The man they found hanging from a willow tree that in turn overlooked the river. It seemed a secret place of green and tall grass. To judge by the man’s blackened and bloated face, no one had been around for a while.
A little way downstream they found the remains of a fire, cold, old and wet.
Maybe, they thought, he had built a fire whilst he contemplated carefully whatever it was he had to consider. Fatalistic thoughts burning away with the flames.
No one came to claim the body. He was eventually identified as one of the old walkers. These were the tramps that at times infested the area. Bearded and dirty, apparent down and outs. People who had opted out of the system they were at odds with and spent their time walking the lanes, sleeping rough.
Of course there were apocryphal stories about these beggars. Most where stinking rich. Each had a vast fortune hidden away brought back from or stolen from who knows where. Mythical treasure and always gold. In these frugal times gold was the only thing to keep its value and these dregs of humanity did not trust banks, investments or moneylenders. Many a local had wished for half the fortune they said.
Yet these were the times when our leaders, who had no apparent concept of what life was really like, told us we had never had it so good. This was our Golden Age.
In the case of this particular unfortunate, the local constabulary had at one point, and for a brief time considered foul play. But as this was a golden age, and a time when everyone from the smallest toddler to the oldest still ambulant could walk the highways with nary a thought for personal safety, the idea was soon dismissed as a passing fancy of youth.
This was well before the horrific child murders in the place not too far north of here.
A suicide this was, officially and as such it would remain. Murders just did not happen in this place they said. Not until much later anyway.
The body when cut down was removed to a small incongruous, Victorian red brick building that stood at the end of a magnificent avenue of poplar. This, rather quaint building, served a dual function as both occasional mortuary and pumping station for the local sewage farm. Acquiring by such, a blush of romance that would otherwise not have touched it.
The willow from which the body hung also gained notoriety in the minds of small boys and courting couples. The river continued to flow and became all the more lonely.
Of course a strange death such as this became a talking point for the entire community. The first and second houses where alive with it.
The victim/suicide, was originally of eastern European descent, come over some twenty years before as a refugee. According to one story they said.
In another, or as maybe part of the same fable, a wife and single child had run away. These were, in the view of all that heard them, the understandable reasons for giving up and opting out. The horrors of war and the loss of a family, who could blame him? Then to finally end it all, this all made sense.
It was romantic said the community gossip. It was a shame and such a one. The hearts of over the fence maunderers reached out.
Sources had no idea of the present location of wife and daughter. But the inefficient constabulary searched in a self admittedly cursory manner. The spouse and offspring had inherited the fabled fortune however and it was this rather than the reasons for suicide, which seemed now self evident, that became the paramount topic of conversation.
Exactly what was going to happen to all that money? Who would get it? It would probably disappear into some bottomless subterranean vault and never see the light of day again they thought. What was the use in that?
This and far more fanciful theories were memawed over countless back fences between they and them.
But then, what did the poor man have to spend his money on? It must indeed be a pretty penny by now, they said because everyone and his dog had allowed the poor beggar something at some time. Even if it was just that, a penny. He didn’t spend, any amount, anywhere on anything. Unless it was gold. This from the shopkeepers who obviously thought they knew about this sort of thing.
In fact all this gossip was on very good authority, as sure as I’m standing here, they, said.
The gossip flowed around the village; they always had an opinion. Up and down, eddies and currents of conjecture and supposition passing obviously unnoticed and unconcerned across the still blue corpse that was laid out on a concrete slab in the Pumping House.
It was in a similar way that rumour floated and buzzed unknown around our innocent and largely unconcerned hero’s head.
The boy had always liked birds. For as long as anyone could remember he had the strangest hobby of any child in the village. If it comes to that, he had the only hobby that could be called such, of any child in the village. He was the boy that liked birds; he was the boy who had trained a hawk.
Ornithology was the word he used, when he talked of it, which wasn’t often, or Falconry. Hoity toity little bastard. Everybody seemed to remember that and hold it against him. It was like the word homosexual, something that did not enter into the lives of most.
He did like to keep himself to himself. He was very queer; the older one’s said. He was queer the younger one’s said not meaning the same thing.
He didn’t mix with girls, said these same young contemporaries. It was early days yet, said his elders but he was showing all the symptoms. What of? Of being a pansy, of course. He was certainly funny, peculiar. He would bear watching. But with a father like that, what could you expect? That Mother was never there as well. Who looked after him? He was beaten at home they said. He was beaten up whenever we get our hands on him others said.
At least he was clever. He would do well, provided he did not burn himself out, young.
Everyone knew of someone, a brother, cousin or friend, either sadly no longer with us or wasting away grey haired and drooling in a wheel chair. Dead at seventeen a sad but inevitable victim of brain fever. That was what studying and reading too much did to you.
As bad in its way as playing with yourself. Not that they would talk about that. That was a sin and the surest way to the drooling wheel chair they knew.
But then, so was being queer. Or funny peculiar. Anyway, they said, contradicting themselves, it was a good job his mother loved him. Perhaps a little too much, since you ask. Nothing wrong with that of course. With a husband who drank all the money and was never in what else could you expect?
All this speculation would be discussed, formulated, graded and cross-referenced across garden gate, back fence, in corner shop. Wherever two or more where gathered together in anybody’s name.
Minor connections would be made and afforded a status by this that common sense and plain interest would have denied.
Gossip would be mimed, articulated and exaggerated using nothing more than a brief conspiratorial whisper. A technique developed in the mill weaving rooms for communicating across the racket of Mule and Jenny and now used to communicate secret news of import. “You’ll never believe this, but you know what he’s got up to now?”
In pursuit of his solitary hobby, it was observed that the boy spent a lot of time sitting in a small hessian hide at the bottom of the sewage farm. Near to the effluent outlet that pumped a steady stream of filth and rubber Johnnies, untreated into the river, to hang, like suicides on the overhanging branches of the trees.
He was watching birds, presumably. Why the sewage works, no one seemed to know.
Two old men, ex miners, kept the sewage farm running. Two old archetypes in flat caps with clogs and white mufflers.
These two spent most of their time making mugs of scaldingly hot tea and smoking extra strong unfiltered cigarettes and reading pornography from two old green lockers piled high with mouldering magazines.
Tommy and Albert, their names, as old, it seemed to the boy, as the building itself and just as unchanging.
Occasionally they would invite him in for a cup of tea. They would show him, as a treat, the pornographic photographs in the magazines and attempt to judge his reaction by looking at him askance.
The boy and his latent sexual preferences had been a topic of conversation here also.
“Here, young un, hast a seen this? By Christ, that ud make thee badly eh?” Everything was strangely a statement and a question.
The boy would dutifully and politely study the hand-coloured photograph of a young woman with beach ball or occasional hose pipe.
This show was usually accompanied by a sly wink and a nudge to the ribs, spilling scalding tea. Tommy would look at Albert, knowingly.
“Ee, ah bet that ud make thy prick stand up on its own. Make thy pants favver an Indian tent, eh?”
Again the boys reaction would be observed, minutely as he held the magazine at arms length.
“Eee, ah don’t know Albert, what does your think?”
So would the boy’s as yet ambiguous sexuality be discussed? Across him, over his head. But once the preliminary ritual had been observed, it would be forgotten.
If indeed he was a pansy, what did it matter. He would not last long round here.
Tommy would light his pipe and Albert would disappear with one of the magazines, to the outside toilet. A toilet on sewage farm. Something vaguely symmetrical about that. It was a thought that pleased the boy.
The entrance to the mortuary side of the building was through a side door kept hidden behind a shiny sick yellow curtain. The boy knew all about this side of things. Tommy had invited him in once when Albert was at the toilet. The boy was still unsure about what had happened. Tommy had started sweating and asking very strange questions. Once he had heard Albert’s whistling return he had herded the boy out into the main room again. Strange suspicions were beginning to form in the boy’s mind. Loosely to take shape.
Now, behind that door was the body. Lying on one of the slabs. Presumably staring sightless at the underside of a sheet.
The boy found himself wondering, peculiarly, if the tongue protruded from the blackened mouth. It was said, that hanged men were prone to spontaneous erections. He found he quite liked the concept as it passed equally spontaneously through his mind and out again. Or was a spontaneous erection, (savoured once again, a minor déjà vu) was only a symptom of the freshly hung. This silent mental wordplay amused briefly, causing Tommy to look around at the startled giggle. Surprising in its rarity.
“Tha’art boggerts lad!” was the comment as he went back to mashing his tea in a large brown pint sized mug.
Committing suicide, oh, oh, the boy allowed the thought. This was something else entirely. A man who had killed himself. Gathering around a yet unidentified centre his thoughts floated loosely. An island, a rock in midstream as he shifted the currents by passing the thought around.
This was the first dead man he had known, apart from Grandfather. It was an experience to savour, certainly.
What was this apparently pathetic creature thinking about? Why did he do it? What was so bad about his life that it would cause him to take such a drastic and irrevocable step?
He would certainly be in hell now for doing such a thing. His mother and Pastor McBride had told him just what a heinous sin against God suicide was.
I wonder if I will ever get to that state, thought the boy. Deciding almost immediately with the unquenched optimism of youth.
Given a chance, he must look in the mortuary room. Given a chance, he must look at the body. The first really dead man he had known. (Daffy, Grandfather was not quite dead when he last saw him, unless you count the ghost.) The first dead body he had yet to see.
He tried to grasp the importance of this thought. He was almost aware that it had infinite significance for the rest of his life. His head pricked with it. He was hot and it was not just hot tea.
He left the pump house and moved down to the hide. Here he kept a desultory watch. What did he see? Who knows? Something happened, of course. It could not be said that he sat in complete stasis. Or perhaps it could and he did.
Maybe a heron flew in to land in front of the hide, frog hunting. Plunging bill, one foot and a statue. Ok a flock of loud lapwing spinning and corkscrewing. The odd duck or two, landing, feet splayed on the water. What does it matter. He saw nothing but a dead old man. He saw a man he had spoken to. Someone he had exchanged ideas with.
Now was that not strange? Ideas that were no longer there. They no longer existed. Ideas needed to continue. They should be immortal. These things were precious.
This was a mind gone and worse, memory. Thoughts, fresh and alive a few days, weeks ago, passed on and gone forever from the source.
Maybe that’s what it meant to pass on. If the old man had deliberately looked for someone to pass on to. He committed suicide.
He knew he was going to die. Before he spoke to the boy, under that very willow. He knew he was going to take this way out.
There was no doubt about it now. The boy had to see him. To see him would be to know. I was, the boy thought, with a frisson of pride, the last person to see him alive. I was a bag for his last vital thoughts. What did he want to give me? This last musing struck home with some considerable force. Before they had spoken the old man had spent some time looking. He had needed to in order to find him.
When the boy did not wish it, he was never found. The old man had judged and searched in his last hours. He had spent some of his precious time looking. Did he know who he wanted? Did he know what he wanted?
As far as he knew, the boy had never set eyes on the old man before the conversation they had beside the river and later by the tree. This the boy had forgotten. This eluded; this was the fly that could not be caught. This was the irritation that could not be scratched.
The boy knew he had been told something of import and had been shown a tree. A special, important tree. Something significant had happened. The precise sequence of events slipped and fell even as he attempted to catch and hold them.
Coolness, the lack of something. The absence of a spark. Plastic and old plastic at that. Cracked and broken, empty. Yellow and old, a doll.
A sheet that had been gingerly pulled back. Dirty and yellow. A smell, a pricking at the back of nostrils and neck. A coldness to his back that was the wall and the tiles.
Old grey hairs that curled on the chest and weirdly up the nose. The nostrils that where very wide. Foreshortened like the body in ‘The Rout of San Romano’, a picture in his children’s encyclopaedia. The body was observed from the feet upwards. He could see the grey, yellow, hard, cracked soles of the feet in minute detail. He could see up across the chest and into the nostrils, like two dark symmetrical caves that seemed, strangely to be growing larger as he watched. Taking up now most of the room. Grey curly hairs as thick as cables and darkness leading downward into even more and deeper darkness from which there was no escape. The boy collapsed.
Chapter 2 What Happened Before.
It was always warm in those years and on the day that begins this tale. Insofar as any story can start. As if anything can simply begin with a knife cut across time.
Warmth associated in some strange way with texture. Warm and light.
There was dappled light on the dappled skin of the smaller than average boy standing under a tree, a willow, weeping, by a river.
Warmth from a summer sun. Light that in turn fell from tree to river before disassembling itself in tangled rotting root caverns. Disappearing down deep submerged pits and into inaccessible gothic recesses.
Or it was by direct contrast warm and light in the high air around and above, sparkling with golden mote insects.
The boy had thought at one time that all these particles were evidence of the Divinity. That all was God. The large and the ultimately unknowable. This is what they told him. That God was all around and everywhere. That He could see and feel everything and He was very easily upset. Omnipotent was the word that had been used when they had told him with switch and harshness. When they had beaten God’s love into him. It was, the boy peevishly thought, a particularly petty divinity that required such undivided and unquestioning attention.
These dust motes (that were God) then are the insects in his clothes and in his hair, falling bright and shining green gold up from the river.
This was air with texture and form, woven, in fact, as a carpet of the Orient. The kind of air that interrupts, becoming atmosphere with tangible textile complexity.
Green surrounded this boy as he hid from prying enemy eyes. He hid from searchers who could now be heard faintly moving, (he hoped away), from his hiding place down the riverbank.
He sleepily watched in the water itself a small whirlpool hypnotically spinning river detritus up into spiral innards.
