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Black Door Pt. IV: Softly, Bearing Gifts

Welcome to Part IV of my short serial ‘Black Door’. Previous parts of this story, are here:

I: Softly Does It

II: Rowan

III: Adam

IV: Softly, Bearing Gifts

***

M

r Softly splashes into a muddy plashy, and growls at himself. This is not how to sneak. Especially not up through this tall, pine hillside, that is barren and brown and smells of spicy pine oil, each twig a pistol shot.

The next hour is silence. Branches thrust up to his guts in crazy angles, but he squeezes on through the standing dead, as greased as the wind may be.

He chuckles. No clothes catch or drag, like flickering sails.

Instead, he holds the gun.

The gun is wrapped in layers of cloth – a shirt from the old man’s cabin – and the warm checks hold Softly’s delicate claws away from the blistering meteorite of cold iron.

He wonders once again, if such a gift from one of its own will turn the Clutcher to talking, or whether it’ll just eviscerate him where he stands.

Make no mistake, there’s no love lost between Softly and Clutcher, oh no, and what’s more to the bother, it seems – suspiciously – that the Clutcher can see Softly, perhaps as clear as day.

Clear as day: that most disreputable of solar events.

Softly sighs, and continues to drag that heavy old gun up the hill, arms straight, chest wheezing, as if, for all the world, he’s carrying Death itself. Which, he suspects, he may well be. Man, Softly, Clutcher, they all carry their deaths with them – death to share, death to give or take.

And he with a Clutcher to befriend, or at worst, threaten.

Who knows what might happen if this offensive weapon went off? Indeed, he may wonder for some time immemorial, for this gun is not loaded.

More’s the pity.

Still, threats and surprises. General bluffery and skulduggery, invisible claws slipping around the throats of…

A hillside, where the light has gone from the ground; these shaggy-tailed, dogs-of-pine scattering needles on his head and arms. His own, fragrant scent of musky animal, wet cat, gives way to flecks of resin and amber droplets, tacky like honey. Flies fizzing around his invisible crevices. The sun dropping like a splot of fat beyond the ridge, the moon opening up like white cartilage in the bloody sky.

‘Come, Softly,’ its says. ‘Bring your bleedin’ iron and let’s have at ya.’

“Softly, softly,” he mutters. Wouldn’t do to rush it. “Clutcher is as clutcher does.” And my, my what long, long, fingers it has, for whiskings yer eye-bobs out, and sucking a peeper like a popsy.

But softly, softly, for the man called Adam is most necessary.

“Oh, yes,” mutters Softly. Guns and graves and whispered stories needed, if a weavings to capture. A wonderful, wonderful, weavings to make more’n invisible than invisible. A shadow of horrors, without a shadow.

Ha.

He slips past a branch, and more resin falls to invisible, upon the flesh he’d want as slough. But to do it, tricks and favours; eh, mah boy?And with that, finding the body; soft, and wet, hanging like a bony tent of flesh out here in the wilderness.

And guarding it?

Why, the Clutcher, like as not. Smell its spoor – like treacle, glands ripe – marked a branch right here with urine, oily as lamp oil.

A distance, yes, from cliff and the Black Door? “Complicated,” he hisses. But he wants the weavings, yes?

So does it.

Simple.

But the Clutcher is unpredictable.

While Softly has lived most of his life on the outskirts of urban brick and cobbled ways – in the damp truckle of cellars and beer-swilled alleys, dragging and eating whatever limb may drop, half-cut between his jaws – not so the Clutcher. Wilderness fills it like a bag.

Ah, the limbs, Softly muses: often sweet-meat tainted by beer, wine or cider, or his favourite, Stout. People like pig? Not so that apple goes. No, Stout to a liking. That’s what’s best. But the malty, treacly treat is rarer these days.

Licks his lips.

And now, the ridge, and into the crator. Birds die. No light. No moon. A reek of death behind pine, like a sewer running foul beneath a shady, dappled street. Gun ridged up in cloth, claw to the useless trigger. Aye, the weight of it dragging on his steely soul; metal on metal.

Softly, softly.

