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.

March 30, 2012

Hand in Hand.

The story of the hairy hand of Dartmoor was told to me when I was seventeen by somebody who came from that area. It purports to be true. The rest was vaguely inspired by a modern legend from the Black Forest in Germany – a creepier story than this, in my opinion, but one I’m not about to tell since why would I want to upstage myself?

It was first published by Misanthrope Press in their anthology A Rustle of Dark Leaves in March 2012.

Approximate reading time: 20 minutes.

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There are those who claim that hands are second only to the eyes as the most defining part of a person. I have known women who claimed to be able to assess the character of a man from his hands, even to the point of deciding, with little or no further corroboration, whether or not he could be trusted. They say it’s a matter of intuition.

Maybe it’s simply a matter of archetypes. Slender hands indicate artistic leanings; broad hands with short, stubby fingers belong to the labourer; the rich businessman has heavy, sweaty hands, with bloated fingers ideally suited to wrapping themselves possessively around fat cigars.

Whilst reality is obviously not that simple, the fact is that hands are as individual as their owners, and do appear to reflect something about their characters. As such, they have provided a rich source of inspiration for film scripts, romantic songs and stories down the years. Some of the stories even claim to be true, such as the one that a young man told his new wife as they drove towards their honeymoon destination through the picturesque lowlands of southern Scotland.

*  *  *

David and Deborah Pearce had been married the day before at a registry office in the south of England. They were both in their early thirties and had both been married before. David was a successful accountant, and Debbie had a mundane but solid career as a checkout supervisor with one of the supermarket chains.

They were made for each other. Both were comfortably off, steadfast in their pursuit of suburban, middle class values, and stolidly unimaginative in the pragmatism of their habits and outlook. But this was their honeymoon and Debbie was feeling adventurous.

“Tell me a story,” she demanded playfully as they drove north along a quiet road near Dumfries. They were on the final leg of their journey to a self-catering cottage that would be home for the next two weeks.

“A story? What sort of a story?”

“A ghost story,” said Debbie decisively, enthused by the glorious wooded landscape and the close proximity of the Southern Upland.

She had never been to Scotland before. It was a rugged looking place, quite different from what she was used to in the civilised south. It had an air of the unknowable about it, and she decided that it would suit a ghost story.

“Don’t know any ghost stories,” said her husband.

Stories weren’t David’s forte. The implications to the economy of a change in interest rates or tax thresholds, maybe. But not stories, and especially not ghost stories.

“Oh, come on,” said Debbie, “you must have heard some sort of a creepy story some time in your life. Think.”

David looked at her and shrugged.

“Hang on,” he said, “I think this is the turn.”

They were approaching a wide track that ran off to the right of the main road. David slowed and turned onto it, then stopped the car.

“Let’s see the directions,” he said.

Debbie took a brochure from her bag and passed it to him. He looked at it for a while and declared that it must be the right one. There appeared to be no other major tracks for miles.

“Shouldn’t it be signposted?” asked his wife.

“Not necessarily,” said David. “This is the barbaric north. Maybe they’re not really into signposts yet.”

The track was a wide one, on which two cars could have passed comfortably. The surface was laid with gravel chippings and it was obviously intended to carry vehicles. David decided to trust his judgement and drove on.

“We can always turn round if we come to a dead end,” he said.

“I suppose so,” mused Debbie. “But I don’t fancy being in here too long. It’s getting dark”.

The late autumn sun had already sunk below the western horizon and they were now travelling east towards the darkest part of the sky. They were also entering a densely packed, mature conifer plantation, and the tall spruces blocked off a large part of what daylight there was left. It was already dark enough for David to switch on the headlights.

“So where’s my ghost story then?” repeated Debbie when they were underway.

“I’ve told you, I don’t know any ghost stories,” said her husband impatiently. “Besides, I thought you were frightened of the dark.”

“Not when you’re here. Anyway, I’m feeling brave and it’ll match the atmosphere. I know, what was that one you told me once - about a hand on the moor or something? You said you heard it when you were a kid in Devon.”

“Oh, that one. The Hairy Hand of Dartmoor, you mean? I’d forgotten about that.” His tone suggested that he wished Debbie had forgotten it too.

“Tell it to me again. And make it good.”

David looked at Deborah and resigned himself to the task. He knew he wasn’t very good at telling stories, but supposed he’d better indulge her as she could be petulant if she didn’t get her own way.

“OK, if you insist.

“There’s a road on Dartmoor that runs near the old prison at Princeton. I went walking near there once and it’s a pretty wild and desolate spot. It’s windy and bleak even in hot spells in the summer. And the weather’s constantly changing - rain one minute, then sun, then fog. You can get nearly everything in the space of an hour or two.

“There’s an old legend that tells of the road being haunted by a disembodied hand that grabs people, pulls them to the ground, and then disappears again. Nobody knows how old the legend is or who the hand is supposed to have belonged to, though some say it’s the hand of a man who had it cut off by the local squire for stealing his sheep.

“At some point in the fifties or sixties there was a spate of fatal accidents on that road involving both cars and motorbikes. Nobody could understand why, since the road is straight at that point and there were never any other vehicles involved. All the accidents happened at night and to people travelling alone, and all the drivers were dead by the time the emergency services got there so they were never able to get any proper account of what had happened.

“One day, an ambulance arrived at the scene of a crash involving a motorbike to find the rider still alive and conscious. Despite his injuries, he was able to tell them he’d been driving along and spotted something in his headlight, apparently hovering a few feet above the road. As he got closer he saw that it was a hand held upright, as though ordering him to stop.

“Before he had time to react, the hand shot forward and took hold of the handlebars. He saw that it was a large, man’s hand covered with black hair. Suddenly, it pulled the handlebars over and the bike went off the road and tumbled across the moor, throwing him against a rock. He was seriously injured and died later in hospital.

“It made the local press and, as far as I know, the hand has never been seen since. The locals, needless to say, reckon it’s just a matter of time before it appears again. Load of old cobblers if you ask me.”

“Good story,” said Debbie. “Bit short though. Don’t you know any more?”

“No.”

Debbie fell silent for a while as they drove along the track that pursued an unerringly straight line through the densely packed trees. The atmosphere was certainly conducive to matters macabre, and Debbie was definitely in the mood. After a few minutes she spoke.

“Powerful things aren’t they, hands? Especially disembodied ones. There’ve been lots of horror films made about them. Hands that play the piano in the dead of night, hands that crawl up people’s bedclothes, hands that strangle people...”

She walked her fingers slowly along her husband’s shoulder as she spoke. He was unimpressed and declined to comment. He didn’t watch horror films.

The light continued to fall as they drove deeper into the wood, and the trees seemed to be closing in on them. At first, David thought it was an optical illusion caused by the encroaching darkness, but he soon realised that the track was becoming narrower. A few seconds later he saw that the road ahead was barred by a locked gate. Two narrower tracks ran off at right angles each side and it was obvious that they had been driving along an access road for forestry vehicles. It didn’t go anywhere except further into the wood.

“Damn,” said David. “I could have sworn this was the right road. Told you this place was bloody barbaric, didn’t I? If I turned the engine off, we’d probably hear the jungle drums. ‘Yum, yum. English folks for dinner. Bags I the best bits.’ We should have gone to Cornwall.”

His wife tutted disapprovingly.

