Friday, 29 February 2008

The folk hunter

“One of the Green Angels was born in a dell somewhere in the north of the Lake District, or so I’m told.”
I was sharing a pint with Joseph, a local farmer and part-time folklorist. His beard was still thick - ‘winter plumage’ I called it. His eyes were wide with childhood’s wonder as he recounted his latest tale, gleaned while on holiday in Keswick.
“A witch, known locally as Deira, apparently saw the child fall to earth in a dream,” he continued talking, animating his words with his hands and fantastic facial expressions, “and, upon waking, immediately sought out this valley - which she was able to recognise from her dream.”
I beamed with delight. It was a real pleasure to have Joseph back. A joy to have a drink and a chat with him again.
“Did your contact show you the place where the angel fell?” I asked him, with real interest.
We met up every Friday night at The Old Barghest Inn, sampled whatever guest ales were on, and talked about all things strange and olde - the great secrets our ancient country holds that are sometimes uncovered. It had only meant us missing one Friday night get-together, his trip to Keswick with wife Miriam, but the weeks had dragged awfully, in between.
“Well, it was actually Shaun who I met up with and not Robin, in the end. You know him, what’s he called again? Erm, RedRune.” Joseph was talking about the web forum we frequented, ‘Local Mysteries (Yorkshire)’ on the Lost History website. I was called ‘Herne31’. He was called ‘The Barghest Follows’.
“I’ve read a few of his posts, but he doesn’t come on the Yorkshire forum much,” I explained. Joseph was much more interested in local folk tales, hauntings and the like, than myself and frequented all the regional Local Mysteries forums. I was fascinated, but I would never devote more than a few spare hours a week to the topic. Joseph, it’s fair to say, was obsessed.
“Well, anyway,” said Joseph, “Shaun says there’s a few different valleys that it could have been. They’re all much of a muchness, you know - waste of time looking. ‘But,’ he says, ‘I can go one better.’ ”
“Deira’s place.” I said it like a statement, though it was almost a question, but I wanted to sound wise, like I was right there with him on where the story was headed.
“That’s right, that’s bloody right - I was so excited, you know?” I nodded and smiled in a way that made my bottom lip slightly cover my upper one.
He continued: “It was about three o’clock at this point and we sets off on foot from this pub called The Fieldfare. Took us some time to get there, like, and we must have been walking three while half-four, until we gets to this field with a wood behind it.” I’m all nods and engaging eyes.
“It were a pretty scene, with the sun quite low in the sky and the mountains going red in the distance. On the edge of the wood there’s these timbers scattered and burnt, and the remains of this stone hut, right nearby.”
“ ‘A group of farmers got together and came for her, one night,’ says Shaun. ‘Heard she’d taken a baby, this time, and that was too much. They tied her up inside the house, got the child out and then burnt the whole place down. Burnt some of the trees up, too.’
“Well, that’s the usual story anyway, but we know that baby wasn’t normal. Who’s to say it didn’t start the fire when they tried to take it? And what became of it afterwards?” I was captivated by Joseph’s tale, I was there with him as the two men strode purposefully towards the shell of the witch’s dwelling, I could feel the coldness of that spot and the fear caused by the domination of the dark woods, getting closer.
“When we were only about eight or nine hundred yards off old Deira’s cabin, Shaun stops dead and puts his arm out in front of me, like he’s trying to stop me walking out in front of a car.
“ ‘There’s someone there,’ he says. ‘There’s someone in the cabin.’ So I follow along to where he’s staring and, honestly, I can see something just inside the doorway. A shadow maybe, an outline, but it’s there. We both know it, something tangible, lurking, maybe watching us.”
This was too much to bear. “What the hell did yer do next?,” I cried, splurting some of my beer onto the table. “Who was it in the house?”
“I’ve no idea,” he laughed. “We both turned and ran for it, back up to the path and the fell road without stopping. Seasoned ghost hunters as we are…”
I joined him in the laughter now. Guffaws and big rolling tears, now that the tension of his story was gone. A wonderful man, Joseph. So interesting, and so very kind and attentive to his Miriam.
A wonderful man.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

