Monks in Space

I wrote this piece in 2013, but I’ve had the concept since around 2004/5.  Monks in Space.  A space monastery in the Kuiper Belt.  Excellent.

The First Chapter
It was Brother Isador, returning from a baptism on a nearby asteroid, who found the drifting escape pod.  The spherical capsule had long since burnt out its distress beacon, but the polished reflective surface made a spark in the darkness that caught Isador’s attention.  As he neared it he scanned for transmissions – none.  He would certainly find nothing more than the remains of a lost soul forgotten in space.

But he didn’t.  Matching trajectory and velocity at about thirty metres he saw a movement through a tiny, trapezoid window.  Then a face.  A haggard and desperate face.  Isador offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving for the preserved life within the pod – and a prayer that he might serve his maker in preserving that life further.

He approached, programmed a tiny rocket drone to thread a cable through a projecting rung, fired it, and powered up all his boosters to begin to slow the pod’s flight. Once in the hangar beneath the refectory and with the gentleness of the abbey’s air on his cheeks, Isador and the other monks wrestled with jammed catches and an electronic lock coded in an unfamiliar script.  They opened the hatch and found a man inside, unconscious and breathing shallowly in the remnants of his thin air. He had a wasted and enervated body, lank and dirty hair.  He wore an old-fashioned suit that seemed to have been fitted to a larger, form.  How long had he been drifting in space?  Neither the pod nor he could tell the monks, who carefully carried him up to a cell and laid him on clean sheets. Continue reading

Josh Davidson 4.2

wp-1473764965004.jpgPart II

They were building a new shopping centre in Chesterfield and one morning Josh came past the site. He paused for a while, watching. He was watching two contractors – brothers – on the scaffolding. They were brickies, men his age, paid well for working fast and straight. He knew them from work they’d done previously, but this morning he wasn’t interested in what they were building.”Simon!” he shouted. “Andy!”

The two men looked up – gave him a bit of a wave – and paused.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Cladding this wall,” shouted Simon back. “What’s it look like?”

Continue reading

Josh Davidson 4

Dry thistles at Thames Barrier Point

Dry thistles at Thames Barrier Point

Part I

Now, Joshua didn’t stay there long. He followed the voice that told him to go out into the hills and woods of the country, and underwent a test of his own self. A time of self-seeking, some might call it, although this Joshua already knew who he was and what he was called to do. But every accusation that could come at him, as he walked and thought and prayed, attacked him with the voice of the devil. Because he wasn’t eating or drinking, the whole time, longer than a month, and if you’ve never been without food that long then you can’t say you know what hunger was. But he knew what hunger was – past the pangs of longing, into the feeling of bodily need, when your own body feels light because you have metabolised every scrap of fat between your sinews and under your skin. When the cushions of cartilage and fluid are empty and your nerves run directly over your bones.

“Hungry?” asked the Devil scornfully. “But you don’t even need to be hungry! You’re just indulging your need for drama – and needlessly. You’re going to survive – so why invite all this pain and starvation? Only a sadist does that. And are you a sadist?

“And anyway, didn’t we all hear it? If you are God’s son, you can turn any of these stones from the path into something good to eat – you can call a tree to fruit right in front of you. And I thought you liked that whole blossoming, fruiting, growing thing anyway? There’s no need for this stupid fast.”

But he knew why he was there. The hunger was the unavoidable companion of the degree of discipline and sacrifice he had chosen. The Devil was just trying to distract him from the real reason for his fast. “I know what it says,” replied Joshua to that needling voice. “Food doesn’t keep you going and breath doesn’t keep you breathing – it’s God’s promises that keep us alive.” He remembered the way his dad Joseph had said that – sometimes when he had been hungry and sometimes right before a feast. His dad had stuck to what he knew to be true.

But then it was as though Josh’s wanderings had brought him, suddenly, around a dry-stone wall and beneath overhanging trees to the pinnacle of the tallest tower in London, the city spread our below him, the trains rushing into and out of London Bridge station, vans delivering, riverboats accelerating away, and no-one looking up. And the Devil challenged him again.

“I don’t even know why you’re being careful with yourself. If you fall, you’re not going to die! If you were God’s son he’d send an angel to catch you, wouldn’t he? Like it says in that book you love – ‘His angels have orders to protect you, so they’ll carry you and you won’t even stub your toe.’ It’s a written promise, isn’t it? So just jump and leave all this stubborn walking.”

Joshua shook his head. “And it says ‘Don’t joke about with God’s promise.”

But then it was like Joshua had climbed even higher, so that in one view he could see all the countries of the worlds, their rulers and parliaments, all the wonderful diverse and developed kingdoms of men. And he heard the Devil say. “And where is God, anyway? Have you heard him, after all this time not eating or drinking? But you can hear me. Do what I say and you’ll have this – you know you will. You’re powerful enough to take it, if you let me direct you. If you choose me instead…”

“Don’t you dare,” said Joshua. “Don’t you dare even suggest it, you liar! I know what it says: ‘You belong to God – so don’t let anyone else take charge.’ I know what will happen if I choose you, you liar! Go away.”

And that was the last he heard of that needling voice. But I tell you what, he didn’t stub his toe on any stone as he came off the hills and back towards home. And whichever way he looked he saw figures guarding and guiding. And they even fed him with a food that he couldn’t quite recognise. And by the time he was back from his walk, he looked better and fitter than ever.

On the journey back he heard that John Waters had been arrested and was being held pending charges. He returned to his mum’s place and picked up a few things. And then he went down to Chesterfield, because it had always been said that when God would choose to change things, he’d start there. Perhaps because if God could change Chesterfield, he could change anywhere. So that was when Joshua Davidson started to tell people. “Change your life,” he’d say. Whether it was someone on the bus next to him or when he got on local radio or a visit to a school. “Change your life, because God’s reign is coming.”