“OK,” he admitted, “I was wrong. Nobody’s perfect. Better turn the car round and get back to the main road.”

He turned onto the track that ran to the right and then backed into the opposite one. As the car was coming to a stop, they felt a hard jolt and the offside wing lifted a foot into the air.

“Oh, bloody hell,” exclaimed David when he realised what had happened.

He opened the glove compartment angrily, extracted a torch and got out of the car. He came back and announced that the nearside rear wheel had slipped into a gully at the side of the track. The sill in front of the wheel was resting on the edge of the drop and there was no possibility of driving the car out. It would have to be towed.

“I’ll have to ring the breakdown people,” he said. “Give me their number, would you.”

Debbie reached under the dash and took out the relevant documents. She dictated the emergency callout number as David tapped it into his mobile phone. He listened for a few seconds, and then looked at the display.

“Shit,” he hissed. “There’s no bloody signal. Wonderful. The romance of Scotland, eh? The locals probably send messages by carrier sheep or something.”

“It could have something to do with us being in a forest,” Debbie offered reasonably.

David wasn’t interested in being reasonable.

“I’m going to have to walk back to the main road,” he said. “Find a phone box or garage or something. Bugger! How long have we been driving along this road?”

“Not long. About ten minutes probably.”

David did a quick mental calculation, allowing for the time spent manoeuvring the car and checking for damage.

“Must be five or six miles,” he announced. “It’ll take me an hour and a half just to get to the main road, and it’s nearly dark now. What do you want to do, come with me or lock the doors and stay here?”

Debbie hadn’t realised how long the exercise would take and was shaken at the prospect that lay before her. As a child she had found the story of Little Red Riding Hood quite terrifying and had, as a result, developed something of a phobia about woods at night. She tried to imagine both possibilities by way of selecting the lesser of the two evils.

Eventually she decided to stay with the car. She couldn’t face walking between those dark trees once night had fallen completely, even with her husband, and felt more comfortable with modern technology. She would keep the doors locked.

“OK,” said David, “I’d better get on with it. Put the radio on or something. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

Debbie watched as he set off with the torch and eventually disappeared into the deepening gloom. Once he was out of sight she felt frighteningly alone. The closest trees looked massive and intimidating, and beyond them lay a forest of unknown proportions but full of the potential for unseen menace. She began to think that she had made the wrong decision. She considered jumping out of the car and running after her husband, but that would have meant running the gauntlet of the trees unprotected. She was indecisive and eventually realised that David would be too far away. She would have to stay put and find ways of keeping her rational mind in control of her irrational fears.

She wished she hadn’t insisted on hearing the story of the hand. The atmosphere was a bit too real now. And she wished she hadn’t mentioned horror stories. Things like this sometimes happen in horror stories.

She turned on the radio and reached for a sweet in the bag under the dash. They were mints and she didn’t really like mints. She unwrapped one anyway and sat back, straining her eyes to see some semblance of detail in the ever-darkening road and the black mass of menacing trees.

Soon it was completely dark and she felt cocooned in the body of the car. Beyond it there was only impenetrable blackness, and the silence was so profound as to seem unreal. She knew that the growing sense of being watched was just a nervous reaction and had to be kept under control.

“C’mon Debbie, you mustn’t think that way,” she said out loud. “There is nothing out there that can harm you in any way. Say it again. There is nothing out there that can harm me in any way. Good. You’re right. Of course there isn’t.”

She felt defiant, but only briefly. She heard a crack above the sound of the music on the car radio. It startled her and she turned the radio off. She listened intensely, but there was no repetition. She was nervous, but told herself that it was nothing more than a branch snapping under its own weight. Did branches do that sort of thing? Must do, she thought optimistically. Or it might have been some small, inoffensive animal stepping on a twig. The noise was a bit loud for that. Perhaps it was close to the car. Sounds always seem louder at night. She made herself imagine small, inoffensive animals – rabbits with twitching noses were favourite – and felt better.

She switched on the interior light but that made her feel even more exposed. The car would stand out like a beacon with the light on and attract anything that might be out there. She imagined herself looking through the eyes of some native of the forest, out on its nocturnal patrol. This unfamiliar sight would be intriguing. It would want to look inside. Even now, countless eyes might be turned towards her, countless noses sniffing the air, countless sharp claws flexing, and countless jaws slavering. As much as she tried to tell herself that there was nothing out there, she decided to take no chances and turned the light off again. She felt the same way about the radio and left that off too.

And so she sat for half an hour or more, protected from the unseen menace by a metal shell and six windows. She began to rap her fingers on her leg, and then unwrapped another sweet to give them some alternative occupation. She forced herself to think about checkouts and customers, piped music and bread wrappers. And then she heard the second noise, a mournful, eerie screech that startled her again. She identified it quickly as an owl. Even she knew what owls sounded like.

Her nervousness began to subside, but her relief was short-lived. Almost immediately there was a sudden clattering sound, followed by a loud scratching on the roof of the car. Terror leapt up from the pit of her stomach as the scratching moved quickly from the rear part of the roof to the front and back again.

She had the presence of mind to remember that she had heard it before, on the roof of a house that she had lived in as a child. Her older sister had told her it was just a bird moving across the tiles. Maybe this was the same thing. She banged on the roof of the car and the scratching stopped. She felt relieved as she heard the beating of wings fade into the darkness.

She laughed to herself, but it was nervous laughter. The realisation that the banging must have been highly audible in the silence of the wood stirred her imagination again. She could almost hear the deep growls of anticipation as the watchers identified a victim and contemplated a kill. She wished she hadn’t been so impetuous and had let the bird fly away in its own time.

She was beginning to feel drained, and cursed her decision not to accompany David to the main road. He would be well on his way by now and would soon be among streetlights and traffic. The world of people and technology has much to commend it when you feel a million miles away and trapped in a metal cage deep in the dark, primeval woods.

Her attempts to stay calm and rational had only limited success. Her imagination was strong and well fed by her lonely situation. She looked at the front passenger window and imagined she saw something appear above the bottom edge. First there was a mop of dishevelled hair. As it continued to rise slowly, a furrowed brow appeared, human-like but bigger and more bulbous. Then a set of bloodshot eyes, stretched wide and staring directly into hers. The nose was flattened and broad, and then the mouth appeared. Thick, leathery lips parted to reveal teeth like tombstones with massive canines, like those of a big cat – or a wolf.

“Stop it, you idiot,” she said out loud as she fought back a growing urge to cry.

She re-doubled her efforts to remain calm and rational. But what could she do? She couldn’t turn the light on, couldn’t listen to the radio, couldn’t talk or sing to herself. All these things might expose her position to any dark menace that hadn’t already seen her.

Her only protection was the shell of the car, and that was starting to seem flimsy. Her only refuge was the space inside her own mind. A battle was raging there between the forces of light and reason which saw trees as just trees, and an army of dark, faceless ogres that could make whatever she found most terrifying become real. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes in an attempt to calm her nerves.

She opened them suddenly when the rustling started. At first it was indiscriminate, but then took on a more regular rhythm that she fancied sounded like footsteps. She listened intensely and the fear began to well up again. The noise was coming from somewhere in front of the car, but whether on the narrow track or among the trees it was impossible to tell.

