Autumn, Edinburgh, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Halloween, Halloween special, Humor, Immigration, Melancholy., Polish Immigration, Scotland, Scottish Highlands, Sex, Sexual Assault, Short Story, Witch, Witchcraft
[It has become customary for Tychy to publish a ghost story on or around Halloween, but unfortunately the world has been very stingy with the time that it has permitted me this year to devise one. Yet I made an opportune discovery whilst going through my inbox yesterday, a narrative that had been sent in by a reader. It occurred to me that this could be entered as my Halloween story.
You will surely notice, as I have done, how its writing is curiously similar in style to that of the fiction on Tychy. I like to think that this is another sign of the growing influence that my website is exerting upon modern prose and the presentation of ideas in general.]
My name is Andrzej Štefan and I am an old acquaintance of Zbigniew Tycienski’s. I have featured briefly in a couple of the stories on your website although, I must say, their account of my character and actions has always struck me as possessing more colour than accuracy.
I was party to a strange incident whilst holidaying in the Highlands recently and I thought that it might be of interest to you and your readers. I hear that your website is underperforming these days, with few articles being published and even fewer people reading them. I dare say that my story could be like a judicious kick that is administered to a beached whale, in encouraging it to flop back into the water and towards some helpful passing current.
As your stories have already detailed, I am an alternative healer. Yet many of the purchasers of my therapeutic services are from the Polish community, which has been much thinned in Edinburgh over the past year. It was thus that in August I accepted a temporary position at Edinburgh University, in admissions processing and support. A friend had recommended this work to me and she had promised that there would be a significant spike in the remuneration that I normally have coming in.
At the university, I share my office with a young man named Felix. Every day we each bring in cold pasta, in a microwavable box, for our luncheon. I am aware that this sounds unappealing but I am usually thinking about nothing else aside from eating this pasta from about half ten in the morning onwards. My story begins with our boxes of the day’s pasta being unsealed and with Felix telling me about the long weekend that he had just returned from.
He and his girlfriend had adventured out of Edinburgh, taking the train up to Fort William and then a bus out onto the Highlands. Felix is one of these young people who is in Edinburgh only for an allocated period. He is soon required to return to his homeland to participate in some kind of military service. He and his girlfriend were now in that process of scrambling about collecting choice Scottish experiences, memories, photographs and videos, before the clock was counted down and their time was up.
There was little room in their finances for big hotels. Yet Felix told me that he had been given a tip about a certain place where it was possible to stay very cheaply. In addition, this option was meant to have much more flair than anything on the usual circuits.
“You have to go to a village [this, he told me] and then keep walking even after the village is gone. For a long time you think that you are nowhere – there is just moors – and then you walk down and around the side of a hill and you can see a loch and there are these… pods?”
“They are yurts, basically. And when you see them, you think: ‘Nono, this is going to be so cold that we are both going to die inside these things.’ But they are strangely well insulated, super-cosy in fact. Anyway, we were walking towards these pods and nobody was there and it was getting dark… we were the only people there in fact. But suddenly a farmer shouted to us – he had been waiting for us behind one of the pods and he was carrying this lantern – and it turned out that the yurts were all in the back very end of his farm. And he took us down to our pod and he zipped us up in it and… we soon found that it was so amazing, being there in the middle of the wilderness and down in the long grass, like being one of the Neanderthals again, but warm, not like being in a tent. And the next morning he came again and he unzipped our pod and he had brought us breakfast… all of the things, the eggs and the bacon, were all made on his farm… it really was amazing.”
“It was amazing,” Felix concluded, nodding emphatically. “If you are ever in the Highlands and you are looking for some place that is really special, really really special, I recommend these yurts.” His nodding resumed with an even greater solemnity.
Wishing to be polite, I requested, noncommittally, that he send me some information about these yurts on Whatsapp. Later that evening, he posted some coordinates. The location indeed looked decidedly out-of-the-way. Felix had mentioned that there was no need to pre-book a yurt. You simply turned up and paid the farmer cash-in-hand and there were always enough units to accommodate everybody on the site.
