A Spooky Tale

There are some tales which seem to defy the telling. It is as if they try to block the ears of the listener, to prevent the thoughts being heard, or as if a morbid sense of self-protection seeks to put barrier between tongue and air, to deny ideas a voice. Perhaps some stories are just too outlandish to be allowed to survive out in the chilly air, exposed to any number of cynical ears.

This location, The Black Lion, has heard any number of dubious tales in its time. These tobacco-darkened walls, tables scorched by misremembered matches and floors tacky with spilt ale have played silent host to all manner of stories over the years. And I thought I had heard them all, until that day that Gavin burst through the doors as if something nasty was biting at his heels.

‘Good lord,’ he muttered, banging the door open. He stood there in the entrance as snowflakes pattered around him. ‘Really, no, really?’

‘Please continue,’ I cried, ‘in your own time. Just as long as you close the infernal door!’

My intemperate suggestion cut no ice with him. He stood there yet, muttering towards his feet like one in the comfort of his own climate.

‘Just – there. Just – there. As bold as anything. As if it were nothing,’ he continued.

‘Gavin,’ I said, ‘outside are all the icicles of Siberia. Must we invite them all in?’

He recollected himself at this, and turned to me with an expression which suddenly made me wish I wasn’t alone.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It is you, is it? Well, it is certain my mind is troubled, and it would be a kindness to bring whisky.’

Diligently I brought this over, if for no other purpose than to quell the air of disorder which clung to him. It took a second whisky to do this, and he had a third in his hand before he felt able to give voice to his feelings.

‘Yes,’ he said at last, ‘here we are, in a normal saloon, two normal people living out their lives as is perfectly normal.’ His collar stuck out at an angle which gave me severe pain.

‘But what could have rattled you so?’ I asked. ‘In all these years of knowing you I have never seen you in such a flap.’

He paused, took another swallow and took a deep breath.

‘I never thought I would hear myself say these words, but – I have a story to tell.’

Ever the dutiful friend, I kept the drink flowing as he revealed his tale.

‘You are aware of course that I routinely play the piano in the restaurant of The Brown Bear?’

I did know this. It was not a place suited to my pocket, but I saw it as a place I might one day aspire to frequenting.

‘The money’s good. Eight guineas thruppence ha’penny per hour, to entertain the city’s elite who no doubt pay as much attention to my tinkling as they do to the inflated prices of the glasses they knock back as if tomorrow will never come. If only that were the case.’

He gulped back the remainder of his glass, looking with surprise at the fresh one I had put in front of him. He picked it up, gazing into its amber deeps.

‘But tonight. Tonight something was different. I can’t even put it into words. Something in the way George the head waiter greeted me, maybe. “Not the usual crowd tonight,” he said, grinning at me. This put me on edge, for reasons I cannot articulate, even before I had entered that room. And I don’t know if I imagined it, but did I see him look at something over my shoulder? Some sight which, when I turned my head to look, melted into the air?

‘So I was rattled, before I even took to the keys. Just an ordinary Tuesday evening, but already I was on the back foot. Though I would rather die than label myself a ‘professional’, I approached the evening’s task as a job like any other. I put all thoughts of mystery out of my head and focused on the keys alone. The trusty old blacks and whites who, from a chaos of wood, formed a poem of sound.

‘I played them all, every scale from A to G, major to minor. Wherever the muse took me, there I went. 3/4 time, 4/4 time. It was a standard Tuesday evening, after all.

‘It was when I paused between tunes, though, that was when things changed. I happened to look up. Perhaps you know there’s a mirror behind the piano, one which gives a view onto the entire room. Though perhaps you’ve never noticed it, as I had never noticed it, until now. I looked, in that moment, and I saw – well, who knows what I saw. Nothing tangible. Only a reminder that I was a temporal being performing a role whose every motion was a short-lived note against a cold and silent universe! Some shape I convinced myself without difficulty I had never seen.

‘I shook the heaviness from my head and played on. I played some low notes, some stately funereal chords, and some high notes, some carefree arpeggios, and fairly soon I was lost in the playing. In the moment I forgot my nerves and the keys obeyed my whims.

