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.

November 15, 2010

The Helvellyn Ram.

This is one to drive the Writers’ Workshop school mad. Well, all I can say is that it turned out the way it turned out, and it makes perfect sense to me. As is often the case, much of it is written from life and draws on one or two real little incidents.

It was first published in Encounters Magazine a year ago.

Approximate reading time: 30-40 minutes.

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

It might be said that chalk and cheese were more alike than the two fifteen-year-old boys sitting quietly on a rock and gazing down at the rushing torrent of Glenridding Beck.

Colin Crawford was tall, skinny and awkward. His mop of red hair was cut short at the back and sides, and his nose had a pronounced upward tilt. Taken together, the two facts made for an unfortunate combination that gave him a naturally comical appearance. He had been raised by a stern martinet of a father whose domineering ways had left him shy and insecure. As a result, he had a tendency to hang onto the coat tails of those stronger and more confident than him, a trait the other boys tolerated since he was honest and likeable.

He was not, however, one of the “in” crowd. Neither was he academically gifted, although he managed to achieve moderate grades at school through diligence and hard work. His prowess in the kind of activities that required a degree of natural aptitude - like sport, music and attracting the opposite sex - was all but non-existent. What made things even worse for him was that he knew all this and hated himself for it.

His companion, Gavin Bowyer, had everything that Colin lacked: confidence, a keen mind, and a flair for dress and grooming that kept him effortlessly and unselfconsciously attuned to the latest fashion. He was academically gifted, captain of the school rugby team, a cricket all-rounder and a stalwart of the school orchestra. Whatever he turned his hand to he did well. He was one of the leading lights of the “in” crowd, and never had to bother trying to attract female attention since the girls usually hung around him.

The two boys did, however, have a couple of things in common and were good friends. They were both keenly interested in the paranormal, and spent many an hour discussing its many facets and playing thought transference games. Not surprisingly perhaps, Gavin’s strong mind was particularly good at sending the targets but not so good at receiving them. Colin’s prowess lay in the opposite direction. They also shared a mutual love of nature, and exercised their interest by taking frequent fishing trips together, often spending more time admiring the location than watching their floats or laying ground bait.

Their present position by the stream had nothing to do with fishing, however. They had travelled to The Lake District earlier that day with the rest of their class to do some field work in physical geography. They were due to spend four days studying the results of glaciation, the formation of waterfalls, the effects of erosion and the development of river valleys. They were looking forward to it. The chance to spend a little time among such breathtaking beauty would be worth suffering the curriculum’s mean-minded attempt to throw a dull blanket of pragmatic rationalism over what they saw as the more essentially romantic qualities of the landscape.

They were staying at a youth hostel in the Glenridding Valley and had just finished supper. The evening was warm, but wet. A typical Lakeland drizzle was falling steadily through the still air, and the tops of the nearby fells were shrouded in mist. The other pupils were oblivious to the heady presence of the damp Cumbrian atmosphere and preferred to stay indoors, noisily ensconced in the games room playing table tennis and pool. They were typical inner-city kids who thought that sitting out in the rain was a pointless and stupid thing to do.

Gavin, however, had a particular fondness for warm summer rain, especially in a spot where the sound of water tumbling over rocks made such a perfect counterpoint to the still and statuesque mountains rising in sublime silence all around. Like most natural leaders, he felt no need to belong; it just happened automatically whenever he wanted it to. Colin, on the other hand, did need the approbation of the crowd. He would have stayed inside with his classmates had it not been for Gavin’s example. They sat in silence for a while, listening to the rushing water and drinking in the exhilarating freshness of the sweet mountain air.

Gavin spoke first, expressing his enthusiasm for the following day’s hike to Helvellyn. The official reason for the trip was to look at Red Tarn, and see at first hand a typical example of an upland glaciated lake. He had been there several times before. He knew very well what Red Tarn looked like and how it had been formed. His interest was in the prospect of making the potentially hazardous crossing of Striding Edge and standing again on the windswept summit of England’s third highest peak.

It was Colin’s first trip to The Lakes, but he was happy to trust his companion’s judgement. He, too, was looking forward to making the arduous climb, but he felt no sense of impatience. For the present he was content with the peace and harmony of his spot on the rock. The irrepressible babbling of the beck and the supreme stillness of the misty fells were there to be savoured for as long as the opportunity lasted.

As the dusk diminished to near darkness, they decided it was time to rejoin their companions inside. There was still an hour or so to go before lights out and they both relished the prospect of a hot drink and a quick game of pool before bed.

At half past ten the lights in the dormitory were switched off and Gavin joined in with the predictable banter being exchanged among the group of boys on their first night away from home. He was most content, however, when the chattering ceased. Then he was able to sink into sleep to the muted sound of Glenridding Beck singing its endless song a short way beyond the dormitory window.

At ten o’clock the next morning the party of thirty youngsters and four staff set off to walk the four and a half miles to the summit of Helvellyn. In order to make a full day of the excursion, they were taking the longer and more spectacular of the two available routes.

For two hours they climbed the circuitous footpath that wound around the fells skirting the northern edge of Ullswater, and the final short climb brought them onto the plateau of Birkhouse Moor. Soon the razor-like top of Striding Edge lay before them and they made their way carefully along the narrow footpath just below the summit. Jokes were made about the plaque telling the story of the shepherd who had fallen to his death, and the faithful dog that had stayed with its master until it had died too.

