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.
Running from the government
(c) Chris Johnson 2019
I have been lucky enough to have some poetry published online: https://issuu.com/matryoshkapoetry/docs/matryoshka-poetry-vol-1.docx
Run, jump, sing, play music – loud, shout, scream, cry, love, laugh. Go to bed, wake up and do it all again.
Your life is your story. Write it for yourself. Write it with others. Share it with others.
Do it now. Do it quickly. Before the mirage dissipates. Or worse, before we grow up and leave it behind.
“Enjoy your walk, you’ve got a lovely day for it.”
“Thank you.” Isla replied, having just picked up a selection of picnic food from the nearest shop to their destination she walked outside to where her companion, Eric, stood with a guitar case slung over his back. He was smoking a cigarette and had a face like thunder.
“Why do we have to walk to this place? Can’t we take the car? Why are we going anyway?”
Isla rolled her eyes.
“You said that you would do this for me and with me. It’s important. You know it has to do with the husband that I lost. I need to close that chapter before I can move on.”
Eric shrugged, and set off to follow a pace behind. He was smarting slightly that in the two months they’d been dating she’d never let him get as physical as he would have liked. But she was perfect in every other way, and way out of his class, so he’d decided that he was prepared to wait. Then she’d suggested this walking trip, and hinted at more if he supported her visit to a place that had some relevance to the husband she’d lost two years earlier. He’d agreed reluctantly and was beginning to regret it.
They walked for about at hour, first on a flat path then picking their way across some fields and up hill to a dense patch of trees. Finally, having followed Isla in to the trees and around in circles looking at half a dozen places that all looked alike to Eric, she spoke again.
“This is the place”, Isla said, “this is where we have our picnic.”
“Why among all these trees when we could sit over there and admire the view?” Eric asked.
“Because amongst these trees we’re hidden from everyone else, dummy!” she replied, giving him a wink.
Like a shot Eric dumped the guitar and started fumbling with her shirt buttons.
“Not yet, we eat first.” She said, batting his hand away. She took a blanket from her rucksack and spread out the food. “Come on, stop sulking and eat.” She popped open a can of lager and handeed it to him. Eric sat down across from her. “Not there, come and sit here, next to me.”
He drank down the first can in two gulps, thirsty from the climb.
“Did you bring any more?” he asked.
“There’s four. I don’t want one, so they’re all yours.” She turned her back on him to get another can from her pack, pooped the top and very carefully poured in to the lager a small amount of white powder. Eric drank, again taking almost half of the can with his first drink.
Isla picked up her guitar, and checked the tuning. “Eat something,” she said to Eric, “I just want to play a little while before I eat.”
Eric felt drowsy, putting it down to the walk up the hill and drinking too quickly he started in on the sandwiches. Isla was playing a soft song, and had started singing. He didn’t recognise the words. He found himself closing his eyes and lying back trying to make some sense of the song. Before long he was fast asleep. Isla carried on playing. The tune becoming quicker and the words, ones she’d learned from a dusty book found in a library basement, became simpler and simpler as if the song were regressing through language back to the very earliest forms of communication.
A mist started to rise. It crept over Eric; soon Isla could barely see his sleeping body. As she continued to sing and play she could make out what looked like tiny people dancing to her song in the mist. In her nightmares these people were very real, with pointed teeth and tiny swords the size of toothpicks. In her waking hours she told herself that all she could really see were eddies in the mist. But if that were true, her conscience asked, why are you here?
She carried on playing. Tears formed in her eyes and made it even harder to see through the mist as the tiny dancers worked themselves to a frenzy. The words ended, her last syllable echoing as the dancers in the mist all held that note for slightly longer than she did. Still she played, the music getting simpler and simpler until finally she was just tapping a rhythm on the guitar body. And then she stopped. Reluctantly she drank a small mouthful of the lager, lay down and slept.
She woke an hour later. The mist had cleared. Eric had gone. She sat up with a start, consulted a notebook and then shouted a few syllables similar to those in the song she had played earlier. A few seconds later a voice replied, this time in English.
“This time we accept.”
Isla started to cry again. From among the trees a man staggered towards her, as if drunk. He was not unlike Eric; tall, good looking with dark hair. But this man was not Eric.
“Tom! Isla shouted, “It’s me, over here.”
The man called Tom staggered over.
“Wow, sorry, I must have fallen asleep while you were playing. That wine we brought for our picnic is stronger than I thought.”
“Did you have any strange dreams, Tom?” Isla asked.
“Yes, I did.”
“Let’s get our gear together and get back to the car, you can tell me your strange dream on the way and I can tell you mine.”
Isla packed the guitar carefully into its case and gave it to Tom to carry. She turned her back on the blanket and food. An observant person may have noticed the rotting remains of another, similar, blanket close by. Careful examination may have suggested a third. Forensic examination would have found two more.
As she turned to leave the copse for the last time Isla smiled her first true smile in two years.
Author’s note: This story is part of a work in progress, a series stories inspired by the people and places of the Peak District National Park. The Low was particularly inspired by a picture I first saw in The Rook, Hartington. The picture is not there now, it’s hanging up at my home. The Rook is still there, and I heartily recommend it to anyone in the area for food, drinks and snacks and some beautiful art.
There are a number of ‘Lows’ across the Peak District. All of them have some mythical stories attached. This story was not written with any specific one in mind.
(C) Chris Johnson 2015
“Another pint please, Landlord, and whatever my friend here is drinking.” Then, turning to his companion Ed asked, “So tell me some more about the old railway, I love old railways.”
