Dreckly (Part Two)
There must have been an intervention of much needed sleep again, but this muddied the waters between the memory of what was seen with his friend, what he saw several hours ago and the dream that could not be disregarded. The sighting furthest away, near the mouth of the valley, must have been the earliest, for then it was just a black speck making its way ponderously west across a whitened moor of china clay waste, stark and unnatural before it suddenly camouflaged itself against the background and became a sickly pale grey.
And last night he had seen the aberration, darker even than any provision of night, crossing an unlit patch at the far edge of the village, and even the blackness fled away from it like a spiritual chemical repellent. The poison of it affected the atmosphere in the morning: Sarah could barely stand to look at him and seemed to be coiled tight in expectation of an argument. She exploded at him at half past ten, and he felt too drained to fight against her anger, though weathering it was no better. Five minutes into it, he could not remember what had sparked her indignation. But she saved the best broadside for when she was fully into her stride:
‘What kind of man are you, who sleeps with his best friend’s wife?’
‘But he’s dead,’ McLaurin protested softly.
‘What difference does that make?’ she shouted back.
He sighed and stepped up the retaliation stakes.
‘You did worse than that to him,’ he said. ‘And I know for a fact that he did worse to you, more than once.’
Her lips pursed and he was unsure whether he was going to be spat on or head-butted, but while she was undecided he took advantage and asked her what the figure in the landscape was. She frowned and seemed on the brink of a further angry outburst, then her face formed into a familiar jovial expression and he heard the strangely hissed words: ‘When the darkness departs the land, St Cadroe’s judgement is at hand.’
Then there was a pause, almost comical, when the startled pair nervously scanned the room for the third party who had spoken but wasn’t there. When she next spoke, the voice wasn’t hers, but her dead husband’s, though McLaurin was too transfixed by a terrible thought to hear what was actually said at the time. The thing that ran through his mind was: How long has Paddy bloody well been inside his missus and does that mean I had incest sex with my mate?
The time it took to dispel this terrible notion gave Sarah the time to recover, but she was still shaking and pale when McLaurin managed to ask what Paddy had said via her. She was stunned, as if by something internally, into speaking. ‘He says there are some things best left and others not. Then he says, Better we don’t know, my handsome. And he says, It comes directly from the strand, bringing death inside its hands.’
Then she stood there blinking rapidly as the communication went and the psychic signal faded. When she spoke again it was with her casual, normal voice:
‘There’s some writing on your head McLaurin, by the way.’
He hurried to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, cursed, went away to find a pen and paper, then came back and difficultly subscribed the back to front writing on his brow. It never occurred to him to ask Sarah what the writing said. He was slightly afraid of her now anyway. The transcribed message said: Ephesians 5:15 – 17. McLaurin cursed and ran off to consult the bible he had stolen from the boarding house.
The passage read: Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
‘Cheers for that, Paddy,’ he said sarcastically, then vehemently scrubbed his face.
The next day was horribly bright. The valley seemed to be teeming with unseen life, which made him uncomfortable. Sarah’s car was missing, and he knew she was avoiding him; whether because of the recent intimacy or occult events, he did not know. He perched on a low chair at the edge of the garden looking over the low wall and down the verdant valley, watching and waiting for something that did not show. Even though the day was brightly chilly there was a heat haze hanging over the middle distance. Somehow he was glad he could not see the sea. While he was almost dozing the geography of the vale opened up in his mind, in particular the sacrileges that Paddy was supposed to have imposed upon this landscape.
The entrance to the valley was narrow; a main path came in the opposite hillside, wandering precariously, and it was now lost in a patch of conifers that Paddy had outrageously planted there. The main road was through the artificially levelled valley floor, no more than a century old. But the more ancient route must have been via that steep path. McLaurin followed its line with his eyes, into the dark woodland. The word about that copse, so thickly planted it was, popped into his mind: impassable. At the nearer end of the trees the slope levelled out into a broad shelf which looked unnatural, but was probably not man-made. The reason it looked jarringly out of place was because there was a provocative array of solar panels cramming the place.
