eyes would flash towards them. So the men smoked in huddles and skulked uneasily, waiting for the professionals.

When a tall policeman and round ambulance driver arrived the men were still milling around the canal. They gathered, like raggedy mourners as the frozen body was dredged from the ice. lain out on its back now on the snowy towpath it continued to bleed. Great crimson wings spread through the snow, leaving a sticky dark residue around the edges of the men’s hobnail boots. The misquoter felt the urge to pipe up again. He heard his own mouth saying,

“Who’d ave thought the old man had so much blood in him?”

The other men shot looks at him, unaware of the provenence of the quote, but they were all thinking it. The body was pumping more blood than they could believe could be contained within it. Slowly though the blood flow petered out until it finally stopped.

The ambulance driver wiped the snow from the face of the bled man to better establish his vital signs. His still white face had a hawkish angularity. But for the blood it might’ve been mistaken for a sculpture, its perfect lines and contours highlighted by the regular flashing blue light of emergency vehicles. The ambulance driver leaned an ear down to listen and feel for breath. He placed a stethoscope at several places on the chest of the body. He looked up at the police constable beside him and shook his head gravely and with a blunt hand pulled the eyelids shut. The factory workers took off their caps and bowed their heads solemnly. The snow storm dwindled to a flurry. The wind dropped. As if summoned to attend, the distant cathedral bells began to toll. When the bells fell silent, boots started shuffling around as men wondered when enough respect had been observed. The corpse gasped. It’s eyes sprang open. The men shrieked like children.

 

2. The Fallen Angel

The darkest night is not empty

Tis full of life but for the want of a torch

The darkest night has no void like that of a demon’s heart.

The Grenlore

June 1968

The patient had been placed in a side ward. Later, he’d been shrouded in screens. Others on the ward had complained about him, been unnerved by him.

The freakish cold weather had been replaced in two short months by sweltering heat and the shiny new, state of the art hospital, with ribbons of large glass windows now made those inside feel like prize vegetables baking in a greenhouse. The air was stale and the patients listless. Above the smell of bleach and industrial disinfectant, the men’s thoracic ward had an aroma all of its own. There was really only so many bed baths that could be executed in one day, but once the nurses had inured themselves to the stench it was proving to be easy shifts, with otherwise belligerent and sometimes confused patients too limp to demand much other than water and pain relief.

Inside a barrier of green curtains, the alabaster patient lay. The others could not look at him. Could not bear to be beside him. It wasn’t that he was grotesque, on the contrary he was quite, quite beautiful in a deathly gothic way. No, the patients had complained about his staring eyes, looking at nothing, yet still they seemed to follow them around the room. He was not there, or so it seemed, dreaming with his eyes open. It was his eyes and a churning almost inaudible mutter. Some took it for a prayer but could not decipher the words. But a prayer might be soft and pleading, this seemed to spit out of his mouth. A curse perhaps.

Nurse Gladys Coldwell snapped back the curtain and entered the space with a trainee, Nurse Katy Leach carrying a bowl and hand cloth. Coldwell was a solid figure that put one in mind of a work horse and a comforting sight to most patients; firm yet tender, a woman you could trust to carry the weight of the world upon her shoulders, a mature nurse, a widow returned to the profession out of necessity, a woman of experience and one not easily rattled by the ravings of lunacy, not so young as to have unprofessional thoughts about the sculpted body that lay under the hospital gown. Conversely, Katy Leach was still in her teens and hostage to barely understood desires that blossomed, uninvited, dark, wet and nameless.

This could be her son, thought Coldwell, but for the grace of god, lost and alone in his own madness. This was someone’s son and she would treat him with the care and dignity that she hoped her own child would be afforded.  Katy’s pupils dilated on sight of him. She bit her lip and looked away. Coldwell leaned down to talk calmly to the unseeing eyes. She placed a maternal hand on his cheek,

“We’re just going to freshen you up chick, make you feel a bit cooler and cleaner in this heat”

She pulled at the bow that fastened behind his neck and drew the gown down from his torso. The patient shuddered, Katy’s breath quickened. Coldwell shot a stern look at her junior and spoke reassuringly to the man,

“Don’t worry my love, I’ve got three boys, believe you me I’ve seen it all before”

But she had not seen wounds like these on a living body. Great livid welts that she found difficult to assess professionally without wincing. She wondered again, how on earth he had survived. She tore her eyes away from the wounds and squeezed the warm soapy water from her flannel. She nodded to Nurse Leach to do the same. In unison they wiped with firm sweeping movements, up and down each arm and over the chest area. It was as wash by the book, as hospital corners were to beds. Nurse Coldwell had performed these manoeuvres so often that she was barely aware of her own hands. The patient started whispering.

“What’s that duck?”

She leaned close to hear. Perhaps this was the first communication. He’d been on the ward six weeks with no sense issued from his lips yet; no clues to who he was or how he had come to be half drowned and gushing blood in the local cut. There were words but they were so faint and blurry. Coldwell frowned and leaned closer,

“You’ll have to speak up bab, I can’t understand”

But the words were just a shushing sound, like waves on a shale beach. She shook her head. She pushed her hands firmly in place for a lift.

“Your assistance please, Nurse Leach”

Katy drew closer and followed the senior nurse’s lead. They carefully pulled the patient to a sitting position to access his back. He folded forward limply but the pillow was stuck and came with him. Coldwell carefully peeled it away. Katy eyes widened in horror. Two ragged chunks of flesh had been taken from back. She could see the yellow bone below. Coldwell frowned, she was not at all happy with the state of these wounds. They had oozed. Feathers from the pillow had become stuck, caked to the raw flesh. She looked up at her trainee now who was trembling, green and close to gagging. She rolled her eyes, grabbed the sticky, stinking pillow and thrust it at Katy, issuing orders,

“This is to be incinerated. Go get another and be quick about it please”

Nurse Leach had never move that fast, she noted. Alone with the patient now, she rinsed her flannel and spoke soothingly to him,

“This might sting a little”

She swept the cloth gently across the man’s shoulders, but the feathers seemed almost embedded in his flesh. She tried again more firmly. This time the patient winced.

“Nearly done chick” she reassured.

His long arm wound around her thick waist and squeezed, not aggressively, more emphatically. He drew her close and, turning his pale eyes towards her hissed,

“Take thy hooks from out my flesh!”.

The nurse smiled down at him and tried to extricate herself.

“Its just a flannel sweetheart. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re safe here”

Gladys watched as floods of competing emotions washed over the patients face: a helpless tear rolled into an angry sneer and pleading eyes were shadowed by a brow furrowed with rage. He let her go and fell backwards, flat onto the bed. Gladys felt as though she were falling too. She tried to steady herself but found that she was falling forward, lunging towards him. She felt dizzy, frightened, helpless and inexplicably sad. When the spinning room abated she realised she was clinging to the patient, her head nestled at his neck. He smelled of ozone, like storm clouds over the sea. He made no move to help her or push her away, but lay there passively staring at the ceiling and repeated more softly,

“Take thy hooks from out my flesh”, he repeated to the ceiling.

Gladys flushed, embarrassed and confused,

“I’m so sorry dear, I think I had a funny turn…”

She spun her head around swiftly, left and right, to check the screens were intact and that she had not been seen in what could be construed as an embrace. She straightened herself up but found she could not bring herself to lift her hands from his body. They tingled like a pleasant static charge, that sent waves of pleasure through her body. It made her shudder and her heart began to thump. She had an urge to kiss his mouth and the desire had shocked her for she considered herself beyond these fancies, safe as she was on the other side of fifty. Without looking at her the patient retrieved her hands from his chest and brought them together, binding them in his own as though bringing her to prayer. He pulled her close again and began to whisper. Gladys leaned in to place an ear beside his mouth. At first it made no sense and she was simply happy to feel his warm breath against her neck, but quickly her ear tuned and his words dropped into her mind. As the nurse listened her eyes grew wide and wild…..

“Take thy hooks from out my flesh, for I am cursed to feel thy pain as though it were mine own. I hear thy mortal howling soul, yours and all these, the fated and damned. I hear them all, an army of the walking dead, scratching at the door of life as it slowly swings shut. Screeching, pleading voices, echoing around my mind, wild and untrammeled, lurching for meaning, scrabbling for a peck of hope. Mortal minds clawing at my flesh, clinging to me like drowning rats, pulling me under. For I am the ever to thee’s one day and I know there is no hope – neither meaning nor hope in this world that chews up life, pulps flesh and grinds bones to dust, incinerates bodies, turning them to ash before a being has any notion of what it is and why it is. I feel thy pain as the dogs of death drag thee by the ankles from your cribs to your tombs. And then you are gone but the screaming never ceases and still I go on and I go on and on and on ad infinitum… Tis unbearable!!

… And those scars that you call memories are written large across thy headstone hearts. The child in you, a whining pup, a bruised and battered beast whose madding anguish rules thy little lives in this world, this world of torment: an ever churning, boiling cauldron of melting flesh and bone with screaming souls cleaving to them like disintegrating life rafts.

There is no meaning, there is no hope.

I, more than any know this

…and still I look for her. I listen for her small voice in the maelstrom of drowning souls, but I know that…”

At this point the patient rolled his head to one side as though addressing an invisible visitor. His demeanour, his intensity seemed to increase but now there was an edge of wild-eyed rage,

“…I know that she is dead, that you, fierce mistress hath ripped her heart from out her chest. And she is dead….and she is dead…and SHE IS DEAD! She that was bright black eyes and sharp tongue…she that was hot mouth and dark nipples on heavy breasts and firm broad buttocks and smooth and slippery crease betwixt her thighs…all dead; cuts of meat, to be fed to the butchers cauldron, rotten, broiling flesh falling away from bone”

He sighed,

“…and I go on still, my just deserts, eternally, listening for her voice amongst these mortal souls, an army of the walking dead, screaming, begging, ‘not now, too soon!’

Those last two words hissed from his mouth. His eyes were frantic, whites exposed, and searching before settling on the nurse but he did not seem to see Gladys. His pupils pinned and his face grew tight.

‘Is this the measure of thy hate for me? Is this punishment commensurate with thy rage? To live amongst the mortals, like an angel of death in an abattoir? Overwhelmed by a sea of blood? If I was ever beloved, if my service ever useful to thee, I BEG thee vanquish me also Queen! Banish me to that formless void from which I was invoked. Tis better to be nothing, to feel nothing than to have fallen into this dark oubliette of endless, echoing fear and sorrow and pain”.

Nurse Coldwell, felt the words rather than understand them and when he released her hands she could find no useful comment. At that moment, the junior returned and this strange spell was broken. Nurse Coldwell, together with Nurse Leach completed his bed bath and the rest of her shift with calm efficiency. The words began to fade, eventually losing shape altogether. All she remembered was all that she passed on to the doctor, that the patient behind the screens was raving and in fever, doubtless as a result of infection.

That evening she cooked her sons their favourite meal. She hugged her youngest close, despite his protests and made a promise to herself that she would go to church that Sunday.

3. The Exile

Cut from roots and kith n kin even the mighty oak be nothing more than kindling. A forest of greenwitches, when separated will simply whither.

The Wisdom of Vector Alman Broogor

1972

The hospital made an ominously gothic silhouette on the ridge overlooking dark Shropshire hills. Grim February rain threw itself relentlessly onto its blue slates and trickled down the terracotta filials. It beat against the long, arched Victorian windows like the ghosts of inmates past. It eroded the large stone sign so that the words ‘Ommerton Lunatic Asylum’ were barely legible. The damp and miserable grounds lay empty, abandoned like an old love. Staff cars and a clapped-out minibus cluttered the once elegant driveway where the gates, once intricate ironwork rusted into shapeless globs. Hanging over the generous eaves a gargoyle stood sentry. Its thick, serpentine tail wound around the masonry. Rain dripped from its talons and poured from its powerful jaw. It blinked.

Derwyn Travers’ balding head and square frame made an unmistakable silhouette against the windows. He puffed on his pipe and strode on sturdy legs, purposefully across the hospital atrium. His large feet in hand made brogues made heavy, echoing sounds on the polished flagstone corridor. His manner was as brusque and as bullish as his gait. In his wake, an anxious train of mainly female psychology students struggled to keep up. He thought it pointless to be enlightening young women, but these were the times they were in. He veiled his disdain in magnanimous patience and charm, but left them with no doubt at all that it was his hospital, he was king of it and they were very lucky to be in his presence.

Ella Moore was becoming increasingly annoyed. It wasn’t only that she felt the patriarchal architecture was intimidating her, but also that her platform boots were sabotaging her progress. She loved that they elevated her to a more normal height but she lacked the balance to walk quickly in them. In trying to keep pace with the psychiatrist, she had slipped and twisted her ankles several times. For Ella though pain and humiliation was just par for the course. Ella believed her purpose in life was to confound expectations, to fall, to twist an ankle, get up and move forward, though this was often interpreted by those in authority as a giant chip on her shoulder.

The attendants stopped in their work to appraise the young women as they passed. They leaned back and lit up to better drink in their shapeliness. Ella hid under her frizzy fringe and pulled her folder up tightly to her tank top like a shield. Her mood grew darker as she listened to Travers make quips about his charges. His gallows humour jarred with her youthful zeal to treat patients with dignity and respect.

The doctor stopped and turned suddenly causing Ella and other young women to fall into him. They bounced unpleasantly against him, he thought. He placed a blunt finger to his mouth solemnly, to ensure the students were hushed before speaking in a stage whisper.

“Ladies and gents, we are about to enter our brand new observatory.” He gestured proudly to the simple white door. A plain stud wall had been wedged into a stone archway as a means of creating a functional but inelegant space.

“In this room”, Travers continues, “there is a double-sided mirror through which we are able to study patients in our therapy sessions. He leant in and twinkled impishly to add, “It is not however entirely sound-proofed, so I must ask you to fight your natural urge to chatter.”

Ella bristled and piped up in a voice that was whinier and Brummier than she had hoped,

“Do they not have a right to some privacy?”

Some of the other students rolled their eyes, others looked at the doctor apologetically, but the doctor feigned a good humoured response.

“It’s a fair point” he lied, waving his pipe at Ella. “There has been much recent criticism of mental institutions such as ours regarding the rights of our subjects and we have worked hard to bring our practice in line with modern philosophies. But you must understand that we deal with, often very violent individuals and we need a way of monitoring the safety of our staff during therapy sessions.” He leant down over Ella asking, “Does that answer your question, my dear?”

She blushed as other students swished their feather cuts and smirked at her. He gave a small nod to indicate she had been put in her place before continuing.

“In this session you are about to witness, we have a small group of patients with psychoses which have similar traits. Each of them has grandiose delusions either about themselves or others that have some basis in the paranormal or mysticism. The purpose of these group sessions is to expose them to each other’s logic, the rationale being that if they can identify the nonsense in another’s claims they might also begin to accept that their own claims lack veracity”

A willowy, well-spoken student said, “Wow, that’s so radical!”

