Fairy at the bottom of the garden: 2

Lucy was bored. It was dark and raining and she had not seen her friends for some time. The children were doing schoolwork on their tablets, so she had nothing much to do.

In truth they were growing older and more independent and spent less time in her company these days. When she conjured up pictures from the air of bunnies and squirrels cavorting in the forest, the children smiled politely and showed her cartoon characters on their phones, bashing each other in a variety of ingenious ways.

Lucy was shocked at how casually violent they were. She watched the children laugh uproariously as a coyote chasing some bird ran straight over the edge of a cliff to fall hundreds of feet into a river, or children with big eyes and grown up bodies fought monsters with teeth and impressive weaponry but apparently no brains, blasting them into gory fragments. She had to admit that the graphics were pretty good, though.

Thinking that soon she would need a new patch she decided to go looking for one. She liked the city well enough, especially the places where the outcasts lived. She fitted in more easily there and the people were generally more interesting than in the richer areas where the humans tried to control everything.

The poor could not control anything at all in their lives, so they frequently had a wildness to them, a couldn’t care less attitude. Some went in the other direction, their behaviour and even thought patterns so rigid it was as though they were hoping to be completely invisible to the normal slings and arrows aimed by Fate. Those were the ones Lucy felt most sorry for as they did not appear to be living at all.

Recently the humans had been hiding in their homes, afraid of an illness which was sweeping the whole world, or at least the world of humankind. The Fairies talked endlessly about how the world had been ruined by humans, how much better it would be if they all disappeared, but Lucy privately thought that life without their inept bungling would be somewhat drab.

The Fae are multi talented and pride themselves on being able to pass as human, but having lived with and without her people, in both the countryside and cities, Lucy realised that for most Fairy folk, being modern meant living as though it was a hundred and fifty years ago.

Considering how best to bring herself up to speed, she decided to go to university and learn the modern magic which seemed centred on the internet. She was fascinated by the human capacity to believe anything if it was written down on an official looking document, or better still if it were narrated by somebody wearing the kind of white coat used by actors to lend an air of gravitas to their pseudo-scientific pronouncements in the human media. She thought that using the same learning process which the humans endured might give her more insight into their thought processes.

Joining a university looked as though it would be easy enough. She had seen posters for the local college in the shopping mall, promising a wealth of opportunity for people who were keen to start in the coming semester. Lucy fancied going further afield and it seemed that all you had to do was to pick one you liked and then provide the correct documentation. And money.

As long as you had sufficient funds, even the documents provided were of secondary importance. All of these necessities of course she could conjure up, ensuring that they would last in the system long enough to gain her a place while disappearing before anybody could check too carefully.

Understanding that she would need a measure of proficiency in computing before heading off to university, Lucy marshalled the children.

“Teach me how to internet” she told them.
The two looked at her, surprised.

“I thought that you weren’t into all that rubbish”.

Alfie spoke carefully, not wanting to upset their friend. “Have you even made a phone call before?”

“Of course not, why would I need to?” Lucy replied. “I use magic if I want to contact my friends.”

Meghan, the younger of the two, giggled. Her brother nudged her.

“What Megsie means is that phones, internet and stuff is magic too,” he told Lucy diplomatically. “It’s different from yours but can be learned easily enough. You’ll need a smartphone though, or a tablet. Probably both would be better.”

He brightened. “Shall we browse for them online?”

“Why not?” said Lucy airily, pretending that she knew what that meant. Alfie went straight to his favourite online marketplace.

“Here we are,” he told her. “We’ll have to open you an account, make you a profile and then we can get shopping.” Looking at her sideways he added, “You’ll need to pay for stuff properly though, not your magic, vanishing money.”

“As though I’d do such a thing” said Lucy, blushing. “In any case it isn’t as though human money is real either; it’s just numbers pretending to be something.”

At one point human money had been tangible, something you could hold in your hand. Now it appeared to be based on imagination; you wrote some numbers down on paper and it existed. Naturally the only humans allowed to imagine and control these numbers were the super rich and nowadays even the paper was surplus. The rich could bestow these numbers at will; they could also deny that you had ever had them with complete disregard for their own laws. This was not unlike the Fae. Anybody who had ever been paid with Fairy gold found this out the very next day.

“Here.” Lucy held out her hand and snapped her fingers. “Credit card?”

“That’ll do nicely,” grinned Alfie.

Lucy had erroneously expected this to be a quick purchase. Alfie had brought up a marketplace with pictures of various laptops which all looked the same to Lucy whose sole experience with information technology had been seeing the children absorbed in the square plastic shapes which they tapped and swiped constantly. They emitted very annoying sounds which could sometimes be called music but nothing that she wanted to listen to.

Lucy’s reaction to the pictures of laptops and tablets therefore had been to poke the first picture to come up intending to say, “Get that one then.”

To her surprise as soon her finger made contact with the screen the picture changed, the photograph of the laptop now filling up most of the screen with some written information underneath.

“What happened there?” she asked Alfie.

“If you tap on it, it takes you to another page” he explained. “Careful,” he cautioned, catching Lucy’s finger before she could prod the screen again, “you might find you’ve bought it if you push the wrong button”.

“What button are you on about? ” It’s just a picture, there aren’t any buttons”.

Alfie sighed, did something which made the screen go grey and boring and started explaining to Lucy, in very basic terms, how smart technology worked.

“After all,” he told her; “if you are going to University then you need to be able to use more than just the basics.”

“Look,” he eventually told her, “probably the best way for you to get a feel for how it works is to play a couple of games on it.”

Two hours later Lucy was playing Angry Birds, grinning madly and ignoring Alfie who was asking for his tablet back.

“Not yet,” she said, and kept on saying; “I’ll be done in a minute, I just have to . . . Damn! Gimme a moment, that didn’t work.” She never lifted her eyes from the action on screen.

Fortunately for Alfie the battery died and the tablet shut down, forcing Lucy to give it back so that he could plug it in to charge it back up. She looked at Megsie who angled her body protectively around her tablet and said, “No. I’m doing schoolwork, you can’t borrow it.”

“I need to do my homework too,” Alfie said as the tablet was charging. “As soon as mine is ready I’ll order you some equipment, I can get next day delivery so it will be here tomorrow. You’ll have to wait until then but I’ll help you set it up and find you some programs to help you learn.”

Lucy wasn’t keen on waiting even until the next day, and Alfie laughed.

“Didn’t take you long to get sucked in” he told her.

“I’m just in a hurry to get started on my University courses” Lucy lied.

“Yeah, right,” muttered Alfie.

The next day Lucy hung around the garden waiting impatiently for parcels which Alfie told her would be delivered before teatime. Eventually the children had to tell her politely to let them get on with what they were doing, they could not make her goods get there any faster. Her parcel came at three o seven in the afternoon, a weird enough time but bang on what the courier service had promised.

“We have to make sure that everything is included and set it up before you can use it,” Alfie explained to the impatient fairy. “Also, we need to charge the batteries up.”

“How long will that take? “

“Probably a couple of hours” Alfie replied.

“Look,” he said eventually, “why don’t you go and terrorise the pensioners down the allotments or something? Come back about four and it should be up and running and I’ll have time to show you how it all works. Then you can go to your privy and play around in peace. You should pick up the wifi there ok. “

“What’s wifi?” Lucy wanted to know, ” and why will I have to pick it up? “

“Stop whingeing and leave me to sort this out or it won’t be ready til tomorrow, ” she was told.

Lucy took the hint and left, heading to the park to see if her friend Cat, the Naiad, was at the pond trying to catch ducks. At least she would have somebody to distract her.

Nobody though was at the park other than elderly people walking small dogs, so she amused herself by conjuring ethereal music from the air then watching them fiddling with their hearing aids while looking around for the source of the music. After a while, feeling guilty, she made the music loud enough for them to hear properly and adjusted the frequency so that they did not get feedback from the aids in their ears; it was not their fault that she was feeling grumpy after all. Mentally filing the episode away she decided that she could list the annoyance at her annual review, without mentioning that she had left her victims with expressions of bliss on their faces.

Hearing sniggering behind her, she turned to see three grey squirrels pointing at her and laughing.

“You haven’t quite got the hang of tormenting humans, have you?” one of them asked her.

“Yes well, I don’t see you causing trouble for them either.” said Lucy.

“What’s that your cheeks and hands are full of? Looks like peanuts to me. I find it hard to believe you dug up roasted peanuts in this park. “

“They think we’re cute” another squirrel told her after quickly swallowing a peanutty mouthful. “It’s not as though we ask them to bring food, is it?”

“I suppose scampering about and doing tricks for the humans is not supposed to please them then?” Lucy retorted . “Short of holding up a little sign saying ‘Please bring peanuts’ . . . ” it was at this point she saw them look guiltily at each other.

“You did?”

She looked at them astonished. Glancing around she saw a sign in front of a tree, it had been placed there by park management and had originally said,

“DON’T! FEED THE SQUIRRELL’S !”

However a row of teeth marks in one corner where the word ‘ DON’T!’ had been, made Lucy burst out laughing.

“You cunning beggars ” she said admiringly. “Since you’re helping them with their sign writing, perhaps you could help them with their grammar?”

Giving herself the form of a squirrel she turned to the trio and said, “Come on then, we might as well redeem ourselves.”

Four squirrels made their way surreptitiously to where a group of elderly folk were sitting and chatting. As they got close enough, Lucy gave a loud, squirrelly gasp to catch their attention and started limping, dragging a back foot as though in intense pain.

In no time at all she heard the humans twittering; “Oh, poor little thing, someone should do something.”

One of the men told them that squirrels were vermin.
“It needs shooting is what it needs,” he answered the others.

At this two of her new friends turned up carrying a very small stretcher onto which they hoisted Lucy. As the humans watched unbelievingly, they carried the whimpering Fairy behind a large sycamore. A loud gunshot rang out, the whimpering stopped.

