[You may recognise this as a retelling of an old Edinburgh fireside tale.]
Once his ship was berthed in Leith, Captain George Burton had not gone home to his wife and family, or at least not immediately. They could wait for now. Although Captain Burton was an old sea dog who had crisscrossed oceans, he was only ever struck with a vivid, lurid sense of drowning when he thought of his wife. Her bland, placid surface – the awful depths of her watery affection – and himself sinking down, down whole, to be lost in the boredom of her love.
His friends knew darkly and amongst themselves that he was holed up at Lindsay’s Nook with Maggie, the landlord’s wife. Maggie was a sort of loose sexual ally from the olden days; a kindly woman, who loved him sensibly and without impertinence. Rolling about in bed with her, he would be sometimes agreeably startled by her passion, just as you might get a little shock when a familiar housecat nips your hand.
With a bit of effort, Lindsay’s Nook could have been a brothel, but for the household and regular patrons alike, the prospect of noisy, splendid young sailors flocking down upon them seemed almost like an injustice. Passages led deep into the interior of the tavern, away from the roar and rattle around the bar, into darkened rooms where a doddery seaman might happen upon a helpful, comforting girl. But Maggie otherwise ran a decent house, and boisterous young men usually drank up quickly, sensing faintly that they were intruders in this tavern.
One afternoon the hostelry was half empty and the Captain was dozing in a chair by the fire. He awakened gradually, and then with a sudden rush, to see Maggie looking down on him with a mysterious smile.
“Good afternoon Captain.” That smile again – beautiful and pleasantly mocking. “Would you like to meet somebody who might interest you?”
The Captain registered with irritation that he had not awoken in a complete state. His mind felt blinded – filled with dazzling invisible light – and he stared around the room in a kind of anguish.
“It will interest you – a story you can take across the sea.” Maggie bestowed another beautiful, mysterious smile on him, and then frowned. “Would you like some wine?”
“Please,” the Captain grunted.
A wire fox terrier scurried scrappily into the room and stopped blankly at the fire. It looked up at the Captain and then settled restlessly. With the wine came a very slender young man, with a shiny, freshly-adult look as if he had been just stretched into shape. The Captain sat back and surveyed the young man wistfully. Youth is a native port left over the ocean long ago and you can never go home.
The Captain drank his wine a little too quickly and freely, allowing its spell to race over his brain. Maggie entered the room again, still wearing her mysterious smile. “This is the fairy boy.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the Captain laughed. “Are you a fairy? Or do you sell them?”
The young man looked politely bored by the Captain and his humour. “I drum for the people under the hill,” he explained patiently.
The Captain eyed the boy anew, as he might do an approaching ship which is suddenly flying a strange flag. “Which hill?”
“Calton hill.” For the citizens of Leith, this hill had the advantage of concealing an eyesore. Edinburgh squatted behind it, voiding itself endlessly. The fumes hit Calton Hill to roll back again.
“And you do this…?”
“Every Thursday at midnight,” the boy informed him dutifully.
“You might treat him to a drink,” Maggie suggested from the window. The terrier glanced up.
A boy like this probably did not drink wine every day, the Captain thought happily as he clambered out of his chair, wincing, to pour the boy a draught. The boy was explaining how hundreds of different people met every Thursday under the hill to dance and rejoice. The boy would beat his instrument with such rapturous intensity that the underground halls would whirl away, transporting the entire assembly to France.
The Captain chuckled. “How do you know that it’s France? Can you speak French?”
No, the boy continued. But the people had fur and pointed ears and their buildings looked like flowers and there were rivers of gold, and so it was evidently France.
The Captain turned to Maggie with amusement. “How much shall I give this clever young man? I wish to reward him for his cleverness and yet not encourage him so that he repeats this gibberish to every poor devil who enters your tavern.”
The boy smiled nervously at the Captain, shaking his head. The Captain reflected that the boy looked handsome when he was solemn, but mildly goblinesque when he smiled. That unexpected, lopsided grin, as long and bald as a slice down the length of a fish, was almost authentically elfin. He gave the boy two gold coins and the boy finished off his wine, draining it with prompt courtesy.
The afternoon was cold and the Captain huddled by the fire. Maggie came and went, leading new customers to and fro. The Captain imagined his family all waiting for him in the farmhouse at Dirleton, commenting over dinner each evening upon the imminence of his return. He shivered and edged closer to the fire.