Travers stifled a proud grin and ushered the group into a small darkened room. One of the walls was almost entirely glass which angled down slightly onto an otherwise windowless room in which there was no light but for a buzzing strip on the low ceiling. The patients sat in at the points of a square on four small school chairs. Squeezed between them a young psychiatrist sat. He was easy to spot. He wore the Jesus beard in an attempt to look older than his years. He sat, straddled on the back-turned chair, his elbow patches lounging casually, confidently. The patients, by contrast sat hunched and crumpled. One of them rocked, another twiddled with loose threads on her clothes.

The observatory was only built to house one or two, so there was no room to sit and it was impossible not to touch anyone. Ella shuddered as she felt the sleeve of Travers’ tweed jacket brush past her behind. Eager to find a free space she pushed herself to the front so that her nose was virtually touching the cool glass. She heard some tuts and new her wild ‘fro was blocking some views. She turned to face down the wingers. They looked away with their noses in the air.

Ella tried to be enthused by the session, but found the young doctor’s voice was tedious and monotone. He felt the need to share it frequently, often cutting across the patients. As the session proceeded the observers got a sense of the patients as individuals. There was an old and animated grandmother, May, who thought she was receiving direct messages from the devil. As she spoke she gesticulated wildly revealing bracelets of red welts and white scars along her arms. Beside her Maud, a spindle thin woman, worried a frayed sleeve as she talked of her young son’s occult powers and the measures she had taken to prevent his theft by witches. Next to her, Mary, a much younger woman rocked and genuflected rhythmically. She beamed with joy as she explained how the holy ghost had inhabited her and directed her actions. The last of the quartet was a deathly pale, bored looking man who refused to participate. His long legs were crossed nonchalantly and he lounged with one arm over the back of the small chair as his gaze wandered around the room. He looked as though he had been transported from another time. He wore an oversized white shirt and pencil thin black trousers. His hair was neither short nor long and out of step with current trends. It lolled foppishly over one eye like a velvet curtain. Maud began a verbal assault on him. She leaned forward and spat,

“I know what you are! Black devil!”

The very white patient turned momentarily and raised an amused eyebrow, but Maud had already turned her bile towards the psychiatrist,

“…and you, shit-eating demon! Winding our innards round your pitchfork!”

Then she was off on a generalised tirade of abuse directed at everyone present and past. She didn’t seem to stop for breath and for a while Ella couldn’t help but admire the creative use of imagery. After five minutes though, Derwyn Travers began to clench and rub his bald patch, annoyed at his young colleague’s inability to control the situation. He turned down the volume of the speakers in the observatory so that Maud’s voice became little more than an annoying scratch. In the near silence, without the noise of nonsense, the pale patient seemed to stand out more. He drew all the focus as though by gentle gravity. He stretched his arms above his head and yawned while his fellow patients wrung their hands in agitation.

Ella fought hard to suppress her own urge, an echoing vacuity from deep within, but a yawn once seen is an invitation to share. She held her hand up to hide her wide mouth but the small accompanying noise let everyone know. It wasn’t loud but it sounded staged and deliberate and rude. There were tuts from other students. The yawning patient turned and stared at the glass as though he had heard something. He stood and wandered over to the double-sided mirror. Though the observatory was raised, he was so tall that his face was level with Ella’s. He yawned again and placed his arms cruciform against the glass. The students leaned in as one, to better observe his taut angularity. His face moved closer to the glass until he was nose to nose with Ella. She tried to back away but there was really nowhere to go.

The well-spoken student whispered,

“Can he see us?”

“No” Travers replied in hushed tones, “he just loves mirrors! This ladies and gents, is Lord Esk.”

Despite Travers’ assurances, Ella felt as though the patient’s pale eyes were boring into her. The doctor continued whispering,

“He was found in a canal four years ago, with multiple, vicious stab wounds. Against all probability he survived. But for two deep wounds on his shoulders he’d be without so much as a blemish. They’d be healed too, but he keeps gouging at them. We’d put him in restraints but he’s a veritable Houdini. He can slither out of a straightjacket in half a minute.”

Ella could not veil her horror,

“You still have straight jackets?” she exclaimed.

Travers frowned deeply. How dare they question him?! He wagged his pipe at the patient and replied, hissing a little too sharply,

“That man has the strength of ten. He can and has snapped an arm as soon as look at you when he’s not feeling compliant!”

The patient had heard. He looked up. Travers found his quiet voice again,

“We are one of the few remaining institutions that can offer the high level of security needed to deal with such a dangerously deluded and potentially violent patient.”

The students leaned in as though to better absorb the tale of Lord Esk. Travers rhythmically tapped out the dead ashes from his pipe to heighten the suspense.

“As far as we can observe, the man does not sleep and therefore cannot distinguish between reality and dreams. He is highly intelligent and has constructed the most intricate alternative reality I have ever encountered. He insists he is a demon, banished from his own world.”

He tamped loose strands of fresh tobacco into his pipe, returning to his first point,

“We’ve tried every therapy in the book, modern and traditional. He hasn’t responded to any treatment.”

To Ella it sounded as though the doctor was enjoying the challenge. She spotted the red marks at the patient’s temples and guessed he’d been given shock treatment.

The patient tapped the mirrored window lightly then appeared to be waiting for something to happen. When it didn’t he leaned his smooth forehead on the cool glass. He spoke now and despite the level of the speakers his voice carried into the observatory low and soulful,

“The glass of fashion and of form,
Th’ observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down”

The voice of the young doctor chipped in from behind him,

“I think its ‘mould of form’ actually…Ophelia?” he corrected. He sounded tinny and weak by comparison, but the patient had heard. He whipped his head around to scowl. The young doctor’s confidence visibly withered.

“Oh, yes” Travers continued, “And apparently he was best buddies with Shakespeare”

There was a ripple of titters amongst the students. The patient turned his piercing eyes back to the observers as though there were no glass between them. The titters dried in their throats as each student was stared down by the patient who could not see them. To the glass he spoke again. His voice had a menacing edge now.

“Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent…”, then staring directly at Ella he finished his quote softly, “… for beauty is a witch”

The hairs on the back of Ella’s neck stood up. She shuddered. The other students felt compelled to look away. They shuffled uncomfortably. All except Ella who felt as though she were falling forward. Finally, Travers broke the silence,

“Many of the female staff find him rather intimidating”

Someone asked,

“Do we know who he really is?”

Travers chewed on his unlit pipe before responding.

“We do not. What we do know is that he has an extreme oedipal complex, perhaps the result of dysfunctional parenting. These landed gentry types ….!”

He left the phrase unended as though it was a given that everyone understood the eccentric upper-classes and this was explanation enough.

“So he really is a lord?” another asked.

“Its likely”, Travers began, chewing his pipe, “although I strongly suspect he was an actor. Who else would be able to spout Shakespeare as often as he does?” adding, “and he has that manner that performers have too”. Travers waved a hand to suggest campness and that he disapproved of it strongly. The students cocked their heads and tried but failed to find effeminacy in the patient.

“I suppose he has some sort of epicene qualities” Ella suggested finally. They all stared some more. Travers rubbed his bald spot anxiously and coughed away his discomfort,

“Anyway, our best theory is that he’s found solace from the cruel perversions of his mother in psychotropic drugs and got himself involved in something very dark. With the trauma he suffered and his chronic insomnia, his sense of self has been interwoven with a smattering of Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Macbeth and what have you. To protect himself from his brutal memories, he has constructed this shimmering fantasy world in which he is all powerful”

The patient became agitated and started pacing like a caged tiger, back and forth beside the mirror.  Finally he flattened his back to the glass as though he hoped to disappear into it. It made a loud slamming noise which made the students jump. His shirt had dropped back at the neck revealing two angry wounds at the top of his shoulders. He brought his hands around his shoulders so that his nails dug into the tender flesh and then he raked deeply at the wounds. They split instantly. Trickles of bright blood were captured in his collar. Small scarlet blooms spread from the seams. The students made sounds of horror and disgust.

“Why does he do that to himself?” Someone asked.

Travers sighed,

“Its an integral part of his fantasy, my dear. He says they are where his wings were cut away. If he lets it heal, he will be confronted with the truth of the matter….that he is just a man”.

Travers pressed a panic button. No alarm sounded but moments later a burly attendant slouched into the room and was quickly upon the patient. He was shorter than the patient but solid. He stepped into the patient’s space, his belly almost touching the lord as he smiled up at him confrontationally. The patient flinched and recoiled but there was nowhere for him to retreat to. The attendant, Frank gently patted the patients face as he addressed him,

“Now then, me lord, you don’t want to be making another song and dance do you? We’ll ‘ave to tie your hands down   if you can’t control ‘em, wont we, eh?”

The patient nodded meekly. He scooted around Frank and sat down quickly. He flicked his eyes back to the attendant several times. Frank raised a thumb to the glass and plodded out of the room, patting the patient’s wounded back on exit. The therapy session continued.

As Dr Travers ushered the students back out of the little room, Ella remained transfixed. She willed the patient to turn around again, but he would not.

3. Dreams 

Insight, tis just one of the demon’s many subtle weapons. A scholar reads a book as a demon reads his quarry. Thou wouldst do well to keep thy mind closed and under lock and key when in dealings with these invocations.

The Wisdom of Vector Alman Broogor

That evening, by torchlight Ella tried to read her text books and write some notes in fingerless gloves. Sitting on a threadbare footstool, shrouded in her duffel and an ancient eiderdown against the bitter cold, she tapped her pen against her teeth and willed herself to understand the text; some research on the function of sleep. She peered through clouds of her frozen breath at the tiny text. She concentrated hard to drown out the thrumming sound of her brother’s band rehearsing in the room below. She heard laughter and smelled the distinctly resinous aroma of weed. She wondered, for the umpteenth time whether she should take the offer of a flat share with other students and move out of this squalid, freezing squat that her brother called home. She wondered whether her residency with him was enabling his delusion, that this poverty would be worth it once the band was a success. She heard the echo of the patient’s words,

“Beauty is a witch”

It seemed to chime with her thoughts about her brother’s illusions. Perhaps if she moved out, he would see the hopelessness of his dreams. Perhaps that’s why she stayed, but this cold to the bone weather made her shudder. Her white breath seemed to be filling the room like a smoke machine, spreading a mysterious ambience around her. It carried her tired mind to another frozen night…

She blinked away the starbursts in her tired eyes, but they refused to go. More worrying though, she had the curious sensation of her mind being ransacked. It felt as though a hand was rutling around in her memory drawers. Voices of the long gone and long dead escaped along with a myriad of feelings. She felt next to tears. The tears blurred the spot of light in a dizzying way but then the lights seemed to glob together. She thought she saw an avenue of street lamps disappearing into a distance that wasn’t possible in an interior. I must be so tired that I’m hallucinating, she thought. Out of nowhere then there were three loud shuddering raps on a heavy wooden door. It made her jump. Then again. Then four knocks. They were angry, insistent, desperate. Ella felt vulnerable, frightened, disoriented. She began to shiver with cold and hugging herself she realised she had just a thin cotton nightdress on. Her heart was beating with fear. There was something beside her, a beast, something terrifying and unpredictable. It was panting softly. It was whispering a prayer under its breathe.

The heavy door that had been rapped swung open in front of her, bathing her in yellow light and a nun scowled down at the monster beside her. Ella cautiously turned her head to see what horror the porch light had illuminated. The entity beside her wasn’t a monster. It was her mother and she was six years old. The nun reprimanded,

“Are you trying to wake the dead Bernadette?! Its three in the morning woman, go home and put your children to bed, for the love of God!”

Her mother’s reply was quiet but agitated,

“Take ‘em Sister. Take ‘em or I swear I won’t be held responsible for my actions”

Ella heard the desperation and stared up at her mother with a mixture of longing and terror. She hadn’t heard that voice in years. It was smokey with unfiltered cigarettes and oily with the broad accent of the industrial inner city. Ella observed her fists, thrust deep into her house coat. Her hair was a straw-coloured, back-combed birds nest and her beautiful blue eyes were kohl smudged, wild and red rimmed. She was quaking. The nun was less than impressed. She shouted,

“You have lived in sin all these years, flaunted your indecency shamelessly and now you’re all alone you expect the church to mop up your mess?” she pointed at the infant, Jonah in his Moses basket, “Well you’ve made your bed, Bernadette, now go home and sleep in it!”

Bernadette shoved at Ella with her arm. It sent her staggering forward.

“It’s the girl, Sister. She’s…she’s a changeling!”

The nun caught Ella firmly by the shoulder and inspected her. She scoffed,

“O’ what rot! She’s your spit woman, what are you talking about?”

Bernadette’s voice was shrill now,

“She a little witch! She put a spell on my man. Sent him away, she did – killed him probably!”

The nun sighed heavily,

“Nobody sent Benjamin away. He’s back in Kingston…with his wife, as well you know”

Ella’s mother wasn’t listening. She lifted the basket and pushed it into the nun’s arms as she spoke,

“And she bewitched the babbie when he was in my belly. I tell you I can’t sleep!”

The nun looked down at Jonah’s gurgling happy face and smiled. She turned the basket around saying,

“Look at him Bernadette he’s a dusky angel. Sure all babies cry…”

Bernadette interrupted,

“….He’s never cried, not once….He don’t make a sound except” she looked down at her shoes so as not to catch the nun’s eye, “…he sings”

The nun burst out laughing. Ella tensed. No one laughed at Bernadette. She watched her mother’s hand as it slowly withdrew a paring knife from her pocket. It was old and well sharpened so that the once straight blade edge had a cruel curve. She pointed it at the nun in a shaking hand. The nun’s laughter evaporated. Bernadette dropped her head forward so that she glared at the nun from under her brows. She spoke slowly, calmly and clearly.

“I am telling you now Sister, if you don’t take these babbies tonight, God help me, I will slit their scrawny throats from ear to ear”.

The nun did not speak. She grabbed Ella by her wrist and pulled her roughly through the threshold of the door. Ella looked over her shoulder and watched her mother retreat into the mist and disappear before the heavy door shut her out for good with a reverberating thud.

Ella gasped into wakefulness. Her heart was racing and sweat was cooling on her brow. She touched her face in confusion, checking she was an adult again. Her hands checked her clothing, traced the textures of reality. In muscle memory her hand clutched at her throat searching for a long since lost piece of jewellery, her father’s pendant. The sad memory of its loss brought her to wakefulness. She had never fallen into sleep like that before. Over-tiredness she concluded, must’ve blurred the lines between sleep and waking, between past and present, between reality and dreams. Nevertheless, the proximity of the memory had pushed her emotions to the fore. Fear and longing pulled at her heart. She supressed a sob for fear that if she started she would howl the house down. Just a dream, she told herself – just a shadow of the past.

