Short Fiction

The Church Near Trevance

I will begin with a couple of older stories, starting with this strange tale of Anglicanism and fish.

The Church Near Trevance

It was fifteen miles to the Church at Trevance when the Rev. Jonathan Thrace heard the bells. He knew they could not be ecclesiastical in origin, as each granite tower upon this stretch of the north western coast of Cornwall was known to him. Although never having set foot in the county prior to the present week, he had been reading about St. Enodoc, St. Peter and St. Juliot long before he took holy orders, and the order in which they stood upon the slate cliffs was as familiar to him as the catechism, or the stations between Shoreditch and Kent. In this he was hardly alone; there was no city incumbent he could think of who had not found the time to make a study of the Southern sea-side parishes, and precious few who had yet to make a summer of experiencing them directly, and if one were to drop the name of a relatively obscure inland church in such company – St. Antony, say – one’s tolerance for talk of Chevron arches, foliated capitals and Saxon mouldings would be sorely tested.  

As the Rev. Thrace trod the thin path down the cliff side, he turned to his right, across the sea, thinking the bells might be struck aboard a ship in distress, but all he could see was the sun glinting on the water. After descending for a further five minutes he checked his map, which was old and, as he had already had cause to conclude, the product of a less accurate age.  He stopped and peered over the cliff edge. Although the map suggested he should be beginning an ascent, the sea was still far below him, the track winding steeply down to meet it. With eyes momentarily raised, the minister continued his journey, the bells still sounding loud in his ears, yet dull, as if rung with great force from some place far away.

It took a further ten minutes to reach level ground, with the sea still to the right, and a steep slope a few hundred feet ahead. Walking towards this, the Rev. Thrace noticed the cliff wall on his left beginning to bend inwards. A few more steps made it clear that, as the high, slate-sided headland wound back at an increasingly steep angle, he was walking to the side of a large, curved bay. Before the cliffs looped back again to meet the sea at the point at which the path he had been moving towards began, they had described a rough semi-circle, and at the centre of this, raised a few feet above the sandy floor by a foundation of slippery rock, sat a church. The visitor took a step back. He looked at the building, then up at the path in front of him. He knelt on the sand and reached into his satchel, drawing out the map, which he spread at his feet. Tracing his journey with a finger, he tried to locate where he had gone wrong. Yet the nearest bay of this sort was thirty miles north, and, as he well knew, the nearest church was St. Zeno’s at Trevance.  The excitement of having found an out of the way church, one unmentioned in the kind of circles within which such things are invariably mentioned, was tempered by a feeling of unbelief. One cannot, after all, go off the beaten track on a coastal path. As he looked on the church once more the Rev. Thrace noticed that the sound of the bells had ceased.

For all of the strangeness of its location, the church was reassuringly familiar. If one was going to lose a church in this area, this might as well be it, for at first glance at least, it seemed that it held no feature that was not held more securely elsewhere in the county. It was small, made of granite and topped towards its western end by a modest tower, as were fifty others the Rev. Thrace could name.  Its windows were Saxon, rounded, small and bleak.  Their glass work was dark and crabbed, at least from the outside, but there was no sense that a world of colour and surprise waited for the individual intrepid enough to view the sun behind them.  The doorway was set between two posts of outsized jamb stones. It was oak, very old and strengthened with iron. The only element that was out of place, or, one should say, the only element that should have had a place but did not, was the graveyard; no stones surrounded the church. There was not even a yard from which graves might be absent; no margin of grass, wind swept and peppered with sand, stood to separate the holy space from the world beyond. Stepping forward, the Rev. Thrace admired the thick, black iron ring that hung upon the door. Within moments he felt the weight of it in his hand. Then he turned it, felt a latch lift, and, ever so gently, eased the door inward. 

A reassuring aroma hung over everything inside, a blend of cold stone, wood and Frankincense, the last indicating, perhaps, a way of worship the years had failed to eclipse, although the interior was as white and bald as any respectable church should be. As he wandered through the southern aisle and up into the nave, the Rev. Thrace saw that the building was as typical inside as it was out: a Norman restoration of a Saxon shell. Although the external structure was made of rough granite, the doors and buttresses inside were formed of straight cut stone, and the roof had been added by hands schooled in certainty, the whole structure tied to an ashlar course with corbels made to resemble grinning, grotesque faces.  A set of box pews dominated the chancel to the east within which stood a hefty, simple alter, adorned with a single cross. Behind this there was a stained glass window, as dull and blue as had been imagined, the central panes depicting the Baptism of Christ; those on the left the early days of Creation; those on the right a figure he took to be St. Paul.

