The New Saint Nicholas

[This is a poem I wrote for some Dutch friends, former neighbours in Glasgow who now live in Rhode Island. Our two families always celebrated the Dutch festival of Saint Nicholas together, and we still send each other poems every year. Saint Nicholas came from Turkey, though for some reason he always sails to the Netherlands via Spain. His day is 5 December, but his journey from Spain takes a week and you can follow its progress on Dutch TV.]

Saint Nicholas has far to go
Across the waves from Spain.
His little boat is powered by snow
And wind, and spray, and rain.

His little helpers, so they say,
Are blue, and green, and pink;
Saint Nicholas’s hair is grey;
His face is black as ink.

Saint Nicholas was once a girl,
But now his form is male.
He watched his silver beard unfurl
As slowly as a snail.

For centuries he watched it grow
And watered it with tears,
While sun, and rain, and wind, and snow
Marked out the passing years.

And now it flies behind him as
He skims across the waves
With piles of presents in his arms
For refugees and slaves.

And when he sees your waiting shoes
He’ll fill them full of dreams,
Where every shoe’s a bark canoe
And every street’s a stream.

And every stream runs dimpling down
Through hills, and heaths, and trees,
To join the green, red, yellow, brown,
Kaleidoscopic seas;

There where the boats dash to and fro
With Nicholas and his friends:
Whales from the lands of ice and snow,
Birds from the ocean’s ends;

And as the waters rise and rise
And as the skies grow dark,
Studded with little blinking eyes,
The boats will form an ark.

The ark will forge through froth and foam,
The birds and whales will hum,
And nudge the vessel gently home
In some strange time to come.

And where it lands its wooden sides
Will root themselves and grow,
And strange new creatures leap or glide
Into the evening glow.

And as they peer about in fear
Dreading another storm,
Saint Nicholas will reappear
In some bizarre new form.

He’ll try to make them understand
They’ve nothing left to lose;
And then he’ll sink down in the sand
And give them back their shoes.

And some of them will put them on
As hats, or masks, or shells,
While others jump aboard and sail
Them off like caravels.

And others still will walk away
With shoes on both their feet,
And build a little town of clay
With trees on every street.

And every house will be an inn
For folk from overseas,
With food and drink and clothes within
For slaves and refugees.

And every night they’ll lay their shoes
Outside the door with care,
So folk with nothing left to lose
Will know they’re welcome there.

And every morning they’ll look out
Through panes of coloured glass
And hum this little song about
The new Saint Nicholas.

The Dark Tower Triptych 2: Tree and Bird

Hector had been able to hear Roland coming for some time now. Or rather, he had been able to feel him coming, just as he would have heard him coming if he had been human.

Tremors shook the earth each time his brother swung his oversized sword and sent a head flying, followed two or three seconds later by the thump of a headless body on the stony ground. Hector’s roots detected the tremors and carried them up through his slender trunk into the branching channels of his thirsty brain. He’s coming, the wooden synapses whispered. He’s coming to save us, Roland the assassin, Childe Roland with the killer’s eyes and the heart of iron. Hector spread the roots of his toes, feeling for additional clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. He’s coming quickly.

The henwife. The child was approaching the henwife’s hut, and he was tired.

Alexander, now; Roland was surely no Alexander. The eldest brother had only got as far as the henwife’s hut before he gave in. The instructions had been unambiguous – kill everyone you meet in Elfland by chopping off her head – and Alexander had known full well what would be the consequences of failing to follow them. Not only had he heard the stories, he had told them himself in the winter evenings beside the fire, his harp trilling out the tunes that gave them life. But knowledge is one thing, action another. The henwife had undone Alexander, with her crinkled face the colour of fallen leaves and the quizzical look that came into her eyes when she finished giving directions and he raised his sword.

In retrospect it seemed inevitable. How could Alexander possibly kill the henwife, that inexhaustible fund of the songs and stories that filled his dreams? As soon kill his mother, his grandmother, the wizened old wives of the village – collective mothers to his father’s people – who taught him all he knew. As soon kill himself

And kill himself he did, at least as a storyteller and a musician. Now Alexander’s claws pinched Hector’s branches as the bard, now bird, hopped lugubriously through the thicket of his brother’s thoughts. Pinching was now his only language. He couldn’t speak or sing, only croak like a toad and dance his ungainly dance when the wind got up and Hector swayed. The elves were both cruel and cunning in the punishments they meted out for disobedience.

Hector, on the other hand – Hector the second brother – Hector was made of sterner stuff. He had killed the henwife, as he had killed the goatherd and the tinker and the tinker’s dog. He had killed the tinker’s dog when it barked at him, just to make sure, though the old man had never said anything about beheading dogs or birds or insects. After that Hector had made it all the way to the Dark Tower, blown the slug-horn, seen the girl running out. Even now he remembered the sense of exultation he had felt as she ran towards him, because he too knew the stories, knew from the start that he would have no chance in this one. The eldest brother sometimes prevailed, the youngest brother often, but the middle brother never, not in any version of the story he’d ever heard told. He had had no chance at all. Yet he had come. And here he was, the conditions fulfilled, the last test passed, his sister running towards him. Against all odds he had won her back. In his triumph he dropped his sword, stretched out his arms to catch her, laughed and cried. And even as the sword hit the ground he had felt the changes coming over him.

His boots split open, his toes burst wriggling out of them and started to burrow into the stony earth like eels burrowing into the carcass of a horse. His outspread arms forked and forked again, each bifurcation wrenching apart his bones and sinews. His head split, too, sending tender new twigs of thought in all directions. The last thing he saw as the bark spread over his eyes was the look of horror on his sister’s face as he exploded into vegetation. There had been plenty of days since then to remember that look, as he stood at the entrance to the Tower, a rowan tree rooted among the rocks with a useless raven hopping around among its leafless branches.

There had been plenty of time, too, to think about what he had done wrong.

Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, the old man had said. Not every elf, as Hector had assumed. Kill everyone you meet without exception. For Hector, Burd Ellen had after all never really been in Elfland – she had come here under duress, she belonged in the fields and woods of Daddy’s estate. That was his assumption, based on an understanding of the riddling words of bards and elves. But he had been wrong, for all his wiliness (he was the wiliest among the brothers, the middle brother nearly always was). And now…

Here came Roland, the youngest brother, a child of twelve, armed with the same instructions, those riddling words. He too didn’t stand a chance. For one thing, he was carrying the oldest sword, the blunt one from the back of the stables. His body and limbs were unprotected by cold iron, because there had been no armour in the house small enough to fit him. How to warn him? How to let him know? It couldn’t be done. A tree has no voice, or what voice it has is only ever borrowed – the hissing of leaves in a rising wind – and is in any case only available at certain times not of its choosing. No hope of warning there. But the bird? It’s a bird of omen, the raven, isn’t it? Could his brother give some sort of hint at the old man’s trickery? Could Alexander save Childe Roland, absent-minded, gullible old Alexander with the misty eyes?

From the feel of its claws, the raven was jumping up and down in agitation, croaking no doubt if Hector could have heard it. Flapping its wings as well, he shouldn’t wonder. He could see it in the twigs of his mind, jumping up and down, croaking. Pathetic. The boy wouldn’t see it in a month of Sundays. Childe Roland only ever had eyes for the task in hand, he couldn’t be distracted, that was part of his coldness. Nothing short of a peck on the ankle would get his attention, and then it was more than likely that the boy would strike, with deadly accuracy, at the raven’s head, with his big blunt sword, and Alexander would lose his life all over again.

Pathetic.

There was nothing his brothers could do to help him.

And now the footsteps, pounding, pounding on the granite flags of the Dark Tower’s floor. Coming closer at frightening speed. Out into the open. He could feel her presence through his silvery bark, a kind of glow, like the touch of the sun on his woody skin in the afternoon. She had stopped in front of Childe Roland. The boy must be looking her up and down with his killer’s eyes.

The boy would strike.

And suddenly Hector had lost all doubt. The boy would strike, it was who he was, it was what he did. Childe Roland had known from the moment the old man issued his grim instructions what he must do, and he had known too that he could do it, that he alone of Ellen’s three brothers had the eyes, the arm, the steel-cold heart to complete the task. This was what the boy had been born for, after all: to make up for the fatal flaws of his elder siblings. Everything would be all right. The boy would strike, and the head would roll.

Hector held his breath, or would have held it if he’d been human. Instead he stood tall and slim and rigid, waiting for the blow.

And waiting still.

A thump. The ring of steel. In two or three seconds, the louder thump of the headless body on the stony ground…

But the second thump never came, and slowly it dawned on the waiting Hector that the weight and quality of that first thump did not in fact tally with the weight and quality of a person’s head. The boy hadn’t struck. Instead – it was obvious now – he had dropped the sword, the big blunt sword from the back of the stables. He had dropped it; and now another light thump sent reverberations through Hector’s roots.

Could it be possible? Had Roland dropped to his knees? Was he crying, for the first and only time in his life?

A wave of relief ran through Hector’s body, from the tips of his roots to the topmost twigs of his forking arms and his branching mind. A gust of warmth, a tremor like an earthquake, as if instead of the Dark Tower the slender rowan tree that had once been Hector, the second brother, were about to fall. Childe Roland had not struck. The boy was human after all.

And then a wave of cold, from roots to twigs and back to roots.

Childe Roland had not struck, and Burd Ellen was doomed.

There was no one left to save her. No one left to defend her person, body and soul, with a ring of steel. No armour, no swords, no warriors. His sister was finished, and her house was too.

A strong wind blew in from the west. It brought a spray of brackish rain tainted by the sea, and the cries of seabirds, cold and high and far, as if in mockery of human grief. The rowan bent before the wind, its grey bark darkening as the raindrops lashed it. For an hour or so it tossed back and forth, but it wasn’t uprooted. Rowans are resilient, despite the shallowness of their roots.

When the storm was over the tree grew still, and the three ravens on its branches cautiously relaxed their grip and began to look about them. They were getting hungry – they had no idea when they had last eaten – and it seemed to them that there was plenty of carrion nearby.

The Dark Tower Triptych 1: Childe and Burd

Roland lowered the slug-horn from his lips. The echoes from its blast were still bouncing off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains as he took a double-handed grip on the sword that was much too heavy for him and braced himself to strike for one last time.

The thump of footsteps sounded from inside the cavernous entrance to the Dark Tower. He watched as the bare white feet came hurrying towards him. He could not bear to look at her face. If he looked at her face, as his brothers had, he would never be able to do what he had to do.

Already she was standing in front of him, chest heaving from her running, air spilling out of her mouth to warm his cheeks. ‘You came!’ she cried. ‘I knew you would! I knew –’

He took a tighter grip of the hilt of the sword and raised it with an effort. He had done this so many times in the last few hours that every joint in his arms and shoulders screamed in pain. He must look her in the eye before he struck the fatal blow; if he didn’t he couldn’t be sure it would be a clean one. He lifted his eyes. He held her gaze. He saw her expression of joy fade to puzzlement, then to alarm as the blade began its slow descent.

‘What – ’ she said, and then the thud came, followed by the spray of blood, which drenched him from head to foot as she toppled towards him.

Gasping, he lent on the blade and waited for the miracle to happen. He did not look at her body. He wasn’t sure what the process of regeneration would involve: whether the head would come crawling across the pebbles on sinewy feet, or whether it would bounce like Ellen’s ball toward the severed neck, still pumping out blood in a diminishing stream; and by what strange form of alchemical or vegetable coupling the separate strands and bones of the head and neck would knit themselves together. He didn’t want to know. The outcome was all that mattered: regeneration, the return of movement, jerky at first, then smooth. The sound of her voice, bubbling at first in the blood-choked windpipe, then spilling forth clear and loud as it had before.

He didn’t look. He waited, leaning on his sword, watching the crimson pool of blood as it spread towards his feet, feeling the blood drip from his nose and chin, noting how the landscape all round the Tower was stained as if with blood by the setting sun.

It had been a long day.

Someone coughed behind him.

‘So you did it,’ a voice remarked. ‘You followed my instructions. I’m amazed.’

Slowly he turned his head. The old man stood there, as he had before, his crooked hands still resting on the handle of his stick in exactly the pose Roland had adopted after striking off his sister’s head.