A base thrummed through the floorboards and her brother’s soulful voice floated up the stairs. The sounds comforted her. Her mind retraced its tracks back to where her focus had been, back to the tall pale patient and how sleeplessness had allowed his delusions to bleed into his reality. She wondered what his last undeluded thoughts might’ve been. Had he been in a squat like this drawing on a joint when his assailants had sliced him up? She looked down and noticed that her pen had been making arcs and spirals and loops upon her notebook. She frowned as copperplate words appeared to emerge. She held the pad at arm’s length and shone her torch directly at it. Words had formed inside a nest of curlicues.

Where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.

The writing was elegant and clear and quite unlike her own hand. The torch dimmed and began to flicker. She squinted to better read it but it had become just a tangle of loops and doodles. The dimming light made her remember how achingly tired she was. She lay on her camp bed. As she felt her body yielding to sleep and her mind drifting into a dream state, she thought she heard the patient’s voice. It said,

“Thou wilt not find me in thy books mistress”

4. Possessions

The past it clings by tooth and nail to insubstantial futures

It storms and rages against the dawn

Yet a new year turns

Like a wailing infant against an old and dying warrior

Both too helpless to change their fate

The Grenlore

 

1974

Jonah woke to his sister shaking his shoulder violently.

“Where’s the bug?!”

Her breath was freezing in front of her face in the half light. The sleeping bag felt cold and damp. He rolled over and scrunched his face into his chunky sweater. His neck ached from the steep angle of the sofa arm.

“Jonah… Jonah! Where’s the bug?!” She was insistent. She would not let him return to sleep. He frowned at her,

“What time is it?” he mumbled.

“Nearly six!”, she said it like this was woefully late.

He groaned. He’d only crashed three hours ago.

“Jonah, I need the car”

Jonah turned his head to squint at her as he searched for an answer. He croaked,

“I think Ali borrowed it”

“Pissing marvellous!!” She spat and kicked the sofa he was curled in. It made the dull, yielding, thudding noise of the broken and defeated. She marched off shouting to herself as much as anyone, “Cheers Jonah! I’ll have to get that bloody slow train and hope I can thumb a lift at the station.…Late again! They’re going to fail me – bloody, pissing, arsing brilliant!”

He was vaguely aware of her stomping about upstairs. He heard another squatter, Carter the biker shouting in a faux American accent,

“Have some respect, man! There’s people trying to sleep in here!”

Ella shouted a torrent of abuse back and continued to loudly get ready for her journey. He heard the shower spring into life and he heard her yelp as she jumped under the freezing water. She’s hard as nails, he thought. Jonah admired his sister’s ferocious determination. No nun, no teacher, no social worker, no foster parent or policeman…no husband could tell Fenella what she could and couldn’t do. She alone decided if a thing were possible; being able to cope with top set maths, being able to cope with University, being able to adopt her own wayward brother. Yes, she was small, uptight and bossy, but she had the heart of a lion and there was not another soul Jonah would have in his corner. Jonah scratched his head and tried to think of ways to help her.

Twenty minutes later, Ella came stomping down the stairs in a roll neck, two cardigans, a duffel coat and an extra-long scarf, still muttering to herself about trains and being late on her first day. Her cheeks were rosy and polished by the cold-water shock. Her wet curls had been scraped back and shoved, unceremoniously into a chocolate beret. She looked like an aggressive Brownie. She rummaged in her purse for change and began to add it up. At the door she heard her brother calling,

“Oi, Fin!”

She turned. Jonah sprang in front of her in a motorbike helmet. It made her jump and swear. He jangled keys in her face then held out another helmet.

“Carter’s hog”, he announced in explanation.

Ella beamed at Jonah. She grabbed the spare helmet and knocked it jovially against Jonah’s,

“You little….!”, she began, looking up at her lank and reedy, baby brother. She wondered whether he would ever stop growing. Jonah’s eyes looked concerned, waiting for the descriptor …‘little shit’ perhaps or ‘useless prat’. Not Fin’s words though, never Fin’s words, just the words he had come to own in homes that were not his.

“…Star! You’re a bloody lifesaver, that’s what you are!” She said with a beaming smile, before pulling the helmet over her beret. It smelled strongly of petrol, sweat and patchouli but she didn’t have time to care. On the way out the door, her voice was muffled by the padding around her cheeks, she asked,

“You’re sure he doesn’t mind you taking it to Shropshire and back?”

Jonah shook his head like he couldn’t hear her.

……………………………

It was two years to the day – Two years after Ella had first encountered him, that she had her first and last interview with the insomniac demon lord. When the time came for Ella to choose her extended professional placement she requested Ommerton without a moment’s hesitation. When she had to choose a case study her instinct was to go for a subject who displayed signs of post-natal depression, a subject for which she had already amassed extensive knowledge. She had come to believe that her errant mother had been a sufferer, (why else would she have named her son Jonah?). She had reflected that her choice of profession might be a subconscious effort not just to understand her, but to find her. On her many short placements she found herself scouring the wards, waiting for a face to stand out; A face like hers perhaps, but pale with pale eyes, flashing through black kohl. A face like hers but surrounded by wild, back-combed hair the colour of dirty straw. Ella had long since forgotten any other detail of her mother. No familiar faces had been found so far and she was secretly coming around to the idea that her mother, Ber Mooney had either passed on or reinvented herself and in the process erased the memory of her children.

It was refreshing for her then to find a new obsession. Over the intervening years since she had visited Ommerton she had often thought of that tall, pale patient. She had found him in the small spaces she allowed herself to daydream and on restless nights the memory of him and the idea of him close to her, touching her, was a frequent haunt. She knew that the fantasy was not the man, just a convenient cipher for what her mind decided her body needed. The danger of blurring between fiction and fact had occurred to her from time to time, but since there was little chance of the two ever converging what harm could a daydream do really?

When she returned to Ommerton she felt compelled to request the demon lord as a case study. She hadn’t been the first psychology student to request to study him. He had refused all of them. Much to Travers’ astonishment though, this time he was amenable to scrutiny. The psychiatrist allowed the research to go ahead but made it clear that she should never be alone with him accepting in the observed room.

Despite his initial assent however, the patient proved elusive. He chose to decline her requests to meet with him for weeks and even when she had pinned down times with him, he never showed up. Ella suspected it was part of his need to be in control. She had spent the time waiting for him productively. She had questioned Travers regarding the sparsity of notes on the patient. After so many years she expected to find more evidence of therapy. Travers had been affronted but shortly afterwards another file was found containing one or two tapes. She had listened to them intently. In them the patient described his world in intricate detail; a pastoral idyll, a feudal society where witchcraft was a real threat. She would close her eyes and disappear into his world. It felt strangely familiar. She wondered had she read the same books. But as engaging as the tapes were, she was no closer to meeting the patient. Time was running out and she would soon be forced to switch her subject.

One bleak evening, at the end of the week, Ella sat in the observed room for the sixth time looking at her watch and doodling on her note pad. Outside, the last light of a short February day was draining fast, though in this windowless room she was unaware that night was creeping in. She pulled her long cardigan around herself against the cold. It was Friday and the weekend workers would need the staff dorms. She didn’t relish the long journey to the squat. She shivered at the thought of returning to the icy, candlelit house.

“He’s not coming, Frank is he?” she called to the attendant completing a crossword in the observatory. She had discussed her thesis with several staff and left an open invitation for them to come and observe. Ella didn’t know whether it was their lack of faith in the patient turning up or their lack of interest in her thesis, but none of the professionals had ever bothered to show up. Frank, on the other hand had no problem with sitting on his backside with the newspaper for an hour or so.

She saw a crack of light appear in the mirror, and for the brief moment that the door was open, she heard the radio jingling something bright and poppy from the patient’s lounge. Then the door closed as Frank vacated the hidden room and she was alone with only the sound of the electricity buzzing through the strip light overhead. She pushed her note pad and pen into her shoulder bag. As she stood to go she found herself face to face with the patient. He bowed deeply,

“Good Morrow Mistress Moore” he said brightly.

A pang of adrenaline surged through her body as she realised that she was probably alone with this man. She looked over at the mirror in the hope she would see a crack of light that would indicate Frank had returned. All she saw was the reflection of the patient towering over her. He cocked his head,

“Art thou not pleased to see me My Lady?” he enquired.

“No, no, I am,” she began while her eyes darted around the room to find exits and alarm buttons, “I am just worried we don’t have much time left in here. Its only booked until 5”

The demon lord smiled down at her.

“Well”, he said as he sat languidly on the chair opposite her, “We had best make haste”.

It would have been appropriate for her to leave the room at this point. It would have been understandable if she had bolted like a hound out of the traps. Ella took a deep breath and plonked herself down.

“Lord Esk”, she began. He interrupted,

“It is Aesc, Mistress…Tis ayes not ess” he corrected snippily. She began again,

“Lord Aesc, thank you for allowing me to interview you” she said as she smiled pleasantly. He bowed his head,

“Tis my pleasure, I have a tender spot for the voices of the Middle Hills. How may I be of assistance to you?”

She continued, slightly annoyed that her accent had betrayed her again.

“With your permission Lord Aesc, I would like to explore with you the other world that you believe you are from”

The patient looked at her with a glint in his eye,

“Why Mistress Ella-tell-me-Moore, do you hope to dissuade me of its existence?”

She smirked. She had heard he had given her a nick name and she rather liked it.

“Thou wouldst not be the first”, he continued. She replied with confidence now, having fine tuned her thesis question for several weeks now.

“Well, I am interested in why it is so real to you. I should like, with your permission to test its boundaries.”

He leant forward,

“To enter my reality as my guest?”

She nodded,

“Yes I would, with a view to helping you find the exits”

He leaned back again and looked askance at her,

“And should thee fail?”

She shrugged,

“Well, I wouldn’t be the first would I?”

It made him smile and relax into the uncomfortable chair. He nodded his ascent. Ella repositioned herself on her chair before beginning the session.

“So tell me about the realm in which you are….” she tried to remember her notes, “….you are Lord High Steward?”

There was a pause. The patient crossed his legs casually, asking

“Do you have any cigarettes?”

Ella scrambled in her bag again to find a pack of ten and a lighter. He sneered at the brand but took them anyway. Ella thought it was a distraction while he put together a story. He sat a long while thinking. Ella waited patiently and allowed the silence to prompt him. As blue smoke enveloped him, he began with an observation,

“Dost thou think a world lacks substance because no man has placed a pin in a star chart and said there! There is Vallasea!”

Ella shrugged. Aesc huffed and flicked his ash.

“Human beings” he sneered, “Thy meagre powers are spent throwing men in metal boxes to the moon and claim there is no life but thyne own.  Thou dost not see the mirror worlds that are folded in upon thee.”

Ella nodded. He found her silence irritating.

“They exist!” he announced emphatically, “…Oh they exist, cheek by jowl, the width of a sliver of glass away.” As he said this he pointed at the mirror. Ella looked up anxiously, sincerely hoping that Frank too was the width of the glass away. Aesc brushed imaginary lint from his knee and drew deeply on his cigarette before continuing,.

“I am from neither world however”, he began, “Neither thyne nor the world I was banished from. I am not of flesh. I am a demon.”

Ella tried to qualify this statement,

“You come from hell then?”

The patient rolled his eyes and spoke slowly as though to a child,

“To be clear, Mistress Moore, I am not ‘the devil’. That is to say I am not a construct of early Christian priests as a means to turn pagans from their wild idolatry. I am an elemental. I was summoned, invocated into my current form by my mistress, Queen Abb of Vallasea.”

Ella was aware that his language had slipped, that it had become more contemporary. She chose not to share her observation for fear that it might shut him down. She ignored too the reference to his queen. She’d read his notes. Many of the doctors had encouraged Aesc to see that she was a construct of his mother. It only enraged him. She began with a new angle,

“You have explained in prior sessions that you are an executioner…Do you consider yourself evil?” she asked.

Aesc blinked slowly and flicked his ash,

“I consider myself efficient”

She nodded encouragingly, waiting for him to explain, but he had no interest in morality. He stood now and peered through his own reflection as though it were the window to his world,

“Vallasea – It is there” he whispered and pointed into the mirror. Ella looked at her reflected self, frowning back.

“I cannot see it, can you?” she pushed.

The patient’s shoulders dropped. Apparently he could not. She pursued the logic,

“If neither of us can see it, can they, the people of Vallasea see us?”

Aesc turned, nodded emphatically, stabbing at the floor with his fingers.

“The Valla have great interest in this small, unpromising orb”

Ella nodded again encouragingly. Aesc eyes lit up as he continued,

“Tis because it leeches power…immense power! It seeps from you like a static charge and earths itself in Valla”.

“This power?..Do you mean….magic?” She offered tentatively. He rolled his eyes again,

“For want of a better word, yes”, he conceded.

“You describe it like electricity” Ella observed. He mulled it over,

“Tis a weak analogy, but will suffice for now”

Ella put her knuckles to her chin to feign thoughtfulness,

“And what does this power do precisely?” she asked.

Lord Aesc raised a haughty eyebrow,

“What does power do?!” he scoffed, “It keeps those in power in power. It is as precious as any resource or commodity on your world. The whole economy, the whole order of Vallasea rests upon its harvest.”

He looked wistfully over her shoulder at his imaginary world. She interrupted his thoughts,

“Do you miss it, Vallasea?”

The patient seemed shocked and disarmed by the question. He came and sat down, thinking deeply about the question before responding,

“I miss my place and station, Mistress”

Ella sensed a change in mood. It felt like doors swinging open. She pushed further.

“…And the people? Do you have loved ones there that you miss?”

Aesc’s face split into a broad white smile. He wagged his finger at her.

“An able interrogation my lady” he teased.

She felt the doors slamming shut again. His responses had become controlled and remote again,

“…Yes there were some that I was fond of, but they are gone now” he looked away in a moment of gloom, “Like you I have but one troublesome brother. He does not wish me to return with any haste”

Ella, perplexed, tried to remember whether she had mentioned her brother in his presence.

“Do you miss your family Ella?” he continued. Again, his words had taken her by surprise. Before her professional guard was up she found herself divulging,

“I’ve never had them to miss, I’m afraid. It’s always been just me and my brother”

Aesc nodded and cocked his head sympathetically,

“Orphaned”. He said it at as statement and not a question.

Ella shook her head, answering an unasked question,

“Abandoned to the care system as very young children”

“Abandoned..” he repeated, dolefully, “Cast aside….much like myself”

He looked quizzically at her a moment now as though he had discovered something shocking,

“You are married!” There was surprise in his voice. Ella’s mouth fell open. No one knew she was married at the hospital or university. He asked, “You are abandoned by your husband too?”

Ella felt panicked, as though she were on the verge of a full disclosure. He was too close. It was alarming. She blushed and shook her head. The demon lord withdrew his question with a small nod. She pretended to read her notes and brought him back to his own narrative.

