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.
July 01, 2010
*The Thirteenth Tree and L'Etranger have also now been published twice. The Rain Maiden would have been if only the publishing partners hadn't fallen out and disbanded the publishing house. Such is life.
It was first published by Plain Magazine in 2008, and again by an anthology called Candlelight in 2009.
Reading time: approx 45 minutes.
Scotland is a land of two faces. On a sunny summer’s day the remoter parts provide some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found anywhere in Britain. The lochs and mountains, the rushing rivers and deep gorges, the characterful crofts and Aberdeen Angus cattle are famed throughout the world for their ability to delight the eye and refresh the senses. Publishers of postcards, calendars and coffee table books have lived well off the fat of its land for decades.
On a cold, wet night, however, when a knife edge wind rushes up the glens, tearing at the trees and howling hideously in the chimneys, the difference could not be more marked. Nowhere else do you feel quite such a sense of restless, elemental forces on the prowl. Nowhere else do you feel quite such a conviction that you are being encircled and entrapped by something powerful and unseen, trying the windows and shaking the roof timbers.
I have stayed in a loch-side cottage on such a night. I have heard the knocking on the window, seen inanimate objects tap against the wall, and felt my skin tingle from the growing suspicion that the unknowable wasn’t far away. I was glad I wasn’t alone; and I would have taken some persuading to open the door.
It was on just such a night that fate conspired with elements such as these to place upon me the burden of a most unusual passenger.
* * *
There is a main road in northern Scotland that is as wild and lonely as any you might find anywhere. Running north-west from the Black Isle and Easter Ross, it crosses the high upland country between the Western Highlands and the northern mountains. For mile upon mile the scenery consists of endless bogs, with bare-sided lochs dotted here and there to lend some minor relief to the unremitting brown-green of the stark landscape. Occasional glimpses of solitary mountains on the northern skyline are the only other notable feature, and the drive is a tedious one. I had travelled it twice during previous trips to Scotland, but on the last occasion there wasn’t even the glimpse of a loch or distant mountain to ease the monotony.
It was about ten o’clock on a rough and rainswept night in mid August. I had left Inverness an hour or so earlier and was on my way to Ullapool where I intended to stay overnight before catching the ferry to Stornaway the next day. A light drizzle had started to fall as I set off and a stiff north-easterly had built up to accompany it. The rain had become progressively heavier with the gathering darkness and the wind had strengthened to a full blown gale. By ten o’clock the night was well and truly black, and I was glad indeed to be secure in the warm and waterproof cockpit of a car.
Driving alone on a dark, open road with no streetlights or other reference points is a strangely compelling experience. The visible world consists solely of that picked out by the car headlights and focuses the mind into a narrow tunnel of perception. The endless procession of moving white lines and road edges leads to an almost mesmeric state in which anything other than the tarmac, the verges and the passing trees becomes a distant irrelevance. On the night in question the rocking of the windscreen wipers might have been a hypnotist’s fob watch as they fought the swathes of lashing rain. What little could be seen of the outside world was being swept in and out of clarity with a regular and relentless certainty. It was during one clear interlude that I saw a light coloured shape appear in the distance ahead of me.
My concentration sharpened immediately and I focussed on the looming and ever-brightening image. It soon became clear that, whatever it was, it was on the road. I slowed instinctively and checked my rear view mirror. There was only intense blackness behind me and I felt relieved to be able to pay full attention to the obstruction. Within seconds it took the growing form of a figure dressed in white. Closer still, it became a woman clad in some form of lightweight garment, like a shift or nightdress, which hung in one piece from her shoulders to her knees.
She was walking directly towards me in the middle of the left hand carriageway. Her arms hung limply by her side and she walked slowly but purposefully in a straight line. The sight of such a spectral vision on such a night as that was unnerving, but I was not inclined to be fanciful and soon dismissed the fleeting notion that she was anything other than simple flesh and blood.
My first reaction was astonishment, my second was pity, my third was suspicion. The natural desire to rescue a fellow human being was being tempered by the knowledge that highway robbery was making a comeback. I was also concerned that being alone with a strange young woman could lead me open to obvious accusations and the threat of blackmail. I had heard of such things happening. And it occurred to me that she could be mentally deranged, the prospect of which was the most terrifying of all
Other thoughts sped through my brain too. Could she be a sleepwalker from some nearby croft? Surely the cold rain would have brought her to her senses. Could she have been dumped by an irate boyfriend following an argument? No, I decided, she would look more agitated.
By now I was coming to a halt a matter of yards in front of her. Despite my fears, the prospect of driving around her was out of the question. I had no mobile phone then and I knew that the nearest public telephone could be half an hour’s drive away. She might be in the throes of terminal pneumonia by the time I got the emergency services to her.
She continued to walk towards my car and I could see in the glare of my headlights that the thin, wet garment was all she was wearing. Most of it clung tightly to the contours of her body while the extremities flapped in the wind. At least there was no possibility of her having a concealed weapon, I thought. As she approached the front of the car she veered to her left and walked on, passing the driver’s door and heading into the blackness of the night. Surprised and slightly irritated, I threw caution to the wind and jumped out.
“Excuse me,” I shouted to the darkening figure.
