Not One of the Herd

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My entry for the 2016 Pitlochry Festival Theatre Winter Words Festival ‘Fearie Tales’ competition – unsuccessful, alas, for a second year! My early success (here and here)seems a distant memory – but judge for yourself:

‘So, Reverend Sheila, does the Devil go about like a roaring lion, as the good book says, seeking whom he may devour?’

‘I believe it’s actually the lionesses who hunt, and it’s pretty stealthy work – not much roaring involved. It’s only the ones on the edge of the herd – the weak and vulnerable that can’t keep up – who fall victim; tough luck for them, of course, but good for the lion, and good for the herd too, I suppose. I wonder if the others even notice. Perhaps if you surveyed wildebeest about their belief in lions, you’d get the same sort of answers people give about believing in demons – that it’s the sort of thing parents tell their children to keep them from straying – ‘don’t wander off or the lions will get you’ – but not something any self-respecting twenty-first century wildebeest could believe, grazing peacefully with ten thousand of his fellows.’

‘It sounds to me as if your sympathies are with the lions – and the (uh!) demons!’

‘I only meant that if there are such things, they must have their place in the order of creation, just as lions do. Perhaps it is their job to single out and deal with the souls that the herd would be better off without.’

‘I have a feeling that one might be directed at you, Mr Jowell.’

‘Because I’m a successful businessman – sorry, a ‘ruthless capitalist’ – you mean? That’s just the sort of Marxist-feminist claptrap and New Age nonsense I’ve come to expect from the clergy these days. With all due respect to the Reverend Sheila, I am not a wildebeest – in fact, if I can say so without sounding arrogant, I’ve never considered myself to be one of the herd.’

‘And on that note, we must end our discussion for tonight, ‘Ghaisties and Ghoulies in the Twenty-first Century’. My name is Tam McLinn and you’ve been listening to the Highland Heartland Radio Hour – Good night!’

The Reverend Sheila McCabe, a local woman, was glad to stay behind and share the hospitality offered by her hosts – not for nothing did they style themselves ‘the little station with the big heart’. Mr Jowell, however, excused himself, saying that he had to get back to the city, by which he meant Edinburgh, the centre of his extensive business operations.

To tell the truth, he felt that he had rather wasted his time – he had been in town for an earlier meeting and had found himself on the radio programme through some whim of his Personal Assistant’s, who had thought it would be good publicity; he would have to speak to her about that: he doubted if the total audience for the programme ran to double figures.

To add to his annoyance, he realised that he had not paid sufficient attention to where he had left his car: only when he was out in the radio-station’s unlit car-park – which was commensurate in scale with its importance, having spaces for some half-a-dozen vehicles (only one of which was occupied) did he recall that he had in fact walked there from his earlier meeting; his car must still be in town.

But that brought a further problem – or challenge, he corrected himself, automatically. Where, exactly, was here? This was not the angle from which had approached the radio station, small as it was, and now, in the dark, it seemed wholly unfamiliar. The car park was bounded on two sides by trees; beyond them, he thought he heard the sound of water running. He recollected vaguely that a river ran through the town, but not centrally, more as a boundary on one side, though there were buildings on the opposite bank; but the bulk of the town, he felt sure, was on this side, so his car must be somewhere hereabouts.

Walking determinedy – it had begun to rain, an annoying cold smirr that a cold wind drove into his face – he made his way round the angle of the building onto what should be the front; his recollection was that he had walked some distance uphill to get there, which had made him rather hot. No danger of that now, he thought, drawing his coat closer about him.

McCracken’s Bakery! That had been the name of the premises across the road from where he had the meeting; he remembered noticing it out the window, and wondering briefly if the proprietor might be someone of the same name he had known at school. So all he had to do was find the main street (where the bakery was bound to be, since it was not a town of any size) and his car should be there. Heartened by this recollection, he pressed on.

It annoyed him that he should have forgotten where exactly he left his car: it made him feel inept, even helpless, which was not at all the way he was accustomed to see himself. He began to realise that, for all he made fun of it, the experience of being live on radio had affected him rather more than he cared to admit. He could recall clearly what he had been thinking about on the way to the radio station – much as he would with any business meeting, he had rehearsed possible lines of argument, trying to anticipate any traps he might blunder into, though the novelty of the situation had given it an added edge; what he had paid little heed to, however, were his surroundings, which now in the darkness were even less familiar.

In the absence of any other guide, he stuck to his notion of going downhill, keeping his eye open for anything at all that might trigger a memory, but instead he only noticed how strange and old-fashioned the buildings seemed, with their tiny windows and little doors, often below the level of the street, as if they had been there so long that the town had risen like a tide about them; and those curious gargoyles, more like something you would see in France than Scotland: surely, if he had come this way before, he would have noticed them? But of course he had been preoccupied, he told himself.

At length he emerged into a sort of square, or rather oblong, of a kind that is typical of many Scots towns, with a Tron at one end and an area given over to flowerbeds and parking in the middle, with a roadway on either side and shops giving onto it. In the old days, it would be where the market was held; and the Tron – really the public weights-and-measures office – would have doubled as Town-house and jail; nowadays, it was most likely the Tourist Information Office.

The only trouble was that he had no memory of having seen such a square when he was here earlier – yet surely his meeting had been in the town centre? He looked in vain for McCracken the Baker’s, gazing all around, peering in the poor light (the feebleness of the street lamps was worsened by a thin veil of mist creeping in from the river). He reflected how empty of life the whole place seemed, already shut up for the night; it had an unreal quality, like a stage-set. He was brought up short by the realisation that he was not alone: from within the shadow of the Tron, two indistinct figures were watching him. Doubtless it was a trick of the light, but they seemed oddly-proportioned, curiously tall and spindly.

He had a sudden vision of himself as he must appear to them, an evident stranger gawping about him, with no notion of where he was; he might as well be holding a placard proclaiming ‘I am lost’. Feeling embarrassed – and, if he was honest, somewhat vulnerable – he strode decisively and with an air of purpose towards the nearest opening at the side of the square.

However, no sooner had he reached it than some trick of the acoustic filled the street with the noise of rushing water; he must be heading towards the river. That, he was sure, was not the way he wanted to go, but he was reluctant to turn back directly and expose his indecisiveness again to the watchers by the Tron. Instead, he continued down towards the water’s edge, reasoning that he could make a succession of right turns and find the square once more; he was now convinced that his meeting of earlier in the day had been somewhere on the far side of it.

When he reached the riverside path he was surprised by the nearness of the water: it came high up the bank and flowed at great speed, with that ominous smoothness of surface that rivers in spate can have. Had it been raining while he was in the studio? He was nearly sure that it had been dry as he walked up from his meeting. Still, this was steep country, he told himself: it would not take long for a cloudburst in the hills to show its effects here.

After walking further than he thought he would have to, he came in sight of a bridge across the river, an elegant wrought-iron affair painted white, probably Victorian; the water was well up the slender columns that supported it, only a foot or so below the walkway. What troubled him was that he recognised it: of all the things he had seen, it was the first that was at all familiar – had he not, in fact, crossed it at some point? – yet he felt sure his meeting had been on this side of the river.

Determined to pursue this conviction, he turned right, taking the road that led away from the bridge to what should be the Tron square, but again he found himself walking further than he expected. Surely he should be on the square by now? But at least the surroundings were familiar – he felt a growing certainty that he had come this way before; why, there was that little cobbler’s shop with a boot hung outside which had caught his attention earlier and made him wonder what sort of trade a cobbler could do in this day and age in a little town like this.