She reached for the headlight switch and turned them on. She felt a mild shock at the sight of the track and trees suddenly lit by the glare of the halogen lamps, and she didn’t much like what she saw. Nothing moved, but the trees looked eerie and menacing bathed in the bright light, and the darkness between them held the promise of untold horrors.

Her imagination took hold once more and she felt unable to contemplate the prospect of something hideous emerging from the gaps between the tree trunks.  She switched off the headlights quickly, but felt no relief as the outside world was plunged into darkness again. And then she realised that the shuffling noise had stopped.

There was silence for a while and then a light breeze began to stir the branches. That was, at least, a familiar sound and her fear gradually subsided to a more tolerable level.

After ten minutes or so of welcome peace, even her dark imaginings returned to the background and she began to feel that the wait must be nearly over. David should have reached the road by now and it wouldn’t be long before the headlights of a breakdown truck would appear to rescue her.

Her new found sense of optimism made her feel better, and she shifted her position to be more comfortable. The slight rise of the front wing meant that the car tilted a little, and she had been leaning unconsciously against the passenger door for something over an hour. She moved her body around to relieve the numbness that was beginning to affect her left arm. This was much better; physical discomfort was easy to deal with.

Her thoughts became more practical. She hoped they wouldn’t have trouble taking possession of the cottage. They should have been there by six and it was well after that now. She began to think of what they would have for supper once they were settled in. She began to plan the days ahead - the walks in the hills, the trips to castles and abbeys, the visits to friendly tea shops, and the buying of Scottish mementoes to take home to their little house in Basingstoke. Mostly, she hoped that the breakdown people were on the ball in this part of the world and that she would soon be getting on with the holiday.

And then she felt the car move.

Panic returned in an instant and her muscles stiffened. This was not imagination; the movement had been unmistakeable. The rising front wing had dipped sharply and then returned. She clung to the seat and cold fear gripped the nape of her neck.

She waited for several minutes, squeezing the edges of the front seats tightly. She began to hope that she might have imagined it. She knew she hadn’t. The rustling sound started again and the wing dipped a second time, but it didn’t return to its risen position. Instead, it moved up and down, as though being rocked by an unseen hand.

She remembered David’s story and wished again that she had never heard it. Her mind’s eye saw a large, hideous hand covered in black hair gripping the axle and pulling it up and down. Her imagination was going into overdrive. There was a scraping sound on the bulkhead in front of her feet. Something was in the engine compartment; it was trying to get at her that way.

She pulled her legs up onto the seat and tried to imagine how the bulkhead was constructed. Were there gaps in it? Was it weaker than the body shell? She knew nothing about cars and could only imagine powerful claws ripping though to take possession of her. She was on the verge of screaming when she felt the car lift again and heard the scrabbling noise outside. It faded away and silence returned.

She felt silly. It was obvious that some “small, inoffensive animal” had climbed onto the axle and investigated the engine compartment. And then it had jumped off and gone on its way. She would remember that the next time she watched one of those wildlife documentaries about cute nocturnal creatures. She did wonder what indigenous wild animal would be big enough to make a heavy car rock, but decided that it must be a question of balance. What next, she thought, bats on the windscreen wipers? Snakes up the exhaust pipe?

Even so, the irrational fears were still uncomfortably close and she began to will David to get a move on. She looked right, in the direction of the road he had taken only a couple of hours before. It felt like days ago. There was still only darkness, no comfort of rescue yet.

“Oh come on David,” she exclaimed desperately. “You must have found a phone by now. Come on.

She knew she was being unfair. No doubt he was doing his best, wherever he was.

The minutes wore on and impatience began to replace imagination. And then she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She looked along the road again. Was it a light? It was very small and she narrowed her eyes to focus on it. It was there all right. And it was definitely a light of some sort.

Gradually, very gradually, it grew bigger. She was certain it was a torch. The wait was agonising, but eventually she could see the road illuminated by the beam. The light was getting closer. It must be David. No breakdown truck yet, but that would be close behind, no doubt.

The torch and the pool of light in front of it grew steadily bigger until her joy was complete. In a few minutes she would be reunited with her husband. Breakdown truck or no breakdown truck, at least she wouldn’t be alone any more.

On and on it came until she could hear the footsteps of the carrier crunching on the gravel surface, and could see a vague, dark shape behind the torch. The light moved closer and closer until it was only a matter of a few yards from the car. She was about to reach out and unlock the driver’s door when the figure stopped. The beam of the torch lifted slowly until it was shining directly into her eyes.

She hesitated. Why had he stopped? Why was he shining the torch at her? Didn’t he know, stupid man, how frightened she had been and that this really wasn’t funny? She realised that she might have been too hasty in her assumption Perhaps it wasn’t David, but someone else out in the wood at night. She wasn’t about to unlock the door until she was certain. Still the figure stood unmoving, pointing the torch relentlessly at the car.

“David?” she said quietly. “Is that you? Please don’t mess about. This isn’t funny.”

The deathly quiet continued. The light from the torch continued to assault her eyes and the carrier still didn’t move. Debbie sat rigid and silent in the passenger seat, her anxiety rising with every impassive second.

She tried to think. Practical jokes were not David’s way; and if it wasn’t David, who the hell was it? There was no explaining this away as imagination. This was no bird or small, inoffensive animal. This was someone carrying a torch. She didn’t know who and she was a woman, alone in an unlit wood and miles from anywhere. Why was he standing there, not moving or saying anything? The wait went on and her fear grew to near breaking point.

Suddenly, the torch was hurled forward and slammed into the driver’s side window with a bang that would have woken everything for miles around. Debbie screamed in panic.

There was only darkness and silence again. The impact had extinguished the torch. She heard footsteps moving back down the road and sat there stunned with fear and disbelief. The floodgates opened and she sobbed violently, praying for the nightmare to end, for the daylight to come, and for her husband to knock on the window and tell her that everything was all right.

A few minutes later she heard the sound of an engine and the car was flooded with light again. She looked up to see a vehicle approaching along the main track. Within seconds a breakdown truck was pulling to a halt close by. The driver jumped out and walked over to the car. He knocked on the window and shouted a brief statement.

“Got a phone call about half an hour ago, from a guy using a phone box on the main road. Said you were stuck in a gully. I’m going to tow you out”.

In other circumstances Debbie might have been a little cautious but, given her experiences over the previous couple of hours, the patrolman was nothing short of an angel. She threw open the car door and breathed in the fresh night air. She got out and stood upright, stretching her back to ease the stiffness. Then she leaned against the car and stifled a fresh urge to cry.

“Are you OK?” asked the patrolman.

“Not really,” said Debbie, “but I can start getting better now.”

“I expected to see your husband on the track. I was going to pick him up. Control told me he’d be walking back to the car as they didn’t know how long it would take me to get here. He’s not back yet then?”

Debbie shook her head and felt anxious. Why wasn’t he on the track? And why hadn’t the patrolman seen the man who had been carrying the torch. He must have taken refuge in the trees. That proved he was up to no good. She began to wonder whether she was safe even with a fit young man for company. She looked around nervously and considered climbing back into the car

“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” said her rescuer optimistically. “He can’t have come to any harm on this road. Probably went into the trees to relieve himself just as I was passing. Bad timing, eh? Better get on with it.”

He moved back to get a general look at the car that was well illuminated by the truck’s headlights.

