In the purest form
A bittersweet memory
Its essence distilled.
In the purest form
A bittersweet memory
Its essence distilled.
Dear Santa Claus,
I’m so sorry that I said I don’t believe in you. I realise that every time I propped up a letter on the mantelpiece for you, begging for a pony, you could not deliver as the chimney was too narrow for equine ingress. This is what my parents told me anyway.
Years went by, I grew up and, as is said, I put away childish things, including my belief in your mythological personage. Myths aren’t real, right? Right?
Anyway, I’m not complaining about my life, it has been very good and I love the view from the window in my little flat; I can see over the roofs to the river twinkling in the distance, and the little park where the current crop of children are playing on sledges in the snow.
I do feel guilty that when my neighbour’s children came to my door last night to sing Christmas carols, (with it being Christmas Eve), I told them to go away. Christmas and Santa are no more than made up twaddle to try and force people to spend money they can’t afford, on rubbish that will break before the day is out.
I admit I felt a bit bad when the little lassie started to cry when I told her that her parents have to work overtime to provide her with presents. She is old enough to realise this, surely?
Her dad came around and told me that I’m a wicked old witch; his little girls were trying to do a nice thing singing for me, but I sent him away with a flea in his ear and asked him if Santa had ever given him what he asked for?
His answer, “Not usually, but I always got what I needed which is even better, and it still left my dreams intact.”
Dreams? Hah! Who needs dreams anyway?
Well the reason I am sending you this apology is because when I woke up this morning and went to make my usual cup of tea, I found a pile of soot in front of my electric fire and a fat, smug looking pony. It was wearing a jolly Santa hat and chewing on a card which says, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas, sorry about the delay.”
I have no way of getting it down the stairs, or even through the door onto the landing. It’s a pretty thing and will make some child very happy, but I’m seventy three and live in a fourth floor flat.
Please come and collect at your earliest convenience, and, er,
Rising through the greenish depths, caught in the surface tension at the edge of the world, silver, a gathering together, a becoming, foam sparkling for glorious moments then disintegrating in a rush of minute droplets. More bubbles rising, more gathering, more bursting.
A memory of pain, of silence, breakdown and a sudden need to follow the stream of air upwards. Clawing through the film, fighting to escape, climbing from the water and gulping the life giving oxygen.
Clinging to the earth, resting, before stubbornly struggling upwards, reaching, writhing, limbs thrashing, filling out, muscles expanding, flesh drying in the hot air.
A riot of colours, the cool, dark depths forgotten, the brightness is everything.
Hunger now all consuming, cautiously tasting the air, joy increasing as confidence grows. Food surrounds, mind locks onto the capture of prey, nothing else matters.
A small girl runs in the long grass, pigtails flying before stopping to look. She glows as a rainbow, hot and impossibly beautiful; and shouts, a cacophony of vibrations, felt rather than heard.
‘Daddy, daddy, look at the beautiful dragonfly.’
When Julia first came to live next door to me, she pestered me off and on to get some hens. For a multitude of reasons this was not a good idea, though I do love these birds, so I kept prevaricating. One day I would definitely be up for it, the next good sense would kick in and I would say nope.
Julia has been dead for two years now, which is incredible, it was her anniversary on Saturday and in a fit of . . . something? I don’t know what, I ordered two hens from a local small business. I used to know the owner of this business well so had no doubts that the birds would be well looked after and healthy, and of course I would also get to catch up with someone I like, but have not seen for a couple of decades.
The catch-up was indeed lovely, and I ended up with a third bird. Two white hens newly christened Gertrude and Hermione, and a dark, streaked lady who I have called Lulabelle.
Now I had already set up quarters for them in the aviary which the parrots use very reluctantly, only going outside willingly for about a month during the hottest part of the year. As soon as I put a hen hut in there – actually an adapted dog crate – it was more or less ready for the hens to move into.
I carried the ladies through the house in a large cardboard box so that the parroty people, who are easily spooked by unexpected birds, did not get (too) upset, and went straight to the aviary to open the box, not realising that Dolly Dumpling had followed me. I opened the box, one of the white girls jumped straight out and Dolly threw a fit behind me, raising his crest, jumping about with wings outstretched and hissing like a demented kettle.