Complete silence echoed around the park and the humans all stared forwards, carefully looking neither at each other nor at the single remaining squirrel who was searching the grass diligently for any overlooked peanuts. Eventually, without a word they all got up and individually walked home.

Lucy came out from behind the tree in her more familiar form, smirking. Winking at the three squirrels she realised that it was time to go back to see if her new phone and laptop were ready to play with.

Back at the house Alfie and Meghan were arguing with their dad about tidying their bedrooms.

“Can’t we do it tomorrow?” Megsie whined. ” I promised Sally we were going to do our homework together ” she lied. “Mum said it was ok” she lied again.

“Now;” they were told, “and afterwards we are going to the park and we are going to play soccer while we still have some daylight. You spend far too much time indoors as it is.”

“That’s not our fault, you won’t let us go out to play with our friends;” Meghan said sulkily .

“C’mon Megsie.” Alfie, ever the peacemaker told his sister; “The sooner we start, the sooner it will be over and done with.”

“Listen to your brother” her dad told her.

This earned Alfie a hissed, “Smarmy git” and she tried to kick him as they trailed up the stairs to do their chores.

Realising that she had lost the evening that she had planned, Lucy went to the library. She had no library card but that did not matter as neither the librarians nor the other customers could see her unless she wanted them to do so.

Although she had planned to read up on how to be a student, Lucy being a surprisingly avid reader, when she entered the building she realised that there was a bank of computers on a table by the back wall and hatched a new plan. Three of the big clunky machines had people sitting tapping away at them, two were unused. One of these had a sign taped to the top reading: ‘Out of order.’

Lucy stood by the one furthest from the library’s front desk. A young man was sitting in front of it, absorbed by what was on the screen. Lucy, standing behind him was equally absorbed, having not realised how versatile computers could be.

“I like big butts and I cannot lie.”

She spoke directly into his mind, grinning as he froze before looking up and checking guiltily that nobody was behind or nearby. He had closed the page automatically and after looking again to make sure that absolutely nobody was nearby, he erased his browsing history and logged out.

The librarian at the desk smiled at him as he walked to the exit.

“I hope you found what you were looking for, Mr. Robinson,” she told him. “See you tomorrow?”

Without looking at her, he nodded and again heard a voice in his mind.

“My word, I’ll say you did; eh, Mr. Robinson? “

The voice sounded like that of the librarian, but she had already turned away and was talking to an elderly woman enthusiastically about the romantic novels on the desk between the two. Red faced and head down he scurried through the door.

Lucy sat down in front of the computer but to her disappointment was unable to bring it to life. She had not cared what Mr. Robinson had been looking at, it seemed tame enough to her but she had wanted him to leave so that she could have his space.

Drifting behind a well rounded young woman who was sitting at one of the other computers, Lucy watched carefully how she navigated the page. She was a fast learner and soon saw how to change a page or ask the machine to find something. This lady was reading a local newspaper online, moving from one news item to another until she found, as though by accident, the lonely hearts section which she read avidly; hopefully. From watching just these two humans’ browsing habits, Lucy felt a rush of sympathy for humans as a whole. She had quickly caught on to the immense potential that computers held, but found herself wondering if humans primarily used it to connect to each other.

However, as she was unable to switch on a computer for her own use, she left the library and thought of the two people who had been sitting virtually side by side, desperate for contact yet seemingly unable to turn and speak to each other. Humans did not appear to have the sense that every other living thing had built in as standard.

Fairies are born to meddle in human affairs; although they are supposed to cause mischief rather than what Lucy did next. Conjuring his library card from his pocket, Lucy took on the form of the girl on the computer and made herself visible.

“Mr. Robinson, Mr. Robinson;” she called in a girly voice which she hoped aproximated that of the young woman.

He turned and saw the pink cheeked, pretty girl from the library, running with her hand outstretched.

“You dropped your card as you left” Lucy told him, “I was doing jobsearch on the computer down from yours,” she explained, noting how he reddened.

“I’m in most days checking to see if I can find work,” she added.

“Me too, thanks; I’d be in trouble if I lost this.” He held aloft the card that Lucy had handed him. “Thanks again, see you;” he told her as Lucy turned and walked back to the library, giving her bum an extra wiggle. Smiling, the young man continued on his way, this time with a spring in his step.

“That will cancel out this afternoon’s little caper;” a voice spoke from the wall next to Lucy.

“Get lost.” Lucy told the squirrel. “I have pictures of you dancing in front of the humans and making children laugh.”

”I wasn’t going to tell on you” the squirrel said, adding uneasily; “Erm, you don’t really need the pictures, honest.”

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to grass you up either,” Lucy told the animal. “I’ll keep the pictures safe from harm, you needn’t be concerned about them,” she added.

Walking back she saw the children and their father heading home. As she followed them down their street, Alfie gave a little wave.

“Who are you waving at?” his dad asked him, unable to see Lucy.

” Nobody” Alfie replied, “the sun was in my eyes.”

After the children had eaten, done their homework and gone upstairs to their newly tidied bedrooms, Lucy turned up in Alfie’s room where he was watching tv.

He produced her laptop, phone, tablet and a small yellow box which he told her was a mi-fi router. Telling her that he would explain what it was later, he showed her how to turn everything on and off, gave her a piece of paper on which he had written down passwords and how to log on and off, pointed out that the batteries would run down and need recharging but should last her until the next day and showed her how to access various games.

“I’m tired now,” he told her, although she was sure that this was not true and that he wanted to spend what was left of the day without her pestering him for information.

“That’s ok,” she replied and vanished with her hoard of new toys.

She spent the rest of the evening and most of the night online; the more that she learned, the more hungry for knowledge she became. By the time she closed the lid on the laptop and shut down the tablet just before dawn, she knew more about computers and artificial intelligence than most.

Getting up just after midday, her brain still buzzing with the world of opportunity which had just opened up for her, Lucy took herself back to the library. Outside of it stood the young woman and Mr. Robinson, they were chatting animatedly together and ignored the tall punk as she pushed past them and through the doors.

Completely visible today she walked up to the front desk. The librarian, wearing a name tag letting Lucy know that her name was Dorothy, asked Lucy pleasantly if she could help. Lucy hesitated before saying that she did not know.

“The thing is” Lucy said, you have all these books here on all kinds of subjects,” she waved her hand vaguely, “but you also have signs up telling people how to get further education outside of all this knowledge, why do you need both?”

“Well now,” Dorothy answered. “It’s a good question. The fact is that learning in a formal setting helps people to know not only how to look for answers, but where to look. It also shows you questions that might not have occurred to you. You can’t look for an answer if you haven’t thought of the question, do you see?”

She looked expectantly at Lucy.

“I see where you are coming from” Lucy replied. “But say you had read everything in here, you would surely then have the questions answered even if you didn’t know what they were.”

“There are always more questions, more answers, more books. Plenty that you don’t know exist, education is about giving you pointers.”

“Listen” Dorothy said, “I have young people come in here saying college is a waste of time as they can find out what they need to know without it. Often it is because they can’t afford to go, don’t want to saddle themselves with debt or even that nobody in their families have had more than the bare minimum of schooling. They feel that it is not for people like them” she said delicately, wondering if Lucy was in just that situation.

“If it’s a matter of funding, there are various ways around that,” she continued, “ I could help you to fill out forms for student loans if necessary.”

“Money isn’t the problem “ Lucy told her. “I was just wondering how you learn more, if it is better to be in a classroom. I’m trying to see the benefits.”

“Well,” she was told, “it is not only about the learning. It is about going into the world, experiencing other lifestyles, meeting new people. Learning can be more fun if you are doing it with friends, if you are there because you want to be; unlike school where you are forced to go day in, day out. Also,” Dorothy added, “I hear that parties are often involved.”

“Look, if you have the opportunity and the funding, just go. You won’t regret it, I promise you.”

Lucy smiled genuinely at Dorothy. “Thanks,” she said, “you’ve been very helpful.”

“I’m really glad” she was told, “Come back in a year or so and let me know how you are getting on.”

“I will” said Lucy. “What would you wish for?”

“Honestly?” asked Dorothy, “I’d like to live in a cottage by the river.”

“Okay” said Lucy, “wish granted.”

Dorothy smiled as the strange young woman walked out, hoping that she would indeed take further education. A week later she would remember Lucy when a letter arrived from a solicitor, informing her that a great aunt who Dorothy had never heard of, had died and left her a riverside cottage in her will. She would tell her closest friends that she had met an angel, which would have amused Lucy immensely had she known.

Back in her privy she booted up her laptop which she had charged surreptitiously in Megan’s bedroom, first throwing a spell on the room to keep Meghan and her parents out.

Confirming her choice of university and courses online, she looked on maps to see places she might want to live nearby. Packing up her equipment ready to travel she had a thought.

Just before she turned off her phone, she texted Alfie;

“Won’t be bothering you or Megs for a while, going to change my courses at uni and look for digs. LL”

Advertisement

Thistle down and clay.

I remember as a child running with the wind behind me. I felt as though I was hardly connected to the earth at all and that with a little extra effort I could fly away and leave it behind me. During Autumn I could run through the dead leaves and be whirled up with them, up into the sky as the gales blew them hither and thither. Probably it is normal for small children to feel like this, although of course I am guessing. I knew things then which as an adult are harder to believe in, perhaps less relevant is a better way of putting it.

As a child I could not wait to be grown up. We count the milestones in birthdays and cross another day, another week, another year from our calendars. How impatient we are to become big, to be powerful and in charge of our own destinies; it is only as we grow older we realise how laughable a concept this is. Once we have learned to control time by throwing it behind us however, we realise to our horror that it is a runaway train, travelling faster and faster until we can no longer see the person who we left behind. Our true self.

