Friday, 1 September 2017
It was late evening when I got off the train at a coastal town in Northern Scotland. It was dark and misty as I walked down the empty street trying to find somewhere to stay for the night. The pungent acrid smell of coal-burning fires hung in the air and made my eyes water. An owl cried in the distance followed by a cat screeching in an alleyway. This desolate town looked as if nothing had changed from the 18th Century. The dark wooded fronted buildings seemed deserted, and even the traditional tumbleweeds did not bother to come rolling down the street, preferring instead to hide in a huddle in street corners. A bell far away tolled gently its funereal peal every few seconds. "Ding ... Ding ... Ding ..." Fear must have gripped my every senses as I felt tears rolling down my trouser legs.
I wondered what this town's motto was, if it had any on its Coat of Arms, traditional in many towns around this parts. "Reversing back into the past with despondency". I bet it had a suicide pact with the devil.
I eventually reached a dimly lit building with a "Bed and Breakfast" sign by the door. I entered what looked like a pub with a dozen or so people sitting at various tables nursing their sorrows in their customary drinks. The room was totally silent and I felt their gaze burn into my back as I approached the bar.
"What will you have?" asked the barman as he wiped the bar with a dirty old cloth.
"Whatever they are having!" I replied with a nervous smile as I turned round only to discover the bar room totally empty. I felt my knees knocking with terror. I had butterflies in my stomach and their knees were knocking too.
"Are you a stranger in town?" asked the barman as I noticed for the first time that he had a vulture perched on his shoulder.
I nodded silently and then, finding my voice again, I asked him if he had a room for the night, and regretted making the request almost instantaneously as the bird of prey emptied its load on the man's shoulder.
He cleaned his jacket with the bar cloth and said, "That will be £20 payable in advance."
"Why is that bell tolling in the distance all the time?" I asked as I paid him.
"That would be the buoy, that would," he replied as he spat some chewed tobacco on the ground.
"A boy?" I asked innocently.
"Yes ... a buoy ... a floating thing on the sea with a bell to warn ships to keep away from the rocks. Years ago, there were a terrible shipwreck out there. A merchant ship hit the rocks and it went down with all hands on deck. Not a soul was saved that night. Although we did recover many casks of whisky and port. Some town folks believe the whole town is haunted because of them sailors dying like that. Some nights one can hear the howling of their anguished cries as they gasped for their last breath in the icy cruel sea. Personally, I think it's just the wind but some folks will hang on to their beliefs like a snot from a child's nose."
I nodded silently, not knowing what to say.
"Will you be wanting supper?" he asked, as he cleaned the bar top again with the same cloth, spreading the remains of the bird's faeces all over the place.
"Yes please ..." I gulped.
"Well ... we haven't got any!" he replied, "I have to go to the church grave yard shortly. So I'll bid you good bye!"
"To ... the grave yard?" I asked, "at this time of night?"
"Yes ..." he said as he spat again, "I double up as the town's grave digger and I have to get ready for a burial tomorrow morning."
"Has someone died?" I asked rather stupidly, but for something to say.
"He'd better be ..." he said, "or else we'd be burying him alive. And Hubert would not be happy. Considering the big size of the grave I have to dig. Huge it'll be!"
"Was Hubert a big man?" I asked again.
"We ain't burying Hubert ..." he said in exasperation, "at least not yet. We are burying his horse!"
"His horse?" I heard myself say and not believing my ears, "in the church grave yard?"
"Where else would you want me to bury him?" he asked, "out at sea? A naval burial on a night like this? He wasn't a sea horse, you know!"
I nodded and said nothing.
"There will not be any breakfast in the morning," he said as he left, "but the price is included in the £20 you paid!"
I made my way up to my room in the dark. I entered the damp and dank smelling room lit by one candle. At least it had hot and cold running cockroaches.
I saw one of them on the wall by my bed. I used a folded newspaper and killed it squashing its remains all over the wall. Within minutes the room was infested by other cockroaches who had come for the funeral.
I pulled the bed away from the wall and they pulled it back to hide where they were holding the remembrance reception.
I decided to spend the night sitting on an old armchair instead. I must have been very tired because my eyelids soon got the better of me as I dozed of for a while.
I semi-awoke by the sound of the cockroaches partying. In my stupor I saw a ghostly figure of a woman standing by my bedside. She reminded me a little of Gloria Gaynor.
First I was afraid, I was petrified ... I didn't know if I would survive.
And right now I am imagining all your faces as you are reading this!