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 31, 2010

The Thirteenth Tree.

Much of this is written from life, and all the locations are accurately described. Fred and Wendy existed, as did the two lines of trees in the churchyard.

It was first published by Arkham Tales in May, 2009.

Approximate reading time: 30-35 minutes.

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...what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

This melancholy reflection is made by no ordinary mortal, but a Prince of Denmark - tortured by grief and the need for vengeance, teetering on the edge of insanity and musing on the state of death.

But what of the dreams of more mundane folk? The factory worker living in Birmingham with only the form of his local football team to concern him, the stockbroker settled comfortably in the Home Counties, or, in my case, the freelance photographer living in a quiet spot on the Northumberland coast with few real cares apart from the insecurity of never being sure that the next commission will come in soon enough to pay the rent?

And what are dreams anyway? Philosophers, mystics and scientists have been offering various explanations for as long as there have been philosophers, mystics and scientists. Are they merely part of some cerebral activity to be explained away as electrical impulses in the synapses? Maybe that is the mechanical explanation, but what drives the mechanics? As you go deeper into what proves to be a very deep question, you have to wrestle with the capricious and elusive workings of psychology. And then, deeper still, you are faced with the final question: what is reality? At that point you reach the edge of a continental shelf, and before you lies an abyss of unfathomable depth in which logic, as it is usually perceived, has little or no place.

My dreams, at least those I remember, are like everybody else’s: vague, disjointed, full of contradictions and distortions – usually explainable as the reworking of things that have happened to me in real life. But one dream was very different. That one was clear and logical, and seemed to be a viewing of events happening in real time. And what I learned the following day confirmed that either the most unbelievable coincidence had occurred, or that dreams can be much more than mere synaptic flashes.

* * *

It happened three years ago when I was that freelance photographer living in a quiet spot on the Northumberland coast at a place called Dryburgh Bay. I had rented an old farmhouse that had become vacant when the tenant farmer, finding it increasingly difficult to eke out a meagre living from the poor land behind the dunes, had decided to retire. The land had been leased to another farmer in the vicinity, the outbuildings were up for sale, and the previous occupant had moved out to live with one of his daughters in the city.

Although Northumberland is in England, I had felt from the outset that there was nothing “English” about the landscape – at least, not English as I understood the term. I came from the Midlands shires where the land is a fertile patchwork of well-manicured fields, dotted here and there by tidy black and white dairy cows. This landscape was very different.

The poor soil made the grass dull and lifeless, sparse tufts of marram struggled to colonise the sand dunes, and the cows were a strange, straggly bunch of all sizes and colours that looked as though every genetic misfit of their kind had been brought together in one place. Even the light had a piercing clarity that made the starkness seem all the more stark.

I had moved there in late March, and during my first night in the house had been woken in the early hours by a cacophonous din. It had been the sound of the roof slates clattering loudly in a gusting easterly gale coming off the North Sea. The following morning I had looked out of the window and felt a profound sense of being in a foreign country.

The front of the house faced south and overlooked a narrow lane, beyond which was a dull, green-brown vista comprising poor grassland and marshy areas with pools occupied by waterfowl. It was the same to the north behind the house. To the east was the cold North Sea, fringed by sand dunes that rose to the height of a house in places, protecting the wetland behind them from the high spring tides. The lane ran west for about a mile up a shallow hill to a village called Waddington where it joined the main coast road.

The village was something like the civilisation I was used to. It had trees, cottages, a pub, an old church and a post office. I used to walk there several times a week to post my mail and gaze at the familiar plants in the cottage gardens.

It took me several months to get used to living there, but I did eventually find an uneasy peace with the place and came to respect its wild and unkempt air. Freelance photography can be an irregular and insecure occupation and I would sometimes go without work for weeks at a time. I used the empty days to discover this new and unfamiliar landscape on foot, sometimes walking on the dunes to watch the seabirds dive for fish, sometimes following the slow meanderings of the waterfowl on the pools, and sometimes marvelling at the shifting levels of the beach and the ever-changing colours of the sea - from electric blue on a calm spring morning to near-black when the onshore wind blew and the eastern sky took on the slate grey of an approaching storm.

I found an old ruin too, standing alone on the rough scrubland behind the house. I learned that it had belonged to the Knights Hospitallers during the Middle Ages, and was now quiet and empty apart from the occasional owl standing proudly on top of the stark masonry, hooting mournfully.

My walks up the hill to the village were different; they were sojourns into a more comfortable world. On one of my first visits I took a stroll around the church. It was a simple structure with no transepts, chancel or lych gate like those found in the village churches of the midland and southern shires. It had no tower to speak of, just a simple open bell cote so typical of Northumberland. The heavily weather-worn stone in parts of the structure attested to its age, and the pattern of the older windows was early gothic.