As my voice rang out she halted and stood for a second. Then she turned around slowly and walked back in my direction. She stopped a few feet from me and stared into my face. At least, I assumed she was looking at my face. It was too dark to be certain that she wasn’t merely staring into the space beyond.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked, with a mixture of nervousness and incredulity.
She said nothing, but continued to stand perfectly still, looking straight ahead.
“Are you lost, or what?”
She remained silent. By now, I was wet and cold. I could hardly imagine how she must have been feeling. I decided that this conversation, if it ever became a conversation, should be continued in the warmth of the car. I unlocked the rear door and opened it. Still she stood motionless.
“I think you should get in,” I said.
She didn’t move and I became impatient.
“Please, get in.”
At the direct request she dutifully climbed into the car and sat bolt upright, her hands resting limply on the seat either side of her. I slammed the door shut and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I switched on the interior light to get a better look at her. Her sopping wet hair was long and looked black in the weakly illuminated interior of the car. I could see the water running off her fringe and dripping off the ends of her nose and chin. She displayed no facial expression, and her dark eyes continued to look straight ahead. I judged her to be in her mid to late teens.
I wiped the wetness from my own forehead and prepared to drive on. Then I realised that she was sitting immediately behind me and that made me nervous. Thoughts of wet, ice-cold fingers clasped around my throat took shape in my imagination and I shuddered visibly at the prospect. I turned around and asked her to move over to the other side. Again, she did as I asked, but only moved a little way so that she was sitting in the centre of the rear seat. That would have to do, I thought, but decided to leave the interior light on so as to be aware of any movement on her part. Duly satisfied, I drove off.
There was no conversation. I asked her every question I could think of but she remained quiet and impassive. I glanced frequently at her through the mirror and found myself drawn to her eyes which, although I couldn’t see them clearly in the dim light, appeared uncommonly dark and mesmerised. After a while I realised that I had never seen her blink, despite the cold water that was still dripping from her hair and trickling down her forehead.
Eventually I gave up talking and concentrated on the practical question of what to do with her. I assumed that there would be a police station in Ullapool and the obvious course of action was to take her there. I was anxious to be free of the responsibility and the police are the natural repository for all troublesome burdens. I drove on, still glancing frequently in the mirror, until the sight of her sitting motionless became predictable to the point of being mundane.
It was just before eleven when I entered the outskirts of the town and began to look out for some passer-by who might direct me to the police station. The streets were deserted and I began to consider the prospect of driving around in a methodical pattern until I found it.
To my relief, I saw a patrol car parked a little way ahead and pulled in behind it. Thankfully, it was occupied and I switched off the engine. I turned to my passenger and told her to stay where she was. I would be back shortly, I said. I got out and walked the few paces to the driver’s door.
By now the rain had stopped and the constable in the driving seat had his window half open. I leant forward and explained the circumstances as briefly as I could. He said nothing during the course of my account and, when I had finished, he merely said
“Better take a look then.”
He and his companion got out and walked with me back to my vehicle. All the doors were still shut and I opened the driver’s side rear. The car was empty. Annoyed and a little confused, I spluttered an insistence that I hadn’t made it up. She really had been there.
“Dressed only in a nightie, you say? The tourists get all the luck, don’t they Malcolm?”
He shot a smirk at his companion who chuckled in return. Neither seemed particularly impressed by my story, even when I reached into the car and pointed out to them that the upholstery in the centre of the back seat was sopping wet. Both of them displayed that slow, studied quality of movement and deliberation that one associates with the highlander.
“Must have made her escape while we were talking,” he said.
“Surely we would have heard the car door slam,” I offered.
He shrugged his shoulders and began to write something in his notebook while his companion stood yawning to one side.
“Nothing surprises me in this job any more. We get a lot of strange hitchhikers in these parts at this time of the year. Though I must admit, young women in nighties are not exactly typical. Probably one of those new-age traveller types - had an argument with her boyfriend and he threw her out. She was probably in a state of shock. We’ll take a drive round and see if we can see her; and we’ll put a report in, in case there have been any missing persons. Where are you staying?”
I gave him the name of the hotel near the ferry terminal into which I had booked that morning. He obliged me with directions and assured me that they would let me know if they found anything. I climbed back into my car and followed the policeman’s route, checking my mirror occasionally and half expecting to see my passenger reappear.
She didn’t. The whole episode was already taking on the quality of a dream and I began to wonder whether I had witnessed one of those roadside ghosts I had read about. When I parked the car outside the hotel I felt the back seat again. It was still wet. I decided that ghosts don’t drip water and settled upon the policeman’s explanation as the most likely one.
I gathered my luggage and went into the hotel. It was a comfortable old building, probably Victorian, which had escaped any significant degree of modernisation. There was a smell of old wood, leather and fresh-cut flowers in the air, and I was greeted by a prim and pleasant middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Mrs Campbell. She was the owner of the establishment, jointly with her husband.
We completed the usual formalities and she proceeded to conduct me towards my room. As we crossed the lobby I noticed a half open door in the corner, obviously leading to the owners’ private apartments. An elderly woman with a shock of long, grey hair stood motionless a little way inside. Her hands were held clasped in front of her skirt and her face carried a frown. She was staring at me intensely and I fancied that her eyes carried the desire to communicate. Given the strange happenings of the previous hour, I thought I was probably over-reacting and looked away as my guide began to climb the thinly carpeted, creaky staircase.
