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.

January 20, 2012

The Accordion Player.

As with many of the stories, this one takes an actual event as its starting point: I encountered the three beggar girls on the Ha’penny Bridge during a trip to Dublin in 1996, and they behaved pretty much as described.

It was first published by Misanthrope Press in their anthology Etched Offerings in December 2011

Approximate reading time: 45 minutes.

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I had been in two minds whether to make the trip to Dublin in the first place. A work colleague was planning to hold his stag night there, and I had been invited. Although not a lover of stag nights, I liked Dublin and the discount on the group booking meant that I could visit the city more cheaply than if I’d gone alone. I intended to follow my own itinerary once we were there. We drove to Holyhead late on Friday evening and took the overnight ferry.

Having snatched some sleep on the way over, I spent most of Saturday acting as reluctant guide to those in the party who had not been to Dublin before. The only edifice in which they showed any real interest was the Post Office in O’Connell Street, the scene of the Easter Rising. By and large, the many literary connections, the architecture and the general atmosphere of the place left them unimpressed. That wasn’t what they were there for. In the afternoon we checked into our lodgings in one of the Edwardian terraces near the bus station and the others began to prepare eagerly for their night of revelry. I prepared too, but less enthusiastically. That wasn’t what I was there for.

We headed for the city centre and I discharged my duty by accompanying the group to the first couple of watering holes. Unlike them, however, I limited my consumption to three pints of Guinness and left early to get a decent night’s sleep. I wanted to be up early the next morning to visit and savour the places that had been glossed over the day before. Apart from some brief disturbance when my colleagues rolled unsteadily back, I had a good night’s sleep and was up for breakfast bright and early.

At ten o’clock I set off to walk to the river and took the long route around the far side of the Old Custom House. I had my camera with me and walked along the south bank, stopping to take pictures every so often until I reached the O’Connell Street Bridge. Being one of Dublin’s major landmarks, I decided to shoot it from several angles. I crossed it and continued my walk along the north bank. A leisurely stroll led me to that even more famous crossing: the curiously insubstantial, metalwork structure called the Ha’penny Bridge. It was heavy with tourists and I had some difficulty finding an unimpeded vantage point from which to select a shot of the river.

Eventually I managed to settle myself and composed a decent picture looking downstream. It was difficult as the backlight on the water needed some controlling and care was needed over the exposure.  Having taken the trouble to get everything right, I leaned on the top rail and steadied myself to release the shutter. As I was about to press the button I felt a tug on my sleeve and heard a gravely young voice with a thick Dublin accent.

“Give us some money mister.”

I felt irritated, and turned around to see a young girl of about six or seven looking up at me. She had those hard, drawn features characteristic of poor people everywhere, but her unmistakeably Gaelic eyes identified her immediately as one of Dublin’s underclass. I knew that begging was common in that part of the city and chose to ignore her. I turned back to continue with the shot, hoping she would go away and pester somebody else. Dublin beggars are not that easily discouraged and she tugged my arm again. I felt even more irritated.

“Look, can’t you see I’m busy?”

“C’mon mister, give us some money.”

I am usually patient and compassionate with beggars, especially those whose eyes attest to genuine poverty, but her aggressive manner irritated me.

Go away,” I said angrily.

She pulled back and I returned to my composition. As I prepared for a third attempt my attention was arrested again, not by tugging fingers this time but by the sound of music. And what music! A simple Irish air, slow and hauntingly beautiful, filled my ears and seemed to clear away the babble of traffic noise and jumbled voices. I forgot the picture and turned to seek the source.

A few yards away, on the opposite side of the bridge, stood the little girl watching me with a frown. Next to her was another girl of twelve or thirteen and, next to her, a young woman who was probably in her late teens. She stood with her eyes closed, playing a piano accordion with the effortless ease of a practised performer. In front of her was a pram, presumably containing a baby as the second girl was rocking it gently. The three figures were as alike as their different ages would allow. They looked, if such a thing were possible, like identical twins born over a space of several years. Clearly they were sisters and I watched them for several minutes as I listened to the music.

The melody had that ethereal quality so characteristic of the Gaelic form, the sort that speaks of a more romantic and mysterious world than the one to which we are usually accustomed. I was entranced by the moment, and the throng of people passing between us faded into grey, transparent ghosts against the almost mystical image of the three girls.

As I watched and listened, the little girl continued to frown at me, the older one continued to rock the pram, and the young woman continued to play. The beauty of the music seemed to change the nature of reality around me, softening the stone and metalwork, sweetening the air and lifting my consciousness to a higher level. When the melody ended the group remained motionless, except for the single hand rocking the baby.

I lost interest in taking pictures and slung the camera over my shoulder. I walked slowly off the bridge, feeling that some part of me had undergone a subtle but profound change. A creeping sense of guilt at my earlier antagonism towards the child began to trouble me and I searched my pockets for change. I walked back to where she and her sisters were ensconced.

The child looked pointedly away from me. The older girl continued to rock the pram and ignored my approach. The young woman was sitting cross-legged on the ground, her hands resting on her skirt. Her face was turned to the sun and her eyes were closed. She opened them when my shadow fell across her. I held out some change and she lifted a hand to receive it. She looked direct and long into my eyes as I placed the money into her open palm, and I felt something of deep consequence pass between us. The feeling was strong, but too vague to identify. Somehow it spoke of ancient knowledge and intense familiarity. For a second I was consumed with a longing for something precious but undefined.