“You are unable to return to this land?”

He nodded,

“Quite so”

Ella’s thoughts were in disarray. She couldn’t find a follow up question. She began to stutter. The demon lord leant forward and like a sideshow mentalists asked,

“Why does thy brother worry thee so? Thou canst not save a man from himself”

He was back in his archaic English, back in control. Ella frowned at him. In her mind she played back the conversation she had had with colleagues to find something he might have overheard. There was nothing there. She decided she had been gossiped about and it annoyed her.

“Im not worried about him!” she snapped back a little too sharply, then felt compelled to add, “Jonah is a clever man and a talented musician. I worry that the world will not be kind to him”. She bit her lip and berated herself for mentioning his name.

Aesc’s eyes lit up when she mentioned the music. It awoke a hunger in him.

“Oh, I should like to hear his music”, he said wistfully

“Do you play an instrument?” She asked, moving him back to the safety of his own narrative. The patient shook his head,

“Alas I do not possess any creative capacities, such is my station in life. My purpose is only to destroy. In spite of this affliction, or perchance because of it, I have a great fondness for artists”

After a short pause Ella offered,

“Like Shakespeare?”

He scowled at her. He knew they found it hilarious that he insisted he had had an intimate relationship with the Bard.

“Do you mock me Mistress?!” he sounded hurt more than angry.

As she was searching for a soothing response the strip light flickered off and Ella found herself plunged into absolute darkness while sat opposite an angry and potentially violent patient. After a moments silence she asked cautiously,

“….Did you do that?”

She heard him laugh from his belly. He began with his stage voice,

“Now is the winter of our discontent!…Really I would love to claim the credit but I believe it is more the responsibility of your unions and government”

She felt embarrassed for having been drawn into his delusion and mistaken a scheduled power cut for some hocum. They heard the automatic locking system, clunking, a precaution to prevent escape. Now, she was a prisoner in this tiny black space. She could hear her own heart beating in the abyss. The patient sounded amused,

“Mistress Moore, we appear to be locked together in the darkness. This must surely be a breach of protocol?”

She tried to sound casual as she spoke,

“That’s okay, someone will come looking for us soon when they do a roll call.”

He scoffed,

“I am not concerned. My night vision is excellent”

When she heard his voice she realised that he had moved. His voice was coming from somewhere to the side of her. There was a sparkling silence as Ella tensed to hear whether the patient was moving closer. She heard some tapping instead. He was back at the mirror.

“Why do you do that? Why do you tap the glass?” she asked finally. Her voice was laced with fear. After a long pause he replied coolly,

“I hope to commune with the Valla someday. Alas I am still excommunicare”

Ella did not respond. He could hear her scrambling around on the table for her lighter. He put his hand in his pocket to check he still had it. After a sigh of boredom he asked,

“Would it help if I continued to speak?”

Ella thought it safest to keep him talking so she could sense where he was.

“Yes, we may as well continue, thank you Lord Aesc. Tell me about your brother”

Aesc huffed,

“There is little to tell. He is a fatted headed, dim witted brute who sent me to my exile”

“Yes, you’ve mentioned this before. Could you elaborate…Exiled for what?” she asked, genuinely curious. She heard him shuffling uncomfortably before he answered.

“She….That is my queen believed my dalliances…that is a particular dalliance to be a sign of disloyalty, an act of treachery”

“You loved someone?” Ella offered. His reply whipped back as though rehearsed.

“I cannot love. I am a demon”

It was Ella’s turn to scoff,

“Is that what you told her?”

Aesc did not reply. Ella could hear him wandering around the room. Apparently he was unobstructed by the many chairs and low tables. Perhaps his vision was really sharp. She wracked her brain for questions that would keep him talking,

“How long are you going to be punished?” she asked. He stopped and started explaining several times.

“I struggle to explain because your experience of time is not mine” He said at last. “Time itself is experienced differently in different worlds. Your timescales do not match that of the Valla. There is no easy equation to explain it as despite your efforts to contain it in regular pieces, in seconds, minutes and hours, time is irregular. Your time, tis leaden slow but to my queen and the Valla, I may have disappeared but yesterday”

As he spoke Ella tracked his voice. He was circling her and growing closer. She wondered whether enough time had elapsed outside this room, whether anyone had realised that they were missing. In her mind she prayed that Frank would realise that she was locked in with the most dangerous patient in the hospital. At the point of red panic she decided to pull herself together and take some control. She stood and steadied her voice,

“If I were being sceptical at this point, I might say that if your world sits outside the physical laws of both time and space, perhaps it’s just a dream”

The thesis was met with an echoing silence. She had hoped by now that her eyes would’ve accustomed to the dark, but the room was absolutely devoid of light. More alarmingly she could no longer hear him moving. Then he was speaking very close to her. She felt his breath on her ear.

“Tis your world that lacks substance, not mine” he whispered. “Your lives spark out like fireflies to the eyes of the Valla….” There was a pause. Ella could hear him inhaling deeply, almost mournfully. He placed his hand on hers. She felt a crackle and fizz at the skin to skin contact.

“Fireflies”, he repeated, “..but oh what pretty patterns you make!”

Ella felt the hot sparks of both danger and desire coursing around her body. She found herself panting, waiting for him to strike…or lunge. He laughed playfully,

“You think I plan to do you harm, Mistress Moore?”

Ella shuddered. She tried to sound jovial but her voice sounded thin and shaky,

“You believe you’re an executioner. It’s a bit of a worry to be honest”

Aesc sighed,

“Aye, t’is true”, he said mournfully, “I take life, and I do it well.”

Ella had her hand in her bag rummaging for her cheap perfume. He watched her trying to decide where to aim it. He whispered,

“Fear not Mistress Moore, I have no desire to take yours”

Ella found herself asking,

“Why not?”

He sighed,

“Time will take you soon enough Mistress, tis a contract you cannot avoid”

The sentence dwindled away plaintively. The word ‘contract’ had a weight to it, like a heavy dossier.  It made her dizzy. She felt tired, drugged and dreamy. She flopped back onto her chair trying to panic about when he must have dropped something in her tea, but her mind couldn’t grasp the thought and anyway, she hadn’t had any tea had she??? The word ‘contract’ continued to echo, expand and grow in weight and significance. She tried to stand but felt her legs were made of lead. She clenched the arms of her chair with all her might and pushed herself upright only to topple backwards immediately. She felt as though she were falling, being pulled, clawed back by something shameful by the ankle…

She felt herself bouncing lightly on bedsprings as she landed. In the darkness a single candle flickered into life. The golden guttering glow drew her eye. As her eyes adjusted she scanned the room; a bedsit containing just a small cracked sink and a tired bed, covered in a pink, threadbare, candlewick throw. Rain was hammering on the cracked window. She became aware of men’s voices, aggressive, drunken, nearby, behind flimsy walls. Her hand moved up to her throat to clutch a dull silver medallion there, the only thing she owned of her father’s. She brushed the time-smoothed design. The heraldic shield made her feel protected. It had been considered ‘cracker-tat’ at the home, too heavy to have been real silver. She had called it her doubloon and the adults had smirked at her and allowed her to keep it. She had often wondered what was on the other side of the coin but would have to wrest it from its housing to find out and her curiosity was outweighed by her need to preserve a memory. He had put it around her neck and it had, by and large protected her. The soft glint of it had often dissuaded her mother’s raised hand.

There was a light rap on her door. It made her sit up sharp. She heard a voice she recognised, calling her,

“Fenella? …Ella?..Its Dougie”

Ella stood cautiously behind the door. The man called again,

“Dougie Moore, your favourite social worker? Your knight in shining armour, at your service m’lady!”

His voice was warm, light and jovial. She heard him make a joke and the men on the corridor laughed loudly. Cautiously she slid the bolt open. As she peered up around the door her lips brushed his stubbly chin accidentally. He smelled of sweat, whisky and cigarettes.

“Ha-ha! Missed me that much have you Ella?” he quipped.

She pulled her face away in disgust and stood back. He bounded through the door brushing his wet hair off his face, muttering,

“Jesus, its raining cats and dogs tonight”. He frowned at the candle and flickering shadows,

“Why’re you sitting in the dark? Have you let your meter run out? Have you not got your benefits?”

Ella blushed. She mumbled,

“I don’t like going downstairs at night”

He grinned and approached her. He held her face in both hands,

“You silly goose! You have to be more organised”, he reprimanded, “Do you have the change? Here, give it to me?”

She handed him a slender prism of 50p pieces.

Ella stood anxiously behind the door, studiously avoiding eye contact with the men that looked her up and down. She listened to Dougie trot down the stairs and clunk around in the meter cupboard. She heard him swear as he bumped his head. A moment later the floral lampshade shed a light over the bed and the small electric heater began to glow, exuding the scent of burning dust. The social worker soon trotted back in, throwing his damp jacket on the bed. He wiped the condensation from his glasses with the end of his shirt, revealing a round, hairy belly.

“Now that’s more like it…I can get a proper look at you” he said as he replaced his glasses. Ella stood by the window hugging herself in a towelling dressing gown, thin cotton nightie and fluffy slippers.

He appraised her.

“Sweet sixteen eh? You’re a tiny wee thing aren’t you? Are you eating properly?”

Ella nodded and looked away.

He pushed his glasses up his nose and sat on the bed. He tested the lumpy mattress with a firm hand. He noticed the pile of yellowy, second hand novels beside the bed and he smirked at her small, grey bras drying on the clothes rack by the heater. He turned to her encouragingly,

“I know it can be hard to adjust to adult life, but don’t worry that’s why Dougie’s here –  to keep an eye on you, make sure you’re getting what you need”

The sound of springs creaking from the bed next door caught their attention. Dougie nodded to the wall,

“Jen got herself a boyfriend has she?” he smirked.

Ella had been put in the room next to Jennifer as she had left care the year before. Dougie had hoped that she would offer some support and guidance to the newly adult Ella. In the month that she had spent there, they had exchanged little more than small nods and suspicious looks. Ella’s voice was almost a whisper,

“She’s working”

Dougie shook his head sadly. After a while he remarked,

“You’re a sensible girl with a future ahead of you, Ella. You’re a good girl. You’re not like Jen. You know not to get involved in all that malarkey don’t you?”

Ella nodded dutifully and sat in the deep window ledge. She looked out onto the street below. There were huddles of revellers queueing at the taxi rank and rolling in and out of the chip shop. Behind her Dougie shot up remembering something. He started patting himself down.

“I almost forgot, here, I have a present for you”

Ella turned her head. She saw him pull a small box from his trouser pocket. He opened it and pulled out a small silver chain with a tiny lozenge dangling from it. He held it up as he walked towards her,

“It’s a St Christopher…to protect you on your journey”

Ella thanked him politely and went to touch the small pendant. He pulled it away,

“Here, let me put it on you, Stand up. Turn around”, he commanded.

He carefully brushed her hair aside to reveal the nape of her delicate, coffee-coloured neck and noted the thick silvery black chain, taking it for something cheap.

“Here, let me unclasp this old bit of tin”, and without checking for her answer the medallion slid from her neck. She caught it at her chest and squeezed it in white knuckles.

She saw Dougie’s arms extend around her and felt engulfed, swallowed up, caught within the circle by this small silver chain. The pendant felt cold and impotent against her throat after the heavy warmth of the medallion. Dougie clipped the tiny clasp then let it fall. For a moment they stood together like this, still but too close, in silence but for Dougie’s wheezing. Finally Ella spoke,

“Mr Moore?”

He shook her playfully by the shoulders,

“Dougie, please!” he sounded hurt, annoyed. She started to explain carefully, uncertainly

“Dougie, I’m worried about my brother. He’s not getting on with his foster family”

Dougie shrugged,

“Well, he’s a bit of a handful by all accounts; stealing, fighting. ‘Doesn’t have your brains”

Ella felt anxious about blowing the whistle. She blurted out,

“They’re hitting him!” …and instantly regretted it. Making waves could drown Jonah. She bit her lip. Luckily Dougie dismissed her out of hand,

“A clip across the back of the head now and again is hardly hitting” he corrected.

Ella nodded, pretending to agree. There was little point in talking about the fist-sized bruises on Jonah’s ribs, or the welts down his back and thighs that were oozing and infected when she’d dabbed on the TCP. Every mark on Jonah had always been attributed to his fighting. True, the boy could defend himself against other boys,  often with a pre-emptive strike. He was no match for a grown man wielding a leather strap.

“I’d like to adopt him”, she stated.

Dougie sniggered at the naiveté. He placed his hands on her shoulders, his voice was soft, close to her ear,

“It’s a lovely idea but I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Ella. You’re not old enough, not stable enough to adopt him legally. You need to be seventeen at least… and married”

He felt her shoulders slump with disappointment. He looked down to the street for inspiration. He wanted to cheer her up,

“You hungry? How about I get us some chips?”

She didn’t respond. He shook her playfully again, like a rag doll. Ella looked down at his left hand, distinct for the lack of wedding band. She noted the way he had pulled back her dressing gown so that his chubby thumb brushed her back. She observed how they snuck under the straps of her nightdress. It made her shudder, but yet she loosened her dressing gown so that it slumped open and hung over one small, brown shoulder.

“You’re a very special girl Ella. You’re very special to me too”

Dougie’s strokes became rhythmic and in time with his heavy breathing. He was kneading her shoulders now, the dressing gown had fallen and was encircling her feet. She stood there letting him pretend to comfort her and slowly, though it sickened her, she leaned into it. He seemed to curl over her. She saw his reflection in the window. He was grinning, peering down the front of her nightdress. Finally, she turned her head slowly and body even slower, then looked up at him from under her lashes. Dougie’s eyes flashed briefly down at the small dark points of her nipples through the flimsy nightdress before catching himself and frowning in concern, asking,

“What’s wrong Ella?”

She pushed ever so gently against his chest. On tip toes, to be nose to nose she whispered,

“I’m so cold”

Dougie smiled down at her,

“Here, let me put you to bed”

The strip-light buzzed back into life as suddenly as it went out. The surprise caused Ella to jolt in her chair as though someone had suddenly thrown her back into the here and now. She blinked at the patient, dazed and confused, her heart galloping. She sniffed the air. She could still smell the burnt dust of the heater, still smell Dougie, still feel his clammy hands exploring her. It made her shiver.

The demon lord was some distance from her, leaning his forehead on the mirror again.

“You were dreaming I think, Mistress Moore” he said without turning.

Ella patted herself down as though to confirm she had her adult body.