Who is Josh Davidson? 1

jd1

“Oh yes,” Joe would say, “There’s royal blood in us. Way back, but royal blood.” And he’d sit his son on his lap, even when he was nine or ten and tell him about where he came from. “My dada, your grandad, Matthew Davidson, he was in the trades too. He died when you were very small. But he loved you, didn’t he, mum?”
And Moira would turn around, drying up the dishes or folding the clothes and say, “Oh yes. Your dada, he loved you, little Josh. When we got back he was always poking his finger into your face, laughing with you. You used to cling onto his big finger like that,” and she’d show the boy. The others would sit there around, little Jude tugging at something, James in his cot, the girls, a bit older, helping their mum or playing at house.
“And his dad, dad?” Josh would ask, and Joe would huff and puff and pretend to struggle to remember – but he loved this bit. He knew them all the way back.
“His dad was Elbert Davidson, he was a milkman. And his dad, who was born back in Queen Victoria’s time, he was George Davidson, and he was a blacksmith who moved here from Yorkshire. But he was descended, eventually, from a royal line, you see. Kings of the hill country, back, back in the distant past. And so are you. This is your country, lad. And all of yours,” for Joe tried his best not to let his firstborn son seem over-special in the family, although the truth was that he loved him like he loved nothing else in the world.

For it hadn’t been an easy birth and Joe Davidson, who didn’t talk about it that often and, when he did think about it, was amazed by what they’d been through and amazed by his power to begin to forget it, he was inclined to think of it as a miracle.
They’d been in love. Joe was starting out working for himself, subcontracting and labouring when couldn’t get the skilled work, driving around the Notts-Derby border in a beat up Vauxhall van. And Moira had just finished college, got herself a qualification in hospitality, although she spent most of her time looking after her aunt, who lived in the house. And they were going to get married, God knew how, with no savings and precious little to live on, when Moira, one tear-stained evening by the Trent, told him that she was going to have a baby.
It wasn’t his. Because although they’d been sweethearts through school and their teenage years, nothing had ever passed between them.
Joe had been heartbroken. He’d put Moira back in the van, driven her to her parents’ without talking and gone home to his own mum, cried and cried with frustration and disappointment. Life had only been just beginning.
His mum had said they were young, he still had plenty of chances, but he hadn’t wanted to fall at the first hurdle. He’d always wanted a wife and a family and boys crawling on the kitchen lino and girls to walk to school in their cotton dresses, one on either hand. And Moira… She was such a sweet thing. Overlooked. His. He had thought.
A bad week had followed. A bad week of work, he’d cut his hand and thrown the chisel away in self-disgust and anger. He’d taken long walks and not wanted to tell anyone anything.
And then the dream, which he barely remembered now, but he remembered it by its shadow. It had been so powerful, so important, that it had shaped his life, and though he couldn’t remember what the man had looked like or even what he had said anymore, his whole life since then had been changed.
He’d been sitting on a concrete wall, his legs dangling, looking down at the water and at the gravel embedded in the roughcast beside him. He could still feel the cracks in the concrete where he sat. And he’d looked up and there’d been someone walking along the very edge of the parapet, arms out, balanced, enjoying the edge, but not at risk, and as he’d come closer, he’d spoken to Joe in the dream and said, “Don’t be frightened.” Yes, Joe remembered that. And then the man had comforted him, somehow, with words or an arm around the shoulder and he had the feeling that Moira’s baby wasn’t a mistake or a broken promise at all, but like the sun that was sinking into the sea in front of him, was something that defined everything it touched. And he’d known, absolutely known, that it was going to be a boy, and a boy he could love, his son even if it wasn’t quite his son. For all children are gifts from God and belong to him, whoever conceives them or raises them.
And when he’d woken up, he’d even known what he would call him. Joshua. And he got out of bed and went to find Moira and instead of leaving her on her own to cry and weep and feel abandoned, he had chosen to be the man she needed as a husband and the man she deserved. They went through with the wedding, but brought it on. Civil ceremony, no big party, and they moved into a flat near her mum’s place, and he watched the child grow inside her and worked and worked to be the man he had dreamed he might be. And when the baby was born, Joe had told her all about the dream and she’d cried.

Verses 113-120

I hate double-minded men,
But I love your law.

How can we have anything but the strongest antithetical reaction to men – and that part of all men – when they are changeable, deathly, deceitful, unintentional, when we profess to love a living word that is secure, alive, honest, purposeful and good?

You are my refuge and my shield;
I have put my hope in your word.

God is a cave – an overhanging tree – a windbreak – a stormwall – a dam, a cordon, a barrier.  My belief for the good in tomorrow resides entirely within his word, nestled inside it.  You have to unfold the flaps of God;s voice and there, beautifully hidden, you see your hope – your own belief.  Find it!

Away from me, you evildoers,
That I may keep the commands of God!

Harsh words – but the price is great.  You cannot save a drowning man unless you are secure in the boat.  Distance is important – it brings clarity and freedom of sight – and allows me to keep God’s commands – not simply begin them.

Sustain me according to your promise, and I shall live;
Do not let my hopes be dashed.

This strength to see things through to the end is to be found in God’s promise to us.  Life is when something is being continued, sustained, not otherwise.  Your hopes – all of them – are secure in that single word – undashable.

Uphold me, and I shall be delivered;
I shall always have regard for your decrees.

Keeping God’s law is prominent, upheld like an offering in the sight of the people – but for delivery – and this is eternal life – satisfaction in his word!

You reject all who stray from your decrees,
For their deceitfulness is in vain.

Shortcuts are a waste of time – self-defeating.  Attempts to trick God are folly.  Those who stray are choosing a path that will be harder and less profitable.

All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross;
Therefore I love your statutes,

Here, there is some fear – not to be discarded – but you can see the poet’s value on his relationship with God.  I do not want to be unnecessary to the purpose, for wickedness makes us unusable – cannot be forged into good tools.

My flesh trembles in fear of you;
I stand in awe of your laws.

For his word is like a furnace – burning, changing, melting – on a vast scale.  More terrifyingly hot that a furnace crucible – than all the molten metal in the world – the process is on such a scale and is so effective.  This is what the word of God does – refine!

