I create across art, writing and business
The Wing Ghost
by Matt Goddard
A Festive Tale of the Highlands in Ten Staves
First published December 2014
STAVE ONE. GHOSTS OF THE PAST.
STAVE TWO. A CUP OF WISDOM.
STAVE THREE. A HIGHLAND AIM.
STAVE FOUR. AN ABOMINABLE SITUATION.
STAVE FIVE. A FAMILY REUNION.
STAVE SIX. FALLING FROM A GREAT NIGHT.
STAVE SEVEN. A CHRISTMAS HAROLD.
STAVE EIGHT. A DISTANT MARCH.
STAVE NINE. THE LONG WALK.
STAVE TEN. THE SPIRIT BRINGS AN END TO IT.
STAVE ONE. GHOSTS OF THE PAST.
Harold Worrall was late, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.
It was Christmas week already. The customary rain had started two days before he wrenched the three backpacks further up his shoulder on the Old Star Road for the fifteenth time. It wasn't a long walk to the station, but the weight of his sogged clothing and multiple rucksacks along with the sopping pavement made it satisfyingly difficult and his brow crumpled accordingly.
While waiting for him to complete his laboured shuffle, it may help to establish a few facts about Harold. A few irrefutable truths that, had he been more organised, he would have readily added to his CV in a grasping attempt at efficiency. Yes, he wasn't the most systematic, but he was one of the most overwrought. He compensated for his chronic inability to land just the wrong side of good luck by over complicating everything as much as he possibly could.
But the end result was always the same; a lot of effort went into cutting it fine, and a familiar annual sight at the end of the road, at the gates of the local rail station (when he eventually got there), was a quivering bulk of a man laden with luggage mopping his heavy, perspiring brow where it hung heavily almost six feet above the road.
And so it went on. Once again this Christmas, as he did every year, Harold had left his work far later than he should, wrapped his presents far after his own strict deadline and packed his bags far beyond any reasonable timescale. And following a hurried crumpling of too many ill-chosen items into battered rucksacks Harold found himself sloshing slowly and painfully to the nearby station well aware that he had forgotten something. He also knew that he would inevitably discover what that something was a few hours later, which only served to raise his blood pressure even further.
Who, least of all he, knew why? It was the same every year, just as it was every day, and he and his reddened face should be well used to it by now.
Splashing across the tarmac, he hoisted the backpacks once more as he managed to touch an inch of Christmas jumper sleeve to his streaming forehead while desperately trying to not think about it. Yes, Harold Worrall was not made for Christmas or holidays, and Christmas holidays were all the worse.
At the end of long roads and train tracks a woman waited, anticipating his oncoming storm with a caring pause. As she looked out from pale bay windows, the white skies darkened and thick droplets of rain splashed against the glass. But, thought Mrs Worrall under a light frown of her own, he was her son, and she wouldn't change him for the world. It was the same every year and she turned to put the kettle on as hail thumbed a growing beat on the back door.
STAVE TWO. A CUP OF WISDOM.
Two and three quarter hours later, Harold pulled up at his mother's house in a rented silver estate, bags squashed alongside pick-ups from the trip; neatly and impressively squeezed into the boot, he thought. He managed to muster a smile at the opening front door and accompanying hugs and after a solid drying off had been ushered through to a prim sofa in the front room, cup of tea in hand. Harold may have anticipated this, but couldn’t quite hide his rising blood pressure. Three clocks kept slightly different beats around mother and son as Harold squirmed under the weight of his increasingly heavy wrist watch. He glanced at it again, almost spilling his tea. He knew they were running late, he knew it was his fault and it further unsettled him when he was sitting opposite someone who was evidently ignoring that blunt fact. He reddened further on the sofa that just wouldn't let him sink any further.
'Mum, you know, we could talk about this on the way!'
'Oh now, and drink out of a thermos?' She gesticulated wildly, fine bone china cup rattling in her hand, not a drop of its contents spilling. 'We'll be fine Harold, there's always time for a cup of tea. You know that.' Harold paused. He did indeed know this the mantra hidden on the beige anaglypta wallpaper of his mother's sitting room.
'Have you seen the weather?' Countered her son, apropos of everything. 'Inches and inches of snow falling overnight, I just want to get there in good time and make it count. We've only got the three days...'
'Three wonderful days with my wonderful sons'. Harold's mother tilted her head at him in a very knowing way. 'But that's it, isn't it - you just want to beat Samuel, same as ever! Ever so silly’
Sam! Harold made a poor attempt to shake his head as if he couldn't disagree more. He failed because, as ever, his mother was exactly right. Sibling rivalry had never really covered it, as there were no perceptible similarities, or so each brother thought. Well aware of his own shortcomings, Harold had often harboured thoughts that Sam was just as disorganised as him, but simply better equipped to cover it up.
