Let’s get busy

Tuesday October 31, 2006

It was one of those days into which you try to cram more activities than would fill a pint pot.

First port of call was to the dentist, to have the impressions made for my partial top denture. Not in any way painful, though it was uncomfortable and far from pleasant as an experience. I go back on Friday for an in-depth cleaning and then on Tuesday next week for colour matching. The dentist was at pains to explain that the result would not be brilliant white.

“It’s alright,” I said, between spitting out lumps of pink impression gel. “I’m not expecting a Hollywood smile.”

“That’s good,” she said. “It really helps when you have a realistic attitude.”

“Just so long as I can swear properly again. You can’t swear properly without your front teeth.”

Both young women, dentist and assistant, were much taken with the observation.

I left them giggling happily, called in at the reception desk, and paid the next tranche of my bill. I’m well over half-way done on that, and on schedule to pay off the balance when the treatment is finished towards the end of November. And, touch wood for luck, I’ve managed to do so out of income without touching savings.

When I got back to the car I peeked in the mirror to find great wedges of the awful pink gum displayed between several of my teeth for all the world to see so I set to with the little toothpick in my Swiss Army knife to remove the worst of them.

Then, via the petrol station to fill the tank—the price of unleaded is now down to 84.5p per litre, for which I’m grateful—back home, to find Graham all dressed and ready to go.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

“Oh, fine. I’ll be ready for the off just as soon as I’ve given my teeth the full dental to get rid of this gum. Make us a mug of coffee, there’s a luv. I’m gasping for coffee now.”

“Count it as done.”

First stop on our round trip was at the caravan, to pick up Graham’s wallet and plastic, which he’d forgotten. A good half gale was blowing as we drove down the steep track to the holiday camp, whipping up the sea and giving the trees a good thrashing. It grew in strength in the short time we were there and, on the way out, we noticed the empty benches had been blown all higgledy-piggledy across the putting green.

“I said they were too light,” Graham observed.

“Do you want to stop and collect them up?”

“Nope. They’ll come to no harm where they are and they’ll only blow about again.”

Once up the track and over the shoulder of the Quantocks on our way to Taunton the wind dropped away. It’s turned really rather cold, though, and we both of us put lightweight coats on when we left the car. It’s still not what I’d describe as proper cold but even so, enough to penetrate when the breeze whistles round a corner.

To Caffe Nero for a large mug of the good black stuff. I was lodged in a comfortable corner to watch the world go by whilst Graham went off to Boots the Chemist to replenish his stock of gentleman’s fragrances. He’s using Aramis at the moment, and bought a bottle of cologne and a pump spray of the stuff.

“Do you want a try?” he asked, sniffing the sample on his wrist appreciatively.

“No thanks. The only thing the older bloke should smell of is good quality soap and water.”

My self confidence was shattered immediately as we walked off past Starbuck’s [turns head to side and spits, theatrically] and on to Marks & Spencer’s where, at Graham’s insistence, I bought myself a pair of casual trousers and two pairs of lightweight indoor lounge pants. The casuals he chose for me were a slightly toned down pair of ‘cargo pants’.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked. “I don’t want to do the mutton dressed as lamb thing.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll look good in them. Trust me.”

“Ok. If you say so.”

“I say so.”

Actually, they don’t look too bad. Though what I’m supposed to do with all these pockets I really don’t know.

Then, across town to search the big tin boxes that house Comet and Curry’s, to look at mini and micro ‘hifi’ sets for the study. They had a much more extensive range than the equivalent tin boxes in Bridgwater but I was completely stymied when it came to selecting a suitable candidate.

“You’ll have to do some research for me,” I said. “Nothing here really appeals. I’m beginning to wish I’d hung on to my old Quad 33/303.”

“Mustn’t give up. We’ll find something.”

“There’s a Richer Sounds in Exeter.”

“Might come to that yet.”

