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

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

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

September 18, 2010

The Seeing of Sheona McCormack.

This is a true story. Every detail is related exactly as I remember it. It was first published under the guise of fiction by Writers’ Bloc, the literary journal of Rutgers-Camden University, New Jersey, in 2009.

Approximate reading time: 25 minutes.

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I have been close to a lot of women in my life, and I have had romantic relationships with quite a few of them. Sheona McCormack should be listed prominently among the latter, but she isn’t.

Sheona McCormack was the one that got away. Or perhaps the metaphor should be a little more explicit. She was the one who lured me up the familiar ladder of mad infatuation – against my better judgment it has to be said – until I got to the point of resigning my heart to her completely. At that point I plunged rapidly to the unyielding ground below, and the landing hurt. Whether I had missed my footing, whether I had been pushed, or whether the ladder had proved to be an illusion of my own creation I shall probably never know. In any event, I was some way short of being myself for about six weeks afterwards.

I first met her at the theatre where we both worked, she as a props maker and I doing various front-of-house duties. She came out of the rehearsal room as I was sitting around waiting to meet somebody. The sight of her arrested my breathing for a moment. It was like taking the first mouthful of a hot curry.

She was in her mid-twenties, of medium height and slight of frame. Her face was pale, small and elfin-like, with bright, powder-blue eyes that looked at me briefly before turning away again. She was exquisitely pretty. Her most remarkable feature, though, was her hair. It was the purest and most lustrous blonde I had ever seen, and hung dead straight all the way down her back as far as the lower part of her waist. As she walked back to the workshop it swung slightly and glistened.

I thought I recognised her, but the memory was hopelessly vague. It seemed long-distant, like some hidden resonance from early childhood. That was impossible; she was twenty years younger than me. Yet still I developed an immediate, almost mystical fascination with her.

The feeling passed quickly. Even though I was unattached at the time, I put any prospect of a relationship out of my head. Apart from the obvious difficulties inherent in the age difference, there was the question of my romantic nature to be considered. True romantics are dangerous people, and I had been forced to consider the ramifications of those dangers through successive failed relationships. They never stop looking for an ideal that doesn’t exist. Even when they think they’ve found it, they simply adjust the definition and carry on searching. To the true romantic, the search is everything. I had decided that enough was enough, both for my own sake and for the sake of the unfortunate women involved.

I didn’t see Sheona McCormack again for three weeks, three whole weeks of sublime ignorance in which she was just a half remembered, mystical vision passing through the line of my sight and psyche for all of thirty seconds.

It was early September and the start of the new season at the theatre. It was a Wednesday night. It’s odd how everything of note that happened with Sheona happened on a Wednesday. They say the universe weaves patterns. Maybe.

There was a first night party and I was invited. The venue was a house about fifteen minutes walk away, where four of the actors were lodging. I knew most of the people there and did what we all do at parties: drank a few drinks, danced a few dances, joked a few jokes, and then went to rest up in the quiet backwater of the capacious, kitchen bay window. There was a refectory table parked self-consciously in the recess. I was sitting at it, sipping my solitary beer, when the vision with the long blonde hair suddenly became manifest again. She sat on a chair opposite. It was one o’clock in the morning, or thereabouts.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Sheona.”

I wasn’t sure how to reply. Her impromptu appearance shocked me more than I would have predicted. I felt the hot curry sensation again. I managed an awkward “hello.”

“We haven’t actually met, have we?” she continued, already taking the upper hand. “I had to ask one of the actors who the guy in the check shirt was.”

Her smile was engaging. So was her voice. It was a little thin, but it had a childlike, open quality about it. I watched her as she talked trivia for a few minutes. I decided she was beautiful. I was old enough to know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it didn’t take me long to learn that most other men thought her beautiful too.

I returned the verbal correspondence with some trivia of my own. It was largely manufactured, but I was good at that. It’s what true romantics do at the start of a relationship; it comes naturally. And yet I felt inadequate. If I might put it this way: Sheona was some way beyond what I had become accustomed to expect over my thirty years of wooing and winning. She really was something else. What that something consisted of I wasn’t quite sure yet. I assumed it had something to do with personal magnetism.

“Fancy a dance?” she said suddenly.

Did I feel honoured? In retrospect, yes. At the time I just felt a mighty thrill accompanied by an uncharacteristic uncertainty. My hesitation in agreeing was too brief to be apparent, however, and we moved into the living room where the music was playing.

The atmosphere was typical - low key lighting, smulchy music, the heat of bodies, the smell of alcohol and cannabis. We faced each other and began to dance. Over the next few minutes she continued to talk trivia, and she moved ever closer until her lips were brushing mine as they moved. How could any virile, unattached forty-something, let alone an incurable romantic, be expected to resist such transparent overtures? But resist them I did. The lessons of previous encounters stood firm. I held her, but only briefly and no more than I considered decent. When the music finished she moved away to the far side of the room and I went back to the kitchen to get my drink. I didn’t see her again for three hours. More patterns: threes and Wednesdays.

I have no idea where she went during those three hours, and that mystery was to find an echo later too. Twice during our troubled liaison time ceased to function normally. This was Alpha; Omega was to be six months down the line.

At four o’clock in the morning I decided it was time I went home. I finished the last of my drinks and walked out into the hall. Sheona had materialised again. She was there saying goodbye to somebody, and then she left without so much as acknowledging my presence. The sense of deflation I felt was soon overcome and I moved among my friends, taking my leave of them with the usual pleasantries. I left at 4.15.

My house was only ten minutes walk away and I felt surprisingly sober. I maintained a brisk pace around the maze of deserted side streets until I reached the equally deserted main road on which my house was located. There is something dreamlike about a deserted main road at 4.15 am. I savoured the surreal quality as I walked, and was slightly startled when I saw a movement some way ahead of me, in the shadow of a wall on the other side of the road. This was an inner city neighbourhood, and so I slowed my pace while I identified the cause.

The cause was Sheona McCormack. She was struggling to control a bicycle which she was trying to push along the pavement. She was having little success and I realised it had taken her more than fifteen minutes to manage a distance of about four hundred yards. I also knew that she had intended to cycle the two miles or more to her home on the other side of the city centre. She had obviously been unable to balance on the machine, and seemed unable to push it in a straight line either. What else would an incurable romantic perceive in such a situation but a damsel in distress?

I went over and took control of the bike. It was my turn to do the talking as we continued to a junction where our ways would, in normal circumstances, have parted. These were not normal circumstances. Sheona was clearly in no condition to make her own way home and I set about trying to persuade her to spend what was left of the night on my sofa.

She resisted valiantly. We’d only just met, she said. How could she know I was trustworthy? I understood, of course, but still felt irritated. She’d drawn me in with her seductive charms, and now she was questioning my character. I told her she could try to walk home if that was what she wanted, but I would walk with her to see that she got there safely. I would have done, too.

It did the trick. She relented, but only partially. She would come and have a coffee to sober up, she said, and then she would go home. Five minutes later she started to drink a cup of black coffee, sitting on my sofa. Five minutes after that she lay down and went to sleep. Most of the coffee stayed undrunk. I covered her with a spare blanket and went to bed.

She was in a hurry to leave at nine o’clock the next morning. She had an interview to attend in connection with a freelance design job for another theatre company. The post was offered on the spot apparently, and the company was located fifty miles away. It was to last for three months. I think I could have predicted that. For three months she disappeared from my life, in a physical sense at least.