There was a breeze, sparse, hot and restless, like a panting dog.
Cattle with splayed cloven hoof had recently come down to this place to drink; Large stinking, splattered brown had added further to the muddy embankment.
White and orange butterfly dipped and floated on invisible strings. Bees hummed and Damselflies copulated.
It was not silent.
Landing on the ears only, it seemed after a suitable lapse in time, the sounds of a morning farmyard. The faint crying of a farm dog chained and miserable, a cock crow answer, someone hammering and a blackbird calling frantic staccato alarm from between the hedges. A single lark, high and singing.
Unburdened and soft, the boy dreamed. Leaning lazily against the willow by the edge of the river.
A profusion of green surrounded. Green enclosed the clearing he had made for himself. This was something the boy did often in avoiding others. The children of the valley that came upon these called them his camps. They knew full well who had made them.
Except for the river edge the clearing was roofed and walled with green.
Overhead and to three sides spread willow. Mixed with the tree and almost as high stood strangely scented flowers with bright magenta and white blossom. This ‘balsam’s had strange exploding pods that tingled like an electric shock when touched.
In the hot, green space cleared out by the boy, hung various groups of luminous dust motes, sparkling golden.
The boy watched them intently.
We shall for the sake of expediency continue to call him the boy. He has a name of course. The name that his mother and family call him, usually with regret in their voices. The name that came with water and singing and his Mother’s belief. But a name has power and as this is not yet pertinent.
At the mid point of the valley, running parallel with the river for about half a mile was the street. A double row of houses formed the village, incongruous in such a sylvan agrarian setting.
Two parallel lines of alternate terraced and detached in red brick with multi coloured doors. This was Crankwood.
Besides the river called Ay that flowed at the base of a small, rather neat linear valley; there was a hill that rose some 500 feet above the north edge of the valley with the name of Winter.
A village of a single street in two groups, some seventy houses and hovels, a church and combined vicarage, two stables, a blacksmith’s, two shops, one of which was simply a shed, and three public houses, ran parallel with the valley on the south side of the river and Crankwood,. The woodland that caused the name, surrounded and fungus covered the valley heights beyond the village, gardens and fields along one side.
As a matter of chance most of the seasonal sunshine that the village enjoyed came up over the valley rim at one end of the village and ended its all to brief display beyond the rim at the opposite end as the valley ran almost exactly east to west. This made for a rather permanent and depressing atmosphere on most days as the sun did not rise very far when the sky was even more rarely clear. If you could see Winter hill, so the old saying went, it was going to rain, if you couldn't it was already raining. It was mostly raining.
One rutted and unrepaired road ran in, (or out) along the valley, crossed, one would think rather irritatingly, a bridge. This, although made of stone and carved, had seen better days.
The rutted road ran out, (or in) again along the valley bottom, although someway from the river this time on the opposite bank.
The inhabitants of our village were vague on the ultimate destination of these, as they understood it, two roads, calling them rather intelligently Eastbrow (pronounced brew) and Westbrow respectively. To say they were uninterested would be an understatement. To say they felt it not right to know would be nearer the mark. As far as they were concerned that way (both) was town and eventually beyond that was anyway, something to be avoided.
Outside news filtered in occasionally via these conduits courtesy of peddlers, tinkers, vagabonds and the odd, unwelcome black preacher.
The only other building of note in the valley aside from street, church and sewage farm was an old, rather large and ornate farmhouse called ‘Leeshi’. This also was situated about the centre of the valley but this time on the ridge that everyone called Winter Hill. Leeshi or Lightshaw Hall had been built in the 15th Century as a combination, fortified manor and way station for the mule trains of wool that came across the Pennines.
The industrial Revolution and the coming of the canals and railways put an end to all that with the remnants of a moat giving the only clue to the farms original use.
Leeshi was now derelict. The farmer had gone blind and hooligans had burned him out. These people came from the street and were the same who now searched for our hero, the boy. He decided it was time to move.
The boy moved off downstream. He could no longer hear voices. Once more he was alone.
This absence did not bother him. He preferred to be alone most of the time understanding the real difference between being alone and loneliness.
“They can all bugger off,” he said to himself rather peevishly. He was still in temper and the hectic and random journey through the undergrowth had not served to cool this by much.
His idea was to remain out of sight for as long as possible. He had not given much thought too much else. He knew that to return was to receive two possibly more beatings. One from his drunken Father, it was the weekend after all and one from his erstwhile ‘friend’s, the gang, the burners of farms. The characters that diligently searched even now. The boy wished only, as usual, to be away from all and everything.
This would be peaceful if he could control himself. Lying down in the long grass of yet another clearing. Closing eyes may help. In his boyish fashion, he had begun to think of all others as grotesque. He was embarrassed to know them and ostrich fashion if he ignored them, perhaps they would eventually go away forever.
He was tired, suddenly, achingly very, very tired. And yet even this fatigue irritated.
The young boy lacked the intellect to rationalise, his anger was therefore unreasonable. Perhaps someone somewhere was concerned about him. But that very concern was contemptible. He would learn through his solitude. This childlike truth calmed somewhat. He would eventually return with enough secret and arcane knowledge to beat them, if not at their own game then at his own.
The boy knew instinctively that this thinking was clumsy, dreamy. Conscious thoughts became few. Like the river or the breeze through the trees, he crept into trance. Silent of intruders now in Ophelia’s private world. Contemplating strange archipelago's in murky water.
It was a ritual. Almost a legacy, almost, indeed, a summoning.
Jumping into an awareness that he was drifting into a sleep he could not afford heavy eyes where opened. And shut again quickly as a shaft of sunlight shot across the river.
Tears ran down dirty cheeks. A whirring sound, insectlike behind his eyes.
Through his misty vision the boy became aware of a shape pulling itself away from the shadow of one of the trees. It resolved itself into a manlike shape seeming to flow outwards and up from darkness. A mixture initially of solid and liquid, of fog and tree. Green and gold and quicksilver but with an unmistakable menace.
Chapter 3 A Meeting and an Explaination of Sorts
A manlike shape dressed from head to foot in earth colours pulled away from the old willow. Trousers, shirt and what appeared to be a sweater in various shades of green and brown. All these were obviously oversized as if this apparition had either borrowed clothing or had lost an awful lot of weight. The garments hung from a skeletal frame. Items of this clothing had patterns, dyed clumsily into the material. Trees, animals and spirals. The clothing was old. The patterns were richly detailed but faded. The man was old
As his eyes cleared the boy began to pick out strange details. The man’s face was brown, dark as teak, lined and textured as bark. Skin was pulled tight across high cheeks and odd creases appeared at the sides of eyes and mouth.
The skin of the throat, lizard like hung loose in grotesque folds. The prominent Adam’s apple moved up and down as the man opened and shut an amphibian mouth. A trickle of saliva dripped and bumbled down the chin. The hair was greying almost to white with streaks of dark in negative contrast.
Red rimmed and watery, eyes cast about constantly, searching, looking for something, an item of obvious importance.
Our boy was not quite sure whether he had been seen and identified in his hiding place or was being simply ignored.
Still casting about with dark eyes the man suddenly and without preamble spoke.
“ I have something precious, would you like to see it?” The voice was layered with rustle and depth, like wind in trees, strangely strong for such an ancient frame. As tight as the skin on the face. The voice was rich with both danger and meaning.
“It is an egg”.
“I don’t like taking eggs,” said the boy, still irritated, more angry that he had apparently been discovered. Although by whom he still had no idea. “Stealing eggs is cruel to the birds and I like birds” He continued.
The old man cocked his head to one side, Jackdaw fashion and laughed, croaking joylessly. The boy observed a certain and apparent fear. What would cause such fright, he had no idea. Why would this apparent ghost be frightened of him?
“So it is, are you going to tell on me?”
“I’ll tell the Constable” for all the good that would do the boy added silently.
“Will you?” This was almost a dare. There was a pause.
“What kind of egg is it” Vermin egg, magpie or wood pigeon would not matter so very much the boy mused. Aware that he was being backed into a corner he searched for a way out.
“Oh, I have no idea” The man was starting to look bored. Our boy began to get some inkling of mental state. These were not calming thoughts.
“I know most,” said the boy, honestly becoming curious as to what this lunatics treasure really was and where it had been stolen from.
“Oh you don’t know this one”, mimicking the high voice of the boy in some sad parody.
“Want to bet?” forgotten anger returned.
“I think you should fucking see what I’ve got before you start making stupid fucking offers like that” was the rather pompous answer.
The boy could see that the man/ghost’s gestures were becoming exaggerated a thought of possible violence recrossed his mind.
“This is stupid, not me” the boy retorted, “Fuckin, who are you?” returning obscenity for like, with a certain frisson of excitement “Have you come to get rid of me, I’ll go somewhere else?”
Voice raised, the strange old man retorted “Yes, I could tell you to go,” and then as if struck with a sudden idea, “All this is mine, fucking Cerunnos. All belongs to me. And you should not be here by your own right or any other. Where do you call home? That Street?”
He is right, I should not be here. I should be at home taking my beating at least from someone I know. This loony is dangerous. Temper left suddenly, the gap filled with stark cold fear as a flood of ice cold. Scalp pricked, his bladder gave warning and legs began to shake.
The old man reached deep into a pocket and pulled out a large heavy object. He covered it with both hands; careful the boy should not see he raised the object to his eyes.
Opening his hands slightly he peered inside.
“Ha!” was all he said. The apparently myopic eyes widened. At the same time the hands opened.
Holding the mysterious object up, the old man invited scrutiny.
It was an egg as the man had said. About the size of a large goose egg. It had been painted green at some point. It was old that much was obvious. In parts what had once been bright shiny green was now patchy, mildewed and brown.
Marked around the shell was a pattern of some kind. The boy took some time to work this out. Crudely painted it was a simple copy of the pattern on the man’s clothes. After discovering this the boy might then have dismissed it had it not been for the strange glass like protuberances that were arranged in geometric pattern around the egg. Obviously these would not have taken the disguising paint and so shone dully in the man’s outstretched hand. These glass like objects seemed impressed actually into the shell itself. How did they do that? It was a while before realisation came.
“You didn’t tell me it was pot,” said the boy now smiling, proud of this discovery.
It was the man’s turn to be angry.
“Pot!” he squeaked with all the menace such a high pitched sound could muster.
“You didn’t take it from a nest” said the boy placatory now. On the defensive, warned he had said just the wrong thing.
“No!” was the single sulked answer.
“No” the boy repeated, scared, unsure what to do next.
“It is not pot!” slowly and deliberately the old man confirmed what the boy now suspected.
“Can I see?”
A strange look passed not so much over as through the old man’s face. Features appeared to change in a subtle fashion as lunatic left them for a moment. Simply now an old man, the egg was returned to the depths of pocket.
A long moment passed. Several times the boy thought of speaking. Something kept him quiet, something told him to hold the moment. Something strange was happening. Only the buzzing of blue flies gave sound to the moment. So be it, wait.
The old man lifted his head.
“Come” he said simply.
With that he turned and walked away through the undergrowth. Because it was the obvious thing to do, the only thing to do, the boy followed.
Chapter 4 A Tree and further explainations
So they came, boy and man to a tree. A single, very old oak. Standing fine, thin and black against a storm darkening sky. Amongst the verdure of summer this was dead. It was starved. This tree would, should have a name. In this tree’s branches rustled no leaves, rather in this the old man found his perfect counterpart. The boy realised this with some sense of shock. Hackles rose once more, he began to sweat, fear rose like bile to the back of his throat.
It was an ugly tree. It rotted. Dinner plate fungus sprouted obscene from deformed limbs. The colour, although earth, was wrong. The eye turned instinctively away. The gnarled convolutions of its limbs had crippled beyond all hope. It was very old.
Stagnant black muck gathered around its base and discoloured the ground for yards around. Dead things hung in branches like savage fetish.
A fine spread of antler, a royal at least, attached to a rough tawny strip that was obviously intended as a headband. This hung within easy reach. Higher, hanging from the same kind of twisted hide the boy could see several parts of different animals. A bird foot, claw, talon of a hawk; a brush, red and dark. Little pieces of tawny fluff blowing and dancing in the wind. A Rabbit ear, several rat’s tails, a large skull, a horse? And what appeared to be an entire Hare.
These ‘decoration’s obviously had some meaning, some significance. But just what this might be the boy could not fathom. He only knew fear, stark and real. This feeling of heat and weight had been growing for some time. A feeling the man could see, a feeling that he tried unsuccessfully to control. This was spreading in hot red waves from the pit of his stomach. A knot of turgid bile lodged in his gut. A fear that would cause problems, one way or another.
Near to the antlers in the branches of the tree and again within reach, hung a box. A simple wooden green box. The wood it seemed, remarkably new.
A single branch about twice the thickness of a man’s arm had been roughly hewn, amputated from a young birch to judge by the smoothness of the bark. A rough lid had been fashioned by slicing the branch lengthways near the top. The whole of the inside of the branch had then been hollowed out. Inside this would fit the egg. Of this fact the boy had nor doubt.
Sure enough, the object was then placed reverently in its rough casket and closed with some evident satisfaction.
“Now” the old man said raspingly, “Sit”.
No argument was even considered. The boy sat immediately looking upwards at the old man.
From this angle it seemed as if tree and man had become one. Dramatic sunlight continued to shine through branches out of an increasingly cloudy, storm driven sky. Shadows seemed to fall directly onto the mans head. The tree looked to be touching his hair in something like benediction.. He stood, seeming large against the light and the tree. The old man nodded once, satisfied.