I hopped into Office World for a supply of manilla folders in which to place my reorganised domestic files and Graham went next door to look at Netgear wireless broadband routers, selecting one that’s more powerful and up to date than the one we’ve had for a couple of years. It’s quite clear that the BT router we had ‘free’ when taking up the new broadband account is worth precisely what we paid for it. Nothing. It doesn’t work on the wireless side. At all. Graham’s determined we shall have a proper wireless home network and the new box promises to do the job.

Then to the big Taunton Sainsbury’s. By this time I was plumb tuckered out, and said so.

“I’m sorry. My legs are killing me and either we sit down here for lunch or we go home.”

“Oh, you poor chicken. You’ve done awfully well. Let’s call it a day and have something quick and easy when we get home.”

Which is what we did. I woke from my nap in time to receive the little tots and their parents as the came trick or treating. Cute, they were, all got up as little witches and warlocks.

“What kind of witches dress all in pink?” Graham whispered to me when I handed out small chocolate treats to one particularly colourful pair.

“Search me,” I replied as I waved them down the path and closed the door. “Perhaps they’re going on to a fairy party and wanted to double up?”

And that was it, really. A busy day, getting things done. We all have to do that once in a while, and Graham really does enjoy a bit of retail therapy.

Before I leave the subject of fairies, and Halloween, the writer’s group competition closed off the voting last night. It seems there’s a four-way tie for second place so the results will not be published until an external reading panel has broken the tie for us. I don’t expect to be among the winners—there’s some stiff and worthy competition—but I’m free to show my own contribution here now.

Fair warning to the faint hearted: I don’t hold my punches when I write ghostly horror stories, and this one has a nasty sting in the tail. That’s how Halloween stories ought to be in my humble opinion but if you’re upset by that sort of thing, please don’t read it. If, on the other hand, you like a story that sends a shiver up your spine, have at it:

 

Fairy lights

PROLOG: Claverdale is a small, out of the way place, nestled between the hills and the lake of the same name, the sort of place you’d be unlikely to find unless you took a wrong turning. So quiet that, if you paid it a casual visit, you’d be forgiven for thinking everyone was away for the day. Just a handful of houses, a general store and a holiday season tearoom and boatyard, and a few outriding houses along the rough road skirting the lake, connecting with the main road some three miles distant. Not the sort of place where much if anything ever happens unless it already happened before.

* * * * *

Even now, months later, Mabel missed her little Westie dog desperately, every day.

“Good old Hamish,” she’d whisper as she passed his grave under the apple tree, and went out of her garden by the back gate, off on the daily walk they’d taken together so many times over the years. “I’ll remember you to the lake, never fear.”

And off she walked, down the track to the lake side, along the soft, meandering track, taking it easy for the sake of her knees and hips. She wasn’t as young as she’d been when she and Hamish started out. Not as young at all.

Some of her friends and neighbours had urged her to get a new puppy when Hamish died. She’d smiled at them and said: “No, best not. If he were to live as long as dear Hamish did I’d go before him, and I hate the thought of leaving a dog behind me.”

So she’d planted a white heather bush on the little grave, done her weeping in private moments, and sighed now and again at the holes in her day, the ones her Hamish had filled so heartily and for so long. The tears had passed now, but the sighs remained, sweetened but heavy still, in remembrance.

As she walked, the clouds settled firmly over the hills and the late afternoon sky darkened. The light winds that had played games with the fallen leaves fell slowly away to nothing. In response the surface of the lake calmed, stilled, and became a smooth mirror suspended between earth and heaven, broken only by the tiny islet she’d loved as a child and loved dearly still.

It was a long time since she’d visited it. She’d rowed across with her brother so many play-times and holidays, the two of them taking turns at the oars, to create adventures under the trees that added mystery to the island. Pirates, explorers, wild people of the woods, they’d all peopled their childhood imaginations, and the island provided them with their own small kingdom in which to bring them to life.

Now, her brother had gone, the small rowing boat had passed into other hands, and, with Hamish gone, too, she was more alone than she’d ever been.

