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.

September 23, 2014

Simon Says

This story would have been difficult to place with a publisher; it’s too long, too ‘decompressed’ to suit the modern taste for snappy fiction. One publisher was interested, but asked me to cut it down. I declined. It is what it wanted to be.

The section dealing with the Dartmouth Training Squadron is mostly drawn from life, the difference being that Simon followed me safely up the rope. He didn’t disappear. For many years afterwards I had an abiding image of finding the old ship in a breakers yard and telling part of its story. Eventually, I did.

Approximate reading time: 30-40 minutes.

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It was mid afternoon towards the end of what had been a splendid July, but the condition of light and atmosphere was intriguingly unseasonal. The heavy mist seemed more in keeping with a damp day in November; it felt unnatural and even unhealthy on a hot, still afternoon in high summer. I was driving along a disarmingly straight road in the fen country somewhere in the vicinity of The Wash, and the straightness of the road allowed the facility to contemplate the scenery with relative ease.

The fenlands of Cambridgeshire are notable for their almost total absence of anything pleasing to the eye. Lonely roads run in straight lines for miles alongside bland, functional drainage ditches, only to be punctuated every so often by tight, ninety degree turns over small bridges. Drab farmhouses look out in grim isolation over endless miles of flat, featureless monotony. I once heard someone suggest that such monotony is interesting in itself. I could see the logic in the opinion, but I had never subscribed to it. To me the landscape was tedious, pure and simple.

Today, however, I was being spared the pallid panorama of dull greens and even duller browns. The view had a surreal quality about it, caused by the mist that washed the distant view into a succession of half tones, and by the luminous quality of the light that came with it. It had none of the greyness associated with those damp days of late autumn. The summer sun - invisible but still high, no doubt, somewhere beyond the thick atmosphere - lit up the mist and the featureless landscape with a rose pink glow. For once I was enjoying the view, and I was quite unconcerned that I had no idea exactly where I was.

I was a salesman working in agricultural seeds, and the intensely farmed arable counties of Eastern England formed the major part of my territory. A week earlier I had received a telephone call from my office asking me to visit a new client near The Wash. The premises were isolated I had been told, and I had been given a detailed set of directions to follow the next time I was in the area.

They began by taking the road north from Wisbech, and then took a complex route that required close concentration as I got nearer to the coast. It was the day for visiting my Wisbech customers and I had set off to find the new client at about three in the afternoon.

I had followed the directions carefully, and found myself an hour later driving the final long, straight stretch of road that promised to bring me to my destination about two miles further on. The landscape was different here and had a rare feature of its own to boast of. The road ran alongside a wide watercourse that was obviously more than a mere drainage ditch. It was the width of a dozen dykes, fringed with tall reeds on the far side and clearly very deep judging by the size of the boats that were tethered to buoys here and there. I assumed it to be a major channel running off the navigable stretch of some large river close to the coast.

There was a feeling of dereliction and decay about the scene. The tethered craft wallowed sadly in the still water, rusting slowly away and having about them an air of lifelessness. Some were listing heavily, looking forlorn and forgotten in the heavy, pink-tinged mist that suffused this nautical graveyard; and the fact that I hadn’t seen another vehicle for the last fifteen or twenty minutes lent the experience an added air of mystery.

I became engrossed in the other-worldly quality of the view before me and briefly forgot the practical reason for being there. It was brought back to me minutes later when I saw that I was approaching a group of buildings that stood at the water’s edge. I assumed I had arrived at my destination and prepared to pull the car off the road at a point where I saw a pair of metal gates. I was disappointed to see that they were shut. I stopped the car anyway and got out.

The premises looked as derelict as the rotting hulks standing out in the channel. The paint on the motley collection of corrugated iron sheds had flaked away so badly that it was all but gone in many places. Odd bits of rusting implements lay around the weed-strewn yard, and an old crane that I could see through a gap in the buildings was denuded of tackle. I had no doubt that it was an old boat breaker’s yard and clearly not the object of my journey. But I had followed the directions meticulously and this was where my new client should be located. I wondered whether someone might be running a business from one of the old buildings and felt that it was worth taking a few minutes to find out. There were plenty of gaps in the broken down fencing, and so I walked through one of them to investigate.

I crossed the open ground and looked in the nearest shed. It was empty. So was the next one, and my footsteps echoed around the bare metal walls as I walked through it to exit by the far door that led onto the water frontage. The sight that greeted me as I clambered through the wicket door brought me to an abrupt halt.

A short way across a patch of open ground, an old wooden jetty ran alongside the channel and there was a vessel tied up to it. This was much bigger than anything I had seen on my approach and its lines were familiar. Despite the fact that certain features had been stripped away, I recognised it at once as an old Whitby Class, Type 12 Royal Navy frigate. I was well qualified to be certain of my identification: I had crossed the Atlantic in such a ship thirty years earlier.

She lay at her mooring like the rest of her abandoned neighbours - still, silent and apparently long-forgotten. The purpose of my visit was forgotten, too, as I stood and surveyed the pitiful remains of the old warship. She made a sorry sight. A few small patches of light grey paint remained dotted here and there on what was left of the superstructure, but the rest was coloured the depressing red-brown of heavy rust.

Most of the upper deck fittings had been removed. The turret was still in place, but the twin 4.5 inch guns had gone. So had the Bofors gun that had once stood proudly on the poop deck. The guard rails had been stripped from the stanchions, the radar dishes had all been taken, and the glass had gone from the bridge windows. I was surprised to see that the gangway was still in place. It seemed that no one had bothered to remove it once the final fittings had been taken, and I felt an irresistible urge to go aboard.

I walked across the cracked tarmac, avoiding the bigger gashes where hardy weeds were re-establishing the rule of nature. If the rest of that strange afternoon’s remarkable discoveries had evoked in me feelings of surprise and nostalgia, what I was about to see would come close to being breathtaking.

As I approached the edge of the jetty I could see the hull below the overhanging profile of the upper deck. The paintwork had fared better there, presumably being more protected from the elements, and the pennant number was still just about decipherable. The sight of it sent a thrill of excitement down my spine. There was not the slightest doubt that it read F63.

“My God,” I said out loud. “HMS Eastbourne!”

The revelation was hard to take in. HMS Eastbourne was a memorable part of my history. It was the very ship that I had served in all those years ago, and vibrant memories of those eventful days came crowding into my mind. Individual events followed quickly upon each other as I remembered the three life-changing months that I had spent on board that ship. It had been a period of intense learning about human nature, the ways of the sea, and my own strengths and weaknesses.

But one event would always be at the forefront, since it had cast a dark shadow over the rest and involved a mystery that had never been solved. A week into the voyage my best friend, Simon Hobart, had been lost overboard and his body never recovered. The memory of it swam into my mind as I looked nostalgically up the gangway of the rusty old frigate.

Three decades earlier, Simon and I had been part of a small intake of officer cadets at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. We shared a six-berth cabin with four other cadets and, although the six of us did most things together as a group, a particular bond had developed quickly between Simon and me.

Exactly why is hard to say. I suppose it was partly a question of compatible personalities, but I suspect it was also due to the fact that I accepted in Simon something the others didn’t. Unlike most young men of our generation who had spent their teenage years revelling in the irreligious and hedonistic climate of liberation and benign anarchy, Simon had belonged to some very devout Christian group – the something-or-other Brethren is all I remember of its name – and the conditioning he had received from infancy showed impeccably in his attitudes and behaviour. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear, and didn’t engage in loose, gratuitous relationships with girls. Neither did he tell lies or speak ill of others. By the standards of the time those qualities made him odd, and the other cadets, friendly though they were in general terms, thought of him as something of a fanatic.

I didn’t see him that way. I found his attitude refreshing and worthy of respect. I particularly liked his honesty and directness of speech, and was prepared to see him as a salutary antidote to my own attitudes and personality that were very much in keeping with the times. I think I might even have envied the one thing that he had and we lacked: a disarmingly clear conscience.

The first three months at Dartmouth were difficult for everybody. The regime was harsh, with early starts, late finishes, tough rules and constant psychological pressure. Friendships tend to grow strong in the face of shared adversity, and Simon and I were no exception. By April the bond was well established, and we went our separate ways on a three week leave the firmest of friends.

The next stage of our intensive, twelve month cadetship involved joining the Dartmouth Training Squadron. Three ageing Type 12 frigates had been seconded to the purpose. HMS Eastbourne was the flagship, with Brighton and Blackpool making up the rest. Our division was posted to Eastbourne and we found ourselves settling uneasily into a crowded mess deck one afternoon in late April.

The first couple of weeks were spent in various forms of preparation. The ships conducted their sea trials and the cadets needed to be acclimatised to a way of life that was far removed even from that of Dartmouth College, let alone civvy street. Getting our “sea legs” took a few days of uncertain tottering until we learned to ride the movements of the ship instinctively. Learning to live, eat and sleep in a space more suited to a quarter of our number took a little longer.

By the middle of May we were ready for the work of seasoned sailors. We sailed out of Plymouth Sound in fading light one cold, damp Thursday evening, and headed for the wide Atlantic. The weather forecast was bad: gales first, then storms for the whole week of our crossing. Our newly acquired sea legs were about to be severely tested, and so were our stomachs.

We awoke on the Friday morning to our first experience of a small ship pitching and rolling in a heavy sea. Simon told me that an uncle of his had served in destroyers during the war and had given him a tip for avoiding sea sickness.

“Fill your stomach,” he’d said, “preferably with porridge. It’s good and heavy and not greasy.”

Simon and I took his advice and had two bowls each. Most of the others avoided breakfast. Many of them were already starting to feel queasy, and there was a general reluctance to eat lest it should encourage the dreaded onset of symptoms. The force of the wind that morning was showing as eight on the Beaufort scale: gale force. By the end of the day it had risen to nine: severe gale. By Sunday it stood at eleven: severe storm force. Neither Simon nor I felt the slightest need to join our colleagues in the now common practice of vomiting into buckets. It seemed that his uncle’s advice had been worth taking.

By then we were well into the training schedule. Our duty time was divided between learning the skills necessary to our prospective status as officers, and performing the menial tasks that would normally have been done by the seamen whose places we had taken in the ship’s compliment. Between duties, we were both discovering a fascination with the sea.

Standing on the deck of a frigate in a force eleven storm is a singular experience. By then we were in the middle of the Atlantic, where the ocean is at its deepest and landfall furthest away.  Knowing that the nearest dry land is over a thousand miles distant is interesting enough, but watching the state of the sea in those conditions can hardly be adequately described. To say that the massive swell gives it the appearance of an ever-shifting mountain range does it scant justice. One minute the ship is in a trough, and the dark, foam flecked walls of water tower intimidatingly above the deck like gigantic rock faces. Then the omnipotent ocean lifts the puny vessel up onto a crest and the view suddenly becomes panoramic in all directions.