The moment passed and I turned away to cross the bridge. As I did so I saw a movement down by my right side. I looked to see the hand of the young girl reaching out to take hold of my camera strap. A second hand stretched out to pull it away. I could only surmise that the child had intended to snatch my camera and bolt for the safety of the back streets. One of the others had stopped her. The gesture seemed to say “not this one, he’s different.” I hurried on.

The rest of the day was interesting enough, but some persistence of vision kept the eyes of the young woman fresh in my mind. The ever-present image clouded and belittled everything I looked at. Eventually I returned to my lodgings and joined my companions in refilling our bags ready for the trip home. We went to a local restaurant for dinner and then made our way to Dublin Port to catch a late sailing back to England. Once, as I was drifting into a nap on the ferry, I heard the accordion breathing its wistful melody into my ears again. I opened my eyes and looked around. The music faded and I fell asleep, disappointed.

Over the next few months I thought often of my experience with the sisters. I even described it to a couple of people, but could never do it full justice. On the surface it was an insubstantial little tale. The power was in the effect it had on some deeper part of me and I found mere words, however well I tried to arrange them, hopelessly inadequate.

I started to visit the music section of the local library and took out everything they had on Irish music, hoping to identify the melody that had opened the door to that fleeting but magical experience. I never found it. Eventually the meeting took on the quality of a dream and the memory of it became distant. And then, six months after I had stood entranced on the Ha’penny Bridge, the visitations began.

It was early in January and a cold front had conspired with a deep depression to bring a torrent of snow down from the Arctic on a vicious, north-easterly wind. The first flakes started to fall at lunchtime and the blizzard gathered momentum throughout the afternoon. By five o’clock the snow was deep enough to make driving conditions difficult, even on the well-used city streets.  It took me two hours to drive the few miles to my home in the suburbs, such were the queues and blockages at every junction. It continued to snow throughout the evening and, by the time I went to bed, the world was universally white and deadly quiet. There had been no traffic movement for some hours and the temperature had fallen to well below freezing. I decided that there would be no question of going to work the following morning and settled into a relaxed sleep.

I was woken in the early hours by the sound of music. It seemed not to be coming from any external source, but to have its origins inside my head. I was confused for a second, but then I recognised the slow Irish air that I had tried so hard to identify. As I became fully awake I revised my opinion of its source. Now it seemed to be drifting in through the curtained window that was only just visible in the dark room. I got out of bed, hurried across the room and drew back the curtains.

My house stood at the top of a large cul-de-sac. The road and houses encircled a green that was big enough to allow the local children to play an almost full sized game of football across its capacious width, and my window looked directly onto it. Everything was covered in a deep blanket of fresh snow - the road, the green, the roofs, the trees and shrubs, the privet hedges. Only the streetlamps stood like beacons above the snowy mantle, their sodium discharges bathing the scene in an eerie, yellow light.

The wind had dropped and the air was still and clear. A million tiny ice particles glinted on the frozen surface. I stared in disbelief at what I saw. Standing in the middle of the green, apparently oblivious to the lateness of the hour and the biting cold, was the figure of a woman. Her head was bare and she was clothed in some long black garment. She was playing that familiar, haunting melody on a piano accordion, and a pram stood motionless at her side. As I watched, two other figures appeared from behind her, a young girl and an older one. They took a position either side of the accordion player and looked in my direction.

My logical mind would not let me believe what I was seeing. I closed my eyes and patted my cheeks sharply. I could still hear the music and opened my eyes again. The scene was unchanged. The young woman held her head slightly to one side and tilted downwards, as though listening carefully to the notes she was generating. Her two companions continued to look directly at me.

I don’t know how long I stood watching them. I was consumed with an overwhelming desire to go out and meet them but my rational faculty still nagged at me, insisting that some aberrant aspect of my physical or mental state must be playing a trick. The sound was real enough, however, and there was nothing wrong with my eyesight or my state of mind. I crossed the bedroom, went out onto the landing and hurried down the stairs. My Wellington boots were in the hall cupboard and I pulled them on impatiently. I threw my winter coat on and opened the front door.

I was thrilled but hesitant, and had no idea how I would react on meeting these ghosts – or whatever they were - face to face. The snow had built up against the door and I was startled as a large chunk of it fell into the hall. I looked out nervously. There was no music and no sign of any human presence, just the spartan silence of a snowbound landscape.

I couldn’t leave it there. I ventured outside and trudged through the deep snow to the gate. It was difficult to open as the snow had built up on both sides, but a little clearing work with my boot and some forceful tugging soon had it open wide enough let me out onto the pavement. I walked across the road and onto the green.

The carpet of smooth, virgin whiteness showed no sign of disturbance. I went to the spot where I judged the figures to have been standing, but that was as pristine as everywhere else. And then a glint, larger than those from the ice particles, caught my eye. I bent down and picked up a small metal object. It was one of those little closed bells, the sort that people put on the collars of cats to warn the birds of an approaching predator.

For some reason I declined to ring it. An inexplicable reluctance rose in me, and it seemed wrong to disturb the peace of the night. At first I thought the bell must have fallen off the collar of one of the local pets, but that was impossible. It was on top of the snow and the lack of prints proved that nothing had walked there for some time. I dropped it into my coat pocket. 