As I became older I grew also more solid. It became easier to believe that we are made from clay and not from air and sunlight which is what I knew as a child. I collected possessions and discovered that they bind you to the earth more surely than anything else.

Every so often in my life I have walked away, leaving nearly, but not everything behind. There is always a rationalisation for this; I need this, and this, and this. Surely life itself will collapse if I no longer own such and such a thing. It may be that I hang onto it, whatever ‘it’ may be, for the sake of my children, my animals, my siblings. It is a safety net which prevents us from rising, not falling. Every time I clear junk from my life even in a small way, I feel lighter; why then is it so hard to let everything go?

I miss being that small child, I miss the lightness and sunlight. When, if, I run now I feel gravity pull at every step. I feel myself stump around, tethered to heaviness rather than walking. I still talk to animals, to flowers and to stones, but I generally make sure that there is nobody around to hear me now. Even when I am alone I am too self conscious to sing in case somebody unexpectedly walks by. I am clay. I wish to be thistledown and starlight again.

How sad is the loss of our childhood but it is necessary for us to believe that we must move forward, for if we did not wish for this then how could we bear for it to happen?

A child of the family.

Evie had woken early that day. Relaxing in the warmth of her bed and enjoying the sun streaming through her bedroom window she lay smiling. As soon as she moved she knew that her aches and pains would start clamouring for her attention but she had no need to do anything just yet.

Evie had been widowed for an incredible fourteen years now. She still missed her Ron, sometimes the longing for his presence, for one more bear hug, ate her soul. Lying alone this morning though, instead of automatically turning to the empty bed beside her, she purposefully counted her blessings.

Ron seemed very close to her today and she felt that if she turned her head she would see him smiling at her, asking where was his morning cup of tea? This feeling was so strong that she felt the crushing disappointment of the empty pillow would be unbearable so she purposefully looked straight ahead.

”Give over, darling” she spoke out loud to her absent husband. “I’m eighty two years old. If I can’t enjoy a lie in at my age, when can I?’

In spite of this Evie sighed and started the slow job of getting up, washed and dressed for the day. Carefully making her way down the stairs she thought again about how easy a bungalow would be. Her children tried frequently to persuade her to move to somewhere more sensible, but this was her home. She had moved there as a young wife, raised her children to become fine people and of course her Ron had shared her life here too. He had died in the bed she slept in still; she had woken one morning to find him cold and still, a puzzled look on his face.

Her family expected her to get rid of the bed at least, but Evie found it a comfort, she felt a strange intimacy sleeping there even now. As for the house, every room, every surface, every corner held memories for her, from the cracked tiles in the bathroom to the pretty fanlight above the front door.

“After all” she thought. “I must be running out of time to enjoy this place now, why would I want to go somewhere else at my age?”

Moving about her kitchen she made herself a breakfast of tea and toast. Once she had eaten and washed her solitary cup, saucer and tea plate, after tidying away the crockery, the butter the marmalade and the milk jug, Evie suddenly burst into tears. She was completely unprepared for the wave of grief which swept over her.

“Oh Ron” she sobbed, “why did you leave me all alone?”

She felt his comforting presence, smelled the smoke from the cigar with which he treated himself at Christmas and on his birthday.

“I never left you Love” she thought she heard him say. “Buck up, you have friends and family who love you and we will be together again; it won’t be long now.”

A light kiss on the top of her head startled Evie and she stopped crying. She looked around but of course there was nobody there. After washing her face at the kitchen sink, she repaired her makeup and put on the kettle to make a flask of tea. Evie was going out on a bus trip to the coast, her friends Mary and Dot would be picking her up shortly, all of them travelling together. The coach would take a beautiful route including breathtaking views from a road following a heavily incised cliff top. After stopping at a viewing area for people to take photographs, the coach would take them down into a small sandy town where they could buy fish and chips, candy rock, postcards and plastic mementos, either for themselves or for their families and friends.

Evie had been looking forward to this outing but felt a sudden doubt about going. Ron’s presence had felt so strong just now she felt afraid to leave the house, afraid that she would miss him if he came back to their home. Even as she considered this, her friends knocked at the door.

Feeling foolish Evie told her friends that she was calling off her trip, said she felt a bit unwell. That this was at least half true did not lessen her feelings of guilt at the obvious disappointment on the faces of Dot and Mary. She assured them that they must absolutely go without her, and bring her back a ‘kiss-me-quick’ hat or something equally cheerful and tacky. The more they twittered around her, the more firm her resolve became. She would be fine, she insisted, probably just needed to take things easy for today and they would all meet up for tea at Mary’s house in two day’s time.

Closing the door behind them, Evie sat back down at her kitchen table. She really did feel a relief at not going with them though had no idea why. She spent the day pottering around her house and garden, having a snooze after lunch and then picking up a book to read. It really was a lovely way to spend the day, she thought.

Just as she opened her book the telephone started to ring. At the same time somebody rang her doorbell and also hammered on the door with their fists. Unsure of which to answer first, Evie put down her book, her neighbour was now knocking on her window, peering through and shouting, “Evelyn; Evie, are you home?”

Waving to her neighbour she went to pick up the phone.

“Mum, you’re there, you’re ok”

She heard her daughter burst into tears then shout to someone in the background, “She’s at home, Mum’s at home, she isn’t on the bus.”

“Penny what’s up with everybody, what’s going on?” Evie asked bewildered. “Half the street is banging on my door and you ring me then sound surprised when I answer the phone. Who did you expect to pick it up, the queen?”

On the other end of the phone Penny pulled herself together. “Mum” she said, then crying again, “Oh mum, you’re okay, you really are.”

Evie went to the window to show the phone in her hand to her neighbour who was still trying to get her to come to the door, then went and sat back down.

“Come on now Penny, tell me what’s up, eh? You’re beginning to worry me here.”

Eventually her daughter calmed down enough to explain that the bus on which Evie had intended to travel had crashed through a cliff top barrier and plunged down onto the rocks below. It was believed that nobody had survived the fall and recovery of the bodies was being hampered by an incoming tide.

A wave of dizziness overcame her, had she not already been sitting she would have fallen. Her hand holding the phone fell into her lap and her head was spinning as she heard the tinny chattering from the phone, followed by the end of call signal.

She did not hear her daughter say that she was coming around to pick her up.

“No survivors “ she whispered. “It can’t be true.”

The implications filtered through the numbness and even as tears trickled unnoticed down her cheeks, tears for Dot, for Mary, for everyone who had lost their lives, the one sickening thought played over and again in her mind.

“I should have been with them. I should have been there.”

Penny arrived and let herself in, telling Evie’s neighbours that it was okay, her mum was fine but she had just had an awful shock and she, Penny, was taking her mum to stay with her for a while, Evie was still sitting trembling on the couch, the phone fallen onto the cushion beside her.

“It’s okay Mum” Penny said, wrapping a fleecy blanket around her mother. “We’re going to have a cup of tea and a biscuit and then you’re coming home with me. You’ve had horrible news and I can’t tell you how bad I feel for you, but I’m bloody glad you are still with us.”

2:

Evie stayed with Penny and her family for five days. The first day there she stayed in bed being treated like an invalid. When she got up and packed her things away ready to go back home, Penny would not hear of it.

“It’s too soon” she told her mother, “You need a little longer. It isn’t as though we see too much of you and Peter and I love having you here. We’ve talked it over and decided it would be better for you to wait until after the ceremony.”

By this Penny meant the requiem mass which was going to be held in the town for the lost inhabitants.

Evelyn agreed to this but tried to insist that she would go home immediately after the service, before being persuaded into staying for that night as well.

“After that we won’t stop you” Penny told her, “but don’t you dare try disappearing off the radar once you’re back home. We know what you are like and appreciate that you don’t like to ‘be a burden’ as you put it”. Here Penny rolled her eyes, “Just remember we nearly lost you and hate the thought of you all alone there without even your two friends popping by.”

“Besides,” she added, smiling, “don’t forget your first great grandchild will be here soon and looking forward to meeting you.”

“Your first grandchild” Evie grinned. “You won’t know what hit you. It turns your life upside down almost as much as your first child, in the nicest way, of course.”

Mother and daughter sat and chatted over the ever present cup of tea. Penny tried not to look as though she was trying to distract her mum from what had happened although of course this was the case. She was really concerned about Evie but as her husband Peter reassured her later that day, his mother-in-law was tougher than she looked; she had to be to deal with everything her life had thrown at her.

“I know you mean well Pen,” he told her, “but like it or not she is going to get through this in her own way. That doesn’t mean that you should let her think you aren’t there to help; just don’t take over. She won’t thank you for it.”

Finally back in her own home a week later, Evie walked around touching everything as though to fix it in her memory. The service had left her with a feeling of unreality, she felt even more strongly that she should have been on the bus with her friends, though she tried to push the thought away.

This coming week her grandchild Ella was going to the hospital to have her baby induced, both she and her daughter felt uneasy about this although Ella herself had said brightly that everything was fine. She had dark shadows under her eyes though and Evie thought that she was hiding her worry, unable to speak her fears in case she called them into existence.

These fears were well founded. Although the pregnancy had gone well up until now Ella’s baby struggled to be born and the doctors had to do an emergency caesarean to bring her into the world.

It was now Evie’s turn to comfort her daughter. The new child was sickly and barely responsive, soon slipping into a coma. The doctors were unable to say what the problem was but had gently told the child’s parents that they should make the most of their time with her, as baby Evelyn was not expected to survive. The child’s parents, grandparents and great grandmother all spent their time in a daze of unhappiness, trying to support each other from day to day as baby Evelyn struggled on, unresponsive but not quite ready to leave.

After five days of this, Evie went home and raged at God for letting the child suffer in such a way. It was not right that an old lady like herself should be spared for however long, actually cheating death, whilst the innocent baby was going to be taken.