In all other senses she began to haunt me mercilessly – and probably without volition, too, if the logical contradiction might be excused for the sake of linguistic expediency. I thought about her every day, not obsessively in my opinion, but frequently and with a growing sense of need. Need is not a good thing to feel and it worried me slightly. I tried to work out why the attraction was such a big issue. Physically, she had all the right attributes. But there had to be more. Her magnetic personality? That wasn’t enough either. About a week after the party the - oh dear, dare I call them visions? Whatever they were, that was when they began.

They would usually happen when I was dozing in my armchair, and they were always the same. We were sitting together on a cliff top, overlooking the sea. I knew it was somewhere on the west coast of Scotland, and that the sea was the Atlantic Ocean. We were dressed in unfamiliar clothing – maybe eighteenth century, but I couldn’t be sure. I wanted us to be together. Maybe I was asking her to marry me. The look in her eyes was clear, and it filled me with desolation. They were sorrowful eyes. They wanted to say yes, but they had to say no – and she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say why.

Then the dreams began, and they were always the same too. I would visit her in a dingy, dimly lit room. The walls were a dull magnolia colour and looked dirty. The only furniture was an old refectory table standing in the middle. We would face one another in silence, each looking into the other’s eyes. She would move towards me and I would step back. Then I would move forward and she would retire. Eventually she would leave by a door in the corner of the room. Dream over. I have since seen pictures of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The room in which her disfigured body lies looks eerily familiar. A poor, Victorian prostitute’s backstreet hovel. Why would my subconscious mind place Sheona in such a room? Maybe there was more to it, and I felt uneasy as to what it might be.

Both the dreams and the visions occurred frequently for the whole three months. Sometimes there would be slight differences in detail, but the sense of confusion and rejection was ever present.

And then, some time around the middle of December, I found a hand-delivered Christmas card lying beneath the letterbox in my front door. Sheona was back and she wanted to see me again. The card didn’t actually say as much; that wasn’t her way. The desire was more subtly expressed, as though she needed to protect herself, but the message was clear enough. It included a note of her new address, a flat situated in a large house less than a mile away. Easy walking distance, I thought. She had included her phone number, and so I rang it.

We arranged to meet for a drink – a proper drink in a proper pub that would provide safe, neutral ground. I’m fairly sure it was a Wednesday. Let’s just say I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t a Wednesday. Our conversation was very different from the previous ones. She did most of the talking and related just about every negative fact about herself that she could think of. I felt confused again. Every aspect of her earlier behaviour had suggested she was interested in pursuing a romantic relationship. Now she was giving me every reason in the book to run the other way. It didn’t take me long to realise that this was either a test of my intentions or a challenge to my staying power. That was encouraging. At least, I chose to feel encouraged. In reality I was still confused. And confused I continued to be, increasingly, for the next three months. The pattern of threes was unflinchingly reliable.

We started to see each other regularly. Often it was at the theatre where she was now working again, “on the book” this time. We sometimes had a drink in the bar and went to first and last night parties together. We also exchanged visits to our relative places of abode. She complimented me on my arrangement of furniture – said my living room functioned like an aeroplane’s cockpit and that was how she would have done it. And yet it never felt that we were really together. She seemed determined to make me feel that I was somehow surplus to requirements. It was a neat trick, and I’m still not sure how she did it. One incident, perhaps, might serve as an example.

A last night party was being held at the local “lock-in” – a pub around the corner from the theatre where the actors and production staff drank behind closed doors until 5 am or even later.

Sheona and I left the theatre together. We arrived at the pub together at about 11.30. We sat, talked and drank together. And then I went to the loo. As I came back into the bar I saw one of the male actors standing by the door in the far corner, beckoning to Sheona. She stood up and followed him outside. I pushed my way through the crowd of bodies to see what was going on. As I came out into the street I saw her riding her bike into a nearby side street with John, the actor, maintaining a brisk walking pace alongside. Where did that leave me? Depressed, that’s where it left me. I went home seething with anger, jealousy and a whole host of other hot and debilitating emotions. But the night wasn’t over yet.

The cocktail of feelings was too darkly insistent to allow for sleep. I drank several scotches and felt sorry for myself. At 4 am – yes, 4 am – I was still angry and decided to go for a walk. I trudged along my own main road until it joined the bigger road on which the theatre was situated.

I turned left to walk uphill. It was like the night when Sheona and I had first met: the unreal atmosphere of major, inner-city thoroughfares without any traffic. I thought my eyes, or the scotch maybe, must be playing tricks on me. A dark shape appeared over the crest of the hill. It seemed to be flying to the beat of small wings placed at the top of its body. And then it took the shape of a woman riding a bike. Miss 4 am was uncannily on cue. The “wings” were the flaps of her lumberjack hat that she hadn’t bothered to fasten. They were moving up and down in time with her pedalling.

I crossed the road and waited for her to come to a halt. The coincidence of us both being in the same place at such an unlikely hour still gave me half a thought that she might be a hallucination. No, she was real enough. I asked her what on earth she was doing, riding her bike at four o’clock in the morning.

“I often go for a ride in the early hours. The road’s quiet.”

I asked her what the business with John had been about.

“He had some resin - wondered if I might want to share a splif with him.”

“Was that all?”

“Yes.”

She looked and sounded indignant. I felt better. She rode off down the hill without looking back. I went home to bed.

Now, you might wonder why I didn’t broach this thorny subject openly. Just what did our relationship mean to her is what I should have been asking. The reason is simple, if a little shameful. I felt intimidated. I was twenty years older than her and, as I said, I’d had many relationships with women. Sheona was the only one who had ever intimidated me.

To be fair, I’m sure there was no such intention on her part. She looked slightly bemused now and then, as though she was wondering why I was so reticent. I really don’t know, but I think it had a lot to do with the dreams and visions. I was becoming increasingly convinced that we had known each other intimately before, and that there was something hidden in our past that had yet to be settled. Furthermore, it didn’t feel entirely wholesome.

Fortunately, or not as you choose, there wasn’t much longer to go. Matters came to a head three months after the Christmas that had been the start of our liaison. They took place over three Wednesdays in March.

On Wednesday 1st she invited me to lunch at her flat. She’d laid out the most comprehensive and sumptuous spread. I did little more than nibble at it and that seemed to trouble her. Oddly, it didn’t occur to me that she might be feeling disappointed that her efforts were not being fully recognised. I just felt intimidated - increasingly so. And yet my desire for her was becoming manic, evidently in inverse proportion to my sense of intimidation. I even began to wonder whether there might be some truly magical mischief going on behind those powder blue eyes. Maybe her unusually long hair was a power source, like Samson’s. We really do think some strange thoughts when we’re under pressure, don’t we?

That night we went to the theatre together, to watch a play this time. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember how she behaved. I was sitting with my elbows on the arm rests. Sheona had her arms folded. The combination of postures meant that her right hand was close to my right arm. I felt the upper part of that arm being stroked gently – “caressed” would be an accurate description. Could there be a more transparent statement of intent than that? She had already offered some pretty telling bits of body language, but I saw that as the clincher. Now all I had to do was decide on my own intentions.

I still felt reticent. I still felt intimidated. I still remembered my previous bad experiences – the hurt I had caused myself and others. I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to fall into another relationship, however madly I desired what was apparently being offered. In short, I was in turmoil.

Sheona didn’t press the matter. I assumed that she was uncertain too. We didn’t see each other for a whole week. The following Wednesday I invited her to lunch at a town centre bistro. She was late. She said she’d had some work to finish before taking her break. As usual, we didn’t talk about relationships, our own or anybody else’s. Clearly, it was still a taboo subject to both of us. But the hints kept coming. Her body language continued to offer a subtle but undeniable invitation. She seemed to be reeling me in gradually, like you would a strong fish that is fighting against capture. To put it another way, she seemed to be luring me up the familiar ladder of mad infatuation...