“Don’t mind mother,” said Mrs Campbell with an affable smile, “she’s getting a wee bit senile. She’s quite harmless.”
My room was small and unprepossessing, but did have the benefit of an en suite bathroom consisting of a lavatory, washbasin and pedestal shower. I was glad of the shower after my long drive and was soon settled under a welcoming hot spray. As I relaxed, my thoughts turned again to the mysterious young woman. I wondered whether the police had found her yet. Surely she couldn’t have got far dressed the way she was. Indeed she hadn’t.
A mirror hung over the washbasin, situated on the wall that faced the shower. It was placed half way between the cubicle and the door to the bedroom which I had left open, and reflected a comprehensive view of the doorway and the room beyond. I caught sight of a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked sharply at the glass.
There, standing just inside the bedroom and framed eerily by the doorway, was my erstwhile passenger. She was still dressed in the knee-length garment and stood perfectly still, with her hands hanging limply by her side and looking directly at me through the mirror. Her fixed and silent stare was as expressionless as before.
A creeping sense of shock and terror crept across my shoulders, and I spent the next few seconds staring back. Then I came to my senses. I grabbed the towel that I had put on a nearby chair, wrapped it around my middle and walked quickly towards the door. I looked around it nervously, hoping desperately that the vision was no more than a figment of my overwrought imagination.
The bedroom was empty. The only item that was not a fixture or fitting was my suitcase that stood open on the bed where I had left it. I felt the carpet where I estimated she had been standing and there was some dampness there. I reasoned that it had probably come off my own wet body, as there was a minor trail running back across the floor and into the bathroom.
It wasn’t difficult to tell myself that I was tired and prey to a fruitful imagination. I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, and decided that the prospect of re-entering the shower was too uncomfortable. I returned to the bathroom and switched it off, taking care to face the door as I did so. The thought of some white-clad apparition appearing behind me filled my mind and chilled my blood. I walked back into the bedroom drying myself, then donned fresh underwear and t-shirt in preparation for going to bed.
Going to bed; that was a difficult prospect to contemplate. However much I told myself that the young woman’s second appearance was no more than a product of my overtaxed imagination, the memory of her image in the mirror was too potent to push aside so easily.
I busied myself for as long as I could with simple routines, putting off the thought of that final moment when I would have to settle into bed and switch off the light. I cleaned my teeth - consciously avoiding the mirror on the wall - combed my hair, and took some fresh clothes out of my suitcase ready for the morning. The moment arrived when there was nothing left to do. I made sure that the bedroom door was locked, climbed into bed and sat there for a while with the light on.
I felt silly and cowardly as I sat upright, trying to drum up the necessary courage to switch off the light and go to sleep. Eventually I decided to do it in stages. I got back out of bed and opened the curtains covering the single window situated on the opposite wall. I climbed back in and forced myself to press the switch on the lamp.
The darkness was intense for a few seconds, but abated as my eyes adjusted to the light coming from the street. I could see the details of the room clearly enough to feel assured that nothing could approach me unseen. But I still lay for a while, staring at the door and feeling that same prickle of nervous apprehension creeping across my shoulders. Eventually I drifted into sleep.
I started dreaming immediately. I saw my passenger standing in a bleak, open landscape, still dressed in the familiar white shift but otherwise looking much more alive. Her eyes were full of expression and seemed to be begging me to do something. Her arms were held out towards me and her mouth was moving as though she was trying to speak. I asked her what she wanted, but no sound came from her lips. And there were dark shapes moving around her, constantly changing and so indistinct as to be effectively formless. They seemed to be holding her and pulling her away from me.
How long the dream continued I couldn’t tell. Time has no reality in dreams. It seemed to go on interminably until the shapes pulled her underground and I was left standing alone among the dark heather that shivered incessantly in the keen wind. I felt the force of it on my body, and my left ear was stinging from the sharpness of its icy blast. Then I found myself drifting back into consciousness, aware of an uncomfortable coldness down my left side.
I assumed that the window must be open and that I was being troubled by a cold draught. I stretched out my left hand to make sure that the bedclothes were tucked in on that side. My hand touched the cold, clammy wetness of sodden fabric. And, beyond that, there was something more solid. I turned sharply and looked directly into the pallid face of my travelling companion. She was lying next to me on her back, with her face turned towards me on the pillow. Her eyes were inches from my own.
For a few seconds – or was it longer, I don’t know - any possibility of movement on my part was impossible. My limbs were frozen as I stared into the lifeless eyes of the young woman. Then an uncontrollable cry surged from my lips, borne of the most intense fear and panic. I leapt out of bed and rushed across the room to where I knew the light switch was located. After some agonising fumbling, I found it and the room was flooded with bright light from the shaded bulb on the ceiling. I looked back at the bed, eyes wide with fearful expectation. It was empty.