When she fell asleep that night, she dreamed that Ron was there. She dreamed of him far too rarely, usually the dreams would comfort her in bad times but this time he spoke to her sadly.

“You were an accountant” he told her. “You know how it works, you have to balance the books.” He walked away from her seemingly disappointed, speaking over his shoulder.

“I miss you too Evie, I was looking forward to holding you again. Checks and balances.”

Evie woke up crying, but knew what to do. Washing herself, dressing and putting on just a spritz of perfume, she called a taxi and explained where she wanted to go and why.

The driver who picked her up was sympathetic, like everybody local he knew about Evie. He understood that while it would seem she should be happy, she was bound to want to say goodbye to her long term friends. Privately determining that he would not charge her – she looked too much like his granny, he ended up accepting a very much reduced fare in advance.

He was happy to stop and wait while she bought a wreath of flowers from a florist and helped her back into the car.

At the site of the crash they were unable to park as it was too dangerous, but the view point where she had expected to take photographs was just a little further, they could stop there her driver explained. He had brought a folding camp chair so that she could sit in privacy for a while, after which he would help her to either lay the flowers for her friends or to throw them over the wall built to keep sightseers safe.

Evie thanked him for his kindness as he helped her into the chair then thoughtfully retreated into his car.

Evie sat for a while then said, “Come on then, I can’t do this alone” and smiled as Ron stood a few feet in front of her.

“Look at this Love” he told her, “it’s the red carpet treatment for you.”

He looked so young, and as impossibly handsome as he had been when he first started courting her. Evie rose to her feet and stepped onto the red carpet.

“You won’t need that” Ron laughed, pointing at her walking cane. Laughing back she realised that she was as young again as her husband and throwing away the cane she ran to his arms.

The taxi driver would later tell the police that he had no idea how this elderly woman had managed to climb the barrier. He had looked up and ran from his car to try and stop her but she just stepped forward and disappeared over the edge. A couple of hikers confirmed this they had seen it too, and eventually the unfortunate driver was taken to the nearest hospital where he was treated for shock.

The doctor who came to talk to him before discharging him explained that it was not unusual for survivors of such a tragedy to feel such an overwhelming guilt at not dying alongside of their fellow passengers, that this kind of thing was all too common. He prescribed anti anxiety medication, told him that yes, it was a puzzle how the old lady had managed to throw herself over the cliff, but that people were very determined in such cases and he must not blame himself. He was given leaflets and the number for a telephone helpline if he found himself struggling.

In another part of the hospital where he was being treated, a paediatric nurse, smiling from ear to ear, came and woke up Ella where she was half sleeping and crying at the same time.

“Do you want to come and hold your baby?” she asked her.

As Ella, her eyes red from weeping looked numbly up at the nurse she was told,

“Baby Evelyn is awake and wants her mum.”

Campfires

Across the road my neighbours are sitting around a campfire in their yard.
I watch them through the fence, sitting, talking, drinking tea, or beer, or wine, in the winter dark.

I walk by with my dogs, their last walk of the day.

I am envious as I walk past, the flames bright against shadowed faces, my dogs pulling towards the beck at the bottom of the road.

I haven’t seen my friends for a very long time. I wish that I was sitting by a fire with them, a fire in a field, or on a beach or next to a dark river. I would be silent and my friends would chat quietly, pointing out stars and remembering old friends long gone. And when folk started to drift back to their vans, to their beds, I would say goodnight and maybe get a hug in return.

My neighbours are sitting quietly in the dark, the flames leaping high, a shower of sparks as somebody nudges a log with a boot.

They are good people but keep to themselves, apart from the village which sees them as different. I talk to them and surely they would welcome me if I asked to sit there with them, the warmth of new friendships warming my soul as the fire would warm my face. Shy however, I take my dogs home where I settle first my birds and then my dogs, before I climb the stairs and go to my bed.

The Selkie.

The storm crossed the ocean, gathering strength as it travelled. By the time it reached landfall, a handful of outlying islands some distance from a larger island; it had reached a fury of destruction.

The islanders, the first in its path; were no strangers to violent weather and had built their homesteads low to the ground. The roofs of the buildings were sloped to almost touch the land on which they sat, to deflect the wind upwards, over the tiny settlement. A line of wattle fence carefully constructed with sufficient gaps to let some of the wind pass, surrounded the village. This was uprooted by the storm, whirling inland, crashing against the homes and the few trees surrounding the houses. Broken and dispersed, the pieces would be collected after the storm, supposing that they were both repairable and not lost to the hills. One of the homes lost it’s heather thatch, but this family was still more lucky than the folk nearest to the shore. They had to climb out of a window at the back of their house, to escape the ravenous sea which entered through the front. Very little would remain of this home when the storm finally left the coastline, losing most of it’s strength as it crossed the mountains, and then the channel between island and mainland.

Sometime in the night when the winds had dropped, the villagers gathered in the watery moonlight to assess the damage. The homeless were given shelter by those who had survived the storm, and eventually everybody settled down to sleep; time enough in the morning to start retrieving what could be found, and rebuilding where necessary.

A young man on the outskirts of the village, rather than sleeping what was left of the night, instead took himself down to the water, to see what the ocean might have cast ashore. Finding and dragging broken spars up high above the tideline, his eye was caught by a soggy bundle. As he poked cautiously at it, a smile lit up his face as he realised what the cloak like object was. He picked it up and took it straight to his home which had escaped the wrath of the storm. Burying it under his porch, he hid the evidence of his digging with a large, flat stone which he had been keeping for use as a hearthstone. Once he was sure that all looked as normal as possible after such a storm, he took some rope and went back to the beach.

He did not have to look for too long before he found the woman, little more than a girl, really. She was naked and shivering, searching among the wreckage left by the sea and the wind, and crying. Catching her by her hair, he spoke to her as she struggled to free herself from his grip.

“I have what you are looking for, you must come with me.”

Looking at him with horror, she spat and tried to bite him, and push him away. He laughed, hitting her in the face and knocking her down. Kneeling upon her, he used the rope to tie her hands behind her back, then forming a collar with the rest of the rope, he dragged her away from the beach and to his home where he fastened her to his bedpost.

“You’re my wife now,” he told her, unfastening his trousers and introducing her to the first of her new, conjugal duties.

She cried out against him, her voice like the call of the gulls; she appeared to have no speech. This seemed to him an advantage, who wanted a wife constantly nagging and complaining? Other men would surely envy him.

After he had finished with her, he dropped a blanket over her, and took himself to his bed, sleeping soundly, uncaring of her comfort, tied up as she was.

The next morning the beach was littered with tiny fish which had been dumped and left by the waves. Some were flapping in shallow pools, most were dead but still fresh. Putting off dealing with the damage caused by the storm, the villagers were out with buckets and any other vessels they could find. They collected the unexpected harvest, and the women and children set to cooking a big breakfast for the men, before settling down to salt, to dry, and to otherwise preserve the rest of the bounty.

One of the villagers to have lost her home to the storm, was a widow; an unknowing mother-in-law to the girl from the sea. Her son had been a loving child, but had turned unpleasant and aggressive when his father had drowned, while fishing. She tried her best with the boy, but without a father to check him, he caused more and more trouble in both his home and the village, developing a streak of cruelty which she both abhorred and felt guilty about. She spent many a sleepless night wondering what she could have done to prevent it. When he was fourteen he ran away from home. Nobody knew where he had gone, but he returned two years later and saying nothing of his previous whereabouts, he built himself a house on the edge of the village.

His mother hid her relief at him not moving back in with her. When she had timidly mentioned it upon his return, he had laughed in her face, saying that the last thing he wanted to do was to have to look after a doddering old woman. Looking at her ruined home though, she reluctantly made her way to her son’s house, to beg for help.

To her surprise and relief, he was outside, building a small porch in front of his home; he was whistling and appeared quite affable.

She explained her predicament, and he told her that she would come to live with him, he was extending the property and there would be plenty of room. She had brought a bucket full of the little fish, and he laughed as he took her inside, saying that they were exactly what he needed. She smiled happily, wondering if her son had changed his ways, then she saw the girl, bruised and clad only in a blanket, tied to the bed.

“Meet my wife, your new daughter,” he told her. “She’s a bit wild, you can teach her how to look after me properly.” Pointing to the bucket of fish he said, “You can start by cooking me a meal, better give her some of that, no need to cook them for her.”

As his mother stood looking with incomprehension at the girl, he spoke more sharply. “Well, get on with it, there is a lot for you to do.”

The mother got the fire going on the crooked hearthstone, and started to cook the fish for her son, stealing glances at the girl as she did so. She knew that there was no point feeding herself or the girl, his ‘wife’, until he was fed and happy.

After his meal he returned to building the porch and she took the bucket with the remaining fish to where the girl huddled, watching her. Showing her the fish, she offered them. The girl shrank away from her, holding her hands, now tied in front of her, up to her face to protect herself.

“Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you. Look, there is food; you should eat.” She spoke soothingly, hiding her anger that the girl was bound, but not daring to loosen the bonds. “What’s your name?”

The girl neither looked nor spoke to the older woman, who then set the bucket down and started to clean up the house, moving slowly and not watching what was happening with the fish and the frightened girl. Eventually, having settled the embers of the fire, she went back to retrieve the bucket. To her relief it was empty, although she had not heard the girl move, and indeed, she looked as though she had not, still huddled at the end of her rope, still holding her hands up protectively in front of her.

“Good girl,” she spoke gently. “I’m just going to collect some things and we’ll see about cleaning you up and getting you something to wear.” Picking up the bucket she said, “I won’t be long, don’t fret; things will improve.” She wondered if they would, though.

Walking past her son she told him that she was going to collect some things from the remnants of her cottage; food, cooking utensils and the like. He told her to make sure she collected plenty of the fish too, as they had an extra mouth to feed, then he got back to his building.

