My latest offering on Amazon Books.
My latest offering on Amazon Books.
A Brief synopsis.
Following a phone call from a Kindle representative, I’m pleased to announce that my first book of short stories, “Strange Dominions”, is being published within the next 24 hrs.
Strange Dominions is now available at Amazon Kindle stores.
I read my first customer review of the book today and it was very encouraging. He called it a real page turner and that he couldn’t put it down. He paricularly liked the unexpecte twists in the tales.
He gave me a five star rating for the book and finished with the comment that he wanted to read more of my work.
When the book was first published in April its author ranking was over 76,000. Five days ago it was ranked as being 46, 080, a jump of over 3o, 000 places toward the top best seller 100. Encouraging!
Strange Dominions has now jumped to 8,075th position on the bestsellers list. The 100 bestsellers target is now in sight.
In a recent popularity poll, Strange Domionions was place in the #3 spot in the paranormal fiction genre.
Having recently purchased a kindle, I decided to check on my book Strange Dominions and was shocked by a glaring error in the short story Dissolution. I checked the original mauscript from which the copy was made before sending it to Amazon Kindle to discover the mistake wasn’t mine. Somehow the publisher has managed to swap around two paragraphs and has put them in the wrong places, creating confusion for the reader. I can only apologise to my readers for this, and hope that it does not put them off reading the other stories, which appear to be in order.
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Eve Landru peered out of her window into the gathering dusk. The same shadowy figure she had seen the night before was there again, skulking behind the hedgerow that overhung the cemetery railings. Visibly shaken, she snapped shut the curtains as he pulled down the brim of his fedora and slipped deeper into the shadows.
Double-checking that every door and window was firmly secured, she took up her studies again, but the disquieting thoughts of her Peeping Tom persisted. After only a few minutes at her laptop she gave up on her thesis and pulled down the lid. It seemed pointless to continue when her mind was clearly elsewhere. Shoving the laptop to one side, she leant forward and picked up the silver framed photo of her late parents. A solitary tear traced its way down her cheek as she stroked the glass.
Even the prospect of a good night’s rest was slim. Over the last several weeks she had been plagued by nightmares and she feared what new terrors awaited her. Only now could the twenty-year-old fully appreciate how isolated she had become. Her diffident nature and the recent death of her parents had left her friendless and alone. There was no one to whom she could turn for help.
The sudden blare of a passing car’s horn shook her from her thoughts.
‘What a mess.’ she thought as she took in the piles of discarded books scattered about her. “What was it you used to say, mom; ‘a place for everything and everything in its place?’”
Returning the photo to its rightful spot on the coffee table, she began the onerous task of tidying up after herself. Within minutes her chore was done and, reluctantly, she made her way to bed.
The next morning she awoke bathed in sweat and with the odour of urine in her nostrils. Even an early shower could not wash away her sense of debasement as she sobbed, pulling the sodden sheets from her bed. There seemed neither rhyme nor reason for the nameless horror that pursued her through the labyrinths of her dreams. Even the recent appearance of her stalker could not account for her nightly terrors. They had begun long before she had even become aware of him.
Shortly before 8:30 am. she heard a gentle rapping at her door. Un-securing the safety latch, she opened up. Outside stood a tall, brindled haired, man carrying a briefcase. He looked to be in his early thirties.
He smiled warmly. “Miss Eve Landru?” he enquired.
Eve regarded him with suspicion. “Yes. Can I help you?”
The stranger looked with pity on the careworn, young woman framed in the doorway. “The thing is, Eve, I think that I may be able to help you.” he said, releasing the catches on his briefcase.
“I’m sorry, but whatever it is you’re selling I’m not interested. Now if you don’t mind I …”
“Oh, but I’m not selling anything, Miss Landru,” he cut in, “merely conducting enquiries into this man’s whereabouts.” He pulled a worn photograph from the briefcase and handed it to Eve. “I think you may have come across him recently.” he added.
“Yes!” she said, “I remember him!” She looked again at the photograph. “It’s hard to forget those creepy eyes. He was here a few weeks ago selling religious tracts or something.”
Handing it back to him she added, “He was very pushy and wouldn’t leave until I’d bought something from him. He had a curious name, too…”
“Wormwood? Eli Wormwood?” he interrupted.
“Yes, that was it! You’d think I would’ve remembered a name like that, wouldn’t you Mr …?”
“Forgive me,” he said, my name’s Kahn, Emile Kahn.”
Eve noted the lack of a formal title preceding the name. “Oh, so you aren’t from the police then?” .
“No, I’m not.” He shuffled uneasily on his feet. “But it is true to say that I’ve been keeping my eye on you for some time now.”
Eve’s heart almost burst from her chest. “Oh, God! You’re the creep whose been following me around!”
A preemptive foot in the door jamb stopped her from slamming the door in his face. He grimaced in pain, dropping his briefcase “Please wait! You’ve got to understand, you’re in great danger!”
“Get the hell off my doorstep before I phone the law!” she warned, slamming the door agonizingly hard against his foot again.
Emile threw up his arms in submission. “Okay! Okay! I’m leaving, but that wont stop the nightmares!”
She ceased her frantic assault. Maintaining a firm grip on the door she asked, “My nightmares? How do you know about…?”
“Because you’re not the first this has happened to.” he cut in, “There were others just like you. I tried to help them too. They went through the same things you’re going through, and things are going to get much worse.”
“‘Others’? What ‘others’?”
Emile felt the pressure on his foot ease a little. He was beginning to make some headway. He bent down and picked up several newspaper cuttings that had spilled from his briefcase and passed them through the crack of the doorway. He heard the shuffling of the papers as Eve studied them.
“My God! All these women are dead!”
“Yes, they are, and they’re all Wormwood’s victims. Look at the dates on the cuttings, Eve, they go back more than fifty years.”
He heard the rustling of papers again, then, “I don’t understand what this has to do with me though.”
“Look at their pictures. Don’t you see the uncanny resemblance between them and you?”
There was a long silence in which Emile pressed home his advantage. “Look, Eve, If I’d wanted to cause you any harm do you think I would choose to confront you in broad daylight and on your own doorstep? It doesn’t make sense. Surely that must tell you something of my intentions.”
“I … I guess so.” she said, uncertainly.
“Please let me help you, Eve!” he begged, “I’m the only one who can!”
Whether through lack of sleep, or an overriding need for human companionship, Eve stepped aside and ushered him into her home. Imprudent though her action was she still had the foresight to leave the door ajar. One wrong move and she’d be out of there in a shot.
As she showed Emile into the living room, he noticed the pile of books stacked neatly on the table.
She led him to a large and comfortable armchair. Strategically placing herself nearest to the open door, she took her place on the sofa.
“I see you have a fondness for Shakespeare.” he said, attempting to put his host at ease. Here at least he had found some common ground in which to engage her.
“I’m writing a thesis on him for English Lit at the university.”
“I’m a Wheatley fan myself.” Emile admitted. “He isn’t as high-brow as the Bard, but he knows his subject matter.”
“He wrote occult fiction, mainly.”
“Oh, I see. So you prefer horror then?” Eve was beginning to feel uneasy as to where the conversation was heading.
“Actually,” responded Emile, “my interest goes beyond mere works of literary fiction and that, in part, is why I’m here.”
The tension in the room had become almost palpable. Eve was now sitting on the edge of her seat, her heart racing, her gaze darting to the passageway and the open front door.
“Please, Mr. Kahn, just cut to the chase and tell me what you’re leading up to. Why does this Wormwood want me dead, and what have my nightmares to do with anything?”
“Wasn’t it the Bard who wrote, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy?’”
Eve became conscious of her fingers biting deeply into the arm of the sofa, her knuckles blanched white with the pressure. She made a concerted effort to relax.
“Well let me tell you;” he continued, “there are more things in this universe than you could ever possibly imagine. You need to consider the unthinkable, and all I ask is that you keep an open mind to what I’m about to tell you. Can you do that?”
Eve hesitated. “I think so; yes”
Emile sat forward, causing her to draw back.
He held his hands up and settled into the armchair again.
“When Eli Wormwood was still a young man,” he began, “he was the youngest ever to hold a professorship in anthropological studies. He was the best in his field and considered by many to be an intellectual genius. His studies into the magical beliefs and practices of diverse cultures were unequalled, but at some point his pursuit became more than just a hunt for knowledge. He began to practice what he had learned, synthesising these seemingly disparate magical beliefs into a complete whole. Invading your dreams is child’s play to him and he is without remorse or pity.”
In a tremulous voice Eve asked. “But why choose me?”
“The victims of serial killers often share similar characteristics or traits.” he explained, “These women share the same physical characteristics as you. He’s singled you out simply because you look like the others.”
She began re-examining the cuttings in greater detail. “And the dreams, what part do they play in all of this?”
“Don’t most predators seek out the weakest of their prey?”
She nodded her agreement, separating one of the cuttings from the pile.
“Your nightmares have weakened you and have made you vulnerable to all kinds of physiological and psychological disorders”, Emile continued, “thereby making you an easy prey.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally looking up. “but your analogy is flawed, Mr. Kahn. The predator isn’t always responsible for its prey’s weakness, but simply takes advantage of it. Your telling me that Wormwood is responsible for my nightmares, that he’s manipulating them, and that’s impossible.”
“Not if he shares a sympathetic link with you.”
“A telepathic connection, if you like. He uses a form of ESP, known as psychometry, to establish this link with his victims. Simply by holding something belonging to you he can gain insights into who you are; stuff he couldn’t possibly know by any other means.”
“You mean like the few coins I gave him?”
“It’s unlikely. The coins would have been handled by literally thousands of people before they fell into your hands.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “He’d need something more personal than that to establish the kind of link he has with you; like a ring or some other cherished possession.”
“Other than the money I gave him there’s nothing he has belonging …”
She froze in mid sentence and looked at the framed photo of her parents, her eyes focussing on the rosary her mother was holding.
Emile sat forward. “What is it? What have you remembered?”
“My rosary!” Eve rose up from the sofa. “He has my rosary. I thought I’d lost it. It hung on the coat rack next to the door. Several days after his visit I noticed it was gone, but I thought I’d mislaid it. He must have taken it when I went to get my purse!”
“And it took you several days before you noticed it was missing?”
“I’m a lapsed catholic, Mr. Kahn, and have no use for it anymore.”
Emile knew why she had forsaken her faith and that it had to do with the sudden deaths of her parents, but for the moment he would keep his own counsel and let Eve broach the subject.
“So you’ve given up on your faith. I’m sorry to here that.” he said.
“I told you, Mr. Kahn, I’ve given up on all that nonsense.” she replied, turning her attention to the coal fire and poking it briskly, “There are no gods or angels, fallen or otherwise, we’re simply the by-product of a series of blindly random and indifferent events. It was chance, and chance alone that took my parents from me!”
The heat of her passionate outburst was beginning to burn brighter than the fire she was tending, and it was getting hotter by the minute. It was time to add more fuel.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss, Eve.” he said, awaiting the outburst he knew would undoubtedly follow.
With tear filled eyes she spun round and confronted him, stabbing the poker in his direction. “Spare me your platitudes. It’s people like you I feel sorry for, with your antiquated notions of good and evil and the need to invoke some all-seeing, all-knowing deity to bring meaning into their lives! And another thing:” she continued, “It might well be true that Wormwood murdered those poor women, but it wasn’t with the help of some supernatural intermediary. Maybe one of his equally deranged disciples did his dirty work for him when he got too old to do it himself!”
Emile kept his composure throughout her tirade and in a calm and measured voice replied, “He has no disciples. And higher beings, or whatever you want to call them, are not the delusions of madmen. They’re as real as you or I. My beliefs aren’t based on faith alone. I’ve seen what he can do and have witnessed first-hand the power he wields.”
“Shall I tell you what I find really odd about all this, Mr Kahn: the fact that you haven’t managed to save any of those women, not one. That’s some track record!”
She threw down the poker into the scuttle and stood, arms crossed in defiance.
Emile felt the sting of her words. Now it was his turn. Rising smartly from the chair he pointed out, “Don’t you think it odd, given the nature, the time span and the brutality of his crimes, that there’s not one shred of forensic evidence to be had?”
