Borneo, Borneo Rainforest, Edinburgh, First Date, Ghosts, Humor, Indonesia, Jenners, Jenners Department Store, Jenners Tea Room, Jungle, Jungle Adventure, Malaysia, Marriage, Short Story, Spiritualism, Taman Nasional Betung Kerihun, THE BLACK DOG., Witch, Witchcraft
On Rufus’ second date with Ellen, there had been a clearly timetabled moment towards the end of the evening when she had grown solemn and embarrassed. So there’s a catch, Rufus had thought, but he had been also happily fascinated to learn all about it. A hysterical ex-boyfriend who still sat outside her house every evening in his car? Some extraordinary phobia or a complicated, intimate medical condition? It was probably not the end of the world, and he took a self-satisfied pleasure from the unexpected chance to be kindly and understanding.
She had been frank and to the point. She had taken a sharp, soft breath and then declared that, “I’m a witch.”
Rufus had chuckled. Yes, it was embarrassing.
“Think of it as being my religion,” she had continued. “You don’t have to be told about it. There will be a veil drawn over it. Indeed, I won’t tolerate prying. I also won’t tolerate you laughing at it.”
And so from the very start, Rufus’ lacklustre jokes about flying home on a broomstick had been packed up never to be opened, as if behind dusty cellophane. To this day, he remembered that momentous early conversation with Ellen word for word. Strangely, however, he could not recall where it had taken place. He vaguely pictured a 1970s interior, an unpretentious restaurant or café, but he was certain that those words “I’m a witch” had not been whispered. Had she really uttered them clearly in the hearing of waiters and other diners? He had a feeling that, if so, this would have had more of an effect upon him than the actual words. Even more damningly, Rufus could not remember whether she had first allowed him to make love to her after this date or after a subsequent one.
In those days Rufus had always looked too practical to be a teacher. He was the sort of man who you could scoop up in handfuls from hardware stores, a man whose clothes always carried, with a silken softness, the hard aromas of paint and dry wood. Without any bitterness, he had looked honestly sexually frustrated and throughout the early weeks of their relationship his eyes had still hovered ruefully, alertly, over Ellen’s body, like a child who is watching an ice cream grow smaller and smaller.
During the first Christmas after their marriage, the reality of Ellen’s witchcraft had been brought home to him. They had been living together in her cottage in the Pentlands. One morning, Sadie, Ellen’s sister, had come round for coffee with her dogs. An old crony of Ellen’s, who they had called Arlene Pepperpot, though this couldn’t surely have been her name, had joined Ellen and Sadie in the kitchen. Rufus had been pacing about on his own in the living room. The sound of the ladies’ cackling had seemed to rise constantly inside the tank of the kitchen, like a balloon which they would not let drop to the floor.
The living room had a low cottage ceiling and both the sofas and the swirling tendrils on the wallpaper were a glowing brown-orange colour. This room was dominated by its enormous fir tree and suddenly Rufus had been impelled to switch on the electric fairy lights. Rufus still loved Christmas with an unbearable fondness. He knew that the connection between his childhood awe of the Christmas tree and his feelings towards it today remained strained, but essentially unbroken. Alone with the tree, he had stood back in complete peace and feasted his eyes upon its almost Oriental splendours, the ancient toys and baubles bathed in the heady perfume of pine needles.
All at once Rufus shuddered. A tiny mewling sound was issuing from around the back of the tree. He froze. It was as if the surface of the world had cracked and this mysterious cry was draining out from the blackness behind it. He did not know what to think but perhaps he might have thought that there was a kitten somehow tangled up in the tree’s branches. With difficulty he began to slide himself between the tree and the back wall, into the corner behind the dark side of the tree. Knobbly branches pulsed against his belly and the tree jingled faintly as every decoration was slightly disturbed.
To his amazement, a new-born baby was bobbing within the pine needles, with its scrawny, leathery little body kicking at the air. Its face was hideously, almost unnaturally contorted. At first Rufus believed himself to be looking at a sort of mangled cherub, but then he had worked out the reason. The baby’s tiny lungs had been each pulled out of holes in its back, and they were still inflating and deflating, creating an unnervingly lifelike impression of moving wings. Ripping away his eyes, as painfully as if swinging around the whole room, Rufus was no longer looking at the baby though the wings continued to beat before him. The baby’s fists continued to curl and uncurl.
He was striding about the room, squeaking and snorting to himself. Ellen tottered up swiftly to his side.
“I’m sorry I left it lying about. You shouldn’t have seen it.”
Bizarrely, he had wanted her to hold him and comfort him, even though his mind knew that she was responsible for the baby. “Is it ours?” he had asked finally, in a small clotted voice.
She had paused for the gentlest moment before replying “No.” Then everything had been quickly moved on. “You remember our deal? Your promise about prying?”
Rufus had made no promise about prying, but he was in no position to argue the point. For the rest of their marriage, he had dutifully averted his gaze whenever the women had been plotting together in the kitchen. He had made himself scarce whenever there appeared to be trouble afoot. Even during the crisis in their marriage in 2010, when Ellen had used her witchcraft to drive one of Rufus’ mistresses to suicide, he had never asked direct questions about the forces which were assailing him.