The Owl Who Stole the Apples From the Tree

Tom lived in a house, with his mummy and a cat called Pickles.
Like most little boys, Tom liked to play in the garden – running and throwing and kicking his ball.
In Tom’s garden there was lots of tall grass and a big tree with shiny red apples growing on it.
Every day Tom would count the apples on the tree. 1, 2, 3, 4 – 4 apples on Tom’s tree.
One night Tom was woken up by a strange noise out in the garden. “T-wit-t-woo, t-wit-t-woo” it went.
His mummy told him not to worry. It was just a little owl who sleeps in the daytime and wakes up at night.
The next day Tom played in the garden as usual, but when he counted the apples in the tree he got a surprise.
1, 2, 3 – 3 apples in the tree. Where had the other apple gone?
That night Tom heard the little owl calling in the back garden, “t-wit-t-woo, t-wit-t-woo.”
The next day he played in the garden and counted his apples. 1, 2 – only 2 apples now in the tree. Where had the other apples gone?
That night Tom heard the little owl again, “t-wit-t-woo, t-wit-t-woo.”
When Tom woke up he ran out to the garden to count the apples on the big green tree but there was only 1 apple left.
“Where have all the apples gone?” thought Tom. “Maybe the little owl has been stealing them from my tree?”
That night Tom listened for the sound of the little owl and sure enough it called out, “t-wit-t-woo, t-wit-t-woo.”
In the morning Tom went out to see if the owl had stolen the last apple from the tree.
He was right, there were no apples left on the tree. Tom laughed and danced around the garden and then ran and told his mummy.
“Mummy, mummy,” he said laughing, “the little owl has stolen all of the apples from my tree.” His mother smiled and laughed too.
That afternoon, Tom was throwing his ball high into the sky. It bounced on the ground and rolled into the long grass beneath the tall apple tree.
Tom searched through the long grass to try to find his ball. He reached in with his hand and found something round. “Here it is,” he said.
Tom was amazed when he pulled a shiny red apple from the long grass, instead of his ball.
Tom kept searching and found more apples. He lay them on the ground and counted them, “1, 2, 3, 4 – 4 apples.” Tom ran to show his mummy.
“So the owl didn’t steal the apples from the tree,” said his mummy, “they just fell out of the tree and into the long grass because they were ready for eating.”
Tom’s mum put the apples into a big and tasty apple pie, and after their tea they both ate a piece of the pie covered in thick custard.
After Tom had eaten his pie he asked his mummy if he could have another piece of the delicious apple pie.
“Well, just a small piece,” said Tom’s mummy. “It’s not for me,” said Tom and he took the slice of warm apple pie to the garden.
“It’s for my friend, the little owl,” he said to his mummy. “I’m sorry I thought you stole the apples from my tree,” called Tom and left the piece of yummy pie in the garden.
“T-wit-t-woo, t-wit-t-woo,” answered the owl. “That means ‘thank you’,” said Tom to his mummy. She kissed him and he went to bed.

The End.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Caveat

Jake put a caveat on everything. Everything he did was conditional upon the outcome of something else. He would drink only water for a week on the condition that his girlfriend drank only whisky. When driving, he would change gear whenever he saw a bird fly by. He agreed to stay away from Greenside if Harry drove his Pinto to Salinas for repairs and passed a cheque to Dale "as you'll be in the neighborhood".
Harry hated driving, and that was exactly the point of the caveat. "Get people indebted to you and then get them to do something they find uncomfortable or undesirable." Jake's words, not mine.
Wise words they proved to be 'cos Jake had the respect of most people in town, and he'd agreed to stay away from everyone else (if they stayed away from him too).
Harry was already feeling pretty uncomfortable on arrival in Salinas when he had his eye socket shattered by Dale. "This cheque's no good, man." Dale's voice speaking here. Dale's fist too.
So Harry didn't pay for the repairs to the Pinto and he took it back with him to Greenside. After a couple of days Jake wondered where his car was. He figured maybe Dale killed Harry, but when a bill for the repairs came through his door he realised he was going to have to take a trip up to Greenside.
Jake was buried three days later in the Coven Street cemetary. He had been beaten by what police believed to be "a number of men". He'd also taken some blows from the butt of a shotgun which it seemed he had then used to commit suicide.
Jake "lived and died" by his caveats. His words.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The blonde man