I stood for a while, breathing heavily and looking around the room to be sure that the apparition really had gone. I looked in the bathroom, under the bed, and in the wardrobe. There was nowhere else big enough to conceal a person. I sank into the armchair on which I had earlier placed my change of clothes, breathing hard and shaking visibly. After a while a sense of reason began to return. I supposed that the figure in the bed had been an extension of my dream and began to feel less nervous in the comforting light of a hundred watt bulb.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked the bed itself. I looked at it from my position in the armchair. The pillow did look to have patches of wetness on it. No doubt it was just a trick of the light, I told myself. I got up nervously, walked over to the bed and threw back the covers. The left hand side was wet from top to bottom.
There was no question of getting back under those covers. I got dressed and took out a cigarette. There was a no smoking policy in the hotel, but this was no time to be following rules. I opened the window and looked out onto the street, drawing long on the cigarette and flicking the ash towards the pavement below.
I looked at my watch. It was 4.30 and I knew that I would have an hour or more to wait before the first glimmers of daylight consigned this terrifying night to history. The hour passed slowly and I smoked several more cigarettes, dividing my time between the window and the armchair.
Eventually I heard the sound of chinking crockery coming from somewhere beneath me. I realised that the kitchen must be located there and that I would soon be able to take breakfast and escape.
But could I escape? Whoever the lady was, she seemed to have latched onto me, and I faced the possibility that she would continue to haunt my nights until I could find some sort of resolution. The idea was daunting and I hoped that I would leave her behind when I left her territory. At 7.30 I went down to breakfast.
I was still feeling agitated and bewildered, and my mood was not helped by the young woman who took my order. She was slim and pretty with long dark hair and a pale complexion. I shivered inwardly at being reminded of my passenger. And then I saw the same old lady that I had seen the night before. She was standing in the doorway of the dining room, clearly looking at me with some intensity and an expression of concern.
I was becoming a little weary of the sight of women giving me their undivided attention from the framework of doorways. The image is a little unnerving at the best of times, and my present situation could hardly be so described. Nevertheless, I smiled at her politely, hoping she would go away when she realised that I had seen her. She didn’t. Instead she came into the room and walked directly to my table. Her expression seemed all the more intense when seen at close quarters and in the context of a face lined with the experience of seven or eight decades.
“May I speak to you for a moment?” she asked.
Her voice carried the gentle lilt of an old fashioned highlander.
“Of course,” I replied, successfully hiding an inner reluctance. “Do have a seat.”
She accepted the offer, never taking her eyes from mine.
“I am Mrs McDonald, Mrs Campbell’s mother,” she began hesitatingly. “You saw me in the lobby last night when you booked in.”
I nodded politely and she continued.
“What I am going to say will seem a little strange to you.”
I couldn’t help mumbling the obvious reply.
“I doubt it, not after last night”.
It was meant to be ironic and said by way of a passing remark, but the old lady’s expression altered appreciably on hearing it and showed a visible degree of relief.
“You will know, then, that you brought somebody in with you?”
I was unsure whether to feel relieved or dismayed and said nothing for a few seconds. For some reason I felt guarded, and restricted my reply to “Did I?”
“You did,” she said.
There was another brief silence and I decided that openness was the only sensible policy.
“Could you see her then?” I asked.
“I could, as plainly as I see you. I was born a McRae and raised in the shadow of the Seven Sisters. All the women in my family have the sight.”
I had heard of “the sight;” highland women are reputed to be very psychic.
“What did you see?”
She smiled slightly.
“You are testing me,” she said with a hint of gentle accusation. “You know what I saw. A pale young lassie with long black hair, dressed in a white shift that was wet from being out in the rain. She followed your every movement while you were booking in and went upstairs with you. I felt her presence all night and couldn’t sleep. In the early hours I heard a cry and footsteps running across the floor. I thought of coming to you then, but I knew that you were in no danger. She means you no harm.”
By now, any doubts I had were removed. I felt massively relieved to find someone with obvious knowledge in these matters to share my experience.
“Tell me how you met her,” continued the old woman.
I started to give her a brief description of the circumstances, but she stopped me.
“I need everything,” she said. “Every single little fact, however trivial it might seem.”
There was a lull in the conversation as the waitress placed a plate of scrambled eggs and toast before me. She asked the old lady if she wanted anything and was answered with a brief shake of the head. I continued without starting my breakfast, giving her every single fact and circumstance as well as I could remember them. When I had finished, the old lady sat looking at the table for a while.
“Is she a ghost?” I asked.
“No,” replied the old lady, “she is not a ghost. She is something infinitely more sad and difficult to deal with. Ghosts are able to move on and can be persuaded to do so with the right approach. She has no such option.”
That worried me. It sounded as though I might be shackled forever to a watery wraith that is given to making impromptu and spine tingling appearances several times a day. I was reminded of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and my dismay was briefly mixed with some small degree of ironic humour. The old lady looked into my eyes again.
“Do you believe in fairies?” she asked, with a directness that took me by surprise.
Dismay and ironic humour were now joined by incredulity. Ghosts I could accept, but fairies were surely the stuff of childhood fantasy.
“Does anybody?” I replied.
She rocked back on her chair and uttered a scornful chuckle.
“Not these days. Everyone is so ‘rational’ now. They all believe the scientists when they say that nothing exists if it cannot be studied and measured in their laboratories. Of course they exist. There are worlds parallel with ours in which all sorts of beings exist. Brownies and kelpies – or fairies, elves and goblins as you have it in English – live in some of those worlds, and they are more aware of us than we are of them. Sometimes, in the more remote areas, they will steal a human baby and replace it with some stunted and ugly offspring of their own. The stolen child is taken back to their land and brought up as one of them. It is a terrible tragedy.”