I began to feel desperately cold and hurried back to the house. My outdoor garments removed, I returned to my bedroom and looked out of the window again. There was a better view of the green from the higher angle, and the only prints in the snow were mine. I climbed back into bed and tried to make some sense of it all. There was no sense to be made of it and I fell into a deep sleep, punctuated by a single, short dream.

I was standing in a snow-covered graveyard at night. It was profoundly quiet and serenely still. The black skeletons of winter trees stood like statues, and the light of a large full moon cast long shadows from the white-capped headstones. I heard a woman’s voice behind me say “Do not ring the bell until you are ready.” I didn’t turn around; some inner part of me knew that I wasn’t supposed to. I understood that the speaker would show herself in her own time.

Over the next few days my thoughts constantly returned to the music and the vision in the snow. I was baffled. On the one hand, I knew they couldn’t have been real. On the other, I was certain of what I had heard and seen; and I knew that I had been wide awake. And was the little cameo of a dream just that - an inconsequential by-product of my experience? Or was I to take the instruction seriously? The bell was still in my coat pocket the morning after I had found it. I say “still”, because I half expected that to have disappeared too.

I took it out and examined it. It appeared to be made of silver and was unmarked by any scratch or blemish. It looked new, but it somehow felt as old as time. I handled it carefully so as not to ring it, and eventually placed it in a little-used draw for safe keeping. If nothing else, it went some way to demonstrating that the episode had not been entirely imagined.

That was the first of my frustratingly distant encounters with the three girls. Two more happened over the following few months.

On the first occasion I was alone in my office and heard the accordion strike up its wistful melody again. I rushed to the window and saw the group standing on the pavement opposite. People were walking past them, but no one gave them any money. The world was ignoring them. Were the shoppers feeling less than generous that day, or was it that only I could see them? My office was on the fourth floor of the building and I ran down the stairs and out into the street. I felt no surprise that the spot was empty, and I knew that any search would prove fruitless.

On the second occasion I was in my car, waiting at a set of traffic lights in the town. I heard the melody mingle with the sound of my car radio and looked across to where two busy thoroughfares met. The group was standing in full view and arranged as before: two girls, one young woman, a pram and a piano accordion. The lights changed and the road was busy. I had no option but to drive on.

That night I made a decision. I had been prepared to treat the first encounter with the ghostly trio as one of those mysterious happenings that crop up in life now and then. They usually have something about them that leaves the door of doubt ajar, and it is easier to walk through it and forget the incident than take the trouble to seek a deeper or more challenging cause. Even the second sighting had failed to convince me that there could not be some rational explanation and I had allowed that one to pass too. But a third - that was one too many, and I decided that there really was something mysterious going on in my life that needed to be addressed.

I felt that the obvious course of action would be to return to the source of the matter. I would take my summer holiday in Dublin and spend two weeks looking for the sisters wherever beggars might be found. It promised no certainty of a solution, of course; they might never have existed. My first encounter with them could, in itself, have been supernatural. But I didn’t think so. The insistent tugging on the sleeve and the placing of money in the young woman’s hand were physical acts that demonstrated the reality of palpable matter. I could think of no other solution than to confront them with the direct question: who are you and what do you want with me?

The following day I approached my manager and asked for two weeks off at the end of May. He had been pestering me for some time to book my holidays and was only too pleased to agree. At lunchtime I booked the ferry ticket and decided that I could arrange my accommodation when I got there. It seemed appropriate that I should stay in the same boarding house that my colleagues and I had used on the earlier trip. There was no rational basis for such a thought, just the vague notion that it might help to recreate the previous conditions as closely as possible.

There were no more visitations between then and the start of my holiday, and I felt a surprising lack of impatience as the day approached. The absence of further incidents had led me back into that laissez faire attitude, in which it is easier to let things go than make the effort to resolve them. But the arrangements were made and the day duly arrived. After a quiet crossing I arrived at the lodging and booked two weeks accommodation. It was late in the evening and I was tired. The search would begin the next morning.

It’s hard to describe how tedious the following two weeks were. Day after day I tramped the tourist areas of Dublin, scanning the repetitive vista and listening for the sound of an accordion. It isn’t a big city and I found the task of visiting the same bars, monuments, bridges and thoroughfares, over and over again, both mentally and physically wearing. I felt the need to start and end each day at the Ha’penny Bridge, and also to return to it two or three times during the day.

I saw, and was accosted by, plenty of beggars; but there was no sight or sound of my quarry. Perhaps they were on holiday too; perhaps they had hit on good times and given up begging; perhaps they were dead. I didn’t know, and increasingly I felt that I didn’t care. I could have spent the time at home and saved the money. Nevertheless, I did keep to my plan right up to the end of the final day. At six o’clock I trudged wearily back towards my lodging, strained by the sadness of failure but relieved to be able to go home.

And then, as I approached the Edwardian terrace, I heard the strains of a piano accordion drift towards me and it was playing that same familiar air. I nearly cried with relief when I looked up to see a group of people about a hundred yards ahead of me on the corner of the street for which I was heading. They were all there: the girls, the pram and the accordion.

I stopped and felt wracked with uncertainty. What should I say to them? I had developed some vague form of words by way of an introduction, but they went clean out of my head. I was speechless and a tingle of nervous excitement kept me fixed to the spot while I gathered my thoughts. I had waited a long time for this moment and had endured two weeks of tedium and frustration to bring it about. It would be unthinkable to let the opportunity pass.

