Category Archives: fiction

The Fog

fog

“Hereabouts, fog can come suddenly, with little warning to those who don’t know the signs. It rises from the boggy moorland, wrapping the unwary traveller in a damp mist far deeper than that which exists between waking and sleeping, and a silence drops. This silence is eerie, but you should be glad of it, for it is far safer than the sweet songs of those devils who live within the fog, stealing their sense of direction and leading them astray. You may think yourself too familiar with the landscape to be fooled, but you are wrong. Many have made that mistake, to their cost. Dan, over at Bolden farm – his folks had lived hereabouts all their lives, worked the land, knew it like the back of his sinewous hand, never strayed further than Bodmin, and yet last October he drowned in the bog just ten minutes from his home. It was a horrible sight; some animal had found him and ripped out his heart, right through his rib-cage. I tell you, he knew his way blindfold.”

While vague pictures form in my mind of the last time I saw Dan alive – on a night rather like this, in this same bar room – old Albert pauses for another sup from the tankard which has been refilled and laid quietly on the table. A creeping unease causes the landlord of The Shrinking Fox to keep Albert’s tankard filled to the brim. There’s no charge, no comment from the landlord, and no thanks from Albert.

Although Albert is undoubtedly old, it’s hard to fix my mind on his likely age, since his features seem to change, his wrinkles blurring and travelling across his face, his nose growing bulbous and then shrinking in the dimming light. Whenever I try to focus, it feels as if the fog of which he speaks has entered my brain.

Seems like I’ve been hearing his stories ever since I was old enough to drink in the Shrinking Fox, and yet when I try to remember the last time I saw Albert, my thoughts slip away from me. He draws me back into this story and I’m unsure of whether I’ve heard it a hundred times before, or if this is the first telling.

Albert slowly puts down his drink, and glances at the eight men in the room. All eyes are on him, as his listeners wait. Satisfied that he has our attention, he continues:

“Even dogs get lost in the fog. Next day they’ll be found with their hearts ripped out – always the hearts, never any other part. It’s the work of the Devil, I tell you.”

I feel a chill, and glancing toward the window, I see the grey fog swallow the world outside. Even the stunted apple tree whose closest branch scratches at the flyblown glass is concealed, save for one immobile twig which touches the glass, pointing, like a warning finger, towards the listeners inside. I briefly focus on that word, ‘warning’, before turning back towards Albert, who’s gone silent. He’s looking at the fog, and the other watchers have followed his gaze. A dismayed “Oh,” comes from the youngest man in the room – he’s only a boy, really, and I fancy I see Albert eyes flash, hungrily, and the hint of a cruel smile… but no, it’s my imagination.

Again, I wonder why I know so little about this man who is so familiar to me. Where does he live? Does he have family, and have I really seen him before, or only dreamed of him? His voice brings my attention back to the present.

“They’ll be out tonight,” he says, gruffly. “It’s a good thing you all live in the village, where you’ll be safe. They never venture this close to human habitation.”

We must all have been holding our breath. The quiet room fills up with relieved sighs, then we look at young Cyril, catching his pale face, hearing a strangled sound issue from his throat. We look away quickly. None of us wants to offer to walk with him to his home. It’s almost two miles away, and Albert’s talk has us all on edge.

Albert is the one brave man among us. Putting us to shame, he turns a gnarled, but kindly face in Cyril’s direction, and says:

“Come on, lad, I’ll get you safely home. I’m the oldest person hereabouts. I’ve heard the devils that live in the fog. They’ve not harmed me, and I have no fear of them. They’ve given up on these old bones.”

Albert is right; we’ll come to no harm as long as we’re in the village, but all the same, to a man, we stand up and follow Albert and Cyril out through the door, and walk close behind him until we reach our homes. By the time I get to my place, there are only the three of us left. I say goodnight and go quickly indoors, before Albert and Cyril have had time to walk away.

The next day, Cyril’s mother finds his body in a boggy area near where she lives; a bloody hole where his heart should be. I keep running through the events of the previous evening, and every time, self-disgust washes over me. I don’t remember much, but I know that we all left the Shrinking Fox together, and I clearly recall everyone else going into their homes, until only he and I were left, then young Cyril walked all alone into the murderous fog. I should have gone with him. I could have steered him safely home – although, with his knowledge of the moors, I can’t understand how he got lost.

