It’s a warm late summer’s evening. I have maybe three hours of daylight left after work. There’s a beautiful cloudless sky and the world is bathed in sunlight. The Peak District is outside my door. I have to do it. I wheel my partner for the evening, my Suzuki Bandit, out of the garage and pat the tank. She’s dusty, but tonight she isn’t going to get cleaned. We have a different plan. She starts first push of the starter. She’s as ready as I am to enjoy the ride. Ten minutes for her to warm up, and for me to don helmet and gloves, and we’re on our way.
I ride carefully amongst the traffic until I’m clear of the commuters. I know where their heads are at because usually I would be one of them. Tired, distracted by tea time radio news or loud music. Thinking more about their day at work, getting home, that night’s television, an argument they’ve had with their partner or boss. In fact thinking about almost anything more than they are thinking about driving. They can be erratic. Virtually blind. Driving on auto pilot.
Soon, though, all of that is behind me and I’m out in the countryside. I take my time, I have nowhere to be and no desire to get anywhere quickly. I revel in the quiet evening roads and the noise and vibration of the bike as she eats up the miles in a lazy, effortless, low rumble. For no reason other than I want to I change down a gear and open up the throttle on a long straight. She responds with a purr and a surge of speed, then equally quickly slows down and leans into the bends as if she knows where she’s going and all I’m doing is providing her with an excuse to take me there. I let her lead me for a while, taking random turns that look interesting. Turning off before I catch up with any traffic. Skirting around rather than riding through villages and towns. Finding new roads and new horizons. I enjoy the warmth of the sun in my face and keep heading vaguely west so that I can keep it there. Even so I am pleased when it hides behind a stand of trees briefly rather than shining in to my eyes.
We ride like this for nearly an hour, but my age causes aches to catch up all too soon and I recognise that I need to stretch. The next road sign points to nearby town where I can stop for a quick break before heading home. I start to ride more purposefully with the thought of a favourite coffee shop in mind. I am back on roads that I know. Long fast straights, flowing bends. I watch for lorries and tractors and try to time my riding so that the momentum takes me past them in safe overtakes rather than catching them on bends. I watch for suspicious white vans, speed traps set for the unwary. I am not travelling at illegal speeds, but sometimes to overtake safely I have to accelerate over the limit only to slow again once safely past. A quick blast on these roads and I catch my first glimpse of the town down in the valley. I slow, turn, and wind my way on to the main street. It’s quiet now, only a few late night tourists like me searching out the few open shops or heading for an early doors pint. I see plenty of parking spaces big enough for the bike but instead of pulling in I glance at the town hall clock and decide on a whim that, given I have another hour or so of daylight, I’ll turn my face back to the sun and carry on out of town. It’s one of those nights when I’m enjoying the journey more than I’d enjoy the destination, so the aches can wait.
A few miles further on I crest a hill. The sudden effect of the sun in my eyes makes me look away momentarily from the road. The views take by breath away. I stop, turn off the engine and take off my helmet so that I can breathe in the clean air. I hear the countryside properly for the first time; cows, sheep, birds and in the distance a tractor. I take fifteen minutes to enjoy the peace. I am glad I came here to stop instead of a coffee shop in the town. This is truly beautiful countryside. I am blessed to enjoy it at its quiet best. My mind wanders, aimless and free. I think of friends, holidays, of other great times in the countryside I’m riding through, of family and of stories I should write. I ponder making a note of some interesting phrases, and ideas, then am distracted by the next thought and the next and nothing gets noted, although some may be remembered.
As I watch the farm buildings in the valley begin to turn gold and their shadows lengthen. I have to accept that time really has caught up with me. I mount up again and finally turn for home. The sun low, behind me now, catches me out. I curse as I turn around and it reflects in my mirrors into my eyes. I move my head to adjust the angle, and set off again. I am riding with more purpose now, less meandering and more directly to my destination. As I reach an open stretch of road I notice that I am following my own shadow. I crest and then descend the dips in the road. My shadow shortens then lengthens. I wave to myself, first an arm then both legs. The road is empty, fortunately. Anyone seeing me would think me a fool. I laugh aloud at that thought, the sound strangely echoing inside my helmet. The road curves and my shadow is riding alongside me rather than leading the way. I open the throttle a little, but then decide to resist the all too real temptation to race my own shadow, a race that I know in my head could only lead to disaster but surely one every child on a pushbike has tried at least once. Instead I glance across to see the shapes it makes in the hedgerow and in doing so am lucky enough to see a bird of prey dive and strike, but at this speed I am gone before I see if she has taken her prey.