When the lunch was over I walked back to the theatre with her. The way she breezed through the gate to go back to work was almost dismissive. I walked home feeling confused again.

Another week passed. It was Wednesday 15th March. Sheona had invited me to another lunch at her flat, and the scene was pretty much the same as before – me nibbling, she wearing a quizzical frown. I probably nibbled less that day. My feelings were coming to boiling point. A battle was raging between a heart that saw Sheona as the perfection of womankind, and a head that told me no such person existed. I saw myself teetering on the edge of the same old pit – exquisite and heady at first, but growing ever darker until it becomes unbearable. Romance is the most powerful of narcotics to a true romantic, however, and its aroma was becoming irresistible.

That night we went to the theatre again. It was the first night of the annual production of a Shakespeare play. It was Hamlet that year, and the part of Laertes was being played by a young Danish actor called Sven Mortensen. Sven had done a few stints there before. He was popular with everybody, but especially the women. Young, handsome, erudite, well spoken - his repertoire of natural talents read like a what’s what of attractants. He came up to the bar after the show and immediately captured Sheona’s undivided attention. She hugged him, kissed him, and spent a long time talking to him. I decided it was just the way “theatricals” behave, and fought back my growing sense of irritation.

The problem didn’t end in the bar, though. For some reason there was no first night party planned, and Sven announced that he had taken the lease to a new flat that day – ironically and unfortunately at the end of my street. He had a lot of luggage to carry to his new home at the end of the night, he said. Sheona offered our services in assistance.

It had snowed that night – quite heavily – and then it had thawed. The walk to Sven’s flat was made through deep slush. We arrived at his front door and dropped the bags. Sheona hugged him again and I forced myself to shake his hand. Then Sheona and I walked to my house about a hundred yards further along the road.

There was an uneasy atmosphere between us. I sensed that Sven had become a barrier between me and the pit of romantic addiction. Choosing not to jump was one thing. Being prevented by a rival was quite another. In retrospect I realise that I was probably wrong. The jealous heart is easily roused to unjustified assumptions. My feelings were all over the place, but I forced myself to calm down.

We drank some wine and shared a joint. In an effort to make meaningful conversation I said that I had always wanted to learn to waltz. Sheona perked up. She knew how to waltz, she said, and she would teach me. Did I have any waltz music? No, of course I didn’t. I thought again. I had recently acquired a tape of Enya’s Shepherd Moons. It included the track Caribbean Blue which I had, for some entirely inscrutable reason, come to associate with Sheona. I remembered that it was written in three/four time. That would have to do.

I found the track and we stood up. I took her left hand with my right, and placed my own left hand around her waist. She reciprocated. Strange as it seems now, that was the most intimate we had ever been physically.

Maybe that was what cracked the dam of our mutual indecision. We fell into each other’s arms. At least, that was how it seemed to me. I let go of every trace of resistance. Sheona and I were now an item. The decision was made, the matter concluded. My state of mind slipped effortlessly into a heady mixture of mania and sublime reverie. And then time and reality shifted into an unfamiliar gear.

I became aware that I was standing alone in the middle of the floor. Sheona was sitting on the sofa. The music had stopped and I had no idea what had happened or how long I had been there. I had just experienced my temporal Omega. All I knew was that I felt the most profound, gut wrenching sense of rejection. I had capitulated. I had submitted to being taken to the most rarefied heights and given a view of a new world full of sensual and emotional promise. Maybe I had even found my true love. And then I had been cast down again. The pain was unbearable. Sheona spoke.

“Do you want me to leave?”

Courage, I thought. Don’t give up yet; you might still get there. I looked at the clock. It was 1 am.

“No.”

I sat on the floor with my back against the sofa, next to her legs. I felt dizzy, and neither of us spoke.

“I’m going home now,” she said.

I looked at the clock again. 4 am. We had been sitting in silence for three hours. I insisted on walking her home. I was fighting the pain. I wasn’t giving up. I was determined to do what any attentive gentleman would be expected to do.

The weather had changed during the early hours. The sky had cleared completely and the temperature had fallen to well below freezing. The slush we had trudged through earlier had become an urban landscape of cratered ice. Every footfall resounded like the report of a shotgun. We walked slowly in the hope of minimising the inevitable disturbance to the sleeping neighbours.

As we neared the end of the road I looked across at the darkened windows of Sven’s flat. And then I glanced at Sheona. She was looking in the same direction, and the set of her eyes seemed to be aimed at the actor’s bedroom. She averted them immediately and looked down at the pavement. That one bit of body language told me what I needed to know. Her heart was now set on Sven, not me. I was probably wrong about that, too, but that was how it appeared in that awful moment. The pain I was already feeling exploded to new heights. I wanted to be anywhere but living in my own body.

Propriety kept me going. I had insisted on walking Sheona home and that was what I intended to do. We reached the top of the same hill where I had seen her riding her bike. She stopped and looked at the radiant full moon. She waxed eloquent about its beauty. I wasn’t quite in the mood to appreciate it; neither could I understand how she could be so easily distracted from a situation that was tearing my guts out.

We walked on to her flat, where I insisted on seeing her to her own front door. I had nothing to say to her except “goodnight.” She gave me the sweetest look, smiled and threw her arms around me. Having already come to suspect that our embrace on the dance floor earlier might not have been mutual, this could well have been the only time Sheona ever hugged me. Did I say that I had felt confused occasionally? That moment was the grandfather of all confusion. What the hell was I to make of it?

I made nothing of it. I walked home across the ice, feeling wretched. I went to bed and woke up depressed every morning for the next six weeks. My connection with Sheona wasn’t quite over yet, though.

I couldn’t take any more, and so I wrote her a letter the next day saying that I didn’t want to see her again. I felt angry. I blamed her for the way things had turned out, which probably wasn’t fair. She caught up with me at the theatre a few days later. She said she wanted to talk. Her exact words were “I do care, you know.” I didn’t. I was still angry. I assailed her with such a stream of verbal aggression that she simply turned around and went away again. And still it wasn’t over.

The visions of the Scottish cliff top ceased, but there was a different one to come. It only happened once, a couple of weeks later. I saw myself walking along a path leading to the top of a set of steps. I went down them and found myself in a garden. There was an empty bench standing by a low wall to my right. I sat on it and waited. A woman walked into my view. Her form was indistinct, but I knew her to be the essence of the maternal principle. She was holding the hand of a small child standing beside her – a beautiful little girl with long blonde hair that hung down to the lower part of her back. The child looked into my eyes while the woman said

“This child is as frightened and lost as you are. You must love her unconditionally.”

It was too much to ask at the time, but I took the instruction to heart and relented as soon as I was able.

Given that Sheona and I worked in the same building, albeit it on opposite sides, it’s surprising how long it was before we saw each other again. I assumed she was avoiding the front-of-house areas, and I had no reason to go backstage. By the time I did bump into her my anger had dissipated and I offered her the kiss of peace, which she accepted. There was, however, a barrier between us that never came down. A few years later she married an actor – not Sven, I might add – and started a family.

Twelve years on and I still think about her - daily. The dreams have returned too. They happen about once a month, probably at the time of the full moon she was so fond of. The content varies a lot these days, but they always end in disappointment. I never get the girl.

I’ve moved on too, to a wholly different level of consciousness. But the magic of Sheona McCormack continues to burn. I think it is perennial. I think it transcends lifetimes. I think there is unfinished business between us. I doubt it will be resolved in this life, but I’m sure the story isn’t over yet.

September 15, 2010

The Bargain

I have to admit that this one owes at least a nod of acknowledgment to MR James. It was first published in Sinister Tales Magazine in 2006.

Reading time: approx 40 minutes.