The sense of isolation is magnificent. Above, there is the enormity of endless sky; below, and all around, the unfathomable depth of brown, heaving water. The sense of nature’s immense power is awe-inspiring to the point of being hypnotic. Simon and I agreed readily on the fact. Where we differed was in our view of what lay behind it.

I was inclined towards the Gaia hypothesis: the notion that nature is more than an abstract concept, but rather has a life of its own in which every aspect of material is an interconnected part. Maybe it is even sentient and capable of using its will to say who shall survive and who shall not. And maybe there are other sentient powers, existing on different levels of reality and entrusted with the daily stewardship of the many aspects of nature’s realm - the gods of the ancient world, perhaps. I suggested to Simon that Poseidon might be alive and well and watching us at that very moment. It was the only time I ever saw him angry.

“There is only one God,” he declared, “and these are his works. One God, one heaven. One devil, one hell. God has his angels and the devil his demons. Apart from that, there is only one dimension and this is it.”

I was inclined to disagree, but my views on the matter were less entrenched than Simon’s and I knew how strongly he held to his beliefs. I had clearly touched a raw nerve and wasn’t about to fall out with my best friend, so I dropped the matter.

By the following Wednesday the storm had blown itself out and the sea had returned to a state of relative calm. We watched the schools of dolphins that came to ride the bow wave and marvelled at the bigger whales sounding in the distance. Hordes of hungry gulls pounced on the gash that was thrown over the stern to float away on the creamy wake. On Thursday morning we sailed past a number of icebergs drifting south from the Arctic, and it was then that we stopped to paint the ship in preparation for our entry into St John’s, Newfoundland.

Painting the superstructure of a ship is simple enough, but painting the hull was, in those days, a difficult and potentially hazardous operation. The paint stage consisted of a plank of wood big enough for two men to sit on. A cross member was attached at each end and a long rope was tied to each of them. The two ropes were taken around guard rail stanchions and then secured with simple turns around the cross members. Lowering the stage had to be done in situ, and it was a precarious business. One mistake could result in the two men being deposited in the icy sea below. When the job was finished, the only way to get back on deck was to climb up the ropes, and that isn’t easy with fingers that are wet from the blowing spray and rendered numb by a cold, cutting wind.

That was the job that Simon and I were detailed to do on that fateful Thursday morning. The week of heavy weather had taken its toll on the ship’s paintwork and the Royal Navy insisted on presenting a pristine face when putting into port. We were scheduled to do that the next day, and all the cadets had been mustered to paint duty.

The lucky ones had the simple job of painting the superstructure. The rest of us were consigned to dangle over the side in pairs, armed with pots of light grey paint and six inch paint brushes. The petty officer in charge of the operation had taken some delight in warning us of the inherent danger. Survival beyond two or three minutes was unlikely in water at that temperature he had told us, so it was in our best interests to avoid falling in.

Simon and I treated the challenge with scornful bravado. We decided to make a race of it and painted quickly, finishing our section ahead of the others either side of us.  It was time to climb back aboard and we agreed that I should go first.

I stood up carefully, gripping the ropes on my side, while Simon held fast to his in case the paint stage tipped. I grasped the ropes as high as I could and lifted my knees and feet into position. The climb was difficult but I kept going steadily until I reached the top where a welcome hand came over the gunwale to help me aboard. Once I was safely on deck, I turned around to do the same for Simon. I looked over the side, expecting him to be half way up the rope. There was no sign of him.

For a moment I felt confused. I looked hard at the ropes and the wooden stage. Simon definitely wasn’t there. I wondered whether he might have climbed simultaneously with me, but there was no way he could have done so without my seeing him. The only remaining possibility dawned on me quickly and I scoured the sea beneath the paint stage. There was nothing there either. I ran to the petty officer to report that Simon must have fallen from the stage, and that he had disappeared.

The duty boat crew was mustered and the boats lowered within minutes. They searched for more than an hour, but found nothing and were called back. It seemed a harsh and unfeeling decision at the time, but we all knew that there was no point in continuing. The sea swallows its victims quickly, and only returns them again some time later and a long way distant. I was interviewed at length by the captain, as were the others who had been painting the ship on that side. No one had seen Simon fall and no one had heard a cry or a splash. The mystery remained, but the fact was incontrovertibly established: Simon was gone.

The necessary formalities were attended to and the voyage continued, but Simon’s fate hung over me for the rest of the trip. I thought about him every day, and sometimes I found it difficult to muster the enthusiasm and commitment necessary to perform my duties and learn my lessons. Several times over the days that followed I thought I heard him call my name, just as I was going to sleep in the low-lit mess deck, or on being rudely woken up for some early morning duty. I put it down to imagination, just as I did one night when I was working the middle watch.

It was about two o’clock in the morning and a week after Simon’s disappearance. My duty that night was the one generally referred to, appropriately in the circumstances, as “the ghost watch.” It consisted of patrolling the quarterdeck in the stern of the ship, keeping a lookout for anything that might be worth reporting to the Officer of the Watch. Nothing ever happened and the duty was a tedious one. But it was peaceful at least, and allowed the opportunity to muse on the events of the day and the meaning of life.

My musings were mostly about Simon’s loss, and I was beginning to feel that I was also losing my interest in being a naval officer. We were sailing up the St Lawrence Seaway, bound for Quebec. It was a balmy night in early June and the river was as calm as a park boating lake. There was no wind to speak of, and the only sound was the gentle throbbing of the steam turbines deep in the bowels of the ship. I had been on duty for two hours and had two more to go before I could return to the welcome comfort of my hammock.

I was feeling drowsy, but the sound of the voice startled me. It was louder than usual and echoed slightly. It called my name clearly, and I would have sworn on oath that it was Simon’s. I looked over the port side at the inky darkness below. I walked quickly around the mortar well to the starboard side and did the same there. I looked up at the poop deck, and then turned to look at the ship’s wake trailing astern. I saw nothing, and there was no repetition of the eerie call.

Being alone on the dark quarterdeck, I found the sound of my dead friend’s voice unnerving. I stood for a while, listening intensely and half expecting to see his glowing form climb onto the deck and walk towards me. No spectre appeared and my nervousness subsided again. I put the experience down to the effect of sudden and shocking bereavement, and sat out the rest of my watch in sombre mood.

We spent another six or seven weeks conducting a variety of exercises and making courtesy calls around the eastern seaboard of North America. We took part in a major international review off Halifax, spent four days in New York and visited lots of smaller towns where we were regaled with civic functions in our honour. And, of course, the intensive seamanship training continued relentlessly.

I found the experience interesting, even exciting at times, but not compelling. A sense of apathy began to creep into my attitude, and it didn’t bode well for my future prospects. By the time we returned to Portsmouth in mid July I had already decided that I had made a wrong choice of career and applied to resign. I went home for the long summer leave and received a letter from the Admiralty a few weeks later. My application had been accepted and I was a civilian again.

Over the next few years I thought often of Simon. I intended to visit his parents at some time, but never got around to it. The memory of him and his tragic loss inevitably faded into the background as I got on with my life.

Thirty years on and here I was, standing on the rickety old jetty and looking up at the scene of it all. I was touched by the poignant contrast between the vessel that I had just been recalling so vividly, and the one that now stood before me.

I had lived again the world of HMS Eastbourne in her prime, ploughing through the deep ocean swell with the white ensign fluttering proudly from her stern. I had seen her decked out in her livery of light grey paintwork, bright green deck, black trimmings and polished brightwork. And now she languished in this abandoned breaker’s yard, rusting away in some forgotten creek that was too insignificant to be a fitting place of rest.

I had to go aboard one last time, and not just to the upper deck. I wanted to go below and see the old mess deck that I had called home for three months. I wanted to visit the galley, the ops room and the bridge. I realised that it would be pitch dark down there and that I would need a torch. I went back to my car to fetch the one that I kept in the glove compartment and returned with a tingle of expectation in my stomach. I noticed that the light had fallen in the short time that I had been there. The mist had thickened and the glow had turned from rose pink to a surreal shade of cerise.

I put my foot tentatively on the gangway and pressed the rusting metal in various places. It seemed solid enough and I walked up it. When I reached the top, the old instinct to salute the quarterdeck returned, but I knew that the point in doing so was to salute the flag that had flown there when the ship was in commission. There were no flags on Eastbourne now.

I turned right to walk towards the stern, and crossed the poop deck where the remains of the Bofors gun mounting were rusting badly along with everything else. I climbed carefully down the port side ladder that led to the quarterdeck. The memory of Simon’s voice that night on the St Lawrence returned strongly, and I looked around as I had done then. It was sad to see the guard rails and the flagstaff gone, and the mortar well was just a hole in the deck.

I walked to the open hatchway that led below decks and peered into the darkness. I could see nothing beyond the first few feet of the ladder, and switched on the torch to make the descent. It soon became the only form of illumination as I made my way past the heads and approached the top of the ladder that led down to my old mess deck. I made that descent as carefully as the others and was relieved to see that the bulkhead door was open. I went through it and shone the torch around.

I felt a lump come into my throat. Although I had never taken to the navy, the sheer richness and intensity of the experience had made my brief liaison with the Senior Service seem a much bigger part of my life than it had actually been, and I held it in great affection. I felt intensely sad to see my old living area in this state. What had once seemed an impossibly confined space bursting with overcrowded activity was now a large, empty shell. Everything had been removed: the lockers that had filled the centre portion, the bolted-down tables that had occupied the port side, and the bunk beds that had been fixed to the starboard bulkhead. The steel cross members on which the hammocks had been slung were still there, but that was all. I stayed for a few minutes and then pulled myself away. There was more to see yet and it would soon be time to go home.

I climbed back up the ladder and made my way forward along the main passageway. The hatch was closed on the galley servery, so I continued to the ops room. That was as indecently denuded as the messdeck. Radar plotting screens, chart tables and the mass of snaking cable were all gone.

I moved forward again to the wheelhouse in which I had always enjoyed working. It was the same in there. No wheel, no communication mic, no bearing display, no revs counter; everything that had given it life and purpose had been stripped away.