“Oh, but there is Mr. Kahn, and it points to the fact that at least one of his so-called ‘victims’ didn’t die by his hand.” She picked up the cutting she had chosen earlier and read it aloud. “’The mutilated body of Miss Marie Anne Mendenhall, daughter of Samuel J. Mendenhall, was discovered on common ground near her home during the early hours of July 16. It is believed that the 28-year-old spinster had been exercising her pet Labrador when she was set upon by a pack of wild dogs, known to frequent the area of the near-by slum district of Malton. The one-year-old pup was later discovered by police officers, unharmed, at the front door of his mistresses home …’”
Waving the editorial in front of him she declared, “So she wasn’t murdered like the others and there’s no mention of sleeping problems either. How do you account for that?”
“If she wasn’t having sleeping problems, then what on earth was she doing walking her dog in the early hours?” he countered, “And what about the pup? Surely it would have been an easier target for a pack of hungry wild dogs. As for the victim, she would have borne all the hallmarks consistent with a dog attack. Presented with that kind of evidence, why would the local constabulary think otherwise?”
Eve threw up her arms in exasperation. “Exactly my point! Even the thickest plod knows a dog bite when he sees it! They were obviously canine!”
Emile’s frustration, too, had him animated.
“I’m not saying they weren’t. I’m merely saying they weren’t inflicted by dogs!”
“Some prefer to call them ‘objectified thought forms’; others, ‘elementals‘. In black magic they’re known as ‘fetches’; constructs of the magician’s thoughts given concrete form.”
Eve shook her head in disbelief.
“Whatever form it’s given,” he continued, undaunted by her scepticism, “it is this construct which becomes the vehicle for the magician’s consciousness and awareness. What it experiences he also experiences. However, the fetch is an autonomous creature and will struggle to free itself. Maintaining control over it is difficult – as is its destruction.”
“So he’s inside this thing, making it do what he wants and…”
“Not physically.” Emile interrupted, “It’s his etheric double, his spirit if you like, which inhabits it, but it remains connected to his physical form via an umbilical ‘silver cord’ that is capable of infinite extension. His physical body could be thousands of miles from the scene of the crime and that’s why there’s no evidence of him ever being there.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s just too utterly fantastic to believe.” she responded, taking up her seat again on the edge of the sofa. “Do you know how it sounds?”
“About the same as it did to all the others, and they suffered because of it.”
As he took to his seat, Eve saw the look of dejection on his face.
“Hang on! You said ‘all the others’ just then! Just how old are you, exactly?”
“No I didn’t say all!”
“I distinctly heard you say it.” Eve challenged.
Before Emile could respond, an icy breath of wind swept across the living room, billowing the curtains and sweeping the newspaper cuttings from the table.
Emile and Eve instinctively looked at one another. Each could see the others breath in the now icy atmosphere.
“My God! What is it? What’s happening?” Eve exclaimed, vigorously rubbing her arms.
Emile shot up from his chair and cried out, his gaze darting from one end of the room to the other. “Not this time, old man!” he cried out, “This time I’ll have my revenge!”
The neatly stacked books flew from the coffee table onto the floor and Eve screamed in terror as the front door slammed shut. The last thing she saw before passing out was the fluttering curtains.
When she came-to she was lying on the sofa. Emile was dabbing her brow with a damp cloth, a look of genuine concern etched on his face. She looked nervously around the room.
“It’s okay he’s gone.”
“You mean that was…?”
Emile nodded. “Not exactly in the flesh, but yes.”
She began to weep. “I’m sorry! Forgive me for not believing you!”
“There’s no need. I would probably have done the same in your shoes. At least you now know the truth.”
Eli Wormwood’s angular frame shuddered. He felt nauseous, drained. In former times he had taken for granted the consummate ease with which he had bilocated his etheric double. Now, his powers were in obvious decline, as evidenced by his latest sojourn. Even so, the discovery of the whereabouts of his erstwhile confederate had more than made up for his shortcomings. He saw no reason to delay his plans for Eve Landru. His dissolute hunger for her continued, unabated. His earlier lewd encounters were merely vicarious pleasures designed to titillate him during the long and involved ritual of creating the fetch – the living, tangible entity that would act as a repository for his consciousness and awareness. Through it he would experience fully the sensual delights of her abasement and ultimate death. But first he needed to rest. Bitter experience had taught him that the creation of such a creature was not to be gone into lightly.
On coming-to, Eve began to consider her options. One by one they fell by the wayside. Involving the police was certainly out of the question. She knew how her story would sit with them. It was just too incredible for the analytical minds to comprehend. Even if they accepted her account, what could they possibly do to protect her from a man who could seemingly be in two places at once. Inevitably, she reached the same conclusion as Emile; that only the death of Eli Wormwood could bring about her salvation.
Since neither of them knew when he would next appear, it was decided that Emile would remain with her until the ordeal was over. He had yet to specify how he intended to carry out his intentions and Eve, having been made aware of his failure in rescuing her predecessors, was less than optimistic of the outcome. Only later did it occur to her that she knew very little about her would-be saviour, beyond the fact that he was not the law. His personal life remained shrouded in mystery. She wondered if he, too, was a victim of Eli Wormwood.
The following morning Emile noticed a subtle change in his charge’s demeanour. There was a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
“Sleep well?” he probed.
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
By mid-afternoon Emile became unusually withdrawn and seemed hardly aware of her presence. Though unsettled by these latest turn of events, she did all she could to distract him from his sombre thoughts, until it suddenly occurred to her why his behaviour was so constrained.
“You’re expecting him to come again very soon, aren’t you?”
The look on Emile’s face said it all.
“There are more things you need to know, and preparations to be made if we’re to have any kind of chance.” he said.
Within the space of an hour Eve had been fully briefed about the creature and what to expect. Regardless of what form it took their main objective was not to destroy it, merely distract it long enough for Emile to wrench free a talisman from its neck. It was this amulet, he told her, that helped Wormwood maintain control over the creature. Without it the fetch was relatively benign and had a mind of its own.
“And Wormwood?” Eve asked.
“The moment he loses control he’ll be forced to return to his own body. In order to escape its own destruction the fetch must return with him before the banishment ritual is performed to destroy the pentagram and, God willing, him too,”
With the coming of nightfall Eve’s apprehensions grew. What if something went wrong? What if Emile wasn’t strong enough to overpower the fetch? Maybe it would be upon her before she could even cry out for help. What then?
The hours passed inexorably, and with their passing came a deep and insidious sleep.
It was 1.20 a.m. when Eve was awoken by the sound of footsteps in her bedroom, and the sensation of her blankets being pulled from her. She lay trembling in the dark, a nauseating stench filling her nostrils. She sensed a nearby presence and tried to rise, but a great pressure bore down on her chest holding her fast to the bed.Her heart pounded wildly as she struggled for breath. Weird, wraithlike, ribbons of light appeared out of nowhere and began snaking around the room. Her ordeal had begun!
Then she saw it – a nebulous mist looming over her head morphing constantly from one formless shape to another. She sensed the malign presence leering at her from within. It drew closer, its rank breath against her face. She wanted to call out, but couldn’t. Unseen hands traced the outline of her hips and moved slowly across her abdomen. It was touching her, intimately! Fear at last found its voice. She screamed, breaking the spell. The nightmare was over.
But where was Emile?
It felt like an eternity before the bedroom door finally burst open, the light from the landing silhouetting the burly frame of her protector.
“Where were you? Why did you leave me alone?” she cried, hysterically.
“I heard a noise downstairs and went to investigate.”
He scanned the room. “What is it? There’s no one here.” he said, moving to her bedside.
“But he was! He was here!” Her resolve gave way to tears and she began trembling anew. “I’m frightened, Emile.” she confessed, “I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever felt so scared.”
He sat by her. “`Fear is for the living my dear,’” he said, paraphrasing Holy Scripture. “Only the dead are conscious of nothing at all.`”
She looked at him, stupefied. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you?” he grinned, cupping one of her breasts.
“Oh God, it’s you!” she whimpered.
He seized her by the throat to stifle her cries.
Clawing hysterically at his hands, she struggled desperately for one last breath as his mocking words of the dead and their unconscious state echoed through the blackness threatening to engulf her.
But Wormwood’s lust had yet to be sated before death could finally claim her.In the throes of his craving he straddled her, letting go of her throat.
She gasped, charging her lungs with life-giving air as he tore at her nightdress, exposing her nubile body to his lecherous gaze.
Emile lurched abruptly through the doorway, his face awash with blood. He cursed himself for having been caught off guard. His negligence had almost cost him his life. Hell-bent on protecting Eve from such a fate he blazed, “Let her go!”
The fetch’s head snapped round, its malevolent eyes now firmly fixed on Emile, the tone of its voice sardonic.
“Ah, if it isn’t the firstling. Right on cue, my friend. A definite improvement on your past record, wouldn’t you say? “Tell me,” he goaded, “how many does this one make, hmm?”
“Too many, old man, but not one more,” he said. “It stops right here!”
Wormwood’s anger surfaced and he let go his grip on Eve. “Imbecile!” he shouted, “Do you really think that by saving this slut you can salve your stricken conscience?”
Emile saw his opening and sprang forward, his reflexes dulled by the cleaving pain in his head. All too easily his protagonist stepped aside, and he came crashing down onto the bed.
It was then Eve saw the vicious wound in his scalp and reached out to him.
A terrible sound erupted within the room, half man, half beast, and Emile turned to see the creature in mid-change.
It’s clothes shredded as its dimensions altered and hair began sprouting from every pore in its body, exposing the talisman that hung around its thick, muscular neck. Within seconds the transformation was complete and before them stood the lycanthrope in all its horrifying glory, its muzzle pulled back exposing the razor-sharp teeth.
Eve screamed hysterically. This was her worse nightmare come true. Wormwood had chosen well the form that would instill the maximum terror from his victim.
Before he could react, Emile was dragged unceremoniously from the bed, agonising pain crucifying his body as he was slammed against the wall.
With sadistic delight Wormwood stamped his heel deep into Emile’s stomach. “How does it feel, firstling?” he snarled.
Racked by convulsions, and with his accursed epithet ringing in his ears, Emile held back a little while longer, but he hadn’t anticipated Eve’s next action.Screeching like a banshee she threw herself onto the creature’s back, locking her arms about its neck and her legs firmly around its waist.
Wormwood howled with rage at the probing hand at his chest. He spun like a dervish to dislodge the hellcat before she could wrestle the talisman from him.
But Eve was having none of it and clung on to him for dear life.
It was all the time Emile needed.
Eve could hang on no longer. Her strength deserted her and the furious creature flung her across the bed. As he slowly approached her, his eyes fixed and menacing, she backed away and drew the bed sheet about herself. “No! Please don’t!”
Over its shoulder she suddenly caught sight of Emile – or what had once been Emile, but was now something equally as horrific as the fetch – approaching them.
“Old man!” he growled, bearing his teeth, his powerful hirsute body poised for action, “It’s time to end this.”
The fearsome pair leapt at one another. Colliding in mid-air, they fell to the floor snarling their fury.
Emile was the first to draw blood. As they circled each other he suddenly lashed out with his lethal jaws, tearing the flesh from his adversary’s shoulder.
Eli’s response was swift. He lashed out with his clawed hand, lacerating his combatants face and spattering blood and flesh across the vanity mirror.
Eve watched the battle royal in muted terror. Her fate was sealed if Emile should lose and, given his recent metamorphosis, even if he won.
By now Wormwood had gained the upper hand and had Emile pinned to the floor by his shoulders, exposing his throat to his snapping jaws. They were mere inches away when Emile caught sight of the talisman hanging close to his own jaws.
Allowing Wormwood to draw closer still, he clasped the talisman between his fangs and shook his snout violently back and forth wrenching it from his assailant’s neck. It flew across the room, shattering the vanity mirror before falling onto the table.
With a terrifying howl the creature was flung back by some unseen force and bounced off the far wall, collapsing in a bleeding heap onto the floor. It lay motionless as Emile reverted to his human form, he too naked and bloodied.
Eve leapt from her bed and pulled a clean sheet from the linen cupboard and draped it round him.
The pair watched closely as the lycanthrope began shuddering intensely.
“He’s starting to lose his hold over it. It won’t be long now.” Emile said, breathlessly.