“Oh my God, what the hell’s that?”

“What?” asked Debbie anxiously, panicked by the patrolman’s tone of voice? She followed his horrified gaze which was directed at her feet.

She did not, as you might expect, scream at what she saw; she was too stunned for that. Instead, her mouth fell open and she held her breath.

Lying only inches from her feet was the broken torch that had been hurled at the window, and it was still held firmly in the grip of a man’s severed left hand. She didn’t need to examine the new wedding ring to identify its erstwhile owner. As I said, hands are a very defining feature. She made no sound, but stared blankly at it, paralysed by incomprehension. And then she fainted.

When she came to, she found herself lying on her back with her feet raised on the patrolman’s toolbox. He was sitting next to her on the grass. He saw her stir and raised himself to his knees.

“Just lie still,” he said. “You fainted. You’ll be OK in a minute. The police and ambulance are on the way.”

Debbie looked around as she returned to full consciousness. She saw the severed hand still lying by the car. She lifted a clenched fist to her mouth and broke into more sobbing, quietly at first but rising in intensity as the full horror came home to her.

The police were the first to arrive. They took a good look at the hand and quietly questioned Debbie regarding the circumstances. By that time an ambulance had joined the group and one of the policemen went over to the driver. He explained the situation quickly and said that they should waste no time in beginning the search as the victim would be losing blood rapidly. He radioed for assistance, and then the patrol car and ambulance went off to look for David while one paramedic stayed with Debbie.

Equipped with directional floodlights, it didn’t take the police long to locate David. He was lying in a ditch at the side of the track about a mile from the main road, his right hand still holding the bloody stump of his left wrist. He was dead. A substantial trail of blood could be discerned for a couple of hundred yards down the track from where his body lay. The end of the trail was evidently the point at which he had been attacked and was where the police concentrated their subsequent forensic examinations.

Debbie was informed of the discovery and taken to a nearby hotel for the night. She was inconsolable and wanted to be away from that awful place as soon as possible. After formally identifying David’s body, she returned home to await the outcome of the post mortem and police investigation.

It transpired that David had died of substantial haemorrhaging, but not a trace of forensic or any other evidence was ever found to identify the assailant. What the police did realise, but omitted to mention to Debbie since it would only have complicated matters, was that there was something incongruent about the timing of the events.

The hand had been thrown at the car a few minutes before the breakdown vehicle had reached her. The patrolman had said that the call had been made half an hour earlier, and David had subsequently walked from the telephone box to a point about a mile from the main road before he was attacked. That would have taken him a good twenty minutes. No human attacker could have made the three or four miles between the spot where the attack had taken place and Debbie’s car in the time remaining - not unless a vehicle had been used, and any vehicle would have passed the breakdown truck on the road. The patrolman had confirmed that there had been no such vehicle. It is, perhaps, merciful that Debbie never worked that out for herself.

She was also fortunate to be spared the opinion of those who say that certain places have a powerful, primeval energy about them, an energy so strong that it is capable of giving physical manifestation to vivid imaginings. If such a contention is true of anywhere, it would be true of the remoter parts of Scotland where the sense of something brooding, powerful and malevolent often presses itself remorselessly into the minds of the sensitive - especially at night.

Had she been aware of that, she might have been tempted to regret her demand to be told a ghost story in the dark, mysterious woods that fringe the Southern Upland. As it is, she will remain ignorant of the reason why David was attacked and the identity of the one who delivered his severed hand so terrifyingly to her.

But it is just possible that her husband was wrong about something. He thought he had no skill as a storyteller. Had he been right, or had Debbie not revelled so much in his telling of the tale, the two of them might now be living a contented life in the safe and sanitised suburbs of southern England.

March 08, 2012

The Gypsy Rover.

This story is largely autobiographical up to the point of the disappearance, while the denouement amounts to an allegory. The location exists and is accurately described. Matthew existed, too, and is accurately represented. And I’m still looking for the key to the other world.

It was first published by SQ Magazine in December 2011.

Approximate reading time: 30 minutes.

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Jamie Green had a problem. He was no longer sure which world he wanted to live in.

The one he occupied in his everyday life was comfortable and functional, and that suited him – but only up to a point. He had what we are trained to believe are the essentials for a happy life: a secure office job, a decent salary, and all the material accoutrements consistent with the conventional expectations of modern society.

He was married to a wife who was perceptive enough to understand his nature, shrewd enough to recognise his need for solitary pursuits, and wise enough to allow him to indulge it. And he lived in a fully modernised, Victorian cottage in a relatively unspoiled country village, several miles from the nearest small town.

His living space was laid out and decorated entirely according to his exacting tastes and functioned like a well oiled machine. One side of Jamie’s nature was organised and authoritarian. He needed things to be the way he wanted them, and he wanted every facet of his life to be functional.

But it was the house that was giving him the problem. Or rather, it was the fact that it was located in the country where the relentless ebb and flow of the seasons demonstrated what he had long been coming to suspect: that something bigger and wiser than meddling mankind is in charge of the things that really matter. It was causing him to have increasing doubts about the completeness, even the value, of the life he was living. As I said, his lifestyle suited him – but it didn’t satisfy him.

For there was another side to Jamie that was coming to recognise order and authority as mere devices for keeping the material world ticking over. Living in the country put him in touch with a yearning for something deeper, something just slightly out of reach, something real, yet subtle and indefinable - the other world that he might, just possibly, want to live in.

Jamie Green was one of those people who might be called perceptive, sensitive, imaginative or fanciful depending on the commentator’s point of view. From an early age he had felt stirrings of doubt that what he saw was all there was. And he had always been intensely fond of music, believing that some pieces have the power to reach into a deep part of the human psyche, offering glimpses of another reality beyond the material one in which we are all trapped.

They were usually passages from the classical works of the great composers, or certain quiet, slow airs from the Celtic fringes. But not always. As a child he had been fascinated with a popular song of the time, a song with the engaging and evocative title: “The Gypsy Rover.” He remembered the melody well, but he only recalled a few words of the chorus. The first line ran

The gypsy rover came over the hill
And it ended with
And he whistled and he sang ’til the green woods rang,
And he won the heart of a lady.

He remembered no more of the words, just the impression the song had left with him. As a boy he had thought it nothing more than a romantic tale of a free-living gypsy who wanders briefly into some rustic and restrained community, woos the prettiest of the local maidens and then moves on. As he grew older, however, the memory of the song continued to fascinate him and he began to doubt its apparently simplistic scenario.

The melody had a wistful quality about it and seemed to be one of those that held the key to a higher dimension, if only the means of grasping it could be understood. And the image of the free spirit living an untrammelled existence - tramping the airy uplands, lazing in the lush lowlands, and concealing himself at will beneath the leafy canopy of the wildwood - was too powerful to belong to the ordinary world.

He began to question the true meaning of the song. Who was this enigmatic rover? Was he a real, human gypsy, or something from another realm? And who was the “lady?” Was she simply flesh and blood, something like the frustrated minister’s daughter of Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy perhaps? Or was she of otherworldly origin too?

He developed vague impressions of a mysterious, sallow skinned young man striding freely across the green landscape of Old England, whistling a magical tune that no one could ever quite remember. He would appear from over the hill one day and be gone before the early risers stirred from their beds the next morning. No one knew who he was or where he came from, and no one ever saw him leave.