I climbed the ladder that led up to the bridge. That was empty too, and had suffered more corrosion than the other areas due to the elements having gained access through the glassless windows. I walked out onto the port bridge wing and looked forward at the dark water of the channel disappearing into the mist. I remembered standing on the same spot all those years ago, being continuously drenched by the ice cold spray thrown up when the bow dipped into a heavy swell. I was struck again by the sadness of the inglorious end to which the proud old warrior had been brought. I felt that I had seen enough and turned to make my way back.

As I looked astern towards the gangway I was shocked to see that I was not the only person who had crossed it to visit the remains of HMS Eastbourne. Standing close to the top of it was a small boy, looking up at me. He made a strange and ghostly sight, standing still and alone in the red-tinged mist. I descended the ladder and walked towards him. He seemed to be about eight or nine and was standing with his arms held rigidly at his side. He looked unwaveringly at me as I approached.

“Hello,” I said. “Who are you?”

He made no reply.

“What’s your name?” I continued.

Still he said nothing.

“OK, let’s try this one: where do you live?”

I assumed him to be a local child who probably used the breaker’s yard as a playground. I felt a duty to warn him of the dangers inherent in playing on old ships. But still he remained silent, just stood there stiffly and stared at me. Suddenly, he roused himself to speak. His words, delivered as though he were reading from a script, left me speechless.

“Simon says he’s not dead.”

His brief statement had been made clearly enough, but those five simple words left me feeling stunned. Why had he said that? Was it just a remarkable coincidence that he had used the name of a long-deceased friend whose memory had been filling my thoughts for the past half an hour? And what was he doing there anyway? I was at a loss to know how to reply and began to doubt that I had heard him correctly. There was a note of incredulity in my tone as I asked him the obvious question.

“What did you say?”

He rolled his eyes and repeated the statement.

“Simon says he’s not dead.”

There was another pause while I took it in.

“Simon who?”

“Don’t know,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Just Simon.”

“Just Simon,” I repeated blankly. “OK, when did he say that?”

The boy shrugged again.

“Was it today, yesterday, last week?”

He nodded. Perceptions of time are vague to children of that age and I realised that it was a pointless line of questioning. I tried another one.

“OK then, where do you see Simon?”

“Everywhere,” he replied confidently.

“What do you mean ‘everywhere’? Everywhere on the ship?”

He nodded again.

“Sometimes he’s over there.” He pointed back towards the quarterdeck. “Sometimes he’s up there.” He pointed up towards the bridge. “Sometimes he’s down there.” He pointed over the side towards the water line.

I felt my skin begin to creep. A real person who just happened to be called Simon might be seen on the quarterdeck or the bridge, but hardly in the space between the hull and the jetty.

“Is he here now?” I asked.

“’Course not,” he replied, regarding me again with that disarming directness that children have when they think you’re stupid. I felt relieved. It was time for another change of tack.

“What does Simon look like?”

“He’s big,” said the boy. “With a big nose.”

“What colour hair does he have?”

“The same as me.”

He was blond.

“Is it straight like yours?”

The boy thought again, then shook his head.

“Is it wavy?”

He nodded. So far the description matched.

“How old is he? Is he as old as me?”

“No,” said the boy disdainfully. “You’re old.”

“Is he as old as your dad?”

The boy shook his head again and concentrated. Eventually he said with considered certainty

“He’s as old as my big brother.”

“And how old’s your big brother?”

“Eighteen.”

Simon was nineteen when I knew him.

The description fitted my old friend in every respect, but I was still finding it hard to take the matter seriously.

“But you only see him on the ship; you don’t see him anywhere else?”

He nodded again. I realised that I had committed the common error of asking two conflicting questions in the same sentence. I clarified it.

“Just on the ship?”

Another nod.

“What about when you see him down there?” I asked, pointing over the side. “Is he in the water?”

The boy shook his head.

“He sits on a piece of wood.”

The apparent reference to a paint stage was unmistakable, and I was beginning to believe that Simon’s disembodied spirit was still haunting the ship. I asked the boy if he was ever frightened when he saw Simon.

“’Course not,” he answered. “Simon’s nice. He’s not a ghost or anything”.

“How do you know he’s not a ghost?”

“I’ve told you, Simon says he’s not dead.”

So he had. What on earth was I to make of it all?

“Did Simon say anything else?” I asked.

He nodded again and frowned, clearly trying to remember the words correctly.

“He said ‘Tell the man who comes to look at the ship that he was right.’”

“Right about what?”

“Don’t know.”

Of course he didn’t. I realised that it was a stupid question.

“I’ve got to go now,” he said suddenly, and turned to walk away.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “When you talk to Simon, does he ever say anything about God?”

The boy shook his head and ran down the gangway. I watched as he crossed the open ground and disappeared into the nearest shed.

I knew there would be no point in following him. For the time being I could think of no more questions worth asking. It was certain that the boy would be unable to answer the big one anyway. Was this “Simon” really my old friend, somehow continuing to exist in and around the rotting ship, or was there some other explanation?

I stood on the prow and pondered the enigma. I was alone again and conscious of the intense stillness all about me. There was no wind, and nothing stirred in the overgrown breaker’s yard or on the road that I could see beyond the fence. No wading bird called plaintively from the reeds on the far bank; and the water in the channel languished dark and silent, as though it had lost the will to lap the piles of the old jetty. The red mist was as thick as ever, obscuring the view beyond a hundred yards or so and turning the other sad vessels into ghostly grey shapes that hovered uncertainly between heaven and earth.

In those surreal circumstances it was easy to believe that my old companion had, indeed, found a way to send a message to me from whatever place he now found himself in. What had he meant by “not dead?” Was he trapped in some curious halfway house between life and death? Was I meant to help him in some way? Nothing in the brief messages suggested as much. And, assuming that I was the “man who had come to visit the ship,” what was it that I was right about? The stewardship of nature’s realm? Had Poseidon, or one of his minions, really been watching and listening on that cold May morning off the coast of Newfoundland?

I looked at my watch and decided that it was time to go home. I walked down the gangway and turned to say farewell to the old frigate before making my way back through the shed.

When I reached my car I decided that it might be useful to find the house where the young boy lived, just in case I should feel the need to talk to him again. It couldn’t be far away, I thought. I knew I hadn’t passed one on the way there, so I assumed that it must be a short distance further on. As I was about to climb into the driver’s seat I heard the faint strains of a melody that took me back again to my brief days before the mast. Lillibolero was the signature tune of the BBC World Service, and we had all become fond of its familiar rendition late every afternoon. It was quintessentially British and took us closer to dear old Blighty.

I stood and listened to it for a few moments, and took it as evidence that the boy’s house must be nearby. I got into the car and drove slowly along the road, looking in all directions over the flat landscape. I found no dwelling of any sort and stopped the car. It seemed that the boy and the music were as big a mystery as the enigmatic Simon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since discovered that the BBC had stopped using Lillibolero as its World Service theme tune some years earlier. I turned the car around and followed the directions in reverse until I got back to familiar territory. Then I went home.

As the mystifying effects of the afternoon’s strange events receded, I realised that I had failed to keep my appointment with the new client. Since I had followed the directions carefully, it seemed that they must have been copied wrongly. An apology was due and a new arrangement would have to be made. I knew, however, that I had only scant details: the man’s name, Mr Robin Thomas, and the directions. No address or phone number had been given and so there was no way of contacting him. I would have to ring the office the next morning, explain the situation and wait for him to call again.

I rang at eight thirty. I wanted to get the call out of the way early so that I could begin my day’s visits. I spoke to the woman who had given me the message in the first place, and was about to give a brief account of the missed appointment when she launched into an explanation of her own.

“I’m glad you’ve rung,” she began. “I had a call from Mr Thomas last night, the chap I gave you directions for.”

“Oh yes,” I said, expecting a complaint.

“Yes, he rang to apologise for not being there when you called.”

That was a stroke of luck. New customers are valuable, and it was fortunate that he thought the responsibility for the missed appointment was his. I could tell him the truth when we met, but for the time being it was better that he wasn’t offended.

But then I realised that I hadn’t made an appointment; I hadn’t had his phone number. In my concern at missing the call I had forgotten the fact. There had been no reason to apologise to him after all. So why had he assumed that I would call that day? Perhaps someone in the office had told him it was my day for visiting Wisbech. All this was running through my mind as the woman continued.

“Apparently, he couldn’t see you yesterday and had no way of getting in touch with you. Hopes you’ll excuse him for having to leave a message with the boy. I take it you saw a boy, did you?”

I felt my flesh creep again when I heard that. It seemed that the directions had been spot on after all. I had been exactly where I was meant to be.

“I did, yes,”

“And he asked me to give you a message. Bit of a strange one actually. I’ve got it written down somewhere. Yes, here it is. He said to tell you that what you said about the stewards was right, whatever that means. That’s who he’s working with at the moment. Does that make sense?”

“Yes it does,” I said quietly.

“Oh good,” she continued. “I thought I might have misheard him and he’d said ‘Stewarts’ or something. Anyway, then he said that he was going to be busy for a while, ‘working offshore’ he said, and that he’d get in touch with you direct when the conditions were right. I offered to give him your number but he said he’d already got it. That’s about it. Leave it with you then, can I?”

“Yes,” I said. “Thanks.”

For a while I felt numb. The whole episode of the directions, the breaker’s yard and the boy had apparently been deliberately engineered. As I started to come to terms with the fact, a number of questions began to present themselves.

Why had Simon chosen to communicate with me through the medium of third parties? It was evident that he had appeared and spoken to the boy regularly. Why not me? Perhaps children are more readily approachable to people in Simon’s state, whatever that might be. Perhaps they are more open minded and sensitive to such things. But he had also, apparently, spoken at some length to the woman in the office. Why had he not contacted me in the first place to make the appointment? He could still have used a false name and could still have relied on the child to give me his messages, if that was the way it had to be.

It seemed that some barrier existed, something that prevented direct communication for the time being. So why was he doing all this now? Was there some reason for him wanting to give me the final answer to what had happened that day? What did he mean by “when the conditions are right?” But then another thought occurred to me. Using a false name amounted to a lie, and Simon didn’t tell lies. It threw a sudden doubt on my certainty that that he had been the caller. But, of course, Simon hadn’t lied. A few seconds with a pencil and paper revealed that Robin Thomas is an anagram of Simon Hobart.

I didn’t feel like going to work that day. The heady cocktail of feelings engendered by the events of the previous eighteen hours was distracting. Could I really bring myself to spend a day talking yield rates and wholesale prices after what had happened? I decided to go anyway. I needed my commission payments and there was nothing to be gained by staying at home. I did consider going back to the breaker’s yard, but decided there would be no point. Simon would choose the time for our next communication. I would have to be patient.