He can be a terrible bully to other birds, but unless they are afraid of him, which they never are; he backs down very quickly as he is also a scaredy birdie. The hens were completely unimpressed by him, talking between themselves and ignoring him, so he ran up my body to my shoulder where I could protect him while he continued hissing, but quietly now in case they retaliated.
I took him back in, locked the door behind us and left the hens to explore.
Having calmed Dolly Dumpling and explained to the Grey Clan that the girls were not interested in parrots and that they would not have to share space, I took the dogs for a walk. Came back, checked the hens. They were clustered at the back door asking to come inside.
I am as sure as I can be that these birds have not been in a house. In fact because their pens were in woodland they had probably not even been able to see my friend’s house, so I felt no guilt in leaving them outside. I was surprised to be tripping over them to get back in, though.
Fast forward to tonight. They have been in and out of their sleeping quarters all day, scattering straw and getting used to their new home. They did not want to go in to roost though, so I decided to wait until it was dark when I could easily pick them up and put them to inside. Put the parrots to bed, went upstairs to read. Heard Dolly Dumpling screaming in terror, went downstairs.
Two white hens were balancing on the windowsill outside, pressed up against the glass, staring straight at poor Dolly.
I covered his house with his blanket so that he couldn’t see the scarey monsters, then again went outside to try and get the girls inside their own sleeping quarters. No dice. They jumped down and ran away, Lulabelle was sitting on Rosie’s swing just beneath the roof. I figured if they wanted to roost high up they could do so, and fixed a branch up high for Gertrude and Hermione.
Went back inside, put the kettle on for a cup of tea. Went to check the chickens. All three were once more clustering at the back door, looking up at me pathetically when I opened it.
I told them that their house would not fit inside the back door anyway, that hens are outside birdies and I lifted the house to show them.
It fit through the door, although I had been unable to take it outside without folding it up first.
And that, dear reader, is why I have three chickens sleeping in my back porch, inside the house.
Yesterday I had a phone call to check out my health problems from DWP/Maxima. During the conversation I was asked, “When did you last work?”
I find this offensive for a whole lot of reasons but I answered that until my sister died last year in April I had been providing full time care, including end of life care, for my mother, Julia of course, and my seriously disabled best friend. Julia was the last to go, but although the government don’t consider carers to be working, it bloody well is. Predictably I was told that I could not do this if I’m in as much pain as I say that I am. The fact that Julia died eighteen months back has no relevance to my lack of mobility these days, and did not then. I lived with pain then, I live with pain now. She was my sister, of course I was going to care for her, no matter the struggle.
Anyhow. This conversation left me very lonely and I really missed all of them, spent yesterday weeping and feeling sorry for myself.
This morning I gave the dogs a quick toilet run early on, and Bruno stopped and looked back. He pulled slightly, wanting to go back to the woman and her dog a little way behind us. Normally this would have him trying to drag me over but today, although he was curious he was well behaved.
Perhaps the training is paying off, or perhaps he was being calm because of the situation. As I squinted into the sun I was certain that it was Tracey and her dog Marcus who we lost at the same time six years ago – almost to the day. I’m sure that they were just calling past to say hello. After a time she turned and both she and Marcus walked back towards her house which was not far behind her and the pair of them disappeared in the low sunlight.
The sun must be still in my eyes, as I can’t stop them watering.
It’s pretty isolated where I live, I get no visitors so when a young man knocked on my door today in the hope of selling me some pound shop rubbish at eye watering prices, my heart sank. Not because of who he was or might be, but because of who I am.
I live like a tramp in my own home, I have no washing machine, no cooker, no tumble dryer or fridge, I do not even have a proper water supply. I am not poor though, I consider myself one of the world’s beloved, I have everything I need and have no envy for anybody. In short, I live like I do on purpose.
I dislike the endless consumerism and cook on an open fire, I wash my clothes by hand and do not replace them until they fall apart. Nobody sees me so what does it matter how I present myself to the outside world?
As he opened his bag of delights, I saw plastic waste and cheap goods. He told me openly that he is an ex offender and his probation officer was encouraging him to try to make a living. This may or may not be true, I don’t care.
I tried to explain how I live although I imagine he would not believe me, even people who know me – which is primarily online – feel that I must be exaggerating my eighteenth century lifestyle. I rarely have money, but my sister gave me some recently for a birthday gift, as I had no pressing use for it, I passed it on to the young man.
