This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

May 28, 2010

The Vexed Question of Cathy and Heathcliff.


Foreword

I feel I should preface this essay with the statement that it makes no claim to scholarship. As a sometime writer myself, I have a passing interest in what motivates other writers, and how their natures might inform a more sensitive reading of their intentions. In this particular instance, I also have a personal stake in the matter.

Like a good many people, I have long been fascinated by the story of the Brontes. As I went about my own research into the family, and Emily in particular, I was constantly surprised by the similarity between what Charlotte called “Emily’s peculiarities” and those I have observed in myself. This led me to suspect that she and I had a lot in common, and it naturally followed that I should presume a more innate understanding of her nature and beliefs than I saw exhibited in the writings of most critics and biographers. I am forced to admit that such an understanding is based as much on instinct as firm evidence. If that charge be levelled at me, I have no option but to plead guilty. I believe, however, that well adjusted instinct, when combined with the available evidence, can sometimes search out truths that are otherwise missed.

The expression of opinion which follows might ramble too much to satisfy the fastidious requirements of the academic. That doesn’t concern me. I make no absolute claim to the rightness of my opinion. What I do claim is that, in a broad and empathic sense, it is well informed.

Introduction

There is evidence that Wuthering Heights had its genesis in something that happened a year before Emily wrote it. If one excludes the Gondal chronicles which she co-wrote with her sister Anne, Emily’s literary accomplishments had always been entirely poetical. In 1845 her elder sister Charlotte chanced upon a notebook containing Emily’s more mature poetry. She was highly impressed with its quality and told Emily it ought to be published. She later recalled that her sister was furious. It seems she had two objections. Firstly, she was a very private individual and was deeply upset that her outpourings had been viewed by somebody else – even when that somebody was her own beloved sister. This appears to demonstrate that she had only ever written for herself, not for publication, and it also gives the clue to her second objection. Emily had no desire to be “recognised.” She regarded fame, along with wealth, as symptomatic of the ephemera attaching to the transient nature of human existence, and therefore not worth valuing, let alone pursuing. Charlotte persisted in trying to change Emily’s mind, and agreement was eventually reached that the sisters would self-publish a volume containing poems by all three.

Charlotte’s later recollection indicates that this was a turning point in Emily’s persona. She became more aloof, more determinedly self-absorbed, and even dismissive of the quality of her work. There is an implicit suggestion that she became a much tougher character, even though she was already possessed of a degree of toughness not generally associated with polite young women from the Victorian middle class. She had always been a somewhat solitary individual, only freely embracing the company of her family and pets; it seems she was now becoming ever more disillusioned with life and the human condition. This is a common feature in the early stages of mysticism, and it was in the summer of the following year that she set about writing Wuthering Heights. Interestingly, it is also evident that she wrote it for publication. She was prepared to pay the publisher a large sum of money, as a deposit against sales, to have it published along with Anne’s Agnes Grey in a three volume novel. I think it reasonable to speculate that this change of heart was connected with the general change in her attitude and demeanour. I believe she was angry and had something profound to say to the world, and I believe Wuthering Heights to have been the result.

Interpretation

Publication was delayed, and the novel eventually appeared in December 1847. It received a unanimously hostile response from the critics of the day, steeped as they were in Victorian notions of literary convention and social propriety. A few conceded that the work had some literary merit, but even they were largely united in their opinion that the book was unsuitable for the refined sensibilities of polite society. One American critic vehemently exclaimed that the author was “certainly no gentleman.” (The book had been published, as were all the Bronte works initially, under a masculine pseudonym; in this case, Ellis Bell.) Even Charlotte would later express doubt as to whether the brutish Heathcliff should ever have been given genesis, even as a character in a novel.

Emily died just a year after the book was published. She never had the chance to answer her critics, and probably wouldn’t have bothered anyway. As she sat in an armchair, weak and dying of tuberculosis, Charlotte read a reviewer’s hostile comments to her. She later recalled that Emily’s reaction was “half amused, half scornful.” Emily was very much her own woman; the opinions of others were of little concern to her. I suspect, however, that she was also aware that her message was being missed.

Times and the tastes of the reading public changed. By the end of the nineteenth century, Wuthering Heights was largely accepted as a foremost member of the canon of great English literature. People started to attach the word “genius” to the name of Emily Bronte. I think she would have hated that, or at least poured scorn upon it. She appears to have been largely devoid of ego, and would therefore have had no need of the approbation of others. It might be noted that this is also a central trait of the mystic.

The twentieth century saw Wuthering Heights being afforded a level of media attention and critical acclaim given only to a small number of novels. It spawned several major films and TV adaptations, as well as an opera, a musical, and a number one pop song. The book was universally accepted and admired; Victorian misgivings had been swept away by the more sophisticated attitudes of a more enlightened age. Critics continued to write about it in a constant attempt at re-evaluation. Many continued, of course, to find fault with it, as is their right.

We are now in the twenty first century, and recognition amounting almost to adulation continues to be heaped on this dark, compelling tale of the doomed love affair between the gypsy-like Heathcliff and the wild and wilful Catherine Earnshaw. I believe that recognition to be justified, but for entirely different reasons. I believe that, for a hundred and sixty years, the public, the critics, the biographers, and the makers of all manner of spin-offs have been getting it wrong. Dark and compelling it certainly is, but I don’t believe the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is a love affair, and I don’t believe Emily Bronte meant it to be seen that way. There are four romances in Wuthering Heights – five if you count the fraudulent liaison between Heathcliff and Isabella. I don’t believe the story of Cathy and Heathcliff to be one of them.

If this novel had been written by an “ordinary” writer – even one of the other Bronte sisters – I would be happy to take it at face value. But it wasn’t. It was written by a woman about whom little is really known, but who is widely acknowledged to have had a decidedly mystical disposition. Any reading of her more mature poetry, and what little was written about her contemporaneously, supports this view totally. Most critics and biographers accept the fact of Emily’s mysticism, but few understand what mysticism really entails. Without such an understanding, any opinion of her novel is bound to fall short of what she really intended. My point can be simply stated: if you don’t understand Emily Bronte’s mystical mindset, you won’t understand Wuthering Heights.

I accept, of course, that one has to generalise to a certain extent, since it is impossible to really know Emily Bronte. She wrote very little about herself; she was neither a diarist nor a letter writer. Some pointers can be gained from what few items of personal writing survive, but most of the informed commentary on Emily comes from her sister, Charlotte, along with a few snippets from the small number of people who met her. Even then, many of the comments were written after her death, when her celebrity was taking root and her character being veiled in mythology.

I think an understanding of Emily’s nature needs to be split into two categories; her psychological make up and her mystical outlook. The former can be described fairly simply. All the evidence suggests that she was self-absorbed, aloof (at least towards the end of her life,) highly intelligent, fiercely independent, and consumed with the need for total freedom of thought and action. Her three attempts to leave home and attend school – two as a pupil and one as a teacher – rapidly ended in failure. Most commentators see that merely as homesickness. A more empathic view of Charlotte’s recollection, as well as one of the few letters known to have been written by Emily, suggests otherwise. What she was unable to come to terms with was the sense of claustrophobia engendered by working in somebody else’s environment, complying with somebody else’s rules, and having her activities and methods geared to somebody else’s requirements. I understand this perfectly, because I have always had the same problem. All she wanted to do was keep the house, write her poetry, and walk on the moors to commune with nature. While her siblings were making repeated attempts to earn their living, Emily stayed at home as housekeeper.

She appears to have had no desire to socialise or develop relationships outside the household. She had no known friends, lovers or confidants. As far as her literature is concerned, it seems she never sought the opinions, advice or approbation of anybody – not even her like-minded sisters; and when objective criticism was offered, we are led to believe that she ignored it. She did her own thing in her own way; she trusted her own judgment. No doubt it was the only way she knew how to function as a writer.

Her mystical outlook is less easy to understand, at least in the west where life’s imperatives are seen in such materialistic terms, and where the only nod to spirituality is largely made in the direction of the shallower teachings of the exoteric Judaic tradition. It is interesting to note that, despite being a minister’s daughter, she is believed to have been the only one of the four surviving siblings never to have taught in the Rev Patrick’s Sunday school. It seems she regarded all organised religion as being largely self-serving sham, preferring instead to view spirituality in the broader, more self-sufficient terms that we associate with eastern traditions such as the Vedic and Gnostic schools. How she came by these ideas is a mystery. Her main source of literature was the Keighley Mechanics Institute. Keighley is a small town in West Yorkshire, and I doubt they would have had many books on Buddhism, the Tao, or even the Albigensians. If she developed her belief system without external prompting or guidance, the fact is all the more remarkable. I think it would establish her right to be called truly mystical.

So what was the bedrock of Emily’s belief? Simply this: that all material form, even at its most wholesome and seductively beautiful, amounts to entrapment. The more mature poetry written during the last few years of her life suggests, without reasonable doubt, that she saw the human body as a prison. She loved animals, she loved nature, and she loved to be out alone in the wilder places; and yet she indicates often enough that only after death would she have the freedom to truly commune with the essence of it all. She longed for that freedom, and appeared to relish the prospect of death.

This is a hard concept for most people to understand. We are conditioned in western culture to hang onto our human lives for as long as possible. We are not shown how to truly look beyond it, except as some fatuous prospect of going to heaven if we follow the dictates and dogma of one religion or another. Emily believed she could see beyond it; and my own beliefs lead me to think that she was probably right, at least up to a point. It is often said that she had a death wish, and it seems evident that she did. It is the interpretation of that wish that is wrong. The modern, materialistic mindset sees a death wish as stemming from some serious psychological aberration, most notably chronic depression. It is a negative phenomenon; a desire for the end of everything in the hope that the pain will go with it. To the mystic, however, death is but a small step along a bigger road. Emily certainly seems to have seen it as a joyful prospect, a release from bondage into a state of spiritual freedom. This is the positive view of death inherent in the mystical point of view.