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Cyril’s been gone for over a year now. For a while people stayed indoors in the evenings, huddled safely away from their superstitions, but the landlord has whitewashed the bar-room in the Shrinking Fox and it looks more cheerful these days. Maybe that’s why he has more customers. It’s back to the way it used to be, with Albert sitting at the table, reeling out yarns, making us all uneasy. Seems like I’ve seen him here a hundred times before, but I can’t remember when. He takes a drink, surveys the room to make sure he still has everyone’s attention, and he continues:

“Even dogs get lost in the fog. Next day they’ll be found with their hearts ripped out – always the hearts, never any other part. It’s the work of the Devil, I tell you.”

The room dims. Looking through the window, all I can see is grey fog. All eyes follow mine.  One of the men, James – who lives way outside the village – gulps nervously. I fancy I see a hungry look in Albert eyes, and the hint of a cruel smile… but no, it’s my imagination.

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Written for The Daily Post #Foggy

©Jane Paterson Basil

The She-Devil

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Well, the doors had been padlocked for sixty years or so. Rumours had been adjusted and embellished, and now there were several – tales of goblins, witches’ curses and even one about a stairway to the underworld. Anyway, us oldies knew the truth.Many of us had been unfortunate enough to have seen the she-devil that lurked inside the shed. She possessed a strange, alluring beauty that not all who gazed on her sweet curves and glowing skin could see, but many who were prone to her charms had fallen under her spell. It wasn’t just men; women could be equally powerless against her, though, in those days, it was less common, as women weren’t so open about that kind of fascination, or if they were they often kept it under wraps. Obviously, she had no power to harm you if you didn’t fancy her. That’s how it works with them.

So they kept her locked away. Quite right, too.

This pub was famed for miles around for its old-world ambience and fine home-cooking; deservedly so. I can personally recommend the steak-and-kidney pudding; it’s very tender and full of flavour, although my husband, George – may he rest in peace -preferred their toad-in-the-hole (with onion gravy). He liked his food did George. He was such a wonderful man. In twelve years he never once forgot to put out the bin, though I did feel he let me down a bit in the end… I mean, wasn’t I enough for him? I used to say to him, “Curiosity killed the cat.” But did he listen? Oh, no, he just upped an’… sorry, what was that you said? Oh yes, the pub.

As I was saying, the Ring-o’-Bells enjoyed an excellent trade – as you can see, it’s gone downhill since its present encumbents took it over. Back then it was crowded with both locals and tourists who holidayed in the nearby caravan park, so little old Maisie Goodenough from the thatched cottage… yes that’s the one, at the edge of the cliff… Maisie enjoyed a tipple, but didn’t like to pay for it, if you know what I mean, so she used to sit around in here waiting to pounce on the nearest visitor and tell them the gory story about her brother who’d been carried away by that she-devil in the old shed. It got her a few free drinks, you see. She was a scrounging old-so and so… the drink got her in the end. I say she was old; she couldn’t have been more than fifty, but she looked ancient. Mutton dressed as lamb… and she was no better than her brother, though I don’t like to speak ill of the dead. I could tell you a few tales about… what’s that? Oh yes, the story.

It was back in the early 60s. I remember it well, but I never went running around trying to scrounge drinks on the strength of it… oh – how kind; seeing as you’re buying, another rum and coke wouldn’t go amiss.

…………

Is that a double? Oh, no, never mind. Single’s fine. Oh, well, if it’s not too much trouble… I’m not much of a drinker, but the flavour of coke is a bit too strong for me…

…………

Cheers…

Her brother was a bit of a tear-away, and one night after they’d had a skinful, he and a couple of friends decided to break in and see what the fuss was all about. You know what young lads are like, egging each other on – all that silly bravado and that. So they forced the lock, and went in, and there she was, large as life, staring them in the face. The other two boys didn’t think much of her – one of them referred to her as a dusty old heap, would you believe, but Maisie’s brother – Sam, I think it was… or Michael… no, I think it was Stan… a good looking chap, but a bit forward, if you know what I mean. Between you and me, he tried it on with me a couple of times, and me only fifteen or so at the time… but I’m not here to tell you about that.