He had overshot the square by now, he felt sure, so he took the next right, and reckoned he was now running parallel to it on the other side, and to his relief it was a broad street of the sort where many businesses might be housed; and there about half-way down was a sign with a wheatsheaf – had he noticed that before? what an old fashioned place this was! He almost hurried towards it, and found to his delight that the sign on the shopfront said McCracken’s bakery. Delight was no exaggeration: he laughed aloud, and turning, was pleased to spot the premises where his meeting had been earlier. He was surprised at his own elation: he had not realised quite how anxious he had become about the whole thing.

But where was his car?

His first thought – his immediate thought – was that it had been stolen, and he felt a sudden surge of anger and reached for his phone, wondering whether he should report it to the police first or use an App to try and find the nearest acceptable hotel. Then a wave of doubt swept over him: he was not in Edinburgh, where the theft of a large and powerful car like his might happen; this was a douce Scots market town, little more than a village really, already shut down for the night – hardly the happy hunting ground of the opportunist car thief; a car like his would stick out a mile, and besides, it was rated among the most secure on the market.

Then he remembered: of course, he had arrived earlier than he thought, and had actually parked on the far side of the river, which was nearer the main road, thinking to stretch his legs and catch a breath of fresh air before his meeting: it had been a pleasant sunny morning. His smart-phone had assured him of the location of his meeting, but what he had not allowed for was the fact that, by the time it was done, it was easier to walk the short distance to the radio station than go all the way back to the car-park and find his way from there.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness – I’m getting old, he thought, I can’t keep up – he headed down a side street and back to the Tron Square. Here he was surprised to find a bus, brightly lit and laden with passengers – the last of the drinkers, he supposed, or whatever else passed for entertainment here. It was in the act of departing and even as he watched, the last few revellers squeezed boisterously aboard, the door slid shut, and it rumbled off. The revelation that there were others here beside himself but that now they were going away left him feeling strangely bereft: he wished he could have been among the colourful press of humanity squeezed onto the brightly-lit bus, amid a clamour of overloud voices and an atmosphere of alcohol-laden breath, instead of alone in this deserted square.

Or not quite deserted: a glance across to the side street he had taken earlier, now filled up with river-mist, showed the elongated silhouettes of two figures, back-lit by a streetlight. Of course he had no reason (apart from their odd proportions, doubtless an effect of the mist-diffused light) to suppose them the same as he had seen earlier, lurking in the shadow of the Tron, and even if they were, no reason to think ill of them, but all the same he headed round the flank of the Tron building (which was indeed, as he now saw, the Tourist Information Office) and sought a lane which he hoped would take him back to the road he had followed up from the Victorian bridge.

His surmise was correct: he saw the cobbler’s shop with relief, and set off down towards the river, aware of a mounting anxiety as he approached the bridge. What did he fear? that it might be shut? surely the water could not have risen so much in so short a time? But no, the bridge was open and empty. He quickened his pace towards it.

As he passed onto it he did not look directly but registered out of the corner of his eye two figures approaching along the riverside path to his left; with a fear he could not account for, he hastened his step till it was almost a jog; he found himself searching his pocket for his keys. There they were! he took them out and held them ready. As he neared the end of the bridge, a change in the vibration underfoot told him that someone had stepped onto it behind him. He did not look back, but strode up the deep lane with ivied banks on each side and overhung with dripping trees.

The car park entrance was near here, surely? he could not have missed it. With rising panic, he hurried on. Then, much to his relief, he sensed rather than saw an opening to his left and plunging through it, found himself in a slick-shining tarmac space occupied by a solitary car – his own. With an anxious laugh, he pointed his key-fob and clicked: to see the lights flash on in response was like being greeted by an old friend.

In a moment, he was inside, surrounded by the luxury of walnut and leather, strapping on his seatbelt, turning the key in the lock and pressing the starter button. The engine gave a muted snarl and he sprang away with a squeal of tyres and a spray of water, but by the time he had reached the exit he was laughing at himself. A glance in his mirror told him that the car park was as empty as before; his fancied pursuers had been no more than a pair of late-night friends going home, most likely a courting couple.

He swung the car out into the road, surprisingly relieved and light of heart: he told himself that he was getting past the age for late-night travelling. The powerful beams picked up the road ahead as he swept along; he turned on the radio, but could not get reception, so switched to the CD player. It had been an interesting day, he conceded, but not one he would like to repeat: he no longer felt equal to the demands of going to strange places; he preferred to stick with what was familiar. And that woman minister with her absurd talk of lions and wildebeest! It had unsettled him more than he cared to admit.

It was some time before he glanced at the mileometer (he always made a point of checking how far he had travelled, to claim it as an expense). He saw to his surprise that he had already gone much further than should have been necessary to reach the main road; somehow, though he could not account for it, he must have missed his turn. Looking ahead, he saw that the road had narrowed: indeed, it seemed little more than a track. He slowed down. He would have to find somewhere to turn: he had clearly come the wrong way, and was now in the middle of nowhere without the least idea of how he got there.

Then he looked in the mirror, and saw the lights of a car coming swiftly up behind.
FINIS

The Golfer’s Tale

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Our clubhouse has to be one of the finest in Scotland, even if our course is not as well-known as some – it’s a bit out of the way, so we’ve never had any of the big tournaments here, which is a pity, because it would look well on television – ‘atmospheric’ is a word that is used a lot, especially at this time of year, when you get the first indications that this is no longer late Summer, it’s definitely early Autumn – a touch of frost in the mornings, brilliant splashes of colour in the trees – how they stand out, side-lit by the low angle of the sun! – and those scarves of mist as you make your way home on the back nine and begin to wonder if there’ll be light enough to finish your game. And, as I said, the clubhouse, which exudes oak-panelled comfort.

On this particular evening we had a guest. He was in a funny sort of mood, somewhere between exasperation and amusement, and he was holding court with whoever would listen, which included most of the usual suspects, though I could see a small group keeping themselves to themselves over in the alcove.

‘I suppose you fellows know Hamish Endicott?’ said the guest, whose name was Ralph.

We acknowledged that we did indeed know Hamish, who is one of our leading lights.

‘I see he isn’t here yet,’ said Ralph, looking around, ‘which rather confirms my suspicions that you are the victims in this as much as I am. I don’t suppose he’s concealed about the premises?’

He made a mock search under the table and behind his chair.

‘Hamish and I go back a long way,’ he informed us, resuming his seat,  ‘which maybe entitles him to take something of a liberty. I’m not sure I’d put up with it from anyone else, but coming from Hamish – well, there’s something of the artist about old Hamish.’

We expressed some surprise at this revelation of our friend’s character: artistry is not something we had accounted among his accomplishments.

‘Now, I’m not saying I’m smart enough to have tumbled to it from the start,’ Ralph went on, ‘but I think I can piece it together pretty well now – and as I say, sore as I might be on a personal level, I still have to admire the artistry of it.’

At this point Sandy, who likes to be clear about things, interjected in his mild tone,

‘Do you think it might help if you gave us some idea what you’re talking about?’

The man fixed Sandy with a beady eye, as if he suspected him of being ironic, then decided that with a face like that he must be one of nature’s innocents.