One day, perhaps, his captivating refrain floated ahead of him, carried on a gentle breeze that stroked the wild garlic growing alongside some quiet woodland path. It caught the attention of the mystical maiden of the woods, a woman whom the locals knew only by reputation, for no one alive had ever seen her. But stories handed down from long-dead grandfathers told how she was long haired, lonely and intensely beautiful.

She was so taken with the tune that she revealed herself to the gypsy as she never would to a mortal man. Their liaison was brief and spectacular; and then they both faded like mists on a summer’s morning, he moving on to some other greenwood over the hill, and she returning to her solitary watch over the oaks and elms of her narrow domain.

For most of his life Jamie had lived in the town and his fascination with the song had been a matter of minor escapism. It had been difficult to relate personally to gypsy rovers and mystical maidens in a world dominated by red brick, tarmac and ornamental shrubs. But his move to Helvaston, a village of some three hundred inhabitants in a rural part of the English Midlands, had brought it back strongly and provided a credible context. His fascination with it grew as his senses became attuned to the rhythms and harmonies of nature’s grand opera.

The landscape in which Helvaston nestles undulates gently, and the lanes that run for a combined distance of many miles in circuits around the village rise and fall with it. The higher parts of them, those that cross or run along the tops of the ridges, provide far reaching views across light green meadows and dark green woods. From one point there is a view west across the Trent valley towards Shropshire in the far distance. From another, the uplands of Derbyshire to the east can just be glimpsed on a clear day.

Jamie took to walking the lanes often and he carried the song with him, ready to fill his thoughts every time he strode past one of the many woods in the vicinity or looked out across the panorama of a distant landscape. He also came to realise that one month of the year had a special quality that caught his imagination more than the others. April, he discovered, was the true month of transition between winter and spring.

Its predecessor, March, still has the dregs of the dark season hanging onto the frequent, chill winds that make the daffodils shiver in premature discomfort. The waking figure of youthful nature is still half asleep, drowsily gathering her cloak about her neck against the blast.

When May comes it is the harbinger of summer, rich in new growth and overwhelmingly vibrant in the multitude of colours bursting forth triumphantly. In May, nature stands regaled in all-enveloping finery, free and wide awake, and trumpeting her presence loudly from every burgeoning hedgerow and tree top.

April is the tender link between the two. In April nature is rousing herself, walking soft and lightly clad. She has left the safety of her hibernation in the den of winter, but has yet to take on the full armour of summer’s rich mantle. It is then that she is at her most vulnerable and holds open the door to the esoteric mysteries that lie deep beneath her physical exterior. Jamie recognised that fact the first April he lived in the village.

He sensed a special quality in the air, an elusive, ethereal quality that spoke of subtle energies stirring all of nature’s domain into new growth and the production of new life. His instinct told him that it was the raw stuff of nature’s relentless imperative and was far beyond what the scientists would be able to record and measure.

He tried to pin it down, to isolate and identify it, but without success. The physical manifestations were plain enough: the bluebells and the wood anemones carpeting the hedgerows and the woodland floor, the smells of revitalised earth and fresh new growth, the feel of warm, moist air brought in by the south and westerly breezes.

But they were just the progeny. The nature of the energy that gave them life and orchestrated their collective ensemble remained tantalisingly out of reach. Just as a baby growing inside its mother’s womb cannot see the greater reality of which it is a tiny part, so the five senses are confined within the womb of nature and cannot recognise the source from which they stem.

It was during that first April at Helvaston that Jamie began to walk the local landscape with a restless intensity, hoping to find some clue to discovering the deeper world from which nature was calling him. During those months when the long hours of daylight permitted, he would walk every evening after work. On Saturdays and Sundays he would go out twice or even three times. And even through the winter, when the land fell into temporary decay and became torpid, he would venture forth at least once on every day that provided an opportunity.

Sometimes he would confine himself to one of the circuits of lanes that took him in a wide sweep of hill and dale, then brought him home again from the opposite direction. Sometimes he would make for one of the woods in the vicinity and sit for an hour by a familiar tree. He had one favourite wood where he often felt a sense of being watched, although the impression was always of some disinterested observer and there was never any suggestion of threat.

Occasionally he took a route alongside an alder-fringed stream that ran away from a narrow lane and through several quiet meadows, one of which had a high embankment on one side covered with untrimmed shrubs and wild flowers. He spent many an hour there in the company of bees and butterflies, looking across the narrow valley to the village on the hill.

And throughout all the countless miles of perambulations, music was ever in his mind. Often it was some passage that he had heard recently, but most often it was The Gypsy Rover. He whistled and hummed the melody without thinking as he strode along or sat among the trees and wild flowers. Inevitably, he saw a parallel between himself and the eponymous subject of the song. He was aware, however, of one big difference. The Rover seemed to have accessed the land beyond the physical already. Jamie had yet to find it.

At the end of his first year of discovery he had seen the cycle of the seasons turn one full revolution. It was April again and the sense of nature’s energising presence came with it. He felt positive and optimistic, and looked forward to another year in which the full expression of the cycle would be better manifested by its repetition.

But his sense of dissatisfaction with the daily round of practical matters was growing in direct proportion to his new-found regard for nature. Most noticeably, he was becoming increasingly intolerant of his job. The routines and business of his office seemed shallow, staid and lacking any meaningful purpose. Even his colleagues, good friends though some of them were, seemed blind to the greater meaning of life to which he was becoming attuned. He was unable to discuss with them his radical new awareness because they didn’t speak the language or understand the context to which it referred.

Sometimes on his evening walks he would think about the incidents of the day, and a growing sense of entrapment began to gather about him. The time he spent in the office seemed akin to being locked in a dusty crypt, surrounded by lifeless bones. His working life was becoming a pointless and frustrating chore. He felt trapped and claustrophobic.

And it wasn’t just the office that he felt like that about. Wherever he went in the mundane world created by people for their own convenience, he felt the same way. Shops, restaurants, theatres, cinemas – even public parks with their manicured spaces and tame flowers – produced in him the same sense of worthlessness. Somehow, they just weren’t real enough. What little nods were made towards nature – the domestic gardens, the floral displays, the window boxes and the concrete-encased trees in the town centre – were too tidy and rigidly controlled. Being in control of your house and office is one thing, he thought. Nature is too primal to be kept on a short leash.

He began to think that man’s obsession with taming her was nothing more than a sign of his juvenile incomprehension of the true reality of life. And he began to find the whole thing repellent. A desperate urge was gathering strength inside him, an urge to stretch out, spread his wings and fly away.

His home life was beginning to suffer too. His wife appeared to understand what he tried to explain to her about his changing view of life, but she didn’t feel it herself. He was spending increasing amounts of time alone on his walks and she was finding pursuits of her own to fill the growing void.

As the spring moved into summer he was spending little more than the hours of darkness at home. Evenings, weekends and holidays took on a familiar routine. He would get up or return from work, don some stout shoes and be off. He would return some time around dusk, make a simple meal for himself and eat it alone.

His wife was becoming increasingly frustrated by his growing alienation and tried to talk to him about it. She hardly ever saw him and had no idea where he was spending his time. It had no effect. His obsession with the land and the deep mystery of nature had made him supremely uninterested in her concerns. He knew now which world he wanted to live in; the problem of uncertainty was past. The new problem was how to find the hidden door that would lead him on his way.

