A short dark Scottish tale for a long dark winters night...
by Skip Cormack
I awoke with a start, and immediately felt quite ill at ease. I was completely unsure of my surroundings and my eyes and body ached with a thick heaviness akin to influenza. I was alone and slumped awkwardly on a narrow bench in a small room which was suffused with an orange glow, one in which an oddly metallic odour hung in the air. I could hear a groaning sound, perhaps the rending of metal upon metal, emanating from somewhere nearby but which seemed to twist and shake the very fabric of this room. My senses were returning fully to me now, and eventually I realised that no, this was no room, but rather a compartment, a small cramped compartment in the passenger carriage of a train. I rubbed my eyes, sat up, and looked around me. I supposed my disorientation was compounded by the apparent age of the carriage. This was exactly the kind of rolling stock I recalled from journeys of my boyhood, the threadbare flock material of the seat bleached by disinfectant, the scratched wood and dull grey metal of the fixtures and fittings, the yellowed signs screwed below the emergency chain and the window. ‘Cutbacks’, I thought aloud, following the single word with a laugh that sputtered into a series of coughs which misted in the cold air and rattled within the aching cavern of my chest. Goodness, it was cold in this compartment. I breathed on the glass of the window then rubbed my condensing breath away with the sleeve of my overcoat pulled over my hand. Utter blackness lay beyond. No surprise there. I had by now recollected that I was heading home, clearly by train, and the north highland line was notable for the huge stretches of absolute nothing which it traversed in its journey to the end of the track, and these seemed ever more empty and eternal on long winter nights such as this one. I tugged at my overcoat, winding it more tightly around me and wondered why my thought processes were in such confusion... I could recall almost nothing of the last few days, let alone hours. I supposed it must have been the drinking, celebrating the festive season with a little too much of the waters of life, and now I was paying the penalty for that, suffering in this cold little room shuddering along parallel lines of metal somewhere under the vast cold canopy of the northern sky...
I awoke again, truly surprised as I had no recollection of having once more drifted into sleep. I could not guess how much time had passed, but we had now come to a halt. Peering out I could see lights through the window and hear muffled voices from outside. Ah! We had reached The Junction, the point where the train splits into two, one part heading eastward and the other west and north, to where the line ran out. That was where I was bound, and I felt a leap of excitement within my chest as we accelerated away from The Junction and began the short run home. Soon I could discern the sodium glow flickering in the near distance which meant the lights of home were close once more, and I began to make ready. Now I was puzzled as I could not find my travelling bag in the compartment. Wondering if I had left it by mistake somewhere along the journey I tried to retrace my steps mentally, but remembering only seemed to bring deeper confusion into my brain... had I even brought a bag? Damn this hangover, blast this aching within... never mind, there are friends and family who will help, and tomorrow you will feel better, the small, still voice of sense that remained gently reassured me. I rubbed a hand over my face, in doing so smelling briefly but strongly the tang of disinfectant mixed with something else, indeterminate but faintly malodorous. This short wave of nausea passed in a moment, then the compartment juddered slightly as the train slowly came to its final rest. The end of the line. Home.
I was on the platform, my breath freezing and my very bones numbed in the deep damp chill of the northern night. I cursed my condition again as I seemed to be suffering from partial blackouts and lapses of recent memory. I simply could not recall disembarking the train. I cursed my stupidity under my breath then paused in order to get my bearings, unsure in the velvet chill of exactly where I was. From somewhere in the limpid crystal mist that enshrouded all I heard a boyish laugh, then two figures passed me by on my right, seeming to glance in my direction. They walked ahead maybe three or four yards, then stopped abruptly. The taller of the two turned to face me and stretched out its right arm to point a finger directly at me. I could not see the face, which seemed to be hidden by a scarf, but the voice that came from the figure seemed oddly familiar.
- ‘Welcome back... it must be good to be home, eh?’
I answered as if I knew my inquisitor personally.