The day was difficult. My lack of interest was evident at every call I made, and my sluggish efforts produced little in the way of business. I finished early and went home feeling listless. By nightfall, a sense of exhaustion weighed heavily on me and I took myself to bed early.

I switched off the light, expecting sleep to engulf me quickly. It didn’t. I dozed fitfully and kept hearing the throb of ship’s engines and smelling the salty sweetness of sea air. It was a warm night and I drifted in and out of consciousness, pushing the suffocating duvet away from my neck and chest. I turned back and forth many times and shifted my position in an attempt to find a cooler part of the bed. I became increasingly irritated and decided to get up.

I was lying on my back as I opened my eyes. What I saw was unfamiliar and confusing. Above me, the ceiling was made of riveted metal, light coloured in parts with rusty brown patches here and there, and it was illuminated by a dull, red glow. I looked to the side and then all around. I was no longer in my bedroom, but in the empty mess deck of the ship. It was different in only two respects. Firstly, I was lying in a solitary hammock slung from the cross members exactly where mine had been slung during my time in the ship; and secondly, the dull glow came from the red security lamp that I remembered had always been left on at night to allow safe passage to those on late duties. 

My reaction was not what I would have expected. I was surprised and confused, but not particularly disturbed. There was something inevitable about it, and I knew that I had to get out of the hammock and go up top.

I grasped the cross member close to my head, swung my legs over the side and lowered myself to the deck with familiar ease. I tottered slightly and realised that the ship was moving, but there was nothing difficult about the walk to the bulkhead hatch. My sea legs came back instantly. It was as though I had never been away.

I took the familiar route up to the quarterdeck. It was night, but there was a brilliant full moon rising over the stern and I could see that the ship was ploughing through a moderate sea. I could feel the pitching and rolling movements of the rusty deck, and hear the sound of the spray being thrown up by the bow forcing its way into the swell.

I walked beyond the mortar well to the open part of the deck and looked around. There was no one else in sight. I assumed I was alone on the ship and could see no land in any direction.

I climbed the ladder onto the poop deck and made my way forward until I reached the bridge. It was unlit and as empty as it had been when I saw it in the breaker’s yard. Whatever was controlling the ship, it was not human. I knew that there would be no point in going down to the wheelhouse, since the man who steers the ship does so on orders from the bridge, and there was no one there to give any. I stood on the port bridge wing for a few moments, revelling in the cool showers of salt spray thrown back from the dipping bow.

I returned to the quarterdeck and waited. I stood looking astern, watching the wake trail back into the distance and wondering where I was - on this earth, or some other. The air was balmy and reminded me of that night in the St Lawrence Seaway, but this time there was no sound of throbbing engines.

And then I heard my name called. It was loud and clear and echoed slightly. I turned around to see Simon standing at the bottom of the port ladder. He looked exactly as I remembered him and was smiling his usual, open smile. I was thrilled but not surprised to see him. He walked towards me until he was only a few feet away.

“Hello me old ’oppo,” he said, feigning the slang of the sailor.

“Hello Simon.”

“You’re getting the picture, aren’t you?”

Considering the circumstances, I felt surprisingly calm. There was an easy inevitability about the situation. But there was nothing dreamlike about it. I was fully awake and full of curiosity. I did, however, feel slightly guarded. As excited as I was to see Simon, I couldn’t know for sure whether he was flesh and blood, a ghost, or some sort of projection. It isn’t easy to relate to somebody in those circumstances.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Am I?”

“I think so,” he said. “You’re not surprised to see me. That’s good. You’re beginning to realise that all that stuff about the appointment and the boy was necessary for preparation. You had to be attuned to this meeting through a series of steps, so that you’d be open to it.”

I suppose I had begun to realise something of the sort when I woke up on the mess deck. He continued.

“I tried to contact you before, just after it happened. Remember that night when you were on ghost watch? I was standing right here, calling you. You couldn’t see me of course. Couldn’t even hear me once you were fully awake. I didn’t realise how these things worked then; I was still coming to terms with what had happened. I needed to learn a lot before I could make contact - and so did you.”

“Learn what?” I asked. “I don’t suppose you fancy starting at the beginning and telling me what happened that day. Why you disappeared, where you disappeared to, what you’ve been doing all these years, why you’ve made contact with me again - that sort of thing?”

My voice had a note of impatience in it. For some reason I wasn’t intimidated by the strangeness of the situation and Simon’s sudden appearance. I continued:

“You do realise that going to bed in a common-or-garden semi in Northampton, and then waking up somewhere in the middle of an ocean on a rusty, fifty-year-old ship that should have been broken up long ago is a bit weird. It must be time for an explanation.”

Simon chuckled in his old, relaxed way.

“It was broken up, actually, years ago.”

“What?”

“At a breaker’s yard in Blyth, about ten years after we sailed in her.”

“So what’s this, then?” I asked, waving my hand in the general direction of the superstructure.

“This is what she looked like after she’d been lying around for several years, just before the final dismantling.”

“So if it’s not real, what is it? A copy? An illusion?”

“Everything’s an illusion, you should know that. You’ve learned a lot, too, over the last thirty years.”

I suppose I had, theoretically at least. But I’d never come across an illusion quite as convincing as this one.

“And what about the ship in the old place up near The Wash? Was that really there or not?”

“Yes and no,” he said.

“And the boy?”

“Oh yes, he was there. He lives in a farm down a track that you missed when you went looking for him. Getting you to hear Lillibolero was a nice touch, don’t you think? It took me years to learn how to do that.”

I must have looked confused. Simon took the pause in my questioning as his opportunity to begin the story.

“Look,” he said, “there’s a limit to how much I can tell you. I’m still a bit of a novice myself. Time isn’t the same in my world. Thirty years is a long time to you, but it doesn’t work like that here.”

“Where’s ‘here’?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that for now. My job is to give you a brief explanation of the facts. Others will teach you much more in due course, if you want them to.”

“What others?”

“Patience,” he replied. “Let me get on with the story. The first thing you should know is that you and I have a strong bond. We’re sort of soul mates, if you want to put it that way; that’s why we became such good friends. Still are, for that matter. But we’ve taken different roads and become sort of opposites in one important respect.

“When we met up at Dartmouth, I was more spiritually advanced than you were. I don’t like the word ‘advanced’ but it’ll do for now. Mentally, however, I was closed off. I’d never broken free of the old Brethren teaching and couldn’t see beyond one God, one life and so on. You were the other side of the coin; spiritually a bit backward, if you’ll forgive me saying so, but mentally much more open to the bigger, truer picture. You might say that I had the better nature, you had the greater wisdom. You were more prepared to learn than I was. That meant that you were at least moving forward, albeit a bit slowly, whereas I’d got stuck.

“Things must have come to a head that day I sounded off about God and the Devil and so on. I was angry that anyone should challenge my cherished beliefs, and couldn’t accept that there might be anything beyond them.

“It was a few days later that we found ourselves hanging over the side on that paint stage. When we finished, I watched you climb the rope and disappear over the gunwale. Then I climbed up after you. I expected you to give me a hand aboard and was a bit miffed when I got to the top and you’d disappeared. But then I realised that everybody else had disappeared too. I looked over the side. No paint stages. I came back here to the quarterdeck. Empty. I went below decks and searched the ship, even went down to the engine room. Not a soul in sight.

“Needless to say I was pretty confused, and finally went up to the bridge. There was a man there I’d never seen before, sitting in the captain’s chair and wearing a full four-ringer's uniform. He turned to look at me and beckoned me over. He somehow looked as old as the hills, and yet he didn’t have any of the usual physical signs of ageing. And I was struck by an immense feeling of wisdom that seemed to emanate from him. I stood in front of him and he began to talk to me in a calm, fatherly sort of way. I thought he might be God at first, but he must have read my thoughts because he smiled and shook his head in a way that seemed to say ‘oh my goodness, you have got a lot to learn.’

“Then he explained to me about the rut that I’d got into and gave me two choices. I could either die and move on in the conventional way, in which case my body would be found floating in the sea and that would be the end of my current incarnation, or I could join him and learn my lessons quicker that way. I found the former a bit daunting – I still thought of death as something final and intimidating, you understand – so I chose the latter. I’ve been working here ever since.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Oh, generally stewarding the affairs of the sea, and those who live their lives on it. Using the subtle forces that lie behind the physical ones. Anyway, because of our link you’re going to be given the same choice.”

“What?!” I wasn’t sure that I relished such a choice.

“Don’t worry,” said Simon. “Your choice won’t be quite as stark as mine. I said earlier that you’re moving forward, whereas I was stuck. I had to be forced on. But you’ll be able to choose between living out your life as you are now, or coming over here and working with me. You’ve also been given the privilege of having advance knowledge, so you’ve got time to think about it.”

“And when will I get this choice?” I asked, feeling only slightly relieved.

“Can’t tell you that. It’ll be up to powers way above me to decide when the time’s right.”

The prospect of having to make such a decision was daunting. I had been a keen student of metaphysic all my life, but had recently become conscious of the fact that my knowledge had all come from books and the accounts of others. It lacked first hand experience or practical application, and I knew that my life was drifting along rather aimlessly. But was that enough to justify such a giant leap into the unknown? And one thing, in particular, was bothering me.

“There’s something I need to know,” I said. “Are you trapped where you are now? I can’t help noticing that you haven’t aged.”

“Of course not,” he said. “When my time comes to move on – die, if you like – I’ll do it just the same as you will. This world is just one of many in which we can spend an incarnation and learn a set of lessons. Who knows which of them either of us will take the next time round? What’s so unusual here – and why it’s such a privilege – is being able to switch from one form of reality to another in the same incarnation. As for the ageing - as I said, time works differently here.”

I thought for a moment and wondered what else worked differently there.

“So what’s it like over there?” I asked. “Do you do the same things that we do: eat, drink, sleep, have holidays, go shopping for clothes?”

I regretted the facetious undertone, but Simon was unruffled.

“Some things are the same, some different. But I’m not here to talk about pay and conditions. If you do decide to come over, it has to be for the right reason: the opportunity to learn about the greater nature of reality faster than you would in the physical world. There, you have to set yourself apart from the mainstream to learn what it’s all about, and that’s not easy in a world that’s dominated by forces determined to keep you on the bottom rung. Here, spiritual awareness is the mainstream. You’d soon get used to the new conditions. I did; I’m happy enough. If you choose to stay there you’ll learn what you need to know eventually, it’ll just take longer. And I’m talking lifetimes, not years. This is a sort of ‘fast tracking’ if you like. Think about it.”

“But you can’t tell me how long I’ve got?”