I remained circumspect during the explanation, not sure that I was prepared to believe any of it. I politely observed that such an occurrence must be terribly upsetting for the parents.
“The tragedy is much more the child’s,” said Mrs McDonald
“Because the fairy folk have no souls. We humans can aspire to spiritual growth, go the heaven if you like - though it’s not as simple as that, whatever the Christian ministers tell you. We live for a while, then discard our earthly bodies and call it death. Then we come back and live again; and do this over and over again until we’re ready to move on to another stage.
“They live forever. They have no death as we understand it. But that means they cannot progress, and any human child living in their world is under the same curse. Your lassie is just such an unfortunate and is obviously trying to get back to her own world. She has apparently learned to control the state of her body so that, for short periods, she can appear physically again. But it takes a great effort and uses all her concentration. That’s why she appears to be in a trance.
“When she first heard your voice she was able to latch onto you, but could then only respond to direct orders. When you saw her in your dream, you were seeing her ‘normal’ self and she was begging you to help her come back.”
This was heady stuff and difficult to take in. But I had to take it further.
“And can I bring her back?” I asked.
“It’s not as simple as that. She can only come back if those who are holding her allow it. It would be very difficult to persuade them to do that and you wouldn’t know where to start approaching them. Even I would find it difficult. I have talked to the little folk often, but never about that. It is not a fit subject for conversation and they are very reticent. I could try, of course.
“But there is a much bigger question. Do you realise what would happen if we did manage to bring her back? A young woman suddenly appearing in a world that has to know everything about you from your date of birth to the size of your shoes? They have us tagged like the beasts in the field, with certificates of this and certificates of that, centralized records and social security numbers.
“We couldn’t keep her hidden forever. Eventually the police would get involved and they would presume that she’d lost her memory or something and turn her over to the medical people. They might decide that she had lost her mind and send her to some institution. Then the newspapers would hear about it, and they would start prodding and prying and making her life a misery.
“Do you want to bring an innocent and unsuspecting young lassie into such a world? Where she is at the moment she has a comfortable life with no pain or fear of death. The only real point in getting her back would be so that she could die and feel all the sorrows and pains along the way.”
Mrs McDonald fell silent and I mused for a while on what she had said. Her daughter’s assessment of her as “senile” was clearly wide of the mark. Perhaps Mrs Campbell was a good citizen of the modern world and “senile” was a euphemism for “nutty.” That wasn’t my view. Old Mrs McDonald’s directness and matter-of-fact manner had convinced me and I offered the logical answer to her question.
“Surely,” I said “that’s the point, isn’t it? How could we, in all conscience, knowingly stand back and allow a human being to remain trapped in a world to which she doesn’t belong, however comfortable. If what you say is true, wouldn’t we be denying her soul its most fundamental right?”
Mrs McDonald’s smile carried a hint of sadness and uncertainty.
“You learn quickly,” she said. “But how can we know that she realises what she is asking? I doubt she has seen much of cities and hospitals and police stations.”
A thought struck me.
“I take it she isn’t here at the moment?”
“No,” said the old woman. “Their vibrations are much lower than ours. Daylight is too strong for them. That’s why they are usually seen at twilight and at night.”
“So the likelihood is that she will come back tonight. Couldn’t you talk to her and explain everything?”
“No. You have seen the state she’s in when she takes physical form and, even when she drops it and only I can see her, she will be too weak and confused to understand the workings of modern civilization. Heaven knows, I find it difficult enough most of the time.
“We must take the responsibility upon ourselves, or rather you must. It’s you she has latched onto. You could, of course, escape her by carrying on with your ferry trip. She won’t follow you over water, and she will be gone by the time you come back.”
“How did you know I was planning a ferry trip?” I asked her.
How silly of me. Of course, she had “the sight.”
“My daughter told me after you had gone to your room last night. I enquired after you.”
Mrs McDonald added honesty to her list of credentials.
I didn’t have to think long about the dilemma. The young woman was crying out to me to help her and had obviously put great effort into her ability to materialise. Rightly or wrongly, the romantic in me took precedence over the pragmatic and I knew there was no contest.
“We have to try,” I said.
“Very well,” said Mrs McDonald with some reluctance.
She fell silent for a while, obviously thinking. I felt that I shouldn’t interrupt but waited for her to speak again.
“Do you have anything made of gold?”
“Gold? Why gold?”
“Because we will have to offer something valuable to compensate them for giving her back, and the little folk are very fond of gold.”
She looked at my right hand. I was wearing a signet ring that my mother had given to me for my twenty first birthday. I was very attached to it and said so.
“Then it is all the more valuable,” said the old lady.
I prised it off with some difficulty and handed it to her. I asked her what form the exchange would take. Could it be done in the privacy of the hotel?
“Good heavens, no. We must go to the place from which she was taken.”
My heart sank. How on earth could we know that?
