The green flash is one of those strange phenomena that hover on the border between fact and folk legend. Have I see one? I'm not sure. Whether it is fact or fiction it seems to be a rare event, and unexplained, and like other rare and unexplained events has acquired a certain mystical aura, fraught with meaning, portents, warnings. Next time you watch a sunset over the sea watch very carefully, watch and be warned.
The claw like shadows of the five apple trees reached out over the close-cropped lawn towards the house. The trees were old and bent away from the sea like stooping arthritic old men, their backs to the winter gales that would soon boom and thunder from the sea. They gave no fruit now, and few flowers painted their sparse branches in the spring, but they marked the boundary of the garden, and seemed in some mysterious way to keep the black sheer cliffs away.
No breeze stirred their brittle branches, and the strange, unseasonable heat of the September afternoon hung heavily over the house and the garden. The sun, low over the darkening sea, swung huge over a brilliant golden trail across the calm water. There was no sound of waves, no crying of gulls, no buzzing of bees in the flower beds around the lawn, where Colonel Smythe sat silently in a green and white stripped deckchair looking out towards the spot on the horizon where the sun would soon set. He was alone.
‘Yoo hoo! Yoo hoo!’ The call preceded the appearance of an elderly woman at the open French windows that gave onto the terrace. ‘Reginald, do you hear? He’s coming tonight, or this evening. It’s sure now. Do you hear?’
The Colonel made no sign of having heard, still staring out over the sea as if afraid to miss something of importance there.
‘Reginald! There’ll be tea soon, and Victoria sponge if you’re not too late.’
There was a moment of silence before he heard the voice again, quieter this time, muffled as she turned and walked back into the house.
‘He’ll be here before nine, he promised. He always comes before nine.’
As the woman disappeared into the house another appeared and walked stiffly across the lawn to where the Colonel sat. She was tall, thin; her once long blond hair now cropped and grey, an air of faded elegance about her.
‘You can’t keep it all to yourself, you know.’ She said.
The colonel appeared to rouse himself slightly.
‘Eh? What? Keep what?’ He was tempted to be rude to source of the interruption, but he recognised Elizabeth’s voice, and was pleased to hear her.
‘This,’ she replied, ‘This lovely sunset, this evening.’ And she made a sweeping gesture with one arm, indicating the view of the garden, the cliffs, and the sea beyond. ‘It might be the last of the summer, probably a thunder storm tonight, then cold autumn days after that.’
‘I can feel it you know.’ He said after a while. ‘But I always get a bite of the black dog this time of year. End of the summer and all that. Bloody long winters in this country. Wish I’d never come back sometimes.’
‘From India? But you couldn’t have stayed could you? Not after independence.’
‘Maybe, maybe not. Didn’t try really, too much going on at the time. Sorry, will you sit?’ He started to get up but the woman put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
‘Don’t. I’m fine. Not coming in for tea, and the famous Victoria sponge?’
‘Give it a miss I think. Old Gladys is off on her ‘he’s coming’ fantasy, that’s about five times in the last week, sometimes I wonder if she actually has a son, don’t think he’s ever been seen here. Bit of a scoundrel if she has got one, a visit from time to time would make all the difference to the old girl.’
‘It’s what keeps her going I think. She can’t bare the thought that she’s alone, that nobody comes to visit her.’
‘You get used to it.’ he said after a pause. ‘I never expected anything. Better that way.’
‘I love my visits. Just wish the children were still here in this country, once or twice every year or so isn’t much, but I make it last.’
They remained silent for a few minutes, watching the imperceptible descent of the sun towards the sea.
‘How’s Casper?’ He said eventually, ‘Any better today?’ Casper was the old black Labrador that lived with the residents of St. Elphins Retirement Home.
‘Not good. No better I think. He’s just lying there under the table in the kitchen, hasn’t moved all day. Wet himself earlier the poor thing. He looked so ashamed when I went to clean it up. I don’t think he has got much longer, should we call the vet do you think?’
‘If he’s not suffering best leave him alone. He’s in a place he knows, let nature take its course.’
‘Must be all of twelve or thirteen I should think, pre-dates all of us I guess. How long has Mary been here? Ten years?’
‘No idea. Too long, that’s for sure.’
‘Oh! It’s not so bad.’ She said, patting the Colonel gently on the shoulder. ‘Could be worse.’
‘You mean at least we get Victoria sponge every Wednesday afternoon?’ He turned suddenly to face her. ‘Tell me Lizzie, where would you like to be, if you could, where would make you happy?’
‘Who says I’m not happy?’
‘Are you? Really?’
Elizabeth carefully lowered herself to sit on the grass next to his chair before replying.
‘Of course if I could I’d love to be with the family, the children and the grandchildren. But it’s not possible. I make do, make the best of it. And I do like it here sometimes; after Peter died I was terribly lonely, but here I have friends, people to talk to, carers if I’m ill. Like I say, could be worse. What about you, do you dream of another place sometimes?’
Colonel Smythe had resumed his study of the horizon.
‘Dreams. Oh aye, don’t we all have them. Even at this stage, this final scene, we can still dream.’
‘So tell me Reggie, what does Colonel Reginald Smythe dream of? Was there never a woman in your past that you remember? Some exotic temptress in a far off country that took and broke your heart?’
The Colonel smiled a thin-lipped smile.
‘A gentleman never tells you know. But I was not always a wrinkled old prune with hair in my ears and a gammy leg. When I was young there were…well…girls, not many girls; and I’m sure that I loved them all. I can still remember… youth, vigor, the romance of it all, a life full of joy and laughter. God how I miss it, all that, all that life, and how I hate growing old like this.’
Elizabeth laughed silently, her hand modestly covering her mouth in a gesture that seemed strangely girlish.
‘But to answer your question, or rather my own question, I would like to be back in India. I think of it all the the time, it’s not something you ever can never forget.’
‘I’ve never been there…you should take me.’
‘Take you to India! We’d be lucky to make the airport old girl…’
‘Hey, speak for yourself. I was seriously considering visiting Paul and family in Vancouver next Christmas you know.’
‘Are you invited?’
‘Well, not exactly, but they did say I could come anytime.’
Colonel Smythe made a noncommittal grunt.
‘In any case you wouldn’t stand the heat.’
‘Oh! Is it that bad? You put up with it long enough, how long were you out there, years and years wasn’t it?’
‘Thirty-two, only came home once when the sister died. Got used to it I suppose, summers were bad ‘though, couldn’t do much outside. Just visit the club and drink, play billiards, bridge, whatever. Good social life in spite of everything.’
‘Why don’t you organise a bridge thing here? There must be others who can play.’
‘Here? Couldn’t get a decent game of snap here, most of them would forget what game they were playing half way through. Got to have more than a couple of brain cells left to play a decent hand of bridge.’
Elizabeth laughed again. ‘That’s cruel and untrue you know. Just the other day Alfred got a clue in the Times crossword.’