I take the next turning, heading downhill and into the shade. Trees overhang the road, still with their leaves at this time of year. It’s dark on this road, much darker, like entering a tunnel or the sudden onset of night. The temperature drops what feels like ten degrees. I shiver, but quickly reacclimatise. The road is narrow. It curves and bends back on itself down the steep valley side. The bike comes alive again, back in her element. She accelerates out of each bend, brakes, leans into the next one and then does it again and again as we weave down the valley side. I am wary of damp patches, mud on the road, anything that could make me skid and slide. But my bike is sure footed and she seems to steer herself around any obstacles with just a thought from me. Trusting her instincts I take in my surroundings. A brook crosses and re-crosses my route just below the road, rushing in its urgency to feed the mill ponds and the river in the valley bottom. Lush grass grows along its banks. I smell the wild garlic that grows like weeds in the un-mowed verge. That smell reminds my stomach how long it is since I last ate. My thoughts turn to food and home, only twenty minutes away. I emerge into light and turn back in to the traffic and boring busy roads. The fun is almost over, we’re like everyone else now, chasing the fading daylight in the hope of getting home before darkness and real cold descend.
I recently heard someone say that the car is a modern hermitage, a place of seclusion and thought. I beg to differ. My car has far too many distractions. I have music, radio, satellite navigation, passengers who can talk to me. It is a tool. A machine designed to do a job. A job it does well, but a job nonetheless. My hermitage is my motorcycle. Within a crash helmet I am, in a very real sense, alone with my thoughts. And when the only limit is a self-imposed time limit and therefore endlessly flexible, I have time to think. Not about work, not about the jobs I have to do at home, not about money or my problems. None of that enters my mind. I am truly de-stressed and relaxed.
People ask me why I ride a bike. This is my answer.
(C) Chris Johnson 2017 & 2020
You can buy the book here: https://smile.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08D4T84BF/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_7CbfFbM965SRH
A happy, productive and above all healthy new year wish to all of my friends and followers. Thanks for being with me in 2019, I hope you’re staying with me in 2020.
Bud’s phone vibrated on his bedside cabinet. He reached for it and knocked it on to the floor. He swore, sat up and found the phone. He checked the display. Mac.
‘What the hell is this? It’s,’ he checked his watch, ‘it’s 2 am!’
‘You in bed already? I thought you’d be out at a party?’
‘Not many parties on an empty campsite, Mac. This better be good.’
‘Oh, it’s better than good. I knew you’d want in on this one.’ Mac left it hanging. Bud thought for a moment, then bit.
‘Ok, go on, what?’
‘Give it to uniform’
‘Reported by Chris Cringle. AKA St Nicholas. AKA Santa Claus.’
‘Mac, you are an absolute F…’
‘Bud, trust me, this one’s for real. But for all the reasons that are going through your head the Chief Constable wants this one kept to a tight circle. He took the call, he phoned me, I’m phoning you. Get dressed, I’m ten minutes away.’
Bud rolled over, dismissing the whole call as a drunken prank. Right up until the point where Mac banged on the camper door. Ten minutes after that he was dressed and in the passenger seat of an unmarked car.
And in the back seat was a vaguely familiar face. White hair, slightly longer and shaggier than fashionable, teamed up with a white beard and a red and white baseball cap, in the dark all Bud could really see was a pair of piercing blue eyes which looked like they should have a twinkle, but didn’t. Bud was still half way to saying how much of a wind up he thought the situation was when the man spoke.
‘Bud. Mac tells me you can help. I hope you can, time is running out.’