“ Now”, again, “I will tell you a story. This is not a normal story and you must listen bloody carefully because it could in the end, concern you,”
The boy noticed how strong the old man’s voice had now become. How tall he was standing and how carefully he chose his words”
“ You may think me mad, a lunatic escaped from God knows where but you are the first. The first person I have spoken to in a long, long time.” The man seemed to drift for a moment, lost in reveries.
“You are therefore the first person to see the talisman in an age. Consider yourself fortunate.” The boy was puzzled and this confusion must have shown because anger seemed to come to the surface once more.
“The egg, you bloody ignorant fool,” the man spat and then snorted blowing thick green flem out of horse wide nostrils.
“The first mind you. This is no slight thing. It is important. You must always remember. Even when you are older and do not believe, you must remember. Do not wonder about understanding, that will I’m sure come later. And do not be afraid, that will also have its time and place.”
The man closed his eyes. A rapt, peaceful expression, at odds with previous impressions, covered his face. For long stretched moments he was silent. His frog mouth moved surrounded by its dark bristle beard, forming words apparently. But saying nothing, as if the concern was how to start. How to pollute this innocence, now so rapt and hanging on.
Suddenly, so quickly the boy jumped nervously again, despite promising himself that he wouldn’t, the old man began.
“My name, or what you can call me, is Tawny. I’ve always been partial to that, yes.” Agreeing with himself. “Not quite what I am called, but near enough. A name like that will make what I have to say much easier. A good deal much bloody easier.”
“Now we are not just strangers talking, we have identities. Something we can work with. Well at least one. No, don’t say anything; your name is not important. I think I know what it is anyway.”
“ I know all I need to and when yours becomes important it will damn well not be that bloody silly thing you have got now”. He paused as if irritated, offended by something.
The boy failed to wonder he was already caught and held. Eyes wide, rapt, fascinated, loving what was happening, he was failing in many other areas also. Failing to notice, failing to use his senses, unable to appreciate the passage of time. Missing the myriad events, the happening of the world. Changes as they happened. The building up of thunder clouds. The lessening of the light, the arrival of the storm front wind.
He was entranced with no wish or hopes to break the spell.
“You know the peculiar magic held in a true name,” Tawny Frogmouth continued. “Knowing a true name is powerful knowledge, you know that don’t you? Of course you do, bloody well should” agreeing with himself once again.
“Just as you know Tawny or Tom, Dick or bloody whatever it is, is not my real name. That you cannot know”. Once again the nod, a punctuation, apparently satisfied, to some degree at least.
“Anyway,” He waved an impatient hand. “All this is not important, the word is”. As if to increasing importance of these words the veins on his temples throbbed redly, his eyes shone with tears of weakness not of sorrow.
“What do you know of the Word?” the capital implicit, “What do you think you know of the Word? What do you care about it? Do you even care at all? You should. You bloody well ought to!”
Another significant pause, a significant question.
“You do” Tawny continued “You do know about old ways, the Mother’s ways, the milk of the Moon… ah!” A gesture caught between infinite satisfaction and frustration.
Silence reigned. No natural sounds. No birds, no animals, no wind in the trees once more. It was dark suddenly and without notice. The light through the branches of this monstrous tree was now silver. No, more than silver, more than precious.
A full moon, larger than life, gibbous and round had risen and was approaching the zenith all without time apparently passing.
“The milk of the goddess, the power and the Word, the rank breath of the serpent, the worm!” The old man, no old no longer. Taw no longer. The man, the god, raised a hand and spoke the Word and time ceased to be. Words came, a gap between each but the sound did not fall away. The music of voice remained pulling into its web and holding the boy, controlling him, pinning his mind, all that he was, to the man and the tree. “Look!” he was urged. The boy looked.
Chapter 4. Death and some consequences
Not so much black, was this body, but grey and dirty and muddy purple, a green rope seeming to erupt out of a swollen neck and a simple knot tying the short rope to an elastic branch that waved up and down as the body moved from side to side as a grotesque pendulum. A bearded sloven of a man in dark contrast to the blond brightness of the boy and not simply because of the obvious differences, namely that one was breathing, now all unconcerned and one was not.
This suicide had been hanging around it seemed for some time to judge by the condition of clothing, extremities and composition. Skin had wept and tightened, hair had been lost and flesh nibbled. A banquet table for the small and carnivorous, omnivorous and frankly opportunist. A dichotomy of decay with verdant growth
The fact that our unfortunate had remained undiscovered for so long gave evidence to the remoteness or rather secretness of this hiding place. Of this, tree where even the boy had not seen on first scrutiny a rotting corpse in apparent full view.
A hidden observer once he or she had recovered from the shock of discovery, would wonder whether these opposites, the boy and body, in such a sylvan setting, where known to each other, in happier times, of course. For no reason other than pure whimsy it would be decided not. No, they where not acquainted. Which of course would make the imminent discovery all the less shocking, perhaps. A first contact with death for our smaller and more vibrant hero would be all the worse if his deceased opposite could be instantly identified with past, perhaps pleasant memories. Or perhaps decomposition was such that recognition would be impossible after the immediate heart stopping shock of discovery.
The old man pointed a bony finger directly at the gently swaying corpse. The boy could hear now quite clearly the sawing creak of rope against branch. He felt sick. The bile lodged in his throat burned in a concentrated lump of indigestible fear.
"Ahhh...." was all he could manage as a statement of intent. This caused the old man no small amount of cackled amusement.
"Now, who do you think this is?" asked the older protagonist of this sick pantomime. In coughing voice and humour.
"Or," trying not to giggle inanely "To be more precise, who was he?" A disintegration followed, speech becoming wordless and liquid rumbles from a picket fence like chest. In cliché there was even a "He,He,He" that the boy thought in a moment of sanity, deplorable.
The boy shook his head from side to side, disbelieving. Failing once again to understand. What am I here for? what does this thing want? Can I get out? Where can I run? Who will believe me? Scampering thoughts salted with desperate, unthinking fear. A rodent in a wheel. Escape, only escape!
Chapter 5 Pastor and Curate an Introduction
“ I’m as open to the charms of sophistry as the next man,” opined the Pastor, whilst seating himself in his favourite calf leather armchair and liberally stuffing his pipe, packing it down with the bone hilt of a small blunt knife. “ Leaving aside the tenets of faith of course”.
His companion and apparently avid listener was Curate Simpkins, a rather sallow and insignificant young man of some twenty five years. Hanging on Reverend McBride’s every word, he sat mouth open and extremely small cup of milky liquid perched on his lap.
‘The tenets of faith’, what was that? the curate, aware, not for the first time that he was out of his depth. Aware that to say anything, anything at all would be to damn himself to the deepest halls of embarrassment hell.
As was normal therefore, he contented himself with what he thought was a sage nodding of the head.
McBride, of course was not looking, he never did, but the curate consoled himself with the idea that the esteemed Pastor did value his informed opinion, he had been invited. Whilst the Pastor’s unseeing gaze rested on the far meadows of self -congratulation.
These two were opposites in many ways. McBride the jowly, red faced apparently hedonistic clegyman straight from a Victorian novel. Large in more ways than one, gigantic boozers nose seamed with obligatory broken veins, huge almost bald head that seemed to burst out of the neck of his well made but increasingly too small cassock. Deep of voice and piggy of eye. A style of speech that was acted, forced and mannered. That affected most of what would be expected. A lugubrious and frequently sated life that celebrated all and restricted nothing in its search of pleasure.
Whereas the Reverend Simkins when compared, was the aesetic sad stick insect with obligatory sallow and dark complextion, widows peak and pale complexion bearing a remarkable likeness to illustrations of a famous Consulting Detective. Sculpted high features that seemed to be collected in the bottom of a long face. Giving our erstwhile cleric a look of perpetual gloom that seemed particulalry apropos to his calling. Thin everything, lips, of course but also nostril, nose, eye and hair. Giving a casual observer an overwhelming impression of a single charcoal black line. And Uriel Simpkins cultivated only casual observances, of his demeanor at least.
In fact the only thing these two, the disparate and the aestic had in common was the church and the style of dress such a vocation found obligatory.
Needless to say only one had a strict vocation, the other had found a comfortable little niche in which to stable his increasingly rich and dissolute appetites.
A moment of quiet contemplation then before a rude banging on apparently the front door brought Simpkins clumsily and cup rockingly to his feet and to the Pastor a look of beetroot outrage, followed quickly by a gargantuan bellow that fair rocked poor Simpkins back on his heels.
“ Mrs Boydell, knidly find out who that is and tell them we don’t want any!”
“It might be important”; Simpkins ventured and instantly regretted. Pastor McBride rounded on him as a bull on a bullfighter, a terrier on a rat.
“Important, my little boy priest! What do you know of important?” Little flecks of spittle punctuated this across the front of the Pastors tight black pearl-buttoned coat. “Important is what I say it is in this location, not some beggarly disturber of peace or some moth-eaten, shiny cassocked simpleton!” Say what you like about the esteemed, (by himself) Pastor but he did have a way with language.
Simpkins shrank into himself at this last remark some small worm of dispute seething in his breast. Say also what you like about Uriel Simpkins, Dr.Theo (Hons) (CB) he did not argue, for long anyway, and audibly with his superiors.
What happened in the privacy of his breast was another matter. He followed his superior out.
" Its Tommy from 'pumphouse" said the housekeeper, looking through the window. A Mrs Muriel Boydell. Thin, turkey necked and just as garrulous, normally. In this instance rather put out by the Pastors unchristian rudeness. 'Should expect it by now' she thought hard at Rev Simpkins who judging by the look on his face, understood every word she was thinking.
"Oh, well that's alright then, isn't it Simpkins?" said the Pastor holding out apparently innocent patronising hands in supplication.
'Die and go to a hell full of shit', thought the curate aware that he was himself acting in a most unchristian manner but feeling justified in the deepest recesses of his tainted soul,nonetheless.
"No need for that" returned Mrs Boydell, frightening the curate as a mind reader. "Yer might well find that what ol Tom has to say is important" fixing the Pastor with a basilisk stare.
An unsatisfied "Hrumph" was gained in return.
"We are not going to discover any nuggets of wisdom this personage has to divulge standing here waiting, are we Mrs Boydell? If you would care to open the door and ask then I would be more than grateful."
"An there's not need for that kind o' talk either". Mrs Boydell was not a woman to be trifled with. which was why she was working at the Rectory for a man like the Pastor. 'Personage indeed,' she thought whilst opening the door. 'I'll give him personage'.
"Well, Tom, what do yer want now?" Pushing her face beyond the door and raising her voice in an attempt to intimidate by proxy. "Come on, speak up" Say what you like about Mrs Boydell but she was a seasoned bully. Particularly since she lost Mr Boydell of lung sickness two years ago come February now. She failed to see why she should suffer anyone gladly, fools or no, young or old.
" Its yon lad" said Tom " Ee ad a look at yon body in't cold room, as ee shouldn't. Wi towd im both me an Albert, but ee'd ave none an ad fer see fer imsel, o'course. An now ee' taken badly. Can't do nowt wee im".
" Of course you will have to attempt a translation" said McBride. "Or perhaps you can make yourself a little more useful Simpkins and assist Mrs Boydell in whatever is concerning this gentleman so tremendously".
'Oh you understand all right', thought Simpkins. 'You know what he says. You just don't want to get your hands dirty. Soon enough to get involved with the dead when they are decently coffined. And of course this being a suicide you need not get involved at all or only in the most peripheral manner. Beyond the pale. Of course I will deal with it and of course I know which boy we are talking about. Just as you do ,you sanctimonious appendage'.
All this disappeared into Simpkins conscious without a trace of rebellion appearing anywhere on the calm mill pond of his face. A little tightening around the eyes that doubtless would be ascribed to fear, fear of superior, fear of death in its most violent form. Fear of making a mistake.
"Has the Doctor been called? asked Simpkins of Tom who replied in the affirmative. "Then give me a moment to get my coat and I'll be with you."
All this to a voluble and unecessary sigh of relief from the Pastor. For whom the event was now over and forgotten and who returned as quickly as he may to pipe and meadows of congratulation. After all his was the only opinion that mattered in this hole.
Chapter 6 The tenets of Faith.
Recent storms had left the road along Eastbrow slick with rain as Curate and Tom passed beyond the church.
"Tell me what happened, Tom" said Simpkins confidence returning somewhat with distance from his mentor and nemesis.
"Like I said Reverend. Bloody lad wuz peeping where ee shouldn't have an fainted clean away". A nerviousness in this repeated speech giving pause for thought in Simpkins now tightly controlled apperance. "But ee favvered alreet when Albert sent me fer thee. Just commin round ee wuz." Albert was obviously the charge hand in this relationship.
Dark skies scudded beyond the poplars that lined the lane to the pumphouse and drips seemed to echo as they fell from etched and windy branches.
"Who was it he saw, in what did you call it Coldroom?"
"Aye its wur we keep bodies, like yon poor sod we found up tree".
Simpkins was finding keeping pace with Toms rapidly thickening dialect increasingly difficult.
"Slow down Tom" he said in an attempt to alleviate the obvious nerviousness that was leaking quite obviously from every part of Tom. Although he was no more than a darker shadow in a region of shadows, his speech and what body language Simpkins could discern was showing an increasing distress as they closed on the pumphouse. A small wan light could be seen leaking out from under a door ahead.
"The suicide?" queried the curate now starting to put everything into place. "That must have been a real shock for the poor lad" he continued whilst thinking 'how trite a remark to make'. Tom did not seem to notice, wrapped up solidly as he was in his own concerns.
