Decapitation, Dream, Dreaming, Dreams, Drink, Edinburgh, Education, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Guillotine., Halloween, Halloween special, Headless Horseman, Horror, Humor, Nightmare, Online Dating, Ouija board, Pub, School, Sex
It was three in the morning on the double bed, in the double room, in the Travelodge at Cameron Toll.
Almost all of this room was bed and Tori was lying on the sheets as peacefully as if she was floating on a lilo. She lay in a silver-blue light which might have been moonlight, though it emanated, in fact, from the television which stared down from the foot of the bed. The television was muted and showing an apparently disconnected sequence of pictures, of surprised or concerned faces, which were by now playing on Tori’s eyeballs without her being conscious of them.
Sometimes a lorry or a night bus would sweep through Cameron Toll and the hotel’s windows would tremble, like the nerves of a watching animal.
A thickset man in his early forties lay beside Tori, smelling pleasantly of sweat. They were both naked, but so relaxed that they might have been clothed. There was obviously no minibar in this rudimentary sketch of a hotel, but the man, who called himself Iain, had brought various ingredients along with him. He had concocted a drink out of Glenfiddich and Irn Bru and numerous limes and, seemingly, a spoon of paprika. This he periodically guzzled. Tori drank a little of the whisky that was going spare, neat and from a miniature Travelodge china cup.
Tori was calling herself Emily. Emily and Iain had hooked up on a dating app. In this pause in the lovemaking, they spoke about all of the other people on the app. Iain had slept with several of the younger men, and Tori with a number of the older, so they each had interesting information to trade. The information had soon deteriorated into derisive gossip.
“Edinburgh is such a village,” Tori laughed contemptuously.
Suddenly her phone flinched and chirruped. The wholesomeness of the sound made them realise how quietly they had been speaking.
Iain eyed Tori inquiringly. “I’m not going to check it,” she told him. “It’s this guy – I don’t know where he’s come from.”
Tori nodded. Iain’s hand glided up rapidly, like a robotic arm, from beside his otherwise drowsy body.
He inspected the phone and Tori told him what he was seeing. “It’s a single photo – I get one every night – of a guy – say between twenty-five and sixty – with a fat white belly – a long pole for a cock – usually posing on a red sofa – and with no head.”
“You’re right” Iain confirmed. “And you’ve no idea who he is?”
“I’ve told him to stop time and time again. He just ignores me, the dirty bugger. There’s something creepy about it – it’s like his naked body is gloating at me.”
“But you can block him?”
“I dunno. I have this feeling that eventually I’ll get some clue as to who he is. You see, he’s called me by my real name.”
She shook her head hurriedly. “No, my real name.”
Iain looked perplexed and then exasperated and then he was addressing her formally, as if they had only just met. “So what’s your name?”
“That’s not the point. Nobody in my private life is meant to know it. And he does.”
“So he’s a friend? A workmate?”
“None of my friends or workmates are like that.”
Mrs Dorling was on her nth circuit of the classroom, an armful of question sheets now thinned to a handful, when she perceived that Becky was signalling to her to stop. A confident pupil, rather too confident, Mrs Dorling feared privately. In Mrs Dorling’s first decades of teaching, children had been quieter, slower on the uptake, more childish in fact. Becky would assume a tone of friendly equality with each teacher and agree wholeheartedly with their every utterance. Her eyes would flash with intelligence whilst you were speaking. You could not point to any fault in her without feeling that you had somehow shrunk and become a tiny malicious assailant. Becky was regrettably for such a young person – and, yes, this was the word – smarmy.
“I am meeting with James tonight, Miss,” Becky announced with a victorious smile.
Mrs Dorling smiled in surrender. What more praise or acceptance could she need, this tiresome girl? “Ah another one. Almost all of the non-boarders are seeing him now.”
“I will have him for two hours. Mum paid double.”
“You know, we’re not meant to recommend specific tutors – so I’m being rather naughty. But he’s an excellent choice for topping up your targeted learning. He’s also a very good influence for all of you girls. He edits an educational website – one of the best in the country – called Tychy. He sometimes writes articles for it as well.”
“So he’s a journalist?” What was this extraordinary creature that had washed up on the beach for the girls to capture?
“Well, I’m not sure that you should spend the session pestering him about that, with your mother paying so much. Best focus on next week’s exam topic: the French Revolution.”