‘Old Freddy doesn’t know the day of the week mostly, him and Gladys should get together, can you imagine the conversation!’
‘Shhh! Here he is. Tea must be finished, we’ve missed the Victoria sponge.’
A frail looking man dressed in a light beige coloured suit that looked several sizes too large was making his way across the terrace down to the lawn where they sat. He helped himself with the aid of a white stick although he was not blind, but the hand that held the stick trembled and shook every time he put his weight on it. A worn straw boater was perched jauntily on his head.
‘Good evening Freddy, coming to join us?’ Elizabeth called to him.
‘Oh Christ!’ muttered the Colonel.
Without a word Freddy came and stood next to Elizabeth, peering about him amiably while leaning insecurely on his stick with both hands.
‘Had your tea Freddy, some cake? Victoria sponge was it?’
Freddy smiled vaguely, nodding. ‘Cake.’ He said after a while.
‘Jesus!’ The Colonel said under his breath.
‘I was just telling Reggie how well you did with the crossword yesterday. Remember?’
Freddy frowned, a look of intense concentration on his face as he stared at Elizabeth.
‘Fourteen across…Gazebo.’ She said.
Freddy closed his eyes and brought one hand up to touch his lips, trying to recall.
‘Cake!’ he said brightly when he open them, ‘Cake.’
‘Hopeless.’ Murmured the Colonel, ‘Wasting your breath. Shoot me if I ever get like that.’
In the house behind them someone turned on the radio, the sound of music drifting across the lawn towards them. Elizabeth hummed quietly to herself. The two men both stared into the distance.
‘I think we should go and sit on the terrace now.’ Said Elizabeth, ‘If I don’t move soon I won’t be able to get up. It’ll start to freshen up soon. Or do you want to stay here on your own Reggie?’
By way of reply the Colonel started to lift himself out of the deckchair, at the same time trying to help Elizabeth off the ground. In the end they both gave up trying to help each other and managed to struggle to their feet. Elizabeth linked her arm through the Colonel’s and they began to walk slowly towards the terrace where a number of chairs and tables were set out.
‘Come along Freddy, we’ll all sit together.’ Elizabeth said, turning to the old man who had remained standing, a wide smile on his face as he peered around him as if looking for something. ‘You never know, there might be some cake left.’
Freddy set off, walking with small rapid steps like an overwound clockwork toy, his stick shaking and trembling as he tried to catch up with them.
‘Did you ever see the green flash Lizzie?’ Said the Colonel suddenly. Elizabeth turned towards him.
‘Green flash? No, I don’t think so, what is it?’
He turned again towards the sea and the setting sun before replying.
‘It’s a brilliant flash of green light that comes just as the sun disappears below the horizon, right when the last little bit of the disc disappears. Some people say it’s a myth, but sailors believe in it. Just lasts a fraction of a second. You can only see it over the sea when the sky is clear.’
‘I never heard of it, did you see it Reggie…before?’
‘I think so. Just once, the day I left India, on the boat leaving Bombay. I think I saw it then.’
‘Will there be one this evening do you think?’
‘I don’t know, I used to look, but I’ve only seen it that once.’
‘Is it supposed to be good luck or something, you know how sailors are superstitious?’
‘No, not really, in fact quite the opposite. Some people believe it presages death, or misfortune, or evil. But others say that anyone who sees it cannot afterwards be deceived.’
‘And can you be deceived Reggie? Did it work for you?’ She said pulling his arm closer to her and inclining her head towards his. ‘You can tell me.’
They reached the four steps up to the terrace and stopped. The colonel turned towards her, slightly out of breath.
‘Well I didn’t die. As for being deceived, I never let myself be put in a position where that could apply.’
‘No lady friends then?’
‘I didn’t mean by others. More by my own self.’ He turned towards the house and together they slowly, step by step, the climbed onto the terrace. They chose a table at the end that afforded the best view and sat down. Freddy, who had stopped at the bottom of the steps as if baffled as to how to surmount this obstacle lent on his stick and smiled. The music from inside the house suddenly faded. Silence rushed back.
‘You deceived yourself then? Surely not. Not you. How?’ Elizabeth lent over the table towards the old man, reaching out to place one hand over his.
‘Oh! You know, we build walls, create dreams, live another life, a life in the past, and we tell ourselves it’s real, like this table, this house, this garden. But it’s not.’
‘But it did happen, it was real, so the memories are real too.’
The Colonel was silent for a while, Elizabeth studied him, the gaunt rather red face with the thin military moustache, the piercing blue eyes that now seemed strangely blank, the straight almost lipless mouth that gave nothing away.
‘I don’t know anymore.’ he said quietly, ‘I just want to go back, because there’s nothing in front any more.’
She squeezed his hand gently, not knowing what to say.
‘Oh! Don’t mind me.’ He said, pulling his hand away as if embarrassed, ‘It’s just the black dog growling, I’m no fit company this evening.’
Freddy, who had somehow managed to negotiate the steps suddenly appeared at their table.
‘Is it dinner time yet?’ He piped, looking amiably from one to the other.
Several other residents drifted onto the terrace and sat singly or in small groups around the tables. They were silent for the most part, only the Singletons, a married couple argued quietly at one table. Miss Frost, the second oldest resident was brought out in her wheelchair, she was asleep and snoring softly. It was the Matron, Judith, a middle aged woman with a permanently worried expression who brought her out, and when she had installed her in a spot shaded from the direct sun, turned to address the others.
‘I thought you should know I have called the vet to take a look at Casper, he’s not getting any better, and the vet might want to take him away. So, if you want to say goodbye, now might be the best time.’
She looked around, nobody moved or spoke, then Mrs. Singleton took out a small embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
‘It’s for the best I think we all agree. We don’t want him to suffer needlessly.’ Judith continued, feeling she had to justify the decision.
The Colonel cleared his throat and fidgeted in his chair. Judith raised her eyebrows looking at him.
‘Colonel Smythe? Don’t you agree?’
‘Best to leave him be I think. He’s not in pain, moving him will just make things worse.’
‘But we don’t know that Colonel, only the vet can judge that, that’s why I have called him.’
‘He’s not sick, he’s dying!’ barked the Colonel, ‘And in my experience of death, whether human or animal, you should be left alone to get on with it.’
The Matron sighed, as if dealing with an unreasonable child, ‘The vet will be here shortly; we’ll see what he advises. But Casper is not exactly enjoying life at the moment, anyone can see that, we have a responsibility to take care of him, in everything.’ She turned and walked back into the house.
A few of the ladies were wiping their eyes and there was the odd mutter of ‘poor old thing’, ‘so sad’, ‘best to let him go’. Elizabeth looked at the Colonel.
‘All right Reggie?’ She asked. He turned towards her and shook his head.
‘Should leave the poor old bugger alone. It’ll just upset him now to move him to the vets. All animals hate going there in any case. And he’ll know why he’s going there, he’ll know he’s for the chop…instinct.’