So Stan’s two mates couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They even made fun of her. Said she was a bit front-heavy, and he’d be in for a bumpy ride, and stuff like that. But Stan just stared at her with this look on his face. It was love at first sight. He was a gonner. The other two must have been pretty drunk, ‘cos when she swallowed him up – and he went willingly, like they do; he was totally enchanted – they started laughing like idiots, and even when she ran off down the road with poor Stan, they were still laughing.

But I tell you what – they weren’t laughing when she turned round and spat him out over the cliff. When what was left of him was picked up, it wasn’t a pretty site. His face was all smashed in.

They drove the she-devil back to the shed, and put a new padlock on the door. About four years later I started courting George. I met him when I was on holiday at Bognar Regis. It’s lovely there? You ever been to Bognar? You should. I met him at an amusement arcade where he was working. He got the job because he was good with mechanics, and those one-arm–bandits were always going wrong. We got married a couple of years later. He moved in with me, as I’d been left the house by my parents… no, they’re not dead. Why would you think that?. Dad had a big win on the pools so they moved away. My George got a job in the garage – he loved ‘is cars, ‘e did – and we settled down all nice and quiet. I thought I had it made.

To start with, he didn’t seem all that interested in the monstrous beauty in the shed – and why would he be? He had me, and his cars in the garage, what more could he want? He even got us a nice little yellow mini. We used to go all over in that.

Then he started going on about the she-devil, asking for details about her. I had a nasty suspicion about what was on his mind, and I tried to distract him with my womanly wiles if you know what I mean, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Then one evening he said he was going to the Ring-o’-Bells to play darts – like he did every Thursday, an he upped and broke into the shed instead.

Well, I know what you’re expecting, but it wasn’t like that. You have to remember, my George was a man of experience. I’m not saying he wasn’t charmed – charmed is an understatement; He was besotted. He came home late that night with stars in his eyes. Told me straight out what he’d done. Admitted he’d been messing with her all that time, and said he was going back the next night. I warned him that she was dangerous, but he got offended and said he knew a lot more about these things than me. He said she wasn’t a monster, she was beautiful and she just needed the right handling. After that he went over to her every evening, messing about with her; said he was “toning her up”.

Yes, of course I was a bit jealous, but a man’s got to have a hobby, hasn’t he? And it’s not like she was the first. It was one after the other with him, all through our marriage. Once he got a taste for those little run-arounds, there was no stopping him, But this time it was different. He was in love, and she was dangerous.

Still, at the end of the day, he always came home to me, didn’t he? I could have done with him not going on about her all the time, but you can’t have everything in life. He thought he’d tamed ‘er. I thought it was going to be OK, but about six weeks after the affair started, he was on his way over there when he bumped into a neighbour whose wife had just given birth. A little boy, it was – so cute – at first. They spoilt him rotten, that was the trouble. He turned into a horrid child. Always up to no good, from the time he learnt to talk. There was one time… oh, my glass is empty… it’s my round…

I seem to have forgotten my purse… oh, I couldn’t possibly… well, if you’re sure?

…………

A double? Oh, you really shouldn’t have… bottoms up… oops… could you… just…slap me on… the… back…

Ahem… Where was I? Oh, yes. So George went to the pub for a coupla jars, and then maybe a couple more. By the time ‘e left there he was pretty wobbly, so they said afterwards. ‘e should’a come home, but instead ‘e went off with ‘er, an’ what with bein’ three sheets to the wind an’ all, ‘e didn’t exercise ‘is usual control. ‘E went too fast. I told ‘im she was unstable, that sort always are, and she’d killed before. Next thing, ‘e’s at the bottom of the cliff,  exact place they found young Stan, or Sam, or whatever ‘is name was.

After that they smashed ‘er up; Crushed ‘er ’til she was no more’n a… squashed thing..