- ‘Aye, it’s good. Cold night, tho’...’
- ‘We’d better no keep you then. Let you get on... ye’ve a lot to catch up on...’
the voice trailed away as the figure turned and disappeared with its companion into the freezing mist.
I walked ahead then found myself at the station entrance. No-one else was around and there was no sign of a cab of any sort, but as my hotel was only a few hundred yards away I pulled my overcoat tightly around my neck and set off to walk up the hill toward my intended refuge for the night. My head seemed a little clearer now and I felt a curious sense of relief as the infrequent headlights of passing cars stung my eyes with their intensity as I scuffed through damp and mouldy leaves on the upward incline toward the hotel. The freezing fog and mist had eased also, affording me a glimpse of my destination in the fractured moonlight that glinted between the low clouds.
It was exactly as I remembered, a grand old Victorian manse building which rose dark and somewhat forbiddingly in its grounds, surrounded by the skyward clutching bare fingers of numerous tall trees. The air now smelled strongly of a heady mix of earthen dampness tempered by decaying vegetation and bird droppings and I was a little surprised to clearly see the silhouettes of many crows dotting the spidery weave of branches surrounding the hotel. Somehow I didn’t expect this at night, or indeed at this time of year, but here they were, and I could also now discern a background of cawing and an uncanny rustling of black feathers which rose in insistency as I drew near the front door, as if they were warning of my impending arrival. Glancing upward I noticed there were few signs of life apparent in the building, just a dull reddish glow that emanated from somewhere deep within and flickered behind the heavy drapes drawn against the winter chills.
Suddenly I was startled to clearly see one window, directly above the front entrance, in which no curtain was drawn and wherein two figures stood, one much taller than the other, gazing downward at me. Momentarily I thought of the couple at the railway station, but this thought passed as I rapidly became aware that it was in fact a woman, thin and pale, accompanied by a young girl child. I could not place an age upon the woman, but I could sense an overwhelming sadness that wreathed her slender form. The bony fingers of the woman’s left hand rested on the blonde ringlets of the girl, and her dark eyes seemed at once to stare right upon me and yet right through me, at which I shuddered, feeling a greater chill which struck to the very marrow of my bones. Simultaneous to this a metallic sing-song noise pounded in my ears and a strong nausea gripped me again. I felt compelled to place my head in my hands, rubbing my eyes until they stung and the wave of sickness had passed. I glanced up again and they had gone, the window now a blank vacant eye cast over the shifting sea of crows. I paused and shook my head, trying to jostle these images, thoughts and feelings into some form of order, something that made actual sense to me, then placed my hand upon the cool brass of the doorknob, turned it and entered...
It was warm inside and felt welcoming, although the young man stationed behind the large oak desk which dominated the foyer gave the briefest of quizzical glances in my direction before returning his full attention to the electronic device he held in his hands. I walked forward to stand before him, gave a somewhat theatrical cough and began to speak
-‘Excuse me, I’d, eh, made a reservation – my name’s...’
-‘Well chek, you’re a bit of a stranger, are ye no?’
the familiar voice in the very familiar dialect came from directly behind me, and I spun on my heels to greet its owner.
- ‘Jimmy! How’re ye doin’, my man?’
I had myself switched straight into the local dialect as if the years spent away from this place had meant nothing whatsoever.
The owner of that familiar voice, a tall, gangly, grey-haired man with an aqualine profile and rheumy eyes, everpresent cigarette dangling precarious amounts of ash, edged past me and went behind the desk. As he did so the boy looked in his direction with what to me seemed a look of puzzlement on his face, then refocused his attention on the task in his hands.
-‘Ye’ll no get anything out o’ him.’ Jimmy shot the boy a sideways glance ‘there’s more sense in a false face!’
I laughed out loud at this peculiarly local turn of phrase. Yes, it was beginning to feel good to be home.