One morning the Captain was cracking jokes about the fairy boy as he lay beside Maggie in bed. With the hilarity finally cooling, he reasoned that this boy should be grateful to live half lost in the port. Out in the countryside, people who told such stories were still sometimes incinerated.
He forgot all about the fairy boy until Thursday evening, when he had invited some old friends to dine with him in the parlour of Lindsay’s Nook. Jacques Pontfarcy was a merchant from Orleans, who always looked weary and depleted in the Scottish climate, as if he knew that hell was deathly cold and suspected that Scotland was its closest bordering nation. Rab Ryan was a shrewd fellow who worked in customs and duties. Mickey Kincaid, an ancient mercenary who claimed to have fought for and against every army in Europe, was also present. He had acquired cunning from the Spaniards and atheism from the Turks, but these were merely spirits which bubbled away in his black Irish kettle.
Halfway through dinner, the fairy boy was suddenly standing at the Captain’s side.
“You called for me, sir” the boy reminded him.
The Captain snorted with surprise and gazed about, but Mickey and Rab were immediately on their feet, smirking malevolently. The door of the parlour was shut and the boy was their captive.
“I’d like to see the fairies come and get you now,” Mickey sneered. “It’s not long ‘til midnight…” The boy smiled without pleasure and his eyes flashed around the room.
The Captain was put out. “This is a dining room, not a prison!”
“Eh, I hear that you have been visiting my native land,” Jacques remarked peevishly to the fairy boy. “You must pay your respects to my mother next time. I hear that she now has a duck’s beak and the legs of a millipede.”
All of a sudden the Captain wanted for everybody to be at peace. “Maybe if we fill him to the brim with wine, he’ll be too drunk to run away.”
He called for a tankard and the boy accepted it without a word. There were boos when he sipped from it.
“You’ll have to do better than that, my honey,” Mickey raged.
The boy was allowed to settle beside the fire, subdued by the wine and nursing his tankard. Their triumph was rather disgraceful, the Captain reflected. Men of the world were not supposed to go to war against a boy’s daydreams. At midnight, would they just clip this tipsy boy around the ear and boot him out into the night? Behind their awkward tomfoolery was a faint but distinct note of suspense. They were all very definitely alert.
Soon the presence of the boy was making them gloomy. The Frenchman, who was always openly indignant about the world, began to recite his worries about his son. With Jacques never at home, this boy had only his mother to set an example to him. He was seventeen and he shaved less frequently than the maids. The Captain’s mind turned with irritation to his own son. Every time that he arrived home from sea, he hoped to be relieved, to find that his boy had changed dramatically for the better. Every time he was disappointed. The boy looked like an inferior version of his father; nothing had been added to the original, and various important characteristics had been subtracted. The boy was light on intellect, manhood, dignity, and charm. The Captain knew that if his son was a long lost bastard and he had encountered him as a stranger, he would not have glanced at him twice.
Maggie was in the room, collecting dishes. She smiled at them. “Where’s the boy?”
Everybody reeled and then there was a desperate scramble for the door. Swooping out into the night, their blood agog, they caught sight of a figure racing frantically like a hare down the centre of the lane. They bore down on him and he was seized and led back to the tavern.
“A slippery one, eh?” Jacques gasped.
“Where’s the wine?” Mickey shouted.
“On the step, untouched.”
Mickey practically plunged the boy’s head into the wine. “You’re supposed to be the drunk one, not us!”
“Enough!” the Captain called. He had stayed behind, allowing the others to run ahead, but he felt out of sorts, as if they had all awarded this fairy boy further credibility by chasing after him.
They now wanted to tie the boy up. The Captain and Maggie both intervened at the same time. Things were getting daft.
It was half an hour until the boy could be released. He was returned to his original place beside the fire and Mickey pulled up his own chair against the door, so that nobody could leave or enter the room without his consent. Suddenly the boy looked up at the Captain and gazed at him directly, possibly for the first time that evening. The Captain froze. There was no expression of appeal in the boy’s eyes; rather one of command or even petulance. The Captain felt that he had momentarily attracted the attention of royalty. Foolishly, he looked away.
There was a scrappy, scrabbling noise at the door and both Mickey and Rab were on their feet, but it was only the little wire fox terrier, in search of the fire. It padded in, its head down, seemingly minding its own business. Its trail led it behind some chairs and the Captain turned to look at the fire, expecting to see the little dog appear before it. Then the Captain staggered back. The dog had dropped on to the table in front of him.