So how should all this inform our perception of Wuthering Heights? The simple answer is that it must make us doubt that the novel is a straightforward story in which realistic characters are behaving in a manner consistent with received expectations. One leading critic realised this and speculated that the whole novel was an allegory based upon a presumption regarding Emily’s understanding of dualism. According to him, the novel was about the interaction between the forces of storm, represented by the Earnshaws, and the forces of calm represented by the Lintons. I wouldn’t go that far, largely because I have seen no evidence to support the idea that Emily subscribed to that view of dualism. I find it unavoidable, however, to believe that there is some sort of allegory being presented here. My own theory is based upon the fact that Emily Bronte and Catherine Earnshaw appear to have three fundamental character traits in common.

They can both be described as self-absorbed (“self-obsessed” would appear a trifle strong for Emily, although it might be applied to Catherine.) Self-absorbed is not the same things as selfish, of course. I have seen no evidence that Emily was selfish, and the notion that Catherine exhibits a high level of selfishness is, I believe, due to the persistent misreading of her character. This is central to the point I am trying to make.

Secondly, they both had a deep fondness for nature and the need to escape into the natural world at frequent intervals. Catherine loves tramping the moors, just as Emily did.

Thirdly, they can both be described as “wild.” In this context I define wild as having an obsessive need to be untrammelled – to be free to do their own thing in their own way, whatever the situation. This is nowhere more evident that in the famous argument Emily had with Monsieur Heger in Brussels.

These three character traits are the cornerstones of both women’s characters, and lead to the strong suspicion that Emily meant Catherine to be a form of self portrait. If that is the case, we must view Catherine’s attitudes and behaviour in a way that is consistent with Emily’s nature. I propose to look at three examples that I believe have given rise to misinterpretation.

Firstly, there is Catherine’s decision to marry the ineffectual Edgar Linton, despite her profound attachment to the stronger and infinitely more magnetic Heathcliff. She makes it clear through the interrogation by Ellen Dean that she does not truly love Edgar, despite her disingenuous protestations that she does. She gives many reasons for loving him, but they amount to little more than the fact that he is rich, handsome, well set up, and even-tempered. In short, he is a good catch. Most readers interpret this as indicating Catherine’s selfishness. She is willing to hurt the man who most loves her by marrying another for whom she has no deep regard, merely to set herself up with a comfortable life.

I don’t read it that way. To me, this is Emily’s first hint that Catherine sees human life as an illusion, a game to be played out for as long as we have to be here. This is also a typical view of the mystical mindset. I think it is the first real indication that that her feelings for Heathcliff, whilst being far more powerful than those for Edgar, are spiritual not material. He is not a contender for the position of husband, and never has been. Their relationship is not a romance in the ordinary sense of the word. In that case, there is nothing selfish in taking the opportunity to marry the most eligible bachelor in the area.

Secondly, there is her subsequent inability to understand why, after she has married Edgar and Heathcliff has returned, she cannot have unrestricted relationships with both men. This is generally taken as indicating one of two things. Either Catherine is spoiled and selfish enough to think she can have the best of both worlds, or that she is too naïve to realise that the two rivals will fight over her.

Again, I believe this to be a misinterpretation, because it fails to take account of the author’s views on life. I see this as the second indication that the two men mean totally different things to her. Edgar’s position as husband, father and provider places him strictly on the earth plane. He fits the picture, since he is conventional in all things social, psychological and spiritual. As such, he is the perfect person with whom to play out the virtual reality game of earthly life; but that’s all he is. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is more than just a soul mate. Catherine exclaims to Nelly “I am Heathcliff.” How else can this be interpreted but that she and Heathcliff are one soul separated into two bodies? Her connection to Edgar is that of wife, a role that places upon her responsibilities consistent with cultural expectations. Her connection to Heathcliff is one of spiritual bond. Of course she has to have both men, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t. They are not rivals, and her association with Heathcliff would in no way represent infidelity to Edgar. Heathcliff is not, nor ever has been, her lover. Catherine’s view is rational and reasonable, if you understand the mindset that wrote her.

Heathcliff appears to understand this; Edgar doesn’t. Edgar predictably takes the conventional view: Heathcliff is Catherine’s ex-boyfriend; his continued presence in her life is an unacceptable intrusion on the sanctity of his marriage. Edgar’s attitude exhibits what we might reasonably interpret as sexual jealousy. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is driven by the same universal imperative as Catherine. Nothing in his behaviour appears to indicate sexual jealousy. His extreme antipathy towards Edgar seems rather to stem from intense frustration at the fact that Edgar’s conventional attitude is keeping him from the other half of his soul. He despises Edgar’s small-mindedness – his inability to see beyond the human and conventional. Inevitably, he views Edgar as weak and worthless; and the fact that such a pathetic being is proving a barrier to the only thing he truly needs serves to compound his frustration to breaking point.

Finally we have a famous quotation of Catherine’s which, I believe, is Emily’s final confirmation of how we should understand her. After she has partially recovered from her “brain fever” and become lucid again, she realises that she is going to die. When Edgar takes her in his arms, she says to him

“What you touch at present you may have, but my soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again. I don’t want you, Edgar; I’m past wanting you.”

This might be taken for callousness on Catherine’s part, but I’m certain it wasn’t meant to be read that way. Instead, I believe it to be the definitive confirmation of her relationship with Edgar. He is her earthly husband, nothing more. He may have her earthly body, nothing more. Their relationship is part of the material prison in which the human body functions. Once the prison door is opened by death, the relationship ceases to have meaning. Her speech is simply a statement of fact, nothing more; and I believe it to be a statement entirely consistent with the author’s mystical outlook.

These three misunderstandings, as I hold them to be, are crucial to understanding the true character of Catherine Earnshaw. It functions on two levels: the overt earthly and the covert spiritual. I think it is a measure of Emily Bronte’s genius that she manages to wrap the allegory so convincingly in a realistic character, that the hidden reality is universally missed. But then, so few people understand the mystical mindset.

So, if Catherine is an allegory, what of Heathcliff? He is less easily explained. In general terms he seems to understand the nature of their relationship as she does, but his character does not match the standard of realism that Catherine’s achieves.

It has been said of Heathcliff that he is merely a Byronic sham. I see him more as a simplified form of a tragic Shakespearian anti-hero. He functions almost like a wild animal. He is an out and out brute; and yet some of his speeches are remarkably long, eloquent and melodramatic. The two don’t really go together if you’re looking for realism. If I might paraphrase Macbeth, Heathcliff is full of sound and fury, signifying something. What that something consists of is less transparent than it is with Catherine.

The most obvious conclusion is to see him merely as a foil. He has to be there in order for the hidden mystical dimension of Catherine’s nature to express itself. It should be noted that the human form of Catherine only exists for the first half of the novel, but her spirit undoubtedly rules the second through Heathcliff. And this, I feel, might be the clue as to why he is so dark tempered and vindictive. As he admits towards the end of the novel, his manner and behaviour are driven to extremes by the inconsolable sense of frustration he feels at being parted from Catherine. Hence, Catherine continues to be the dominant character even after she’s dead.

There is, however, another possibility. Might we not speculate that if the esoteric Catherine is a self portrait, Heathcliff might have been Emily’s exploration of her own dark side? We all have one; we all occasionally experience dark desires or imaginings that we should prefer not to see the light of publicity, let alone expression. They very rarely do, and we needn’t feel ashamed of something that is merely an aspect of the human condition. I think it might be why we love villainous characters in drama and literature, even though we are most comfortable when those characters are comic or soundly defeated in the end. Actors often say that they most like playing villains, and I have always had a fondness for villainous literary females. I believe it to be a displacement device, a safety valve for the harmless release of the darker parts of our nature. Sometimes it allows us to laugh at it, which is even better.

Maybe Heathcliff was Emily’s safety valve. His vengeful intent is, indeed, defeated in the end by the happy union of Hareton and young Catherine. As speculative as it is, I like this second possibility. It lends a satisfactory cohesion to the Heathcliff/Cathy dynamic, something the first possibility lacks. Two sides of the author are represented as one soul split between two characters. The allegory is all the sounder for it.

So what of the suggestion that the whole novel is an allegory? I think it would be stretching credulity a little too far to look for hidden meanings in all the characters, settings and aspects of the plot. I prefer to believe that Cathy and Heathcliff are the only allegories, and that they have been skilfully woven into a story that is otherwise realistic.

In conclusion, I will admit that it is not my place to say what a reader should or should not take from Wuthering Heights. The book is an enjoyable read, even taken at face value with no regard for allegories and mystical mindsets. My only real concern is for the Cathy/Heathcliff question. The view persists that their liaison is one of the great romances of English literature. I am quite certain that it is no such thing. Immensely powerful it may be, but it is certainly not romantic. One recent critic described it as “More Romantic than romantic.” This, I think, is close to the truth; and I think it is the deeper dimension of that liaison that gives the novel the right to the accolade of “genius.”

May 15, 2010

Grace and Favour.

This is another early story. It’s probably the most derivative, the most given to decompressed narrative, and the least sophisticated of all, but I’m posting it for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the first one I ever had published so I have a certain fondness for it. Secondly, a lot of people have mentioned The Mists of Avalon lately and I felt impelled to offer something with an Arthurian connection. If Jenny from Sydney reads it, this is the one your banner reminded me of. Be assured, later ones are better. I intend to post one around the beginning of June.

First published by
Ragged Edge webzine in 2005

Reading time: approximately 30 minutes.


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There had always been something of the recluse about Julian Benoit. His upbringing as an only child in a quarrelsome household had conditioned him from an early age to be content with his own company and resourceful in the creation of his amusements.