“How long was I asleep? …Did I call out?” she asked suspicious and embarrassed. The patient shrugged. Reassured that she hadn’t shown herself up she began to reassemble her thoughts and remember her place in time. She shook off the horrible memory, mentally casting it away, like a useless, rotten potato unearthed in a cupboard clear out. She rubbed her hands together and glanced around the room. Her eyes settled back on the demon lord. She saw for the first time how vulnerable he looked. His clothes were ill-fitting, grubby and frayed. He looked stooped and miserable. Red wields, marks left by restraints, braceleted his wrists. He had a hollowed out look of someone stuck in their own nightmare and she felt that she understood. He spoke finally. Pointing to the door he said,

“Your exit, Ella, alas not mine. Would that you could believe me”

Ella walked towards him now, more sorry for him than frightened. She surveyed him a moment and shared her honest assessment,

“Do you know what I believe? I believe you are just a man no more than ten years older than me. – a clever and charming gentleman, but just a man. You speak very well and are obviously well educated and by your height and build, look to have been well nourished. I think that for some reason you have lost your way. I think someone hurt you so badly that you carved out this fantastic alternative world. I think it helps you to cope with the reality of your life and I think when you are strong enough you will begin to remember who you really are and what happened to you”

The smallest flicker of realisation passed over the patients face. He looked as though he were about to cry. A breakthrough, Ella thought. He looked up from his misery and into her eyes.

There was a moment when she thought he was about to kiss her.

Then the doors flew open and Frank with another burly attendant flattened the patient under their knees, onto the coarse carpet tiles. Once they had jabbed him with a needles and restrained him they hauled him up to escorted him back to the ward. As they pushed him through the door he looked over his shoulder sadly. He was dribbling profusely and his eyes were unfocussed.

“You are right, I was hurt and betrayed… but I remember everything” he mumbled through the froth the sedatives. Ella wasn’t sure whether he was referencing his or her own past.

…………………………………

Dr Travers tore a strip off Frank for not following procedure. He was furious with Ella too, for allowing the patient to recover his sense of superiority. Spittle shot from his mouth as he shouted through incandescent rage. The purpose of his tirade was to make her feel small and stupid, that she had no place in this, his world.

“He will be hell on wheels to control now, thanks to you!” he bellowed, “Years of work up in smoke because some silly little girl felt like indulging him!”

Ella was unmoved by rage as a general rule. In her extensive experience of bullies she had concluded that the angry were at best ineffective and at worst, a spent force.

“What will happen to the patient?” she asked bluntly. Travers spluttered at the sheer front of the girl.

“That is none of your damn business!” he hissed, “Henceforth you are denied any access to this patient, do you understand?”

Ella casually wiped the spit off her cheek and blinked at him.

“GET OUT!!!” he screamed.

…………………………………………

It was the demon lord who was punished most. Ella later learned he had been placed in one of the basement’s padded cells that had been created for Victorian lunatics. It had long since been common practice to isolate patients, but Travers thought it appropriate to ‘soften him up’.

Aesc rested his head against the damp and torn padding in the cell to prevent his head from spinning to the point of nausea. Sweat poured from him, so that his hair hung in heavy strands, sticking to his face and neck in intricate, swirling patterns. His hands shuddered as he brushed it away. As he rested, huddled in the corner, the motion sickness quelled. He found that if he focussed his eyes on one steady point he could compensate for the drug.

He pondered his encounter with Ella. As with all mortals she had sought to contain him in her own points of reference, to find a simple solution. The idea that he could simply be a man was risible, but she had churned him up. There was something about her that unsettled him. She was the strongest mortal he had encountered in a long time, but oh the pain that she carried! The memories he had drawn from Ella, they should have sustained him, should have enabled him to lever some superiority, but they left him troubled. It had felt perfectly acceptable to fell Travers by holding a mirror to his past, but throwing up Ella’s dark history had seemed shameful somehow and shame was an unfamiliar concept to the demon lord. Seeing her, barely more than a child, so vulnerable, so endangered, had kicked up one of his own deep memories from long ago. It was just a shadow at the corner of his eye but the chemicals had clouded his vision. He could not quite grasp it, not quite remember it. It unsettled him. There was something he had overlooked, something from long ago that had set events in motion.

 

5. Force Majeure

The acorn doth not choose to be an oak

haw, berry, nut and pip,

 all have a destiny, deep in the sap

The Grenlore

 

Maud’s screeching could be heard everywhere, carrying even to the dank cells. She was as they said in these parts ‘on one’, raging around as she did intermittently, desperate for someone to take her seriously. Aesc tuned his ear to her words.

“Witches! They’re everywhere. Vile, murdering bitches! They kill our babbies! Strangle ‘em in their cots and swap ‘em with their own dirty, evil little brats – cuckoos, sucking on your tits, stealin’ your life force, waiting to strike you down!”.

It was not a portrait he recognised but part of it chimed with Vallasean folklore. The Greenwitches were said to secrete their offspring here in the hope they would mature in safety, though like squirrels who hide their nuts in winter their children were often lost in the confusing miasma of this world and the mismatch of time scales. For example, he had wondered whether Ella were part Valla. Why else would she draw his attention so?…But witches murdering other being’s young to supplant their own? It seemed unlikely, but perhaps there were some murderous sects he had yet to encounter. He clung to the hope that if Maud had encountered a true witch then perhaps he was not the only Vallasean in this sorry little time and place. A small part of him harboured a tiny hope that one particular witch might be out there somewhere, waiting for him…He whispered a name,

“Sylvie’, allowing the shape and sound to soothe him for a moment, but pain always followed that name. He knew that Hortensia Abb would never have allowed her to live. Regret was an unwelcome stranger to Aesc. It had arrived unintroduced, attached to that name. It clung to his chest, its weight a paralysing burden. He might just as well have slit the witch’s throat himself, he pondered, at least then it would have been a swift conclusion and he would still be in place where he belonged. He wasn’t altogether sure whether his grief was for his loss of station or the loss of Sylvie but he felt a need to distract himself with something he might have agency over. He decided to focus upon Ella as a means of distraction. He wondered if Ella were in some way related to Sylvie, or if he just needed to see an echo of the witch. They shared a calm fearlessness. Their lives were mirrors; both parentless, both slaves. The demon closed his eyes and explored the possibility that, if he chose, he could redress some balance, if not for the witch, then for Ella. He decided to do it in honour of Sylvie although he would have to slip out of these bonds if only for a brief moment. Lucky he was in solitary then, with no one to observe his escape…

………………………………..

Ella leaned her forehead on the window beside her and felt the rhythm of the train passing through her. There was nothing to see but her own reflection. The blackness gave no indication of place. For miles and miles there was only the motion of the train to suggest movement. For all she knew the whole train was a stationary film set and all the passengers actors. Then they pulled into a dimly lit, rural station. The dull orange glow inside the station gave everything a sepia tone. Ella watched as a handful of people streamed from the waiting room, battling against the high wind whistling down the platform. They fought to keep their hats on, fought with heavy train doors. One elderly man looking like an extra from ‘Brief Encounter’ blustered into her carriage. He shook at his heavy coat, removed his trilby and sat himself opposite her. He waved a newspaper at her,

“Storm of biblical proportions, they reckon!” he said to anyone that would listen. Ella nodded politely, but her mind was not on the train.

She was not focussed on the here and now, but brooding over the interview and within that, her waking dream, that uncomfortable, that shameful tableau. She was overloaded with competing emotions that could not be discharged. She returned to the squat strung out on bad memories and an impression that her ghosts were closing in on her. She avoided making eye contact with Jonah, but he had sensed that something was wrong. He set about teasing her, annoying her back into the present. He was the only being that could pull her out of a black mood and yet she fought him all the way.

After much badgering she had agreed to help roadie for the band that evening. Even though they had gotten soaked in the rain as they carried the kit from the van, the sensation on her skin was preferable to her thoughts. The goosebumps gave Ella something tangible to focus on in the here and now and the fetching and carrying kept her occupied.

After a few cider and blacks the world was looking pretty normal again, better than normal in point of fact. The band were amazing! Jonah had been awesome. He seemed to be shining with talent and charisma on the stage. She marvelled at the transformation of her awkward, gawky brother into this strutting rock god. She looked out from the side of the small, low stage at the hungry eyes of the girls flocking around him, gyrating their hips, whipping their hair around, willing him to be singing to them.

It wasn’t only Jonah that was changing, the band, their music, it seemed to take on a sharper edge. The synth and base were moving forward and the melodies seemed to be drawing on something older than rock, something arcane, enchanted yet contemporary, even forward looking perhaps. Ella was quietly impressed and extremely proud. Tonight she let herself believe that Jonah and the band might have a future.

After the gig, she didn’t have chance to give her brother a slap on the back. He was surrounded by admirers feeding him a constant stream of compliments and snakebites. She stood back and let him bask in it. There was a charge in the air though, long after the band had finished playing. Perhaps it was the storm gathering that had added to the ambience. It felt exhilarating and dangerous. It felt as though something were about to burst, to explode at any minute.

The drummer, Nigel made a ham-fisted pass at her. He had mumbled something in her ear and when she turned to frown up at him he had tried to plant a kiss on her lips. It had missed its target and landed on her chin. She had squinted and recoiled and when she opened her eyes, he was gone. He had somehow tripped, fallen backwards and rolled under a table. Drinks had fallen in laps and there had been a great deal of tension until the bass player, Kev had swooped in and rescued the situation with another round. It was at this point that Ella had looked up and fleetlngly spotted a face in the crowd. A pale angular face. He had nodded a greeting then turned, melting into the jovial milieu. She had fought her way past bodies to the spot she thought she had seen the demon lord, but of course he was not there. She felt ridiculous for even thinking he might be present.

She hadn’t the time to kick herself though as from over by the toilets the crowd was rolling away, like a wave, escaping something noisy, something erupting. Ella heard the door of the men’s room crack as Jonah came flying out with fists on another man of similar build and age. A dishevelled girl, one of Jonah’s admirers shot out after them, hastily doing up her blouse. Ella rolled her eyes at the entirely predictable actions of her brother. Why would he bother seducing a single girl? It was infinitely more exciting to lure someone else’s girlfriend to the stalls.

Jonah and the dishonoured boyfriend were too well matched. They pummelled each other in a frenzy of fists and boots. They rolled onto tables, smashed chairs and glasses. An unfortunate girl standing in the wrong place got an elbow in the face and then all hell broke loose. Jonah had two disgruntled boyfriends on him, until Nigel and Kev jumped in. Then the friend of the second assailant joined in just to even up the numbers. Ella watched in a bubble of calm as more bystanders got sucked into the fight until it was a full scale riot. Chairs flew, tables cascaded and in the middle Jonah looked Ella squarely in the eye and grinned like he used to in the playground. He just had time to see Ella shake her head in grave disapproval before a truncheon connected with his back and he collapsed on the and sticky carpet.

…………………………….

Lightning flickered across the tall window. Dougie Moore awoke with a start. He didn’t recognise his surroundings; the strange shadows and small noises of other sleepers. It took him a moment to remember that he was in hospital. He blinked and reached out for his glasses on the bedside unit. They skidded away from his fingers, dropped to the shiny floor and skittered under the bed. He swore under his breath and reached down to slap his hand around on the floor. It was at this angle he noticed two shiny black shoes. A tall, angular man was seated, quietly in the chair beside him. A man dressed in black, his face in shadows.

“Is that you Vicar? Come to read my last rights?” he joked unconvincingly. The dark figure said nothing, but re-crossed his legs and brushed lint from his knee. Dougie continued to quip nervously,

“I have to say, I’m grateful for your attention but I think you may be a little previous, Vicar. I am only in for an ingrown toenail!”

The shadowy man said nothing. Dougie was growing alarmed.

“What are you doing sitting by my bed in the dead of night?” he asked, “Do you have tragic news? Must be for someone else Vicar, I’ve lost everyone who gave two shits about me”, correcting instantly, “Pardon my French”

The man spoke now, in a measured almost arcane way,

“Every soul, aye, your wife besides. T’was careless of thee Master Moore”

Dougie squinted, trying to define the edges of the man’s face, trying to get a sense of his expression.

“Was I talking in my sleep?” he asked suspiciously. The man ignored his question, preferring to ask one of his own,

“Dost thou wonder on her whereabouts? Mistress Ella?”

Dougie felt a knot of anger rising from his sternum. He spat,

“I’ve no idea where the scheming little…” he stopped himself and apologised, “Sorry Vicar, no, I don’t know where she is and she does well to keep out of my way. She upped and left as soon as she got custody of her thieving brat of a brother. Took my wage packet with her too”.

The shadowy man made a steeple from his long white fingers, tapping them as though contemplating his next words.

“She was a very young bride?”, he enquired innocently. Dougie bit back, defensively,

“Old enough!” then with a wry smile, “…but older than she looked, I’ll grant you”

“And under your protection?” the stranger asked. Dougie sighed,

“Look vicar, these care home girls, they grow up quick. Learn the tricks. They’re scum really. It’s not their fault but there it is. I thought Ella was different though, you know, a good girl. She came after me, seduced me, offered herself to me on a plate – had me believe she had fallen in love with me…more fool me!”

The man shook his head slowly,

“Wise enough to weigh a pup though?…having so much experience of these wretches?”

Dougie was becoming suspicious and more than a little annoyed at this line of questioning.

“I didn’t think you C of E types were into confessionals? It was a two-way street, Vicar. I’m just a man after all! But I’m no predator, deflowering the pure and innocent  – pah! If it wasn’t for me Ella would have been street walking for fixes…probably is now anyway. I doubt she’s even given me a moment’s thought. Meanwhile I am left alone, humiliated and unsupported. Left to deal with my dying mother…God rest her soul”

Dougie saw the smile on the stranger’s lips as he added,

“Yes, and thou art sole beneficiary!”

Dougie was disgusted at this man of God’s callous disregard for his feelings. He made a mental note to complain about him the following morning. He pulled his bedsheets up and made a sulky expression, replying,

“A house is not a home and no replacement for a mother’s love! And not much use to a man on his own”

The stranger drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair and remarked,

“Very little use to you at all in point of fact”

Dougie frowned at the stranger trying to work out what he had said. Lightning flashed at the window alighting his face just at the moment it changed from bemusement to fear. Dougie clutched at his sheets as he yelped,

”Oh my God! Am I dying Vicar??”

The stranger spoke calmly, kindly,

“Im afraid so”

Dougie opened his mouth to speak just as the stranger sprang from his chair and was upon him. Never was the phrase, ‘break-neck speed’ so apt.

The stranger, the executioner stood back and inspected his work. Dougie looked as though he were craning awkwardly to look at something on the ceiling. A good, clean, instantaneous snap, the shadowy man decided – who could do a better job? He had a little disquiet, not because he had taken a life that evening but because he had acted without direction and whenever he took decisions beyond his remit there was always the potential for disturbances in the order of things, disturbances that could be pinned to him. He looked around the ward for mirrors and was relieved to note there were none.

