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.

October 01, 2010

Peter Pallister's Pool

This is perhaps a little more subtle than most of my stories. It’s enigmatic; it asks questions without giving the answers. One reviewer found it unsatisfactory, but I wanted it that way because that’s how life is.

The pool exists, by the way, just as described, near Hucknall on the northern outskirts of Nottingham. The story was first published in a print anthology called Ten Plagues in 2006.

Approximate reading time: 20 minutes.

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

I stood on top of the earthen embankment, wondering what to make of the strange pool that filled a large hollow in the land some two or three yards below the level of my feet.

The sight of it was little short of surreal, and I might have been forgiven for not realising that it was a pool at all. There was no water to be seen, just a vivid green coating of something that I supposed was algae. It stretched solidly from side to side and end to end of the oval depression, unmoved by the efforts of the gentle summer breeze. There were no aquatic plants nudging leaves or flowers above the mantle, nor any growing around the fringes. Two things convinced me that a body of presumably stagnant water festered beneath the lurid green blanket.

There were the tall remnants of trees – fifteen to twenty of them - that thrust like skeletal appendages above the surface. All were denuded of bark and branches, and could have been the blasted remains of some Great War battlefield. And my eye was caught by the sight of a wild duck making its way slowly through the emerald sludge. Behind it stretched a narrow wake; a thin black line that lengthened slowly as the bird forced its way laboriously from one side to the other. It was the only sight of the water I ever had.

The strange scene looked alien and unwholesome. It had an air of suffocation and deadness about it. There was no sense of decay, for decay implies life of a sort and, apart from the solitary, struggling bird, there appeared to be no life here at all. The effect was made all the more striking by the fact that it was the size of a football pitch, and lay deep within a perfectly ordinary, vibrant area of old English woodland just beyond the outskirts of Nottingham. It would have looked more at home on some long-mortified planet, or maybe the set of a science fiction film.

Two of the public footpaths that ran through the wood traversed two sides of the pool and were frequented by nearby residents out walking their dogs. Being recently arrived in the area, I asked one of the dog walkers whether she knew the history of this miniature piece of Dorean landscape. Her reply was disappointingly mundane. It was known locally as “Peter’s Pool” she said, and she’d heard that it had been formed some time in the early years of the twentieth century when a mine shaft from a nearby colliery had collapsed. The depression had filled with ground water which had become, and remained, stagnant due to there being no natural feeder stream.

“Why is it called Peter’s Pool?” I asked. “Who was Peter?”

“No idea,” she replied. “The man who owned the land I expect.”

It struck me as odd that there was still so much water there. It was early August and the summer had been a dry one. The surrounding landscape was flat and lay slightly below the crown of the wood, which was on a low crest. I found it hard to believe that ground water could have kept the pool fed through the long dry months.

“You’d think it would dry up in the summer, wouldn’t you?” I continued.

“Suppose so,” she said. “Never really thought about it. Mr Perkins could probably tell you more. He’s lived here all his life and what he doesn’t know about the area isn’t worth knowing. Lives at the Mill House, just off the main road on the other side of the wood. He’s a dotty old soul – must be ninety if he’s a day – but he’s pleasant enough, and loves to talk to any body who’s interested in the area.”

I knocked on Mr Perkins’ door a few days later. I was greeted by an elderly man who did not fit my image of the description “dotty”; neither did he look to be ninety years of age. I was right on the first count and wrong on the second – I subsequently discovered that he was, in fact, ninety one.

I introduced myself and explained my interest in the pool, offering the customary, polite apology for troubling him. He didn’t appear troubled. On the contrary, he seemed pleased that I should have troubled myself to seek his knowledge on the matter. His wrinkled eyes creased a little more and his mouth lifted to an enigmatic smile. He stood aside and beckoned me in.

I could have been stepping into a time warp, or at least the preserved and gentrified residence of some nineteenth century celebrity whose home had been turned into a museum. First impressions indicated that nothing in the hall was younger than Victorian.