So we might learn distaste for the company of evil, but God effects our separation.  This verse of the Psalm is a window into his process in our hearts, convincing us through shows of strength and mercy.  The mercy is in his sustenance – we can only keep his laws because he hears our prayers and does his will.

Dear Possessions – Part III

If you haven’t read the previous parts of the story, reading this one first will spoil the mystery!

I spent much of the day in bed.  A heavy chill had come over me following my rash behaviour and Helen insisted that I return to the guest room with a new fire, staying warm lest pneumonia develop.  I must admit, not only did I feel physically frail but my mind was cramped with strange half-whispered thoughts I strained to capture and command.  The broken ring still lay in my closed hand when some time near mid-day I fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke hours later still shivering.  The ring in my hand was too painful to hold, so I put it in the glasses case that now held my smashed spectacles lying on the table near my bed.  Then I began to pummel my memory to see if there was anything I had ever heard of that resembled this strange haunting – for by then, loath as I had been to admit it, I was sure that that was what it was.  I have seen many awful and some terrible things in my life and heard accounts from many concerning their oppressed or troubled lives subject to some supernatural influence, and while I could think of no matter in which treasured objects like these had been removed and bewitched, that in no way reduced my certainty that poor Michael and his wife were living in a house subject to just some such influence.

Lying there weakly, I went back over what had occurred since I had arrived at the house.  The key to the other bedroom had been discovered missing in the morning, and subsequently I had discovered it in the grass before going to bed.  It was that night that I missed my spectacles, which were then found the following evening once again in the garden, and then this morning I had missed Michael’s ring, as I was now sure he had.  But had he missed it before then?  When I came to think of this I realised what should have earlier been so obvious.  If Michael also knew of the absence of his wedding band, as he surely must have, it missing from his very hand, why had he not been out to search for it as I had, or had he already?  That broken branch of holly had held its still-green leaves, wet with the dew as I had raised it from the ground.  But the other end had too still been green, and the ground dry beneath it: the branch had been freshly torn from the hedge and before the dew had fallen.  Michael had missed his ring before he had gone to bed, but after I had seen the married pair retire.  No wonder he had slept so badly.

But that also meant that Michael had not found his ring and that he was probably still subject to that uncertainty through which he had blamed himself when I had first arrived, attributing two missing objects to his own forgetfulness.

However much Michael feared, then, it was unlikely that he feared that the band had been taken from his own hand – no, much rather that he had, in his distressed state, mislaid it, much as the key and, somehow, my glasses had been mislaid.

Nonetheless, I knew that his ring had disappeared last night, and re-appeared this morning, mangled and drainingly horrible and it had re-appeared further from the house than either of the other two mislaid objects.

Should any object disappear that night, then, it would reappear the next morning further even than the ring, in the shadows beneath the pines.  So I concluded.  The shivers returned and I fell back into the drowsing state of half-sleep that so exhausted me.  After about an hour of this, Helen appeared.  She brought me soup and some comforting words and I realised how morbid and strange my fevered wonderings had been.  She was not troubled by any presence or power.  The missing objects were merely confusing and a little nuisance.  Michael too appeared and said that he had telephoned for the doctor to come the following day, as it was now rather later than I had imagined.  He too was in admirable – enviable, even – spirits.  I banished my speculations at once from my head.

Of course it was the foolish assurances of security that were the products of my fever.  If I had remembered the ring lying in the case by my bedside I would have realised so immediately, and perhaps had and taken that opportunity to avoid the terrible consequences that would so shortly befall.

I really was ill.  My exhausted body struggled to engage the chill through the night, sending me hot and then cold and then hot again.  I lay, semi-conscious and only partly in control of my raving mind or flailing limbs.  There was no comfort in the narrow bed, none in my tormented mind.  The fears returned to me but Michael and Helen did not.  I know I would have shouted out warnings and despairing prophecies like a possessed man had they been there to even chance believing me, but my mind told me that I was alone.  Eventually sleep – that balm of the tortured, that gift to the suffering – sleep quietened my limbs and my lids and lips.  I ceased to think, ceased to fear, and lay in a deep slumber.

Waking life burst upon me with violent motions.  I was being shaken, hard, by the shoulders and sitting up in bed.  My mind, still dim, registered that the fever had passed, and my thought was only obscured by the lethargy of sleep still swimming through my head.  I was being shaken.  It was Michael.

‘Clement!  Clement!  For God’s sake, man, wake up!’  My tired eyes seemed to notice that he was wearing a burgundy-dressing gown.  Was it morning?  I shook off Michael’s hands and stretched my arms, trying to slough off the torpor and the ache of sleep.  But poor Michael’s next words brought me abruptly into the cruel morning.

‘She’s gone, Clement.  Helen has gone.’

I jumped up.  Never for a moment had I considered that.  I turned to Michael.  His face was hollow, pale and empty.  I prayed I was not awake.

‘Gone?’  I asked.  ‘What do you mean?  What has happened?’

Michael answered quickly.  ‘She has gone.  She came to bed with me last night and was there when I fell to sleep.  I have just woken up and she is gone.  She is not in the house.’

I threw on my clothes where they lay by the bed and dashed to the open door of the master.  The bed was open on one side where Michael had plainly been sleeping and the other was unmarked.  No-one had slept there.  I went up to the bed and, fearing the worst, reached out a hand to feel the eiderdown where Helen should have lain.  I shrank away from the cold before I could touch the bed.  Michael came over;

‘It has grown colder,’ he said, calmly.

‘Michael,’ I said.  ‘Forgive me.  I should have told you immediately.  I have your ring.’

‘You took it?’  He looked astounded.

‘No.  I found it in the garden.  It is in my room.’

We quickly returned and I showed him the twisted band.

‘Ugh!  That was mine?  It disgusts me!  It…’  He took it from me.  ‘What does this mean.

‘Michael,’ I said.  ‘I found it beyond the lawn, in the trees.  If whatever has taken these has also taken Helen, she must be there.’  Michael did not move.  He held the ruined ring in his open hand and shivered visibly.  His eyes were fixed on it lying there like a scar or an insult.