I mostly thought that this was amusing, me trying to explain that no, I did not have a washing machine, cooker, whatever. When I said about no fridge, he was utterly confused.
“But how do you keep your milk cool?”
I had to then explain that I don’t use milk. I’m vegan, but thought that telling him this might be a step too far, people get angry at me if they find out.
He asked about my dogs, one of whom was barking behind the door, said he liked dogs, so I brought them out to say hello. I have an elderly, toothless collie and a young Akita, with whom he was impressed. We chatted dogs for a bit and he went on his way.
Because I found the experience funny with me trying to explain the unbelievable way I live to a bemused youngster; I mentioned it to online friends who tend to the off grid lifestyle. I was surprised and hurt when I was advised that he might have been up to no good and that I should not give him money in case he was not genuine. Genuine what? I saw a human being.
I know that it is possible that he was up to no good. He could have been checking the area to see if my home is worth breaking into. If this is the case then he learned that my home has nothing of commercial value, and whereas the owner is a fat, helpless, old lady, she is also a fat, helpless, old lady with a big, fuck off Akita.
On the other hand, he could be exactly what he said he was. A young man struggling in a hostile world to be able to eat today. Either way I hope that I will always take the path of humanity.
He could be my grandson, he could be yours. Always be kind, people.
This is an odd one. I was challenged to write a horror story about gay vampires in the times of homophobia – as though they ever ended. I ignored it for a while, did not feel qualified but then got intrigued. I don’t think that this is great, or that the various tropes work well together, but hey here it is anyway.
Summer in the UK that year was hot. We are getting used to searing heat due to climate change, but in those days having more than a handful of overly warm days would send the newspapers into a ferment of hysterical headlines whilst giving them the opportunity to print pictures of bikini clad underage girls, captioned, “Phwoar, wot a scorcher!”.
I was young then and did not immediately notice the unease beginning to surface in the older generation. I was more interested in dogs and horses, so the fact that my older brother had male friends but never a girlfriend meant nothing to me. As far as I was concerned life was idyllic, I spent all the time when I was not at school outside, taking long walks in the local countryside, and trying to make friends with a girl who I was afraid of, because she had a horse.
I was ultimately successful in this and one hot afternoon we were standing in a tiny paddock petting her pony, Bradley. She had allowed me to brush his coat and he was gleaming in the sun. We looked at him admiringly and I nearly swooned with delight when she told me to climb onto him.’Go on’ she said, ‘he won’t run off or anything.‘
I did not need telling twice and scrambled onto the animal’s warm back where I sat, no doubt grinning like an idiot and running my fingers through his mane.
She started telling me about a boy she fancied at school. I was a late developer and totally uninterested, but made listening faces while I dreamt of owning a horse myself. As I imagined riding along the local lanes, maybe with a dog of my own running alongside, I heard her say casually,’
You’ll need to tell Michael to be careful, won’t you?’
‘Michael?’ I was confused. He was my older brother and to the best of my knowledge Lyssa did not even know him.
‘Don’t say you don’t know; I know he’s your brother and all, but you can’t deny he’s a poofter.’
I was utterly shocked. This came out of nowhere and Lyssa smiled triumphantly, having managed to catch my attention and, she thought, upset me.
I was not particularly worried about who my brother might or might not fancy, but I recognized malice and was hurt by it. Much as I loved the horse, I slid down from his back and turned to her, accusing her hotly of lying.
‘Why would you even say such a thing, you’re crazy. I’m going home.’ Tears stung my eyes.
Perhaps worrying that she might lose her willing slave, me; she was conciliatory.
‘It’s only ’cause you’re my friend,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t want you to get caught up just because your brother’s queer. Maybe you should try and get him to go to a mental hospital, see if they can cure him.’
‘It’s you who is mental, not our Michael’ I told her coldly and walked off, trembling with rage.
She threw a stone at me, it whizzed past my ear but did not hit me.
‘Suit yourself,’ she yelled after me. ‘I bet you’re queer too. You never look at boys, lezzie!’
I ran down the lane until I turned a corner, here I slowed down and rubbed at my eyes with grubby hands which smelt of horses. By the time I got home I had calmed down, at least outwardly. Inside I was still seething with rage and also upset because I knew I had lost my chance to spend time with Bradley.