I followed him into a large sitting room and it was the same in there. The room was heavy with the atmosphere of dark Victorian oak, from the panelling on the walls to the highly-ornamented, wooden fire surround. Two elderly leather armchairs stood either side of the open fireplace, and an even more ancient chaise longue stood against one wall in a place that looked ill-fitted to practical use. The large mirror over the fireplace, the paintings, and the ornaments all attested to a style that is much copied these days, but rarely so well preserved in its original form. And there was a smell of beeswax in the air, which reminded me of my childhood.

My host offered me tea which I declined. We took an armchair each and then he began to fill an old briar pipe from a tobacco pouch.

“You won’t mind me smoking, will you?” he asked without interrupting his activity. “You look old enough to be used to it.”

I smiled and shook my head. He lit the pipe and blew out copious clouds of aromatic smoke that mingled easily with the beeswax. That smell, too, reminded me of my childhood and further complimented the ancient eccentricity of the surroundings.

“So you want to know about Peter’s Pool, eh?” he said, settling back against the cushions of his chair. He smiled his enigmatic smile again and turned his eyes towards me whilst continuing to face the fireplace.

“I never go near the place,” he continued. “Never did, even when I was a youngster. None of us did, come to that. Something bad about it - unsavoury. ‘Bad vibes’ I think they call it these days - that’ll do.

“The younger folks around here say it was made when a mine shaft collapsed about a hundred years ago. Don’t know where that came from. Somebody suggested it I suppose, and it stuck. It’s rubbish of course. I’ve seen old land deeds dating back to medieval times and that pool’s shown on them. It was on the squire’s land in those days and is marked as a fish pond. Can you imagine any fish living in it now? Horrible, lifeless place it is. I’m told the odd duck still uses it, but I wouldn’t know. As I said, I never go there.

“According to the deeds though, it was a lot smaller then – more of a big pond. And the map shows a stream that fed it, then the water drained off underground and into the main stream that comes down here to the mill. It also used to be by the roadside in those days. Have you noticed how the main road sweeps around that corner of the wood, before curving back to run past this place and then up to the village? That bit was only built just after the First World War. I remember them doing it. Before that, the road used to go through the wood. The line it took is that wide footpath that runs along the eastern edge of the pool.”

“So why’s it called Peter’s Pool, and how does it manage to survive now there’s no feeder stream?” I asked.

The old man chuckled and gave me another of his smiles. This one looked slightly mischievous. He relit his pipe while the massive grandfather clock that I’d noticed in the hall gave three loud chimes to remind me of the quaintly anachronistic quality of my surroundings.

“Ah, now, that’s the interesting bit,” he continued. “Nobody knows who Peter was – officially, that is. And, as for why it’s still got water in it, as far as I know nobody’s ever made any serious effort to find out. I’ve heard it said that it must be fed by underground springs, but that doesn’t make any sense; there’s nowhere near enough land above it in my opinion.”

There was another brief pause while he took several strong puffs on his pipe, reigniting the dark tobacco in the bowl. A couple of sparks flew out and he hurriedly brought a slippered foot down on one that had fallen on the hearthrug.

“So,” he said suddenly, “I’m sticking with the story that was given to me by my grandmother at the time they were building the new road.”

He turned his head fully towards me and thrust it forward slightly.

“Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course,” I replied, wondering why he had asked me so pointedly. That was, after all, why I was there.

“Very well,” he said, and shifted his position to be more comfortable. “It’s a strange story, mind you. You can please yourself whether to believe it or not. I don’t rule anything out. If there’s one thing that ninety one years on this planet has taught me, it’s that a hell of a lot of things in life are pretty damn strange.

“My grandmother knew why it was called Peter’s Pool, or so she said. The story had been told to her by her grandparents when she was a girl. They’d known a family called the Pallisters whose ancestors had been smallholders around here going way back. It seems that the story had been passed from generation to generation in their family for a couple of hundred years. They didn’t have any children of their own, but they regarded my great grandfather as a sort of surrogate son and told the story to him. If they hadn’t, I suppose it would have died with them.

“It seems there’d been a distant uncle, back in the seventeenth century, called Peter Pallister. He was regarded as the village idiot – I suppose we’d say he had ‘learning difficulties’ these days and send him to a special school. He was physically frail and had a speech impediment that made him difficult to understand.