And so now, in this grove of mistletoe, somewhere on a jungle island on the opposite side of the planet from Edinburgh, Rufus was genuinely intrigued to see what would happen. For the first time, part of the veil was being lifted.
Maybe he had thought that Ellen would stride about melodramatically, reciting incantations whilst thunder scurried across the sky. Instead she fished for his arm and then they were walking across the grove together, past the shields of mistletoe which hung above them in the trees. A large black dog was waiting for them on the other side.
The dog was fluffy but sleek, one of those dogs that are as apparently weightless and as perfectly shaped as a single long feather. It seemed to greet the dampness of the jungle air with distaste, stepping very precisely over the oily mud underfoot. Through some nuance of its body language this dog appeared to convey that it really thought itself at home in deciduous forests, in warm days in autumn, when its shining black coat would harmonise with gorgeous swirls of red and golden leaves.
“There is a young man called Marcin Podkowinski,” the dog said thickly. “Have you heard his name before?”
“I have not,” Ellen answered.
“In Edinburgh there will be arrests. There might be a trial. For his murder. You must find all information about Marcin. Whether he is alive or dead.”
There was immediately an understanding between Ellen and the black dog. She knew that its powers had failed, that it could not locate the errant boy. The dog was now threading its way through the trees and Ellen and her husband were following.
Yet Rufus was beginning to slow. “Where are we going?”
“That last tree, which is wreathed in mistletoe, we are going behind that tree.”
Rufus hesitated, wagging his head, but she continued to tug at his sleeve. The dog padded ahead of them. Ellen was so far satisfied by her husband’s behaviour; he had reacted to the black dog with appropriate reverence, he had not tried to film it on his phone. But she was ultimately preoccupied by the possibility that the Penan boy might appear. In moments such as this, the dead were known to approach.
And sure enough, her gaze suddenly fell to where the boy was crouching, headless, beneath a small tree. Ellen was reassured: there was nothing menacing to this figure and she was in some way certain that if he had a head, it would be now sobbing. She wanted to duck down, to squeeze his shoulder in commiseration, but she kept up her pace and kept the black dog within sight. She had the rest of her life to regret the boy’s death.
The dog turned and walked around the final tree, without looking back. The Stewarts followed and then…
And then they were standing in the centre of Jenners tea room. It was apparently mid-afternoon and very busy. Rufus scrambled on the spot, stumbling against a chair and knocking over a vase which his arm had got caught on. Ellen seized the vase before water spilled everywhere, and she apologised, with a smile, to the couple at the table.
“Rufus!” she hissed. He gazed about in dismay, instantly conscious that this was not a hallucination. The scene before him was as unremarkably real as the coldest morning light, the plainest office furniture.
The Stewarts had arrived in a long room which was cluttered with spacious, olive-grey armchairs. Almost everybody was female and past their fifties, all eyes and smiles, kindly Edinburgh dames each with their fund of malicious gossip.
“We are in tremendous danger, Rufus,” Ellen murmured. “Our bodies are lying on the jungle floor, in a deep trance. They could be attacked or interfered with by the orangutans. So we have to work quickly. We are looking for my friend, Beatrix Barton.”
“She’s over there,” Rufus realised, gesturing to a table against the window. Beatrix was having tea and cakes with a little old lady, who Rufus vaguely recalled was named Nanny Peters.
“Now listen to me Rufus. This will be very difficult, but whilst we are here, you cannot eat anything. This is not a game. If you do, you will remain in this room forever. Like in that old fairy story.”
“Ellen!” Beatrix was crooning at them. “What a surprise! I’d thought you were still on holiday.”
Ellen eyed little Nanny Peters with annoyance. This made things considerably more problematic.
“I must apologise for our appearance,” Ellen called, indicating their tattered, jungle-stained clothes. “But we were in Primark, buying some shoes for Rufus, and it’s such a battle just trying to get from one end of the store to the other.”
Beatrix smirked. She was a handsome old lady, startlingly gangly and energetic when in conversation, but with the reassuring glamour of your favourite grandmother. Nanny Peters was tiny and amazingly animated, so that she looked rather like a ventriloquist’s dummy that Beatrix was mysteriously operating. Nobody could ever remember her real name; they were not even sure if her surname was actually Peters. “Nanny won this in the school raffle,” Beatrix confided, flapping a paw at the cake stand. “They are welcome to join us, aren’t they?”
Nanny Peters was already recommending a certain type of scone, which was particularly sweet on the inside. “It said we could have a glass of wine,” she told the Stewarts, “but this always makes me need to widdle.”
“Best not,” Beatrix warned. “I’m not having one either.”
Ellen seated herself at the table with her back perfectly straight. Her husband dumped himself down next to her. “Oh we spotted you when we were in Jenners earlier and we thought we’d find you in here. We’ve already had a very heavy lunch, so we won’t intrude on your tea. Rufus will explode.”