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a grey outpouring of ectoplasm began issuing from the lycanthropes jaws. It hovered momentarily above its now inert body before exiting through the solid wall of the bedroom.
“Is that it? Why is the fetch still here?”
“Give it time. It’ll soon be over.” Emile assured an anxious Eve, “It’ll take Wormwood several minutes to deconstruct the protective pentacle.”
As Emile sat by the stricken fetch’s side, Eve went off in search of something to dress his wounds. She returned to a haunting and incredible transformation: the creature had taken human form, a perfect likeness of Emile. They could have been twins. Free of the evil that had previously governed it, it lay propped against the bed its eyes filled with uncertainty and fear.
Emile backed away. At his prompting the fetch then faded out of existence.
Eve gazed mutely at the spot it had once occupied, her heart filled with conflicting emotions. Her distraction was short-lived, however. “Do you hear that?” she asked, pricking up her ears.
The noise sounded uncannily like a spinning coin. As its resonance grew the cause soon became apparent. Amidst the detritus of overturned ornaments and broken perfume bottles on her dressing table they saw the amulet. It was shuddering, moving of its own volition.
All of a sudden, Emile was dragging her to the floor. She was about to protest when an ear jarring report sent lethal shards of exploding metal from the talisman zipping across the room, peppering the walls.
In the deathly quiet aftermath, Emile looked to his companion. “It’s finished,” he said, almost disbelievingly. “Wormwood’s dead! You’re safe.”
She hugged Emile through clouds of tears, but he shied away.
“There’s something you need to know about me, Eve.” he said, “Eli Wormwood was my father, my creator.”
“I sort of figured that out the moment you changed,” she said, smiling. “He called you ‘firstling’ because you were the first of his creations, weren’t you? The things he would have done to me, he made you do to someone else. That’s what he meant by you being ‘conscience-stricken‘.” she said.
Emile nodded. “Back then he was inexperienced. He made a tiny error when he deconstructed the banishment circle. I should have died, but because of his mistake I managed to escape. I vowed then never to rest until I had put an end to him, because of the terrible thing he made me do.”
“And you have,” she said cupping his hands, “You have!”
“Yes, but the irony of it is I’ve killed the man who gave meaning and purpose to my life. Without him there’s nothing.”
“Then I’ll give you a purpose.” She began bandaging his wounds. “That poor creature we sent back is your brother, your twin, and the nearest thing to family you’ve got. Find him and bring him home. He’s going to need all the love and help we can give him.”
Emile looked up from the floor. “You said ‘we.‘”
She looked into his eyes. “We’re all orphans now and it seems to me that there is a common bond between us, just like any other family.”
© David Calvert 2012
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The bracing cold barely fazed the revellers as they made their way to the town centre. Unseen, a solitary figure walked among them as they hurried towards their meeting point in the town square, a distant choir of angelic voices beckoning them on. Sensing their excitement and common purpose, the unsettled phantom followed. How often she had witnessed the scene: the enactment of their hopes and dreams for the year to come, a dream she was no longer a part of. A welcoming touch, a word of kindness, the hopes of a better tomorrow, all the things that gave purpose and meaning to life, were now denied her. Stripped of memory or hope her unhappy soul wandered through the crowd.
In the early days of her passing she had wished for a sign, anything that might trigger her memory as to how she had become trapped in a world between worlds. There had been no heavenly light at the end of a tunnel, nor loved ones to welcome her into the Kingdom. She knew only the lonely and cold embrace of purgatory.
Stripped of name and countenance – for ghosts she soon learned cast no reflection – she lived her life vicariously, choosing at random any group or individual who offered some kind of temporary solace from her sombre thoughts. She had witnessed the joys and loves of countless families and individuals. Inevitably, such experiences were bittersweet and served only to bring home to her how utterly alone she was. Of her many hauntings one family in particular stuck out: the young Lawrence couple and their only child, James. It was her meeting with James that made the encounter all the more memorable. She could still vividly recall her meeting with the seven-year-old on that snowy Christmas Day morning so long ago.
Again, it was a single random act of curiosity that had drawn her to the Lawrence household. On entering she was immediately struck at how different it was to the others in the street. Clearly, this was the home of a less affluent family. In the corner of the room stood a Spartan Christmas tree, its drooping branches lacking little in the way of decoration, other than homemade baubles and wraps of tinsel. She stooped to read the labels on the four lovingly wrapped presents at the base of the tree. They were all addressed with the same name: ‘James’. Saddened by the scarcity of gifts, she rose to her feet and made to leave when the sound of movement in the darkness caught her attention.
As she stood by the window a small hand, holding a brightly lit torch, appeared from behind a slowly opening door. Then a head appeared, followed quickly by the body of a small child clad in pyjamas and dressing gown. This, she surmised, was the recipient of the gifts that lay beneath the tree. He crept stealthily into the room on slippered feet and closed the door behind him.
She smiled as he hurriedly tiptoed to the tree, his face beaming with anticipation. Scanning the presents with his torch he began jumping up and down with glee.
“Yes! Yes!” he whispered, excitedly punching the air with his fists.
His childish outburst over, he sat cross-legged in front of the wilting branches and picked up the largest of his presents and began feeling it, his eager little fingers exploring it in minute detail to ascertain what lay beneath. The others were explored in the same manner. Then began the inventory.
“Fire truck.” he said, placing the largest present in front of him.
The next gift went to his left as he announced, “ Cowboy outfit.” .
“This one’s easy.” he declared of the third gift, laying it on his right, “Eagle Annual.”
Picking up the last of his presents and shaking it he said, “Hmm. Don’t know ’bout this one, but I bet it’s good anyway.” Placing it between his legs, he picked up the largest present again and fondled it. This, his unseen visitor guessed, was his favourite.
She laughed inwardly as she watched him play with the unopened gift, mimicking the sounds of its engine and siren as he pushed it along the carpet. Then suddenly he stopped, his head turning slowly to face the window.
“Hello.” he said, timidly.
This had never happened before, and was so unexpected that she just stared at him in astonishment.
“Are you one of Santa’s helpers?” he asked, “Only, you don’t look like one.”
She looked down at her faded jeans and worn out shoes and jumper, and laughed. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“I think you must be, cos I can see right through you.”
“Can you? Then I guess I must be.”
“You look awfully tall and sad for an elf.
“Maybe it’s cos your ears haven’t grown properly.”
“Yes, your probably right.” she said, smiling at his naivety.
“Bet you know what this is.” he said, holding up the smallest gift that had baffled him earlier.
“I’m sorry James, I don’t.”
“But you must know. You’re one of Santa’s helpers.”
She had to think quickly on her feet now. “Yes, I am, but I don’t wrap the presents. I just help deliver them.”
“Oh! Okay then.” With that he momentarily resumed his play before looking up again asking, “What’s your name?”
Caught completely off guard she struggled to come up with a name befitting an elf, but couldn’t.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a name.”
“That’s silly. Everybody has a name.”
After a brief moment’s silence she replied, “Elves have to earn their name by helping Santa.”
“Oh! Well if I was Santa I’d call you … Little Ears.”
She chuckled. “Well when I see him, I’ll tell him what you said.”
“Are you hungry? I am.” he said, getting to his feet and pulling a Christmas stocking from the mantle piece, tipping its contents onto the floor. “There’s oranges, tangerines, nuts, and some chocolate. Chocolate’s my favouritest. Do you like chocolate?” He held out a small bar to her.
“No thank you. I’m not hungry.”
As he unwrapped the bar she asked, “Aren’t you going to open your presents?”
“Oh, no. I have to wait for mom and dad to get up first. They like to watch me open them.”
“Yes, I suppose they do.” she said.
Do elves get presents?
“No, they don’t.”
“What makes them happy then?”
“Watching others open theirs I guess.” she smiled.
Popping two squares of chocolate into his mouth he began studying her intently.
Feeling a little uncomfortable under the intensity of his gaze she asked, “What is it, James? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I was just thinking about how you feel”
“I feel fine.”
James laughed. “I meant how you would feel if I touched you, silly elf.”
“Oh, I see. Well there’s only one way to find out.” Squatting low, she held out her hand.
He approached her cautiously, reached out and touched her fingertips.
“You feel like a snowman!” he said, withdrawing his hand, “But that’s probably cos you live in the North Pole”
“Now try holding my hand properly this time, James.” she encouraged.
The plucky youngster did as he was asked, only on this occasion his hand passed clean through hers, as she knew it would.
James laughed out loud. “Wow! That was fun. I felt tingly all over.“
“Well now you know how an elf feels.” she laughed.
In truth, she too had felt something: it was the soul of an innocent. In her wanderings she had encountered many souls and each one was different, but there was something about James’ that was quite unique.
“Mom and dad will pee themselves when I tell them I’ve be talking to an elf with little ears. They probably won’t believe me. But when they see you …!
“No, James! You mustn’t tell anyone about me.” she cut in, “It must be our little secret. Besides, most grown ups can’t see us and there aren’t many children who can see us either. Only the very special ones can.”
“Hope I’m one of the special ones.“
“Me too.” she said, adding, “I’ll make you a promise; that as long as you can see me I’ll come visit as often as I can. How does that sound?”
James was overjoyed at the prospect of having such a special friend and for the next five years their friendship flourished, until one day fate intervened.
After one of her more prolonged absences from James, when she continued her seemingly never-ending search for her former life, ‘Little Ears’ eventually returned to the Lawrence’s. Six weeks had passed and the scene that welcomed her was far from what she had expected. The house was now little more than a burned out shell.
Her desperate search for the Lawrences was proving fruitless. Being trapped in her spirit body made it impossible to follow normal lines of enquiry. Despite this she continued to visit the house during its renovation in the hope of learning anything that might give her a clue as to the family’s whereabouts. The bombshell was dropped late one afternoon when she overheard a conversation between two workmen at the house.
“It’s a cryin’ shame, Bob.” she heard one say to the other, “An entire family wiped out overnight. I heard they had a little kid, too.”
“Yeah, so they tell me. Don’t know that much about it to be honest.”
“Me neither, but that’s what I heard anyways.”
Devastated by the loss of her only companion, Little Ears vowed never again to befriend another living soul and left, never to return.
Many changes were to take place over the next ten years, one of them being the current New Year’s Eve firework display being held in the city centre. It offered Little Ears a brief distraction from her forlorn circumstances, and to feel like she was alive again, a part of the living mass of humanity she had been ripped from so long ago.
The bronze statue of the cavalier on horseback gradually came into view as they crossed the bridge leading onto the square. By now a large crowd had congregated at its base. Only two minutes remained of the old year. Here and there people were looking at their watches in anticipation.
The choral music from the tannoy finally began to fade out as the time approached. The New Year was now only seconds away as the voice from the speakers, in unison with the crowd, counted down the remaining ten seconds. A spontaneous outpour of ‘Happy New Year’ erupted from the eager crowd as the heavens exploded in a pyrotechnic display of colours and patterns.
Sitting atop the statue, Little Ears watched the celebrations unfold. From her vantage point she could see the distant horizon and the brightly lit towns and villages that lay between, each illuminated under a canopy of exploding colour. Beneath her the partygoers were in full swing, dancing, singing and carefree.
Though she was no elf, Little Ears could be just as mischievous. One of her favoured party tricks was to put in an appearance in photographs. In the south corner of the square she noticed a small group of friends had congregated to have their picture taken. They had recruited the help of a bystander to take the photo and he was in the process of framing the shot when she put in her début, just as the flash fired. In the blink of an eye, she appeared at the photographer’s side to see her handiwork appear on the digital screen. It was just as she had expected. To the left of the group was a strange, amorphous light.
The young man scratched his beard and looked up. “I’m sorry but it hasn’t come out very well.” he said, apologetically. Deleting the image, he took another snap. This time there was no troublesome artefact. Thanking him, the group moved on.
For no apparent reason the tall stranger began to chuckle to himself. “And when did you learn to do that trick?” he suddenly asked.
Little Ears looked around, convinced he was talking to someone else, but there was no one close at hand to hear him.
He turned and looked directly at her. “Yes, I’m talking to you.” he announced.
Little Ears was flabbergasted and a little embarrassed at having been caught out in her childish prank.
“Cat got your tongue, Little Ears?”
“How do you know my name?” she stammered.