He had friends of course, but he could take them or leave them. As he grew older he became more than merely content with his own company; he came to regard solitude as the most natural of states, and increasingly ordered his life in such a way as to achieve as much of it as possible. He found himself constantly observing what he saw as the shortcomings of developed culture, and simply didn’t want to be a part of it.

He had been married once, but had found the combined pressures of domestic compromise and the received expectations of co-habitual behaviour to be unnatural and claustrophobic. Divorce had been inevitable and he had lived alone for much of his adult life.

His solitary situation had served to enhance his reflective tendencies and his faculty for observation. Further, it had enabled him to re-open something that had been a major preoccupation of his childhood: the exploration of alternative realities suggested by ancient legends, fairy stories and his own imagination. Whether this had encouraged the development of an incurably romantic nature, or whether the converse was true, would be difficult to say.

But an incurable romantic he certainly was. For him, life was one long contemplation of the question that tugs at all incurable romantics: what other worlds, states or dimensions lie beyond the mundane reality of physical life? He was not concerned with the state beyond death. He considered that to be merely a linear continuation of the material world and had little interest in it. Rather, he was interested in the step sideways. He wanted to find the world of Oracles and Mysteries - that tantalizing, unseen realm populated by fairies, unicorns and the deities of ancient Greek and Celtic legend, all those things that rational people in the age of reason treat with amusement and condescension.

He was convinced that such worlds existed. He’d never seen or touched them, but he had felt them somewhere deep inside. The woodcuts of Dore, the poetry of Tennyson, and the music of the late English Romantics had always opened an inner doorway to them. But only very slightly, just wide enough to feel the visceral thrill of their energies but nothing like sufficient to embrace or engage with them.

He had always felt that landscape should hold the key. There was something about lakes and woods, mountains and rivers that should have opened the door a bit wider, possibly even wide enough to walk through. But they never had. He had taken up hill walking early in life in the hope of satisfying this growing need, but had always been disappointed. Much as its solitary nature had suited his disposition, and much as he had been able to appreciate the physical form of beautiful landscapes, that’s all it had ever been – physical. The magic had always remained frustratingly out of reach. And then, in his forty seventh year, he made his one and only trip to Ireland.

Ireland was a place he had always wanted to visit, but his personal circumstances had never seemed to afford the opportunity. His refusal to join the mainstream gold rush for prosperity and material possessions had always left him struggling financially, and there had never been the spare cash to justify the luxury of a trip to The Holy Ground.

His desire to go there, however, had grown in direct proportion to his alienation from his native culture. He had read Yeats’ The Celtic Twilight several times and it was clear to him that, if any place held the answer to his quest, Ireland had to be it. The opportunity came, as the most telling of opportunities often do, from an unfortunate source: his mother died.

His father had been dead for many years and, as his mother’s only close relative, the work of clearing her estate fell entirely on him. It took two months to deal with the undertaker, the insurance companies, the banks, the bureaucracies and the house clearance.

The last of these was particularly difficult. Deciding what to keep, what to sell, what to throw away, and what to donate to friends and charity shops was emotionally draining. Much of the detail of a person’s life is contained within their possessions and, when that person is as close as a mother, disposing of them can be tough. When it was all over, he felt that he had earned a reward. His mother had left him a respectable amount of money and he decided finally to fulfil his wish to visit Ireland.

It was early May when he took the ferry to Dublin. On arrival, his progress was slow due to his not having a car. The restrictive nature of public transport, combined with a lack of any planned itinerary, meant that he spent several days of his intended short stay just getting to what seemed a reasonable base to begin his odyssey. He finally dropped anchor in Donegal Town.

Having booked into a modest bed and breakfast, he spent the next couple of days tasting the local culture. He explored the town and talked to people in shops and cafes; he spent some time sitting among the ruins of the old abbey on the headland beyond the harbour; and he visited several pubs in search of one that would be closest to his ideal of old Ireland. He found one that he liked and spent the evenings of the first two days sitting at the bar, drinking real native Guinness and listening to the rough-hewn folk music served up by a stream of local amateur musicians.

He had long had the impression that all the Irish were amateur musicians, but now began to realise that the distinction between amateur and professional is nowhere near as sharply drawn as it is in England. In his native land the combination of commercialism and a high culture tradition ensures that performer and audience are kept essentially separate. In Ireland, familiarity begins at the hearth. Children grow up with it. It’s as natural as learning to bounce a ball or count to ten.

He also found himself curiously at ease in the crowded, one-room pub. He could still keep himself emotionally apart if he wanted to, but the people around him were mostly direct and straightforward, and obviously lived for simple pleasures and down-to-earth company. He felt that he could almost be a part of that sort of culture.

Almost, but not quite. On the third day he felt the need to get back to his accustomed solitude and decided that he should go west, to the Gaeltacht. This, he had learned, was Old Ireland proper; a land of lonely hills, misty woods and stark sea cliffs, where the native population still used Gaelic as a first language and the values of a forgotten age were still alive. Whether this belief was right or not, he was never to find out.

He called at the local tourist office to enquire about buses. The clerk apologised and explained that a trip to the Gaeltacht would not be as simple as a quick bus ride. There was only one bus out to the west in the evening to take the workers home, and another one back in the morning to bring them in again. A trip would involve a three day undertaking.

That caused him a problem. His ferry ticket expired on the fourth day and the connections to Dublin were such that it would be difficult to make the appointed sailing. He would probably have to pay a surcharge to get back home. His lifestyle had made him frugal in his attitude to money and he decided to restrict his quest to the local countryside. After all, rural Ireland is rural Ireland wherever you happen to be. This part would be as good as any.

The following morning he learned from his landlady that there was a hilly area a few miles out of town to the north-west where he would find woods and a large body of water called Lough Eske. It was within easy walking distance for a practiced hill-walker and it sounded promising. She obligingly prepared a packed lunch and, at about ten o’clock, he walked out beyond the edges of the town and set off to pick his way among the quiet lanes of rural Donegal.

He had been walking for a couple of hours when the road ahead climbed gently up to the brow of a low hill and, as he reached the top, he saw Lough Eske stretched out before him.

He was disappointed. The lough was pleasant but unspectacular. A few trees fringed the far shore but most of the bank was rocky. The hills that formed the backdrop were equally unimpressive, being low and mundane compared with what he had grown used to in Scotland and The English Lake District. He strolled around the edge of the lough for a little way, before stopping to eat his packed lunch.

He was content enough, sitting on a rock for half an hour and taking in the scenery. It was, at least, blissfully quiet. There were neither people nor vehicles to disturb him. But it certainly didn’t hold the magic he had hoped to find. He would have to move on. He looked around and saw an area of woodland some way up the slope rising from the north side of the lough, and adjacent to a narrow lane that left the main road close to where he was sitting. As soon as he had finished his cup of unappetising flask coffee he set off up the incline.

He reached the spot at which the edge of the wood converged with the course of the lane and they ran together into the foreseeable distance. He was disappointed again. He had hoped to find thick, gnarled old trees and the dense undergrowth of an ancient wood. Instead, he found the trees to be mostly young and slender, and there was little undergrowth to speak of. There were some old stumps attesting to the age of the sight, but the current growth was too thin and insubstantial to be what he wanted.

He decided that a young wood was better than no wood at all and stepped off the lane to enter the trees, hoping that the situation might improve as he went deeper.

It didn’t. He walked for a hundred yards or so until the road behind him was out of site, but still the trees were young and skinny and the going underfoot was easy. He came to a stream that crossed his path and this was as unimpressive as everything else - shallow and narrow, little more than a drainage ditch really. He could easily have jumped across it. He chose not to, but turned to follow its line upstream, hoping that it would broaden out into some small pool where he might be lucky enough to see the odd trout make for the safety of the tree roots at his approach.

After a few minutes walking he reached the far edge of the wood. He saw that the stream ran towards it from what appeared to be a copse a little way beyond a piece of rough moorland. In terms of what he was looking for, the day had been something of a failure so far. He decided he might as well press on and follow the stream across the open ground to see if anything lay beyond the copse. He strode on up the shallow slope and walked between two old willow trees that stood either side of the water.

The scene that lay before him was mesmerising. This baby of a watercourse had led him, like a child leading an unsuspecting adult by the hand, to its parent: a large, still pool, maybe a hundred feet across and three times as long. Its banks were fringed with imposing old willows and ash trees, with the odd sycamore and oak breaking up the line and giving it added character. The wild plants that grew thickly along the lower parts of the bank brushed their heads against the surface, where they met leaves and stems growing upwards from the bed of the lake. Where the bank was higher, tree roots could be seen breaking from the black earth and snaking into the water, forming countless woody caves where fish and waterfowl could take refuge.

The surface was unruffled and dark, and reflected the sumptuous growth and the distant sky like some gigantic mirror. And he felt that, beneath this magical reflection of the material world, there might be unfathomable depths containing vital esoteric mysteries. He felt an immediate sense that this was what he had been looking for all these years.

He drank in the magic without fully understanding what produced it. The day was dull and there was a hint of mist in the air, quite unlike the atmosphere near the lough, which had been grey but clear. There were no harsh shadows, and the varied bright greens and dull reds of the burgeoning spring growth lent a softness to the scene that was breathtaking. The faint mist progressively blurred the more distant view, dissolving the far end of the pool into a soft, colour-washed version of reality.

And yet he knew there was more to it than that - something he felt strongly but couldn’t explain. He sensed the door opening wider, and knew that here was a magical spot where the boundary between this world and others was thin.

He stared at the water for a long time. His sense of expectation was greater than anything he had ever felt in any other landscape, however beautiful or grandiose. But what did he expect? Something to rise up out of the water? Yes, actually, he did. But what?

He remembered hearing stories of evil monsters living in the depths of such pools, with beautiful daughters who lured passers by to their deaths by drowning. He smiled. Maybe not. A lake monster perhaps, common in native legends from Scotland to Peru? He dismissed that idea too. The Loch Ness monster and its international array of cousins are said, by those claiming to have seen them, to be physical creatures, and such a possibility was rather too prosaic to satisfy Julian’ quest.