‘Amazed, and impressed,’ the old man went on. ‘None of your brothers could do it. That’s why they died. This is a land where instructions must be followed to the letter, and failing to follow them is always fatal. Well done, my child. Well done indeed.’ And he smiled as he turned to leave.

‘Wait,’ Roland cried, with a final effort. ‘It’s not over yet. Ellen – she needs to come back with me. That was the deal!’

The old man stopped, turned, raised an eyebrow. ‘That was the deal?’ he repeated. ‘How so?’

‘That was the deal,’ Roland said again, and felt a flush creep across his face in spite of the cold. ‘“When you come to Elfland, you must cut off the head of everyone you meet. Everyone, you hear? Man, woman or child. Do this and your quest will be successful. Fail to do it and you will die.” That’s what you said when I saw you before, on the Blasted Heath.’

The old man nodded. ‘Why yes, that’s what I said. “Do this and your quest will be successful.” And so it has. You’re alive, child, aren’t you? Your bones are not lying with the bones of your older brothers in the ash pit yonder?’

Roland turned to peer where the old man’s finger pointed, then wished he hadn’t. He felt sick and shaky. He dropped the sword and ran his hands through his blood-roped hair.

‘But Ellen,’ he said.

‘Is dead,’ the old man said. ‘You killed her, child. Look where she lies. How can she possibly come back with you now?’

A bird flapped suddenly on a nearby rock, and the noise drew Roland’s attention so that his eyes flicked to one side. When they flicked back again the old man had disappeared.

The mountains had lost their redness. They were now the colour of rock, like the Tower, the sky, and Roland’s hands. The bird gave a harsh despairing cry and took off, flapping in a zig zag path towards the nearest peak.

Roland picked up the sword and stumbled after it.

Puppet

Dancing at the bottom of my string,
My tangled string, a merry little thing,
Merry because my wooden features smile,
Smile open-mouthed, as if about to sing,
Sing with delight, although the weather’s vile,
Vile because rain has polished both my cheeks
From an unnaturally lurid red
To shining apples in my wooden head,
My head that wobbles through the rainy weeks,
Weeks that have doubtless some mysterious use,
Use which the passers-by, on growing tired
Of hearing, drenched, a lonely puppet’s squeaks,
Have made of them when softly they retired,
Retired beneath a layer of autumn ooze,
Autumn which sets about discolouring
The leaves and I, weighting my feet with lead,
My feet which turn towards the winter gales,
Gales which will set me dancing on my head
And billow out my pinafores like sails –
I ought to be a sight to see in spring.

 

Kark and Kerr, Part 2

Exactly two years later, the circus rolled into the town of Bogton St Mary in Devonshire, England. Crowds lined the narrow streets to watch the carts and horse-drawn vans parade to their destination, an open field by the river Bog, where a rival township quickly sprang up under the busy hands of the circus performers. A tall old woman wandered through this temporary town of wood and canvas, gazing at the bunting, admiring the fire-eaters and the girls on stilts, pausing to examine the side of the brightly-painted caravan where Fatima the Fearless promised to Ftudy your Future and report her Findings with Fidelity. The old woman was dressed in shimmering crinolines of brown and gold, and many of the passers-by were as much inclined to stare at her as at the denizens of the circus. Her nose was hooked, her cheekbones prominent, and her eyes – her eyes were the strangest thing about her. They were larger than most, and the yellow pupils, which seemed to have virtually effaced the whites, were flecked with what looked like pieces of mica.

Despite the lively interest with which she examined every detail of her surroundings, the woman strode about the circus grounds with the air of one who possesses a fixed purpose. She stood for some time before the banner which advertized the feats of Polly the performing horse. Then she stopped again in front of the large striped tent where the Flying Nardini Family would later demonstrate the difficult and dangerous art of the high trapeze as practised in Italy, furnished – so the painting suggested – with tiny wings like those of Raphael’s putti. She seemed about to enter the tent, but just at that moment a small girl carrying a bucket ducked out from under one of the flaps. The old woman took one look at the young Nardini’s costume – thick wrinkled tights, frilly pink bodice and wings of gauze – gave a snort of disgust and wandered on. She spared no more than a glance for the extravagant notice-board which lauded the many miraculous properties of Dr Jugg’s Universal Remedy and Beautifying Agent, to be sold at the door of his waggon for the bargain sum of five shillings the flask, but stopped once again in front of a crimson pavilion dedicated to the Miracles of Nature as collected and authenticated by Professor Petronius P. Pomaine, of the University of Pennsylvania.

An enormous signboard stood outside the professor’s pavilion listing the wonders to be found within: a two-headed lamb preserved in formaldehyde; a woman with horns; a duck-billed platypus with poisonous spurs on its webbed hind feet; the skeleton of a dragon slain by the Anatolian warrior known as St. George; a unicorn from Harappa which would lay its head in the lap of any virgin; a Patagonian giant; a Congolese pygmy. But her attention, it seemed, had been arrested by one wonder in particular: the Astonishing Bird Boy, listed among the lesser miracles of nature which did not warrant space for extended treatment on the crowded signboard. She leaned forward and tapped the words ‘Bird Boy’ as if expecting them to explain themselves. Then she nodded once and entered the pavilion.

Inside, the tent was gloomy and stank of urine and preservative fluid. The cages containing the exhibits were covered with awnings. A mournful-looking man with a receding chin and a huge moustache came up to the woman and asked what she wanted. ‘I am a representative of Dr Balthazar Buzzard,’ she replied, ‘and I have come to collect the exhibit known as the Bird Boy, in accordance with the agreement concluded between Dr Buzzard and Professor Petronius C. Pomaine by letter last week.’

‘Excuse me, madam’ said the mournful man in an accent that was meant to sound foreign, possibly Slavic. ‘I myself am Professor Pomaine. I know of no letter and no agreement.’

‘The arrangement, then, if you must be so particular. I have a brougham waiting for me on the Tavistock Road. I would be most grateful if we could finish this business with expedition, since I intend to catch the noon train from Biddlecombe to Truro. Please let me see the boy at once.’

‘Madam,’ said the mournful man, trying his best to look supercilious but looking only pained. ‘There must be some mistake. I have received no letter from Dr Buzzard. No arrangement has been made. The Bird Boy is one of the outstanding attractions in my scientific exhibition, and I cannot possibly consent to disappoint the public by letting him go. His arrival in Devon has been eagerly anticipated for many weeks. Should I dispose of him before we open this afternoon I shall be obliged to compensate the members of the public for their disappointment by offering them a partial reimbursement of their entry fees. I shall suffer material losses, Madam; very material losses. I am sure you understand my position.’

‘You are wrong, Professor Pomaine,’ said the old woman, opening the diamantine reticule she had been carrying in her left hand. ‘There has been no mistake and you will suffer no losses. I have here another letter from Dr Buzzard in which the arrangement I mentioned is described in full. I believe you will soon recall the drift of your correspondence, once you have reminded yourself of the sum offered by Dr Buzzard for the transference of the boy to his establishment.’

Professor Pomaine put on a pair of lozenge spectacles and peered through the gloom at the paper she held out to him. His mouth dropped open as he read the figure. ‘Ah yes,’ he said slowly. ‘I am beginning to remember this letter. A most agreeable man, Dr Buzzard, and one with a very shrewd head for business.’

‘You will remember, then, that I must see the boy before any money changes hands. And you will remember that Dr Buzzard has left it entirely at my discretion as to whether or not the transaction will take place as per the aforesaid correspondence. Now lead me to him, please, Professor. Time is short.’

Professor Pomaine’s mournful expression had now been replaced with an air of acute anxiety. ‘I promise you, madam, Dr Buzzard will not be disappointed,’ he blustered as he led the way between cloth-covered containers towards the darkest recesses of the tent. ‘The boy is authentic and quite unique. He was discovered by Latvian traders in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. I have cherished him like a son. It will break my heart to lose him. Unfortunately, however, he has not been in the best of spirits recently. A slight imbalance of the humours, I understand from the esteemed Dr Jugg, but it has altered his appearance, and not for the better. Not that he was ever a beauty, mark you! But now – that is – you will see for yourself.’

The Bird Boy sat hunched in the corner of his cage, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was naked and appallingly thin. His arms and what could be seen of his torso were covered with long dark feathers and scraps of down, worn away in patches to expose the dirty blue-grey of his skin. His legs, although covered in scabs, were those of an ordinary boy, but they terminated in what looked like claws. The strangest thing about him was his head. It was the head of a bird, covered with fine black feathers which had worn away here and there as they had on his body, and armed with a long, sharp beak. The eyes were closed; but when the old woman addressed him in an odd fluting language unknown to Professor Pomaine (who had lived most of his life in Islington) one eye suddenly opened wide and stared at her sideways for a minute or two before closing again just as suddenly.

‘This boy is dying, Professor Pomaine,’ the woman pronounced, after examining him for two or three minutes between the bars. ‘And what is more, I suspect he is a fake. I ought by rights to return to Truro and advise Dr Buzzard not to waste his money. But Dr Buzzard is a genuine scholar, unlike some I could mention, and I do not think he would take it kindly if I were to rob him of the pleasure of studying this sorry specimen for himself. I am prepared to offer you –’ and she named a sum less than half of that which had been mentioned in the letter. ‘Take it or leave it, sir. I cannot miss my train.’

Professor Pomaine wailed in protest and demanded more. The woman made as if to march out of the pavilion. The Professor relented, no doubt after a rapid calculation of the very much smaller amount he could expect to make on the boy’s dead body if, as seemed more than probable, the woman was right and he did not have long to live. A bargain was struck, the woman took a packet of coins from her reticule and the Professor rapidly counted its contents, then wrote out a receipt on a grubby ticket-stub which he produced from his waistcoat pocket. The woman promised to send a man to collect the boy at once. Professor Pomaine bowed her out of the pavilion and returned to counting the coins she had given him. His mournful look had been replaced with one of cautious optimism.

A few hours later the old woman sat on a plush velvet seat in a private railway carriage belonging to Dr Balthazar Buzzard, and watched as the Bird Boy was fed from a bottle by another old woman with crippled hands. As soon as the boy had finished drinking the women laid him on a carriage seat and watched as powerful convulsions stretched him out and doubled him up. Within an hour the last remaining feathers had fallen from his body, and by sunset his grotesque head had begun to buckle and bend as if under tremendous pressure. The carriage was shunted into a siding on Bodmin moor, a bath was drawn and dirt and feathers scrubbed from every crevice of his shuddering frame. By this time the boy was running a high fever. The women sat with him through the night, answering him in soft voices when he cried out in fear, or babbled in the fluting tongue of birds, or whispered scraps of nonsense. At daybreak he fell asleep. Dr Balthazar’s representative sent the other old woman to bed and settled down to read a book, kneeling on the floor beside the carriage seat where the boy lay stretched in corpselike stillness under a blanket. As she read, one of her hands rested on the boy’s exposed left foot, which no longer resembled a claw.

After an hour or two she glanced up and saw him staring at her with eyes now large and dark in an ashen face.

‘How are we feeling now?’ she asked.

‘Terrible. I hurt all over. How do you know my language?’

‘Never mind. I’ll tell you later. All you need know at present is that you are safe and that we are bound for Truro. You may call me Margaret. I am a specialist in the study of exotic birds, and I am very curious to know how a citizen of Lazarus came to be travelling with an English circus, trapped, it would seem, at a mid-way point between one phase of the Changes and the next.’

A violent shiver made the boy’s teeth rattle in his narrow head. ‘Where is Professor Pomaine?’

‘Far away. He will never trouble you again. As I told you, you are safe, and once you have recovered your strength you may go where you choose. Now tell me all about yourself – or rest, if you prefer. I have no wish to elicit information from you which you would rather keep secret.’

The boy grinned ruefully. ‘I’m not much good at keeping secrets. I guess that’s why I’m here. And I don’t remember much about Professor Pomaine, nor about the circus. I feel like I’ve been living a dream for years or centuries. No, not a dream, a nightmare…’

He stopped for a minute to study her face. But he seemed reassured by what he saw there, because he soon went on, and his voice grew stronger as he spoke.