Back at her ruined cottage she started collecting her meagre belongings. Her nearest neighbour came to see how the widow was coping, and was told that everything was good, that she was to live with her son and his wife.

“He’s taken a wife?” was the astonished response. “When did that happen?”

The widow had to admit that she was uncertain of the actual timing of the wedding. “She’s a good girl though,” she boasted. “A little quiet and shy still, but she will soon come around.”

Both women stood quietly for a moment, both wondering how a quiet, shy girl, would cope living with such a bully of a man. The widow spoke first, looking away as she gaily told her neighbour that she must be off to welcome her new daughter properly.

Back at her son’s house she put her belongings tidily away. The girl was still where she had been when the widow left, but lowered her hands to peep at the older woman. Seeing the extent of the bruising to the girl’s face, her heart sank. “You poor thing,” she spoke softly. “Let’s clean you up first, then we’ll see about trying to get you more comfortable.”

Heating water on the fire, she brought a bowl and a soft cloth, and started to gently wash the girl, cleaning blood and dirt and tears from her face. “Good girl” she spoke softly as to a wild animal. “Will you not tell me your name at least?” The girl remained mute, looking at her warily from pale, sea green eyes.

It was only when the woman took her comb from her pocket and started to untangle the young woman’s hair, that the girl became more animated. She leaned against her new mother, and started to sing. The song had no words, but was hauntingly beautiful. As she combed and listened in enchantment, she suddenly realised what her daughter in law was. She did not have to look in the girl’s mouth, past her swollen, bloodied lips, to know that her daughter would have sharp, curved teeth, like those of a fish.

The song suddenly stopped as the husband walked into the room. Looking at his mother, her arm protectively curved around the girl, he sneered.

“How touching, but you can get out now. Take the bucket and fill it before the tide washes everything back out to sea. My bride and I will spend some time making you a grandchild.”

Her heart heavy, his mother picket up the bucket. “Your bride” she queried sadly? “No god ever blessed that union.” He merely laughed at her as she left the house, trying not to hear the birdlike cries of distress.

Down at the beach she found herself alone. After collecting the remains of the fish she walked to the edge of the water.

“There is a daughter of yours” she spoke to the emptiness. “I will do what I can, and if I find what is rightfully hers, I will return her to you.” A few yards out to sea, a seal raised it’s head. “I’m a mother too,” the widow continued, “I would not harm another’s child.”

Gradually the village was rebuilt, the villagers got on with their lives. In the house at the edge of the settlement, the unhappy trio lived a reclusive existence. The mother altered some of her own clothes to fit the girl, and persuaded her son to untie her. “After all,” she reasoned, “she can go nowhere without her belongings.” Life in the cottage became, if not happy, then at least routine.

The two women became friends, each sheltering the other against the moods of the man who controlled their lives. The girl never learned speech, but mother and daughter were able to communicate well enough within time. When they knew that the husband was out and would not come home until late; the mother would take her comb and pull it through her daughter’s hair, gently removing any tangles until the long, golden mass rippled through her hands like waves in silk. The girl would sing and both women would relax, happy in their temporary respite from fear.

At night, when the husband had finished pleasuring himself with the girl, she would sneak over to her mother’s cot, and the two women would wrap their arms around each other and sleep. Both women spent any spare time they had free from the man’s influence, in looking for the girl’s cloak, but they never found it.

After some years had passed, the old woman became sick. Her breasts pained her, and she got more and more unwell, until it became obvious to all that she was dying. Her daughter tended to her, keeping her as comfortable as was possible, but one evening it became certain that the old woman would not make it through to the next day. Her son was out somewhere, avoiding the house as the smell of his mother’s sickness and impending death revolted him.

Her daughter lay next to her, holding her gently, stroking her hair and murmuring small cries of sympathy. Her mother looked at her with love. “Who will care for you when I’m gone? You must not stay here with him, but where will you go.” She shivered, and her daughter got up to light a fire.

She looked at the crooked hearthstone and in pain and anger at the coming loss, she hit it with the iron poker, trying to assuage her grief. The hearthstone split, and she just looked at it.

Thinking hard, she took the poker and used it to try and lever up the perfect, flat stone in the porch. This would be the new hearthstone, and the two broken pieces; well they could make a new floor in the porch.

Dragging the newly loosened stone from the porch, a box was exposed. Lifting it from its hiding place, she took it to show the old woman. Both were sure what it must contain, both held their breath as the daughter opened it and smiled.

Lifting out her sealskin cloak, she leaned down and put her arms around her mother and kissed her. “Take me with you?” her mother asked.

Draping her cloak around her shoulders she lifted her mother from her cot. She carried her, feather light from the ravages of her illness, down to the sea; singing all the time. As she stepped into the waves with her precious bundle, the old woman sighed, “You must help me”.

Her daughter lowered her into the cold water, watching and singing.

“Thank you”. Her mother sank below the surface of the water, gratefully, and after a short time her features, blurred by the water and her daughter’s tears, relaxed.

The seal stayed with the woman until she was certain, then swam out to where her birth family waited for her beyond the surf.

Spot.

What is he called

And how old is he?

I spoke to the man with a gun and a dog

About to use the first on the second 

I don’t know he’s your dog now he said

Call him Spot or Patch or whatever you want

And he handed me the dog

Through the window of his truck

And drove away

And the dog had neither collar nor lead

But he wagged his tail

And I put him in my bus

And I called him Spot

And I told him that things would be just fine

And he was fine

Although he had a burn on his neck

From a collar which had given him electric shocks

But still he wagged his tail

And walked beside me

And ran to me if he was afraid

And he dug holes

And ate rabbit droppings

And snow and things which looked edible

And things which did not

And he looked to me for protection 

And wagged his tail.

He slept on my bed

And then slept in my bed

Under the covers

Where he farted and snored

And warmed the back of my knees

And my heart

And his head rested on my arm

Or over my stomach

And his head was silky as my hand brushed the dome of his skull

And his eyes were brown

And filled with love

As he wagged his tail.

And he grew tired and ill

And I gave him cheese and treats and love

As I had so much to spare from that

Which he gave to me

And I put on his coat

And he climbed into the car

And we drove to the vet

Where I said goodbye

And he wagged his tail

Looking at me

Trusting me

As the vet set him free

He wagged his tail

He wagged his tail.

Ghosts.

When we first met I was still a ghost.

I expected nothing from the meeting. I thought I might briefly drift into your field of vision, startling you perhaps before disappearing like a dream. Ghostly encounters can be uncomfortable but are soon forgotten, after all. 

We sat. I remembered how to be real and we joked and talked and even drank tea together, but soon it was time for me to be a ghost again and I left, supposing that I would be instantly expunged from your memory.

I was surprised when you summoned me back from the wispy fragment of the dream which I was inhabiting. I came cautiously but gladly, becoming corporeal once more and staying a little while, revelling in the wholeness of your vision, enjoying the sun warmed laughter. When I left this time, I smiled but still determined to leave the memory behind. Memories hurt ghosts. 

Being a ghost is not unpleasant. It can be lonely circling the periphery of consciousness but when I was real I was often lonely too, even though I might be surrounded by other people. When you are a ghost there are no expectations, either from the real people or from yourself.

You conjured me again and again. Each time I became a little more solid, each time it became harder for me to revert to being a ghost. Each time I fully expected for you to forget me, to spend your time with real people, even as I found it more difficult to return to my otherworld. It seemed though, that you did not realise that I was a ghost. 

The fact that you could see me brought solidity to my life but also anxiety. I was not sure that I wanted to become real again, but slowly, slowly; I could feel my bones, my muscles, the air in my lungs, my blood and skin and hair and nails. All of me, becoming.

It was an adventure this new life and I determined to enjoy it but to not take it seriously. In spite of this though I became reliant on your validation; I had after all learned to look at myself through your eyes.

Once I was no longer a ghost though you stopped looking for me, at me. Your interest waned, your eyes glazing over when I was in front of you, and you started to glance away, to the lives of the other real people. My newly found confidence began once more to fray at the corners and I noticed the unraveling, even fighting against it.

I began once more to haunt the shadows, to pursue my solitary wandering, and before I knew it, I was a ghost again.

I glance at a mirror and see only an empty room reflected back at me.

Now you have started to conjure me once more, to call me from the gloaming, but I am reluctant to leave the warmth of nothingness these days. I answer if called but I do not become fully real, and I avoid looking too carefully at the trinkets you show me. I carefully present to you a facsimile of what you think I am. My edges are no longer defined, my boundaries are amorphous, ephemeral.

Your reality is not mine; you show me your joy and I am happy for you. I am glad that you hold something in your life which matters to you as I once thought that I mattered.

You are a jewel shining brightly. I am drawn to your coruscating brilliance, but it is a cold fire and will not warm my transparent flesh nor will it quicken this homeless heart. I will keep a safe distance; not dreaming, not being, and while your sun shines elsewhere I will gratefully accept the night as I once longed for the day. 

The Russian Fiddle.

He awoke to brilliant sunshine, his cheek pressed against a smooth, wooden board. The world appeared to be moving, or perhaps he was just dizzy with the intense heat. Sitting up cautiously, he opened his eyes, squinting against the brightness, and realised that the world was indeed moving, or at least the boat he was in was swaying gently beneath him.

Bemused he tried to catch his thoughts, but could only stare, puzzled, at the wide expanse of water.

He had gone to sleep in his house, in his bed. His brother was either asleep or pretending to be when he had gone upstairs, there was nothing unusual about his nightly routine. For a while he used his phone to play games with his friends, but knowing that he had an important music examination the next day, he cut this short, wanting to be fresh and energetic when he woke up. A favourable result would gain him a scholarship to a prestigious musical academy.

He blinked several times and looked again. He was still on a boat and what is more, an unknown man was looking at him, and had just asked him a question. The language was completely unfamiliar, fast and gutteral, but the stranger did not seem aggressive; though perhaps a little impatient.