Ask yer question, bugger off. That’s what he says to himself.

Crash of leaves!

… whisked off his feet and pinned six feet up a tree trunk, like a plank to a broadside.

September 22, 2011   15 Comments

Black Door Pt. III: Adam

Welcome to Part III of my short serial ‘Black Door’. If you want to read the previous parts of this story, they’re here:

I: Softly Does It

II: Rowan

III: Adam

***

I

f it happens, Adam knows about it. That’s just the way it is. Some people are ‘the news of the world’, but Adam’s more the ‘news of tomorrow’. And that’s not just because he runs a hostel.

You know the hostel? Down in the Grass Market? The one that used to be a refuge?

Back in the day it was the ‘West Port Night Refuge and Home for Deserving Men, Women and Children’ (or, if that’s a bit of a mouthful, it was often called ‘The Port of Providence’ to those in need). It was run by the Daughters of Charity and first opened for salvation in 1718. You can still see that date on the swan’s-wing pediment over the front door.

A lot’s happened since then.

Today, above those slightly austere, stone numbers, there’s a hand-painted sign in green whorls and brown, peeling paint. It might once have been merry, crafty and welcoming. Now it’s merely comfortable. The borders are stylised knotwork, the letters Celtic. Ten years that sign’s been there; long enough in Edinburgh’s toothy winters to see to the end of words and the beginning of illegibility. But look, that’s a ‘W’, and that’s an ‘E’, and you get the rest: World’s End Hostel.

‘World’s End’ is the name of a pub not too far away, but Adam liked the name so much, he decided to ‘adopt it’ for the hostel, turning the name, he said, into a district.

At least, that’s his justification.

In actual fact, cards on the table, that particular borrowing was Rowan. She made the sign, when Art College was a reality and travel was still for pleasure. And when you look at it, there’s an amazing elegance to the slap-dashery of it; if the whole thing wasn’t quite so distressed.

That’s telling.

Truth is, Adam probably should’ve chucked that sign out years ago. Said he would a hundred times. Still hasn’t. And there’s still paint everywhere.

So, once the hostel was a refuge.

Kind of still is. Now the hall, leading in through the tall, Georgian façade, is covered in posters for Polish theatre, and there’s a life-size wooden monkey at the door.

Yeah, I know, most people look twice.

At first glance, it’s a grotesquery of mid-colonial, plantation art, but it’s holding a sawn-off shotgun. The paint’s peeling, but that monkey does have a certain look in its eyes. That ain’t a bird-scaring banana in its paws.

To the left of the monkey, an art space. Although it’s small – more of a shop window from outside – it does host the occasional flamboyant revival of healing art, aura photography, and automatic writing from psychic dabblers. And then there are the special exhibitions of the downright weird (if those weren’t weird enough): paintings, or photographs, from all around the world, some out of time or place. Travellers bring them. It’s easy to miss it from the street, but the hand-labelled names are kind of funky: ‘Sasquatch at Dawn’?

I mean…

Except, that is a photo of some guy in a monkey-suit drinking from a Canadian lake; could almost be a dog standing upright.

I love that photo.

To the right, a café.

Well, when I say café: more somebody’s living room. It’s strewn with battered-down furniture from the eighteen hundreds, parachuted and covered in Indian throws. Sit down and they’ll swallow you whole. Put your hand down the back of the frayed leather, and you’ll find a sediment of crumbs left by Arthur Conan Doyle or Dr. Joseph Bell, and a silvery seam of a sixpence. The smell of patchouli fills the air. Then there’s the time-polished tables from a brewery, cut out of barrel-tops; cups, hand-thrown and wobbly, glossy and matte – made out of snakes; a tea urn from a car plant that closed down years ago (more reliant than Reliant); and the moistest, densest, black-hole-chocolate-walnut cake you’ve ever had. Sticks to your teeth; crumbs up the wazoo. But, hey, some folk have travelled halfway round the globe for it.

Help yourself and put the money in the tin.