As the Rev. Thrace set off down the North aisle to make a more detailed examination, he reminded himself to make a study of the pews, Cornish bench ends being justly famous for the beauty and idiosyncrasy of their carving. It was then that the thought that this Church was a little too predictable was removed from his mind, for resting upon each and every prayer cushion lay a fish.  The minister looked from left to right, to confirm the extraordinary sight, but, yes, upon all the pews stretched lines of cushions in blue, red, and gold, faded with use, and upon these sat a great variety of fish, perhaps a hundred of them, perhaps more. There were plaice, looking flat, mottled and deflated; cod with judicial brows; great-eyed bass; dab and flounder with bloated, spread bodies and delicate negligee frills; garfish like knife blades; swollen-headed gurnards; shimmering pilchards; bearded mullet, and a single, great mackerel, silver and smiling. Each had been placed with great care on the pews, with their heads directed towards the chancel, their mouths and eyes open, gawping at the divine.

The Rev. Thrace took a step backwards. He steadied himself upon a pew and looked down to see a lantern-jawed pollack, its fins raised as if poised to jump, its eyes seemingly fixed upon the cross. The Reverend’s back arched, but his breath came out in one long sigh. His whole body began to relax, though his arm remained stiff upon its wooden support. There was, after all, no cause for concern in being ignored by a fish, and a dead one at that. As such, it followed there was nothing particularly disturbing about being ignored by a hundred. As a smile began at the corners of his mouth, a slow thought began to form in his mind. This scene was not as strange as it seemed, perhaps. Indeed, aspects of it were positively familiar. In rolling, green shires, Autumn worship saw churches full of corn and eggs, even the occasional lamb. In the flat lands of Suffolk and Norfolk, rich honey and bright heather were placed on alter steps. In Kent it was apples and hops, in Isley, peat and spring water. So here, upon the Cornish coast, what should one expect but fish? Satisfied for a moment, the Rev. Thrace was just about to contemplate the absence of the kind of stench one would expect from a nave full of such company, when his attention was caught by the sound of a door opening from the direction of what he guessed to be the vestry.

A figure emerged into the chancel, robed, bald headed and preoccupied: clearly the rector. His foot fall sounded heavily and his eyes were cast down, gazing at the stone floor through hands that squeezed and petted themselves. As he walked he muttered, and did not stop to either look up or cease his talk until, with a flourish of cloth, he wheeled round to face the pulpit, a bulky, oaken affair, taller than most. He then mounted its dozen steps and turned to face his congregation. So, thought the Rev. Thrace, our man is to practice his sermon. He seems a nervous type. No doubt he wishes to make this Sunday a day to remember. The traveller moved forward, his eyebrows raised slightly, a smile now upon his lips, ready to indicate his presence to the figure in the pulpit, and to offer the silent support of a fellow man of the cloth. On seeing him, the rectors eyes widened, and he seemed to grip the sides of the pulpit with all of his strength. Those eyes then darted to the southern door, but only for a second, for a moment later they stared across to the far western wall, as if fixed on a space far beyond it. The Rev. Thrace was puzzled. If the man had not wanted him there, it would be a simple matter to ask him politely to leave for the duration of the forthcoming sermon (‘Really, it is a thing of tatters at the moment dear boy, you know how it is…’) with the promise of a full tour on his return. It could be that a certain mental state had been achieved in the vestry which casual conversation would have dissipated. Yes, that might well be it. The Rev. Thrace had heard of preachers of this type before, working themselves up to receive the Lord, pouring out His wisdom, their lips no longer theirs. This, he thought, might well be something special, and he stepped back from the pews, and leant against an abutment at the western end of the nave.

The man in the pulpit had closed his eyes. His shoulders were hunched and his arms stretched out before him, his hands still gripping tightly to the pulpits top. After a few moments he straightened himself and with eyes still closed, opened the pulpit’s great bound Bible. His eyelids drew up, and he looked down at the page he had chosen. Then he stared once more that long, unfocused stare that seemed to reach out further than the far wall, into the very depth of the flat, blue sea that sparkled beyond it. Then he began:

‘“And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all. And they did all eat, and were filled.”  And they did eat, and all were filled. That is the way of God, is it not? All that come to hear him will be given their fill.  Jesus Christ, Our Saviour, took up this tiny offering, these fishes, two of them. Small no doubt, nothing but a scad or a whiting, food enough for a boy, nothing more.  And in the mouths of the faithful, he let them multiple. It is remarkable.

But this should not have surprised any one of those five thousand souls as it should not surprise us. For go as far back as we like, and we are told of the great bounty bestowed on men by The Lord. When the world was hammered out of nothing, and the waters under the sky were gathered in one place, God created all life on earth. He made the fishes and ordered them to be fruitful. To multiply and fill the waters in the seas. And so it was. And then God made man, and told him to multiple, and gave him mastery of the ocean.   