“The local squire had four sons, the two youngest of which were of similar age to Peter and used to bully him mercilessly at every opportunity. Nobody dared intervene, of course, because of who their father was. Despite needing his help around the farm, Peter’s parents kept him in the house as much as possible to protect him from the whippings and kickings he would get at the hands of the squire’s boys.

“Peter used to go out after dark and told his parents that he went to sit by the fish pond where he could ‘talk with God.’ They kept this fact secret from their neighbours, fearing that he’d be accused of consorting with demons or suchlike. That sort of accusation wasn’t uncommon then and could have very serious consequences. And it was a good job they did, given the nature of subsequent events.

“Peter was around eleven or twelve when the Civil War broke out in 1642. King Charles raised his standard in Nottingham and the squire formed a troop of horse from the local population and went off to fight on the Royalist side, taking his two older sons with him. The younger two were left at home with their mother.

“That caused a problem for the Pallisters. The men going off to war with the squire had left a shortage of labour and Peter’s help was needed to make up the shortfall. Being out and about during daylight, it wasn’t long before the squire’s lads started to bully him again. It seems that Peter took their treatment as well as he could, but he carried on going to the pool every night at around dusk and staying until after dark. I suppose he just wanted some peace and solitude.

“One night his parents became worried when he was late coming home. When he did arrive, he was drenched from head to foot. His speech was even more unintelligible than usual owing to the fact that he was shivering so much, but his parents understood him to say something about the squire’s boys. They assumed that the two young delinquents had encountered Peter by the pool and given him a ducking. He was dried and put to bed, and his parents thought nothing more about it until the following day.

“Early the next morning they saw something of a commotion going on and learned that two bodies had been seen floating in the fish pond. Everyone started heading in that direction and the Pallisters followed suit. Peter had a slight fever and they thought it best to leave him at home in bed.

“When they arrived at the pond, everyone stood in amazement at the sight that greeted them. The water level had risen so much that what had been an irregular shaped pond had grown into a large, oval pool that filled the hollow in which it lay. The lower parts of the nearby trees were all under water and the leaves were already starting to shrivel, even though it was only early September. But the thing that most startled them was the colour of the water. It was a dull but very definite red. One of the men dipped a finger in and touched his tongue.

‘Blood,’ he said. ‘Definitely blood.’

“Two of the squire’s older retainers had already got the fishing boat onto the pool and were just pulling one of the bodies aboard. The other one still floated face down in the water. No one had any doubt as to their identity.

“It was assumed that the blood in the water must have come from massive wounds to the bodies of the two boys. It was subsequently found, however, that they were quite unmarked in any way, and the cause of death was pronounced as drowning – which everyone found surprising since the two boys were known to be competent swimmers.

“But then somebody noticed something else odd. The stream that had fed the fish pond had dried up. A check was made at the spot where the pond was known to empty into the main stream, expecting to find the water there discoloured. It was as clear as usual, so it seemed that the outlet had somehow become blocked too.

“The Pallisters hurried home to question Peter. He was sitting up in bed, staring blankly at the opposite wall and still trembling slightly. But he was able to tell them his version of the previous night’s events.

“He said that he’d been sitting by the pool just as dusk was falling, when the squire’s boys had appeared and started their usual bullying. In an effort to escape them, he’d waded into the pool and stood up to his chest in water, hoping they would go away. They hadn’t. They’d walked around the pool goading him and making threats, telling him that he’d have to come out eventually and giving him chapter and verse on what they were going to do to him when he did.

“Peter stayed in the water and the two boys eventually decided to wade in after him. They came at him from two sides and Peter was forced to swim as fast as he could to the far end of the pond. As he was climbing out, he said, he heard a loud crack from the sky. He insisted that it didn’t sound like thunder, but something louder and sharper. He turned to see how far behind him his tormentors were. Despite being nearly dark, there was still enough light to see two human shapes floating on the surface of the water.