His musing was interrupted by a sudden shaft of pale sunlight that struck the back of his left shoulder and briefly bathed the scene before him. As it did so his eye was caught by a movement under the water, a few yards from the bank on which he was standing. Something large and pale-coloured drifted from right to left across the line of his gaze, close enough to the surface to be visible but too deep to identify. He judged it to be about the size of a human and the suddenness of its appearance made him catch his breath. Then the low, grey Irish clouds obscured the sun again and the image was gone.

He mused on the possibilities. Had it been real, a trick of the light, or just his imagination? Could it have been a fish? That was unlikely. This was far bigger than the biggest pike ever caught in Ireland and, besides, nature has given freshwater fish dark coloured backs which make them difficult to spot. An otter perhaps? No; the objection was the same.

He felt a twinge of excitement at this hint of evidence that there really might be something unknown to the modern world living in the depths. Despite his incurably romantic nature, however, he remained circumspect. The sunlight briefly appeared again and he saw that the bright greens of the new leaves reflected strongly in the water.

He accepted the mundane explanation; it was probably no more than a trick of the light. But the reflections didn’t move, and he was sure that the image had. That must have been his overactive imagination, he thought. He was in the mood to see something mysterious and the mind sometimes shows you what you want to see.

As he stood there wondering, another movement caught his eye, over on the far bank to his left. This held no mystery. It was a wild rabbit hopping lazily up the slope towards a narrow lane that he assumed to be the continuation of the one he had taken to reach the wood. Before it reached the road, the rabbit disappeared into a thicket of dark green and yellow gorse, one of many that dotted the scrubby fields in these parts. Just beyond the gorse bush, on the other side of the lane, stood a simple, single-storey cottage.

How wonderful it must be to live there, thought Julian. No near neighbours, no sounds save those of nature, and a place of magic only a matter of yards away. He was curious about the occupants of the house and wondered whether they appreciated what they had got on their doorstep.

He removed the pack from his shoulders, sat down and poured himself another coffee. Even that tasted better in this charmed spot and his whole body tingled with a rare sense of being exactly where he belonged. Life suddenly felt right, wholesome and optimistic.

He stayed there for another hour or so, and then realised that he would soon be getting hungry and that he had a two-hour walk back to his digs. He twisted the flask top firmly into place, fastened his backpack and made his way up the grassy slope towards the lane. He stopped to gaze at the old cottage for a few minutes before turning left and walking back towards the town.

That evening he went for his accustomed session in his favourite pub. He was already becoming a regular and Brigid, the landlady, was pouring his usual drink even before he had taken a seat at the bar. He wondered whether she knew of the lake and described its location in detail.

She did know of it, she said; she remembered being taken there as a child. It was a popular picnic spot then, but she hadn’t been there for years. It had a name, too, but she couldn’t remember what it was. The name of a woman, she thought. Molly? Sally? No, she couldn’t remember. If he was interested, she would try to find out and tell him the next time he came in.

Sleep came easily that night. He felt more content than he had for a long time. But, alongside the contentment, he felt an urgent need to visit the lake again. Over and over he kept seeing the dark surface of the water, the lush foliage around its edge, and the rabbit – the rabbit was always there too, ambling easily through the coarse grass before disappearing into the gorse bush. He must go again tomorrow, that much was certain.

The following morning the sky was darker than the previous day and there was a light rain falling. To some this would have been, both literally and metaphorically, a dampener. Not to Julian; he loved spring rain. To him, rain on a warm spring day made the new life seem all the more alive and brought out the rich odour of the earth.

At nine o’clock, fortified by a large breakfast and provisioned with another of his landlady’s packed lunches, he set off again to make sure that his lake was not, like Brigadoon, some enchanted spot that only appeared for a single day every hundred years. It wasn’t. It was still there and looking even more beautiful than ever as the rain dripped off the overhanging leaves and made countless ripples on the dark surface.

He strolled slowly around the perimeter, stopping every so often to gaze at the still water and the surrounding vegetation. The view from every angle was equally magical. And each time he looked at the surface he had that same feeling: that something was about to rise out of it. Nothing did. It remained calm and unbroken, apart from the myriad spreading circles made by the water drops, and the wake of the occasional moorhen that swam out from the tangled tree roots at his approach.

Eventually he arrived back at the spot from which he had seen the mysterious shape the day before. Perhaps he would see it again today. He dismissed the thought. He was still inclined to put that one down to imagination. He settled down at the base of a crusty old tree and poured a cup of Mrs O’Connor’s coffee. Then he stretched out his legs, rested his back against the tree trunk and took in the scene.

The area around the lake was rough moorland, obviously used for grazing sheep. He could see a number of them dotted about the hillside behind the cottage that had attracted his attention the previous day.

He took more notice of the solitary building this time. It was whitewashed, with green-painted woodwork and a grey slate roof. It was a typical Irish rural dwelling - he’d seen plenty of them on postcards in Dublin and Donegal. An outbuilding stood at right angles to the main house and he assumed that the occupants were smallholders. They probably owned the sheep that were grazing the hills. There were no vehicles in sight and he assumed that the owners must be out on some business or other.

Just as he was musing on these idle speculations, the front door opened and a woman stepped out. She looked in his direction for a few seconds before walking across to the outbuilding and disappearing inside.

The sight of her disturbed him a little. His first reaction was one of irritation. Another human had appeared and struck a discordant note in his attempt to become connected with the magic of the place. Reverie should be a solitary business.

But the image of her staring at him and then walking away forced itself into his mind and came to have a rightful place in the experience. Although he was some distance from the cottage, her stare had seemed to hold an intensity that carried across the space between them, and her subsequent walk had been elegant and statuesque. An urge to meet and talk with her began to grow in him. He glanced often at the building in the hope of seeing her return to the house, but she never appeared.

The rain stopped eventually, but the grey of the sky was unremitting. The land and the leaves stayed wet, and the slates on the cottage roof continued to shine. Julian was aware of the dampness beneath and around him, but was unconcerned. He enjoyed breathing in the freshness, and the day passed surprisingly quickly. It was two o’clock before he even thought about having lunch and he ate it without any great degree of interest. He continued to watch the water, still half expecting that something would break the surface and reveal itself at any moment. His vigil went unrewarded, but the curious tingle of something slightly more than mere hope lived on.

The sound of a car engine shattered his peace. An old Morris Minor drove slowly up the road and passed on beyond the cottage. He glanced at his watch and saw to his surprise that it was five o’clock. This was most unusual. Julian was the sort of man who normally got bored easily, but not here. He felt that he should go back to the town, but the opinion came more from the habit of doing what was normal and expected than from any real desire. He was reluctant to leave the spot, even after six hours of sitting on wet grass and looking at the surface of what most people would regard as a small and insignificant lake. He would leave for now, but come back early tomorrow.

His mood in the pub that night was quiet and introspective. The sounds of speech and music surrounding him seemed to belong to another world. He was concerned only with the lake. He imagined it as it must have looked at that moment: darker than ever and hauntingly still, with the moon’s reflection staring up at him from its black surface. He saw a swan gliding silently across it, as the swan of Tuonela glides across the lake of the underworld in Finnish legend.

Brigid had been unable to find out the name of the lake but she would continue trying, she said. He was sure that the woman who lived in the cottage would know it. He needed an excuse, better still a good reason, to knock on her door and talk to her. The solution presented itself the following morning.

When Mrs O’Connor brought his breakfast, she placed a small piece of paper beside his plate. It was the bill for his six nights stay. In his preoccupation with the lake he had quite forgotten that he was due to leave that afternoon to take a coach to Dublin, ready for the early sailing the next day. This, again, was most unlike him. He was the sort who constantly thought ahead and knew exactly what would be required of him at all times in the foreseeable future.

Leaving now was out of the question. He had spent much of his adult life looking for that lake, and he wasn’t about to throw away the opportunity and go back to the suffocating deadness of English suburban culture just yet.

He considered his next move. He remembered that Mrs O’Connor had told him that a party of Japanese tourists was due to arrive that day and that she would be fully booked for the next week. Staying there was out of the question.

He could try to find somewhere else in the town, but the five-mile trek to the lake and back was tedious. He could do with finding somewhere closer to the lake, but he had seen no B&B signs on the way and had little confidence in that option. An unlikely idea came into his mind. As with most unlikely ideas that present themselves to desperate people, this one rooted itself so firmly that it soon became the obvious solution.

He would buy a tent from the outdoor shop he had seen in the town, and then seek permission from the woman at the cottage to camp by the lakeside. She might even keep him supplied with fresh milk and other provisions in the old tradition of rural hospitality. The surcharge on his ferry ticket now seemed so trivial that he dismissed his earlier concerns without a thought.

He felt a surge of excitement as he settled on this course of action. He left the table and set about clearing his room, splitting his possessions into those he would need to carry in his backpack and those he would have to leave in his suitcase. He wrote a brief letter to his friend back home, explaining that he had discovered an interesting area that he wanted to explore and that he would be staying on for a few more days. He mentioned the pool without going into detail. The point of writing was simply to explain his absence in case he was missed.

One detail remained. He would have to rely on Mrs O’Connor agreeing to store his suitcase until he got back. He sought her out, paid his bill and put the question to her. She was a kindly soul and agreed without hesitation. She even made him another packed lunch, courtesy of the house.

He walked into the town and bought the smallest tent they had. He didn’t need luxury and didn’t want to carry any more weight than was necessary. He fastened it to his backpack and set off on the familiar route to the lake.

All these preparations meant that he arrived later than usual that day, and he wondered whether the woman who lived at the cottage would be at home. As he approached he realised that he had, without any obvious justification, dismissed the idea that anyone else lived there and felt uneasy at the prospect of being wrong.