Yes. The Lord gave man dominion over the fishes, over all in the sea that is scaled and gilled, just as he placed him above the animals that crawled about his feet, and the birds that flew above his head.  But that is not the way it has to be. That is what The Bible tells us. That is the message at its heart. Foolish is he who is confident in his position, who thinks himself unassailable. Do you think, any of you, that God’s great hand could not brush any one of man’s great edifices into the ground, whether castle, church or palace? Do you think he would fail to pluck that orb and that sceptre from manicured, kingly hands, swat that army as if a single fly, make the finest beauty in the world a thing foul and unlovely? The power that men have on the world is there by the grace of God. Sola gratia, my brethren. Sola gratia. So, there it is. This is to be a sermon upon modesty. 

For what do we read in the book of Jonah?  There is a man, is there not, who flees God? He is called upon, but does not answer. He is one of God’s chosen, but does not do as God wishes when those wishes put him in danger, placing him, as they do, at the very heart of dark Ninevah. And so he runs to the sea. For, have we not been told, that man has dominion over the sea and all things in it? Oh! The poverty of such dominion! For man’s elevation does not stop the wind from being raised. It does not stop the waves from towering and breaking, or the great green depths from surging up to reveal themselves in all their awful majesty. And it does not stop Jonah’s fellow travelers from waking him, saying “Jonah! Jonah! Call upon your God, whoever he may be”.

Imagine, for a moment. Imagine that hold, the lurching darkness of it. The creak of the wood. The mad eyed stare of the sailor. Already it must feel to Jonah that he is in some great belly as he finds himself replying: “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven who made the land and the sea. Throw me in the waves.” Anywhere out of that hole. And as Jonah is cast into the waters, as he feels their chill, their rolling power, his mind must have been black, and vast and final. But the Lord had not finished with Jonah. So he sent a fish to swallow him. A fish to swallow a man. Man, who had been given dominion over all that swims in the sea, entered into the belly of the greatest of their number, through some great subterminal gape, he was swallowed up entire. Solia gratia, my friends. God raised man above all else, chained him to his correct position within the great scheme. But it does not have to be this way, a fact that everyday is forgotten everywhere in this land. I am here to remind everyone of that. For this is, indeed, a sermon upon modesty.        

For how many men wander soft through life, believing that a gift once bestowed can never be retrieved? But God is great, and can do all things. Let us turn once more to the beginning, for here we read of a reckoning. Let us speak of the mighty flood that had been prepared as payment for man’s wickedness. The Good Book tells us “All flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth.” Now this flood was sent because the earth was corrupt in God’s eyes. And so he punished all that creeps upon the earth, all that breaths through nostrils, all that takes to the air in flight. Every man, every cow, every reptile was put to death, bar two of each, that might populate the globe again. But here is the thing. God felt no need to punish the fish. Not a scale was touched, not a fin. In the flood, God once again showed himself ready to elevate the finned and the tailed. He passed over them, for, we must conclude, he saw no wickedness in them.

And so we turn again to that astonishing moment in the desert, where Jesus filled five thousand bellies with two fish. Adam’s sin made him toil, and man has toiled ever after in consequence. And in consequence a million, million fish have been consumed, each death paid for by human muscles strained, fingers cut and fathers lost to the ocean. But, I say again, it does not have to be this way. The Lord can feed a multitude with two fish. He could do so with one. He could do so with none. Or with a single bone, or a crumb, or the very dirt of the ground.

Oh, but there is more, my brethren. There is more than even this. For what did Jesus say to the disciples who witnessed this great miracle when first he saw them on the shore of the lake of Gennesaret? He said to them: “set down your nets and come ashore”. He said: “I have good news”. Good news! It is good, my brethren. It is the most wonderful news you could ever hear. It is the news he gave to his first followers, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, under the blazing heat of a Galilean sun! And this is the news he spoke, this is the promise of The Lord, this is the covenant he has made: that you, that each and every one of you, shall be Fishers of Men!’ 

As the rector screamed out this last line, his hands clamped upon the top of the pulpit once more, and his arms shook. For a moment his sweat-stained face remained rigid, his eyes fixed on that far away place that seemed the focus of his vision. But then, for a second, he looked at the Rev. Thrace, then flashed his eyes down towards the pews lined up before him. And the Rev. Thrace followed that brief gaze to where the rows of fish lay still, staring up at the pulpit with their glistening eyes. But no! Not still. For now he saw it clearly: behind each mouth, gills were moving, opening and shutting in silent unity. And it was as if they were chanting, or raising and lowering fists in terrible salute.

And the Rev. Thrace fled blindly towards the South porch. He tripped on the crooked slabs of stones beneath the lintel and fell awkwardly, sprawling on the dry, wind swept grass that dotted the cliff tops, two hundred feet above the waves. There were tears in his eyes, his clothes were sodden and out of his boots poured a steady stream of salt-scented water.   