I went inside, but found it simple and unspectacular. I came back out and read some of the gravestones. What stories they had to tell. Whole families wiped out in the space of a few months, siblings dying many years apart but always at more or less the same age, two men who appeared to have been brothers, but who had the same Christian name and died within a year of each other. It was fascinating stuff that kept me engrossed for an hour or more.

But the really interesting feature lay on the eastern edge of the churchyard. It was an open, airy spot and almost constantly bleak. It overlooked the poor farmland running down to the sea and caught the force of the cold, damp easterlies that kept us living mortals needing several layers of clothing even in the warmer summer spells.

Running along the unfenced fringe of the church’s land were twelve poplar trees. They were arranged in what amounted to a perfectly straight line and were equally spaced, apart from a gap in the middle between the sixth and seventh. There the gap was twice that between the other trees, as though a thirteenth should have occupied the space. What struck me as odd was the fact that nothing grew in the vacant spot; no grass, no weeds, nothing; there was only barren brown earth. During my years as a landscape photographer I had visited and photographed many churches and churchyards, and had never seen such an arrangement of trees before. I was intrigued and gave some thought to possible explanations.

The most obvious was suggested by Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper – twelve disciples sitting on one side of the table with Jesus in the middle. Presumably, some devout soul had planted twelve trees to represent the apostles and left a full space in the middle to represent the risen Christ. I was happy enough with that and thought no more about it until I met the vicar a couple of weeks later.

It was a sunny day in late spring. For once, a southerly wind was keeping the onshore breeze at bay and it was unusually warm down by the coast. I needed to send some mail and so I took a stroll to the village post office. As I made my way home I walked past the entrance to the churchyard. I saw a man in a clerical collar walking down the path towards the gate, and thought it would be interesting to find out whether there was a known history of the planting of the poplars.

He seemed an approachable sort and I stood aside as he unlatched the gate and came out. He smiled at me in that welcoming way that you have a right to expect of vicars. I introduced myself and came straight to the point of my interest. He told me that there was no official record of when they had been planted or who had been responsible, but the presumption was that the trees represented the twelve apostles and the gap the risen Christ. That was the view held by the local diocese. I was pleased to have guessed right. He seemed to hesitate slightly, and then said

“There is another explanation and that one is in writing. But it’s highly fanciful and not something the Church likes to dwell on.”

He looked uncertain for a moment and then continued.

“Oh, why not? I’ve been dying to tell this story ever since I read it when I first came here five years ago, and you’re the first person who’s ever expressed an interest.”

As we stood there on that warm, late spring day he told me of a document contained within the parish records. The story it told was fantastical enough to make it safe to relate, he said. No one would believe it in this rational age. As far as I remember the exact procession of his words, this is what he told me.

“Back in 1693 the vicar of this parish was a man with the delightful name of the Reverend Jeremiah Jellicoe - his grave is round by the south wall, but the inscription’s all but worn away now.

“During the autumn of that year there was a bad storm which lasted several days and the church roof suffered some damage. The Reverend Jellicoe called in the workmen to effect the necessary repairs and went up into the roof space to assess the damage for himself. Among the dust and rubble littering the floor he found an old leather pouch which contained a folded document written in Latin. The good Reverend was a Latin scholar, as all the clergy were in those days, and he had no difficulty translating it.

“What he read must have put the wind up him a bit. It wasn’t only the common herd who were more superstitious in those days; the clergy were ready to see goblins and demons in every dark corner too. Apparently he gave the document to the bishop but made an English translation first, and that’s the version that’s contained in the parish records.

“The document had been written by a priest called Hugh de Ferrer in 1284. At that time the building was actually the chapel to a manor house which stood nearby and Hugh was the chaplain. The narrative begins in the year 1282.

“The church also served the local parish in a general capacity and, one Sunday evening, Hugh was in the confessional - it was Catholic then, of course - when a man stepped in and confessed to having provided the local lord, a powerful baron called Sir Guy de Menton, with his six-year-old son to use in a sacrificial ritual. Apparently there had been a few disappearances among the children of the locality stretching back several years and they had been put down to the wild animals that roamed these parts in those days. The peasant’s confession told a different tale.

“It seems that Sir Guy was a Templar Knight and the leader of a thirteen-strong group of like-minded knights from the county who were deeply engaged in hermetic practices, some of which involved the ritual sacrifice of young children. I’m not claiming this to be right, you understand; this is what the document said. According to the peasant, this was where the children had been disappearing to.”

I had to interrupt at that point. I had always thought of the Templar Knights as paragons of virtue, wearers of the red cross, the embodiment of medieval chivalry. My childhood veneration for the gallant knights of Old England had never fully left me and I was inclined to scoff at some silly story that claimed they worshipped the devil and murdered children.