Reaching the bench at the end of the lakeside track she sat herself down gratefully, to ease her legs before tackling the remaining stretch of her constitutional. From this vantage point she had a splendid view of the lake and the hills and, most particularly, of the island, where she could see the old landing place and the grassy clearing that lay behind it, with the trees beyond.

Now she allowed herself a sigh. Just a small one, more of happiness than of sorrow, though tinged with the ever-present feeling of being alone. She pulled her legs up close, gathering her skirt around her as she’d done when she was a young woman, and laughed aloud. “Silly old woman,” she cried. “You have the lake, the sky, and the hills. What more company could you want at your age?”

Around her the evening drew in. A single curlew called from across the lake, his song echoing around the wooded hills and fading into the silence. When he’d done, the quietness seemed even more intense. The felted stillness of autumn wrapped the trees in mourning dress, adding a slightly melancholy tinge to the air. Mabel sat, still as the trees, remembering happier times when Hamish would sit with her, his tongue hanging lopsided as he panted his impatience to be up and on the move again.

She shook herself, stood up, took a final loving look at the island, and turned up the track through the pine plantation that would wind around, up the hill and down the hill, and back to the cottage where the porch light was waiting to welcome her and the fire in the range tinkled softly, ready to warm her once more.

And so it went, day after day, as the weeks wore on and winter came closer. Most evenings now she’d see a touch of frost gathering on the grass and, next morning, it would be thick and glistening, a richly jewelled decoration to her landscape. She kept on walking, following the same route, resting at the same place and paying her respects to the island that was coming to be the last refuge of her memories.

It was towards the middle of October when she first noticed the small ring of lights over on the island by the landing place, glimmering in the dusk, seeming to dance for a moment, brightening and then disappearing among the trees. Captured by it, she held her breath and then, when it had gone, laughing at herself. “Old eyes see strange things,” she murmured.

But it was there again the next day, and the next, each time burning a little brighter and for a little longer. “I shall bring my field glasses tomorrow,” she promised herself. Back home she dug them out from the cupboard in the hall where they’d been kept for a long, long time. As she waited for the kettle to boil she took them out of their age-stiffened case, smelling slightly musty, and gave them a good wipe over with a soft cloth and polished the lenses in readiness.

She left them by the side of the range overnight and through the next day and almost forgot to pick them up, returning from the door to fetch them and hang them round her neck on the soft leather strap. When she reached the bench she sat herself down and waited. Sure enough, when the stillness of evening fell about her, the lights glimmered out and began what she was now convinced was a dance. She took the glasses out, focussed them, and snorted with frustration. They brought the lights closer but added nothing to show what was causing them. She watched as they grew brighter and danced across the foreshore and into the trees until she could see them no more.

At intervals during the next day she thought of the strange phenomenon. Nothing she’d ever heard or seen gave her a clue as to its nature. “Perhaps it’ll be clearer today,” she said, talking to a Hamish who wasn’t there.

But although the evening proved to be crystal clear, she still could not make anything more of the vision than a small ring of lights.

Next morning she put on her second best coat and walked the short distance down to the village, nestled by the side of the lake. She called into the post office and general store to fill her small basket and then walked down to the small boatyard by the water’s edge.

“Good morning, Tom,” she said. “I’d like to rent one of your dinghies if you have any still in the water.”

“We’re pulling them all out now, Mabel. No demand with the holiday makers all gone. I’ve one left we use for rescue but it might be a bit small for you.”

“May I see it?”

It was a sorry-looking little boat but sturdy and workmanlike.

“That’ll do fine,” she said. “Can I have it for a couple of days?”

“No problem. Would you like me to sling an outboard on it for you?”

She thought for a moment, and then decided against. “No, Tom, I’m sure I can manage the oars if I take it easy.”

“Right you are, then,” he said. “Tell you what. If you’d like to go up and take a cuppa in the tearoom I’ll give it a bit of a clean. Be ready for you in thirty minutes.”