Titus Breaks Bounds

Inkermen Press followed up Land’s End with a further collection of short stories, artwork and poetry, Cold Turkey: A Christmas Selection (2009). My contribution was the following children’s story.

To keep to the ‘Christmas’ theme, I went for something with a Victorian feel, a bit ill, and with plenty of snow. The primary influence is, of course, Thomas the Tank Engine, but with trains played as early C20th iron lungs (so…all not very Victorian…). But I aimed also to write it, and naively paint it (I tried my best…), as straight as I could. One of my fascinations with Thomas is that his movement is limited to his face, pistons, wheels, and also smoke and falling over, but no one would stop for a minute to think this this places a limit on his heroism.

Titus Breaks Bounds

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It was Christmas Eve, and the snow fell so heavy and long that it threatened to make its presence known even in Bishop’s Ward. There, behind his little red curtains, at present as safe and warm as could be wished, Titus gazed out at the frozen hedgerows.

Just then, Titus saw something odd. A little black shape was making its way across the fields. It ploughed forward and fell, ploughed and fell, and as it did so it made a sound. “Mama!” it went, “Papa! Remember Henry!” Now the first two of these words were as unfamiliar to Titus as the sight of a boy breaking bounds. For a boy it most certainly was, and a familiar one at that. He had appeared at the beginning of the week and had cried all through the night.

Of course, there was only one thing to do. Titus asked his Backman to take him to see Paul Emmanuel. With a polite ‘right you are’, they were on their way. But when they got to the green room, Paul Emmanuel was too busy with the Christmas decorations to take notice of an excitable wheeler.  “Not now!” said Paul Emmanuel. “ But Sir!” blustered Titus.  “Not,” repeated Paul Emmanuel, “Now!”

 “Please come round to see me,” Titus said to his Backman when they had returned to the warmth of the little red curtains. The Backman, a kind and cheerful fellow, did as he was asked. “You have seen the boy in the fields,” said Titus. “He needs our aid. Please wheel me out that I might help him home.” “Now, I could hardly do that without permission,” smiled the Backman. Titus knew he was right, but a plan had begun to form in his head. “Very well, but wheel me to the top of the hill then, for I wish to track his progress”.  

On top of the hill the snow pilled high around Titus. He shivered as he felt it, cold and slippery beneath his wheels. “I will be here some time,” he said to his Backman, “you might as well join your colleagues below. I see they are brewing cocoa”. When alone, Titus began to think about moving. He leaned his head forward, and strained with all his might. Just as he thought his plan would come to nothing, and the prospect of sitting upon the bleak summit for the next hour began to press upon him, he felt a peculiar sensation. It was exactly that jolting feeling one gets when waking in the false belief that a bed has been fallen from. Yet on this occasion, movement, however slight, had occurred. Efforts were redoubled, and doubly rewarded. At first Titus inched forward. Then he began to trundle, then roll, and then – oh then! – he began to career. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!” he shouted as he flew past curtains and cocoa, familiar lanes and decorated machines. He burst through the hedgerows and was carried across to the world beyond.

As Titus whooshed through the fields, mud covered his wheels and ice flew into his face. He felt the wind, wild and exuberant, and everywhere the snow glittered and thrilled as it thronged about the silent countryside. He looked up and saw the ravens turning and turning. He could make out the black of their eyes and the curve of their beaks. They cawed out hungrily.  “I must go on,” said Titus.  “I MUST go on.”  

The hill had been high, the decent had been swift, and the ensuing momentum great. But all things must reach their end, and so too Titus’ journey.  But no sooner had the elated wheeler found himself becalmed, than he felt the warmth of two tiny hands, and one hot cheek upon his chamber. “There, there,” said Titus.

“I am lost,” sighed the boy. “As am I,” replied Titus, “and I cannot move by myself. But I can see that a little slope lies at our feet, and I believe that once upon it, I would be carried all the way back to my little red curtains. If you would be my Backman, just till I get a little speed up, I’m sure I could carry you home.”

Paul Emmanuel was standing on the highest rung of his step ladder, stretching out his tiny arms to crown his tree with its golden star when, to the astonishment of the assembled crowd, a wheeler burst through the green room’s hedge. Bunting was pulled to the ground, trays of mulled wine upset, presents burst open, and a certain diminutive gentleman was cast to the floor upon his amble backside. “Titus!” roared Paul Emmanuel as the boy who sat astride the one to whom that exclamation was directed squealed in elation. 

When he had been informed of the circumstances that had led to his ignoble fall, Paul Emmanuel could not maintain his anger. Happy the boy was safe, and happier still to know there was another wheeler he could rely upon to be active and brave, he made a change in the schedule. More wine was spiced, more cocoa brewed, and a brazier lit on which chestnuts simmered and spat. Each resident of Bishop’s Ward was given permission to unwrap a present. And when Titus cast his eyes upon the sky surrounding the summit from which he had so recently and recklessly descended, he saw that for the first time in a week, it was all but clear of snow.