“I’ll tell you some more stories, but how are you getting back to your campsite?”
“I’ll walk down the trail. I can find my way there in the dark and I’ve got a good torch.” To prove the point Ed took his torch out of his pocket, looked at it a little puzzled when it didn’t shine as bright as he expected, shrugged and put it back.
“You don’t want to be walking down that trail at night. Especially not through ‘the cutting’.”
Ed smiled. “Why not?”
“You just don’t.”
The Landlord returned with a fresh pint and a small whisky.
“John, don’t you be scaring off my customers now. Either be nice or leave him alone.”
“Simon, you know the stories…”
“That’s it, they’re just stories. Ghost stories to keep children from playing on the tracks. There are no tracks now, and no children to scare, so leave it alone!”
John grumbled a little into his whisky, then launched in to a long and confused tail about a farmer whose land was cut in two by the railway when it was built, and how he’d died trying to stop a train from hitting a stricken cow.
Ed finally stumbled out of the pub at half eleven. He tried his torch again and when it was clear that the batteries were dead instead lit the torch on his mobile. John followed him out of the pub, the Landlord’s final goodnights almost lost to the sound of the pub doors being bolted firmly shut. John sidled up to Ed.
“Serious now, don’t walk down the trail. If you must walk use the road. Or walk to mine and phone for a taxi.”
“Thanks, John, but I’m fine. I’ve got a light and it’s only a mile or so.”
“Then listed carefully. Don’t stop. Don’t talk to anyone. Most of all, don’t take anything from anyone.”
Ed laughed. “Do you tell everyone who comes to the pub your ghost stories? I’ll come back tomorrow with a pad and pen, we can write some down and make a book. We’d make a fortune.”
“I’m not joking, Ed. If you want to come back tomorrow, I’ll be here. But you won’t make it back if you don’t listen to me now.”
Ed looked at John. He felt a sudden chill. For a few seconds he thought about taking John up on his offer and calling a cab. But then his bravado and a lot of beer took over.
“I’ll be fine. Thanks for a great night, I’ll probably see you tomorrow.” With that, Ed turned and started walking towards the trail and the footpath back to his campsite.
Twenty minutes later Ed’s mobile battery ran out, and with it his torch. Feeling a growing discomfort in his bladder, he stopped and urinated up a tree. John’s words came back to mind as he zipped his fly. ‘Don’t stop.’ Ed laughed, nervously, saying to himself, ‘don’t let the old fool spook you. It’s just a silly old story’. He turned and walked on, surprised by how light the path looked even without a torch. As he entered the cutting, though, Ed realised how much darker it was getting step by step. He shivered, almost stopped and then realised that there was not really any point. He might as well get back to the campsite now. Plodding on in the dark, his mind began to wonder. The mixture of fact and ghost stories he’d heard through the night in the pub started to replay and mix in his mind. He was so absorbed in his thoughts what when the man spoke to him he almost screamed.
“Hullo, what are you doing out on a night like this?”
Gathering his wits Ed replied,
“I’m walking back to my campsite. How about you?”
The man replied, as if he hadn’t heard or hadn’t understood.
“I’ve not seen you on the cutting before. You new?”
Ed though for a moment before answering, “Yes, I suppose so. It’s my first time here.”
“Good to meet you. I’m Albert, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew when we get to the face.”
Ed started, suddenly he heard voices behind him in conversation that he was sure he’d not heard before. And on the walls alongside him he saw the reflection of lights swinging from many hands. He closed his eyes, shook his head. ‘Don’t talk to anyone’ John had said. But why not, he hadn’t got a light, these people had. They were all walking in the same direction and they seemed friendly enough. He opened his eyes. Albert spoke again.
“Are you well, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” And laughed.
Ed laughed too, “I’m ok, I’ve just spent the evening with an old man in the pub who was trying to scare me with ghost stories, I think you catching up to me like that spooked me for a moment.”
“There’s always someone trying to scare us into stopping work.” Albert said.
Ed stopped suddenly. “What did you say?”
“I said there’s always someone trying to stop us building this railway. Farmers who don’t want their land used, villagers who are scared of the noise or the smoke. There’s always something.”
“You said you’re building the railway?”
“Yes, of course we are.”
“But that would make this what year?”
Ed stopped again. How long had he been walking through this cutting, he wondered.
“Here, you’d better be carrying some gear when we get to the face, the foreman will dock you pay if you aren’t carrying tools.” Albert handed Ed a lamp and a pick axe. Ed took them then shivered remembering John’s final words; ‘most of all, don’t take anything from anyone’. Looking over his shoulder he saw thirty or so men in Victorian garb, and in front of them another ten or so in more modern clothes ranging from 70’s flairs through to modern gore tex. All of them had pale skin and dead eyes. All of them were carrying a lantern and pick axe.
“Albert,” Ed said, quietly and deliberately, “are you the hiring man?”
“I am. I get paid for every man I lay on, and when I have my own full gang I’ll be a foreman myself.”
“How long have you been recruiting?” Ed asked.
“Since the day after the accident, when a lot of my old team were killed. Welcome to the team.”
The next night in the pub the landlord was annoyed. “John, see I told you, you’ve scared off that young lad with your ghost stories. He was a good spender as well! I’ve a good mind to bar you.”
“I didn’t scare him off, he’s still around.” Said John, as he tucked his change in to his wallet alongside his ‘foreman’ railway ID.
(C) Chris Johnson 2014