Sunday, 7 April 2013

Dead men's answers

There was a rustle nearby as some small mammal scurried through the bushes, and then the noise of traffic passing on the road beyond the wall.  Janet checked her watch; it was fourteen minutes past midnight, and to her mind there was something immoral about there still being traffic on the roads.  She adjusted her little camping stool – the kind that folds up into a set of connected plastic rods with a bit of tarpaulin wrapped around them and took her thermos out of her bag.  Uncapping it she poured herself a cup of tea; milky like cataracts and sweetened with six spoons of sugar.  She sipped it and checked the time again.  It was now sixteen minutes past midnight.
“To-whit! To-woo!” said a hoarse voice behind her.  She jumped, her arm stiffening, and the contents of her cup flew backwards and splashed on something.  There was a cry of surprise, and possibly pain, and a crash like someone falling over something in the bushes.  On the road, more traffic went past, seemingly all in the same direction.
Janet stood up and turned round, holding her thermos like a billy-club.  She could see a pair of Wellingtons sprawled in the bushes behind her, and hear a faint groaning.
“Who’s there?” she hissed, trying to sound authoritative.
“Me, you stupid cow,” said a hoarse voice.  “I said I’d make an owl-call to let you know I’d arrived!”
“That was an owl?  It must have laryngitis then.”
“Well what sound do you think an owl makes?”  There was a rustling and the sounds of breaking branches as the boots disappeared from sight and the bushes shook violently.  Janet hooted obligingly, and a moment later got an answering hoot from somewhere up in the trees.
“Smarty-pants,” said the hoarse voice.  “How did you learn that then?”
“My sister kept owls for a few years,” said Janet.  “She’s… odd like that.  But she makes the best colcannon this side of Dublin.”
“Colcannon?  That’s that big sword isn’t it?”
“No, that’s a claymore.  My brother, the blacksmith, makes them occasionally.  If you pay him.”
A man emerged from the bushes, his jacket disarrayed, his face scratched where it was covered by a thick brown beard, his trousers torn at the knees, and his boots covered in mud.  “What’s a colcannon then?  A type of gun?”
“It’s food,” said Janet sounding annoyed.  “Everyone knows that.  You can sit in any restaurant in town and order it and eat it for yourself.  I’m not here to talk about food.  I want answers.”
“Right, right.” said the man.  He looked at her.  “You’re a big overdressed, aren’t you?”
“Well, we’re supposed to be here on a date if anyone finds us.  You don’t look like you’re on a date.  You look like you’re looking for people who are on a date so you can arrest them.”  Janet was wearing a Barbour jacket that had belonged to her great-aunt and had seen the raising of nearly sixty litters of puppies and eight generations of horses, a sheer skirt of heavy wool, heavy leather shoes, thick woollen socks and a woolly hat.
“It’s my first date,” said Janet, and the man decided to leave the conversation well alone after that.
“Ok,” he said.  “Let’s go then.  We’re going this way,” he pointed, “to the grave of William Sewell.”  He set off towards the nearby path through the graveyard, and Janet fell into step behind him after picking up her stool.  They walked briskly for five minutes, feet crunching on the loose gravel of the path with the hoarse man picking the path out when it diverged, or at one point became a large circle for cars to turn in.  Finally he turned down a tree-lined path where the light from the stars and moon all but disappeared, and halted in a shadow so deep that Janet couldn’t see him any more.
“This is William,” said the man.  “His mother still tends his grave, you know.  She’s here every Saturday and Sunday tidying it and laying new flowers.”
“She should grow them on the grave itself,” said Janet.  “Plenty of good soil, and he’ll be contributing to it.”  The growing silence meant nothing to her, so the man gave up disapproving.
“What’s the question?” he said.  “Let’s get this done before the caretakers come round.”
“Ah!  No, I’ll ask the question to William.  I know what you séantists are like, if I tell you now you’ll think of an answer and I’ll never actually get through to William.  I want the answer directly from him.”
The man sighed.  He’d tried telling Janet several times now that someone conducting a séance wasn’t a séantist but she’d apparently decided that this was the word she was going to use.
“Fine,” he said.  “As you will.”
There was a short pause, and then the sound of a match striking.  A tiny flame appeared in the darkness, sputtered for a moment, then grew, revealing a slender white candle in a tiny brass holder.  The man set the candle down on the grave, now scarily sinister in its pale yellow light, and then held his hand over the flame.  A needle appeared in his other hand and stabbed inwards, then a drop of red blood bubbled out of his thumb and fell through the flame and landed on the grave.  Janet squeaked, unable to hide her momentary fear.
“William Sewell?” said the hoarse man, his voice suddenly deep and resonant.  “William Sewell, are you there?  William Sewell, I command you.”  The candle flame suddenly burned a brilliant red and Janet squeaked again.

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