“Well, don’t write the story off just yet,” said the vicar. “I’m not what you would call an authority on the Templars, but I know there are some suspicions regarding the true nature and purpose of their organisation. They were formed during the twelfth century, ostensibly to defend pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It’s true that their device was the red cross and that they had a reputation as tough and worthy warriors, and I dare say most of them were probably devout, God-fearing Christians. But there is a belief that their function as defenders of the faithful was, or at least came to be, a cover for something darker. Some believe they were a front for a secret society which more than merely dabbled in the black arts. The same belief surrounds the Masons, who claimed a connection with Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Some modern writers have suggested that there was a link between the Templars and the Masons.

“At some point, early in the fourteenth century I think, one of the French kings – Philip the second or third – had the Templars disbanded. Slaughtered some of them, tortured many more and confiscated their lands and wealth. There is some mystery over the true reason for such a brutal purge and there are many who claim that it wasn’t just about the politics of wealth and power. There are plenty of books on the subject. Anyway, back to the story.

“Poor old Hugh was at a loss to know how to handle this astonishing confession. He had no reason to disbelieve the man’s story. Lying in a confessional was beyond the bounds of credibility in those days, and why would anyone want to make up such a story? He also had no reason to think that the man was insane. Furthermore, the confessional was sacrosanct so he couldn’t tell anybody about it. And who would he tell anyway? The authorities? Sir Guy was the authority in these parts.

“He considered seeking the advice of the bishop, but he knew that the bishop was a strong supporter of the Templars and feared for his position and even his life. According to the document, he agonised over his predicament for a whole week before deciding on a highly unconventional course of action.

“There was a hermit living in a cave, a little way up the coast at Warkworth. He had, apparently, a somewhat ambivalent reputation; some said he was a holy man, while others believed him to be a pagan magician. Stories of his magical prowess were common in the county, but his actions were said to be generally benevolent and he was left in peace by both the peasants and the local gentry. Hugh decided that he would be worth a try. Being a poor man, the hermit wasn’t likely to be in with the Templars and his magic just might be real - and powerful enough deal with the problem. Direct confrontation obviously wasn’t an option and Hugh was desperate.

“So Hugh paid him a visit. Not that easy in those days, of course. The roads were far from safe even for a priest, and Warkworth must have been a full day’s round trip on horseback. And he had to go alone as the whole business needed to be kept secret. To make matters worse, the cave was on the other side of the river from the road and the weather was particularly bad, so Hugh had some difficulty persuading the ferryman in the nearby cottage to row him across.

“He records the interview briefly, saying that he felt an increasing sense that ‘beings or forces from another realm’ were close by – he could almost feel their breath on his face, he says. Whether they were benevolent, diabolical or merely disinterested he was in no position to tell. He felt severely unnerved by the atmosphere, and the darkness didn’t help. There was no light in the cave except what little came in from the narrow entrance. All he could see of the hermit was a shadowy figure seated in the corner and wearing some form of long, hooded garment like those worn by monks. He also says that he never saw the man’s face; he kept it turned away from Hugh’s gaze the whole time and it would probably have been too dark to see very much anyway.

“To protect the sanctity of the confessional, Hugh told him the story in general terms, and the hermit – Hugh never names him – agreed to help. He told Hugh that he would need something personal from each of the knights and, to help him achieve this, he gave the priest a potion of herbs which was to be poured into their vat of wine. This would knock them out for several hours and it would be safe to cut a few wisps of hair from each man. He said that he would arrive to do the deed when he judged the time to be right.

“As the chaplain, Hugh had free access to the house and had little trouble in doing as he had been instructed. He kept the fragments of hair safe, fearful all the time that he was acting in a manner seriously unbecoming of a good Christian priest.

“Two weeks later there was a knock at his door late at night. Hugh says that the sight of the hermit in the doorway, lit this time by a single candle, unnerved him somewhat. He describes him as being unusually tall with wild, unkempt hair and a deadness in his eyes reminiscent of a corpse. The hermit said very little, just explained that it had been necessary to come late so as not to be seen in the vicinity. He demanded a promise from Hugh that he would not disclose his involvement during his lifetime and asked for the hair fragments, which Hugh gave him. Then he turned and walked away into the darkness.

“Hugh didn’t know what to expect and admits to having severe misgivings at the prospect of expecting anything at all. He was, after all, a younger son of a genteel family himself, and admits to feeling uncomfortable at the thought of entering some dark conspiracy with a wild cave-dweller against people who were, in effect, his own kind.