“Because I gave it to you, silly little elf. I know a lot of water has passed under the bridge since we last saw one another, but I didn’t think I’d changed that much.”
The penny finally dropped.
“James! Is it really you?”
“They call me Jamie these days – but yes, it’s me.“
The urge to hug him was almost overpowering. “You’ve grown so much!”
“That’s what happens to us mortals on this side of the veil.” he joked.
“I thought you’d died in the fire.”
“I would have if mom and dad hadn’t sent me to stay with my gran on the day it happened.”
“I kept visiting from time to time, but when I heard that you’d all died I stopped. There are so many things I have to ask you that I don’t know where to begin.”
“And there are a lot of things that I have to tell you, but this isn’t the right place.” he said, having become aware of the attention he was drawing to himself, “I think we need to find somewhere a little more private.”
As they walked toward the city park, they talked of the night they first met, and of the years of their friendship. Learning that he had become a fire fighter didn’t come as much of a surprise to Little Ears, given his history. What did surprise her, however, was when he told her he had learned at the age of ten that she was no elf, but a spirit.
“But why didn’t you tell me you knew?”
“Well I wasn’t sure whether you knew, and I didn’t want to shock you.” he replied.
“Do you still have that old fire engine you used to play with?”
“Oh, that’s long gone.” he told her, “I have a real one to play with nowadays.”
They both laughed as they entered through the park gates.
“Do you know the greatest gift I got on the night we met?” he asked.
“Wasn’t it the fire engine?”
“No. It was the gift you gave me when we touched.”
Little Ears was puzzled.
“It’s because of that gift that I can help you, move on, Ellen.”
She stopped dead In her tracks. “What did you call me?”
Jamie pulled up. “Your real name is Ellen Carter. You were born on December the ninth, nineteen seventy and died under tragic circumstances in November of nineteen ninety, after running away from home two years earlier.”
“AlI this happened because I was a runaway?“
“No. There’s more to it than that. You were running from something you couldn’t face up to or deal with. You had a serious drug addiction.”
“I was a drug addict?”
“I know you might find that hard to take, given that you no longer suffer from withdrawal symptoms, but once you left your physical body that was to be expected. Running away from home only worsened the situation. Without guidance and help you drifted into crime and other unpleasantness in order to feed your addiction. What I’m telling you I learned from surviving family members and newspaper reports.”
“You’ve spoken to my parents? Where do they live? How are they?”
“I’m afraid both your parents passed over several years ago. The majority of what I’ve learned is from your brother and sisters. Your mother died less than a year after your death and your father three years later.”
Little Ears looked him squarely in the eyes. “Was that because of me?” she asked.
Jamie tried to evade the question. “Does that really matter now?”
“Yes it does!”
“In the case of your father, not so much.” he said.
“And my mother?”
“Well, according to your siblings she died of a broken heart, but …”
“Please, just don’t try to sugar coat it, James!” she cut in, angrily. “If I did such terrible things then I don’t deserve to move on.”
“And I’m supposed to tell your parents this, am I?”
“You’ve spoken to them?” Little Ears seemed genuinely surprised by the news.
“What – you think you’re the only spirit I can communicate with? Of course I’ve talked with them. They’re waiting for you as we speak!”
James took a calming breath before continuing. “Look, the only reason you’re still here is because you’re punishing yourself for what you did. The trauma of your death and the heartache you brought upon your family were just too painful for you and so you wiped them from your memory. But there’s a small part of you that still seeks forgiveness and peace.”
Seeing her demeanour was calmer, Jamie motioned her to follow, leading her deeper into the park.
“Tell me how many spirits you see in the park,” he instructed.
“There aren’t any. Just me.”
“If you could see with my eyes you’d know how wrong you are. There are actually quite a few.”
“Then why can’t I see them?”
“For the same reason they don’t see you or any of the others for that matter. It’s part of the torment they believe they must endure for their earthly sins. The truth is they’re no more in purgatory than I am. What they’re experiencing is a kind of mental projection created by their own minds.”
“But you’re real, this city’s real, what’s happening is real, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is, but you and others like you are stuck between two worlds; this one and the next level of existence. There are several realms a spirit must visit before it can enter into heaven. Each one serves as a cleansing process for the soul. Those who have led a relatively blameless life can sometimes skip those realms that have nothing to teach them.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Because of the gift you gave me. It eventually enabled me to speak with my spirit guide, and it is through him that I learned these things. I’ve helped many lost souls pass over into the light all because of you. He’s also the one who told me where I could find you.”
“Is that why you’re here now; to help me cross over?”
“Yes. I think you’ve suffered enough Little Ears. But first you have to witness the things you’ve been running from all these years. Don’t be afraid of what you see. They’ll seem very real to you, but they’re only the distant memories of long ago.”
As they resumed their walk, Jamie announced, “We’re almost there.”
Little Ears could feel a panic welling up inside her. “Where are you taking me?”
“To the place of your death.” he replied.
They walked in silence until they reached a grove, a cinder track branching off into the group of trees. Jamie came to a halt. “We’re here.” he said, pointing to a small brick building at the end of the track.
“A public toilet? I died in a toilet?” Little Ears gasped.
Jamie nodded, adding, “You won’t be disturbed by anyone. They were closed down a couple of years back?”
After a brief pause she moved toward the derelict building but quickly came to a halt when she realised Jamie wasn’t following.
“Aren’t you coming with me?”
“I can’t.” he said, The place is locked up. Only you can enter.”
“But I don’t think I can do this on my own.”
He smiled at her reassuringly. “You have to be brave, Little Ears. All you’ll see is a reflection in the ether of your passing – the unveiling of a long suppressed memory and nothing more.”
After a few brief moments she turned her back on him and walked into the grove, passing through the dank cold walls and into the interior.
On entering, she felt the cold penetrating damp and began to shiver. Being in spirit form meant that she would normally have been impervious to the physical effects of the natural world. Yet, there was no denying the evidence of her own eyes and senses. She was shivering uncontrollably and goose bumps had appeared on her bare arms.
A large, rectangular skylight, let in the orange glow from the cinder trail lights outside, affording little illumination. Ahead of her lay four cubicles. Their doors were open. They were empty. As she approached she caught the unpleasant smell of stale urine. She walked tentatively toward the first cubicle, and in so doing stepped on a broken tile that cracked beneath her foot. It had given way to the weight of her now seemingly denser body.
Fear began to reassert itself, and she reminded herself that this was merely an illusion projected by the resurgence of fragmented memories onto her surroundings. When she looked down again the tile had vanished.
From out of nowhere came the unexpected sound of sobbing. She gave an involuntary shudder, and her skin crawled, as though a thousand insects were scurrying across her body. She stood, frozen to the spot, unable to coax her trembling limbs into action. The pitiable weeping was now more than she could bear.
“Please stop!” she cried out, holding her hands to her ears. But there was no respite from the sounds and visions inside her head. She was beginning to remember.
A sharp stinging pain made her wince, and the plaintive crying ceased abruptly. Something warm was trickling down the inside of her arm. Without looking, she knew what is was. Then came the tinkle of glass on tile as a bloodied syringe rolled from the furthest cubicle.
One moment she had been standing in a dilapidated toilet, staring down at the instrument of her death. The next, she was in the back of a brightly lit ambulance as it hurtled through the city streets, looking on as the medics struggled to save her.
This was the first time in years she had seen her full countenance, and it appalled her. What she saw had little in common with an eighteen-year-old. Emaciation and years of self-abuse had finally taken their toll.
“My God! What have I done to myself?” she murmured. “How could I let myself sink so far?”
Suddenly, the monitor she was attached to began to beep loudly.
“Christ” We’re losing her!” the attending medic called out to his partner.
In the blinking of an eye, Little Ears found herself hurtling through a dark tunnel toward the sound of childish laughter. She exited into broad daylight, recognising instantly the group of teenagers congregating around an ice-cream van outside the school gates, the place where it all began.
She also recognised the cocky eighteen-year-old ice-cream vendor, with the shock of curly red hair that ran to his shoulders. His liking for young girls was well-known to those who had fallen for his obvious charms. They were drawn to him like moths to a flame. Capitalising on his notoriety, in ways his employers were unaware of, he supplemented his meagre wage by selling small wraps of cannabis to his more than willing customers. Like many of her peers, Little Ears was about to be seduced into his web of deceit.
As the group drifted back into the school yard only one female remained. Little Ears watched as they chatted for a while before he eventually served her. Though she could not recall the exact details of the conversation, she knew that before leaving he’d made a date to meet her at the local carnie that weekend, a rendezvous that would alter her life in ways she could never have imagined: she would become a woman and smoke her first ‘spliff’ at the age of fifteen.
She wondered if she had known back then of her addictive nature whether she would have taken him up on his offer but she hadn’t and there was no way of turning back the clock.
She moved forward through time on an emotional rollercoaster of sadness and regret, witnessing her first run in with the law, the anguish of her parents, the rows and upsets she caused within the family, the lies and deceit, and her increasing need to find a better ‘buzz’, and the debasing lengths she went to in order to attain it.
Though remorseful of her acts, she no longer hated herself, and understood for the first time that she had been the victim of the greed of others and her own adolescent immaturity. Weakened by her dependency she could not overcome it as she grew into adulthood. Now she had to return to the place of her death to witness her ultimate act of selfishness.
In the half-light of the toilet, blinking the tears from her eyes, she stared at the empty syringe lying at her feet, then into the cramped cubicle where her inert body lay wedged between the toilet bowl and wall. Round her left arm was a tourniquet. Directly beneath it a rivulet of blood tricked down from the collapsed vein where the needle had been inserted, and suddenly she remembered the terrible choice she had made.
Sinking to her knees, she wept, “I’m sorry for everything I did, for all the hurt and pain I caused to everyone and myself.”
Looking up through the skylight she begged, “I just want to go home now.”
A sudden burst of radiant light cut through the darkness, warming her face. It was intensely bright yet did not hurt her eyes. An overwhelming feeling of love reached out to her from within, calling her, bidding her to follow. Then slowly she began to rise.
Jamie looked on at the delicate, golden lit form as it ascended into the heavens, to be lost amid the pyrotechnic display. As he made his way along the cinder track a familiar voice whispered out to him, “Thank you, James. I hope your New Year will be as happy as I feel right now.”
He stopped and smiled. Pulling up his collar against the cold he whispered, “Happy New Year, Little Ears.”
© David Calvert 2011
I am honoured to dedicate this story to my dear friend Ellen (‘Zen’) Connolly whom I have known only for a few brief months. She has faced adversity and hardships throughout her life and yet has maintained a positive attitude throughout. Her infectious sense of humour remains relatively undented and lifts the spirits of others less fortunate. I consider myself lucky to have encountered such a giving and friendly soul.
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A Christmas tale
Young Danny Braithwaite had but one thought on his mind as he sprang from his bed and dashed to the window. ‘This time.’ he thought, excitedly drawing back the curtain. A harsh white light invaded the bedroom, chasing the sleep from his eyes, and he let out a jubilant “Whoop!” at the magical transformation that had taken place overnight. He had waited almost an entire year and, at last, the snows had arrived.
“C’mon young’n!” he urged, shaking his brother violently from his slumber. “It’s been snowin’. Let’s get ready and go out to play.”
Alan, two years his junior, pulled the covers over his head and grumpily told him to ‘Nick off ‘, adding that it was far too cold to get out of bed. Then, suddenly, the import of the message struck home. “Snowin’!” he shrieked, sitting bolt upright.
“Yeah! Look – it’s as deep as anything”.
Alan scrambled to the window, blankets in tow. “Cor! Look at that. It must have snowed all night to get that deep.”
“What’s going on in there?” a familiar voice called from the adjacent bedroom.
The celebrations came to an abrupt halt. “Er, nothin’ mam.” Danny sniggered, “Where just gettin’ ready to go out.”
“Not until you’ve had your breakfast, you’re not. And besides,” she continued, “it started snowing last night, so I want you both properly dressed.”
“Yer know what that means, young’n.” sighed Danny, “Before we get out of here, she’ll have us done up like Eskimos.”
That morning the conversation at the breakfast table was animated. Alan was helping himself to his third spoonful of strawberry jam, which he dolloped into his porridge and swirled around until a glutinous pink mass stared up at him from the bowl. Danny was in the throes of a protracted argument with his sister Carol, the eldest of the trio, over whose Christmas presents would occupy the sofa the following morning. In the midst of their dispute an innocent question brought everything to a shuddering halt.
