They’re out there. I can hear them, shuffling on the branches. They’ll start soon. I suppose I’ll have to go out there tonight. I shudder to think what will
happen if they decide to come in. Where has the time gone? There can’t be snow out there already, can there? Who am I trying to fool? Them? Me? I
honestly don’t know. Yeah, thanks, I will have another. Ach shove it! Here – tell me when I’ve drunk through this. Slainte!
I can’t even claim she was beautiful. By any objective measure the best adjective I could apply would be ‘handsome’. To me, she was gorgeous. Why?
Easy. She was interested in me. Someone actually thought I was worth a second look. That’s an incredibly powerful piece of magic. The world is different
when you don’t see it from the eyes of ‘us’, not from the eyes of ‘me’. Do you know how easy it is to be lonely? Lonely is a state of mind. Alone is a state
of being. You can be surrounded by friends, relatives, and other animals, and still be lonely. Somehow it’s worse when they’re with you. They come in
pairs, the smug bastards, and you sit there and smile and pretend that the empty chair next to you is your choice.
Someone smiles at you and agrees to have lunch sometime, and you’ve not only built the castle in the sky, you’ve moved in and picked out the blasted
curtains before reality sets in. You have lunch, and you realise that what they really want is to talk. To a friend. You smile, and you’re witty, and you tell
your best stories, and you listen sympathetically while they tell you about the ruin they’ve made of their love life over some petty argument with the latest
beau, and you pray to every god there is that they can’t see the castle walls crashing down behind your eyes. Yeah, I’ll have another. Where was I? Oh
yeah – Lynne.
A friend introduced us. No, I lie. She had two empty seats for a dinner party and couldn’t think of a couple to invite, so she filled them with us. Lynne knew
it, I knew it, everyone at the blasted table must have known it. Harare's a small town. Everybody knows just about everybody else. Harare? It's in Africa,
the capital of a little tin-pot state called Zimbabwe. I liked it there. But anyway, like the song says, we smiled our best smiles, and laughed like it was going
out of style. Somewhere during the evening I looked into her eyes and saw a frantic prisoner beating on the walls she’d built around her soul to stop the
hurt getting in. For an instant, that prisoner stopped screaming, and looked back at me. The stones in my own walls shivered, just a fraction. Not much to
sell your soul for, is it? A glance across a dinner table? Ah, just shut up and pour, will you?
I made excuses to see her again. Organised group trips to the theatre – with a spare ticket, which I had to buy, to get the group discount, you
understand? Did anybody have a friend that might want to see this show? Of course I knew damned well that she would want to: it was the only reason I’d
bought the bloody tickets. Slowly, I worked up the courage to offer her a lift home – purely because it was on my way, you understand, and her lift looked
like she was going to stay at the bar all night. Don’t be silly. I lived on the other side of town. So we sat in the car in her driveway and talked. What
about? Nothing. Everything. The meaning of life, the state of the economy, the price of shoe leather, inflation, the war in Bosnia, Tiananmen Square, and
what was on the telly last night. The usual junk you talk about when the topic doesn’t matter, just the talking. Two hours we sat in that car, freezing our
backsides off because the heater didn’t work and the bodywork was full of holes. You ever sat in a Renault Four at two in the morning? It’s cold, trust me.
She kissed me as she got out of the car. The heater must have kicked in, because I don’t remember being cold on the way home. I don’t remember
driving, either. It had a good autopilot, that car. It needed it in the weeks to come.
A pattern developed. It didn’t matter who brought her to the event, I ran her home. The gods only know how many hours we spent sitting in that draughty
little car with the lights turned off so as not to wake the rest of the house, solving the world’s problems. Then a quick peck, and she would dash inside. I
think both of us were afraid. Afraid that the other would suddenly look up and realise what a poor deal this was, and walk away. When you’ve spent your
life as a fifth wheel, you come to accept it. Yeah, well, it didn’t happen. What will happen is another drink. Thank you, kind sir.
So what did happen? Glad you asked that question. What did happen is we finally gathered up the courage to meet without sixteen chaperones around
us. Nothing fancy, just lunch. Nowhere special – a restaurant chosen because it was half-way between our office buildings, so neither of us had a longer
way to walk than the other. We sat, and we talked. We ate our chicken pitta and salad. We talked more. We drank our coffee. We split the tab and went
back to work. I had a dozen roses delivered to her office. Every hour, on the hour. For the next three days. I only stopped because a) she asked me to,
and b) my credit card reached it’s limit. Not necessarily in that order, but fairly close.