The Blue Boy

Here is a particularly…fevered… Obby Robinson story, originally published in Lethmachen: The Most Haunted Town in England (Bristol: Lethmachen Press, 2013) (second edition 2016).

It came to me in a terrifying dream…

James Stoorie noted a couple of things about it that initially escaped me. Firstly, that it is kind of a story of a marriage condensed into two days (meet, go get work, find a place to stay, have kids, split up…er…destroy kid…), and that it is a mash-up of Frankenstein and Pinocchio

It begins with a frame constructing it as a found document, a format very much in keeping with the general mythology Stoorie, Kat Orton and I built up around Lethmachen: the Most Haunted Town in England

Lethmachen Museum has occupied its present situation above Schrebers the Chemist since 1971. Both editors of this present manuscript remember the following letter displayed there when children. As such, it seems likely to date from the 1960s or earlier. The Swan Estate that features extensively in the narrative has been established in Lethmachen, in different forms, since the 1830s. The museum is small, featuring displays on Lethmachen archaeology, industrialisation, and folklore, as well as information concerning local institutions. The following appeared in a section relating to the Lethmachen’s ‘mental hospital’, ‘Coney Park’. We were interested in the bizarre at an early age! Apparently written by a patient given the improbable name of ‘Gregory Stately–Home’, and written using crude implements on headed note-paper, it appeared then, and remains for us to this day, a fine example of the uncanny tale, and, we are inclined to suspect, one sadly passed over by generations of school children.

 We leave you with this, from R. L. Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’: ‘I declare since I have seen that little face, I cannot eat or sleep or pray till it is gone from me!’ With kind thanks to Ian James of Lethmachen Museum for publication rights.

My madness is here from the first; there is already nothing that would resist implication in it. In every position, at every possible turn, the girder will have turned slowly upon descent, to find its resting place, with its small, far face pressed against my own. Vast technology of consent! It sees me as the madman I must be, he who, in the infinity of choice granted him, cannot be anything but. For proof: I am writing this, and I begin thus. To conclude: this paper is headed with that name, and this crayon is all that I am afforded by way of implement. But madness is not it by a long mark, or not for this madman. Or, rather, – Yes, I have experienced madness, if it is simply an escalation of common experience, an intensification of that which has passed. There has never been a buzzing in my brain, for example. Anger has come upon me, a great howling anger sometimes, yet seldom with want of reason. On each occasion I might have cried: ‘I know you’, and pointed my finger like a madman. There has been no internal strife, no heat or sickness of perception. Only once, perhaps. And, as repetition is the very stuff of madness, I remain, I like to think, untouched at the nub.

And for all this I have to thank the Swan Estate. It is, I have often thought, quite remarkable that there remains such clarity as to the origins of my case. It has descended from a point. There is an address, for example, and a room. And there is, most unfortunately, an object. Before that, however, there was a morning. That is, I suppose, how it begun.

Clara and I had to get up dreadfully early. The night before we consulted a map, and finally Clara even consulted her father. We had not been anywhere near that part of Lethmachen, you see, and we realised we had to give ourselves time. It was to be an unseasonably hot April day, and as we set out the roads were dusty and the air above them still, and already the sun was making its dull horizontal presence felt upon the sky. When we had set out, those roads had been empty, yet I knew that soon they would be awake with life. As we neared our destination, however, and neat cut verges gave way to banks of ferns, and then to brambles and nettles, I understood that all about me would remain empty. At the Swan Estate, the dust seemed to rise a full foot off the ground. On either side of its single road, squat, ugly buildings of corrugated iron, breeze blocks and chain-linked fences spread out before us, and all along the way wheel-arches and rotting pallets lay where they had once fallen, having hardened over time to form the immovable geography of the place.

 The Swan was built upon a square and we had turned two corners before we came in sight of our destination: Swan Trading. It was set back from the road, behind a high fence, a sprawling collection of buildings. The nearest to us was squatter and uglier than any we had seen thus far. Facing us were two windows, yellow and greasy, with a single door to the side. Stacked all around it were cages and overloaded industrial bins. On the roof a white enamel sign read ‘Swan’ in large blue letters, with the ‘S’ shaped like a swan, but one devoid of elegance and poise. A fat-necked and hard-cornered swan.

 We went to the door and knocked, there being no bell. There was no answer either, so we stopped and waited and knocked again, and there being nothing still, and our appointment being fixed, we opened the door to find another. This was covered in leather, ripped in places to expose wadges of insulating foam. We knocked upon it soundlessly, then, on realising the futility of our action, opened it upon an untidy, airless room, dominated by a heavy-set desk, behind which sat one enormous and ornate chair. Three stools were set before it. A three tiered, grey filing cabinet leant against the middle of the far wall, at which a thin man was absorbed.