Sorry. It still makes me cry. I miss ‘im so, you see. ‘E was so good when it come to putting up shelves… and the bedroom… you know… well, you can ‘magine, a man like ‘im…

Yes, p’r’aps another drink would ‘elp, feelin’ a bit sempi… ssental… sssentilental… oh, you know… thing…

…………

Ssheers… Anyway, before it… ‘appened, ‘e took a photo of ‘er. Would you like to see? I think it tells its own story… it’s in me bag somewhere… I’ll show you – it’s ‘coz there’s two at the front and only one at the back. It makes it unstable. Not safe to go too fast with one of them… ‘swhy they kept ‘er ‘idden ‘way and locked up. Bloody murderer… killed my Graham… whasat? Who wa’n’t wha’? Well, my George, then. Whatever… bloody stupid idiot, s’what ‘e was… thought ‘e knew it all…

‘Ere’s the photo of ‘er…

Messerscmitt KR200 1959.jpg
(Image Credit: Gjermundsen)

‘Sright… Messerschmitt Kabinenroller. German thing. What? Well, wha’ di’you thing I’s talkin’ ’bout?

My glash ish empty…

.

Written for The Daily Post #Hidden

©Jane Paterson Basil

In the Pink

in the pink

You hate the smell of the place. The sickly stench of cheap air freshener, rather than neutralising the compacted odour of aged bodies, urine-soaked furnishings, and stale cooking, highlights it. You loathe sight of the magnolia walls, the  poorly reproduced generic prints of countryside scenes, the institutional, mint-green, dralon seats. You pity your grandfather’s baggy frame, his wrinkled incapacity, his silent distance. When he doesn’t recognise your voice, it makes you want to cry.

You wonder why he smiles so freely, at the walls, and towards the fluttering, fading curtains.

You think his restless flitting eyes are nigh on blind, but he sees sights to which you are not privy.

He sits at a dinner table, relishing shepherd’s pie with home grown potatoes and carrots. The sun’s rays fall onto a dark green mantlepiece on which sit several crinolined ladies, fashioned in porcelain. Monochrome photos of two young heroes who have yet to die for Britain, shoulder their rifles, proud uncles eager to do their bit. A third photo shows  a shy couple, frowning as the camera clicks. The man wears baggy corduroys and a tweed cap. In his hand he holds a shepherds crook. The woman cradles a baby wrapped in a woollen shawl.

The three white plates are scraped clean, knives and forks placed neatly together, glasses emptied of water. His father sighs contentedly, leans back in his chair, and tamps down tobacco in the bowl of his pipe.

His mother sends him out to play, safe in the knowledge that this rural farm is far from the danger of bomb attacks. He skips down gritty lanes, grabbing at plumes of meadowsweet, stripping off the sweet, creamy blooms, flinging them in the air, watching them fall like confetti. Grinning to himself he thinks how much better life is for a child than a man. He wants to stay forever in this perfect time – never to grow up, never to have the responsibilities of a job and family. He wants his days to be a constant round of  romping in the fields, soaking in the summer sun, returning home when his stomach tells him it is dinner time, enjoying board games with his parents in the evening, or helping his tin soldiers to defeat Hitler’s armies, and bring everlasting peace.

His eyelids sink, and you think he’s asleep, but his head slants just so, and an expression of ecstasy floods his face.

He hears a recording of Vera Lynn’s voice, drifting through a cottage window.

“There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,”

but you are too far in his future to hear the music. All you hear is the traffic roaring along the busy road outside. You reach for his wizened hand. His smile widens.

You can’t understand what reason he could possibly have to smile. Living in this place, you’d think he would want to die. You don’t realise that in his mind, he is in the pink, having the time of his life.

“Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after.
Tomorrow, when the world is free,”

The ghost of a squeeze makes your hand tingle. His old bones feel so tiny, so fragile.

His lips lips part. His voice is no more than a whisper:

“Mummy.”

A chill goes through you, and lodges in your heart.

“Grandad,” you say, your voice urgent, “Grandad Jimmy!”

He can’t hear you, your voice is too far away.

Vera Lynn has such a beautiful voice. He knows – has always known – that she sings her song just for him.

“The shepherd will tend his sheep.
The valley will bloom again.
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.”

With horror, you notice your hand is tightly gripping his, crushing his fingers together. You think you’re hurting him. You let go, and his hand flops. He sinks sideways, the beatific smile frozen on his face.

Outside, the light has a pink hue. A blue bird flies past, swooping and soaring, up, up high into the sky. You watch until it is out of sight.

blue-bird

.

.

.

.