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Barry Evans sat with his elbows resting lazily on the table and his hands wrapped comfortably around a cup of hot coffee. He was idly watching the endless rivulets of water running their unpredictable and meaningless little paths down the window pane.

It was late October and depressingly wet. A light rain had been falling ceaselessly from a leaden sky all day and he had considered staying at home. But it was Thursday and he had become a creature of habit since losing his job a year earlier. Lack of money and the enforced slowing of his pace of life had caused him to become reliant on routines. He found the potential for activity limited when his only source of income was state benefit, and those pastimes that were available had to be eked out carefully to provide some regularity to life and avoid long periods of tedium.

Thursday was his day for browsing around the library, spending a quiet hour in his favourite coffee shop, and doing a little shopping before returning home to cook dinner. He had been to the library and was now indulging his passion for hot, strong Java.

But the fact that it was Thursday wasn’t his only reason for being away from the house. He didn’t feel comfortable there. He was being troubled by something that made no rational sense, but which was making its presence felt in ways that were unmistakeable; and he felt its presence most unequivocally when he was at home.

Several times over the previous couple of weeks he had felt the bedclothes tugged against his legs soon after turning off the light, only slightly but he was sure he hadn’t imagined it. He had heard noises too, vague and indeterminate ones that were never loud or clear enough to really identify but which had startled him and caused him to listen intensely in a fruitless attempt at recognition. One might have been the sound of something brushing against the wall; another could have been the padding of feet crossing the floor; yet another reminded him of someone with a deep voice gargling in a distant room.

During the day he had passed them off as probably coming from neighbouring houses, or from the busy street on which his terraced house was situated. But in the quiet of the early hours they had sounded closer and less easily explained away. He had felt something brush against his leg more than once. He had even tripped one night when crossing his bedroom, only to find that the floor was clear of obstruction and there was no explanation for his stumble.

The most worrying incident had happened only two nights earlier. He had been woken up by what felt like a sudden movement of his bed. He had been lying on his side and, as his eyes opened slowly, he had stared into two red ellipses glowing in the half-light of early morning. The shock had brought him to sudden wakefulness and the vision had disappeared. He had put it down to nothing more than some extension of a bad dream.

Repeated attempts at rational explanation had not prevented him from developing a sense of unease in the house, and he had taken to leaving it more than usual. He had walked around the streets, visited the town centre and sat in the local park when the weather permitted. Even that, however, had not provided quite the relief he had hoped for.

He had noticed that domestic animals had started avoiding him. Cats would walk away to the side at his approach and look back at him suspiciously. Dogs on leads would move around their owner’s legs to be on the further side. On one occasion he had even seen a young child in a pushchair point to him and say something to her mother in a tone of apprehension. The girl was too young to have developed recognisable diction, and her mother had been as much at a loss to understand her daughter’s concern as he had.

He wondered whether it was better that he didn’t understand; and he wondered whether he might be falling victim to paranoia.

So there he sat, alone on a wet Thursday afternoon, looking down from the first floor window onto a plethora of umbrellas jostling for space on the busy pavement of the little market town. The light was low enough for the cars to have their headlights on, and the regular swishing of tyres on the wet road was becoming soporific.

He turned his eyes away from the window and looked around the room. The dimly lit coffee shop was half empty and the staff were standing idly by the counter waiting for customers. No doubt an interior designer would have described the lighting as “atmospheric.” To Barry, depressed by a growing fear that he was becoming delusional, it merely looked dim.

He gazed briefly at the other customers in turn. There were two middle-aged couples, a woman in business attire using a mobile phone, a younger woman with two children, and another man sitting alone on the far side. He looked at the man longer than the others. He recognised him and was surprised to see him there.

The man had become something of a perennial presence in Barry’s life over the past couple of years. Their paths had crossed with such habitual regularity that he had been tempted to wonder whether they might be connected in some way. Barry had no car but lived less than a mile from the town centre, so most of the conveniences provided by an urban environment were within manageable walking distance. Even before the development of his present discomfort he had been in the habit of walking somewhere or other nearly every day, and he had encountered the stranger with unusual frequency. It seemed as though their lives were following parallel paths. Even when his mother had been ill in the local hospital, which was a fifteen minute bus ride away, he had gone to visit her one day and the man had been there too, presumably visiting some friend or relative of his own.

They had glanced at each other but never spoken. Barry had felt inclined to speak once or twice, but there was something about the man that he had found discomfiting. His general appearance could be described as “dishevelled” and he carried his head at an odd angle, as though the muscles that should have held it upright were not functioning properly. And there was something about his eyes, something that Barry had never quite put his finger on but which he found disturbing. He had also felt from the outset that the man was familiar, as though he had known him for a long time even though he was sure they had never met.

At that moment he was sitting with his head slightly to one side and apparently staring absent-mindedly at an empty coffee cup. Then he looked up. Barry, not wanting to meet his direct gaze, turned to look out of the window again. A few minutes later he heard a voice.

“Excuse me.”

He turned to see the stranger standing close by and felt uneasy at this sudden escalation to direct contact. The man continued.

“It’s about time we talked.”

His voice had a rough, gravely quality to it, but his diction was sharp and authoritative.

“What about?” asked Barry with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.

“Lots of things – important things. Like how you’re going to get out of your current predicament, for example.”

Barry felt instinctively defensive, but he was too polite to offer a straight cold shoulder and the man’s reference to a “predicament” was intriguing. His reaction was guarded, but he allowed the conversation to continue.

“What predicament?”

The man moved around the table and helped himself to the chair on the opposite side. He pulled it up close and leaned forward.

“Let me tell you two things about yourself. First, you’ve been interested in religion and the supernatural all your life, right? Second, you’re currently experiencing some difficulty over the sense of an unseen presence around you.”

Barry felt stunned for a moment and then asked the obvious question.

“How the hell do you know that?”

“You’d be surprised at what I know about you. I’ve never been very far from you since the day you were born.”

Barry felt even more alarmed. He was sure the man was going to claim to be some sort of guardian angel, and he was tempted to get up and make his escape.

“Don’t worry,” the man continued, “I’m not mad; and if you don’t listen to me you’ll be dead in two weeks.”

The sheer effrontery of such a direct and dramatic statement was breathtaking. Barry sat and said nothing for a moment. He was at a loss to know what to make of this seemingly ludicrous intervention. But the stranger’s manner was compelling, and his apparent knowledge of the “presence” was startling. He decided to stay put and listen, at least for the time being.

“Go on,” he said guardedly.

“Right, let’s start at the beginning and come straight to the point. No doubt you’ve heard of reincarnation?”

“Of course.”

“OK. I’m going to tell you a story that even you will find a bit far-fetched but, believe me, every word is solid gospel.”

There was a pause while the stranger gathered his thoughts and Barry waited with mounting interest. The man continued.

“You and I knew each other very well in a previous life. Well, your previous life to be precise, but I’ll come to that later”

Barry remained suspicious. It isn’t every day that someone you’ve never met helps himself to a place at your table and starts telling you about a previous life, and even goes so far as to forecast your death in a mere two weeks if you don’t listen to him. But it could explain why the man was so familiar, so he continued to indulge him.

“Three hundred years ago you and I were brothers, but we were very different in nature. You were the quiet, studious type. I was the older one and more inclined towards physical action and the simple pleasures of life. You wanted to become a priest, but that occupation was reserved for the gentry and our family wasn’t in that league. We were ordinary country folk living in a village in Suffolk.

“You had no option but to follow the ways of our class and become a farm labourer. But you taught yourself to read and write and became a part time apprentice to a local man who was known to be well versed in the magic arts. By the time you were twenty you had become a powerful practitioner in your own right and used your talents in various ways for the good of the community.