‘You’re right, though, ma’am. I come from Lazarus. Didn’t like it much, though. My parents died when I was young and I had nothing left to keep me there. Nothing but my poor old Nan, and I think I killed her when I ran away from home. I wanted to become a bird, you see, like they did in stories. So… so I ran away to the woods, and Chew Chew betrayed me, and the hunters came with dogs to track me down, so I ran away again, and I think I Changed. I remember wind in my eyes and the ground below, and black wings beating – but perhaps I was only climbing a hill, or falling off a cliff, or sick, or mad. But I think I turned into a bird, and I think I flew – yes, flew – for a long, long time before they caught me.’

He lay for a moment staring at the book in the old woman’s hands, as if he thought it held the rest of his story. Then he shuddered and laid back on the seat. She thought he would go back to sleep without saying more, but after a while he spoke again, in his croaky voice that kept veering from high to low like a broken church organ.

‘Professor Pomaine says I was found by Latvian traders, and that I was still a bird when they found me, half dead with cold. He says they put me in a cage because they’d never seen a bird so large and strange with a human voice. Isn’t it odd, though, that they would cage me for sounding human? They took me to England because that’s the best place, the Professor says, to get money for freaks. By the time we got to Dover I was starting to look like a human being as well as sound like one, so they began to think I was some sort of devil. Some of them wanted to cut off my head and dump me in a ditch, others wanted to find a priest to exorcise me, but in the end they sold me for pennies to a man in Portsmouth who collected monsters.

‘The man’s name was Morrow, and he was more of a monster than anyone in his collection. He had a cabinet full of drugs which he liked to test on us to see what happened. He discovered that one of these drugs could stop me Changing; it froze my body in the shape of a bird, or a boy, or the half-and-half thing I was when you found me. I don’t know where he got it, but Dr Jugg says it can be used to stop buds from blooming into flowers, or caterpillars from turning into butterflies, or children from growing up. Professor Pomaine and Dr Jugg were friends of his. They helped him pay for his drugs by buying freaks from him to show at the circus. After Morrow had finished with me I was very ill, so Professor Pomaine was able to buy me for a knock-down price, along with the recipe for the drug that kept me as the Bird Boy.

‘I travelled with the circus for a long time, but I never got better from the things Morrow did to me. I hurt all the time, and the pain got worse. Dr Jugg used to give me the drug every Thursday morning. Funny, isn’t it? That was the very same day when Mrs Chakchak used to make us eat her disgusting stew. I expect her stew had a drug in it like Morrow’s. Who knows? Maybe he got his drug from Lazarus. I used to think about that when I was in my cage. I’d run all that way to get away from Mrs Chakchak, and here I was in a prison still worse than Lazarus, having the same foul substance forced down my throat in a rubber tube. I flew straight out of one cage into another. Perhaps all the world is just a mass of cages, cage after cage with prisoners on the inside looking out and keepers on the outside looking in. Only you can’t always be sure who is the prisoner and who the keeper. Professor Pomaine used to scream at night, I could hear him sometimes, screaming and screaming in his sleep like a rabbit in a trap…

‘And now here I am in another cage. I don’t know if I’m free, as you say, or if I’m a prisoner and you’re my keeper. I don’t know anything. I… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.’

The old woman smiled. ‘You’re right to be mistrustful,’ she observed. ‘And of course I was wrong to say you’re free. You’re as much a prisoner as I am, though no one but ourselves is ever likely to know it. I told you to call me Margaret, but you’ve spoken my proper name quite often in your fever. It’s Kerr.’

‘Kerr!’ cried Kark, sitting up suddenly so that the blanket fell away from him. ‘I thought…’

‘You thought I was dead,’ the woman finished for him. ‘But I am merely grown up and no longer Changing. You’ve told me your story; I must tell you mine.

‘I escaped from Lazarus much as you did, leaving my past behind me – together with a silver ankle-bracelet which I must have lost when feeding on a carcass in the mountains. But in every other respect our fortunes were different. Unlike you, I was lucky enough to return to human shape a long way from the haunts of men. For a while I lived alone on the Russian steppes, running down wild beasts and drinking water from snow-fed streams with a mind as fierce and featureless as a winter blizzard. After more than a year I wandered into a village, naked and hungry, having forgotten how to speak. The village schoolmaster took me under his wing. I found out later that he had heard of Lazarus, and that some of his forebears had been shape-shifters much like us; there are more of us, Kark, than we’ve been led to believe. He taught me his language; I told him of my sickness and metamorphosis; and slowly we began to piece together the story of the valley as your grandmother told it to you.

‘Like your grandmother, we came to the conclusion that the people of Lazarus were not sick, but possessed instead of a wonderful talent: the capacity to assume the form of birds at certain times of year – or perhaps in certain years, we cannot be sure since there has been no scientific study of such metamorphoses, at least in recent centuries. We decided that this capacity had been hidden from them by the Council, not so much for fear of reprisals from the outside world as to keep the population of the valley timid and tractable (my schoolmaster was an anarchist and had little faith in governments). We understood, too, that the stew must have contained a drug of the kind you’ve described, capable of suppressing the symptoms of the Changes. But my schoolmaster also realized that we did not possess this drug, and that I might undergo the Changes again at any moment. To protect me he must hide my nature from hostile scrutiny by removing me to a secret location. He therefore arranged that I should pay regular visits to his brother, a fur-trader who lived in a cabin many miles from the village, and who was fully apprised of my condition. These visits were meant to give me a pretext for leaving the community without arousing suspicion whenever the Changes showed signs of returning.

‘We were too naive, however. After a few such visits, gossip began to run rife in the village. It was said that I was mistress of both brothers and that I had seduced them into taking part in diabolical rituals. The best way to quash these rumours was for me to marry the fur-trader. I did so, and went to live with him in the forest. Every few years, when the Changes came over me, I fled away deep into the wilderness with my secret. For the rest of the time I behaved as an ordinary Russian housewife, except that I did not sleep with my husband and bore him no children. Instead I read all I could about ornithology in books and periodicals sent me by my schoolmaster, which he ordered from Moscow for my use whenever he could afford to do so. I was searching, endlessly searching for some clue as to who I was.

‘Then one day I read in one of the periodicals about a leading British naturalist, Mr Balthazar Buzzard – owner of the world’s most remarkable bird collection – who had advanced an absurd but intriguing theory. He argued that human beings and birds have a great deal more in common than had previously been supposed, and that there was even a possibility that at some remote point in the evolution of both races they had shared a common ancestry. The theory was only mentioned in the periodical in order to be derided, but it was the first hint I had seen anywhere of a scientific acknowledgement of my condition. I decided at once that I must meet Mr Buzzard. I packed my bag, took leave of my husband, and set off to visit my schoolmaster for the last time, and to discuss with him the best means of reaching England. He gave me the name of a correspondent of his in London who might put me up on my arrival, slipped into my hand a purse containing a few gold coins – half his worldly goods – and clasped around my neck a necklace that had once belonged to his mother. We parted with tears, exchanging many expressions of mutual esteem.

‘The journey to England was largely uneventful. A ship I boarded at Sebastopol sank, but not while I was aboard, and my bag was stolen in Naples, but by that time it was empty. Winter came and I had to take refuge in the mountains of northern Spain when the Changes overtook me. Here I was badly hurt by a fowling-piece, but recovered my human form in time to catch a ship from Lisbon to Flushing the following spring. I reached Truro safely, where I met Mr Buzzard, and found him to be quite as insane as the periodical had painted him, and hopelessly addicted to opium.

‘But he was very kind. As soon as he’d heard my story he offered me a post in his Institute of Esoteric Ornithology. I am now his private secretary and itinerant researcher. He has made me responsible for seeking out evidence in support of his theories about the link between men and birds. For years now this has been my principal occupation: hunting through archives, scientific journals, learned tomes and volumes of improbable fictions, as I did when I lived in a cabin in a Russian forest, searching, constantly searching for anything that might shed light on the history and habits of my people – the Bird People. It was in connection with this research that I heard of you, from a particular friend of Mr Buzzard’s, a man called Wells. And it was in the service of this research that I sought you out, as I have sought out many interesting specimens in the past to add to the more exotic sections of Mr Buzzard’s collection. The question now is: what is to be done with you?’

The boy lay still on the seat, looking weak and ill. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I can hardly believe that you’re really the Kerr I’ve heard so much about. You seem so different…’

‘You mean I’m older.’

‘No! I mean, yes; but there’s something more. You’re so much less… less wild than I thought you’d be. I always thought of Kerr as a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue… everything Nan said she was.’

‘She was. She still would be, if circumstances permitted. She is, in fact. One of the things you will learn about this world outside the valley is that for a woman like me to exist at all is a rebellion, an adventure, and an act of roguery all at once. How many female researchers do you think there are in the British Empire today? Your grandmother was right about me, as she was about everything else.’

‘You seem to know a lot about my Nan. Did you know her well, in Lazarus?’

‘Not well, no. She was some years younger than me, and when you’re a child a few short years make all the difference. I know her better now.’

At this point the second old woman entered from another part of the carriage. She gave a cry of delight when she saw Kark sitting up in bed, and fell to her knees beside him. It took him several seconds to recognize her, because her face had been scarred by frost, her back bent double with exhaustion, and her hands twisted into claws by arthritis. ‘Time hasn’t been kind to me,’ she said with a laugh that dismissed all time’s unkindness. ‘I wandered for many months in many cruel countries. But I have found a true friend, and I have found my grandson, and now at last the tide seems to be turning.’

There is more to tell, but little space to tell it in. This narrative is growing bulky enough already, and I am beginning to wonder if it will fit into the hiding place I have chosen for it. Besides, my poor old hand no longer writes as well as it did. Whatever the Mad Hatter said, a raven and a writing desk have little enough in common, and a pen sits uneasily in a hand shaped like a raven’s claw. I must bring my tale to a close, however unsatisfactory.

The three from Lazarus celebrated their meeting with more laughter, some tears and a great deal of talking. Kark slept again through the rest of that day and the following night, and when he woke they talked again, and little by little his strength returned. As he grew stronger, as the train moved west, the situation in which he found himself became clearer to him. Kerr had been right: he was not so free as he had seemed at first. From the moment of his recovery his life, like hers, would be regulated by drugs: the same drugs that had kept him trapped in the body of the Bird Boy, and that had formerly kept him locked in human shape throughout his life in the valley. He learned from Kerr that a modest traffic in these drugs had existed between the valley and the outside world for generations; a traffic that was strictly controlled by the inner circle of the Council of Lazarus, and whose profits bought certain special foodstuffs and a degree of protection for the people of the valley. By the merest good fortune a supply of the drugs had fallen into the possession of Balthazar Buzzard, who had apprised his new secretary of their properties as soon as he knew of her unusual predicament. She took them every week now – but not on Thursdays. Kark must take them regularly too, if he did not wish to run the risk of falling once again into the hands of men like Morrow, Jugg and Pomaine. From henceforth silence and secrecy would be his best protection, as they had been all his life. The difference was that they would now be self-imposed, and that he might drop them at will should he choose to subject himself once more to the perils that accompany the Changes.

But the drugs were not the only kind of constraint to which he was now subjected. All three of the former inhabitants of Lazarus felt a powerful urge to devote themselves to righting some of the wrongs they had suffered. Kark longed to track down Professor Pomaine so as to liberate his fellow prisoners before they succumbed to the despair and resignation that had so nearly killed the Bird Boy. He wanted to raid Morrow’s laboratory in Portsmouth and free the poor unfortunates who were the victims of his experiments. And he yearned, as did Kerr and his grandmother, to return to the valley of Lazarus. He wished to inform his afflicted people of their true natures, to expose the lies that had been told them by the Council, and to reveal to them the boundless world of possibilities that lay beyond the walls of their mountain prison, available to be entered in relative safety by those who had learned to manage the Changes with wisdom. But before he could begin to do any of these things he must find a way to earn his living.

Once again it was Balthazar Buzzard who came to the rescue. The celebrated ornithologist took to Kark as soon as he met him; a little twisted man with a look of constant hunger in his vast black eyes, he saw fulfilled in the former Bird Boy all his own dreams of the possibility of metamorphosis which had belonged, he thought, to his ancestors, and which had forever been denied him. He would follow Kark round his turreted mansion talking incessantly about the mechanics of flight, and offering him food or drink or toxic drugs of various kinds in the hopes of coaxing him into conversation about his life as a bird – conversation that might afford some clue as to how Mr Buzzard, too, might undergo the Changes. From time to time, in response to his generous patronage and frequent pleadings, Kark and Kerr would consent to stop taking the drugs for several weeks and Change for him themselves. On these occasions Mr Buzzard would send away his household staff and make up a bed in the famous glasshouse, where he would watch for hours, biting his fingers, as the pair of them wandered among the plants, their skins bristling with incipient plumage, their faces stretching and distorting as beaks began to form under the discoloured flesh. Nan, in turn, would watch Mr Buzzard, in case he should be tempted to put himself in danger by mimicking their behaviour, perhaps by climbing a tree and flinging himself from its branches, or by eating something ill suited to human digestive system. Nan was past the age for Changing and in any case had never enjoyed the sensation, which recalled for her the pains of childbirth – pains she had never forgotten, and which she likened to forcing one’s limbs out of their sockets through sheer strength of will.