‘Oh! Don’t say that Reggie.’ protested Elizabeth, genuinely shocked.
They sat in silence for a while. One or two people went indoors to see Casper. Gladys came and sat at their table. The sun was now low, shadows long and dark stretched across the lawn, from inside the house came the sounds of the girls laying the table for dinner.
‘I’ll go for a little walk before dinner.’ Said the Colonel, ‘D’you mind helping me a bit.’
The Colonel was nearly blind now; a progressive untreatable degeneration of the optic nerve would mean he would loose his sight totally within a few months.
‘I will, if you promise me something.’ Elizabeth replied. The Colonel was silent. ‘Promise me you’ll cheer up a bit. You know how it upsets me if you’re out of sorts.’
He grunted for a reply and reached out to feel for her hand.
‘Sorry.’ he mumbled, ‘bloody nuisance, black dog, sorry, no right.’
At that moment a car drew up in the car park at the end of the terrace. A young man exited carrying a large black case.
Gladys jumped to her feet. ‘It’s Paul!’ She cried, ‘Paul, my son. He said he’d be here before dinner, or after. It’s him isn’t It.’ and she stared around at the others looking for confirmation.
‘Gladys, it’s the vet I think; it’s not your son. Not Paul. Maybe he’ll come later.’ Said Elizabeth.
Gladys slowly sat down, a look of bitter disappointment on her face. ‘He said he’d come.’ She said quietly.
Five minutes later Matron appeared on the terrace accompanied by the vet.
‘I thought you should all know, Mr. Williams has decided its time to put Casper to sleep. He’s going to take him away with him now, I’m sure you will all miss him terribly, but it’s for the best.’
There was a loud clatter as the Colonel’s chair fell over as he stood up.
‘Leave the poor bugger alone.’ He rasped, ‘What’s the point? It’ll just frighten and upset him.’
Judith and the vet looked at each other, eyebrows raised, before the vet turned towards him. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
‘I’m very sorry sir. I can’t do anything for him. He’s had a long life and now his time is up. There’s no point in prolonging it, he’s not going to get better…
‘We know that!’ Interrupted the Colonel, shouting now, ‘I’m not stupid. Just leave to poor bugger alone, let him die in his own time, here, at home, with his friends around him.’
There was a shocked silence; tears were streaming down the Colonels face, the face that normally showed no emotion of any sort.
‘I’m so sorry sir.’ Said the vet eventually, ‘The bottom line is that he has no quality of life, it’s my duty, our duty to help him go.’
The matron whispered something to him and together they turned and went back inside the house.
‘No quality of life.’ Said the Colonel, ‘No fucking quality of life.’ And he fumbled behind him trying to upright his chair at the same time wiping his face with the back of his hand.
Shortly after the vet could be seen carrying the limp body of Casper to his car. The doors slammed and the car drove off, the noise of its engine gradually fading into the blue September sky.
Elizabeth and the Colonel were walking arm in arm across the lawn towards the gate that led out of the garden to a footpath that joined the coastal path. Even with his limited vision the Colonel still walked with an upright military stance, giving Elizabeth the impression that he was leading her rather than the opposite.
‘How far do you want to go Reggie?’ She asked, ‘There’s only about half an hour before dinner. Will you get changed?’
‘Not tonight, not tonight.’ He replied, ‘You’ll have to put up with me like this. Can you get me as far as the bench with the view, I’d like to spend a moment or two there if that’s alright.’
‘That’s ten minutes there and ten back, that only leaves us with a few minutes to sit.’
The bench was perched on the highest point of the cliffs with a panoramic view over the sea and coast. They had sat there many times over the past few years, either with each other or sometimes alone. The bench was at the side of the path, and between the path and the edge of the cliff were ten yards of smooth turf. A weather worn wooden sign warned walkers not to approach the edge of the cliff.
Elizabeth kept hold of his arm until he was seated, then stood over him, looking down with affection at the old men who had become her best friend.
‘Do you want to be alone for a while?’ She asked him after a moment, always very receptive to his moods.
‘Would you mind Lizzie? Got a lot on my mind, need a bit of space to think.’
‘You’re upset about Casper aren’t you?’
‘Casper? Well, yes. Not just that though, it’s other stuff too.’
‘Is it to do with what you told me earlier, the green flash thing, deceiving yourself?’
He reached out and took her hand.
‘Tell you the truth I don’t really know. It’s like I’ve reached a strange place, everything is slipping away, eyes going, memories fading, friends disappearing, I don’t know what will be left soon. I don’t want to end up like Freddy.’
‘I know you’re worried about loosing your sight Reggie, but remember I’m going to be there to help, you’ll just have to get used to putting up with me more often. I won’t leave you alone you know.’He squeezed her hand, not trusting his voice to reply.
‘I’ll walk down the path five minutes then come back.’ She said, ‘You’ll feel better when you’ve had time to reflect, think it through.’
She turned away, then stopped, turned back and kissed him gently on the forehead.
‘Won’t be long.’ She said, a catch in her voice.
The Colonel sat and listened to the sound of her steps fading. He could feel the sun on his face, and he could just make out the blurred red disc touching the darkness of the sea. Strange colours spread outwards from the disc, blues and greens, swirling, twisting, and then fading. When the sun was gone it would be all darkness for him he knew, and who could tell if tomorrow there would be a sun, or if the would be any sight left in his eyes.
It kept coming back to him, the sound of the young vets voice, ‘quality of life’. It echoed in his head, mocking, taunting.
He had seen death in many forms, watched as young men fought to stay alive in spite of horrific injuries, and he remember a young Indian Sepoy lying with his legs blown off by a mine, his face burnt to a black mask pleading with him to not let him die. Pleading with the last breath he took as he lay in his arms.
Could he hang on in there, could he still enjoy life he wondered, still sit in the garden with Lizzie, drink his favorite scotch before dinner, listen to the radio, dream?
Dream, he had been dreaming a lot lately. Last night he had dreamt of Siti, his first Bibi, or sleeping dictionary as girls like her were known. His foreman had brought her to him just after he had been made a district officer in Burma. He was twenty-one, his first independent posting, she was maybe fifteen. Her mother accompanied her and had sat cross-legged outside his bungalow until the sahib returned from the field and put the required price in paper money in her brown and wrinkled hand. She had left straight after, and the girl had wondered into his bedroom and was standing waiting for him when he entered.
It had been like a burst of sunlight entering his life. Suddenly there was laughter, someone waiting for him when he returned from a long day at the courthouse or the saw mill or a trip up country to Shan or Karen territory, a fellow creature to share his bed, teach him Shan, and he hadn’t realised until she came how lonely he had been.