‘Your glasses,’ he said.  ‘Smashed.  The spoons, ruined, the locket destroyed…  Our ring…’  To hear him say ‘Our ring…’ I felt the cold despair return to my bones.  I could not move, although I knew we must.  The fear of what might be was too great.  ‘Our ring…  ruined.’  He looked up.  ‘And what of her?’

‘We must go,’ I said.  ‘We may be wrong – there may be a chance – we must hurry.’  I took him by the elbow.  ‘Come on, Michael.’

We went downstairs as we were, slippered and uncomfortable.  The back door which Michael had opened before waking me stood ajar, and in poured a thick reeking cold driving mist.  By the time we reached the door it had filled the room and swollen in a cloud to the stairs.  Unearthly and dark, it distorted all the shapes around us and swallowed the noise of our feet as we ran across the frozen lawn.  Michael tripped and slid and we found ourselves at the first of the terraces.  As I took his arms to help him up I felt great violent shivers – of fear or cold I knew not.  We blundered our way hopelessly between the hedges.  We fought aside the scratching holly and trod into the deep shadow of the copse.

The mist was thicker – too thick to reveal the bole of the tree a foot before.  We held hands like terrified children and plunged through the briars and the nettles and the ferns, regarding nothing.  And suddenly the mist parted.  We stood at the base of a low mound.  On all sides the mist wreathed and tore and roiled madly.  Overhead the mist glowed dully with the few weak rays of the sun and the ground was stony, rough, and an inch deep in rime.  The rank grass and stones rose sharply.  On top of the barrow – I realised that it was a barrow – lay Helen.

The ice was even thicker about her, but then I saw that she lay encased in white beneath even that.  She lay in her wedding dress like a doll, motionless, colourless, colourless, lifeless.  All around her, pendant and precious earrings dripped from low fingers, the pine branches bare and skeletal and possessing.  There was something lively, crystalline, distant, ghostly – there was something that I immediately associated with the malevolent power of possessive spirits – simply about the arrangement of the best gems of a young wife on the black and broken splayed talons of the trees.

We did not dare breathe.  How could our eyes belong to us – our breaths belong to us?  Helen lay there, her self desecrated and broken like the dearest possession.

Michael stumbled forwards up the mound and fell to his knees in the ice beside his wife.  He reached out to her face and touched it.  Nothing moved.

For a moment I thought that he had frozen too.  His outstretched fingers lay on her frail forehead.  But his lips began to part.

‘She is dead.’

Any shred of hope was tangibly raked from the last crevices inside our frozen bodies.  I know he too felt dragged inside out.  He had lost the very power to own – to possess – anything.

With a shrieking crash, ice fell from the trees.  The beaded pendants were caught and smothered.  A shudder passed through the ground under our feet.  Helen’s eyes opened.

What had happened in that place that the most precious things risked such evil destruction?  We left the house with all our questions unanswered.  Michael carried his wife away from the barrow barely breathing.  He had no desire to discover why.  We left immediately with the doctor, taking nothing but our loves.  All through our desperate journey I wondered, as I still wonder, had Helen herself been no more to some awful unknown monster than the trifles and petty possessions taken piecemeal over decades, or longer, from those that lived in that house?  A clock, a bent flute, a torn bag of coins, an old book.  All found lying in the ice around her on the barrow.  Was she just such a possession owned and envied, snatched away?  And had she been snatched back again, or had some deeper change taken place?  I left without anything I had brought.  And in some deep hidden part of my soul I knew there was a seed of fear.  Never had I so keenly felt and feared all the risk of keeping something close.

Dear Possessions – Part II

The box closed with a snap, as Michael tilted it to with his fingertips, then bringing them up to his mouth to breathe warmly and heavily onto them.  ‘I see that they also have some power over you.’  Michael’s voice was stern.  He spoke without excuse or sham, but unhappily regretful, and maybe even slightly appalled at himself.  ‘I have not been able to stop coming to look at them or able to stop thinking about them.  Awful aren’t they?  I cannot understand why they trouble me so.  Obviously, some family’s sad loss of something they treasured, but I would expect to sympathise and wonder, not lose my heart and my mind in a sadness not my own.’

I spoke quietly.  ‘It is as though they themselves embody all the loss of loved things, is it not?  I found myself despairing to possess all that I value.’

‘Exactly,’ said Michael.  ‘That is quite how I have been feeling since I found them.  I cannot escape the feeling.’

‘How did you find them?  Were they here, in this house?’

‘They were buried in the garden; I found them while digging into a patch of frost in a bed.  You can see in just a moment.’  But he made no movement towards the door.  Instead, Michael took up the envelope, and shook it over the folded leaf of the bureau.  Out fell the broken shell of a locket on a chain, its gold face pierced through and shorn open.  The fine links were knotted and tangled with dirt, and there was nothing left of any keepsake inside.  As I watched, a ring of frost formed encircling where it lay on the green leather, and I found myself once again drawn to gaze at it, before I regained control of my eyes.

Michael quickly scooped it back into the envelope and replaced it, with the box, inside the compartment at the back of the writing desk.

‘It is just the same,’ I said.  ‘Some once-prized pearl has been made ugly and meaningless.  What on earth might explain it all?’

We were understandably sombre, as we stood there and considered these strange objects and the powers they seemed to possess.  I vowed to Michael that if I could help discover some explanation that would set his heart at rest, I would.  ‘Where did you find this locket?’ I asked.  ‘Also in the ground?’

‘That’s right.  I’ll show you.’

Outside the night had sunk into the valley around us.  The last glimmerings of light hung from clouds in the west.  I remember that even despite the darkness and the earliness of the season, as well as our serious mood, the garden made upon me an impression of great beauty.  It was shaped as a shallow bowl some twenty yards broad, flattened into a small lawn running to the left of where we stood in the doorway.  On the north-west of the lawn were terraces, uneven but elegant, and on all sides the ground rose away behind holly hedges and thick bare undergrowth.  Directly across the lawn from where we stood the holly broke apart and the glossy evergreen black gave way beneath the pines of a small copse.  Michael sighed beside me at the door.  ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’

He was certainly right.  There was a fantastic air about the little dell, quite secluded and lovingly smoothed and shaped.  Even now it melted as mist crept under those hedges and sank down before us into the lawn.