The fire boiled with reckless savagery as the blonde man threw powders about it.
The blonde man - firm of face, handsome like men only ever seen in photographs - stood up and spoke to the flames. His shirt he removed and cast also into the fire. Upon his feet he wore the caked sand of a day spent among the dunes. His only clothing, torn jeans, cut into loose shorts.
A cheer went up among us, his rabble, as the flames bit the cotton of his discarded clothing. He carried on with the powders. Strange chemicals that drew different colours from the bonfire we had made on the summer beach.
The fading light threw the last of its beams at the shore and they reflected in his eyes a horrible rainbow of deceit as he looked upon us, but not at any of us.
He would keep most of the gang happy until September, with alcohol and whatever pills he could conjure forth, with the excitement of the road and the trembling fear excited whenever we marched through sleepy coastal towns, but maybe I was the only one who sensed this couldn’t last forever.
The fact that I thought about the future at all was probably proof enough that I didn’t belong in this motley band. When it would come time to wash the scum from our bodies and return to our winter lives, our hibernations, they might see that I had barely a stain on my skin. Not mud, nor spittle, nor blood - mine or another’s. I felt little more than an observer, an undercover journalist - always pointing out futilities and irrelevancies - the butt of all jokes, the outsider within the outsiders, the rotten heart within the corpse.
But of all the group, the one who tolerated me most, even liked me, respected my opinion was the most important, the most revered. The blonde man.
The blonde man listened. He kept me by his side. Sometimes my words would countermand his, sometimes he would grimace or fix me with a basilisk’s stare, but he would be looking right at me; right into my living eyes.
How two people could be so similar and so worthy of each other’s respect, and yet so differently regarded by the populous was hard for me to understand at the time.
Now I see it clearer. I see that he pandered to them, like a dull parent who demands nothing more from a child than that they like them, that they are happy to see them because they know they will have fun and get their own way.
The children know they are not being led until the time comes when they are no longer sure what they want. The inexperience of the many allows for the exaltation of the one who is decisive.
He remains the leader providing he knows when to lead, and when to let himself be led. That is why my best friend, the blonde man, had to tell them to take me one night from my sleeping bag, break my legs in the back of a truck and leave me to wash up the next day in the morning surf.
I’m not built to be a leader.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Three and a penthouse

A grey throbbing landscape, growing higher with every tick of the clock. The buildings giving birth to one another, and shot so full of steroids that they nearly take off.
It was at the top of one of these new sky-rise apartments that she held his heart out over the balcony of her penthouse and threatened to let it fall.
Greasily squidging in her paws the entrails seemed to writhe and grasp to be reconnected with a body, perhaps yearning a direct link with the radial or ulnar arteries of her wrist.
I’m not sure what he agreed to, out there on the ledge, but she threw him back his heart with a full laugh: eyes closed, head rocking.
He grasped it firmly and thankfully. I was worried he would not hold it and it would slide silently from his grip into the cold dawn, now breaking. Stephen was poor at catching.
But hold on, he did, quite easily. It was amazing watching the difference in his complexion and demeanour as the heart re-attached itself and the gaping hole in his chest sewed and meshed itself back together.
His hands released their death grip on the safety rail, out there on the roof terrace, and he was able to enjoy the red dawn as if from the tranquillity of a hot air balloon.
Angela sidled over to him and blew a soft kiss into his ear. His entire body relaxed. I fancied that he wanted to cry with relief. She slid open the adjoining door, smiled sweetly to me on the couch, then span dramatically to close it behind her as if it were a curtain hiding a corpse.
Then she strolled smoothly across the room, the dress she’d been wearing all night still pristine and maintaining its purpose of hoovering in greedy male eyes.
As she approached her bedroom she turned so that her gaze struck my head like it had been punched and beckoned me with a short sharp snap of the finger.
“Come on,” she said and entered the room, leaving her door tantalisingly ajar. I stood slowly and moved on gingerly, as if I usually used four legs. At the door, I could hear clothes being shed.
I took a deep excited breath before entering; eyes closed, head rocking.