‘The sound must mean mischief’ : M R James and the Age of Uncertainty

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J Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘Shipping on the Clyde’

Is it still possible to write ghost stories or are they mere period curiosities?

Let me start by saying that the period and the milieu from which MR James’s stories spring has a strong attraction for me. Things Edwardian afflict me with acute nostalgia (nostalgia, as its name suggests, is a painful yearning). I have a predilection for libraries, whether in universities or country houses, and nothing would please me better than to pursue leisurely researches of an antiquarian nature at home or abroad, especially on my bicycle (a Sunbeam, for preference, or better still, a Lea & Francis); I could fancy myself, Newbolt-like, in some ancient college hall

‘… the dark wainscot and timbered roof,

The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;

The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,

The Dons on the dais serene.’

So undoubtedly much of the pleasure of reading MR James for me is that it conjures a world to which I am strongly predisposed, one I would happily inhabit in my imagination, if not in reality. But is there more to it than that?

When James observes that

‘some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient’

we must not imagine that we can ‘identify with the patient’ as James’s primary audience could: for them, his characters were people much like themselves or their acquaintances, moving in a world with which they were personally familiar; for us they are arcadians, unwitting inhabitants of an age of innocence. Even the most contemporary of James’s stories are set about a century ago, in a world that has now vanished, and in vanishing has acquired a special sort of allure it can never have had for those who lived in it.

That allure, however, is an historical accident: we should not make the mistake of supposing that being set in Edwardian England is a necessary adjunct of a ghost story. (One of the most curious instances of this is Susan Hill’s justly-celebrated The Woman in Black. It is a fine ghost story and Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation did it justice, though the recent film version is quite the worst adaptation of a book I have seen*.

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‘Wharfedale’ by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Hill’s story has a strong period flavour throughout, both in style and detail. It opens on Christmas Eve, but in what year?

‘It was wretched weather, never seeming to come fully light, and raw, too. There had been no pleasure in walking, the visibility was too poor for any shooting and the dogs were permanently morose and muddy. Inside the house, the lamps were lit throughout the day and the walls of larder, outhouse and cellar oozed damp and smelled sour, the fires sputtered and smoked, burning dismally low.’

As pipe-smoking (step-)paterfamilias settles himself in his armchair by the fire, with the Christmas tree ‘candlelit and bedecked’, surrounded by his large family, including Isobel, ‘the most sensible, responsible of daughters’

‘only twenty-four years old but already the mother of three young sons, and set fair to produce more. She had the plump, settled air of a matron’

and the two boys, Oliver Ainley and his brother Will,

‘sober young men at heart, but for the time being they still enjoyed all the exuberance of young puppies, and indeed it seemed to me that Oliver showed rather too few signs of maturity for a young man in his first year at Cambridge and destined, if my advice prevailed with him, for a career at the bar’

you could be forgiven for thinking that you were (even at this, the latest point in the story) some time in the reign of Victoria or Edward.

You might be surprised to find a wireless in the house, and utterly shocked if you turned it on to hear Noddy Holder bawling ‘Merry Christmas!’ or the strains of ABBA singing ‘SuperTrouper’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘Brick in the Wall’ – and yet we might, for this is some time between 1973 and 1982, according to the internal evidence of the text**)

That is something of a digression, though it illustrates the influence exerted by the accidental ‘period charm’ of James’s ghost stories – it is a bit like the enthusiasm for ‘retro’ packaging which sees goods presented in containers that recall another age for which (a largely artificial) nostalgia has developed. But this error – mistaking the contingent for the necessary – exists on different levels.

At its least, it is no more than ‘imitating the externals’;  supposing that a ghost story must have an Edwardian setting ‘because all the best ones do’ is no worse than thinking Shakespeare’s plays would be more authentic performed in Elizabethan or Jacobean dress. That, to borrow a term from catholic teaching, is only a venial sin.

The mortal sin, which should concern anyone who aspires to write ghost stories or to adapt James’s, lies in compounding the mistake by drawing a false inference from it, namely that ghost stories must be set in the period when they were written because in those days it was still possible to believe in ghosts. The corollary is that we can’t do that now, and if you want to modernise the setting, you must also modernise the ghost, to the extent of substituting ‘something we can believe nowadays.’