‘What I see now,’ he continued, ‘- and what makes me realise how well-planned all this was – is that the first move was made last night. You know, I’m sometimes accused of lacking refinement, but let me tell you, I can appreciate artistry as well as the next man. Subtlety, that’s the thing – nothing too blatant, nothing obvious. O no. Just the slightest hint, dropped like a seed to bear fruit later.’

He took a sip of his malt and glared round the company, but seeing we were all still in the dark, went on.

‘Last night, Hamish fetches me from the station and on the way to his place he suggests we play a round next day – of course he’s seen I have my clubs and knows I’m a keen golfer. “You’ll like our course,” he tells me. “It’s one of the oldest in Scotland – tremendous scenery; very atmospheric. Said to be haunted.”’

At this, light began to dawn on the assembled company. Old Paul, the Hon. Sec., looked disapproving – he’s a great one for the reputation of the club, so maybe he took a dim view of that kind of talk, but the rest of us liked it well enough – heads were nodded sagely, looks and smiles exchanged.

‘Naturally enough,’ Ralph continued, ‘I ask him what the story is – but here’s the master-stroke: he says he doesn’t know! He knows of it, but has never actually heard it himself – maybe we’ll be able to get one of the older members to tell us in the clubhouse over a beer – or even a glass of malt!’

He held his up; we toasted one another, not for the first time. I saw Sandy signal discreetly to the barman – a tale of that sort needs lubrication. Old Paul continued to look as if he’d swallowed a wasp. Ralph was in full expository mode.

‘That’s what you might call the set-up, or planting the seed. Our aim is to play a round next morning then have lunch to reflect on it, but suddenly Hamish ‘recollects’ that he has some business to attend to, so why don’t we play in the afternoon instead?’

He looked round us all again, a bit like a teacher checking the class is attending.

‘Now that,’ he emphasised with a stab of the finger,is what I’d call setting the stage or preparing the ground.  Instead of the bright morning, we’ll be going out in the afternoon, with the old course doubtless looking at its most ‘atmospheric’ and the light beginning to fade just when we’re furthest from the clubhouse and it all starts to feel a bit lonely…’

There were more nods of appreciation at this, and I have to admit our visitor had a point. The configuration of our course is rather odd – it’s pretty well triangular with an area of old woodland in the middle, a relic of the Caledonian Pine Forest. The first six holes are homely enough – the clubhouse is visible all the way if you glance back, while over to the right you can see the tail of the town and the road: reassuring evidence of civilisation. But then you make a sharp left into the middle six, and the terrain changes abruptly – there’s nothing but moorland between you and the mountains, and there’s a real sense of remoteness, of being on the edge of the wilderness. At the end of that stretch you have to cut through the woods to pick up the home six, which is the most ‘atmospheric’ part of the course, winding as it does through what we call the Fairy Glen, with low hillocks shouldering in on either side.

At this point, the barman reappeared bearing a fresh tray of drinks and I saw Sandy negotiating reinforcements in due course. Ralph continued,

‘The plot, as they say, thickens. Arriving at the clubhouse today, I’m met by the steward, very apologetic, who tells me Hamish can’t make it, he’s been held up, and please will I have a good lunch at his expense and he’ll see me on the first tee? Well, that’s too bad, I think, but at least the lunch is excellent. Of course I hang around afterwards expecting Hamish to appear so by the time I’m out on the course it’s already deep into the afternoon and I am not in the best of moods.’

Again he gave us a raking glare, and sipped his whisky before he went on.

‘There I am, all on my lonesome – instead of a companionable round with an old friend, indulging in the usual wide-ranging erudite discussion between shots, I have a solitary trudge into the gathering gloom on an unfamiliar course, already thinking the worst of the world. The first few holes are about getting it out of my system, and by the third I’ve pretty well expended all my abusive vocabulary on the subject of so-called friends who fail to fulfil their golfing commitments and I notice I’ve actually made my best start to a round in a long time, probably because I’ve been concentrating on abusing Hamish and not worrying about my game as I usually do.’

This brought nods of recognition and murmurs of agreement, which threatened to digress into general golf-talk, but Ralph kept a firm hand on the tiller and soon steered us back.

‘So now I’ve cheered up a little and I reflect that I’m the the lucky one, enjoying a nice round of golf while poor Hamish is tied to a desk or whatever he’s up to. You know how it is – you get absorbed and for a time you’re ‘in the zone’ – not thinking about anything, really, just playing. So you don’t notice at first how the atmosphere of the place has begun to seep into your bones. Then you look around and for the first time it strikes you just how lonely it is – you wonder if you’re the only person out on the course, though you think you glimpse somebody up ahead, just slipping out of sight. It’s then that the seed that was planted the night before begins to sprout – I mean about the place being haunted.’

There was a pause, and we all sipped our drinks, picturing ourselves out on the lonely middle six. Ralph went on,

‘By the time you reach the twelfth green, you’ve begun to wonder if the light will hold out and whether perhaps you wouldn’t be wiser to call it a day and head back to the clubhouse. Then it occurs to you that the next hole is the thirteenth and if any golf course has a haunted hole, that would be the one…  and you realise that you can’t possibly turn back to the clubhouse now  – “and where did you say the light began to get bad? just before the thirteenth? O, I see!”  – so you follow the finger post that points to the wood and as soon as you step in among the trees it’s evening and a curtain of silence descends…’

Here there was another pause, as he raked us with a sceptical gaze.

‘It was in the wood that I first began to piece it together – I mean what old Hamish had been up to, with his casual mention of haunting and his missing lunch and sending me out alone on the course into the failing light…  so when I emerged from the trees, I was already expecting something to happen. And of course the first thing I see is that dark pool – what do you call it? – the lochan with its layer of mist… and I think, all this needs now is for me to turn round and there waiting on the thirteenth tee will be a mysterious figure…’

Another pause; drinks were sipped all round, except by Old Paul, I noticed, who hadn’t touched his, and looked very white and strained. Ralph gave us a steady  stare, with just the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

‘So I turn and there he is!’

He set down his glass with a crack. We all jumped.

‘I don’t mind telling you, that gave me a start!’ Ralph said with a smile. ‘Why I didn’t notice him right away I couldn’t say – young chap, no more than a boy, really, very thin and pale – the sort that looks in need of a good feed, as my old mother used to say. His eyes are fixed, not on me, but on something over my shoulder. He lifts his arm and points; “look!” he says. Behind me, the sun is shining directly down the little glen – its rays catch the blanket of mist on the lochan and kindle it to golden, dazzling light. It’s beautiful.’

He sipped his whisky, a rapt look on his face, remembering the sight. He looked round everyone, very slowly, the same slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. He had called Hamish an artist, but he knew a few tricks himself.

‘I can see you’re ahead of me,’ he said. ‘I look round with the dazzle in my eyes and the young man is nowhere to be seen, leaving me alone in the twilight with an eerie feeling.’

He paused to let this sink in, savouring the look on everyone’s face – which in most cases was pitched between scepticism and wonder, apart from Old Paul, who seemed almost happy for the first time. Then Ralph gave a sudden shout of laughter and slapped his knee.