-‘ I thought you’d sold this place and retired a long time ago Jimmy’ I ventured. I was sure (or was I?) that he had left the hotel business many years before, but my mind seemed to be even more sluggish now I was indoors in the cushioning warmth.
A half smile flickered across his thin lips.
-‘Well ye know what thocht did!’ he replied ‘ oh no, I coudna stay away from ‘is place. Too much o’ my soul in it. Anyway young chiel, good to see you, but ye’ll be wanting ‘til get to yir room? That trip is hellish at the best o’ times.’
- ‘Aye Jimmy, thanks indeed. Look, I lost ma bag on the way, so I was wondering if...’
-‘Och dinna worry, we’ll get ye organised wi’ whativer ye need. Here, are ye wantin’ a dram to warm ye up first?’
The raised eyebrows and wink that followed that particular statement made it clear that ‘no’ was not an option.
-‘Cheers Jimmy, that wid be grand’
-‘Well come on wi’ me ben e’ hoose ‘til the bar... I’m sure there’s a few worthies ‘ere ye’ll ken!’
He laughed out loud at this, a laugh that transformed into a hacking cough which he stymied by dragging hard on his cigarette. The boy looked up, sighed, then emerged from behind the desk and walked straight between us to the front door which I then realised I had not fully closed. He tutted under his breath, pushed it firmly shut, then with head still bowed over the glowing object in his hands he returned to his station behind the desk, not acknowledging us in the slightest.
-‘Damn waste o’ space’ whispered Jimmy, cocking his head in the direction of the boy. There was no reaction from the subject of his insult. Then he looked straight at me and grinned.
-‘Now, come on, follow me – e’ drams are waiting!’
Warmth. It had felt good, and now it felt very strange. Too much... I opened the buttons of my overcoat. My hands felt wet, clammy... again a moment of disorientation, where was I? I leaned against the corridor wall, vision blurring... there was a strange tightness across my chest, like laces being pulled taut in a stout leather shoe. My eyes refocused, resting on my host who was standing in front of a large partially open oaken door, gesturing inside...
-‘Come on in...’
-‘but only if ye want ‘til...’
I was inside the bar. It seemed to be both busy yet not busy, the customers swimming in and out of hazy focus as my gaze travelled around. One drink, then to bed to see this damned sickness away, I thought to myself. It was as I remembered, a grand drawing room converted into a bar, comfortable seating dotted around the perimeter and large wooden stools drawn up to the bar itself. From a hunched figure occupying one of those stools another familiar voice sounded.
-‘Michty me, look whit the crows dragged in.’
It was The Captain! How many years since...? I felt confused... something in my head was gnawing at me, compounding my disorientation with low murmurings of unquiet. I staggered against the stool next to The Captain and he reached out a hand to steady me.
-‘Are you alricht, boy? You’re no’ lookin’ tae good. Ha! Ye need a dram to keep yirsel’ goin’, I wid say.’
-‘I’ll be alright, honest. I’m just not feeling great, that’s all. Flu and a hangover are no’ a good combination I guess. God, you are a stranger indeed...’ I forced a laugh. The Captain looked at me with what I took to be a combination of pity and understanding. His face was lined and in truth a ghastly grey, even under the reddish tinge of the low lighting in the room. Something still felt wrong, deeply wrong, but I was unable to place exactly what was causing my anxiety. The younger customers seemed to be moving around us in a liquid haze, their edges appearing blurred as they passed by, eyes and mouths streaking into dark lines bizarrely akin to smudged paint. I felt as if I was a fearful passenger on an otherwordly carousel ,riding a carnival horse whose painted grin twisted into an evil grimace as we spun faster and faster...
Then abruptly, we stopped.
-‘there’s someone here who wants tae hae a wird wi’ you.’
With these words The Captain appeared to be staring straight through me, at someone, or perhaps something directly behind me. I distinctly felt my skin crawl at this realisation, and everything went into exaggerated slow motion as I turned toward the place where his eyes rested. I gave an audible gasp as I saw exactly who it was and heard them whisper these words with a gentle sibilance which resonated to the core of my very being...