‘But where were you digging?’ I asked with a shiver.  Michael turned and pointed to a bed beside the wall of the house, dark dry earth beneath the damson-dark brown brick of the wall.

‘The box was here.  And the locket…  It was tangled in the roots of a briar I tore up from beside the lawn.’

It was not the time to look more closely around the dark garden but just before we went back inside my eye was caught by something I saw on the lawn.  There was a brief sparkle as though something had fallen or was dropped from a short height, but as there was no moon yet and no stars under the cloud I suppose it must have been light from the house that was reflected.  I did not realise at the time that all the windows on this side of the building were closely tied with shutters.

But something shone.  I don’t know if Michael saw it too, but he didn’t ask anything as I left him and walked out onto the lawn, my eyes fixed on the point where I had seen the glint.  It was like wading ankle-deep into time’s cold sea.  The silken reams of mist hid two soaked inches of grass and I could feel the chill pass up my back to between my shoulderblades like a running steel.  About fifteen feet onto the lawn I plunged my hand into the swirling miasma and closed my fingers around the wet and icy shaft of a large old-fashioned key.

I gave out a laugh of loose and enjoyed surprise, as well as some kind of satisfaction, and striding back over the wet grass I brought my prize to where my cousin was waiting at the door with these words;

‘I fancy that this will be the key that you have been looking for, Michael.’

He took it sharply from my hand and held it high up before his eyes, the cold wet metal lying on his pale palm.  Eventually he spoke.  ‘Goodness, yes.’  It was the key to the door upstairs.  I could not see what was the cause of the glassiness in his eyes.

Helen had already retired, and so having assured Michael of the best efforts of my mind and my continued help in resolving this disturbing mystery, I took myself upstairs.  Michael also made his way to the master bedroom, expressing as he did his sincere thanks for my reassuring presence in the house.  Just before he left me, though, I thought to ask him one thing.

‘Tell me, have you shown anything of what you have found to your wife?’He shook his head.  ‘Or talked about it?’  He had not.  I would have asked him more, but he cut me off.

‘Listen, Clement.  It’s the awful worry that these things have put in me.  I fear all sorts of dire, irrational things.  I see…’  He hesitated.  ‘I don’t want Helen to be bound up by what they’ve induced in me.  Maybe you won’t have understood it, but if those feelings had been preying on your mind for as long as they have on mine you’d see.’  It was only later that I discovered just what fears the man had been subject to, and then too late.  For the time I fruitlessly wondered what he had been about to confide before breaking off, and then shut myself into my room.

Not quite at my ease, I decided that I would read before taking to bed, and drew the wicker chair closer to the lamp.  Fortunate to be one of those whose requirement for sleep is quite subject to will on many occasions I have been glad of the ability to defer my need for rest in the cause of either discovery or security.  Thus it was this night.  I took a book from my Gladstone, intending to sit up and work on an essay I was bound to submit to a journal.  My intention was strangely obstructed, however, when I discovered the absence of my reading glasses from their case.  At first I was tempted to go downstairs and check the drawing room to see if I had left them there, but I was prevented not only by my primary reluctance to blunder around an unfamiliar house in the dark, especially one belonging to such dear friends, and then by my subsequent realisation that to do so would be without purpose.  I had not removed my glasses from their case, or even the case from the bag itself since I had packed them early that morning.  There had been no cause to use them either travelling to the train, on the train, in the carriage or at the house, and it would have been very unlike me to pack an empty case.

In the end I was left pondering.  Unable to set myself at my ease, I went to bed and resolved that the next day should be spent enjoying the company of my Michael and Helen in some pursuit that would remove us from the house and divert us all from these worrying circumstances.

We left the house early and were amply entertained by a trip to the nearby county town Longlock for the most of the day.  Michael was much better for the distraction and his wife was particularly glad to be among everyday common folk again, for despite her devotion to her husband, it was plain to me that she was the sort who required much contact and intercourse besides that which he could provide.

It was late when we returned to the house.  The lanes had flashed by as we drove along in Michael’s sporty little car, but they had gone no faster than the light from the sky above us.  An owl swooped overhead as we turned in through the willows around the driveway to the house.

Indeed, the night looked like it would end quite without anxiety on the part of any of the inhabitants of this little house that, I must admit, had come to scare me a little.  We were jovial company, well fed, well entertained and amused with ourselves, but our bravado was not so great as to wish any delay before retiring.  So, Michael parked the car in the garage towards the rear of the house, at the side of the garden, and we proceeded immediately to the back door.

Helen preceded us to the door but before she arrived at it she let out a small cry of amazement.  The mist of the previous evening had not yet begun to gather in the dell, so I quickly saw what it was that had made her gasp.  There on the grass of the first terrace beyond the lawn, lay the reading-glasses I had missed last night.  I had mentioned my lack by necessity after being unable to read the menu when we had dined earlier in the evening and both Helen and Michael were plainly as amazed as I was that the spectacles which could not have fallen from a closed case within a bag were now to be seen lying at the far side of the garden, where I had not even yet trod.

Despite the return of a chill to my marrow I immediately continued across the grass to where the glasses lay.  They were lying on their back on a patch of dry ground between the layered turves, the lenses staring towards the gap in the hedge.  Or rather, the lens, for one of the tiny panes of glass was cracked and smashed, a good quarter missing and nowhere to be seen amongst the leaves.  As I picked them up I also noticed that one of the arms was twisted.  They were quite ruined.

We went indoors.  Helen was confused and apologetic, although of course, she had nothing for which to be apologetic, as I tried to convince her.  Michael was more troubled though.  He had plainly not failed to notice that the glasses had been found only a few feet from where the key had been.  What he had not opportunity to observe, however, was the chill I felt in the frames – a chill quite unnatural both for the balminess of the dusk and the slight weight of the eyepieces.  It was a feeling that thrilled through me, earthing itself in the cold small of my back, just as had the cold transmitted by the broken christening spoons and the twisted locket.

