BIRDS OF PASSAGE
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
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