The thin light became sick yellow rectangle as the door was opened.
Chapter 8. A Face swam into view.
A face swam into view. Misty and completely unknown.
It seemed superimposed upon the room. Not really there at all. The boy’s eyes were streaming and something was stopping him from rubbing the itch right out the back of his head. Someone had hold of his arms. A small thin pain in the elbow focussed his attention briefly and someone was speaking, slowly and senselessly.
“My name” he said echoing on another planet. “My name is Ashes”.
There he had said it. He had told someone else. Assuming, he thought, through the fog that someone else is here. “My name is Ashes” he repeated.
Someone coughed, someone else swore. The boy tried to continue the focus but time seemed to telescope, wrap around itself and flatten... The face was trying to tell him something he could not understand. The room, the coldroom? Tommy and Albert?
“Look at me/there is power in a real name” said the voices together.
“Can you see me/the Word and the land?”
“We now have identities to work with” said the stronger of the two voices, the black and brown one. The important one. “I will tell you a story, it is important because it concerns you”
“Can you answer me? Are you able to speak?” said the minor voice. The sound seemingly coming from the face in front and far away simultaneously.
“Ashes” said Ashes. “I saw the egg. He called it the talisman and he hung it on that tree”.
Swimming slowly to the surface the boy could still hear the songs and the bass throb of a headache but vision was returning. Sense was coming back, too quickly now, causing dizziness. The face had his hands under arms and was lifting. Ashes was raised and vomited over a black coat causing the face to change and time to split again.
“Who are we talking about?” made sense from far away again. Reverend Simpkins was asking him rather petulantly. Tommy and Albert looked on both worried and puffing engine like at old pipes.
The Reverend was wiping yellow vomit from the front of his cassock with a blue handkerchief. Strangely complimentary colours
“What egg and what tree?”
Ashes decided that the time had come for pity. He had suffered enough and no one seemed to care. Tears began. If anything the two old labourers looked even more guilty. The Curate turned on them.
“What have you done to this boy?” No answer so, “Come on I demand an answer, what has been done to frighten and sicken this young boy so?”
“We’ve dun nothing to im” said Albert “least ee dun it to imsell”. Tommy looked away and concentrated on banging out his pipe on an old iron stove.
“Ee looked in yon room” gesturing with his head, “an ee shouldn’t. Leave the poor sods alone”.
Perhaps this behaviour signifies nothing more sinister than guilt, thought Simpkins.
“Can I talk to him?” he asked the Doctor. A non- committal slight nod just the right side of curmudgeon was received in return.
“Now, what did you say your name was, Ashes?” turning to the boy.
“That’s not is real name” said Tommy with a certain bravado as it seemed certain he was not about to be chastised further. At least not for the present.
“He said, there was power in a real name and I shouldn’t give it to anybody”.
“You see” said Reverend Simpkins with a certain respectful surprise. “No real names, not even guesses”.
He returned to the boy.
“Who said that to you and what did he want?” A moment of silence, then, “Come on you can tell me, I’m not going to hurt you”. Not for all the devils in hell, he added silently. The boy was not listening, nor was he watching. Simpkins found the frisson of petulance he felt strange and out of character. The boy was looking at the shiny yellow curtain to the morgue.
Several things happened at once. Simpkins turned, Albert said “Christ in heaven!” Tommy spat deliberately as a ritual, the Doctor looked confused at everybody and the boy answered.
“Him, he told me. Him the old man, Tawny”.
Chapter 9 A Visit
Mrs Boydell had long gone and Pastor McBride was on his third glass when the knock came to the door. Leaving port decanter and ink stained notes for Sunday's sermon on the dangers of excess, but carrying an empty glass, he stumbled to his feet. Exasperation writ plain across a ruddy countenance and insults piling hard behind a droopy if flushed posture. Staggering forward, a stately barge tacking across a turgid calm.
A rather large shadow could be seen through the stained green door glass. Small cause for concern for the confident if irritated clergyman as he tottered along his be rugged hallway. A bellicose sigh signaled reaching the thrice damned interruption and the equally irritating door.
" Oh you. and what is it this time?" was the pointed query as soon as bolts were shot and key turned.
A figure posed on doorstep, no more than a brief shadow that seemed to chill in and of itself. A hooded coat and a suggestion of rot followed the sight of this apparition. Ancient brown corduroy trousers worn at the knee could be seen beneath a black duffle coat.
A rough wooden box containing a large egg was placed by skeletal, tea brown stained hands, reverently, carefully and silently on Mrs Boydell's freshly Donkey stoned doorstep.
Suddenly paling rapidly and letting crystal glass fall, from nerveless hands, shattering it immediately upon the egg; the Pastor fell back panicked into his hallway. Mouth opening and shutting as some vast black carp derived of sufficient oxygen rich water. Shocked beyond competence, a purple port drenched gurgle rose from a flaccid jiggling throat.
Glazed brown tiles smeared with blood from glass cut hands as Mc Bride slid backwards; retracing in comic horror, almost exactly his route to the door. A grounded black, fat seal sliding away from an unnamed, unmentionable predatory apparition.
In almost subtle reply to this pathetic sight the egg conveniently rolled clicking into the hall following as if by common purpose the Pastor's slippered flapping feet. The door closed quietly whilst outside the breeze from the depths of hell blew leaves into dancing spiral, around in a sulphur orange street lamp before settling to peace once more.
Chapter 10 A Religious Musing
The boy, Ashes? was sitting rigid on the makeshift camp bed at the back of the room staring at the yellow curtain. This Simpkins presumed led to the mortuary. Having not been long enough in the village to visit in one of his sad official capacities, he took it on trust and the fact that everyone, Doctor included, was staring, blank eyed and slack jawed at the doorway. He considered that beyond that shiny sick coloured curtain lay the body of the unfortunate suicide. If he could be forgiven such Popish sentiments, the poor unfortunate lump of soulless flesh that would be interned beyond the pale for indulging in mortal sin. Strange concept, he then thought, indulging? This brought back the Doctors cryptic remark about ,what was it, Soul Lacking?
Suppressing a smile and strictly reining in such inopportune musings he brought his mind back to the boy and the important present. The thing now was to get him home and away from all incidents, suicides and views that apparently still caused harm. Perhaps he had actually witnessed the suicide? No, that could not be. According to Tom on the journey here, the body was quite badly decomposed when found. Still, quite a shock for our friend, in any case, to find such a rotting, obscene lump, hanging discarded from a tree. This thought brought in turn a faint sickly sweet whiff to the curates naturally flared nostrils.
Did that curtain then twitch? Come on, old son, he berated himself, you are a professional man of God; Dr of Divinity, the Rev Uriel Simpkins did not jump at stupid ghost stories. The dead were dead, no matter how long matured, no matter how gamy, they were finally beyond this mortal coil. The only hold on the dead had on the living was through the unfortunate and mistaken grieving of relatives and friends; not of course that this unfortunate had any of those apparently.
No one in the tableaux under the yellow light seemed inclined to speech, thought Simpkins. So it looks like it is down to me. to take charge and to demonstrate my control of the situation. This is my job. This is partly why I joined the church. His mind jumped instinctively away from the other more accurate reasons. This again in turn brought a rather embarrassing cold sweat to his temples. He flagellated his thinking once more.
The words " Where does he live?" came rather loudly and strained to his ears, before he realised with some degree of shock that he was the one who had actually uttered them. The other three men in the room jumped from near sonambulence at this unexpected noise and all looked in his direction with varying degrees of incomprehension pasted large upon their faces. The boy remained rigid and uncomprehending.
Tommy was the first to recover. " He lives in't Britannia, with his Mum and Dad. His Nan runs it. good woman, his Nan"
Simpkins was aware that the Britannia was the local ale house near the swing bridge over the canal. This large and rather imposing edifice had been built some hundred years before to service the drinking habits of the mining community. It opened only on change of shift and the miners attended still in pit dirt to drink away wages. It had all the misplaced grandeur of a homage to a considered mystical past in its architecture, and had become by dint of this the semi official meeting place for the village. Having assumed an importance beyond that of the church , much to his superior's annoyance. Simpkins considered how to get Ashes home without causing considerable interest and inevitable gossip.
"Tell me about him", he said pointing at the pale and shaking young boy. " I don't think I've seen him at service, hmmm?"
Tommy started to answer before Albert placed a strong and restraining hand on his arm.
"You'll have to see his Nan about that" said Albert taking a well bitten pipe from his mouth and gesturing over his shoulder with it. "Me an Tom, ave nothin much to say about it". Simpkins was acutely aware of the lapse from and to dialect and he wondered.
Chapter 11 The Brittania
As they approached the Britannia with Ashes hanging on Tommy's broad back Simpkins noticed an increase in the curtain twitching and children running indoors.
Several locals were sitting on the large grey doorstep of the pub and again younger one's were seen off on errands of apparent urgency as the small but notable procession advanced.
Simpkins felt his puritan values come obviously to the fore, with reddened cheeks and downward sloping head. He observed this rampant gossip mongering with cynical raised and disapproving eye brow.
It was by now dark and quite late. Although the rain had long since stopped, men were still drinking, and smoking; women were gathering in halo's of orange light wrapped in shawls and aprons. Touching the bottom of their faces and folding arms under ample bosoms, with a degree of what could only be called satisfaction,. Children who should now be in bed and tucked up after suitable prayers according to the values of the ernest young priest, were still running around, unwashed and pestering for all they were worth. A couple of them in tears after reaping the inevitable rewards of such ill mannered behaviour. All eyes were fixed on the oblivious and seemingly semi concious boy.
A chorus of "How do Reverend" in counterpoint to the innumerable whispers floated in and beyond the small group as if it was storm damage in a white water flood. The group made its picking way to the rather large red doors of the Britannia.
A man in pit dirt, holding a jug of ale under his arm as he attempted to light a full strength cigarette behind cupped hand, came out of the door, just as the Reverand, Tommy, Albert and Ashes approached.
Seeing what was bearing down on him through the gathering crowd and with immediate determination he turned quickly and returned into the darkness of the bar. The seated miners on the step shuffled bottoms to one side or the other, peering up with dirt mascaraed eyes and frank curiosity. Flat caps pushed back and jaws dropped they endured the Mephistopheles eye of the young curate.
Simpkins looked up from these just in time to see a large galleon of a woman in a pearl buttoned black dress, breach through the door.
"What are you doin with our lad?" she enquired before Simpkins could say anything. Following quickly with " You give him to his Dad, this instant Tom, my lad and there's a pint inside for the pair of you," " Now then, young man" fixing the young curate with a basilisk stare to equal or exceed his own, " You'd best be about telling me what this palarva is all about".
Simpkins attempted a forthright shrug and wondered where to begin.
Chapter 12 The Father
Passing strange, this, considering the circumstances. There is, of course no humour in the laughter, no jollity. Why should there be? This is the laughter of hysteria.
“You bloody little liar!”
Observe, look particularly at the faces. We are later in Ashes bedroom.
Ashes Father, round, ruddy, inflamed, passionate. Drunk, his instinct is to beat, maim, cause pain. This is hereditary speaking. This is the incompetent result of historical incompetence. Passed down and down, a flame of sick thwarted passion.
“Come here you little buggar!”
Is our hero a smooth faced innocent? Is he? Both protagonists are equals in this. An uninterrupted line, shining through the years. Intending to continue, to breed on itself. A hydra. Not that it can be rationalised to any real extent. After following orders to go to his room Ashes stands at bay. His eyes bright, a mixture of something, not of fear, but something very close. Not the fear he felt earlier, not the awe and displaced courage he felt whilst standing in front of a dead man
A hatred of course. A passion that keeps him there with his drunken lout of a Father, in thrall, taking this. Must be very similar to the inner voice that keeps battered wife chained to alcoholic spouse. But laughter? Where did laughter come from?
He could run, again. Could allow this drunken spasm to run its course in snoring, stinking oblivion once his Father had retired to bed. At least until the deadline for waking, when the whole process would always start again.
It began with over love. It began with slobbering and guilt and pinched face and a painful rubbing of stubble against the aforementioned smoothness.
He has run many times in the past. Out of the back door of the pub, over the pit yard and across the fields. Past the bakery, through the clayfield, onto the river bank and into fresher air, freedom.
The weekends, these were the worst times when Father could not be avoided. When Mother had escaped to one sister or another somewhere in the village.
This debate could be of some interest. Why does he not run? Now when he knows he is to be beaten. Escape would seem to be a solution of a kind and for a time at least. Run into your beloved fields and hedgerows. Into the darkness. The cool anonymous dark Look for your ghosts. Out there, find what you can find. Run you stupid… are you not as bad as he?
What could be saved, this is what he may turn into, as he perceives his Father standing in the bedroom. A line uninterrupted. Violence down through the years, Father to son. When will it change? Will it change with you? Go and go now! Leave him to rot in his own alcoholic stew.
Father will die of course. Sooner or later his heart will issue its final weightless warning. They will bring him upstairs, from the bar, as they did last time. Bleeding from eyes. Blood vessel burst from coughing in turn came from laughing, doubtless from some inane crudity. They will bring him, these so called friends and leave him, fallen over a door. Shirt front bloody, eyes unseeing, black with blood. A small shy boy to watch and wonder after they left. A line about to continue, shining.