Edinburgh grows restless during the autumn. The sunshine always glimmers as hauntingly as candlelight and there is this creeping awareness that it is in limited supply and that one should hurry whilst stocks last. Felix’s story had been playing on my mind whilst I was working in the office until suddenly I would only have relief once I was far out of this city, roaming through the different rooms of a forest over carpets of red and gold leaves, with each leaf so poignant in itself, in the surprise of its individuality, that it is unbearable to contemplate it and its anonymous waste. One of my earliest memories is of hunting for mushrooms in a forest during the autumn; and of drinking from a little stream that had shot along strangely cool and clear under the air’s eerie stillness. To be back again in such a forest would scrape away the whole of Edinburgh into a few bits that would drop without consequence, like a cobweb.
As soon as was possible, I booked three days off work and I took a train from Waverley Station. I have some talent for travelling light and I carried with me just a minor suitcase, a newspaper and my cigarettes.
Edinburgh and the Central Belt fell away; towns and even houses grew scarcer and the gaps between them became soaring and enormous. At Fort William, I caught some beetling, snub-nosed little bus with only four other passengers on board.
Throughout the journey, our driver had been haughtily pretending not to be aware that he had any passengers at all. Yet when I expressed the wish to alight at my chosen stop, this almost jolted a word out of him. His head swivelled around and it looked for a second as if he was contemplating issuing a rebuke or a correction.
Paying no heed to this, I got down and bade him a good afternoon. It was certainly the case that there was little here to appeal to a tourist: just some colourless moorland, a few wiry trees and, along the flank of one hill, a stripe of forest. Alas, these were only sterile aisles of commercial pines, rather than the majestic autumnal forests, with their mufti colours, that I had been daydreaming about. I nonetheless set off cheerfully, happy to be in the open air. I would cross the tussocky moorland for a number of hours before reaching the village that Felix had described.
The first indication of disaster came when there was no village. I consulted the screenshot of the map that was saved on my phone and I could not see how I could have missed it. It was surely the only item on this landscape for miles around.
The second indication of disaster came when the yurts did not show their faces either. Finally I arrived at a kind of clearing in the moorland, where there was a circle of large, pale prints in the grass. I thought it best to assume that the yurts had been moved. I resolved to continue across the moors in search of them but the bareness of this landscape remained indefatigable. It only ever answered its own heather with more blank heather.
I had not seen a single human being since disembarking from the bus. And now the brightness had gone suddenly from the sky and the moorland was darkling. My phone was useless and, in any case, its battery power was starting to wane. It had not occurred to me that my phone would ever be important.
I knew that if I trekked all the way back to the road, no bus would come along from either direction until late the next morning. The only remaining option for me was to head towards a building that I had occasionally observed from different points on the moor. This, it appeared, was a tower. Perhaps I could sleep in a doorway or huddle in some corner through the coldest hours of the night.
To my considerable surprise, this tower became much fresher the closer that it got. Then I saw to my relief that there was glass fitted into its windows. Although it looked too unfussy to be Victorian, it was clearly a replica – in fact, I was increasingly wondering whether it was any older than I was. I had no desire to intrude upon the peace of the people inside, but I hoped that they would be kind enough to set me on a path to the yurts. If the worst came to the worst, they could order a taxi to convey me to the nearest town.
The tower was huge and featureless, with the tiny windows glinting in its walls rather like the eyes of a whale. At the bottom, I was met with a thick oak door that was bereft of bell or knocker. I rapped briskly on this door and it felt impossible to me that such a desultory noise would be ever audible within.
Looking around, I saw that there was no car and no beginnings of a garden. Everything that was connected with this tower was packed up inside of it.
I rapped on the door again. My heart had already sunk far below the horizon. Here I was, a matter of feet away from the only people who could help me, and they were as oblivious to my presence as if I was a mite crawling in their carpet.
The reality was no longer avoidable: I would have to duck my head and walk away. I could hardly remain here, waiting forever. Another man might have shouted aloud – roared until somebody had emerged from the tower – but I have a small voice and I shuddered to think at how weakly it would flutter against the tower’s stonework.
I felt my legs moving and, wretchedly, I realised that I had turned my back for good on the tower. I determined to find some tree that I might sleep under, before I and all of the available trees around were drowned in the night’s rising lake.
I took another look back at the tower in farewell and next I was standing appalled.