“His parents decided that Peter’s story was nothing more than an imaginative ramble born of his fever, but they kept it to themselves anyway. Nobody else in the village was ever told the story.”

Mr Perkins stopped to knock out the remains of his burned tobacco and began to refill the bowl.

“So what happened to Peter?” I asked as he lit the pipe afresh. “And it still doesn’t explain why the pool was named after him, if none of the locals knew about the episode with the boys.”

“Ah, well,” he said, surrounded by a fresh cloud of pungent smoke, “there’s more to come yet.

“The story has it that the water level didn’t go down, and it stayed red; and all attempts to catch fish there proved unsuccessful – not surprising, since countless dead ones were found floating on the surface the day after the boys were discovered.

“It seemed that everything in the pool had simply died away. The submerged trees dropped all their leave over the space of a couple of weeks and they were soon dead too. The following month the squire and both his sons were killed on the battlefield at Edgehill, and the bereaved wife and mother passed away from a broken heart – as is usually the case in stories of this sort.”

The old man uttered a quiet chuckle that sounded almost vindictive. It startled me slightly, but then he continued.

“As for Peter, he took to sitting by the pool day after day, staring at the surface and uttering incoherent mumblings in the direction of the red water. He continued to do so during the autumn, the winter and into the following spring. That was what caused the locals to start calling the place ‘Peter’s Pool.’

“And then he disappeared – simply didn’t come home one night. His parents feared that that he’d drowned, but the pool was dragged and they came up with nothing. He was never seen again and the parents eventually had more children, telling them the full story but swearing them to secrecy. They were only allowed to pass it on to their own children. But two other strange things had happened subsequent to Peter’s disappearance.

“One spring morning – the story has it that it was the day after Peter went missing, but that sounds a bit too convenient, don’t you think – the algae suddenly appeared on the surface of the pool. The locals said that it was God’s work, covering the blood-red water and its bad associations with a mantle of wholesome green.

“The other was that the miller claimed that his house had acquired a ghost – this house, of course; or at least the original that was subsequently built over. He said that he never saw anything directly, just fleeting glimpses through gaps at the edges of doors, or out of the corner of his eye. And he often heard a voice muttering something unintelligible from distant parts of the house.”

Mr Perkins paused again to relight his pipe. I took the opportunity to ask the obvious question.

“Have you ever seen or heard anything here?”

He smiled again and threw his match into the grate.

“Oh, I don’t know that I believe in such things, do you? There is an interesting little postscript, however.

“About thirty years after all this happened – said to have happened, I suppose I should say – an old lady in the village was accused of being a witch during one of the Puritan purges that were going on. Believe it or not, she was a direct ancestor of mine. It seems she had something of a reputation as a seer and maker of herbal medicines.

“They set up a ducking stool by the side of the old fishpond and, as was the way with those things, she sealed her ultimate fate by surviving several immersions in the water. The impeccable logic of the time pronounced her guilt proven and she was sentenced to death. She received visits from her family while she was awaiting the fateful day, and expressly asked to see Peter’s parents who were getting old themselves by then.

“They went to see her and she told them that whilst she was undergoing the ordeal at the pool, she’d had a clear vision of what had happened to their son. She saw the events of the night when the two boys had drowned. She recognised that Peter, frail as he was physically, was possessed of great psychic energy, and that this had caused the intervention of some supernatural agency to effect his release from the tormenting boys.

“Throughout the following months he’d spent his time sitting by the pool racked with guilt, knowing that he would have to pay for his misdeed some day. He toyed with the idea of drowning himself in the same place as his ‘victims,’ but decided against it. It seems he wanted his parents to be spared the grief of having his body found.

“Instead, he went to the nearby stream, which was a lot wider and deeper in those days of course, and threw himself in there. He wanted to be taken far away so that his death would remain hidden from his family. He wasn’t taken far away, however. He was taken to the mill race and the old lady said that she saw him being carried around and around by the mill wheel, hanging on with one arm and getting repeated duckings with each revolution. And then she saw him leap off the wheel and onto the ledge of an open doorway in the outer wall. He disappeared inside and that was the last she saw of him. Finally, she said she knew that his soul would be trapped there for as long as the old fishpond had water in it. That was his penance.