At tea that night I was quiet, but this was normal for me so nobody noticed. I was listening to my parents and siblings talking, watching Michael to see if there was any way of telling if somebody was queer by looking at them, some stigmata or something. However he was just Michael; even so I felt the truth of what Lyssa had told me.
Probably everyone around the table recognised this about him, but as I said, I was uninterested in relationships at that point; I also did not care. Why should it bother anybody who one person might or might not fancy?
My parents were discussing the news, a young man had disappeared, the papers referred to him as a youth, which made him sound rough and someone who probably had criminal tendencies.
‘I hope he doesn’t turn up like the other one.’ Michael spoke.
Our mother frowned at him. ‘Little pigs have big ears’ she told Michael, letting him know that we were listening, enrapt.
Michael was much older than the rest of us, her favourite and she had always treated him as an adult. We pricked up our ears at her admonition, but he duly changed the subject, talking instead about some band which was boring to me so I stopped listening.
Later I went to see him in his bedroom. I asked to borrow a cassette tape, remember them? It was of course just an excuse and I sat on his bed and talked to him, we were close and he recognised that I struggled with communication.
I have Asperger’s but this was not recognised, especially in girls in those days, and Michael was the only person with whom I felt comfortable discussing feelings.
‘I had a fight with Lyssa today’ I told him. ‘She’s not my friend anymore.
”’She was never really your friend’ Michael comforted me. ‘She just used you. What did you fight about, do you want to tell me?’
‘She said that you’re queer and called you a poofter’ I told him.
‘Don’t let it upset you,’ he answered, not denying the charge. ‘Is that all?’
‘She threw a stone at me and called me a lezzie and told me that you should watch out, what do you have to watch out for?’
‘I expect it is something to do with the young men who have gone missing’ he said gently. ‘We should pray for them, that they turn up well and healthy.
‘I must have looked horrified, suddenly realising that my brother was a similar age to the boys who had disappeared.
‘Don’t worry about me’ he told me, ‘with Mother’s heritage, we are the safest of anyone.’
We always joked about our Transylvanian relatives and Michael flung a blanket over his shoulders like a cape, made a face which exposed his upper teeth and said,
‘Do not be afraid, young von; ve vill prevail against these forces.’
His accent made me laugh and we started to chat about school. I was still top of my class in everything except for maths which I was and still am totally unable to comprehend, putting the lie to ASD people all being mathematical geniuses. Michael gave me two books, one of European monsters and myths and a reference book for university level zoologists. I was almost born able to read and was frustrated with the books in the children’s section of our library, having outgrown them by seven or eight years of age so I hurried off to my bed with my treasures.
The papers the next day told us that the body of the missing ‘youth’ – he was only sixteen – had turned up, he had been beaten and strangled to death.
A big deal was made of the fact that, as with the other two, still missing men, he was probably gay. The phrase ‘rent boys’ was mentioned several times, as if this was a justification for anything which might have happened to them.
I felt sick to my stomach as I secretly read the overly salacious article. This boy had been local to us, and I worried again about my brother. I heard him talking with our mother in low tones as I loitered outside of the kitchen, but could not hear what was being said. I did hear mum say, ‘Be careful’, just as Michael came through the door, bumping into me as he answered over his shoulder to her, ‘Don’t worry.’
He looked irritated to see me there but said nothing as he swept past me, up the stairs.
He was not home that night, having gone for a meal and later a sleepover at his friend’s house. The meal was unusual as my brother was very faddy about what he would, what he could eat; the sleepover not so much so I thought nothing of it. The next day Michael stayed in his own room most of the day before emerging at teatime. Everyone ate meals together around a table in those days, and I watched Michael surreptitiously with my newly developed gaydar, but he was just Michael, the same man he had always been, my brother.
We all watched the news on the BBC, our mother was highly political and very keen for us to grow up knowing how the world worked. We heard that another body had been found, another ‘rent boy’ and I glanced at Michael to see his face darken. This was not one of the already missing men.
The broadcaster gravely told us that we should be careful. The media had christened the predator, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ assuming that the killer was a wealthy theatre goer. In spite of the fact that this creature was targeting and killing young men, women were told to stay home, to only go out if absolutely necessary, and at night only with a man to protect them.
Yes, I am rolling my eyes at this even now, as you probably are too.