“Mam – what’s the ‘Big C?”
Every eye was now trained on the youngster, as he noisily sucked the dregs of porridge from his tablespoon.
Mary’s face blanched as she slowly lowered the coffee cup from her lips. “What do you mean, love? Why do you ask?”
“‘Cos Ricky Pinder said he heard his mam and dad talkin’ about me dad, and they said he had the ‘Big C,”
“Did they now!” she snapped, her face turning an angry shade of red. “Well you just take no notice of anything they have to say, sweetheart.” Sipping the last dregs from her cup, she rose to collect the breakfast dishes from the table. It was then she noticed that her daughter had become very quiet and seemed preoccupied with her thoughts.
Carol was fourteen and was fully aware of the situation concerning her much missed father. When he had first been admitted to hospital she and her brothers had been allowed regular visits but, as his condition worsened, only the adults were permitted to see him – a decision which she had found unbearably cruel given that he would not be with them for very much longer. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes as she pondered a life without him.
“Alright kids.” Mary chirped, “Seeing as how it’s Christmas Eve, why don’t you each write a note to Santa telling him what you want.” She knew, of course, that Danny and Carol were almost past the age of innocent belief, but this was a family tradition and besides, there was still the youngster to consider.
As she had hoped, Carol’s sombre thoughts were soon distracted as they each took up pen and paper and began writing in earnest.
The task completed, they folded their sheets and ceremoniously burned them on the fire, the premise being that the smoke from the ashes would somehow be carried to the North Pole where they were reliably informed Father Christmas would, in some undisclosed manner, read them and fulfill their wishes.
Danny was first to be ready and waited impatiently as his mother dressed the youngster. True to his earlier statement, she had ensured that each of them was suitably attired for the wintry climate. They had no sooner left her sight when off came the balaclavas and scarves, and an energetic snowball fight ensued. As it progressed so did the number of their group until, at length, it seemed as though an entire army of children were fighting a pitched battle at the end of the street. Eventually, the group filtered down to a mere handful and it was suggested that better fun could be had on the neighbouring pit-heap.
The ‘heapy’, as the boys were wont to call it, stood almost fifty feet in height and had a broad, evened top that stretched off into the distance towards the pit-head, creating a plateau-like effect which the boys put good use to as their personal playground. In their time it had served a multitude of purposes. Today, however, it would be employed as a gigantic slide form which they would propel themselves on remnants of conveyor belting, hurtling at breathtaking speeds down the icy covered slopes.
With boundless energy and screams of delight they descended the south-facing slope, amid flurries of freezing snow, to the farmer’s field below. After an hour or two their youthful exuberance eventually gave way to the cold and hunger and so it was decided they would all go home for dinner, but return later to continue their adventure.
After a hearty turkey dinner, followed by freshly baked apple pie and custard, Mary informed the children that she would be visiting their father later that afternoon, and that they would be staying at uncle Tom’s and aunt V’s until she returned to collect them.
For Danny, in particular, the idea of spending Christmas Eve with his aunt and uncle was an appealing one. They were a childless couple who lavished attention on the children whenever the opportunity arose.
True to form, Tom greeted them with a cheery smile and proceeded to pull from behind their ears of each of them, much to their amazement and glee, a fifty pence piece which he deposited into their eagerly waiting hands.
On entering the living room they gasped in admiration. Dominating one corner was a brightly lit Christmas tree, bedecked with all manner of ornamentation, and surmounted by a glistening star of silver. From the four corners of the ceiling to its centre were draped richly coloured streamers of green and red. An advent calendar, its tiny windows peeled back, hung from the centre of the fire breast, flanked on either side with a wreath of holly. The entire room had been lovingly decorated in a multitude of effects to delight and stimulate the senses. Only when the house lights were dimmed and the multi-coloured tree lights switched on was their true effect fully appreciated by the children.
Within half-an-hour of Mary’s departure Alan suddenly announced; “I’m hungry!”
“You’re always hungry.” his sister declared.
Veronica looked up. “I think that should do it.” she said, applying the final strokes of the brush to the niece’s fine auburn hair. “There’s some cherry pie due out the oven. Would anyone like some?”
A chorus of ‘Yes please’ went out from the children, followed by a grunt from their uncle who was otherwise occupied showing off his latest feat of legerdemain to an appreciative audience of two.
“There’s no such thing as real magic!” Carol declared, defiantly. “Nobody can do real magic.”
Danny was becoming increasingly tired of his sister’s ill-tempered moods and was about to say as much when Tom intervened.
“Oh, and what makes you say that?” he quizzed.
“Because there just isn’t.” came the terse reply. “If people could do real magic, then wishes would come true; but they don’t. They don’t come true, no matter how hard you try.”
She was now almost at the point of tears when her aunt entered laden with the food and drink.
“You know,” Tom said, between mouthfuls of freshly baked cherry pie, “wishes can come true; can’t they love.” He turned to Veronica and smiled a knowing smile. She, in turn, smiled, the corners of her mouth accentuating her dimpled cheeks.
“Alright then.” she relented, “If you must.”
It was then he announced, “We’re going to have a baby!”
Veronica coughed loudly.
“Well – that is -” he corrected himself, “aunt V’s going to have a baby. Soon you’ll have a new cousin to play with. So you see,” he said, turning to his niece, “some wishes do come true.”
Carol wanted to believe with all her heart that somehow things could be made different simply by wishing it; that by some magical process the love she had for her father was strong enough to overcome the illness that kept them apart. In Danny and Alan too a longing for their father began to stir, engendering cherished memories of Christmas’ past.
Tom rose from his chair and moved to the window. He gazed out at the snow-capped roofs and the streets beyond. He, too, missed his brother and sniffed back a single tear which threatened his composure.
Quite unexpectedly, the phone rang. V was the first to answer it, and after listening for a few seconds she called out to Tom. “You’d better take this.” she said, her hand shaking as she handed him the receiver. “It’s Mary.” she whispered.
With an awful sense of dread he put the receiver to his ear and turned his back to the children. The first sound he heard was that of his sister-in-law’s weeping. Then came the words. “It’s Jim; he’s …”
“Oh God! Not tonight of all nights.” he interrupted, slumping into the nearest chair.
By now the children were aware that something was wrong and Carol began to whimper.
“No, no! You don’t understand. Jim’s in remission. He’s getting better.”
“But I thought there was …”
“No hope?” she cut in. “We all did, but that’s not the queerest thing, Tom. Jim told me he’d had a curious dream this afternoon. He said he’d dreamt that three tiny fireballs had entered through his closed cubicle window, and that as he watched each of them turned into a sheet of paper that fluttered onto his bed. He recognised the handwritings on them as belonging to the children. It was the very same letters they had written to Santa this morning, Tom; I’m sure of it.”
“But what makes you so sure?”
“Because of what they’d written. Ask them what they put in their letters, Tom, and I’ll bet it was ‘Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is my daddy back.’“
Tom did as requested and was stunned at their replies.
Later that night, as a fresh fall of snow gently descended over a peaceful village, Carol, Danny, Alan, and their aunt and uncle huddled contentedly around the tree, each knowing that something truly magical had taken place. It turned out to be a Christmas that neither of them would forget in the years to come.
© David Calvert 2011
THE PITYING HEART
Jenny Bowcombe stared at the oaken figure of Edmund D’Lyle in the chancel of Saint Olave’s church, the site from where her beloved Lucy had disappeared. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that it was the remarkable resemblance between Edmund’s effigy and Lucy’s late father that had attracted her daughter to the chancel. As she looked on she, too, felt a strange affinity towards the centuries old memorial. How often she had wished it could speak, that it might resolve the endless uncertainty of Lucy’s whereabouts.
It had taken the better part of two years for Jenny to come to terms with the death of her husband, Richard, and in her darkest moments had taken comfort in the love of their daughter. Now she too was gone and Jenny would have ended the unremitting loneliness and heartbreak were it not for her uncompromising belief that she still lived and would someday be reunited with her.
Richard’s sudden passing had brought an unwelcoming change in the eight-year-old’s demeanour. Withdrawn and ill-tempered, she had begun to weave a web of secrecy about herself. What worried Jenny most of all, however, were her increasingly prolonged absences from home. She had shown great leniency towards her daughter until the day she strolled into the house, two hours late from school. This time she was not going to be fobbed off with any lame excuses. She had spent the latter hour in a state of near panic. Now she demanded to know the truth.
“I’ve been going to the chapel.” Lucy wept. “I go there when I want to talk to daddy.”
Jenny was lost for words. Ever the pragmatist, she believed in the here and now rather than the hereafter. Finding comfort and solace in outmoded beliefs was not her style, but if it was Lucy’s way of coming to terms with the loss of her father then she would not stand in her way.
Life continued apace in the tiny hamlet of Arken. The now fifteen-year-old Lucy was a regular worshipper at St. Olave’s and was often seen by rector Phillips staring into the ageless face of Edmund D’Lyle. Her intense fascination with the relic mystified him, though he never once broached her on the subject.
It was on the eve of her sixteenth birthday when the storm hit the island. With merciless ferocity it raged across it, uprooting trees and flooding vast tracts of farmland in its wake. Even in the naturally formed inlet, which had provided a safe haven for countless generations of seafarers, the destruction was total as the roiling turbulence crashed in on the moored vessels, rendering them into useless flotsam. Not even hallowed ground was safe on such a night.
From the rectory window the ageing rector Phillips witnessed the single lightning bolt strike the chapel, iridescent lights lighting up the stained glass windows from within. Braving the elements, he set out to scrutinize the damage.
On first inspection it seemed that nothing untoward had happened, but as he approached Edmund’s effigy he noticed the fragmented shards of the knight’s steel misericord lying on the floor. They were hot to the touch. Though there was no evidence suggesting a possible entry point, the lightning bolt had apparently struck the weapon and shattered it. What he found even more perplexing was that the fine chrysoberyl jewel that had adorned its hilt was missing. It was only in the aftermath of the storm that he discovered the tangled wreckage of Lucy’s bicycle lying beneath a wind felled oak in the churchyard. Reassuring himself that she was not among the twisted foliage and broken boughs he dashed back into the chapel, fully expecting to find her poor inert body lying somewhere among the pews, but she was nowhere to be seen. Lucy had vanished without trace.
Jenny’s memories were bittersweet. Richard’s securement as Arken’s only GP had been particularly memorable, because it was the very same day she broke the news to him of her pregnancy. Lucy became the source of his pride and joy; they were inseparable. That he harboured an ambition that she might one day follow in his footsteps were readily apparent in his choice of gifts for her. Prized among them was a gold charm bracelet from which hung a single lamp, a lasting reminder that she was his ‘lady of the lamp’.
“Can I help you?”
Jenny flinched and turned to see the darkly dressed figure of a clergyman standing in the aisle.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.” he said.
In her eyes he saw the hauntingly familiar look of unresolved grief. He sat next to her and proffered a friendly hand, greeting her with a pleasant, almost boyish, smile. “The name’s Tremayne. The Reverend Anthony Lucas Tremayne, to be exact. I’m rector Phillips’ replacement,” he said, his face broadening into a cheerful grin.
She took hold of his outstretched hand. “Mine’s Jenny.”
“I couldn’t help noticing your fascination with Arken’s local hero” he said. “He’s quite an interesting character, don’t you think?”
“Is he? I’m afraid I’ll have to take your word for that. History isn’t exactly my strong point.”
“Oh, indeed he was. Did you know that for centuries he was said to be the founder of this church?”
“No, no, I didn’t. But as I said before…”
“Of course: ‘history isn’t your strong point’” he recalled.
“The truth is that he was actually a crusader who fought in Alexandria and Syria. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious head wound in the latter campaign and was shipped back to England, and then on to Arken. The poor chap became quite deranged at the end and died.”
Jenny’s thoughts wandered from Edmund to a more recent and intimately tragic history.
Mistaking her abstraction as a sign of disinterest the young cleric apologised for having disturbed her and made to leave, but was forestalled by her insistence that he carry on.