-‘Come closer, let me talk wi’ you...’
It was the woman I had glimpsed from the window, and with her, peering from behind her skirts, was the small girl child. The woman pulled her woolen shawl tighter around her neck and motioned with her head to a large sofa near the window.
-‘Lets sit doon.’
-‘Aye’ I replied ‘of course... of course’
And then in a moment we were seated and my pounding head began to flash what seemed at first to be disconnected images into my consciousness, of a primary school, of children whose laughter mocked and rang, of empty swings, of leaves blowing across an asphalt playground, of a rain-lashed beach, empty save for a meandering line of tiny footprints, a grey and angry sky, a silent teacher, salt tears dripping onto a scratched wooden desk...
-‘Irene?’ I ventured
-‘Aye... its been a long time, has it no...’
-‘but it can’t be... no, it can’t be’ I felt myself beginning to lose control as I was now fully aware of who this was and who the child must be ...
-‘Shoosh, dinna worry. I’m no blaming you... I nivir did, you know. There were some real bad ones who know who they are... they’ll all have to face it wan day...’ her voice trailed off and I both saw and felt the infinity of sadness that lay in the depths her limpid grey eyes.
This, I told myself, is a fever dream, the wanderings of my sick mind, long forgotten memories dredged from the precipice of illness into a waking nightmare.
For the pale sad woman who sat in front of me was Irene Ross, the mother of little Sally Ross, driven by the bullying of her classmates to walk barefoot along an empty beach and into the wild grey sea at seven years of age many long winters ago.
Several weeks later Irene walked to the same beach, and sat on a bare wooden bench overlooking the roaring waves for several hours before knotting one end of her scarf to a fencepost and with the other tied around her neck she leapt out into the cold grey darkness, her arms outstretched as if to embrace her lost child one last time...
-‘Oh God... oh god...’
-‘Please, dinna worry. Ah’m no here fir that, no, no. We want til help ye...’
She must have caught my glance at the child, for she allowed herself a half-smile and a shake of the head before saying
-‘No, no. It’s no my Sally. I havenae found her yet, bit ah’ll keep lookin’... of course ah will. She was mah wee baby...no, no, she’s another pair wee bairn at’s bin here a long, long time... long afore me an’....’ at this her voice faded and she reached back and embraced the child, who looked up lovingly at the older woman. I could then clearly see the hideous black rend below the child’s left ear and once more I was gripped by the incomprehensible unfolding terror of the events of this evening. Irene stood up, her shawl slipping from her shoulders to briefly reveal the livid bruises encircling her slender neck.
‘Ah’ll leave ye ivenow, but ah’ll speak til ye later... it’ll take a while, ye know... ’
Her voice dissipated into a barely echoed nothingness.
Then she and the child were gone.
The Captain and Jimmy sat before me.
We were now the only presences occupying the room. Somewhere a clock ticked loudly.
-‘Ye’ll need yir dram now’ Jimmy laughed.
-‘Aye, he will that’ said The Captain.
I knew that Jimmy had been gone at least fifteen years now, and The Captain ten.
-‘There’s a lot to take in, eh’ smiled The Captain
-‘dinna worry tho’, we’ll help ye through it all...’
-‘I – I ... Oh God, my head hurts so much...’
‘Well chek, at’s surprisin’ as ye never had much upstairs anyway!’ Again Jimmy’s wheezy laugh punctuated the still horror of this encounter. A crow swept into the room and settled on Jimmy’s left shoulder. Almost casually it began to peck at the corner of his eye, pulling hard at the strands of flesh and sinew it had dislodged. He swatted at it as if it were no more than a troublesome fly.
I rubbed my hand cross my face once more.
The smell of disinfectant tainted with decay.
It was then that I felt the rough uneven edge of the post-mortem scar, running through my hairline....
( © James Sutherland 2010)