She was jealous of all that came between them, whether work or the other servants, whom she soon grew to terrorise, or the occasional English friend who visited them. But her particular and deepest hatred was reserved for any white ladies who might accompany the infrequent visitor. He told her to stay away during these visits but she refused, hiding in the next room and peering through cracks in the rattan screens. He could even hear her furious murmurings if the conversation flagged, and he was for forced to pass her off as a slightly deranged servant girl, a story that fooled no one. After the visitors had left, the memsahib carried by sweating porters on a swaying sedan chair, she would emerge laughing at his anger. She would parade in front of him mimicking the white woman, comparing her own cool young beauty the red faced perspiring Englishwoman, until collapsing on the floor and begging forgiveness, kissing his feet whilst shaking with laughter. He could never stay angry with her for long, and would soon be laughing with her as he lifted her small body easily and carried her to their bed.
She would steal from him shamelessly, and if he remonstrated with her she would weep and plead poverty, or the need for a new longyi, or a piece of jewelry she had seen in the local market that was essential for the woman of a sahib. But above all else she loved gold. She would beg him to buy her a tiny gold ring, or a broach, or chain to hang around her small soft neck. Often she would lie next to him on the bed playing with her latest acquisition. She would stroke it, caress it, place it against her own skin to show how similar were the colours, and invite him to touch to compare the smoothness.
She was with him for more than two years, until one day she disappeared, no one would tell him where or why, but he suspected she was carrying his child. But the memory of her had stayed with him, merging with the memories of the long tropical night, the blinding white days, the scent of her skin and her hair, the touch of her lips. He never lived with another woman again, refusing to believe that she cold be replaced, that such a perfect love could happen twice in a lifetime. He wished he had a photograph, an album even, like Lizzie had, and the others. Full of potted memories, just to look at, to prove to himself that it had existed. For now it lived only in his own head; memories, mixed up with dreams, fading, elusive.
Far away he heard the cry of a gull, it seemed to come from below, at the base of the cliffs. It seemed to be calling him. He squinted his eyes, searching for the sun, a blood red sliver just visible in the multi coloured fog. It was very thin, just a minute from extinction he guessed.
‘Time to go.’ He said aloud.
Colonel Reginald Smythe stood up straight by his bench. He knew that in front of him there were sixteen paces to the edge of the cliff. He had measured it just after his diagnosis had been confirmed. Sixteen regulation slow march paces. He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and took sixteen paces forward. When he came to a stop the highly polished toes of his shoes overlapped the edge of the cliff by just a quarter of an inch. He stared ahead, immobile, watching, waiting. Far away, below him in the darkness, as if in another world he heard the calling of the gull. The last thread of light slipped away and he took the regulation thirty inch step into space, and out of the darkness a brilliant green flash filled his world.
Elizabeth had watched him from a little way down the path. When he had taken that final step a little cry escaped the hands she held over her face. Slowly she walked back to the empty bench, as empty as if he had never been there.
Tulpa: “magic formations generated by a powerful concentration of thought.” Alexandra David-Néel.
Tulpa: A physical materialization of a thought, resulting in the creation
of a being or object. Pad of Definitions (1.17 Hell House)
Inspector Macintyre squatted next to the body at the base of the lighthouse, taking a last close look before the paramedics took over and coaxed it into the dull green body bag lying next to the corpse. He was grateful for the strong westerly wind coming off the grey Atlantic, for it helped to disperse the sweet sickly smell of decay that came from the body of the famous author that lay there. His fans would have difficulty in recognising Philip Preston now thought the inspector; the gulls and gillimots had been at work on his face leaving little that could be recognised as human.
He looked up at the lighthouse towering over him, up to where far above he could see the narrow walkway around the lamp house, from where the man had obviously jumped or fallen. Suicide was his guess; there was a four-foot high railing around the walkway, making it difficult to imagine an accidental fall. And then there was the question as to why he was there in the first place, not many people in their right minds would relish being abandoned alone on a tiny outcrop, fifteen miles out into the Atlantic. But then writers were artist types, and in inspector Macintyre’s opinion artist types were notoriously unstable and irrational.
He stood up and nodded to the paramedics to do their business and looked to where constable Finch was emerging from the door into the tower.
‘All done Finch? Got everything? Nothing untoward up there?’
‘All cleared sir, just this, found it under his bed. No sign of a manuscript though.’ He walked over to Macintyre and handed him what looked like a child’s exercise book.
‘Looks like diary I’d say sir. Might throw some light on things.’
Macintyre thumbed briefly through the pages. It was about half full; neat well written for the most part, but getting a bit rough towards the last few pages. It didn’t look like a manuscript, he thought, and that was what seemed to interest the fellow from London who had been contacted when the body was discovered a couple of days ago. He was the dead man’s agent he said, and seemed very anxious to locate the manuscript the man had been apparently working, on once he had recovered from hearing about the demise of his investment. Well, there was no time to go hunting around the island for the thing, the tide was turning and the boatman waiting by the jetty was anxious to head back to the mainland. The paramedics had already taken the body on board and all that remained was to lock up the place and leave.
The tiny police station in Loch Inver was deserted when Macintyre arrived back that evening. He made himself a mug of strong tea adding a measure of Scotch from the bottle he kept in the safe, and settled down behind the empty desk to read through the diary before making up his report.
It was on an impulse i decided to make this ‘diary’ or ‘account’ of my little adventure. I had the idea while waiting for the train in Glasgow, and all I could find in the station kiosk of ‘Smiths’ was a kid’s exercise book. Still, it will do the trick. I could have typed it on my old Remington Portable on some of my A4 paper, but it felt more, how shall I say, genuine, writing it in longhand in an exercise book. I’ve not written longhand for many a year now, but I’m quite looking forward to it.
Let me just clarify, as much for myself as for any future readers, what my little adventure is all about. Six best selling novels in a series, ‘The Crawford Chronicles’ has established me as a very successful writer. I have to qualify that; financially successful, for I was always unsure about any literary talent I might have. The seventh was due, promised even, by the end of June. It is now the tenth of May, and nothing has been written.
I’ve never had what’s called writers block before, never really believed in it, hell, all I had to do was sit down, concentrate, and it would come. And it always did, page after page; like printing money. But I’ve been trying now for six months, and not written a thing worth keeping. It’s gone, whatever I had before, and I don’t know if it will come back.
‘Just relax Philip.’ Tom, my agent told me, all the time counting the weeks before the publishers deadline and the triggering of the none production penalty clause. The nearer the deadline came the further away the ideas slipped, until there was nothing left, just a scary empty space in my head.
Try getting away from it all was my wife’s suggestion; a complete change might do something. But a country cottage didn’t appeal, a villa in Spain would have too many distractions, nothing seemed right until Annie, the agents secretary suggested ‘Armin Stack’, an abandoned lighthouse off the northwest coast of Scotland. Apparently her brother had stayed there with a party of bird watchers a year or so ago. It was on a minute island, a turbulent two hour sail from the nearest harbour, inaccessible for long periods in winter due to the weather, but now, in early summer reachable on most days.