We were muted, then, as we bade one another good night.  The jollity of the day had evaporated like a diaphanous mist, insubstantial compared to the almost tangible unrest caused by the almost facile interference with these everyday obects that guaranteed our peace.  None of us had the energy, or even the real will, I realised, to try and re-capture the good-feeling we had been enjoying together not ten minutes previously.  My mind transmitted no committed decision to alter the mood, only a wistful weak desire that the past could be changed, whilst I mourned the very loss of our happiness.  Our day’s exhaustion had left us vulnerable and quiet, and we crept upstairs like victims over-awed.

I awoke still pondering the meaning of these impersonal disappearances and reappearances.  What was causing it?  My dreams had been troubled and I observed red-rimmed sleeplessness about my eyelids in the mirror as I shaved.  At breakfast both Michael and Helen were silent.  Their night had afforded them little more rest, then.  I sat at the table just as voiceless, watching Michael pour his wife a cup of tea.  I found myself watching him as he poured another for himself and then realised that I was watching him closely as he lifted the cup and drank.  Suddenly I realised what it was that I was seeing.  He was not wearing his wedding ring.

I made some excuse and left the table without delay.  If Michael’s wedding ring was missing – if it had been taken – then I knew where it would be, surely.

The garden was thick with frost and the spring air bit through my thin clothes.  Out on the lawn I started to look about in the grass.  A fallen branch of holly made an impromptu rake to turn over leaves and push apart the mint-green ice-edged blades.

I could not find the ring in the lawn, so I proceeded to check by the terraces where my glasses had lain.  I will admit, I was so sure somehow within me that I did not for a moment consider that the ring might not be found in the garden.  But it was neither on the first terrace, the second terrace or the third.

Frustrated, I started to check in the beds now stiff with crackling skeletons of last year’s flowers.  My search revealed nothing.  I stood upright and shivered heavily.  I could have gone to fetch a coat, but I continually felt on the cusp of the discovery, only inches away from what I sought.  It would be under the next leaf, beside the next shredded stem of dogwood or rose, in the next tuft of dierama.  It would be there.

Turning back towards the house, I threw the holly branch into the hedge and furled up my brow in a frown.  Where had I not looked?  Then, as I stood there at the end of the freezing garden, I realised where I had to look.  Directly in front of me, opposite where I stood and to the right of the door of the house, was the bed from which Michael had dug the wooden box containing the two grotesque spoons – I shivered simply to think of them.  Nearer by some five feet was the patch of earth from which the briar had been torn, around the roots of which had been tangled the empty locket.  Some ten feet nearer was the spot in the centre of the lawn where I had picked up the key to the guest room, being aired as I stood there and wondered in my shirt.  And then some six feet further still, just beneath where I stood had lain my spectacles.

And a straight line passed through each of these spots, and each time a missing or lost object had been found it had been farther along the line.  I should not be looking around where the key and spectacles had been, but further beyond them, behind me.

I turned.  There, behind me was the gap in the holly hedge and there, on the end of the lowest branch of the nearest, reaching pine, hung the ring.  It shone steadily like electric light, unwavering and piercing to the eye, hanging in the sun.  I walked between the hedges, reached up, and took it down.

As soon as I did so I was filled with the urgent desire to return to the house.  Where I stood I knew I was seen – watched and peered at by something I could not bear to seek.  My exposed sides were cold and stuck with the thin linen of my shirt.  And in my head I was batted dizzily about by a hundred disguised and confused remembered feelings.  I immediately realised, as my hand closed around that golden ring, that Michael’s precious token of his marriage had been deliberately ruined.  It was twisted into an unwearable tight ellipse, and a sharp edge ran into the ball of my finger where I held it tightly in my hand.  And it was cold.  Burningly, icily, destructively cold.

The cold raced up my arm and reached my head, making me spin where I stood.  The pines before me seemed to bend down at my face and the shadow beneath them loomed up.  The sadness – that same despair I had felt on holding the ruined treasures in the study – that great hollow meaningless fear and sadness mounted in me like a great salt wave.  Except now it had a certainty I had not known before: nuisance losses such as a key to an unused room, or reading-glasses were nothing beside the real symbol of this loss.  As I staggered back to the house, I subjected my frozen and frantic brain to question I would have rather not asked even when it were operating properly: would I tell Michael and his wife or should I hide the ring?  Surely in their current states it would only terrify them further…  No, I would not tell them.

Dear Possessions – Part I

Why is an only child invariably possessed of so much family? Perhaps as the lone progeny of a tribe it is not so much that horde of uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great uncles and second cousins and third cousins and indeterminables is actually larger than in any other family, merely seeming that much more numerous in contrast to the daily experiences of a single son, accustomed to short and impermanent glimpses of ever varying relations. Or perhaps there is some truth in it – that men and women born into large families naturally desire to escape them, and satisfy themselves with fewer offspring than their parents in turn. I do not know. All that I am sure of is that I am just such an only child, and that I have relatives quite beyond number.

In my childhood one consequence of this broad wealth was my inability to enjoy it. I found my relatives tiresome, distant, and memorable only in their extremity, categorised in some childish rhyme I used to try and keep of them all, which reduced each portion of the clan to some defining feature of body or soul. I was indifferent to visits from the short or the tall, but feared the thin and the fat. The ‘wild and hairy’ were on my mother’s side, suitably remote. They only ever broke upon my solitude rarely, but then with violence of gift-giving and music-making.  Far too energetic for my retired younger self.

Amongst all these, however, there was one cousin of my own generation, a few years younger and somewhat brighter, whose company was a constant joy and subsequently, when lacking, a constant request. His name was Michael and he has recently become quite well-known for his talents, which were already apparent when I first knew him. We spent some time sharing a school to our great mutual satisfaction, and forged a tie of trust and intimacy, as boys will, that has lasted the years despite the consequent distances between us and the infrequency of our meetings.  We lost touch for some time while he studied at Oxford and then travelled, for some time, those parts of the world that served his interests. On his return he announced, much to the surprise of the family, that he was getting married.

