(This story features several old characters of mine that have appeared in previous stories).
I have been getting seriously worried about my cousin. This is a new one on me, as we aren’t in all honesty a close family. I very rarely see my brothers these days, it’s virtually boiled down to Christmas cards, often with a rueful message hastily scrawled inside of “we must meet up sometime next year”. We never do. They’re both married with kids, and I’m single, and I think that can put a bigger barrier between people than anything else. You end up living in two entirely different worlds. But my cousin Alan was another matter entirely. I think it’s that we both have similar things in common. He’s a journalist by profession, and I have aspirations to be a writer (so far sadly unfounded). More than that, we both have developed an interest in the paranormal. I’ve always had that, for as long as I can remember, ever since I read an Armada book on ghost stories when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I belong to a local paranormal group in my spare time, and if all that makes me sound a bit sad and geeky, well so be it. But if you feel like that, well perhaps you shouldn’t be wasting your time reading this.
Alan’s interest up until fairly recently had always been merely for the sake of work. He had sort of falling into writing articles for paranormal magazines (usually from a sceptical point of view), or joke-pieces for newspapers. But something happened to him recently. He had gone down to Cornwall, to look into the disappearance of Janey Brierson, and God knows what, but something must have happened to him in a little village called Clag Heath there, because he hasn’t been the same since. He’s really drawn into himself, shut himself away. I don’t even know if he’s doing much work at the moment. I haven’t got a clue what he’s living on! He only lives a couple of blocks away from me, so sometimes I ring him up to ask how he is, and all I get is these very terse reactions. This was sad as he’d always been quite kind to me so far. I was the geeky kid who wanted to be a writer, and instead of telling me to concentrate on getting a proper career, as my parents had always done, he had always encouraged me. If he was having some kind of a nervous breakdown, then I wanted to help him get better. I just think the last thing you should do in this situation is to leave this person alone.
Anyway, it was now the end of a cold and wet Spring, and I had gone down with a rotten flu bug. The sort that really flattens you. It doesn’t seem to leave any part of your body unaffected. I couldn’t have been more helpless if I had been knocked down by a truck! For several days I didn’t see a soul, and I dragged myself from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen, in a soul-destroying effort to simply exist. As anyone who has ever had to suffer a flu bug entirely on their own will tell you, you end up feeling very sorry for yourself. I felt lonely and uncared for. It made me think of my cousin Alan even more, bolting himself away in his flat, refusing to see people.
After about a week of this misery, I was starting to feel a bit more human, and I had made up my mind that some things in my life were going to change from now on. I was sick of my job for one thing. I’m not going to tell you what I do, because it’s too boring for words, but basically it involves sitting in front of a computer screen all day in a large open-plan office, trying frantically to look busy, even though some days hours and hours can go past and I don’t do anything that could seriously be called Work. Sometimes I play computer games with the sound turned off, and that must give me the impression that I’m concentrating really hard on something. Well I am, but not what the powers-that-be probably think I am!
So first things first, something must be done about my job. And secondly, I was going to insist on seeing Alan, and finding out exactly what had happened to him in Clag Heath, and what on earth was happening to him now. I lay in bed all that Thursday morning, and an old film came on the television. It was an old black-and-white effort from the 1950s, starring Sid James and Adam Faith, amongst others, and was about some kids Nessie-spotting up at Loch Ness. (I think it was called something really subtle like “What A Whopper!”). Anyway, it was a harmless bit of fun, although almost painfully innocent by present-day standards. I quite enjoyed it. Then I dozed off, and had a bizarre dream in which I was in a Scottish pub, and poor old Sid James kept getting pint-glasses of water chucked over him!
After my kip I felt almost well. Time to go out and get some fresh air, I told myself, even though a little voice nagging in my ear told me that in these temperatures I’d probably risk setting myself right back again. I put on every item of warm clothing I possessed, and braved the gloomiest early Spring weather you could hope to experience. I went round to Alan’s place. He lives in a small block of what had once been council flats. A very small block, just off Monkton Road. Three floors, two flats on each floor, his was one of the ones in the middle.
“Robbie!” he said, when he opened his front door to find me standing there “Are you alright?”
“Well I haven’t been all that well, to tell you the truth”, I said, noting that he didn’t seem to have washed and shaved for a couple of days “I’ve just come out to get some fresh air”.
“You’d better come in”, he led me into his living-room, which was absolutely chock full of old discarded newspapers and magazines. You could barely see the carpet for them.
“Been catching up on your reading?” I said.
“Yeah I know”, he said, apologetically “I should have a tidy-up sometime”.
He offered to make me a cup of coffee (explaining, again apologetically, that it would have to be made with CoffeeMate, as he didn’t have any fresh milk). I followed him into his kitchen, which, if possible, was even more unsightly than the living-room. Dishes and mugs were piled up in the sink, and on the stove was a frying-pan which looked like it should be taken away and disposed of by people wearing all-over protective clothing and gas-masks!
“What’s happened to you?” I said “You can’t live like this! I’m gonna have to send Kim and Aggie round to you at this rate!”
“The fridge needs de-frosting as well”, he said, mournfully.
He suddenly grabbed a magazine from another heap on the kitchen table, and thrust it at me. It was tatty piece of soft porn, straight from the top shelf of the newsagents.
“Have you seen this stuff?” he said.
“Not for ages”, I said “Looks like the sort of thing that used to get passed around at school in break-time! The only porn I ever look at these days is sometimes some stuff I see on the Web, and that’s usually pop-ups! I can never get over how ugly some of the women are!”
“I don’t normally buy it either”, he said “Not for titillation purposes anyway”.
“What do you buy it for then?” I laughed “The crossword?!”
“I just want to see how depraved our society is becoming”, he said.
“Oh right”, I said, unenthusiastically.
“Did you know”, he said, flicking through the magazine aggressively “There is a piece in here, a column written by a girl, a girl I ask you! ‘Diary Of A Sex-Maniac’! A GIRL writes this!”
“You make it sound like she’s about 12!” I said.
“God forbid no! I hope to God we haven‘t sunk that far!” said Alan “But it’s bad enough that we’ve got a woman writing this stuff”.
“Aren’t you sounding a bit old-fashioned?” I said.
“I mean, who can find this stuff erotic?” he went on “Look at this week’s instalment. She goes on about how her boyfriend slapped her about so much - in sexual horseplay this is meant to be - and she burst some blood vessels. I mean, how is that erotic?”
“It doesn’t do anything for me”, I said “But there’s no accounting for taste I suppose!”
“What kind of a world are we living in now?” he exclaimed.
“It’s always been like this”, I sighed “You just hear about it more now that’s all. Look Al, you’re taking all this shit far too seriously. If you don’t like it, don’t read it, simple as that. And don’t worry about the girl. Chances are very high that she wasn’t really slapped about, it’s all just been made up in some dismal office somewhere by a bunch of fat old gits, who probably look like Peter Stringfellow or Michael Winner, for weird perverts to slobber about”.
“That doesn’t make it right!” he said, and I could see I wasn’t going to win this discussion.
There was a difficult silence for a couple of minutes, whilst we sipped our coffee.
“I’ve been offered an assignment”, he said, eventually.
“Good!” I said “You need something to take you out of yourself. Stop you buying nasty porn written by stupid old men!”
“I’m not sure about it”, he said “It’s more wacky paranormal stuff”.
“Oh what?” I said, my interest perking up.
“The Loch Ness Monster”, he said “Yeah I know, don’t look like that. I can’t say I’m thrilled about it either. It’s going to fielded out to some Scottish tourist-y magazines. They’ve been having a lean time of it up Loch-side for the past couple of years. Nessie doesn’t seem to be packing them in anymore”.
“So what do they want you to do?” I said “Get some photographs of the old girl, and prove she’s real?!”
“Nothing as ambitious as that, thank God!” he said, giving a rare laugh “Just write a series of articles extolling the beauty of the area, and interview people who are nuts about Nessie. Pick up on anything else that’s paranormal in the area, ghosts, UFOs, Black Magic etc. Of course if I experience anything myself, so much the better!”
“Sounds a lot of fun actually”, I said “I wouldn’t mind a bit of that. I’ve always wanted to go up there”.
“Come with me”, he said.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to get time off work”.
“Jack it in then. You’ve always said you hate your job”.
“I do hate it”, I said “I loathe it with a passion. Sometimes I think I couldn’t be more miserable if I was in prison, at least there I’d have a vague idea when I was gonna be released! But there’s a little matter of paying the rent”.
“But you hate your flat as well”, he said, which was also true, but I didn’t see how that was relevant either “You keep complaining that it’s like living in a shoebox”.
“Al”, I said, as patiently as I could “Where do you suggest I go and live then?”
“Here”, he replied “My spare room. I know that’s not exactly big either, but I think you’d be happier than where you are”.
“And I come up to Loch Ness with you?” I said.
“You’d be doing me a favour”, he said “I flatly refuse to go camping you see, I haven’t done that since I was at school and I‘ve got no intention of starting again, and whatever time of year you go it could turn out to be brass monkeys in the Highlands of Scotland, or pissing down with rain. And so I’ve rented some self-catering place up in the hills for a week. It was going real cheap which is gave me the idea, but it’s really designed to sleep 6 people, so I’d be rattling around in it like a lone pea in a can. And another thing, I’m not sure about this assignment. I’m a bit nervous about it to tell you the truth. I’ve had a basinful of the paranormal this past year”.
“Yeah, but Nessie isn’t exactly frightening”, I said, having seen too many stuffed toys and ornaments of her to think that “Should be more of a laugh than anything. Look Al, why don’t you tell me what happened in Clag Heath? It’s affecting you so much at the moment, and if we’re gonna spend time together, well perhaps I should know what it is that’s troubling you”.
“I’ve written up a piece about it”, he said “Not for publication, just for me to try and get some sort of record of it, to see if it would help me get it straight in my head. I’ll fetch it for you”.
I read it in the kitchen, whilst he listlessly tacked the backlog of washing-up.
“OK”, I said, when I had finally turned the last page “So it’s all pretty weird, but I would have thought you’d have put it behind you by now”.
“I can’t”, he said, chucking down the pan-scourer “Because I think I’ve had some of that missing time too”.
“When?” I exclaimed.
“Last August”, he said “I can’t remember anything about it. I went down to Clag Heath at high Summer, right? For a couple of weeks when I got back here, I was at work writing that up, and trying to do some research on the area on the Internet. And I thought I was putting it all behind me! But then, one morning I went down to the newsagents at the bottom of the road, to get a paper, and Mr Rachid said something like ’1st of September already, where has this year gone?’ You know, the way people always do when a new month starts, and I thought, September?! The last time I looked, it was July! I tell you, that freaked me out!”
“Perhaps nothing did happen in August”, I said “Perhaps the days were so monotonous that they all just sort of merged into one. I’ve often found that about August, if you’re not going off anywhere on holiday, it can seem really draggy and limbo-ish. Everybody else is away, or so it can feel like, and nothing gets done. And the weather was pretty hot at times as well, which would make that feeling even worse”.
“You see!” he said “YOU can remember something about it, you can remember the heat”.
“That’s about all I can remember”, I said “It wasn’t exactly a frenzy of excitement for me either! Oh, and we had some flash flooding down our road one afternoon, quite a big storm”.
“But I can remember NOTHING!” he said “The whole friggin’ month! It’s just disappeared into oblivion! And that’s not the only thing. That very same morning …”
“The 1st of September”.
“Yeah. I got back here, and I met little Lucy down in the foyer downstairs. She’s the old lady who lives in the flat directly below this one, and I said to her, pretty much like Mr Rachid had done, ‘I can’t believe it’s September’, and she said ‘August just seems to have vanished doesn’t it?’”
“So what are you saying?” I asked.
“God knows!” he cried “But it feels like I slept the rest of the Summer away! And I tell you, Robbie, that scares the shit out of me!”
“Listen up, Al”, I said “I’m not an expert on these matters, but it seems to me as though you’ve had some sort of breakdown. What happened down in Clag Heath really seriously freaked you out, and perhaps you went into some kind of shock afterwards, lost touch with time and reality”.
“None of it makes sense”, he said “I mean it’s not as if I woke up with a beard, like Rip van Winkle, and found everything in the fridge had gone off, or that there was a thick layer of dust everywhere, or there was a mound of post in the hall. No, apparently I must have still been going through the motions, but I must have been completely dislocated whilst I was doing it”. “I’d love to come to Loch Ness”, I said, (and even more, I would love to jack my job in! Opportunities don’t come along like this everyday, and I’ll worry about the possible consequences (like having no money) afterwards).
“Would any of your paranormal friends like to come along too?” he said “You know, that Scotsman friend of yours might be interested”.
“Duncan?” I said “No, Duncan’s become a recluse. It’s alright, nothing to worry about, he’s writing a book”.
“Oh?” said Alan “What sort of a book?”
“A post-apocalyptic novel”, I said “Something about some terrible disease that wipes out most of humanity, and the few survivors left know there’s no hope left for them”.
“Sounds a cheery piece of work!” said Alan.
“Sid James!” I suddenly shouted.
“Is he in it as well then?” said Alan “Doesn’t sound his usual thing!”
“No, I saw a film with him in it this morning”, I said “And that was all about Nessie-hunting. How’s that for a bit of coincidence for you?”
“What was it?” he said “Carry On Nessie?!”