“Anyway, life in the village went on as normal until a month later. Hugh says that this was significant as the moon had been dark on the night of the hermit’s visit and it was dark again on the night that Sir Guy had some sort of a seizure. The doctor was sent for, and Hugh was called in to administer the last rites as the doctor thought he might die. He didn’t. He made a complete physical recovery within days, but was never the same again mentally. He was listless and pale, all his old aggressive energy had drained away, and he had no will to do anything except wander restlessly around the house and sleep fitfully for up to twelve hours a day.

“Then the visits started. Some of Hugh’s parishioners were employed as retainers at the house and they told him that the visitors included the King’s men, Lord Percy, and some of the friends and family of Sir Guy’s twelve companions, none of whom had been seen for several weeks. Sir Guy stared emptily into the fire during all the questioning and denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of his erstwhile friends. The investigation eventually petered out and Sir Guy continued to live a reclusive existence in the manor house.

“Hugh was both intrigued and disturbed by the disappearances and predictably laid the explanation at the feet of the hermit. Although his sensibilities as a man of God made him reluctant to discover that he had been instrumental in the workings of some magical art, his curiosity persuaded him to make the arduous journey to Warkworth again to question his collaborator.

“The hermit refused to tell him anything, other than to state that he had done what he’d needed to do: separated the acolytes from their fountainhead and made sure that it would stay that way. As long as Sir Guy and the twelve knights were kept apart there would be no further trouble. That’s what the priest had wanted, and that’s what he had got. No further explanation was needed.

“And that’s what Hugh had to be content with. The knights were never seen again and there were no more incidents of children disappearing.”

As the vicar paused momentarily, I asked him where the twelve trees came into the story.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the interesting bit, and it’s what prompted Hugh to write the whole thing down for posterity.

“Two years later, in the spring of 1284, Hugh looked out of his window one morning to see Sir Guy walking up and down in an agitated manner along the eastern edge of the churchyard. He says that the old man had his hands clasped in front of his chest and appeared to be talking to something on the ground. At first he assumed the old knight’s behaviour to be nothing more than the latest manifestation of his disturbed mental state, but was interested enough to look for himself after the lord had retired back into the house.

“He was surprised to find two lines of strong young saplings growing up out of the rough grass. The two groups of six saplings formed a perfectly straight line but there was a patch of barren earth between them where a thirteenth would have completed the set. He looked over at the house and saw Sir Guy staring back at him with a look of hatred that made his blood run cold. It was the first sign of anything other than apathy that he had seen in the old man’s face since the day of the seizure. He felt sure that Sir Guy now knew what had happened to his friends, and that the look betrayed a hatred for Hugh and a consuming desire for revenge. The following day Sir Guy collapsed and died.

“The rest is a matter of historical record. Sir Guy had never married so he had no heirs. Lord Percy claimed the estate but never did anything about the land and buildings and, as was common in these parts, they fell into decay and the locals helped themselves to the masonry for use as building material. The foundations are still there I suppose but, to my knowledge, the site has never been considered important enough to be worth excavating.

“Anyway, Hugh wrote everything down and hid the account in the roof space, expecting, no doubt, that it would eventually be found long after he and the hermit were dead and buried. And that’s what happened.”

I asked whether Hugh had confined himself to a straightforward narrative, or whether he had offered any logical explanation for these events

“Not really,” said the vicar. “The whole thing reads like the work of a man shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders through the whole account. He does say at the end, however, that he prays to God that no tree shall grow in the spot during his lifetime, so he must have believed that there was a connection between the twelve trees and the missing knights.”

It was a fascinating tale, told with enthusiasm and a fine recollection for detail by a skilled story teller. But, of course, I didn’t take it seriously. I thanked the vicar for his time, exchanged a few pleasantries, and made my way home down the winding, treeless lane that ran to the sea. I took my usual evening stroll along the dunes, had dinner, and spent the evening trying to find something worth watching on the television. I gave up and spent the rest of the night before going to bed musing light-heartedly on the vicar’s tale of medieval magic and skulduggery. I half expected to dream about Hugh, Sir Guy and the wild hermit that night, but I didn’t. That was to come another night, a good six months later.

Why that night? I don’t know. Was it some sort of anniversary? Were the planets in the same configuration as they had been on that day in 1284 when the trees had, apparently, magically appeared in the churchyard? I had been to Warkworth by then and seen a cave on the far side of the river from the path that runs upstream from the castle. I had discovered that it was still called The Hermitage, and wondered whether it was where Hugh had conducted the fateful interview. But I hadn’t been near the place in months. So why that night? Whatever the reason, I had the most vivid and realistic dream of my life. At least, that’s what the sceptic would believe it to be, although I’m sure that it was something of rather more substance. Whatever it was, the memory of it now is as strong as ever and it is causing me to face an agonising decision, the like of which I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

It was late in the year. Christmas was in the air and I had watched an adaptation of an MR James ghost story on the television. Perhaps that’s why the dream came that night. I’m clutching at straws. This dream wasn’t the usual fitful, disjointed affair populated by gypsy children, haunted ash trees and runic curses. This one was rational, sharp as a razor and very frightening. This is what I “dreamed.”