The crossing was uneventful, and soon the party were taking their packed lunches in the shelter of the windbreak on Helvellyn summit. Gavin and Colin remained apart, preferring to eat their meals looking west over the broad expanse of Thirlmere and the far fells beyond. They braced themselves against the chilly, gale force westerly that whistled across the top of the world and made their eyes water.

Colin felt uneasy for some reason, but he couldn’t work out why. The day was bright, the wind was cold but manageable, and the view was spectacular. And yet he felt uncomfortable. He shrugged it off and said nothing to his friend.

When the lunch was over they made their way back to the main party for the obligatory lecture on the scouring actions of ice and the legacy of upland lakes that its recession had bequeathed to posterity. On the way, Gavin noticed something white lying half hidden behind a rock, and his natural curiosity led him to make a detour to investigate. Colin was walking a little way ahead and failed to notice his friend’s diversion. The object turned out to be the skull of a sheep, obviously washed and bleached by years of exposure to rain and sun.

Gavin was intrigued. Why was there only a skull? If the animal had died there, surely there would be other bones lying in the vicinity. They might have been disturbed by the actions of scavengers, but he could see for some distance and there was no sign of any other remnant of the defunct sheep. Who, or what, removes the head of an animal and deposits it a long way from the rest of its body? And why? Whatever the reason, a childish practical joke was forming in his mind.

He knew how superstitious Colin was and, despite the closeness of their friendship, he couldn’t resist the opportunity. He picked up the skull, concealed it in his backpack and made his way over to the lecture.

He joined the others in making notes for his journal, and then the whole party made their way off the mountain via the gentler and safer Swirral Edge. They took the shorter route back to the hostel, keeping close to Red Tarn Beck, and were back in time for late afternoon tea. Everyone made for the dormitories to deposit their backpacks and then rushed off to the dining area where they knew there was tea, toast and cake to be had.

Gavin made a pretence of looking for something so that he would be the last to leave, and his little ploy was aided by the fact that Colin needed to go to the loo. Normally his friend would have waited for him, but this gave him the few seconds he needed to place the skull on Colin’s pillow without his absence being noticed. He pushed the lower portion under the sheet so that the eye sockets remained visible, and then joined the rest for tea.

When they had finished eating they were called together for a briefing on the following day’s work, and were then given leave to count the rest of the day their own. They trooped lazily back to the dorms to decide the course of their evening activities. Some of the boys threw themselves sluggishly onto their beds, some rummaged through their backpacks, while others sauntered over to the window to admire the view.

Colin stood and stared at the skull lying on his pillow. He was, as Gavin knew, easily affected by such things. He was clearly upset, but pulled himself together.

“OK, who put that there?” he asked, looking around the room.

“Who put what, where?” came a reply from one of the others.

“That,” said Colin, pointing at the skull.

They all gathered and looked at the object staring back at them from Colin’s pillow.

“Bet his name was Yorrick,” quipped one of the boys.

Hamlet was on the syllabus that year. Gavin walked over to it and feigned a more serious approach.

“I’m not sure we should joke about this,” he said in a deliberately low tone. “Rams’ skulls were held in great esteem in these parts until recently. I’ve been reading up on the local folklore. Apparently, they used to sacrifice rams so that they could use the skulls in magical ceremonies. When it was done, the skull was said to take on a life of its own and be capable of enslaving anyone who came into close proximity with it, forcing them to do the bidding of the magician who controlled it.”

It was all rubbish, of course. Gavin knew no more about Cumbrian folklore than he did about rocket technology. But some of the boys, knowing of his interest in the occult and his predilection for reading, believed him. Colin did too, briefly. And then the penny dropped. He had witnessed Gavin’s penchant for practical jokes on many occasions.

“You put it there, didn’t you?” he said.

“Me? Would I do such a thing?”

“Yes you would. Come on; it was you, wasn’t it?”

Colin’s voice carried a pleading tone. He was obviously more disturbed than Gavin had anticipated.

“Yes, OK mate. It was me. Don’t worry, there’s no magic or curses or anything. It was just a joke.”

One of the teachers happened to walk in at that moment and heard Gavin’s admission. He remonstrated with him angrily on the grounds that the skull posed a serious hygiene risk, and ordered him to take it outside and dispose of it. Gavin did as he was told, throwing the offending object down into the deep gully cut by the tumbling Glenridding Beck. He saw it bounce and roll over, coming to rest upside down close to the edge of the stream. He returned to the hostel and the incident was soon forgotten.

He and Colin, having spent most of the day surrounded by the beauty of the Cumbrian landscape, were happy to spend the evening with their colleagues in the games room. At bedtime, however, Colin became uneasy again and turned his pillow over so that he wouldn’t have to rest his head where the skull had lain. Gavin repeated his earlier reassurance and Colin made light of it, saying that he was only concerned about “the hygiene risk.”

The following morning they all piled into two minibuses for a short trip to Aira Force and the neighbouring High Force. Rivers and waterfalls made up the agenda for the day, and the two popular tourist venues provided examples of different types of falls located conveniently close to each other. They parked the buses in the car park at the bottom end of Aira Beck and walked the mile up a well trodden path that wound its sinuous course through the old woodland fringing the stream.

Colin was particularly taken with the spot. Its location deep in the woods, and the narrow torrent of water dropping sheer into the dark pool below, gave the place a magical air.

He knew that the episode with the skull had been nothing more than a childish prank, but he could believe that there really was something supernatural here. Like everyone else he could see the romantic beauty in the landscape, but he could feel something more - something primeval that had long since disappeared from the towns and cities and the well manicured farming country of the lowland shires. There was something vital in the air that spoke of freshness, life and the essential harmony of the natural order.