“I’d love to.” he replied, glancing at his wristwatch. “Unfortunately, I have to keep a prior appointment. Perhaps we could meet at the rectory tomorrow to continue our chat.” he suggested. “Lord knows, I’ve had little chance to get acquainted with my flock.”
The airy interior of the rectory came as a welcoming respite from the excesses of the midday sun and Jenny could not help but feel a little envious of the Reverend at having such a shaded sanctuary. Unlike his predecessor, the young cleric insisted that the formalities of his office be set aside, preferring simply to be known as Lucas. Jenny was happy to oblige him; she found the use of such titles pretentious at best. That he was also more enlightened than his predecessor was evidenced by the numerous scientific journals, which adorned the bookshelves.
“I got the impression from you yesterday” she began, “that there was more to the story of Edmund D’Lyle.”
“Yes there is.” He relaxed into his armchair and took a sip from his iced tea. “During my researches into the last crusades I came across a document bearing his name. It was written by Philip De Mezieres, Chancellor to Peter the First of Cyprus. He and the King were responsible for the organisation of the 1365 crusade. They came to London to secure the help of several English knights, one of them being Edmund. As you know, he eventually returned to England and died. That he lived as long as he did was entirely due to his companion. She apparently travelled everywhere with him.”
The painful memories of her past began to reassert themselves again. Jenny knew only too well the wretchedness of losing loved ones. In the midst of her thoughts a single word – ‘misericord’ – brought her back to the present.
“I was just saying as how it is something of a mystery to me.” Lucas said, in response to her question.
“Oh! Why is that?”
“Well, according to my records the effigy is supposed to be holding a misericord in its hand. True misericords were used to put an end to the suffering of battlefield victims. Their name is derived from the Latin for ‘pitying heart’. However, these were a special honour bestowed upon the knights by the King for their efforts in the crusades. Edmund’s is missing – jewel and all.”
“Didn’t Rector Philips fill you in on what happened before you took over his duties?”
“No. His departure to the mainland was rather sudden.”
“Then you know absolutely nothing of what happened here?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Jenny had, wherever and whenever possible, avoided protracted conversations concerning Lucy, but to tell the story of the missing misericord without once mentioning her involvement was akin to omitting the ‘great fish’ from the biblical story of Jonah. She took a calming breath before giving her account.
A look of surprise crossed the cleric’s face at the mention of her daughter’s name, occasioning Jenny to enquire if something was wrong.
He looked at her with uncertainty. Smiling nervously, he replied, “There isn’t, unless your surname happens to be Bowcombe.”
Her confirmation had a curious effect on him. He seemed reluctant to pursue the matter any further, inciting Jenny to ask again if anything was wrong.
The mention of Lucy’s name had set off a disturbing train of thought. “It’s nothing.” he said, ultimately. “Mere coincidence.”
“Yes. You see Edmund’s companion’s name was Lucy Bowcombe, too.” he said.
Jenny sensed there was more to it than that. Something other than sheer coincidence had generated his nervous response, and she intended to get to the bottom of it.
Failing to allay her suspicions, Lucas finally gave way.
“You’re right;” he said, “I haven’t told you everything about the historical Lucy, and with good reason. I’m not sure I believe it myself. Perhaps if we apply the principle of Occam’s razor things will become clearer.”
“Occam‘s razor? Never heard of it” Jenny admitted.
“Briefly stated it’s this: if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, the chances are it is a duck. In other words, there’s no requirement to form a more complex assumption or theory.”
Jenny was becoming agitated. “And the point is?”
“I’m coming to that. But first I need to check everything you’ve told me about your daughter is correct. You said she disappeared when she was fifteen, and that the jewel vanished at the same time – yes?”
“Yes.” she sighed.
“And you’re quite sure that all this took place on August the 10th ?”
“Of course I am! I’m hardly likely to be mistaken about it, now am I?” she snapped. “If there is a point to this, Lucas, I wish you’d make it.”
He braced himself. “As a consequence of my investigations into Edmund”, he began, “I came across the story of Lucy Bowcombe. Apparently, after a terrible storm, she was discovered in the chancel by a local farmer. She was in a highly agitated state, and could remember nothing of her past, other than her name. Contemporary reports said that she was between fourteen to sixteen-years-old, and spoke in a curious tongue. The date was August 10 , 1362.”
It was abundantly clear now what Lucas was leading up to, and Jenny balked at the absurdity of it.
“But you said this girl spoke in a foreign language.” she argued.
“No, I didn’t. I said that she was reported to have spoken in a ‘curious tongue’, which doesn’t necessarily mean she was foreign. Modern idioms and syntax are wholly different to what they were centuries ago. Back then they spoke Middle English, a substantial part of their vocabulary being French and stemming from the Norman Conquests. Edmund himself was of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, so Lucy’s speech would seem like a foreign language to him.”
Jenny fell silent. Circumstantial though the evidence was, she found it strangely compelling.
“And there’s one other thing:” Lucas resumed, “clasped in her hand was a chrysoberyl gemstone.”
“Have you any idea how absurd that sounds? You’re telling me my daughter was whisked back some seven centuries in time Why? How?”
“The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it I can only guess at. You said yourself that Lucy had never really gotten over the death of her father, and was often seen talking to the effigy as though it were he. She probably wished passionately for it to be true. Suppose that as she was in this frame of mind the lightning struck, triggering a quantum rift in time.”
“You may be accustomed to believing in miracles,” Jenny asserted, “but I’m certainly not. It’s absolutely ridiculous!”
“Is it?” countered Lucas. “There are some quantum physicists who would disagree. If their hypotheses of the existence of elementary particles that can travel faster than the speed of light are true, then time travel is possible.”
“You’re concluding a hell of a lot from a mere premise. We’re not talking about sub-atomic particles here, but a living, breathing, human being.”
“But isn’t that part of what we are; nothing more than a package of atoms strung together?” Lucas responded.
Later that evening Jenny pondered on Lucas’ words and the documented cases he had cited in support of his argument of people claiming to have undergone temporal sojourns. Like theirs, her life had changed dramatically. Everything she had cherished was gone. Perhaps there was now a need to believe in the fantastic; to seek hope in the embryonic science of quantum physics, just as Lucy had sought hope in religion.
The following morning she awoke from a troubled sleep. Her disquieting dream imagery had evaporated with the onset of wakefulness and was no longer retrievable. One thought persisted, however: ‘Lightning never strikes the same place twice.’ She knew this was a common fallacy, and later cursed herself for not having immediately understood her post-dream message. Unpredictably, she found herself entertaining a quite improbable notion.
For five years Lucas bore witness to the comings and goings of his friend, Jenny Bowcombe. Of all the islanders he alone knew of the obsession that drew her to the chapel on storm filled days and nights. Then, on one particular August night, all hell broke loose.
A ferocious storm front struck the island, growing in intensity as it tore across the landscape. Only one person would venture out on such a night, and Lucas had taken up his station behind the large bay window that overlooked the chapel to watch the lonely, bedraggled, figure trudge its way through the storm and into the chancel. Past experience had taught him that it would be some time before Jenny would leave and would probably ride out the worst of the storm there. Closing the drapes, he settled down to work on the rest of his forthcoming sermon.
Time passed and the storm grew worse. Rattling window panes and flickering house lights began to disrupt Lucas’ train of thought. He looked up from his study as an ominous peal of thunder rumbled across the night sky. The chancel was no place to be on such a night he told himself.
As his predecessor had done before, he stepped out into the tempest and was instantly taken aback by its sheer ferocity. A cyclonic wind buffeted him mercilessly, propelling him into the rivers of mud being washed from the neighbouring hills. He pushed on through the blinding rain, his face puffed and swollen, driven by an unbending sense of guilt, which hung like a millstone about his neck. How he wished now he had kept silent all those years ago.
On entering the churchyard he suddenly pitched forward, his lungs burning with sheer exhaustion. The air rasped sharply from his chest. He drew in his next breath as if it were his last. Coughing and spluttering uncontrollably, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes.
The transformation was stunning. As a former merchant seaman Lucas had seen St. Elmo’s fire only once in his life. It had been a brief encounter, its scattering of energy streamers confining themselves solely to the masthead. But that had occurred in a temperate climate, and one more favourable to the phenomenon. What he was witnessing now was impossible. He watched in awe the profuse streamers as they radiated out from the chancel in a state of constant flux, arcing from one structure to another. Most alarming of all was the luminescent energy field that had encompassed the churchyard. Beyond this miraculous dome the storm raged, unabated. Within it, all was eerily calm.
Jenny Bowcombe stood before the temporal vortex, which had opened at a point just above the effigy. Its dimensions were expanding and would soon be large enough to enter. Despite the irrefutable evidence gleaned from her most recent research, doubts began to weaken her resolve. What if she were catapulted to a time centuries before the history of Edmund D’Lyle or a future world that was totally alien to anything she had ever known? The possibilities were as infinite as time itself. She pulled Lucy’s photo from her rucksack. Filling her mind with her daughter’s image, she told herself that it was now or never and edged nearer to the portal.
“No, Jenny!” Lucas barreled down the aisle toward her, the opening shimmering briefly, as if disturbed by his unheeded appeal.
She stepped forward and was swallowed up in the blinking of an eye.
In that instant a powerful shock wave burst from the portal, hurling him pell-mell into the pews and rupturing the luminescent energy barrier. Darkness engulfed him.
On coming-to, he saw Arken’s Fire Chief, Pete Layton, standing over him.
“You’re one hell of a lucky guy.” he said. “If you hadn’t been lying between the pews when the main roof supports collapsed you’d be a gonner for sure. As it is you‘ve suffered only a few minor burns and abrasions.”
Lucas made a feeble effort to rise from the sofa. “Where am I? How did I . . .?” He slumped back, weak and nauseous from the effects of smoke inhalation.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, the Chief continued, “but the chapel didn’t fair as well. It’s sustained quite a bit of damage. Its walls are still structurally sound, though the roofs almost gone. A bit of elbow grease and a lick of varnish should soon remedy the scorched pews. Which reminds me! Is this yours?”
Lucas stared at the seared rucksack Chief Layton was holding. “Er, yes, it is.”
“You don’t seem too sure about that.”
“Yes, it’s mine.”
With the departure of the paramedics and fire crew, Lucas delved into the rucksack. Amid the many reams of hand-written documents, and a treatise on fourteenth century England, he came across what looked like a copied portion of text. It was badly scorched and nigh impossible to read. Fortunately, he was able to read the catalogue number, which showed it came from the research facility at Fendlesham Library, on the mainland. Its coding further revealed that Lucy’s search into Edmund D’Lyle was way in advance of his own. He recognised, too, the words of an ancient poet she had paraphrased in the final entry of her diary: ‘Time may bring to light whatever is hidden and it will conceal and cover up what once shone with the greatest splendour’.
Within a short space of time, Lucas would come to comprehend the true meaning behind those words.
“Sorry to bother you, Reverend,” said Chief Layton the next day, his face suitably grimy from his ongoing investigation at the fire scene. “but one of my men has discovered something at the chapel that I think you should see.”
A look of mild suspicion behind his bespectacled eyes made Lucas more than a little apprehensive.
“Take a look inside.” The Chief pointed to the chapel’s memorial plinth from which a sizeable portion had been broken. “Personally, I haven’t the faintest idea about ancient burial rites,” he said, “but I thought you might.”
Lucas scanned the murky interior. The most salient feature that struck him, as it must have Chief Layton, was that three distinctly separate bodies had been interred there. Then he caught sight of something in the mouldering winding sheets that caused his heart to skip a beat. It was a gold bracelet. Although he could not make out a hallmark he knew that the single charm that hung from it would date it conclusively to modern times.
“What do you make of it, Reverend? A little unusual to have three bodies in the same grave don’t you think?”
“It’s certainly unusual, but not unheard of.” Lucas declared. “I believe that what we’re looking at is the fourteenth century equivalent of a family plot.”
“Mystery solved then.”
“Mystery solved.” Lucas said, somewhat shocked by the ease with which his story was accepted; an outcome which would have been far different had Pete Layton paid greater attention to his local history lessons at school regarding the D’Lyle genealogy. Edmund had been the last of his line and could, therefore, not have shared his plot with any descendant.
Lucas’ major concern now was the bracelet. It was a modern artefact and if it should be uncovered and examined during restoration work on the tomb questions would be asked, questions for which there were no plausible answers. It’s removal, therefore, was vitally important.