“What’s up with you? Have you got water in your ears, or maybe your brain, perhaps?”

This was said with a smile as Michael shook his head. The words translated in his mind, although he was sure that he had never heard this language before.

“I’m sorry, I feel a bit weird.”

It was all he could think of saying, and he was sure that he had spoken in English, but the words seemed to make sense to the foreigner sitting opposite him.

Studying the other person covertly, Michael saw someone a little older than himself. He looked short and wiry, very fit, with a deep mahogany tan. His eyes were a startling blue, and his hair and morning beard was black. He did not seem to be surprised that Michael was sitting in his boat, but he was now looking concerned.

“Are you ill, Mikhail?”

“I don’t feel too good”, Michael admitted.

The other reached over with his hand and put his palm against Michael’s forehead.

“You are hot, Mikhail, you shouldn’t fall asleep in the sun. Go inside, drink some water and stay in the shade for a couple of hours.”

Looking up, Michael guessed that the awning in the middle of the boat counted as being inside. Four poles held a roof made from a tarpaulin, it had four sides made from the same material. These were partially pulled back, folded and tied to the poles, giving a cooler, shaded area to sit in. A wooden bench divided the boat into front and back.

There was a small stove with a blackened cauldron sitting next to it, and a very ornate kettle, which Michael recognised as a samovar. His grandmother had owned one, though Michael had never seen it used; it was a souvenir from her travels. His grandmother had been very restless, often jumping on a plane with very little forward planning.

One such journey, famous in family history, had started with her walking into a travel agency and impulsively buying a trip to Greece at a very low price. She then went home to pack a suitcase and told her husband, his Grandad; “You’ll need to walk the dog and feed the cat for a week, I’m going to Athens tomorrow.”

Standing up carefully , Michael walked gingerly to the shaded area and sat down. A bucket of water had a ladle hanging over the edge. He dipped it in the water and not seeing a mug of any kind, drank straight from it. Surprisingly thirsty, he repeated the action before lying down on the boards, closing his eyes and trying to work out what was going on.

The gentle rocking of the boat was soothing, and he fell back asleep. He dreamed that he was in his bed, and the boat was a dream within a dream, but waking up about an hour later he was still lying in the shade, in the boat.

Panicking inside, but not showing it, Michael decided that it was, it must be, a particularly vivid dream. This calmed him a little, and he made up his mind to wing it. If he acted as though everything was normal and tried to pick up clues as he moved through the day, perhaps it would work out. Taking stock of his surroundings which were really very pleasant, he also decided that he would treat the experience as an unexpected holiday.

Yawning and stretching theatrically, he opened his eyes and sat up.

“I feel much better,” he told his travelling companion, “but my head is very fuzzy, so please put up with me if I seem a bit slow. I’m struggling to remember things, but I feel good physically, and I’ll do my best. “

The older man smiled at him.

“You dream too much anyway, Mikhi, I’m not sure I will be able to tell the difference. Here, you steer for a while, and I’ll catch us a fish for our dinner. “

Michael sat down beside him, took the oars, and started to row.

“Hey! A bit more gently, you’ll send us into the bank.”

“Sorry, ” Michael apologised, “just an accident, I’ll do better. “

Indeed he did do better. He enjoyed rowing and although this boat was unfamiliar to him, the technique remained the same, regardless of vessel. Keeping clear enough of the bank that he would not foul the paddle blades, he was equally careful not to stray too far into the river which was very wide and looked dangerous.

“Whereabouts are we, anyway?” he asked.

“Well that city over there, ” he was told humorously , “is still Nizhny Novgorod”.

Michael looked across the water to a large settlement, slightly behind them.

“Neeshnee, eh?” He pronounced it carefully, rolling his eyes, “Well of course”.

He pretended to be affronted that he had not been given a more precise answer, but at least he knew now what part of the world he was in. Geography was one of his interests and he realised that he was in Russia, the river he was on had to be the Volga. He wished that he spoke Russian, then realised with a smile that he was doing so.

He was aware that some of his maternal ancestors, great grandparents perhaps, came from Eastern Europe; but all that he could dredge up in his mind was a memory of one faded photograph which his Grandmother had owned. This showed a stern looking man wearing a helmet which had a spike on top, he had a friendly looking, pretty woman beside him. Michael knew nothing about them, he wasn’t even sure whether they had been his grandmother’s parents, grandparents, or other family; uncle, aunt or whatever. As a child he was much impressed by the soldier’s helmet though, and his fierce moustache.

Remembering the soldier’s name, he murmured aloud, “Otto”, smiling at the memory.

“What?”

The fisherman looked over to him.

“I was just thinking out loud. ” Michael admitted.

“About what?” Otto asked .

Exulting inside because he appeared to have found out the name of his host, Michael grinned.

Looking carefully, he realised that his new friend looked a lot like a younger version of the man in the photograph except that he was wearing scruffy, though clean, working clothes. He was also smiling, looking far less intimidating than Michael’s long dead relative .

“I was thinking that I wouldn’t mind growing a moustache as impressive as yours”, he laughed.

Otto chuckled back.

“You’ll have to wait a while longer yet”, he was told. “Anyway, with your blond locks, you’ll never grow such a manly set as mine.

“Wait and see”, Michael said. “Wait and see. Are those fish biting yet?” he teased.

“Take us over to those trees, we’ll tie up in the shade and see if we can get a nice carp in the pool there. “

Michael rowed carefully towards their destination, then feathered the oars gently, while Otto threw a rope over a low branch and secured their boat. After the two of them clambered ashore, they unloaded the boat and started to set up a small camp.

First of all, Otto carefully set up two poles on the bank, fixing them at such an angle that their lines would not tangle together, and baited them with a little cheese, a foul smelling piece of which he took from the cauldron where it had been stored for coolness.

“Now”, he said. “Time for tea, eh?”

Otto took from the cauldron a small clay teapot, which was wrapped in a towel together with two tin mugs. He also produced a twist of greaseproof paper with tea leaves, and a little pot which turned out to contain plum jam. He shook out the towel and placed these items on top, then, taking the lid from the samovar, he filled the outer part with water after first making sure that it was standing firmly, and would not fall over.

Michael looked at the kettle as Otto was doing these things. It appeared to be a very fancy, double skinned chimney, a tube in the middle serving as both flue and firepit. He recognised the design immediately, having used a kelly kettle while camping.

The kelly kettle nearly always boiled over when he used it, but the samovar had a tap on the front which was placed over the clay teapot, now containing far more tea leaves than Michael thought necessary.

Taking twigs and pine cones from a cloth bag and dropping them into the chimney, Otto eventually lit a twig with a very large, odd looking match, and once the twig was properly alight he dropped twig and match into the well of the flue. The contents caught fire immediately, and Otto placed a steel tube which had been stored under the bench, extending the flue on the samovar to take the smoke up and away from their eyes. Michael watched, fascinated.

The kettle boiled in no time, the boiling water draining into the pot, which was soon filled with strong, black tea. Otto replaced the water in the samovar, bringing it to the boil again before letting the fire burn out.

Whistling, he produced two thick slices of black bread, which had been sitting with the noisome cheese. One piece he offered to Michael, the other he kept, then, slicing the cheese in half with a pocket knife, he offered a portion to Michael who politely turned it down.

“What’s up? You’re not hungry? You must be ill!”

Michael just smiled and said that the bread and a mug of tea was fine.

Otto shrugged. “Suit yourself”, and he took a pipe from his pocket, together with a small tin box filled with fragrant tobacco. “I won’t offer you a smoke” he said. “Gisele would kill me.”

Michael had grown up in a smoke free environment where smoking was frowned on so much by society, that this casual comment shocked him far more than the fact that he seemed to have travelled through space and possibly time; not to mention the fact that he was talking in English and listening in Russian.

Having filled his pipe, Otto dropped some tobacco onto the river.

“Will that entice the carp?” Michael wondered aloud.

“This is for Vodyanoy”, he was told.

“Tell me about Vodyanoy?” Michael asked.

Otto told him about a water spirit, a naked old man, with green, scaly skin and algae in his hair. He was known to drown folks who strayed into his territory, or to drag them to a cave under the water, where he kept them as slaves. All in all, it was better to give an offering than to risk his displeasure.

“Also,” Otto added, “treat him right and he might put a big juicy carp onto our line.”

Looking suitably impressed, Michael nibbled at the hard black bread which was moist and filled with some kind of sweet, spicy seeds.

“This is very good”, he said, surprised.

Otto took the two tin mugs, placed a teaspoonful of jam in each, and poured the very strong tea on top, filling the mugs about half way. He topped them up with hot water from the samovar.

“Here”, he said. “Enjoy.”

Michael did not like tea, he rarely drank it at home, and if he did then it had to be so weak you could see right through it; he also half filled up the cup with milk first. ‘Baby tea,’ his dad called it.

Not wanting to seem impolite though he took the boiling hot tea with jam, thanked Otto and sipped it cautiously. To his surprise it was very refreshing.

“This is great”, he told Otto, thanking him again.

After drinking two cups of tea each, eating the bread, and in Otto’s case the cheese as well, the two sat back and relaxed in the shade provided by the trees. Michael was no fisherman, it had always seemed to him to be a boring way to spend time; but sitting chatting idly with Otto, watching the river and trying to find clues as to what was going on absorbed him. Otto did not look as though he came from money, but he seemed well educated and as he talked of his family, it sounded to Michael as though they did well enough for themselves.

“How are you getting on with your fiddle practice?”

Michael was startled at the question . He had been learning the violin since he was seven years old, but how did this man know that? Still, nothing about the day made sense, this was just one more thing.

“I expect you to give us a tune for my birthday, this evening.” Otto went on.

“I can do that as long as you have a fiddle”, Michael answered.