The prime example of this is the recent ‘adaptation’ of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad ’, starring John Hurt, the subject of a vigorous discussion on The MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page  The writer in this case has evidently baulked at presenting a supernatural manifestation and has substituted a ‘psychological’ one instead, with an elaborate backstory to explain it, which takes this version so far from James’s original that it is hard to say they have anything in common at all. Where James’s confirmed bachelor Professor Parkins belongs with Messrs Wraxall (Count Magnus) and Paxton (A Warning…) in the category of the unwisely curious (though Parkins at least escapes with his life intact, if not his rational beliefs) Hurt’s Professor Parkin is the victim of personal grief, having lost his wife not to death, but to Alzheimer’s – she is, as I have said elsewhere, the inverse of a ghost – a living person who is effectively dead. The root of Parkin’s malady (which ultimately kills him) is evidently excess of grief and guilt at his inability to care for his wife and the fact that he has had to put her in a home.

There is a rather forced ingenuity in the way that James’s story has been ‘brought up to date’ and  ‘made relevant’ by linking it to contemporary concerns about senile dementia, the increase in the aged population and the growing need for institutional care; but were the concerns of James’s original really so inaccessible to a modern audience?

I think ‘modernisations’ of this sort stem from an erroneous supposition. James did not live in ‘the olden days’ when the sea of faith (as Arnold has it) was at its full: it was no easier to believe in ghosts in his day than it is now; James is as much a child of the modern age as we are ourselves, and it is for that very reason that his ghost stories have something that still resonates with us, something quite other than the accidental allure of their setting.

That James belongs in the modern age is easily demonstrated. As anyone will know who has read his only children’s book, The Five Jars, (published 1922) he invented the iPad:

 

Albrect Durer Knight Death & Devil

‘It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder’ ‘That’s where I’d got to,’ he said; ‘he’s just going out through the forest.’ I thought at the first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so ‘hairy in the hoof’; the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it I should see every blade of grass and every bramble-leaf. ‘Ready?’ said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The knight shook his rein, and the horse began to move at a foot-pace. ‘Well, but he can’t hear anything, Wag,’ said his father. ‘I thought you wanted to be quiet,’ said Wag, ‘but we’ll have it aloud if you like.’ He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema, you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound, and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn’t a photograph, but the live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail of it.’

Frivolity aside, James’s engagement with the trappings of modernity is well examined in a fine essay entitled ‘Ghosts, trains and trams: the technologies of transport in the ghost stories of M. R. James’  by Ralph Harrington (apt name for a James scholar). However, it is something more than engagement with technology that characterises him as modern.

The Age of Uncertainty is the title of a book and TV series by the economist JK Galbraith. Although the title alludes to the ‘contrast between the great certainty in 19th century economic thought with the much less assured views in modern times’ it could be argued that the Age of Uncertainty truly begins with the twin revolutions of agriculture and industry that shaped the modern world in the century between 1750 and 1850 and had as profound an effect on the collective psyche as on British society:

‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’

(Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

What Marx describes in general terms was experienced acutely on a personal level by the Scots poet Edwin Muir, a younger contemporary of James. He was born in 1887 and grew up in Orkney, an island virtually untouched by the revolutions that had transformed Britain; when he was 14, he moved to teeming industrial Glasgow, where his father, two brothers and his mother died in quick succession, an experience that marked him profoundly for the rest of his days:

‘I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey.’

(Ever after, he equated Orkney with Eden and industrial Glasgow with Hell)

The alienation felt by Muir in an extreme form must have been felt to some degree, more or less consciously, by James and his contemporaries – it is, after all, the theme of the twentieth century – a growing anxiety and disillusion with progress and modern civilisation well expressed in Eliot’s The Waste Land. It remains with us today, after a hiatus in my childhood when the existential dread was that we would destroy the world with nuclear weapons; now, it has reverted to the fear that we will destroy it by our very way of life.

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The Britain of James’s day had grounds for complacency: she was an imperial power unmatched in history, one that reckoned the appropriate strength of her navy in terms of matching the combined strength of any two powers it was likely to combat; she was the workshop to the world, exporting finished goods all over the globe (in 1910-11 my grandfather delivered Mastodon, a Clyde-built dredger,  to Vancouver,  sailing this inshore craft across the Atlantic and round Cape Horn, the additional coal required for the journey piled on deck)

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The dredger ‘Mastodon’ in Vancouver

 Meanwhile, the home market was sustained with the abundant produce of a world-wide empire. James himself occupied a bastion of privilege at the heart of the British establishment, as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, where the gilded youth of Empire went for their education. If you wanted an adjective to describe his own situation, and that of his primary audience, it would be secure.