“Very dramatic, eh? Fanciful, no doubt. The fact is, however, Peter’s body was never found. Or so the story has it.”

The old man went silent for a few moments and I could think of nothing meaningful to offer.

“So,” he said eventually, “that’s the story of Peter’s Pool. Would you like some tea now?”

I declined again. The heavy atmosphere of the room, the pungent scent of the pipe smoke, and the curious tale of Peter’s misadventures had left me feeling oddly uncomfortable. And I was experiencing a prickly sense that I was being watched from the direction of the door. I had no doubt that the epilogue, involving Peter’s supposed spiritual incarceration in the very house in which I was sitting, had simply stirred my imagination.

But I had also developed a seemingly unwarranted dislike of the old man. He was affable and polite enough – the very model of an old fashioned gentleman. And yet there was something about his manner that seemed darkly mischievous, if not overtly malevolent. An inner sense of mistrust had begun to stir within me, and I felt that I wanted to be away from his presence and out of his house. There was a suffocating deadness about that too. And I felt that he knew more than he was revealing. How that might be, I had no idea. I decided against the temptation to invent fanciful notions, but I felt that he had been toying with me.

And so I took my leave politely. Mr Perkins showed me out with the sort of customary grace you would expect of such a man. I suppose he was well practiced. I heard the front door shut quietly behind me and looked around as I walked down the gravel drive. I glanced at one of the upstairs windows and knew, with no serious consideration of doubt, that the boy’s face that I thought I saw briefly looking out at me was just a trick of the light and further evidence of an overblown imagination. The fact that I had still discovered no credible reason for the pool retaining its water through the summer was surely no more than coincidental.

Despite the comforting warmth of the late afternoon sun, I felt troubled as I turned out of the Mill House gate to walk back down the main road. I passed over the bridge where the stream ran under the road and looked at the wall where the mill wheel would have been placed. There was no sign of a door onto which anyone could have leapt, but then there was no evidence of the original wall either. The current house had been rebuilt of red brick, probably in the Georgian period judging by its elegant lines.

I saw a face again, watching me from one of the side windows. There was no doubting the identity of this one. It was old Mr Perkins smiling that enigmatic smile of his. We looked at one other for a moment, and then I turned away to walk home.

A strange sense of certainty settled into my mind, a conviction that there really was more to the old man and his biblical tale of supernatural intervention and the turning of water to blood than met the eye. It had seemed so personal to him. There had been a subtle but distinct note of triumph in his attitude when he had told of the death of the squire’s widow. And he had recounted the story in such detail, despite his assertion that he had never told it to anyone else.

And I found it troubling that he had chosen to tell it to me. Why me? The tale was supposed to be restricted to the natural or adopted line of the Pallisters. What connection could I possibly have with that?

Part of me wanted to go back and have the boldness to ask for the full story. A wiser part decided to stay away. And that is what I have done. My walks take me past the Mill House occasionally, but I avoid the temptation to walk up the drive or look at the windows.

And I avoid the two footpaths that run alongside the pool. I have dreamt about Peter a couple of times and the dreams have been singularly unpleasant.

A pale, emaciated young boy stands up to his chest in blood-red water. There is no movement of the surface; it looks thick and unwholesome. And there is a sickening smell of dead fish and rotting vegetation in the air. The boy reaches out to me with bony fingers and a look of desperation in his painfully sad eyes. I know that he wants to drag me in with him.

Fanciful or not, I should prefer the wraith to occupy no place in my life more substantial than a dream. Is that selfish? Probably.

2 comments:

Della said...

The poor, emaciated wraith. The story cries out for a part II, I say, but maybe that's what you meant about raising questions. Hope you have more Halloween tales up your sleeve!

JJ Beazley said...

Thanks, Della. I've never really been given to part II's, in stories or in life. I suspect the answer to the question might be something I've only just realised myself. I further suspect that I might have been given a slap on my other blog, and I think I probably deserved it. Glad you're still on the radar.

About Me

My photo
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.



Followers