His reaction to it, however, was ambivalent. Whilst part of him felt the urge to be subsumed in it and leave behind the discomfort of a life spent on the chilly fringe of his worldly community, another part felt uneasy. Trying to belong might be a constant struggle, but at least he understood the world he wanted to be a part of. There were no mysteries, just grinding effort.

He thought of Gavin’s story about the sheep’s skull. He knew that it had all been made up, and yet he felt that there might be a grain of reality behind it. There was something about this land of wild fell tops, dark woods, rushing becks and broad waters that might take possession of a person. He could be obstinate at times, but he knew that he was not strong willed. The Lake District was beginning to make him feel vulnerable.

Nevertheless, he enjoyed the day. He was quite happy to be part of the crowd learning about layered rock stratas, erosion patterns and the effects of water-borne chemicals. He lazed in the sunshine at lunchtime, took photographs, and laughed with the others when one of the party misjudged a stepping stone and fell into the water.

Unusually, however, he was reluctant to join with Gavin in discussing a more instinctive and profound approach to the landscape. He felt the need to resist the legendary lure of The Lakes that had so captured the imaginations of painters, poets and composers for the past two hundred years. He felt it too strongly and preferred to limit his interest to the more prosaic pronouncements of the geography master. Gavin was surprised at the change in his friend, but decided that it was probably just a temporary mood.

At four o’clock they returned to the hostel and followed the previous day’s routine of going straight to the dorms to deposit their bags. The boys filed through the door and made for their individual beds. Colin stopped short of his and stared at the pillow. The skull was back. This time it was sitting on top of the pillow, fully exposed. He turned to Gavin who was rummaging through his bag for a book he wanted to take to the dining room.

“You brought it back, didn’t you? You didn’t throw it away,” he said accusingly. Gavin turned around in surprise.

“Didn’t throw what away?”

“That,” said Colin, pointing to the skull. “It’s an old joke now, you know. It’s not funny any more.”

Gavin shook his head in honest bemusement. The other boys heard the conversation and gathered to look at it too. One of them spoke.

“He’s right you know Gavin. A joke isn’t funny the second time round.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” said Gavin, feeling annoyed. “I can promise you, I didn’t put it there.”

“So who did?”

“I don’t know. One of you?”

“Come on, you know we’ve been out all day. You’re the one who took it outside last night. Nobody saw you throw it away. It’s got to be you.”

“No it wasn’t,” Gavin insisted. “I can promise you, I took that thing outside, threw it away and haven’t touched it since.”

He could see that the others were reluctant to believe him. Colin didn’t know what to believe.

“OK,” he continued, “I’ll show you where I threw it.” He walked over to Colin’s bed, picked up the skull and turned towards the door. “Come on.”

Some of them smiled, some of them shrugged - none of them thought the matter all that important. But there was nothing else going on so they all followed Gavin as he strode across the open patch of ground between the hostel and the beck. He went to the spot where he had disposed of the skull the previous evening and pointed down into the gully.

“I threw it down there,” he said, “like this.”

He lobbed the skull down into the chasm and watched it tumble and come to rest close to where it had landed before.

“That’s where I threw it last night, and that’s where I left it.”

The boys shrugged again and walked back indoors. Colin looked worried. He knew his friend well enough to be sure that he was telling the truth.

“So who did put it back on my bed?” he asked, as he and Gavin stood looking at the recumbent skull.

“I dunno mate,” said his friend. “But don’t worry about it. It had to be somebody, didn’t it? The heads of dead sheep don’t fly about on their own and land on people’s beds. Don’t let it get to you. It’s just some idiot carrying on the joke.”

Colin wasn’t convinced and spent the evening feeling fretful. He fully believed that Gavin hadn’t put the skull back on his bed. He knew that his classmates had all been away from the building on the trip, so there had been no opportunity for any of them to do it. And he was certain that neither the teachers nor the youth hostel staff would have done such a thing. So who had?

Most people would have shrugged the whole thing off and treated it as a mystery of little consequence. But not Colin. He was naturally superstitious, highly nervous and deeply insecure. The matter of the skull was troubling him greatly. The trip to The Lakes was becoming a bit of a nightmare for him, and Gavin could see how worried he looked.

“Forget it,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen. I wish I’d never picked the damn thing up in the first place.”

Colin was still not convinced. Neither, if truth be known, was Gavin. He had been a student of the occult since boyhood, and had no doubt that the apparently impossible does sometimes happen. Like Colin, he had given much thought to the reappearance of the skull and he, too, found it inexplicable. He told himself to suppress his nagging suspicion that some mysterious force might be at work. He couldn’t see how it could pose any threat, so there was no point in worrying about it

There was no banter when the boys retired that night. The early thrill of being away from home had worn off and the combination of mountain air and exercise had left them tired. They were all in bed before the ten thirty curfew and were all asleep within minutes of the lights being turned off. All, that is, except Colin and Gavin.

Colin was nervously watching the open window, half expecting the skull to come floating through it and make a bee line for his face. The thought horrified him, and the tingling sense of fear kept sleep at bay. He had wanted to shut the window but the others had protested unanimously. It was too warm, they’d said, and he hadn’t liked to explain his reasons for fear of being ridiculed.

Gavin knew what was troubling him, and the knowledge that he was the cause of it was keeping him awake too. He hadn’t bothered to support Colin’s wish since he knew they were outnumbered, but he felt guilty.