Not long after Kark’s arrival at Buzzard Heights, Mr Buzzard offered him the position of Assistant Birdkeeper in the glasshouse. From then on he was responsible for the care of the exotic specimens that made their homes in its various habitats, and later for helping to add new specimens to the collection, taking over from the ageing Kerr as Mr Buzzard’s most trusted aide. It was an interesting job but a hard one, and not one from which he could afford to absent himself for more than a few days at a stretch. Not that he felt much inclined to leave behind the comforts of his new environment. He and Nan and the redoubtable Kerr spent most of their leisure time in a strange artificial leaf-filled world beneath the great glass domes, wandering among tree-ferns and sitting in the shade of orange groves and ornamental arbours, plotting the liberation of Lazarus, or recalling details of their travels, or mulling over their confused and contradictory impressions of their life as birds.

Days passed into months and months into years. Kark visited Portsmouth and found that all traces of Morrow had long since disappeared. Pomaine too seemed to have vanished into thin air; Kark suspected that he had dropped his professorial alias and retired with his fortune to his house in Islington. At last the three lost citizens of Lazarus performed a similar vanishing act. As is well known to historians, a mysterious gas escape wiped out the birds in Mr Buzzard’s collection in the winter of 1900. The day before the tragedy, the young man and the two old women who had tended the collection left the glasshouse from different exits and were never seen again. The press and the public were far too interested in the question of what had happened to Mr Buzzard to speculate as to the fate of his three employees. For a while the police took a desultory interest in their disappearance, but they soon abandoned the investigation. As an ambitious young police sergeant explained it later to the local paper, inquiries into their whereabouts were greeted by the local community with what could only be described as a ‘resounding silence’.

And now it is time to finish writing. Indeed, I would never have started if I had realized how foolish my story would look on paper. To begin with, there are so many coincidences involved in it – as many as in a bad Victorian adventure story. How in God’s name, for instance, did Kerr, Kark and his grandmother contrive to find their way to the South West corner of England, to the hospitable environment of Balthazar Buzzard’s glasshouse? And by what improbable routes did Morrow and Buzzard obtain their supplies of the drug that arrested the Changes? The valley itself, in my account, resembles an English valley in the Lake District more closely than a valley in the Urals – or so I presume, having forgotten anything I ever knew about that district of what is now the Soviet Union. The names of the valley’s residents make them sound like a bunch of talking animals from a pantomime. And as for the central premise of my narrative – that a certain subsection of the human species might be capable of changing into birds – well, you are twelve years old this week, young Karl, and this is 1967: you know as well as I do the sheer absurdity of that proposition.

Why, if there were even a grain of truth to it we would have to revise our entire notion of human history. We would have to look with fresh eyes on a whole range of myths, legends and fables, both ancient and modern – from the traditional depictions of angels in Western tradition to those of the Victorian flower fairies, from the Russian firebird to the Indonesian Garuda, from the phoenix to the Mesoamerican fathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and the lightning bird of the Xhosa… In short, the whole eccentric course of my researches, which has drawn on me the bemused derision of my academic colleagues, would need no further justification…

And I am tired of justifying myself. As tired as your great great grandmother was when she told me the equally foolish tale of Kerr with which my own story opened. That is why I have written this narrative down as I have, and as my ancestors did, in the guise of a harmless fiction. I was encouraged to do so by the fact that for a week now you have been off your food. Your mother says that you are deliberately starving yourself, out of some perverse desire, I suppose, to share my suffering, as I succumb to the final stages of the wasting disease that has extinguished my appetite. She is angry with me for being no more forceful in my efforts to encourage you to start eating again. My story will explain why I find it impossible to give you more than half-hearted encouragement.

I saw you, Karl, the other night, as you scurried to the bathroom in your flannel dressing gown. Your chest has thickened and your legs are as long and powerful as the legs of an ostrich. Believe me, boy, these early stages are the hardest. By the time you’re my age the notion of even the most cataclysmic physical Change will arouse in you the mingled terror and delight felt by every modern student when confronted with the prospect of revolution. The young people of the world are flying in their heads now, Karl, dreaming of liberties unimaginable to my generation. The tides are turning, as Nan would have said. Perhaps by the time you read this they will have turned.

An unusually large raven is tapping at my study window with its beak. Before I go to see what it wants I shall leave these sheets in their hiding place, together with a long brown feather bequeathed to me by my Nan. If you are reading them now you will know how cleverly they were hidden, and will spare a kind thought for your old grandpa, and for all those other lost lonely ones who never told their secrets.

Kark and Kerr, Part 1

Every Thursday Mrs Chakchak made one of her special stews and stood over the children with a ladle in her hand to make sure they ate every drop. If a boy or girl protested she would lash out with the ladle and rap them over the knuckles – once, twice, three times – telling them they were ungrateful little insects, and promising she would really give them something to cry about if they made another sound before emptying their bowls. Nobody got their knuckles rapped more often than Kark. Perhaps that’s why whenever he thinks of Mrs Chakchak’s stews he remembers them now as tasting mostly of salt.

When Kark was twelve years old he fell ill and lost his appetite. On Thursday Mrs Chakchak came and stood by his bed with a bowl of her stew. But the smell of it made him retch, and when she tried to spoon it into his mouth he vomited all over his Nan’s best linen.

Nan told Mrs Chakchak that the boy was clearly too sick to take his dose this Thursday. Mrs Chakchak said ‘Nonsense!’ (her favourite word), and the two old women started shouting at each other in high, querulous voices.

‘Sick or not, if he eats nothing else this week he must eat this!’ cried Mrs Chakchak.

‘It’s no use insisting,’ cried Nan. ‘For three days he hasn’t taken anything but water. Come now, Mrs Chakchak! It’ll do no harm if he misses his dose this once!’

‘It will do a great deal of harm, as you know very well. Remember what became of the Kerr child, who refused her dose three weeks running! We lost a good man in the search for her, and when they finally found her body there was nothing left but bones and a bit of skin! They had to identify the remains from the silver bracelet on her ankle!’

‘That was a different case and well you know it. The Kerr girl had something wrong with her glands; and besides, they didn’t keep a proper eye on her. I’m keeping an eye on Kark both night and day. He’s already getting better, bit by bit. By next week I’ve no doubt he’ll take a double helping of your stew and ask for a third. Now I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do today, Mrs Chakchak. What this boy needs is bed-rest, and it’s my job to make sure he gets it. Goodbye!’

‘This boy is an impudent dabchick, and what he needs is a good sound thrashing! I shall take up the matter with my fellow councillors!’ And Mrs Chakchak flounced out of the shack, splashing gobbets of evil-smelling liquid onto the floor at every step.

‘You mustn’t mind Mrs Chakchak, dear,’ said Nan. ‘She’s a well-meaning soul and was once a wise one. Fear and loneliness turn us all bad in the end. But you must do your best to get well enough to eat your stew next Thursday.’

Luckily the fever broke that evening, and Kark emptied his bowl three times the following week to please Nan and spite Mrs Chakchak. But he didn’t forget the shrill exchange at his bedside. Day and night he nagged at Nan till at last she agreed to explain what had happened to the girl named Kerr. ‘O very well,’ she said one evening, when she looked old and tired and seemed unable to get close enough to the fire to warm her bones. ‘I’ll tell you the story. It may even do you good, if it teaches you to eat what’s put in front of you. But don’t breathe a word to any of your friends. If the Council hears I’ve been talking about such things they’ll send me away from the valley to die of cold and hunger.’

Of course Kark promised faithfully. But even as he listened he forgot his promise, and began planning in his head how he would embellish the tale for his best friend Chew when he got the chance. He squatted down with Nan beside the fire and watched her rubbing together her knobbly hands as she talked, trying and trying to bring warmth to her aching knuckles.

‘You know, of course, that the stew is a kind of medicine,’ she began. ‘When you were small we told you it was good for you. You must eat it up, we said, if you want to grow big and strong. But later, when you were wise enough to understand what we were saying, we taught you something different: something we couldn’t mention earlier because it would have given you nightmares. For generations, we said, the people of Lazarus have suffered from a rare and dangerous illness, a congenital disorder unique to the men and women of our country. From time to time this disease breaks out of our bodies like a monstrous moth breaking out of its cocoon: splitting our skin, twisting our limbs, never failing to kill or cripple its victims. You must eat the stew, we told you, if you wish to stay alive. It’s not just a health-giving supplement; it’s the condition of our existence, as inseparably part of us as our limbs and inner organs.

‘From the moment you heard about this illness, Kark, you knew you were a prisoner. It’s because of this disease, we explained, that we live as we do, in this barren valley hemmed in by mountains. This is our place of quarantine, the island where we’ve been marooned. We were dragged here in chains by men in masks, and forbidden to leave on pain of death. Since then we’ve had little to do with the world beyond. We trade with the men in masks for things we need that the valley doesn’t yield us, spreading out skins and gemstones on blankets, then retreating behind a wall to watch them quarrelling over the pathetic portions of salt and spices they leave us in exchange. But we never go beyond the Seven Passes, never risk the wrath of our jailers. This valley is our prison and the stew is part of our penance for the crime of being sick. That’s how it’s been for thirteen generations, and that’s how it shall be till the end of time.

‘So long as we eat our stew, we’re told, we shall all stay healthy and be left in peace. But if ever any one of us forgets to take our dose – or refuses to take it – or pretends to take it then secretly spews it up – disaster will strike. The disease will burst from our bodies and spread the wings of its contagion from town to town; the Seven Passes will be sealed shut, and we’ll be left to die in solitude, cut off forever from the rest of mankind. Or worse: the men in masks will ride back into the valley, wrapped in protective cloth from head to foot, and kill us all, men, women and children, so as to stamp out the disease before it can infect their families. That’s why old Mrs Chakchak was so horrified when you wouldn’t eat. Poor dear, you mustn’t blame her. She really believes the stories, really thinks her revolting gunk is the key to our salvation.’ Nan laughed wryly and held her hands out to the fire. ‘Trouble is,’ she added, ‘there are as many stories as there are names, and as many explanations for both as there are blades of grass on the distant steppes. Tell me, child, have you learned how our valley got its name?’

Kark nodded. ‘Miss Rikikikik told us it was because of a man called Lazarus who rose from the dead. She said the people who came to the valley were so happy to get away from their troubles that it was as if they had died and been born again, so they named it Lazarus in memory of the man who came back to life. But Mrs Hoo says that’s not true. She says Lazarus was a poor man like us who never had enough to eat, and that he was only ever happy when he died. She says they called the valley Lazarus because the food here was so bad and there was so little of it. How can that be, Nan? Was the valley named after two different people? Or is Miss Rikikikik wrong? Or Mrs Hoo?’

‘People and places get names for many different reasons,’ Nan said. ‘And sometimes old names find new meanings. When I was a child my teacher taught me that the valley got its name not from a person but from a building. She said it came from two words, “lazar house”, which means a place where lepers are sent to live till their illness kills them. A lazar is a leper, and a leper is a man or woman who suffers from a disease called leprosy, which eats away at the flesh till there’s nothing left but a pile of bones. I’ve never seen a leper, but I’m so old and worn out that I sometimes feel like one.’

‘I bet that’s what happened to Kerr,’ cried Kark. ‘She was a leper, and one day she wandered away from home, and got lost in the mountains, and went round and round in circles till her flesh was all eaten away and there was nothing left but the bracelet on her ankle.’

‘Yes, perhaps that’s it,’ said Nan. ‘Perhaps she was a leper. Perhaps we’re all lepers, and the story of Kerr is just a way of making us feel better about ourselves. Like the story of Lazarus who rose from the dead, which is so very much more cheerful than the story of Lazarus who died of hunger.’