Now I am there…or here. The boat has left, disappearing in the troughs of the grey Atlantic rollers on its way back to Ullapool. It will not return for three weeks, unless that is I have some sort of emergency, when I will use the battery operated short wave radio to call for help. I am alone now, more alone than I have ever been in my life before.
Island! It is not an island, just a bunch of black jagged rocks sticking up out of the North Atlantic. No vegetation of course, no buildings except the tower, no helicopter pad as there’s no room. The tower, my home for the next few weeks, has been stripped of its light, although the glass lenses and the walkway around the lamp room remain in place. The ground floor contains mainly discarded paraphernalia from the mechanism, storage tanks for drinking water and oil for the lights, and a large wooden rowing boat that looks as if it hasn’t touched the sea for years. The second floor is where I will live. There are several bunk beds, a table, cupboards for storing food etc., and a desk that I shall use to write on. Just one small window allows a little light into the room. Once it was home to three keepers, who lived here for months on a time, a test of sanity if ever there was one.
The boatman helped me carry my stores; bedding, clothing, and Portable Remington, into the ground floor then quickly took his leave. Didn’t like the look of the weather he said. He’d needed a hefty wad of cash to make him bring me here in the first place, claiming it was dangerous even on a quiet day like today. Looking at the rocks awash with white foam all around I have come to believe him.
I need to spend the rest of the day getting organised, have to explore the lighthouse and the ‘island’ later.
(Later) Getting dark now, although this far north it’s lighter than back in London. I have unpacked my stuff and stowed it all away in the various cupboards. Lit a couple of the oil lamps, not exactly bright but I’ll get used to them I expect. The walls of this place are several feet thick, but I can still hear the noise of the wind and the waves. Not explored any higher yet, leave that to tomorrow. Will try to sleep now.
Not a great nights sleep. Kept waking up, unused to the noises and the general unfamiliarity. Kept one lamp burning all night, not sure why, just felt safer somehow. Had a bit of breakfast, so time to take a breath of sea air and look around my watery domain.
Just back from the grand tour, took all of ten minutes. Wind blowing hard from northwest, white caps on sea, cold.
Nothing to see on the horizon today, the distant coast lost in the general grayness. I’ll get my writing desk organised now, Reminton in position with new ribbon, stack of virgin A4 paper on my far right, mug for coffee near right (keep it away from finished work I’d learnt!), and a space for the growing pile of completed pages (I hoped) on the left.
Later. It’s the end of my first whole day here and although I’ve not managed to write a word, well not one I’ve kept, I feel that I’ve made the right decision to come here. It is totally lacking in external distractions. No phone will ring, no one will knock on my door asking if I want to go out or have a cup of tea or sit in the garden, no kids asking for help with homework, no noise of traffic, or distant voices. Just the sound of the wind and the sea, muffled by the walls, continuous, unending. I feel that if I persist, stick at it, it will happen again, like before, when I could write page after page as if taking dictation. It’s just down to mental effort. I’ve got the imagination I know; I just have to apply it. They are all there, the characters, all from the previous books, standing in the wings of my subconscious, waiting to be called. I feel I know them all so well: Julian, calm, aristocratic, intellectual, Diana, darkly beautiful, sensual, imaginative, deeply in love with Julian, and Freddie, the joker in the pack, not very smart, bounces around like a big puppy dog, always laughing, in awe of Julian and secretly obsessed with Diana. They just need the call, I have to find it.
I’ve not gone up to the second floor yet, let alone all the way up to the light, must be a magnificent view from there on a clear day. Maybe tomorrow. I’m tired now, have a bite and then an early night. Hope I can sleep a bit better than last night.
Slept until about two am last night then woke up. More wind and sea noise than yesterday I think. Made myself some cocoa and found that I was talking to myself! Starting to feel a bit strange this lack of human contact, beginning to wish I had brought a radio with me. But that would defeat the whole purpose. Must stick at it.
Later. Feeling tired and lethargic, I’ll sit at the desk with my hands on the Remington and see what happens. Just realised I didn’t have breakfast, just not hungry, maybe later.
Lunchtime and nothing yet. Heated a tin of beans and sausages on the gas ring, forced the stuff down with a can of lager that I enjoyed, think I’ll have another later. Still no progress, starting to wonder why I ever agreed to a seventh book, money I guess. This will have to be the last though, can’t stand the idea of going through all this again. I’ll tell Tom when I get back that it’s the last of the Crawford Chronicles, he’ll have fit I think. Just have to make this last one a goodun. But how?
Thought I’d have a siesta after lunch and fell asleep on the bed, and when I awoke I had it, an idea at least. I’ll finish them off, literally, at least the main characters, kill them somehow. No good doing away with just one, has to be them all, or at least the three main ones, otherwise Crawford Hall could live on, newly peopled, can’t stand that idea. Now I’ve just got to find a way, a nice juicy plot that ends with them all well and truly and permanently dead. Joy oh joy! Feeling great now…to work!
Wrote until nearly dark, twenty pages at least. Never done that much before. This place works for me. It was only when I stopped for a bite that I noticed the silence. There was no wind, and no sounds of waves either. I left my desk and made my way downstairs. When I opened the heavy, reinforced door to the outside world I found the air still, even a little warm and the sea calm. At least that was what I first thought. The sky was a tempest of reds and yellows to the west where the sun had just set at the end of a ribbon of gold laid across the sea. Then I noticed the movement. There were no waves, but the sea was slowly, very slowly, rising and falling. All around the island a delicate fringe of white showed where the edges marked the silent approach and retreat of the water. There must have been a rise and fall of twenty feet I thought. These were waves, but slow, huge, silent waves, coming from the west, the open Atlantic. Something was happening out there.
I came back inside, shutting the door securely behind me. I’ll have my bite to eat then get stuck into work again. It’s coming on well, I’m quite excited about the various possibilities of doing away with those three, maybe I’ll write a horror or crime piece next! It’s like taking dictation…something’s going to happen to them, soon, and it won’t be good news for them I’m afraid.
About three AM. I was working, completely absorbed, lost in the doomed world of Crawford Hall and it’s inhabitants, when noticed the noise was back. The sound of the wind. It was coming from up above me, from the light at the top of the tower. I’m guessing that there are openings there for the wind to get in. I seem to feel a cold draught coming from down the stairs. I should go and investigate, but the oil lamps I have give out a miserable light, and I don’t relish the thought of a fall on those stone steps. Tomorrow I must explore.
Now I’ve stopped working I feel tired, I’ll try to get some sleep. Sixty pages in, incredible, I’ll finish the bugger in a week at this rate. Just realised I’m talking to myself all the time now, hope the old brain box holds out, been feeling a bit strange, mustn’t overdo it. Finished all the lager by the way, wish I’d brought more.