The café, ‘The Smaug’ – that’s what you get when a Tolkein aficionado misreads ‘The Snug’ (I know, hostel humour) – is always busy with travelling folk, and with others who stop by whenever they’re in Edinburgh. Stand out on the West Port and you could see them in there right now, though you’d have to peer through the crawling jungle of cheese plants and yucca that are steaming up the windows, tuning the light inside to the exact, forest-green of Venezuela.

Mood lighting, the way we like it.

If you’re more of the pin-stripe-mugger variety, and like your Mocha-Latte with hand-tweaked sheep’s cream on the side, and an al-dente pinafores biscuit, then you know ‘the type’ who frequent this place: they’re ‘crusties’, hippies, ‘travelling folk’, Indies, Emos, bikers, students, and honest-to-god ‘weirdos’.

Undesirables.

And those are just the ones you know about.

But if you’re any one of that breathy brethren, then you got here by travelling in every conceivable meaning of the word, and I love you all.

And Adam was here to great each and every one of you, because he knew you were coming.

He’s the perfect host.

We don’t even have a brass bell.

He’s standing at the door right now, shirt sleeves rolled up, watching the rain pee down. Alas, we’re well past the warm, wet smell of virgin pavement from the first few drops. In fact, this being Scotland, we cut straight to the downpour and drainage of an incontinent horse. But if you stand just to the left of the splattering water from the broken down-pipe, there’s plenty of dry space in the portico, monkey-and-gun not withstanding.

Adam’s back on the rollies.

He quit yesterday.

I guess he knew he’d re-start again today. You can smell peaches – his specialist rolling tobacco frustling as he draws in with a tight whistle and blows out, thin-lipped.

Got a black mood rolling, despite the eclectic crowd.

Humidity is five hundred percent in the Smaug – you can feel it boiling down the hall – and there’s a load of American writers, comedians and musicians in there. It’s Festival time, which transforms ‘The End’ into its own punked-out, carnival-venue of crazy. Glee, shouting, banging floors, music unplugged, folk jumping down five steps at a time. You can hardly get in over bikes and rucksacks in the hallway – downed traveller’s tools, for those with that eclectic heart-bone in their bodies. Right now, the World’s End is so rammed, you need a gorilla on a broom-handle to push ‘em back in.

Long live health and safety.

But that’s not it. Adam loves all those high spirits, even if he does sometimes wish those travelling boots were on the other foot.

And that’s the third time he’s looked at his watch in as many minutes; a watch that’s not on his wrist. He doesn’t even need a watch.

Why doubt himself now?

I guess he’s looking for a shit-kicking, punch-in-the-face argument. In other words, he’s looking out for another body through the misty downpour; a ‘certain someone’ who’s not here yet.

Man, he looks depressed. It’s hardly ten am and he’s already done one terrible thing – and one beautiful thing – today, all at the same time, and he’s made a deal with something that wasn’t there, just because he knew he did.

And he’s got a funeral to sort out.

Ever stop to wonder that foresight can kinda kick-in-the-teeth of free will?

If you know in advance?

Really know?

But what do I know about it? I’m just a gun-toting monkey with walnut for brains.

September 10, 2011   15 Comments

Black Door, Part II: Rowan

Welcome to Part II of my short serial ‘Black Door’. If you want to read the first part of this story, it’s here:

I: Softly Does It

II: Rowan

***

R

owan has been following the luasgan for days, winding her way up through the southern hills, along the slanted shores of the great landmasses and ancient volcanic rock. This is where great plates butt and press into mountains. Mist drifts as horizontal falls. There is only mud and shale, the old stone ways, and the rustling scrape of gorse-thorns on waterproof, where she trails fingers over eroded spirals and the white bloom of lichen. She is the tiniest of tiny blue flames beneath the great vaulted grey skies of rain. Clouds grow up like vast cliffs of crushed snow, where castles of giants aught to sit, were not the weather bleeding the pendulous formations, pulling rain down to the level of the land, in one long downdraught of the elements.

Buckets. Sinks. Bail for your lives!