He walked through the gate, crossed the concrete forecourt and, after a moment’s hesitation, knocked on the door. Within seconds it was opened wide and a slender woman of around his own height stood in the doorway.

At first glance she looked young. Her pale face had the smoothness and freshness of youth, and her posture was erect yet languid and easy. Her eyes told a different story. They were pale blue and piercing, and made him think of the coldness of spring water on a hot summer’s day. They were also full of experience and displayed a wisdom, knowledge and sensuality suggesting maturity beyond anything he had seen before. Her raven-black hair fell in waves over her shoulders, contrasting sharply with the blood-red sweater she was wearing. Julian felt captivated, and more than a little nervous. He shuffled slightly while she stood motionless and unconcerned.

“Hello,” she said.

Her voice had a purity of tone that suggested music, and was at once both gentle and firm. Julian was off guard and his voice was hesitant.

“Er, I’m sorry to trouble you,” he said, in that terribly English way that he found unavoidable when his guard was up. “I wondered if it would be all right to camp for a few days - on the land down by the lake.”

“It’s not my land,” she said with a directness that he found unsettling. “But it won’t be a problem. Help yourself.”

She didn’t move or avert her eyes even for a second. Julian was encouraged by this immediate success and the second question came more easily.

“OK, right, thanks,” he said. “I also wondered whether I might be able to buy a few basic food items from you - bread, milk, that sort of thing.”

“I don’t see why not. I have plenty.”

She continued to look steadfastly into his face.

Was that it? He had expected something a little more protracted. This was so matter-of-fact as to be unreal. Then she spoke again.

“Tell you what,” she said, still with that disarming candour in her eyes, “I’ll be making supper at about six. Come up to the house and join me if you like.”

The suddenness of this unexpected offer stunned him. The words were framed as an invitation, but something about her manner made them sound more like a gentle instruction. She had neither smiled nor frowned; her face had betrayed no mood of any sort, just a calm certainty of purpose that allowed no possibility of an outright refusal. He stared at her for several seconds, although it felt much longer.

“Oh I couldn’t put you to that trouble,” he said politely, not meaning a word of it.

“It’s no trouble,” she replied.

Still she looked directly at his eyes; still she didn’t move a muscle. This conversation was taking on the quality of a dream.

“Right then, six it is,” he stuttered.

He couldn’t believe this was happening. He wanted her to break the contact but still she stood there, still she looked at him with that gentle but inscrutable expression. He could think of nothing more original than “See you later then.”

He forced himself to turn and walk away. As he crossed the forecourt he looked back at the door. It was shut.

He walked down to the lake and pitched his tent on the flattest bit of ground he could find. Unlike the previous two occasions, the weather was fine and dry. A bright patch of sky in the south-east indicated the position of the sun and there was a moderate breeze blowing. The surface of the lake was full of movement as the ripples crossed incessantly from one side to the other.

Whether it was this or his meeting with the enigmatic woman he didn’t know, but the lake didn’t seem quite so magical that day. He felt that something had gone out of it. But it was still magical enough, and he was here to wait for something to reveal itself. He settled down and resumed his vigil.

He sat at the entrance to his tent all day, only breaking his watch to relieve himself in the nearby wood. He looked at the cottage frequently, but saw no sign of his new acquaintance. His thoughts were confused. One minute he was watching the surface of the lake hoping to see something that would make his attention worthwhile, the next he was reliving his conversation with the woman from the cottage. He wondered how old she was; what was her history; how did she make her living; why did she invite him to join her for supper so easily? He awaited six o’clock with a mixture of excitement and mild trepidation.

At the appointed hour he walked back up to the cottage and knocked on the door. It was opened wide, as before. The woman was still wearing the red sweater and denim jeans, and Julian was struck by the contrast between the informal nature of her dress and the striking, almost surreal, beauty and bearing of the rest of her. She stood aside.

“Come in,” she said.

He accepted the invitation and offered to take off the walking boots that were the only form of footwear he had with him.

“If you like,” she said, and then motioned him towards a table that was laid simply with a knife and soup spoon.

He glanced around the room as he walked across it. He was surprised to find it almost wholly modern in its furnishings and equipment. Kitchen, dining and living facilities were all contained within its square layout. He assumed that the bedroom must be on the other side of a closed door in the far corner of the room. Everything looked new apart from an old dresser on one wall and a weathered, wooden carving of a rabbit on the mantelshelf.

“I saw a rabbit ambling up towards the house the first day I was here,” he said enthusiastically.

“Are they rare in England then?”

He felt embarrassed by her tone of gentle mockery. Seeing a wild rabbit in the countryside is hardly adequate grounds for conversation, and he realised that he was still nervous. He sat down and she brought two large bowls and a loaf of soda bread, placing them in the middle of the table. This time she kept her eyes on the objects of her labours. She returned with a steaming tureen of vegetable stew and proceeded to fill the two bowls. It smelt rich and herby.

She sat down and there was silence for a few seconds as she cut several large pieces of bread. She passed one to him on a small plate and he waited for her to begin eating. He noticed that the cutlery looked as new as everything else. It was obvious that the cottage had been recently renovated and he wondered whether she might be fresh from a divorce or bereavement.

She began to eat and resumed her habit of looking at him with the same disarming clarity that she had displayed earlier. She said nothing, however, and he felt the need to break the silence. He gave vent to the first clumsy thought that came into his mind.

“Are you sure this is all right?” he asked. “Inviting a total stranger into your house on such short acquaintance?”

So terribly English!

“You’re not a stranger,” she said. “I’ve been watching you down by the lake. I expected you to knock.”

He wasn’t sure whether to feel thrilled or uneasy at the thought of being watched. She began to eat her stew and he did likewise. Neither of them spoke for several minutes and then she asked him

“What brought you here?”

“To the house?”

“No, to the lake.”

He told her something of his recent history and how he had found the lake to be a special place which might show him something he had been looking for.

“What are you expecting to find?” she asked.

This was going to be difficult. He briefly explained his attitude to life, his intolerance of people, and his need to find something beyond the mundane realities of material existence. He felt able to ask the obvious question.

“Do you believe such worlds exist?”

For once she offered a half-smile.

“If they exist, they exist. What does it matter whether people believe it or not?”

Her answer seemed evasive, but he didn’t yet feel sufficiently comfortable to press her further. Silence followed again until they finished their meal.

“Do you realise that we don’t even know one another’s names?” said Julian, desperate to talk to this strange woman in this unreal atmosphere.

“I don’t need to know your name,” she said “But, as the host, it would be no more than polite to tell you mine. I’m Morag Ni Mune”

She pronounced her surname in a clipped Irish way that he had heard before: ‘Nee-Moo-ney’. He was relieved to be given an opportunity to open a conversation

“There’s a woman fiddler with that name who comes from the west of Donegal – fronts the band Altan. I suppose you’ve heard of her.”

“I have,” said Morag, with a slight Irish lilt.

Previously he had noticed that she seemed to have hardly any trace of an accent; he had assumed that she was probably well-travelled.

“She spells her name in the Gaelic manner. I don’t like to belong to only one culture, so I choose to spell mine M.U.N.E. so that its pronunciation is more universally recognisable.”

She sounded educated and he was curious to know more about her history.

“Where are you from?” he asked, before realising that such a direct question might be offensive. Her expression showed neither offence nor enthusiasm.

“My roots are in Ireland,” she said, “but I have family and connections in many places.”

Predictably, she did not elaborate further. There was more silence. Feeling certain that she was well educated, he decided to try a different tack.

“Are you familiar with Shakespeare?” he asked, hoping to break into a subject that would afford ample potential for conversation.

“Intimately.”

In one way this was promising, but her reply suggested that her level knowledge might be far beyond his and he felt defensive. Nevertheless, he persevered.

“Do you have a favourite play?”

“I like the ones with magic in them,” said Morag. “The Tempest and Midsummer Nights Dream.”

“They’re my favourites too,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve long thought that Shakespeare had a level of esoteric knowledge that modern readers just don’t appreciate.”

He realised that his words sounded stilted, pretentious even. She dismissed them in a sentence.

“Maybe he had a good teacher.”

Julian thought he detected a glint in her eye that flashed momentarily, and was gone again.

She rose to clear the supper dishes. As she stood there busying herself with the crockery, Julian suddenly remembered that he had still seen no vehicle at the cottage and wondered how she travelled about. He asked the obvious question:

“Is there a Mr Ni Mune?”

“There couldn’t be,” she said “The possessive ‘Ni’ is feminine, the female equivalent of Mac or O’. If you mean ‘Do I have a husband?’ No. The only man close to me is my son who lives in Limerick. Would you like some coffee?”

Julian was particular about his taste in coffee and wondered what he was going to be given. Still, it couldn’t be any worse than what Mrs O’Connor had put in his flask, so he was happy to take the risk.

Morag took a cafetiere and a new bag of coffee out of a cupboard and switched on the electric kettle. When the brew was made and smelling wonderful, she placed it on a tray along with two mugs, a bowl of sugar and a jug of cream. Julian wondered about the son. Had she been married? Was he illegitimate? Those questions would have to wait.

“Let’s sit by the fire,” she said.

He realised that he had been so beguiled by the singular nature of his host and the surreal quality of his experience that he hadn’t noticed a fire; but there it was, a traditional peat fire smouldering gently in the grate. Two modern armchairs stood either side of the simple fireplace. They sat down and she poured two mugs of steaming coffee. She looked at him again, obviously awaiting his next question. He was ready this time; he knew what he wanted to ask her.

“What’s the lake called?”

She was sitting upright but relaxed in her armchair.

“The anglicised version is Lough Annie. The original Gaelic means ‘the lake of Anya.’ You’ve heard of Anya, I suppose?”