He landed on the right side of good luck at the crucial time just that little bit more than Harold. That explained the career, the cars, the wives (he'd lapped Harold twice), the persistently and defiantly full hairline... Harold’s ruddy cheeks immediately turned a fetching puce at the thought. He could hear his mother cheerfully twittering on in the background, just above the sound of the clocks. He sank nearly a full cup of tea into his gullet, spluttered and summoned as pointed a voice as he could.
'Right, we really must be going - look at those clouds!'
The clouds that had been there for two and three quarter hours.
STAVE THREE. A HIGHLAND AIM.
With the car’s boot expertly and materially repacked with a huge quantity of Christmas paraphernalia (that sent Harold's eyes into a Highway Code-baiting perpetual roll) they set off. It was a direct line north they took, neatly avoiding congestion until the border, during which Harold's mum only told him to slow down fifteen times. He counted. Within a couple of hours, as the light receding ahead of them, they were in the right country and within three, they were within sight of what was unmistakably their final destination: The imperious Mouldstop Abbey, perched on natural valley cliffs, across a white valley.
The sleet flurries they had passed through since leaving England were now the prominent feature. Where normally there were strips of thistles and a mauve haze backing the scotch mist of the valley, now there were drifts, dotted and divided around dark stone walls and even darker trees.
At the northern end of the valley the two travellers could just about make out the long narrow lanes that lay between them and the priory, heavily perched as it was across the crevice. Perhaps buoyed on by the ease of the journey so far, relative ease to his mind, Harold surveyed it as he imagined Nelson might have surveyed his combined fleet under the light airs of Trafalgar. Down and up, with a bit of churn in the middle he thought. Just as Nelson undoubtedly never did.
Harold’s brow blackened like a demon stump for the 50th time that day as he thought of the ridiculously low, creeping speedster that Sam had undoubtedly brought to the occasion. Hopefully they'd sail pass that raised bonnet, perhaps offering a hand or even better a gracious lift. Harold, now smirking at the thought, set off on his journey to the centre of the valley.
As may be expected, that first half of the journey was embarked in slightly too fast stops and starts, where gravity and ice colluded to bring the car into close proximity with ancient stone walls. With one particular jolt, an elf hat flew forward from the pile at the rear of the car, landing masterfully on Harold's head, much to his mother's amusement. He scowled, but not as much as he did during the second half of the journey.
Slower and far more painful, Harold kept both white-knuckled hands locked around the steering wheel as he navigated the varying inclines of sheet ice. His mother made supportive noises and not so supportive suggestions throughout, ones he had long since learned to ignore.
Concentrating all the harder, he sunk lower and lower into his seat until the car took what he could only think of as sympathy, sinking three wheels of its own into snow dirt tracks. Halfway up the valley incline, they refused to budge another inch. Ahead, the breadth of trees, fields and walls were hidden by an even denser blanket of white, billowing to the narthex of the Abbey. So bloody close, thought Harold, scowling even more at his choice of words.
STAVE FOUR. AN ABOMINABLE SITUATION.
The driver had soon huffed from the car, only to be greeted by a mounting flurry. Eyes clenched against the winter, the first anxiety about his mother tightened around Harold’s chest. His eyes scrunched against a blizzard that he knew was going to worsen. Snow on snow, thought Harold, with a distinct lack of melody. It was only early winter after all. Still, having decided that the car was most definitely stuck and that there was precious little chance it contained any means of digging the tyres free, he reasoned that staying in the vehicle was the last thing that they should do. They'd soon be lost; frozen and lost in a four-wheeled, hired tomb. He shivered harder at the thought of his rental deposit. No, they had to make a move, leave the luggage - and the stupid elf hat that he ripped from his head – make it to the Abbey and hope for better conditions to launch a bold rescue the following day. As the tone of the blizzard grew, Harold suddenly found himself pining for a long Scotch, but quickly shrugged off the faux warmth of the thought and turned back to talk to his mother, who was still happily prattling in the passenger seat.
As he turned back to the car, something caught Harold’s eye. A dark blur of motion where there should have been the shadowy trunks of trees that had stood for decades. Soggy flakes hit his eyelashes and after a second's glance he shrugged that off too, desperately trying to locate the original spot. And there it was. And still, he could make out some kind of movement. One... No. Not one, but two things moving. Moving towards them. Directly ahead. He quickly craned into the car's cabin, his fingers dropping the Elf hat to the snow as he did.