It took a while for the realisation to sink in, but when it did he leapt off his chair and punched the air. ‘Paddy, you crafty bastard,’ he said softly when he had calmed down. All the desecration was on purpose – the plantations, the solar panels, the fences. It was all designed to stop something in its tracks through the Vale of St Cadroe’s. That was why he was willing to suffer the humiliation of looking like a traitor, which turned the whole area against him and killed him in the end.
In his elation he started laughing loudly and the sound seemed to be magnified down the whole vale and he wished he had kept silent. Maybe the noise reflected strangely off the solar panels, he thought, when he heard it. But the suddenly opened trapdoor in his stomach told him the response from across the valley came from a different source. First, it came back to him as a rather agonised roar, which was a long, low note of angry challenge. Then he detected guttural syllables contained in the answer.
He recognised by the sound that the unknown thing was cursing him in Cornish. McLaurin screwed his eyes against the sun and went to take a step forward to face the challenge. Then he faltered when his eyes zoned in on the source of the answer. The thing of living darkness was prone, having turned its attention to horizontally negotiating the underneath of the solar panels. After it vanished there, Rowe shivered profoundly, thinking of the contradiction between that vile animated darkness crawling like a serpent through the field of light. Then the clouds rolled in from the north and a mizzle obscured the scenery, as it so often did in Cornwall. McLaurin was glad of it and hurried back inside, shivering, but not because of the sudden cold.
When Sarah came back, he was still wobbling visibly, and he grabbed onto her and wouldn’t let go until she promised not to call the doctor or the community mental health team. Nor would she give into his frantic demands to know what the thing in the landscape was. But the more agitated he got, the more resigned Sarah seemed to become. Even when he backed her into a corner and she was forced into issuing an ultimatum, it seemed a very weak-kneed one.
‘It you don’t stop this rubbish, I’ll...’
‘What are you going to do?’ he taunted her. ‘Throw me outside and let that obscenity kill me?’
She coloured red and then white. Then she quietly stepped outside and locked him in. All his shouting and banging did him not good. She revved up the car and shouted back at him, ‘Look in the books.’
He ran riot through the library, just to spite Sarah’s expectations of what he would find. There were about a hundred local history books infuriatingly un-shelved in solitary stacks, under tables, and lying angled against the skirting boards, untouched since when Paddy had chucked them. McLaurin angrily rattled his way through the volumes, assaulted every now and then by a piece of wayward significance, in a picture or a phrase which he stored away in his exhausted mind for later. He slumped back in the armchair after an hour and a half, accompanied by a blinding headache. Despite the drumbeat he slid into a sulky sleep, but thankfully did not dream. He shuddered deeply once through the frantic doze, but recognised in the depths that it was only because the unbidden walker had passed too near the house in the now dark valley.
There was nearly a prayer on his lips as he woke. Though he threw it off, some part of his mind answered the appeal for help. He saw a crystalline slideshow of images culled from the books he had scanned through. There was an old aerial view of the parish from an old pamphlet, which he knew to be accurate because it could be compared to a more recent photo he had seen in a tourist brochure. But while the brochure picture was obviously taken from a drone or a helicopter, the original image he had in mind was an early nineteenth century engraving, which had no right to be so accurate as there was no physical possibility that the viewpoint could have been seen by the artist at that time. Never mind that; what was important was the view it afforded of the old copses and built up hedges around the homesteads of two hundred years ago. The old, pre road route through the valley was clearly demarcated, and every one of the cottages and houses had a wall or hedge or barrier of trees blocking out that immemorial route from view, despite any conflict with the prevailing winds.
They knew what walked along that path, he realised.
Then came a flashed picture in his mind of a stylised plen an gwary. It might have been from a book on this parish or somewhere else. What was important in the highly imaginative drawing was that it showed a strange scene during one of those saints’ plays which the Cornish used to hold in outdoor amphitheatres hundreds of years ago. There were a hundred bodies crowded into the concavity, some looking at the miracle play. But the players themselves and some of the spectators on the fringes were looking aghast at a dark interloper perched on the very edge of the scene, which seemed as though it was ready to swoop, lizard or bat like, down into the hapless audience. The picture had been defaced with an arrow which pointed at and thankfully partially obliterated this fantastical interloper. Paddy’s biro comment on the creature was distinct: ‘BASTARD!’
