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 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This little tale was written quite some time ago, but held back so as to have something substantial and unpublished available in the event of being offered a single author anthology.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.

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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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