The Daily Post #Pink

©Jane Paterson Basil

Damn your eyes

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I don’t miss your inane conversation,
or the way you make me wait to spit out each short sentence,
which you rarely let me finish in your impatience
to tell me the next pointless thing;
I don’t miss your inadequate wit,
which insults my ethics with its short-sighted prejudice;
I don’t miss your self-obsessed assumption that I will be interested
in your irritating and unwholesome hobbies

if you had the intelligence to pay the slightest attention
you would have wondered at my fascination for one
so limited in every way.

It’s your eyes, damn it;
I miss your eyes,
which said such different things
than those futile words which spilled from your lips.

©Jane Paterson Basil

The virus that saved the world

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When the virus first hit, nobody knew what was going on. The characters of certain hard-nosed bankers and ultra-right wing politicians changed overnight. One of the early “victims” was Nigel Farage, who opened his house to a family of vulnerably-housed immigrants, suggesting they invite their friends to stay.

Office workers and shop assistants who’d previously turned their morning faces away from the homeless men and women sleeping in doorways, dashed to the cafes to buy them breakfast in a bun, thrust Lattes in cardboard cups into their dirt caked hands, and pulled little packages of sugar of of their pockets, asking “Do you…?”

The country was thown into chaos – those who had not yet been infected struggled to maintain the status quo, while their families, friends, neighbours and colleagues, were carrying out uncharacteristically good works. If they were rich, they ran around giving their shares to the poor, and their money to good causes. If they were poor they invited those even more unfortunate than themselves around for dinner and hugged strangers in the street.

As you can imagine, the economy collapsed, but it didn’t matter, because the movers and shakers who were infected – and there were more of them every day – lost interest in amassing yet more truckloads of money, insread turning their attention to taking care of the populance. The richest and the most intelligent got together to finally make the country work. All our services improved dramatically, and the nation became happy again – happy as they had never been before. Crime ceased to exist, hatred became extinct, and anger became a rare emotion which was easily dispelled.

Everybody in the country had caught the pandemic, and it’s currently spreading around the world. Donald Trump kicked up a fuss, screaming that an antidote needed to be found quickly. Naturally, as soon as he contracted it, he changed his tone. Now that there’s no need for a President he keeps himself busy carrying out charitable works in developing countries. It’s rumoured that he’s currently working with orphans somewhere in Africa, but nobody seems to know for sure. These days he’s a modest man who likes to keep a low profile.

Who would have thought that compassion was a virus? And who would have thought that a virus could save the planet?

Written for The Sandbox Writing Challenge #49. This week Calen says “Imagine yourself floating among these clouds in harmony with everyone and everything. What can you do to make that happen?” My answer is that I can try to create a compassion virus which is so virulant it’ll infect everyone on the planet.

I’ll need  a chemistry set…

©Jane Paterson Basil

The adventurer and the teacher

The Adventurer speaks:

dragon-1111

You always stayed on dry land, swimming through arid sand. Never got your feet wet. Salt sweat sticking to your vest, grit chafing your delicate creases, sun peeling your blistered body.

You feared the lick of the waves. You though they may may like the taste of you, and, wanting more, slip through your cringing lips, invade your lungs, steal your breath away, replace it with filthy brine bitterly flavoured with the flesh of a million stinking fish and thickened with slivers of ancient shipwrecks.

You feared the towering breakers may crash over your head and drag you to the bottom of the sea . The ocean may feed you to sharks and the sharks may eat you.

“Swim where you will, but leave me be. I will not live my life in peril,” you said.

So I leapt, alone, into the sea.

I cannot say the sea was kind, but it was real. Oft-times I had to fight its sudden moods,
struggle to survive its angry storms. Though battered by its rage, I knew I was alive, and as I age, memories of every rising dawn; when calm seas were lit with sun, will ease my mind, and cheer me as I prepare to fall asleep that final time.

And where will you be? Dried to a husk, with nothing but memories of an empty life
to haunt you through eternity.

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The teacher replies:

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You were always digging for thrills, wading through weirs to find the eye of the hurricane, scrambling up crumbling cliffs, potholing without a rope, gazing into volcanoes to watch them erupt.

You said “What is life without excitement? Share my adventure. Let us rescue damsels, slay dragons, conquer swashbuckling pirates.

“Let us find danger. We will fight with teeth and fists and knives, and seek out many lovers, leaving every last one of them aching for our fickle embrace, while we hasten to the next city; the next castle or port; the next victory.