She fell silent, gazing into the flames; and it was all Kark could do to persuade her to go on with her story.

Kerr, it seemed, was a little scamp; a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue. (‘Very much like you,’ Nan added with a smile.) Like Kark she complained every Thursday when the bowl was put in front of her; like Kark she was always getting into trouble; and like Kark she got ill one day and refused to eat her stew, despite all the efforts of the woman who made it. But unlike Kark, having once refused her dose Kerr never took another. She would eat only fruit and water. Anything else, whether hidden in spoonfuls of apple pulp or forced between her clenched teeth by members of the Council, simply would not stay down. She got thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker with every passing day, and at the end of the third week her body began to change in other ways. Her skin broke out in pimples, her face became long and sharp with hunger, her legs were covered with flakes or scales of brittle skin, and her chest swelled to make room for the air she was always gasping. The wise old men and women of the valley gathered at her bedside and argued about what was wrong with her.

‘It’s her womanhood,’ said one. ‘She’s becoming a grown woman, and her glands can’t cope. Look at the length of her arms and legs, the joints of her fingers and toes, the girth of her chest. Parts of her body are growing very fast while other parts are wasting away to compensate for the vitamins she isn’t getting in her diet. As soon as she starts to eat normally these things will sort themselves out.’

‘I wish I could agree,’ said another with a sigh. ‘This looks to me like something worse than growing pains. Something very serious is happening to her skin. I would hesitate to diagnoze leprosy; but I see every indication here of a severe skin disorder, and I recommend that the girl be kept in the strictest isolation till time and a better diet have resolved the situation – one way or another.’

‘You’re both talking shit,’ snapped a high-ranking councillor. ‘You know very well what’s happening here, and it won’t do to pussy-foot around it any longer. The girl is going through the Changes. In a matter of days or weeks she will have Changed completely. We must convene an emergency meeting of the Council to decide what’s to be done.’

The wise men and women all drew in their breath at the mention of the Changes. Some of them thought they understood the word; others merely reacted to a term that had acquired an air of mystery from stories and songs they had heard in childhood. But by the time the councillor had ended his address to the emergency meeting, they all knew more than they had known before, and what they knew made them terribly afraid.

‘All of you have heard about the Changes,’ he said. ‘Songs are still being sung and stories told, even if you take them for nursery rhymes and fables. We in the Council have always hoped that these stories and songs would soon be forgotten, replaced by new ones full of comfort: stories with happy endings, songs to lift the heart and point to a brighter future. We put about the story of leprosy to hasten the process of forgetting; but we planned one day to replace that nasty tale with something nicer.

‘More than this, we began to hope for something better than stories.   We began to hope that the Changes had indeed stopped working their terrible magic on our bodies. We grew slack in administering the herbal treatments devised by our clever ancestors to keep the Changes at bay. Yet despite our slackness, nothing like this – like what has happened to Kerr – had happened in living memory. The Changes seemed to have become in reality what we’d laboured to make them in the minds of our people: a thing of the past. Very cautiously, we dared to believe that we in the valley were finally free from the curse that has shaped our history. In a few generations, we told ourselves, we shall leave the valley for good, and our children’s children shall live in the world of men in perfect safety.

‘Now, it seems, our hopes have been dashed. After only three weeks without her dose, a girl of the valley has begun to show signs of metamorphosis. Our curse has returned, and if the news gets out we may suffer appalling consequences. We shall be persecuted, isolated, put to the sword. We must see to it, then, that no word of her condition leaves this room. Silence is now, as it has always been, our best protection. I have every confidence in your secrecy. The people of Lazarus are skilled in the ways of silence – that’s why we are still alive. But those who have forgotten how to hold their tongues will find that the Council has not yet forgotten how to punish.

‘How to deal with the girl herself? We must be humane: that’s one of the conditions under which we aspire to recover our full humanity. I propose that our safest course is to put her in one of the bothies on the lower slopes of the mountains. The opinion of my wise friend must be spread about the homesteads: that she has contracted leprosy, and that nobody may come near her till every trace of infection has been cleansed from her limbs. We will place her under careful surveillance. With any luck she will quickly return to health without going any further along the road to metamorphosis. But if she does undergo the Changes we must think again. It will be very difficult to keep her condition quiet once the Changes have been allowed to run their course.

‘In the meantime, do not lose heart. It is quite possible that the situation is not as grave as it seems. We have every reason to suppose that our original diagnosis was correct, and that the people of the valley are no longer so susceptible to their ancient curse as once they were. It may well be that this is a freak occurrence – a final parting blow from the disorder that has dogged our destiny for so long. It may well be that nothing of this kind will ever happen again. For generations we have watched our fears subside and the promise of freedom flourish. If properly handled, we may look back on this incident in years to come as the last savage stroke from a dying monster before it and its kind are stamped out for ever.’

So Kerr was moved from her elder sister’s cottage to a bothy at the edge of the valley, and a guard was set to watch her. The councillor who had proposed this course of action visited her every day with other members of the Council to monitor the progress of her symptoms. They gave it as their opinion that the Changes, if they were to happen, would take place at the next full moon. They were wrong. They had worked so hard to erase all reference to what they called the Curse that they had forgotten how to recognize the tell-tale signs of its imminence. Added to this, the harvest was in full swing, and all the people of the valley were working from dawn till dusk to gather in the meagre crops and prepare their produce for the coming winter. The councillors were as busy as the rest, and no doubt their inspections were more perfunctory than they ought to have been. The guard appointed to watch the girl was an elderly councillor too weak to take part in the harvest. The woman swore she didn’t need much sleep, being old, and so could keep an eye on Kerr by night as well as by day. But she was lying; she spent the night and most of the day in bed with her eyes tight shut and her mouth wide open. So she took her little granddaughter to stay with her in the bothy, with strict instructions to wake her up if anyone approached. Each day she fell asleep before sunset and slept through to the following noon. She was fast asleep when the Changes came, and the only person who saw what happened was the wakeful granddaughter. ‘And that little girl,’ said Nan, ‘was me.’

‘She was you!’ cried Kark, amazed. ‘So you saw everything! What did you see?’

‘What did I see? I’ll tell you. I saw that the Changes were not a disease after all. I saw something that has stayed in my memory ever since, and which I’ve ached all my life to describe to my friends and family. Something that frightened me half to death and yet filled me with unbearable happiness, and which still fills me with fear and happiness whenever I think of it. What I saw made me hate and despise the Council forever, because of their secrets and lies, and because of the terrible things they threatened me with if I should ever let a hint of it pass my lips.

‘What did I see? I saw Kerr Change. One minute she was tossing and turning on a bed of bracken. The next she had thrown off the bedclothes and leapt into the middle of the floor, sweat streaming from her limbs as if her flesh was melting. Feathers sprang from her outstretched fingers. Her legs seemed to buckle and bend in the wrong direction, her horrible misshapen toes dug furrows in the dirt as they turned to claws. Her face seemed to split in two as her jaws stretched wide to let out an inhuman scream. When they shut at last they had become a beak. She turned her back on me and a bristling armoury of quills was forcing its way through her trembling shoulders. I screamed more loudly than she had, and she turned to stare at me with an eye that had turned bright yellow and lost its whites. Then she gave a second leap, and sprang straight out of a hole in the bothy roof. Nobody ever saw her again. Not as Kerr, at any rate, although some of us may have seen her as a bird.’

‘A bird!’ cried Kark. ‘Was she a bird-woman, then – a witch, like the ones in stories?’

‘She was,’ said Nan. ‘And so am I, and so are you, young man. This is what the Council has been trying to hide from us for so long. This is the disease from which we suffer. This is what we are. We’re not lepers. We’re not even ill. We are shape-shifters like the ones in the stories, and the stew we take each Thursday is no medicine but a drug designed to prevent us from becoming ourselves. We are the Bird People, and if we do not take our medicine we turn into birds when the Changes come, as Kerr did, and fly through the air like angels.’

‘But why?’ Kark asked, bewildered. ‘Why don’t they want us to turn into birds? Is it wrong?’

‘It’s very wrong. Wrong of the Council to hide our gifts from us. Wrong of those of us who know to keep quiet about it. Wrong of Mrs Chakchak to force her stinking stew on us without explaining what it’s for. And wrong that we have to live in fear of the Changeless Ones, the men in masks from beyond the valley who drove us out of the fertile lands because of their fear and ignorance. But I haven’t finished with the story of Kerr.

‘As soon as Kerr flew out through the roof, the little girl ran to wake her Nan, and the poor old woman began to shriek at the top of her voice. She had no idea what to make of the little girl’s story; she only knew that her charge had escaped and that the Council would punish her severely for her negligence. Then the door burst open and a man rushed in. It was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting. “What in God’s name was that?” he cried. “It was Kerr, sir,” said the little girl. “She’s turned into a bird,” and she held up a long brown feather for his inspection. He stood there in amazement, looking from feather to bed to the shrieking old woman, who had now begun to pull out her hair in handfuls. “So it has come to this,” he said at last, and left the shack without another word.

‘He went straight to the village and organized the fittest villagers into search-parties. “A giant bird has carried Kerr away,” he told them. “It flew down from the mountains, smashed a hole in the roof of the bothy and snatched her from her bed. We must find the bird and rescue the girl or avenge her death. Follow me!” But before he led the searchers to the mountains he sent certain trusted Councillors to watch the old woman and the little girl, and to keep them prisoners in the bothy till his return. The prisoners were not to speak about what they had seen, and not to have any visitors until they had been thoroughly examined by the Council.’

Their imprisonment, said Nan, lasted for three long months. When the old woman and her granddaughter had entered the shack to watch over Kerr, the valley had been sweltering in the thunderous dying days of late summer. By the time they left, November storms like savage birds had torn the leaves from the poor stunted trees of the valley orchards and the mountains were white with snow. The prisoners were never subjected to the threatened examination. For the first month the search parties combed the mountains in vain, finding no trace of Kerr or of the bird that had carried her off. The most energetic of the searchers was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting; and in the second month his energy killed him. He set out with two younger men to explore a cave in a cliff-face, and fell to his death as he struggled to swing himself into the cave mouth. In the third month a shepherd found the bones of Kerr, picked dry by scavengers, with the silver bracelet among them. The old woman and her granddaughter were released at once, with orders never to mention the lost girl again. The old woman found these orders easy enough to comply with. She had gone quite mad during her confinement, and died within a month of being released. The little girl kept her secret with more difficulty, but she kept it for many years.

‘And now,’ Nan added, ‘she has told it to her grandson. I can’t think what possessed her to speak out. Perhaps she has simply grown too old to keep her mouth shut. Perhaps she thinks that the truth should not be lost. Or perhaps she saw something of Kerr in the boy who refused to eat his stew. In any case, she hopes that the story will bring colour to her grandson’s dreams, as he lives out his life in this dreary mountain prison where we’ve shut ourselves up for no good reason. So that at least his dreams can escape from confinement, as hers have done each night since she saw a girl turn into a bird.

‘But there’s a price to pay for the knowledge I’ve given you. For your sake and mine you must never tell a soul, unless you trust him with your life, as I trust you. The councillor who died said one wise thing: that silence is our best protection. You should think very carefully before you forfeit the safety of silence. Remember this: by staying silent you will be protecting me as well as yourself. Now off to bed with you, and never let me hear another word about Kerr, or stew, or the Changes.’

Kark went to bed as he was told, but he could not sleep because his head was buzzing with the things Nan had told him. So he was one of the bird people! And if he didn’t eat Mrs Chakchak’s stew he would take to the air and fly like an angel! Ever since he had first heard stories of men and women who could change their bodies as ordinary people change their clothes he had yearned with all his heart to be one of them. And now his wishes had been granted, his dreams made flesh! Whatever Nan said, it was not enough for his dreams to remain just that: vivid pictures in his head, good for nothing but to while away the dreary valley winters. He did not think he would ever sleep again until he had found out whether he too could change as Kerr had changed, could share with her the adventure of the skies. But to find this out he would need help, and to get help he would have to betray his grandmother’s confidence.