Michael went out for the next three evenings and the day after his last sleepover, a very prominent local politician was found dead at his home. The following day the papers hinted that two bodies, thought to be those of the missing two men were found in a freezer in the property. Both had been beaten and strangled.
The papers were far more close mouthed than they normally were over the death of the politician, saying only that he had committed suicide, slitting his wrists in the bath and bleeding out. Later we would hear rumours that whereas he had been completely exsanguinated, no blood had been found at the scene.
It appears that nobody was ever caught in connection with the deaths of the young men, but it seems likely that the police did not try too hard to get further information. The politician was very rich, very powerful, and the verdict of suicide stopped all talk.
Michael was very animated for a week or so after this, but gradually returned to normal. I remember how he looked though, flushed and extra healthy; somehow bigger.
The following year Michael’s health started to deteriorate, he grew pale and thin. Our family is very private about personal matters, but we were eventually told that he had a rare blood disease and he needed frequent transfusions to keep him not just healthy, but alive.
We are all great travellers and Michael was no exception, frequently going to Eastern Europe to catch up with our relatives there. Each time he came home he looked happy, relaxed and more than healthy. He put this down to the European countries having more knowledge of his illness.
Although we were optimistic and hoped for a cure to be found, we lost my brother just shy of his fortieth birthday. I remember thinking how well he was doing a few months prior to this. It was about the time that financier killed himself; you know who I mean, the one who was later found to have been part of a ring of child predators.
My mother never got over the loss of her oldest son and faded away a few years later. Time has taken a toll on the rest of the family; I am the only one left of our bloodline now and sometimes I feel the years lie heavily upon me. I have developed the same condition as Michael, but unlike him I can usually find a donor to help with transfusions.
I read about a gang of people smugglers online recently, and thought to myself how Michael would have hated it. I smile at the thought that these powerful people continue with seeming impunity, thinking that the law will never catch up with them as they move from country to country.
I think that I will book myself a holiday I always feel so much healthier after a holiday.
And yes, my father loved his watches and his clocks.
Pocket watches cased in silver and gold or less aristocratic steel, he loved them all; their chains breasting his waistcoat.
The winding and the polishing and the craftsmanship and the filigree writhing, delicate fingers pointing to the time, to the moon, to the sun; maker’s names inscribed and Roman numerals perfectly positioned, the whole ceremony of time. He loved the watches and the watches loved him back, and because I loved my father I wanted to love the watches too.
The watches however, did not and do not love me. They sneer at my lack of reverence for time, and refuse to count it for me.
“The time is now,” I say, and they reply by sulking, refusing to move their hands.
“Have it your way” they reply indifferently.
They do not tick or chime. The cuckoo remains behind the little doors in my presence, nesting in silence. Pendulums hang inert, apathetic.
Sometimes in the night they will chime unexpectedly, erratically; one stroke at three a.m., twelve strokes at four in the morning. Each bell fades and my heart stops, waiting for a continuance. Just as I fall back to sleep, here it comes.
I hold my breath but that, it seems, is that.
“What time is it?” I am asked, and I look at the tiny clock in my hand, a gift from my long deceased father, then I look at the sky and I answer slyly.
There have always been rumours of big cats, panthers/pumas whatever, living wild in the countryside. Think Beast of Bodmin or other such media sensationalism. In spite of the odd reference to such BofB creatures the official line is that they don’t exist. When people say they have seen one they are generally fobbed off with them mistaking a large household cat or dog for something that doesn’t exist.
Now I have been interested in these sightings since being a small child. My father, a decent naturalist, saw one near Richmond in North Yorkshire many moons ago. He stopped the van he was driving and got out to get his camera from the back of the van; at this point the cat turned and started to cross the road towards him and he got back in hurriedly, sans photo. Apart from family he told nobody as he knew he would be ridiculed, but I know that he did not make up the encounter, it was a source of wonder to him. I also know that he would not mistake somebody’s black moggy for a large, exotic feline.
I have spoken to other people who have told me similar things, people who I consider trustworthy.
To get to the point, last year I was walking Bruno along a reasonably popular path, it was dusk and very quiet. Quite inexplicably he suddenly turned around, started checking the path in a very agitated manner and pretty well dragged me the mile or so home. Bruno has many faults which I work on constantly, but is very well behaved on the lead. He does not pull and it takes a lot to make him afraid. I told one of my neighbours who runs that route, he was just returning from one such run and he merely said he had been there and seen nothing. Nor had I, but Bruno did. I told a few folk but they all brushed it off as my dog behaving badly. About a week later I was walking that route and saw a dead, partially eaten sheep in a field just off the path.