Fortune smiled again on the young cleric, and when the Chief was called away by one of his men Lucas saw his opportunity and took it.
“Well that’s about it. I’m finished here.” said Pete Layton on his return, adding, “If you’ll take my advice, you need to have that plinth sealed up right away. I’m sure I noticed something of value in there. The last thing you need is to have some would-be grave robber come along and take it.”
Lucas flushed. “ No, that wouldn’t do at all. I’ll see to it right away.”
In the privacy of the rectory he examined more closely the bracelet he had hastily stuffed into his pocket. It was just as Jenny had described. Unquestionably, one of the tomb’s occupants was her daughter. Could the third body, he wondered, be Jenny‘s?
He later recalled the scorched document and speculated on what it may have contained. The fact that Jenny had copied it showed that it held some significance for her. He resolved to find out what it could possibly be and made arrangements to visit the mainland’s library the very next day.
Among the dusty tomes of Fendlesham Library he studied the antique parchments spread out before him. All but the latter had been penned by Edmund D’Lyle and bore the unmistakable ramblings of an unsound mind. Even so, there were rare moments of lucidity in which he wrote of his filial devotion to Lucy, the girl he had liberated from the cruel servitude of the farmer who had found her in the chancel. Because he had no rightful successor, Edmund knew that on his death his fortune would fall to the Crown. He therefore made adequate provisions for his youthful ward. She would at least be spared the harsh deprivations of impoverishment.
The last parchment, from which Jenny had made her copy, was written predominantly by Edmund. The latter portion of text, however, was not. Lucas thought at first that the Latin text, with its glaring grammatical errors and structure, had been written by an ill-educated scribe. He was soon to discover how wrong he had been. In them he saw the unmistakable hand of Jenny Bowcombe reach out to him across the centuries, as she must have hoped they would: ‘Time will bring to light. . .’ they began.
The ferry’s claxon pierced the noon air, heralding its imminent departure for Arken. Lucas gazed out across the horizon, secure in his conviction that the incredible events he had borne witness to were no mere arbitrary acts of nature. From the outset they had exhibited a purposeful intelligence, and a design borne of a compassionate heart.
© David Calvert 2011
The Cormorant was an enduring mystery to the folk of Stanelaw, in northeast England. For more than twenty years the derelict fishing trawler had sat on common ground, miles from the nearest port or harbour or, for that matter, the sea. Time and neglect had taken their toll on the ageing craft, its sun bleached timbers and buttressed hull starkly contrasting the lushness of its surroundings.
Its keeper, ‘Mad Pedi’, was also something of a mystery to the village children and the subject of much speculation as to whether it was she who was seen roaming its deck in the dead of night or some frightening phantom laying in wait for those foolhardy enough to enter its domain. Whatever the truth, none dared visit the site after sunset.
But Tommy Brice, unlike his young peers, was not so intimidated by the old woman. His most recent run-in with her had resulted in a serious loss of face for the fourteen-year-old, making him more determined to circumvent her ongoing vigil. To that end, he had come up with a ‘cunning plan’.
An impenetrable fog had rendered his torchlight almost ineffectual as he stumbled through the early morning brume with his classmate Sarah Elliot and his new-found friend, Jamie Lewis, in tow. Sarah, who had been happy enough to go along with his scheme, was now entertaining serious misgivings. That she had snuck from her bed at such an ungodly hour and had risked the wrath of her parents was bad enough, but now it appeared they had bypassed the boat altogether and were hopelessly lost in a peasouper.
Jamie pulled up short; his cry echoing through the early morning stillness, as out of the grey shroud the forbidding sight of the boat’s mouldering hull loomed suddenly into view. Perched against it was the self-same ladder ‘Mad Pedi’ had confiscated from Tommy and Sarah the previous day. It seemed that the crude grappling iron Tommy had so painstakingly fashioned was no longer required.
Sarah was nonplussed. “How’d that get there?”
“Who cares?” Tommy replied, tossing aside the iron and beginning his eager ascent.
Jamie hesitated. The ladder’s appearance had unsettled him almost as much as when he had first clapped eyes on the wreck, moments earlier. An unreasonable fear gripped him. He wanted to turn and run. But what horrors, if any, could possibly await him here that he had not already seen elsewhere.
The hurricane lamp Sarah had stolen from her father’s shed sputtered into life illuminating the musty interior of the wheelhouse. Even by torchlight its denudation had already been made apparent. Only the wooden helm remained, overlaid by the same thick matting of dust and cobwebs that were prevalent throughout. Long since disconnected from the rudder, it spun freely beneath Tommy’s eager hands and whatever thoughts of exploration they had entertained were quickly overtaken by the free range of their imaginations.
Their self-appointed leader took to his role as the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, with gusto and he was snarling orders to his motley crew of cutthroats when a distant, mournful drone brought their seafaring adventure to an untimely end. They listened, pricking up their ears at the slightest sound.
“What was that, Tommy?” whispered Sarah.
“A foghorn!” Jamie replied.
Tommy laughed. “Don’t be daft. There aren’t any around here.”
“Well it does smell like the seaside in here!” the youngster then announced, picking up on the growing scent of ozone-enriched air.
Sarah sniffed the dank atmosphere. “He’s right, Tommy!” Spooked and clinging to him as though her very life depended on it she whimpered “I wanna go home. Let’s go home.”
“It’s too late for that.” warned Jamie.
Both followed his wide-eyed gaze and, horror-stricken, they watched as the sudden appearance of a spectral-like image of the wheelhouse began phasing in and out with its physical surroundings. Time-worn timbers, seemingly transformed to new, groaned in sympathy as it began to pitch back and forth, the forceful illusion of movement compelling them to brace themselves against the cabin walls. The encounter was short-lived, however, seconds at most.
Though he had never actually seen one, Tommy held an unquestioning belief in ghosts. People had ghosts, and probably animals, too, but a boat? That was stretching things too far.
Something else also bothered him. What they had seen was not a true representation of the boat as it was now, but had appeared fully equipped and well maintained, as it might have been long ago. “Let’s get out’v here!” he ordered, the hairs on the back of his neck bristling sharply.
His companions were way ahead of him. They were already scrambling out onto the deck, where yet another startling discovery awaited them: the ladder had vanished and just when they thought things couldn’t get much worse they heard the sound of lapping water against the unseaworthy hull. They were trapped, seemingly becalmed in an unearthly fogbank, on a sea that had literally materialized out of nowhere.
Back in the claustrophobic confines of the wheelhouse tensions began to surface, the creeks and groans of the boat’s less than seaworthy keel serving to magnify their desperate plight.
“Shut up, man!” Tommy barked in response to the girl’s none stop questioning about what the hell was happening to them.
She fell silent, affording him time to collect his thoughts.
“Well it looks like we’re stuck here… wherever ‘here’ is, so I guess we’ve just got to make the best of it.” he said, at length.
“But we could all starve to death.” mewled Sarah.
“This is a fishin’ boat, isn’t it?” Tommy reminded her.
She nodded, nervously twining a lock of her hair round her finger.
“Then all we have to do is find a fishin’ net!”
Heartened by the gangly youth’s reasoning, and finally calming down, she added, optimistically, “Uh-huh, and maybe a ship will come along and we could signal it.”
Tommy just stared at Sarah and rolled his eyes.
Jamie remained silent throughout. He, alone, knew they were powerless to influence the unfolding course of events. Whatever was going to happen would happen – had already happened – and nothing on Earth could prevent it.
Wraith-like eddies of fog flowed and shifted as the boys half-heartedly combed the deck for remnants of netting, partly to appease Sarah’s starvation fears but mainly to help keep their minds off just what was happening to them. The discovery of a hatchway beneath a heavy tarpaulin had offered a glimmer of hope, though all too fleetingly. It had been securely battened down with a heavy-duty padlock that was so filth encrusted that even with a key it would have been impossible to open.
“Hell’s bells!” scowled Tommy, “Now what are we go’nta do?”
Realising there was little that could be done the boys kept watch at the bow, hardly a word passing between them, as Sarah sat in the wheelhouse once again wondering how they would survive.
Tommy spent most of his time studying his freckle-faced companion; the youngest and latest recruit to his gang. He had taken it upon himself to educate the former ‘townie’ in their provincial ways and had made some headway in that regard. But Jamie had come across as a troubled kid even then, overly preoccupied with his thoughts and with little or nothing at all to say for himself.
Endeavouring to make light of their situation, Tommy quipped, “Is this straight out’v the X-Files or what?”
“It’s worser th’n that.” Jamie gravely replied, “It’s for real, and it’s all my fault. I shouldn’t ‘ve come here.”
Tommy looked askance at him. “What are ya talkin’ about? It was me that brought ya here. If it’s anybody’s fault it’s mine.” he said.
The youngster knew his friend could never understand the dark and personal history he kept from him. How could Tommy, though older than himself, yet still a mere kid, fully comprehend what a team of scientists had failed so miserably to do? Even they were at a loss to fully explain or prevent the strange goings-on at his former home, and now it was happening all over again.
The cold and inexplicable cold spots around the house were just the beginning. Loud raps, footfalls, the sound of slamming doors and breaking crockery became commonplace, despite there being no physical cause for them. Then, on one particular night, he was awoken by the sound of agonising groans coming from outside his bedroom door. Fearful for his recently widowed mother’s well being, he stepped out onto the landing and was met by a sight so appallingly grotesque that at first he thought he was dreaming.
Sprawled between the bathroom and his room lay the dishevelled figure of a white-haired man, his wildly glaring eyes ballooning out of their sockets from a face so savagely deformed with pain that he looked almost inhuman. Gobs of spittle spumed from his mouth in long, glistening threads onto the carpet. One mind numbing seizure after another racked his body as it arched impossibly from the floor, before slumping back and issuing a low, deep-throated gurgle. But for his timely scream, Jamie’s mother might have missed the sickening spectacle of the wretched phantom evanescing into thin air. That night she broke a lifelong vow and allowed her son into her bed.
Throughout the following days things steadily worsened. Angry, disembodied shrieks turned the air blue with their foul outpourings, occasioned by disturbing visions of a shadowy form stealing through the house. Jamie’s mother knew that this thing – whatever it was – wasn’t about to leave them in peace. It was then she determined to seek the aid of professionals.
During their initial investigations, the assigned team of parapsychologists uncovered a disturbing secret concerning the house and one of its former tenants, Jacob Dewberry. His history of mental illness was well known to his beleaguered neighbours, as were his violent outbursts. It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn that following a particularly frenzied flare-up their neighbour had taken to his bathroom and had drunk the poison that ended his unhappy existence. The property had changed hands several times since; yet nothing untoward had ever been reported by any of its tenants. So why, after such a lengthy period, had the apparent earthbound spirit of Jacob Dewberry suddenly chosen to manifest itself?
The abrupt thud of wood on wood shook the youngster from his recollections.
Tommy was looking in the direction of the wheelhouse, fully expecting to see Sarah join them on deck. She didn’t appear. Convinced that she had been the source of the noise he settled back to resume his watch. Seconds later the wheelhouse door burst open.
“What are you two playing at?” Sarah demanded to know. “It isn’t funny tryin’ to scare me like that.”
Jamie’s face blanched. “It wasn’t us!” he gasped, directing their gaze to the face peering at them from behind the porthole of the open cabin door.
Sarah screeched and leapt back in terror, loosing her footing on the wet, cambered decking as the door swung back to reveal the duffel clad presence of the boat’s custodian.
Until then ‘Mad Pedi’ had been nothing more than a name to Jamie. It therefore came as quite a shock to discover he knew her and, more importantly, that she knew him.
Her friendly greeting to him was met with a curt response. Jamie never did quite know how to react to Dr. Martha Pedigrew. Past experience had taught him that though she was kind there was a cold and impersonal side to her nature that frequently surfaced when it came to the dogged pursuit of truth.
“My, my, what an enterprising bunch you are.” she said, helping Sarah to her feet. “It was very clever of you to steal on board during the night. Very clever indeed.”
Tommy’s proud boast, that it had all been his idea fell on deaf ears. She seemed far too interested in their timid friend to give it further consideration.
She studied Jamie intently. “What’s wrong?” she said, “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
He said nothing. “Well, Jamie, have you seen something?”