“It’s not so difficult,” said the old woman. “She would have appeared at the same place where she entered the other world. That is where the gateway is. You told me that you met her about half way between here and Inverness. There is a ruined croft some way along an old track about there. It’s the only one for miles around and there is a well known fairy rath nearby. I have been there before and felt the presence of the gateway between this world and theirs. Besides, I kept seeing it over and over again during the night. I have no doubt that is the place.”
I had no option but to trust her judgement and asked what I should do next.
“Nothing for the time being. Be in the lobby at...” She paused, obviously calculating something. “...six thirty. Be dressed for the outdoors. Do you have a second coat?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“In case we are successful,” she replied, as though the answer should have been obvious.
She got up and walked away, leaving me with an untouched breakfast that was now cold. The waitress came over when she saw Mrs McDonald leave.
“Would you like another breakfast?”
“No thanks.” I wasn’t hungry.
“Some coffee then?”
She brought a pot and I sat for some time looking out of the window, musing on the incredible events of the previous twelve hours. I helped myself to two cups of coffee in quick succession and then became aware that the waitress was anxious for me to leave so that she could tidy the room. I wanted a cigarette anyway. I returned to my room to collect the packet and went out for a walk.
I remember little of what I did that day. I know I wandered aimlessly around, taking some superficial interest in the shop displays and the ferries coming and going. I had a sandwich in a pub at midday, but it was more out of habit than necessity. I was in an almost dreamlike state myself, and I do remember thinking that there were those who might describe me as being “away with the fairies.” More ironic amusement.
I was, of course, impatient for six thirty to come around, although the thrill of excitement was mixed with a natural fear of dabbling with dark forces. And the realisation that the mission was by no means guaranteed to succeed caused me some anxiety.
I had calculated that the reason for leaving at six thirty was that an hour’s drive to the appointed spot would still leave a little daylight. How much would depend on the state of the sky. Down at sea level it was moderately bright, but I knew that it could be different up on higher ground. A dense cloud cover would see the darkness fall more quickly.
By five o’clock I was thoroughly bored with the limited scenery of the town and my anxiety was naturally increasing. I returned to the hotel and went up to my room. On the way I passed Mrs Campbell in the lobby and her quizzical look made it obvious that she knew something was going on. I doubted that she knew the full story, and I said nothing apart from exchanging a polite greeting.
I sat in my room until 6.15, remembering vividly the events of the previous night. I wondered how the chambermaid had reacted to the wet sheets, and whether that had some bearing on Mrs Campbell’s strange look. The recollection of the young woman’s appearances was strong and I shuddered with an echo of the terror I had felt at finding her lying next to me. It made me all the more certain that our intended course was the right one. I pulled on my stout walking shoes and my waterproof coat and went down to the lobby.
Mrs McDonald was already there, engaged in earnest and slightly agitated conversation with her daughter. They were speaking too quietly for me to catch the detail, but the younger woman’s face carried a look that I translated as shock and annoyance, and her posture conveyed the same message. I had the impression that she had been prepared for some possibility that was disagreeable to her. She walked away sharply as I approached.
Mrs McDonald picked up a large carrier bag, nodded to me and led the way to the door. We were soon settled in the car and heading off on the main road towards Inverness.
As we drove I tried to make conversation a couple of times. It soon became clear that the old woman wanted silence and I had to be content to respect the fact. She did turn her head towards me in a sudden and disarming manner occasionally, taking a sharp breath and staring at me intensely with her piercing blue eyes. I felt something like a mild electric shock every time she did so, but I tried to ignore it. And then she said
“They know we’re coming.”
What was that all about? I had no idea, but I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous. She did answer my next question.
“What are the fairies like?”
“They are like us,” she said, “only more extreme. The nice ones are cheery and helpful, but some are more hideous than anything you will find in this world.”
The journey continued in silence.
We climbed rapidly into the country of wild heath and scattered lochs, and the sky darkened appreciably. The cloud cover was becoming heavier, and the odd lonely tree indicated that the wind was getting stronger. Eventually the old lady told me to slow down and leaned forward in her seat, squinting at the land to the right of the road.
“There,” she said triumphantly, and pointed to a track that led off across the heath. “Take that road.”
Road? It might have been a “road” in the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but I was reluctant to take a modern car down it. I didn’t argue but did as I was told and drove slowly for about a mile, avoiding the humps and potholes as best I could.
The track led us to the remains of a croft, standing forlorn amid a harsh, uncompromising landscape. As we approached I could see that the roof was gone but the outer walls seemed largely intact. A group of smaller walls formed a sheiling, but there was nothing else and I found it hard to believe that people had lived and farmed there, probably for centuries.
“This is the place,” said Mrs McDonald. “Take the car as near as you can and turn it around to face back to the road - and leave the doors unlocked.”
I did as I was told and turned off the engine. We got out of the car, Mrs McDonald with a bustling intensity of purpose and me feeling slightly bewildered and wondering what I should do next. I looked at the gaunt shape of the roofless and windowless croft standing starkly against the sky. It put me in mind of a skeleton, and I began to feel afraid.
The land was desolate, the wind was gusting strongly in my face, and the grey clouds that scudded overhead carried a brooding menace. But that wasn’t the source of my fear. There was something else. An irrational but intense feeling of depression and anxiety was closing in on me. I felt that I was being encircled by some power or energy that did not mean me well.