He put it down, or more properly it fell from his hands in part of a kinetic series of revelations which overcame his body and his mind. Pathways came into his head, and then Saints’ Way. The latter was the ancient route only rediscovered a few decades ago, the meandering path of pilgrims from the north to the south coast. But there were contrary tracks, he suddenly knew with an awful certainty. There were tracks and rights of way and immemorial highways where things that had no right to walk still did, desecrating the land to stake their possession of it.
‘It’s not going to stop, is it?’ he asked himself in an awed whisper, before he answered himself with his own certainty.
He went outside and was swallowed up by the pellucid pre-dawn. There was little light, though the greenness of the land seemed to release its own subtle glow. A few hopeful seagulls started wailing before retreating back to the sea; their back flight was met with derision by a hooting cohort of owls. Then there was supreme silence.
The heavy dew gave way under his footfall, then the turf bounced back and forced him forward. There was a heavy climb up to the east side of the valley in semi-darkness, but his passage seemed assisted and signposted by the gnarled vegetation. For every branch which impeded and diverted his way, another tendril or bough pushed at him to proceed. He went to the place where the hillside flattened into the field where the solar panels silently stood. Already, perhaps because of the glistening dew, there was an anticipatory glow on their faces, waiting for dawn. Rowe stood on the edge of the field, facing north, ready to fight or to run.
He saw in his head the coverlet of waves on the surface of the Celtic Sea shift, a watery quilt, as Paddy roused on the ocean’s floor. Come on, come on, Paddy, he urged the giant to rise. Behind him, he let the shadow grow. It was growing of course; both things were: the great sea-lion shade of his departed friend and the dark traveller that had worn away an invisible path her for hundreds, thousands of years. The shadow crawled delicately from the steel entangled frames which held the solar panels to the soil. It stood up, swayed, asserted itself, looked around almost comically for any challenge, then it fixed on him.
Both shapes swelled and grew in stature: shadow in the sea and the never-living thing behind him, tall now as a twisted conifer. Rowe closed his eyes, even though he didn’t have to and it would make no difference anyway. Through his seared lids he saw the golden arc of a morning spirit rising from the sea, arching overhead, though he had the impression of something that was seared, had been through a forge, until it merged in an arc with the other overhead. And the shade of the traveller, that he now knew had preyed on other travellers and pilgrims, shrank back at first. Then it met the challenge. Possibly they fought, but it seemed more to him like a formal dance, a physical negotiation.
‘It has be shepherded, not beaten,’ he thought, dazed, as he stumbled away, still purposefully blinded by tightly shut eyes.
It’s always been, Paddy told him. Always will be here.
‘What’s the use then?’ Rowe roared, falling down the hill. ‘What’s the bloody sense of it.’
He heard laughter behind.
We keeps it on the straight and narrow. I did, now you will.
‘Stop the bloody riddles, Paddy. Tell me straight.’
False pretences, false pretences, mate. You was lured here. Now you ain’t leaving, no how, no where.
More resounding laughter hounded him back down to the house.
By the time he got to Sarah he was torn to shreds, covered in mud, and blubbering like a baby.
She kept him in the porch for the sake of her clean floor and watched him with arched eyebrows until he reassembled the jigsaw of his consciousness.
‘I hope this means that you’ve had a middle aged crisis and ingested some drugs, rather than anything more weird, McLaurin?’ she enquired.
It took the rest of the morning for him to attempt to sensibly explain it.
What saved him, what made sense in the end, was neither his garbled explanation nor her strained understanding. It was the light of midday, full of promise and reward, flooding into the kitchen, illuminating her hair with gold, igniting her eyes.
‘Your turn,’ Sarah said solemnly.
Then, prosaically, she led him through the house and told him she knew a nice quiet restaurant for sale nearby.