“Come with me.”

I said “I see more interest in a grain of sand than in the life you recommend to me.”

I watched you go. While you supped – and often choked upon – your chosen flavour of freedom, I read, finding the world weighed so little I could hold it in my hands. I leafed through it and found:

a platoon of long-dead soldiers in obsolete uniforms, saluting me;

an oak tree describing its seasons;

an amoeba magnified several millionfold;

the city of Rome in all its ancient glory, and the remains which stand today.

Fascinated, I studied further. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with learning. I selected a subject in which to specialise. I married a kind, intelligent woman, fathered a daughter and a son, and took pleasure in domestic life. I enjoyed a job in education, and I was successful – inasmuch as the majority if my students liked my lessons, quite a few used what they learnt from me to their advantage, and I was enriched by the experience.

I ate healthy food, had the occasional glass of good wine, and when I holidayed with my family, we stayed in average hotels in Germany and Spain. We walked well beaten paths, but they were new to us, and therefore interesting. In my younger days I played squash, but in recent years I’ve switched to bowls.

I often grumble, I have had a few misfortunes, but I have been happy.

My lifestyle fitted the type of ordinary orderliness that you dispise, but I chose it and delighted in it. It suited me, and has served me well. I will be sorry to die.

Most of your adventures were viewed through the distorted bottom of an ale bottle. You lie in a hospital bed, paralysed since that last inglorious drunken street brawl. You lived your life in fantasy, never accepting that knights have been consigned to history books, and highwaymen hung up their spurs long before you or I were ever born. There are no pirates, and dragons only breathed fire in fairy tales.

You have no family. I am your only friend, and you don’t like me. Will you be sorry to die?

©Jane Paterson Basil

The Mandrake of Harfinsain

Once it had been called the Old Man of Drake Lane, then the name was shortened to Drake Man, but these days the shrugging youth of the village of Harfinsain call it the Mandrake.

Some locals have different ideas, but many of us believe it was damaged in the wake of some long gone storm, which left it looking for all the world like a man turned to wood. The top eighteen inches of what is left of the trunk are torn into the macabre facsimile of a tortured man, his head thrown back, his nose pointing towards the horizon, his mouth agape as if screaming out to an unlistening God, his eyes screwed up in misery. Beneath that, two branches stretch upwards like arms, as if in supplication. The human look is finished off by the lower part of the trunk, which has a vertical groove in the centre, giving the impression of two narrower trunks fused together by time and growth – or of two legs pressed together. There are two knots in the area where knees would be, and at the base the roots give have the eerie appearance of feet.

Nobody can identify what kind of tree it is. It is claimed that experts have examined it, taking away small samples, but been mystified. It appears not to be related to any known tree in the world, and the age it had reached when it died cannot be calculated, as the rings are blurred, or perhaps non-existent. Rumour and mystery surround it, giving it an air of dark  glamour which attracts the children and young adults who live hereabouts.

From where it stands it offers an excellent view of the sunset, and sometimes a boy will entice a girl to sit with him, next to the tree, in the twilight. As the light fades and the sky turns to navy, he may tell an elaborate story of an evil man whose pleasure was to devour young, female flesh, and who was turned into a tree by an angry fairy. At this point in the tale, his voice may lower to a whisper, as he explains that the fairy added an extra cruelty to his punishment – that for one hour every year he would become human again, and have the ability to roam the villlage, but when that hour was up, he would be pulled by magnetic force back to his roots, and become a tree again. He would never be able to relax into his tree state – the longing to be human would torture him for evermore. After an eerie pause the boy will ask the girl what the date is. This he will whisper , as if suddenly unnerved – frightened, even. On hearing her response he will stammer while he tell her that he’s not sure, but he thinks it this is the day of the year when the tree becomes a monstrous flesh eating human…

The girl nearly always falls for it, which gives the boy’s friends – who are hiding behind the hedge – no end of entertainment. From time to time someone comes up with a more imaginative version of the story, and the friends behind the hedge are employed to add sound effects. Young men were ever this way, and a certain kind of young woman can always be relied on to be gullible and easily frightened.