I walked on until I reached the group. Gathering as much courage as I could, I strode forward and faced the young woman. She continued playing and returned my gaze, but the only message her eyes carried this time was one of confrontation and suspicion.

“Excuse me,” I said, an outwardly bold manner masking my nervousness.

She said nothing, but moved her head slightly and frowned at me. She carried on playing. I had to speak loudly in order to be heard over the accordion.

“Do you remember me? I gave you some money, last summer on the Ha’penny Bridge.”

She stopped playing and looked at me with an expression as hard as granite. Her lips stretched into a sardonic smile as she looked me up and down. She spoke mockingly with a rough Dublin accent.

“Mister, if I remembered everybody who gave me money, my head would explode, so it would.”

She was right and I felt stupid.

“Yes I know, but...”

I was about to remind her of the deep and meaningful eye contact we had made, but it suddenly seemed feeble and ridiculous. I decided to come straight to the point.

“Well, the fact is...” This was going to sound pretty silly too. “...I keep seeing you, in England, in the strangest places. You’re always with your sisters and always playing that same tune, and you always disappear before I can get to you.”

There, I’d said it. And I was right; it did sound pretty silly. Her smile disappeared and she looked annoyed.

“Are you some kind of a pervert, or what?”

“I know it sounds ridiculous,” I said, trying to remain calm, “but I really have seen you, several times. And I don’t mean in my head, I mean really seen you.”

“Look mister, I’m a beggar. If I’m lucky I make just enough to pay that bastard of a landlord his rent and have a bit left over for food. How the fuck would I get to England? Swim?”

“But that’s the point,” I continued hopefully. “I don’t think you’re really there, not in body anyway. But some part of you is, and I need to know why.”

This wasn’t going too well and I felt increasingly embarrassed. The young woman was unimpressed.

“Are you going to give us some money?”

Desperation led me down a fatal track.

“OK, if I give you some money would you come and talk to me somewhere?”

“So that’s your game,” she said predictably. “I thought so. Piss off.”

“No, you’re wrong, really. I only want to talk to you.”

“That’s what they all say. Your type should be strung up. C’mon.”

The final word was addressed to her sisters. She turned and walked away, taking them and the pram with her.

I felt confused, shocked and disappointed. I stood and watched them go, uncertain whether to follow them and continue my questioning. It seemed pointless. The young woman clearly had no time for my story, and was very different to how I remembered her from a year earlier. There was nothing about her that could remotely be described as “mystical.” The sense of frustration at having come so far, only to be met with such a vitriolic response, was nagging at me mercilessly.

I watched them recede into the distance until they reached an alley that ran off the road, and they turned to enter it. As they did so, the little girl swung her head sharply to look at me and checked her stride briefly. I swear she nodded. I took it as a signal and followed quickly. By the time I reached the alley, they were gone.

I took some heart from the child’s nod and the fact that they apparently lived close by. I was in that desperate sort of mood in which coincidences become meaningful and the slightest gesture carries promise. It seemed to me that there was some game being played out, and that the young woman might be unaware of her part in it.

But whose game? What were the rules? And where should I go from here? I returned to my lodging and spent the evening in my room. I divided my time between packing for an early departure the next morning and musing on the events of the past year, trying to work out some possible reason for it all. I looked out of the window frequently, hoping against hope that I might see the girls again. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t. At eleven o’clock I went to bed.

I don’t know what time it was when I was woken by the music. As usual, I thought at first that I was dreaming but soon realised I wasn’t. I got out of bed almost mechanically. There was no sense of surprise any more and little sense of mystery, just an inevitable realisation that the game was still going on and so must my attempt to play it to a conclusion. I went to the window and looked out. The group stood as ever, with one significant difference. This time, all eyes were turned towards me. The young woman stopped playing and spoke. Not shouted, you understand, but spoke quietly; yet I heard her voice as clearly through the closed window as I would if she had been standing next to my ear.

“Ring the bell when you’re ready,” she said.

The bell! It had never occurred to me to bring it along. It had lain in its drawer since the first visitation. I had never taken it out because I believed that I wasn’t supposed to ring it until I was “ready.” How would I know?

“How will I know when I’m ready?” I asked.

“Read the book.”

The book? What book? This was a new piece of information to add to the game plan and, as usual, it was enigmatic. I asked the obvious question, but somehow knew I wouldn’t be favoured with a reply.

“What book?”

The young woman began to play again, and then all three figures turned and walked away until they were out of sight. The music faded with them and I went back to bed.

The following day I took the ferry home. I stood on the upper deck of the ship, looking astern to watch the coastline of Ireland receding slowly into the distance. The trip had clearly not been wasted. The appearance of the girls at the eleventh hour and the pronouncement concerning the book had made the two weeks of tedium worthwhile. The game was still afoot, but I felt more confused than ever. I assumed they were all were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that I hadn’t yet worked out how to put together. And why had the young woman been so hostile when I met her in the flesh?

The following week I returned to work and, at lunchtime on the first day, I paid a visit to the local library. I had no idea what I was looking for, but hoped that a comprehensive browsing of the shelves might provide some inspiration.

The library had a policy of promoting a particular theme every so often, and there was a portable shelving rack on the ground floor carrying books on the current topic which was genealogy. It contained a selection of tomes on the tracing of one’s family tree, and one on the origin of surnames.