It was a clear night and the waxing moon was nearly full. There was enough light coming into the room for him to see Colin lying rigidly in bed and staring wide-eyed at the open window. He wanted to go over and reassure him again, but he was concerned that he would disturb the others and he knew that Colin was too convinced of some potential peril to take much notice.

He lay there for fifteen minutes before deciding that it would be a kindness to let his friend know that he was still awake. At least he might feel better for knowing that he would have an ally should he need one.

He whispered across to him but got no reply. He was about to get up when he saw Colin do the same. He watched the lanky figure walk around the foot of the next bed, approach the window slowly and stand, with his arms hanging loosely at his side, staring out of it. Gavin was reluctant to have a conversation with him close to where others were sleeping, so he rested his chin in his hands and waited to see what Colin would do next.

After a few minutes his friend returned to his bed in the corner and sat on it. Gavin saw his opportunity and rose to go over to him. He was surprised, however, to see that Colin didn’t sit still. He started to pull his socks on. Then he stood up and proceeded to get dressed.

“What the hell are you doing?” whispered Gavin as loudly as he dared. “There’s no point going out there. What d’you think you’re going to find?”

Colin said nothing. He didn’t even seem to notice Gavin’s presence. He appeared to be in a trance, and continued to dress. Gavin shook him by the shoulder, but that produced no response either.

He decided to go and shut the window whether the others liked it or not. They were all asleep anyway. He went over to the open casement and felt the cooling breeze as he approached it. He reached out to grab the latch, and stopped. The dormitory was situated at ground level, and Gavin stood aghast at what he saw.

Standing on the grass outside, a few feet from the wall, was a magnificent Swaledale ram. Its creamy fleece seemed to glow in the bright moonlight, and the black face and curved horns gave its face the appearance of something otherworldly. It stood motionless and stared at Gavin. The astonished boy stared back, wondering what to make of it and feeling more than a little unsettled at the entrance of this strange new player into the night’s drama.

He was jostled aside as Colin, now fully dressed, pushed past him and started to climb out of the window. Gavin grabbed his arm and asked him again what he was doing. Colin continued to ignore him and pulled his sleeve from Gavin’s grasp, nimbly completing the short drop to the ground outside. The ram moved slowly off in the direction of Red Tarn Beck and Colin dutifully followed. Gavin wasted no time in pulling on a pair of jeans and a sweater. He laced his boots quickly and climbed out of the window.

By the time he got outside, Colin was a hundred yards away with the ram a few paces in front. As hard as it was to believe, there seemed to be little doubt that the animal was leading and Colin was following. Gavin broke into a trot in order to catch them up.

He tried to talk to his friend again but the response was the same. Nothing. Colin appeared to be either sleepwalking or mesmerised. Gavin decided that there was little he could do except go along with whatever was happening and see where it led.

And then he noticed that Colin was carrying something close to his chest. It was a sheep’s skull, and probably the one that had been causing all the trouble. Gavin could see no way in which Colin could have retrieved it from the gully in the short time available, but it would have been an almighty coincidence if he had managed to find another.

He assumed that its second reappearance was in some way central to the mysterious little drama that was being enacted and considered snatching it from Colin’s grasp. Perhaps that would bring him to his senses. But he was reluctant to do it. He was concerned that it might provoke a violent reaction or subject his friend to a sudden and damaging shock. He had heard that it was dangerous to wake sleepwalkers too suddenly. If Colin was so intent on carrying the skull somewhere, perhaps he should indulge him for a while and see what he was going to do with it.

As they walked up the track, he continued his attempt to make contact - asking questions, making provocative statements and nudging his companion gently on the arm. Nothing had any effect. Colin continued to be the somnambulist, while the ghostly figure of the ram walked steadily on before them. They reached the small footbridge that crossed the beck and headed up the valley towards Red Tarn.

Gavin decided to take a closer look at the ram and broke into a trot. That was unsuccessful too. The animal simply quickened its pace and maintained the distance between them. He soon realised that Colin had followed suit and gave up the attempt. His only option was to keep up, keep quiet and see this little sojourn through to whatever lay at the end of it.

He felt stirrings of unease, however, as he began to see himself in the role of silent guardian. He wondered whether some danger might lie ahead for his friend and was nervous at the prospect of possibly having to effect some sort of a rescue. He wished even more earnestly that he had never picked up the skull in the first place

They made a good pace as they continued up the gentle incline alongside Red Tarn. Soon the high plateau of Birkhouse Moor to their left was echoed by the stubby top of Catstye Cam to their right. Beyond each lay the twin ridges of Striding Edge and Swirrall Edge. In front, rising majestically above the dark waters of the tarn, stood the eastern face of Helvellyn.

Gavin thought of the shepherd and his dog who had perished there, and remembered reading somewhere that their ghosts were supposed to haunt the spot. It struck him that their appearance would be entirely in keeping with the strange circumstances in which he was now playing a reluctant part.

They were getting deeper into the cove and he felt an uneasy sense that they were walking into a trap of giant proportions. The high fells seemed to press in on either side, and the unyielding flank of the mountain looked like the end of some terrible road. He wondered what would happen when they reached the water’s edge. They didn’t get that far. The ram veered to the right to follow the footpath that climbed at a shallow angle up towards Swirral Edge.