The door was thrown open.
I watched but there was still no sign of life. I listened carefully but the silence remained total, almost as if this tower was somehow absorbing and annihilating every murmur in the heather from all around it.
When I poked my head inside the tower, I could hear voices bumping softly overhead. A bare wooden staircase led up to a platform, with these stairs lit only by some soupy light from the windows.
I climbed the stairs slowly so as not to appear out-of-breath before my hosts. Up on the platform everything seemed immediately busy when compared to the blankness outside. Great bunches of candles were scattering light and shadows everywhere over a vast dining table and across the flagstones. A fire was brawling in the hearth and I had felt its dense warmth even from the stairs.
A lady in a black dress was sitting at the table eating. I would say that she was in her early forties. She looked up attentively as I emerged from the staircase.
I found that I had been rushing automatically across to the hearth. I froze in my tracks and then crossed back to present myself to the lady. She smiled at me in welcome and gestured to me to take a seat down the table from her.
“Ellen told me that we had a visitor. We receive visitors so seldom here.” Her voice was definitely Scottish but it sounded strangely weighted or with some truancy to its emphasis. She smiled at me again. “What business have you in my lands?”
There was only a single word now ringing in my head and it was horrifyingly unthinkable that I could ever utter it before her. Yurts?
Many words had rolled over in my mouth before I had managed to articulate that, “I have come from Edinburgh.”
“From the capital?” She regarded me sharply.
She looked me over with renewed interest. I had evidently drifted into her clutches and she was considering what usage I could be best put to.
“I am alone here,” she ventured finally. “My husband is away fighting… He has been away fighting for years.” She chirruped unsteadily, almost drunkenly, and then, aghast, I understood that this had been a giggle. “In truth, I suspected that you might be my husband. But no,” she waged, shaking her head. “You look younger, more alert. Men come back from fighting with all of the spring knocked out of them, I find. They tend to be so tired that nothing can ever wake them up again fully. Will you eat?”
I tried to insist that I did not wish to put her to any trouble but all at once she did not seem to be conscious of my voice. She called to an attendant – Ellen, presumably – and then an elder woman in much coarser clothing had stamped into the room. Arranging a glass as dainty as a cobweb in front of me, she poured a trickle of black fluid into it from a jug. Next, with a heave, she had set down before me a platter of beef cutlets and some kind of cavernous pie with a jellied filling.
“A lover must eat,” the lady remarked airily, as if to herself.
The black fluid was porter. It was mean and watery and it had a curiously fungal aroma but snuggled at the bottom of it was definitely alcohol. The cutlets were very tender and flavoursome. As I chewed and drank, I felt myself becoming more real again. The table was suddenly harder and the shape of the chair that I was sitting in felt firmer and my own mind had, in a swoop, become unmistakably pellucid.
I was very grateful. I had started to talk cautiously to this lady and she had given increased signs of comprehending me. I found that I was still talking around every subject, for fear that I might make an allusion to something that she did not recognise. Something that might cause the delicate good-humour that we had struck here together to shatter. Aside from her absent husband, she appeared to have no knowledge of anything outside of her tower. It occurred to me that she might have been shut up as a patient, with her ostensible henchwoman Ellen really as her nurse or carer.
It is embarrassing for me to make such a confession, but as I chewed I was growing ever more conscious of this lady and of her body. I became aware of the opening in her dress and of how alertly her breasts were poised behind it. Moreover, far from expressing annoyance at my interest, she had begun to encourage me, with her eyes dancing and rewarding me with a twinkle whenever I stared freely at her breasts. She was talking more and more of her loneliness, of how she had been abandoned alone in this tower for so long.
After I had finished eating, she called to Ellen to clear away the meal.
The little old woman burst scampering into our midst and to my tremendous alarm she ran at full pelt straight towards the table. I jumped up with a cry as she crashed messily into it. It took a moment for me to understand that she was wrestling the entire thing out of the room, squashing it and everything on it through the door all in one go. The plates rocked and my own glass rolled onto the floor and broke with a pop. I stood helplessly whilst the lady continued to sit in her seat, sipping from her glass mechanically and apparently unseeing.
She then turned to me. “Ellen will bring you a candle to light you to bed. The room is at the top of the stairs.”