“I know you packed yours, I saw it when you brought your things last night,” Otto told him. “I hope you can play something that we can dance to.”

The two of them were unsuccessful with the carp fishing, Michael was relieved as the thought of first landing and then having to kill a fish turned his stomach. Otto though said that it was not the fish but the quiet, getting away from nagging womenfolk, which was the real point of coming out with rods. Michael smiled at this and kept his peace.

Soon enough though, the sun lengthened in the sky and it was time that everything was packed up and neatly stowed away under the bench in the boat. Before heading off, Otto cut some bright orange and yellow fungus from the willow they were tethered to. Michael had thought that they were poisonous, but Otto assured him that they were good, and would lessen the women’s disappointment when they didn’t bring a carp home.

“It tastes just like chicken”, he said; bringing his pinched middle finger and thumb to his lips and kissing them. Michael privately decided to avoid eating any dish containing wild mushrooms.

Rowing back upriver was hard work against the current and Michael did not know how far they were going, but a couple of hours later, after sharing the work they gratefully pulled up to a landing stage, one of several which led to houses pulled back from the river.

They were met by a woman in very old fashioned clothing, who scolded Otto for keeping them away for so long. She wrapped her arms around Michael, hugging him.

“It’s so good that you were able to come, Mikhail. Come in, come in.”

The house was full of people, all of whom seemed to know him. There were children, teenagers like himself, adults of all ages, and all seemed ready to celebrate; Otto’s birthday, presumably.

Eventually everybody sat down to a meal at a long wooden table, scrubbed until it was as white as the pristine linen cloth laid over it. The food seemed exotic to Michael, but was delicious. Eating a clear soup with tiny dumplings, he asked what they were made from.

The women laughed at him, but eventually told him that they were semolina. He ate everything put in front of him to general approval. Even when he felt that he was bursting, he was encouraged to take more; “Eat child, eat!”

Finally though, everyone was finished. The women cleared everything away, both charmed and surprised when Michael tried to help them.

“Sit down”, he was told. “This is not man’s work, ” but the woman who had hugged him, Gisele, gave him another hug and told him that he was a good boy.

The men sat and smoked, and drank clear, dangerous looking alcohol which Michael did not want to try, but he was disappointed even so when nobody offered him any.

As the sky darkened and lamps were lit, someone started to sing. The fine, baritone voice rang out, telling of a girl who was beloved but who loved somebody else. More maudlin songs followed, the women as well as the men taking their turn, sometimes as a beautiful duet. Otto got up and went into another room, coming out again with an old fashioned violin case.

“Now” he said, giving the case to Michael. “Our Mikhail is going to cheer us up and give our feet something to do.”

Put on the spot, Michael was nervous enough, but brought the fiddle from its case. He was not too surprised when it turned out to be his own familiar instrument. He stroked its lustre, checked the tuning, rosined his bow and pulled it across the strings.

Not knowing what they expected, he played Monti’s Czardas.

After a few moments everybody was up, dancing and laughing with pleasure. He breathed a sigh of relief as he couldn’t think of anything specifically Russian in his repetoire, but it did not seem to matter.

When he had finished the piece, Otto came and put his arms around Michael’s shoulders.

“I always knew that Grandfather Mikhail’s fiddle should go to you. I was right, wasn’t I?”

The assembled company chorused that yes, he was correct. Otto started singing, his voice a deep bass. Michael picked up the tune and accompanied him and the night went on.

As people started to sit down and chat quietly or to drift away, Michael went to Otto.

“I’m so glad to be here”, he told him.

“I’m glad that we finally met,” Otto told him, mysteriously. “Come on, I’ll show you where to sleep.”

He pointed to a doorway which Michael had not noticed.

“Sleep well, Mikhail.“

Michael smiled back at his new friend as he opened the door.

“See you tomorrow” he answered.

As he walked into his own familiar room, he blinked and looked around. The music and the laughter echoed in his mind, but he could hear computer noises and the buzz of music leaking from his brother’s headphones.

“Otto!” he called, turning around, shocked.

“Hurry up Michael if you want a lift”. His mother was at the foot of the stairs, car keys in hand.

“Who’s Otto?”

He tried to count up the greats in his head.

”Great, great Grandfather, I think”, he told his mother cautiously.

His mother looked at him curiously, but merely said, “Good luck with your exam. Don’t be nervous, you can do this, you’ve worked hard for it. “

“Mum,” he asked, “where did my violin come from?”

“It was your Grandmother’s” she told him. “She brought it with her after the war, why?”

“Well Grandmother didn’t play,” Michael said. “I just wondered.

“It was her father’s,” his mother said, “his father’s before that, I think. You have his name. “

“Michael?” he asked.

“Well they would have called him Mikhail, but yes, it’s a family name. Come on, get in the car.”

He was silent as his mother drove him through the streets, dropping him off outside his school. Seeing his friend standing by the gates, he greeted him, “Hey, Asif,” and the two walked in together.

Asif was also a musician, though his instrument of choice was piano, and he was also being examined towards the scholarship.

“How are you feeling, Mikey?” he asked.

“Nervous”, was the reply. “I think you’re much better than me, but I’d be daft not to try for it. Plus I have my lucky fiddle. “

He held up his instrument in its modern case.

“What’s lucky about it?” Asif wanted to know.

“It was my great, great, Russian Grandad’s”, Michael boasted. “It’s been passed down through the family forever.”

“I didn’t know that, you’ve never said before. I didn’t know you were part Russian, either. You’re a dark one sometimes, Mikey.”

“C’mon”.

The two linked arms and walked in together.

The exam took about an hour and a half. Apart from playing, Michael was asked questions about music theory, but also about his other interests, where he saw himself in five, ten years time, and other questions which he thought were irrelevant, though he answered as honestly as he could. He had no idea how well he had done when he came out of the music room, but in some way it did not matter. He knew that he had his music regardless of schooling or training, although he hoped very much to gain the scholarship.

Asif and he spent the rest of the day dissecting their separate examinations in detail. Their instruments complemented each other well, and they often studied and played together.

There was only one scholarship available and both boys wanted it but were good enough friends to genuinely wish the other good luck.

The day before the acceptance or the rejection letter was due, both were very nervous. Each boy knew that only one could get through, and when it happened, in addition to the disappointment they would inevitably see less of each other.

Michael was at breakfast when the letter came through. His father brought it to him, and both parents looked at him expectantly as he opened it and pulled out the single sheet of paper. As he read, he tried to keep a straight face, but could not keep the smile from breaking through.

“I made it.” He spoke almost in a whisper.

Jumping up and waving the letter at his parents, he shouted this time,

“I made it. I really made it!”

As he danced around the kitchen, jubilant, there was a knock at the front door. His mother answered it, and Asif followed her into the kitchen looking sheepish. Michael immediately toned down his joy, knowing that his success was his friend’s loss.

“Are you ok?” Asif asked.

Michael looked at his friend. “Sure,” he answered, “though I’m sorry. You must feel dreadful.”

Asif looked surprised.

“Well, obviously I’m sorry that it could only be one of us. I’ll miss you, but we can still get together in the holidays and keep in touch online and that.”

He then added hesitantly, “I’ve a new piece here for piano and violin, I wonder if you want to bring your violin and we could have a go? It’s Glinka, so your Russian fiddle should enjoy it.”

“Yeah, let’s give it a go. I’m really sorry cause I know that you’re the better musician, I said it was my lucky fiddle, though.”

As the boys walked to Asif’s house, the two started speaking at the same time.

“You first” said Michael.

“I was just saying that I won’t have a lot of time, my parents want to do the rounds of my relatives before I go to London” Asif explained.

“You’re going to London too?” Michael asked, his eyes shining. “That’s fantastic, we can still maybe see each other. Will you be anywhere near the Academy?”

“Well of course, I will be staying in their student accommodation.”

Michael spoke, uncertainly.

“You do know that I was accepted for the scholarship?”

“But I got the scholarship”.

The two of them pulled out their letters and looked again, before swapping them to read each other’s.

Asif’s was a straightforward letter congratulating him on his acceptance. Michael’s told him that although the judges had at first considered rejecting him, they believed that he had the makings of a fine musician who would benefit from the well rounded education offered by the Academy. They were therefore offering him a full scholarship, an extra one for this intake. He also had been given congratulations.

He had not fully taken this in when he skimmed through his letter, just saw the words, “Congratulations” and “Full scholarship”.

“We’re both going!”

The two ran down the street laughing, and just before they turned the corner to Asif’s house, Michael caught a glimpse of a smiling man, with dark hair and a luxuriant moustache. He raised a hand in salute and winked at Michael, but when Michael turned and looked back there was nobody there.

When the apocalypse comes.

“When the apocalypse comes” you said, “I’ll come to meet you, to take you to safety.”

“When the war breaks out, as the borders are being built and as people are being made homeless ” you said, “I will smuggle you into my country. I have a place ready, I’ll bring you there.”

“The world is becoming more dangerous by the day” you said, “but I won’t leave you, alone and afraid. You will come with me, you need not be afraid.”

“I will be there for you” you said.

When it became certain that the world was changing irreparably, when the borders were closing and the mobs gathering, when the apocalypse was howling down upon us; I waited.

As I waited, alone; I was not afraid because I knew that you were coming to take me to safety.

I looked at my garden. “I will prepare for the winter just in case” I thought; and I dug and I planted, and in time I harvested.

As I waited I collected wood for the fire and dragged it home. I was ill at first and it was difficult for me, but little by little I brought it, and I cut it, so that we could be warm together when you came.

As I waited I looked hopefully towards the north, but the horizon was empty.

“Soon” I thought, and I returned to my weeding.

“Soon” I thought, and I baked bread.

“Soon” I thought, as I washed clothes.

“Soon” I thought, as I secured my home against the mob.

“Soon” I thought, “Soon”.