“Come over here,” said the old lady, who was kneeling on the coarse grass in front of the croft. “I need your physical strength to draw on.”
I felt that my physical strength was draining rapidly already, but did as she ordered and knelt beside her. Her hands were folded on her lap and her eyes were closed. She began to breathe more slowly and then started mumbling low words in a language that I didn’t recognise, but which I assumed to be Gaelic.
My depression increased with each passing minute and every mysterious phrase, until it approached the level of despair. I felt a massive urge to run back to the car and drive away at high speed. I thought I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, and then another one. I looked towards them but saw nothing. And then more movements, sometimes three or four at a time, but always outside the centre of my vision. Were these the shapes I had seen in my dream?
All the time the wind was becoming stronger and howling angrily through the ruins of the building. I wondered how much longer my nerve would hold and began to look agitatedly in all directions. I knew that I was approaching a state of panic, but also that it was vital for me to remain in position. It was with both shock and relief that I saw Mrs McDonald suddenly lift her hands to her head and heard her utter a final cry. She dropped her hands back to her lap and said
“He’ll do it. There’s no time to lose.”
“Who’ll do what exactly?” I stuttered, feeling weak, miserable and exhausted, but with a sense of triumphant expectation now shoring up my spirits.
She didn’t answer me but got up, taking my signet ring from her pocket, and walked quickly towards the croft. I had no desire to be left alone in that accursed place and followed her as fast as my weakened legs would allow.
“I have talked to the one who is their leader – and a more hideous creature I have never seen before and never want to see again - and he has agreed to exchange the lassie for your gold ring. When one of his kind makes a bargain he has to keep to it. It’s a law to them. But the others don’t, so we have to get her away as quickly as possible.”
We entered the hole in the wall where a door had once hung, and Mrs McDonald looked around. Nature had largely reclaimed the inside of the building. Coarse grass grew up between the cracks in the old floor and straggly plants had colonised various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.
“To the left of the fireplace, he said. That’s where she was taken from.”
“Suppose he was lying,” I offered.
“They don’t lie. That’s another law. Trickery is their way, not outright lying.”
She put the gold ring on the floor to the left of the chimney breast and walked out again.
“Now we must wait,” she said.
She reached into the carrier bag that she had brought with her and took out a woollen blanket which she laid over her arm. Then she faced the doorway and stood still.
We stood in the gathering gloom of a miserable, cold twilight for ten or fifteen minutes and I noticed that the old lady was wringing her hands with anxiety. Occasionally she would let out an expression of frustration but she never moved from the spot in front of the door. The wind continued to moan with sullen aggression and I continued to look around the darkening heath nervously.
And then a figure appeared in the doorway. I took a sharp, involuntary breath and my eyes widened. A powerful mixture of joy, amazement and triumph rose up through my chest and settled as a painful knot of raw emotion in my throat. My passenger of the previous night stood there, naked. She had been returned as she had been taken, with nothing. The snowy whiteness of her skin seemed almost luminous in the gloom of the grey twilight and she stepped forward slowly.
As much as I wanted to laugh hysterically and cry at the same time, I was reminded of the need for urgent action when I saw Mrs McDonald hurry forward. I followed instinctively. The blanket was wrapped quickly around the young woman’s shoulders and we helped her back to the car where I bundled her into the back seat. I had no fear of her sitting behind me this time. Mrs McDonald was getting into the other side as I slammed the door shut.
“Drive away quickly,” said the old lady as I climbed into the driver’s seat.
The instruction was unnecessary. I understood the necessity for speed, but also knew that I had to be careful not to put a wheel into some deep pothole and become stuck.
The mile-long drive to the main road seemed to take forever. The wind was now blowing constantly at storm force and seemed to be trying to arrest the car’s progress like some invisible hand. It was almost dark and I was sure that several of the violent bumps that vibrated through the car were caused by something other than the state of the track. At one point the car rocked heavily from side to side, but I drove on and eventually reached the welcome site of tarmac. Once I was on its familiar, modern surface I relaxed.
The drive back to Ullapool was uneventful and no-one said anything. I felt drained almost to the point of exhaustion and it was all I could do to keep the car safely on the road and make reasonable speed. I glanced often into the rear view mirror to see the young woman cradled in Mrs McDonald’s arms and crying quietly.
When we arrived at the hotel I drove the car around to the rear and parked in the private car park, close to the back door. I helped to guide the young woman up the steps and into the kitchen where the old lady sat her down on a chair and began talking to her gently in Gaelic. Then she went to the sink and returned with a glass of water, explaining to me that it would be necessary to accustom her body to physical food gradually.
I stared at the pitiful form leaning heavily on the refectory table as she sipped the water. I was struck by the contrast between the reddened rims of her eyes and the ghostly white pallor of the rest of her face. She looked up at me and said something in her native language. Her voice was weak and indistinct. I looked at Mrs McDonald.
“She says ‘thank you’.”
I nodded and the tears began to well in my own eyes. The old lady continued.
“You must go to bed now. You are exhausted and you will have no dreams tonight. There is a lot to do and you would only be in the way.”
At first I found such a direct order insulting. I had played my part too, I thought, and I didn’t want to leave the young woman. I felt strongly attached to her and concerned for her welfare. But Mrs McDonald was right. I was exhausted and there was probably nothing more I could do.