I picked up the latter and idly researched my own name, which was Godwin. Entries that I had seen previously had always said that it was an Anglo-Saxon personal name composed of God or Good, and win, meaning friend – hence, “friend of God” or “good friend.”  This one gave a second possibility.

Apparently, there are Godwins in certain parts of Ireland. There the derivation is quite different; it is an Anglicisation of the Irish family name O’Goidin. I remembered that my aunt, my father’s sister, had once told me that we had Irish ancestry on the male side. She said that her paternal grandfather had always insisted that his grandfather had been an Irishman of some substance who had fallen on hard times and come to England.

I had found the story interesting, but had dismissed it as I believed Godwin to be one of the oldest of exclusively English surnames. I now saw that my ancestor’s assertion might have been right, and wondered whether it could have some bearing on my quest. Maybe this was the first clue. I decided to continue my browsing on the first floor where most of the reference works were housed.

For the next half hour I perused title after title, but found nothing that caught my attention in any way. Lunchtime was nearly over and I decided to return the following day. As I passed the counter on my way to the stairs my curiosity was aroused by the sight of three elderly women walking towards the exit, having just checked out their selections. One of them turned and looked at me. I saw in her eyes something of the same look that I had seen in the eyes of the accordion player on my first trip to Dublin. I stopped and looked at the counter. Lying there was a book called The Arthurian Legends: an Illustrated Anthology.

It wasn’t the title that excited my attention, but the picture on the jacket. A man, dressed as a medieval warrior and apparently wounded, is lying on the ground. Tending him are three women, with a fourth weeping at his feet. In the background is a body of water on which a boat is at rest with a furled sail. There is an island on the horizon.

I asked the clerk whether the book was available to be borrowed. He said that the three women had included it in their selection, but had changed their minds and left it to be returned to the shelves - so yes, I could take it out if I wanted to.

On returning to the office I searched for the identity of the picture. I found it reproduced with the colour plates in the middle of the book. The caption informed me that it was called “La Mort d’Arthur” by James G Archer, and that it was a depiction of the three queens who had come to take King Arthur to Avalon after his final battle with Mordred. I searched the contents page and found that the book contained an excerpt from Mallory’s definitive collection of the Arthurian canon. I read it until I came to the passage in which the king is lying mortally wounded, attended by the faithful Sir Bedivere.

Now put me into the barge, said the King. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all these ladies go from him. Comfort thyself, said the king...for I will into the Vale of Avalon to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.

Surely, I thought, the repetition of the three-women motif must be more than mere coincidence. Three women had told me to “read the book”, three women had placed it for me to find, and the cover depicted three women of great significance in Celtic mythology, those whose job it is to conduct their charge to the magic isle beyond death.

The solution to my quest began to take shape. My first encounter with my own three women had been in Ireland, and it seemed probable that I had Irish ancestry. And now three mythical women were being presented to me as guides to the next life. I became worried; did all this mean that I was about to die? It seemed that it might be time to ring the bell. Did I now understand enough to be permitted to do that, and did I really want to hear something that might be highly unpalatable?

I prevaricated for days. The ringing of the bell seemed an act of great magnitude and I felt nervous. I assumed that it would bring knowledge of some sort, and that it would conclude my dealings with the women. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted either. At the same time I knew that it would have to be done eventually and reasoned that there was no point in putting it off. The instruction “ring the bell when you are ready” flashed repeatedly into my mind for three days. In the evening of the third day, I decided that I was.

The decision made, I went to my bedroom and took the bell out of the drawer. I sat on the bed, took a deep breath and gave it a short but firm ring. Then I waited, wondering how long the response would take and in what form it would present itself. I sat on the bed for several minutes, feeling thrilled but apprehensive. It came as no great surprise that nothing happened.

I felt unsettled throughout the evening. Nothing held my interest for very long. Being conscious of waiting for something extraordinary to happen intruded on everything I attempted. By midnight I was becoming tired, and knew there was no point in awaiting the response in a state of nervous expectation. It could take weeks or even longer. I went to bed.

I dreamed that I was in the same graveyard in which I had heard the voice on that snowy night in January. There was no snow this time. It felt warm, and I could see that the vegetation was rich with summer growth. The delicate scent of meadowsweet filled the air. I saw a pram standing on the path by the church wall and walked over to it. A familiar voice spoke from behind me again.

“Look inside.”

I bent over the vehicle and pulled back the covers. It was empty, but the whole of the base formed a mirror, and I saw my look of surprise reflected from it. I heard the sound of a small bell tinkling in the distance and looked around for its source. I could see none, and felt myself drifting away from the scene and back to full consciousness.

I awoke in my darkened bedroom with the sound of the bell loud and near. I sat up in bed and the sound stopped. I felt afraid and switched on the light. There was nothing to be seen, and yet I knew that I was not alone. I could feel a presence very strongly. I even knew where it was: at the foot of the bed. And I was aware that it was looking at me. There was a sound too, a faint crackling like that made by dry twigs in a fire, but quieter and more regular. When the voice spoke I knew that its source was the presence; and yet it didn’t travel through the air between us. It was inside my head, but it was as loud and clear as any external noise.

“Well done,” it said. The voice was female and carried a calm serenity. “Now we can answer your questions.”