A shiver went down Bud’s spine despite the blasting heater in the car. He had never heard a voice so lost, but more than that. So old. So of its season. It came from a special place. It was a voice that smelt of cinnamon, cold like a snowy day. It held the fear of the shortest day, and the hope of warmer days to come in equal measure. Later Bud could only describe it as the sound of Christmas. His sarcastic comments dried up in his throat. His cynicism disappeared. Mac turned to him.
‘You hear it too, right?’
‘I hear it.’
‘So. We have to find Mr Cringle’s, er, vehicle.’
‘Just so I’m clear, and I’m trying really hard not to sound sarcastic here, we’re looking for a sleigh, reindeers, one with a red nose. That vehicle?’ Bud asked.
Cringle spoke. ‘If that’s what you expect to see, that’s what you’ll see. Others see a log cart pulled by wild boar. Some see a giant sack that I carry on foot. Most today see an articulated lorry with Coke logos.’
‘And, this is actually a real, physical, vehicle. Not an analogy or some metaphysical…whatever’ Bud’s vocabulary failed him.
‘It’s real. It’s as real as I am.’ Cringle saw Bud’s face in the mirror, ‘It’s as real as you are.’
Despite his usual professional scepticism, Bud believed the man implicitly.
‘And an obvious but critical question, where was this vehicle stolen from?’ Bud resisted the desire to add, If it’s the North Pole it’s outside our jurisdiction’.
Mac answered, ‘Industrial Estate just outside Derby. Mr Cringle was staying overnight after a personal appearance.’
‘So we’re headed to Manchester?’
‘Why Manchester?’ Cringle asked.
‘A load stolen from Derby? Most logical place for someone to try to get rid of the contents, and the vehicle itself. Different force, lots of routes there, big market to get rid quickly, good transport links back out again.’
‘And you’re assuming the perps saw an artic?’ Bud asked.
‘If they saw anything else then we’re all in trouble.’ Cringle replied before Mac could speak.
Both men felt the chill again despite the heat in the car. Mac put his foot down. Later he would never be able to explain why. He just knew he had to.
‘Stop! That’s it!’ Cringle shouted as they were driving through the outskirts of the city. Bud looked.
‘It’s just a shonky transit! Bud exclaimed, I’m sure they’re up to no good, but it’s not what we’re looking for.’ Mac pulled over anyway, turned to Cringle.
‘Close your eyes. Think of your 5th Christmas. Waking at 6am. Running downstairs. Seeing a house full of presents. Smelling turkey roasting.’
‘That was never my Christmas, definitely not my 5th one!’ Bud reacted. Cringle looked at him. Looked straight into his eyes. Bud felt like his memories were being read, like someone was scanning through a filing cabinet in his head.
‘The bike.’ Cringle said. Bud shivered again. Cringle frowned and shook his head. Put his hand on Bud’s shoulder. Bud tried, but he couldn’t, break eye contact. Time passed, Bud had no idea how long. When Cringle removed his hand Bud looked back at the van. He couldn’t focus on it. At the same time he was seeing the transit, the Coke Artic, a sleigh and reindeer and lots more besides. He could focus on the men emptying the contents into a seemingly derelict shop.
‘Mac, that’s it. Let’s do this.’
Ten minutes later two of the men were bloodied, bruised and cuffed. Cringle was whispering in the ear of a third. He was crying. Sucking his thumb.
Cringle shook Mac’s hand, then Bud’s. ‘I’ll take it from here.’
‘We need to process these three. We’ll need to dust the van for prints…’ Mac’s voice tailed off. ‘…that’s not going to happen is it?’
‘No, it’s not. Thank you both.’ Cringle replied. He got into the vehicle. Within seconds it had gone. As had the three men. The cuffs were lying on the floor where they had been. They checked the derelict shop. There were tracks across the floor, disturbed dust. But no sign of the vehicle contents.
‘What just happened?’ Bud asked.
‘Unless you want to be called Scully for the rest of your career, nothing.’ Mac replied.
‘Scully? I’d be Mulder surely?’
‘Mate, if this is anything but an elaborate joke on us, and if this gets out, I’m at least going to make sure I get Mulder. Which means you’re getting Scully.’ Mac said, as he walked back to the car.