I said goodnight and made my way through the lobby and up to my room. The climb was remarkably tiring and I couldn’t be bothered to undress. I fell onto the bed and into asleep almost in the same instant.
The following morning I awoke at about seven, feeling anxious and excited. I changed my clothes quickly and went downstairs, keenly anticipating the prospect of seeing Mrs McDonald and our newly reclaimed soul. I had so many questions. Who was she? Did she remember her name? How long ago had she been taken? Did she remember her time in the other world, and what was it like? How did she view the prospect of life back among the humans? etc., etc., etc.
Mrs Campbell was behind the desk as I came downstairs and the way she looked at me did not bode well for an affable conversation. I went over to her anyway.
“Is your mother about?” I asked with a hint of nervous hesitation.
“No, she is not,” replied Mrs Campbell curtly. “But she left this for you.”
She handed me a small, sealed envelope and went back to writing in the hotel bookings diary.
“Thank you,” I said and made my way to the dining room.
This time I was hungry. I sat down and used a table knife to open the letter. There was one small sheet of ruled paper that had a few lines written on it in small, neat handwriting. It said:
I am sorry, I never learned your name. Brigit - for that is the name we have chosen for her - and I have gone away, and I do not know when we shall be back. We are both grateful to you, but what we have to do will be difficult and the fewer people who are involved the better. You should continue your journey now. There is nothing more you can do. You will not see us again and I can assure you it is better that way.
This was horribly disappointing. All the questions, all the effort, all the risk, all the fear and excitement - all over in thirty six hours. My initial reaction was to ignore the letter and stay put until the duo made their return.
I munched a slice of toast without tasting it, and then left the dining room to storm out of the hotel. My disappointment had turned to feelings of anger and frustration. I spent a desultory day much like the previous one, making frequent visits to tedious tea shops and musing on recent events and the old lady’s letter.
Eventually I realised that she was right. Assimilating Brigit into modern society would be a difficult job requiring patience, sensitivity and fine judgement. Mrs McDonald had the time, the wisdom and the wise woman’s touch. I was a mere male with a life back home.
I returned, somewhat crestfallen, to the small hotel that had been the setting for so much excitement, so much fear and so much learning. I collected my things and went down to the lobby. There was no one about and I had the impression that Mrs Campbell would have no wish to see me off. I left a cheque for what I knew to be the charge for two night’s bed and breakfast, and left.
I had no heart to continue my holiday. How could I match the events of the last two days? I drove back towards Inverness until I reached the Corrieshalloch Gorge. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether I should continue on the Inverness road and take another look at the old croft. I decided against it. If I was to put my recent adventure behind me, it seemed better that I should start now. I turned right and took the west coast road through Torridon.
I drove for what was left of the day and broke my journey with an overnight stop at a hotel near Loch Lomond. Early the next morning I was on the road again and arrived home at lunchtime.
For the next few days I pondered the fate of the two women whom I had caused to be thrown together in such strange circumstances. I had great faith in Mrs McDonald, but the permutation of problems and possibilities seemed endless. Would she take Brigit to the police and set in motion a complex train of events that could go almost anywhere? Would she try to keep her hidden by settling her in a remote, Gaelic-speaking community somewhere? Would the locals accept a stranger coming into their midst, and could it be a practicable solution in the long term anyway?
For all my well-intentioned decision to consign the episode to history, I knew that I would always be haunted by the need to know what happened. I decided that I would drive back to Ullapool in a month or two’s time to find out. Mrs McDonald would probably object, but I felt I had certain rights in the matter.
And then, in the evening of the third or fourth day, I was flicking through the Teletext news pages when my eye was caught by a headline that read:
Bodies found in missing person hunt.
Such headlines are common enough on Teletext, but I felt a sense of understandable foreboding about this one. I dialled the page and read
Bodies found in Highland search
Police in northern Scotland, searching for an elderly woman reported missing from Ullapool recently, have confirmed that the bodies of two women have been found at the foot of nearby Corrieshalloch Gorge.
One of the bodies is thought to be that of the missing woman. The identity of the second body, that of a young woman in her late teens, remains a mystery. Next of kin have yet to be informed.
I sat in shock and disbelief for a while. I tried to tell myself that the two bodies could be unconnected with the two women who had sat in the back seat of my car a few days earlier. Then I remembered Mrs McDonald’s words and knew the truth of it.
“The only real point in getting her back would be so that she could die and feel all the sorrows and pains along the way.”
It seemed she had courted the courage of her convictions and effected the only practicable solution. My sense of guilt and sadness was profound. I felt responsible for the deaths of two women. One, a dear and wise old lady who, though she probably had little time left on this earth, would still be a loss to a world losing its way. The other, a beautiful young woman still approaching her prime, who might have had a happy and fruitful life in different circumstances. No amount of logic and rational justification would take away the knot of remorse that gripped my stomach.
But my respect for the old lady’s courage was uppermost. In taking what she had obviously decided was the right and proper course, she had at least enabled the tragic young woman to re-establish her birthright and avoid the “sorrows and pains along the way.” I can only hope that the sudden upsurge in mine will dwindle eventually.
- 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.