Throughout the summer, those closest to him at work watched the growing changes and became concerned for his welfare. Furthermore, his lack of communication, professional apathy and sourness of temperament were alienating him from his colleagues. His attitude was becoming a problem and a major talking point among the staff.

In September his manager and some of his friends followed his wife in trying to discuss the matter with him. They got no further than she had. He only wanted to commune with nature; people and their petty concerns meant nothing to him any more. When his manager suggested that he go off sick and seek the advice of a doctor, he willingly agreed. It would give him more time to spend out among the land searching for his answer. A visit to his GP to get a sick note would be a small price to pay for the freedom to roam his beloved countryside more often.

He left his office that evening and visited the surgery the next day. When the doctor predictably diagnosed his condition as simple depression, he concealed his feelings of contempt and happily accepted the month’s certificate. He looked forward eagerly to the prospect of spending at least four precious weeks freely pursuing his goal.

And he had found a spot, surprisingly close to his house, where the energies of nature seemed to be at their strongest. A hope was growing in him that he might find there the knowledge that he sought so keenly. He had taken to visiting it more often than any of his other favoured sites and was beginning to hope that it might even provide an entrance to that elusive other world.

It was about half a mile away at the far end of the quaintly named Dingle Lane, the entrance to which was opposite his house. It climbed abruptly up a short rise and then wound slowly down the slope of the hill, crossing a narrow bridge over a stream before rising gently again to a junction with another little-used lane.

The hedgerows on either side contained a large variety of shrubs, and Jamie knew what that meant. They were unlikely to have been planted according to the dictates of the Enclosure Acts, but were almost certainly the remnants of an old woodland margin. It was likely, therefore, that the fields which they now bordered were probably of recent origin, formed from the clearance of ancient woodland that been there for thousands of years.

Jamie had always thought that there was something special about the lane and it had become the favourite starting point for his walks. It had taken nearly a year, however, to discover his magical spot.

The field on the right at the far end of the lane looked flat to the casual observer, but he had walked across it one day and discovered a large depression in the ground that was hidden from either of the lanes that formed two sides of the field boundary. The bottom of the depression was boggy, fairly dry in the summer but collecting enough water to become a small pond during the winter months. A line of gnarled old trees grew along the top of it on one side, and a fallen, long-dead one lay broken and rotting at the bottom. In spring the sides were awash with wild primroses, and Jamie had taken to sitting on the steep bank more and more often, hidden from the ignorant eyes of the outside world.

He hadn’t told anyone of his discovery. There was no one whom he considered worth telling and, besides, he wanted to keep the knowledge of this place to himself. During the second April at Helvaston he had spent some time there nearly every day and never grown tired of it. The tingle of the earth energies that seemed to be concentrated within the confined space was seductive.

Even during the summer months, when nature was more given to opulent self aggrandisement, he went there often. He became convinced that Atkins’ Meadow would provide the passage from the mundane and meaningless world of twenty first century man into the deep and peaceful world lying beyond the mantle of nature’s physical exterior. Anyone who had known this might have considered it a possible explanation when Jamie Green disappeared, one Sunday in late September.

He had risen early, thrown some fruit, nuts and bread into his rucksack and been out of the house before his wife was dressed. He hadn’t bothered to take his leave of her, but that had become normal and she had grown used to it. She had stood at the bedroom window and watched him walk around the corner of the house, cross the road, climb the short incline at the start of Dingle Lane and disappear over the crest.

“When is this all going to end?” she had thought to herself.

The thought came back to her later that day when Jamie failed to return home. She expected him between six and seven as the twilight was gathering, and became increasingly concerned as the night wore on. By ten o’clock her anxiety was becoming acute, but she decided to shrug it off. Although Jamie had never stayed out on his walks much beyond nightfall, there was no reason for him not to do so if he wished.

She reasoned that there were no obvious hazards in the local landscape and that he was in perfectly good physical health. Despite his growing distance and sour moods, he had shown no inclination towards suicide and she would have been informed by now if he had been involved in a road accident. She thought it likely that this was just the latest stage in his growing obsession with nature. He was probably going to start staying out overnight now. He would be back in the morning, no doubt, if only for a change of clothes and something to eat.

She went to bed leaving the door unlatched, so that he could let himself in if he returned before she awoke. She did wake up, briefly, earlier than expected. She was sure that she’d heard someone walking down the road outside the house, whistling The Gypsy Rover. She was convinced that it was Jamie.

“Only he ever whistles that old tune,” she thought drowsily.

It was still dark and she had no idea of the time. Neither did she bother to find out. Jamie’s strange habits were his business she decided, and fell asleep again.

The following morning she expected to find him lying on the sofa, but there was no sign of him. She checked for evidence that he might have come in and gone out again. She looked in the fridge, the cupboards and his wardrobe. There was no sign that he had taken more food or changed his clothes. His car keys were still where they had been the previous day and the door was still unlatched. It seemed that he had not come home after all. That evening she called the police.

A detective constable and a WPC came out to the house and took some details. When they heard of Jamie’s odd behaviour over the previous year they suggested that his wife’s initial assessment had been correct: this was probably just the latest development. They said that a full missing persons enquiry would be premature at that time, and that her husband was likely to turn up over the next day or two. She would be surprised, they said, at the number of people who went missing every week and then turned up after a few days with a variety of interesting excuses. They made the tentative suggestion that he might even have a mistress.

Of course he had a mistress; Jamie’s wife knew that only too well. But she was not flesh and blood. No sultry Latin senorita or cool Nordic blonde could match Mother Nature in the art of seduction. At least, not to the likes of Jamie. For the time being his wife would have to live with her anxiety and await his return. And that she did, for the next three days. By Thursday he had still not turned up and she called the police again. They sent in a search team the following day.

Given the extensive geographical spread of Jamie’s ramblings, they felt it necessary to concentrate their efforts on the various lanes around the village and the places that he had mentioned to his wife – the meadow by the stream, Whitebell Wood, and a few other locations. They didn’t search Atkins’ Meadow, apart from scouring the hedgerow that ran alongside it. Jamie’s wife didn’t know about his favourite spot as he had never told her about it. They also conducted house-to-house enquiries in the village, but no one had seen him since some days before the Sunday when he had last left the house.

After a couple of fruitless days they called off the exercise and told Jamie’s wife that in the absence of any evidence offering a starting point for a wider search, there was little they could do except keep an open file. They would put his details on the national database and let her know if anything came of it.

She felt frustrated at the lack of resolution and at a loss to know what to think or how to conduct the affairs of her immediate future. She had grown used to the distance between herself and her husband, and so her sense of loss was less acute than it might have been. Nevertheless, she found his sudden and mysterious disappearance predictably unsettling and truly hoped that no harm had come to him. She even wondered whether he might possibly have got his wish and moved into that “other world” that he had often talked about. Perhaps he really had walked past the house whistling his tune that night. Perhaps it was his way of saying goodbye. She decided that she was being fanciful. People don’t really walk off into other worlds, do they?

There was a lot of talk in the village about Jamie’s disappearance, but little serious concern. Hardly anyone knew him that well and he had a reputation for being “a bit strange.” There was, however, one person who considered himself a friend of Jamie’s, and he was a bit strange too.