The lifeless eyes of Dougie Moore still held his last expression, one of horror. The stranger leaned over the body. From a distance, it could have looked like a brotherly embrace. The lightning danced again outside. The stranger noticed something glinted at Dougie’s neck. A silver coin, a medallion, no doubt a talisman of faith. The executioner frowned a moment as though he recognised the symbolism on the pendant, but the decided that all symbols of faith looked much the same to him. He lifted it gently nevertheless, to inspect it and contemplated how differently this encounter might have been had he really been a man of faith. Different, he concluded, but not nearly as satisfying. Thunder began to rumble. Could a demon be a priest?… he wondered as he walked away.

………………………….

Three hours after the brawl, Ella was still sitting on a bench in the draughty front office of Steelhouse Nick, waiting for the band to be released and possibly charged with violent disorder. She pretended to read a novel, creating a barrier between her and the dark sounds and smells of unlawful behaviour. Someone was screaming blue murder in the cells far away. At the front desk an elderly bag-lady was shouting, waving a shoe around, ineffectually threatening a weary desk sergeant. It wasn’t clear what her complaint was, only that she was very angry. Beside Ella a heavy-set drunk was lolling, threatening to rest his heavy head on her shoulder. He exuded the smell of stale alcohol from every pore which almost covered the stench of dry vomit from his shirt. She scooted along the bench, away from him just as he toppled. His forehead smacked against the bench loudly. Ella frowned down at him, wondering if he had knocked himself unconscious. He groaned but made no attempt to right himself. She looked at the desk sergeant for help. He shrugged at her. She became aware of someone looking at her. There was a man sat on the bench opposite her that had not been there before. He was Afro-Caribbean, very handsome, immaculately dressed in a Sunday suit and hat, like an elderly gent but for his luxuriant main of dreads. No, she concluded, he was nearer her own age. He stared at her blatantly with an expression of sadness and curiosity. She tried to stare him down, but he refused to look away. Finally she stuck her nose back in her novel and pretended he didn’t exist.

“Beware dat wing-ed devil, chile, ‘im bring wid ‘im a mighty sharp vicissitude”. His voice was deep, his words rhythmic and simultaneously crystal clear and incomprehensible. Ella looked quizzically down at the drunk dribbling on the bench beside her. Not too much to beware of there, she felt, then studiously turned a page of her book. The well-dressed man addressed her again, louder and more insistent this time,

“Beware the demon of the air, for ‘im spread dem wings an beat up a tempest that cast you about like a leaf on the wind, out, out, out into the darkest night of your soul!”

At that moment there was a tremendous crack of thunder. The heavy blue external doors swung in from the pressure of a great gust of wind that blew the bag lady from her feet and the book from Ella’s hands. A moment later there was calm silence. The lady had righted herself and Ella had retrieved her book. Ella peeped up cautiously, to look at the doomsayer who had seemed entirely untouched by the dramatic gust. His eyes creased and his mouth split into a bright white smile. He whispered musically,

“Ella, Ella, watch dat fella!”

It struck at her heart. It chimed with an early memory of a handsome man with a broad white smile, singing to her, dancing with her, swinging her high in the air until she shrieked.

“Benjamin?!” she exclaimed with a quaver of emotion breaking her voice. Of course, he was too young to be her father but she felt compelled to call his name. The man’s smile fell away. He bowed his head and…simply disappeared in front of her eyes. She looked to the desk sergeant for confirmation that this extraordinary event had happened. The desk sergeant frowned over his glasses at her,

“My name’s George, duck”

6. The Dog Storm

The Greenwitch has no power of his own. He rides on the back on another being’s energy, like a flea on a dog.

Vector Alman Broogor

In those dark and desperate hours before dawn the storm took on an other-worldly dimension. Above the dark city streets storm clouds gathered and circled. Heavy clouds a mile deep, five miles long, black and heavy and full of energy. Their undersides glowed muddy orange, weak reflections from the street lights. Violet lightning danced and thunder rumbled. Hemlock Brooke sat neatly on a park bench and waited. The wind whipped at her gold hair, it slapped her pale cheeks and it threatened to wrench her woollen hat off. Still Hemlock waited, unperturbed by the growing aggression of the storm.

The wind howled like an injured animal, it raged through the streets, kicking tiles from roofs, smashing down fences. It tore through the city park, ripping up black leaf litter, pulling down heavy branches, like a lost and angry spirit. It called out beyond this dimension to another world…and the other world answered.

The boating lake looked like a stormy sea in miniature. The rippling surface was choppy, then boiling fiercely with sheets of hail the size of hen’s eggs. Pretty little row-boats and swan shaped pedalos, gathered together for safety at one end. Some had crashed into one another with such force that broken oars, wooden swan’s heads and wing tips bounced and knocked against their shallow hulls. Ducks and geese huddled together on the small, off-centre island. At the heart of the man-made lake a fountain spout was torn and flung across the sodden park. The metal pipe rang like a bell as it connected with a lamp post…. and then as though a switch had flicked, the wind ceased and the hail stopped. At the centre of the pond, where the spout had been a small eddy formed, imperceptible at first. It grew wider, wide enough to put one’s hand in it. Then it grew more, big enough to stand within it. The motion began dragging at the boats. The ducks began to quack an alarm. Something was afoot. The eddy was now a whirl pool, deeper than the shallow, ornamental lake. Its gravity urged the boats. They began to tear free of the lake edge and spin towards the centre. And still the whirlpool grew, greedily threatening to swallow the whole lake. Duck Island began to break apart revealing chunks of concrete. The ducks and geese took to the air in a panoramic tableau of escape. The whirlpool seemed to be forming into a giant infinity donut and just as it looked as though everything were about to fall into its mouth it lost energy, collapsing, gushing, scattering its tiny boats, sending them rolling haphazardly onto the surrounding lawns.

The park fell silent now. All that could be heard was the water streaming back into the lake….and then a silent, eardrum-popping change in pressure as a small black-pitched coracle bounced up from nowhere and sat there spinning on the water’s surface like a giant upturned beetle. Within, unconscious, sodden, barely alive a man was wrapped around his dog.

The Greenwitches had broken through.

Hemlock Brooke stepped daintily towards the edge of the pond where the coracle bobbed. She pulled her loose hair back behind her ears and peered down quizzically at the man. He didn’t look much like a priest, not any priest she had met anyway. She had only been given one directive – keep him wet. She pulled a small bottle of cheap whiskey from her satchel and broke the seal. She sniffed the vapours and curled up her nose. Despite the noxious fumes she opted to give it a swig, for the purposes of research if nothing else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Momento Mori (part one)

Looking back now at the whole sorry mess, I was lonely and at the same time liberated. I hadn’t slept alone in a bed for thirty odd years. I think the lad about town that I put away when I put on my morning suit and wed Pat, I think he just came back to remind me what his pleasures were and Honor, she ticked all his boxes…

 

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”

Mark Twain

vanitas

 

Apparently I’ve been on the outer edges of my sanity and reality has been a stranger to me. You want the honest truth? I’ve felt more alive this past…how longs it been? Days, months, years? I can’t quite focus my mind upon the timescales but the colours have been more vivid, the sensations more exciting, the music more compelling than any time since I can remember… but what do I know? Im just a simple, uneducated man. What do you see? You see a mental patient perhaps or just a vulnerable chap with a dicky heart. That’s not how I feel. In here, in my heart, I’m in my prime, a strong, handsome, fearless lion of a man. They don’t tell you that about getting old, that you don’t change on the inside. You look in the mirror now and you take a good look, for whatever age you are, the maggot of time is at work and where he leads, death follows.

Monday 24th October 2016

Pat squinted into the screen at me. I can’t get on with this face call, or whatever it’s called. They’re never properly looking at you. There’s a disconnect. Its like they’re talking to somebody else, not quite in the same dimension.

“You’re losing your colour”, she pronounced. (Ive only been back a fortnight).

“You’re not” I said. She’s leather brown now, like my sturdy boots. I get a shock everytime I see her these days; forget how old she is now. A ten year age gap seems so much wider now, but maybe that’s my vanity talking.

I said, “What the hell are you wearing?”

She flicked a ruffle of red polka dot at her shoulder.

“Im just off to me flamenco lessons with Gina”

“Oh arr? ‘Been shimmying your shoulders at Juan again?”, I joked, “I’ve told you woman your old enough to be his mother!”

She cackled. It’s good to see her laughing, good to see her pain free.

“Well if you’re that worried, hurry up home and I’ll shimmy more than me shoulders at you”. She leaned forward at the camera and wobbled her creased, brown cleavage at me.

“For the love of God, Pat, put ‘em away, you’ll crack the screen!”

She howled. The sound set Missy off barking and bouncing up at the laptop.

Pat mooned at her, “Oooh, is that my little girl?? Ooh Mommy misses you, yes she does. You keeping Daddy safe?”

“No,  she bloody well isn’t!” I scoffed, “First sign of a shadow and she cowers behind me trousers”

Pat sat up straight and alarmed,

“Has there been any trouble Mick? You’re not there to be a hero, you know that?”

I sighed,

“Its absolutely fine, duck. A couple of kids using the carpark for bike tricks and a bad Banksy tribute act. The usual fare.”

Pat pursed her lips, unconvinced. (I’m not sure she knows who Banksy is anyway).

“That’s all well and good love but you only went back to do them a favour. They must’ve found a replacement now?”

I didn’t tell her I’d talked to the Head only the day before. I didn’t say that I’d accepted a contract till the end of term. I don’t tell her much I realised. Like I didn’t tell her I was bored out of my mind, sat behind the bar of our so called ‘English Pub’ out there in the Spanish heat. She’s high on suntan lotion and castanets, she hadn’t even considered I might be less than satisfied. How could I tell her that I miss the seasons? Miss the clever chat in the staffroom? Miss rifling through the books in the school library? Miss doing practical things with my hands? Miss being valued? She doesn’t miss being a dinner lady, not for a second, but I have missed being the caretaker. When the new boy left under a cloud just before the beginning of term, the secretary emailed me, asked me, no begged me to step in while they found a suitable replacement. Be a caretaker caretaker if you like. When I arrived, The Head, Mrs Iqbal had alluded to the things that had gone on the new boy’s watch; something embarrassing for the school, something shameful and dark. Of course, I looked it up, just for information purposes. Mrs Iqbal had said,

“It’s so good to know the school is in such safe hands again. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you taking time from your own business. I do hope Pat isn’t annoyed with us for stealing you back a while?”

“Not at all, Mrs Iqbal” I had assured her.

“They’re taking advantage of you again Mick and you just let ‘em!”, Pat huffed and grimaced at the screen. The image of her went a bit squiffy as though to register her annoyance.

I shrugged,

“Listen love, I’d better go do my rounds now”.

“I thought you had all those cameras now?” She waved her arthritic fingers around to create her own special symbol for ‘new fangled’.

“The cameras can’t tell me when doors and windows are locked” I replied.

“You stay safe, Mick”, she commanded,  “And come home. Its not nearly as much fun without you here”

I found that hard to believe, but I blew her a kiss and closed the app. I looked down at Missy, her glossy black fur, her wide golden eyes and that dangerously happy tail whipping about.

“Go get your lead then” I said and she was off.

The nights were just beginning to draw in. There was that familiar nip in the air that means autumn’s coming. I remember thinking how good it’ll be to see another winter here again, all cosy, with my tools and my books and Classic FM…and I know it sounds bad, but nice not to have Pat banging on about the state of this country. Nice not to have to worry about her struggling with aches and pains. It felt then like a secret holiday…a guilty pleasure and I had a spring in my step.

I did the perimeter fence as the sky turned gold. The thick matte black metal panels of the fence reached high into the sky, like tiger stripes against the sunset. I rattled the back gate to check the padlock was intact. The alley behind it was empty but for the detritus of spliffs and cider and these little silver canisters, (God knows what they’re sniffing these days!). It’s a cut through that joins the housing estates. Its affectionately referred to as ‘cut throat alley’ by the kids and you can see why. Its just a long, dark, curving path with three lamps puncturing the shadows and scrubby bushes on the far side. I wouldn’t take that route and I can look after myself.

I let Missy have a mad half hour chasing squirrels across the playing fields, then I did my rounds of the classrooms. The corridor echoed to the sound of my boots. I felt like the king of the castle. I was testing doors and windows on the top floor when I first became aware of something odd. There’s a lovely studio room, right at the top of the building. Its where the older pupils work. There’s windows on three sides and they leave easels up in a circle, usually around a still life. Sometimes its flowers and fruit, other times its old engine parts and broken guitars, (no counting for taste eh?). This week, clearly in homage to Halloween there was a collection of ripe orange pumkins, green and cream gourds and dark plummy aubergines all tastefully arranged with plastic ivy. The centre piece is half a plastic skull, borrowed from the science department no doubt. I shall surprise you now by telling you that this kind of arrangement is called ‘Vanitas’ and was first popularised in Holland in the sixteenth century. I’m not as dumb as I look eh? Art appreciation is one of my passions, though I’d never go bragging about it. A few books and Youtube videos a professor does not make.

Anyway, Im explaining the layout of the studio. At the fourth wall there’s a small interior room jutting out, a later addition, an afterthought. It’s the darkroom. These days nobody thinks twice about snapping an image, but when I started here, the darkroom was where the kids learnt the eldritch and arcane art of photography. Its barely used now. More of a historic monument to an old artform. There was only one teacher left here who had any idea how to use that room, Honor Montgomery. One of her large velvety black and white images had been given pride of place on the corridor this term. It was a portrait of one her students, pale and wan with almost white hair and the flawless skin of youth, (she’s probably married with two kids now). The skin is dewy and transparent, and behind it you can just about trace the image of a skull. Honor explained how she achieved the effect when I was admiring it one parents evening. She rarely spoke much, so it sticks in my mind. She said it’s a question of combining two negatives, projecting them one after another onto the same paper. The trick she said, was ensuring that they lined up perfectly and also ensuring that the balance of exposure was enough to fool the eye into believing that both images belonged on the same plane. I wont pretend I understood her exactly, but I remember enjoying watching how her passion radiated from her, animating her hands and lighting up her eyes. I asked her why she didn’t use colour film. She put her head to one side,

“Honestly”, she said, “I think I live in black and white”. She batted her long black feathery eyelashes giggled and I just wanted to kiss her. It felt like it was just me and her enjoying a private moment. Then one of her colleagues shouted,

“Oi Moth, you’ve got a parent waiting for you!”…and the moment was broken.

She was affectionately called her ‘The Moth’ because she spent so much of her time in there in her darkroom. I think they were being a bit cruel to be honest, making reference to her shyness. I think it was probably out of jealousy. She was a good-looking woman, one of those effortlessly attractive types. Not some stick insect in too much slap, with inappropriately short skirts in an attempt to draw your eye. She was curvy and womanly like a black and white movie star – Absolute dickhead of a husband mind, (pardon my French). One of those arrogant, flashy sods who couldn’t keep it in his trousers. Ran off with a student teacher by all accounts. She was way too classy for him anyway. A posh sort, but never too high and mighty to forget her Ps and Qs. She was always grateful for help, always there with a ready smile for prince or pauper. I tell you if I were ten years younger and single….