He had indeed. Anya was one of the greatest of the Irish pagan goddesses and, like all pagan deities, credited with a mixture of attributes - some good and some questionable. On the one hand she was associated with healing and the harvest; on the other, she was a notorious tempter of men and famed for her vengeful nature if crossed.

And then it struck him. Why had he not realised this before. In early legends Anya was identified with The Lady of the Lake. Julian had, since early childhood, been obsessively fascinated with Arthurian legend. His favourite works of Tennyson were the Arthurian epics like Idylls of the King, and his favourite Dore works were the illustrations to that book. If there was one character that had always excited his attention more than any other, it was the mysterious Lady of the Lake with her occasional yet profound influence on the life of the king and the course of events.

Now he knew what he had been expecting to see these past three days. A woman of indescribable beauty, clothed in robes of white samite and endowed with the magic of the ancients, rising out of the deep and bestowing the grace of her presence on his mortal eyes. It was so obvious. How could he have sat by the lake for three days without that thought being the first to present itself?

He looked back at Morag. She was still looking at him, but her expression appeared to carry a hint of genuine interest that he had not seen before.

“You seem to have a soft spot for Anya,” she said, with another hint of the beguiling smile that he had seen earlier.

“It’s the Lady of the Lake that fascinates me,” he said. “I’ve always had a soft spot for her. You asked me earlier what I hoped to find here. That’s it. Is that totally fanciful?”

“Not fanciful perhaps, but certainly optimistic. She belongs to the old ways. There’s no place for her in the modern world, with its technology and its lack of respect for anything other than money and the things money buys. I fear she is confined to being only the lady of her own lake now.”

Another expression crossed her face, fleetingly; she looked sad. He wondered whether she had a genuine interest in the pagan deities and was sorry to witness their demise, or whether she was merely disappointed by the trivial preoccupations of modern culture. He chose to presume the former.

By now Julian was beginning to feel more comfortable. The earlier part of the evening had been difficult, but now Morag seemed to be warming to him and to their conversation. Her demure and graceful manner, her interest in Shakespeare, and her apparent feeling for the old ways made him think that here was a woman with whom he could, perhaps, have a lasting and meaningful relationship. This was a rare thing in the life of Julian Benoit. She seemed to have read his mind when she said

“It’s getting dark; I think you should go. It wouldn’t be right for you to stay too long.”

He was disappointed, but rose immediately. He had never been one for taking liberties or outstaying his welcome and he was gallant enough to realise that, in an old fashioned rural community, his staying into the hours of darkness might compromise her reputation.

“Would it be all right to call in the morning,” he asked, “for milk and so on?”

“Yes, do,” she said, “do come in the morning. If I’m not here, I’ll leave everything you need on the dresser.”

As he was going through the door he felt bold enough to risk asking the personal and impertinent question that had been nagging at him since he had first seen her.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”

As usual, her eyes remained fixed on his and betrayed no discernible reaction

“Goodnight,” she said.

He walked to his tent in the gathering gloom of twilight and his thoughts turned again to the nature of his quest. The wind had died down and the surface of the lake was calm again, but there was a chill in the air and the ground was damp. He zipped up his coat and walked to the edge of the lake, sniffing the fresh aroma of the water and listening to the faint babble of the tiny stream that had guided him there three days earlier.

He sat on the bank for a while, wondering whether there really was any possibility of seeing that enigmatic and beguiling lady from the distant realm of legend who had fascinated him all his life. However much the world had changed, he thought, if he willed it strongly enough his desire just might carry to her wherever she was. She just might be minded to bestow on him the favour of her presence, if only fleetingly. He knew he would never give up that hope.

As darkness covered the material world around him he became massively weary. He made his way to the tent and took a last look at the cottage. It was in darkness and he felt comforted that he would be joining Morag in sleep, even if it was at a physical distance. He crawled into the new sleeping bag that he had bought along with the tent and fell into a deep and peaceful oblivion almost immediately.

He woke to the sound of countless birds whistling their well-practiced melodies in the nearby trees. He was cold and pulled the top of the sleeping bag more tightly around his neck.

Suddenly he remembered where he was and where he had been the previous night. A comforting thrill gripped his stomach and he forgot about the cold. He turned onto his back, stretched out his legs and looked at his watch. It was seven o’clock. Would it be too early to call on Morag? He didn’t want to seem hasty or presumptuous so he lay there for half an hour, letting the events and feelings of the last three days drift lazily across his mind.

Eventually he climbed out his sleeping bag, changed his clothes and paid a brief visit to the privacy of the wood. As he walked back he looked at the cottage, hoping to see some sign of activity. There was none. The sun was well up to his right and the front of the building was bathed in its early golden light. Perhaps that’s why it looked different. He had never seen it in strong sunlight before. It did look different, but he couldn’t quite work out why.

He rinsed his hands and face in the running water of the stream, combed his hair and checked that he had money in his pocket to pay for his provisions. Then, urged on by the thrill of some delicious expectation, he strode firmly up the slope towards the cottage.

As he walked across the forecourt, he saw that there were no curtains at the windows. Perhaps, he thought, they had been taken down to be washed. The door was not shut firmly in its frame, but that probably meant that Morag was up and about. What struck him most, though, was the state of the paintwork on the door and walls. It was peeling in places and looked shabby and dirty. He hadn’t noticed that before. He began to feel uneasy. He pushed open the unfastened door and stood in bewilderment as he saw that the interior of the house was empty. More than that, it was derelict.

He walked in slowly. He could hear the blood pressure thumping in his head from a heart that was now pounding hard. He found it difficult to think logically. He wondered, but only fleetingly, whether the whole thing had been a very vivid dream. Of course it hadn’t; he knew that.

He looked around and saw that the well-furnished room in which he had spent the previous evening had obviously not seen human habitation for years – but it wasn’t quite empty. An old dresser, covered with dust and bits of debris, stood exactly where it had been the previous night; and an old wooden, carved rabbit sat on the mantelshelf above the remains of the fireplace.

The significance of the rabbit dawned on him. He had read somewhere that, like other pagan deities, Anya was associated with certain elements of the natural world. Her compass direction was north-west, which was the direction in which he had first seen the cottage, and her animal was the rabbit. He also remembered that Anya was said to have a son who lived in Loch Gur, in Limerick.

The memory of that first day flooded back. The movement in the water and the rabbit ambling up the slope towards the cottage became more than just the stuff of imagination and coincidence.

He should have felt devastated, but he was still confused. His mind was full of the previous evening and he remembered what Morag had said to him as he was leaving.

“If I’m not here, I’ll leave everything you need on the dresser.”

He could see that there was nothing standing on the dusty surface, but walked over to it anyway. There, clearly written by a narrow finger in the grey dust, was a four-word quotation from Shakespeare. It read

“What’s in a name?”

The writing was clearly fresh and he was certain that it was Morag’s last message to him. He looked at it in silence for a while and wondered what it could mean.

“What’s in a name,” he thought, “what’s in a name...?”

He felt there must be an anagram involved. She had made a point of telling him how her surname was spelt and the rest of her name was conventional: MORAG NI MUNE.

MORAG and the first N in ‘NI’ easily translated into MORGAN. But that left IMUNE. What could he make from IMUNE? He mentally rearranged the words haphazardly before “Morgan” gave him the clue. Of course; the two female characters in Arthurian legend that are most closely identified with the Lady of the Lake are Morgan, half-sister to Arthur and the author of his downfall, and Merlin’s consort who was called – Nimue.

Agony and ecstasy rose together from a knot in his stomach to a lump in his throat and a swimming sensation in his head. That the beautiful and mysterious being who had been the object of his life-long fascination should have had the grace to hear his wish and bestow upon him the favour of her presence was thrilling beyond belief. That he should have failed to realise it at the time was devastatingly painful. He had expected white samite but had got, instead, a red sweater and denim jeans.

But why not? The account of Mallory was written in contemporary terms relevant to the fifteenth century. What is more contemporary today than a sweater and jeans? Now he understood why he had not realised what he was expecting to see in the water. The magical mistress of his quest had obviously contrived to keep the thought from his mind in order to make her gift all the more wondrous for being totally unexpected. Notwithstanding his intense pain and frustration, he felt glad that she had.

He trudged slowly back to the lake and looked again at its dark surface. He muttered a quiet and simple “thank you.” Then he packed up his belongings and walked away. Twenty-four hours later he was back home in England.

His mystical adventure made him more reclusive than ever, and he found it almost impossible to give any commitment or concentration to his banal work as an administration assistant at the local college. All he wanted to do was to sit at home where he could dream and remember and regret - and be consumed with a forlorn hope that, one day, he might see the lady again.

Some might say that he was guilty of wallowing in self-pity. But what can the world of mere mortals offer to one who has lived, however briefly, in the magical domain of the old ways? According to the ancient legends, it has ever been thus. It is often written that mortal men who are blessed with the sight of immortal beings usually fall into madness - or an ecstasy of longing that amounts to the same thing.

Eventually he found alternative employment - through a stroke of good fortune that might have been more than merely coincidental - as an odd job man to an elderly lady who lived alone in a big house in Shropshire, close to the border with Wales.

He accepted the post ten years ago and he’s still there. He doesn’t particularly enjoy the work, but the job carries two distinct advantages: the old lady keeps herself aloof and lets him organise his duties as he considers necessary, and it comes with a small, tied cottage, close to a lake surrounded by trees.

The locals are amused by his daily rambles around the water’s edge, occasionally aiming incoherent mutterings at the impassive water. Most of them think he is mad, without having any knowledge of the reason for his state of mind. One of them, himself a fan of Mallory, has taken to calling him “Lancelot” in a reference to Lancelot du Lac. If Julian knew that, he would be pleased. They also joke that he will die there one day. That would please him too. As one of Shakespeare’s most tragic characters says

“...’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”

May 10, 2010

More Things in Heaven and Earth.