His name was Matthew McNealy and he was known to everyone in the village as the local character. He was also universally regarded as a hopeless simpleton. Everyone patronised him and no one took him seriously.

He was in his early seventies and had lived in the locality for nearly sixty years, ever since a local farmer had adopted him from an orphanage in the nearby town. The farmer’s interest in Matthew had not stemmed from any genuine concern for his welfare, but a selfish desire for cheap labour. He had set the fourteen-year-old boy to a life of grinding toil, and had given him nothing in return except minimal food and lodging.

Matthew had taken to petty crime and had been in trouble with the police several times in his later teens. The local bobby, for villages like Helvaston had such things in those days, had taken a more enlightened view of Matthew’s behaviour and had used his influence to get him a properly, if poorly, paid job as a labourer with the district council. He had also prevailed upon another farmer to let the young man live in an old caravan that he had standing idle in a field near his farmhouse. The grateful Matthew had thought his meagre income equivalent to a king’s ransom, and had followed a life of honest hard work until he’d retired.

Since then he had continued to live in the caravan and occupied his time with a simple routine. He slept late, walked to the local pub at lunchtime, slept again in the afternoon, went back to the pub in the evening, and then staggered home to bed.

He spent his drinking time wandering between the tables and talking to anyone who would spare him an ear. Most of them did and he was perfectly content. He didn’t even have to buy most of his drinks. The regulars were in the habit of getting one in for him when they bought their own, and the landlord kept a running tally on a blackboard behind the bar.

On the Sunday lunchtime following Jamie’s disappearance, Matthew sauntered slowly up to the bar and placed his empty mug on the counter. The landlord’s wife erased one of the ticks on the board and proceeded to fill it.

“’Aven’t seen Jamie for a while,” said Matthew lazily.

The landlady rolled her eyes impatiently.

“Where’ve you been all week, Matthew? Don’t you know he’s gone missing? Haven’t you seen the police around?”

“Yup,” said Matthew. “Didn’t know what they wanted though.”

“Didn’t they come and ask you questions, then?”

“Nope.”

“Wonder why not, they’ve been to see the rest of us.”

Matthew chuckled, exposing the bank of rotting teeth that had never seen the inside of a dentist’s surgery.

“’Cos I ’id.”

“What do you mean, you hid?”

“Saw ’em comin’. I always ’ide when I see the police. Don’t like ’em,” he said.

“Oh, Matthew, that was very naughty of you. Nobody’s seen Jamie since last Sunday morning and the police were just trying to find out what’s happened to him.”

Matthew thought for a few seconds.

“I ’ave,” he said positively.

“You have what?”

“Seen ’im, since last Sunday morning.”

“When?” asked the landlady with a note of surprise.

“Sunday night.”

“Where?”

“In Atkins’ Meadow.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yup,” said Matthew with a childlike look of pride, and then added knowingly “I know it was Sunday night, ’cos I was on my way ’ere and the church bell was ringin’.”

The church clock had not chimed for many a year, but the vicar was a traditionalist who still had the single bell rung for five minutes, half an hour before evensong. That was at six thirty, so Matthew must have heard the bell at about six.

“Matthew, you’ve got to tell the police about this. I’m going to ring them now. Don’t worry, they won’t take you away or anything, just ask you a few questions. OK?”

She went to the phone and dialled the number that had been left with everyone in the village. The detective constable was on duty that day and agreed to come straight over. She returned to the bar.

“They’re on their way now,” she said. “No more drinks for you, my lad, until you’ve spoken to them.”

Matthew chuckled again. He like being called “my lad” by a woman thirty years his junior. He had the new pint that the landlady had just poured for him and that would keep him going until the police arrived.

He moved among the tables again, boasting that the police were coming all the way from Stafford especially to see him. The detective constable arrived fifteen minutes later and took Matthew into a back room to interview him, accompanied by the landlady. He took out his notebook and Matthew lit his pipe. After taking some personal details he began the questions.

“Now Matthew, I understand that you saw Mr Green – Jamie – last Sunday evening.”

“Yup.”

“Can you be sure it was him?”

Matthew frowned, looked at the landlady and then back at the policeman.

“’Course I can.”

“OK. What time was it?”

“Six o’clock.”

“How can you be sure it was six o’clock?”

“She said so,” replied Matthew, nodding in the direction of the landlady who promptly interjected.

“Matthew told me he heard the church bell ringing, didn’t you Matthew? So it must have been about six o’clock.”

“Oh I see,” said the policeman. “And where did you see Mr Green?”

“In Atkins’ Meadow.”

“What was he doing?”

“Walkin’ across the field.”

“In which direction?”

“Towards the stile.”

“Which stile? The one in the hedge that goes down to the village or the one that goes to the main road?”

“The one that goes to the village.”

“And where were you at the time?”

“In the lane.”

“So Mr Green was walking towards you?”

“Yup.”

“Did he see you?”

“Yup.”

“How do you know?”

“’Cos I waved to ’im and ’e waved back.”

“And he was alone, I take it?”

“Nope.”

The policeman and the landlady exchanged glances.

“You never told me that Matthew,” said the landlady.

“Ya didn’t ask,” replied Matthew with another grin.

“So he was with someone?” continued the detective.

Matthew shrugged his shoulders.

“What do you mean? Was he with someone or not?”

“Well, the other bloke was more, like, followin’ ’im. Jamie didn’t seem to know ’e was there. Don’t know why. The bloke was whistlin’ loud enough.”

“Was there just the one man following Mr Green?”

“Yup.”

“Nobody else?”

“Nope.”

“Can you describe this man? What did he look like?”

“Big bloke. Foreign.”

“How do you know he was foreign?”

“’Cos ’e ’ad a brown face and black ’air. Long ’air. ’Ung down on ’is shoulders. And ’e ’ad somethin’ on ’is ’ead.”

“What sort of something?”

“Like a big ’andkerchief, tied at the back. Like one o’ them gypsies. Didn’t like the look on ’im. Don’t like gypsies. That’s why I didn’t wait for ’em to catch me up.”

“Can you tell me what else this man was wearing?” asked the policeman.

“Funny clothes. Old fashioned, like.”

“Can you describe them?”

“Baggy shirt and them funny trousers as only go as far as the knees.”

“What colour were they?”

“Dunno. Didn’t notice.”

The policemen wrote “handkerchief on head,” “baggy shirt,” “knee length breeches,” “swarthy,” and “gypsy type” in his notebook. He wondered whether Matthew was making it all up. The character sounded like something out of a children’s story book, but he continued.

“Could you see how old this man was?”

“Not really. Youngish bloke. Thirties, forties, I dunno.”

“And did they follow you down the lane?”

“Nope.”

“How do you know?”

“I looked back when I was ’alf way down. There was no sign on ’em.”

“Could you still hear the man whistling?”

“Nope.”

“Do you know what tune it was?”

“Nope. Never ’eard it before.”

The policeman could think of no more questions for the present and decided that he ought to go and have a look at Atkins’ Meadow.

“OK Matthew, I’d like you to come with me in the car. Show me exactly where all this happened, OK?”

Matthew nodded. He seldom got the opportunity to travel in cars, and the policeman wasn’t wearing a uniform so he didn’t feel threatened. This was beginning to seem like fun.