‘But then, once I had forgotten myself, and had let the music take me with it, I looked up again, and this was my fatal error. I don’t know how to say it. There was something. Though the parameters of my vision didn’t change, all the same something had shifted. I felt that something, some terrible thing was watching me. It could see me wherever I went, and I couldn’t hide.

‘As you know, I have never been one to shirk from difficulties. I didn’t stick with the pedestrian tunes they wanted me to play. If I was being watched I wanted to be noticed for the right reasons. Over the next hour I gave it everything I had. Every bass foundation, every trill with the right hand, I attacked each staidest tune with the vigour of one whose very breath would not outlast his fingers. I hammered those chords, slamming my fingers against the ivories as if every demon in Hell was breathing down my neck. I squeezed out barcarolles, exuded sonatas and thundered fugues as if Lucifer himself had appeared demanding an invite. And with each note I unconsciously yelled ‘Begone! Begone!

‘And of course I forgot. I found myself playing whatever I felt like, my hands flying over those keys. I could not tell you what they did, it was as if I were in another place.’

He took another sip.

‘I felt good to leave there. It felt like I had been drained of any tension, like the piano had taken the worst of me and now I was free. I forgot all my fears.’

And that was when it happened. Gavin’s face had alerted me to the momentousness of the situation, and now he leaned over and – good God – he told me the worst of it. Calmed by the feeling of a job well done, he had left The Brown Bear, walking through the lobby towards the main doors as always. But in the lobby he had paused and spotted something he could not understand. It did not make sense. It was only late in the evening, several drinks to the good, that he could justify just what he had seen. He leaned over and whispered in my ear…

I sat in silence for who knows how long. The relief on Gavin’s face had been obvious, as he unburdened himself of this tale. And when he left to go out into the sleet it was not as one who feared the elements. It was as if some heaviness had passed from him to me. As if telling his story had freed him. But I was not free of the consequences.

On leaving the hotel Gavin had seen not just something but someone. They had appeared when he was least prepared. He saw them across the lobby, three teenage girls.

Cleopatra.

Cleopatra.

(‘…comin’ at ya…’?)

 

THE FIVE BEST GHOSTS TO VISIT IN BRITAIN

  1. Mungo Stewart

ghost

In 1997 Mungo Stewart was run over and killed as he was walking home in the dark near Dundee. It is said that his phantom still returns to the scene on the anniversary of his death. Believers claim you can even see his ghostly likeness in the above photograph, still carrying the big red circle he always had with him in life.

2. The Drowning Girl of Pontefract

lonely

In the fourteenth century teenager Alice Arkwright drowned in a lake while fishing for eels. The lake was drained centuries later and the site where it once was is now home to a Café Rouge. Alice’s ghost is said to appear occasionally, re-enacting the tragic last moments of her life. A good place to visit if you have ever wanted to see a young woman drown without getting your feet wet.

3. Kenneth Williams

kenwil

An urban legend has it that if you say the name of Kenneth Williams three times while looking in a mirror the Carry On star appears behind you and says ‘mmnnyaaa!’

4. The Throckmorton Expedition

snowy

James Throckmorton’s ill-fated 1905 expedition to the Antarctic remains a classic tale of British valour and endurance. As preparation for the trip, Throckmorton and his team spent a long weekend on an orienteering and acclimatisation outing in the icy wastes of the East Midlands, where, after a series of errors and misfortunes, they lost their bearings and were cut off from civilisation and rescue. Displaying the fortitude of their generation, the men accepted their fate, writing stirring goodbyes to loved ones and letters of apology to the King which were found with their frozen remains. Shaky footage shot in a field near Leicester appears to show their shades sitting in a circle, making the occasional understatement while patiently dying of boredom.

5. The Broken Photocopier of St Albans

                          photocopier

In a disused business park in Hertfordshire you may find the spectre of a photocopier which stopped working in 1989. It is said that a ghostly presence fills one corner of an old kitchenette, sitting there and not doing anything.

Tosstalgia

I hate nostalgia. I always have, ever since I was a small boy growing up in the 80s, when you could buy a bottle of Rola cola and a Marathon and still have change from a pound note. I remember watching The Two Ronnies Christmas special and thinking ‘this is good enough. Why compare the present to the past?’ The nation had just watched Den Watts presenting Angie with divorce papers across the dinner table, an event which stomped all over TV events of the past. We even videoed it, and showed it off to visitors, who couldn’t not guffaw at the rewinding cockneys.