I dutifully received my candle and I made off up a second flight of the wooden stairs. By now, I was calculating furiously. At the top of the stairs, there was a circular, attic room with a large bed spread out under the rafters. After a moment’s hesitation, I plunged in, undressing and stepping clean out of all my clothes. I now stood waiting in front of the bed for the lady to join me.
It was many years since I had made love and indeed, until now, I had come to view this as being a juvenile recreation that most proper adults grow out of. My sporadic experiments with prostitutes when at university had usually ended with them bossily telling me to lie on my back and “not move” and that “I will do everything.” Not wishing to cause offence with my unpractised fumbling, I thought it easiest to take this tack with milady. I assumed that she would supply the contraception. She looked so unhinged with desire, in any case, that I was sure that she would happily shoulder all of the practical burden of our lovemaking.
I listened to her footsteps as she climbed the stairs. I tried to look tall and masterful as I stood before the door but my heart was fluttering so wildly that I was worried that I would cower when her face appeared in the doorway.
She was finally here and she walked in smiling at me with a frozen, almost cracked smile and I looked into her face and then there were two faces spinning like a child’s toy and then this had split into four gaily spinning faces and then there were eight and then this had subdivided again and then in a diabolical ripple into more and more and more than I could ever possibly keep up with. I was still clinging desperately to the last wisp of my desire even after I had lost consciousness.
For many years, I seemed to be very far away, like Odysseus voyaging around all the Mediterranean. When I awoke, I felt entirely refreshed and relaxed, as though every worry that I had ever had had been lifted from me. There was a rich sunlight lying on the grass in front of me and this grass was bobbing fervently in the gusty air that ran over it. From somewhere nearby a small bird was warbling, with an unnatural power and brilliancy.
I climbed to my feet and suddenly the awfulness of my situation had hit me headlong like a speeding train. I was standing totally naked on a vast plateau of moorland. My clothes had gone, as had my suitcase, my wallet, my keys, my cigarettes, my mobile phone and, of course, the tower itself.
The only thing that I could see, aside from moorland, was a ruined building that stood a little way away. But this was too shrunken and decrepit to bear any relation to the high tower of the previous evening.
Cupping a hand over my genitals, I set off waddling across the country. I frequently had to dart to avoid those items of Highland flora that are not disposed to bestow kisses upon the human anatomy.
Eventually, after crossing numerous stretches of aridness and desolation, I spied a village dozing at the base of a hill. I did not wish to present myself to its inhabitants in such a disagreeable state, without even a hat to raise at them in greeting, but I conceded that we had no other option than to all submit to this.
The first person who I encountered was an old woman who was standing in a garden on the outskirts of the village. She had a rake and she was scraping at some leaves on a path.
“Oh goodness, sir,” she exclaimed, on seeing me. “It seems that you have met with some misfortune.”
“This I have, madam,” I replied. I then shot her a second look. This person bore a distinct resemblance to the servant Ellen from the previous evening.
“If I can venture to collect your name, madam?,” I continued with some asperity. “Are you not called Ellen and do you not work in the tower up on the moors?”
She gazed blankly at me for a second before shaking her head. “My name is Margaret, sir, and I work over in the pie store.”
“You seem to be in shock, sir. Please come into the warm. Don’t worry about you being in the nude – someone my age has seen it all before, anyway. Yes, please come inside, sir. I have many relatives around here and maybe you have met someone who looks like me. We all tend to have the same face, it is true, but I’m sorry that this Ellen doesn’t ring any bell.”
I thereafter kept quiet about the tower, for fear of adding to the spiralling merriment that my appearance in the village had already occasioned. With no money, and with no means of contacting anybody in Edinburgh who could help me, I was obliged to work as an agricultural labourer for several months in order to earn my fare back home. I helped to bring in a potato harvest and I also shovelled manure across countless plantations of Christmas trees.
I hope that you and your readers will profit from this remarkable story,
[A note from the editor. Whilst Andrzej clearly believes himself to be describing some revelatory spiritual experience, there is a wave of drink spiking and even spiking through discreet injections throughout partyland currently. Readers are asked to remain vigilant and to never leave drinks unattended, even briefly.]