8am. Just been outside, couldn’t sleep after all, too much going on in my head. But my god what a sight when I opened the door. At first it looked like the horizon had come closer, but it was an illusion caused by the height of the waves, marching in long regular rows running from north to south. They were smooth, glassy, greeny-black hills with just a small white fringe along their tops where the wind was catching them. The sea around the island would retreat, exposing yards of black streaming weed covered rocks, then slowly the water would rush back, covering all, climbing higher and higher towards the tower, swallowing the little jetty and the steps and stopping just a few feet from the base of the tower. It had the quality of a wild animal, a monster, taunting its prey before striking.
About a hundred yards away from the lighthouse I saw the wreck of a ship, just a brown skeleton, water streaming through its open ribs, the remains of its rusting bow pointing accusingly towards the tower.
The wind was still moderate, but the sky was covered with black, racing clouds that seemed to be almost scraping the top of the light as they swept eastwards. I stayed watching the spectacle, fascinated by the awful power of the forces at play, until the wind suddenly increased I felt spray on my face and saw the first of those mountains of water steepen, totter, and break with a distant hollow boom. I retreated to my tower thankful to climb the solid stone steps to my gloomy lamp lit room.
11pm. I have given up trying to write or sleep. The noise is fantastic. A discordant symphony of shrieking wind and roaring sea, punctuated by the percussion of mighty hammer blows as waves explode against the walls of the tower and the surrounding rocks. I have no means of telling if this is an exceptional or a common event but the trembling of the walls and floor seem to indicate it is not a normal storm.
I was working well until about 8 pm, just coming to the murder, and this will trigger a series of events that will show all three of them in a different light, a side to their characters unsuspected, a dark side. It feels right what I’m doing, I can see them so clearly, every detail of their lives is stored away in my head, I know them better than their own mothers, better even than their lovers. Looking back I can see that there was always this darkness in them, tucked away, hidden from others but not from themselves. Perhaps an echo of something in me, why not? After all I made them, way back in book one, created them out of nothing, nearest thing to god I was. So now its only right I should destroy them, their story is told, their time has come.
Day 5. 1am.
I’ve just been outside. The weirdest thing has happened. Maybe it’s lack of sleep but I seem to have problems in thinking straight. But this is what happened. About an hour ago, I was lying on my bed trying to doze, when the sound of the wind suddenly died away, that is over a couple of minutes, I think. Just as if someone had turned down the volume. The noise of the waves too seemed to diminish.
I got up and taking a lamp made my way downstairs. The floor was wet and cold to my bare feet from water that had come in under the door. I carefully unlocked the door and peered out. In effect there was no wind at all, absolute stillness. The sea was still running high but nowhere near turbulent as before, and looking up I saw the sky was crystal clear, carpeted by a river of stars stretching across from horizon to horizon. A brilliant crescent moon hung low over the west, lighting up the island, the sea, and the tower, that shone with a ghostly pallor against the black sky. I walked a few yards to the edge of the jetty, glad to be able to stretch my legs and breath the fresh sea air after the damp claustrophobia of my room. I was in the eye of the storm I realised, soon the wind would return and with it the waves.
I was about to return to the tower when looking up I saw a faint greenish glow surrounding the light at the top of the tower. As I watched it intensified, expanded, sending streamers of brilliant blue-green light down the walls, forking and joining again to form a living web encasing the building. At the same time I felt the hair on my head standing up, my scalp tingling, and looking down saw the ends of my fingers glowing with the same cold green fire. St.Elmo’s Fire! That was it, I remembered reading about it somewhere. Like a child I laughed, lifting my hands up and watching the light flicker across from one finger to another. It lasted no more than a minute or two I think, then gradually faded, creeping back up the tower towards the top before disappearing.
It was as I watched it disappear that I saw something; a light came on in the window on the second floor. The floor I didn’t use. I stared at it in shock, refusing to believe, accept, what I saw. Then, maybe my eyes deceived me, or maybe I hallucinated through lack of sleep, I don’t know, but then, I seemed to see the silhouette of a head and shoulders in the window, as if someone was looking out, looking out at me. Then the light went out, and I felt the first gust of wind as the storm returned.
I haven’t ventured up the winding staircase to the floor above me yet. I tell myself that I must wait until dawn, for a better light, but I know that actually I’m afraid. I don’t know why, but I’m afraid of what I might find in the room upstairs.
For the first time I’m thinking about leaving here, after all I seem to have cracked the block that sent me to this place. I’m fairly sure I could finish the book back in London now, quietly and comfortably at home in my study. I keep casting glances to the cupboard where I’ve stored the short wave radio. But even if I called no boat could approach the island in this weather, and I remember the grumpy boatman telling me on the way here he wouldn’t be back unless the sea was flat calm. Could be days or weeks I think…who can tell.
I must try to sleep, and I must stop talking to myself, maybe I’m becoming deranged.
Day Six, (and I had to look back in my diary to verify that.)
Seem to be loosing track of time. Didn’t sleep I think last night but I dozed a bit because I had a sort of half dream, some vague unformed horror that woke me with my own cries, but I can’t remember any details.
It’s morning and the storm seems to be blowing itself out. I peeped outside and saw the sun was breaking through the clouds from time to time, the sea less chaotic. The tide must have been low because I could see the wreck, half exposed on the rocks. The water churning through its ribs and about its bows gave the impression it was advancing towards the tower, a skeleton ship with a skeleton crew, and I wondered how many sailors had perished with it in those awful waters.
No appetite for breakfast, I’m going to climb the tower now, see what’s upstairs, have a look from the light. Here goes…
I have to get this right, put it down on paper. If I see it on paper it might make sense, or even stop my heart beating so hard. I’ve never known fear before I realise, not real fear, not fear like I have just experienced. Fear that dries the mouth, that turns limbs to lead, that takes over the mind with a silent unending scream…
It was all right going up, once I got used to the stairs. They spiral around the walls, stone up to the floor above and iron after that. I was a bit worried about the iron, looked a bit rusty here and there, shook a bit too as I climbed. The room above me was nearly empty, just three bed frames stacked on top of each other, a long wooden table, three rather cheap and nasty wardrobes containing a collection of various wooden and metal hangers. On the table were couple of oil lamps like the ones I used and a large tin box of matches. The single narrow window was rusted shut, the outside of the glass heavily crusted with salt and bird droppings.
It took me several minutes to climb to the light housing at the top, but the view when I stepped out onto the walkway running around the light was breathtaking. Miles of green and blue and black churning water surrounded the lighthouse, white breakers showing here and there where the water shoaled or rocks pierced the surface. The sun, breaking thought the clouds, played a giant searchlight over the sea, and on the far eastern horizon I could make out the faint shadow of the mainland.
I think that was when I realised just how alone I am here, how completely cut off and inaccessible the island is. Until the sea calms I am stuck here no matter what happens. If I fall ill, or have an accident, I could die here, alone; and nobody could help me in any way. That moment I knew I was going back the moment the sea was calm enough, I was going to radio as soon as I came down.
I hurried to descend, clattering down the iron staircase, across the empty room, and down the stone stairs to my room.