“I, on the other hand, went into soldiering and later took to a life of crime as a highwayman. I would have done anything for money, women and a good time. Although we were brothers, our relationship was distinctly uneasy and we regarded one another with a degree of mutual suspicion.

“In the spring of 1703 I was betrayed by a local girl who had a grudge against me and I was arrested on a charge of highway robbery. I was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. You visited me in prison and I pleaded with you to use your magic skills to save my neck.

“You were reluctant. You said that magic had to be used responsibly; using it to prevent the natural course of justice wasn’t right. But eventually, after much pleading on my part, you agreed. I got the impression that you fancied the challenge. You asked me for some strands of hair, which I gave you, and then you left.

“You didn’t return and the day of the execution arrived. I was taken to the gallows and stood there looking for you in the crowd. When I failed to see you I thought you’d changed your mind and abandoned me to my fate. I rained the vilest curses down on your head. I felt them put the noose about my neck and felt it tighten. A sense of blind panic rose in me as my neck took the weight of my hanging body. I couldn’t breath and kicked and thrashed in mortal terror. I even felt my bodily functions give way. A red mist came in front of my eyes and I was paralysed. I couldn’t move any more.

“Yet I was still conscious. I was aware of being lowered and loaded onto some sort of cart. I could hear the wheels turning for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, I felt my body being lifted and carried somewhere. Then I opened my eyes and saw you looking into my face. You hadn’t let me down and my gratitude knew no bounds. I promised to serve your needs for the rest of our natural lives.

“But there were problems. Firstly, I had to stay hidden. That wasn’t so difficult since we lived in a remote cottage and both our parents were dead. The real problem was what you explained to me a few days after the hanging. The spell you’d used had made me effectively immortal. I couldn’t get sick, I couldn’t be injured, I couldn’t grow old and I couldn’t die.

“At first I was delighted. I felt privileged and special, and knew I could take physical risks without fear. But it didn’t take long for reality to sink in. Having to hide every time anyone came to the cottage made me feel imprisoned. I saw the negative side of being special and felt more like a freak.

“After you died I had to move away. I went to sea for a while, but I wasn’t a natural sailor and tried to settle instead in the anonymity of London. I thought it would be the best place to build a new identity. But I couldn’t have an identity. I had to keep moving on as I knew that people would become suspicious at the fact that I wasn’t ageing. I couldn’t make friends, couldn’t get married, couldn’t keep a job longer than a few years.

“Life became lonely and unstable and I started to regret that I had ever asked you to save my life. It’s continued to become more and more intolerable ever since. Would you mind if I finished this pot of coffee?”

Barry didn’t bother to reply; the man was helping himself anyway. He sat there trying to take the whole thing in while the storyteller got up to fetch a bowl of sugar from the next table. He remained silent while his companion stirred the sugar into his coffee and prepared to continue with the story

“That’s the first part of the story; it explains who I am. Now let me tell you what all this has to do with your dilemma.

“A few years after you saved my life, our old squire died and was succeeded by his son. He was a mean, cruel, selfish little bastard without a moral thought in his head. Soon, everybody’s life became a misery. No woman was safe, he was vicious over the collection of taxes, and he used his status to grab everything he could get whether he was entitled to it or not. And when his status wasn’t enough, he hired vicious thugs to intimidate people.

“One day there was a particularly unsavoury incident involving one of the villagers and a fight developed. The villager’s boy got in the way of the squire’s sword and died as a result. He got away with it, of course. People like him did in those days. Some of them still do, actually; it’s just a bit less obvious these days.

“Anyway, you decided that enough was enough. You’d never used your skills to hurt anybody and never intended to, but this was different. You felt that the man had to be dealt with – and dealt with permanently - and there was no other way of doing it. He was too well protected to consider any physical assault or I’d have murdered him.

“So you prepared the most powerful and dangerous spell you could find, one that you said was rarely used since it plumbed depths that most people were not prepared to go to. It involved calling up a demon to destroy the victim swiftly and surely. But there was a difficulty: it required the acquisition of something personal, like hair or nail clippings. You had no means of access to the manor house, so you resorted to paying one of the squire’s servants to get it for you. Weasly little man, he was; I’d never liked him. But he came up with some hair cuttings and you set about doing the ritual the same night.

“I sat there in the candlelight, watching you draw a circle and mark it with strange characters. You said some words in a foreign language and touched the letters in turn. Then you spent an hour or so making up some foul smelling potion with plants and roots and bits of dead animals, and boiling it in a pan. You walked back into the circle, said some more words and poured bits of the potion onto the ground next to each letter. Finally, you sat cross-legged in the middle and waited.

“I waited too, feeling nervous. I expected something physical and grotesque to appear, but these things don’t work like that. I began to feel a pricking sensation on my skin, and heard a high-pitched clicking sound that was very real but seemed to come from inside my ears rather than outside. Then a fear came over me, a fear so intense that I felt as weak as a kitten and physically sick. I know now that it’s just a matter of energy vibrating on different wavelengths, but all I knew at the time was that I was terrified.

“‘It’s here’ you said. I didn’t need telling. You were quite composed. You took a small piece of parchment that you had put nearby and wrote something on it. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘The appointed date,’ you said. ‘Sunday November 13th, three days from now.’ I asked you why that date. ‘It’s the next full moon,’ you said. ‘Makes the spell stronger.’ I asked why you didn’t wait until November 13th to do it. You told me that the demon needed time to find the victim and attune itself to the different frequencies. Then it could take physical form and tear him apart. You said that it didn’t take as long as three days, but you’d rather be sure. I didn’t know what ‘frequencies’ meant at the time, but I took your word for it. You placed the parchment in a small crucible and burned it. ‘That fixes the date’ you said. ‘Now to fix the squire.’

“You held up the strands of hair and looked at them by the light of a nearby candle. A look of alarm appeared on your face and quickly grew into one of panic. ‘This isn’t the squire’s hair,’ you said. ‘He’s got black hair. This is light brown.’

“You looked severely shaken. You sat and thought for a minute until you realised what must have happened. The servant had obviously made the squire aware of your interest in having something personal - no doubt he got well paid for it. His master, knowing your reputation for magic, had probably realised that you were preparing his demise and turned it to his own advantage. You thought that the hair almost certainly came from some poor girl in the village who was pregnant with his child. It would have suited him to have her out of the way and then, no doubt, he intended to deal with you.

“You decided that you would have to go to the manor house, find a way in and get something personal of the squire’s to replace the hair. We both knew how risky it would be, but you insisted that there was no alternative. ‘You don’t know what will happen if I don’t,’ you said.

“You prepared to leave and I was struck by another thought. I suddenly realised that I would be left alone with the demon while you were away. You told me not to worry. The demon wouldn’t touch anybody until November 13th, and it couldn’t hurt me even then. You left to walk the mile to the manor house and I sat and waited anxiously.

“I never saw you alive again. I woke up the next morning, still sitting in the chair from which I’d watched your preparations. I heard hooves and cartwheels approaching the cottage and ran upstairs to hide. I looked cautiously out of an upstairs window and saw two of the squire’s henchmen throw your body out of the cart right outside the front door. I was devastated, but there was nothing I could do except leave the area. I knew someone would appear shortly to occupy the cottage and dispose of your body, and I would have to be gone. I’ve been wandering the length and breadth of the land ever since.”

Barry sat speechless. It was a good story, but he was sitting in a coffee shop on a wet October afternoon in the twenty first century. He found it hard to believe that he was supposed to take it seriously.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” asked the stranger.

“It’s not that,” stuttered Barry. “Well, I suppose it is really. I mean, come on; am I really supposed to believe you? You must admit, you could be some complete nutter on parole from an asylum. Or somebody from one of those candid camera programmes.”