The remains are still there now, a bare skull and some fleece. At the time I wondered about a big cat strike but there were no more incidents and nobody but me thought anything of it.
Last week I was walking Bruno and Fly along a lane a few hundred yards from the house. A sheep had her head firmly stuck in the pig wire fence but I couldn’t get close enough to try and free her as Bruno again went bananas, wanting to get the hell out of Dodge. A friend walking her dog went to get the farmer to free the sheep and I took Bruno home, fighting him all the way to stop him dragging me from my feet.
Bruno is an Akita, much closer in temperament to his wild ancestry than most dogs, he is the only one to have been unhappy. My collie, my friend’s dog, other dog walkers seemed oblivious, but Bruno was spooked enough to drop his tail. For an Akita to drop their tightly curled tail which they hold high over their backs is akin to another dog curling their tail between their legs.
This was so close to his previous behaviour, so unusual that I took note again, but having been ignored the last time I said nothing.
The next morning, Friday, 30th April, I put his lead on and crossed the road to the short lane which curls behind a short row of cottages before joining the one where he was afraid. There are usually a few vehicles parked next to the cottages, and here he started acting in a wary manner. Not exactly afraid, but certainly he examined one truck quite carefully. As normal cats often hide under vehicles, I had a look but it was clear; still, although Bruno skittered past he did check it out and I noted this too.
Once we were on the next lane and walking the short distance towards where he had been so quick to leave the previous day, he was far more alert to his surroundings than is usual. As we got closer to where the sheep had been held fast by her head he started to slow down and check the field to our left very carefully. Eventually, his tail went down, he turned around and dragged me home.
I trust my dog and by now was convinced that a large cat was loose in our area, although I had nothing than my dog’s behaviour to go on. I do not want to make him feel that I am putting him in danger, but I also was interested in finding out how long he would react like this. I am not afraid of being attacked by a panther; although we have heard of them occasionally, I have never heard of them attacking a human in the UK. I should think that they are way too intelligent to risk that. This aside, when I walked the same route the next morning, Sunday 2nd May, there were two dead rabbits lying near the parked truck, one had it’s head bitten off. Bruno reacted the same way as he had the previous two days.
Yesterday he walked the route perfectly happily. There was no dead wildlife, no eviscerated sheep and I am willing to believe the cat, an animal I have no proof even exists, has moved on.
Two more points of interest. I was talking to the chap who owns the fields next to where I live. He has livestock and I was trying to hint around the subject of big cats, but eventually came out with the fact that I think that there is one around here, to keep a good watch on his animals. To my surprise he told me that he used to be a forester, and while working some years back, he and a colleague were working in local woodland when they came across the carcass of a freshly killed deer. It was so fresh, he told me, that it was still steaming. One of the haunches had been eaten.
His co-worker told him that there was a panther in the area, and that he was willing to leave it alone as long as it stuck to deer and rabbits. Sadly it started taking sheep and ended up being shot and killed in Barnard Castle. This fascinated me as much by the matter of fact way it was discussed, even more so that it had been killed in a local town but that there had never been a whisper of this in the news.
The second point is that last night as I was bringing my dogs home from their last walk of the day, my next door neighbour was standing on his doorstep, next to front door, having a smoke. I always speak because that’s what we do in the countryside; also it means that Bruno knows that he is a friend and does not go into guard dog mode.
Anyway, my neighbour watches the wildlife and will often tell me that I have just missed seeing a fox or whatever, so I asked him laughingly had he seen any big cats recently. A neighbour’s kitty was crossing the road and I said, “Not that one” to which he replied a little cautiously, “You mean a big, big cat?”
When I said yes, that I meant panther, mountain lion, cougar whatever, he told me that yes, there is a big cat in the area. He has a friend who goes shooting and sees it now and then. I asked him if he had an idea of species but he just said it’s a big, black panther of some type.
So there we have it. I have proof which satisfies me that big cats not only live and hunt around the UK, but that I have had a close enough encounter with one recently that it probably saved the life of the sheep who was panicked enough to trap her head in a wire fence while trying to escape.