'Lock the door!' he half shouted, half whispered, totally urgent, 'Mum, lock the door quick'
'Whatever is the matter?' was all he heard as he returned his gaze to the front.
Despite his mounting panic Harold couldn't mistake the slight rasp of irritation in her calm voice – he having disturbed her mid-advice.
Harold leaned forward, as far over the door window as he could manage, the hinges creaking under the whistle of the wind.
Harold tried to focus, willing the shapes to take a more recognisable form. Whatever they were, they looked huge. Unmistakably human-shaped, but huge. In the thickening white he couldn't make out a single feature except the extended limbs on each. Yes, he thought, they have... Whatever they are, they’ve got weapons. At that point he gave into panic. Yelling something he intended to be war-like (actually incomprehensible and high pitched) he made to dart into the car, mouth full of slosh. He barely made half the turn. Moving both feet at once, only one followed the instruction, soon slipping directly under the car. He was kept relatively upright, momentarily, by a coat pocket that had entangled the door hinge, before he fell to the ice like a fine pine. His other foot remained firmly stuck as the weight of his falling torso pivoted around it.
In fact, as would never be discovered by Harold or anyone else, that cemented foot fast disappearing under a small drift, was placed squarely on the fallen elf hat. Having sat unwanted upon Harold's head for a good 40 minutes during the torturous valley drive, it had absorbed double the amount of sweat it might have expected. Upon hitting the frozen ground the gallons of moisture soaked into its fabric had quickly reached to hug its cousins, almost immediately forming a strong ice bond between Harold's boot and the hillside. A bond that would take some un-bonding. The overall result could only have been a vertical fall, and Harold duly crumpled to the ground with a look of exquisite panic on his face.
'Harold, what are you doing down there?' was the very last thing he heard his mother say beforethe two yetis reached his pathetically prostrate figure. Upside down, through frozen lashes and damp eyes, he made out beards, with heavy fur-lined collars either side, and weapons... That were spades.
'Well, good day to you down there' grunted the evidently amused, towering beard, 'The Worralls I presume - we've been expecting you up at the Abbey. Saw the car parked up here so came down to help. These roads can be treacherous when it gets milder...'
'Milder' squeezed horizontal Harold.
The beard was grinning. 'Call me KilMacken, I’m Ghillie of Mouldstop, this is the gamekeeper McCabe. I wonder, could you do with any help?'
Harold attempted to squeak that he was quite alright, but was all out. He simply deflated further as burley hands lifted him up. He used his last remaining strength to grimace as he noticed his mother was already in deep and lively conversation with that other yeti McCabe.
Twenty minutes later, an extracted Harold climbed the last few metres of ice-caked road that led to the Abbey's drive. He was exhausted, with the last of his energy spent darting glances at the Ghillie and his gamekeeper who, although laden with an entire car’s worth of bags, floated uphill. As they approached the higher ground of Mouldstop, the snow had slowed and lightened until it repeatedly hit Harold in the face with heavy slabs of ice sludge that . And as his heavy, sodden legs stomped as best they could on the black ice, Harold received the biggest slap in the face of all.
Sat jauntily beside the Abbey’s stone porch of the Abbey purred a green Jaguar, completely and impossibly untouched by the snow and gleaming as much as the day that it was bought. Not more than two days ago thought Harold, grinding his teeth. For it was unmistakably Sam's car.
STAVE FIVE. A FAMILY REUNION.
Some two hours later a warmer Harold sat on a huge Davenport in the Abbey’s large hallway, leafing through gaming journals. While it would have been, as ever, a mistake to label him relaxed it was promising that only one of his legs absently stuttered up and down; as if endlessly resisting the shock of its earlier bondage. His earlier exhaustion had all but vanished in that first glimpse of Sam’s Jaguar. Now it was just a bauble of repressed rage that rolled and fermented inside a loud Christmas jumper that he’d worn at his mother's insistence. Not his usual comfort zone true, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter in his present state of mind. After all, there were only a thousand taxidermied eyes staring at him and he’d just learned how to accurately age large-antlered stags.
He looked at his watch. True, he'd been running late, but his mother was uncharacteristically later. No doubt catching up with Sam. "Merry Christmas," he thought, knocking back a tumbler of single malt only for two slabs of ice to smack squarely into his teeth.