This is the first story of any consequence that I ever finished. It betrays a lack of experience in both structure and execution, but I’m reluctant to do more than a little polishing. The episodes with the shaking tree, the dog, and the growl in the lane actually happened. They’re what set me going.

It was first published in an anthology called Candlelight in 2008.

Reading time: approximately 15 minutes.

-------------------------------------------------

I’m one of those people to whom others like to tell their stories. I suppose it helps being broadminded and having a deeply held belief that nothing – literally - is impossible. If someone tells me they’ve witnessed something that’s “impossible” I don’t write them off. I don’t try to explain away their experiences with that mixture of condescension and arrogance so common among the modern, rational mass of a population focussed unerringly on the heavily blinkered certainties of street level science.

So people can trust their private experiences with me, and I’ve heard plenty of them. This is one of the stranger ones.

I was at a party recently. The talk turned, as it often does when the drinking has reached that intermediate stage between reticence and oblivion, to the meaning of life and the nature of reality. I offered my liberal views as usual and the reaction was typically mixed, ranging from effusive agreement to snorting cynicism. When I drew apart from the crowd I was approached by a young man in his mid twenties whom I knew only casually. He said he wanted to tell me how right I was to keep an open mind. He was quietly spoken, calm, articulate - a little downbeat. He had a troubled air about him that suggested he had a story to tell, and that he wanted to tell it to me.

It was obvious that he hadn’t drunk a lot; his speech was clear and his eyes were sharp. There was no trace of that dewy-eyed look characteristic of the medium stage of inebriation that usually loosens people’s tongues. The best way to pass his story on would be to repeat it more or less verbatim, with neither embellishment nor censorship. This is what he told me.

“Ten years ago,” he began, “I was living with my parents in a village in a rural part of Derbyshire. It wasn’t a picturesque village, pretty ordinary really - a few big houses, some smaller, nothing very old. Our house was part of a barn conversion, one of a group of eight arranged close together round a courtyard on a lane that led out of the village.

“About fifty yards down the lane the road passed over a stream and my dad said it formed a boundary. Beyond it was an energy centre, he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that at the time; I do now. Another hundred yards further on, the village church stood on a small patch of ground to the left of the lane and dad was fascinated by it. He read up on its history and found that the oldest part was Saxon. It had been extended by the Normans and then further added to by later generations. But the Saxon stonework was still visible in parts and Dad said it was probably built on an ancient sacred site, as early churches usually were.

“To the right of the lane, opposite the churchyard, was a field with a raised mound that had been the site of a Norman manor house. I remember dad saying that he didn’t think the Normans built manor houses as such, only castles to stop the Saxons and rival barons getting to them. He also said that the medieval gentry were thought to have been associated with esoteric knowledge – members of orders like the Knights Templar and the early Masons - and he suspected that the first Norman who had chosen to set up home there probably did so because he recognized it as a powerful site.

“The stream curved around the far side of the field, forming its natural boundary, and beyond that was a pool about two hundred feet long by thirty or forty feet wide. That excited dad, too. He said that the ancient Celts had held pools in great reverence, regarding them as sacred places and gateways to other worlds. At the far end of the pool was the top corner of a wood through which the stream ran, and which you could also get into from the lane about a hundred yards beyond the church.

“This whole area impressed dad so much. He said that the stream, pool, wood and church formed a powerful energy centre that you could feel as you walked among it - and that you could sense the lack of when you came back out.

“Mum felt it too. She told me that on one occasion they’d gone for a walk across the field and sat on a bank overhanging the brook close to the spot where it entered the wood. She said she was startled to hear what she described as a ‘snorting’ sound which seemed to come from inside the wood. Dad went and looked and said that he couldn’t see anything. Mum joked that it was probably some half-human creature, some genetic misfit like the ones you read about in horror stories. She said it probably lived in the old mill nearby and was let out for walks now and then.

“I used to walk the lane myself sometimes, with the dog, and even I used to feel something. I used to think that it was just a sense of – what can I call it – historical richness, I suppose; a feeling that a lot had happened there over the centuries. I used to get the same feeling when we visited old abbeys and castles on holiday.

“But the only inexplicable experience I had was one night during the school holidays. I remember it was a warm, still night at the end of July. I was up late watching some film on the television. It finished at about two thirty and I went to let the cat out. I opened the front door and followed him outside, just to enjoy the balmy atmosphere for a few minutes.

“There were no lights on anywhere. Everybody else had obviously gone to bed. It was really still and peaceful; you could almost feel the silence. The only light came from our hall and there was just the slightest hint of air movement - nothing strong enough to be called even a light breeze. In the middle of the courtyard was a big lime tree which was much taller than the houses. Suddenly it shook violently and the quiet was shattered by an almighty rustling of leaves. If there’d been a gust of wind it wouldn’t have been remarkable, but it really startled me because there was no wind. It was as though there was something sitting among the branches, shaking it wildly for a few seconds.

“I looked at the tree and it seemed suddenly massive, powerful and intimidating. I assumed there must have been a gust at rooftop level maybe, something that I couldn’t feel down on the ground, and forgot about it. But it was only a week later that Dad had his late night experience and that was a bit more spooky.

“He was up late one night doing some work ready for the next day, when he heard the dog whining downstairs. The previous day she’d had an upset stomach and Dad had paid the price for ignoring her pleas to be taken out. He’d got the job of cleaning up the diarrhoea! So he decided he’d better not make the same mistake again and took her out.

“She was happy enough, apparently, as they walked through the courtyard and past the garages, but became reluctant to go on as they approached the entrance to the lane which ran to the church. Dad said he got a bit irritated with her as she’d obviously been asking to go out. He tried to cajole her into going further. As they reached the junction with the lane she stopped and looked even more frightened. That put the wind up Dad a bit. He believed that animals can sense things that we can’t. A lot of people do, don’t they? I think they’re probably right.

“Anyway, he’d never been afraid of dark lanes at night and managed to get her a bit further until they were twenty or thirty yards down the lane. At that point the dog refused to move another step. She stood rigid, with a terrified look in her eyes. Suddenly – and bear in mind that this was an unlit country lane with no moon to speak of, the village behind him in darkness and no sound apart from the slightest rustling of the odd tree – he heard a low growl. It was unmistakeable, he said, and came from the direction of the church.

“He had a torch with him and immediately shone it in the direction of the noise, but said that was even more disturbing because all he could see was a pool of weak light illuminating a bend in the lane a few yards further down. He had the feeling, as you would I suppose, that something was going to appear around it any second. Now he was frightened; he openly admitted it, and needed no further encouragement to walk quickly back to the house, turning around every few seconds and shining the light behind him.

“I was still up when he came in and he looked disturbed in a way I’d never seen before. He told me the story and said that he kept hearing that verse from The Ancient Mariner, the one that runs

Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on, and turns no more his head,
Because he knows some frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.

“That seemed to bring him out of his fear and he laughed the whole thing off, though it’s interesting that he didn’t put any of it down to imagination. I know that too many strange things had happened to him to do that. He had developed the ability to put them in a bag of experiences and not let them trouble him - that was the way he described it. He said it was the best way of dealing with them – put them away, close the lid and don’t dwell on them. Otherwise you end up being too frightened to go to sleep at night.

“What did bother him, though, was that the experience put him off going down the lane after dark and he didn’t like being ‘imprisoned,’ as he put it. He tried to rationalise the experience by coming up with possible explanations for the noise. But he was adamant that it was a growl like that of a large animal. The only large animals around at the time were the cows in the field, and cows don’t growl – so what does?

“The only physical explanation we could think of was that there might have been a big cat at large. Heaven knows there are enough stories about them, and they can’t all be put down to imagination or mistaken identity. But surely there would have been incidents of farm animals being attacked and Dad said that, on the night in question, the cows he could see at the edge of the field seemed relaxed - which they wouldn’t have been if there’d been a puma or panther on the prowl.

“We never found out what it was. There were no reports of animal mutilations or sightings of any sort, and gradually the incident drifted into the background. There were no other strange incidents to speak of and the mystery faded into the background.

“But then, about three months later when we were getting deep into autumn, dad had what he referred to as his ‘rum do.’ I remember him saying on a couple of occasions that he felt the earth energies decaying, as though the vitality of summer was going to sleep along with mother nature. He also had a strong belief in the existence of beings which occupy the same space as us but in other dimensions. He openly admitted a belief in fairies, although he always liked to qualify the term because he said it carried unfortunate connotations! He said that he felt they were going into hibernation as well.

“Anyway, one night – I think it was in October – he was in the kitchen making a cup of coffee when (and I have to emphasise here, all I know is what he reported and it was pretty bizarre) his eye was drawn to a movement beyond the window. It was dark outside and therefore difficult to see much, even with the streetlight a few yards down the road. The reflection of the lighted kitchen was pretty much all you could see when you looked at the window.

“As he strained his eyes to see what the movement was, he saw a white face turn towards him and stare back. He said that the face was ‘human, yet not human.’ He had the impression that it was the size of a human face and had all the normal features, and yet it was different somehow. There was something about the shape that gave it an animal-like quality and the eyes looked harsh and fierce – ‘predatory’ was the word he used. And the other strange thing was that the face was low to the road, as though its body was walking on all fours. He said he’d never felt so frightened in his life.

“That face, in that position, was so bizarre and menacing. He said he couldn’t tell how long he stared at it and it stared back at him. It could have been three seconds or three minutes – he was rooted to the spot and engulfed with a sense of horror he’d never felt before. Suddenly, the thing leapt straight at the window with lightning speed and crashed against it, cracking the outside pane of the double glazing with an almighty noise.

“Dad said he was panic stricken. He turned and ran out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. He had the presence of mind to run to the cupboard under the stairs where he knew he had a ball of nylon string. He intended to tie one end to the kitchen door and secure the other to something solid just in case the ‘creature’ smashed the window and came in. He said he was becoming increasingly desperate and uncoordinated as he fumbled among the bag trying to find the string”

I interrupted my storyteller at that point to ask where he was at the time all this was happening. Had he heard or seen anything?