I won’t bore you with the details of me giving up my job, and giving up my flat, you can work all that out for yourself. All I can say is that moving into Alan’s was like going on holiday already, without the trip to Loch Ness as well! To try and earn my keep, I spring-cleaned the place, and did a massive backlog of his washing. Apart from slightly panicking whenever I moved any of his papers, he seemed quite happy with all this, and said that my Mum had obviously trained me well.
“I always knew I’d be living on my own one day”, I said “So I had to make some effort to learn it all. Don’t ask me to do any sewing though, because I’m rubbish!”
Then somehow (probably via Duncan, who wasn’t being anywhere near as reclusive as he tried to make out, as he always seemed to know what was going on) Jason Bland found out about my epic trip. I may have mentioned Jason sometime before. He’s a complete one-off is Jason. He has his own website devoted to uncovering the portals of Hell. This has become quite a thing in recent years, with several of these websites popping up, but most people do it as an elaborate sort of joke.
Jason though believes it all.
Just about anything about underground tunnels can send Jason into a sort of orgasmic joy. But he hadn’t spoken to me since the previous November, when I had failed to invite him along when me and Duncan went to investigate the strange tunnels at Foxley. Little did I know that Jason is convinced that Loch Ness is riddled with underwater tunnels, and naturally these are all Portals. In fact Nessie herself is a creature from Tartarus (if Jason is to be believed anyway).
I didn’t have any problem with Jason coming along. His relentless eccentricity can be wearying at times, (sometimes you just long for him to sit down, shut up, and have a cup of tea) but he’s a good soul, and he can be very funny. I absolutely, emphatically drew the line at Gary Sanderson coming as well though. I hate Gary Sanderson, I cannot bear him. Gary is exhausting, bullying, dogmatic, narrow-minded, sneering, cynical, and just generally all-round up-his-own-bum, totally intoxicated with the sheer splendour of being Gary Sanderson, Arch-Pillock Extraordinaire. Going on a trip with Gary Sanderson would be like going on holiday with Tony Blair or a member of the BNP! I warned Jason that if he invited Gary Sanderson along, I would very likely kill him (Jason that is), and so another beautiful friendship would bite the dust.
“Alright chill out, mate”, said Jason, when we had this conversation on the telephone “He’s not as bad as you make out you know”.
“He is every bit as bad as I make out!” I said “Just don’t do it, Jason!”
“I’ve said I wouldn’t haven’t I!” he protested.
“Good”, I said, gradually feeling the panic subside a little.
“Do you want me to bring my little tent?” said Jason.
“Not unless you want to sleep out in the garden”, I said “Al’s renting a house for us”.
“Cool!” said Jason, to whom most things were ’cool’.
Jason began to come round to Al’s flat quite a bit over the next couple of weeks, as we prepared for our trip. I was anxious to ensure that Jason didn’t become too much of a nuisance. Jason doesn’t mean anyone any harm, but a little bit of him goes a very long way, and Al was very much a loner, he was used to having the place to himself. I had brought my own lap-top to the flat with me, so I’d take Jason into my room, and we’d look up a load of stuff about Loch Ness on the Web. Like the right pair of geeks that we are.
After having a look round various paranormal sites I came to the conclusion that Nessie was very much Old News. Very few, apart from a couple of die-hards, believed in her anymore. I wondered how on earth Al was going to be able to single-handedly resurrect this old chestnut and make it appealing to a new generation. The Loch had been thoroughly combed and scanned over the years, and not a whisker of the old girl had been found. That didn’t stop some from still trying though.
One bloke posted some grainy web-cam images of a shape on the Loch’s surface that he swore blind was The Monster’s Head. I looked through several of these and couldn’t make out bugger all. The one vaguely clear image that I did get reminded me so much of Zippy from ’Rainbow’ that I thought he was taking the piss! But no, he was convinced that this was the actual monster. I had some sympathy with one sceptical girl who said why oh bloody why couldn’t somebody get a CLEAR image of the monster for a change. Well you might see the strings then, I thought, cynically. At the same time as we were browsing through all these, I had to listen to tales from Jason about things that he had seen on Gary Sanderson’s hard-drive.
“He goes around taking pictures of women’s legs on the Tube”, he said “On his mobile, and then puts them up on his computer”.
“He’ll get done for that one day”, I said (I HOPE!!!).
“He almost was once”, said Jason “One woman caught him taking pictures up her skirt in a shopping-centre. She got the police onto him, but somehow he’d managed to wipe the pictures from the phone, so they had no proof”.
“So”, I said “I can add Pervert to the list of Gary Sanderson’s charms!”
“S’alright”, said Jason “He says you’re still a virgin”.
“Well he’s wrong AGAIN!” I exclaimed “I went out with Trudy for nearly 2 years, we used to go away for weekends together, what does he think we did, played ’Snakes & Ladders’?”
Actually we might as well have done. I never got the impression that Trudy was very engaged with me during those times. I always had the disturbing feeling that she wasn’t thinking about me at all, but about mortgages, and updating kitchen cupboards and what-have-you. It was a dismal relationship at the best of times. I might as well have still been a virgin for all the sensuality I got out of it. We only went out for so long because I didn’t have the heart to break it off. In the end, she did it for me. Saying that she had found someone who was more on her level (God forbid!), and that he was far more possessive than me, which was what she wanted. He would always be there for her, not off chasing ghosts and aliens and monsters, like I did. She hoped I wouldn’t be too angry and upset. On the contrary, I wanted to shake his hand!
“No offence Robbie”, said Jason, realising (too late as usual) that he had upset me “Actually I started getting a bit uneasy myself about Gary after seeing some of all that stuff. And he had loads of pictures of 9/11 and the July Bombings on there which I thought was a bit iffy”.
“Gary Sanderson has always been a bit iffy!” I said “Probably find he goes around taking pictures of car crashes on his mobile as well!”
I consoled myself with the thought that Loch Ness would be a very long way from Gary Sanderson, and his roving mobile phone!
I packed in my job in the May. I had spent most of my adult life (or so it felt) locking up women, and then letting them out again. I had had enough. Then the news came through that our prison was to be changed over to a male one. There simply weren’t enough prisons in the country to keep all the men locked up apparently, and so some of the women’s were to be commandeered for the purpose. I was saddened by this news. So many of the women would be moved to other parts of the country, they would be further away from their families. And I know that for many of them their children were their life-line. It was a horrible prospect. It was one I simply couldn’t face anymore. I had seen too much human misery, and now that I had found happiness in my private life, I found I couldn’t cope with it anymore.
The redundancy package was better than I had expected, and I had also paid quite a bit into a savings scheme over the years, so money wasn’t an immediate problem. I decided I wanted to take some time out, to find a bit of space, to take stock and evaluate all that had happened of late. Aleck had transformed my life. This young man with the tortured past. Thirty years younger than me. I honestly hadn’t expected him to still be with me all these months on. I thought, (for him), that the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. That he would soon tire of a woman with shadows under her eyes, cellulite and love-handles, and go for a younger, sleeker model, but that wasn’t the case. So what if sometimes he saw me as a substitute mother figure? Why shouldn’t he? His own mother had been a monster! I had been a private person all my life, not one who found it easy to let her feelings show, and now I got even more stubborn and refused to explain myself to anyone. My private life was my own concern. We weren’t harming anyone.
Love was softening me considerably. I was even becoming more feminine in my appearance. I took to having my hair coloured, and wearing more softer-looking clothes. I knew full well what the cynics would be saying: trying to make herself look younger, how pathetic, she‘ll be trying to shoehorn herself into a basque and a mini-skirt next! Well that wasn’t the case. I simply wanted to stop being tough all the time. I had had enough of it.
It was Aleck’s idea that we buy a camper-van and travel up to the Highlands for a holiday. I was very surprised when he suggested this. I thought he’d want to go abroad somewhere. I had forgotten that he had been travelling around the world since he was a babe-in-arms (in fact I think he went to New York once when he was still in the womb, as Suzanne had had some publicity to do with a book at the time). It astonished me that one so young could have seen so much, and have just as quickly got so jaded with it all. I didn’t go abroad for the very first time until I was 19! Aleck was astonished when I mentioned that! At the age of only 18 he had already been to the United States, Canada, the West Indies, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Morocco, Greece, Cyprus - and some of those several times over!
No, he wanted to go to the Highlands. He’s very musical is my Aleck. And he said he wanted to go to see Boleskine House, on the banks of Loch Ness, because Jimmy Page, one of the Led Zeppelin group, had owned it for a while. (I think I achieved a few credit points of cool-ness when he found I had an old vinyl Led Zeppelin LP up in my loft!). He insisted he use a small portion of his legacy from his father to buy the camper-van, as we wouldn’t know for how long my money would be needed for us to live on. Sometimes, that boy is so sensible, that I marvel that he comes from the same genes as Suzanne Lacey!
“I hope the rain holds off until we’ve seen the whole island”, I said, looking apprehensively out at the rain-clouds which were gathering in force over the North Sea.
“You have left time for us to get across the causeway and back haven’t you?” said Misty, in the passenger seat.
“That’s why I’ve been studying the Tide Table religiously for the past 24 hours!” I said.
“The tides come in pretty quick you know”, said Misty.
“I do know actually!” I said “We haven’t been living by the seaside all these years without learning something!”
“I wonder if they’ve had Big Cat sightings on Holy Island?” said Misty. (Big Cats were becoming something of an obsession with Misty lately).
“I’ve never heard of them up here”, I said, although my knowledge of Big Cat locations was sketchy to say the least “I think they’re a West Country phenomenon”.
“Not true”, said Misty, swivelling his little head to face me and fixing me with his little cartoon stare “They’ve been seen all over the place. I read in the newspaper before we left home that there have been over 2000 sightings of them all over Britain in the past 2 years! I hope we see a puma”.
“What the blazes do you want to see a puma for?” I said.
“It would be interesting”, said Misty.
“That’s one way of putting it!” I said.
We approached the causeway leading across to Holy Island, and my artist’s heart ached with the atmospheric beauty of it all. I loved anything to do with the seaside: causeways, lighthouses, Martello towers, groynes etc. Fortunately Misty shared my love, and so we were able to decide, when we set off for our pilgrimage, that we would stick to the coastline of Britain as much as possible, only to be diverted inland for our ultimate destination, Loch Ness. Three days earlier we had left our little cottage at Shinglesea Beach, (with Henry Temple in charge, if you’ve already read about him you’ll understand why I had a few reservations about this) and we were now on the coastline of Northumbria. Our transportation wasn’t all that I would have desired. It was an ancient Dormobile, which looked exactly like something out of some old hippy film. I sometimes felt we should have painted big flowers on it, and perched at the back eating lentil soup. We would have fitted in well at Glastonbury, or Avebury on May Day or Halloween.
Even an ancient clapped-out vehicle though couldn’t rob us of the feeling of total freedom that we had. It’s so immensely hard for anyone to get freedom these days, and although I occasionally worried about our little house back at Shinglesea Beach, I still revelled in the sensation I had had as we drove North of feeling like some Medieval Chaucerian pilgrim, off to find the answers to life on our journey up the country. Misty is the perfect companion for me at all times, (I’ve been reluctant to reveal my name in previous stories, because the coupling of Gray and Misty makes us sound like a weather report!) but since we had taken to the road that feeling had become magnified. He could be a cantankerous little sod at times, but I fully admit that’s because I can be maddening. (I wouldn’t recommend that anybody lives with an artist!). But he was also hugely resilient and he never whined. I certainly don’t mean anything disparaging about him when I say that he’s like a faithful, loveable little hound. One who might growl sometimes with displeasure, but who will never leave your side.
My feelings of romance about Holy Island didn’t last beyond the causeway unfortunately. It was frantically busy for one thing. I had seriously thought that on an ordinary working Monday it might be quiet there, but like just about everywhere else in Britain, it was jammed to the gills with people. The abbey museum was good, although even in there it was hard to get away from a bunch of pensioners grumbling about the price of everything they came across. I wanted to tour Lindisfarne Castle, because it was where Roman Polanski’s ’Cul-de-Sac’ had been filmed, and had to put up with being followed around by a chinless wonder braying incessantly at his longsuffering friends (usually dismally unfunny jokes about the Royal Family). By the time we had reached the entrance steps on our way back I thought I would kill him if I had to put up with him any longer. To this day I still don’t understand why none of his friends simply didn’t yell at him to SHUT UP! It was impossible to conjure up images of Donald Pleasance in a nightie with this dipstick around! He couldn’t have been more full of himself if he’d been a politician!
“I think he heard that last comment you made”, said Misty, as we walked back along the path to the village.
“Is that why he’s actually shut up for the past 2 minutes!” I said.
“You let these people rile you too much”, said Misty.
“That’s because wherever we go there’s always some irritating bastard like him around trying to ruin it for us!” I said.
“You should just ignore them”, said Misty “I do, and people are always saying naff things about me”.
“Who?” I said, aggressively, ready to swing for them “Has anybody said anything since we arrived here?”
“No”, Misty sighed “I mean in life generally”.
We went into a gift-shop, because Misty wanted a booklet about the ghosts and legends of Northumbria, and when we came out, a wedding-party was returning from the castle, and heading into a nearby pub. I must have been in a sour old grot by this time, because all I could think was that the bride looked unspeakably smug and pleased with herself, as though she’d just landed the biggest catch on the river-bank.