Becky’s boyfriend Jude had called in after rugby and Becky had decided that he could remain for a while, though she would have to shoo him away soon. There was less than an hour until the celebrated tutor arrived.
Jude was thirsty after the game and so Becky poured him a humongous glass of orange squash.
They took a selfie together on Becky’s bed. It was immediately transmitted to an envious audience of thousands via Facebook and Instagram.
The pair kissed each other’s lips and the kisses rang with the steady rhythm of small coins being dropped into a vending machine. Jude frowned. He then sat up and disconnected eye contact with Becky and began to recount solemnly about how his friend Andrew was dating Melissa Mandowny, and how they had been on Melissa’s bed together, and how Melissa had taken off her top and bra and shown Andrew her breasts.
Becky did not think that breasts were very remarkable and she did not judge Jude’s interest in them to be very wise. “Melissa Mandowny went to a party in Granton and she took drugs there. She got a B in archeology.” Jude was fanatically healthy and Becky knew that this mention of drugs would take the shine off Melissa’s breasts altogether.
At a quarter to seven on the dot, Jude was shooed away, still grumbling, and Becky took her seat in the kitchen, with a display of helpful textbooks, to await her tutor’s arrival.
After drinking over a pint of coffee in the nearest Costa, James was swept up on a hurricane of caffeine to be dumped down in Becky’s kitchen. He felt that his mind and the surface of his skin were simmering like near-to-boiling water. “I’ll take tea,” he said weakly to Becky.
He was a small man and Becky looked at him over the teapot with calm. “I have these sample exam questions on the French Revolution.”
“Ah the French Revolution? So do you know anything about that?”
Becky put down the questions patiently. She had invited James here to judge her on her knowledge of the French Revolution and find her perfect. “I have learned all of the required information from the three key themes and knowledge areas: Equality and Diversity; the role that women played; and the development of the economy.”
“Er… that’s four themes?”
Becky shook her head. “It’s three themes.”
“Listen, let’s forget about the three themes,” In Becky’s world, such a suggestion was more revolutionary than Robespierre. “Tell me about the Enlightenment.”
“That’s not required information. It’s not one of the exam’s target…”
“Tell me about it anyway.”
“Okay…” Becky rattled through what she knew irritably. “Increase in scientific knowledge… New inventions… Some of the scientists were probably women, which I guess is relevant to the exam’s target areas.”
“Give me an example of this – something Enlightened.”
To her annoyance, Becky couldn’t. The normal machinery of her mind had spluttered and it now crouched forward quivering, with a sudden paper jam. Her remaining thoughts raced uneasily.
“Tell me about the guillotine.”
The wheels shot to life again and Becky resumed with her customary glibness. “This reflected the themes of social change and equality… There was meant to be just one method of execution for rich white men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds… It was meant to be more efficient and less cruel…”
“But was it less cruel?”
Becky smiled and glared at the same time, so that her face appeared strangely plastic.
James sat back, newly reflective, and that moment dawned which must be familiar to every pupil since Plato had first seated himself at the feet of Socrates. That demarcated moment in the lesson when the old goat allows himself to enjoy the sound of his own voice. “The guillotine shows that the Enlightenment was never going to have an easy time of it. The device was supposed to be humane, in decapitating the customer instantly and without any messy human error. Reports nonetheless came back from the scaffold of severed heads which had blinked, frowned, and attempted to speak. I mean, living heads! They now reckon that a human head can remain conscious for over a minute after being guillotined.
“And just imagine how that must feel, just how inhumane a torture it would be. Your entire body is reduced to the proportions and weight of a football! And it is being wheeled around in the air as weightlessly as a football, with a force with which most human bodies have never been handled. You cannot speak – you can only stare – and you are frozen in this unimaginable condition, along with all of the searing whiteness of a limb’s amputation, your body’s amputation actually, for over a minute.”
James struck the table in his excitement. “Here’s an exercise by way of illustration. Let me count out a full minute and just try to imagine the sensation. So ONE – and then – TWO – and then – THREE…”
Once the entirety of the minute was over, the lesson went on to consider the horrendous fate of Louis XVI’s infant son. It occurred to James that he was by now doing most of the talking. Becky was nodding abstractedly and history itself seemed to have turned murderously on her three knowledge areas. For once, James marvelled, he might have actually gotten through to a pupil.