Bud’s phone vibrated on his bedside cabinet. His hand reached out from the cocoon of bedding, and knocked it on to the floor. He swore, threw back his bedding, sat up and found the phone. He checked the display. A text. No sender ID. Look outside. He pulled open the curtain. The ground was covered in a light snow. He smiled. His phone buzzed again. Not through that window. Outside.’
Bud pulled on a thick coat and boots and opened the door. Parked alongside his van was a brand new motorbike. Envelope taped to the seat, his name on it. Bud tore it off, went inside, switched on the heater, made coffee then finally opened the envelope and tipped the contents onto the table. Bike keys, registration in his name and a note. 6 words.
Sorry it’s late.
Bud drank his coffee. Made another one. Stared at the bike through the window. Finally, he sent Mac a text. Merry Christmas from Scully…
© Chris Johnson 2019
This story owes a massive debt to the giants whose shoulders I stand on. Particularly Robert Rankin, Neil Gaiman and, of course, Sir Terry Pratchett.
Bud Robinson and ‘Mac’ MacDonald will be back with more of their action adventure stories. Bud’s stories are neither being written nor will they be published chronologically. For what it’s worth, this story is set significantly earlier in his timeline than Bud’s Halloween while he is an active undercover policeman, but at a time when he is between assignments.
“Nanny, why is that grave covered in iron?”
“Well, Ellie, that’s a question and a story.”
“Please tell me Nanny.”
“Very well. Sit down here on this bench in the sun and I’ll explain to you. When I was a girl about your age, my Nanny told me the story that she’d been told by her Nanny. It goes like this.
“You know that you’re always told not to go into the deep woods alone, especially at night or in the winter?”
“And you know why?”
“The Faer folk, Nannny, they might take a liking to me and keep me for their own. Then I’ll never grow up and marry and if I ever come back everything will have changed and no one will know me except for some old lady who was my friend at school and is really my age and I’ll have to live with strangers and no-one will marry me and I might be forced to move away.” Ellie gasped for breath.
“That’s right, Ellie my love. But do you know why people know all of that?”
“No, Nanny. I though you just did.”
“Well, it’s to do with that grave and a story my great, great Nanny told us.”
Ellie squirmed a little closer to her Nanny on the bench and looked up into her tanned, craggy face.
“Please tell me Nanny.”
“Very well, but sit still and listen carefully.
“Many years ago a young girl, about 16, pretty and unmarried went to the woods one afternoon to gather some bluebells for the dinner table. But when she got there she sat down to rest, for it had been a hard winter on the farm and she wanted to enjoy the spring air. She soon lay down with her head on her coat for a pillow and fell asleep.”
“Oh no, Nanny, she mustn’t do that!”
“Well, you know that and so do I, but she didn’t.
“Anyway, while she was asleep it fell dark and the Faer Folk came out to play among the flowers and make their music and dance their dances. The girl awoke to the noise and instead of running or shouting she started to sing. Now one of the Faer men immediately fell in love with her. He started to dance with her,” Ellie gasped, “and soon she was so caught up in the dancing and singing that she had been there all night. So when he offered her some wine and bread she took it without thinking.”
“No, she mustn’t eat Faer food!”
“No, she mustn’t. But she did, so you know what happens then don’t you Ellie?”
“Yes, she had to stay with the Faer Folk for ever and ever and never grow up and never get married and…”
Nanny gently interrupted Ellie.
“So the girl lived with the Faer Folk for many years and she took the Faer man who loved her and married him in the Faer way. They lived happily and time passed outside the Faer world quickly, as it does. The people of the village looked for her for many months but in the end her mother decided to stop the search. Everyone thought her dead, so they held a funeral and dug that grave and put a stone up for her but never did it have a body in it for many the year.
“In Faer Land the girl was going to have a baby. Now Faer Folk and humans can make babies, but pure human mothers have a very hard time with them. Eventually it looked like the girl was dying. The Faer king spoke to her husband. He said: ‘You must take her to the human village and find a midwife who can help.’