“’Fraid not, sorry.”

“And I don’t suppose you can tell me anything about the circumstances under which this offer will be made?”

“No.”

“No, thought not. This is a bit of a tall order you know. And how do I know that all this isn’t just a dream?”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “The offer will come anyway, whether you think it’s a dream or not. But, so that you can be as sure as possible, I’ve sent you a small gift.”

“Really?” I said. “What’s that?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” he replied. “And now it’s time for me to go. I’m glad we got to meet again. We had some good times, didn’t we? Perhaps we’ll become shipmates again before too long.”

“Yes, you too,” I said, referring to his first sentiment but feeling distinctly unsure about the second.

I was interested to know how he would take his leave of me. I hadn’t seen him come but I was going to watch him go. Predictably, I suppose, he read my thoughts and laughed.

“I have to keep the illusion going,” he said. “It’s one of the rules.”

He turned and climbed the ladder that led onto the poop deck. He walked forward a few yards, waved briefly and then climbed over the gunwale. I saw his hands release their grip and he dropped out of sight. I ran to the port side to see whether he was in the water. It didn’t surprise me that there was no sign of him. There had been no sound of a splash the first time he had disappeared, and there was none this time. I was alone again.

I felt uneasy, now that the very existence of the deck that separated me from the deep ocean had been brought into question. But I reasoned that the ship was probably just as real as the sea through which it moved its illusory course.

So what should I do now? Get back into my hammock and go to sleep in the expectation of waking in my own bed at home? It seemed too much like the stuff of film scripts, but I could think of no other course of action.

I took a final look around at the expanse of sea and the deserted ship; I smelt the air and revelled in the recollection one last time. And then I made my way back below decks.

I walked into the mess deck to find that the security light was out and it was pitch dark. I felt my way around the door and put my hand on the bulkhead, meaning to feel my way around the perimeter until I reached my hammock. My fingers rested on what felt like a modern light switch. I pressed it and found myself standing in my own brightly lit bedroom. The movement stopped as the light came on and I knew that I was home. The transition from one world to the other was as quick and simple as that. And still I wasn’t surprised.

I went downstairs, made a drink and opened the curtains, just to be sure that I was back in the familiar landscape of English suburbia. The dawn was beginning to break, but the full moon was clearly visible high in the cloudless sky. I wondered whether it was shining on a rusty old ship, still ploughing its way across some nameless ocean in another dimension somewhere. Or had that illusion now been consigned to its own breaker’s yard? I suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired and left my mug of tea half drunk. Within minutes I was settled into a deep and dreamless sleep.

It was Saturday and I slept late. I awoke to a faint smell of salt and realised that my pyjamas felt slightly damp. Was that an illusion too? I got dressed and went downstairs, picking up the mail as I made my way to the kitchen.

Among it was the final, small mystery that was to convince me that I must start examining my life deeply and honestly. I needed to decide between the comfort of a life in the safe and steady world that was my lot this time around, and an opportunity to fast track myself to higher things.

Tucked in between the junk mail was a postcard. The picture was of the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, taken from across the river at Kingswear. I turned it over. It was properly addressed to me by name, and the message box simply said:

“Simon says to send you this.”

There was no signature.

September 13, 2014

Signals.

This little tale was written quite some time ago, but held back so as to have something substantial and unpublished available in the event of being offered a single author anthology. That possibility now seems somewhat diminished, and so it might as well see the light of day here. It was always one of my favourites.

Approximate reading time: 30 minutes.

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Red and green should never be seen.

That old maxim is usually trotted out by people who think they know more about the finer points of colour compatibility than they really do. Those who truly understand the nature of colour rarely make such sweeping statements. Life isn’t that simple, and there are too many exceptions to disprove the rule.

Picture Christmas, when the world is awash with red and green. Red Santas, red candles and red berries sit in splendid harmony with green trees and holly leaves. They are the most prolific colours in the western world’s most prolifically visual celebration. By the same token, there can’t be many sights more beautiful than splashes of blood-red poppies dabbed among the light green freshness of a young barley field. So, if it’s OK with nature and time-honoured tradition, the combination can’t be all that bad.

The objection has some justification, however. The two primaries are on opposite sides of the colour wheel, and it’s a widely accepted principle that opposites tend not to sit easily with one another. They make powerful combinations and their marriage can be successful or disastrous depending on the nuances of tone, scale and distribution.

Personally, I dislike the combination of red and green, and I have a particular reason for feeling that way. I don’t retract my argument in its defence one jot, it’s just that seeing them together evokes bad memories. I have particular sympathy with the view that red haired people shouldn’t wear green clothes. It was how my profound dislike of combining red and green first began, twenty years ago on a deserted London Underground station.

It started there, but it didn’t end with a single bad experience. It echoed twice down the years and I really don’t know whether there’s more to come. I hope there isn’t. I hope it’s over now. For now I know what it feels like to believe myself responsible for the death of an innocent person and bear the weight of unassuageable guilt. Some things are simply irreversible, like tearing a piece of paper or cutting a flower. And that fact finds its ultimate expression in the causing of someone’s death, for it’s the one that carries the greatest consequence. Death is final; there’s nothing you can do to make amends.

*  *  *

Twenty years ago I was living in north London and did all my travelling in the centre of the city by tube. It was easier than driving, cheaper than taxis and quicker than taking the bus. One night in early February I had been out with friends and walked to Embankment station to catch the last train going north on the Northern Line. As I arrived on the platform the penultimate train of the day was just pulling out. I looked up at the board. It said Next train: Edgware: Ten minutes. I went and settled myself on one of the benches and idly browsed the same adverts that I had read countless times before.

I was alone on the platform, but there was nothing unusual about that immediately after a train had left. I expected other late travellers to join me in waiting for the last train home. No one did, and that surprised me a little. But then, it was a cold, wet night, and the streets had been less crowded than usual. And the time of year was a relatively quiet one. The Christmas and New Year tourists had gone and the spring and summer crush was yet to come.

And so I sat for ten minutes on my own, enjoying that peculiar brand of eerie quietness that is unique to a deserted underground station. I glanced at the board several times until it read One Minute. Shortly afterwards I heard the familiar singing in the lines that signalled the imminent arrival of a train.

I felt the cool air swelling gently out of the tunnel, and looked at the dark, inscrutable opening from which my transport would shortly appear. I saw the headlights of the approaching vehicle, and then the flat front of the cab came into view as it entered the lighted platform. The brakes squealed as it came to a stop and I began to walk towards the nearest door. It slid open and that familiar voice rang out with its slow, mechanical tone.

Mind the gap

I moved eagerly at first, but increasingly slowly as I saw what lay inside. A woman’s hand was lying on the floor of the carriage just inside the door. The arm to which it was attached was bare and culminated in a shoulder covered in green fabric. I saw her head next, then the other arm and shoulder, and finally the whole body.

It was that of a slim young woman, sprawled face down across the width of the carriage. She was lying in what is ironically known as the recovery position. Her head was turned in my direction and her eyes were open, but they had the glazed look of death in them. I was struck by her long red hair, the colour of old gold, which lay in crimped waves down the length of her back and stretched almost as far as her waist. She was wearing a bright green, going-out sort of a dress made of some shiny, silk-like fabric. It was sleeveless, and the hem finished several inches short of her knees. Even in the crumpled state that her position forced upon it, there was something sinuous about the way that it clung to her recumbent form.

I have since thought it strange that my observation of such detail should have been so complete, but the most abiding impression was the combination of colours. Her rust-red hair clashed strongly with the bright green silk, and it was about to be augmented and superseded by a much more vital version of its hue. As her full form came into view, I saw a tide of liquid, full bodied redness flow from her head towards the door. Soon it reached the edge of the carriage floor and began to drip onto the line below.

The effect on me was devastating. Blood in that quantity produces a sense of revulsion that is difficult to describe. The feeling of nausea goes beyond the mere physical desire to vomit; it produces a sense of inner weakness, as though the vital energy that is keeping you conscious and upright is being drained away. That is the feeling I shall forever associate with the combination of red and green.

As I stood alone on the platform, staring at the pitiful, hideous sight before me, I heard the voice break the silence again.

Mind the gap

My mind was squirming in all directions, but my body felt too weak to move. The silence, the stillness, the form of the dead girl and the pool of blood dripping mindlessly onto the line had me transfixed. I looked into the carriage; it was empty. I glanced around the deserted platform. I was the only witness, and the combination of horror and unreality evoked a sense of desperation.

I thought later of all the things I might have done. Why I didn’t, I don’t know. Something told me that there was nothing I could do except stand and stare and take in every detail. Or perhaps it was merely the enervating effect of all that blood. The voice rang out a third time and startled me.

Mind the gap.

I recoiled as the woman lifted her head and turned her lifeless eyes towards me. I saw the contrast between the fresh, freckled skin on one side of her face, and the squalid, gory mess on the other. Congealing blood stretched in random strands from her cheek to the carriage floor as she held me with a dead stare for several seconds.

I shuddered and tried to raise the will to do something. Part of me stayed rational and assumed that she was still alive and needed help, but some deeper instinct told me that living people don’t have eyes like that. As the two parts of me struggled, she opened her mouth and spoke quietly and calmly.

“Don’t follow me,” she said.

The doors began to slide shut as she uttered the words, and then the train moved off. As the rear cab came into view I saw a man dressed in a black uniform, standing in the window and looking back along the track. He seemed to be tall and unusually thin. I gathered the strength to wave furiously at him, and pointed in the hope that he would recognise my alarm. He appeared to look in my direction but remained impassive. I watched him and the vehicle disappear into the blackness of the northern tunnel and took the next obvious course of action: I made all speed to call the police and tell them what I had witnessed. They told me to stay where I was, much to the annoyance of the station staff who wanted to close up and go home.

Two Metropolitan Police officers arrived a few minutes later. They sat me down, took some personal details and wrote a full statement which I signed. I conducted them to the spot and they took a cursory look over the edge of the platform. I suggested that someone should intercept the train at one of the stations further north. The officer looked at me and nodded in a patronising manner. I felt stupid; it was obvious that their control centre would already have arranged that. He told me I could go; they would contact me again in due course.

I had to take a taxi home and it cost me a small fortune, but it wasn’t the expense that kept me awake all night. It was the persistent image of the green dress and the dark gold hair. It was the memory of that disgusting red pool, unnaturally free and spreading mindlessly in my direction. And it was the creeping sense of terror at the sight and sound of a dead woman speaking to me. Or had she been alive when she lifted her head? Was she still alive now? Had she been rescued by the paramedics and taken to a hospital, or was she lying, face up this time, on a mortuary slab somewhere, her bright green dress consigned to a bag marked Patient Property? I supposed I would find out in due course.