I was standing in the field just a dozen or so yards downhill from the two groups of poplar trees. I saw that the moon was full and every detail of the scene was clearly visible. I had a strong sense of really being there, in real time. I was aware of having gone to bed as usual and felt surprised at suddenly finding myself in a frosty landscape, hearing the wind in the trees and feeling its cold breath on my body.

I felt confused. My gaze wandered restlessly along the line of the twelve trees. I felt a sense of expectation without knowing why. Suddenly they started to glow. “Glow” isn’t quite the right word, but I don’t really know what is. They took on a sort of luminescence which caused me to blink several times, attempting to clear what I assumed was some visual aberration.

The trunk of each tree cracked and opened, and out of each one stepped a figure - a female figure, naked and hairless apart from long, dark cranial hair blowing listlessly in the light breeze. Their bodies were pure white, as though they had never seen the light of the sun. Each was slightly different than the others, but alike enough that they might have been sisters – rather like twelve examples of the same species of tree. I remembered Orpheus’ first meeting with his beloved Euridyce and how her beauty had led him to follow her to the very depths of Hades. Was that what I was seeing, the tree nymphs of classical legend?

They started to walk in my direction, but their gaze was directed beyond me. I turned and saw a man walking up the hill. I didn’t recognise him, but it was apparent that he was aware of the women. He came to within a few yards of me, and yet was obviously unaware of my presence. He only had eyes for these naked beauties who were forming a tight circle around him.

The man was young – no more than thirty in my estimation - and dressed in modern clothes. He had a shotgun in his hand, which might explain why he was in the field and not in the lane on the other side of the hedge. Perhaps he was a farmer’s son, out shooting rabbits. I had no idea. I’d never seen him before.

But I saw him now. I saw the look in his eyes, a mixture of amazement and expectation as the women surrounded him. One of them moved in close and pulled him gently to his knees. He looked around at the others and smirked childishly. He was clearly enthralled and in no condition to see anything beyond their naked bodies full of erotic promise. The woman removed his coat, his sweater, and his shirt. I stared in amazement until a movement caught my eye and I swung around to look again in the direction of the poplars. Twelve very different figures were striding purposefully towards us.

I recognised them from countless pictures I had seen in books: medieval knights in mail and surcoats, each with a bold red cross on the chest. They looked tough and imposing as they marched, twelve abreast, down the shallow slope. As they drew closer I saw their faces, lined and weather-worn, with the ravening look of wild animals in their eyes. Those eyes were terrible: hard, cruel, devoid of humanity - the eyes of a pack of wild dogs closing for the kill.

I felt gripped with fear, but fascinated at the same time. I could see them as clearly as I see my own hand now, but I was still struggling to decide whether it was a dream or not. Could they see me? The thought sent a shock of panic down my spine. My question was soon answered. As they passed close by, the nearest turned and looked directly at me. He said nothing but his intense stare made words unnecessary. “Keep out of this,” it said. “Don’t interfere.” The instruction was redundant. I was held rigid; there was no question of interfering.

As the men approached the poor wretch on his knees, the forms of the women became indistinct until they were mere wisps of vapour which floated swiftly back to the trees. Having watched their retirement, I turned back towards the half-naked man still kneeling on the frosty grass. His eyes carried a different sort of expectancy now; they held a level of terror that most of us thankfully never have to experience.

Two of the knights moved swiftly and took hold of his arms. A third placed one dark, leathery hand over his mouth and the other at the back of his neck, stifling the man’s pitiful protestations. I looked at the shotgun that lay on the grass where he had dropped it. It was too late to hope that it might be used in his defence. He was held firmly by three men to whom brutality was obviously second nature. I was certain that it would have been useless anyway.

They dragged him roughly up the slope towards the line of poplars. All but one of the other knights rushed to the spot in the centre of the trees and began to scratch away the earth with their bare hands. The remaining knight stood close by and removed a dagger from a scabbard on his belt. The victim was laid on his back, struggling wildly but held firm by his captors. The dagger was plunged it into his chest and dragged downwards to open a cavity. The knight thrust his hand inside and wrenched out a bloody, steaming mass which he looked at triumphantly for a few seconds, before throwing it unceremoniously into the newly-dug hole. The others scraped the earth back into place - and they were gone.