“Did they get married at the castle?” said Misty (although I couldn’t remember seeing them there, and the castle is actually quite poky, you couldn’t mislay a large group of people in it too easily) “People can get married anywhere these days can’t they?”
“I’m not sure about ‘anywhere’”, I said “But certainly most places”.
“We will be getting married soon won‘t we?” he said.
“As soon as possible”, I said.
“Back at Shinglesea though”, he said “Then again, I don’t suppose it would make much difference to us though”.
“In practical ways it would”, I said “It means that if anything happened to me, you could inherit ’Barnacles’, and all my work, for what it’s worth! But it means you would be taken care of financially”.
“That isn’t what I meant it for!” he said, his eyes flashing angrily, and any moment now I expected him to start cracking his knuckles.
“I know you didn’t”, I said, as though I was trying to soothe a fractious racehorse before shoving it into the stalls “But it does worry me sometimes what will happen to you … if anything happens to me”.
“Don’t talk like that!” he said “I was trying to be romantic, and you had to go and ruin it all by talking about money! I’m really cross with you!”
Fortunately it started raining at that point, otherwise we’d probably have been standing there all afternoon, arguing the toss. And it rained hard. Rushing back to the camper-van at least worked some of the aggression out of Misty, and by the time we did get back there we had to change our clothes, or at least as much of them as we could decently manage. I put our shoes to dry on the dash-board, and joked that that should deter any thieves!
The rain was relentless from that moment on. It looked set in for the afternoon. I suggested that we stop at a convenient place for some lunch, and then find somewhere else convenient to stop for the night. Our lunching-spot turned out to be the bar of a pleasantly down-to-earth hotel in a little town near the moors. For a refreshing change, this place wasn’t jammed packed with visitors, and the only people there were a handful of softly-spoken Geordies. It was so damn relaxing and cosy in that bar, that I felt we could have spent the rest of the afternoon in there with the others, watching old episodes of ’Murder She Wrote’ on the big television. But the evening beckoned, and we had to find somewhere to park our van.
“Let’s head right up onto the moors”, said Misty “It’ll be romantic up there in this”.
“It’ll be blue murder travelling up there in this!” I said, but I thought, oh what the hell. It was very wet, but it wasn’t cold. And we could soon get snug in the camper-van.
“There’s an old ruined house up on the moors”, said Misty, now in the passenger seat with his feet on the dashboard, as we drove through the blinding rain. He was reading the booklet we had bought on Holy Island “It was built nearly 300 years ago, and it’s supposed to be very unlucky. Nobody who has lived there has ever had any good luck”.
“You’d be amazed how many old houses that’s been said about “, I said.
I winced as we passed a bridge over a river which had the horrible name of ‘Cancer Bridge’. Why on earth would anybody call a bridge that? I thought, unless it was something to do with the Latin for ’crab’. Even so, why hadn’t they changed it? The rain was appalling, and I said to Misty that we couldn’t keep going for much longer. We would have to find somewhere convenient to stop. The few vehicles that we did pass already seemed to have given up the ghost, their occupants were sat parked glumly at the sides of the narrow roads.
The village of Haltmoor was where Tara Mitchell had originally hailed from, and where she had caused havoc before she descended upon Fobbington. It was a cluster of cottages arranged along the side of the road facing a hotel called (rather oddly) Gallow’s Trot. The hotel was a magnificent, rambling affair, built over many centuries ( I was later to find out that the oldest part dated back nearly a 1000 years).
“We can’t afford to stay here”, said Misty, in alarm “It probably costs an arm and a leg!”
“I know”, I said “But if we ask them nicely they might let us use their car-park for the night. They don’t exactly seem to be packed out do they?”
There were only a handful of other cars in the car-park, some of which I assumed belonged to the staff. We ran blindly across it through the rain, and round to the front of the building to the main entrance. The building was even more rambling on the inside than it had appeared on the outside. A narrow corridor led us to a back room, where a woman was sitting behind a reception desk, mending the hem of a curtain. I threw ourselves on her mercy.
“Why don’t you stay here?” she said “We’re not very full this evening”.
I decided that honesty was the best policy, and confessed that I doubted we could afford their rates.
“We do a very reasonable deal”, she said, instantly slapping a tariff sheet down in front of me “Half-board”. And she named a price that took some believing.
Even so, I still wasn’t certain. The money we had had to last us for the rest of our little pilgrimage round Britain. I looked at Misty, who was looking like a bedraggled puppy that some kind soul had taken in out of the storm.
“OK”, I said “We’ll take it”.
This of course meant another dash out into the rain to collect our overnight things. Back in the hotel again an elderly man had appeared, with a shock of hair and a blue-bloodied accent. He immediately tried to wrest my overnight bag from me. As he was a good 35 years older than me, I felt it was a bit of a cheek for me to expect him to carry my bag upstairs for me, and I tried to hang onto it.
“No no”, he said, firmly “I shall take it”.
He took Misty’s as well, and we followed him, laden up like a pack-mule, into the depths of the building. Through another back room, up a staircase, down a corridor, through a sitting-room, up another staircase, and we were finally in our room. This turned out to be right at the top of the building, which was a relief to me, as I hate people clumping about overhead when I stay in hotels. It never fails that I always seem to get a room directly beneath a raging insomniac with too much energy!
Misty was saucer-eyed when he saw the room, and no wonder. It was huge, with a massive raftered ceiling. A four-poster that could comfortably accommodate four healthy-sized people, and deep windows with thick, brocaded curtains.
“This is incredible”, I said “I’ve never stayed in a room like this before”.
This tickled the old man, even though he must have heard people say it a hundred times before. He gave me complicated directions on how to find the main bar and the restaurant, which I completely forgot as soon as he had said it. “There’s a graveyard next door!” said Misty, who had disappeared into one of the window alcoves.
“Good”, I said “We shan’t have any trouble with the neighbours then!”
We were overlooking a churchyard, which, in the driving rain, couldn’t have looked more atmospheric if it tried.
“What a shame we’re only staying here one night”, said Misty.
“Yes”, I said “We’d better make the most of it”.
I noticed that there was a complimentary bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream on the wash-stand. I hadn’t drunk sherry since family Christmasses when I was a child, but as it appeared to be on the house, I opened it up, and poured us out a couple of schooners.
“Incredible”, I said, after having had my first snort “I feel like Jane Eyre arriving at Thornfield”.
“Some places this remote wouldn’t have let us in”, said Misty “Not us two. People in the country can be peculiar”.
“Well this lot did”, I said “So let’s just enjoy ourselves”.
We explored as much of the building as we could on our long trek down to find the main bar. In one of the ground-floor rooms we had come through on our way up, we stood in the huge empty fireplace and looked upwards. Immediately above us was a ledge with a chair and a lamp on it.
“And old priests-hole”, I said, and I had to explain to Misty what these had been used for.
“What if somebody had gone and lit the fire?” he asked.
“Sometimes the search-party did”, I said “To literally smoke them out”.
I don’t intend to be a pessimist, but sometimes I get nervous when it looks as though things are going too well. I’m just not used to it I guess. When we finally located the main bar though, at the other end of the building, normality reared its ugly head. There was a party of about half-a-dozen men in there, and they were already well on their way to loaded. I later found out that they were here on some off-the-road driving jolly. Scaring the shit out of everything on the moors by racing Big Boys’ Toys across them. Fortunately, most of them seemed to be too interested in drinking to bother with me and Misty, but there was one feller I did not like the look of. He was quite a bit older than the rest, and although he certainly wasn’t a big bloke, he had ’bully’ written all over them. I’ve built up quite a reliable bully radar over the years, and there is one type of them I particularly cannot abide. This is the yappy little man, the one who makes a lot of noise to cover up for his own insecurities and inadequacies. This guy fitted that bill.
I had a feeling that there might be trouble when he kept looking across at me and Misty after he’d said anything. When the waitress brought out our menu’s for us to browse, and she asked us whether we’d like to eat in the bar or the restaurant, I emphatically pronounced the restaurant as our chosen destination. I didn’t care if it did turn out to be more expensive, because I was certain that this lot would want to hog the bar all evening.
Whilst Misty was still deliberating over duck or chicken for his main course, I read up on the history of the hotel on one of those sheets of paper such places often tuck into the front or the back of their menu’s. The hotel had once been a monastery, but at the Reformation had passed into the hands of an influential local family who had owned it until the early years of the 18th century, and then it had become an inn. It acquired its gruesome name because for a while it had been a handy stopping-place for local officials who were ferrying gangs of convicts to be hanged on the gallows up on the surrounding moor-land. The hapless individuals sentenced to be hanged would be housed in one of the outbuildings overnight, manacled to the beams, whilst presumably their captors enjoyed the inn’s hospitality. When the convicts were cut down, after several days of serving as bird food, their coffins would also be stored here. And so, children, that’s how the inn had acquired its unsavoury name.
Of course the inn was rumoured to be haunted. It was said that on some nights you could hear the plaintive cry of the doomed people manacled together in the outhouse (which, just for the record, was now the new accommodation block). I don’t normally take any notice of ghost stories, particularly ones like this which are just there to add spice to a business. But my own brush with the Unexplained in recent months had left me feeling uneasy about the paranormal. It didn’t help that Misty had badgered me into going to see a medium and fortune-teller, who had her own tent at the Fobbington Summer Festival just before we left home. She had done the usual thing, telling me I enjoyed a good and long-lasting relationship (which she could have guessed from looking outside and seeing Misty waiting for me), and that I was very blessed by having kind spirits watching over me on The Other Side, but that sometimes they might not always come to my rescue until the last minute (couldn‘t help thinking of James Stewart and his little offbeat guardian angel in “It‘s A Wonderful Life”!). But then, just as I thanked her and got up to leave, she had grasped my hand and said to me, in all seriousness that I was to avoid séances, as it was very likely that negative astral forces would try and come through to manipulate me.
Normally such a remark would have provoked the silent response from me of “tosh!” and “piffle!” (or words to that effect), and as I had never been to a séance in my entire life, and had never had any inclination to do so, avoiding them shouldn’t be too hard. But our recent adventures and that damn jar which had buried under the rowan tree in our back garden, (and which was now secreted in an old iron posting-box in our van) had knocked some of the blasé attitude out of me these days when it came to the supernatural.
I was so sunk in this reverie that I nearly jumped out of my skin when the waitress appeared to escort us up to the restaurant, which meant another lengthy traipse along corridors and staircases.
The restaurant at ‘Gallow’s Trot’ was a large, attractive room, hung with huge pictures of people long-since departed from us, and large sash windows overlooking the moors. Apart from us, the only other people in there was a retired couple, and a Frenchman, who was making an inordinate amount of fuss about wanting to order breakfast early the next morning. He said he only wanted something very simple indeed, and then proceeded to roll off a list of requirements that sounded like he was restocking the local supermarket!
“Eerie up here on a night like this”, I said to the young waiter, as the wind shrieked round the building.
“You wanna try being up here in a thunderstorm!” he replied.
“Can we see that house from here?” said Misty, peering out through the nearest window.
“You won’t be able to see a damn thing on a night like this!” I said “Just big black shapes, and that’ll be the moors”.
“Can we try and find it tomorrow?” he asked.
“I thought we were pressing on into Scotland tomorrow”, I said “It’ll just be a ruin, Misty, that’s if there’s anything left there at all”.
“The old wolf-shelter?” said the young Geordie lad, who had been serving us “It’s up just above us. You won’t be able to see it tonight though”.
“Wolf-shelter?” I said.
“That’s what it was way back in Medieval times”, he said “For people who got stuck up on the moors overnight. And then, after the wolves died out, it became a farmhouse like, and now it’s just a load of old stones”.
“But it has legends attached to it”, said Misty.
“Doesn’t everywhere?” I said.
“Tale has it that the feller who lived there, centuries back”, said the young lad “Turned away a tramp who came begging, and not only that but he set his pack of dogs on him, and tore him to pieces”.
“Why did he do that?” said Misty.
“Because the feller thought the tramp was a Scots spy”, said our waiter.
“Oh, the Jacobite Rebellion and all that”, I said “Bonnie Prince Charlie and 1745”.
“And the tramp was said to have cursed the house and everyone who would ever live in it”, said the young lad “Before he died of course”.
“Of course”, I said, thinking how remarkably convenient it was in these hoary old legends, that wronged people were always given protracted death scenes in which to lay down big curses. I find it hard to believe that if the poor old soul really had been ripped to death by a pack of hounds, that he would have had much time to say anything very coherent!
“Misty”, I said, after our waiter had gone to serve the pensioners “We are going to hear a lot of this sort of thing as we travel round the country. You really can’t afford to believe everything you hear”.
“Oh now you’re gonna go all stern on me”, Misty groaned.
“I’m not going stern”, I said “I’m just saying you should be a bit more circumspect about what you fill your head with. You know how upset you get sometimes”.
I thought he was going to get pretty upset then, with me. But fortunately our food came out, and our wine, and we got very pleasantly pissed.
The hotel had thoughtfully provided us with hot-water bottles in our rooms, and I was busy sorting these out when we first returned up there. When I had tucked them into the four-poster, I looked round and thought that Misty had disappeared. It turned out that the little so-and-so was hiding in one of the window recesses. He slyly peeked out through the thick curtains.