Night was currently falling over Edinburgh by five. The two of them, James and Tori, met by chance in the Bow Bar on Victoria Street. They were both astonished by the luck of the encounter and it struck neither of them that they were only friends in the first place because they came together frequently in places like the Bow Bar.
They were drinking two pints of a porter so rich that you could feel the gout flowing into your limbs. James was recounting his earlier musings about guillotined heads. “Nonsense,” Tori declared. “The head would be knocked unconscious when it hit the floor. It would do so at some speed.”
James looked disappointed.
“Mind you, I wish I could get my hands on the head of this guy who is messaging me.”
“Block him,” James replied automatically. “How long’s it been going on for? How many pictures?”
“Several weeks now. I’ve lost count of the pictures. But I’ve seen every part of him, from every angle, apart from the head. He’s still as anonymous as Jack the Ripper, which is infuriating considering that I can see him with my eyes closed.”
“You must have some clue. You must have narrowed it down. It’s not me, for example.”
“I’m not sure that you can be excluded,” Tori reflected with light seriousness. “You are thin with your clothes on, but once naked and in a photo where there is nothing to offer scale, you could broaden out, become chubbier…”
“I do hope you’re joking. It really isn’t me. Are you going to make all your male friends participate in a naked identity parade? We could all line up with cardboard boxes on our heads so that when you’ve identified the culprit, you could take him out of his box.”
“You know, I’m sure that the culprit, as you put it, will be identified soon. Life is always like a soap opera – there are always three or four storylines ongoing at any given time. I sense that this storyline is reaching the end of its natural course. It will be concluded soon.”
After James had departed, Becky had retreated to her bedroom, where she sat shivering on the floor beside her bed. Her mother found her. “You’ve got your exam in a few days,” she proclaimed, with the wooden urgency with which lines are recited to children in pantomimes. “You cannot afford to get unwell or overstressed.”
Despite not appearing to hear her mother, Becky nodded in agreement. Her mother, in her ageless wisdom, led her downstairs and tried to revive her with a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, a favourite from Becky’s childhood. It didn’t work. Becky sat perfectly motionless, concentrating intently on the tumbling plastic balls, on the hippo heads which flung themselves from their lifeless bodies, agape with awful consciousness.
“You should go to bed,” her mother decided firmly. “I’ll make you some hot milk. Sleep.”
The hot milk now slept beside the bed, long cold.
Becky sank and came up again gasping and went under again and then plunged down deep. From her room across the hallway, her mother listened to her wave-tossed cries.
The dream, when it came, came many years into the night. Becky had lived for most of a human life and she had picked up its thread in the baffling days when all authority had been overthrown. She was detained in a crowded prison. Finally she was being herded towards a Revolutionary Tribunal where, dimly, and in that unfussed way in which things unfold in dreams, she was joined by Jude. He looked his usual sporty self, with his rugby bottoms and his blond hair gelled into a jagged flop. He did not seem to have been accorded a speaking part in this dream, however, and so Becky found that she was prohibited from conversing with him.
They stood side by side as their sentences were pronounced.
“Becky MacDonald: History, a B; Chemistry, a B; Physics, a B; Archeology, a C…”
Becky could not listen anymore – it was unbearable. She jumped and shrieked for them to be quiet.
Jude’s exam results were equally unimpressive and he was equally chopfallen. He had only one A.
They were being walked quickly towards the tumbrils. Becky tried to turn away, but everywhere she was met with stern faces, with faces that looked on her as though she was leaves to be swept up and scaffolding to be dismantled.
The ride was rough and Becky felt carsick. She tried to plead with the crowds but the jeering faces raced away, like the foam on the sea, as soon as she had focused on any of them. At one point their tumbril could not proceed because there were so many Parisians swarming joyously around it, all of them chanting Bs! Bs! Bs!
The guillotine was waiting in the Place de la République, with all of its awesome inevitability. “I’m going first,” Jude gibbered. He bolted like an athlete from the starting block when they called him forward. Becky wanted to take a firm hold of him but she could not locate the normal assurance in her voice, she could not speak. Operatives captured Jude and clapped him to the board and slid him into place.