That is now quite some time ago. Michael and his wife Helen, whom he met whilst researching the sphragistic history of ancient Sweden, are still married and once again happy, for it might not be quite true to say ‘still’ happy. Such a word might imply a complete continuity in their happiness which, I am afraid to say, would be misleading. It is about Michael, his wife, and a time shortly after their marriage that I propose to tell you – this time that prevents me, in all honesty, from deploying the innocent adverb ‘still’ and implying lives entirely free from perturbation or peril.

Unfortunately I had been necessarily absent from cousin Michael’s wedding to the reputedly lovely Helen, on account of the affair of the Monk’s Tomb, a matter that must wait for some time to be fully brought to light. My desire to visit the newly-weds was only delayed by their own extended honeymooning and more unavoidable commitments in London, so when at long last they were settled in their new house and I found myself with a week I might honourably lend to what I would rather than what I must, I did not hesitate to write to Mr and Mrs Edmund and declare my intention.

The answer I received was uncharacteristically brief. It simply read, ‘Come by all means! Michael.’ I do not really recall what I made of it at the time with any accuracy, but I might have arrived more prepared, or at least more cautiously, if I had not read Michael’s exclamation as one of excitement, but rather one of desperation.

There was nothing less than wonderful about the beginning to that visit. The ride into rural Gloucestershire was delightful in the early Spring. Travelling by train allows such lacunae of blissful inactivity: everything is somebody else’s responsibility when you are on a train, from departure to arrival and ever in between. Should the train be delayed, why, so be it. Better delayed than wrecked on the line. Like stubborn beasts, the engines will have their own way and their own timing, for while they can be tamed, they cannot be coerced or coaxed into anything that they do not do. A trained man may have some weight with them, but a passenger, never! It is merely his task to submit to the awesome power and inscrutable complexity of the busy railways and to be satisfied with whatever he receives. And that, I feel, is freedom of a sort.

I shared a compartment with a young manager of a Bath bank. Dining on the Great Western, we both agreed and I still maintain, is quite the height of luxury. Racing along Brunel’s smooth and crafted road, in no other way can a leisurely lunch be a once so desperately fast of so delicately substantial. The only thing that approaches this supping on a train is to eat on board some great ship, but in such a case speed and, of course, the view are both sacrificed to layer another degree of, frankly, unnecessary sumptuousness.  Rather a varied bouquet than a single gilded lily.

Our train whistled though mist as we ate, a single pane of glass between lobster salad and Chardonnay and the racing track.  The countryside waited, alive, in glimpses of budding cherries, in the coarse sunlight and the flash of the fast-moving millstream, lending the bright and excited world a clarity that simply sang of spring.  The heavy clouds shunting rays over the embankments towards us, away from us, over all stupid and standing sights, they answered the charging force of the engine with a subtle power of their own to mark and to reveal and to light and to deny.  What I missed, cooped up in a London townhouse!  Here was the bright circle of Spring, gathering itself delicately, almost imperceptibly, for the coming rush of a new year.  The starting leaves, sparking on twig tips like green glowing coals, hung everywhere over last year’s fall still deeply littering and filling the hollows.  The mist sharpens, here, and softens, there, and the weak and new-born sun, looking like a pale yolk in a pale sky, surprises everything with the cool strength of his beams.

I alighted onto the platform of a small country station, to wait for the connection that would take me up the branch line to my eventual destination.  Peering into the lively faces all around me, watching the lively poplars’ sway, I saw that same exuberance that had so endeared the lucky young manager to me in the compartment.  Spring!  There was never anything like it.

It was still early in the year, though, and by the time I reached the ultimate station on the line the brightness of day was fading.  It was only a late afternoon, but the further the driver led me down deep hawthorn lanes, the more I felt the fragility of that hopeful new year.  Here and there I saw frost still lying around a fallen tree or hanging into the edge of a shadowed ditch, and in the quiet shadow of the hills the day grew colder.

The rattle of the hired carriage and the echoing clop of the horse in front of me rang and resounded, and I saw crows flying, and snowdrops still in corners.  We turned suddenly between two tall white willows and were suddenly before a small house nestled among trees and quite hidden from the road.

The lights inside the house shone warmly through the upper panes of the door before me, but as I knocked and the carriageman turned his trap about and returned the way he had come, I reflected that Michael’s love of privacy had secreted him close in a lonely house.  The cold that had followed me from the station hung overhead with the slowly-climbing darkness, captured between the boughs of the willow and ash and heavy on the steeply-pitched roof.  Well, surely it would be all the warmer inside for that.

The door opened and before me stood the young woman who had to be Michael’s wife Helen.  Certainly she suited the multiple guarantees of beauty that I had heard vouchsafed.  She was not over-tall, not over-slender, rich brown in the tresses, slight and sincere about the smile and elegantly, effortlessly dressed.  Only one thing stood out; her eyes were very rimmed with red and shadowed, although they were themselves eyes of a velvety shade that pledged tenderness.  She was indeed quite lovely.

‘Mrs Edmund?’  I asked, removing my hat.  ‘I believe I am your cousin by marriage.’

‘Clement?’ she said, with a strange ring, satisfied, unhurried and pleased.  There was a praise worth seeking in her voice.  ‘At last!  I have been waiting to meet you for so very long.  And Michael has told me so much about you.  Come in at once, dearest cousin.’  She gave me her hand, which was cold, I realised with a shock exaggerated by the warmth of the hallway, and I kissed it.

I motioned to my small trunk and bag.  ‘Is there anyone to take these?’

Michael appeared from the door on the left, ‘No, I’m afraid not, old man.  It’s just the two of us here.  We can’t get any help!  And I’ll say we need it.  I can’t put anything down without losing it somewhere.  Been asking since we got here, you know.  But, I say, dashed good to see you.’  We shook hands like close cousins.