 ‘You’re the actors’, he said, straightening himself and turning towards us, ‘take a seat. Mr. Boowie will be seeing you.’ With that, he moved his head a little in the direction of the wall behind the desk, and barked out: ‘Mark!’ A brief pause, and on hearing no reply, again, ‘Mark! They are here for you!’ No answer was forthcoming, and the man made his way stiffly to a door in the back wall, over which stretched a twisted Venetian blind. I remember thinking with a great deal of certainty, as he opened the door and disappeared, that it would never be straightened. There was some muttering, after which our man returned, and took up his former position. We stood a full five minutes, waiting in the musty quiet of that room, before a large man with a shaved head bowled in. He wore his tie in a bloated Windsor knot, and his wrists and fingers were covered in dull, square-cut gold. He smiled like he had stubbed a toe, and gestured for us to sit before him. We sat with one empty stool between us. He smiled again, and said: ‘You are the actors.’ Before we could offer our assent, he sat down in his great chair, opened his jacket, and pinched at something invisible on his thigh. ‘And you want to have some space? Well, shall we do something about that? What sort of size do you want?’

 As I was just getting used to statements shaped like questions, a question I was expected to answer took me by surprise.

 ‘Quite large’, I replied after a turn, ‘there are just us two. But props as well.’ Mr. Boowie narrowed his eyes, and leant towards us a little: ‘How many people are turning up to this? Are you going to get any people? Are you going to get a few? Will you be needing security?’

 I could not tell if he was laughing at the possibility of anyone coming to see us, or concerned that his buildings would be overrun.

 Clara stepped in, nervously: ‘Our fellow students probably. And friends and relatives. Thirty Five? Thirty? Twenty?’

 ‘We have a few spaces’, said Mr. Boowie, stretching as he sat. ‘I have a lot on, of course. But I will do this for you. I am willing. But this must be returned. Exactly as you found it. Understand?’

 We were only really children, and already, I think, we had begun to decide on how best to get away from Mr. Boowie and never return. He did not know what his generosity allowed, and his presumption and aggression unnerved and offended us. It was rooted in a pride that was inexplicable to me. This weird solidified geography of rust and chance, this ground liberally spread with washers and weeds, all this to him was so obviously a good that upon it everything sacred, serious and adult could be secured. And then, a further thought came to me: Mr. Boowie did not want our art to change anything. For him, it was to have an impermanence that his grotesque business – whatever it was – was not to know.

 Mr. Boowie took our silence as consent: ‘Good. I need this legal. Adam?’

The tall man walked round to the side of the desk, reached in to one of its drawers, drew out a thin sheath of paper, and gave it to Mr. Boowie, who placed it flat on the desk. Then he moved it towards us, with all of the weight of his hand. I looked at it, read the first seven lines, then skimmed the rest and went to sign. There were two pens on the desk in front of us, fixed into the top of a clipboard, this holding a dozen or so sheets of paper, blank but for the word ‘Swan’, royal blue, with an inelegant, avian ‘S’. The pen also carried the image.

 ‘You should read contracts you know’, murmured Mr. Boowie. ‘Read it through.’

 I tried to look at Clara, but she was fixed upon the paper. I worked through it slowly, taking nothing in, aware all the time of Mr. Boowie’s pleasure in the scene. Then I signed, and so did Clara. Mr Boowie lent back and smiled. His hands came down and hit the table: ‘Right. Off you go then. Hope I get an invite. Don’t get into trouble. Oh. And you better have these.’

 Adam came from the filing cabinet, his arms straight before him, and set down two white plastic bags before us. He then went to the back door, stopped and issued a curt ‘Come on, then.’

 As we followed, I managed to open my bag and look in at a cylindrical, steel calendar, a pen, and what was perhaps a key fob, each impressed with the swan logo: the bounty of the company.

 Adam led us through the back room Mr. Boowie had emerged from, past files, calendars, plastic organisers and filing cabinets, and out a back door, past three skips, a wall of pallets and a long shed, and then into a clearing. A hundred metres or so away we could see two low warehouses, a shipping crate, and, behind these, a few further small buildings.

 ‘Take a look’, said Adam and, turned to go, took a step, then turned again, ‘…but stick to the warehouses.’ With that he trudged off and we were alone.

ii)

The door to the first warehouse was vast and rusty, and it took both of us to heave it back enough to squeeze inside. We found ourselves surrounded by a deep darkness. Occasional shafts of light found their way in, but they illuminated nothing other than their own trajectory. We moved carefully, and soon found the floor to be littered with machinery, heavy cardboard boxes and sundry smaller, unidentifiable objects.

‘I don’t think I can be bothered to find the power. Shall we just go?’