As it happened, Kark had a friend called Chew Chew whom he would have trusted with his life. The very next day he was due to meet up with Chew Chew to plan a rabbit-hunting trip into the hills. Before Kark fell asleep he had begun to work out a scheme for testing the effects of not taking his dose, and by the time he woke next morning the scheme was fully formed in his head. They would go for the hunting trip as planned; but they would stay away just long enough to make folks at home uneasy. After a week or so Chew Chew would go back to the village and tell the villagers that he and Kark had got lost in the hills in fog, and that they had later lost each other. Meanwhile Kark would hide in a place they had found when they were children, in a lonely wooded corner of the valley. While search parties looked for Kark in the hills, Chew Chew would creep out of his parents’ house under cover of darkness and bring food to where Kark could collect it, together with information about where the searchers were planning to look in the days ahead. If nothing had happened to Kark after several weeks, he would return to the village with a story of some kind to explain his absence. If something did happen, on the other hand… somehow or other he would find a way to let Chew Chew know what had become of him.

Chew Chew was not as keen on the plan as Kark had expected. For one thing, it seemed to him that the most dangerous and least glamorous part of it fell to his share: something that was perfectly true, and hadn’t crossed Kark’s mind. Chew Chew’s parents were councillors and strict disciplinarians. They would react angrily to Chew Chew’s disappearance, and it would be hard for him to slip away after that, even under cover of darkness. It took all Kark’s eloquence to persuade his friend that he was getting a good deal out of the scheme. It was Kark who was acting the part of the human guinea-pig, and Chew Chew would eventually reap the reward of knowing the result of their experiment without having to undergo the Changes himself. Chew Chew finally agreed to do what Kark wanted, but he insisted that the experiment should last no longer than three weeks, and that he should deliver food to Kark no more than twice a week. ‘They’ll notice it’s gone from the storage bins, I know they will,’ he moaned, and Kark felt compelled to smuggle a lot of dried goods out of Nan’s inadequate winter supply so as to reduce the risk of his friend’s being exposed as a thief.

Even then Chew Chew complained all the way to the hills the following week. He complained about the weight of the blankets and clothes Kark had insisted they take with them. He complained about the weather, which drizzled as steadily as he did. He complained about the camp-site they had chosen, which turned out to be the only patch of marsh for miles around, and which reduced all their clothes and blankets to the colour and consistency of mud. Kark bullied him into staying away from the village for a week; but once Thursday had passed and they had missed their first dose of Mrs Chakchak’s concoction Kark almost began to regret that his friend had let himself be persuaded.

‘I feel so strange,’ moaned Chew Chew. ‘My skin burns all over and I’ve got a sore throat. What if your Nan was wrong and the stew is really a medicine to stop us falling ill? What if we get so ill in the next few days that I’m too weak to go home on Sunday?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you that a hot bath wouldn’t cure,’ Kark scoffed. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if you were infested with fleas by now. If you’d take a dip in the stream from time to time, like me, your skin would feel as soft as a feather bed.’

‘Me, swim!’ cried Chew Chew. ‘You must be crazy. That stream’s far too cold to swim in – you’ll catch pneumonia. And for God’s sake don’t talk about feathers. It’s you who wants to turn into a bird, not me. Every morning as soon as I wake up I have to feel myself all over to make sure I’ve not turned into a chicken or a goose. I wish I was at home. At least there I get to sleep on feathers instead of growing them.’

Chew Chew didn’t turn into a chicken, and at the week’s end he went home as they had planned. But he did not come back the following week, nor the week after that. In the meantime Kark made his way across the valley to the hole in the ground where he had meant to live out the course of the Changes. But he found that it had filled with water in the recent downpour, and instead he set up camp under an overhanging rock screened by bushes, which afforded him scant protection against the perishing autumn wind. From the top of the rock he watched as search-parties scoured the valley. Often he had to take cover when a party came too close; and once, when he was checking one of the snares he had set for rabbits, a hunter passed within inches of his nose, and he had to hold his breath until she was out of earshot. Every night he went to the hollow tree which Chew Chew and he had chosen for a meeting place; and every night he returned home angry and disappointed. But he did not think for a moment of abandoning his scheme. He had only to think of the triumph that would be written on Mrs Chakchak’s face as he humbly accepted her stew, or of the tears that would shine in Nan’s eyes as he confessed to his robberies, and his determination to stay where he was grew stronger.

As the days went by his body grew stronger. He hardly noticed how hard and long his legs were growing, or how thick his chest, or how sharp his jawbone. Indeed, he thought less and less after the first fortnight. Instead he concentrated on catching enough food to live on. He ran after deer with the aid of his increasingly powerful thighs. He watched for pigeons, bow in hand, with eyes that could now pick out every detail of the lichen on a rock many hundreds of yards away, and he patrolled his network of snares with the vigilance of a glutton. He no longer bothered to cook the meat he ate. At first he told himself that this was because it was too risky to light a fire, but after a few days he found himself relishing the gush of blood from a fresh kill as it ran down his gullet and settled warm in his stomach. And he also began to relish his anger. He was angry with Chew Chew for failing him; angry with the hunters for seeking to bring him home; angry with the Council for trying to rob him of the freedom he craved; and angry with the rain for running down the back of his neck. Anger gave him invisible wings when he hunted, and anger woke him with all his senses alert when a strange noise startled him awake in the dark.

Then one night, as he crouched in the hollow tree nursing his anger, he heard footsteps approaching. The fallen leaves made it sound as though an army were wading its way towards him through the drifts, but when he peered through a crack in the old oak’s trunk he saw only Chew Chew, stumbling and snivelling and calling a name which it took him several seconds to recognize as his own.

Kark stepped out of the oak at once and grabbed Chew Chew by the wrist. His friend gave a shriek and fell to his knees. ‘Who are you?’ he gasped. ‘It’s never Kark, is it?’

‘Of course it is,’ Kark snapped in his new hoarse voice. ‘But I’m the one who should be asking questions. Where in God’s name have you been? What happened to the supplies you promised you’d bring me? What’s going on down in the village? I ought to break your arm for leaving me alone like this.’

‘Please don’t hurt me!’ Chew Chew squealed. ‘We’re best friends, remember? It’s not my fault I couldn’t come earlier. My parents knew all about our plan. When I got home they shut me in the shed for thieving, and I had nothing to eat, and I was tired and sick, and I had to tell them – no, no, I never told them where you were hiding! But it was a stupid plan, Kark, it could never have worked, and you’ve got to come home with me now or – or they’ll hunt you with dogs!’

‘My Nan!’ Kark hissed. ‘You didn’t tell them anything about her, did you? Say you didn’t!’

‘I couldn’t help it! They wanted to know where you heard about the Changes, and they could tell when I was lying! But don’t worry, she’s all right! She said so when they drove her out of the village. She’s wanted to leave the valley all her life, only she never had the courage! She must be half way to the outside world by now, and she took plenty of food, and she seemed so pleased to be going!’

‘I’ll kill you for this,’ Kark snarled, clacking his teeth together. ‘How did you get away from the village? Were you followed?’

‘Don’t! Please don’t! It’s not my fault! They made me!’

As Chew Chew spoke, a branch shook behind him. Kark knew at once that several people must be hidden in the trees, waiting to see if Chew could persuade him to walk into their ambush. He let out a cry that was more like a croak than a word, flung Chew Chew to the ground and began to run.

The wood seemed to burst into life around him, hunters detaching themselves from branches and trunks like leaves torn away by an autumn gale. A wild excitement coursed through Kark’s body, and he leaped over streams and fallen trees as if he were flying. The pain of his running intensified with every leap, but this only gave him greater strength. With one last bound he broke free of the trees and found himself skimming over the heather of an open hillside. Sticks and stones rattled against the rocks and buried themselves in peat on either side. He tore off his few remaining clothes to help himself run faster. Balloons of air filled his agonized lungs and made him buoyant; he swept aside swathes of air with his arms like a swimmer; his feet barely touched the golden fronds of bracken that stretched out to catch him.

He looked back once to gauge the distance between himself and his nearest pursuer, and saw the pale faces of the hunters far below, their mouths gaping wide in astonishment, their spears and bows hanging forgotten in their hands. The hill had dropped away, he was falling into the star-filled sky, frantically flapping his arms in an effort to keep his balance. For a moment he felt giddy and terrified. Then he forgot his giddiness and terror, forgot everything but the roll and surge of the wind beneath his wings, the roar of it in his ears, the rush of it through his feathers.

[To be continued]

Intruder

[Last night we held our Fantasy Reading Party at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, Glasgow. This has become an annual event supported by funding from the School of Critical Studies, at which current and past students from the MLitt Fantasy read out their creative work, revealing in the process just how dazzlingly diverse and innovative fantasy fiction and verse can be. Tacos are involved, and a certain amount of beer and other liquids. A couple of our readers fell ill, so I read out the following extract from my work-in-progress, a novel called Ratpig, to fill in the gap. I’m posting it here at the kind request of the listeners!]

That night as the Manager slept, a guard was strolling along the East wall of the city, whistling a tune he had just made up. The kids called him Twitter because of his whistling: he could do it by blowing air through a chink in his body armour, and he could vary the tone by twisting his torso in different directions, which made his posture as he walked decidedly odd. He would bend his body left and right, or tilt it backwards, or turn it round till the chestplate faced behind him, and the noises this produced when he whistled seemed to him quite beautiful, though most people thought them hideous; they were always asking him to stop. In fact, the Manager had forbidden him to make his music less than five hundred metres from Kozy Klothes, which was why he walked the city walls when he wanted to practise.

And this was the perfect night for practising. The storms of the previous night had swept the skyways clear, and now the tiny traffic lights of the stars blinked rapidly on and off as if picking up a signal from some far-off controller. The forest was still, and in the intervals between his whistling he could hear small creatures crashing about in the undergrowth, inspired to sudden movement by his tunes, or so he liked to think. Inspired means breathing in, he reminded himself; I breathe out through the chinks in my armour, the creatures breathe in, and together we form a circuit, a connection across time and space which is powered by music. What a lovely thought. If only his fellow guards could see it as he did.

Twitter stopped and leaned his elbows against the parapet. He couldn’t inhale the scent of the forest, but he could let the breeze from it play in his joints, and he could appreciate the altered tone this gave to his whistling. Sometimes he stood like this for hours on end, like a harp in an empty hall being played by the currents of air that swept across its strings. He would stand here till dawn if he could, unless Sergeant Rivet showed up and shouted at him.

A loud clank sounded next to his elbow and a chip of stone from the top of the wall flew up and struck his helmet with a high-pitched ping. So rapt was he in his whistling that he merely thought how nice the sound was, how well it blended with the melody he was weaving. Then he looked down and saw a metal hand grip the parapet with fingers of steel. No, not a hand: a hook of some sort, three prongs like crooked claws digging channels in the stonework. Twitter stared for a moment, then leaned over the parapet.

Someone was clambering up the wall directly below him, swinging from a length of cord attached to the hook. Someone human and agile, with a bundle strapped to its back. The human was dressed in green and had long thin limbs like the limbs of a spider, though there were only four of them.   He could not tell the human’s gender, so he would think of it as a ‘he’, as he thought of himself. He had been programmed to think of human beings as males, it was his default setting, though he had often wondered why, and had even thought of changing it.

But for now the question was not what gender it was, but what were its intentions? Twitter was a Kozy Klothes guard and therefore responsible, by extension, for the safety of Stitch, where the Kozy Klothes factory was located. Admittedly his principal task was to keep the workers under control; the present situation, whereby a stranger was climbing into the city without authorization, was unfamiliar to him, and he had to root through his programming for several seconds before he found the relevant guidance on what to do about it.

As a matter of fact there were several options available, but the simplest choice, and the one that would enable him to return most quickly to what he really wanted to do – that is, to whistling – was to burn this human to a crisp with his trusty flamethrower. After that it would be unnecessary either to interrogate the thing or determine its sex. It would be speechless. It would be sexless. It would be dead.

Pleased with his decision, Twitter raised his left arm and aimed the nozzle of the flamethrower at the intruder. But to his surprise, the intruder was not where he had been before. The rope was still hanging down from the three-pronged hook, swinging slightly in the breeze, but the climber had gone. Perhaps he had sensed Twitter’s presence and returned to the safety of the forest, leaving his rope behind? That would have been sensible of him. Such a decision would have relieved Twitter of the need to take any action, and as such Twitter would have been grateful to the stranger for taking it. He didn’t like taking action unexpectedly; it disrupted his creativity circuits, which were better equipped for making music than making corpses.