‘Your faces!’ he exclaimed, ‘Priceless!  Come on, chaps –  haven’t you ever seen a scary movie? When they climb the dark winding stair and come to the door at the top and they pause for a moment, then one of them opens it slowly and –  BANG! something jumps out – we all jump too, but that’s never the monster, it’s just a jack-in-the box or a tailor’s dummy that someone’s left behind the door for some reason – the art of anti-climax, you see, to relieve the tension so you can start to build it again. I told you at the start, this is an artist we’re dealing with.  Of course the young man is still there! He has his ball teed up and his driver in his hands, so naturally I suggest that we go on and finish the round together. “I’d like that,” says he. “To tell the truth, I’d be glad of the company – it gets a bit…  lonely out here” I notice the hesitation, as if he was about to say something else, but changed his mind.’

He paused to sip his drink and give the audience another once-over.

‘The young fellow stands for a bit and shows no sign of starting to play – it’s as if he’s waiting for something; he has that distracted look, like he’s counting in his head. Eventually I say, “Are you actually going to hit that ball, or just stand all day looking at it? It’s your honour, you know.”  That stirs him: he looks down the fairway, then says “There’s a dog-leg here – you can’t see the green, but It should be all right now.”  While I’m still trying to work out what he means by that, he hits a pretty fair drive, smack down the middle and a good distance. That puts me on my mettle and I do the same and go striding off after it, but I have to pause to wait for the young fellow to come up – he seems to take forever to gather his gear. Just my luck, I tell myself – when I do get myself a partner, he turns out to be a real slowcoach.’

The barman arrived with Sandy’s reinforcements on a tray. We helped ourselves, and Ralph continued.

‘When at last he does come up and we move on together, I ask what he meant by being “glad of the company” – I’ve begun to suspect where this is leading, you see. He takes a while to answer, then says, “You’ll probably think me foolish. But there’s actually a story about this golf course.” “O, really?” I say, all innocence, “what is it?” Again, he takes a while to answer.  “The story I heard is that you come up on someone – sometimes a solitary figure, sometimes a foursome. It – or they – wave you to come through, or invite you to join them – only you mustn’t do that.” “Why not?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know – something terrible happens, I suppose.” We walk on for a bit while I think about that. It’s not much of a story, but that’s the clever bit. “That makes sense,” I say, “because I suppose the only people who ever tell the story are the ones who’ve declined the invitation.” By this time we’ve reached our balls and for the first time, we can see the thirteenth green.’

He took another sip of his whisky.

‘The green is some distance away and there’s a party of four already on it. As soon as they see us, one of them makes a beckoning gesture, inviting us to come on. I’m just about to signal back when the young man puts his hand on my arm. “Don’t!” he says.  Seeing us hesitate, the man who beckoned repeats his gesture, and another joins in. Maybe it’s just the way the light falls at that time of evening, but I have to admit there’s something ominous about it, that group of figures in the dusk, still as statues, two with their arms raised, summoning us. And the young fellow seems genuinely spooked. So I cross my hands and make a sort of negative gesture, like this, shaking my head at the same time. All the same, I can’t quite believe what I’ve got myself into. “I hope we’re not going to have to do this all the way back to the clubhouse,” I say to the young fellow. “No,” he assures me, “That’s it now. We won’t be troubled again.” All the same, I have to admit, I was a bit of a slowcoach myself when it came to playing that hole, and I was more relieved than I cared to admit when we reached the next tee and there was no-one else in sight. Where could they have gone, I wonder?’

He smiled round at all of us.

“I have to hand it to old Hamish, as a piece of theatre it could not have been better managed. I hope he slipped a couple of tens to the young fellow, because he certainly earned them. He must have been waiting around long enough for me to put in my appearance, and he certainly played his part to the hilt – never once let his mask slip, right up to the last hole – which I won, by the way. I asked him in for a drink – I reckon he deserved it – but he just shook my hand and said “I’ll see you soon.” As for the phantom foursome, I suppose they’re pals of Hamish, and if my eyes don’t deceive me they’ve been keeping themselves to themselves at that table over there in the alcove.’

He stood up and set down his glass.

‘All in all, a very nice piece of work. But now I need you to point me in the direction of the facilities.’

Just as he was disappearing towards the gents, one of the party who had been seated at the alcove came over on his way to the bar.

‘Who’s the visitor?’ he asked.

We explained that he was a friend of Hamish’s.

‘Is he all right in the head, do you think?’ the man asked.

‘He seems sane enough to me,’ said Sandy. ‘He certainly knows how to spin a yarn! Why do you ask?’

‘It’s just that we waved him through at the thirteenth,  but he point blank refused to come on –’

‘Well, there’s a reason for that,’ laughed Sandy. ‘You should ask him yourself when he comes back from the gents.’

‘I’d like to hear it,’ said the man, ‘because it made no sense to us – you know how quickly the light goes at this time of year; we’d already decided to pack it in and head for the clubhouse, so we thought it only manners to ask him to join us – but he seemed determined to carry on by himself.’

‘By himself ? He was…  on his own ?’

‘That’s why we asked him to join us. Though he was behaving a bit oddly – waving his arms about, gesticulating – as if he was talking to someone. I wondered if maybe he was on one of those hands-free phones.’

We looked at one another in silence.

‘I’m sure he’ll be back in a minute,’ said Sandy.

Old Paul shook his head.

FIN

 (This is a slightly-revised version of the story read by Dougal Lee at Pitlochry Theatre 0n 21 February 2014 as one of the ‘Fearie Tales’ series that forms part of their excellent Winter Words Festival. Below, there is a commentary on the origin of the tale and why I felt the need to modify it:)

My niece, Carrie Shannon, is a shrewd business woman. One day in Dundee we were discussing my writing and I mentioned that I had a few things on hand, including a Fearie Tale for Pitlochry, which I hadn’t started yet. I’d enjoyed success the year before with my story An Each Uisge The Water Horse) ‘Why don’t you do something about the Ryder Cup?’ she said, having a good sense of what’s current – the Ryder Cup is at Gleneagles this year, and Perthshire is making a big thing of it.

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Golf courses feature in a few ghost stories, notably M R James’s ‘O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad‘ and there is another – whose title eludes me – that is set on a golf course (with a neolithic barrow on it, if I recall). This is no surprise: golf-courses (like the one in my story) can be ‘atmospheric’ – they are surreal, managed landscapes (am I alone in finding wide expanses of close-mown grass disquieting?) and offer great potential for metaphor with their civilised fairways hemmed in by wild rough into which the unwary can easily stray. They are also places (like waiting rooms and public transport) where the mind wanders and musing is done, and that too makes them good starting points for ghost stories.

So I wrote the story, rather hastily, as the deadline was close and I had other things pressing me. I should say that the essence of the Fearie Tale is that it is read aloud, in the bar area at Pitlochry Theatre, by two fine actors, Dougal Lee and Helen Logan. Now, there are subtle differences between a story as it appears on the page and as it is heard by an audience; for instance, the visual cues afforded by the printed page – paragraph breaks and the layout of speech – are lost, so that something which is clear in reading can be lost to the ear.

Though Dougal did his usual excellent job, it struck me in listening to my story that there were things that might have been better – in particular, I felt that at times the transition from one speaker to another was not signposted well enough. Reflecting on this afterwards, I concluded that the fault stemmed chiefly from the decision I had made to cast the whole of the story in the present tense.

Ironically, I had done this because the tale was to be read aloud, hoping to lend it immediacy – the situation on the Theatre Bar, I reasoned, closely mirrored that of the clubhouse, where the tale was set. It was only in thinking more deeply on it that I saw that this analysis was flawed – for all its apparent simplicity, the time scheme of this story is actually quite complex. There are three distinct time zones: there is a present in which the narrator of the tale speaks directly to reader; there is a past in which Ralph recounts his tale in the clubhouse; and there is a second past in which Ralph’s tale takes place, out on the course.