There was silence. The suddenness of their disappearance stunned me. I had been both enraptured and appalled by the scene that had been played out before my eyes. But now there was only an eerie stillness, nothing else - or almost nothing. A body lay contorted on the frosty ground, its head thankfully turned away from me. I dread to think what a look must have been in its dead eyes.

I awoke in my own bed in my own bedroom. Blue sky filled the window, and I rose to look out on a clear day bathing the frosty landscape in wholesome light.

Some dreams we disregard as soon as we wake up. Others persist and nag at us for hours or even days. This one did more than nag. It was too real, and I felt sickened and shaken. At that point, however, I still chose to regard it as just a dream.

I didn’t go out that day, not even for my customary walks on the dunes. The dream hung about me like a heavy weight and my thoughts returned to it repeatedly. I couldn’t shake off the sense that I had really been in that field and really witnessed those horrific scenes. I felt uneasy at the prospect of going through the door. I didn’t exactly expect to see a sword-wielding maniac intent on my destruction, but the sense of horror was still strong enough to keep me erring on the cautious side. By eight o’clock I was feeling restive. It wasn’t like me to stay cooped up in the house all day. I decided to pay a visit to my nearest neighbours, a middle-aged couple who lived in another old farmhouse a quarter of a mile up the lane.

Fred Coulton was a local man who had built up a small building business, and his wife Wendy was an affable sort who came from Newcastle. She liked to regale me with tales of life as a “proper Geordie” when she was a girl. They had befriended me shortly after I had moved in and were more than happy for me to pop around every so often. They liked me to tell them what I had learned about their county from my researches as a photographer, and I needed an occasional break from the emotional austerity of living alone and doing a solitary job.

That night I wanted to tell them about the dream. I felt the need to tell somebody, and they were the only friends I had made during my short spell in the North East. But I hesitated. I hadn’t told them the story of Hugh and the hermit as I had felt that it was somehow confidential, even though the vicar hadn’t expressly said so. To relate the dream would have meant telling the whole story from the beginning and I just wasn’t in the mood for talking at length. I had, however, told them the story of the twelve trees shortly after I had met them, during one of our chats about the oddities of the county. Fred was about to use it to thrust a sharpened lance through my self-imposed wall of silence.

Our conversation wasn’t flowing easily and I’m sure they could tell that my mood was guarded and distant. After one of several uneasy lulls, Fred suddenly took on the air of a man who had thought of something to say to break the clammy silence. He looked at me and said

“Oh, I know what you might find interesting.”

If words can have a power that is verging on the palpable, these were at the top of the league.

“You know that spot in the churchyard that you told us about once, the one between the trees where nothing grows? They found a body there this morning.”

My chest felt as though it had been struck by something heavy. My heart began to thump and the back of my neck turned cold.

“A body?”

“Mmm. Graham Ferrers it was, Arnold’s son; owns the farm down the road behind the dunes. Only twenty eight. The postman saw him lying there when he went to collect the mail from the box. Police were there for a couple of hours, apparently.”

“What did he die of?” I asked foolishly, my sense of shock sidestepping the obvious fact that the cause would probably not be public knowledge yet.

“Don’t know,” said Fred. “Some of the old lads from the village stood around the whole time and said they couldn’t see any marks or blood or anything. They heard one of the coppers say it must have been a heart attack. Can you believe it? Twenty eight! Makes you think you’re living on borrowed time.”

I think Fred expected this revelation to start the conversation moving but it didn’t. Looking back on it now, I feel that I should have been full of questions, pressing him for more information. But the workings of the human brain are often at odds with what you later think they should have been, and the effect of this startling bit of news only made me more guarded. The conversation lapsed again and I went home earlier than usual.

I really didn’t want to go to bed that night. The details of the two dramas were too coincidental for comfort, and the similarity in names hadn’t escaped me. Surely the medieval “de Ferrer” would have evolved into the modern “Ferrers.” Could there be a family connection going back to Hugh? Was the revenge motive part of this sordid picture? I became intensely conscious of the fact that I was a witness – the only witness. But that wouldn’t matter to supernatural beings, would it? Or would it? I didn’t know. My thinking was muddled, unfocused. Fear has that effect. If it did matter to them, I didn’t relish meeting them in another dream.

And so I sat in my armchair, pondering uncomfortably on the meaning of such transparent synchronicity. I drank a lot of Scotch, which had a mercifully numbing effect on my agitation. At about four in the morning I went to bed.

I woke up late with a bit of a headache but a sizeable sense of relief. No nocturnal sojourns - or at least none that I remembered, and that would do. I felt better, more logical. I decided that I probably wasn’t in any danger, that the whole thing might just be an almighty coincidence and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.