During his thirteenth stag article Harold heard the unmistakable sound of his family’s arrival. The higher strings of his mother, all gleefully stuttering highlights and long vowels, matched to the deep, sonorous bass of his brother. He involuntarily rolled the magazine in his hand until it was as tight as a conductor's baton, as if hoping to fend of the fast-approaching tumult. Just an hour earlier, when he’d stumbled through the Abbey’s arched doors, his seat had been occupied by a particularly preening Sam. Sliding his triple scotch to the side, Sam had lifted his mother from the ground to a bear hug without dropping a syllable of the string of insulting questions he aimed straight between Harold's eyes. Of course, his brother had inevitably seen their trip through the valley from the spires of Mouldstop, and took pleasure in recalling every hill start, slide and swerve with an unnervingly accurate recall. Dripping in the doorway, Harold did all he could to cling on to those precious few moments on the hillside, back when there had been the slither of a promise that he had one over his brother.
Those memories had swiftly hollowed into the kind of defeated joy that the small elves of his body took delight in compressing into hard, dark diamond for storage.
I mean how did Sam drive a coupé up here? How was it untouched? Just how did he manage to achieve this superiority? Every single time. As the night drew in around him, as the family Worrall approached, every one of Harold’s heckles raised like antlers.
‘Harry, Harry, you look well refreshed – that moisturiser trick I gave you does the job, eh?’ cooed his brother while his mother clasped her hands in joy and Harold’s upper lip drew ever further to the sides.
And so it continued. It would little help or interest to us or them to convey the next 45 minutes, nor the three hours of dinner that followed that. From the tipples to the cheese board, like saccharides meeting protein inclusions, the chemical process was pre-ordained and all three had settled into their roles on touch. I can only hope that the message coming across loud and clear was that the meal soon assumed a fixed and unchanging balance that had been whittled and lathed over many years. But we'll leave those exertions, along with the young woman, tartan draped over her left shoulder who lilted in an out, delivering just enough sustenance to maintain that delicate balance.
And so, in peaks and troughs, Harrold attempted to turn the conversation to his favour before falling left or right of his brother’s parry. If the marathon was awarding points for attack and defence, the score would remain a resolute two to one in Sam’s favour from the start. Not a point more or less than it had been at any given time over the previous 28 years. And as always, sat between the two, warming more and more on Christmas cheer and the good-naturedness of sherry sat their mother.
STAVE SIX. FALLING FROM A GREAT NIGHT.
It’s time to jump a healthy distance into the future, to that point of the night when the family diverged. By that time, Mrs Worrall had taken her place as the perfect centre-piece in a highly localised ceilidh in the Abbey refectory, her enthusiasm putting at least two retired majors to shame and further retirement. Harold had sunk lower in five different chairs while Sam had made repeatedly excellent selections from an incomprehensible list of fortified wines without a single pause in his pointed chatter.
Considering the company, any degree of objectivity may have convinced Harold that he was rather enjoying himself. But Harold knew better than to trust the combined wisdom of facts, instinct and inebriation. And unfortunately, as the three bid each other a good night he was more adamant than ever that Christmas just wasn’t for him. He wasn’t built for the jollity, he couldn’t rise to the festive occasion like his family and he really, really had to get the bloody jumper off his back before it fused there. No, his usual Christmas slump had arrived early and it was spreading like Brie; he considered Yuletide a time wasted on most, and witnessing it first hand was just as bad as being trapped in it.
In fact, if he hadn’t made this journey for his family, and one very specific reason, he would have quite happily taken himself away to the moors to spend two and a half days of quality time with himself and the grouse there and then. It was with a sigh and a hand scratching at the itchy jumper, that he made his way upstairs. He paused only to pick up some Scrabble tiles he knocked from a table on his way past. He scowled: Who plays games at Christmas?
And so, the three returned to their rooms, each on a separate floor of the old stone building. And indeed, each reahced their respective doors on the cusp of Christmas Day, and each at that moment experienced the same, unsettling vision. Reaching for their door handles they recoiled when, within inches of their fingers, the polished metal seemed to morph and twist into what could be taken for a face. Two eyes, a large reaching mouth gaping as if to swallow any hand that came near, below a quivering bulbous nose that came dangerously close to grabbing a scent. All three started, blinked and looked again to find a perfectly normal, round, door handle levelled into their oak doors.
'That was some port’ thought Sam, ‘This is what Christmas does to me!' thought Harold, 'Maybe three breakfast teas in the morning’ thought their mother.
But few things are as strong as human spirit when confronted with consternation after a night of frivolity. Especially in the first hour of Christmas Day. And that even applied to Harold’s grey spirit. Within seconds, all three had piled back into their rooms and forgotten about that strange and phantasmal incident, before almost instantly settling into their standard routines.