He felt relieved, but only briefly. The top of Helvellyn might be a bracing and wonderful place in daylight, but he realised that it could be hazardous in the dark. He looked at Colin again. He was staring dead ahead and walking steadfastly on. No doubt his eyes would have a glazed look, if only there was enough light to see them properly. He looked forward to the ram, still keeping the same distance ahead of its human entourage, and knew that there was nothing he could do. They appeared to be heading for Helvellyn’s summit, and that was where he would have to go.

It struck him that the animal was being surprisingly considerate. A sheep wouldn’t normally keep rigidly to the footpaths like this. Only humans need the sureness of well trodden ground. Whatever intelligence was driving it appeared to recognise their limitations. He wondered whether he should take heart from that, or be even more concerned at the sure way in which they were being led to whatever lay in wait for them.

As they approached the top of Swirral Edge, he became conscious that the wind was rising and the temperature falling. He began to feel cold and wished he had put a coat on. He started to shiver, but Colin seemed unconcerned. It became colder still as they walked around the top of the cove and climbed the final stretch to the summit. The wind was bitter there, and Gavin hoped that the climax of events would soon be settled so that they could return to milder climes lower down. There was no climax. The ram continued past the windbreak and began the descent down one of the paths on the western side.

Gavin knew that there were two main routes off that side of Helvellyn. One was long and fairly gentle, running north-west towards the northern end of Thirlmere. The other was shorter and ran south along a ridge, before swinging west and heading for the southern end of the lake. That was the one the ram took and Gavin felt nervous at the prospect of another ridge walk and a steep descent in the dark. He was also shivering violently from the cold. Where, he wondered, was the animal leading them, and to what conclusion?

He hadn’t thought to put his watch on in the rush to follow Colin out of the window, but judged from the distance he knew they had covered and the pace they had maintained that it was probably about half past midnight. He wondered what sort of reception they would receive if the teachers were up before they returned. He wished he could be sure that they would return. Heaven alone knew where they were heading and how all this was going to end.

The whole episode had the quality of a dream about it. The moonlit forms of the mountains made an eerie and unfamiliar sight which only added to the sense of unreality, and he felt a pang of regret that he was too cold and anxious to appreciate the surreal quality of the view.

They followed the path along the ridge safely, and then took the right hand option where it forked. As they approached High Crags, the descent steepened and Gavin found himself concentrating on the ground ahead. It would be so easy to lose his footing here, and he was amazed that Colin was walking with such confidence. He had the air of someone taking a stroll along the high street in full daylight. It was also surprising that the ram seemed to be exactly the same distance ahead of them as it had been from the outset. He was briefly amused as he thought of Alice’s white rabbit. This ram was obviously much cleverer and surer of purpose than him.

The steep descent continued for some time and Gavin’s knees began to ache from the strain. They passed another set of crags, and then the path turned right and became more winding. They were most of the way down the mountain by then and Gavin saw that they appeared to be heading for a long stretch of conifer woodland that lay a little way ahead and further down the slope.

He was glad the descent wouldn’t go on much longer and felt less cold, but he didn’t relish entering the darkness of the trees. He wondered whether some chilling fate might be lying in wait for them, deep within the silence of the wood. He knew he had no realistic options. Where the ram led Colin would follow, and he wasn’t about to desert his friend now.

Nevertheless, a sense of fear rose in him as the path entered the trees. The moonlight had little effect beneath the canopy of the pines and he could only trust that fate would keep his footing secure. Surprisingly, the ram appeared to be no less visible here than it had been on the open fells. The creamy whiteness of its fleece seemed to glow again, and the distance between them remained constant.

He looked around nervously as they walked through the forest of trunks on either side, but realised that there was probably nothing to fear as long as the animal continued to plod on ahead. It was clearly taking them somewhere and he supposed that nothing was meant to interfere before they reached the appointed place.

And plod on it did, remorselessly, until they came out of the wood and onto an open patch of ground. Gavin breathed a sigh of relief. Ahead of them lay the comforting sight of the main Keswick road.

He looked around, happy to see the stars and open country again. His pace slowed slightly as he gazed at the monochrome landscape, and he had to hurry to catch Colin who was oblivious to everything but the mysterious animal leading the way. He wondered what would happen when the ram reached the roadside. Would it stop and look both ways? He realised that he had never seen its head face any other way than directly forward.

And so it continued. Without checking its stride the animal carried on, crossing the road with unaltered pace. As he and Colin reached the kerb, the ram was already on the far side and he felt it prudent to check each way before stepping blindly onto the tarmac. When he looked back, the ram had disappeared.

Colin seemed not to have noticed that their leader had gone missing. He continued to walk forward undeterred, and Gavin could only stay with him. On the far side of the road was a low stone wall which Colin negotiated with surprising ease, holding the skull close to his chest with one hand whilst using the other to steady himself. Gavin scrambled over the wall alongside him and was surprised to see the ram waiting for them a short way ahead. As soon as they jumped down, it started to walk again and Colin continued to follow.

Gavin became alarmed. They were heading for the near bank of Thirlmere, and the water’s edge was only a hundred yards or so away. He hoped that the ram would take a detour around the fringe, but it didn’t. It carried on walking, straight into the lake.

At that, its true nature became apparent. The water remained undisturbed as the animal waded into it. Its legs soon disappeared, and then its body. Finally, its head sank out of sight beneath the surface without creating a single ripple. It was, as he had earlier suspected, clearly not of this world.

Colin was unperturbed. He carried on walking too, and Gavin realised that the need for action had arrived. His charge was about to follow the ram into the depths of the lake and it was his duty as guardian to stop him.