Edie Penrhyn is the oldest woman in the village. A nimble lady of a hundred and two, she is often to be seen, walking-stick grasped firmly in both hands, angrily thrashing nettles in the garden beside the village hall. She has no more objection to the nettles than anything else which has the temerity to push through the ground in that area – many years ago the garden was a mass of colour, spilling over with roses, lavender and a profusion of lovely flowers, but she thrashed them into extinction. While this has nothing to do with my story, I mention it because it is just one example of her many eccentricities. It is those eccentricities which cause neighbours to doubt her tales of folk-lore.

Her favourite tale involves the Mandrake. Being so far from even the smallest town or place of interest, we get few visitors around these parts, but occasionally someone takes a wrong turn and and finds themself in the village. Often this someone will go to the Post Office in the hope of buying a postcard (postcards of the village are available, and they looked very pretty twenty years ago, but they rarely sell, so now they lie faded and forgotten in a corner, stuffed into an old toast rack, scuffed and curling at the edges), or wander into the village shop looking for a Mars Bar (79p) or a quaint souvenier (no chance). At such times, Edie almost always happens to be in the vicinity, as she is today, when a tinkling bell in the back room announces the presence of a new customer in the shop.

Edie has been installed in the shop for the past two hours, trying to choose a birthday card for herself, as her birthday is only eleven months away. This is not a vanity on her part, but a reminder for the proprietor, who generously allows customers a free sniff of her smelling salts on their birthdays.  Edie’s eyes light up at the sight of new blood. She abandons her search for greetings cards and prances over to the new customer, her grey side-ponytail bobbing and prancing like the item after which it is named, her thin lips grinning. Her old brown cardigan fails to conceal – and is loudly upsage by – a nineteen twenties chiffon flapper dress of faded emerald – replete with ragged swathes of sequins which have seen many, many better days, and striped over-the knee-socks in bright shades of pink, purple and orange cover her legs. Her choice of footwear is strictly ruled by the day of the week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays she wears no shoes unless it is also the first day of the month. The first day of the month is riding boots day. Today is a Monday, so she is wearing one green wellington, and one black one.

Edie says that if you lead with the feet, the bowels will follow. Don’t ask her what she means, it infuriates her not to be understood. She will scream at you “If you maintain regular habits with your footwear, your bottom won’t take you by surprise at incommodious times,” and she will smack you across the behind with her stick.

But I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes, Edie has just sighted a victim and is dashing full-pelt towards him, tail flying and tiny sequins tinkling across the floor. She accosts him with a torrent of nonsense.

“Yer, you over there, you wi’ the noo plastic an wet tarmac ‘smell o’ the city on yer kaks.’Tis a bit o’ luck you run inta me. Come on, I’ll show ‘ee summin inter’sting.”

(just a quick note at this point: unless addressing a stranger she speaks in a rather refined accent – her fake rural accent is for the benefit of unlucky tourists – but after a few minutes of her barrage, she generally slips back to her natural way of speaking, as she feels that if they have stayed to listen to her for that long, they deserve to be considered naturalised)

Having made a suitable introduction to her quest to educate him in a small portion of the history of the village, she grabs his arm and pulls the protesting man out of the shop – showing herself to have a remarkably firm grip – to the general laughter of all around, except the shopkeeper, who was hoping to aquire 79p from the sale of a (three years out of date) Mars Bar.

For a woman of a hundred and two, Edie sets a fast pace. She’s a diminutive four-foot ten inches in height and she’s inadvertantly pulling his arm in a downward direction, so he’s stooping, staggering  and almost falling over at times. As they dash along the road, people are coming out of their houses and following behind, making a procession. They know when there is entertainment to be had.

Down past the church she drags him, past the old house that is said to be haunted by a ghostly giraffe (though some think it is more likely to be a pair of Armadillos), beyond the pond which only fills up when there is a drought, and down Drakes Lane, situated opposite the invisible football pitch (which some claim doesn’t actually exist. I haven’t managed to work out their reasoning). The Mandrake is towards the end of the lane, on the left hand side, or the right hand side if you are walking backwards.