Nostalgia was nothing new even then. My neighbour Denzil would snort contemptuously at the Abba fans who, in jumpsuits and platforms, seemed to wish it was still the seventies. ‘Yeah, the three-day week and Middle Eastern wars,’ he would mutter, strapping his ghetto blaster to his BMX. ‘Don’t they care for digital watches? For computers?’ And off he would go to a CND rally, working his three gears like one possessed.

Who could be dissatisfied with life at a time like this, a time of Tomorrow’s World making firm promises about what would definitely happen soon, the Challenger space shuttle preparing to launch, and the ultramodern music of Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Westworld providing the soundtrack to our exciting new lives? In the midst of all this, who would choose to look backwards?

My friend Daniel shared my disdain for all things historical. We would often go to the corner shop after school and buy stickers for our Panini albums. Whether it was the World Cup or Transformers, those foil stickers were always the hardest to find. But harder to find, for us, was a sense of reverence for the past.

‘Maybe it’s about security,’ he said, magnanimously, one time. We were playing Jetpac while we waited for Orm and Cheep to start. He was the best I had seen at this game, blasting through those coloured flying things like a proton stream through ectoplasm. I admired that he was so at home in technology, not fazed by the futuristic landscapes of the ZX Spectrum. Not like our parents’ generation, who reacted to the silicon chip like those Amazon tribes did to cars and reggae.

‘The world is changing so much and so quickly and it frightens them. So they want to cling on to what’s familiar. The past is over and so they know where they are with it.’

I nodded, dipping into my sherbet Dip Dabs as the game crashed again. Familiarity was key. The older you got, the less you had to be certain about. That was why my Dad listened to his jazz LPs while wearing his flat cap – for a sense of continuity. I certainly didn’t share in that. An awkward child, not at home in the recent past nor feeling welcomed by the near future, it was only with difficulty that I straddled the gap between my parents’ narrow East End background and the metropolitan world of slogan T-shirts and choc ices I found myself in. I felt like a fourth TV channel, controversial and not accessible to everyone.

‘This is a great time to be an adult,’ my older brother would say, cinching his white jeans way above his navel. ‘I’m young and upwardly mobile. I use hair gel and pretend to be posh like they do in those sit-coms. And the pub will be open in a couple of days, which is something to look forward to.’

My sister took a similar view. Sitting on a bean bag, crimping her hair while listening to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, she would be lost in thought, and tended to respond to any of my questions by saying ‘read this’, and throwing me a feminist leaflet. This was how I learned of the cultural wars being fought and won in that decade. The increasing size of women’s hair mirrored their greater sense of self-determination, the increasing popularity of Lycra displayed a growing sexual confidence. One by one the old orthodoxies were being shaken. While the seventies celebrated the repression of homosexuality, the eighties saw gays running the pop charts.

It wasn’t all good news though. We knew the man who carved ‘AIDS’ on that headstone in that advert. He was richer than he’d ever been in his career but came to realise he’d creeped out an entire generation. Thanks to him the masonry industry had taken a knock it would never fully recover from. No one wanted cold stone any more, but modern, forward-looking fibreglass, without the taint of sexual misadventure and death. Ironically, many bitter stone masons consoled themselves in sharing needles and unprotected sex, which only made things much worse.

But the cause of my own sorrow was paradoxically also the cause of my greatest joy: Sally Bickerton. The Pandora to my Adrian Mole, Charlene to my Scott, Debbie to my Damon (that’s a Brookside reference). Just the rattle of her bangles in assembly was enough to set my heart jumping, the smell of her mousse as I passed her in the corridor an intoxicating intimation of an as yet unknowable goal. As I gazed at her in maths lessons, I felt at last I knew what Bon Jovi were on about in all their songs.

She was the first person I ever wrote poetry for. For hours alone in my bedroom I would interrogate my soul to find the closest rendering of the indescribable turmoil I suffered. Some of it survives to this day, such as the searingly powerful:

‘Our love will blunt the leopard’s jaw,

Quell the tsunami’s mighty rain,

Make terr’rists defuse their war,

Make poets out of Cybermen.’