Strange things began to happen. I didn’t get invited to parties any more. We did. There were no longer, as far as our friends were concerned, two
separate entities to consider, there was Lynneand…, a single being. A couple. Like I said, the world changes when that happens. The clichés are only
clichés because they’re true. The sky is bluer, the birds do sing more sweetly, everything does go well. Then I killed her.
Ye gods that drink went fast. Better make the next one a double. Thanks.
That’s what I said. I. Killed. Her. Oh, not intentionally. Do I look like Freddie Krueger? Don’t answer that! No, it was an accident. A stupid, preventable,
careless, stupid bloody accident! I mentioned my old car. Jezebel, I called her. She was old, she was underpowered, she rattled, she was freezing cold in
winter, but she started first time, and she would stop on a tickey. She could find her way home if I was half-asleep at the wheel or I had too much to drink or
was too distracted to notice. Not, unfortunately, when I was all three. We closed down the pub one night, chucking the junior clerks out to go and find
somewhere else to run up their slates. I had one too many – I lie: many too many rum and cokes on board, it was late, and this delightful creature was in
the seat next to me. A word to the wise, young sir: never attempt to cuddle your girlfriend, change gear, and negotiate a steep curve in the dark
simultaneously, while steering with your knees. Especially not in the rain. In an old car, with bald tyres. The steering wheel jerked, the vehicle was
suddenly travelling in a straight line where the road didn’t, and there in front of us was tonight’s star prize, a brick wall. Me? Bumps and bruises. A cut on
the forehead. You can still see the scar here – see? Her? A piece of glass in the throat. She bled to death before the ambulance got there. Do you
know you can’t put blood back in with your fingers?
Thanks, I will have another.
So there I was: alone again. The other half of me, gone. And it was MY FAULT! Sorry – I’ll keep my voice down. Wouldn’t want to disturb your other
customers, would we? Oh, our friends tried to tell me it was an accident, blind fate, the will of the gods, anything but my responsibility. I believed this almost
as much as I believed in the squadron of stunt pigs that buzzed the office every lunchtime.
Depressed? HAH! (Oh, sorry!) Yeah, you could say I was depressed. I lay in bed for days. Didn’t bother to open the curtains, didn’t bother to change the
sheets. I mean, let’s be serious, what would be the point? So there I lay, with the sheets pulled over my head, wishing the world would go away. Even did
the old soliloquy from Hamlet: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of
troubles, and by opposing end them,” you know? Vaguely heard of preparations for the funeral, and just dug deeper under the covers.
Yeah, keep ‘em coming. I’m still standing, aren’t I?
Lynne’s funeral was scheduled for the following Saturday. On Thursday night, someone tried to knock my door down. I tried to ignore it. Then she started
screaming at me as well. Screaming that if we were quick, I could get Lynne back. Anybody else, I would have ignored, and let the security guards carry
her off, but this was Lettie. Lettie’s my best friend. She’s also a witch. I always thought she was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but if it kept her
amused, and no-one got hurt, it didn’t hurt me any to humour her. So I accepted her amulets with a straight face, and wore them to keep her happy. I
figured it was the same as wearing a Saint Christopher: there’s no evidence that it works, but it can’t hurt! Now that I think of it, I was wearing my St Chris
the night of the accident, and a couple of Lettie’s bits and bobs. Lynne had no time for it, or for Lettie, either. I think she was jealous, to be honest.
Anyway, here Lettie was, beating on my door and screaming at me to get my fat arse out of bed before she did something we’d both regret.
I levered myself out of my pit and made for the front door, grumbling under my breath, and the knocking stopped. Then the door blew in. The blast ripped
it off it’s hinges and threw it across the hallway, all in complete silence. Hurricane Lettuce followed it in. Before I knew what was happening, she’d bowled
me back into the bedroom, ransacked my wardrobe and thrown some clothes at me, then stood over me while I dressed. All the while, she was talking,
talking so fast I could barely make it out. What was obvious was that we had somewhere to go, that we had no time, and that we were trying to save
Lynne. That bit got my attention.