‘Let’s look in the next one at least.’

So we stumbled out, to come upon a smaller door, behind which slumbered another cluttered, impenetrable space. The floor was slightly less covered than the last, however, and I asked Clara if we should try to make some room.

 ‘There is no way we are going perform here. We are going. I will ask my dad again. Only…’

 ‘Only…’

 ‘Only I cannot remember for the life of me what Adam told us to do.’

‘“Stick to the warehouses”’ said I in Adam’s funereal tones.

‘Or was it ‘“don’t stick to the warehouses”?’ Clara replied in the same.

‘No!’

‘Oh, come on.’

‘I don’t feel safe here.’

‘It’s probably nothing. But if it isn’t? Well, if they’ve got a secret it’s going to be a secret. And I want to know.’

 And Clara was off, striding towards the very last building, a horrible thing, something like an Anderson shelter, but oppressively over-sized. I turned back to see if anyone was looking, and finding nothing but the silent, sleeping buildings, I followed at a run. Clara had already opened the door, this a small, cleanly painted, green affair. ‘No lock’, she smirked, ‘can’t be that bad’.

 Inside, I was struck by the silence and the coolness of the place. And then, with a little shock, I saw that all about me were the accoutrements of home. We stood in a living room, or so it seemed. Our shoes were cushioned by a thick, red-pink carpet. A slate fire-place hugged the wall in front of us, on top of which a wooden mantelpiece held three glass figures, and a carriage clock. There were no chairs, although a single table had been shoved up against the wall to our left. A number of pictures hung on the walls – a vase of flowers, a rocky path by an Alpine stream – and there was also a large, gilded mirror. A show-room smell pervaded, one of new carpets, warm, scrubbed glass, and want of accidents. I remained by the door, but Clara gave a cry of delight, and ran soundlessly through a door to the left of the fireplace. She came back in a moment, crying ‘Bathroom!’ Then she took the door to our right, and popped her head back through: ‘Kitchen!’ Her head returned, only to appear again with a mock frown: ‘No food.’

 As Clara explored, I took a step away from the door, and as I did I saw that something sat upon the grey slate step of the fireplace. I could not understand why I had not taken it in on my first survey. A few steps closer and I could confirm that it was a figure, a human figure, perhaps two foot high, maybe a little more, and slumped forward, with its wrists crossing over just above the ankles. I didn’t like to touch, so I bent down towards it. Clearly a doll of some sort, it was all in blue: little royal blue shoes, powder blue stockings, velveteen blue Fauntleroy jacket and trousers, and, upon its head, making up at least a third of its height, a great ice-cream whip of blue hair. I gently pushed the thing backwards, resting its head against the fireplace, so I might see its face. This too was blue, with bland features, despite a prominent nose. I looked a few seconds more, and then realised in a flash that it was the ugliest doll I had ever seen. The hair, for example, was not, as you might think from the description above, smooth, light, and all of a piece. Instead, it was matted, as if back-combed, made of some course material, of the kind used to stuff cheap furniture. Although predominantly of a baby blue, there were other colours in there, and the whole seemed dull and dry. It also smelt horribly. The Fauntleroy suit was dusty, and in want of repair, the shoes formed from cheap and highly reflective plastic.

 I suppose I must have felt ‘poor thing’, something of the sort, for I picked it up. It was heavy, and I thought, perhaps, that there was some mechanism within. There being no chair, I sat on the floor, and placed the Blue Boy on my knee. I remember giving him a playful tap upon the nose, and then, at some point after, lifting his two hands together and letting them fall. By the time I noticed Clara sitting next to me, I was playing with him most contentedly. He was on my lap by then, and with my hands on either side of his little chest, and never letting his face move from mine, I was turning him at the shoulder in tight little circles. And then, upon one twist, I heard a sound. It was groan, of sorts. I stopped, and felt Clara move in close to me, and look intently. I began the twist again, slowly now, and after two cycles, the sound came once more, clearer this time, a long, slackjawed ‘uugghhhhhh’. As the sound took hold, I felt as if the thing I held had become warm, and its eyes, although they neither flickered nor shone, had about them a steady, ceaseless concentration of life. I dropped it then, and stood, in surprise rather than terror. Clara reached out for the Blue Boy, and stooped towards the fireplace to place him in something like his original position. And then we hurried out the room.

iii)

 That night, I woke from a terrifying dream in the sure knowledge that the Blue Boy was alive, and that somehow, I was responsible. We had left Swan Trading without a backwards glance. Halfway home, I had asked Clara if she was worried about the contracts.

 ‘We’re just kids. If Mark tried to use them, he would be in more trouble than us.’