Yet it is no paradox to find uncertainty in the midst of security; rather, it is human nature. We can sustain hope in the face of adversity and oppression, but security makes us uneasy – not all of us, but certainly the sensitive and the educated: the sensitive fear that things cannot be as good as they seem, that dark things lurk beneath the bright calm surface; the educated have learned that nothing lasts:

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye

(in Time of Pestilence, Thomas Nashe )

James’s primary audience – his younger contemporaries – were both sensitive and educated. Their enjoyment of their privileged position must have been attended, at some level, by an awareness of its fragility. This awareness could best be termed disquiet, the fear that your trust may be misplaced, that your sense of being unassailable may be ill-founded, the suspicion that what you rely on as most firm and solid may be fragile and illusory. If you wanted to characterise James’s stories in a single word it would be disquieting. A moment from Casting the Runes embodies it:

‘He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to give him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening…’

This passes almost unnoticed – eclipsed by the memorable moment of terror that follows – but it is a key incident: something has got in; the defences have been breached; what was out there is now in here (and that means in Dunning’s head as much as in his house) – the threshold has been crossed.

The term ‘liminality’ originates, I believe, in anthropology, and also has a place in psychology, but its derivation connects it with things more ancient than those fields of study and makes it a potent metaphor in the analysis of ghost stories. ‘Limen’ is Latin for a threshold, and in traditional folklore the threshold is a key defence: evil spirits may not cross it uninvited, which is why folktales abound in malign creatures of various sorts trying to wangle invitations from the unwary householder.

The threshold, as the entrance, stands between two worlds; it is a vulnerable point that must be well guarded, but it is also a metonym for the whole house. The house is a strong protection for its inmates, a place of light, warmth and order in contrast to the wild cold darkness outside; and it in turn is a metaphor for the head, in its fullest sense, as the seat of reason, the dwelling-place of our humanity, the capital of our intellectually-constructed world – a Castle of Bone (the title of a fine children’s book by Penelope Farmer, derived, I think, from an Anglo-Saxon kenning); just as we must be careful whom we invite into our house, we should also be wary of what we allow to ‘get into our head’.

The ‘mischief’ that is signified by the sound of the door opening downstairs – in what the listener knows to be an empty house – is no mere burglary: it is the irruption of the irrational, the impossible, the unthinkable – if a door can open without human agency in a house you know to be secure, then anything is possible; none of what you have hitherto trusted unquestioningly holds good. Such epiphanies give the modern ghost story its power: they turn the confident statement ‘that cannot be’ into the doubtful question ‘can such things be?’

Bringing the reader to feel, with the protagonist, that moment of profound self-doubt –  the realisation that the world may not be the realm of enlightened reason that we pretend – is the effect that any modern ghost story must strive for. As James himself remarks, the aim is to

‘put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’

Casting the Runes is unusual among James’s stories (The Ash Tree is another) in having its protagonist assailed in his own home, though I think that is a good reflection of the malignity of Karswell’s psychic assault. A great many of his stories – a good third – feature inns, and quite a few more are set in large houses where the protagonists are either guests or very recent arrivals; and, for a man who rigorously eschewed any sexual content, there is a remarkable preponderance of bedroom scenes.

That is no accident: inns and other people’s houses are, literally, out of our comfort zone: we do not feel at home there; and as for being in bed, there is no better instance of our outer circumstances coinciding with our inmost self: where else are we more vulnerable, more unguarded, than on the verge of sleep? It is a moment of uncertainty that takes us right back to primeval times, with the wild beasts prowling beyond the cave mouth.

As for religious belief, it plays little part in James’s stories: I can think of only two in which it is used to combat the supernatural, and one of those is an incomplete unpublished fragment. In ‘Canon Alberic’ the presbyterian Dennistoun submits to the popish superstition of wearing the crucifix the sacristan’s daughter gives him for his protection, and it is only when he takes it off that the demon is able to assail him. (The same story has further evidence of James’s sympathy for catholic practice, despite his upbringing and expressedly protestant views – not only is there a beautiful description of the Angelus,

‘A few pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell Bertrande, high in the tower, began to speak, and swung her voice up among the pines and down to the valleys, loud with mountain-streams, calling the dwellers on those lonely hills to remember and repeat the salutation of the angel to her whom he called Blessed among women.’

but Dennistoun also arranges ‘saying of Mass and singing of dirges’ for the repose of Alberic’s soul, though he does add  ‘with a touch of the Northern British in his tone, “I had no notion they came so dear.” ‘)