Her enigmatic instruction came back to me over and over again. What had she meant by “don’t follow me?” The word “signal” came into my head. I began to see traffic lights changing from red to green and back again, while the amber in the middle recollected the colour of her hair. I kept hearing “red for danger, green for safety; red for stop, green for go.”  I put some music on and tried to read, but to no avail. Everything kept synthesising into images of green silk, red blood, flashing traffic lights and the pale face of a talking corpse. I fell asleep on the sofa at seven o’clock in the morning.

At midday I was woken by a loud knocking on my front door. I teetered uncertainly into the hall and opened it. The uniformed policeman introduced himself and asked if he could come inside and have a word with me.

We sat down and he began to address me in a noticeably curt and authoritarian tone. He told me that the full length of the track within the station had been comprehensively examined, but no trace of blood had been found; neither had they found anyone dead or injured when the train had been intercepted at Goodge Street. There had been no blood stains on the floor, and none of the other passengers had reported seeing anything untoward. All the carriages had been subsequently taken out of commission and examined thoroughly. There could have been no woman in the condition I had described in any of them.

He told me that wasting police time was a serious offence and that a report had been logged. I would be prosecuted if there were to be any repetition. My action would be overlooked on this occasion since I had no criminal record and they were prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt. They would assume that I had been the subject of a hallucination, and he said that I might be well advised to see a doctor.

My jaw must have dropped visibly as he was telling me all this, and he became annoyed when I protested that I had definitely seen what I had reported. He said that I should be careful not to push my luck too far, and finished with a sarcastic remark suggesting I be more conservative in what I chose to smoke.

He left and I resumed my place on the sofa, trying to make sense of it all. I never did. I had taken no drugs, nor had I ever been subject to hallucinations. I was as certain as I could have been that I had seen what I had seen.

The strange episode filled my thoughts for several days and maintained an unsettling effect on me. Eventually it began to ease and only came to the fore again when I went into tube stations or drove through traffic lights in the suburbs. Even that wore off after a while, and the only legacy it left was the profound distaste I had come to feel for the combination of red and green. My life moved on and I left London a few years later, taking a new job and settling into a new house in the north of England.

By then my experience had become a distant memory that only cropped up as a favourite anecdote among friends. I introduced it as simple ghost story, one to be added to the many tales of ghosts, troglodytes and other mysterious beings that are said to haunt the London Underground. I had come to think of it as a single strange experience that would never be repeated. I was wrong.

Ten years after the incident in the tube station – ten years and three months to be precise – it happened again. The circumstances were very different, but the image was the same.

It was May and I was on holiday in Northumberland. Someone I met there, learning of my interest in walking and bird watching, advised me to cross the border into Scotland and make the short drive to St Abbs a little way up the coast. I was told that there was a fine walk there, beginning on a spectacular coastal path that led up to the airy heights of St Abbs Head where an Anglo Saxon princess had established a Dark Age monastery.  It would afford the opportunity to see a wide variety of seabirds and enjoy some wild coastal scenery, before finishing with a leisurely stroll along the shore of a small loch.

It sounded perfect. I drove up the A1 the next day, parked the car at the visitor centre, and set off along the well worn path towards the impressive headland in the distance. 

The first part of the walk was spectacular indeed. It was a calm, sunny day and the scenery reminded me of the splendid coastline of Pembrokeshire. The path curved around the top of a wide bay with cliffs rising at each end. The sheer faces of the headlands gave way to jagged rocks at the bottom which stretched out into the placid blue waters, forming small headlands and islands of their own.

To most people, the sight would have been unequivocally beautiful. To me, however, the fact that the cliffs were formed of a deep red sandstone clouded my perception of them. Seeing them against the blue of the sea was fine, but the land that stretched out in front of me and curved around the top of the rocks was the unremitting light green of sheep-grazed grassland. The overall impression consisted of that combination of colours which I had come to find so distasteful.

The sight did not disturb me unduly though, and my enthusiasm for the walk was undiminished. Nevertheless, I was glad to hurry on towards the stile that I could see crossing a fence at the far end of the bay.

As I approached it, my eye was caught by something black standing out against the red rocks and blue sea down to my right. It was a cormorant standing on a group of rocks that curved around to form one edge of a small inlet. I brought my binoculars to bear and watched it for a while, marvelling at a sight that is rare for those of us living a long way from the coast.

There is something very particular about the cormorant. Its shiny, dark plumage and its way of standing upright give it the air of something mysterious, as though it belongs more to the dark world of death and funerals than the exhilarating freedom of the open sea. The way it folds its wings down the length of its tall, slim body suggests the wearing of a black cloak, and its small head, long neck and narrow beak add further to the impression. As I watched it I felt that it would be more at home riding pillion on a horse-drawn hearse. It was easy to see how the belief had grown up that these statuesque birds are repositories for the souls of drowned sailors.

Suddenly it launched itself from the rock and dived headlong into the water. I knew that it was unusual for cormorants to hunt that way, and took the binoculars from my eyes to get a wider view of the pool. I was curious to see where it would surface, but what I actually saw rising from the depths was not the cormorant. It was something much bigger, something predominantly green in colour. Even at that distance, it had the unmistakeable appearance of a human body.

A hand clutched at my midriff and a cold thrill ran down the back of my neck. Ten years on from the experience at the tube station, the emotional impact of that grisly event gripped me instantly. It felt as though a man trap had been lying concealed all that time, waiting for me to step into it again.

I lifted my binoculars with a mixture of reluctance and morbid fascination. The magnified view showed me the body of a woman floating face down in the water. Her hair was the colour of old gold and washed lazily back and forth with the movement of the swell. She was wearing a short, bright green, sleeveless dress that clung to her form even more tightly than it had in the carriage that night. I could not believe that she was anything other than the same woman – or ghost, or hallucination, or whatever version of reality she belonged to.

My body tingled with the shock, but she was further away this time and my mind stayed in control. I remembered my feelings of disbelief and frustration on being told that she could not have existed, and the benefit of hindsight suggested an obvious course of action. I let my binoculars drop onto their straps and took the pack from my shoulders.

There was a camera in there with a choice of lenses, and this time I would get a picture to prove it. I knew that I would have to fit a telephoto lens to get a decent close up, so I pulled the camera from the bag and hurriedly unhitched the wide angle lens, trying to keep a constant eye on the figure at the same time. The telephoto zoom was in a case of its own, and my hand rummaged frantically among the confusion of sundry items trying to locate it.

So far the figure had continued to float face down, but then I saw a movement. It looked as though it was raising one arm, and so I dropped the pack and grabbed the binoculars again. The woman was just completing a roll onto her back. She lay still, her arms floating at her sides and her hair continuing to wave in the swell like golden seaweed. She would have looked beautiful had it not been for the ugly mass of congealed blood on one side of her face, and a patch of darkness was spreading outwards, discolouring the water.

Her eyes were open as before and I saw her lips move, silently this time but only for a moment. The words rose up to me, as though carried on the cold onshore breeze. The voice was lighter than before, but the statement was still clear.

“Don’t follow me,” it said again.

And then I heard them repeated, much quieter and from the opposite direction, as though they had floated on beyond me and echoed back from the distant landscape.

Almost immediately the figure sank beneath the surface and was gone. I sat on the grass, shocked at my second encounter with the mysterious woman. I felt frustrated that I hadn’t been able to capture her appearance on film, and her message had me bewildered.

How could I follow her, and why would I want to? The first time I had seen her she had disappeared into the darkness of an Underground railway tunnel, and the second time she had sunk beneath the waves of the North Sea. I had a mental impression of traffic lights again.

“Signals,” I thought. “It must have something to do with signals.”

Was she warning me of some approaching danger in my life? If so, what? Where should I not follow her? Onto the Underground? Into the sea? Both? Did this mean that I could never use the tube again, or swim in the sea, or board a seagoing vessel of any kind? It didn’t seem such a big problem since I had no compelling reason to go to London, I had no expectation of embarking on any ferry trips or cruises, and I hadn’t been swimming in the sea since my teenage days.

And who was she anyway? Her physical appearance was certainly not that of the archetypal guardian angel. Surely, such a being would present itself either in a form that represented some sort of an ideal, or one that was disarmingly matter of fact. This girl was neither. She was very striking, but not in a way that coincided with any image of angelic identity that I could recognise.

But I could think of no other explanation. I was convinced that the image of the girl and her enigmatic instruction represented a warning about some sort of danger. It seemed that I would have to spend my life being careful and looking out for the signals, whatever they might be.

And there was one other interesting little fact. I watched the inlet for some time after the body sank, and the cormorant never did come back to the surface.

I continued with the walk but my mind was elsewhere. My thoughts were entirely with the mysterious, green clad figure and the enigma of those three words that she seemed so determined I should hear.

My reaction to the second appearance was different from what it had been the first time. I felt less of a sense of shock; the image had become somehow more real. I had put her first manifestation down to either a mental aberration or a localised ghost. This second appearance, in such different circumstances, seemed to establish her as something more substantial. But that only served to increase the sense of gravity associated with her message. From now on, I would have to take it more seriously and be on my guard.

Inevitably, the two incidents receded to the back of my mind as time went by and I was glad they did. It would have been intolerable to have them standing over me day in and day out. But my dislike of the combination of red and green became more entrenched and I was cognisant of the girl’s “warning” in situations where it might have been appropriate.

I did go to London on a couple of occasions and travelled everywhere on foot and by taxi. I also took the ferry to Ireland, but was careful to choose the shortest sailing and spent the whole time on the upper deck close to a lifeboat. And I became cautious at traffic lights, just in case there was an accident waiting for me there. There were no accidents, no near misses, and no more sightings of the girl in green. None, that is, until another ten years had passed.

I should have recognised the set of coincidences. I was on holiday again, it was May and I was back in Scotland. I had been to the Highlands a couple of times since the business at St Abbs, but had decided to try south west Scotland for a change. I had read that it was quieter and contained many places of historical interest.

I was staying for a few days at a B&B in Dumfries. When history repeated itself and another casual acquaintance suggested a place of likely interest, I might have made the connection at that point. But I didn’t. The place my informant recommended was Caerlaverock Castle, a fine medieval building I was told, and just a few miles away near the Solway coast. Had I seen a photograph of it, alarm bells might have rung. But I hadn’t. I was advised to go the following day as there was a “medieval event” planned for the afternoon. It sounded like fun and I decided to take the advice, but I felt that I should go early so as to see the place in comfort before the crowds gathered.