He shook his head.
Tommy couldn’t believe his eyes. “Ya kiddin’!” he cut in, embarking upon a long-drawn-out and histrionic explanation of what had taken place since their arrival on board.
Her uncovering of the truth filled Jamie with dread. Having to endure her intrusive and exhaustive tests all over again was the last thing he wanted.
That they both knew one another and shared a common secret was as plain as the nose on Sarah Elliot’s face. What intrigued her more, however, was how Martha had gotten on board the boat in the first place.
“Up the ladder of course.” she responded to Sarah’s query. “How else?”
“But there isn’t any ladder. We’re in the middle of the sea!”
“No you’re not.”
A look of relief spread across all three faces.
“And there is a ladder now.” she assured them. “You see, it was I who removed it earlier to prevent you from leaving.”
When asked why she had done such a thing she replied, “All in good time, children. All in good time.”
Tommy looked over the bow rail to confirm what she had said, and his face dropped. “Well it ain’t here now… and by the sound of it, we’re still surrounded by water.” he declared.
An unbelieving Martha investigated and was shocked to discover the boy told the truth. It was impossible to see the water through the thick fog, but she certainly could hear it.
As the principal scientist to head the investigation into the Dewberry haunting, Martha was fully aware of Jamie’s extraordinary abilities. Had they, she now wondered, evolved to include a psychokinetic faculty: a conscious or unconscious ability to impart physical motion to an object and change his surroundings through the power of the mind. Certainly, the ladder could not have just slipped away as she had tied it down to prevent such an occurrence, and she most definitely hadn’t walked on water to do so. Furthermore, her in-depth study of the case had led her to believe that the manifestations were not that of some earth-bound spirit, since all attempts to communicate with it had failed and no interaction between it and them had taken place.
A new and exciting possibility had begun to present itself to her: the ancient and widely held belief system of reincarnation. The transmigration of the soul was an ideology she had become irresistibly drawn to. Had Jamie somehow tapped into a part of Jacob Dewberry’s Akashic Record: a testimony of his earthly life that had become imprinted on the location to be replayed and assessed by him after his death to see how he had advanced or retarded the progress of his soul and others? The fact the phenomena had occurred only when Jamie was present led her to theorise that he was the mechanism through which the ‘replay’ was made possible. He had, in a sense, become a kind of biological projector.
From then on she had worked towards a new and hidden agenda, orchestrating events and using her advantaged position to pursue her own obsessive need. She had succeeded in relocating the family onto her own home ground, arguing that so long as the boy remained where he was the phenomena would continue and his mental state would deteriorate even further.
It had taken a certain amount of clout to achieve her aim – local governmental authorities weren’t exactly sympathetic towards her work – but it had been worth the effort. As she had anticipated, Jamie had branched out to explore his new surroundings. Inevitably his new-found friends and innate curiosity had drawn him to the boat.
“Is the boat haunted?” Sarah asked.
“No it isn’t.” replied Martha. “At least, not in the way you might think.”
Sarah gave a sigh of relief.
In her long and illustrious career the only bogeymen Martha had ever encountered were ignorance and superstition, and nowhere were they more deeply entrenched than in the fertile mind of a child. Disabusing them of their supernatural beliefs, therefore, wasn’t going to be easy, particularly as it would involve revealing Jamie’s secret.
But the youngster had already resigned himself to its revelation, and things had gone too far to turn back now. Reluctantly, he gave Martha permission to tell his story.
Couching it in terms they could best comprehend, Martha recounted the history of Jamie’s extraordinary episodes then sat back, awaiting the flood of questions that would inevitably follow. She wasn’t to be disappointed. All but Jamie chirped in. He had heard it all before and it hadn’t made his life any easier. Knowing there were no such things as honest-to-goodness ghosts hadn’t made his experiences anyway less frightening.
“So you see,” Martha concluded, “ghosts can’t really harm you. They’re no more real than the images on a cinema screen.”
“Yeah, and Jamie can make them happen.” Tommy said, all agog. “Go on, kid,” he urged, “make somethin’ else happen!”
“I can’t make things happen!” he shouted, rising to his feet. “They just happen, whether I want them to or not.” With that he ran from the cabin.
Sarah rose to follow him and offer her comfort, but Martha interceded. “Leave him be for now.” she said, “He needs time to think things through.”
A painful constriction suddenly gripped her chest. She gasped for breath. Her face grew pallid and she was sweating profusely, signs that her diseased heart was undergoing yet another frightening incident. Fumbling in her pockets for her medication, she popped a tiny pill beneath her tongue.
“What’s wrong?” asked Sarah, alarmed by the sudden transformation.
“It’s nothing to fret yourself over.” she reassured her, “I’ll be fine in a minute or two.”
Seeing the old woman in such a condition brought about a sudden change of heart in Sarah. She suddenly felt ashamed of their former treatment of her. The badgering and abusive name calling no longer seemed so funny. She wanted to tell her how sorry she was and would have done so had not Jamie’s ‘screen projector’ fired up again!
Amid the abrupt clamour of a buffeting wind and now labouring marine engines, Martha called out to the children not to be afraid.
Despite her reassurance that they were safe, Sarah threw her arms about the old lady and clung on.
Tommy, on the other hand, was grinning inanely, completely exhilarated by the whole affair, knowing now it wasn’t real.
Martha was immediately struck by the boy’s earlier description of the boat. The constantly shifting imagery was indeed that of the Cormorant as it had been some twenty or more years ago. But one thing remained markedly absent, its continued non-appearance fuelling her need to seek it out. She clambered to her feet, but was instantly thrown to the floor as the boat rocked violently to starboard. It was then she realised that the two images had coalesced. Things had unexpectedly become very real.
Sarah was beside herself with terror. She pleaded for Martha to stay where she was.
Ignoring the teen’s entreaties, and the sickening pain in her chest, Martha rose uncompromisingly to her feet. Nothing was going to prevent her from accomplishing her goal. She was almost within reach of the cabin door when a startling crash from the stern reverberated through the bulkhead. Only then did she remember the frightened and angry child who had run out on them.
Seeing Jamie, soaked to the skin and ashen faced, should have brought home to her the alarming consequences of her actions, but she was far too close to the truth to let compassion stand in her way. The boy had seen something they hadn’t and it had taken him to the brink of nervous collapse. On a still heaving deck, and with cold, clinical detachment, she set about interrogating him.
Tommy had never liked Martha Pedigrew and the old crone’s relentless badgering of his friend was doing little to remedy his scorn. Finally he snapped, his outrage erupting into open hostility. Hauling Jamie to his side, he warned her to leave them be, if she knew what was good for her.
She threw him a withering glance and made a grab for Jamie, but his companions closed ranks; an uneasy standoff that Jamie himself broke.
“I saw a man, Tommy!” he cried, vying to be heard above the raging tempest. “He was dressed in oilskins and one of them floppy sailors’ hats.”
“Where? Where did you see him?” Martha barked, “Tell me!”
“There!” he said, pointing to the hatch. “He was climbing down into the hold when the boat rocked. The lid fell down onto his head and I never seen him after that.”
“His face. Did you see it? This is important, Jamie. Try and remember.”
“No, Doctor Pedigrew, I didn’t.”
She took hold of his arm and shook him. “You must have. He was only feet from you. You’re lying!”
“You’re hurtin’ me. Let go!”
“Not until you tell me the truth.”
“I have!” he insisted. “His hat was coverin’ his face. That‘s why I couldn‘t see it.”
Martha released her grip, mortified by her ill-treatment of a child who had already suffered enough traumas in his short life. She knew that the death of his father had acted as a catalyst for his abilities, as it had for others who had experienced sudden traumatic events. She suspected, too, that powerful, negative emotions played their part in setting free the boy’s latent ability to unlock the past. In fact, she might never have witnessed the latest and most impressive manifestation had it not been for his thoughtless friend angering him earlier.
The wheelhouse now stood between them and the hatchway, obscuring from view the spectral figure emerging from its inky blackness. Only the dull thud of the hatch cover dropping carelessly against the deck alerted them to its presence.
With bated breath they watched and waited, clinging desperately to the bow rail least they be washed overboard.
From behind the bulkhead crawled a bedraggled figure. An unruly shock of bloodied hair spilled out from beneath his sou’ester. He struggled gallantly against the elements, trying to regain his footing on the pitching deck. The side rail was within reach and he grasped it in both hands. Hauling himself erect, he staggered forward, pain etched across his weather-beaten face.
Sarah turned away from the distressing spectacle. But Jamie’s attention was now on Martha who, on seeing the apparition, had clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes filled with horror and recognition.
‘Matthew!’ That was the name Jamie had heard escape Martha’s lips; the name he unintentionally now spoke aloud.
Martha’s head snapped round at the mention of it. “Please, Jamie,” she begged, “Stop this now.” But in her heart of hearts Martha knew there was nothing the boy could do as they watched the luckless soul struggle against his fate.
Matthew drew nearer; one pace, then another before finally coming to a halt. Dragging his sou’ester painfully from his head, he looked heavenwards. “I’m done for, Martha. Forgive me.” he wept, as he sank to his knees.
Despite her awareness that he was little more than an ephemeral echo of a time long passed and could never return to her as she had known him, Martha reached out to him, willing him on. He was less than eight feet from her when a towering wall of water crashed over the deck.
Martha and the children raised their arms defensively, fully expecting to be washed overboard. Then, all fell eerily calm.
Sarah peeked warily out from behind her arms. “It’s over!” she cried.
Martha looked up. Matthew was gone. She ran to the rail and called out to him, but to no avail.
A sympathetic arm wrapped around her waist and she looked down to see a tearful Sarah looking up at her. “He’s gone, Mrs Pedigrew.”
She pulled her close to her side. “I never got to say goodbye to him. Every time he put out to sea I would tell him how much I loved him, but on that last day we’d argued. I had a feeling something was going to happen, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Mam calls dad ‘bull-headed’ when he gets like that.”
She smiled down at her. “ Fishing was his livelihood. ‘I trust in God, my crew, and the shipping forecast.’ he used to say.”
“What happened to the others?”
“They died, too. The sea eventually gave them up, but Matthew was never found. The Cormorant is the closest link I have to him. I couldn’t part with it. When I met Jamie everything seemed to fall into place. Maybe there was a way to see him one last time.”
Tommy was leaning over the side rail, peering down into the attenuating mist. His exultant cry brought Jamie to his side. Nestled in the sodden grass at the foot of the keel lay the ladder. Before anyone could do anything to stop him he had clambered over the rail and dropped from sight.
As they hurriedly disembarked and made their way across the field, distancing themselves from the boat and its lone occupant, Jamie gave a backwards glance. Through the clearing fog appeared a pinpoint of light. Flickering tongues of flame sprouted up hungrily consuming the age-old timbers. Beside the flaming hull and caught in its glow was Martha Pedigrew, her careworn figure slowly turning and vanishing into the darkness.
Jamie called out, “Look, Tommy! She’s set fire to it! Why would she do that?”
“Cos she’s barmy, that’s why.”
Sarah turned to Tommy. “She isn’t ‘barmy’! It’s like one of them Viking funerals they told us about at school. She’s sendin’ his soul off to Valhalla.”
“Whatever!” he replied, “But I still think she’s barmy.”
“Men!” Sarah bemoaned.
Death came to Martha in the twilight of her bedroom and in those last moments of mortality the hidden memories of immeasurable lifetimes began to surface. The familiar souls she had encountered in this life she now realised she had always known, in one guise or another. Like birds of passage they had journeyed with her from the beginning of time, each an integral link in the chain of causality that bound them together. They were souls forged by earthly deeds, their acts, good or bad, determining the circumstances of their collective incarnations.
Death and rebirth, she now understood, were not so predetermined as to entirely exclude the influence of the human will upon them. Matthew’s stubbornness had not only brought about his own demise, but had also altered the chronology of her’s. She had become a troubled soul, unable to rest.
But where was Matthew now? What new persona had he adopted in order to expunge the guilt of his former life?
For the first time since his troubles began, Jamie awoke from the deepest slumber he had ever known to an uncommon feeling of contentment. Though he could not for the life of him understand why, he felt as though a heavy burden had been lifted from his troubled shoulders.
© David Calvert 2011