Colin was already walking into the water as Gavin grabbed him from behind, holding him around the chest and pulling him backwards away from the edge. Gavin was a front row forward in the rugby team. He was powerfully built and used to wrestling people to the ground. But Colin seemed to have developed some considerable strength of his own, and was a match for his friend’s efforts.

They struggled for a while and it took all Gavin’s weight and power to keep him from entering the water. One fact gave him the advantage: Colin continued to grip the skull tightly with both hands and his resistance came entirely from the use of his legs and shoulders.

Gavin knew now that the skull was the key to saving the situation. How Colin had come to have it in his hands he would probably never know, but he had held it tightly and carried it safely to what was obviously its destination. Getting rid of it would almost certainly break whatever spell was holding him captive.

He contrived to move himself around until he was in a position to lever Colin’s arms away from his body. The action weakened his adversary’s grip on the skull and Gavin snatched it away from him, hurling it as far as he could into the lake. The effect was like cutting the strings of a puppet. Colin collapsed to the ground and sat there, breathing heavily.

Gavin was breathing hard too. He stood leaning forward with his hands resting on his knees, ready to spring into action again if Colin made another movement towards the lake. He needn’t have worried. The exhausted boy looked weak, deflated and totally confused. He looked around in all directions and up into the face of his friend.

“Where are we?” he asked weakly.

“Thirlmere.”

“How did we get here?”

“We walked. I don’t suppose you remember any of it, do you?”

“I remember some of it,” said Colin. “I remember killing the sheep.” A look of horror came over his face and he turned his head to stare at the ground in front of him. “God, why did I do that? What the hell came over me? I’d never do anything like that.” He looked at Gavin again, his eyes full of questions. “You know me, I love animals. I don’t even swat flies.”

“What are you talking about? You didn’t kill any sheep.”

“I did though,” insisted Colin. “I remember it as clear as day.”

Gavin assumed that his friend was suffering some sort of delusion and wanted to hear more.

“OK,” he said. “You tell me what you remember and I’ll tell you what really happened.”

Colin thought for a moment and then began the story.

“I remember walking up the track along Glenridding Beck. I think we’d come from the village, but I don’t remember that bit. I had the ram on a short leash and you were walking to the side but a bit behind me. I was aware of another group of people following us, the rest of the class I suppose.

“We made our way up into Red Tarn Cove, then we climbed up to Swirral Edge and followed the track around onto Helvellyn. You held the ram while I drew the circle, then everybody gathered round and I cut its throat. God that’s horrible.”

A look of loathing clouded his face again.

“What time of the day was this?” asked Gavin, meaning to prove to Colin that it was all a dream.

“What do you mean? It just happened, a few minutes ago.”

“OK,” said Gavin indulgently, “but what time of the day did you think it was?”

“Midnight – on Midsummer’s Eve. I remember the date. It’s important. Hang on, it’s not Midsummer’s Eve is it? It’s August - isn’t it? I’m getting confused.”

“Yes, it’s August. Go on, what happened next?”

Colin’s narration became a little less certain.

“You cut the head off the ram and gave it to me. I placed it into the circle, carefully pointing its face to the east. Then I told you to take the body to Thirlmere and throw it in. It was important that the two parts of the sheep should be kept separate, one on dry land and the other immersed in water. That was to keep its spirit from moving on, so as to keep the magic going longer.”

“So you were in charge of this party and I was some sort of assistant?”

Colin nodded but looked doubtful. Gavin was the natural leader, not him.

“Why Thirlmere?” asked Gavin. “Why not Red Tarn, it’s closer?”

“Because the face needed to point east and it was better that its body was where its eyes couldn’t see it. It made the magic stronger. So the body had to be in water on the other side of the mountain.”

“That’s the second time you’ve said ‘the magic.’ What magic?”

Colin frowned and shook his head.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember. This is really confusing. I watched you walk off with the body over your shoulder, then suddenly found myself sitting here out of breath. What the hell’s going on? I wouldn’t do anything like that. It’s horrible. But I know I did. It just happened, a few minutes ago. You must remember too. You were there.”

“Right,” said Gavin. “Let’s get a couple of things straight. Do you know who you are?”

“Of course I do.”

“Who?”

“Colin Crawford.”

“Right, and what are we doing in The Lake District?”

“A field study trip from school.”

“Good. And you still reckon you’ve just sacrificed a ram on top of Helvellyn as part of some magical practice?”

“Yes. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I keep telling you; it just happened.”

“I can promise you,” said Gavin, “I’ve been with you for the last several hours and you haven’t killed anything. But something pretty strange is going on, that’s for sure.

“Come on, we’d better be heading back. It must be way past two by now and we’ve got a steep climb to make. I’ll tell you everything on the way. With any luck we’ll be back before anybody’s awake.”

He helped Colin to his feet and they began the daunting task of retracing their steps. Colin was back to his old self. He had trouble getting over the stone wall and Gavin had to give him a hand. As they crossed the road and made for the wood, Gavin began the tale of the night’s events. It was good to be talking as they made their way through the trees; it kept his nervousness at bay.

Colin listened to the whole story in silence. When he had finished the narrative, Gavin offered his opinion on his companion’s supposed recollection of the sacrifice. It was obviously some sort of paranoid delusion, he argued, brought on by the business of the sheep’s skull and Colin’s overwrought reaction to it. He’d heard of people going into hysterical comas in the face of extreme stress, and supposed that this was something similar. He had built Gavin and the other members of the school party into what was effectively an elaborate dream.