4th May 2021
Talking of the coast, when I was about ten years old, my brother gave me T. H. White’s masterful retelling of the Arthurian legends, ‘ The Once and Future King’.
I loved this book, reading it over and over again; I still own a copy. At one point in the story Merlin mentions a stone circle which he describes as being on the edge of the world. After much research on my part I learned of a stone circle in Calanais, in the Outer Hebrides, and I decided that this must be the site in the book. To this day though I do not know if this is the circle referenced by the author.
Once I had placed it to my own satisfaction, I dreamed of going to see these stones for myself. I have always had a love affair with the North West of Scotland and the romance of this place, the previous existence of which I had been completely unaware, delighted me. Eventually when I was around thirty years old, my younger sister booked a holiday cottage in the village of Calanais for a week at Midsummer so that she and I could go and visit this mythical place. To say that I was excited would be an understatement.
It was a two day journey each way by public transport but none the worse for that as the trains were far more comfortable in those days, and the route was beautiful.
When we finally got onto the island and into our cottage it was about four pm and my sister wanted us to go to the stones immediately; she must have been disappointed with my reaction to this suggestion which I did not understand myself. Certainly we needed to stretch our legs and the afternoon sunshine was very inviting. For some reason though I had a curious reluctance and managed to convince myself, if not my sister, that it would be more meaningful if we waited until the next day which was Midsummer Eve.
The following morning we got up and after some prevarication on my part, we set off for the stone circle. As we got closer I started to feel really bad but had no idea why. My sister went running up to the stones hugging them all individually like friends and I can remember hovering around on the grass outside the circle. When Christa asked me why I did not join in, I told her I did not like it there.
I felt bad as she had spent a lot of money for us to take this trip, wanting for me to fulfil a dream, but still I made some excuse and went back to the cottage leaving her to commune with the stones.
A lot of years later while discussing that visit, Christa told me that I had said, ‘The stones don’t want me here.’
I do not remember saying this, but what I do recall vividly is that they smelled to me of blood, and that they looked like sharp, bloody stone fangs, grinning at me there on the edge of the world.
I never went back preferring to spend my time looking unsuccessfully for wild otters and enjoying the bog plants next to the roadside which cut through the wet moorland. The butterworts, cottongrasses and orchids all delighted me, being very different from the plants in my local area. Of course I also had the Machair and the gorgeous white Atlantic sands to explore.
I remember the weather, waking to a day which grew steadily hotter until sometime mid afternoon when the heat and the pressure would become intolerable. At this point a thunderstorm, black and violent, would drench the earth before leaving behind a clean watery sunlight kissing the land. My sister whose interests were different to mine, told me that she had found other monolithic structures I might wish to explore but I was completely uninterested; I was probably afraid although truthfully I do not remember.
While I have never forgotten this experience, it happened so long ago that I decided at some point that I was colouring it more darkly in my memory than it actually was at the time. It is currently the end of March 2021, probably thirty years later, Two nights ago I was browsing the internet aimlessly when a small advertising video from the Scottish Tourist Board started to play at the top of the screen on my phone.
It cannot have been longer than five or ten seconds; it caught my eye but I was not really taking any notice. The film was taken in the dark and as the camera panned over some standing stones from above, before I had even recognised Calanais consciously, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach and I very nearly threw up; it really was that visceral. I am actually sitting here trembling and my heart is racing as I write, just at the thought of the view of the shadowed inner circle which I did not see in real life. I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath.
When I came back in I told myself that I was being stupid, and thought that if I was to watch the video again, deliberately this time so that it did not catch me unaware, then I would perhaps see what had bothered me.
No. No. No.
The shadows and the stones came onto my screen and I had to turn away and click off from the video immediately.
Until this advertisement popped onto my screen I had mostly forgotten about that long ago trip, and although occasionally I would ask online friends who had visited Lewis and Calanais what did they think, I have never spoken to anybody who has been there who says anything other than how lovely and peaceful it is.
I enjoy visiting stone circles and have been to many. Two reasonably local ones have the tranquil vibes that my hippy friends tell me that they have found in Calanais.
To me though, that awful sentinel standing on the Atlantic coastline at the edge of the world, that first footfall after three thousand dangerous miles, is no safe haven for the unwary traveller, but a blood soaked maw that is ready to open in a horrific welcome.