In casting the whole tale in the present I had blurred the distinction between these zones in a way that was only apparent once the tale was read aloud: on the page, I think it worked well enough. In addition, I realised that my preferred layout of direct speech (modelled after James Joyce’s) works better for the eye than for the ear. The Joycean method drops all the clumsy paraphernalia of inverted commas and introduces speech by an inset dash, with a comma or full stop to mark the end, and a new line, with similar dash, for a new speaker:

– History, said Stephen, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

– Is that so?

The attraction of this, for me, is twofold: it does away with the clutter of speech marks, and it also makes it easier to dispense with insertions like ‘he said’ ‘she replied’ and so on, which I have always found intrusive in dialogue, which ideally should consist of the words actually spoken and nothing else. On the page, if there are only two speakers, it is generally easy enough to follow who says what; however, it is in reading aloud that these signposts come into their own, a point I had neglected.

In the version of the story that appears above, I hope I have remedied these faults: I have given the narrator two tenses – the present where he speaks direct to the reader, as in his introduction at the start and his description of the course later on, as well as some remarks he makes in passing about the various characters, such as Sandy. The rest of the time, his narrative is couched in the past tense. Ralph, however, speaks always in the present, both when he is speaking directly to his audience (as at the start when he asks if they know Hamish) and when he is recounting the tale of what happened on the course – which might have been put in the past, but I wanted to keep his voice as distinct as possible from the narrator’s, so that the transitions which had struck me as blurred in the original version would be clear. In addition, I have inserted more ‘signposts’ of the ‘he said’ ‘Ralph continued’ sort, to make clear who is speaking at any given time. I hope I have succeeded.

A second slight change is to the ending. As my brother James pointed out to me, there is something of a loose end in the matter of the ominous foursome that they see on the thirteenth green; what becomes of them? Of course you can argue that since they are supposed to be ghosts it is all right for them to disappear, but there are two things wrong with that.

The first is that ghost stories should always leave room for an alternative explanation, or at least for doubt, because in essence they are trying to persuade us to believe something incredible: we may want to believe it – or at least entertain the possibility – but if we are confronted directly and asked to give our positive assent to the existence of ghosts and suchlike, most of us, I think, will shake our heads, however regretfully. (That is why it is always a mistake to show the ghost or monster or demon for anything longer than the merest glimpse: to confront it squarely is to reject it – disbelief cannot be suspended so long). Suggestion is always much more effective; the best ghost stories work around the margins of possibility – you are ninety-five per cent certain that this tarred post in the middle of the field must always have been a tarred post, but it is the five-percent doubt that perhaps it was something else a moment before that disquiets you

[for the source of that particular illustration, see here , one of M R James’s unfinished stories]

The second thing that is wrong, of course, is that the foursome in the story are not ghosts after all – so what did become of them? as I originally envisaged the story, the contact with them was going to be more sustained – perhaps they would glimpse them at the thirteenth, and close in on them gradually, with mounting tension, till at some later point – perhaps the seventeenth – the invitation to join them (or ‘play through’) is extended and declined. However, I quickly realised that this would make the story too long and too repetitive – as well as involving me in rather more description of golf than I cared to attempt.

It was then that I realised that having the foursome decide to call it a day at the thirteenth because of the bad light not only tied up the loose end, but makes the ending of the story neater too – or at least I hope it does. If you want to judge for yourself, here is original text, as read by Dougal Lee on 21 February 2014:

Our clubhouse has to be one of the finest in Scotland, even if our course is not as well-known as some – it’s a bit out of the way, so we’ve never had any of the big tournaments here, which is a pity, because it would look well on television – ‘atmospheric’ is a word that is used a lot, especially at this time of year, when you get the first indications that this is no longer late Summer, it’s definitely early Autumn – a touch of frost in the mornings, brilliant splashes of colour in the trees – how they stand out, side-lit by the low angle of the sun! – and those scarves of mist as you make your way home on the back nine and begin to wonder if there’ll be light enough to finish your game. And, as I said, the clubhouse, which exudes oak-panelled comfort.

On this particular evening we have a guest. He’s in a funny sort of mood, somewhere between exasperation and amusement, and he’s holding court with whoever will listen, which includes most of the usual suspects, though I can see a small group keeping themselves to themselves over in the alcove.

– I suppose you fellows know Hamish Endicott? says the guest, whose name is Ralph.

We acknowledge that we do indeed know Hamish, who is one of our leading lights.

– I see he isn’t here yet, which rather confirms my suspicions that you are the victims in this as much as I am. I don’t suppose he’s concealed about the premises?

He makes a mock search under the table and behind his chair.

– Hamish and I go back a long way, which maybe entitles him to take something of a liberty. I’m not sure I’d put up with it from anyone else, but coming from Hamish – well, there’s something of the artist about old Hamish.

We express some surprise at this revelation of our friend’s character, which is not something we accounted among his accomplishments. Ralph goes on,

– I’m not saying I’m smart enough to have tumbled to it from the start, but I think I can piece it together pretty well now – and as I say, sore as I might be on a personal level, I still have to admire the artistry of it.

At this point Sandy, who likes to be clear about things, interjects in his mild tone,

– Do you think it might help if you gave us some idea what you’re talking about?

The man fixes Sandy with a beady eye, as if he suspects him of being ironic, then decides that with a face like that he has to be one of nature’s innocents.

– What I see now – and what makes me realise how well-planned all this was – is that the first move was made last night. You know, I’m sometimes accused of lacking refinement, but let me tell you, I can appreciate artistry as well as the next man. Subtlety, that’s the thing – nothing too blatant, nothing obvious. O no. Just the slightest hint, dropped like a seed to bear fruit later.

He takes a sip of his malt and glares round the company, but seeing we’re all still in the dark, goes on.

– Last night, Hamish picked me up from the station and on the way to his place he suggests we might play a round the next day – of course he’s seen I have my clubs and knows I’m a keen golfer. ‘You’ll like our course,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the oldest in Scotland – tremendous scenery; very atmospheric. Said to be haunted.’

Now light begins to dawn on the assembled company: Old Paul, the Hon. Sec., looks disapproving – he’s a great one for the reputation of the club, so maybe he takes a dim view of this kind of talk, but the rest of us like it well enough – heads are nodded sagely, looks and smiles exchanged.

– Naturally enough, I ask him what the story is – but here’s the master-stroke: he says he doesn’t know! He knows of it, but has never actually heard it himself – maybe we’ll be able to get one of the older members to tell us in the clubhouse over a beer – or even a glass of malt!

He holds his up: we toast one another, not for the first time. I see Sandy signal discreetly to the barman – a tale like this needs lubrication. Old Paul continues to look as if he’s swallowed a wasp.

– That’s what you might call the set-up, or planting the seed. Our aim is to play a round next morning then have lunch to reflect on it, but suddenly Hamish ‘recollects’ that he has some business to attend to, so why don’t we play in the afternoon instead?

He looks round us all again, a bit like a teacher checking the class is attending.