He knew that neither was likely. He had been seeing the man walking the same streets as him for two years or more. The man remained calm.

“You have to believe me,” he said with an air of quiet certainty, “for both our sakes. I’ve told you most of the story now, but the final bit is what counts. Can we get some more coffee?”

The man had the look of a pauper about him and Barry had a few pounds in his pocket. He called the waitress and ordered a fresh pot. They waited for a few moments while it was being prepared and Barry took to looking out of the window again while he gathered his thoughts. As strange as this whole affair was, he somehow felt deep inside that the story was true and that he really did need to listen to the conclusion. Whether it was instinct, the power of the storyteller, or some deep memory, he couldn’t tell. But a profound sense that the man was genuine grew in him and he awaited the conclusion nervously. The pot arrived and the stranger did the honours. He took a sip of the fresh brew and continued.

“When I left the old cottage in Suffolk, I took your books with me. I knew I couldn’t read them yet, but I also knew that I would have plenty of time to learn. It was many years before I got a job with a kindly employer who agreed to teach me, but eventually I managed it and read both your textbooks and your notes over and over again until I became an expert.

“I also took an interest in the general question of spirituality. When you’ve become physically immortal you feel very drawn to consider the meaning of life. I found myself especially attracted to the eastern doctrines – Hinduism and Buddhism. They made the most sense to me. I learned about reincarnation and realised two things: first, that I was missing out on a pretty vital process; and second, that I had a bargain to keep. I said when you saved me from the gallows that I would serve your needs for the rest of our natural lives.”

Barry interrupted.

“But my natural life was over.”

“Yes,” continued the stranger, “but mine wasn’t, and I knew that you’d be back. I had also learned how vital it was that I found you when you did return.”

“Why ‘vital’?” asked Barry. “And how did you find me anyway?”

“I’ve known a lot of mediums in my time,” replied the man “and one of them was particularly gifted – lived in Edinburgh at the end of the nineteenth century. She was also a powerful white witch and could read the Akashic Records as easily as you and I can read a newspaper. It’s all in there, you know, the past and the future. Fascinating stuff.

“Anyway, she gave me sufficient information regarding the date and place and I was able to get a porter’s job at that cottage hospital - the one where you saw me that day when you were visiting your mother. That’s also where you were born, right? It’s only a small hospital and there were only two babies born on the appointed day. It wasn’t difficult to keep an eye on both until you were old enough for me to recognise you. It surprised me that you looked so like your previous self.”

“So why was it ‘vital’?” Barry asked again.

“Ah, now, when you left to go to the manor house that night, you said that I didn’t know what would happen if you failed to get what you needed. I do now; I’ve read the books.

“There’s a fundamental law that can’t be changed in these matters. If you call up a demon to kill somebody, it can’t return until it’s done just that. It’s been lying dormant since then, waiting to fulfil its purpose. And this is the bit you’re not going to like. The demon can only kill one of two people: the one who’s nominated by the person who called it up, or the caller himself.

“When the squire’s men did for you that night, you’d got to the point of calling the demon and naming the date, but you hadn’t identified the victim. Today is the 27th of October. In just over two weeks it will be Sunday 13th November. By that day you must have nominated someone to be killed by the demon, or it will take you.”

The storyteller fell silent and took another sip of his coffee. Barry sat in a state of speechless consternation for a few minutes. His trust in the man was still being challenged by his rational faculty, and he needed to clear up any lingering questions. He found his voice.

“How did you know that I’ve been troubled by an unseen presence?”

“Because I knew that the demon would have started to become active by now, and that it’s close enough to the physical world for its presence to be felt.”

“But why now? There must have been several Sunday 13th Novembers since I was born.”

“Yes, but this is the first one to coincide with the full moon. That was a vital part of the original date, if you remember. Am I right in assuming that you’ve been feeling this presence for ten or eleven days?”

Barry couldn’t remember the exact date of the first occurrence, but it had been about then. He nodded.

“That was the time of the last full moon. The demon would have started to stir then, in preparation for the appointed day. It will continue to get stronger day by day until the 13th when it will materialise and finish the job.”

Barry didn’t want to believe it and was inclined to scoff. But the inner voice was too strong. Somehow he knew that the man was telling the truth. During the unfolding of the story he had experienced occasional and fleeting glimpses of recognition, and he knew that he had no option but to face one of two terrible options. Obviously he was terrified at the prospect of being torn apart by some hideous creature, but the alternative was unthinkable too. He was appalled at the choice he would have to make. He looked at his companion who was quietly drinking his coffee.

“I can’t condemn some innocent person to death,” he said hopelessly. “How would I live with myself if I did? Besides, you’ve studied spirituality as much as I have - probably more. You must be aware of the doctrine of karma. What would it do for mine if I had somebody killed?”

The stranger looked at him earnestly and managed a half smile.

“That needn’t be a problem,” he said. “There is one person you could nominate without incurring karmic debt.”

A glimmer of understanding stirred in Barry, but he asked the question anyway.

“Who?”

“Me. I should have died three centuries ago, but didn’t because of your intervention. You would merely be putting that to rights. I said earlier that I’m missing out on a most important process. I’m desperate to resume my proper journey like everybody else. I’m sick of this artificial life and I need to get back on track. You’d be doing me a massive favour.”

Barry stared at him, his sense of astonishment compounded by confusion.

“But I thought you said you couldn’t die?”

“Not at the hands of anything from this world, no. But the demon is something else. Even though it takes physical form to do the job, its strength comes from something far deeper and infinitely more powerful. As far as I know – and I’ve had three hundred years to think about it – it’s my only way out.”

“But it would be a hideous death.”

The stranger shrugged his shoulders.

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure it would be all over in a matter of seconds. It would be quicker than the hanging.”

They both fell silent for some time, one drinking coffee with little apparent concern, the other writhing inside from a confused mixture of emotions ranging from fear to guilt to sheer bemusement. By now, however, the stranger’s manner had convinced Barry that the story was true. He resigned himself to the inevitable and spoke quietly.

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

The stranger looked relieved.

“Good. That’s settled then,” he said. He drained his coffee cup and rose to leave. “I’ve still got your old crucible. I put it in the bag with your books when I left the cottage. You don’t need anything else apparently; all the rest was done back then and it’s still in force. As long as you burn some bit of me in the same vessel that burned the parchment, that’ll do. I know where you live. I’ll be round tomorrow night and we can get on with it.”

He walked away without another word.

Barry was left to sit alone and ponder this momentous encroachment on what, until ten or eleven days ago, had been a quiet and relatively untroubled life. He looked at the empty chair opposite and the coffee-soiled cup on the table. He felt a curious sense of loss, as though the man had always been there but had now left him for good.

The feeling passed quickly and a sense of doubt started to creep back. The episode with the stranger began to take on the quality of a dream and his story seemed less and less credible. But not completely. A nagging inner voice kept telling him that it was all true and that he had to act.

He became aware that he was the only one left in the coffee shop apart from a single waitress who was clearing the tables. It was closing time. He got up, paid his bill and left. He completed the necessary formality of his shopping and trudged home through the depressingly wet streets.

It was six thirty and almost dark. The countless exhaust pipes of cars queuing at road junctions belched clouds of vapour into the damp air and Barry hurried on, anxious to reach the dry and brightly lit sanctuary of his living room. In his anxiety at contemplating the necessity to end a man’s life, he had quite forgotten the presence that had been troubling him. He remembered it as soon as his key went into the lock.