“So the Faer husband did just that. Now it happened that about 60 human years had passed while she was in the Faer Land and the village midwife was the younger sister of the girl. The midwife recognised her sister immediately so she helped her and carefully nursed her until her daughter was born. Once the girl was born the midwife hatched a plot to separate the Faer Man and his wife so that she could keep her sister and niece with her in the village. She told the Faer man that his wife needed a lot of human medicine and that to return to the Faer Land would kill her. Then she reminded him that if he stayed in our world the amount of iron around would make him grow old and ugly very quickly. She suggested that he go home and leave his wife to be cared for by her relatives.
“But the Faer man loved his wife and daughter and did not want to return to Faer Land without them. So he decided to stay and grow old and ugly just to be with her. So, even as his wife started to grow older and more beautiful, he became bent and ill, his face became lined and he died even while his wife was still young.
“Now, while he had lived in the village he had been a good worker and a good Christian, so his wife wanted him buried in the church yard. Some of the villagers did not like that idea, but the vicar was a kindly man, if somewhat stupid, and agreed. So the grave that had been dug for the girl was opened up and the Faer man’s coffin put in to it. Many people came to the funeral, for he was a well liked man, and his wife sang for him, something similar to the song they first danced to.
“The lady grew old in the normal way. But she always loved her Faer husband, so she never remarried and, helped by her beautiful daughter, she tended his grave daily. Eventually she died a very old lady and was buried with her husband. Her daughter married and went to be a farmer’s wife, and so could not tend the grave quite so often.
“So life went on, until about six months later the church gardener started to notice piles of soil in the church yard near the grave. He put it down to moles and put down some poison but still they came. Now the people of the village started to wonder if it was the Faer Folk coming to claim the bodies. So they had the blacksmith build an iron cage and put it around the grave. Stories say it goes eight feet down and there’s not enough room for an adult hand to fit in to it anywhere.
“Since then there’s been no moles in the church yard. And no one’s seen the Faer Folk in the village, although they are still sometimes to be seen up on the hill in the woods.”
“Is it a true story, Nanny?”
“Go and touch the iron railings, Ellie. Over there, on the sunny side so I can see you.”
“Nanny, they’re really warm! I thought iron was cold.”
“It’s warm to those of Faer blood, Ellie. For you see the girl was my Nanny’s mother.
Now come on, your mother will have that Sunday roast about perfect by now and we’ll need to wash our hands and faces for dinner.”
(c) Chris Johnson 2017 & 2019
Author’s note. There are some interesting graves dotted around all over the country and the Peak District, where I saw the graves which inspired this story, is certainly no exception. Each grave tells the story of a life, some shorter than others some more action packed than others. This story was inspired by two specific graves. I won’t mention the names or locations as that may be offensive to the living relatives. I’ll just suggest to my readers that if you are near a graveyard and have some time, take a walk around and think about the people whose lives are commemorated in that quiet, peaceful space.
It was chaos in the prison as the lights went out for the third time in as many minutes. This time they stayed out, the only light coming from the lightning strikes which seemed to hit only seconds apart. There was plenty of noise. The thunder shook the ground. The guards shouted to each other in their attempts to lock doors and contain the inmates, while the inmates themselves made every effort to make this difficult including shouting contradictory instructions. For most of the inmates this was a game which they joined in with abandon. Anything to break the monotony and pass the time. But for Dave ‘the barber’ Cross, this was his chance. He slipped through an open door into the canteen, from there through the kitchens and out through an unguarded side gate. Three years, two months and fifty seven days into his twenty five year sentence he was outside prison and running fast.
He covered a lot of ground very quickly. He knew that his best chance of staying out was to use the cover of the late summer storm, and the chaos of people and traffic on the streets of a blacked out Manchester, to get out of the city and into the countryside. He also knew better than to head north towards home, so instead he stole a car from the first car park he came to and headed out over the moors towards Derbyshire. Taking back roads as far as possible, and avoiding major towns where he could, he drove until the petrol gauge showed red. He managed to get it off the road and on to a farm track before it actually spluttered to a final halt. The rain had eased somewhat but was still constant, and with the windows misted up he could not see where he was. Rather than continue his journey on foot, he wrapped himself in a coat that he found on the back seat and slept.
When he awoke the world was white with mist. Dave could see not more than he had been able to see the night before. He knew that he couldn’t stay in the car, however, so he set off on foot following the track the best he could.