– Now that, he emphasises with a stab of the finger, is what I’d call setting the stage or preparing the ground.  Instead of the bright morning, we’ll be going out in the afternoon, with the old course doubtless looking at its most ‘atmospheric’ and the light beginning to fade just when we’re furthest from the clubhouse and it all starts to feel a bit lonely…

There are more nods of appreciation at this, and I have to admit our visitor has a point. The configuration of our course is rather odd – it’s pretty well triangular with an area of old woodland in the middle, a relic of the Caledonian Pine Forest. The first six holes are homely enough – the clubhouse is visible all the way if you glance back, while over to the right you can see the tail of the town and the road. But then you make a sharp left into the middle six, and the terrain changes abruptly – there’s nothing but moorland between you and the mountains, and there’s a real sense of remoteness, of being on the edge of the wilderness. Then at the end of that stretch you have to cut through the woods to pick up the home six, which is the most ‘atmospheric’ part of the course, winding as it does through what we call the Fairy Glen, with low hillocks shouldering in on either side.

The barman brings a fresh tray of drinks and I see Sandy negotiating reinforcements in due course. Ralph continues,

– The plot thickens: when I arrive at the clubhouse today, the steward appears, very apologetic, to say that Hamish can’t make it, he’s been held up, and please will I have a good lunch at his expense and he’ll see me on the first tee? Well, that’s too bad, I think, but at least the lunch is excellent. Of course I hang around afterwards expecting Hamish to appear so by the time I’m out on the course it’s already deep into the afternoon and I am not in the best of moods.

Again he gives us a raking glare, and sips his whisky.

– There I am, all on my lonesome – instead of a companionable round with an old friend, indulging in the usual wide ranging, erudite discussion between shots, touching on every topic under the sun, I have a solitary trudge into the gathering gloom on an unfamiliar course, already thinking the worst of the world. The first few holes are about getting it out of my system, and by the third I’ve pretty well expended all my abusive vocabulary on the subject of so-called friends who fail to fulfil their golfing commitments and I notice I’ve actually made my best start to a round in a long time, probably because I’ve been concentrating on abusing Hamish and not worrying about my game as I usually do.

This brings nods of recognition and murmurs of agreement, but before it has the chance to digress into general golf-talk, Ralph goes on.

– So now I’ve cheered up a little and I reflect that I’m the the lucky one, enjoying a nice round of golf while poor Hamish is tied to a desk or whatever he’s up to. You know how it is – you get absorbed and for a time you’re ‘in the zone’ – not thinking about anything, really, just playing. So you don’t notice at first how the atmosphere of the place has begun to seep into your bones. Then you look around and for the first time it strikes you just how lonely it is – you wonder if you’re the only person out on the course, though you think you glimpse somebody up ahead, just slipping out of sight. It’s then that the seed that was planted the night before begins to sprout – I mean about the place being haunted.

There’s a pause, and we all sip our drinks, picturing ourselves out on the lonely middle six.

– By the time you reach the twelfth green, you’ve begun to wonder if the light will hold out and whether perhaps you wouldn’t be wiser to call it a day and head back to the clubhouse. Then it occurs to you that the next hole is the thirteenth and if any golf course has a haunted hole of course that would be the one…  and you realise that now you can’t possibly turn back – ‘and where did you say the light began to get bad? just before the thirteenth? I see!’  – so you follow the finger post that points to the wood and as soon as you step inside it’s evening and a curtain of silence descends…

Another pause, as he rakes us with an sceptical gaze.

– It was in the wood that I first began to piece it together – I mean what old Hamish had been up to, with his casual mention of haunting and his missing lunch and sending me out alone on the course into the failing light…  so when I emerged from the trees, I was already expecting something to happen. And of course the first thing I see is that dark pool – what do you call it? – the lochan with its layer of mist… and I think, all this needs now is for me to turn round and there waiting on the thirteenth tee will be a mysterious figure…

Another pause – drinks are sipped all round. Except Old Paul, I notice, who hasn’t touched his, and looks very white and strained.

– So I turn and there he is!

He sets down his glass with a crack.

– I don’t mind telling you, that gave me a start! Why I didn’t notice him right away I couldn’t say – young chap, no more than a boy, really, very thin and pale – the sort that looks in need of a good feed, as my old mother used to say. His eyes are fixed, not on me, but on something over my shoulder. He lifts his arm and points; ‘look!’ he says. Behind me, the sun is shining directly down the little glen – its rays catch the blanket of mist on the lochan and kindle it to golden, dazzling light. It’s beautiful.

He sips his whisky, a rapt look on his face, remembering the sight. He looks round everyone, very slowly, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. He might call Hamish an artist, but he knows a few tricks himself.

– I can see you’re ahead of me – I look round with the dazzle in my eyes and the young man is nowhere to be seen, leaving me alone with an eerie feeling.

He pauses to let this sink in, savouring the look on everyone’s face – which in most cases is pitched somewhere between scepticism and wonder, apart from Old Paul, who looks almost happy for the first time. Then Ralph gives a sudden shout of laughter and slaps his knee.

– Your faces! Priceless!  Come on, guys –  haven’t you ever seen a scary movie? When they climb the dark winding stair and come to the door at the top and they pause for a moment, then one of them opens it slowly and –  BANG! something jumps out – we all jump too, but that’s never the monster, it’s just a jack-in-the box or a tailor’s dummy that someone’s left behind the door for some reason – the art of anti-climax, you see, to relieve the tension so you can start to build it again. I told you at the start, this is an artist we’re dealing with.  Of course the young man is still there! He has his ball teed up and his driver in his hands, so naturally I suggest that we go on and finish the round together. ‘I’d like that,’ says he. ‘To tell the truth, I’d be glad of the company – it gets a bit…  lonely out here’ I notice the hesitation, as if he was about to say something else, but changed his mind.

He pauses to sip his drink and give the audience another once-over.

– The young fellow stands for a bit and shows no sign of starting to play – it’s as if he’s waiting for something; he has that distracted look, like he’s counting in his head. Eventually I say, ‘Are you actually going to hit that ball, or just stand all day looking at it? It’s your honour, you know.’  That stirs him: he looks down the fairway, then says ‘There’s a dog-leg here – you can’t see the green, but It should be all right now.’  While I’m still trying to work out what that means, he hits a pretty fair drive, smack down the middle and a good distance. That puts me on my mettle and I do the same and go striding off after it, but I have to pause to wait for the young fellow to come up – he seems to take forever to gather his gear. Just my luck, I tell myself – when I do get myself a partner, he turns out to be a real slowcoach.

The barman arrives with Sandy’s reinforcements on a tray. We help ourselves, and Ralph continues.

– When at last he does come up and we move on together, I ask what he meant by being glad of the company – I’ve begun to suspect where this is leading, you see. He takes a while to answer, then says, ‘You’ll probably think me foolish. But there’s actually a story about this golf course.’ ‘O, really?’ I say, all innocence, ‘what is it?’ Again, he takes a while to answer.  ‘The story I heard is that you come up on someone – sometimes a solitary figure, sometimes a foursome. It – or they – wave you to come through, or invite you to join them – only you mustn’t do that.’ ‘Why not?’ He shrugs his shoulders. ‘I don’t know – something terrible happens, I suppose.’ We walk on for a bit while I think about that. ‘Well, that makes sense,’ I say, ‘because I suppose the only people who ever tell the story are the ones who’ve declined the invitation.’ Now we’ve reached our balls and we can see the thirteenth green for the first time.

He takes another sip of his whisky.