Twitter decided he had better take one last look around, just to make sure, before he went back to his whistling. He rotated his upper body through one hundred and eighty degrees, and in the process saw – again to his surprise – that the stranger was standing behind him holding a knife. It was a large, serrated knife, and Twitter noticed with some interest that it was of a perfect size and weight to pierce his body armour at the point towards which the human was aiming it: that is, the narrow opening between the top of Twitter’s neck and the lower section of his metal throat.

This was the last thought that passed through Twitter’s head before it was violently wrenched from his shoulders and sent bouncing off into the darkness like a metal football.

As it went, it experienced some regret at this interruption to its whistling.

Meanwhile the stranger sheathed his knife, picked up the grappling hook and began to coil the rope around his left hand and elbow. As he coiled, he raised his lean face and sniffed the air, flaring his narrow nostrils like a dog’s.

The wind had changed direction and was now blowing fitfully from the city. Something about it, some scent it carried, caught the man’s attention and he paused in his coiling. A smile spread across his face. He had found what he had been looking for and it was right here in this city, only metres from the place where he now stood. He would not go and fetch it at once – he must study the situation first, see what he was up against. But he had found it, found her, and there was no way on the Plain she would escape from him again.

Bedbound

One morning, Mr McGhee rolled over in bed and refused to get up.

‘Are you all right, love?’ asked his wife. She shook him a couple of times, then went to phone his work.

‘Tommy’s ill, I’m afraid,’ she said.

‘No I’m not,’ said Mr McGhee through the open door of the bedroom. ‘I’m just not getting up. I’m never getting out of bed again.’

And he didn’t.

***

As word spread about Mr McGhee’s decision he became something of a celebrity. A piece appeared in the local paper. A national magazine ran a feature on him. A TV crew came to film him where he lay among stacks of empty pizza-boxes and buckled beer-cans. The longer he stayed in bed the more elaborate and satisfying reasons he found for doing so.

‘It’s a good bed,’ he said. ‘My grandfather and great-grandfather were born in it. Most of our dreams are dreamt in bed, and sex is best between the sheets. It’s nicest to have breakfast in bed, or tea in bed while watching TV. If more people stayed in bed there wouldn’t be so much greed and violence in the world. I like my bed, and all the evidence suggests that my bed likes me.’

His neighbours regarded him as something of a hero. After he’d been in bed a year they threw him a party, to which the lord provost and most of the councillors were invited. A piper serenaded him outside his bedroom window, and the bedroom became an Aladdin’s cave of unlikely gifts: porcelain figures, footballs, garden furniture, and every kind of spare part for his car. There was a cake with a single candle, and a lot of cards wishing him either ‘Happy Anniversary’ or ‘Get Well Soon’.

His wife left him three months later.

***

For a while after that a volunteer came round with meals on wheels. Then the day came when the service was discontinued. ‘You’ll have to get up now, Mr McGhee,’ said the cheerful official who brought him the news. ‘The trouble is, you’re not an invalid, so you don’t qualify for government aid. There’s nothing we can do to help you. You’ll have to get up or starve.’

Mr McGhee warmly agreed with the official, and began to starve to death almost at once. As day followed day he got thinner and thinner, till one morning two of his neighbours wandered in and found that he seemed to have stopped breathing. When they moistened his lips with a little beer he revived and asked for a slice of toast. So they phoned the district councillor, and after a short debate, responsibility for feeding Mr McGhee was resumed by his former employers, the city council.

***

Five years later he was interviewed again by the same TV crew as before. He had stopped shaving and his beard had grown into a thick forest at one end of the rugged landscape of his continental quilt. The quilt had developed growths of its own: fungal blossoms and several varieties of moss that throve on a diet of rotting feathers and liquid secretions from his body.

‘Do you miss anything?’ they asked him. ‘Do you regret your decision? Don’t you think it’s irresponsible to stay in bed when there are so many people in the country with genuine disabilities?’

‘They have their reasons for staying in bed; I have mine,’ he answered sagely.

‘Don’t you feel like a sponger?’

‘Sometimes,’ he admitted. ‘But on the whole that’s balanced by the memory of what it was like before I started to sponge. I can live with the guilt, I think.’

***

After that people forgot about Mr McGhee and his gesture of defiance. The delivery of meals on wheels became erratic. His neighbours no longer visited. Only his wife came in from time to time with a bag of this or a basket of that, but she refused to do so regularly. ‘You made your decision, I made mine,’ she said, and Mr McGhee warmly agreed.

One morning he found he couldn’t sit up in bed. He lay flat on his back for three days and three nights till his wife dropped by. She took one look at him and phoned the doctor, a call that had been delayed by fifteen years.

‘Your husband has had a stroke, Mrs McGhee,’ said the doctor.

‘Not Mrs McGhee. Ms Winkelmeyer,’ said the ex Mrs McGhee. ‘He needs to be treated in this bed. He can’t be moved.’

‘That’s just as well,’ said the doctor. ‘These days we prefer to treat our patients at home. The hospital wards have all been converted to suites for private patients. I’ll send some nurses over.’

Several weeks passed before the nurses arrived, and in the meantime Ms Winkelmeyer cared for Mr McGhee with dispassionate assiduity. The nurses, when they came, were big burly men with hairy chests bursting out of their green cotton blouses. ‘How are we today?’ they said to Mr McGhee as if he had suddenly turned into a roomful of people. Then they helped him to move his limbs, to sit up in bed, to raise his arms and legs one by one and flex them. These movements caused him excruciating pain. ‘That’s very good,’ they said. ‘Tomorrow we’ll begin speech therapy.’ They left him looking grey with agony, trying to swallow a pill.

Next day, as promised, the nurses began speech therapy. ‘Talk,’ they said, and slapped his cheeks. He rolled his eyes and laboured with his tongue, but no matter how he tried he could only manage to let out a few feeble screams when they slapped him. ‘Very good,’ they said again. ‘We’re doing very well. Tomorrow we’ll try walking.’

Mr McGhee shook his head and Ms Winkelmeyer protested, but the nurses were firm. ‘We mustn’t be lazy,’ they insisted. ‘A walk will do us good.’

Next day they ordered Mr McGhee to stand up. When he shook his head, they seized him by his skinny arms and swung him round so that his little withered legs were dangling over the side of his great-grandfather’s bed. All at once he spoke to them clearly.

‘Nothing you can possibly do to me,’ he said, ‘will make me take one step.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ said the nurses, pulling him upright.

He gave a terrible shriek, and died.

‘Poor soul,’ they said as they laid him on his quilt. ‘Still, at least he’s now at rest.’

***

His funeral was attended by an enormous crowd. As it turned out, Mr McGhee had bought shares in the successful Dreamboat Mattress Company and become fabulously rich, though he had never seen fit to mention this to anyone. He left his fortune and his bed to his ex wife.

 

 

Picture credit: Unmade bed by Silvina Day

Autumn Lights

At nightfall when the cottage lights went on the street should have been plunged in an abysmal darkness; but where Mr Printon (being an educated man) knew the stars must be, although he had never seen a star, there was a palpitating red glow like the inside of a mouth. That glow throbbed to the distant city’s pulse, as did the constant moan of traffic as it bowled along the raised motorways that gripped the city in concrete coils. Mr Printon did not live in the city. He inhabited the town of Addenden, an urban satellite with a steadily expanding population towards whose prosperity, he flattered himself, he had made a not insignificant contribution. His office stood only three hundred and sixty-seven paces from his cottage gate, and between the door of the cottage and the door of the office Mr Printon led a life of such regularity it was a wonder there was not a trench from threshold to threshold.

Apart from twenty-seven pounds a week spent on cigarettes Mr Printon’s management of his domestic economy was irreproachable. He was a man of clean-cut principles, his suit well shaven, his chin faultlessly pressed, his bowler hat immaculately brushed and his hair set at a jaunty angle on his (though he said so himself) polished intellect. He kept to his daily timetable with a precision not to be measured with instruments. Passers-by were blinded by the shine from his shoes, and you might wound yourself on his pocket-handkerchief.

The reason for Mr Printon’s fastidiousness (if reason it could be called) lay in the walk to his office and his twice-weekly visit to the town shopping centre. It could be found in the fluttering of abandoned newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse on the pavement; in the gurgle of oily water in the drains; in the smelly sludge that slimed the streets on rainy days; in the shrieks of despair or snatches of drunken bawling that scrabbled against his window at night; in the amorous wails of his neighbour’s cat; and above all, in the faceless passers-by reduced to a shabby anonymity by the murk that passed for weather in these prosperous parts. That was why when Mr Printon returned home every evening he enacted furtive rituals with tape-measures, weighing scales, pocket calculators and soap.

At eight o’clock each morning (after an hour’s careful grooming) he entered the kitchen with ceremonious solemnity. He switched on the kettle and the radio, boiled water in a pan for his breakfast egg, swallowed a glass of orange juice fortified with nine additional vitamins together with whatever tablets his doctor had prescribed, then settled down to read the newspaper over a cup of strong black coffee. In his opinion the government could do worse than take his household arrangements as a model for the running of the nation.

Consider, then, his consternation when he entered the kitchen one morning and found there was no egg. He stood for an indeterminate period staring into the recesses of the fridge as if he expected the egg to drop out of the freezer compartment with an icy cluck. Shaken, he reached for the orange juice – only to find that this was missing likewise. His brain gave out a hiss of bafflement tinged with anxiety, and it was only after several seconds that he realized he was listening to the white noise emitted by the radio. Then he turned to the sideboard and found to his relief that the coffee-jar was still half full. He brewed himself a cup of coffee, swallowed the aspirins he discovered in his pocket and settled down to search for an explanation in the newspaper.

Then he found himself searching for the newspaper.

He even opened the front door and peered out into the misty morning, but the mat had WELCOME on it and nothing else. That word, WELCOME, somehow disconcerted him, and he hurriedly closed the door. He was, he concluded, sickening for something, and accordingly strode to the medicine cupboard with a new sense of purpose, swallowed everything he found there, and began to feel genuinely queasy.

Now he realized that a new sound was buzzing in the hairs of his ears, having detached itself from the hiss of the radio. Little by little he heard voices in the confusion. He drew aside a corner of the hall curtain, and though the mist was pressing up against the glass he could tell that a crowd had gathered in the High Street and was heading towards his cottage. He had the absurd impression that they were coming to root him out with staves and scythes, as the Roman peasantry might have rooted out a fallen emperor. Fighting the nausea in his stomach he donned a raincoat, took his bowler hat and tightly rolled umbrella and stepped over WELCOME, the perennial concerned citizen, to find out what was going on.

The street lamps still glimmered at intervals through the mist. A light wind was blowing which would soon disperse the early morning vapours. As he stood by the cottage gate he soon made out the foremost figures hurrying towards him with the intentness of those who can feel their purpose rapidly slithering away. Mr Sanders the estate agent, Miss O’Toole the postmistress and a slender young man in a silk shirt were the first he recognized. Soon a host of faces known and unknown were milling about the newcomer, chattering in high, strained voices, rubbing the backs of their necks, shifting from foot to foot, staring up into the impenetrable blankness. The townspeople converged about Mr Printon’s bowler hat as about the entrance to a government building, finding comfort in his rigid collar and gold cuff-links.

‘O Mr Printon, thank God you’re safe!’

‘Mr Printon, have you heard? There’s been no food for a fortnight!’

‘We tried to hush things up, sir, to prevent unnecessary panic; but stocks in the shops are running very low.’

‘O Mr Sanders, I’m perishing with hunger already. I’d nothing but a slice of bread for my supper last night!’

‘Be calm, Miss O’Toole. Don’t fret yourselves, don’t fret yourselves!’ exclaimed Mr Printon in his most authoritative tones. ‘Everything is under control. No doubt it’s a strike, or a temporary side-effect of the spending cuts; they’ll soon have things back to normal.’

‘O Mr Printon, do you really think so?’

‘You don’t think it’s anything serious, then, Mr Printon? I can’t tell you what a relief that is.’

‘I’ve such a respect for Mr Printon’s judgement!’

‘Constable Mathers! Has no-one contacted the council yet?’

‘No, sir, the lines are dead. I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic, but perhaps it’s a terrorist attack?’

‘Mary mother of God and all the saints preserve us!’

‘What a ridiculous notion! Who’d attack Addenden?’