“Oh it’s you”, I said “What a surprise! I thought it might be one of the ghosts!”
Misty giggled uncontrollably, and eventually I managed to shovel him into bed. I then proceeded to take all my clothes off. Whilst I was doing so the wardrobe door creaked open. Misty gave a short cry of alarm, but I pointed out that it hadn’t been latched properly.
“How many old ghost stories have really been due to old buildings and furniture which creak and groan all the time”, I said “Let alone these days with central heating and the racket that can make!”
There was the sound of men’s voices shouting from outside. Although I was completely starkers by this time, I still went across to the window to look out. I doubted that anybody could see me up here. The idiots from the public bar were running across the back garden of the hotel, and must have got through a gate in the hedge, because the next moment they were running across the churchyard next door as well.
“What are they doing?” said Misty, from the four-poster.
“I don’t know”, I sighed “They must think they’re on a stag night or something!”
Then I noticed that the oldest guy, the one I had taken a dislike to on sight, was as butt-naked as myself. I caught a glimpse of his weedy physique as he ran out of sight around the corner of the Church, hotly pursued by the others.
“The silly sod”, I said, returning to the bed “He’ll catch his death in this weather!”
“I suppose we’ll have to put up with loads of that sort whilst we’re travelling”, said Misty.
“They’re everywhere”, I said.
Normally I would have slept like a baby after an enjoyable time with Misty. It wasn’t just a releasing of pressure to make love to him, but a soothing of the spirit as well, and Lord knows, my spirit had been mightily troubled these past few months. I woke up twice in the night, and both times I felt disturbed. The first time I heard a horrific shrieking noise outside, which seemed to run across the moors towards us, getting louder and louder. Eventually it passed down the street outside the hotel, and away across the moors to the north.
“It must have been an owl”, I told myself, but I was far from certain.
I dozed for a while, acutely aware of the heavy silence in the countryside around us. When I came to again, it was to hear a rustling noise coming from our bathroom, as if somebody was poking around in the fixtures and fittings, and examining our things. I prayed for sleep, and I prayed for the morning to come. When I did finally sleep I dreamt that I was attending a public execution. I couldn’t see who it was who was being hanged, but I vividly recalled the hatred in the eyes of the spectators.
Misty was making coffee when I next woke, and it was with unbearable relief that I saw it was finally daylight.
“Have you been into the bathroom?” I asked, sitting up in the four-poster.
“Yes”, said Misty, in his worn old bath-robe “To fill the kettle. You look awful”.
“Thank you, oh light of my life”, I said, aware that nothing could have been wildly out of place in the bathroom or Misty would have reported it to me.
“What a shame we can’t stay another night”, said Misty.
“I can’t wait to get on the road”, I said.
I showered, and looked out over the moors whilst I showered. It was all very beautiful in the watery sunshine. Misty was packing up our things in the bedroom, and I could tell that he was very excited about the day ahead. I was busily trying to compose myself. I had looked forward to this trip for so long, for months on end. But now that it had begun I found I had the very real fear that I was cracking up. That feelings and thoughts were coming to the surface that had been kept tightly under control by everyday life. Frighteningly, it seemed as though hysteria wasn’t far from my surface.
The dining-room at breakfast was also a haven of normality. The retired couple at the next table greeted us politely, and said that they had decided to be reckless and stop for another night. Normally I would have appreciated their friendliness, but this time I couldn’t help thinking that they had probably been speculating as to the exact nature of Misty and I’s relationship. What the hell was the matter with me? I wouldn’t normally be this paranoid! I had religiously trained myself over the years to stop regarding what other people thought.
At the table nearest the door was sat the Big Boys’ Toys crowd, minus one. The yappy older man, the one I had seen late last night in the altogether, was missing. Nobody seemed to be concerned about his absence, and they were all nursing hangovers.
“Did any of you lot come into my room last night, about 3 o’clock, and walk around?” one of them suddenly asked. When nobody replied he muttered, almost to himself “This place is supposed to be haunted isn’t it?”
Our bags were already packed up. I deposited Misty in the first-floor sitting-room, and said I would go up and bring them down. The room was exactly as we had left it, I hadn’t the faintest idea what it was I thought I was going to find. I made sure that we had everything, and then went back down the stairs directly outside our door. When I got to the bottom, I put one of the bags down to adjust my load, and heard a strange noise coming from the little dark landing above me. It sounded like something with hooves was stamping around on the bare floorboards. What the hell made me think of the Great God Pan I don’t know, but that was the thought that instantly came into my head.
“Shit, I’ve had enough of this place!” I thought. No doubt there’s a perfectly logical explanation for everything, but when you put it all together, like Shirley Jackson’s masterly description of Hill House, it all added up to one big distortion as a whole.
I might have known that Misty would start harping on about that old ruin the minute we got out to the car-park. This time I put on my firmest voice with him, and I didn’t care if he did go into a sulk.
“No”, I said “We’re going to press on into Scotland today. I’m not pissing about round here anymore”.
“But it won’t take 5 minutes”, Misty protested.
“Misty”, I said, slamming our bags into the back of the camper-van “By the time this whole trip is over you will have had old ruins coming out of your ears! You’re not going to suffer unduly through missing one, now get into the front”.
By the time I joined him I could see that he was weepy. His eyes were brimming over, and his bottom lip was trembling. I knew instinctively that this wasn’t because he had been deprived of a trip to the ruin, but because I had spoken at my most sharpest to him.
“I’m not cross with you, Misty”, I said, caressing the steering-wheel “It’s just that coming here has brought it home to me how important it is that we find a permanent resting-place for that damn jar!”
“We’ve made ourselves vulnerable to the Evil”, said Misty.
“Yes, that’s exactly it”, I said, thinking of what the Medium at the Summer Festival had said to me.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t go to Loch Ness”, he said.
“Oh”, I gave a much-needed laugh “No need to worry about Nessie. That kind of supernatural I can deal with, it’s just a bit of fun, but this place and its unsavoury history is something else. And I don’t want to go and look round old buildings where everybody who has lived there has suffered bad luck!”
“You should have explained it that way to me before”, he said “I understand. That place wouldn’t suit you at all, not the way you are at the moment. Did you know people used to say the Devil lived there at one time? According to that little book you bought me anyway”.
“The Devil certainly got around”, I said “He popped up all over the British countryside!”
Then I thought of the hooves I had heard on the landing inside the hotel.
“Oh fuck!” I whispered.
“What’s the matter?” he said, putting his little hand on my arm.
“Nothing, nothing”, I said, hastily “I thought I had left something in the hotel, but I haven’t. Come on, let’s get going”.
As we drove North over the moors I saw a fox which had drowned in the heavy, torrential rain of last night, lying by the side of the road. I was to be reminded of it again when we stopped for lunch at a pub near the Border, which was jammed packed with fox-hunting memorabilia, including a stuffed fox in a glass case. To add to the horrid surreal ness of the entire experience, they had something like “Jive Bunny Does Christmas“ playing in the background! I hoped Misty hadn’t seen the poor dead animal in the road, because it would upset him, but instead he was pointing out a rainbow which was ahead of us. It was quite the most spectacular one I had ever seen.
The last few days of my job were distressing. It coincided with an old guest of ours at the prison, a woman called Karen, being let out again after yet another short, but pointless, sentence. In my final conversation I pleaded with her to see sense, and not go back to the man who was usually the cause of all her downfalls. This man was a skinny, bald-headed, ageing dipstick, who also just happened to be a complete and utter psychopath. Whenever Karen had threatened to leave him in the past, he had always promised some vile retribution on her if she did so. This time I made a last ditch attempt to save her. Once again I strongly recommended that she seek sanctuary in a women’s refuge. She laughed in my face. Told me that she knew he wasn’t up to much, as men went, but that at least his antics gave her something to talk about. Faced with such a depressing logic I knew I had to turn my back on my career as a prison officer once and for all. I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was going to do instead. In the meantime the holiday was dominating all my thoughts.
Somehow, through some curious grapevine, Aleck’s mother found out about our plans. She immediately bombarded me with phone calls and letters, coming out with the most preposterous things. She claimed that I had kidnapped Aleck, and that she was going to hire a helicopter and air-lift him out of my house! I had long suspected that Suzanne Lacey wasn’t the full picnic, but this only confirmed it! When this ridiculous nonsense didn’t work, she fell back on the usual feminine wiles of insulting me instead. Said did I honestly think that an attractive young man like Aleck was going to stay with some old hag who was 30 years his senior. If an insult is to work properly it must completely take you by surprise, and as I had been fully expecting these ones they had no sting.
Aleck was a man of few words. The 18 short years of his life had been lonely ones. He had learnt to be introverted and secretive at an early age, hiding his true feelings to himself. Some of the things he had witnessed in his mother’s palatial but loveless house would have thoroughly soured a lot of young people, made him overly cynical before his time. But Aleck seemed to have expunged a lot through the violent tantrums he had thrown as a child, and now just wanted a period of calm. He showed a quiet deference towards me that, in any other man, I might have found exasperating. He sought my opinion on everything, asked my permission even to pop down the road to the shops. I realised that he was seeking a mother substitute in me. That he wanted the attention from me that Suzanne had been too busy (and too bonkers, quite frankly) to give him. I didn’t mind. I had never had children of my own, and it gave me a kick to actually be able to help somebody to sort out their life. It made a refreshing change, considering how many like Karen I had come up against!
“We’ll leave for Scotland right now”, he said to me, the evening I came home after my very last shift at the prison “Well not RIGHT NOW, but you know what I mean. SHE won’t be able to find us then”.
And yes, we did feel like we were running away. A crazy feeling considering Aleck was 18, and his mother had absolutely no legal rights over him any more. The further we got away from the South of England the more exhilarated we felt. We were moving away from the reach of the Wicked Witch. One day we stopped for lunch at a pub just over the Scottish border. This was a strange little place, situated not far from a busy dual carriageway, and yet feeling as though it was at the ends of the Earth. The small bar was occupied only by some grumpy-looking middle-aged men, and I felt uncomfortable walking in there, as though we were stuck in some time-warp from the bad old days whereby no self-respecting woman would walk into any pub! The clock behind the bar was one of those joke shop ones that runs backwards, which only added to the Twilight Zone feel of the entire place.
Whilst we were eating the cheese-and-tomato sandwiches we had ordered, one of the other customers, a man in a boiler suit, walked out of the pub, and then came back in again, to say that there appeared to be something wrong with my camper-van. I admit I panicked. For some crazy reason I felt as though we were on the set of a Scottish version of ’Deliverance’, and that our car had been wrecked on purpose to keep us there! Not only that, but if we broke down here, I didn’t feel we were far enough away from Suzanne’s clutches.
All the men in the pub insisted on trooping out to have a look at my camper-van. I was mightily relieved to discover that it was only some trivial leakage from the air conditioning system, nothing that would prevent us from travelling on ever northwards. In my silly reaction to finding out that this was only what it was (generated by relief) I must have seemed a right daft chump. The men didn’t say anything though, probably just assumed I was some poncey English Southerner who over-reacts to everything, and went back inside. I had got so used to seeing only the negative side of my people in my job that I simply didn’t recognise it when somebody was doing me a kindness!!!
“We might lose the radio once we really get into the Highlands”, I said to Misty, as we drove along “The mountains will start blocking it out”.
In the meantime a girl was singing some folksy little number, moaning on about how she wished she had been born many years before in a kinder, more caring time (there never was one, sweetheart, have you never heard the expression ‘distance lends enchantment‘?!). Her constant refrain was that she wished she had been a punk rocker, back in 1969, with flowers in her hair. The massive inaccuracy of this whingeing little ditty was annoying the living crap out of me.
“Punk hadn’t even been invented back in 1969, not to the best of my knowledge anyway!” I said “And even if it had I can’t remember many punk rockers wearing flowers in their hair!”
“I keep thinking she’s singing ’I wish I’d been a prawn cracker’!” said Misty.
“Well it would make about as much sense as anything else!” I said.
The temperatures, which had been hot and humid so far on our travels, plummeted right down to 12 degrees (Centigrade) when we hit the foggy wastes of Glencoe. But it didn’t matter. Misty was totally awed by the landscape we drove through. He had never seen anything like it. It made our little downlands back home look like something out of Teletubby land.
“It’s like being on the surface of another planet!” he said.
“You wait til you see Loch Ness”, I said “It’ll astound you”.
Mountains of this size and scale were completely new to him, and it tickled me to see his awestruck wonder. The further north we drove the more surreal and edge-of-the-world it all felt. The temperatures rose again as we headed out of Fort William and on the lengthy, quiet roads towards Fort Augustus, the small town which sat at the extreme western tip of Loch Ness. The Summer sunshine was clearly getting to some people. A bunch of lads charged across the road in front of us, tore off their shoes, and jumped off the bridge and into the river at one point.
“We’ll have an early dinner here”, I said, as we parked in the town “Pick up a few supplies, and then go and look for somewhere to camp for the night”.
“Will it be alright for us to hold hands when we’re walking around up here?” said Misty.
“I don’t know”, I said “Hold onto my sleeve for the time being”.
Our first port-of-call was the Tourist Information Centre, to get our bearings really. The fact that they had a sheet of paper pinned to the wall listing all the recent Monster sightings sent Misty into a delighted fit of the giggles. I got the impression that he thought we had strayed onto the working set of a ’Doctor Who’ production.