It took him three hours to find a building, a tiny cottage. He tried the door and to his surprise it was open. Inside were two rooms, one a bedroom with little in it except for a bed and a makeshift wardrobe containing very few clothes. He thumped the wall when he realised none of them would even come close to fitting him, then realised how stupid a thing that was to do in a rough stone built cottage. In the other room there were two mismatched easy chairs, a table and two chairs, a cooker that looked like it belonged in a museum and a small wooden pantry. He raided the pantry for some bread, picked up a sharp and well used carving knife, and sat by the fire to dry out and warm up. Knowing that his prison clothes would immediately give him away when the occupants returned, yet knowing that it was probably suicidal to try to continue his journey in the fog, Dave tried hard to remain alert for signs of them coming back. But in the warm, damp atmosphere with food in his stomach he was soon asleep.
He woke he was confused. In his three years in prison he had become institutionalised, so the lack of noise and bustle was enough to throw him into a panic. He stood, turned, then crouched ready to fight. When he saw an old couple sat at the table watching him. Their expressions merely curious. The events of the previous night came back to him. He groped around on the chair for the knife. The old man spoke.
‘You looking for this?’ He held the knife up, ‘Sorry to take it off you, Alice needed it to prepare our dinner. You must be hungry. I’ve brought a barrel in from the outhouse that you can sit on. Join us, eat.’
Dave did as the old man asked, if only because he could think of no other way to react. He started to speak.
The old man stopped him.
‘Before you speak, let me say this. What we don’t know, we don’t care about. We don’t have a radio or electricity here. Some folk down in the village do, of course, but we’ve all got history that we’d rather forget. That’s how we end up here in the first place. The village finds us. So think carefully what you say next.’
Against his character, Dave did think.
‘I’m Dave.’ He stopped.
‘Welcome Dave. I’m Roy,’ they shook hands, ‘and this is Alice.’ She nodded. ‘As I said, sit. Eat.’
They ate in silence. After they’d finished and Roy helped Alice clear the table he said,
‘You’ll need some clothes. I suspect Eric’s probably got something used to belong to his son will fit Dave, don’t you think Alice?’ She nodded. ‘I’ll pop over there. Dave’ll help with the dishes, won’t you Dave?’
He looked at Alice. She stood no more than five feet tall, skinny as s rake and arthritic hands. A small part of his brain told him to kill them both, take what he could and move on quickly. But there was something about the place, and Roy’s voice, that pushed that voice well into the background.
‘Yes, of course I will.’
‘Good. And later we’ll discuss chores. I’m too old to run this place on my own now. I could use a strong pair of hands around. Can’t pay you, though. Bed and board. Three good meals a day and you can sleep in one of the barns. We’ll find you a chair so as you can sit with us for meals and by the fire of an evening. If you want it, of course?’ Dave suddenly realised that he had never wanted anything more out of life. Even before he had time to speak Roy added. ‘That’s settled.’ And held out his hand for Dave to shake it. ‘Just one thing. We’ll beat the boundary on Sundays. You’ll come along, everyone fit enough to walk does. Until then, don’t leave the farmyard. After that, don’t go beyond the parish boundary, especially in bad weather. You understand?’ Dave nodded. It made perfect sense. He was a runaway prisoner. For some reason the people in the village were happy to hide him. Why would he leave?
On Sunday Dave joined the villagers at church. Church in prison meant a chance to get out of his cell and talk to other prisoners. Church in the village meant hellfire and damnation sermons from the vicar, who Dave thought looked like he could be the prison chaplain’s older brother, followed by a walk around the parish boundary. At various points on the walk, for which Dave could see no pattern, they stopped while the vicar prayed and Alice shook some dried herbs while the other women chanted something that Dave did not understand. Afterwards there was beer and mutton was roasted over an open fire then served on thick slices of bread. The men all talking about sheep, crops and the unseasonably warm weather while the women mostly seemed to be talking about him based on the sideways glances and the way they giggled behind hands when he caught their eyes.
