This week, a story that seemed to pop out fully formed, where other attempts to fill this post felt horribly overworked or disconnected – other stories which, having gone ‘bump in the night’, may yet see the light of day, but only after some rather deconstructive editing. Instead, text hacking to a minimum, I present Miss Briana and her dog, Enid, who have both come to visit.
iss Briana arrives at the Flodden wall at her usual time – Enid, her black Labrador beside her, tail a flag in the early morning mist – and smiles through the postern gate, fingers over an iron cross-bar, head framed in an iron square of cullis. Is it my imagination, or is that smile tighter than normal? Blond hair and pink lips are a smooth curve to the harsh black paint and blistering metal.
There was a time when she’d have to clatter the bars with a stone or stick to call me, the ‘man on duty’, but now we are aware of each other’s routine. I have just walked the circumference of the battlements, high over the falling slopes of grass and wild flowers that fall away to the jumbled crush of buildings waking up below, a fine flow of fog about them; tendrils of smoke rising from breakfast fires. The air is still. The smoke dissolves above like frayed rope.
There is something I must remember for her; in the words.
Enid has Briana’s handbag in her wide, soft mouth. It is a peculiar image: dog’s muzzle agape on Versace; black leather softer than gun-cloth. It drops the saggy, clasped bag carefully, unblemished, by her foot.
“Hello Calla,” she smiles. “All well?”
“All well, Miss Briana.” I don’t quite manage a smile in return. That, we both know, is not my way – the serious, automatic firearm in the crook of my arm, man of the watch, and all – but it is always good to see her.
“My, it’s cold today.”
“Aye, it is. It is.” I nod, thumb and forefinger touched to my beret. “Hot yesterday. Misty morning and harr today.” The stones are damp with it. The steps, the narrow doors and transitways between towers are moist. Moisture glistens on Briana’s woollen bonnet.
“So what has Methrin done today?” Her eyes bob in a ‘Lord only knows’, a well-practiced intro she knows will get me talking. I barely catch my gulped desire to avoid the answer.
“Ach,” I sigh, slipping down the gun, though it still rests in the crook of my arm, its magazine full of silver and mercury. “I probably shouldn’t go on.”
“But?” She smiles.
“Ach. He’s a rogue. Always away from the job. Down in the town, last. When a night watchman should be doing what his name suggests: watching the night.”
“In the middle of the night.” she adds, biting her lip, eyes grown large with theatrical consternation and that little twinkle that never quite leaves.
“Aye. But, uh, I’m sure the Calloch will have him right shortly.”
She places an arm through the grille, as if looking to pat my own, but instead loops the stem of a buttercup around her finger. The bloom is quick to bruised and oily. “My father, my brother, should sort him out soon.”
“Aye, well. They will. Old friend or no. I always say nepotism is your father’s only flaw. Last night was the last of it. There was some unformed thing climbing the wall.”
“There was?” all trace of humour gone.
“Aye. Rounds were fired. The alarm went off.”
“Down there a bit, by the sports centre. Don’t worry,” I say, off her expression. “There’s a knack to living through the nightshift. I keep myself happy, tell a few stories of my own, and hope they don’t come back to haunt me. But Methrin always liked ale and women too much.”
And she gives me a slightly longer glance that seems to say, ‘maybe you should try it sometime’. Or, at least, my heart imagines it so.
Instead she says – popping the bloom off that buttercup and, smearing it, looking down to her fingers and the mess she has made – “I heard he was already dead.”
I stay level, though the ground moves. Well, she was bound to know it soon enough, if told it long enough.
Behind me, parked under a bridge-like arch of medieval stone, is a jeep. In the back is the body, wrapped up in paint-stained cotton, taken from a decorator’s store. Not all the paint is paint. He’ll be making a mess. That, at least, is how the shadows show it.
“I heard it was you, Calloch.”
Hopes and fears come out in stories and later climb the walls. Her face, itself, is like a dry wall of black stone, so artfully fitted that not one shred of paper could be fitted between the cracks. Her expression is bitter as blood.
“And I’m sure I’ve got a story to tell, tonight, when the candles flicker and everyone’s imagination is up for it. Secret, like. To amplify things. And anything we conjure, I’m sure they’ll want to say hello.”
“Oh, they will. I’ll send you my love.” Her eyes glitter. Flint from the wall is reflected there.
And the dog picks up the purse, careful as a downed duck, and Enid and her mistress pick their way down the path to the city again, to safety and storytelling – to how Calloch took Briana’s love with a bullet, and how that story came back in the night to scramble up the stones, scritching and scratching, reaching out – the colour of bile in the yellow sodium light of the streets – and came with long fingers and claws to open him like he was only stitched closed, because he’d found the man, Methrin, in league with stories, dancing with them in the moonlight, lost to the swirling dance of mumbled dreams.
I can hear the guard coming to change old for new – relief for those suddenly found weary – and the flag on the flagpole clatters its metal cables as the cloth cracks in the gathering breeze. The city below swirls as the fog shifts, but it still feels like illusion.
I wish, to the fullest of my heart, she would not come like this – each morning, the last of the unbedded dreams – before all fades on the touch of the sun.