Sitting upright in the little boat, pulling gently on the oars, she felt all her old water skills returning fast and made good time along the shore, mooring at the jetty where her family had kept their own boat years ago. She made it fast, and spread a small tarpaulin over it to keep it dry during the day.

Passing by the little grave she paused for a moment to pick dead blooms from the heather. “I know I’m a foolish old woman, Hamish,” she whispered. “I just have to see what those lights are about. I do wish you could come with me. For company, and for protection, old friend.”

The afternoon passed by and, a little earlier than usual, she donned her walking shoes and coat and made her way down to the jetty where the dinghy waited for her, bobbing gently. She pulled the tarpaulin back, folded it neatly, and stowed it under the seat and then, casting off, she began to row across the lake, taking a diagonal course towards the island.

It was further than she remembered. Her arms and shoulders were beginning to ache as she pulled up to the landing place, stepped carefully out, and lodged the mooring rope under and around the boulder she and her brother had lugged to the water’s edge all those years ago.

She straightened her back and stood for a moment, wondering how best to position herself to wait for the lights. If they came. “They probably aren’t visible close to,” she said. “Could easily have been a reflection of the village lights now I come to think about it.”

Right then and there she almost gave up her venture, chiding herself for her foolishness. But she couldn’t. She’d been drawn to the island, and to the small mystery of the lights, and she was going to see it through now. She walked over to the edge of the trees and sat down on a fallen branch, facing the green grass clearing and her boat, bobbing comfortingly on the water.

She’d almost fallen asleep. Jerking upright, she opened her eyes and… there on the grass, just visible, a small circle of indistinct lights was forming, moving slowly round and round. Mabel frowned, and focussed hard. The lights brightened and the dance increased in pace.

“Oh, my lord,” she whispered. “I do believe they’re fairies!”

As the lights grew in intensity, the images of the little folk gained in clarity, perfect in form, with flowing dresses and long, beautiful limbs. Their faces seemed distant, somehow, devoid of emotion, painted on a luminous canvas. Mabel stood, ignoring the creaking of her hips, and took a step forward. The fairies, limned in what seemed to be a cold fire, continued their dance and, as she stepped cautiously closer to the dance, seemed to smile at her and held out their arms in welcome. Closer and closer she moved, until she was almost touching the edge of the circle.

For the first time, she heard the music, a strange sound, at once beautiful, alien and savage, and as the pace of the dance increased, all pervasive, filling her with its unearthly melody, loosening her limbs, urging her to join the magical circle. She stood, unmoving, feeling all the ugliness and ungainliness of her years.

Suddenly, at least, it seemed to be sudden, the circle came closer to her, the dancers closest to her opening a gap large enough to accommodate her and before she knew it she was standing in the centre of the group as they whirled around her.

Brighter and brighter the lighted figures grew, and they gained equally in distinctness and in stature. Creatures of flame, they were, blue and gold, and the flames of which they seemed to be made grew, warmed and, so slowly, became hot. Mabel was engulfed in flame.

The fairy faces laughed wildly at her discomfort, delighting in it. They closed in upon her, scorching, fiery savage teeth tearing and feeding, consuming her from her feet upwards until the searing pain jerked her head back involuntarily and she screamed to the hills in her agony. The flesh fell from her bones, dissolved, and her body collapsed into the centre of the circle, growing smaller and smaller until nothing was left but a sprinkling of ashes.

The clearing was filled with the fierce, triumphant cries of the fairies, dancing around the spot where she’d fallen, feeding upon her. The light flared, lighting up the trees, and then fell back. The circle began to move again, towards the trees and into the shadows.

Silence fell over the hills and the dance was done. The little boat nodded gently on the waves and it was as though Mabel had never been.

* * * * *

Claverdale is a small, out of the way place. Not the sort of place where much if anything ever happens unless it already happened before.

John Bailey
Somerset, October 2006

 

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