I sat transfixed by fear and fascination. I felt incapable of speech and too much in awe of my visitor to convert my many questions into rational sentences. The presence seemed to read my thoughts.

“Ask us who we are.”

There seemed to be several female voices speaking in perfect ensemble and the tone was warm and comforting. I relaxed a little and gathered myself.

“OK,” I began. I could hear my voice trembling. “Who are you?”

“We are the Banshee of the O’Goidin.”

I was surprised. I had an image of the banshee as an old crone of fearsome appearance, whose job it is to wail mournfully at someone’s impending death. They are supposed to be ugly, frightful and threatening. Apparently, my thoughts were transparent again and were taken as a question. The voices explained.

“The banshee have no physical form. Our purpose is to guide those to whom we are attached through the door to the next stage of their spiritual life. But people are afraid of death; they see it as an ending and something to be shunned. Those who are sensitive enough to be aware of our presence create for themselves an image that is dark and ugly, and project that image into their own minds. The sound they hear is nothing more than the vibrating of the energy from which we are formed, rather as the reed in a musical instrument vibrates and makes the sound that is characteristic of that instrument.”

This posed a question and I felt settled enough to be able to ask it.

“So why don’t I hear that sound now?”

“Because we are not here to take your soul through the door. Our energies only reach such a pitch when we are performing that function.”

That cleared up my major fear and I was massively relieved. There was silence for a while. Obviously I was expected to ask more questions. Foolishly, I tried to settle everything in one go.

“So, what’s all this about then?”

“That is too diverse a question. Be more precise.”

I set myself to think of the many things that I had wanted to know over the past year. The first was easy.

“Why me? If you’re not here to take my soul, how are you connected to me?”

“You are descended through the male line from a high-born Irish family called O’Goidin. We have been connected to every male born of that line since time immemorial. But only those on the male side, you understand. Only male O’Goidins born of O’Goidin fathers. The significance of that will become clear later. An ancestor of yours was a wealthy landowner at the time of the potato famine. He was a compassionate man and shared his wealth with his tenants to save them from starvation. As the situation grew worse he lost everything and was forced to go to England as a pauper. He took a job as a labourer and his descendants have been born English ever since. We have continued to serve them; it’s what we exist to do. We were with your own father when he died.”

“So why did all this begin in Ireland? And why did you appear as begging girls; what was that all about? And what was the accordion...”

“Slowly,” said the voices with a hint of chastisement. “One question at a time.”

I was beginning to warm to the conversation and the questions were tumbling through my brain in a jumbled mass. The presence continued.

Ireland was your ancestral home and the one in which we worked for so long. Your being there created a resonance that weakened the barrier between your world and ours.”

”But I’ve been to Ireland several times. What was special about that one?”

“You gave money to the beggars. It was typical of your Irish forbears, and you have no idea how powerful an act of charity is on our level. It was the key to dissolving the barrier. The tune the young woman was playing helped too. It is an old lament, written for one of your ancestors, and is little played these days. That’s why you were so taken with it. Something as powerful as that can be carried in the blood through many generations. It might be said that you remembered it, in a manner of speaking.”

“So the girls weren’t you then?”

The question sounded clumsy, but there was no pause to check the reply.

“Of course not. I’ve told you, we have no physical form. When the barrier was removed we were able to occupy their bodies temporarily. We made contact through the young woman’s eyes. You saw us and felt our power. Without realising it consciously, you recognised our position in your life.”

“So that was why she was so abrupt with me when I saw her in Dublin the last time. That was the real her, and she didn’t know what I was talking about. No wonder she thought I was weird.”

I took their silence as indicating the affirmative.

“But how did you manage to appear as them in the snow that night, and the other times in the town centre?”

“We didn’t. I told you earlier: when people feel our presence they project onto their conscious minds whatever image they have of us. Yours was the image of the beggar girls and the sound of the lament being played on the accordion.”

“And the three women in the library?”

“We used them too. We knew that the book explaining your surname was already there for you to pick up, but we needed you to find the second book to complete your preparation. We had to manipulate that.”

“I still don’t understand why all this was necessary. Why didn’t you just tell me who you were from the beginning?”

“There are laws in our world, as there are in yours. It was necessary that you expended some effort in order that we might engage in this contact. Going back to Dublin, finding the books and coming to a preliminary understanding of our identity was sufficient. It is a matter of balance.”

“And the bell?”

“A treasured possession of your ancestor. It was made for him as a gift by a silversmith who had reason to be grateful for his generosity. During the famine most of your ancestor’s possessions were sold off or taken by the bailiffs. He managed to keep a few small items that were precious to him, including the bell. Before he left for England he buried them in a silver box. He knew they would probably be stolen or that he would be forced to sell them if he took them with him. He never returned to Ireland to reclaim them and the box lies there still.”

“So you have the power to teleport material objects?”

“In our world magic is no mystery. Bringing you the bell was not difficult.”

I stopped asking questions for a while and thought of all I had been told. I sensed that the presence was waiting patiently. It seemed natural that they should; in their position, patience must be a necessary virtue. I apologised mentally for my flippancy. It occurred to me that the biggest question of all remained unanswered.

“Why did you need to make contact at all? Is this something you do with every generation?”