Sam booted his Mac, readying some minute trades. Harold stubbed his toe on an ornate bedside cabinet before struggling with the room thermostat for 15 minutes. Mrs Worrall took a moment in her doorway, laughing merrily at how similar her twin boys were. Then composing herself in front of the wooden flask safely squared on the main table of her room, she took a moment. Tomorrow she would be able to say a proper goodbye on the rolling hills; a warm thought she took to bed.
STAVE SEVEN. A CHRISTMAS HAROLD.
On the lowest of the Abbey’s floors, between two inscribed pillars, was Harold’s room. For all his faults and bristling worry he was never one to lose sleep. In actual fact, a little insomnia may have done him the world of good. But after just a few minutes lying in the heart of his cosy wooden room, every square inch of him surrounded by down, he felt a strange anxiety that he further worried may keep him awake. There was only a handful of guests and staff in the Abbey and he couldn’t hear a thing beyond the snow flurries bouncing on the outside of cushioned window bays. Even that was muffled by the soft and well-padded bedding he struggled to leave.
But, still, he didn’t and couldn’t feel wholly alone. Perhaps it was the reminder of the strange scraping metal he had heard as he dragged himself up the stairs to his room; perhaps the metallic clunk when he threw his boots across the room, like a thousand infernal chains hitting the ice heart of Hell. Or perhaps it was the thought that he’d have to overcome at least 18 dead geese to escape his bed. His horribly comfortable bed. Hmm, Harold audibly thought as his chest tightened once again. Although he really couldn’t put his finger on it he knew that something was deeply unsettling him.
Harold’s hand moved instinctively from the blanket morass to the light. And then, in the dark, at the very edge of sleep, he felt something. As sure as night is night and day wouldn't be coming around any time soon, he felt something brush his arm. Cold and cloth. As his nose was hit by the scent of antiseptic.
And then Harold was sweeping through the sky far above the Abbey on a dreamscape rocket. With a monumental whoosh, but no sense of the breeze or cold that his mind eventually told him should be there, Harold found himself poised metres above his room ready to explode like a firework. Below, Mouldstop’s inner halls and outer hills were all on display, every corridor and stack as transpicuous as the centuries old brickwork became clear. There was the cliff, the winding drive...
And at the top, there was Sam’s Jaguar. Harold could tell he was dreaming as a thin layer of ice had formed across its shiny carapace... Until he saw a figure skulk from the hotel to pour de-icer across it. ‘Why that...’ snarled Harold as the ice retreated, before a gust caught him and eddies took each limb and his body pirouetted up towards the full moon. As he spun around, Harold saw the length of the lowland around the Abbey drawn out in the white lunar light. It took his breath away and any curse words with it.
Ahead of him, in a silken weave of whites and blacks, was the valley that had so foxed him earlier. It was breath-taking indeed, which made it all the more difficult for Harold to regain his breath as he fell onto his front, swooping and diving across the snowdrifts and fallow planes. Soaring past the newly ensconced rental car, almost entirely submerged in a drift he almost felt a surge of warm familiarity, far removed from his earlier fear. That is, until a stray breeze caught a random elf hat from the ground, lifting it through the air to land squarely on his face. As he neared the end of the valley, the snow blizzard slowed and the elf hat finally gave into gravity, tkaing a string of expletives with it. Although he was facing the oncoming fat and soft ice flakes, Harold felt as warm as if he was still trussed up in his room. The thought that he could be dreaming slipped away as his vision worsened. He didn’t feel afraid as his visibility shrunk and the white canvas ahead of him grew to consume his view.
As his sight returned, Harold’s first thought was that he’d never felt so comfortable; even more comfortable than when esconced in the piled dander mounds just minutes before. He was in his night-clothes and he was outside. But he was warm, perfectly warm. Lying flat in a sculpted cot of soft and downy snow that coddled him like sentient silk water bottles. Not only was it even more comfortable than the feather morass he’d been wrenched from, but somehow the very last drop of exhaustion had abandoned him and his eyes were wide in the bright moonlight, his mind alert. A large sky stretched above, broken only by dark branches that cast long, ink-like shadows on the ground around him. All was calm, all was bright. Until he heard the worst four syllables of his life.
STAVE EIGHT. A DISTANT MARCH.
Truly the worst words he had ever heard. ‘Harold Worrall’. Each syllable stuck like a midnight knock on the skin of his heart. Like a hollow drum tapped by skeletal fingers. Encased in an iron glove. As the echo hung, stuck in the inner webs of his skull, Harold raised himself. Slowly, he turned towards the source.