“Lynne’s dead.” I told her, “Dead and gone, in case you hadn’t noticed?”
“Dead,” says she, “But not gone. Not gone, and that’s our chance. But we have to be quick. You have to address the Parliament.”
“Parliament?” says I “What the photon has Parliament to do with anything?”
“Not our Parliament,” she replies, “the Parliament. Just shut up and come with me. I’ll explain on the road.” With that, she grabbed my arm and dragged
me out to where she’d parked her car.
Is there a drought around here or something? A man could die of thirst in this place. Thank you.
I nearly balked when I saw the car. ‘Nearly’, because Lettie had my arm in a vice, and dragged me along with her. Hmm? Oh, she’s about six foot tall, but
thin. Wiry, you know? The wrong side of forty - by her estimate anyway. White blonde hair, which she ties back with a bit of rawhide. Weird taste in
clothes – like the sixties never ended. Maybe for her they didn’t. Anyway, this car was hung with so many trinkets and amulets it was a wonder she could
see to drive. She bundled me into the passenger seat and got the car moving before I could gather up the willpower to get out again. She put the car onto
the main north road out of town, and started to explain.
The world, she said, was not the place I knew. Well, not entirely. There are layers to it that in the normal course of life we do not see or pay any attention
to. This I could accept, and I said as much.
“Cool.” She said. “Now pay attention. Souls do not always automatically find their way across to where they’re meant to go. Some stick around to look over
their loved ones, or see a wrong avenged, or whatever.” I told her I was familiar with the theory.
“Stuff theory, sunshine,” she told me, “I’m talking cold fact here, just nothing dreamed of in your philosophy.” (Yeah, okay, we both like Shakespeare. Is it a
crime?) Some souls, she claimed, are lost and confused, especially those who died unexpected and violent deaths. They needed to be guided to their
final destination. Makes sense, right? There are certain sprits, she said, which serve as guides. They’re called psychopomps, which, I found out, is Greek
for ‘soul guide’, or some such. Then she hits me with who the local the guides were: the owls. Owls, she said, were the only birds which could fly between
the worlds, and the reason they had been granted this ability was to ferry the souls of the lost across from our world to the next.
“And this has precisely what to do with me?” I asked.
“Don’t be dense!” she replied. “Your Lynne died a violent and unexpected death, right? Well, she hasn’t gone across yet, and if you can convince the
parliament of owls not to take her, then she will remain in this world.”
I pointed out that this left us no better off, apart from getting me haunted by a girl I’d killed, thank you very much. Lettie was unimpressed. Claimed we’d be
able to work a plan, and put Lynne’s soul into another body, one just vacated by it’s former tenant. Weird shit, but the state I was in, I accepted it. Hope
does strange things to you.
Any hope of another drink? Good man.
At about this point in the conversation, Lettie made a right hand turn onto a road that wasn’t there, and drove us straight out of the world I knew. The
streetlights snapped off as if someone had hit the ‘off’ switch for the entire city. The headlights of the car dimmed to a bare glimmer, and I’m kind of glad
about that, because what I could see was not conducive to a fair state of mental health. By all the rules of geography I knew, we should have been on the
University campus, somewhere near the Vet school. I don’t remember there being thick woodland there. I fact, I seem to recall there being a playing field
about where we were. The trees seemed to writhe in the dim light of the headlamps, squirming out of the little light they threw.
We pulled up next to an old baobab. Ever seen a baobab? It’s a tree. They’re basically barrels with a few bare branches sticking out of them. This one was
huge, forty or fifty feet in diameter, it’s naked branches reaching for the stars the way another tree’s roots reach for water. Only most baobab’s branches
don’t move like that, not even in a high wind. Which there wasn’t. Straight in front of us was a huge crack in the bark. Lettie pointed to it, but said nothing.
I took the hint. I got out of the car, and crept towards the opening, feeling my way along the side of the car. It was dark outside, but there was nothing
inside that tree. Nothing you could see, anyway. The darkness was alive. I could feel something, or many somethings, moving and breathing inside it. I
looked back. Lettie was still doing her famed lady Macbeth impersonation. I went in.