So he runs, when he can, out across the fields. To farms, both normal and sewage. He runs as a beast runs, a beast at bay, a beast to its den. He runs by instinct. He goes to where no one will find him. He runs to hide in his favourite places. Except now these places are polluted, inhabited by other ghosts, other victims, invaded. Strangely at this time he thinks about the egg.
The father had two heart attacks. On both occasions the boy was the only one there to help. On both occasions the father recovered. A lesson was not learned. The line continued.
A moon rises now.
Ashes stands at bay in his bedroom, dark.
I suppose it is getting late, he thinks sullenly. He watches the shadow standing in the doorway
The times his Mother would shout, into this room – sleep – knowing he was still awake, reading.
Always reading, anything he could get his hands on. That is what his Father does not understand. Will never understand. That is why he stands lit by the light from the open door as it leaks around him.
He reads late at night with a frisson of fear. A dirty yellow paperback, tales of ultimate horror, the colour of old urine. A bet with another boy. An enemy bully. The one he had stolen the book from.
Waking later and shouting.
Back to sleep, in that bed. He always hated the dark. Always the same sheets, pink and blue candy stripe, always the same candlewick bedspread.
A mattress that sagged towards the middle.
Was this Grandads bed? he asked his Nan. The only one he could really talk to. Was this where he died? Did he cut his wrists with me in this room? Honestly?
All the smallnesses are now gone. Precious books on three shelves. The notebooks and the drawings on the wall. All these burned gloriously on the highest slagheap he could find In heathen temper after a severe beating from his Father.
“He will stand for hours at that window, he loves his birds” , said his Mother to his Nan.
He would be looking across the to the lake below Leeshi. The sanctuary they called it. As it had signs that proclaimed ‘Any person caught with dog or gun on this land will be prosecuted’ The farmhouse on the far side of the lake was built in 1610 and had a moat. This was called Leeshi and had once been the manor for the village
“That stupid looking, at birds he doesn’t get from your side, that’s me straight through.” Said Father to Mother, wrongly.
In present time his Father pronounced “Come here, you little bugger, I’ll wring your bloody neck for you. I’ll swing for you yet”.
“Come here you little sod! I’ll teach you to grin at me!” Knowing that punishment must be meted out before Nan came. And the boy must be punished. For laughing if nothing else.
In the past the boy always grinned in fear.. The psychology of this could never be understood. It always made a bad situation infinetly worse. But no grinning now, why?
“Christ, when I've finished wi thee” Broad accent punctuated with hated spittle.
When calmly drunk Father would say “You always got a good hiding when you were bad and it never did you any harm, did it?
“Did you hate me? He would say.
“Do you love me, I know I’m an ugly bugger?”
All this would be in later conscience. He would ‘donkey rub’ unshaven chin against a child’s softness. Or he would rub both ears until they burned. .
“There is nowt, yer Father can’t do” with an emphasis in true village style on the ‘a’ in Father. Flattening all vowels.
“Oh he’s a good lad, never says owt to anybody. Allus got ‘is head buried in some bloody book. Or ees walking cross those bloody fields. Ee knows round here like back of his bloody hand. Ee goes ower to yon mon at farm oe’er theer, o’er Leeshi. Or else ee's at that bloody Sewage works. I’ll go with thi some day lad; tha can show me what tha finds to look at. Beats me what ee finds so interesting. When I was on t’village council, they asked me if they could go oe’er theer wi’t nets and suchlike, ringin’ them birds. So ah said aye if yon mon could go wi them. Nair ee’s never away. Its wonderful what this owd Dad can do for thee, in’t it?”
All this with pint in hand to his cronies at the Brittania.
Now however his Father advanced into the room.
Chapter 13 Nan & a Summons
Uriel Simpkins wondered first of all how he had been invited in. He wondered what he was doing in a bar and most importantly what was correct behaviour in such a place?
He was also impressed, that much he had admitted to himself. The dark mahogany bar forming a complete circle on a tiled marble black and white floor. Drinking stations in the round. The public, miners part of the bar was strictly towards the door. Nan told him that this was to keep the rest of the pub free of pit dirt. This is where Tommy and Albert now stood with pint in hand amongst a similarly clad, if dirtier, group of miners. Tommy giving sheepish to the group and Albert for some unfathomable reason belligerent.
The dark coloured bar itself was covered with a carved bacchanalia of nymphs, gods and grapes and had sash etched glass windows at intervals around the circumference. These were open on the public edge where lounged the motly crew who had been outside; and quite definitely, it seemed, closed on the non public or best side, as Nan continued to call it. Beyond this in its expensive atrium the marble floor continued until it reached a wide curving staircase. Reaching up to shadowed upper floors. This is where Ashes had been taken by a rather scruffy individual with bad teeth and a prominent lower Hapsburg jaw. Presumably the Father of the child. Simpkins followed Tommy and Albert's gaze up the staircase until Albert noticed and caught Tommy a blow on the arm. Then both looked sheepish.
Nan was talking, Simpkins was suddenly and painfully aware. Her expression suggested a question and stance suggested that she knew he had not been listening. This gave her obviously the moral upper ground confusing and embarrassing the young priest even further.
His mind raced for a suitable and erudite answer but all he could think of was his erstwhile superior. He realised with a further degree of surprise that McBride and Nan were sworn enemies. How he knew this he did not, in fact know. That it was a fact was nontheless true.
"I was saying Reverend" severe emphasis on the I here to turn the screw, " That our lad is a delicate chil" the end of the word seemingly deliberately missed.
" He's not like the other lads in the village and he keeps himsell to himsell" Black pearled bosom heaved and arms were folded in the age old better than you, female, matriarch, body language.
" So you would oblige by tellin me exactly what happened to the lad and why he's looking so poorly?"
" An you Albert me lad," turning around to face the quiet pair, " You, aye an thee Tommy, dusn't think thy has gotten out of anythin. Am cumin around to you pair o' misfits in a minute". Albert had the good grace to lower his eyes and Tommy coughed into his pint of best bitter, earning a slap on the back from his colleague.
Turning back to the Curate she took her aggresive stance once more and said" Neh then, young man, tell me what all this to do is about".
Simpkins was frantically summoning up his answer, suitable for this harridan of the first water and feeling as much put upon as the two ex miners, when a young boy burst through the door from the street.
" Hey Nan" this urchin spluttered out " Tha'd best tell yon mon", pointing at the black cassocked Curate, "that ee's needed quick a' whom as owd Vicar is none too good according to old Ma Boydell, she's sent mi to fetch im quickish like!"
" A, where" said Simpkins bewildered by both the speed of speech and the accent of the boy.
"A whom, at home for yer posh buggers" said Nan turning fondly back to the urchin, " An you young Billy cun show sum manners whilst yer in my establishment an go an wait thee outside afor ah get shot of my license" The boy grinned and turned to the door. Simpkins was all for following when Nan continued "Aye an you can wait thee turn until ah get mi coat, an all"
Chapter 14 The Presbytery.
The Presbytery looked empty, cold, dead and lifeless. A strange couple meandered rockingly through the sulphur coloured and breezy darkness towards a front door that seemed equally dark and forbidding. Complete opposites, as if a tragic but darkly comic accident had brought them careening madly together. More Jack Spratt and his Grandmother than wife. Directly from a Georgian pamphlet on the dangers of loose living or a strong advertisement on gin drinking for a complete temperance society.
Nan was hanging with a degree of desperation onto the young curates arm. Having asked, demanded and then pleaded several times now for him to slow down.
"I've been bad on me pins for some time now and as I would niver stop a pig in a ginnel, I'd thank you to have some respect fer me age" Simpkins felt that this was less than the full truth but Nan's legs did seem to have been distorted. They seemed put on sideways at the hip at right angles to the rest of her body, so, surmised the Priest, she probably did have some trouble walking.
For himself, he wondered directly. He was concerned rather than worried but concern also created speed and so Nan's complaints were not without some justification. They had arrived eventually and far less speedily than Simpkins would have liked, at the presbytery, but to find what?
Simpkins searched for his latch key, fastened to a chain deep in a trouser pocket under cassock and overcoat and not for the first time he wondered whether it was appropriate for him to be wearing trousers under his clerical attire. The hell with it he thought. It was just too damn cold.
"I agree" Nan surprisingly answered his unspoken comment. Then went out of her way to allay his obvious fears. "Nay, lad, there's nowt special about me, its the way thy art fussin and whatnot over thy key that shows how cowd it is" Cowd must mean cold Simpkins imagined and added, to himself.... nothing special about you, I think not, there is a lot different about you Madam landlady. He did not express this opinion, however, judging discretion the better part of suspicion at this stage.
He was fumbling with the key when suddenly the door was flung open and there stood a distraught and dishevelled Mrs Boydell.
"Ohh Reverend!" she pronounced in wavering voice as Nan and he entered the hallway. "Ooh I never, what a......" Nan quickly removed her overcoat and passing it to the Curate " Here don't stand there dithering, make thysel useful." she interrupted, " Now Muriel you come int'td kitchen with yer and I bet you've got a warm fire and a pot brewin, or I'm no judge". Upon which she gathered the distraught housekeeper up into protective arms whilst giving the Curate a knowing and penetrating look. Directing upstairs with her head and silver hair bun bobbing, she billed and cooed Mrs Boydell towards the kitchen and a life saving cup of tea.
More than a little put out by what he perceived as a highhanded attitude Simpkins flung the coat over the bottom of the banister and attacked the carpeted stairs two at a time.
" Oh an make sure that bloody Doctor does his job" Nan shot over her shoulder from the kitchen door.
Simpkins attempted to swallow his ire as he entered the Pastors opulent boudoir on the first landing.
That worthy was sitting up in his massive bed clothed in a voluminous white night gown that matched almost exactly the pasty pallor of his skin. His face was sunken and normally ruddy and broken veined cheeks were sallow and flaccid. The pastor's wrists were bandaged giving Simpkins exquisite if brief food for thought. He had a large ice pack perched precariously on bald head and the Doctor was listening to heartbeat with an aged and tarnished stethoscope.
The ancient Doctor that had attended Ashes earlier was humming and tutting to himself as he checked vital signs, and for the moment, Simpkins escaped professional notice.
The pastor chose that moment to open his eyes. Seeing Simpkins in the door way he violently pushed the Doctor aside knocking the same half moon glasses that Simpkins had seen him wearing earlier in the coldroom, off the Doctor's face to clatter on the linoleum floor.
"Out! Out!! shouted Mcbride as he hauled his gargantuan bulk upwards, pushing the Doctor back further and leaving the stethoscope hanging obscenely from the front of his nightgown
"Get out, you benighted quack", the apparently much recovered Pastor shouted. Then, half turning on the bed, said "Simpkins, you get in here and close that damn door.
Chapter 15 The Dreaming.
The Dreams of Ashes were strangely filled with ashes. Replete with horror and cataclysm. The end of all his personal worlds.
He could hear his wasteful Father. He could hear his lost Mother curling away in defeat. He could hear the pub, drinking smoking, laughing, crowding. He could feel his Nan somewhere away. Although she knew and started wherever she was in apprehension. Not at home, she was tending other hurts besides his. He understood that she had to be away. What he could not take was that she had to be away now. When she was needed, with him.
Ashes could now see, himself. Walking through the bar. Walking or floating through the crowd, waving like water. Through the thick smoke and noise, ignorant of wishes, appalled at thoughts, dreaming as music.
Called, he could see himself attempting to reach the large red door of the bar. Drinks sparkled. Clothing rustled and wet slipped and slid on marble or on wood. He could see himself reflected in the small windows of the bar. In glasses filled with amber liquid that rainbowed and clinked loudly in his skull/mind.
Hanging from the bar was a dead rat and feathers from something recently killed. Blood dripped, echoed into beer glasses and wood sprouted fungus as it rotted.
Rolling ahead was something. A tangible roundness, rolling between feet and stockings and dresses, and trousers and clogs. Spinning occasionally on its own axis as if drawing attention to itself and watching Ashes.
In his dream, Ashes found himself fearful. Fearful of what was leading and moreso at what was calling out there in the night. He heard Tawny shout, once, alarmed.
Through the crowd and then through the door.
Then once more at the bottom of the stairs trying to force a way through the crowd. This inability to move at necessary speed confirmed the dream and made forward movement all that much harder.
He reached the door again and this time felt the cold wind of outside on his recently bruised cheeks. His Father sprang up before him and through him ahead. Shouting silently, the apparition crouched in horror at what was waiting, piss fear rolling down and out of trouser leg, adding steam to the roiling fog.
The egg turned again and shone green in its beckoning. A hand, brown with liver spots, picked at it from the ground trying but failing to retrieve it. The mist from the river pulled away as curtains from a window and Ashes walked through...
Into a bedroom. A bedroom with a bed and two shadows, one white and large, the other thin and black. The large, light amorphous shape gesticulating violently. Its edges turning grey and then green with vile drippings. The dark one slipping in of itself, disbelieving and in the same way concerned. This shape turned towards Ashes as he walked/fell out of the void, to hold up an arm/limb in halting or stopping. Concern played around this it, forcing focus. Noise chittered on the edge of hearing, an argument leading to orders given for souls already lost. Time and light shuttered before the dark figure was gone and the white blob for want of a better thought from Ashes, fell back to be camouflaged into a heap of further whiteness.
Chapter 16 The Dawn Walking.
Dawn was a feeling for two very different inhabitants of the village. Who were both on remarkably similar, if timely, quests.
For Ashes it was the fresh smell of moisture laden vegetation, ripe and fecund. Rich with earthy promise. The promise of the Hedgehog and the Earthworm. Of root snuffling and growth.