Three people were standing in the room. I froze in mid step. I registered just three people, two men and a woman. They were quite clear, but sort of transparent, like an etching on glass, or a double exposure on a photograph. They were grouped around my desk, and they were looking down at my manuscript. Then as I watched they slowly turned toward me, but disappearing before I saw their faces.
I’m going to radio to get picked up as soon as they can. Don’t know when that will be but the wind has all but dropped and I guess the sea will calm down soon too.
I can’t stay here any longer, I know that now. Stress, the lack of sleep, overwork, it’s all played a part in giving me these illusions, these hallucinations. I don’t feel I have the same grip on reality as I had before, something has slipped, something is out of kilter. I’ll probably laugh about it when I get home, but right now I’m concerned that I’m loosing it.
It’s a combination of two things I’ve decided, first the book and the story line, just too much obsessing, too much concentration without a break or distraction. And then this place, the solitude, the unfamiliar surroundings and events, but above all the atmosphere. I felt it the moment I came, but ignored it. It’s somehow un-natural, unhealthy, a place with what my kids would describe as ‘bad vibes’. I don’t know if something bad happened here once, I don’t think I believe in that sort of thing, but there is a feeling here, and if I was forced to put a simple word to it I’d have to say it was evil. Badness, moral sickness, whatever you care to call it, it’s here. It permeates the walls, lurks in the corners of the darkened rooms, whispers in the wind, watches from the light. The sooner I’m gone the better.
In the meantime I’ll make that call and try to push on with the story.
Somehow I wasn’t surprised, should have been, I had checked it the day after I arrived and it was fine. Now, I’ve just flipped the switch and it’s dead. And it’s dead because the battery has gone, taken by someone or something. I know that it’s impossible, there’s no one here except me and a few seagulls, but it’s gone. That leaves me with just the one possibility, that I’ve taken it without knowing, that I am in fact loosing my mind.
I’ve tried to think this through, analyse what’s going on in my head, tried to follow through the last few days and see if I can’t remember something, touching it, unscrewing the cover, taking out the battery, but I can’t. I remember quite clearly putting the thing away after I had switched it on to check it worked, thinking about the battery life and how I’d been told it should last for months, which band to transmit on, what call sign to use. But I have no recollection of touching it since…but I must have.
My mind keeps drifting back to those illusions I had about the silhouette at the window, the three people around my desk, they are all part of my problem I think. Illusions, reality, it’s all mixed up in my head now.
End of my first week here. Seems like a year. Thinking less and less about home, family, work and the rest, seems like this here is my reality now, everything else is just a dream. I talk to myself all the time, nothing wrong with that, after all there are different people inside all of us, might as well communicate.
Woke up to a thick fog. Sea calm, but no one will come for me. Sat down on the jetty for a while watching the wind make shapes in the fog, all sort of shapes, they form and dissolve, drift towards me or away, float above my head. I’m quite relaxed about seeing them, I don’t mind if what I see is real or imaginary, I can’t tell the difference any more.
When I awoke this morning, awoke from a brief troubled sleep, they were standing over me. Just standing, looking at me. Julian, Diana, and Tommy. They were quite solid, firm, real, I could even smell Diana’s perfume, ‘Air du Temps’ , it was I who had chosen it for her after all. It was their eyes I didn’t like, cold, hard, angry even, what did they want of me? I closed my eyes on the nightmare, and when I opened them they were gone.
I’ll play the game to the end. No point in stopping now, and it might be my only chance. I’m going to sit down and finish the business, write them out, kill them off. Already they have changed somehow. Did I do that? Changed into killers themselves. Julian – the mastermind, Diana – scheming, manipulative, depraved, Tommy – the foot soldier, sadistic, obsessed, the laughing killer. The island had changed them, and me too. I shan’t take long, I know exactly what to do, exactly how each one will die, and I won’t make it easy for them…I feel giddy with the power of the word.
The fog. Its here. It seems to have seeped inside the lighthouse. There’s a definite mist in my room, must have seeped in under the door downstairs or drifted down from the broken windows in the light room. I’m trying to concentrate on the manuscript, not look around, I’m afraid they are back, standing watching me as I write. I can smell them too. I notice my hands are very white, shaking as I type.
I heard them before I saw them. Heard first the steps on the stairs, descending from the room above me. I didn’t look, just stopped typing, stared at the paper in front of me until I felt them close behind me, around me, their eyes watching me.
‘What exactly are you doing?’ It was Julian’s familiar cultivate arrogant voice.
I heard a sob that seemed to come from someone else but came from me.
‘It’s not on old boy, just not on.’ Tommy’s obscene chortle.
The Remington and the desk dissolved in a blur of tears as my bladder voided.
Then Diana’s voice, soft like a rose petal, deadly as a stiletto.
‘Philip, I’m so disappointed in you. You’ve been a bad boy haven’t you? A very bad boy. What happens to bad boys Philip? I think you know, I think you know that bad boys have to be punished.’
Then silence. Only the sound of my panting breath. I slowly turned to face them, but they were gone. Only three faint misty outlines remained, and soon they dissolved, leaving only the scent of ‘Air du Temps’ to show they had been there. They had gone, but knew they would be back. They were making me wait for their punishment, as I had made them wait for their deaths.
It’s done. The word is written. The end of the story and the end of them.
I’m going up to the light now. They might try to stop me, but I think I can get through. I don’t think they can have any power over me now. Once I’m there can shut the trapdoor, there’s only access, I’ll find a way to block it, maybe just stand in it. I’ll take the manuscript with me. Keep it close, and safe. They have to realise that they are finished, they have to go. They have had their lives. I made them, now I have unmade them. At least that is my hope.
God help me.
Macintyre closed the thin red exercise book and poured a further measure of scotch into the remains of his tea and shook his head. He thought about the phone call from the man in London, Tom somebody. He was looking for a manuscript, and it had to be this. Shame about the ending he thought, unfinished. The poor deranged fellow must have cracked before he finished it, no surprise there. Those artistic and imaginative types were always a bit unstable in his experience. The island was no place anyone in their right mind would want to stay, it had a bad reputation ever since the loss of the Hermes with sixty seven people before the light was built, and then the business of the first two keepers found dead there at the end of the last century.
Suicide his report would confidently say, there was no other possibility. The problem of the missing boat would have to be shelved as unsolved. The boatman who had taken them to the island knew all about it, old but perfectly sound, kept there for emergency use. But it would have needed at least three people to move it down to the jetty, far to heavy for one the old man insisted. But it was gone, god only knows where.
In any case Macintyre had no time to chase after any solutions to that mystery. He had more than enough to do trying to find the person who had committed the four motiveless murders in the area in the last couple of weeks. There were few leads so far, just the possible sighting of three strangers walking on the road to Ullapool. Probably tourists, but he’d have to check them out.