‘Complete waste of time. Much better bomb the city.’

‘Perhaps that’s what’s happened! Perhaps the city’s no longer there! O God, has anybody been to look?’

‘For heaven’s sake, calm yourselves!’ Mr Printon called over the rising hubbub. He lifted his umbrella and rapped the pavement sharply with the tip. A sudden hush fell. Mr Printon cleared his throat and felt himself rising to the occasion.

‘Listen here, townspeople. It won’t do a scrap of good panicking about it. Since we’ve no means of contacting the authorities by telephone, we must take the situation into our own hands. I’m sure we’ve got enough tinned and dried food between us to withstand a siege. All it needs is for one of us – a respectable, trusted member of the community – to go to the city and demand an explanation. There can’t be anything materially wrong or we’d have heard about it yesterday on the radio. Constable Mathers, you’re a man of sense; gather these good people in the village hall, organize hot drinks and refreshments; perhaps Mr Sanders will be so good as to entertain us with a song or two. I myself will take responsibility for delivering our grievances to the government.’

At this there was an outburst of scattered clapping and somebody raised a faint cheer. Mr Sanders swelled with pride to hear his vocal talent acknowledged; Miss O’Toole gazed at Mr Printon with unfeigned admiration; the motherly constable began to shepherd the villagers through the fog in the direction of the village hall, and Mr Printon was left alone by the cottage gate crowned with the hopes of his people.

Mr Printon’s bicycle was a machine that drew glances, if only because he rode it so seldom. It was painted black and glinted like a very slow meteor. Mr Printon put on an apron and polished it with a soft cloth every time he wheeled it out of the garden shed. He now pins up his trouser-cuffs with bicycle clips, presses his hat firmly over his brows and straddles the saddle. Declamatory trumpets sound in his head as he begins his stately progress up the High Street, past the entrance to the shopping centre, past the church, toiling up to the top of the little ecclesiastical hillock, then spins faster and faster into the basin of lingering darkness, leaving the morning, the mist and humanity in sunlight at the summit.

Oddly enough, although Mr Printon was in the habit of extolling the benefits of the country air he very rarely visited the open countryside because he suffered both from hayfever and a touch of agoraphobia. Moreover, he had a horror of insects, especially the kind that crawl up your trouser legs and get themselves hopelessly entangled in your hair, that flutter in your face and give you unsightly stings on the calves and forearms. His declaration that he would go to the city had been made on the assumption that he could bestride his bicycle and appear in the city centre with as much ease as he entered and left the bus, of which there were only two a day. He read financial newspapers on the bus journey, which meant that he had no idea what the land looked like between Addenden and the metropolis. He had a vague impression of neat farmhouses, lollipop trees and geometrical fields formed during his schooldays, when he had coloured in pictures of such things with felt tip pens, making sure not to go over the lines. So it was hardly surprising that he lost himself almost at once.

At first he concentrates on pedalling his bicycle. His pinstriped trousers pump up and down, his head juts forward between his shoulders as he peers intently ahead to avoid colliding with cars, curbs or trees. He sees no cars or curbs, but trees become more and more thickly crowded on either side, and the tarmac becomes more and more uneven until he begins to fear for his tyres. Riding his bicycle has always inspired him with a confidence far in excess of his skill on the road, no doubt because the only other vehicles he has used operate to timetables and one complains when they arrive late or at the wrong destination. The sun comes out overhead – as much as it ever comes out in these prosperous parts – transforming the permanent cloud canopy into a translucent sheet of light whose source is untraceable. To his distress, and in spite of the flickering shadows of the passing trees, Mr Printon begins to perspire. The road rises steeply before him and yes, it is now definitely no more than a track. But Mr Printon has no more thought of turning back than a railway train. Up and down pump his pinstriped trousers. His bicycle jolts over stones and he fears for his tyres.

About midday the track swerves to the right and is crossed by a sparkling brook. Before he can stop himself he has plunged his bicycle into the midst of the current, soaking his trousers to the knee. The bed of the stream is muddy so that half way across the wheels stick fast. Mr Printon’s balance was never of the best, and it is not easy at the best of times to remain upright on a stationary bicycle; he topples sideways with a cry of despair and a thunderous splash. Fortunately (for Mr Printon’s education doesn’t extend to swimming) the brook is no more than five inches deep. Nevertheless it takes several minutes of floundering and gasping before he has wrestled his conveyance and himself from the mud and caught his bowler hat, which has drifted several yards downstream. The lorry of his shoes is utterly extinguished, his hair disarrayed, his handkerchief’s razor edge blunted – and as for his suit! In an agony of frustration he hurls his cigarettes into the water. Then he resumes his journey. The thought of turning back still has not entered his head.

An hour or so later his pauses have become more frequent. The branches sweep low across his path, twigs stick in his hair. A branch has caught his bowler hat and whipped it out of reach; in vain he tries to knock it down or scramble up the offending tree – he has only torn his trousers and covered his jacket with blue-green mould. Silvery cobwebs are profuse in this neck of the woods; every time one brushes his skin he stops to feel for spiders, though he seldom finds one. He has taken off his raincoat so that when it starts to rain he gets drenched before he can unfasten the saddlebag. A while later he finds that the saddlebag has dropped off unnoticed. One of his shoes somehow gets jammed in the pedal and splits. When the wood turns to larches he is showered with brown needles that work their way under his shirt collar, down his back and into his socks. He has three punctures, one in each tyre and one in his hand where he crashed into a prickly spruce that sprang into his path. And now the path is scarcely visible, the twilight under the boughs is deepening. He cannot tell the time because his watch has stopped. At this point it occurs to him, with the clarity of revelation, that it might be wise to turn round, go home and take the bus.

In autumn the night can drop with appalling suddenness on the hills. Here, far from the city’s pulse, the darkness is utter. Here on rare occasions the cloud-canopy is ripped open, and through the hole one catches a glimpse of the spangled depths on which the earth spins like a bowler hat on a turbulent ocean. On this fleeting window a man may gaze to see himself reflected, or his eyes may pierce the shining surface to plumb infinity. Through this hole from time to time the night descends to pace the earth in awful nakedness. Mr Printon (whose mind retained a few scraps of classical reading) knew the tale of Actaeon, even if he couldn’t replace his inner tubes; but he had never before tonight seen Diana unveiled.

By this time on his journey there are two Mr Printons. One toils numbly along, dismounting from his bicycle, remounting whenever the trees thin out enough, losing his shoe in a muddy patch, losing his handkerchief, bumping into treetrunks, breathing heavily as he strains uphill, panting as he attempts to restrain his bicycle in its downward career. The other Mr Printon has wandered off in a different direction, is now striding sternly through the lobby of a government building to present his grievances to the prime minister in an elegant leather briefcase. Or eating rogan josh, a favourite dish, in a city restaurant. Or asking himself whether he ought not to be pushing his bicycle the other way, whether he might not soon strike a tarmac road where he might possibly catch a lift from a passing lorry, whether that is the hum of traffic he hears in the distance or merely the rushing of a woodland stream astonishingly like the one he came to grief in earlier. He finds himself perishing with thirst, so he kneels on the muddy bank and scoops up some of the water in his two cupped hands. It is icy cold and reminds him how chilly his numb counterpart must be, alone in the woods so far from human habitation. He even begins to pity that other self, as he sits by a warm fire behind drawn curtains sipping whisky, before he realizes with a start that he is once again on foot, having left his bicycle on the riverbank to rust and fall to pieces on its own. Only now does he begin to wonder whether a sheep has died and rotted upstream recently.

Suddenly he bursts out from among the trees. Both Mr Printons merge at once. He finds himself on a hilltop looking down into a moat of inky blackness. The trees rustle at his back. A road winds its comfortable way between verges of lush grass. The whole scene is awash with a light such as Mr Printon has never seen before. He is reminded of cottage lamps, kitchen neon, molten silver, dim street lights suspended poleless in the mist, the glowing arm of God as it pokes through the clouds in an apocalyptic painting. As he very rarely does, he raises his head and looks towards the sky. There, flanked by the ragged borders of brown industrial billows, licking the perpetual cloud canopy with cold fire, floats the moon in all her fullness. He has no way of knowing it, but this night is a particularly fine one, the moon particularly brilliant; his eye does not rest on her surface, it is sucked as through a tunnel into a core of brightness. Stars glimmer at the edges of his sight. His weary body falls away and he becomes all vision. The rustle of leaves becomes heavenly music. Flakes of brightness peel from the moon’s rim and spin down to lay soft wings on his face and chest. Unable to breathe he sinks to his pinstriped knees, and gazes, and gazes.

All at once he knew what he must do. He had found the source of light, the axis about which life whirled and eddied, formed and reformed like billows from an industrial chimney. He must tell Addenden. He must bring the townsfolk to this spot with ladders, or better still helicopters, and they must climb to the radiant gateway and enter the tunnel.

Summoning unknown reserves of strength he leapt to his feet and bounded down the slope towards the road. He seemed to know the direction of Addenden by instinct, without recourse to the points of the compass. Tattered garments flying, dust rising from the caked mud on his trousers, eyes gleaming, leaving his other shoe discarded by the wayside, he galloped over the mica-speckled tarmac with the stars reeling overhead. He could not have kept up such a pace for long, but he had described a vast circle though the course of the day and night and was now not far from his starting-point. His breath came in great gasps which lingered like a locomotive’s steam in his wake. Up hill and down dale he galloped, beneath the shade of the trees, out into full moonlight, down into inky hollows, up into glorious brilliance with fields of dew stretched out on either side. Here at last was the steeple, the church itself, he was lolloping past the doorway. A host of startled rooks leaped from a pine in the churchyard. Past the entrance to the shopping centre with those little dim lights the shopkeepers leave in forgotten corners for fear of thieves. Up the High Street shouting at the top of his voice, past his cottage gate towards the village hall. Heads poked out of lighted windows and he called that they were fragments, that all were scattered from a single blazing ball, that they must hurry and follow him home before the gates of heaven were obscured by an oily curtain. Doors opened, footsteps hurried after him. Before he reached the village hall, whose windows were a chain of orange links, he had an army of townsfolk at his heels brandishing brooms and rolling pins, cricket bats and kitchen knives.

He burst open the hall door and at once the building erupted in confusion. Women and children shrieked, men’s voices too turned shrill with rage and fear. Tables were overturned as people jumped to their feet. Crockery shattered on the floorboards, spattering the evening meal against the walls like the gore of Penelope’s suitors. Mr Sanders, who had been delivering a recital of music-hall songs from the little stage, leapt to one side and pulled the curtain down on himself, rail, cords and all. The pianist fell over backwards. Constable Mathers, who had a flock of children gathered round his knees wearing various items of his uniform, clutched at his helmet and truncheon making all the children scream. Into the midst of the chaos bounded Mr Printon, still pursued by the angry mob who were convinced he was a terrorist come to machine-gun their families. The families, meanwhile, were convinced that a foreign army had broken in. All sense of sanity was lost. People rolled on the floor covering their heads from the hail of bullets. Others trampled them and tripped over one another in an attempt to escape through the windows before the shooting started. Others surrendered loudly to everyone in sight, waving their hands in the air. It seemed the flimsily-constructed building must collapse at any moment, it groaned so at the seams.

Somewhere in this turmoil a battered figure dropped to its hands and knees, crawled beneath a table that was miraculously still erect, tangled with the table-cloth and pulled all the unbroken mugs and dishes to the floor. It left its jacket in the hands of a bellowing publican who declared that he had seized the assassin; left its trousers caught on a fallen umbrella stand; and finally reached the door wrapped in someone else’s fur coat like a baby in a blanket. The uproar was such that nobody noticed a single fur-clad figure slip out into the night and limp down the High Street the way it had come. The sky throbbed; the distant city moaned in its concrete coils. The figure stopped by Mr Printon’s cottage gate, fumbled with the latch and entered. The house was cold and empty, as if the owner had just died and there had been no time to drape the place in black. The figure left the front door ajar, passed through to the back and went out into the garden. An icy wind romped gleefully through the hall, puffing up newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse from waste paper baskets. The figure returned from the garden shed carrying a ladder, swept through the house in its long fur gown and ran down the High Street with the ladder on its shoulder. Occasionally Mr Printon gave a little skip, as though his happiness might lift him off the ground and send him spiralling heavenwards with the last of the autumn leaves.