Wet grass dampened his feet through old blue canvas shoes. Dampened more, his trousers were wet to the knee. This was uncomfortable but ultimately unavoidable and so pushed to the brink of conciousness. Looking back, he could see his wet pathway from the pub, to his freedom fields, as a line of broken darker grass. He could see the light dusting of seed on his clothing and it was, in the word of Ashes the prophet, good.
The newly risen Sun was already warm and promising later heat. Ashes found himself wishing he had brought a drink. His task therefore would not be restricted by time.
A roseate mist was burning from the water meadow and swirling playfully around pollarded willow. Jackdaws creaked, cawed and created in the early morning air and Ashes found himself revelling in the freshness and vague, strange feeling of cool that wrapped itself around the back of his head and sprinkled playfully down his spine.
Ashes was in fact, hunting, and to this end he had instead of refreshment, brought pencil and paper. He was searching for the tree once more. The dead, hanging tree. Tawny's tree. The suicide site. This was an uncertain attempt to disbelieve or categorise the madness of the previous hours and to bring a statement of sanity back to his small existence. The drawing materials were to produce a map. In the mistaken view that pinpointing a location was to bring it forcefully and completely into a normal reality.
In time, he made his way down to the river opposite the Leeshi intending to follow the bank up stream and into the wood that gave the village its name.
The other knowing wanderer of the dawn was, of course, the Rev Uriel Simpkins, Dip Theo. For he too was intrigued and refreshed by the sensory banquet placed in front of his horse wide nostrils. He also was captivated with the empty joy of creation. He simply chose to celebrate this in a far different manner to our original inhabitant of the early hours. For the Reverend this unused quiet time, was a time of simple worship. The dripping trees that nave covered his head, his individual church.
Unlike Ashes, Simpkins truly thought of creation as a construct. Empty of sentience, alive in myriad variety but only in a very limited sense aware and ultimately, not self aware at all.
His pleasure of the morning was tainted, therefore. Polluted with imposed belief that cried foul against ravishing and feral growth.
For the priest holding a ladylike cassock high from the damp, the dawn was only pleasurable if held against the pure Platonic ideal of religious fervour.
A red breasted Robin followed, curious and a small orange and white butterfly tip tasted as Simpkins too made his way riverward.
It is therefore a foregone conclusion that these two, at the moment, our equal protagonists will meet as if by felicitous accident. Both are searching for answers, that at the moment seem unprovable. For one, answers that are preternaturally seen as crazy, and for the other, seen as something akin to duplicitous.
As they approach on converging routes they are observed by yet others, equally eager to know and just as keen to remain unknown.
Chapter 17 The others and some of what they were doing.
Nan watched from her window for her sweet boy's return. She listened to the raucous racket downstairs in the public bar, as her son, her lovely boy's Father, pushed away his guilt and his many inabilities with drink. He actually, was his own Father come again but her boy's mother was not Nan.
The hell of it was that her boy was running away from her son. He had gone to his fields and woods once more. Now no one would find him. Not for a while. Gone early this morning before she had a chance to speak to him. Before she knew fully what had happened at the farm. She also felt strongly, a need to apologise, once again, for his mind crippled Father. For her bloody, useless, drunkard, child beating, son.
She had spoken to Tom and Albert before they left the bar. Other than finding out that her boy had seen the body of the suicide walker in the coldroom, she had discovered nothing else of use.
Idiots! Stupid, stupid. She spat sharply in an uncharacteristic, viscious, shading of anger. Gone as soon as it arrived, it blew away fitfully, as wind on water.
Come on my old girl, she said to herself, noticing that she called herself 'old' these days; this will get you nowhere, and snatching up a handbag with a noticeable matriachal, charged, vehemence, she made her way to the door.
Pastor Mcbride was blaspheming, but the only other person to hear him was his confederate and occasional friend, the Doctor. There was then little immediate danger of the Pastor coming to ecumenical grief over his foul and somewhat physically inaccurate ranting's. If our voluble clergyman had been at death's door, danger may have been a touch closer. As it was, only the Doctor felt it reasonable to keep a tally of his 'friends' misdemenours. He recorded and reconciled these, with himself, for what he said were important medical reasons. Allowing the Pastor to continue building up his blood pressure was the easiest way to eventually sedate him. Telling him that it was all for his own good and important rest was needed now, with no compromises, was the only way to shut him up. There was of course, a certain frisson of fear on the Doctor's behalf, in payment, as he gave orders to the maddening priest.
After a while, the doctor duly observed a lessening of colour in the Pastors face and the rather swift decline into incoherent mumble. The drugs prescribed and quickly administered began to take effect.
"Now perhaps there will be some peace", the Doctor sighed out loud, " Instead of everybody ranting and raving about bloody eggs!", he continued. He left, in apparent high dudgeon, whilst still thinking his own thoughts. Closing the door on the Pastor's inert, snoring form behind him.
Tom passed a cracked and stained pint mug of disgustingly strong tea to Albert, who was hovering around the door to the cold room. " Put thysel raint autside oh that, me owd lad", he said with forced smile. Attempting to liven his friend up had been a solid job for most of the morning. Getting him to sit down for longer than a minute was still a mountainous task as yet unattempted.
Tom felt as usual, underestimated, undervalued and overlooked. but then what else was new. It was no use getting het up about it he silently said to Albert, as he piled two more sugars into the already oversweetened tea. "Come on, me owd cock sparrar, get that dain thee. Thy'll feel better".
Ignoring the massive mug, Albert turned a pale face towards his mate. "We shall have t' get shot o' yon mon" he said, indicating the cold room. "A decent interval is last thing wi want". A pensive pause and worrisome sigh, escaped. "At present time wi things as thi are neh. An yon Doctor couldn't give a toss. He'es only an owd walker and nowt good ever came from them".
Having evidently made his choice he turned and further ignoring Tom's proffered tea marched through the door into the Coldroom. " Probably too much sugar", Tom explained, to himself and Albert's retreating back. Just as the other outside door opened without warning.
Chapter 18 The Disposal
As Nan marched forthrightly into the coldroom she knew her reasoning was correct. She knew that she was doing the proper thing. Both in coming here and in doing what she felt she had to do. Perhaps not in the eyes of the law. Civil or Church, but certainly in the eyes of justice. Everyone knew that the law and justice were never the same thing. So, bravely, she justified herself.
After shocking Tommy and causing him to, cursing, spill tea, she now proceeded to collide with Albert as he stood in the doorway. He was considering the sheet covered body in the centre of the dim, cool, frosting space. The blue expelled air curling and clasping about his head as she, in turn, watched his shocked reaction to her sudden presence.
Now silent, he accepted Nan's presence with a nod of determination and just as quickly he understood her justification.
Together they crossed to the body. Nan humming Jerusalem, 'and did those feet in ancient times', and Albert breathing quickly. Again together they removed the soiled sheet from the dirty body, pathetic now in its sullen decomposition. Nan, with a certain incongruent anger, folded the grey stained cloth before flinging it into the concrete corner of the room. As Albert drew a bucket of clear water, Nan then found and gathered the dead man's clothing.
In a number of paper bags she found a sleeveless sweater with a spiders web of holes, front and back, but with a green and brown pattern still visible through the mud and grime. A brown apparently, or originally, nylon shirt and a pair of old, worn at the knees, brown corduroy trousers.
This walker, whoever he was in life, was dressed for camouflage. Dressed not to be noticed, to be unseen and disregarded by the society he so frequently haunted. He would appear only when necessary.
The stink of oldness and maggoty death, of earth and destruction was overpowering but largely ignored by the pair as they set about their unspoken work. It was only when, Nan, gloved now in thick black rubber, attempted to turn the sodden, bloated mass of flesh on her own, that the stench grew too strong. Forcing her to drop the body back on the slab and splash the surroundings with the evil, gagging juice of the dead.
Albert ineffectually, threw a bucket of cold water over the corpse and nasty secret little black things with multiple legs scuttled frantically out of the way.
Nan then found that trying to fasten the shirt collar around the pus swollen neck was impossible, as was fastening the, now too tight, trousers. Still, she attacked her gruesome task with all the purpose her small, Victorian frame could muster.
Albert was impressed by this forthright and complex old woman, but then he always had been. He felt that the choices made when younger were always, inevitably so wrong; but marriage to anyone, right or wrong, love or no, changed people. This he had discovered. The man Nan had eventually chosen to marry, was lucky beyond his experience but also doomed to failure from the very start. The poor, dead, drunken sod. The body they were so roughly and disrespectfully handling now was just such a lucky/unlucky man. Gain and loss, love and hate. You pays your money, you takes your choice, he thought as he placed the recently discarded winding sheet by the table and pushed the poorly dressed bloated corpse off and on to the tiled floor.
It landed with a wet, fish, stinking slap.
Tommy and Albert dragged their apparently melting, wet cargo out of the room, through their crowded workroom/ office and outside into the sunshine. In daylight a faint miasma could be seen gathering above the wrapped corpse. This instantly attracted every opportunist insect away from a sewage banquet to inspect the dragged corpse and its trail through the dust of the pathway.
"We should've used yon wheelbarrow", complained Tommy, through the red hankechief tied ineffectually around the lower part of his face. The first words spoken since Nan had arrived.
"Shut yer bloody, gabbing trap", replied Albert with some vehemence. "An get on with thi work afore some poor bugger catches sight of us".
By the side of the path down to Ashes bird watching hide, was an apparently dry and suspiciously level patch of black, stinking mud. This was the detritus from the sewage outflows that Tommy had to dump every other week or so. The apparent solidity was, of course, false. A thick crust, cracking in the heat, had formed on the surface of a very deep and black viscous shit liquid. Surrounded with verdant green vegetation and Tommy's prize tomatoes, this was the strange, and secret, funeral procession's ultimate destination.
Nan had been left in the coldroom to clean up but now she hastened down the path through the gathering cloud of insects to catch up with the pair of workmen. It was necessary for her, she felt, to witness the disposal of the corpse.
She arrived just as the pair were debating whether the soon to be dumped body would require weight. This problem was neatly solved by fastening an old rusty chain around it. Whereupon, using a couple of equally bent and rusting, but handy, metal bars from a nearby fence, they levered the weighted body into the green festering mud.
It sank almost immediately, leaving foul smelling gas bubbles bursting with brown/green splashes across the surface of the soon placid pond. Memories remaining of an equally foul but justified deed.
Chapter 19 Finding Tawny
We watch, we who are privy to all this maelstrom of sickness and emotion, Ashes as he crawls beneath thick vegetation. He is hot, sweaty and hurting. His clothing is dirty, dusty and torn, his hands and knees caked in blood and reeking mud.
He searches for the tree, of course. His tree. His icon, his dark world, his, it should be obvious, pagan, tree. He searches with increasing desperation. It must be here, it must be just over there. Its got to be tree. Wickedly, it avoids him.
Starting at the logical starting point, his 'camp' by the river, he searches and he searches. He looks under, he looks in, he looks over and across. He searches up and he searches down. He quarters logically for a while and then he marches in a straight, specific, definite, line. Nothing and no one, alive or dead, hung or rotting.
Where was he taken, is that familiar? Do we go over or under, left or right?
"We", he says, or more accurately, "I". Am I alone? Was I alone? Tawny, he asks, crying now, hoping for an answer and not, where are you?
Sweat and tears bleed into his eyes, hawthorn and bramble, itching, stinging, stick to exposed flesh. Nettles irritate and insects congregate. There is a whiff, a rotting corpse smell on a depressing sullen breeze that enervates and whispers aching, tired.
Ashes mind is red. his wish is to be alone and cool. He wishes he did not have to find the tree. He has one wish but can see no chance of the others. He is hot and Nan says he shouldn't be, bothered. He is alone, if you don't count the countless buzzing blue flies in arbitrary formation around his growing anger.
Ashes is blood red. From stinging to sweating. From slices of dry sores to flaps of torn skin. From swearing and cursing. From thin cuts and dirty grainy eyes.
He is black and red veined with thin sharp branches and cut gravel stones. Ashes anger becomes translucent and fiery. Ashes mind, covered in heat silently explodes to bring him.....
To a rat that hangs mummified before his eyes in the darkness. With a twig black and ominous caressing his face, coming ever closer to a vulnerable eye. Ashes eye pulls out and back within its lens focus and he gives himself a headache of monumental proportions. Ashes head saw buzzes hard and spins, his thoughts congeal like rotting hairy fungus fat in an old frying pan. He vomits hugely and punctuates his headache with the following silent heaves. His eyes refuse to work and insist ,cruely, on constant stinging, watering. He wants to look, to focus, but is unable to do more than cry salty spectrums.
"Tawny, tell me" he cries and hates his childishness and his vulnerability.
The words "What do you want?" cackle across his consciousness. Lying he thinks under normal woodland.
"Tawny, where are you? Is that you?". A pleading. The air cools significantly. A sickly smell rises like an supremly off key note.
"What do you want, little boy, little shit, parum piece of viscus?" says the unseen, petulance inside.
"I want.....I want",Incoherant crying.
"You don't know what the hell you want. I am Cerrunos. I AM THE HORNED ONE!" There is an echo. A repeating that says not I am, but you are.
"I want to...." Sobbing, clucking, finding air in huge gulps.
"I AM THE WILD HUNT AND I HAVE YOU. I HAVE YOUR....."
"No!" shouts Ashes, crying to the sudden wind. "NO!" he manages once more before the wind takes him flying/spinning away with the sounds of endless pads, feet and hooves......