Life fell into a pattern for Dave. Hard work on the farm, helping out on other farms when he could, Sundays in church followed by a village meal. On the Sunday after full moon the whole village walked the boundary, otherwise they just got on with life. Dave even started visiting the pub once in a while when he’d been given a share of the meagre cash income, but he soon found no-one wanted his money. He could have a few beers each week in exchange for some task on one of the farms which he was happy to do anyway. It never crossed his mind to work out what the exchange rate was for his labour, he found he wanted for nothing as long as what he wanted was not excessive. No one asked about his past, no one asked his plans for the future.
One day Roy died. Dave had lost track of how long he’d been with Roy and Alice by the time it happened. Many years, he knew by the passing of the seasons. Alice woke Dave and together they took care of Roy’s body. They took it by hand cart to the church where the whole village had congregated. A grave had already been dug. After a short service the body was lowered into the grave, covered over, and people left. Dave and Alice walked out of the village up to the farm. When they got there Alice started to prepare a meal. Dave tried to stop her, and failing that to help, but she quietly pushed him away, indicated that he should sit down, and finished the job. After they’d eaten Alice went outside. Dave never saw her again. The next morning, after he’d seen to the animals and his chores around the farm he walked into the village again. He found the vicar.
‘Alice has gone. I’m worried.’ He said.
‘No need. She’s probably just gone home.’
‘I don’t know where that is. She arrived here with Roy and has been here for years. But sometimes when a man dies in the village his wife leaves the farm to a younger man. Sometimes she moves in with neighbours, sometimes she goes home. It’s not unusual and not something to worry about. Just take over the farm. You know how we work well enough. Do what you need to do.’
Not for the first time since he’d arrived Dave found himself taking something that should have sounded strange at face value. He nodded, shook the old priest’s hand and went back to his farm. He stayed in the barn for a few months, only visiting the house to cook and eat, but when it was clear that Alice wasn’t coming back he moved in.
Years past. Dave did what was needed on his farm, helped out neighbours and spent Sunday’s with his friends. He got into the habit of going for a beer in the pub on a Friday and it soon became perfectly normal to drink for free, but leave with a list of favours he’d promised to neighbours. People came and people went. Some died. But village life barely changed. It was hard, but not unbearable, and generally Dave was a happy man. He mostly forgot about his old life.
The lightning lit up the sky and the thunder shook the floor. Dave woke, looked out of the farmhouse window and cursed. He could see his sheep pen had broken down and the sheep were running on to the moors in fright. He set off in chase.
The rain made it difficult to see where he was going, and the lightning only served to take away his night vision. He walked his land, lovingly collecting his sheep and one by one carrying them back to the barn where he locked them in. The storm was still raging as he set off for the final one, an old ewe with more than the usual amount of intelligence for a sheep. And oddly, the one he’d earmarked to slaughter for a Sunday roast when it was next his turn. He walked his land, then the neighbouring farm, then right to the village boundary. Years of walking the bounds had imprinted on his mind exactly where it was. So when a lightning strike gave him sight of the old ewe trapped in a gorse bush a hundred yards outside the boundary line he stopped for a second. But his concern for his beast overcame his programming. He ran to her, caught her up and turned to walk back…only to see his route suddenly blocked by a fallen tree. He swore, and took off to find another route. But he was soon lost. While he knew where the village should be, and kept heading towards it, every path was blocked. Try as he might, he could not find his way back. Eventually he came to a farm track. Following it he came to a car, blocking the route. He felt a sense of déjà vu. Turning, he walked the other way on the track. He was surprised to come across a similar looking car in the track. He took off across a field, only to come alongside the same car again. He dropped the ewe, watched her wander off, opened the car door and sat inside. It was still warm. Despite his best efforts Dave was soon asleep.
The knock on the window was no real surprise. Neither was the drawn truncheon. The constable almost didn’t recognise the white haired old man in front of him compared to the dark haired young escapee he’d been told to look out for. But the car was the one that had been stolen in Manchester hours earlier and this man was asleep in it, so the constable was not taking any chances. Dave got out slowly and held his hands out for the inevitable cuffs.
‘I’m the man you’re looking for. Take me in please.’
It had taken some time to persuade the authorities that Dave was who he said he was. He looked twenty years older than he had when he’d escaped, less than a day before. But his fingerprints and other identification matched, and in the absence of any logical explanation he was returned to his cell. In the prison chapel that Sunday Dave looked very carefully at the chaplain. Who returned his gaze and mouthed the words, the village finds us. Don’t go beyond the village boundary. Especially in bad weather.