The front door was closed against the now swiftly falling darkness and he took the Gladstone and one end of the trunk.  ‘I’ll help you up with these to the room.  Yes, dashed good to see you.’  He said this last repetition with a slight shake in his voice that seemed caused by something more than the effort of the stairs and my luggage, but I was not sure.  I took the other end and followed him up the narrow stairway.

‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘that you’re not in the better guest room.  The funniest thing, you see.  We meant for you to have the room at end, overlooking the fields to the front, but we can’t find the key.  I didn’t think the door had been locked since we moved here, but for some reason when Helen came to air it this morning the door was locked and the key missing.’

I looked at Michael, as we put the trunk down on the floor of a small, sparse room that I presumed was the second-best guest room.  He seemed rather over-troubled, so I tried to put him at his ease.

‘You know I really don’t mind,’ I said.  ‘What’s possible is what’s possible.  It’s a delight to be here, and to see you again – an absolute honour.’

‘Yes, in was very glad when you wrote.  You’re the first real guest, actually, and it’s been six weeks.  But it has rather frustrated me, I admit.’  His face lost the gleam of contentment that had always so endeared him to me when younger and was crossed by a troubled frown.  ‘I seem to be constantly mislaying things.  I suppose it’s the unfamiliarity of a new place, but, dash it all, it’s frustrating.’

A less frustrating topic was at the fore of my mind.  ‘I haven’t had much opportunity to congratulate you and your wife,’ I said.  ‘You have every reason to be quite happy.  I have never seen a more beautiful young woman.’

Michael instantly lightened, as would any man so fortunate, that is, at that moment I still thought him fortunate, having no reason to think otherwise.  ‘Ah, yes,’ he said.  ‘You should come downstairs and meet Helen properly.  You also need a warming drink and some supper after all that travelling and you must tell us what you’ve been doing.  It must have been very exciting to miss our wedding for!’

I was quite content to oblige, over supper, and a couple of glasses of sherry, by explaining to Michael and the lovely Helen exactly what I had been doing.  I felt that I owed them more than merely an apology for my previous absence, and so at Helen’s request I told them all of my part in the affair of the Monk’s Tomb.  Judging some of the details too disquieting for the warm company we had struck up, I was careful to avoid those explanations which, even in the security of the house, even around a bright fire, were apt to make even me shiver.

Helen was quite fascinated. In turn, she related to me the story of the couple’s meeting, grown friendship and short engagement among the Scandinavian sphragisists.  Michael, however, I could not fail to notice, was ill at ease and unconcentrated.  Even close description of the most individual ancient seals and the most decorated waxes failed to catch his attention fully.  He puffed at his cigar nervously, at times barely listening.  Helen’s enthralled and enthralling conversation sufficed.  It seemed that Michael really had told her everything about me, which bears witness rather to his faithful generous friendship than anything admirable about the life I lead.  I was greatly touched both by the interest of his wife and, inferentially, by his, even if some other concerns possessed him for the time being.

Clearly Michael’s behaviour had not escaped Helen’s notice either.  As he lit another cigar, she suggested that he show me the garden while it was maybe still light enough.  Strangely, Michael started like a wild thing.  Am queer intense look flashed across his grey eyes and fled from his face.

‘Yes,’ he said, regaining his composure and looking at me with some clarity again.  ‘Perhaps I should.  Would you like that, Clement?’

I answered that I would very dearly.  Michael was an able and a keen gardener, and although they had not been long in this house I was sure that he could at least share some very interesting plans.  He led me towards the back door.

‘I shall take you outside in just a moment,’ he said.  ‘But first, I want to show you something.  Come into my study.’

‘Now Michael,’ I said, following him through the door, ‘you are plainly quite worried about something.  You have been nervous and jumpy all evening.  Is everything alright?’

He did not answer immediately, but went up to a bureau and unlocked it with a key from his waistcoat.  ‘I will explain it completely,’ he said in an undertone.  ‘I am, I will freely admit, not on an even keel.  Something has been troubling me very much.  Here.’  And he removed from an inner cupboard a small box, on top of which was an ungummed cream envelope.

Something about the way Michael handled the little wooden box was not right.  His hands grasped it tightly as if it were heavier than it surely were, or in some other way, not as it immediately seemed. It was a light wood, but stained unevenly by water and not quite fully closing.  The twisted lid bore the remains of a green silk cushion, also stained and quite torn, the colour faded and only just discernible. A wedge of darkness stood out where the upper did not meet the lower part, almost leeringly shameless in the way the little thing was so broken and ruined. The envelope was a normal house envelope – the same sort, in fact, as that which had held Michel’s enigmatic reply to my own letter.

Obeying some inner prompt I did not quite recognise, before I knew what I was doing I reached out to touch the little box where it sat, and brought my hand back with a cry of shock and amazement. It was cold – a cold of a degree more biting and permanent than, surely, wood could convey.

‘You also feel it?’ asked Michael keenly. ‘It is desperately cold and does not warm. But I will show you what is inside.’

His hands flinched involuntarily as they felt the frozen edges, but he brushed the envelope from the top, which fell with a clinking, and opened the box.

Inside, I saw as I leant forwards and peered, what obviously were, or had been, two silver christening spoons, no bigger than my little finger, wrought finely and carefully. But they were twisted into bizarre, sharp shapes, ruined and defiled with certain intent. Around them the moisture of the air froze into twin ovals of rime. A pungent and piercing smell arose and our breaths misted like on a winter’s morning. As I looked at the spoons my heart – I could feel it within me – sank and slowed and I was filled with a great and possessing sadness.  Was it merely my sympathy for the loss – the poignant destruction – of such dear possessions of some long-dead family that drew such bands around my sore-breathing lungs?  I could not tell if there was not also some simple communication of woe, direct, plain, unvoiced and yet utterly comprehensible, in that pathetic sight.  Compelled to keep looking I was dragged deeper and deeper into the paralysing and consuming sadness.

The first of three parts of a ghost story I wrote in Easter 2006, when friends were enjoying M R James’ formula for horror…  Fut