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.
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 15, 2010
Grace and Favour.
First published by Ragged Edge webzine in 2005
Reading time: approximately 30 minutes.
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.
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.”
- JJ Beazley
- 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.