Colin listened to the story of the night’s events with fascination, but took issue with Gavin’s opinion on his state of mind. Firstly, he said, he knew the difference between a dream and a memory, and this was definitely a memory. Even if it hadn’t happened that night, it had certainly happened at some time. And, secondly, it didn’t explain two things: the appearance of the ram that both of them had followed over the mountain, and the acquisition of the skull that he had carried so dutifully all the way to Thirlmere.

Gavin conceded the point. His opinion had been hurriedly constructed as an attempt to make his friend feel better. It was obvious that it didn’t stand up to logic.

“No, you’re right,” he said. “OK, shall I tell you what I really think?”

Colin looked at Gavin. They were just coming out of the top of the wood and he could see him better.

“Go on,” he said.

They were beginning to breathe heavily from the exertions of the climb, and had a long way to go before they reached the summit.

“Let’s leave it ’till we’re on the way down,” said Gavin. “I’ll get it straight in my head while we’re walking.”

As fit as the two boys were, it was two hours before they stepped onto the flat ground of the summit and saw light starting to break on the eastern horizon. Colin looked at the windbreak.

“That’s where the circle was,” he said, pointing. “Right there.”

“Well it hasn’t been there for a while, has it?” replied Gavin. “That wasn’t built in the last two hours.”

They walked on in silence, around the top of Red Tarn Cove and onto the path leading down to Swirral Edge.

“You said you were going tell me what you think’s going on,” said Colin.

“Mmm,” said Gavin, gathering his thoughts. “Well, we’ve often talked about reincarnation, haven’t we? But we were never sure whether we believed it or not.”

“I was thinking along the same lines,” said Colin. Gavin continued.

“It would make sense of a lot of things. If this sacrifice business really is a memory, then I don’t see how it can be down to anything other than reincarnation. It certainly didn’t happen last night and you’ve never been to the Lake District before – not in this life anyway. I’ve heard it said that people who are a particular way in one lifetime balance it out, or make amends, in another.

“Let’s suppose that you really were some kind of local head man or magician or something, centuries ago in this part of Cumbria, and I was your assistant. It was part of your job to ritually slaughter animals. This time around you’re soppy about animals. As you said, you don’t even swat flies. And – forgive me putting it like this – you’re no leader, are you? You’re shy and insecure and have to work hard to fit in. I’m the dominant one this time.

“And then there’s the question of karma – the notion that you have to pay for the bad things you’ve done through successive lifetimes. Maybe you realised that when you saw the skull and that was why you reacted so strongly to it. Some deep part of you knew that the skull, or at least what it represented, had some kind of hold over you. Perhaps you even recognised it as the actual one and knew that the tables were about to be turned in some way.”

“So the ram was seeking revenge?”

“Maybe, something like that. Or maybe it just wanted to put its body back together again. Perhaps my taking the skull off the mountain and you having possession of it somehow unlocked the mechanism by which it could do it. I don’t know. You’d have to ask a magician that.”

They went silent again for a while, and then Colin said

“But that means the karma hasn’t been paid off. I should have walked into that lake and drowned. But I didn’t; you stopped me. That means I’ve still got it to come.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t take it that literally,” said Gavin. “I think the business with the ram is over and done with now.”

As usual, Colin wasn’t convinced.

It was nearly light when they arrived back at the hostel. The freshness of the cool, serene Lakeland morning would have been exhilarating in any other circumstances, but they were too exhausted to appreciate it. Crossing Helvellyn twice in one night had been quite a trek.

The other boys were still asleep as they climbed quietly back through the window. Gavin went over to his bed and looked at his watch. It was five thirty. A teacher would be coming to wake them in an hour and a half and they decided to try and get some sleep. Neither of them did. The mere presence of extreme fatigue held little sway against the nerve jangling memory of their night’s adventure.

Their absence had gone unnoticed and, apart from the two boys’ tendency to yawn more than usual the following day, the rest of the trip was uneventful. They went home determined to keep the episode a secret between themselves, and a secret it remained for thirty years.

* * *

Gavin told that story to me recently. He did so because he wanted a second opinion on the subject of karma and reincarnation. He and I have been colleagues for a while and he knew of my interest in Vedic philosophy.

He had just learned that Colin was dead, and the circumstances of the accident that had caused it seemed to point to a connection with their nocturnal adventure on the fells. He naturally sought the opinion of someone whose beliefs would lend themselves to the provision of a sympathetic ear, and felt that Colin’s demise had freed him to tell the story. He continued with the following postscript.

The year after their strange encounter with the ram, the two boys parted company. Colin saw no reason to continue his education beyond the age of sixteen as he was simply not academically minded. He had a yen to go into farming and, through some connection of his father’s, had managed to get a job as a labourer in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland.

The farmer kept a large herd of pedigree sheep and his shepherd was approaching retirement. He asked Colin if he would like to be apprenticed to the old man and take over when the time came. Being so fond of animals, Colin readily agreed. As he pointed out in a letter to his old school friend, however, he was a little nervous at the prospect of working with sheep.

Gavin took a very different course. He continued his education and then went into the Royal Navy as an officer cadet. He spent the next fifteen years travelling the oceans of the world while Colin worked quietly away tending his flock in rural Ireland.

At first the two young men corresponded regularly, but their widely differing paths gradually caused their friendship to drift. By the time Gavin retired as a lieutenant commander and moved back to his home town, their correspondence had long since faded to nothing.