– It’s only a short distance away and there’s a party of four already on it. As soon as they see us, one of them makes a beckoning gesture, inviting us to come on. I’m just about to signal back when the young man puts his hand on my arm. ‘Don’t!’ he says.  Seeing us hesitate, the man who beckoned repeats his gesture, and another joins in. Maybe it’s just the way the light falls at that time of evening, but I have to admit there’s something ominous about it, that group of figures in the dusk, still as statues, two with their arms raised, summoning us. And the young fellow seems genuinely spooked. So I cross my hands and make a sort of negative gesture, like this, shaking my head at the same time. All the same, I can’t quite believe what I’ve got myself into. ‘I hope we’re not going to have to do this all the way back to the clubhouse,’ I say to the young fellow. “No,’ he assures me, ‘That’s it now. We won’t be troubled again.’ All the same, I have to admit, I was a bit of a slowcoach myself when it came to playing that hole, and I was more relieved than I cared to admit when we reached the next tee and there was no-one else in sight.

He smiles round at all of us.

– I have to hand it to old Hamish, as a piece of theatre it could not have been better managed. I hope he slipped a couple of tens to the young fellow, because he certainly earned them. He must have been waiting around long enough for me to put in my appearance, and he certainly played his part to the hilt – never once let his mask slip, right up to the last hole – which I won, by the way. I asked him in for a drink – I reckon he deserved it – but he just shook my hand and said ‘I’ll see you soon.’ As for the phantom foursome, I suppose they’re pals of Hamish, and if my eyes don’t deceive me they’ve been keeping themselves to themselves at that table over there in the alcove.

He stands up and sets down his glass.

– All in all, a very nice piece of work. But now I need you to point me in the direction of the facilities.

Just as he’s disappearing into the gents, one of the party who had been seated at the alcove comes over on his way to the bar.

– Who’s the visitor? he asks.

We explain that he is a friend of Hamish’s.

– Is he all right in the head, do you think?

– He seemed sane enough to me, says Sandy. He certainly knows how to spin a yarn! Why do you ask?

– It’s just that we waved him through at the thirteenth, but he point blank refused to come on –

– Well, there’s a reason for that, laughs Sandy. You should ask him yourself when he comes back from the gents.

– I mean, the light was going, and we could see he was playing on his own –

– On his own?

– Yes, though he was behaving a bit oddly – as if he was talking to someone. I wondered if maybe he was on one of those hands-free phones.

– I’m sure he’ll be here in a minute, says Sandy.

But though we wait a long time, he doesn’t reappear.

FIN

An Each Uisge (The Water Horse)

written as a “Fearie Tale” for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words Festival 2013

(where it was admirably read by Dougal Lee on 2 February (an auspicious date -James Joyce’s birthday))

LFC

– Looks as if it was fished out of a canal, I say.

He doesn’t like that, the man behind the counter, a big fellow with a beard and a shaggy black mane, gloomy as his shop; probably thinks I’m trying to lower the price, but really it was just an observation – it does look as if it has spent some time under water, and you always think of canals when you imagine people pitching old bicycles into water (along with supermarket trolleys and bedsteads, for some reason)

– There’s no canals near here, he says.

Apart from the Caledonian, I think, but say nothing, fearing to give offence – after all, he is a native, by his accent: I have only lived here twenty years, which round here means you’re scarcely in the door. And he looks the touchy sort who might on a whim decide to sell me nothing at any price – how else to explain a shop that does so little to accommodate the buyer? Nothing priced, everything piled up in no sort of order, enamel basins, umbrella stands, coal-scuttles, standard lamps, stuffed birds in glass cases, a zinc bath full of clocks – and my object of interest, a very big, very old bicycle frame.

– There’s a box of bits goes with it, says the man, after we have agreed a price.

I shake my head. I do not want a box of bits. I already have enough bits at home – all I need is a frame. What I want to make is a straightforward bitsabike – bitsa this, bitsa that – a mongrel concoction I can have up and running right away. I am not interested in assembling a period piece, for the simple reason that I can see myself in two years’ time, the bike still incomplete and unused, while I scour the country for those last few original components that will add the finishing touch, without which it simply won’t be complete. I have been here before, you see, and know all about the siren lure of authenticity. But the bearded fellow is stubborn.

– It belongs with the bike, he insists. Included in the price.

Then let me have the frame for less, I think, but say

– Too awkward to carry: I haven’t a car.
– I’ll bring it round. Are you far?

Far enough, as it happens, but that doesn’t bother him. He seems anxious for me to have it.

– It all goes together, he insists.

There is an edge to his tone that suggests further refusal would be unwise. For a moment, I am stubborn enough to resist – why is he so eager? but the shop is remote and the man is bigger than me, of an uncertain temperament, and I do want the frame – so what if I have to take the bits as well? It’s not as if he can make me use them!

Once I’m on my way – I insist on taking the frame with me, in case he has second thoughts – I realise that all he was anxious about was clearing a bit of space – he could certainly do with some!

Yes, that’s all it was, I’m sure – why should there be any sinister motive?

*

Well, the bike is a great success. I’ve rigged it as a fixed gear – no freewheel, so if you back-pedal, it goes backwards – in theory; in practice it serves instead of a rear brake. The sensation is quite different from a normal bike: you work with it, rather than controlling it – it’s more like a living thing. You really need to concentrate when you ride it – no bad thing – which has a peculiarly liberating effect: on my other bike I always set out to go somewhere; on the fixed I’m content to let it take me where it will.

If only I could persuade my publisher to take a book on fixed-wheel cycling rather than Highland folklore!

– It’s just not the right book for me, I moan to my agent. I’m a rational man, a member of the Humanist Society: how can you expect me to write about kelpies?
– Any book your publisher actually wants is the right book, says she. What’s a kelpie?
– A malignant spirit that haunts lochs and streams in the guise of a horse. If you climb on his back, he carries you off to his watery lair and tears you to pieces.
– O good, you’ve begun your research. Keep at it, she says, and puts down the phone.

But keeping at it is not so easy, now that I have the fixed gear bike. I go where it takes me, cycling for the sake of it. Today I noticed an inviting gap in a wall and nipped through it, on impulse. I found myself in a wood with lots of little tracks twisting in and out among the trees and in a moment I had the sensation of being completely (and agreeably) lost. It’s remarkable how even well-spaced trees (silver birch for the most part) still cut down your view in any direction, and then of course there are the bushes which crowd in on you, more than head-high. I must have been in there for a good half-hour or more, yet I do not think I ever used the same path twice. I was surprised to find just now, looking at the map, how small a patch of ground it occupies; roughly triangular, bounded on all sides by houses. I wonder why it was never developed?

My research proceeds in a desultory fashion. One kelpie story (I’m a bit stuck on them, for some reason) gave me an idea – in it, the rider saves his life at the expense of his hand, which he has to cut off because it won’t let go of the kelpie’s mane. That put me in mind of the old punishment for thieves, and made me wonder if the whole kelpie thing wasn’t perhaps intended as a discouragement to horse-thieving. The Kelpie, of course, is a shape-changer, able to assume whatever form he thinks will tempt the unwary traveller – how might he appear nowadays? Maybe I could sell my publisher on the idea of rational explanations of Highland folklore? Worth a try!