"ANIMUS PARUM , LITTLE SHIT. TINY LITTLE SPECK OF SHIT. TERRA UT TERRA , CINIS CINERIS UT CINIS CINERIS, speaks on the hot fitful breeze before all is silent once more.
Chapter 21 Simpkins Searches.
As we watch and wonder about the boy, so we must also consider the other... second denizen of this adventure, area and time. The estimable, Reverend Uriel Simpkins, involved despite himself and his calling, As our former protagonist diligently searches, for he knows not what, so does the Reverend. For perhaps the same eclectic reasons....
Simpkins also sweats irritatingly as he walks, his long, black cassock trailing unconcerned through damp overlong grass and constantly resisting capture on ever-opportune brambles.
As with our boy, the young clergyman seeks urgently what he cannot comprehend. He also sublimates what he can feel to his religion. What he now thinks of as his crying, soft, faith. He transforms his late weed of a belief into something that is instinctively, older and much more immediately tangible. Again, if these new faith's are not more complex then they are at least more layered with plurality. Filling sufficiently and consistently the unknown strata of his instinct.
Whilst considering all this, Simpkins continues to make his jagged and yet somewhat stately, way down to the river. He watches the sun catch the water in cascades of green and yellow. He sees surprisingly, fish swimming, flashingly, through his own shadow and he reaches towards, completely enthralled, the muddy, river waters edge.
He searches so diligently, for that he has been told was the suicide tree. An ancient, once pollarded, willow tree. He knows it overlooks the river and he knows it is well hidden. All the other information he recieved, when he researched amongst the natives, consisted of very loose approximate locations and supremely inaccurate advice. People, as usual had been humouring him. Laughing behind their hands and his back.
He hopes, as he walks, for a cooling breeze off the river. He hopes he will not be disappointed in his search. He hopes for lots of things. Things he may never have now. He knows he is now top religious dog in the village. For all the good that does him. He can hear a real dog barking somewhere.
Overnight he learned a good deal about the boy and his rather caustic, overwhelming, Grandmother. He finds in retrospect he still dislikes the old woman. For being too direct, too comfortable with herself. It is this information that now fills his rational if uncomfortable mind. Feeding his irritation. A sour sauce oozing from the pores of his intellect. These thoughts do however begin to form the brief kernal of a preliminary plan. A way of dealing with his tormentors.
Something had happened to the boy, he knew. An encounter, a drastic, dramatic, frightening, encounter. That was far more life-changing than finding a dead body.
If it comes to that, then thought the Curate, something also encountered our beloved fat bastard Pastor. By all, accounts, these encounters were intimately related. Both, at some point, directly involved an egg that was not an egg. An egg for God's sake. A figure was there with the egg? Somebody owned, no used the egg. On the Pastor, (rot him) certainly, but who brought or owned this egg? The boy knew about the egg. whether he understood its significance was another matter. I should have asked him to explain, thought Simpkins and damn the consequences. A frisson of fear hit him from a far, dislodged memory.
Encountered encounters, what are they? Egg and its significance, what is it? Why is it? Instinctively dropping into the previous shorthand of his seminary studies, Simpkins continued, angrily to consider partial ramifications. There was an odour of putrifaction.
Some Pauline vision on the road to Damascus? Some supernatural epiphany that laid out the devil's Pastor, (he could still feel no sorrow about his superior's unfortunate 'accident') up to his sickbed and caused screaming, desperate fear in a young impressionable boy. A boy whose greatest fear at this time, should only have been the amount of childish bullying he would have to endure from his idiot contempories. Just as the curate had when he was young.
It is this Godforsaken hole, Simpkins thought somewhat peevishly. Why did I have to be sent to this back of beyond hell hole? Another less than unworthy thought followed on quickly through this stream of polluted conciousness.
What am I doing this for, this thrice damned, too hot morning? I have sermons to write; parishoners to visit, faith to distribute, (hah!), funerals to arrange. One funeral at least. The poor suicide. Beyond the pale in every sense.
So why am I, a rational man of God, following a, a; his nimble, but unaccountable slow, mind groped for a word that would adequately describe and complete the oxymoron...? "Spook!" he spat out loud. Especially one suggested by a terrified and bed ridden, one time superior. Simpkins could now, no longer feel much in the way of awe for his erstwhile, if tormented, Brother in Christ.
A scream suddenly and violently answered his musings. A sky cracking and heartbreaking scream of "No!" Filled to the very limit, with tangible terror, this was a scream that would haunt and scar beyond the surface of rational thought.
Simpkins stumbled to his knees and then just as swiftly sprang upwards as he began to run. He was in shock, in senseless, stark terror.
Instinct took over and his first thought was to escape. Only after he had been running for some time did he realise that he was not actually escaping. Quite the reverse, in fact. He was running towards the noise.
His heavy breathing snorted in personal disregard for his lack of courage, as he hefted, his cassock. Spinning it rapidly around one arm, he skirted it whilst he continued to run.
Chapter 22 A further more complete explaination.
Simpkins felt he was running through green glass. Moments seem to shatter momentarily, in front of him. The flat, two dimensional panes of images that appeared and then collapsed violently into a million specks of fallen light. He could not run as fast as he would like.
It kept coming back to the scream. This still reverberated through the undergrowth and was linked with a combination of deeper desperate sounds mixed in. Animal, musty, earthy sounds as if a giant herd of creatures was caught in a buzzing swarm around his head. Pads, hooves, arms and claws.
Simpkins had no idea where he had run to. The river was no longer in view and the undergrowth was thick, blasted, old forest. Hawthorn, birch and oak. Including one very large, black tree that seemed to grow up before his eyes cutting out even the foul green light.
The boy priest thought it would be a good idea to stop and get his bearings. But he found he could not. This frightened him. His movement had become as in a dream. Running very fast to get nowhere. Voices appeared within the surroundings, ever louder. A symphony of barks, rustles and creaks. Telling him to stop, slow down, cease and rest. It was a while before he realised that the voices were his own.
Through the inevitable tears and just before absolute terror took hold there was a suggestion of brighter, sparkling green in the increasing darkness.
Then there was a man. An old. old man. Shocking in his sudden stillness. Seemingly wrapped in the surrounding forest it seemed natural that he be there. Dressed in threadbare, old filthy, brown clothing. He seemed to be covered in cracked mud and rotting things. All types of vermin clustered around his feet, over his shoulders and in what was left of his hair. This was a bog body come to life. Or to what passed for life in this strange, dark, frightening place. Simpkins knew with the shock of absolute clarity who this was.
A full bladder was trying to force an issue. Fear threatened to take hold and, he realised, never stop.
The man was carrying a rough hewn box that he held out in seeming, incongruous supplication before he spoke.
"I have an egg, would you like to see it?"
It seemed an answer was required to this strange but expected question. None, however, either seemed appropriate or was forthcoming. Simpkins breathed heavily instead and snot ran down embarrassingly, lubricating tight lips. This seemed to content the man who smiled a ghastly rictus of a grave grin, with dirty black gums pulled back from rotting teeth. Leaving bits of black flesh attached to what looked like tree bark inside the mouth.
Having received his affirmative answer the old man opened his tree branch box. Nestled inside, in a lining of spiders webs, lichen and birds nests, was, of course an egg. Just as Simpkins knew there would be.
"This, oh weak believer of an even weaker tree hung man. Is the talisman. A symbol of all you try to avoid. Of all you have ceased to understand and believe."
Wishing more than anything, that he had a crucifix, Simpkins sank wearily to his knees and wept.
"I am the hunter, the green man, the old man of the forest". Faces seemed to flicker proudly across a countenance that was never definite. Unseen by the Curate the old man changed through stag, rat, fox and a myriad others.
"You, you weak, shitty, slobbering priest of no faith are to receive an explanation. In this you are honoured. You will understand what brought you here and you will know what to do. You will not like it. You will hate it and me and everything you once worshipped. Because from now on you are a guardian, a father, a singer and a poet. You are now a bard of songs that were old when the little unseen people were new to these islands. You are now a protector of my replacement"
In a sudden waking realisation, Simpkins knew what the old man was talking about. Ashes was now the old man. But Ashes was the young version of him. Ashes was Spring to his Winter. Ashes was the replacement. Oh God in heaven, thought the Priest, what is happening to me?
" You are", Tawny continued, grating like chalk on a blackboard, " You are now another name and you will understand this. Your childish faith will understand what they did to the horned one. The evil that came from them and how they kill to protect what is wrong. What is wrong, do you hear, what is fucking always wrong you rotting putrescent piece of man shit".
With an understanding finally of what was happening to the boy he searched so diligently to find. With a realisation of what was happening to him, bladder succumbing and having no choice, Simpkins fainted.
Chapter 23 Nan pays a visit.
Nan was dying. She had known for a while and was resigned. The cancer was well on its second journey through her system. It had already eaten away most of her womanhood and was now about to start on her personality. Of that she was sure. Well, she thought, the first she did not use anymore and now was not the time to be crying over what could not be helped. Plenty of time for that when she could not remember why she was crying.The Doctor had given her a few more months, a few months ago. But what the hell did he know? She knew why and how and probably when. As always she would chose her own time and place. They can put that on my stone, she thought. I will be satisfied with that.
There was only one problem. Her dear sweet boy would be left alone.
She simply could not countenance her boy being left to his Father. Her son, his useless father, could have the pub and all in it. That would not last long anyway, given her son's proclivities. He could also have the rest, such money as she had; whatever heirlooms had been left; the contents of the safe he, as yet did not know about. All this was as nothing. He could have and squander everything, he and his equally useless wife. He could not have her boy.
That he would get he boy, made her feel physically sick, causing her to stop and hang onto the banister of the Presbytery staircase. She took advantage of the moment to catch her breath and her thoughts. After all, there were not many of either left.
She had decided on this visit earlier on her return from the Sewerage farm. Mrs Boydell had let her in, together with a bowl of homemade pea soup, with no hesitation whatsoever. After all, thought Nan, why should she? I am no danger. I am smiling and I've brought some soup. I've only come to see the poor sick Pastor, bless him, the nasty fat turd of a man.
Nan realised the importance of this visit. The disposal of the walker's body had gone well. Now there must be no loose ends. Although the walker would have been buried beyond the pale, in unconsecrated ground, as a matter of tradition. The lack of an actual body would cause some to ask embarrassing questions.
Most would realise that Nan had dealt with it, as she usually did. With the minimum of fuss and without bother. The lack of a Christian burial did not worry her unduly, as it would some. There are just some folk who should not be allowed to organize a piss up in a brewery, she considered, and the pig up these stairs was one of those. Well, yet again, she would fight and she would win. Nan always knew she was right. She always had been, just has had her Mother before her.
Now, she thought whilst leaning against the Pastors banister, what brought that up? She had not thought of her Mother in an age. "Must be losing it" she muttered. "I'll be talking to myself next".
"Well come on me old girl, this won't get itself done, now will it?" she then asked herself. Receiving no suitable answer, she proceeded up the stairs to the Pastors bedroom.
It was beneath her dignity to knock and so whisking the tea towel off the pea soup she bustled in and grinned at a rather shocked and nervous Pastor. He was just at that moment kneeling with nightgown hiked above his waist, in the process of using the chamber pot.
"Excuse...." was all he managed to get out before he was harangued with...
" Now you take yer time, wi that gozunder, an don't thi worry. Tha's not got anythin I haven't seen afore, an a lot bigger. it goes we out sayin".
Pissing on both the carpet and his slippers, the Pastor managed to control himself and his nightgown before turning to observe his very rude visitor.
"Oh Christ and all his bloody Angels its you!" he spluttered.
" Well, o course it is, yer daft bugger. An ah brought yer some o'me pey soup. Only its not mine as such. Our lass made it so it wont be up t'much but it wayn't poison thi. Leastways, Ah don't think so. Depends whether tha's ever upset our lass, dunnit" she said still grinning.
The Pastors scowl did not lessen at this news.
Chapter 24 Nan Plays a Game
'Hoist with his own petard'. Nan had heard that somewhere and as she watched the huge Pastor climb back into bed she thought more about it. If it means give him enough rope and he'll hang himself and if it means him, Nan thought, then it is really appropriate.
"Now then Reverend" she said to the Pastor's enormous backside. "You just settle yourself down an ah'll fix thi sum o' this soup"
"It is Pastor, I'll thank you to remember" said the Pastor, gathering his ragged courage to himself and keen to claim back his lost dignity.
"Oh, aye. I know that. Never mind all that. Neh then, put thisell raind outside o' this. cos tha are lookin a bit peaked". With that she handed him the bowl.
Both stared at each other for several seconds as Nan deliberately withheld the spoon.
"Oh, tha'll be wanting this then?" Finally handing it over "An don't get it all dain thysel either". First point to me I think, she thought.
Finally achieving just enough backbone to make himself speak, the Pastor began, "Just what is it you want, Madam?" As Nan fixed him with a baleful, Medusa eye the stem of his newly grown courage seemed to whither and die on the vine of its brief blooming.
"What is it I want? What is it?" suddenly shouted the old woman, spittle flying from her mouth and dentures clacking. "What the bloody hell do you care?. You care about yourself and nowt else. Not even your God does for you. Not even all the poor sods that live in this forsaken hole, that you are supposed to help. As long as you have your wine and your fancy food and your nothing to do with nobody, then the rest of us can go hang".
The Pastor was frozen in mid spoon as this grey little harridan from the deepest of Beelzebub's seven hells continued her sudden and unexpected tirade.