Had Beatrix fathomed what was afoot yet? Her eyes twinkled with their usual merriment, and she had passed no comment on the Stewarts’ surprising absence of shopping bags.
Next Ellen did not have time to think, for Rufus, who had been strangely quiet up until now, had immediately bolted. He seemed to sweep a tiny segment of gateau from the stand straight into his mouth. Ellen at once had two fingers inside, digging fiercely. “Spit it out!” she commanded with stentorian volume. “Spit it out!” Soggy lumps of cake were expelled on to the tablecloth. Rufus rocked back and forth on his chair, waving his fists powerlessly.
Nanny Peters stared at this exhibition with consternation and then with sudden rabbit fright. “I have a napkin here,” Beatrix said quietly.
She must have made some signal, for two smiling waitresses appeared to clear up the mess. It was one of those cafés where the staff are several decades younger than all of the customers, and as conspiratorial as children at a wedding.
Rufus scowled at the ladies, his face black. “You must have nothing to eat,” Ellen gibbered at him, her voice now almost hysterical. She cursed this spectacle that they were making. Nanny Peters was surely going to start blubbering.
Beatrix laid a hand on Nanny Peters’ arm and she gave the table a kindly smile. “Poor Nanny is very upset at the moment, and I’ve taken her out to try to cheer her up. So let’s turn those frowns upside down.”
Ellen gratefully took up this cue. “Oh dear, what can the matter be, Nanny Peters?”
Nanny Peters began to explain. Her grandson had recently emigrated to Australia and here he had met a lady friend and they had had a baby. Nanny Peters felt that she had a duty to help her grandson. Aside from the years of useful wisdom that she had to impart (which was always crowned with her advice to “do it your own way” and “don’t listen to what anyone else says”), she had cartons full of babies’ clothes and feeding equipment stacked under her bed. She was also anxious to see the baby. In a postcard from Australia, her grandson had recommended that Nanny Peters should buy a computer and use a device called “Skype” to watch the new baby as if it was on television. Joe (who was nominally Grandpa Peters, though none of them ever called him this) had proved too dim to take the computer in hand. Finally, another great-grandson, who lived in Kirkcaldy, had charitably intervened to set up the computer for Nanny Peters. Unfortunately, however, Nanny Peters had made the calculation that if she was going to connect with her grandson and his family, this could only be done at some unearthly hour in the morning. This evening she was going to try to stay up past midnight, but she did not know how she would manage to keep awake.
“It does sound quite an adventure,” Beatrix commented. Ellen had not known Beatrix to ever use the internet, but Beatrix was one of those rare, strange people who always seemed to lead a wonderful social life without it.
Immobilised beside Ellen, Rufus was no longer following the conversation. She rested an unseen hand on his knee, though he did not respond. “Nanny Peters, you are far ahead of Beatrix and myself when it comes to this. Even Rufus.”
“You’ve never used Skype?” Nanny Peters squeaked. She sounded faintly scandalised. She then quickly assured them that it was supposed to be very easy.
“And so I wonder,” Ellen continued, “whether you could carry out a small request for me. Only after you’ve spoken to Australia, of course.”
Nanny Peters looked awed and guilty at being taken into Ellen’s confidence. She peeped over the cake stand. You might have thought that she was a boy spy being entrusted with state secrets.
“You’ll need to write this down. On a napkin.”
“Oh yes,” Nanny Peters replied eagerly. “There’s a pen in my handbag.” She was now fishing for this amongst faded peppermints and ancient receipts. It had been probably given to her free by a bank.
“I would like you to contact the police at Taman Nasional Betung Kerihun.” There was then a considerable pause, for over a minute, as Nanny Peters dutifully recorded this name capital letter by capital letter. At last, Ellen was able to tell Nanny Peters that, “there are two tourists lost in the jungle without any food. Their bodies will be found, hopefully alive, at a large orangutan colony far within the interior.”
Rufus slumped beside her, apparently asleep. A waitress was now staring at them from the counter.
“And you’ll do this for me, Nanny Peters?” Ellen pleaded. “You’ll make this call? Cross your heart?”
Nanny nodded at them, perplexed, her features now tinged with sadness at how endlessly unpredictable this modern world was.
For the first time during their encounter, Beatrix raised her voice. “Are you in danger Ellen? We must be able to help?”
Nanny Peters gazed at the empty seats. Beatrix put down her teacup with a disgruntled clang.
Eight hours later and a helicopter was descending upon the orangutan outpost. The police beat down the jungle around the clearing and they eventually found the Stewarts lying nestled together like the babes in the wood. The bloom of life still glowed in their cheeks.
At some point Ellen became aware that she was floating in the middle of an old wooden hut and that hundreds of people had surrounded the hut with outstretched arms to rattle and rattle it. The air outside dipped and sang. “There’s activity – can’t you see?” a voice beside her queried. His name is Marcin Podkowinski, Ellen thought. We are alive today because I am being brought back to Edinburgh to find him.
[And this ends the Stewarts’ adventure in the Borneo rainforest.]