Mud cracks between her teeth. Her feet ache, her arms are numb; bones are bruised. These trainers will never be the same again. A wicked cut wanders her left cheek, like a crack split by a razor. And while there is pain in her eyes, brown as Autumn’s fingers, there is also determination. To find this trouble before it runs to ground with its last tatters of magic.

And then she hits the festival.

By the three!

The Festival – Edinburgh Festival – where the streets boil with tourists and performers, every eye looking to ingratiate at the latch, every hand a flyer proclaiming this show or that; and her pushing through the bodies that stop to watch the temporary stages, where men in dresses and women holding puppets vie with drummers and Oxbridge ya-ya-yas. Geisha, punks, Slavs, a man with his trousers round his ankles, a trio of nuns, false breasts bumping, bulges, wailing, singing, Lycra, lamenting, applauding, cat-calls and whistles – a bulbous honk-honk, ha, ha, ha, ha – balloons squick and squerk as they’re tied into inflated octopi, while rope is laid as impromptu stages on cobbles, and the stalls of jewellery and fine crafts are perused. A WWI infantryman with a face of pancake white wanders past, followed by his cardboard plane on little brown legs. Both are bog-soggy. Why they wear tutus is quite the mystery.

And through it all, dazed and dirty, the huntress wanders; wondering at the hopeless task of finding one unbody, unbound, in the hundreds of thousands, while Edinburgh is swollen like an overripe pumpkin of pithy players, and extravagant one-liners.

“Hey nonny, nonny,” says a bulbous fool, bowing in his motley. Mesmerised by his rubbery, red-tipped nose – a perverse eight inches long – she takes his flyer; but immediately – guilty and angry – dumps it one bin later, in the great snowdrift of similar flyers. Take it. Take it. Take it. Take a rude brush past, paper scraping at her edges.

Brows ratcheted low. Sighs. Too numb to be angry or involved, or anything. She keeps her hoody up, fingers pinched to the cap-brim beneath, squeezing moisture and the remnant prickle of a bracken spur.

Feels her heart speeding; stares down another flyer for a theatrical review, stapled stars fluttering, man gabbing about venues and discounts. Man face here, man face on flyer. He holds out the paper for the taking – see? She wonders, briefly, if she can state, ball-faced, she has no arms, despite the obvious swing of them. See what he’d say.

A silver Audi crumples along the cobbles, slowed to the speed of crowd awareness, and sinks down Coburn St.

A cycle rickshaw, held standing on chain and pedals.

“Be-yoot-iful lay-dee, issa wanna ride?” Along with the faux-talian, the Australian idiot is trying to keek under her black hood, and peer around her curtain of slung blond hair. An uneven antipodean smile, wet and dazzling; muscular legs and cycle shorts. Regretfully, she lets the pleasing movement of lips and teeth drop behind, swallowed in bodies.

People eating pizza, scattered with fistfuls of grassy rocket, with straw-clinking glasses of Mojito – gourmands and commentators sitting on aluminium chairs under a wide awning, rain a curtain, curling at the edges. Umbrellas ill-advised, block the view. Fuck’s sake!

Pushes through. Blue poncho’s, German, Italian, Spanish voices.

Suddenly exhausted.

She huddles in an arched ‘close’ beside a black iron gate, the bars as thick as three fingers. High on the wall, an iron plaque says something Scottish in raised gold paint.

Breathing.

There is stone and slabs and her own chest rising and falling; a split-splatter of water from the far end.

Breathing.

Revellers wander past like trash in a flood.

The ring in her lip burns cold.

Sighs. Slips some hard lines out of a plastic bag strapped up in elastic. Wipes water from the screen. Cursing the interminable digital wait, she composes a text. Her fingers are so cold they feel like meat impaled on metal. Her waterproof chaps at her wrists, flesh pressed into branching canals; white and pink.

Sniffs. Sniffs. Back of her hand wipes wet. Bloody weather!

The text reads:  FESTIVAL – WTF??! SCARRED BT OK. LK FNDG BOGGART IN A MALL. SPK SOON, ROW X.

Sniffs.

Waits.

Waits.

Waits.

Pling!

Flicks open the phone again: SEE ADAM. K?