"I want you, that's what I want. I want you to get off your fat sloppy arse and do something for a change". Nan seemed suddenly to deflate like a pricked balloon. When she spoke again it was in a calmer, softer voice and the Pastor noticed she continued to forget her dialect.
"What I want is for you to find out what's troubling my lad. My precious little one. Something, I don't like and I don't know what, or where, has stirred itself up and it involves my little lad and I don't like that. No, not one bit".
Now the Pastor thought, with a certain, instant glee, the boot is on the other whatever. You, high and mighty, who can handle anything. You who have the whole bloody village in the palm of your grubby little bottle washing hands. Now you want something from me. It is all different, now, isn't it? Now I can get what I want.
This was going to be absolutely splendid, he thought, a wonderful, satisfying victory. Until the actual pyric nature of his triumph hit him with some considerable force.
She actually wants me to sort him out, he panicked. Oh God, him and his blasted egg. She really wants me to go against HIM. The bloody fool. As if I would have any part of a chance and after what he has done to me already!
What he actually nervously said was " Now, now then Madam, there is no need to fuss yourself. I am quite sure that all will be well without the intervention of the church. God does look after his own. a sparrow, a lily of the field you know. in the Bible...." He trailed away as he looked at Nan's face.
What he thought again was I need the pot and I am going to piss myself, right here, right now and in this bed.
Nan watched the incoming spring tide of emotions cross the clergyman's face in waves of beetroot red and puce. Intent on keeping a straight face she thought, point, and match to me, I do believe.
It was the midday sun that woke Simpkins. He was first aware of the heat and cool of his face. Dew and dirt crusted on one side, in some kind of natural mud pack and dry, stinging, heat on the other. Managing to open one eye, he stared at a small purple flower about an inch away from his face. Contemplating, rather serenely, what had happened.
That is, until he was bitten by a large insect just under one eye. This caused him to leap to his feet in the obvious distress of a town dweller brought face to face with the horrors of the naked countryside.
One side of his face and both hands had burned in the sun and he was developing a headache. To judge by the strength and height of the sun, he must have been lying in the grass for sometime. Which was worrying. Just what had he missed? Why on earth would he lie down and fall asleep out here in the fields? What was he doing out here anyway? A confirmed town dweller Simpkins felt out of place in a small park. All this openness was then anthema to an intelligent man of his sensitivities.
A recent conversation with the Pastor, briefly frittered across the top of his consciousness. This in turn, by association, brought thoughts of his comfortable room at the vicarage, and perhaps a glass of cool lemonade. Mrs Boydell would have some home spun, effective remedy for both his recently acquired afflictions. The honest people of Crankwood would be getting sunburn and insect bites all the time.
The same dratted fly was still on his sleeve. He presumed it was a horse fly. Again his mind slipped out slightly. It is only the female horsefly that bites, the thought, which seems appropriate. With that rather uplifting thought, he found his bearings with the church steeple and almost cheerfully, made his way towards home. He had missed something, he just could not remember what.
Although Tommy had been sent to look for Ashes it was actually the young curate that he found. Crossing blithely one of the Leeshi's crop fields as if he owned the place. Tommy could see a rather erratic trail leading from the centre of the field. Now that was strange, he considered, unless yon Curate had followed the same path in and out, there was only one trail leading through the field where apparently the priest had lain down for a rest.
"Oh bugger", said Tommy through his teeth, "what the bloody hell has he been doin? Nan'll have a bloody cow!" With that he hurried across to meet the Curate as he left the field.
"How do young fellah", said Tom rather breathlessly, tapping out a cold pipe on his clog heel. "Neh wheer's tha bin?"
"I'm sorry" replied Simpkins " Its Tommy isn't it? The man from last night?"
"Aye an its a man who mun know wheer tha's bin?"
Face alternatively stinging and sticking Simpkins was in no mood for either idiots or thick indecipherable accents. "That is of course none of your business". Whilst thinking where on earth have I been? The recent past was still as murky as that river. River, yes I was walking down to the river, why?
Rather than let things go and somewhat angry himself Tommy replied, " Well yourn the one who'll have t' explain to Nan an all. And if tha's been we er lad, tha'll cop fer it. Mark, tha will an all".
Hearing Nan mentioned Simpkins brought another piece of his frosted glass memory into focus. Tommy continued " Weel that thy business and nowt to do wi me". Becoming increasingly aware and worried that the Curate was no longer with him. In spirit at least.
"Oh man, what's he dun to thee?" he asked himself quietly.
Chapter 26 The Walk and The Worry.
It was an idea. Whether it was a good idea or not, Tommy had yet to work out. The Curate was still off in a world of his own but following meekly as he was led across the lower Leeshi fields, away from the river and towards the Sewage farm. The two things Tommy did know was that Albert would be mashing a brew about now and that he urgently needed his friends help. Albert would know instantly what to do. His mentor, friend, brother and companion was like that, always quickly on top of any given or awkward situation
Tommy realised in part what had happened. The Curate had run into the man, the evil bastard man who should be dead, may the shit worms eat his tripes! It had happened this morning by look of things. It was the what had happened during the meeting and after that had Tommy, normally quite sanguine, perplexed and very scared. Obviously something nasty had been done to this shrivel of a priest and like as not, a similar, if not worse, thing had been done to Nan's young un. Tommy shivered as he thought of Nan's inevitable reaction. The priest was definitely of secondary importance when it came down to it. Nan would skin him alive and then wear him as house slippers.
The ex miner was fully aware of his own shortcomings. He was at heart a labourer, a mover of whatever was getting in the way, usually with a very large shovel. He had worked down the pit since he was 13 and he had seen most of his friends and contemporaries taken off early, far too early, with the foul black lung. Coughing up slimy, mucky treacle whilst an all too young family looked on helpless horror. Afterwards putting a plaque from the mine on the parlour wall as a reminder to be proud of.
Both Tom and Albert had been lucky and had managed to get jobs shovelling other people's shit. According to Albert this was luck and he usually said it with a grimace and a tone of infinite regret.
Tommy also knew that Albert was clever. No, more than that, Albert knew how to use his intelligence. Albert knew people and could change difficult things. Sometimes large things, with just words and not big words. With everyday words that Tommy knew but never used. A talent Tommy could recognise, admire but never hope to possess. He loved Albert for that.
Neither man had ever married. Tommy's excuse was an absolute refusal to put some poor lass through watching her lad inevitably go, oh so slowly of the horror that was worse than mustard gas in the trenches. He had been able to compare the two different deaths during his time in France in what Albert called the first unpleasantness. He knew which one he would rather have.
So whilst the Curate meekly followed, the best Tommy could come up with was to abrogate all responsibility. For his charge, for his fruitless search and for his own misgivings. This was not the first time he had done all this, and it would certainly not be the last. Albert would give him his orders like the natural NCO he was and Tommy would no longer have to think or worry. He would just do his job and that would be it. Everything would be alright and on the mend, once Albert got his head around the problem.
"Cummon young fellah me lad." said Tommy in a tone he hoped was encouraging, "We are gooin t'see me mate an he'll put thi reet, you just see"
The Curate murmured something indistinct in reply but seemed to Tommy's eyes alright with everything, except for being off with the boggart. He had gone very quiet, Tommy noticed, and he was tending to lag Ah bugger, he thought, another thing to worry about.
Simpkins could hear and could see, but could not bring himself to care much. In fact all his senses were working perfectly. He could hear the Blackbird scolding off to the left. He could see the smoke of a midden fire way beyond the village, with a crystal clarity. There was a fey, unworldly look in his eyes that transported any worrying thoughts to a tiny locked space far away in the landscape of his mind. Into what his family would call over the hills and far away. As the Curate drifted, he agreed with himself more or less constantly. As the unlikely pair crossed the high barley and wheat fields. Pushing through the high yellow stalks. It was, yes, do that, and of course see to this. Although what each task was seemed to elude him once agreement had been reached within himself about the importance of it.
A small flicker of something far more ominous followed each unwary thought. A pull yourself together and think clearly, imagining, that seemed to this man sized little boy to be the actual thoughts to be angry with. Young Uriel decided to ignore them and then told himself to do so.
Chapter 27 The Leeshi
The Leeshi had stood for an age brazenly capturing the light above the village. A massive stone and black wood farmhouse it was almost an organic part of this old landscape. A farm already ancient before the Tudor house was built, its huge blocks and beams seemed forever to steal sunlight and drop the temperature simply by force of sentient will. It towered ominously high over Crankwood, blackly dominating the landscape for miles around.
Signs surrounded the area and informed trespassers of dire, possibly fatal consequence. More than one exploring pet dog had been shot and hung, with rusty wire, on a gibbet above the stinking midden. Along with a large selection of rotting vermin, rat, stoat, weasel, crow and fox. Swinging in whatever breeze occasioned or even dared along.
The farmyard itself, that inside the pale of a partly filled green moat, was in constant shadow. Black buildings hinted at undefined purpose, a garage, a stable, a workshop? A brick lined channel filled with stinking detritus, bisected the dirty cobbled courtyard and curved lazily around a huge, out of place, ugly, Oak tree. A form more suited to graveyard than farm.
Arches into this inner precinct were blocked with venerable gates of rust, wood and bailing twine. A large pig rooted amongst mildewed and stinking sacking in a corner. A couple of scrawny, patchwork cockerels sized each other up with evident, ruthless and habitual violence. An old blind dog seemed to scan the sky for constant intruders.
The farmer, Alec Ratcliffe, suited his environment perfectly. Whip thin and corded, with piercing blue eyes appearing slyly by tacit agreement with the rest of his features. Shining covertly from the middle of a lined and wood grained face. Framed with greasy yellow grey hair and with a permanent white stubble, his face was apparently as unapproachable as his abode. Age undefined but old, he was camouflaged into his place of work as much as the tree or the rust holding together the promise of a field gate.
The dog barked hoarsely just once causing the farmer to turn from his task, washing soft pink and blue bullock testicles under an outside tap, and consider the door to the house.
"Bugger", was all he said, softly.
Throwing the balls, which he had been looking forward to cooking, to the dog, he moved purposely towards the farmhouse.
Everything in the yard achieved a sudden quiescence. Even the dirty leaves of the tree became still, achieving, unaccountably, a peace that had hitherto eluded. All life waited.
Ratcliffe brought his hands round to an old briar wood pipe poking out from a waistcoat pocket. Placing this unlit into his mouth he advanced on the door with something like a determination fit for the occasion.
As he reached the door a furtive shuffling was heard from the other side, breaking the silence and causing the blind dog to whine piteously. Pig gazed up intelligently from its snouting and cockerels suddenly found something immediately more interesting than their epic battle on the other side of one of the gates.
Ratcliffe wiped suddenly clammy hands on his trousers before reaching for the door handle. Making an obvious and conscious decision to turn it he entered quickly shutting the door fast behind him. The farm yard breathed neviously again.
Chapter 28 Albert muses.
The three looked at each other with varying degrees of understanding and sympathy. Albert looked at Tommy and considered. Tommy looked at Albert and hoped; both looked at Curate Simpkins in dismay.
Simpkins, for his part had developed something of an understanding during his trip across the fields. His eyes encouraged an optimism with his onlookers. They held a sharpness that had been largely absent when he first walked into the workroom of the Sewage farm to find a strong pint mug of tea thrust at him. Although it tasted disgusting to his more refined palate, it had helped and the curate was returning to some semblance of reality. He looked scared and defeated. As if all his faith and trust had been lost, recently, through a hole in his thinking.
Albert had the nervous habit of clearing of his throat for a very long time,when he was uncertain about something. This he did whilst considering how best to question the rather scruffy clergyman perched on the edge of a rickety wooden armchair. Both man and chair looking to his experienced eye, on the verge on imminent collapse.
" So, Reverend, thas had a meeting o' sorts" This was a statement rather than question as it was obvious to both work mates that something momentous had happened.
"Tha's seen summat that tha mebbe shouldn't ave?" This was now the start of the questions. Albert placed a deliberate determined look on his aged face and Tommy breathed a sigh of relief.
The curate looked up from the cracked brown mug held tightly in both hands.
"Meeting, yes. That's what it was, yes", he said looking first Albert and then Tommy in the eye. "It was, it was...." nervously pushing his mug towards the yellow curtained coldroom. An ineffectual gesture of defiance.
"Aye" said Tommy and Albert, more or less together. "We know who it wuz, an we know some, mind, some, of what ee does to poor sods like yerself", Albert completed the statement with a series of peculiar, almost frightened, inflections.
"Eeee, tha poor sod, Ah met not know much, but I know more than thee" Tommy felt for the young city lad. Unprepared and unable to compensate for an area, that was always red in tooth and claw, and completely outside his experience.
"Tha must ave thought us all loopy" he snorted, delivering an askance look at his colleague. "He must, mustn't he? Mad as a bloody box of frogs. Bloody arse of a thing, that it is an all" Aware that this was more than he had ventured as an opinion for some while, Tommy lapsed into silence.
Albert was meanwhile considering options.
First of all, he ticked off on mental fingers, Nan must be told. Number two, the lad has to be, he mentally repeated for extra personal emphasis, has to be found, no matter what. Three, we have to get this streak o' vicar piss to some kind of safety. This is where he hung himself up. This was the stumbling block. Where, he thought, can we keep this bugger out of trouble? Church is no good, owd bugger looking, no doubt, for him, this minute, would be in there like a flash. He near enough owns the place already, thought the cynical old miner with something of a wry grin. Where would be good?
There was only one place, to be even semi-seriously considered and that meant taking the priest back across the fields where he had come from. To Leeshi.