He felt a thrill of fear ripple down his body as he shut the front door and hurried to put the light on. He looked around anxiously, half expecting to see some physical evidence of the demon. There was nothing out of place; everything was as he had left it earlier. But the combination of his recent experiences and the stranger’s story had fully convinced him of the reality of the beast. The thought of being alone in the house with such a companion was nerve wracking, but he knew there was no escaping it. Wherever he went, the demon would be close by his heels. Nevertheless, he did resolve to sleep downstairs with the light on until this business was over.

He had no heart for cooking that evening, but a combination of habit and the will to preserve such elements of normality as he could manage persuaded him to prepare a quick snack. His living room was chilly and he switched on his old gas fire before settling on the sofa with his meal. “Settling” is hardly the right word. There would be no more settling until this matter was resolved.

He sat forward on the seat and perched his plate precariously on his knees. His reluctance to sit back comfortably stemmed partly from an anxious frame of mind, and partly from an irrational suspicion that he might find himself resting against something large and unseen.

He switched on the television to try and divert his mind from the coming ordeal. As he flicked the buttons on his remote control, he heard a loud exhale of breath close by his left ear. He felt the hairs at the back of his neck stand up. He froze for a second, then turned quickly to look behind him. He saw only the wall and the bookcase. Selfishly, he felt relieved that the stranger would soon be taking his unwanted visitor out of his life. For the next twenty four hours though, he faced the prospect of sharing his house with something that he now knew to be hideous and homicidal. He began to count down the hours until the stranger would call and release him.

The evening wore on and there were no further brushes with unseen beings. He shifted his position to an armchair from which there was a more comprehensive view of the room and the two doors that led off it. He kept the television on the whole time. None of the programmes interested him, but the constant sound and moving pictures provided some small distraction from his obsessive need to wonder where the demon was.

He pulled his legs up onto the chair in case it was sitting at his feet. When the need came to visit the lavatory, he did so slowly in the hope that it would give the beast sufficient opportunity to move out of the way. When he washed his dishes he avoided looking back through the living room door as he feared that he might see a shadow cross the wall.

By midnight he was beginning to feel sleepy, but fought it back as he suspected that it would make him somehow more vulnerable. Eventually, he fell naturally into an uncomfortable slumber sitting sideways on the armchair, his legs pulled up to his chest and his hands tucked securely between his side and the back of the seat.

It was three o’clock when he was woken sharply by a clattering sound that he thought had come from the kitchen. The lights, the gas fire and the television were still on. The room felt hot and oppressive. He looked fearfully at the door that led into the kitchen and prayed inwardly that it wouldn’t move. It didn’t. He walked nervously across the living room and peered around it. The kitchen was empty, but there was an unpleasant smell in the air. Something rotting, or bad eggs perhaps; it was too faint to be certain. He looked in the cupboard where he kept his saucepans and found that a set of lids that had been balanced on top of a nest of mixing bowls had slipped off. It had happened before and Barry felt relieved. And then he wondered: had they fallen or had they been knocked? He told himself that it was easy to fall prey to paranoia in this situation and chose to assume the more mundane explanation.

He returned to his living room and was struck by the fact that the smell was stronger in there. Definitely rotting eggs - hydrogen sulphide. It was the smell of sulphur or, as it used to be called, brimstone. Barry remembered the stranger’s words: “It will continue to get stronger day by day.”

He began to fear the possibility that the man would change his mind and not turn up. The thought that his diabolical companion would become more apparent each day – and night – didn’t bear too much contemplation. And the prospect of what might lie in store on Sunday 13th November had to be kept firmly out of the picture, however much it tried to intrude. He told himself that he could trust the man. It must be pretty awful, living for three hundred years with no prospect of release. Of course he would come. He had to; he wanted to.

There was no possibility of going back to sleep. He sat in his armchair feeling an uncomfortable mixture of boredom and apprehension as he waited for morning to break. He felt better when he was able to open the curtains and look out on a wider world. He knew that the demon was still close, but it seemed less menacing than when he had been closeted with it in a curtained room inside a house shrouded by the darkness of night. He took a shower, made some breakfast, and then went out for the day.

He walked the streets close to where he lived, browsed the shelves of the library, wandered in and out of shops, sat in the park, and walked the streets on the other side of town. He even went back to the coffee shop in the pointless hope that he might meet the stranger there again and foreshorten his wait. He thought he might bump into him in Woolworth’s, or in the park, or on the road that led to the station. He didn’t. Eventually he became aware that the streets of the town were emptying and the darkness was closing in. It was time to go home and wait for his visitor.

His step was quickened by a growing sense of excitement and anticipation as he walked home. It would soon be over, he told himself. The feeling reminded him of how he had felt walking home on Christmas Eve as a child. But any sense of excited anticipation comes at a price. The greater it is, the greater the fear of potential disappointment should something go wrong. Supposing Santa Claus doesn’t turn up this year. If that fear had been bad as a child, this was very much worse.

It was dark by the time he turned the key in his front door lock. He opened the door fully in order to allow as much light as possible to spill in from the well-lit urban street. He dreaded going through the hall and opening the door to his living room. The demon would be stronger today than it had been yesterday, and he feared that there might be physical signs of its presence. He expected to smell its sulphurous breath. He thought he might find scratches on the paintwork, or a tear in the upholstery. He feared the prospect of touching it as he reached through the door to switch on the light. He walked nervously towards the door that led into his living room.

He hesitated for a second, and then he heard a noise that was unmistakeable. The swish of expelled air and the quiet twang of an upholstery spring. He had heard it many times when someone had sat on his sofa. He had no doubt as to the identity of tonight’s occupant. Fear welled up in him and his pulse raced.

He stood in front of the door, wracked with uncertainty. He considered leaving the house again and waiting for the stranger from the relative safety of the front doorstep. But then he reasoned that the creature couldn’t be visible yet; it wasn’t supposed to materialise for another two weeks.

He reached through the gap quickly and flicked on the light. He pushed the door open slowly and peered around it to look into the room. For a brief moment he saw nothing and felt relieved. Then a head rose above the back of the sofa and he jumped back against the wall in terror. He soon recognised the face of the man from the coffee shop who had been lying down, apparently quite at ease.

“Hello,” said the intruder. “Sorry if I startled you.”

Barry stood and collected his thoughts for a few seconds, still breathing hard. Relief and anger cancelled each other out and he quietly asked the man how the hell he had got in.

“You’d left the key out of the back door lock. How big a challenge do you think a four-lever mortice lock is to a practised hand? When I came round and you weren’t here, I thought you wouldn’t mind if I let myself in.”

“You might have put the bloody light on,” said Barry. “How the hell could you sit here in a darkened room with this demon around?”

“It wasn’t,” said the man. “It’s been with you all day. It’s not here to guard the house, you know.”

The stranger was right. Barry didn’t need much reminding as to why it was here. He went though to the kitchen and put the kettle on.

“Coffee?” he called.

“Please.”

He made two mugs of instant coffee, handed one to his companion and sat carefully in his armchair. He tried to make a little polite conversation but the man came straight to the point.

“What you really want to know is whether I’ve brought the necessary bits and pieces,” he said.

Barry felt guilty and said nothing. The man reached into a backpack that was lying on the floor in front of him and took out a heavy iron bowl. He handed it to Barry. Holding it brought more fleeting memories into Barry’s mind, memories of a dingy cottage with a straw covered floor, of candlelight illuminating a smoky atmosphere, of strange words and symbols - all dark, and none of them long or substantial enough to grasp and hold onto. The man handed him a small polythene bag containing some strands of hair.

“Fresh cut this morning,” he said. “Shall we get on with it?”

“You seem in a hurry,” said Barry, trying to salve a growing sense of sickening guilt at what he was about to do.

“You know why,” said the man.