The dog addressed him in a quiet voice. “This one is not for you.”
All of them had heard it and they all stared. Had this dog really spoken? Perhaps it was a strange mistake and they had overheard somebody uttering a remark outside in the corridor. The dog stood on the table in front of them, as blank as an egg and snuffling at the crumbs on the tabletop.
They all became conscious at the same time that they had been standing with their backs to the fairy boy. And then somebody yelled and pointed and they all saw it rising dimly in the moonlight: a moth bobbing helter-skelter above their heads to drift out of the window.
If only I had earned your confidence, the Captain grieved, with a bitterness which he had not felt since he had been a schoolboy chasing after proud, distant girls. If only I had taken you to one side, and wrung the concession out of you, and we had whirled away together under the moon, two black moths.
Beneath the hill an ancient network of cellars stretches away in all directions. If you press against the bare soil at a certain spot on the hillside you slide into something like the stringy flesh of old fruit. The flesh falls apart and you drop and dangle through skeins like vast threads of cobweb and dip into further membrane and a gel of pips.
The Captain wanted to be alone, roaming over the hill in the darkness, rather than remaining to witness the raucous, hysterical amazement back at the tavern. He wanted to be studying the hillside, listening intently for the faintest of music.
That night he took his chilling despair to bed with him and curled up around it. Maggie lay drowsily beside him until finally she froze and relaxed and then she was asleep.
The Captain pressed on into the darkness. He was walking from one room to another.
Maggie stepped out from the shadow of a doorway, smiling archly. She was wondrously naked. She was smiling like a lover who is full of surprises and a pure, fresh tenderness. The fairy boy emerged and manoeuvred her by the waist, bending her over and groping for her cunt. She looked back over her shoulder, smiling knowingly at the Captain.
The Captain looked up all of a sudden and it slopped massively into his arms. He had no choice but to embrace it. The underside of its body was as wide and dusty as a road, with the same bare, rugged surface. The Captain caught the weight of its shell and he briefly assumed that a small building was toppling on to him. His lips met those of the snail and they were long and thin. He kissed these lips as he traced the snail’s body down to find its phallus, a twitching bobbing dart. The snail’s mouth expanded to cover the Captain’s entire head, slurping at his hair, whilst he concentrated on jerking its penis briskly in his fist.
The snail’s mouth had now covered half of the Captain’s body, as if a huge billowing bag had been draped over his head. Suddenly the snail’s dart ploughed into the Captain’s groin. The Captain froze and then his scream hurtled to heaven as his own testicles ballooned out to a monstrous size, with fantastic, dazzling agony. Both of his legs broke, the bones shattering all the way up to the thigh. The beleaguered dot of his body now veered back and forth, careering on the axis of his colossal testicles.
By swinging them as if they were legs, he began to thrust them forward, one after the other, and soon he had achieved an odd but definite walk.
He became conscious that he was lurching over a patchwork landscape. “Watch out!” he croaked, but his voice was too faint to reach those at the base of his testicles. He sensed that he was leaving a smear of crushed houses and mangled livestock behind him.
He stopped, wobbling for a moment, to peer over the side of his right testicle. He could distinguish a regiment of soldiers with pikes and domed helmets forming below him.
Suddenly he spied a church spire on the horizon, and he began to slope towards it. He heard a tiny shout of command and the hide of one testicle was ineffectually peppered with grapeshot.
It was a monumental effort for the Captain to roll his weight back and then plump a testicle down on to the spire. Most of the structure gave way but the point of the spire nonetheless stuck fast. Immediately, the Captain seemed to plunge downwards, like a boy swirling in the crow’s nest of a sinking ship. Beneath him a wild foamy torrent was washing away a town, with the citizens clinging in desperation to runaway roofs and beams.
The regiment had clambered into formation to greet an almighty wave of the Captain’s semen. The sticky warmth melted their flesh together, into a single cake of writhing legs and clawing arms and the mechanically biting remains of heads. The Captain’s bruised body, now ending in a long tattered skirt of skin and blubber, plummeted headfirst into the cake and it began to inexorably wrap itself around him, gnawing and chewing. As he melted into the mass of flesh, the Captain’s final impression was of a familiar voice rasping into his ear.
“Bienvenue en France.”
[Previously on Tychy: “When the Corpse Bled.”]