Though it wasn’t all carefree. It got dark at times. So dark:

‘O, let the bombs fall, o burn the sky blind,

Let it all drown in fiery oblivion,

If that is what it takes to wipe from my mind

The way you smiled at Stephen.’             ‘

Who knows what might have been, if I had ever managed to actually talk to her. The intensity of this lasted right up until Katie Lubbock came along, and I realised it was her I was destined to marry. Or maybe the one after her. Or the one after that. It was all academic anyway, as anyone who has ever been an adolescent boy can attest.

So when the eighties ended I cheered the passing of an entirely miserable and irredeemable decade. Not that the nineties were any better. Or even the beginning of this century. Just yesterday, in fact, I caught my jeans on a nail and tore them. And the other week I dropped a jar of olives in Tesco which smashed, causing me extreme embarrassment. The past was horrible. The future will always be better. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

We also had a Ford Cortina.

Tempted by the Triple-Changer

Arcee watched as a bolt of energy shot from the Quintesson ship, bracing herself as the impact made the ground beneath her tremble. Down below she could see files of Sharkticon troops streaming towards the base, some falling as they were struck by Metroplex’s lasers, but far too many sneaking past.

‘Is that all they’ve got?’ asked a voice from behind her. ‘We should have this wrapped up by lunch time.’

She turned and saw the reassuring green bulk of him, familiar roguish smile on his face.

‘Springer! I was worried you were just a pile of scrap metal.’

‘It takes more than robot fish to bring old Springer to his knees. Sorry to disappoint.’

She laughed, hiding her relief. Springer was a friend. A good friend. She had always kept her feelings to herself, but she knew how much it hurt to see her friends shot completely to death. She had seen too much war, too much screaming metal and tortured fibreglass.

‘How are our defences holding up?’ she asked.

‘Lasers and ray guns are sorting them out. Only the really stupid ones are getting through. The sensible ones are taking an early death, because they know there’s worse to come the closer they get.’

‘Have you been giving them a taste of your weapon?’ She arched an eyebrow formed of flexible space metal.

‘This old girl?’ He held up his impressive blaster. ‘She’s seen some action today. I’ve given it to more than a few Sharkies. Both barrels, shooting it all over their faces. You should see the way their jaws drop when they see the size of it. It’s quite an impressive bang.’

‘So I’ve heard.’ The sounds of exploding and death were making her feel light-headed. She forgot sometimes how primal and how damn sensual battle could feel. It always stirred something deep inside her.

‘So what’s the –‘

Before she could finish the question there was another blast from the enemy ship, which shook the ramparts and caused her to fall into his arms.

‘Woah!’ he said. ‘I’m flattered and all, but don’t you think we have other priorities right now?’

‘As if,’ she admonished, tearing herself away from his embrace. ‘And is that any way to talk to a lady?

Not that she could call herself much of a lady, she thought. She’d had her share – and indeed others’ share – of men. Hot Rod, for one, who, as she might have expected, went at it with engines blazing but lacked finesse. She knew that when he looked into her optical lenses it was only so he could ogle his own reflection. Sleek and powerful he may have been, but like many a young robot he mistook speed for prowess. Would his pal Blurr have been any different, she sometimes wondered, wryly.

Brawn, an older guy, had been more sensitive. A little too sensitive, if truth be told. Afterwards he had held her gently and waxed sentimental. She would swear he even had a tear in his eye. All too intense for her. And he kept leaving her presents, some high class energon sourced from who knows what nebula, a handsomely bound volume of Junkion poetry. He took to bumping into her, entirely by chance, and she’d had no choice but to blank him.

There had even been – whisper it – a Decepticon one time. Starscream, who the other Autobots all feared and secretly had a man crush for. Well, she knew his secret. He could only achieve sufficient altitude when he focused on her exhaust port. Starscreamer, more like. She grinned at the thought.

‘Something funny?’ asked Springer, a half-smile on his face. Before she could answer he had turned and fired another round of random shots at the enemy. With her back to his, she did the same.

‘Impressive shooting,’ he said. ‘You could give any of the guys a run for his money. You know I’ve always admired your bazookas.’