“No,” said the voice. “It hasn’t been necessary before. You need to understand that every human has two histories. You have your physical history, which is your family - your ancestry stretching back to the dawn of creation. On that level each individual is separate and linked only by blood. Then you have your spiritual history. Each time your physical life ends, the parts of you that remain pass through the door that you call death. Eventually you return into another physical body, become part of another family and link into a different ancestral line. The spiritual link from one incarnation to another is unbroken. Even though we are a bridge to the spiritual dimension, our responsibility is entirely to the physical line. We only exist to accompany the male members of the line through their mortal lives, and then guide their souls through the door when they die. Once they have done that, our contact with them ends.”

“So, if you don’t usually make contact with us when we’re alive, why have you gone to such trouble to make contact with me?”

“Because you are the last of the line. If you were to trace your ancestry you would find that the O’Goidins produced mostly girl children. There were never more than two males in each generation, usually only one. The family tree never diversified like most do. You have no brothers or male cousins on your father’s side. When you die, the male line will die with you.” 

The implication was immediately apparent.

“And you’ll be out of a job,” I said, with a greater understanding of the gravity of the situation than the triteness of the expression suggested.

“More than that,” they replied quietly, “we will have no reason to exist.”

“So you’ll die too?”

“In a manner of speaking. Our energies will be subsumed into a greater spiritual reality, one that is beyond your means to comprehend at present. But to all intents and purposes, yes, we will die too”.

“Will you take me through the door first?”

“Of course. That will be our last act as individualised beings.”

I felt intensely sad, and also honoured that I would be the last charge of the O’Goidin Banshee. I saw the picture on the book jacket again and placed myself in the position of the wounded king. Now I knew the answer to the question that hangs unrequited at the end of the Arthurian story: did the King die on Avalon, or is he waiting to return? I understood that the legend is a metaphor, and that Avalon is merely the springboard for successive lives. He would be back, not as Arthur but as some other, less conspicuous, mortal. There is no “once and future king.”

I asked the banshee how they felt about their impending demise. Did it sadden them?

“We would accept the inevitable with good grace,” said the voice, “but we are attached to our identities, just as you are. For humans there is no death, merely a cycle of physical and sub-physical lives. But for us there is no such cycle. When we go through our door, our individual lives will cease. There can be no return.”

The presence fell into silence again; the conversation clearly wasn’t over yet. I still didn’t know why it had been necessary to contact me and tell me all these things. It was also apparent that it was my turn to speak, but I was at a loss to know what to say. I could only manage what seemed a feeble and pointless question.

“Does it have to be that way?”

“No.”

I was intrigued. Why tell me all this if it wasn’t necessary?

“Why not?” I asked.

“Try another question,” replied the voice.

The conversation seemed to be taking the form of a riddle and I set myself to thinking. The question came in a flash of inspiration.

“Is there something I can do to change it?” I asked enthusiastically.

Now it seemed I was getting somewhere, but the reply was disappointingly short.

“Yes.”

I waited. The only sound was that same crackle of energy that I had ceased to notice during the conversation.

“What?” I asked eventually.

“Turn your question into a statement.”

A statement, right! I thought carefully.

“I would like to do something to change it, if that’s possible.”

“Thank you,” said the voice. “It is possible, now that the offer has come freely from you. As the last member of the line, you have the authority to release us from your family and assign us to another one. But you must do so freely, even before we tell you what is required. There can be no conditions.”

I admit to having felt some reservation on hearing that. Our culture does not teach us to give unconditionally. We are supposed to ensure that we get the highest price for what we sell, and pay the lowest for what we buy. Agreeing to embark blindly on a course of action without knowing the value of the reward or the gravity of the consequences did not come easily. But this situation had an air of magic and magnitude about it that rose above the pecuniary principles of a materialistic society. I made the decision boldly.

“OK, I’ll do whatever’s necessary.”

“Thank you,” said the voice. “It will not be as hard as you fear. Firstly, you must perform an act of charity above what you would consider normal. We told you earlier how powerful such an act is in our world. Secondly, you must give to the intended recipient something that has belonged to at least two members of your male line. That makes it a true heirloom and enables the energy to pass from one family to the other. The choice of recipient is yours, but we would like to make a suggestion if you will permit it.”

“Please do,” I said.

“The beggar girl in Dublin had a pram with her. When you first met her it was empty; it was just a device to arouse sympathy. It is a common enough ploy. Three months ago, however, she gave birth to a baby boy and he now occupies the pram. He would be a very suitable candidate for the transfer.”

“OK,” I said, happy to have had the choice made for me. I thought of asking how long I’d got to perform the task, but thought better of it. I didn’t really want to know and felt that they would probably not have been permitted to tell me anyway. “I’ll do it as soon as possible.”

“Good,” said the voice. “This contact must cease now, but we will be close by you throughout your life, and we will guide you on your way at the end.”

“And then you’ll move on to the new family?”

“Yes. Farewell.”

The crackling sound increased in volume and I felt a warm tingle cover the whole of my body. I assumed it was their form of embrace and an intense emotional reaction overwhelmed me. Then the sound faded and I felt cold, empty and extremely tired. I fell asleep without even switching off the light.

I awoke to the sound of the alarm and felt confused. Bright sunlight illuminated the closed curtains, and the dull yellow bedside lamp looked feeble and unnecessary. My thoughts were full of the presence and the task I had to perform, but I knew that it was Friday and I had to go to work. I went though my familiar routines and left on time.