“Did all these people really see the Monster?” he said.
“I expect an awful lot was just confusion”, I said “What a lot of them would have seen was logs sticking out of the water, or the end of a fishing-boat in the far distance”.
I thought this was a fairly harmless statement really (particularly when you compare it to many that I make in public!), but it clearly upset a bloke standing nearby. This middle-aged guy had a truly impressive beard, a real bushy down-to-the-chest effort, complete with full head of thick, wavy hair. He looked like a cross between a well-preserved Santa Claus and the late Willie Rushton.
“It’s a ….” and he rattled off what sounded like the name of a dinosaur, but I didn’t quite catch it. Then, as if to illustrate his point, he gestured at one of the more recent sightings, where somebody described in minute detail the huge, thick leathery hide of the creature they had seen.
“That were no log nor fishing-boat”, he said, fiercely.
Well no, when you come to read it, it doesn’t sound like it at all. Normally though I would have said that I needed a bit more convincing than one brief sighting seen by somebody at 5 o’clock in the morning, but Misty was looking at me in dismay, obviously convinced I was going to cause A Scene already, and leave him squirming with embarrassment when we had only just 5 minutes ago arrived in the place. I said I would to take him to the restaurant by the locks for tea, and I could feel The Bearded One glaring at me fiercely as I left the building.
“Sod’s Law will dictate that I will keep seeing him up here wherever we go for the rest of the holiday now!” I said.
The banks of the canal locks were thronged with people enjoying the sunshine. There was a Dutch sailing-party, who were all kitted out in identical outfits, and the chef at the restaurant sleeping off a hangover.
“This place is starting to remind me of Shinglesea!” I said, as we passed his recumbent form.
“Good”, said Misty “We won’t feel too homesick then”.
We ordered a couple of cottage pies in the pine-stripped interior (somebody had to go outside and nudge the chef into a conscious state). Whilst we were waiting, out of sheer force of habit, I checked my phone for text messages, and was irritated to find one from Henry, waffling on about how the Loch Ness Monster was probably a dinosaur, and that dinosaurs were Satanic creatures, and he could give me Biblical quotes to back that up if I required them. I most certainly did not require them! I sent him a terse message back to say that he was only supposed to contact me if there was something wrong at ’Barnacles’ that I needed to know about.
“He gets more bonkers with each day that passes!” I said, switching my phone off “I’m going to deliberately let the battery run down if he keeps that up!”
“That reminds me though”, said Misty, dropping his voice to a whisper “We’d better be careful nobody nicks our van. What if they ran off with that jar?”
“That would solve our problems wouldn’t it!” I said.
“Not if they opened it it wouldn’t!” he said “And where ARE we gonna dispose of it?”
“An idea will come to me, eventually”, I said, with a spectacular lack of confidence in my own words!
We had an overnight stop in Lytham St Annes on the way, putting up a reasonably good hotel run by two gays, and catering almost entirely for pensioners (apart from us that is). Al had been hoping that we could discuss the trip in better detail when we all went out for a meal, but the packed-out Italian restaurant we chose was plagued with such lousy acoustics that we had to yell above the din to make ourselves heard. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that every 5 minutes (or so it felt like) we all had to join in a rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” to somebody we had never met, and were very unlikely to ever meet again! There was no possibility of not joining in this enforced jollity, as the Manager would get up on a chair and shout at everybody to join in singing for “little Ashley’s 10th birthday” or some such nonsense. It was Hell.
“At least we might get a good night’s sleep in the hotel”, I said.
Evening meals there were served at the unearthly hour of 6 PM, so I assumed that all the old dodderers would be staggering up to bed at 9 o’clock, armed with a glass of hot milk and a digestive biscuit. No such luck. We were woken up soon after 2 o’clock by a whole gang of them returning from a night’s clubbing! We had been allocated two rooms, one a single, and the other a twin-bedded. Al had commandeered the single one on the grounds that he was paying for most of the trip, and he was the oldest. Sharing with a live-wire like Jason is not easy. Even by the time he decided to settle down and at least make some attempt to get some sleep, he insisted on having the overnight fan on all night. This contraption was not only ancient and very noisy, but it was wired to the overhead light, so it meant we had to have that on all night as well.
I was not in a good mood the next day. “Cheer up”, said Al, who was driving on our final leg of the journey “You’ll feel better when we get to the Highlands, more space for a start”.
Actually Al’s cheerfulness was my consolation at the moment. Now that the job had got underway, he was starting to enjoy himself. The breakdown he had had at home seemed to be receding into the distance with every mile we drove. When we got past Fort William I began to get the buzz too. I wasn’t fussed whether I saw Nessie or not quite frankly, but it was a break from the norm, a holiday. I wasn’t sitting in that bloody air-conditioned office anymore, pretending to look busy whilst I tried to silently annihilate zombies on my computer screen!
Jason was sitting in the back of the van, amongst all our luggage. He had been reading his text messages.
“Hey, there’s one from Gary Sanderson”, he said.
“Delete it then”, I muttered under my breath.
“He says he wants really good pictures of the Loch Ness Monster”, said Jason “No fakes, no load of old shite, he says, he wants the real thing”.
“Has he ever thought of asking politely?” said Al.
“That is what Gary Sanderson is like all the time”, I said, grimly.
“Sounds a right obnoxious little pillock”, said Al.
(YES! VINDICATION FOR ME AT LAST!).
“And does he think Nessie’s just going to appear to be photographed just because he’s demanded it?” said Al.
“That is Gary Sanderson all over”, I said.
“We’ll get one of those big blow-up Nessies you can get”, Al laughed “And photograph that for him!”
Before going up to our self-catering accommodation, we drove round the other side of the Loch to Drumnadrochit, to have a look at the Nessie exhibition before it closed for the evening. The three of us sat all by ourselves in a cinema auditorium whilst we watched some crackly old film of a bloke in a kilt waxing lyrical about the history of the Loch, accompanied by bagpipe music. The end of the film showed a stretch limo turning up at the Loch-side, and a bearded old geezer in a red dressing-gown getting out. He proceeded to wave one of those incense burners on a chain about, the sort that you get in some church ceremonies. It turned out that he was meant to be some kind of warlock or medium, and he was exorcising the Loch.
“Oh well if that’s the case”, said Al “We might as well all go home!”
Fortunately he wasn’t being serious. Whilst we were in the whisky shop, picking up essential supplies, he had a phone call from the owner of the holiday let. My heart sank. I thought there might be a problem, a double-booking for instance.
“Weird”, said Al, when he was able to talk to us “He says we can take it for as long as we like”.
“Doesn’t anybody else want it this Summer then?” said Jason.
“I don’t like the sound of that!” I said “What’s wrong with it?”
“Don’t know”, Al shrugged “Weird conversation. I think he’s quite an old geezer, doesn’t live in the area anymore, he’s out at Fort William. Probably the place is just a burden to him, and he wants somebody to take it off his hands for a few weeks”.
“What did you say to him?” said Jason.
“I said we’d let him know at the end of the week”, said Al “We’d better see how the next few days pan out. Very reasonable rates he’s offered us though”.
“Sounds alright don’t it!” said Jason, who is ever the optimist (I once heard the expression that an incurable optimist is somebody who, on getting a big bag of horse-shit dumped on his doorstep, figures that they just forgot to send him the horse. That is our Jason for you!) “A big house like that all for us for as long as we want it! Sounds great!”
“When something sounds too good to be true”, I intoned “It’s usually because it is!”
“You need to lighten up you do!” said Jason, laughing.
“Anyway we’d better get over there”, said Al “It’ll take us a while to drive all round to the other side of the Loch, and the housekeeper’s waiting there to give us the keys apparently”.
It took us nearly an hour to drive round the perimeter of the Loch, round through Fort Augustus, and then along the long, wild and empty road past Whitebridge, and into the Farigaig Forest which lay between the tiny hamlet of Errogie at the top and Easter Boleskine, perched overlooking the Loch, at the bottom. We turned off into an even more secluded road, which wound through the woods. We had been sent detailed instructions as to how to find Ghyll House, once we had passed the Foyers turning on the main road.
“It shouldn’t be hard to miss out here”, said Al “A big house like that. It’s not as if this is a heavily built-up area is it!”
We passed a fairly big house standing in the bend of the road as it wound on up to Errogie. But it plainly wasn’t our holiday let, as it was completely derelict, with broken windows and a decaying roof. Instead we branched off, leaving that road behind, and embarked on what was little more than a wide footpath. We bumped and scraped along here for what felt like an age. When we did finally reach the end of it, I have to say that Ghyll House was one of the ugliest looking houses I have ever seen.
I’m not an expert on architecture, but I found out later that it was built in the late 18th century. It was large, solid, and completely square, box-like you could say, with no fuss or frills about it, apart from a Chinese-ish pagoda-style look to the roof. It’s windows were long, old-fashioned sash efforts with blinds pulled down halfway at them, giving the house a sort of exhausted, lugubrious look to it. The entire outside of the walls was plastered with some sort of dead creeper, making it look like the veins in a human body highlighted on some doctor’s map. To really add to the whole unlovely look of the place, somebody had erected a steel fence all round the outside of the house. As this barely came up to the ground floor windows, I don’t know what the point of it was, as it would have done naff all to keep out a determined intruder.
“Well it’s certainly large enough for us”, said Al.
I couldn’t think of anything to say at all. Even Jason just grunted. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that clouds had been gathering since our drive from Drumnadrochit, and were now hanging over it, blocking out what could have been a beautiful, long Highlands evening. For once, if Jason had remarked that this house was built over a portal to Hell, I don’t think I would have argued with him! (I wasn’t going to mention this though, as I had had a basinful of him wittering on about underwater caverns all the way around the Loch!). We sat there in the van, staring at it, none of us making any effort to get out and start sorting out the luggage.
The front door was a white-painted effort, with two long panes of glass in it, and was situated at the top of a short flight of stone steps. It opened, and the housekeeper came out to have a look at us. I think I was expecting some formidable, but kindly old Scottish lady, a bit like Mrs Doubtfire perhaps, this one looked more like a sour-faced Munchkin! I couldn’t tell how old she was, she could have been any age from 40 to 70. She was under 5 ft tall, and had a mouth that looked as though somebody had rammed a bag of lemons in there and left her to chew on them. Her hair was long and lifeless, and she wore a baggy, shapeless cardigan, several sizes too big for her, and carpet slippers.
“Miss Cooper?” said Al, uncertainly.
“S’right”, said Miss Cooper “I was expecting you ages ago”.
(There wasn’t a trace of Scots in her accent, more Cockney or Essex Estuary I would have said).
“I’m sorry if we’ve kept you waiting”, said Al “If you just want to hand the keys to us, we won’t hold you up any longer”.
She stared back at him blankly. I thought she was going to let rip at him.
“I live here”, she said, very ungraciously.
Jason’s face perfectly illustrated how I felt. OH FUCK! If she was permanently on the premises I can’t say it was very surprising then that (a) they had trouble letting the house, and (b) the owner chose to live in Fort William!
“I didn’t know there was somebody else in-situ”, said Al, and his voice had a dangerous strain in it. I mean, you have to see his point don’t you? When you book a holiday, you don’t expect to be sharing your accommodation with a woman who looked like Dame Edna’s gormless old bridesmaid, Madge!
“I have to be here”, she said “Somebody has to keep an eye on the place”.
She turned and went back into the house, leaving the front door open for us. Al turned to us to speak, but then plainly decided he wasn’t going to bother, and instead stooped to pick up his bags.
“Perhaps she’ll do all the cooking?” said Jason, trying to resurrect his optimism.
“In that case we’ll have eating out a lot!” Al growled.
“Round here?!” Jason sniggered.
“Look fellers”, I said, having to be the hearty, practical one as always (Christ, that really pisses me off no end sometimes!) “When we’ve unpacked, why don’t we go and have a drive down to that village, Foyers, that’s down by the Loch-side, get our bearings, see what there is there?”
“Sounds like a good idea”, said Al, gloomily.
I earmarked Foyers as the ideal place to pitch our Dormobile. We went over the map whilst we were in the restaurant at Fort Augustus, and I completely sold the idea of a village right by the Loch, complete with waterfall and woodlands, to Misty. We got there late afternoon, and drove down to the patch of open land, which was separated from the Loch by only a little copse of trees. I was slightly dismayed that somebody else had already beaten us to it, when we got there. There was a posher camper-van than ours (not that that would have been exactly hard!), which was being set up as we arrived. A tall, well-built woman was sorting out the canvas awning, and a skinny young lad was sitting on the grass, idly plucking out chords on a guitar. They looked about as pleased to see us as we were to see them!
“Do you know if we’re allowed to camp here?” the woman came over to us.
“I have no idea”, I said “I suppose we can just stay here until told otherwise. They must be used to Nessie-spotters pitching up everywhere around here”.
There are very few people these days that I take to on sight. I am a cynical, often world-weary old fart, but I liked Magda Kirk from the first moment we met. She had a compassionate look in her eye which spoke of someone who has seen a lot of pain, and largely managed to rise above it. Unlike so many these days she didn’t have the brash “fuck you, loser!” attitude that can make life such a drag for the rest of us. We fell into conversation almost immediately. A lot of our empathy for each other was, I know, due to our respective relationships with Misty and her young man, Aleck.