Not bloody K! She stabs the red exclamation, killing the phone, and dumps the L of black plastic back in her pack. Hopefully it’ll drop amongst her soaked underwear and explode. As it is, there’s a dull clunk, tunk, and ‘ptung’ as it bounces the length of a crossbow.

She has to push on.

Grubby fingers and torn nails rustle on waterproof fabric. She pulls out an agate arrowhead – smoky grey, white bull’s-eyes – on two foot of chain, each loop a tiny silver ring scribed by the Toichean, and hangs it there in the shadows that smell of kebab and strawberry ice cream. She relaxes her mind, spinning the beebaw, faster, twisting slower, slow, then faster revolving back again, slow, stopped, slow, revolving; moving it round in a circle over the stained concrete, slippery and black with chip fat.

Her mind opens up, then, like a door.

The door has ‘no idea’ written on it.

Her eyes snap open; almost yanks the chain into the ceiling.

Great. Stuffs the apparatus back into her pocket, loop-after-loop, and zips up the last poisonous coil. As if it meant it. Anger bubbles. Useless piece of –

Gods! As usual, no preparation, no place to stay, no way to turn back.

You could phone Adam, says a thought that’s looking to get stabbed. Shut up, she reminds herself. Meanwhile, something of the descendant wheel wanders the streets of Edinburgh. But where?

A small insect-like huzzz.

A piece of paper tumbles. She watches, black ice; eyes suddenly sharp, forgetting the dark bruises that ring them.

“Bloody Mary!” She mutters. Another scrap whirls around and around through the bars, where instead it should drop limp and wet, running low with the rain of the day. But it doesn’t. It is propelled.

This is paper brought by performers, loud and long from far away – those pushing the cheap seats and converted town houses, where theatre grows up behind black curtains. Fringe for Free. Punters deciding. Or not. Fate grows charged and dangerous on decide, decide, decide.

Or rather, those things decided against…

Horror-struck, she realises a deep, heavy magic has been performed in this city, with no care for those other travellers of the word; those already breaking rules.

Her in-breath is cut short. Glossy paper smacks and folds over her mouth, the white photography of ‘Britain’s bitchiest comedienne’ now the reverse of a smile, holding in, rolling on like film played backward.

All the better to wipe out her anomalous path.

She scrabbles for the knife in her pack, as more paper oozes, slips and slides beneath the tromping feet – discards, muddy and mongrel, looking for a fight. Others, whiskery, sliding like rusty sheers in buckets and bins, dry and sharp, as jabs of cutting paper begin to slide into her.

Now swiping in a circle with the stone knife, hacking towards her own features, flint whirling, scared to stab herself in the eye or face, and yet the paper is on the march, pressing in like papier-mâché, moulding to her face and tracts, the soft slumping of mushed words squashing water to her lips, moving like slug or worm.

All the while, the threads of reality are twanging like loose power lines – the antibodies of causality are on the march.

Her overwhelmed, thrown onto the metal of a dumpster, head clangs. And then, and then…

Slices across her face with the knife, the tip rattling her teeth, a taste of blood, and breath whooshes in.

She drops a word like a lead brick.

Foom!

Tatters of paper, curling at the edges with an eye-blink of flame, others trailing smoke like downed tail rotors, other fluttering like black feathers, her stumbling out of the close, coughing, eyes red, watering.

Into the cheers of the crowd watching the backs of other cheering heads, while somewhere in-between are acrobats.

Soaked paper slides from her arms like wet flannel; some cracks and falls away like cooked egg-shell.

A woman – child in hand – snarks a face at the slup that’s ended on her boot-end, her eye-shadow crinkled to nail heads.

A man pretending to be a statue – dark bronze and verdigris from head to foot, tie wired, bowler hat steady – catches a fluttering ash that floats to his palm like a tall-masted rigger. He blows it away with a metal-lipped, theatrical stiffness; and then he catches the scent of charred hair and waterproof.

This – this is why the Fates let none play the warp and weft of the loom: Weave m’boy and the lands will end. Weave m’boy and the white seas shall have kith and kin of the word.

September 6, 2011   11 Comments