 We hadn’t mentioned the Blue Boy. We had not even arranged to meet again. What happened in that room had invalidated the possibility of planning for the future. I could not eat, and went to bed wracked with a sense of guilt for which I could not wholly account. I had, after all, done nothing wrong, other than going where I had been told not to. Yet on waking, all was clear. I had, through my affection, made a beginning. I had ushered the Blue Boy into a kind of life. And even as I lay there, I knew with absolute certainty that not two miles away, upon a stone slab, in a neat room, the ugly thing lay in full consciousness. Its little mind was scraped upwards, like a splinter, and that shaft was fatal to me. I had a duty – oh technology – and I was hemmed in, girdered at every turn indeed, and against that implacable hardness, the tender, animal restlessness of my little heart was unbearable to feel. I had to, for the warmth of that heart, remove the pressing weight. I needed to take responsibility for what I had done.

 That is why, the very next night, I slipped out of my bedroom window, with a hammer in my hand, and ran through the silent streets, to the ever silent Swan Estate. Even as I ran, I had a hope of finding nothing, or of my way being barred. But, as ever, this was not to be.

iv)

The Blue Boy sat where we had left it, slumped forward, its face – thank God – hidden. I waited a second at the door, breathed in, and then strode forward. I headed straight for the bathroom, catching hold of the horrible thing with my right hand as I sped past. I swung the door open, and threw my burden to the floor. The bathroom was small and white, with an old-fashioned bath, elevated a little by four little legs, and a sink in one corner. To my surprise, the far wall was taken up with another door, and this being ajar, I could see that the adjoining room contained a bed. I went in, and found this to be large, and covered in great clouds of pillow and eiderdown. At its foot stood a vanity table, gilded, and upholstered in rich, red velvet. I returned to the bathroom, grabbed the Blue Boy by the arm once more, and dragged it through the door, to toss it on the bed. I turned it on its back, lay down my hammer, and placed my hands upon its chest, securing it with all the pressure I could bring to bear. I was, of course, confronted again by its uncanny countenance. The hair did not fall upon the pillow beneath the head, but sprang up, seemingly unaware of its environment, or the forces that should naturally play upon it. The clothes smelt as rotten as the hair, and the bland, blue face now seemed set in ghastly, passive resistance to what I was about to do, as if, somewhere behind it was a hard, pebble-like, child knowledge of the wrong it was to receive. I could look no more, and taking up the pillow it rested upon, I covered its face, and pressed down with all my might.

 It was not long before I became aware of the difficulty of my situation; how was I to know when I had done enough to extinguish a light that had never truly shone? I know now that the not knowing is where my seeming madness lies, at least in part, but then the uncertainty had no distance. How long should one wait? It was, I found, until the sweat rolled from my hands, and made the thing beneath me difficult to hold, until I felt my heart beat, and the coursing of my blood, in my own touch. It felt like it was – perhaps – not my own.

 I think my mind had turned, in the pulsing horror of that moment, to a dream of stillness and satisfaction in some other place. It must have been this that made me think of water, of submerged quietude, the fleeting eternity of the dive. Water seemed better, I mean. So I grabbed the thing by the wrist, flew to the bathroom, turned on the taps, and plunged its head in the sink.

 As the horrible hair became wet, it reeked to heaven. It also began to slip in my hand, and what with the length of the body – too long for this operation – I found that what I held sloshed about in my grip: a thing learning to struggle. In my anger I tore it from the sink, and it went before me into the living room. I threw on the lights. Stark, stark lights. The Blue Boy was on its back again, but I saw in its bland eyes, now wet and, I think, chipped, the black burning of anger, and I was afraid. I ran to the bedroom and took the hammer, returning to wonder, again, precisely what it would take to end this thing that, by my own foolish action, I had begun, this most unfinished and unmade thing. I bent down and set it a glancing blow, which the wet hair effortlessly absorbed. I hit it again about the chest, but the wood was thick. So I got up close –and why? – and why? – I knelt upon its little legs, and I brought the hammer down hard. There was a crack, and a chip of wood flew from its cheek, but other than that, there was no difference; the Blue Boy lay beneath me as it had done before. So I let out a howl, and as I did I felt the terrible stench of him come into my mouth, and there was no divide, and I brought the hammer down: Smash! Smash! Smash! I kept my eyes straight, and my knees upon him, and I felt him buckle and split. And as I did, I heard that terrible escalating cry. Oh, it was a moan – a wooden, terrible, learning moan – of what it meant to fracture, as once he had learnt under me the pleasure of the turn, in the lovely learning of the lap. I knew also that he had, surely, been moaning all this time.

 So I came home, and had to explain to my parents, and then account to Clara, for all that was on my hands, the blood that was upon me. It is with those hands that I write this, and their labour is such that I have not time, energy or resource to move the girder that presses on my face. It has hardened, and I cannot turn, even if only to find myself caught again. I see: I am become wood. I am made mad.

To this I witness,

Gregory Stately-Home