Well, good news and bad news: I fear I have succumbed to the temptation of the “box of bits”. I can plead necessity in my defence, but only partly. When I went to take the fixed out this morning, I found that the front wheel was badly out of true, and indeed closer inspection showed that several spokes were broken. How could I have failed to notice that yesterday? The machine is virtually unrideable. So there was nothing for it but to raid the famous box, which I had stowed in the cellar as soon as the bearded one brought it – out of sight, out of mind, or so I thought – but it got to me in the end! The good news? I found a pair of wheels that, for all their age, were remarkably straight and true – and with wooden rims, would you believe! I was only going to use the front, but then I saw the rear was rigged with a fixed gear too – in fact, it probably predates freewheels – and they do sort of go together. It means I’ve had to discard the front brake, which I meant to do anyway – makes me more at one with the bike (or more at its mercy, if you prefer). And it rides beautifully.

Back to my wood again! It really is extraordinary how quickly you lose all sense of direction there – even when you must be close to the perimeter, you never seem to see the outside world: when you stop (I try not to) you could be in the heart of a forest. (I suppose it could be the remnant of an ancient forest – just one of those left-over bits of ground that never got built on, for some reason)

Something else that contributes to the illusion of expansiveness, I’ve realised, is the variation in level within the wood – though the land around is pretty flat, among the trees are unexpected dips and hollows. That’s something you notice on a fixed-gear without brakes: a sudden descent can be, well, exhilarating – excitement mingled with just a touch of fear. On one occasion I was hanging on for dear life, twisting and turning among the trees, bumping over exposed roots, skidding on fallen leaves, when at last (though it can only have been a matter of seconds, really) the ground levelled out and I found myself at the bottom of a deep dell, with some sort of pool just visible through a grove of trees. It was so unexpected that I wish now I had stopped to take a look around, but I was a bit high after my crazy descent and didn’t want to cool down.

When I got home, I felt so exhilarated with my ride – the new, or should I say old wheels have made such a difference to the ride – so responsive, almost as if it was alive – that I decided to restore the rest of the components. I’d no sooner made my mind up to do this than I was suddenly fearful that none of it would be usable – the cellar felt so damp (something I’ve never noticed before) that I was sure it would be all rusted; but to my surprise, though it felt wet to the touch – a protective layer of oil, perhaps? – it was all in remarkably good condition: all the metal parts are finished in some sort of dark coating of a kind I haven’t seen before, so I suppose that’s kept them good. I have to confess that I put it all together in a sort of frenzy, as if it was the one important thing I had to do – not an opinion my publisher or agent would share, I’m sure! Anyway, it’s completely authentic now, apart from the saddle – there was none in the box. I’ll have to keep an eye out for something suitable.

On the book front, I find that (according to some authorities) the kelpie is strictly speaking a river spirit: its counterpart that haunts lochs and pools is called in Gaelic an Each Uisge (the water horse) and is by all accounts a much more dangerous creature, far surpassing it in cunning and malignancy.

*

An odd experience this morning: I was out on my other bike and decided to try it in the wood. For some reason I could not find any of the entrances I normally use (there are several, all a bit hidden away – gaps in walls, or up lanes between houses) and had to go in by the main route, a tarmac path. Before I knew it, I was through to the other side, with no opportunity to turn off having presented itself. Yet in the afternoon I went back on the fixed, through the usual hole in the wall (which I found with no bother). I ended up in the dell again, but I must have been mistaken about the water – there was no sign of any (unless, of course, there is more than one dell?).

I think I must be working too hard. I realised today that over the past week or so I have been conducting a series of experiments without ever admitting to myself what I was doing. In the mornings, I try to reach the wood on my other bicycle, yet rarely seem to make it – on one occasion, a man I didn’t like the look of went in just ahead of me, so I made that an excuse to turn aside; another time, there was a formidable black dog lurking in among the trees, apparently without its master. If I do get in, I never seem to stay long – there doesn’t seem anywhere to go, apart from the main paths which just carry you straight through. Yet returning on the fixed-gear in the afternoon I can happily lose an hour just roaming – and I never seem to meet anyone.

*

There is something a bit edgy about being in the wood, now that Autumn has set in – the low angle of the sun makes you think how soon it will be dark, and there are scarves of mist lying on the damp ground. I have established that there must be two dells, because this afternoon I saw the water again, beyond the grove of trees. I would have stopped to investigate but the light was going and I was troubled by the absurd notion that I might get lost – I say “absurd” because I know perfectly well that the wood occupies only a small area and any determined attempt to leave it would succeed; and yet there is a strange reluctance to do anything like that – you feel you have to stick to the paths, like some sort of game, so you always spend much more time in there than you intend. It takes a real effort of will to come away.

Reflecting on these things in the comfort of my armchair, I realise that in all this there is an element of complicity on my part – I allow myself to be deflected when I am on the other bike – it is almost as if I am searching for an excuse not to go in – just as I play at being lost on the fixed wheel, when all the time I know I could find my way out if I wanted to. I’m sure there’s a rational psychological explanation for it all, and that it’s bound up with this blasted book I am managing not to write.

The only progress I’ve made is the discovery that, according to some sources, the Each Uisge sometimes had a human accomplice – this would be someone who had struck a bargain with it to save his own life. In return, he had to promise to keep the Each Uisge supplied with victims. I wonder if that could be rationalised as some hard-case employed by local horse-owners to protect their beasts? I suppose such a one would be paid by results, and wouldn’t be above a bit of entrapment to line his own pockets, luring likely lads into temptation by pretending to collude with them, only to turn on them? It would be easy to see how countryfolk would come to regard such a one as a sort of devil’s accomplice –

But who’s that at the door at this time of night?

Well, that is a turn up for the books! The man from the junk shop! He hovers outside on the step, holding something in his hands that I can’t make out. I invite him in. He crosses the threshold and thrusts a package at me, done up in brown paper and string.

– Thought you’d be wanting this, he says. I came across it in the shop – it belongs with the rest.
– Thank you, I say, somewhat taken aback.

His gaze lingers a moment at some point behind me, where I know the bike is leaning against the wall. There is an odd glint in his eye that reminds me of our first encounter in the shop and makes me eager to see the back of him. Only when he’s out the door do I turn my attention to the parcel. What can it be? It’s certainly heavy enough.

Well, how about that? It’s a saddle! It certainly looks authentic, though I can’t say I’ve ever come across a cover like that – it isn’t smooth, like leather, it has a sort of fell to it, like some sort of animal skin.

*

Funny how these things always take longer than you think – a whole morning just to fit a saddle! But I have to admit it looks well – and so inviting! Once you were on that, you feel you’d never want to get off! I was all ready to go – make the most of the daylight – when I saw the other package on the floor – just a small thing, in a twist of the same brown paper the saddle was in – I must have dropped it there last night. Bit of a mystery – seems to be caked in black wax, but these two projections look familiar – of course, they line up with the holes in the head-tube – it must be a badge of some sort! There now, it’s slipped into place, must be some sort of spring fitting, it seems quite secure – but I’ll need to get that wax off to see what it is.

Mm, no maker’s name – that’s a bit unusual – but the badge design is certainly distinctive – someone should be able to identify that for me. Must send a picture to the Boneshaker, the VCC magazine. How would I describe it? A sort of hybrid creature: the rear half is a fish, its scaly body twisted round in an improbable but artistic loop; the forequarters are those of a horse.

How it gleams!

That is it finished, now.

Pity there isn’t a lamp-bracket: I really ought to rig a lamp before I go. The light fails insidiously on these November afternoons; the colour seeps out of everything, and before you know it, all is dark.

FIN