It was another fine, sunny morning when I took the B road that runs south from the town towards the Solway coast. After several miles there is a right turn onto a lane that runs into the castle grounds. I pulled into the parking area and saw the magnificent, medieval structure standing solid and proud in front of me.

And then the alarm bells rang. Caerlaverock is a very impressive building. It is unique in being the only castle in Britain to have been built to a triangular plan. The gatehouse at the apex of the triangle is almost complete, as are most of the walls on two of the sides, and it has a moat that still holds water. Its most impressive feature, however, is its colour. It is a solid, indisputable red. It seemed to me to have been built from the same red sandstone of which the cliffs at St Abbs are composed. And it stands on a grassy mound within a large, green field.

I looked around the car park nervously. The weather was fine and hot, but it was a little early in the day for the tourist traffic and there was no sign of any event being set up. There was only one other car parked there and I assumed that it probably belonged to whoever was on duty in the nearby gift shop. I could hardly fail to be concerned, however, that it was green and had a red sticker in the back window advertising some commercial radio station. I saw that there was a furry toy and a woman’s umbrella on the rear parcel shelf.

And then I noticed the flock of black crows flying around the battlements at the top of the gatehouse. I knew that crows were associated with death in old folklore. I sensed danger; the signals could hardly have been more apparent. I decided to leave, but had second thoughts almost immediately for I knew that the workings of fate are impossible to call. Suppose I were to drive back out and be involved in a serious accident, something I would have avoided had I stayed put.

What does one do in that situation? I sat in the car and thought for a while. I realised that every moment I sat there was changing my life path, imperceptibly perhaps, but possibly enough to put me in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I decided that there was only one sensible option: carry on as though it were all just a coincidence and do all the same things that I would have done anyway, but with due regard for increased caution. I climbed out of my car, locked it and went over to the gift shop to pay my admission fee. I asked the young woman if the green car was hers.

“No,” she said. “I live just along the road. I walk to work.”

I asked her what time the medieval event started.

“That’s not today,” she said. “It’s coming on Thursday.”

She pointed to a poster on the wall. Today was Tuesday. I’d been given the wrong information and that rekindled my concern. Had I been directed here on the wrong day for a reason? Should I go away again? The same argument presented itself: the inscrutable nature of fate is such that there is no point in trying to second guess it.

And so the solution would have to be the same. I asked myself what I would have done had there been no issue with red rock and green grass. I would have decided to see the place today while it was quiet and come back on Thursday for the event. As I had no itinerary planned for the week, that’s what I settled on doing.

I made the short walk across the field and approached the wooden bridge that led over the moat to the gatehouse. I stopped to admire the architecture for a while, and then watched the crows as they circled, squabbled and flew in and out of the many small openings in the walls. Being closer, I recognised them as hooded crows, and knew of their preference for nesting in old buildings.

Still they made me feel uneasy, but I stepped onto the bridge to make my way inside. Before I was half way across, I stopped. A figure had appeared in the entrance and stood looking at me. It was the figure of a young woman wearing a short summer dress - a bright green dress made of a silky fabric. She had long red hair, the colour of old gold, which dropped in crimped waves to some point below her shoulders. Her complexion was pale and freckled.

She was identical to the woman in my visions, but with two obvious differences: there was no blood this time and she was not lying down. She was standing, large as life, in front of me with a startled and fearful look in her eyes. We stood looking at each other for several seconds, our eyes locked and each open mouth a mirror image of the other. And then she moved quickly back into the confines of the building and disappeared.

A cold thrill of trepidation was running down my spine and I stood still for a few minutes, gathering my thoughts. This woman did not have the look of a vision about her; she was real flesh and blood. Furthermore, she could probably solve the mystery that had been hanging over me for twenty years. I decided I had to talk to her.

I went inside and looked around. She was nowhere to be seen, but there were many nooks and crannies where she could have been hiding, as well as several doorways with steps leading to higher levels. I wondered why she would want to hide from me. Was it just a natural nervousness at being alone with a male stranger in a place where she might be vulnerable to attack, or was there more to it?

I walked slowly around the inner courtyard, checking the many recesses and apertures but without success. I completed the circuit and returned to the gatehouse entrance. I looked across the moat towards the car park and saw that the green car was still there. It seemed certain that it was hers, and I decided that she must still be somewhere in the vicinity.

I thought of driving my car out of the car park and returning on foot to lie in wait for her, but that seemed both insensitive and risky. Heaven knows how she would react if I suddenly appeared from the bushes and accosted her. I thought of climbing the various sets of steps to see if she had taken refuge in one of the towers, but that would have allowed her to make her escape while I was in the process of possibly climbing the wrong one. I decided to stay in the courtyard and wait for her to reappear. She would have to come down eventually. I settled myself in a shaded spot and prepared for a long wait.

Half an hour passed and several other groups of visitors arrived. I hoped that their presence might persuade the girl to come out of hiding, and I was partly right. I saw a movement in my peripheral vision, in one of the doorways that had steps beyond them. I deliberately avoided looking in that direction, but had the impression of a pale face looking briefly out and the merest flash of something green. And then it disappeared again. She had obviously seen me and gone back into hiding.

I knew that what I had to do next would be difficult, but I had to do it. I walked across the courtyard and climbed the circular stone staircase. As my head came level with the floor at the top of the tower, I saw her standing on the far side, pressed against the wall. Her face was pale, her eyes full of fear and her breathing heavy. She looked as though she was about to scream and I spoke quickly to reassure her.

I explained that I meant her no harm, that I just wanted to talk to her to try and solve a mystery that had been plaguing me for a long time. I said that I wouldn’t come any closer and sat on one of the steps as the only gesture I could think of to put her at her ease.

She didn’t seem to be in any mood to listen. She had the fretful look of a cornered bird whose whole attention is taken up with searching for a means of escape. There was none, since I was blocking the only exit from the roof. And so I began my explanation.

I told her the whole story from the beginning in as much detail as I could remember. And she did listen, suspiciously at first but at least attentively. As I talked, I saw her expression change gradually from one of fear to one of surprise. By the time I had finished she was considerably more relaxed and shaking her head in amazement. Eventually she spoke. Her voice sounded exactly the same as I remembered hearing it on the tube station.

“God,” she said, “that’s creepy. That’s really creepy.”

She was staring at me with an intense frown and went silent for a few seconds. Then she spoke again.

“OK,” she said “I believe you. I’ve got to believe you, I can’t not do. I’ll tell you my side of the story now, shall I?”

It was my turn to be surprised. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be any “her side of the story” to tell. She continued.

“The reason I was so afraid of you when I saw you on the bridge was because I’ve seen you twice before - in two horrible, vivid nightmares. And this is the weird bit, the first happened when I was very young, about five, so it would have been about twenty years ago. You wouldn’t think a child of that age would remember a dream so well, would you? But it was so horrible. There’s no way I could forget it.

“I dreamt I was on some sort of a train on my own. I was frightened because there was nobody else in the carriage. I was desperately looking for my parents, but they were nowhere to be seen. It was dark outside the windows, but then it grew lighter and I could feel the train slowing down.

“I went to the door and it opened. I looked out and saw that the train had stopped in what looked to me like a big room. The walls were covered with green tiles and there was a big red circle on the wall opposite. It bothered me later when I first went on a tube journey and saw the same red circle on the station walls. I realised that what I had thought was a room was actually a tube station.

“It was deathly quiet and there was nobody about. Then I saw a black shape on a seat at the far end of the platform. It terrified me because I felt that it was something evil that was going to hurt me. It stood up and took the form of a man with a long black cloak. He walked towards me and I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t; I was too frightened to move. As he got closer I could see his face clearly – your face, I swear it. It was so clear and I remember it like it was yesterday.

“He came up to me, grabbed my arms and forced me down onto my stomach. Then he started smashing my head against the floor of the carriage, and each time he did, he shouted out ‘mind the gap’ in a horrible voice. I saw blood streaming away from my head and running out of the carriage. And then I woke up screaming. What do you think of that?”

I didn’t know what to think. The girl’s story was either a complete fabrication, brilliantly constructed on the spur of the moment, or it made the most astonishing adjunct to my own. She sounded genuine though, and she must have recognised the equally genuine look of astonishment on my face.

“What about the second?” I asked.

“Well,” she replied, “amazingly enough, that was about ten years later. I can be sure of that date because I remember it was the night of my fifteenth birthday. I’d been to the swimming baths that day with some friends and I assumed that was where the dream had come from.

“In that one I was swimming in a calm blue sea with tall red rocks on three sides. I wanted to climb out but couldn’t – the rocks were too steep. I felt panicky and decided I’d need to swim out to sea in order to find somewhere to come ashore. I was hesitant because I didn’t know how deep or rough it might be further out, but I had no choice.

“I started to swim and saw something black coming towards me. It veered to the right and landed on one of the red rocks, and I saw that it was a big black bird that stood upright - probably one of those... what did you call them?”

“Cormorants.”

“Right, probably a cormorant. Anyway, it frightened me and I wanted to get away from it. It watched me for a bit and I stared back, wondering what it was going to do. Then it flew into the air and came towards me again. I swam in the opposite direction towards the rocks on the other side of this sort of pool I was in. It flew over my head and landed on them before I got there. Then it turned into the same man that I’d seen in the first dream – you again.

“I turned and swam away from him, terrified that he was going to attack me like he had in the tube station. I heard him laugh and call out ‘You can’t get away from me. I’ll follow you wherever the rocks are red.’ That was the bit I particularly remember: ‘wherever the rocks are red.’ It seemed a really strange thing to say and I’ve had a bit of an aversion to red rock ever since.

“Anyway, I reached the other side but he was already standing there, waiting for me. He grabbed me and started to bang my head against the rocks until I was dizzy. Then he let me go and I slipped back into the sea. I saw the blood oozing into the water, and then everything went black and I woke up.

“Now can you see why I was so afraid when I saw you? I’d always thought the nightmares were just some sort of deep fear being played out, though I could never work out where the ‘red rocks’ business came from. Then I came here today, saw the colour of the building and those big black birds flying around and felt a bit uneasy. Suddenly, I walk out of the place and there’s my nightmare, large as life, standing on the bridge in front of me with nobody else in sight. I got the fright of my bloody life, I can tell you.”

We were both silent for a while, trying to come to terms with the amazing coincidence of experiences. Then I spoke.