“No,” he said “I’m coming to that.

“While dad was rummaging in the hall cupboard, mum came out of the living room to see what was going on. Dad mumbled something about ‘something bloody evil trying to smash the kitchen window and get in.’ Mum looked at him and the kitchen door a couple of times, and then said that she hadn’t heard anything, just dad slamming the door and rushing about like a mad thing. There couldn’t be anything there, she said, because she’d just heard a couple of their neighbours walk down the lane outside the house, talking perfectly normally. Dad stopped and listened. He admitted that he couldn’t hear anything now but was adamant that he had seen something fly at the kitchen window and crack it.

“Mum didn’t know what to make of it, but she wasn’t the sort to be messed about. Funny isn’t it how, when the chips are down, women often turn out to be braver than men? She grabbed a hammer that was lying on top of a tool bag in the cupboard and made for the kitchen door. Not surprisingly, Dad got a bit anxious, but mum insisted on opening the door slowly and looking in. She opened it bit by bit, looking carefully at each stage with the hammer at the ready, until it was fully open. There was nothing in there and the window was unmarked. Dad sat on the floor breathing heavily, feeling embarrassed and confused but still pretty frightened.

“I was out when all this was happening, but I remember knowing that something was wrong when I came home. They were both in strangely quiet moods. I asked what was going on but they wouldn’t say; just said it was nothing important and that it would blow over.

“I got to hear the whole story a couple of weeks later. During those two weeks I’d noticed that there was a strange atmosphere in the house. It didn’t trouble me much as, like most fifteen-year-olds, I spent most of my time sitting in my own room with my computer and stereo and so on. But I’d also noticed that dad had taken to closing the curtains and blinds before it went dark every evening. It was unlike him and I took him up on it once, saying that he was shutting out the daylight. He made some remark about curtains adding to the insulation in the winter - even though it was only autumn.

“Then, late one afternoon, dad and I came home together. We’d both been out and he’d given me a lift. As we walked into the living room he made for the windows to close the curtains. Mum was in there reading and he snapped at her for not closing them herself, even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. He stopped suddenly and a look of fear spread over his face like I’d never seen before. Have you ever noticed how a look of real terror in somebody’s eyes is contagious? It cuts straight into you and makes you terrified as well. He was staring at the window that looked out onto the courtyard. Mum and I both looked in the same direction, and then she looked at dad and said ‘You’ve seen it again, haven’t you?’

“Dad nodded and looked away from the window. Mum and I spoke together. ‘Seen what?’ I said, while mum said ‘Where?’

“Dad went and sat down. He leant forward with his arms folded across his chest in that way that people do when they’re trying to explain to themselves something that defies explanation. ‘In the shrubs outside the window,’ he said, and nodded his head in that direction. ‘Was it the same as before?’ asked mum. ‘Mm,’ said dad. ‘It was dark and hazy, but it was him alright.’ ‘Who?’ I asked, feeling a bit spooked myself.

“And then the whole story came out. I was all for dad seeing a doctor, but I knew him well enough to take what he said seriously. He was highly intelligent and I’d always been brought up to accept his views on other dimensions and the like. His opinion was that this ‘creature’ was real enough, but only he could see it. He said that the episode with the kitchen window was an example of the power that some things have to put realities into a person’s mind that are exclusive to them. Apparently, he’d seen this thing looking at him on several occasions, always when it was dark or nearly dark, and always through windows. On one occasion he’d seen it through the skylight over his head in the office. That must have been really scary.

“But the worst one happened about a week later. He was outside one mild, bright autumn day, cleaning the downstairs windows. He suddenly spotted the face of this thing in the glass – in broad daylight! His first thought was that it was a reflection and turned around in horror. There was nothing there and his instinct went into self-protective mode; he told himself that this one was just imagination. Then an awful thought occurred to him. It was bright outside but the interior of the room was relatively dark. He had only seen the face. If it had been a reflection from a bright exterior he would have seen the whole body. What if it wasn’t a reflection at all, and the ‘thing’ was inside the house? He had trouble putting that one into a bag of experiences and closing the lid!

“He was pretty edgy that night and we talked about the idea of getting some sort of exorcist in, but that’s not as easy as it sounds; they’re not listed in Yellow Pages - we looked, believe it or not - and dad had long since moved away from the established church. So where do you look for an exorcist, if you can’t go to the local vicar?

“The fact that he’d seen it in daylight clearly worried him. He felt that it might mean that the creature was getting closer and becoming bolder. Up to that point he’d felt an understandable sense of horror at seeing it. Now he was beginning to feel threatened. What if it should be working up to an attack of some sort? The nature of such an attack was impossible to predict – and certainly didn’t bear thinking about. But how do you avoid thinking about it in that situation?

“He did take to reading a lot – anything he could find on the subject of parallel worlds and alternate dimensions. He found a lot of interesting stuff too. He told me one night that there was a widespread belief in ancient philosophies that matter is simply energy vibrating on a wavelength that prevents other matter, vibrating on the same or similar wavelengths, from co-existing in the same space and time. That’s why things are what we call ‘solid.’ But matter vibrating on a widely different wavelength could co-exist, and this was the explanation for ghosts, fairies, demons and so on.

“Apparently this isn’t just ancient philosophy, either. It seems that quantum physics is starting to come to the same conclusion. He believed that this ‘creature’ was some inhabitant of just such a world. But what he couldn’t understand was why it was making its presence felt to him? Why him and nobody else?”

At this point my storyteller paused. He lowered his head for a few minutes, then raised it again and looked beyond me and into the distance. He looked back at me and said

“Two weeks later, dad disappeared.”

He paused again but I was impatient.

“How do you mean, ‘disappeared’ – into thin air?”

“Not exactly – though it came to look that way eventually. It was a Wednesday night. I came home from a friend’s house at about eleven thirty. Mum was looking anxious and I asked where dad was.

“She told me she’d arrived home as usual at seven o’clock and dad’s car was in the garage, but there was no sign of him in the house. She assumed he’d gone out for a walk, but she was a bit surprised as it was late November and it was cold and dark outside. Dad didn’t go for walks down the lane on cold, dark nights.

“All evening she’d been expecting him to turn up with a simple explanation, but he hadn’t. His car was in the garage, his bag was in the hall, his keys were where he always left them, his coat was on the hook and his credit cards were in the pocket of his briefcase where they always were. Every bit of evidence said that he’d arrived home as usual. So where was he? She’d checked with neighbours but nobody had seen him. She’d called his mobile phone which he always kept in his trouser pocket, but it had gone straight to voice mail, suggesting it was switched off.

“Eventually, at about midnight, she called the police thinking that he must have had a heart attack or something and be lying in the lane or the field or somewhere. They didn’t take it too seriously. They said that sort of thing happened often, and they were sure dad would turn up within twenty four hours. Mum wasn’t impressed and we decided to take a torch and search the lane and fields ourselves.

“It was a bitterly cold night. The mud at the side of the lane was frozen hard and there was a clear sky but no moon. The combination of the biting cold, the fear that was never far from us since dad had started seeing his creature, and the worry over his whereabouts made it easily the worst night of my life.

“We spent a miserable couple of hours searching the area as best we could in the dark. We walked the length of the lane as far as the wood; we followed the brook from the road to the wood; we even stumbled through the wood itself, but eventually accepted that it was hopeless searching at night. We walked around the perimeter of the pool shining the torch on the dark water. And we jumped every time we heard a noise. We found nothing and eventually went home. Neither of us went to bed. Dad might come back, or phone. The next day we searched the wood methodically in daylight but still found nothing.

“A few days later the police took dad’s disappearance seriously and started a missing persons enquiry. They did searches and checks and even put a diver into the pool. Still nothing.

“For the next few weeks mum was beside herself with grief, worry and speculation. She had time off work, but that didn’t help and she went back before the doctor’s note expired.

“Eventually the frantic feelings of worry and endless imaginings gave way to helplessness and, as time went by, we just got used to the situation and life returned to a sort of routine. The mystery was never far from our minds though, and mum was never quite the same again.”

The young man went quiet for a while, as though building himself for a final chapter in his drama. I said nothing this time, but waited for him to continue.

“And then, about three years ago, I got married. My girlfriend was already pregnant and our daughter was born five months later. That seemed to help mum a lot. It gave her something to live for again and we spent a lot of time at the old house in Derbyshire. I’d told my wife the story of dad’s disappearance but Jessica, our daughter, was still too young to understand and we’d obviously never said anything to her.”

I detected a shudder ripple through the young man as he went quiet again.

“It wasn’t over,” I suggested, reading the obvious message from his body language.

“No. Last Sunday we went to see mum - we always go over one day at the weekend. She and I were in the kitchen and my wife had gone to the loo. Jessica was in the living room. Suddenly there was a shriek and she came rushing into the hall, clearly distressed. She kept saying ‘seen a goblin, seen a goblin.’ My blood turned to ice. All the old stuff with dad came back. ‘Where?’ I asked her. ‘In the trees,’ she said, pointing in the direction of the living room windows. She obviously meant the shrubs outside. This was too much, but I had to go and look, didn’t I?”

He paused again, breathing slightly more heavily.

“I saw it for a brief second or so. The face ‘human, but not human’, the figure crouched on all fours, the look of something in its eyes that could have been malice, and yet somehow looked pitiful. Then it disappeared.”

I felt genuinely fearful for the young man. It seemed that he was going to have to suffer the same ordeal as his father. My first reaction was merely to state the obvious:

“I suppose it was the same thing your dad saw?”

“No,” said the young man, shaking his head, “it couldn’t have been.”

“Why not?” I asked.

He looked directly at me and smiled a strange, empty smile. And now his eyes were damp, but it had nothing to do with drink.

“Because it was my dad.”


About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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