‘Ha. Not much use in hand to hand combat, though. And speaking of which …’

A phalanx of Sharkticons had crawled up the wall and now were pouring over the edge. Their empty eyes turned towards the two Autobots, lubricating fluid dripping as their jaws opened hungrily. Those jaws looked like they could hurt.

‘Race you,’ Arcee said, raising her weapon, and ran towards the metal tide.

His chivalry circuits engaged, Springer had no choice but to follow.

Bang, a Sharkticon fell, then another and another, under Arcee’s pinpoint aim. In the time it took Springer to unholster his gun she had dispatched five of them. The air grew hot between them and the ground throbbed as they discharged blaster fire. A couple of intense minutes and it was over. Mangled steel littered the walkway ahead of them.

‘I call that about even,’ Arcee said. ‘Well done.’

The implied slight on his virility irked Springer somewhat, even though he recognised that Arcee was being kind to his ego. He was about to say something cynical when the largest boom yet heard announced the destruction of the Quintesson ship. The ground lurched and she found herself encircled by his arms.

‘Oh,’ she said, but any further speech was cut off as his mouth docked with hers. Their metal lips formed a vacuum seal, allowing the digital exchange of tongue information to alert their cerebral processing systems.

Springer uncoupled his mouth and she saw him looking at her greedily, as if he had never really seen her before. She imagined what he must be seeing: those extensions on the side of her head which looked a bit like human hair, her slender thighs which doubled up as her chassis, her prominent buttress. Looking steadily into her eyes he stroked her on that part where the bumper would be in her car mode. Almost against her will her headlights flicked on.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘You really like killing bad guys.’

‘Shut up and kiss me again,’ she breathed, but her voicebox wasn’t really geared up for quiet speech, and so it buzzed a little. As they locked orifices she could feel something hard pressing against her, even harder than the metal which he was completely made of. She reached down and gripped his emergent piston. By the Matrix! she thought. She could scarcely get her petite transformatrix hand round it!

Springer pushed her against a wall, and she had a moment to think that Metroplex must have seen some goings on in his time, down those long and dark passageways. She bet the saucy old bastard had secret cameras trained on them at all times. Let him look. She didn’t care!

She felt a hand brush her waist, her thigh, heading elsewhere. Her neural circuitry sent a message south and heavy-duty lubricant seeped to where it was needed, to greet his questing fingers. She could feel the ball bearings rattling inside her joints as she spread her knees wider.

‘Ooh,’ he said, ‘just like the tides of Nebulon!’

She looked down and saw it, the huge green member with the bolts and rivets parading up its sides. Her skilled hand slid the protective cover back and locked it in place, her oil pump pounding harder as she saw a drop of lubricant seep out of the efficient hole in the metal.

‘I want to combine with you,’ he said. ‘Like the Aerialbots, only two of us instead of five.’

‘Or the Protectobots,’ she moaned. ‘I have a Hot Spot you can interact with. It’s also a Groove.’

‘If you were a Pretender I would fuck you, then fuck your shell while you watched.’ His extensible tube was throbbing in her hand and she knew she could put it off no longer. She slid open her hatch and guided him in.

His voice synthesiser approximated the indrawing of breath as they initiated coupling. Each thrust of his robot pelvis banged her against the wall, the screech of metal on metal making their movements more urgent. He grabbed her by the part where the seats would go in her car form, gripped it so hard the paint would need to be reapplied later. The blades from his helicopter form began to rotate behind him.

The triple changer’s movements sped up as he gave in to the feeling. Arcee wrapped a leg behind him, round that place where his wheels were inexpertly hidden. Her pleasure centre identified a crisis point arriving, and hoped his algorithms were doing a similar job in diverting electricity flow to the relevant components.

‘Oh, oh, oh, til all are one,’ she gasped.

‘Til all are one,’ he echoed, and his hydraulics screamed as at last he pumped his oil into her front compartment.

‘So,’ she said, panting, after a pause. She could feel the warm hydrocarbons dripping on her knee.

‘So,’ he said, catching his breath.

‘We should be getting back. Now the fighting’s over.’

‘At least we were there for the climax,’ he said, a sated grin on his face.

She laughed and walked off, wiggling her midsection in a way that signified erotic content. She glanced over her shoulder, taking one last look as he retracted his flaccid pipe.

By Primus, she could do that again.