He directed the policeman down the road from the pub, left into Dingle Lane, across the stream at the bottom of the hill and then up the other side. The officer didn’t need directions but he was happy to indulge the old man’s rare moment of influence. Matthew pointed out the stile in the hedgerow when they came close to the far end. The policeman continued to the junction and parked the car in a nearby gateway. They walked back down the lane to the stile.

“So where were you when you saw Mr Green?” asked the policeman.

“Right ’ere.”

“And where was Mr Green?”

“About fifty yards, that way,” said Matthew, pointing.

He lacked the sort of academic knowledge that most people take for granted, but he was accurate with distances.

“And he was walking this way?”

“Yup.”

“How close was the other man?”

“Spittin’ distance. Few yards.”

“And why did you say that you thought Mr Green wasn’t aware of the other man?”

“’Cos ’e stopped and looked round. And the other bloke stopped as well. Just stood there. And Jamie didn’t look at ’im. He kept looking round, like ’e was looking for somethin’. Queer, that was.”

“Well,” said the policeman, “let’s go and take a look, shall we? I can get a SOCO team in tomorrow, but I might as well see if there’s anything obvious.”

Matthew didn’t know what a SOCO team was, but he was happy to follow the policeman over the stile and across the field.

“I suppose he must have been about here when you saw him,” said the policeman when they had walked about fifty yards.

Matthew nodded. The policeman walked around the spot but failed to find anything.

“What’s that over there, that depression in the ground?”

“Dunno,” said Matthew. “It’s always bin there.”

“You can’t see it from the road can you? Looks like an old marl quarry or something. Let’s go and have a look.”

They crossed the field and walked down into the hollow via the shallow slope at one end. Suddenly, the policeman stopped and held up his arm to prevent Matthew going any further. He could see what looked like a human hand sticking out through one of the lifeless branches of the fallen tree.

“Go back up to the top, will you Matthew. And stay still. I don’t want any more pairs of feet than are necessary tramping over here.”

Matthew did as he was told and the policeman walked over to the dead tree. There, half concealed beneath the stark branches, was the body of a man. It was lying face down and the clothes fitted the description of what Jamie Green had been wearing the previous Sunday morning. The policeman called the station.

An investigation was started but, as the facts unfolded, the police were at a loss to know whether to treat the case as murder or not. The results of the post mortem had the pathologist baffled. He confirmed that the body had lain in the hollow for about a week, but the only thing he could find to explain the death was evidence of an injury to the brain consistent with a heavy blow to the head. Yet there was not the slightest sign of such a blow externally.

It was probably fortunate for Matthew that there wasn’t, for his unlikely tale of some comic book gypsy character - and one that only he could see, apparently - could have led to him to being the prime suspect.

Further investigations in the locality failed to produce any other sighting of the mysterious Romany. A thorough examination of the scene produced nothing to indicate a struggle or the presence of another person. And then there was the position of the body. In order to recover it, mechanical lifting equipment had been needed to remove the tree. It would not have been possible for a single person to have placed the body there, and neither could the police see any way in which Jamie could have crawled into such a position himself.

Consideration was given to the possibility of an attack by several strong men, but that raised its own question. Why go to such trouble to conceal a body so inadequately when there were easier and more comprehensive options? And, in any case, such an attack would certainly have left external injuries.

The police were baffled. In the end they decided that there was insufficient evidence to treat the case as murder and it remained unsolved. An open verdict was recorded and Jamie’s body released for disposal.

A funeral service was held in the village church prior to removal for cremation. A number of Jamie’s colleagues were there as well as several of the locals, and it was they whom Jamie’s widow studied most closely. She was looking for signs of guilty knowledge, for she was still disturbed by something that had happened on the day that Jamie’s body had been found.

It had taken some time to arrange the equipment necessary to remove the tree, and it had been late in the evening when she had been called to identify her husband and take possession of his effects. On returning home she had spent several sombre hours mulling over the change in Jamie and the decline of her marriage during the previous year. The tragic conclusion had been a blow that would take some time to come to terms with, and the mysterious circumstances left unanswerable questions that only compounded the issue.

It was long past midnight when she’d gone to bed and she’d still been awake half an hour later when she’d heard the whistling again. It was the same tune, The Gypsy Rover.

She’d left the bedroom light off and hurried to the window, throwing the curtains back and peering out onto the dimly lit street below. At that point the melody had changed to something haunting and unfamiliar. She’d opened the window and put her head out, looking in all directions to try and locate the sound of the music. The street had been empty, but she’d had a vague impression of a dark figure standing in the shadow of the village shop opposite. The shadow had been too deep to allow any degree of certainty. And then the sound had faded, seeming to move over the rise in Dingle Lane until it ceased altogether.

She’d returned to bed feeling confused, upset and angry. Had one of the locals, knowing of Jamie’s peculiar habits and his preoccupation with the tune, been playing a cruel trick on her? She had got to know them well and couldn’t think of anyone who would do such a thing, but it seemed the only credible explanation.

As she lay in bed, the faces of her neighbours had flashed before her and she had dismissed each of them in turn. And then she’d thought of the many things that Jamie had said when he was still bothering to take the trouble. Briefly, she’d considered the incredible.

Could the whistling have come from Jamie’s ghost, giving her some evidence of his continued existence? Or could he, as she had thought a week earlier, really have entered the other world he so craved and be taking his last farewell?

She’d been half inclined to accept either possibility, but neither of them explained the curious nature of his physical death. Whatever world he was now residing in, the question of how he got there remained a mystery.

She’d wondered whether the mythical gypsy character actually existed. Suppose Matthew really had seen him walking behind Jamie that Sunday evening in Atkins’ Meadow. Maybe the errant Romany was lonely and welcomed the advent of a companion on his travels. Maybe he had brought about Jamie’s death in order to take him through the doorway into his world. Maybe that was the only way of entering it.

Then again, the opposite might be true. Jamie might have been getting too close. The gypsy might be highly territorial, and might have been getting jealous at the prospect of someone entering his realm as a rival. Would he not have wanted to prevent him doing so by consigning him to a conventional death in this world? And might he not have wished to proclaim his triumph to the widow of the vanquished?

More disturbing still, she’d wondered whether Jamie’s obsession had been so persistent and all-consuming that it had somehow brought the gypsy into existence. She’d known that there were people who believed such a thing to be possible. Who knows what the attitude of such a being might be to its creator? She’d thought of Mary Shelly’s creature and its act of revenge on the hapless Frankenstein.

Eventually she’d dismissed all the supernatural possibilities as silly and fanciful. The simpler explanation held sway and she’d decided to hold onto it. She’d fallen uneasily into a troubled sleep, convinced of the need to identify the one responsible for such a callous act.

And that was why she scanned the faces of the congregation at the funeral, looking for some sign of nervousness or a sly glance that would betray the person responsible for that eerie whistling outside her window. She saw nothing then, nor at the brief wake that was held in the village hall. She went home feeling deflated and disappointed, knowing that the identity of the phantom whistler added a further mystery to the one surrounding Jamie’s death.

And she was unable to ignore totally the image conjured up by Matthew’s description of the scene in the field. As the evening wore on and she became drowsy, a picture kept floating into her mind, a picture of a swarthy, powerful man with a melancholy tune on his lips and murder in his eyes. She went to bed with a furrowed brow and a deep sense of unease in her heart.

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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