I’d always meant to ask her to show me how to develop photos. I remember thinking, maybe I will this term, now I’ve got some spare time. Maybe I need a little hobby. Any road, as usual the art teachers had forgotten to lock the door to the studio. Literally any bugger could come in here, rifle around and find all manner of weapons; Stanley knives, scrivers, bodgers, bleach, not to mention the acid in the darkrooms, (Im guessing that its acid, it smells like acid around there). I shook my head, might’ve tutted a bit as I jangled my keys when the red light flicked on. It’s a light on top of the entrance to the darkroom. It’s there to stop people opening the door when someone’s developing. That much I do know. I’ll be honest it startled me. I dropped my keys. Missy started whining, picking up on my anxiety no doubt.

I opened the studio door and called out,

“Anybody in there?”

I wondered whether Honor had got carried away in there. I imagined her, bathed in red light staring intently into those baths of chemicals as images came through.

No response.. I rapped on the darkroom door firmly. I shouted,

“Honor? You in there? I’m locking up, its time to go”

Still nothing. Some insect started batting into the red light, its shadows sent Missy into a howl. I grasped the darkroom door handle and pushed, but it was locked. I decided that it must’ve been on all along, it just hadn’t been noticed in daylight. ‘Must’ve forgotten to switch the lights off when she left, I thought. I tried my keys. None of them fitted. I made a mental note to remind the art department to knock off all the lights before they go home and also to give me a spare key. Who knows, it might be my opportunity to start a conversation with Honor about photography lessons maybe.

It irked me to leave, knowing that that little red light meant that the lights were on in there chewing up electricity, but what could I do? As I closed and locked the studio door I heard a small click. I looked through the glass. The red light was off. Electricity faults were my first thought and even more of a worry than power usage. I’m a practical man, I don’t do mystery. It never occurred to me at that point that anything else was going on.

Back in my rooms at the back of the school, I’ll confess I was a bit rattled. I put the kettle on and flicked on the bank of monitors and methodically inspected all the feeds. Thirteen cameras feeding me dark, grey, grainy images of empty carparks and corridors. Nothing to see here, but to show willing, I changed to my reading glasses and leaned in to inspect every vista, every angle. Nada, as we say in Spain. I remember hearing the kettle reach its critical mass and click off. I reached out to my distance glasses and knocked them off the desk. I cursed and bent down to get them before Missy could have away with them. As I straightened up and swapped my specs something dark flashed across all the monitors at once, like dark wings fluttering. I don’t know whether it was adjusting to my lenses but I suddenly felt dizzy. I flopped back down on the chair, my head spinning. After a couple of seconds of panic, with ridiculous thoughts racing through my mind. I pulled myself together… well, okay, maybe it was a bit longer than a couple of seconds. Must get my blood pressure checked again, I thought. Must get it done before Pat gives me another lecture about my heart, I told myself and made a mental note to book an appointment. Having a heart attack in your fifties is no joke, I should know. It’s the main reason Pat managed to convince me to retire early…when I was vulnerable, lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to all manner of beeping devices. Options seemed very slim at the time.

Tuesday 25th October

That morning, with all the kids raging around the corridors like nutters I was screwing back in some perspex to prevent sticky fingers ruining the display of ghost stories and poems selected by the English department. I had forgotten all about the darkroom until I heard the familiar voice of Kevin Bolton, the head of the art department booming at the other end of the corridor. There was some hoohah going on by the lift. He was there in a flap. He’s a rather florid character, shall we say. I’ve never had any issue with that kind myself. As I see it, if your uncomfortable, you’ve got to ask yourself why. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, it’s a small rickety old lift that judders all the way and has been known to get stuck between floors. Kevin was trying to convince some pupils to go up in the lift with his art materials, so he didn’t have to. The kids are backing away, refusing, they no more want to take the risk than he does. He started getting cross because they wouldn’t do as he told them, but we all know that it was because he’s getting in a stew about the confined space. Just then, Honor wafts through the crowd, in a white silk blouse and a neat black skirt. The sight of her arrests me for a moment. She still had that ageless beauty, still ripe and in full bloom. Without saying a word to anyone she simply hops in the lift. Problem solved, but Kevin is still busy bollocking these kids. I step forward,

“Would you like me to escort your stock to the top floor, Mr Bolton?”

He has a look of mixed weather. He’s annoyed at being interrupted and relieved at being given an option. I smile at Honor. She gives me a small knowing look.

“Oh, very well, Mr Street”, he conceded.

“My pleasure” I respond, to the thanks that never came.

The rickety doors close and I am there ready to talk to Honor. Ready to tell her off about the red light, ready to ask her about photography lessons…but she’s too close. I notice her pendant, sitting on her pale, smooth skin. Its an opal or moonstone or something in a Victorian setting. I want to say something intelligent and informed about it, but then I might as well just admit I was looking down her blouse. She’s got her arms up then, adjusting her hair, twisting it up into a loose dark knot and sticking a pencil through it. I am right over her looking down. Her top button pops. She doesn’t notice but I can see now that she isn’t wearing a bra. I cannot peel my eyes away from the glorious view of her smooth white cleavage and the natural curve of heavy breasts. I’m willing another button to pop, imagining one of her soft pink nipples peeping out. I wonder whether she has any underwear on at all and that sends me in a whole other direction of images. I have a brief fantasy of the lift breaking down; the sticky heat of two bodies, her peeling her blouse open to show me those beautiful, big, round …and me cupping them, feeling their weight, then slowly stroking a hand up between her legs. But with a juddering halt, we are on the top floor. Needless to say, I couldn’t say a bloody word and was thankful for the boxes of Bolton’s paint that I began to unpack from the lift as a means of distracting myself. He was rounding the corner then, out of breath from the stairs, issuing directions as to where to put the boxes, (I had a few ideas of my own). I looked up and she’d gone on her way. I watched her disappearing down the corridor. She almost floated through the crowds. I had a word with myself about letting my imagination run away.

Before I left the floor, I mentioned to Kevin about the darkroom lights. He looked at me like I was deranged. I asked if he had a key and he got flustered, muttering something about ‘The Moth’ concealing all her dark secrets in that room. Then he caught himself, a look of shame on his face. He touched my arm apologising,

“I’m so sorry, I forgot!”

I shrugged his hand off and walked away annoyed. I wasn’t going to stand and listen to him trashing Honor! I walked past the studio in the direction that she’d gone, with the legitimate reason of asking her for a key. I looked through the open door and saw what I assumed must be a student teacher trying to gain the interest of the class of older kids. She sounded shrill and harassed. The kids were being sassy and disdainful. I peered round the door and spotted Honor perched on a bench observing the student teacher’s litany of mistakes with a benevolent smile. As she watched intently she swept a loose strand of hair behind her ear and crossed her legs. Her eyes flicked over to me a moment and I flushed with embarrassment and shuffled away, too ashamed now to ask her about the darkroom key. I decided I’d send her a polite email instead.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? I’ll not lie, I was in a strange place in my head. Many creative people swear by waking fantasies as a source of inspiration. If I’d been an artist, maybe I would have plunged my desires into a wild Expressionist painting, maybe Honor would be my muse. Perhaps I would’ve composed a grand opera around Honor, my tragic heroine. I’m just a simple, uneducated man though, so couldn’t put this madness to good use. Looking back now at the whole sorry mess, I was lonely and at the same time liberated. I hadn’t slept alone in a bed for thirty odd years. I think the lad about town that I put away when I put on my morning suit and wed Pat, I think he just came back to remind me what his pleasures were and Honor, she ticked all his boxes, that much had been proved years before. No fool like an old fool eh?

That evening my face chat with Pat was a bit peculiar. There was a bad connection and she kept stop-starting which was very disconcerting. Not nearly as disconcerting as her conversation though. Her opening gambit was,

“What have you been up to?”

(Honest to God that woman has supernatural powers!) I scrunched up my face like a teenager about to issue a bare-faced lie.

“What are you on about woman?” I baulked.

“I know you Michael Street. You’ve got that look…distracted and …guilty”

I shook my head feigning confusion. She huffed,

“Anyway, have they got your replacement yet?”

“Since Monday??? No, course not”

She leaned in to the screen then, all conspiratorial,

“Well, I suppose they have to be a bit careful after the last one….doggering all over the place”

“What??” I said, intrigued and amused. She shouted too loudly,

Doggering! I know you know what it means Mick”

“I’m not sure you do”, I sniggered, “Anyway, how do you know this?”

“Nevermind how I know”, she replied with deliberate mystery adding, “Apparently, it was all over the face book for all to see. He’d used those surveillance cameras, shot the load all over the internet”

“Uploaded Pat! For God sake, it’s called uploading!

I was crying with laughter by this time and could barely speak,

She waved her crooked hand in a ‘whatever’ motion,

“Anyhow, you keep your eyes peeled for odd types lurking around in the playing fields”, she instructed, “Dirty Herberts!”.

I was still tittering to myself half an hour later. I did my rounds quite sharpish but to be fair, I did view the playing fields in a whole new light. It was Pat’s innocence that was funny. The dogging though? It did make me feel quite uneasy that the school was being used for group… outdoor group sex. Was there anything like that in our day, I was trying to think. There was those legendary ‘car keys in a bowl’ parties that we’d all heard about but never been invited to. Just as well, I don’t think Pat would have enjoyed being the prize attached to a Hillman Imp keyring. I remember feeling rather proud of myself for being true to Pat all these years. But for one small moment of indiscretion I’d been the perfect husband…but that moment, it was burning bright in my mind that evening.

Missy was out of sorts probably cos I was a bit distracted. I was pleased to note though, on the art floor, the red light was off and all doors and windows were closed on the top floor. When I returned to my rooms I checked my emails once more. There was no reply yet from Honor. Well, as long as she switches everything off, what’s the harm in her keeping her key, I thought.

I think that was the first night I started having the dreams. I was having a lovely warm shower. I remember feeling really free and happy, when suddenly I realise that Im in the school showers by the gym and all the kids shouting and laughing outside. I scramble out of the shower but don’t have my clothes. What I thought was a towel is no more than a hand cloth which just about covers my privates. I stagger out of the showers into silent darkness. Now I’m cold and alone. I can see my own breath. I hear Honor giggle. Is she giggling at me? Her voice seems cruel somehow. I feel very vulnerable, but I have to find her in the darkness, I have to see her. I know she’s out there waiting for me. Out of the shadows a face appears, but it isn’t hers. It isn’t human. It’s a Halloween mask, a boar I think. Then another mask floats forward, this time a ghoulish clown. Then another horror mask, then another. They are floating around me. Something in me knows I am about to be eaten alive. I awoke in a cold sweat, my heart thumping like a war drum.

 

Wednesday 26th October 2016

I did get an email finally, but from Bolton, not Honor. It was a rant about the smell in the studio. He was wondering if the drains were blocked, or whether several dead pigeons were decomposing in the loft space. I went to investigate, plunger in one hand, wrench in the other. The art rooms are always a heady mix of smells; paints, thinners, printing inks, photography chemicals. Its hard to imagine how anyone could smell anything else on top of these aggressive aromas. I certainly couldn’t smell anything else. Still, I showed willing. I was in my overalls under the sink, loosening a connection. That student teacher was whining at the GCSE group but they were chatting as though she were invisible. She sounded humiliated and broken. I remember thinking, why on earth has Bolton given the exam group to this weak and feeble young woman? But what do I know, Im just the caretaker. That’s when a shadow caught my eye. Honor had wafted into the room unnoticed. She was wearing that silky white blouse and knee-length pencil skirt again. I caught my breath as she pushed herself up onto the cupboard beside the whiteboard. She was looking out intently at the kids but they didn’t seem to notice her either. I had a good vantage point down there at the sink. The ‘autumn fruits’ display in the middle of the room concealed me from view, but I could look straight through the gourds and there, framed, was Honor. She leaned back on the display of over-sized shell drawings and crossed her legs. Her skirt rode up an inch or so. I imagined there was no one there but me, under the sink and her perched like a pearly goddess by the whiteboard, entirely unaware of my presence. It was at that point that I realised to my dismay, my imagination had veered dangerously into a cheap porno movie. I started sniggering to myself. Some of the kids started looking around bemused. Some of them were pulling faces at each other, nudging each other and smirking, others were laughing at me. The student teacher took it very badly that I was drawing attention. You could see it in her face that she wanted to blame me for the fact that no bugger was listening to her. I shrugged an apology at her, though I’m not really sure what for……when there’s this loud, flat, splatty sound. Suddenly every kids head has spun around and they’re all laughing. Some are shrieking with delight others are tittering nervously. The blocked sink had yielded its load of gloopy red acrylic paint all over my overalls. I look like a serial killer in a bad slasher movie. The student teacher looked utterly exasperated at me, as though up until that point she had had perfect calm and order in the room…as though I had been responsible for ruining her lesson.

Bolton was not convinced that the job had been done. At morning break he walked with me sniffing the air. I decided his nose must be a finer tuned instrument than mine, although to be fair I did see a couple of bluebottles buzzing around, which is often a sign of decay. He asked me if I’d checked the darkroom. I just nodded. It seemed easier to lie and get Honor to let me in later. After he turned on his heels in the direction of his office, I scouted about a bit looking for her. I wanted to have a quiet word, but she was nowhere to be found. There was that memory, long buried, surfacing again. A bright and dark memory. It wouldn’t go away. It was in the corner of my eye, everywhere I turned.

Pat tried to call me several times that evening. I sent her a text to say I had a migraine, which only meant she sent me worried texts on the hour every hour. In truth, I didn’t want to speak to her. There were thoughts and history, a story with Honor that were troubling me. A memory that Pat, her face and her voice would sully and shame. It was a small moment, an opportunity never taken, a fork in the road that had far more significance in my mind at that point than it probably should’ve done. Seeing her again had shone a bright light on it and I wanted to savour it, that small moment when everything could’ve changed. In hindsight, I was hiding as much from myself as I was from Pat. You must never underestimate the power of the mind. Bright lights cast dark shadows.

No Upward Chain

“Mine”.

It was probably the first word she’d learnt. The first word she’d said. It could be her last. No, she had made up her mind, she was going to stand her ground, she was going to dig her heels in. Brenda was not going anywhere!

The spoon tinkled in the china mugs. She made tea strong yet milky, the way that Bill used to like it. He used to joke that the colour matched her tights. The memory made her smile. She stopped stirring suddenly, shaking her head, realising her mistake, admonishing herself for wastefulness. Even after all this time she still made tea for two.