For the next few weeks I busied myself with the task of trying to get work from book and magazine publishers. A sharp recession was hitting the publishing industry and my regulars were putting out hardly any new commissions. I wasn’t having much luck and I was beginning to get depressed. I could see the end of my career looming and the dream went very much to the back of my mind.

Then Fred Coulton showed me a local newspaper that carried an article on the coroner’s inquest into the death of Graham Ferrers. Briefly, it said that he had been found at the eastern edge of the churchyard, that he was stripped to the waist, and that a shotgun and some discarded clothing had been found a little way down the hill. His father confirmed that he had gone out that night to try to find and shoot a fox that had been troubling the hen sheds. The cause of death was cardiac arrest caused by an embolism. The obvious conclusion was that he had dropped the gun when the attack occurred - I remember thinking that the use of the word “attack” was unwittingly ironic - and it was assumed that he had struggled up the slope in an attempt to reach the village, but had died before he got there. No explanation was offered as to why he had removed his upper garments, but there was no reason to pursue the matter. The verdict was a formality.

I had to let this go; what else could I do? And I had my business to worry about. Spring, normally the start of my busy period, came and went with only a couple of half-day commissions that paid just about enough for one month’s rent. My capital was draining away. Summer was completely dead and, by the middle of July, I was forced to join the ranks of the unemployed.

Life became tedious. Your activities are pretty limited when you’re living in such a remote spot and dependant entirely on a single person’s benefit. Even putting enough petrol in the car to do the weekly shop is a burden when the nearest town is ten miles away.

I became an expert in shoestring living. Socialising was out of the question and I became totally reliant on Fred and Wendy for company. In the autumn a friend from back home offered me a way out. He had inherited a terraced house on the death of a relative and offered to let me use it for a nominal rent. I didn’t have much choice but to accept and, in early December, I moved back to my home town in the Midlands.

Northumberland soon became a distant memory. My new environment couldn’t have been further from the old. The wild and stark beauty of the east coast was replaced by crumbling red brick, concrete and tarmac. The terraced houses were crammed together in a claustrophobic mass and the whole area was criss-crossed by streets that were too narrow for the lines of cars parked on both sides day and night. They only added to my sense of being closed in and dominated by the inert paraphernalia of urban life. There were no trees in this mortified environment, and the only wild flowers were the weeds that grew out of the gaps between the house walls and the paving slabs. The noise of people, internal combustion engines and hooting horns punctuated the brief silences all day long, and for much of the night as well.

My only contact with Northumberland was the occasional phone call from Fred and Wendy. I was glad when they rang. If they didn’t ring me for a couple of months I would ring them, even though I couldn’t really afford to.

All the time they were speaking I would strain to listen for noises in the background, hoping I would pick up the rumble and hiss of the waves at high tide, or the infamous wind coming off the sea, or maybe catch the hoot of an owl somewhere close outside their window. They kept me in touch with a world that was open and airy and populated by the children of nature, living and dying by the cycles of the seasons. I really was glad of their calls - until yesterday. Now I wish they had let me go and forgotten that they had ever known me.

Yesterday I had a phone call from Fred. I was glad to hear from him as usual, until he told me his latest piece of news.

He thought I might be interested to know that there was a tree growing in the churchyard, in that bare spot between the two lines of poplars close to where Arnold Ferrers’ lad was found dead. We talked about it when I lived there, remember? I shuddered slightly. The nightmare was back, alive and kicking.

“I suppose,” he said with that gentle, Northumbrian lilt that makes everything sound so matter-of-fact, “somebody’s planted it in memory of Graham. His parents probably.”

Perhaps they had. Or perhaps there’s a more disturbing explanation known only to me, the only witness. A game of revenge and resurrection played at some propitious moment by the souls of a dark alliance kept in enforced separation for seven hundred years. Fountainhead and acolytes reunited; the distant descendant of their tormentor being sacrificed to reverse the act of his forefather. Do I really believe that? I’m afraid I do. I had the “dream.” Only I know what it was like to be there that night.

So what do I do about it? Make the trip to Northumberland and cut the sapling off at ground level? I’ve seen the men responsible for its genesis and I shudder at the thought of meeting them again. Maybe I’m wrong and somebody has planted it there, in memoriam, in which case I would be nothing more than a common vandal.

But I don’t think I am wrong, so how do I reconcile my firmly held belief with the prospect of taking no action? How would I live with myself if one of the village children disappeared?

The fact that my belief could be totally fanciful should make it easy for me to take the soft option and ignore the whole thing. I’m not made that way. I’m cursed with a strong sense of personal responsibility. The same objection applies to the other obvious option – sit back and hope the vicar will do the job.