Surely, the source of those words did not disappoint. It was a sight like nothing else. Sat half leaning, half unsupported against a tree stump was a giant of a man, shining a bright white that Harold had to shield his eyes against. The giant’s chest was a barrel, but then so were his arms and legs, each easily capable to bowling Harold into the next valley. Beside the giant torso, that chest became a vat.
Huge boots were all that prevented two enormous legs being mistaken for record breaking silver birch trunks. At their top was a kilt, the tartan long since lost in age and weather. A giant belt and large ruffs, fuzz lined and surrounded a giant jacket that snugly enclosed his vast torso. Harold raised his eyes, taking in a huge and bushy white beard that careered down his barrel chest. Traces of deep purples, reds and blacks seemed to dart around the mane, although when he attempted to focus on any particular tuft, Harold couldn’t see anything other than silver.
The beard fed into a long mane which pulled behind the giant’s ears and crumpled across his huge shoulders. And between that mass of silver hair, below the soft and bulky trim of a hat, lay a face implacably fixed upon Harold’s. Simultaneously warm and cold, grey eyes bore through him, the figure’s large pupils still vibrating from the bass of its voice. Considering the figure’s height, Harold was amazed that the grey was so striking. Like a murky dark waves they rolled without shifting as they bore into him; they were like nothing he’d ever seen.
Harold had instantly though ‘giant’, but swift revaluation suggested that was an understatement. Rising to its feet, the figure towered far above Harold, the tree next to him and the tree next to that. One of those three even gulped at the enormous form. In turn, Harold slowly rose to his feet.
The whole exchange could have taken an eternity, or equally a few seconds - Harold couldn't be sure. But he couldn't miss the departing timbre of the giant’s voice. And then, an unexpected crease fell above the huge grey eyes. Flowing down its large face, the crease rippled downward, ruffling every whisker with its passing. But when a large smile of recognition broke, the bushels of his beard splayed to each side.
‘I am the ghost of the Magi’s journey,’ boomed the voice, as dark as a diamond’s charcoal set. 'Come, follow me Harold Worrall’. And so did its large white boots turn in the snow. To think that he’d mistaken the ghillies for Yetis the day before. Here was the abominably real deal thought Harold as he scarpered after the ghoul.
STAVE NINE. THE LONG WALK.
While the giant glided forward in silence, Harold worried that his stammering questions were lost. For the fourth time he attempted to catch up with the slow-moving giant as he turned and shuffled across the ice, all the time repeating the same question in as loud a voice as he could manage.
‘Follow you where? Where - where to?’ Suddenly, as surely as he knew the answer, Harold felt ridiculously undressed.
‘We have until dawn’ came the reply eventually, as a long white sleeve was raised and fingers like cigars pointed towards the unmistakable silhouette of the Abbey. Large feet slowly rose and pressed into the snow without leaving a print as Harold scuttled behind. ‘Until the sun rises’.
Harold's face creased in further concentration as he jumped from one giant footprint to another. After it had sunk in that the sun wouldn’t rise until at least 9 o’clock, Harold felt a rush of clarity he was unaccustomed to. To match this new feeling, he settled into a long even stride on snow he still couldn’t feel. He was now able to raise his hand wth the authority of enquiry.
‘Spirit,’ he cried, ‘Spirit what is the meaning of this? Why have you brought me here?’
‘Follow me. There is only tonight. By dawn shall the true meaning of Christmas be learned’ replied the echoing voice. Snow crumbled from branches as he glided past, turning to ice dust that flew around Harold on eddies.
‘But why? Why am I here?’ Harold’s tone changed just he hoped, deepening with all the solemnity he could muster. ‘Spirit, what do you have to tell me?’
‘Three hundred and seventy five years past did I walk these slopes for three score years.’
‘Yes, yes Spirit!’ Exclaimed Harrold, eager to egg the portly phantasm on. He needn’t have worried; the spirit stared dead ahead as it glided on, although its voice barely broke.
‘Three hundred and seventy five years since I walked with warm foot on these cold slopes. Three hundred and seventy five years since the grass fell under my feet, the herds before me, the moon behind. Still, do I know this place better than any of the many other paths I have walked since.’
And talked since, thought an exasperated Harold, both eyes rolling to the clear sky. ‘Oh yes, Spirit’ he cried, reaching even more to his part, ‘Tell me, tell me, why you are here?’
‘I return, I return at my master’s behest."
‘Your master? Who is your master?’ Dare he guess, thought Harold with a sudden chill. Could the spirit say?
‘Your blood Harold Worrall, your blood which courses still now, courses from him.’