Barry took the hair out of its incongruous modern receptacle and placed it in the ancient crucible. His sense of guilt reached crisis point.

“I don’t know that I can do this,” he said.

“You know you don’t have a choice,” said his victim, “and it’s what I want.”

Barry did know it, and decided to end the matter quickly.

“So all I have to do is burn the hair in this crucible and it’s all over?”

“That’s it.”

He placed the vessel on the shelf above the fireplace and took up a box of matches that he kept on the hearth. His nervous fingers fumbled awkwardly to remove a single match, which he struck with a shaking hand. It went out. He threw it peevishly into the hearth and removed another. This one he struck with the head facing downwards and the phosphor crackled confidently into life. He looked at the stranger who nodded once. Barry touched the hair with the lighted match and recoiled as it shrivelled to nothing in seconds. He recoiled again as he felt something stir around his feet, something like a sudden gust of air but more solid. The stranger rose.

“Thanks,” was all he said.

He picked up his backpack and threw it across one shoulder. He held out his hand and Barry shook it reluctantly. He felt a deep sense of shame.

“I’ll go out the front way. You can go to bed in peace tonight. You won’t see me again, nor our little friend. Till the next life, eh?”

That the man could make such light of the situation was astonishing, but he could understand why. He heard the front door shut and felt profoundly alone.

Over the next few days Barry’s life and mental state returned to something like normal. Despite all that had happened he began to feel increasingly doubtful of the whole story of demons and reincarnation, and half convinced himself that it had all been some elaborate practical joke. He couldn’t see what the point of it might have been, and he couldn’t entirely ignore the fact that his visitations had ceased; but he told himself that they had been just the workings of an overactive imagination fuelled by boredom. He soon slipped back into his accustomed daily routines.

As the days of early November progressed, however, a sense of anxiety started to grow again and he became increasingly ill at ease. It got worse as each day passed. Throughout Saturday 12th he was consumed by constant reminders that there was only a day to go. One way or another, he would soon know the truth, and the prospect of finding out made him weak with nervous anticipation.

On Sunday morning the events of those twelve days in October rushed back into his mind with a vengeance. He felt a sudden resurgence of his old conviction that it was all true. He felt guilty and cowardly at the thought of what the stranger might have to endure some time that day, and he felt fearful for himself too. Suppose the spell hadn’t worked and the demon was about to make a terrifyingly physical reappearance in his own life.

He ate nothing all day. He started at every unusual sound. He felt unable to do anything that might take his mind off the matter as he felt an illogical need to remain prepared - as though it would make any difference. By the time night fell he was in a state of distraction and sat in his armchair for the next seven hours, terrified at the prospect of what might suddenly appear in front of him – or what, at any moment, might be attacking its victim.

When midnight finally arrived he felt an irreconcilable mixture of emotions. Massive relief was countered by sickening guilt. He alone had been responsible for bringing that diabolical creature into the world, and somebody had probably suffered horribly as a result. A profound sense of fatigue mercifully overwhelmed him and he went to bed.

Despite his tiredness, he slept fitfully and was wide awake again at six o’clock the next morning. He was desperate to know whether the demon had done its work, but there was no way of finding out except to wait for a news report. He knew that if the deed had been done, it could have happened anywhere. The stranger might have gone to some remote spot at the other end of the country. Or he could have lived alone, so his body might lie undiscovered for weeks.

Barry switched on his television and scanned the Ceefax and Teletext news pages. He wasn’t surprised that there was nothing about the discovery of a mutilated body. This could take a long time. He might never find out at all. He was uncertain whether that was a good or a bad thing.

He decided to go out, and took himself as usual to the town centre. He did all the things that people with excess time on their hands habitually do in towns. He was no stranger to that. At one point he considered going into the coffee shop again, but decided that it would be irreverent and distressing. He didn’t want to be reminded of the stranger and that fateful day when he had heard the man’s story. He felt guilty enough as it was.

By three o’clock his feet were tired from excessive walking, and his interest in the limited opportunities provided by the small town was exhausted. He decided to go home and bought the early edition of the local paper. He glanced over the front page as he walked. And there it was, boldly laid out as the headline item. There was no wait after all.

In brief, the report said that at eleven fifteen the previous night a man walking home along the towpath of the canal had discovered a body under one of the road bridges. It had been identified as that of Terence Alan Dyche, a forty-year-old labourer who lived nearby. The body had been severely mutilated and police were refusing to comment on the possible nature of the attack until they received the pathologist’s report.

Barry knew that there would be no point in telling his story to the police. They, the pathologist and the coroner would have to come to whatever conclusion their limited knowledge would allow. He realised that it was the first time that he had heard the stranger’s name. He thought it odd that it had never been offered and that he had never bothered to ask. It just hadn’t seemed necessary.

He walked home, feeling the same confused mixture of emotions to which he had recently become only too accustomed. He made a conscious decision that he should start putting the whole incident behind him and get on with his life. And then he received the letter.

It was contained in a small, sealed envelope that was lying on the front door mat when he went downstairs on Tuesday morning. The fact that the envelope was unstamped and included no address could only mean that it had been delivered by hand some time before he got up. He was intrigued and read it immediately. When he had finished, he slumped into his armchair feeling sick and betrayed. He knew that this business wasn’t over yet. One day there would be repercussions. Maybe not for a long time, but one day; the law of karma would see to that. The letter read:

Hello brother,

Before I take my leave of you for good, at least in this life, I thought I should put the record straight on a couple of points, just so that you’re under no illusions.
Firstly, everything I told you in the coffee shop that day was true – except for one thing. I love life and don’t want to die yet. I never tire of the fun I can have knowing that I can’t age and can’t get injured. Sorry about the fib, but it was necessary to my purpose.
Secondly, there was something I omitted to mention. In my studies I discovered something that you probably know about too: groups of people often reincarnate together, especially those with karmic debts to settle. When my friendly witch located the time and place of your birth, I also asked her to track that bastard of a squire. Lo and behold, he was born a few years before you, and even grew up on the same estate. Can you believe it? His name was Terry Dyche and I made sure that we became friends. Well, he thought we were friends. He obviously had no idea as to what my real agenda was. I’ve been sharing a flat with him for the last three years.
I realised, long before either of you were born, that I could kill two birds with one stone. I knew that the demon you called up to kill the squire would be waiting in the wings until the day when it could finish the job. I also knew that it would kill you unless I intervened. So I could keep my bargain to protect you, and see the squire get his just desserts in the process. I’m sure you will have guessed by now that it was his hair I gave you. Poetic justice, eh?
I followed him at a distance all day on Sunday. I wanted to see what would happen. When he went to the pub that night, I was fascinated by the prospect of it happening in a crowded room. That would have been pretty interesting, wouldn’t it? But your little pet – actually, it was rather big – was more subtle. I followed Terry along the towpath when he staggered home and began to wonder whether something might have gone wrong. It was eleven o’clock, so there was only an hour to go. Then he went under that bridge and I saw the thing rise up in front of him.
God, it was awful. It slashed his throat first so that he couldn’t cry out. Then it pulled him apart, like a kid pulling the legs off a spider. Hideous, but he had it coming. I wonder what the coroner will make of it.
Anyway, the demon’s back in its kennel now, wherever that is, so you can relax. And I’m off on my travels. I’ll probably look you up again in your next life. You might be able to help me get my own back on that stupid little tart who got me hanged if I can manage to locate her.
Until then, have fun. And thanks for the coffee.

Your immortal brother

Barry sat languidly in his armchair for a full half hour, his mind and body numbed by the weight of responsibility and fear for the future. Then he threw the letter into the bin and tried not to dwell on the unthinkable.

About Me

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



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