The slow drive to the city centre gave me plenty of time to think about my course of action. I knew I would have to return to Dublin and find the sisters. The act of charity could only be the giving of money; I had nothing else of value. The problem was, I had very little of that. My salary was taken up by various commitments, and my only savings were a little over a thousand pounds. That would have to suffice. As for the heirloom, I racked my brains to think of something I possessed that had belonged to my father. I could only think of a few photographs and a couple of souvenirs from his time in the army. It all seemed insignificant and inadequate for the purpose.

The solution was obvious. As much as I had come to treasure the bell that had been given to me by the banshee, I realised that it would be the ideal way to transfer the energies as required. It had been in the possession of two members of the male line – my ancestor and me – and had been instrumental in bringing the situation about.

At lunchtime I went to the bank and withdrew the cash. I bought a thousand pounds worth of traveller’s cheques and made up the rest to an amount sufficient to buy a ferry trip to Dublin. I would make the overnight sailing and spend the whole weekend if necessary looking for the girls. The rest of Friday was busy and I had little sleep on the ferry. That didn’t matter; I was on a mission and the adrenalin was flowing.

As soon as the Bureau de Change at the bus station was open on Saturday morning, I changed my traveller’s cheques for Irish punts and asked the teller to put the notes into a sealed envelope. Then the search for the girls began and I was concerned about how long it might take. The last time it had taken two weeks to find them, but I had a feeling that I would receive some assistance on this occasion.

I decided to start at the corner of the street where I had last seen them. As I approached it I could see that the spot was empty, and felt that I should make my way to the Ha’penny Bridge. But then, when I was half way across, I looked towards the alley into which they had disappeared before. It seemed inevitable that they should be coming out of it at that moment. I turned to walk slowly towards them. I remembered the abuse I had received on the first occasion and knew that I would have to be both careful and assertive if I were to complete the task. I stopped as I came up to them and barred their way. The group stopped too and the young woman looked at me suspiciously. I took the envelope out of my pocket.

“I want to give you this,” I said, holding out the package.

The young woman’s suspicions were obviously confirmed by her recollection of my voice.

“Oh God, it’s you again,” she said, and started to walk around me.

This time I was not so easily rebuffed and placed myself in her path. I spoke quickly before she became aggressive.

“It’s a large sum of money,” I said. “It’s yours and I want absolutely nothing for it. Do you understand? Nothing.

Her granite features became even more creased with suspicion.

“So why are you giving it to me then? Are you mad or what?”

“No, I’m not mad. Neither am I a pervert. There is a genuine reason for giving you this money, but it would take too long to explain and I doubt you would believe me anyway.”

“Try me.”

I really didn’t want to; I worried that it might ruin the whole plan. But it seemed I had no option, and felt that the girls had a right to an explanation anyway. I spent several minutes giving as brief an account as I could manage while the young woman’s features changed from suspicion to interest, and eventually softened into something approaching acceptance. Whether she really believed me was difficult to tell, but it seemed likely when she asked

“So where’s the bell then?”

I took it out of my pocket and showed it to her.

“It’s beautiful,” she said with an appreciative smile. “It looks new, but I can tell it isn’t.”

It seemed she understood. I told her that I felt it important that the bell should not be sold but be protected and given to the little boy, and that he should keep it and pass it on when he had sons. She took it off me and placed it under the baby’s mattress.

“Nobody will touch it,” she said. “You have my word. It’s a good job his father’s not around, bastard that he is. Oh, sorry for the language.”

I smiled at the change in her attitude. She continued.

“If my dearly ex-beloved Liam Godwin got his thieving hands on it, he’d have it sold within the hour and be drunk on the proceeds within two, so he would.”

I was startled to hear the name. I hadn’t mentioned it in my brief explanation, only the fact that my ancestry was Irish.

“Godwin?” I said. “Isn’t that an unusual name in Ireland?”

“I suppose so,” she said with a shrug. “It was his mother’s name. She never got married so he was illegitimate; never knew his father. He was a bastard in more ways than one.”

I felt that the coincidence of the names was more than accidental. It fitted too neatly and had to be part of the overall picture in some way. It was possible, perhaps even probable, that the baby was a distant relative of mine. The young woman looked at the package that I was still holding, and then looked at me.

“Oh yes, sorry,” I said and handed it to her.

She placed it into a pocket in her skirt, unopened. I felt a sudden sense of finality. There was nothing more to be said or done; the job was finished.

“I suppose that’s it then,” I said. “Thanks.”

“You’re thanking me?” queried the young woman.

“Well, on behalf of others I suppose.”

“Oh yes, right.”

I took my leave of them and caught a bus back to the ferry port. The next sailing was due in two hours and I was home by bedtime.

There is a postscript to the story that might also be more than coincidence. Just three weeks from the day of my journey to Dublin, I had a lottery win. The amount was slightly more than three thousand pounds. My act of charity had been returned three-fold. As the banshee said: “In our world magic is no mystery.”

And there’s more. On the Monday following my win I passed a gift shop in the High Street. Taking pride of place in the centre of the window, surrounded by framed prints and ceramic pots, was an alabaster figurine depicting three women. It turned out to be a modern work by an Irish sculptor, and was a representation of Queen Mab and two companions. It was expensive, but I had to buy it. Of course I did. It is my most treasured possession now that I have given the bell away. Unless, that is, you count the piano accordion that I have learned to play rather well.

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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