Harold was dumbstruck with confusion and possibility, all the while frantically pinching himself under his arm.
‘You’re been sent for me? I’m dreaming spirit It was one of my ancestors that sent you?’ Harold’s eyes were wide. As he looked to the side he once again found himself near the resting hire car. Oh, how things had changed in the few short hours since then. Could this spirit, sent by his ancestor have something to tell him? To show him the meaning of Christmas? In the core of his heart he suddeny realised that that this was a moment he’d long awaited.
The spirit continued. ‘Three hundred and seventy five years since I walked these hills at the command of your clan father. Three hundred and seventy five years since have I walked the heavens at his command’ A solemn pause. ‘And so tonight must I do so again’. There was a sigh so deep it shook sharp ice from the branches around them.
‘My realm is the past and future, only through the ties of these lands. No, you are not dreaming Harold Worrall, not dreaming at all’.
And as much as he was still pinching himself, with the sharp movements of euphoria, Harold couldn’t help feeling mildly unsettled. But despite his slight misgivings, the strange conversation continued didn't allow him to confront or displace those doubts. Over the next hour, the next two, the next three Harold followed the spirit, pausing only to raise his eyebrows every time the spirit mentioned his ‘three hundred and seventy five years’.
But it seemed that time meant as much to this spirit as snow meant to Harold’s bare feet. It could have been months. And still the ghost wandered on, still his heavy footprints left no trace, still Harold scampered after him. Still did he affirm and question wherever he could, attempting to spur the ghost on to its purpose, to learn whatever this celestial messenger had to impart. They had until dawn, Harold knew that. But as much as he followed in the giant's wake, questioning ever more frantically as dawn fast approached, he received little back. In fact, had he had the chance to stop and consider his very literal bounding enthusiasm, he would have realised that the nearer they got to the sun, the more he sounded like his mother. Prattling away to resolutely deaf ears. He allowed himself a brief moment of respect for the giant who could keep far calmer than him. But then, he was a ghost. And still that ghost strode before him, uttering asides and woefully vague biographical details without answering any of Harold's questions.
As the unlikely pair proceeded, the white moonlight stirred around them twisting shadows and the roll of the landscape with it as the purple mists would during the day. The snow’s hue rippled and pulsed under the spirit's gigantic lantern: from beiges to oranges, blues to purples. But still the stars stayed still in the sky above as Mouldstop Abbey grew before them; from postage stamp to postcard to trip hazard.
By the time of Harold’s second arrival at the Abbey he was even more confused. Blackened tree stumps dotted the snow forming a natural avenue to the first signs of crumbling stone work. To their right, the way fell to a sheer cliff. Harold couldn’t see the Abbey’s drive as anything more than a countdown. And by now he was beside himself. Well no, he was beside a huge ghost who refused to cooperate. For the first time in 24 hours Harold somewhat felt free. After all, he had had neither luggage pulling on his back nor utter exhaustion pulling on his mind. But still every part of his being was caught on this elusive ephemera and he doubted that he'd ever felt so frustrated. It obliterated everything from his thoughts. From questioning the cold he couldn't feel to the lack of exhaustion he'd almost forgotten. He just wanted to her what the spirit had to say, and was utterly perplexed that it was failing to explain itself. Thoughts rattled around his head gaining power with every step until they were halfway up the drive and he could stand it no more. He ran to the front of the spirit, which was no mean feat, and screamed.
‘Spirit! We have reached the Abbey once again, the place you kidnapped me from, telling me for hours that you would teach me the true meaning of Christmas. And yet, having walked all the way back, over night, for hours, the sun's up and I still have absolutely no clue!”
And then, for the first time, the spirit stopped in its tracks, its head slowly lowering to fix a level grey stare on its ruffled heckler. ‘What do you say Harrold Worrall?’ came the reply as Sam’s Jaguar loomed into view, ‘Have you not felt more hope tonight than on any other Christmas? than on any other night?’
Harold stood aghast on the drive way, stock still for so long he almost sunk through the ice. And suddenly, for the first time that night, he felt cold.
‘Truly Spirit, truly...’ Harold protested, finally finding his feet to run to the building’s ramparts in the wake of the Persil apparition that had rounded his weak stance. Only to be interrupted by a shrill shout from above...
STAVE TEN. THE SPIRIT BRINGS AN END TO IT.
It was a voice that once again stopped Harold in his tracks. ‘Harry! Harry! I’m so pleased to see you! Tell me, what day is it? Is it Christmas day?’