By this time Edie’s unwilling companion is shaking with terror. The Lane is regularly used by the villagers, as its purpose is to provide access to a wall. This wall is the width of the lane, twelve feet high. The locals do not like to be in the shadow of a twelve-foot wall, but unless they stand beneath it they cannot escape it, as it is impossible to escape something which isn’t there in the first place. It gives us peace of mind to know we have escaped the shadow of the twelve foot wall, so most of us go and stand beneath it every day, and then walk (or run) away. But the poor stranger knows nothing of our customs. Between the people who are in the process of escaping the shadow of the twelve foot wall, and the procession behind him, all he sees is a huge gang of locals who appear to be planning a lynching, and at this point he wishes he’d had a chance to pay for the Mars Bar. To be hanged for a debt of 79p is humiliating, to say the least.

Edie stands in front of the tree, and points up at it’s twin branches.

“See ‘e there,” she says, and then realises her new companion has spent almost eight minutes in her presence,so she drops the accent and starts again:

“Now, my good man, what do you think this is?” she asks him.

His eyes stare. He tries to think of an escape plan, but nothing comes to mind. He is frozen to the spot.

“Well?” she asks, a crease on her forehead forming something that for all the world looks like a question mark.

“A… a… g-gallows tree…” This is a statement, not a question. The stranger is too frightened to notice that no rope hangs from it.

“Why do they all say that?” Edie mutters, shaking her head, (thinking, these foreigners are so peculiar – what horrors they must have witnessed.)

Edie turns to her audience “Tell the gentleman what this is,” she says.

A young man tells the story of the flesh eating man who was turned into a tree.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffs Edie.

A woman in her fifties says that it is true that the tree was once a man, but he had committed no crime. It was he who had built the wall, but as stood at the top of the ladder, finishing the top course, his wife came along to give him some lunch. She was carrying their new baby, and he didn’t hear them approach. They were under the ladder when the baby let out a sudden wail, alarming him. He fell off the ladder, killing both wife and child, andwas so grief stricken that he was unable to move. His feet took root, and he turned into a tree.

“That’s just plain silly,” says Edie. “This tree is over twenty feet from the wall. If he took root where he landed, he would be closer to the wall.”

Nobody notices the stranger as he walks away, feeling rather embarassed but no longer afraid. It had become obvious that these people, though a little peculiar, were harmless. Life in a village such as this would probably be a riot of fun. He would have stayed longer, but he had urgent matters to attend to.

The young man speaks up again.

“My grandma told it to me, and her grandma told it to her. My story is true, and what’s more, she said he buried the bones of all those girls he killed, right there, beneath where the tree stands. We know why are there no female children in the village. It’s because as soon as one is born, the family move away. They don’t want to lose their daughter to the monster.”

Some people laugh, others feel the hairs on the backs of their necks rise. A few come up with increasing outlandish theories, but all of them have been heard before, like a favourite play attended once too often. People get bored and begin to wander off. The insistant young man remembers another detail told to him by his grandma, and somebody else recalls being told about a seven-year old girl who disappeared in the night over thirty years ago, and a toddler who was lost just a few years before that.

Edie becomes increasingly impatient, declaring it to be no more than a dead tree, leading me to wonder, as oft times before, why she dragged another stranger down Drakes Lane to look at what she averred was no more than a dead tree  – but as I said before, she is eccentric – and that is the signal for the party to break up.

As the last of the villagers turn away from the tree, and walk down the lane to go home, if anyone cared to listen, they would hear strange creaking sounds coming from the tree. If they turned back to look, they would see its eyes open, showing otherworldly twin stars that twinkle red in the waning light, and the gaping mouth widen into a cruelly mocking smile, as the jagged shard that resembles a nose twitches, sniffing the air, and smelling something. Something young and sweet. Something delicious. The earth around him shudders as he shuffles his roots,stroking and carresssing, wrapping them possessively around small, perfectly preserved bones, counting each one.

Beyond the invisible football pitch; beyond the pond that only fills up when there is a drought; beyond the house that is said to be haunted – either by a giraffe or a pair of armadillos; beyond the church and the Harfisain village shop, there is a thatched cottage with clematis growing up the wall. In front of this cottage is a removal van. The stranger helps the removal men to carry furniture into his new home. In the kitchen his wife pulls a kettle, some teabags, sugar and mugs out of a box. She fills the kettle with water. She stops and listens. Her face lights up with love, and she smiles softly. Her eighteen month old daughter is stirring. She has woken from her nap.

©Jane Paterson Basil