Many years later he had a chance meeting with another old classmate and learned that a school reunion was being planned. He agreed to attend and thought that Colin should be made aware of it too. He remembered his old friend’s sentimental nature and thought that he might well be enthusiastic about making the trip. He had no idea whether Colin still worked at the farm in Ireland, but it was the only address he had and decided to send the invitation there.

Three weeks later a package arrived bearing an Irish postmark. Inside was the envelope containing Gavin’s letter to Colin and several handwritten sheets. Gavin gave them to me to read. They said:

Dear Mr Bowyer
First of all I must apologise for opening your letter. I had to in order to get the return address, since I felt that I must write to give you some bad news
I regret to have to tell you that your friend died in a tragic accident recently and you might wish to know that he died honourably in the furtherance of his duties
You will know, I suppose, that Colin was our shepherd. My father employed him some thirty years ago. He quickly became a close friend of the family and was well respected for his diligence and the quality of his work. His loss affected us all very deeply. I’m sure you would like to know how the accident happened.
We farm in the old fashioned way and keep our own ram to service the ewes. One day, about six months ago, my daughter told me that the ram’s pen was empty and the animal was missing. He had broken out before and I was not unduly worried. I knew that Colin would pick him up in the course of his rounds over the next day or two.
But then my neighbour, who farms on the other side of the valley, called me up on the telephone to tell me that he had seen my ram making for a part of the valley where there is a dangerous waterfall. We have lost a few sheep there over the years. He also said that one of the ewes and her young lamb were following close behind. I knew that Colin was out on the quad bike with my eldest boy Declan, and decided to call him on his mobile phone and ask him to make for the waterfall to see that no harm should come to the animals.
It is sadly ironic that the ram should have made for that spot, since it was Colin’s favourite. He said it reminded him of a beautiful place he knew in The Lake District in England. When Colin and Declan reached the falls, there was no sign of the ram. They could see only the ewe, which was bleating pitifully. But they could also hear the lamb calling back to her and went to investigate.
There is a rocky ledge on one side of the waterfall, very close to the top, and the lamb was standing on it. It had somehow got down but was unable to climb back up again. Colin, as always, did his duty. He climbed down to retrieve it. The climb is dangerous for, although it is only a matter of nine or ten feet, the ground is steep and the ledge at the bottom is narrow. Colin placed the lamb over his shoulder and climbed back up, managing to hold onto the animal with one hand while he steadied himself with the other.
As soon as he came level with the top of the slope, Declan took hold of the lamb and turned around to place it on the ground. He was surprised to see that the ram had reappeared and was running towards him. He was not unduly worried though for, although it is a strong beast, it has never shown any inclination to attack anyone. It was probably just curious to know what was going on. He turned back to offer a hand to Colin who was climbing over the lip of the slope.
At that moment Colin looked up and saw the ram running towards them. Declan says that he looked suddenly startled and seemed to shudder. His foot slipped off the rock on which it was braced and he slid back down the slope. The speed of his fall meant that he was unable to keep his footing when he reached the ledge and he tumbled over, falling headlong into the pool below.
Declan climbed onto the bike and made all haste to the bottom of the falls, hoping to find Colin unhurt. It was not to be. It takes several minutes to get around to the pool by land and, by the time he got there, he found Colin lying face down in the shallows at the front edge of the pool. He pulled him out immediately, but Colin was already dead. The fall must have stunned him, for the Garda report said that he had died of drowning.
He had always said that he regarded Ireland as his true home and wanted to be buried here when he died. We asked the permission of his parents to honour this wish and they agreed. Colin was buried in our local churchyard and we deem it a privilege to maintain his grave as though he were one of our own family. Should you wish to visit and pay your respects, we would be honoured to offer the hospitality of our household for your stay.
I am sorry again that I have to be the bearer of such bad news.
Yours sincerely
Martin Connolly.

I remarked that it was a surprisingly detailed account of the circumstances.

“I know,” said Gavin. “But that’s the Irish for you, isn’t it? Story telling seems to be in their blood. If it had been an English farm, I would probably have got a brief note saying ‘Colin died in an accident at work’ and I wouldn’t have thought any more about it. But this tells the whole story. I almost wish it didn’t. It seems the ram got its revenge after all.”

I found it hard not to agree that the circumstances of Colin’s death were, at the very least, remarkably ironic. Even the reference to him “holding the lamb with one hand while he steadied himself with the other” contained an echo of his action in climbing over the wall on the way to Thirlmere. I suggested to Gavin that it might have produced some resonance deep in his subconscious, and might have been the reason for his being so startled when he saw the ram.

As for the question of whether Colin’s accident was the repaying of karmic debt, I said that I was unqualified to offer an opinion. I explained that karma is an infinitely complex process of cause and effect, unfathomable to the limited brain of a human, in which all actions and reactions are interconnected. It’s not quite as simple as “an eye for an eye.” I did admit, however, that it seemed a possibility.

Gavin looked concerned. If that were the case, he said, it would confirm Colin’s memory of the sacrifice, an incident in which he, too, had played a part. He wondered whether he was destined for some fate that would reflect his own actions. Was he about to lose his head in some way, physically or metaphorically? I told him not to worry. His level of culpability was lower than Colin’s, since he had been acting under orders.

“So were the guards at Auschwitz,” he said.

“Yes, but you didn’t do the actual killing,” I replied.

“I suppose not,” he said.

But, this time, it was Gavin who looked unconvinced.

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