I’ve been sitting here all day wondering how the evil energy contained within thirteen trees could translate itself into physical action. I don’t see how it could; but I’m not an expert in such matters, so I can’t be sure. Whatever the mechanics of the matter, the fact is established and cannot be ignored: the twelve trees have now been joined by a thirteenth.

The arguments go back and forth, back and forth, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock ticking me down to one form of doom or another. Which do I take, the devil or the deep blue sea? The decision needs to be made now. The power might not be unleashed until the thirteenth tree is fully-grown, but the bigger it gets the more impracticable it will be to do anything about it.

In the meantime I have felt it necessary to spend a few hours setting all this down for the record. If I do decide to back up my convictions with some courage, I’ll need to move quickly before my resolve cools. There won’t be time for writing then.

If something untoward should happen to me during the attempt, my story will be of no interest to the police or the pathologist and will be quite inadmissible in a coroner’s court. But at least my friends will, if they feel so inclined, be able to interpret the circumstances of my misfortune in a more informed light. They might even feel moved to complete the job on my behalf. In all conscience, it is something I could not ask of them.

9 comments:

Anthropomorphica said...

Chilling Jeff!!!!!!!
So glad I left it until now, the warm glow of my turnip is at least a little comfort. I couldn't read this fast enough and I may just sleep with the light on!

JJ Beazley said...

Really? Thanks, Mel. You're a pal.

I have a little difficulty with turnips, though. Every time they get mentioned I keep seeing the cover of Sue Limb's spoof on Dorothy Wordsworth's diary - The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere. I see William striding haughtily away and saying 'Not now Dorothy. I'm contemplating my withered turnip.' Reminds me of me when I'm contemplating blog posts in the garden.

Anyway, I send my blessings to your turnip in the hope that it won't wither; at least not before tomorrow.

Anthropomorphica said...

Luckily, I didn't have nightmares.
Oh, but the turnip was withered-ish, I'd kept it in the fridge after the other weeks Halloween post. Buggers to carve so once was enough ;)
Your wicked sense of humour does make me laugh Jeff.

JJ Beazley said...

Have you ever read The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere, Mel? There's some good stuff in it, but it's probably out of print now. My copy went missing. No idea what happened to it.

Anthropomorphica said...

No I haven't Jeff, I'll google it

Alpha Za said...

whew, that was kinda scary in a very compelling way. Well done!

JJ Beazley said...

Thank you, Alpha Za. Much appreciated.

Della said...

Here at last, Jeff. I needed a quiet hour on a gloomy afternoon for this (though still managed to be interrupted). A fascinating story – is it entirely true? – sometimes with your stories I wonder. Another question – weren't the Knights of Templar massacred on a Friday the 13th, hence the unlucky association? Are you playing on that here, as well?

As usual, I'm intrigued by your style of storytelling – the narrator relates a story he's heard from someone who's heard it from someone else, thereby placing the reality of the tale at a distance. Not always, but the result is a tendency to pair responsibly accurate narrators with dubious occurrences. It's curious because you're anything but this on your blog which I assume is true-to-life. There the voice is often teasing, playful, philosophical, and (yes) cryptic, which misleads some of your (interesting) followers, or am I wrong? Anyhow, it's all in good fun (I think) and I intend absolutely no criticism here, this has just occurred to me – a mere observation really.

So – great story and I look forward to the next. Would still prefer them in anthology form – are you on to that!? :) Take care!

JJ Beazley said...

Dear Della. You don't know how flattered I am by the interest you show in my little tales. Thank you. I do appreciate it. As for the questions/observations:

Now you come to mention it, I do recall the hearing about the Friday 13th thing in connection with the Templars, but I can't claim any conscious reference to it. A friend of mine chided me about this story because he feels that the Templars have had a bad press, but somebody else I know is convinced of the whole Templar/Masonic conspiracy theory. I just went down that road for the sake of the story.

I wrote it because I was intrigued by the real line of trees in the real Northumbrian churchyard at Widdrington. And all the environmental stuff about Northumberland and my home town was drawn from life.

Having two levels of information source was simply a device to enable the MC to hear the story. I suppose I was just too dense to think of another way to do it. It is true, though, that I write entirely from instinct, so maybe there is a deeper reason. Maybe it's because, while I have a fondness for the supernatural and a general belief in it, I know that so little is provable, so maybe I like to allow the door of doubt to stay open.

(My blog, by the way - with all its convolutions and admissions of frailty - is very much the real me.)

The next story, which I'll be posting later tonight, has a structure that will probably drive you mad. It breaks rules - like switching from one POV to omniscient, and switching from 3rd person narrative to 1st. Do I care? The one after that is shorter, simpler, and probably my favourite - silly old Romantic that I am.

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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