“I suppose it’s only natural that people always assuem he’s my son”, she said, as the two of us strolled down to the Loch-side “I’m nearly 30 years older than him. And I never quite know how to refer to him. Saying ’my lover’ always sounds so pretentious”.
“I never say that”, I said “It sounds too 1970s Gay Pride for my tastes. I tend to like what Sherlock Holmes would say when introducing Dr Watson: ’my trusted friend and companion’, or even ’my intimate friend and companion’. People can read what the hell they like into it then!”
“I like ’companion’”, said Magda “People always used to refer to Camilla as Prince Charles’s companion. Somebody recently suggested that I call him ’my boyfriend’, but I really do think that sounds ridiculous coming from a woman in her 40s!”
It turned out that she was very worried that Aleck’s mad mother would follow them up here.
“Who gives a stuff if she does?” I said, already prepared to go into battle for Magda “She’s got no hold over Aleck anymore. He’s 18, an adult in every way. Old enough to get married, leave home, vote, die for his country …”
“As so many are”, said Magda.
We had reached the little pier. Even the nearby presence of the aluminium works couldn’t disturb the beauty of this scene.
“It’s so quiet here”, said Magda “I can’t get over it. We’re most definitely not in the South of England!”
“I’d better get back and check on Misty”, I said (I had left him to make some tea over the camping-stove) “He’s a good lad, but he’s apt to go off into one of his bubbles and forget what he’s doing”.
“Have supper with us”, said Magda “I’m sure we can rustle up some bacon and eggs between us”.
Misty was sitting propped up against a wheel of the Dormobile when we got back. Aleck was still plonking away on his guitar.
“Has he said much to you?” I said, as we went into the van to fetch our own eggs out of the refrigerated box.
“Only to ask me how old I was”, said Misty “Which I thought was rude! Otherwise he just keeps pillocking away on that thing. He never gets a tune out of it though!”
“Oh now Misty”, I laughed “I was hoping you two could be friends”.
“Not with him”, said Misty, fiercely “He’s completely stuck up his own bum!”
“I don’t think he is”, I said “Magda tells me he’s very shy. He’s spent a lot of his lfie alone. He’s not used to talking to people”.
Misty gave a sceptical grunt.
“Why don’t you ask him if he’s into ’Doctor Who’?” I said.
Misty swivelled his little cartoon face to stare at me, fixedly.
“No”, he said “’Cos he’s probably not, and he’ll be all snotty and superior about it, and treat me like a kid … AND I AM 8 YEARS OLDER THAN HIM!”
I find Misty so funny when he’s like this, but I try not to show it because it starts the little eyes flashing indignantly even more.
We had barely finished eating when yet another van turned up, and this one had 3 blokes in it, about more than enough to chill anyone’s blood when they had come away for peace and quiet. I had images of 3 bores cracking open beer-cans and singing football anthems all night long. One was about my age, appeared to be tall and stringy, with glasses, the one in the passenger seat was younger and getting a bit on the tubby side, and the third looked like some peculiar semi-supernatural creature out of woodland folklore, all dreadlocks and facial piercing.
“Hey mate!” the one with glasses shouted from the driver’s window “Is there a pub in the village? We can’t seem to find one”.
“No, not as far as I can tell”, I said.
“There’s one up on the main road”, said Magda “At Whitebridges”.
Instead of turning round and going to look for it, they all got out. I had broken open a bottle of JD, but had yet to pour it out, and this had obviously lured them like a magnet.
“No pub?” said the hob-goblin, with the typical Englishmen’s dismay at finding there was no licensed hostelry in the immediate vicinity.
“There’s a hotel that has a bar I believe”, said Magda.
(This news was greeted with a perfectly understandable lack of enthusiasm. Most hotel bars being a depressing environment at the best of times, alright I suppose if you enjoy listening to salesmen jabbering into mobile phones for hours on end).
“We’ve come to escape for a couple of hours”, said the hob-goblin, who it turned out was really called Jason “From our housekeeper”.
“You’ve got a housekeeper?” I said “Now there’s posh!”
“Why are you escaping from her?” said Misty.
(Well this was a perfectly reasonable question. You’d have thought the housekeeper would be trying to escape from them!).
“She gives me the creeps!” said the hob-goblin.
“I had enough of mad spaced-out old bags in Cornwall”, said the one with the glasses, somewhat cryptically “Are you having a barbecue?”
“No we’ve just eaten in fact”, said Magda.
How we got from there to being invited to stay at Ghyll House is something that still baffles me. To my incredulity I got the impression that these 3 great wussies were afraid to stay there on their own!
“It’s quite a big house”, said Jason “Room to sleep 6 comfortably”.
“But there would be 7 of us”, said Magda.
“That’s OK”, I said “Misty and me will sleep outside in the van”.
“We’re going up there then?” said Misty.
“It’d be better than finding out we’re not supposed to be camping here”, I said “But we’ll definitely stay put in the van”.
(This wasn’t just for privacy’s sake, but to keep an eye on that dratted jar).
“You can still see the Loch from up there”, said Jason to Misty “Good views out over Boleskine Churchyard”.
“Where Aleister Crowley was said to have stolen body-parts for his rituals”, said Robbie, the tubby one.
“Nice”, I said “But do you really mean to tell me that you lot are afraid to stay there?!”
“It’s a freaky place”, said Jason (! Again) “There are crosses engraved on some of the windows”.
“So?” I shrugged “The Scots have always been a very religious people, unlike us godless heathens!”
“Upside down crosses”, said Robbie, soberly.
Misty was shooting me alarmed looks. I got his drift immediately, but the trouble was that that house was intriguing me, and I reasoned that if Magda and Aleck were going to be there then it couldn’t be too bad.
“It simply has to be a portal”, said Jason.
“A what?” I asked. I couldn’t help noticing that Robbie looked a though he had been struck rigid with embarrassment.
“We can explain all that later”, he said, hastily.
“I guess we’d better all pack up again then”, said Magda.
I was finding all this fun. If that sounds a bit sad, well you have to remember that I had spent almost my entire adult life in uniform, obeying and enforcing every stupid rule and regulation under the sun, my life revolving around doors opening and slamming shut. I had never really had a chance to kick over the traces. To suddenly go and stay in a strange house on a whim, with a bunch of people I had only met that very same day was excitingly adolescent to me. For the first time in my life I felt like a free woman.
At this time of year it didn’t get dark in the Highlands until around 11 o’clock at night, and then it wasn’t a real dark, more a sort of deep twilight. We set off in the gloaming, me being the tail-end Charlie, the last vehicle in the line. As we drove into the Forest I noticed that another car was following us, it was large and black, with tinted windows, and I couldn’t tell the make of the car because it had had all its badges removed. Not only that but it had no number-plates either.
“Surely that’s not legal?” I said to Aleck “I’ve never seen that before!”
“Perhaps we’ve got to accept that weird shit happens up here”, he said.
“Possibly”, I said, uncertainly.
I was relieved when it carried on up the hill towards the main Inverness-to-Fort Augustus road, and we branched off further into the Forest. There was an odd-looking little woman waiting for us at the top of the short flight of steps which led to the front door. I gathered that this was the housekeeper. She had plastered thick mascara around her eyes (I was later to find out from Al that she must have applied this whilst they were out), which gave her the look of a crazy little Panda. She accepted the arrival of 4 more people with a rather blank expression, and a grunt that she would lay out extra places for dinner.
“Oh don’t go to any trouble on our account”, I said “We’ve already eaten”.
“We don’t want to be bothering you at this time of night”, said Al “You get off to bed if you like”.
“I don’t want to go to sleep at the moment”, she said, and she led the way into the house.
The first thing you notice about Ghyll House is its solidity. We live in an age of chuck-’em-up jerry-built houses with paper-thin walls, toy staircases, and flimsy doors. Ghyll House was solid though. I assumed it must have been built by some Scottish or English gentry to serve as a hunting-shooting-and-fishing lodge. It certainly had that feel to it. I loved the staircase in the main hall. I’m a sucker for those broad ones that sweep gracefully up and round, and it was offset beautifully by panelled walls and a beamed ceiling.
“What a beautiful house!” I said, looking around me.
Everybody, including the housekeeper, looked at me as if I was mad.
“But it is!” I said.
“’Barnacles’ is better!” said Misty.
I assumed ‘Barnacles’ was his home, so I smiled at him and said I was sure it was. A thought had come into my head, which I personally found very exciting. I had been speculating as to what I was going to do with my life once the holiday was over, and it occurred to me that I could try property developing. I know it’s very much all the rage at the moment, a way to make big money, but I’ve always been fascinated by houses, and the thought occurred to me that I could do it.
We were shown through an archway into a little side parlour. This room didn’t appear to have been re-decorated in decades. The round table in the middle was covered by one of those red velvet cloths ringed with bobbles that you only see in old films, usually topped by an aspidistra in a brass pot. The room didn’t quite run to one of them, but there was a couple of very ugly-looking rubber-plants instead. The lamp hanging over the table was also very ugly, a rose-tinted 1930s-style monstrosity. In fact, the whole room looked as though it was the lair of some demented old medium who held séances in it!
“Robbie”, said Al “Go and fetch in that box of ’San Miguels’ from the van”.
“There’s salmon if you want it”, said the housekeeper, lifting the heavy silver cover off a long dish.
“It’s not from the Loch is it?” said Jason “I’ve been reading about that from a Nessie website before we left home. Apparently the waste from the toilets at Urquhart Castle gets pumped straight into the Loch!”
“That’s not true”, said the housekeeper, indignantly.
Even so, I don’t think any of us were too keen to try the salmon after that!
“I didn’t think there was much in the way of sea-food in the Loch”, said Al, once the beer had arrived “That was always one of the strongest arguments against Nessie existing, there simply isn’t much of a food source for her to live on”.
“That’s assuming she’s a real flesh-and-blood creature though”, said Jason “I don’t think she is. I think she’s some kind of elemental creature”.
I couldn’t help noticing that Gray looked rather uneasy at this, and it’s not just because Jason is a somewhat eccentric young man with off-the-wall views.
“You can get good views of the Loch from the top windows”, said the housekeeper, who had reappeared in the room with a long rope of pearls around her neck.
“Would you like to join us?” said Al, in the pained tone of voice people would normally use when explaining a complex problem to the dentist that needed fixing.
“I’ll sit here”, she said, sitting on the sofa under the main window.
“I notice she’s not having any salmon!” Jason muttered to me.
“It’s quiet up here”, said Robbie “Let’s put some music on”.
He went over to the stack system which was in the corner. It was about the only vaguely modern thing in the whole room. A small collection of CDs was piled on top of it. The Greatest Hits of the Bee Gees was about the only one that didn’t get a response of “you what?” or “you must be joking!”, so very soon 1970s disco music was ringing out in a most surreal fashion in that time-warp room. It reminded me of old school disco’s I had gone to, back in Prehistoric times.
“Are you sure you won’t join us?” said Robbie to the housekeeper, whose doleful presence was making us all feel uncomfortable. “I have a hygiene obsession”, she said “I can’t eat with the same cutlery and utensils as anybody else”.
“Well go and fetch your own then!” said Al.
“A hygiene obsession?” said Gray, after she had left the room to go in search of her own plate “You wouldn’t think it to look at the dust in this place!”
Naturally enough, after several beers, I started to get jokes made about my recent profession. All the usual things of “he always likes a woman in uniform”. I’ve heard all these time without number, and all I could do this time was to say that I hadn’t bought my uniform on holiday with me. Nevertheless it was good-natured, and I didn’t mind, although I drew the line at spilling any lesbian scenes I may have come across in the prison! When everybody was sufficiently drunk, Jason suggested holding a séance. I don’t quite know what got us round to this, other than the rather general haunted house feel to the place. It’s far from uncommon for people to start playing about with ouija boards when they’ve had a few (very popular with students, or so I’ve always gathered), but I was surprised that Gray reacted as strongly as he did to the idea.
“They’re not for mucking about with”, he said, fiercely.
Misty was grabbing his sleeve. I was very impressed with these two. I don’t think I have ever come across a couple who so plainly adore each other as much as these two do. There are many times that I think there’s a telepathic empathy between them.
“It’s just a bit of fun, mate”, said Jason.
“N-no”, said Gray, sounding tired and confused “It’s been a long day. I-I think we’ll turn in, if it’s all the same to you”.
The others wished them good-night. I went out into the hallway with them.
“It’s alright, Magda”, said Gray “I just don’t trust ouija boards that’s all”.
“And a medium warned him recently to stay away from séances”, said Misty. “Time you were in bed!” said Gray, waspishly, which made me smile.
We all bade each a good night’s sleep, and I said I would come out to fetch them in come the morning, so that they didn’t miss breakfast. When I had closed the front door, I found Miss Cooper, the strange housekeeper, practically trying to piggy-back me.
“I used to be a Bunny Girl you know”, she said.
Good heavens, I thought, I know Hugh Heffner is getting on a bit, but I didn’t know he’d been going THAT long!
“Oh very interesting”, I said, shortly “But why are you telling me this now?”
“I thought you’d be curious”, she said, in a hurt voice.