“God knows what we’re supposed to make of it,” I said. “It’s pretty incredible isn’t it? We seem to have had some sort of psychic link for twenty years, but why, and what it all means, I can’t begin to guess. I don’t like it though. I’ve spent the last twenty years thinking that you were some sort of guardian angel, warning me of some danger, but now I’m wondering whether it might have been the other way round. Here we are face to face, you’re dressed exactly as you were in the visions, and we’re on top of a building made of red sandstone.”

“And you followed me up here,” she said. “According to you, I told you not to follow me.”

“I know,” I replied. “I’ve just realised that myself. I didn’t think of it as following you at the time. I’d got it into my head that ‘following’ was some sort of oblique reference to not using the tube or taking a sea journey or something. When is your birthday, by the way?”

“That’s another strange thing,” she said. “It was yesterday, the sixteenth.”

I couldn’t remember exactly, but 16th of May would have been about the time that I saw the vision in the sea at St Abbs.

“So what do you suggest we do?” she asked.

“I think you should stop leaning against that wall for a start,” I replied. “It’s a long drop and you’re making me nervous. Then I suppose we’d better get out of this building - and be very careful on the steps and crossing the moat.”

She nodded and moved towards me as I got up.

“I’ll go first,” I said “and you can follow. If you do stumble or anything, you’ll have me to grab onto. If you’re ready, let’s go.”

I started the descent, looking around to see that she was following. We were both holding the handrail tightly and treading carefully on the treacherously uneven stone steps. We followed the circular progression until we reached a point where there was a gap in the wall leading to another outside platform. That one was barred with a metal grill. Obviously it was unsafe and the grill was there to stop people climbing out onto it. The word “gap” flashed into my mind, followed by the stentorian tones of the Underground announcement.

And then a hooded crow appeared suddenly in the opening and flew directly at me. I was startled because I knew that birds rarely attack humans. I also knew that they will sometimes do so when they are protecting their territory. Such attacks are usually token affairs and there’s rarely any harm done. No doubt this one was concerned for a nest that it probably had nearby.

I waved my right hand at it whilst keeping my left on the guardrail. I stopped while I was fending it off for fear of losing my footing. The bird left me and flew up to my companion, flapping its wings and clawing at her mass of red hair.

She was obviously terrified. She cried out, ducked her head and waved both her hands about wildly in an attempt to ward off the angry bird. As I started to move up to help her she stumbled on the steps and fell forward and to the side of me. I grabbed at her but the action only caused me to stumble too, and the smooth material of her dress slipped through my fingers. She went tumbling down the circular staircase as I scrambled back to my feet nursing a painfully grazed knee. The pain was intense for a few seconds and I rubbed it frantically, trying to force away the temporary paralysis that kept me hopping on one leg and holding the guard rail with my free hand. As soon as I was able, I limped after her as fast as I could manage.

It seemed that the nightmares and visions had turned into reality. This, it seemed, was the warning that had twice been given to me, and which I had ignored when the foretelling had been brought to fruition. I had no doubt that I would find her at the bottom with blood pouring from a head wound.

A cold sense of horror gripped me as I negotiated the awkwardness of the curved stairs. I felt an acute sense of guilt and stupidity. I had done exactly what she had twice told me not to do and this was the result. At that moment I was certain she would be lying dead at the base of the steps, just as she had been in the carriage twenty years earlier, and a sickening weight settled heavily on my shoulders. I felt like a murderer, with all the horror of remorse and helpless finality that comes with it.

But I was to be spared that terrible responsibility, at least for the time being. As the floor came into view, my sense of relief was unbounded. She wasn’t there. She must have survived the fall and gone outside to recover. I hurried out into the courtyard and looked around. She was nowhere to be seen.

The feeling of relief turned to confusion. Even slowed by my limp, I couldn’t have been more than a dozen seconds behind her. She would have been dazed at least, even if she had escaped injury. There was no way that she would have had time to disappear from view in the large courtyard. And why would she want to anyway?

An elderly couple were wandering lazily by and they looked at me with evident curiosity. I asked them if they had seen a girl come out of the door. They looked at each other and shook their heads.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

The man shrugged his shoulders and said:

“A few minutes, I suppose - five or ten.”

This was incomprehensible. I went to the gatehouse and looked across towards the car park. The green car was gone. It seemed that my third encounter with the red haired girl had been another vision after all. It hardly seemed possible, but there was no other explanation.

I limped across the bridge, wondering what the latest encounter could mean. It was obvious that there was little comparison between the first two and this one. The earlier experiences had been of short duration. There had been distance between us, and the only contact had been the simple command not to follow her. She had appeared and disappeared quickly, and there had been a distinctly dreamlike quality about them.

This latest incident had been convincingly real. I had seen her in several places over a much longer period of time. There had been a substantial element of interaction between us and I had watched her follow me down the steps. She had even given me some real information. She had told me that her birthday was yesterday, the sixteenth.

I had a sudden thought. It was an outlandish possibility, but one that I felt inclined to check. I didn’t know what the date was, but there was a simple way of finding out. I went back to the gift shop and looked again at the poster advertising the medieval event.

“Thursday 17th May” it said in large print.

So today was the fifteenth. Could the girl have been wrong about it having been her birthday yesterday? It didn’t seem likely. Could the fabric of time have been engineered somehow to give me a final warning, a chance to see how the tragic denouement to this strange relationship would be enacted? Who knows? It was the only possibility I could come up with. And, if that was the case, who or what had engineered it?

My earlier theory that either the girl or I were cast in the role of guardian angel to the other was coming under further scrutiny. Now it seemed possible that a third party might be involved, someone or something watching over one or both of us to keep her from harm and me from the terrible burden of guilt.

I felt a sense of profound gratitude and hobbled back to my car, happy that my sore knee was a small price to pay for such salvation. But there was one indulgence I couldn’t resist: I had to test my theory, and that would mean going back to the castle on Thursday. I knew it could be a dangerous thing to do, but forewarned is forearmed and I would be careful.

I drove out there late on Thursday morning, but I didn’t take my car into the car park. I left it instead in a farm gateway further along the road and walked back. There was a small queue of traffic in the lane leading into the castle grounds and an attendant directing it to the available spaces.

I walked past the line of waiting vehicles and surveyed those that were already settled in the main parking area. The green car with the red sticker occupied exactly the same spot as it had two days earlier. I approached just close enough to see that there was a furry toy and a woman’s umbrella in the back window. That was evidence enough.

I returned to my own car and drove off to spend the day on the beach at Rockcliffe, a little way along the coast. I was content that a tragedy had been averted and hopeful that my contact with the girl in the green dress was now at an end. It wasn’t, not quite.

When I drove back to the town later, I got held up in a line of traffic waiting to go through a set of lights at a busy junction. I smiled at the thought that traffic signals were now as innocuous to me as they were to everybody else.

The line of cars was blocking a side road on the left and, every so often, one of the cars in front of me would leave a gap to allow vehicles to turn right out of it. When my turn came to approach the side road, a green car approached the junction with its right-hand indicator flashing. It was the same model as the one in the castle car park and I suspected that it was the same one.

I couldn’t see the driver because of the reflections on the windscreen, but flashed my lights to offer right of way. The car edged forward slowly, checking for traffic coming the other way on the main road. As the vehicle stopped briefly in front of me, I saw the driver clearly. She looked in my direction, smiled and lifted a hand in acknowledgement. It was the same girl. I felt suddenly nervous.

“Gap,” I thought. “She’s coming through a gap.”

I feared a collision, but she was cautious enough and waited until the way was clear. As she started to pull across onto the other side of the road, she waved at me again.

“You’re welcome,” I said out loud.

My driver’s side window was open and she looked at me as she started to drive past. No doubt she hadn’t seen me clearly either, for I saw her expression change as she got a good view of my face through the open window. I saw her mouth fall open and a look of amazement come into her eyes. In the same instant I couldn’t resist adding

“Mind the gap.”

The words were said on impulse and in a mood of misplaced levity, and I realised immediately how foolish it had been to say them. It struck me that it might have put the fear of God into her. She had just come face to face with her nightmare and I had used the same words as the man on the tube station.

But then I thought that she might have been as aware as I was of our meeting on the battlements. Did that make sense, I wondered? Surely not. The events of Tuesday had presumably prevented the real meeting taking place on Thursday. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? I had no idea. The logic of time shifts was already becoming too convoluted for my limited brain.

I decided to turn the car around in the side street and go after her. I needed to reassure her that she no longer had anything to fear. Fortunately, I came to my senses in time. I spoke out loud again.

“Hang on,” I said. “Don’t even think of following her.”

The traffic in front of me moved forward and I went with it. The young woman and I were going in opposite directions and I could wish for nothing better than that.

*  *  *

The incident at Caerlaverock happened three years ago, and I have encountered no red haired women in green dresses since then. There is, however, something bothering me.

I had come to think of the first two dreams and visions as warnings, and of the incident at the castle as the intervention of some mystical and benevolent third party. Now I’m not so sure, for even my limited logic tells me that such an explanation doesn’t fit the facts.

If the two of us had never experienced those dreams and visions, there would have been no issue between us; we would have been total strangers to one another. Even if our paths had crossed at Caerlaverock, she would have had no reason to escape from me, nor I any reason to follow her. There would have been no bird, no fall and nothing to be warned about in the first place. The relationship between cause and effect has become confused, seemingly locked in a syndrome of self-denying logic.

It makes me uneasy to think that there might a darker explanation. Perhaps the two of us are mere pieces in some diabolical game being played out on the board of fate. I wonder who or what would play such a game. Could it be the man in the black cloak who seems to favour the form of a cormorant?

I see him sometimes, or at least what I take to be a representation of him. A tall, black, hooded figure stands motionless in a still and stagnant pool of red, viscous liquid. This unholy pond has the appearance of a castle moat, for I can see walls built of sandstone rising from the far side.

One arm of the figure is holding something aloft, like a trophy. It appears to be a piece of bright green fabric hanging limp in the lifeless air. Drops of something red fall at uneven intervals from the gathered hem to augment the fiendish flood below. The only sound is the occasional “plop,” so dull that it smothers itself before it has the honour to become an echo. I wake up with a knot of anxiety sitting in my stomach and feel reluctant to go back to sleep.

If the girl and I are part of some devilish sport, would there be any way of escaping our unwitting participation? Probably not. We would have to go along with it and play our own parts to the best of our abilities, watching out for the signals and taking evasive action when necessary.

I have a brooding suspicion that the game is not over yet. I fear that there may be another test coming, another opportunity to burden myself with unassuageable guilt. I think I can probably relax until the next point on the apparent ten year cycle comes around. And then I must be careful not to follow her, or life just might become interesting again.

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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