I could see nothing. The darkness was tangible, a plush velvet bodysuit crawling over my skin. The place smelled of dust and dry rot, sawdust, feathers,
and guano. All around me I could hear breathing, and the rustle of feather on feather. Talons scraped against the wood. I could feel the air currents as
they shuffled and shifted on their purches. I could feel their scrutiny. I was pinned in place, unable to move, unable to speak, barely able to think. Until
tonight, I thought I could never again feel terror so deep. All of the dirty, petty little secrets that stained my soul were known, catalogued, dismissed. I think
it was the dismissal which hurt the most. I wasn’t measured and found wanting, I was measured and found not worth the effort. Then they found my guilt
over Lynne’s death. That got their attention. Like a doctor exploring a wound without anaesthetic, they tore my thoughts open and probed deeply. The
puss of self-pity and guilt were exposed and cleansed, leaving a deep, echoing sense of loss and despair.
"What would you have of us?" they asked. They did not speak. I heard no words; the universe changed so that they had spoken. I babbled. I stammered.
I answered them: I wanted her back.
“Why should we do this thing?” they asked. I gave them my reasons: need, despair, grief, love. “People die every day. They are loved. They are
needed. They are grieved for. Why should we do this thing?”
I gave them more reasons: she was my light, my life, my reason for living. Every cliché I could think of, and some I invented on the spot. They weren’t
“Why should we do this thing?”
Desperation clawed its way up my back and bit deep at the back of my neck. I could barely think. I was frozen, paralysed. The words tumbled out of my
mouth without volition. I don’t know where they came from. I offered to pay them.
They were interested! I had their attention! Now what the photon could I use to bribe the couriers of eternity into not doing their duty? There was only one
thing I could think of: eternity. I offered them my soul, in exchange for hers.
Was there a note of triumph in their ‘voice’?
“Understand. We do not rule here, we only serve. We can delay our task, but not fail in it. One season we offer. At the summer’s end, we fulfil our task,
and claim our payment. Go from this place. She will come to you.”
Hope can hurt worse than despair. Despair is dull, lifeless. Hope is sharp, burning incandescence. I burned with it as I stumbled back out into the lesser
darkness. Lettie was there, waiting. The look on my face must have told her all she wanted to know. A broad grin burst across her face, and she swept
me up in a hug that took what breath I had left. She didn’t ask me how I’d done it, she just rejoiced with me that I had.
Hmm. This glass is empty. Want to do something about it?
Lynne came to me the next day. The wait was agony greater than I had ever known. She didn’t look the same. Of course not. Her body was lying in a
mortuary drawer awaiting burial. Lynne was tall, brunette, and muscular; Sarah was elfin, red-haired, petite, but they were the same person. Sarah’s wrists
were bandaged. Seems she’d had an accident the night before with a carving knife. Nearly bled to death. My friends were amazed when they met her,
primarily that I was with someone else so soon after Lynne’s funeral. Lettie just grinned and hugged her. I’ve never told Lettie what the deal was. I pray
she hasn’t guessed. I don’t need her feeling guilty for my decisions, my weakness. Where was I? Right.
Sarah and I were sublimely happy. For about three months. Then we started running. That, my friend, is how I come to be standing here in a bar in
Edinburgh. We ran away from the winter. For the last three years, we’ve chased summer around the planet, never stopping anywhere more than a couple
of months, working only long enough to earn the fare to somewhere else. It’s been fun. We’ve been around the world twice. We were together, and we
were happy, and summer lasted forever. We got careless. It snowed last night.
Sarah nipped out to the shops for a pint of milk, and didn’t come back. I looked for her all night, but couldn’t find her. The polis were around this morning.
Someone else had. Found her, that is. The cops asked me to identify the body. She’d been torn to shreds, attacked by an animal, they thought,
something with claws. Or talons. I looked at her face – it was unmarked, they want me to know what’s happening – and I knew that the race was over, and
that we had lost.
And so, good sir, you find me here, in this excellent establishment of yours, attempting to imbibe enough bottled courage to go out and pay my bills. It hasn’
t worked. I hadn’t touched a drink since that night. With what I’ve knocked back today, I should be out cold, but I’m not. They won’t let me get drunk. They
want me to know what’s happening, every step of the way. I think my creditors are a little peeved with me. I took the letter of their offer, not it’s spirit, and I
think they’ve had the auditors in.
Here, keep the change. It’s not like I’m going to need it.
The long, long, summer is past, and I hear the owls calling my name.
|© Copyright Iain Muir, 1999