I could only come to the conclusion that the poor old dear was absolutely stark staring mad. I’m not exactly unused to nutty women, so I simply tapped her arm sympathetically and went back into the living-room. The others were still talking about the séance, but I have to say that my enthusiasm for it had waned since Gray’s departure. He might have been a stabilising influence, and I didn’t want to mess around with it in a truly joke-y way. There is a psychic streak in me, one I have never been happy with. I get flashes sometimes, that was how I found out what happened to Aleck’s father. I find them far more of a curse than they are a blessing. I am of a practical turn of mind, and I don’t like things I can’t readily explain.
“Magda”, said Aleck, appearing in the doorway to the parlour “Are you alright?”
“Yes, yes I’m fine”, I said “It IS rather late, I think I would like to turn in as well”.
I was a bit disappointed that the séance didn’t come off, I thought we might have had some spectacular results, but Al said perhaps it was just as well, as we didn’t know the house at all as yet, and there was no knowing what might come through. Al has always been pretty sceptical of paranormal stuff up until recently, and the Al of old would have laughed at the idea of having a ouija board session, probably told us we were all acting like a bunch of kids. This new Al was taking some getting used to. He wasn’t as nervy as he had been back home, but there was a real intensity to him now that there hadn’t been before … before he went down to Cornwall last year I mean.
He said he wanted to work on some notes on his lap-top, so I cleared off a part of the table, and took the glasses through to the kitchen. This is on the other side of the hallway, and down a short flight of steps. The ceiling in here is quite low and heavily-beamed. The kitchen doesn’t make many concessions to the 21st century, in fact Mrs Bridges would have probably felt quite at home there! Miss Cooper was scraping plates into the bin when I went in. I noticed, from the clock on the mantelpiece that it was well after 2 o’clock, and I said why didn’t we just leave everything until the morning.
“Xanthe”, she said.
“Come again?” I said.
“My name is Xanthe”, she said “You keep calling me Miss Cooper, and I don’t like it. It makes me feel like a school-teacher!”
In this dim light she looked younger than she had when she had opened the front door in broad daylight. This time she looked only in her early 40s, but an early 40s woman who hadn’t taken care of herself, and who had probably punished her body in just about every wrong way you could think of. No doubt there was a very interesting life story in there just waiting to come out, but I was too knackered to do it full justice right now. I said I was going up to bed.
We had given Magda and Aleck the first room on the right at the top of the stairs. Mine was the one directly opposite. Their door was standing slightly ajar when I got there. Magda was lying on the bed with her shirt completely unbuttoned, and Aleck was rubbing his hand caressingly over her breasts. She had on a white lacy bra, and the area round her neck and the top of her breasts was quite red from where she had caught the sun. Her bosom was floppy and big and ample and soft and ….
I suddenly realised what I would look like if they caught me standing there peering through the gap in the doorway at them. Christ, all I would need was a dirty raincoat to complete the picture! I went across the corridor to my own room, and resigned myself to yet another solitary bloody hand-job.
The wind kicked up in the night, and squealed around our remote Highland house like a banshee. I was having trouble sleeping anyway (a gross annoyance, considering what a hectic day I had had), and the edges of the roof creaking so violently made me feel doubly unsettled. Aleck was having no trouble at all, but then … well he’s young isn’t he! I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m harping on about age too much, but it would take a while for me to stop being self-conscious about it. I knew somewhere in my bones that it would pass eventually, and I would be more relaxed about it all, but it was still early days.
Before we had turned in Alan had said that we were to do exactly as we wanted in Ghyll House. He kept unorthodox hours, he said, so he didn’t mind if others did as well. “Have a bath at 4 in the morning if you want”, he had said “We haven’t exactly got any neighbours to worry about!” Well that’s exactly what I felt like doing now. Often, at the end of a particularly trying shift, I had found that a hot bath (and a stiff drink) worked wonders. It would at least help me to relax, even if it didn’t send me off completely.
I got out of bed without disturbing Aleck, took my wash-bag and went off to the bathroom, which was on the other side of the staircase. It was a tiny, narrow little room overlooking the eastern end of the garden. It was very much an after-thought, probably converted out of a large walk-in cupboard, and it was one of the rooms that had those hateful little upside crosses engraved on the window. When I got there the sight of the ancient copper plumbing filled me with dismay. I very much doubted if I would be able to have bath without waking up the entire household once those old pipes got going. It was also one of those huge, tomb-like old bath-tubs which take about half-an-hour to fill up completely, particularly with the water pressure up here.
Reluctantly I decided to postpone the bath for a few hours. I went to the poky little window and looked out over the lawn. The trees at the edge of the garden were waving around in the squally wind. I was surprised to see Miss Cooper, our funny little housekeeper, coming out of the forest directly opposite me. She was wearing an ankle-length white fur coat and matching cowboy boots. This was so different to her baggy-cardy-and-carpet-slippers look I had seen her in before that I was quite taken aback. Not only that but she had twisted her lank, lifeless hair up into a sort of French pleat, which the wind was doing its level best to ransack.
She gave no indication of having seen me at the bathroom window, but then she didn’t look up my way, instead she looked behind her a few times, and made steadfastly for the back of the house. The main thought that came into my head was that our bedraggled little Miss Cooper had a lover, and she met him in the forest at night for a spot of how’s-yer-father, hence the astonishing transformation in appearance. I mean she still didn’t look exactly what you would call a classy piece of goods, more street-tart, but it was still an improvement on the prematurely aged slattern we had seen before. My goodness, I do sound bitchy! But I’m only trying to describe things as they are, and if it was one of the boys talking about this, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid!!! Perhaps she really had been a Bunny Girl, many moons ago, I thought. But surely she was too short? Don’t you have to be at least 5 ft 9” tall, or am I thinking of Bluebell dancers?
I thought I glimpsed a shadowy figure moving away through the trees on the far side of the lawn, but in that light and with the wind moving the branches so much, I wouldn’t like to swear to it.
“Seven geeks go mad in Scotland”, I thought, when I wok up very early (wa-a-ay too early) the next morning. I was trying to think up some punchy, joke-y title for the piece was going to write for our paranormal website when we got back home. Well I guess if I wanted to be awarded a prize for naff-ness and being annoying I could go with that one! And anyway, yes I’m a geek, Al’s a bit of a geek, Jason’s just bonkers, but I don’t know how the others would take to being called geeks at all. That young sprat, Aleck, for instance, who thinks he’s so painfully bloody cool all the time would probably storm off in a hissy fit. Of one thing I could be absolutely certain though, whatever I wrote, Gary Sanderson would tear it to frigging shreds!
Oh for fuck’s sake forget about Gary Sanderson, I’m on holiday, or I’m meant to be anyway! I pulled the bedclothes around me as there was a helluva draft coming through the window. No double-glazing that’s the trouble. This whole house should be mothballed and stuck in a museum. God, what a gloomy old pile! I dread to think what it’d be like in the depths of Winter, when you’d have to creep around in the cold and the dark all the time.
I lay on my back, trying to find a part of the mattress that wasn’t digging into me like an instrument of torture. I lay there and surveyed the bedroom. A real granny’s bedroom. Brown-stained wallpaper, iron bedstead, pink-painted fireplace (vile!), and a posy of dried flowers hanging on the back of the door. Lying there, scratching my mozzie bites, I felt like an old man who was waiting for the Grim Reaper to call.
I decided to get up before he arrived!
When I said to Aleck at 8 o’clock that morning that I was going outside to see how Gray and Misty were, he threw a strop. The basic message seemed to be that I was getting rather too keen on Gray’s company.
“Aleck, now don’t be a silly …” I stopped.
“Boy?” he said “C’mon, that’s what you were going to say wasn’t it!”
“Gray and I really are just good friend”, I said “We can’t possibly be anything else, he only has eyes for Misty, anybody can see that. I enjoy talking to him that’s all, we’re …”
“The same age?” he stopped. He had been planning to go to the bathroom, but seemed to keep stopping and starting like an electric hare that was running out of steam.
“Gray is a good 10 years younger than me”, I pointed out.
“That still makes him a lot closer to your age than I am”, he snapped.
This was a no-win converstion, so I didn’t see any point in pursuing it. If i started worrying about every little remark I made to Aleck, on the grounds that it might cause him offence, I knew we would be done for. I had seen too many women who had been trapped in abusive relationships, slinking around constantly cowering from potential slaps, kicks and punches, to want to turn into one myself. I don’t mean that Aleck would ever be violent with me, (I could always threaten to sit on him anyway, there are advantages to being a big girl!), it was more that I didn’t want a walking-on-eggshells relationship with him.
“Go and have that bath”, I said, not giving a damn if I sounded more like his mother than his lover “This is the sort of conversation that goes round and round in circles and comes out nowhere”.
I went downstairs. I could hear vague sounds of movement coming from the kitchen, and thought the weird Miss Cooper must be at work. I unbolted the front door, and stepped out into the chilly and squally morning air. I was surprised that Gray and Misty were still tucked up when I tapped on the window of the van.
“It’s the only way to keep warm in here”, said Misty “Stay in bed”.
“Bitterly cold last night”, said Gray “Welcome to a Highland Summer!”
“Then move into the house, you silly arses”, I said “It’s not much warmer in there, but at least you can spread yourselves out better”.
I could see they were tempted.
“How did the séance go?” said Gray.
“It didn’t”, I said “We decided not to go ahead with it”.
“Very wise”, said Gray.
None of us could seem to get our act together that morning, all too knackered I guess. But I did decide that we should move into the house. It had been bloody cold in the Dormobile last night, and something freaked us out about sleeping over that damn jar. The damn jar! The bane of our fucking lives! Curse the memory of Rufus bloody Franklin!
We moved our bags into the hallway. I could hear Robbie in the parlour ranting on about a text-message he had just received from somebody called Gary Sanderson.
“Well go on, what was it?” said Jason “I could do with a good joke”.
“This is a pathetic, fucking racist joke!” said Robbie “Even Bernard Manning would be embarrassed by this one! No I’m not saying it, I’m just deleting it, the wanker!”
Clearly Robbie’s feelings for Gary Sanderson were on a par with those I had for that knuckle-head Henry! Al came out of the parlour and remarked that we both looked a bit lost standing there (funny that).
“Where do you want us to sleep?” I asked, wishing more than ever that I was back at Barnacles.
“Second door on the right at the top of the stairs”, he said “SECOND door mind”.
Yes I had grasped that. We trudged usptairs, and managed (shock, horror) to locate the second door on the right.
“I feel like a sodding refugee”, I said, closing the door and leaning against it, tiredly.
“Do we really have to stay here?” said Misty “Can’t we just dump the jar in the woods and go home. I mean, it can’t do as much damage as nuclear waste can it?”
“I don’t think that’s really an argument for just dumping it though, Misty”, I said, chucking my bag on the bed.
“I suppose not”, said Misty, forlornly.
“Come on”, I said, encouragingly “It’s not going to be a s bad as all that. We’ll still have fun”.
There was a tap on the door and Magda came in, shyly.
“I just wanted to check you were alright”, she said “We’re your neighbours, right next door”. “Crazy old house this isn’t it?” I said.
“Those crosses on the windows make me nervous”, said Misty, looking at the ones engraved on ours.
“I don’t understand the mindset of somebody who would want to do that”, said Magda.
“Oh it could be worse”, I sighed “Unity Mitford used to engrave Swastika’s on hers, with a diamond ring, or so I believe”.
“It’s the closeness to Boleskine House”, said Magda “It makes me somewhat nervous. All those references to Aleister Crowley. Was he really a very evil man?”
“I think a lot of it was self-publicity”, I said “He revelled in being a naughty boy. If people thought he was evil then he thrived on the attention. A very intelligent man who never found his niche in life that’s all”.
Robbie could be heard thumping up the stairs and slamming into his bedroom.
“That lad needs an orgasm”, I said.
I wanted to be all scientific about it, but how can you be when firstly you have no idea if the house is really haunted at all (a few upside-down crosses on the windows and a batty housekeeper add up to exactly ZILCH), and when everybody around you has a fit of the vapours if you so much as mention having a séance!
But I was going to try my best anyway. First things first, I thought practically. I must do a complete tour of the house. This is what they always do in haunted house novels, they have a tour of the house. In haunted house novels though they don’t have everybody else looking at them completely nonplussed, or have them asking “What exactly are you looking for?” in a perplexed voice. Not for the first time I was beginning to wonder if me and ghost-hunting were cut out for each other! I mean, I had never had anything startling happen to me yet, not unless you count that weird Saturday I spent with Duncan in Foxley back in November [see ’High Strangeness‘], when we sighted The Green Couple walking down the hill towards us. And I wouldn’t like to swear, hand on heart, that what we had actually seen then had been ghosts.
Magda accompanied me on most of the tour. Some rooms she was very uneasy in, and I wondered if she had psychic tendencies. I didn’t feel brave enough to ask her though. She’s a formidable-looking lady, and I very much go the impression that she was somebody who, ideally, would like to leave the paranormal alone. A bit like Al really. Magda got very nervous in a top-floor junk room, and insisted on waiting for me out in the corridor. I was surprised at this. I would have thought that the small cellar would cause far more of a fit of the heebie-jeebies, as it was a nasty little place, which reminded me of that vile old house at the end of ’The Blair Witch Project’.
By contrast the junk room in the attic was nothing special at all. Just the usual sort of things you’d find there, old boxes, an old sink, a broken old ladder, old everything.
“Those were made illegal years ago”, said Magda. She was pointing at some very old pill-bottles which were standing on a dusty coffee-table just inside the door.
“What are they?” I said.