I burned my wood and was warm. I collected and cut more; indifferent now to the hardship. Sometimes I still looked to the silent North, but rarely now, I was too busy.

Occasionally a traveller would stop and I would offer water which I had collected in the barrels which I had scavenged; also perhaps some freshly baked bread and a handful of fruit from my now productive garden. Before they left and moved on, the travellers recounted news of the outside world, the main currency of the nomad. I asked about you of course, had anyone seen you, were you well, but never had a reply. Occasionally I would get a strange look, which brought a sudden sickness to my stomach and the subject would be swiftly changed.

A small community grew around me, but I always kept myself slightly apart, saving a space in my heart and my home for when you would come. Still, it was a comfort knowing that somebody would be close by if I needed to reach out.

I preserved vegetables, bottled fruit, and dried wild mushrooms and apple rings. I saved potatoes in a clamp in the ground, and I dug a small root cellar. I repaired, and what could not be repaired I repurposed. Sometimes I still looked to the North, sometimes my heart was heavy, my eyes wet, but I would lift my fiddle from its case and play something bright and happy, until I regained my equanimity.

A day came when my neighbours banded together to travel to what had been, pre-apocalypse, a local town, known for its market.

Before the apocalypse I would have driven there without a thought to visit a friend who was staying there. These days it was a long journey on foot or by horse, if you had one. Walking alone could be dangerous now, roaming thieves would attack and steal from, or even kill the lone traveller; so we set off together for comfort and safety.

It was dark when we gathered, we were chilly and still half asleep, but as the sun rose people began to chat together, to laugh as we walked. There was the air almost of a festival, the day being warm and sunny and the usual chores of the day being put to one side for this outing.

We reached the town around midday. It was slow going as we headed towards the market site, seeing people we had not seen for a very long time. Often we had not known whether they were still alive or victims of the apocalypse. There were tears and hugs as folk reunited for the first time since the dark days.

The town, which had seemed nondescript in memory, appeared huge after living in a tiny, rural community for so very long. The noise of so many people gathered together, of children shouting, dogs barking, vendors clamouring their wares, horses clattering across the cobbles; the sounds assaulted the ears and the smells assaulted the nose. So much sudden stimulation was tiring, and after discussing where we would meet for the journey home, and when; I slipped away.

I knew that my friend had not survived but still headed towards the quiet lane where she had lived. I thought that there might be someone there who would remember her, and reminiscing about her would make her live again if only for a little while. I rounded a corner where a group of people stood, and it was then I saw you.

My heart stopped, my knees almost gave way beneath me with the unexpectedness of it, my face brightened and my mouth curved into a smile as I called your name.

You turned and looked at me. The shock of recognition was in your eyes as I started towards you, but then a young woman appeared. She took hold of your arm possessively and looked at me, hostile, as she spoke to you. Your eyes became blank and I heard you answer her.

“Nobody. Nobody at all.”

You took the hand of a small boy and walked away, never looking back. I felt nauseous, heat prickled my face, sweat gathered on the back of my neck and spread down my shoulders, down my back. People moved away from me, afraid that I might have the sickness which had already claimed so many lives.

“I’m ok” I stuttered to the silent onlookers. “I had a shock, saw a ghost”, and I left quickly, almost running.

I cannot remember what happened for the rest of the day. I suppose that I must have walked around, met up at the agreed time with my neighbours and walked home; arriving late and falling into my bed without even undressing. I probably kept an eye longingly on the crowds of people in the hope of seeing you again, but my last view of you had been your back as you walked away, your arm around the woman’s shoulder, the last thing which I heard you say had been, “Nobody. Nobody at all”.

I tortured myself with this scene, with your voice denying me for a long time, but I managed to keep to my daily routine. I saw less of my neighbours than normal, hiding from them, hiding my pain, until I could once again look at them without your image hovering behind my eyes, threatening to undo me.

It must have been perhaps a month later when I saw the husband to be, of a girl from the village who I often spoke to. He was walking up my path, carrying a sack. I supposed my friend had sent him to check up on me as I had been more silent than usual, so although my inclination had been to hide away from the contact, I opened my door to him.

“A bonny day, you look healthy”. I spoke politely, the new greeting which the survivors had adopted. I did not like the man, but it would be rude to let him stand on the doorstep so I ushered him in and offered him herbal tea which he declined with equal politeness.

He opened the sack and lifted out a squirming puppy, holding it by the scruff of it’s neck.

Looking at me slyly, directly into my eyes, he said, “You must be lonely, living out here by yourself”. He made no move except to thrust the puppy back into the sack.

My heart was suddenly racing in my chest. I did not look at the sack but instead, almost defiantly, straight back at him.

“I am lonely, yes.”

The transaction was as simple as that. He pushed me against the wall, groped my breast and lifted my skirt. I made the noises he wanted to hear as he grunted and thrust into me, and I kept my mind on the puppy.

It was over with quickly enough and he soon turned away, rearranging his clothing as I did likewise. Both of us decent again, he spoke indifferently.

“Marissa is short of flour, perhaps you have some spare?”

He would need, of course, a valid reason for giving me the pup.

“Of course” I answered, and filled a sack similar to his own with nearly all of my own supply of flour. I saved only enough to make pancakes for myself and the puppy for breakfast. We exchanged sacks and he left. I closed the door behind him and locked it, leaning against the wall, hardly believing my fortune.

I lifted out the puppy, my puppy, a fine, chunky dog; and buried my face in his coat, smelling his warm, baby smell. For the first time since the apocalypse, and certainly since I had stopped waiting; I felt a joy so great it could barely be contained, and I spoke to the dog.

“I shall call you, ‘Friend.’ ”

The loch.

This is a true story, as true as I could possibly make it. The only part of it which I have changed is that I have written it in the first person, when it fact it happened to my best friend. He rang me while he was walking and told me what was happening as it unfolded.

It was a few days short of Halloween, late in the year but early enough in the day to still have a half hour of daylight when I pulled up next to the loch, parking my campervan as unobtrusively as possible. An elderly couple were just getting into their car; they waved, smiled and drove away leaving me and my two dogs alone to savour the silence.

The views were almost too much to take in. We stood next to a sandy beach, surrounded by forest, and were able to gaze towards Cairngorm, the tops white, already wintry. Smiling broadly, I set off to walk the west side of the water to the Green Loch, a walk which we have taken many times. In the absence of both people and livestock, I unleashed the dogs and threw a ball for them about a dozen times. Racing after it used up some of their surplus energy and then we settled down to our walk, the dogs investigating all the smells and sticking close.

We were not in any hurry, the path is too obvious to get lost and we know it very well; so I dawdled along, the dogs mostly leading the way, though they were never too far ahead. I had not been paying too much attention when I realised two things. One, that the light was beginning to thicken, and two, that the dogs had stopped in front of a tree about twenty feet away. They were not barking, but were very alert, just standing and staring intently at the tree.

We were at this point about half way between the two lochs, and there was nothing about this tree which looked different from any other, but as I drew closer and caught up with the dogs, I started to experience a feeling of dread. Standing with the two dogs, the hair raised on my arms, a sudden sweat on the back of my neck, I realised that the normal, busy silence which you find in the countryside was now absolute. No birds, no wind sound, no little noises from the undergrowth; only the sound of my breath and the hammering of my heart. Standing with the dogs, I too stared at this tree.

Trying to be rational, my legs nonetheless felt like jelly, my breath was panicky, and when I spoke, trying to reassure the dogs my voice was croakey with fear. I had meant to tell them to get on, that it was only a tree, but what actually came out was, “Okay, that’s a scary tree,” and the sound of my voice breaking the silence was more than I could bear.

“Go on, get on round, what’s wrong with you?” I finally managed to order the dogs, and we three almost ran, around and past it.

I can’t speak for the dogs but my legs were definitely wobbly and my heart was racing; fear prickled across my shoulders and down my spine, but once we were well past this gradually eased. I did not look back but was gradually able to rationalise, telling myself that the dogs were obviously spooked and that I was reacting to them; the truth though is that the dogs had not seemed afraid at all, just watchful.

I was just beginning to feel a bit less disconcerted, when we came to a burn rushing towards the loch. Both dogs love water and if I don’t want them getting wet then I have to hold them back. This time though, the older collie stood back, barking hysterically. She refused to cross the bridge, instead barking and barking at the water. I had to put her back on her lead, and physically drag her across.

She usually only barks like this when she is warning me about somebody at the door, but of course we were alone; just the two dogs and me.

The burn safely behind us, we continued our walk. It had stopped being fun and in the gathering dark I was aware of beings flitting in and out among the trees. Some of these were feelings rather than shapes physically seen, some manifested as shadows in my peripheral vision. One or two were solid, but at the same time they were two dimensional, like figures cut from paper; except that these figures were alive and moving. I saw one sitting on a treestump, others darted between the trees, grinning and waving at me. They flitted in and out of my vision, aware I’m sure of my discomfort.

You might ask why I did not turn back immediately? There seemed to be little point. Since we had passed by the tree and the burn, the familiar route had changed somehow. I knew that we would have to turn and go back soon but I was putting it off, for however unnerving things were I was very reluctant to have to cross the bridge over the rushing burn, and pass by the tree once more on the way home. In the meantime the dogs were perfectly happy. Occasionally they would bark at one of the shadow people but on the whole they seemed quite unafraid.

Of course we retraced our path at some point. As we grew closer to the dark stream the dogs treated it as casually as they normally would. The shadow people seemed to stay behind us now, not following us over the bridge.

I looked for the tree warily having marked its spot well, but it had vanished. Brave now I walked up and down the path, searching. I spend a lot of time in the mountains, walking, cycling and snowboarding, and always know exactly where I am, it can be deadly in the hills to make mistakes. The tree though was definitely no longer there and the otherworldly feeling had disappeared with it, making the rest of the walk back to the van completely mundane.