The blade fell with the driest of coughs. The guillotine clunked so routinely that it was unimaginable to think that it had just killed him.
“And now you Miss.”
Becky could feel her feet walking her up to the guillotine in precise little steps, like those of an elf, whilst the rest of her body hung back on the air. Hands clasped her and they lowered her automatically, impersonally, arranging her tidily on the board with brisk pats. She was shunted forward.
Her eyes registered the hollow of the basket below her. She shut them at once, crunching them into the tiniest of balls, but next they had fluttered open again and they were feasting on the fascinating sight of Jude’s head. It lay facing up. The face was pale, with no apparent expression; its features were so rigid that they might have been drawn with icing on a cake. Yet Becky had suddenly detected a swimming in his eyes and next they had aligned with her own. He was making eye contact with her. He was still conscious.
The wave of panic which crashed over Becky was so immense that it had surely washed away all of Paris’s spires and towers. “No! – stop! – it doesn’t work! – it’s not humane! – it’s a design flaw!”
The air came down with a swoop on the back of her neck.
Tori had crossed the Royal Mile and Princes Street and George Street, to those ghostly Georgian circuits where the light had fled from the streets and any footsteps had thinned to an occasional lost trotting. At last she was home. Her apartment was clammy and even once all of the radiators were on full, the warmth seemed to molest the air ineffectually. Tori wished that she was slightly drunk; she wished that an old friend, any old friend, might phone by chance for a fond chat. She felt suddenly trapped because she had work tomorrow morning. She scraped some rice and vegetables around in a pan until they were limp. She drank half a bottle of white wine and this took her down a small, dull step. After ironing her clothes for the morning, she went to bed, bored and cross.
The dream, when it came, came many years into the night. She had lived for most of a human life and she had picked up its thread far out in the countryside, in a dark rainy landscape of hovels and middens. She was alone in a cold cottage with a steeply low ceiling and wicker furniture. Her man, her children – or whoever she lived with – was away for the night.
She had a candle with which she could evoke the rooms of her cottage. When she raised the candle, domestic scenes spread around her faintly.
Outside, through the different competing songs of the storm, Tori heard the hooves of a horse. The noise seemed to stop outside the cottage. Tori gravitated to the window and she looked down upon the darkness of the road. The shapes of trees shuddered against a blinking sky. Thunder darted around the horizon. She scrutinised the darkness but it did not produce any horse for her.
Tori was alone in the cottage with nothing to do. She kept a secret Ouija board in the drawer of her dressing table for these occasions. She would toy with it for a while.
She hunted amongst the rubble of the kitchen until she had found a little panicking mouse. It panicked in vain and it was now enclosed, warm and pulsing, in her right hand.
She seated herself before the Ouija board and placed her closed hand beside it. When she released the mouse, it trickled first to the T, where she apprehended it at once with her left hand. Releasing it from her left, it trickled next to the H, where she apprehended it with her right.
Don’t concentrate, she mused. Think of old summer days, of golden sunshine in a meadow, of children’s laughter beside a stream.
When she eventually focused on the sentence which had been slowly building itself in her head, she was astonished.
The headless horseman was in the living room. He was by the wine.
Tori went almost dutifully to the living room, except that such a location did not really appear to feature amongst her cottage’s sequence of dim rooms. And there was no wine in her cottage. The message was mystifying.
Sometimes you could get nothing out of this board. It would even taunt her. Its messages would lead her on, up until the announcement that the hidden gold was inside the vicar’s bottom, or in the lady of the manor’s fanny.
She returned to the board. The little mouse trickled back and forth. There was a second message:
Tori toured her darkened cottage again, waving her candle and hunting for the fridge, thoroughly confused.
She returned to the board, determined to have one last try. The little mouse was untiring and he scampered hither and thither.
The lightning struck and a single electric heartbeat vaulted Tori out of her bed and on to her bare feet. A man was standing in the doorway with both of his palms over his face, so that he was peeping at her through his fingers.
As the warmth of the bed fell from around her, Tori realised that she was naked and she involuntarily cupped her hands over her body. “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE” she yelled so hugely that the air seemed to rip in two like paper. The man bumbled backwards and he tried to manoeuvre himself out of the room with both of his hands still over his face.
The glass of water which shattered at his heels sped him up considerably. “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE” Tori yelled again, but by now there was nobody there.