“Anti-depressants”, she said “Tranquillisers. I have a vague memory that they were outlawed about 10 years ago, I can’t remember why. They should be safely disposed of”.
I said I’d flush them down the loo. I did that, and then felt bored. Everybody else seemed to have buggered off to do their own thing. Magda had gone upstairs to see Aleck, Gray and Misty were in their room as well. Al was working on his lap-top (although God knows what he was finding to write about!), and Jason was outside in the squally wind taking photographs of just about everything. I looked over some local tourist leaflets in the hall. There was a booklet about the area, which listed all the buildings that were of any significance. Boleskine House was there (even though it’s not open to the public), and a little bothy in the churchyard. Curiously, Ghyll House wasn’t mentioned at all, it wasn’t even included on the map. Even though, just by its size alone, it should have got a mention at least.
The main landline phone rang whilst I was standing there. Xanthe was nowhere in sight, so I picked it up. What sounded like somebody with a very had head cold immediately began to launch into some selling spiel. He was almost completely incomprehensible. I could just about make out the words “superb”, “a real bargain”, and “great value”, and that was all.
“Look, I can’t understand you”, I cut across him.
“OK I’ll ring back anudder time”, he said, put the phone down!
“I can’t imagine you get many sales!” I said, talking into the empty receiver.
That afternoon was long and dreary. This wasn’t turning out to be the trip that I had had in mind. I had anticipated a glorious sense of freedom when we got to the Highlands, but at Ghyll House I felt caged. Of course I could have gone out by myself, driven round the Loch and had a look at Urquhart Castle perhaps, or gone down to Fort Augustus. But it didn’t seem much fun all on my own. I found myself resenting our visitors, hidden away upstairs with sex to keep them occupied.
I put the blame of it onto Ghyll House itself. It was so damn lifeless, it seemed to kill any zest or enjoyment of life. I had images of past people who had lived there shuffling around, droopily, from one room to the next, for decades on end, until Death put them out of their misery. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of that gloomy old hotel where me and Duncan had had coffee on our way to Foxley, the same cold, dreary, unwelcoming, atmosphere.
“You’re just not used to the slower pace of life up here”, said Al, when I went into the parlour.
“Slower pace of life?” I exclaimed “It’s like being buried alive! I’ll start missing Gary Sanderson at this rate!”
Jason bounded back into the house. He seemed to be the only person who wasn’t be affected by the atmosphere here. He had taken a picture on his digital camera of every outside doorway at the house, and every large crack in every tree in the immediate area, he had even taken a picture of an old box of sand left by the local council outside the main gate! All of these of course are gateways to Hell, according to Jason.
For the first time since I had met him, I found myself close to losing my temper with poor old Jason.
I very rarely sleep in the afternoons when I’m at home, unless I’ve done a double-shift and am feeling particularly tired. But I slept for about 2 hours after lunch. Aleck wasn’t there when I woke up. He had said something to me earlier about having a bath, so I assumed that was where he was.
Whilst I was still only half-awake I had had a peculiar and unpleasant sensation. It felt as if a pair of very cold and clammy hands were trying to grab my feet under the bedclothes, and running up my legs. I instinctively shook them off and assumed I had been dreaming. And then I got one of my psychic flashes, God rot it, and I knew why I hadn’t wanted to go into that junk room on the top floor.
I could hear a strange sound, as of somebody slapping the sides of a bath-tub with their bare hands, and then I had the sensation of water rushing up my nose, the sort of thing you get sometimes when you’re swimming. OK, so had somebody been drowned in that large cracked old wash-basin we had seen up there? Had they had their head held under the water, and what I had heard was their hands beating against the underside of the basin?
For the rest of the afternoon, wherever I went upstairs in the house, I seemed to be plagued by the sound of a dripping tap.
Xanthe Cooper served up more of the everlasting salmon for supper. I was beginning to wonder if that would be our staple diet for the whole time we would be at Ghyll House. And then it occurred to me that we had only been at Ghyll House for less than 24 hours. The thought of several more days to go there was intolerable. I knew then, for all that I had rapidly become very fond of my new friends, that I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I couldn’t even bear the thought of one more night.
But I would have to give a reason why I wanted to leave, and to do that I would have to reveal all about my psychic tendencies. I did NOT want to do this. Robbie would get very excited, and probably want to test me or examine me, or some such nonsense. No I wasn’t going down that route.
“It’s this house”, said Robbie, when we were all seated around the parlour table, faced with that fucking salmon “You were uneasy when we were on the tour earlier. You really didn’t like the attic did you?”
“We’ve all been too closed in today”, said Alan “I suggest we go out tomorrow, have a drive round the area. Get away from this house for a bit. It’s a touch of cabin-fever that’s all”.
“But we’d still have to come back here tomorrow night”, I said.
“Don’t leave, Magda”, said Misty, and I could have eaten him all up, he was so sweet “Why don’t you just camp out in your van like we did?”
“And yours is more roomy than ours”, said Gray.
“Yes, and I want to see a lot more of the Loch tomorrow”, said Al “And Boleskine Churchyard. Your impressions will be useful”.
I didn’t like the way he put that. It was as if he knew about my secret, but perhaps I was just being paranoid. Oh what did it matter? What did it matter if they found out I was psychic, it was hardly something sinister or perverted! I felt very, very tired indeed.
I had a row with Jason after dinner. Something I would never have believed could have happened before. He accused me of never supporting his stuff, that I had always trashed it. I said it was very hard not to trash it, how could anyone in their right mind believe that a few grubby old doors were the portals to Hell?!
“You’re not yourself, Robbie”, he said “You haven’t been for months now”.
“He needs a holiday”, said Al (in fact I need sex, GOOD sex, not the vibes this bloody house was giving me!) “A proper holiday, and this isn’t it”.
“Perhaps you should have come down to Shinglesea”, said little Misty “Come and see us”.
“How can they come and see us down there when we’re up here with them?!” said Gray.
“Let’s go home then!” Misty shouted, which took me almost as much by surprise as my row with Jason had.
“You nagged me about getting out of the area”, said Gray “And now we’re out of it, you want to go back!”
“Yes”, said Misty, and he pressed his nose up into Gray’s face “But without that damn jar!”
What jar? We all of us seemed to ask at once.
“Come on, Gray”, said Al “You’ve got a story to tell, so tell it”.
“Yeah, c’mon mate”, I said “I need something to take my mind off that fucking wind out there, it’s really giving me the irrits!”
“You’ve got a jar of this stuff in your van now?” said Al, when Gray had finished his astonishing speech.
“Let’s go and have a look at it”, said Jason, and we all trooped out into the squally evening. Xanthe followed on close behind us, pulling her shapeless cardigan closely around her.
I was amazed, nay gob smacked, when Gray pulled an old iron post-box out from under his bunk, and then gingerly removed the jar from it. At first glance it looked like old use dish-water, but then I noticed that it was trying to solidify in places. It set my teeth on edge, made my skin crawl, it was like looking at a jar of hairy spiders. “You’ve got to get rid of that”, said Al.
“Yes, I’m aware of that!” said Gray, sharply.
“Freaky”, said Jason.
“You mean to tell me you’ve had this in your back garden, and now carted it all the way up here?” said Al to Gray.
“I’ve just told you all that!” said Gray “I feel like it’s going to be round my neck forever. I can’t think of a safe way of disposing of it, I really can’t. It was causing all kinds of weird shit to happen back home”.
“Quite frankly, some of that stuff you’ve told us was because you must have a Satanic network in your area”, said Al “This jar was giving them added strength though”.
“So wherever we take it, it could have the same effect!” said Gray, exasperated. Poor chap.
“No”, said Jason, and we all turned to look at him expectantly “Drop it in the Loch”.
“Yes but …” Gray began.
“Drop it in the Loch”, Jason repeated “It’s in an iron box, that’ll weigh it down, and you don’t get many stretches of water deeper than Loch Ness”.
“It’s very deep round Foyers pier”, said Xanthe “Drop it off there. No one’ll ever find it”.
“True”, said Al “They can’t even find the Loch Ness Monster in it!”
And then we would all leave, I was very adamant on that one. Shinglesea Beach sounded delightful, and Gray had said, over a late supper, that if I wanted to do property developing, it was a good area to start in. Plenty of old beach-front cottages like Barnacles were desperately in need of renovation.
Very late that night I went into the kitchen, where Xanthe was cutting up a defrosted chocolate cake for everybody. She astonished me by saying that it was a good idea that I was to spend the night out in my van.
“Not good for women to stay in this house”, she said “They can get attacked”.
“What by?” I said, thinking of those cold hands that had been molesting my legs and feet earlier.
“The guy who built this place”, she went on “He was one of those Satanists, Devil-Worshippers”.
“Hence the upside down crosses on the windows”, I said.
“He formed some secret sect up here”, she said “Rumour has it they used to bring women here, young girls they’d abducted. They were never seen again. Don’t know exactly where they ended up. Could be buried in the woods or in the garden, or dumped in the Loch. No end of ’em apparently”.
“Like the Hellfire Clubs”, I said “Only far more sinister”.
“Nobody knows exactly what happened to him”, she said, licking her fingers “He disappeared. But his ghost is still here, I know it”.
“Have you noticed it?” I said.
“Nothing concrete”, she said “But then I don’t draw attention to myself when I’m in here”.
Oh I see. That would account for the old bag-lady outfit. She had only begun to jazz herself up with the mascara and the pearls when she felt safe having somebody else in the house.
“You don’t sleep here at night do you?” I said.
“No fear!” she said “I got me a little caravan in the woods. No, women don’t have an easy time of it here. Back in the War, WW2, some lady lumberjacks were billeted here. A couple of ’em slept in the attic room where you had your funny turn earlier. There are some terrible tales about what they went through. I don’t suppose I need to go into graphic details do I?”
“I can figure it out for myself”, I said “I’ve heard enough of such stories in my time!”
“Anyway, as I said, I’m glad you’re staying in your van tonight”, she said “’Cos one of ’em died you know. One of the lady lumberjacks, whilst she was washing her hair, would you believe! There was some sort of enquiry at the time, and it was decided to close the place down, move the girls elsewhere”.
Early the next morning Aleck and I drove down to Easter Boleskine, so that he could see Jimmy Page’s old house before we left the area. We also went and had a look round the churchyard. In the little bothy, where I presume they had stored the bodies for burial overnight, prior to a funeral, some idiots had scrawled inscriptions to Aleister Crowley, and the numbers 666. We came back out again, and I told Aleck about my ideas for property developing.
“We can use some of my money for it”, he said.
“Would that make you feel better?” I said “Stop you being so self-conscious about your age? We would be business partners after all”.
“Magda”, he said, and I could see that the poor little thing was almost on the verge of tears “I almost said Miss Kirk then! You won’t ever leave me will you?”
“No I will not”, I said, firmly, and for the first time I didn’t go into all the silly nonsense of ’I expect you’ll leave me instead’, because I knew we were made for each other. What a lot of rubbish age is!
I looked up, and saw that a black van with black tinted windows had pulled up outside the main gates to the cemetery. The window on the driver’s side slid down, and a hard-faced middle-aged woman in sunglasses glared out at me. If looks could kill, it would be my ghost telling you all this now. I refused to be intimidated by her though. I have had to face down some pretty formidable women in my time, and I wasn’t about to be sent cowering by this one! I strode up through the headstones, very purposefully, and stared at her as intently as I could.
She drove off.
“One of that lot undoubtedly”, I said, when Magda told me about the old boiler at the cemetery gates “You did the right thing”.
We were all back down at Foyers pier. We had had to be very careful to make sure that was nobody else about. I could image the locals would not be too pleased to see us chucking lumps of old iron into the beautiful Loch, and ordinarily I would agree with them. But needs must when the Devil drives, and opportunites like Loch Ness don’t present themselves every day.
We chucked it in without much more ado, and I knew that the old iron mailing-box would dive down into the dark, mysterious hidden depths of that incredible place. Perhaps I was fooling myself (I hope not) but I had a feeling that the Loch would guard this secret as jealously as it guarded all its others.
It was lunchtime by the time we had finished all this, and we decided to drive up to the pub at Whitebridges for a snack. Two women were standing outside chatting when we all pulled up. As we all got out of our respective vehicles, a golden Labrador bounded up and began to bark at us madly, baring his teeth in a very threatening manner.
“Silly”, said one of the women, pulling him back “You’re only supposed to do that when the customers are leaving the pub, not trying to get in!”
We were served cheese sandwiches bya young, sandy-haired lad with a very faraway look in his eyes.
“Are you people staying up at Ghyll House?” he asked, in a soft, melodic voice.
“Not for much longer”, said Jason, bluntly.
“Aye, they never stop long there”, said the barman, and moved away to serve somebody else.
“Now he tells us!” said Jason.
“Xanthe wants to leave with us”, said Al “It’s alright, she’s got her own transport”.
I wondered how the blazes I was going to fit all these vehicles at the front of Barnacles, but I didn’t really mind. Perhaps we would be able to drown out Henry and his blitherings by sheer weight of numbers! I was looking forward to getting back to Shinglesea Beach. We had unfinished business there, dark unfinished business … and pleasant unfinished business.
“NOW can we please get married?!” said Misty, as we all headed South.
Author’s Note: There is no such place as Ghyll House. Every other place mentioned in this story does exist though.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License.
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