He stood up, stretched stiffly, then slipped on his coat. His dinner would be cold by now, Bethany would be mad at him for not phoning. Just as he was about leave there was a soft knocking on the door. With a muttered curse he lent and peered out of the window. A woman was standing in the lamplight, a stranger to him, a pale face, long dark hair, strikingly beautiful. As he looked she turned and saw him, and smiled. Macintyre smiled back, not seeing the two other forms standing quietly in the darkness behind her until he had opened the door.
The Dead Monk.
“There’s always the urge to see somebody dead that isn’t you.” Stephen King.
To encounter death, to see and accept it, to treat it as a part of life, to look at it without fear or revulsion is an ability largely absent from western societies. Close the eyes, cover the body, draw the curtains, dig out the dark suit and the black tie, talk in hushed tones, hide it in a well sealed coffin then bury it or burn it, get rid of the evidence.
Even the church who claimed inside knowledge of the happening seemed to want to dispose of the physical remains as quickly as possible, emphasising the departure of the soul from the body, the rejection of the physical man in favour of the spiritual. I never thought or questioned this until a day came when I was to find and study death, without fear or revulsion, quietly and gently. It was the first day of the north east monsoon.
Early morning and I was seated on the terrace of my house drinking coffee and wondering when the rain would come. Although only seven o’ clock the heat lay over the house and garden like a heavy suffocating blanket and I could feel the sweat running down my face and chest.
Nan, the Burmese house girl appeared in the doorway, she was dressed in what constituted for her the ‘Sunday Best’ that is to say immaculate white t-shirt and pink shorts, with pink plastic flip-flops on her small brown feet with pink painted nails.
‘Nan go temple now, go see Buddha man. OK Papa?’
‘OK Nan, go temple, but tell Mama you go.’
Nan grinned ‘Mama say OK. No problem.’ “No problem” was the latest phrase she had picked up to supplement the other dozen or so words in English she had learnt in the month since she came to us. Nan was sixteen and had never been able to attend school in Burma, before fleeing to Thailand. Arrested by the police she was luckily spotted by my landlord, the local chief of police, who was looking for a house-girl for our home.
We were quite used to her slipping off to visit the temple. It seemed there was always a reason for a visit, not just the day of the week but maybe a special date, an auspicious planetary conjunction, a birthday, a wedding, a blessing, and usually a couple of visits a week were required and Nan seemed to enjoy her trips out.
It was half hours walk into the village, the first kilometre through the jungle before the road emerged into the rubber plantations, and I hoped the rain would hold off until her return. I stood up and walked to the edge of the veranda to look up at the mountaintops to the east. They were cloaked in darkness, the peaks hidden in dense churning black clouds and as I watched I saw a brief flicker of lightning.
‘Nan!’ I called after her, ’Wait, it looks like rain, I’d better drive you.’
Nan turned, looking up at the sky her head on one side. ‘No problem Papa, Nan walk quick.’
I went into the house and grabbed the car keys, shouting to Catherine that I was taking Nan to town.
I parked in front of the Temple busy with villagers bringing offerings for the monks and let Nan out. It seemed dark for the hour, the sun invisible behind the clouds massed over the mountains, and inside the temple hundreds of candles cast wavering shadows over the gilt and gaudy walls. I waited in the doorway as Nan knelt in front of the Buddha statue and made obeisance, kneeling and touching her head three times to the ground before placing burning incense sticks before the golden icon.
‘Ah! Papa! I am so happy to see you.’ A voice from behind me made me turn. Ae was a young monk I knew and who took every chance he could to practise his English. He was 27 and had been a monk since he was 14, he lived in a tiny cell and his sole possessions were 2 robes, a brass begging bowl, and a portable phone. He was quite the happiest person I had even met. ‘I too am glad to see you Khun Ae, you must tell me why there are so many people her today.’
‘Yes! It is true, many people. They come to see Holy Man, do you want to see too?’
‘Maybe I will, why is he special this Holy Man?’
Ae laughed, ‘Oh! He is special, very special, he is dead.’ I was both baffled and intrigued as to why anyone would want to look at a dead monk. ‘But why is he not cremated, I thought that had to be done very quickly when a monk died?’
Ae took a more serious tone. ‘This monk very good man. Live very holy life, long time very holy and become very pure. So, when this man die he so pure no need to burn him. He stay same same all time.’
‘You mean he doesn’t decay, decompose, you know what I mean?’
‘Yes. No rot, no smell, nothing. Stay same all time. So now he live in glass box, people can see, see how holy and pure this man is.’
Ae led the way through the crowd to a small open sided building next to the temple. On a dais inside was indeed a glass coffin like object containing the form of a robed monk.
His robes covered most of his body leaving only his face and hands visible, and I realised with a shock that I recognised him. I had often seen him walking in the Temple grounds, his head bowed over a book.
I moved closer to the glass and looked down at his face. In the failing light of the approaching storm his face seemed to merge with the robe, the folds and creases of the cloth echoed in the lines and wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, the soft colours of the robes echoing the tones of his face. He could have been asleep save for a slight dullness to his brown skin and the total stillness of his features. A stillness that seemed to create an aural around him, deadening the sounds of the people in the temple, the voices becoming distant, and colours muted.
And I felt his presence still, the feeling that he had not left, this was not his now empty shell. For sure he would no longer walk in the gardens, chant sutras in the evening service, talk with his fellow monks, for he had changed, evolved, but he had not gone.
A sudden breeze stirred the leaves of the tamarind trees and making the candles dance and flicker, giving the ghost of a movement to his face. He seemed so right laying there, so much a part of that world. This unchanging body was no miracle I realised, this was the normal course of his life. He fitted perfectly into the picture, the temple with its monks and worshipers, gods and demons, the spirits and ghosts of the forest, the mountains cloaked in their mysterious jungle and crowned with the monsoon laden clouds.
Nan appeared silently beside me, then knelt and made obeisance. She too seemed part of it now, a fragment of life next to death. She stood up and tried to see the monks face, but she was too small, and even on tiptoe her eyes were just level with the base of the coffin. She turned and smiled at me and said something in Burmese. I looked from her to the monk, the one face smooth and smiling, the fragile impermanent perfection of youth, that seemed to glow in the darkness, fed by the hopes and joys of a young world, and the other carved as if from teak, imprinted with the passing of the years, seasoned like the bark of a tree, the imperceptible changing. Life and death wedded together in harmony, the one merging seamlessly into the other in the mysterious cycle of being.
There was a sudden patter of rain on the roof and I heard the deep distant thunder rolling down from the mountains. Nan tugged gently at my sleeve. ’Papa go home now? Nan make coffee, bekfast?
I returned many times over the next two years to talk with Ae and visit the monk in his glass case. I could detect no change in the appearance of the holy man, save perhaps a slight hollowing of his cheeks. On my last visit I found Ae sitting next to the coffin reading aloud from a newspaper. He was reading from the sports page, the English football results.
‘Oh! He like Man. U. so much, I always tell him when they have match.’ He said simply when I inquired what he was doing. ‘ Man U. three, Chelsea one. He is very happy to hear that I think!’