Back in his cell, alone but for the noise of a thousand other inmates, a tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.
(c) Chris Johnson 2019
Bud’s phone vibrated on the counter top. His hand reached out from the cocoon of bedding, patted around until he found it, and pulled it into the warm nest. He checked the display. Danny. His annual call. He hit the green icon, then put the phone on speaker. All he could hear was the sound of wind across a microphone for a few seconds. Then a gap, as if someone was waiting for him to speak, followed by the same thing again.
After the second time Bud responded, ‘This has got to stop Danny’
The wind noise came back, this time louder. A casual observer may have thought more insistent, if they believed that the noise was in any way deliberate.
‘No’ Bud said, and hung up.
The phone vibrated again. Danny.
‘I said no. I meant no. It’s time to let it go, move on.’ Bud hung up again.
The phone vibrated a third time.
‘Don’t make me block you!’
The phone vibrated a fourth time. This time it was a text not a call.
You knowe whay 2 doi,,,
Bud sighed, and texted back.
He crawled out of his warm bed, into the October chill of a cold campervan.
‘Mac, it’s Bud. Danny called.’
‘Bud, you know…’
‘Mac, don’t. He called, ok? You know what we need to do.’
Mac sighed. ‘I’m not doing this every year Bud, this has to stop at some point.’
‘I know, I told him that. Come on, one more time? We promised, we owe him that much?’
‘Ok, you picking me up?’
‘No. The camper’s all set up. You can come for me.’
An hour after the first call Bud and Mac were in Mac’s unmarked police car, heading south at just over the speed limit.
‘I told him two hours, we’re good for time, you can slow down.’ Bud told Mac.
‘No chance. We get there asap, get this done and get out again. I’m on duty, remember, and this little annual sideshow is totally off the books.’
‘Whatever, just be careful. We don’t want to join Danny just yet.’
The prison buildings crouched low on the horizon, behind concentric high steel fences. Mac took the car off the main road, circling the prison fence until they reached a small chapel and cemetery just outside the fence. The two men got out of the car. Bud pulled a carrier bag from the back seat. Glass clinked on glass as the contents of the bag settled.
The men walked to a grave in silence, Mac rushing, looking over his shoulder as if to hustle Bud along. Bud taking his time, his face showing his inner battle to compose himself.
They stood by a simple, small grave marker. All it had engraved into it was a name, and two dates. Mac took out a half bottle of whisky and two glasses from the bag. Mac held the glasses while Bud poured.
‘We’ll get justice for you, Danny, I promise we will.’ The two men intoned. They clinked their glasses, sipped at the cheap spirit, then upended them and poured most of the contents onto the ground near the marker. Standing in silence for a moment, both men were in their own worlds when both of their mobiles chirped the message tone. They both took out their phones, read their messages, then showed the other.
I noe youu willl. Sooon? Get mee out of heer
Neither man could make eye contact with the other. Both looked at the grave marker.
18/4/73 – 3/7/2015
‘He didn’t do it, you know that right?’ Bud asked.
‘I know, we put him in there,’ Mac nodded towards the prison, ‘and they put him in here.’
‘So we’re still looking for the right man?’
‘Yes, we’re still looking’
Their phones beeped again.
Gooood. CU next year. Mayybee
Neither man spoke on the journey north.
Story and note (c) Chris Johnson 2019
Bud Robinson and ‘Mac’ MacDonald will be recurring characters in a series of action adventure stories which are currently being written. Few, if any, of these will be supernatural in nature…but the characters were in my mind when I sat down to write a Halloween flash fiction tale and this is the story they told me.
Thanks to my friends Ant and Karen for the magnetic poetry kits.
(c) Chris Johnson 2019
Amy looked over her shoulder.
She knew she’d done a good job. But the client wanted conformation. A picture. So she returned to the scene. Sent one. Now all she needed to do was to get away. Avoid the police.
Her phone buzzed.
You killed the wrong one. Try again.
(c) Chris Johnson 2019