The other story is John Humphreys, an unfinished precursor to Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, in which the eponymous hero combats the demonic assault by recalling a line that transforms the quotation from Job ‘where [there is] the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwells’ into the 23rd Psalm ‘though I walk in the shadow of death (no evil shall I fear)’:

‘The only words he could summon were words of fear, that he had read that morning. They droned through his head incessantly, “ubi umbra mortis et nullus ordo sed sempiternus horror inhabitat“. Over and over again they came back and he felt himself being sucked away from the world of men, and indeed he does not see how he could have helped yielding to the strain that was on him, and giving up hope and reason if not life itself, had he not paused on the words umbra mortis. They brought to his mind in a moment the image of some lettering in a brass on a tomb – this is how he puts it – that he had been taken to see years before. “Umbra mortis,” he seemed to say to himself, “to be sure, that was it – etsi ambulavero.” He raised his head and drew breath. “Absurd,” he said again. “Of course that was what I wanted. Dear me. Why couldn’t I think of that before?” The strain was relaxed. He rose to his feet and looked about him: the field was its own familiar self again and the sun bright in the sky. An exaltation of spirit came upon him which he could hardly repress, and he does not know what surprises of laughter and singing he may have inflicted on casual hearers as he went home.’

In two other stories – An Episode of Cathedral History and The Residence at Whitminster, both set in cathedral precincts with a clerical cast – the supernatural threat is accepted as real, but is contained and left alone: the lamia had been safely incarcerated till interference disturbed it (though it is exorcised – successfully, we presume) while Dr Oldys, the Senior Prebendary at Whitminster, frankly admits that the effects of lord Saul are better put safely away in the attic and left undisturbed: discretion and caution, not curiosity, are the proper course, as The Rose Garden also makes clear:  quieta non movere (let sleeping dogs lie). This acceptance and accommodation of the supernatural – basically, acknowledge its power and let it be – does belong to an earlier age: it is the staple of folk tales and ballads, where the devil can be met on the road or may seek entry to your house, but can be guarded against by the proper rituals (as, for instance, outwitting him in a riddle contest, as in The False Knight Upon the Road,

‘I wiss ye were in yon sie,’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and a good bottom under me,’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood

‘And the bottom for to break’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and ye to be drowned’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood.

(full variant texts here )

or else by answering his riddles, then naming him, as in ‘riddles wisely expounded

‘Hunger is sharper nor a thorn

and shame is louder nor a horn,

the pies are greener nor the grass

and Clootie’s waur nor a woman was!’

As sune as she the fiend did name

Jennifer gentle an’ Rosemaree

He flew awa in a blazing flame

As the doo flies owre the mulberry tree.’

(slightly variant text here,  and beautifully sung by Jean Redpath here )

But the age in which James is writing is not one to let sleeping dogs (or Lamias) lie; it is the age of boundless curiosity and exploration (the age, let us not forget, of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity (1905 & 1915), of Picasso and Stravinsky, of the birth of much that we think of as modern – the motor car, the aeroplane, the horrors of modern warfare). And though James undoubtedly has a yearning for that earlier age of faith (he was, after all, a mediaevalist to trade) he does not allow it to intrude on his stories or save his characters – Mr Wraxall, in his last extremity

‘…is expecting a visit from his pursuers — how or when he knows not — and his constant cry is ‘What has he done?’ and ‘Is there no hope?’ Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?’

but it avails him naught. What makes James a modern is that his characters have no protection when the fortress of reason crumbles.

 

* It is even worse than the film version of The Dark is Rising, an excellent book by Susan Cooper, and that is saying something.

**Jennet Humfrye dies 12 years after her son (p.144) and is buried in the same grave (though for some reason the name on the stone is Jennet Drablow) The date of death is 190- (p.105) so her son died, aged 6 (p.143) some 12 years before – 1888 at earliest, 1897 at latest; so he was born between 1882 and 1891. The letters written around the time of his birth date from ‘about sixty years before’ (p.113) the narrator’s visit to Eel Marsh house, putting that event between 1942 and 1951. The death of his wife and son must happen a year or two later – say between 1944 and 1953. When he first sees Monk’s Piece (the name is an allusion to Masefield’s The Box of Delights, the Christmas story par excellence) he has been a widow for 12 years and is 35 (p.11) putting that between 1956 and 1965; ‘some years later’ (p.13) the house comes up for sale and he buys it to live in with his new wife – say 1959 to 1968; at the time the story opens, he has been living there for 14 years (p.14) so it is now somewhere between 1973 and 1982.

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