Harold stared at the open window agog. The fresh face, reddened, the mirthful smile, the frantic voice full of excitement. He’d never seen Sam like it. Like a child just about to take a leap onto its sleeping parents' bed on Christmas Morning. But with Sam there was little risk he'd take a flying leap from the window. In fact, Harold couldn't remember seeing anyone so happy. Something that once again managed to stopped him in his tracks.
‘Yes Sam,’ he managed to splutter, 'I really do believe it is’.
‘Incredible, all in one night he’s done it all in one night!’ Sam’s squeekingly excited voice somehow managed to raise an octave. As his body began the long-process of shut-down resignation, Harold was acutely aware that his brother sounded a lot like their mother. ‘Oh Harry, you wouldn’t believe - what a wonderful day! The things I’ve seen. It’s – well, it’s just incredible...’
Harold could do little but collapse on his haunches on the snowy drive, his mouth wide open.
‘Oh Harry, while you’re there’ Sam called down, the broadest grin upon his face. ‘The car, I’m so sorry. You probably knew, I onlyreally brought it up here to make a point. Here...' Sam disappeared momentarily before reappearing with a shining gift in his hand. ‘Yes, here. It’s Christmas after all. And who would I be without my brother? Good old Harry, I've got so much to make up for.’
Reaching through the bay, Sam threw the car keys to his increasingly prone brother without disturbing a single snowflake that framed him. The keys seemed to hang in the air, catching the bright sun before plummeting with a metallic onto Harold’s lap. Sam was laughing allthe time, Harold's mouth remained at a delicate gape.
Sam craned his head to the sky with the intensity of a wolf free froma particularly comfortable hibernation, but clearly addressed Harold when he bellowed: 'Now what say you we find those gamekeepers and secure us the biggest turkey in the place’. With that he set off, with a bound and a chuckle.
Harold sat in shock and it wasn’t just the cold that had started to creep into his posterior. With a great effort he turned his head to see the large, shimmering spirit who'd been his rather poor companion for the last few hours standing by the Abbey porch. A pulsing aura grew around its frame, the spirit’s flesh seemed to be thinning. At points Harold thought he could make out brickwork through its bulking form. If not he might have considered rushing at it.
‘And so is my master’s work done’ stated the apparition, as matter-of-factly as ever. The figure’s arm swung forward and then back, passing through one of the Abbey's bricks, past frozen ivy and mottling ice. And where its fist hit, sprung a red glow like the last ember of a candle wick, a glow that fanned out to form a red crescent door. ‘I have been your guide tonight Harold Worrall and now I return. Go forth and know him better man,’ came the brazen voice. And as one trunk of a leg lifted, pulling its body to be swallowed by the swirling, red portal, the figure’s head turned to level its gaze at Harold for a final time. ‘And Harrold Worrall,’ it said, ‘never call me spirit’. Harold was sure he could make out the whisper of ‘three hundred and seventy five’ on the air as the briefest impression of a smirk fell on the ghost’s face. The huge eyes blinked once and it was gone, leaving brick and ivy behind untouched.
Harold had never felt colder.
There was little time or need for self-congratulation in the bureaucratic corridors of the spirit realm. And even if there was, there were few beings alive or deceased, solid or phantismic that could have appreciated the immense sense of satifaction that pulsed through the old, departed hollow veins of the spirit as it passed through the wall into another place. Who, least of all Harold Worrall, could guess at the calculations and exacting specifics that visitations required, especially during the Yuletide peak. To summon and transfigure the timestream of one individual was a feat. But things were incalcuably more complicated when the culmination of one blood line lay in two near identical sources in close proximity.
Who at all, could guess the knowing satisfaction felt by an apparition when it got everything exactly right? Well in fact, there were only two spirits at that precise and imprecise moment of non-space. And it was at that moment that both spirits began their ascent to an ancient tavern to toast their success.
On an alltogether other plane, Harold could have known nothing of this as he stared at wall that warped from portal to Highland brickwork. Thatw as, until that the Abbey porch erupted in a swirl of floral fabric and his mother burst from the front door. Evidently swept up in the waltz of her glowing son, she barely broke her box steps as she shouted some obvious and embarrassing questions to her other son about his nightwear.
Still, it was Christmas morning and Mrs Worrall couldn’t be happier for her boys. ‘God bless us, everyone’ she thought, just before she headed in for a lovely cup of tea.
She left Harold as the latest fixture on the Mouldstop drive, the pain of the night's exertion slowly settling into his legs. And with what might be the longest sigh of his life Harold Worrall realised once more that he was not made for holidays and all the less for Christmas.
There was no doubt whatever about that.
--o0 The End 0o--
All content (c) Matt Goddard 2014- 2017