Brenda shuffled in sturdy, sheepskin slippers from the kettle to the small, formica, fold-down table under the window. She peered out onto the garden through the raindrop spattered pane. Unkempt grass, flattened by the rain, encroached upon the moss-strewn patio. Tiny yellow snails and thick, frilly slugs criss-crossed the wet paving slabs. Dead sedum heads connected by a network of glistening spider webs bobbed in the wind. Brambles had claimed squatter’s rights in the perennial beds and aggressive conifers crowded the shrunken garden, their dense foliage shielding it from the weak, autumnal light. What had once been a crisp, formal topiary edge had become a dark, impenetrable barrier, a savage expression of boundary. It had been many years since any neighbour could overlook the garden until Brenda and her house were simply forgotten about…. overlooked. Lucky then that the old woman valued privacy over people. Growing up in ‘the home’, she’d fought, quite literally tooth and nail for her own things, her own tiny space. So when she had found it, in this, her own house, a real home, the world beyond it and the people in it seemed of little import. Only Bill had been worth sharing with. He had been hers too.

She sighed though, admitting to herself that the garden needed some care and attention. If only she had the energy to do something about it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even ventured out of the house. It was like the forest of thorns that grew up around sleeping beauty. She imagined Bill hacking through it with a righteous sword, come to rescue her. An echo of grief panged in her.

She squinted, trying to bring into focus the relic of a wooden structure. Under the heavy, overhanging evergreens she could just about see a rough surface of flaking paint and perished wood, the mortal remains of Bill’s shed. In her mind’s eye she saw his tools hanging on hooks just as he had left them: his secateurs and shears, his edging knife and bowsaw, all rusting, decayed, unfit for purpose.

A noise, the scraping of a chair on brittle lino, drew her attention back to the kitchen. Her eyes widened. Her mouth made movements but no sound issued. There opposite her, at the table, legs casually crossed, absently swinging a foot, there was Bill. He was poring over a cheap magazine, a copy of ‘Exchange and Mart’. His fingertips were blackened by the ink. She sat staring a while, holding her breath, for fear he might evaporate. What does one say to the ghost of a long dead husband? Finally, she nodded towards the sink,

“That tap’s still dripping”.

He tutted and rolled his eyes wearily. When he saw the mugs, his weathered face cracked into a smile.

“Tea, lovely!” he exclaimed with genuine joy. Two bright, warm words in a cold kitchen. Engrossed again in his browsing, he slid his fingers over the table, searching for a cup. Brenda placed her hand on his. It felt coarse and strong and alive. Her touch startled him. He looked up at her confused.

“I’ve missed you”, she whispered.

He chuckled, saying,

“I’ve been on The Chiltern, not The Trans-Siberian, love”.

It was just as it had always been. He brought no messages from the other side. He gave no sense that he was aware how long he had been gone. He simply teased her just as he always had. She savoured this small moment of tea and simple chit-chat. He gently moved his hand from under hers to take his mug. She watched him intently. Every mannerism, every micro-expression gladdened her heart. Age hadn’t changed his features much. He looked much as he had when she’d first spotted him across the factory floor. She had noted that he looked unkempt, in need of a woman’s care. He had a relaxed, easy manner about him. In his work he seemed self-assured but not arrogant. With the few women that worked there on the assembly line though, he was shy and kind and Brenda had set her cap at him despite the age difference. She looked down at her own sinewy, liver-spotted hands now. The age gap had reversed.

Bill held the magazine at arm’s length and squinted to read the small print.

“Where’s your specs?” she enquired. The tone suggested there was a fault to be addressed, that he had lost his glasses…. again. This was how all their conversations went; He was the free spirit, she was the policeman, the jury and judge. That was the arrangement. These were the terms and conditions of their contract. He frowned at her and shook his head, dismissively, like he didn’t need them. She smirked at his vanity, saying,

“You’re still a very handsome man, Bill Cookley, with or without glasses”

He bristled as though he wasn’t remotely interested, then looked at her askance,

“They’re well by the way…Gill and the lads, in case you were interested”

That broke her mood. How typical of Bill, she thought, to ruin a moment by invoking the memory of his sullen daughter. Gillian could suck the joy out of the room with a handful of bitter words and an expression of disdain. Gillian, that miserable needy child, that dark force of nature, that dead-eyed, black hole devouring everything without thought or thanks. No wonder her husband had walked out, she had thought on many occasions. She had said as much to Bill but he would respond merely with a sigh and a bruised expression. He was blind to his daughter’s faults, always ready with an excuse. He had clung to the hope that one day, the cold war between the women in his life would thaw. Scant chance of that now.

Bill fidgeted on his chair. He had something on his mind.

“…She’s been offered a job in New Zealand” he announced, hesitantly, searching her eyes for a flicker of concern or regret even. But this was old news to Brenda.

“I know” she replied flatly. Gillian had been there ten years now. With little more to work with he took his traditional position as his daughter’s advocate.

“It’ll be nice for her and the kids not to have to worry about money for a change, don’t you think?…”

Brenda cast a sharp, judgemental look,

“I managed. There wasn’t a month when I didn’t have to do the sums.”  She was beginning to sound shrill. Bill adopted his nodding strategy as a way to curb the excesses of her temper.

“That’s life, Bill!” she continued, “Someone’s got to worry else nobody gets anywhere in life. People like us, we don’t get handed things on a silver platter and you’ve done her no favours by letting her think otherwise.”

Bill patted her hand supportively.

“I know love. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you…” he agreed. Brenda’s lips became thin and tightly pursed. Was that a dark joke? Was she being blamed? Bill interpreted her knitted brow as the expression of remorse he had hoped for. He continued more confidently now,

“…but she’s still young and adventurous. She’ll have a lifetime to settle down in a semi”

Brenda bit back sharply,

“Well, she’s living in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks we can afford to bail her out again from over here when it all falls through!”

There was nothing more to be said on the matter, nothing that either could say that would move the other’s position. It was a well worn path, a heavily rehearsed script. Even death could not change the direction of this feud. Where Gillian was concerned, it always ended in an impasse. They let kind silence cover the problem.

The rain had resumed. It was drilling insistently on the window. Bill returned to flicking through his magazine. It allowed Brenda to inspect him once more, but this time with a critical eye. This was how it had always been. She remembered the nights, furious after a row, (usually caused by Gillian, either directly or indirectly), when she had lay there fuming in bed, grinding her teeth, the bones of her back, ramparts forbidding access. He would bounce into bed beside her, throw an uninvited arm around her and be snoring within five minutes, sleeping like an innocent. And true to form, here he sat, musing over carburettors and caravans as though all was right with the world. She wanted to say, ‘You’re dead by the way, did you know that? You left me to carry on all alone’. She wanted to say, ‘… and that precious daughter of yours?? She’s trying to shoehorn me out of my own home…my home…mine!’. Instead she flicked the edge of the magazine, annoyed, asking,

“Why do you get this…?”

He shrugged,

“Just nice to see what I could buy if I took redundancy”

Brenda huffed,

“You’re a skilled worker Bill, no one’s going to offer you redundancy”

Still looking at the ads he remarked,

“Bob’s bought a narrowboat with his pay out, you know. He can go fishing out of his bedroom window”

Brenda raised her eyebrows,

“And that’s what you’d want is it?”

Bill shrugged, still not making eye contact with her. He muttered,

“No lawn to mow or rendering to white-wash? Sounds like bliss to me”

Brenda shook her head in feigned exasperation.

“To live in a damp corridor? and to crap in a bucket in the corner of the room?”

“…to crap in a bucket in the corner of the hull, dear”, he corrected.

They grinned at each other. Bill looked at her impishly, from the corner of his eye,

“This is what I’d buy”, he said as he placed the page down in front of her, “This!” He stabbed at a picture with his finger. He looked up at her like a hopeful child with a catalogue at Christmas.

It was a bike; large, low, shining, black and chrome. Next to the image there was a winged logo. It said Harley Davidson. This was new territory. This wasn’t part of the script. In thirty five years he had never once confessed a yearning for a motorbike, let alone this flamboyant, American statement of freedom. It confused her. He leaned back and winked at her, knitting his fingers behind his head.

“You and me, girl, on the open road!”

She laughed out loud at the ludicrous image his words invoked. His face dropped into disappointment. It clearly wasn’t the reaction he had hoped for. She felt she had somehow failed a test, that she had missed a cue. She leaned in to inspect the item, out of courtesy more than anything else. Her finger traced over the description to the price.

“How much??!”, she gasped.

“It’s a classic”, he explained, as though this might hold some significance for her.

She scoffed,

“We don’t have the money for classics, love”.

There was a small buffer of silence between them. It was loaded with Bill’s thoughts.

“We might, if we sell the house”, He offered quietly, adding, “Isn’t like we need the room anymore is it?”

It was then that Brenda remembered, this was ‘that’ conversation, or an iteration of it. She was dizzied by the flash memory and the clarity with which she understood its brutal conclusion. In that last, horrible clash they had bickered about the mortgage, about pensions and early retirement and maybe moving closer to his grandchildren. She had accused him of plotting with Gillian. Bill had said he was sick of breaking his back to pay a mortgage. He had pointed out that his parents had lived and died without owning their own property and that there was more to life than bricks and mortar. He had stood at the back door, rubbing a twinge away. He echoed now what he had said then,

“At the end of the day its just a house, love”

Brenda was distraught. She gave the same response that she had then. She thumped the table,

“No it isn’t Bill! It isn’t just a house”, she insisted, “…Its my home! Its all I have!” adding somewhat superfluously, “and I’m not going anywhere!”

Bill looked at her as though she were a stranger. It was not the words but what had fallen between the spaces that had wounded him. Casting back to that original fight, she remembered that he had looked ashen but she had been too stubborn and embattled at the time to notice. Did he know how unwell he was? Did he know he was on borrowed time? If he did, surely he would not have allowed those cruel and spiteful words to be his last? Brenda screwed up her eyes as though if she couldn’t see him he couldn’t speak. He repeated his last words regardless,

“I love you Brenda and I have always supported you, but by God woman, I will never understand why you refuse to acknowledge your own daughter. Its unforgivable!”.

She glared at him, ashamed and humiliated, lost for words. She couldn’t escape the truth, Gillian was hers, but she held nothing but resentment for the child from the moment she emerged, bloody, angry, entitled. She had left it to Bill to fulfil both parental roles and waited, impatiently for the greedy little interloper to grow up and leave. So Bill had returned from the grave to drink tea and hurl in her face this, the bald and monstrous truth of her once more. But the words were not so painful this time, over time she had come to accept she’d been a terrible mother. It was the look on his face that crucified her. It was that look that informed her that the contract between them was void. Had he not dropped down dead that day, he would surely have walked. The loss washed over her anew. It felt as though a bomb had gone off, right in the middle of her chest, right in the middle of the kitchen, right in the middle of their marriage.

 

There was noise coming from upstairs, footsteps on the landing. She looked up, still dazed and reeling from the harsh exchange. Her heart was thumping in her ribcage. When she looked back at the chair opposite her, Bill was gone. The extra mug stood steaming up a cloud onto the cold window. Tears of condensation dribbled sadly down the pane. She used a tea towel to wipe it away before she dried her eyes. A stranger’s voice drew her attention now.

“Ooh, a nice cuppa! Is that one for me? Thanks”

It was the estate agent. He was tall, slick and far too young to be in any position of authority. She eyed him suspiciously as he took the mug and sat in Bill’s chair. He placed his digital tape measure and tablet down and stretched a long hand across the table. He leant in earnestly. He spoke slowly and loudly,

“Well, Mrs Cookley, I’ve had a good look around. It’s a lovely house. I’m sure someone with an eye for a project will snap it up”

She frowned, repeating,

“…A project?”

He coughed awkwardly,

“Well, the décor…”

She looked around the kitchen, hurt and bemused.

“My husband decorated this house”, she pronounced.

The agent smiled insincerely and cast his hand about.

“Tongue and groove and country cottage isn’t to current tastes, sadly. Still, I think we can get a good price for you”. His eyes twinkled as he added, “You’ll be able to treat your grandkids for sure!”

Brenda stood and took the cup of half finished tea from his hand, carrying it to the sink. The conversation was over, the agent just hadn’t realised it.

“Will you be moving to sheltered accommodation?” he shouted after her. Brenda didn’t respond but continued to rinse out the mugs.

“Yes”, he persisted, “You should get a nice little nest egg from this property…”

Brenda remained silent

“I expect you’ll want to go on a few cruises eh? That’s what my nan did. Nice to have both the time and the money to do as you please, eh? Eh, Mrs Cookley? ….Mrs Cookley??”

He craned his head around to see where she might be. At the sink two mugs sat, rim down on the wooden drainer. The tap dripped rhythmically. The kitchen seemed strangely cast in cold shadows. It made him shiver. He got up quickly, unnerved. He became suspicious of a prank, (he was the new boy in the office after all). He turned a few times, scanning the kitchen for hidden cameras and shook his head. He pushed his hand through his hair and grinned to an unseen audience. He imagined them all, his colleagues, gathered around a monitor, splitting their sides. Well, he wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of freaking out. He walked around, downstairs then upstairs, as though he were surreptitiously playing hide and seek. He tried to look nonchalant as he peered behind doors and under beds. In the master bedroom he inspected the photograph in the silver frame that stood like a lone sentry on the dressing table. He leaned down and wiped a thick film of dust from the glass. The young bride in the image looked uncannily like the old lady that had let him in. Some hoaxer had a real eye for detail, he thought. He noticed that his hand had left a print in the dust on the cherry wood veneer. He brushed his hands together and looked around grimacing. There was dust everywhere. How had he not noticed before?

He stood on the landing and listened hard for movement. He waited for someone to leap out from a hidden door and clap him on the back for being such a good sport. The silence was deafening. The house was empty.

A message chimed on his tablet. It made him jump. He tapped it.

“Carl here from James, Blackwood and Dickens acting on behalf of Gillian Cookley. I’m afraid I’m not going to make it. Do let yourself in”.

The agent blinked at the message, dumfounded. It was at this point that he felt something, or saw something, a disturbance in the air perhaps, like a localised heat shimmer. The agent’s eyes became round, the whites encircling his frightened irises. The shapeless shape moved across the landing towards him. The agent was fixed in terror, unable to move. His hand clenched the dusty rail. The formless form moved slowly behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood out. It travelled into the bedroom. His eyes followed. The door gently swung almost imperceptibly. He heard a sound like an exhalation and on the air a word, a whisper, light as gossamer,

“Mine”.

Then the door slammed shut. The bang echoed around the cold landing, ringing in his ears. The agent looked anxious and clenched now. Beads of sweat sprang from his forehead. Hurriedly he fumbled, trying to zip up his tablet case. He clipped down the stairs, three at a time. He stopped in the hallway to leave a business card on the telephone table, a muscle memory action, for he was certain there was no one to read it.

He felt a huge sense of relief as the front door clunked behind him. He shook his head dismissively and strode down the path. He swiped his phone to life and found some reason, any reason to make a call, it didn’t matter who to. By the time he was on the pavement he was talking loudly, his manner jocular.

The house watched him disappear around the corner and it sighed.