Monday, 9 December 2013

Cantus Arcticus - Part One

Cantus Arcticus is written by Mark Jones of Wordsmith Jones Editorial Servicesit is told in 5 parts, one each night this week... Mark's story Moonlight Over Inverkip is part of our A Nip in The Air Ghost Story Collection. No less terrifying is Mark's brave rifling through his teenage diaries which you can enjoy at 20 years Ago Today : A Diary of Teenage Embarassment.

The wind along Auchmead Road cut deep through Duncan’s fleece. It was a sunny day in early December but cold, fast approaching freezing. Duncan hated the Greenock wind, not because it was any sharper than that of Stirling (which it wasn’t), but because it came off the Clyde, from the sea. He hated the sea and any reminder of its vast, mysterious expanse. Stirling, at least, was landlocked, which is why – until only recently – he’d enjoyed the fifteen years he’d lived there.

Duncan loathed being back in Greenock. The streets at this time of morning were quiet – overbearingly so. In the newsagent’s all he’d heard was a short, well-intended word of commiseration from the short, well-intending elderly lady behind the till. She’d worked there for years. He knew her face but not her name. Dad would have known her well, he probably spoke to her almost every day for the last half century. Outside, back in the wind, Duncan found the rows of identical grubby houses close in around him. It was worse even than being stuck in the house, itself filled with a silence so profound it felt almost deafening.

Approaching the steps that led to the front door, Duncan found himself missing his own tidy little home just a short walk from the neat little campus where he taught. Larkfield depressed him, just as it had throughout his childhood.

Jabbing the key into the Yale lock, he pushed through a pile of mail on the soft carpet of the hallway and into the warmth of the house. It still surprised him to think he now owned it. He recoiled at the smell – an odious mix that still lingered days after Dad had passed away. The old familiar aroma of burnt sausages and stale tobacco mixed now with the strange, perhaps half-imagined, smell of sweat and decay that had built up during Dad’s last days. The smell of death. Duncan would be glad to be shot of the place, glad to get away again, and this time forever.

How odd. Duncan picked a picture frame from the carpet. It had fallen from its nail as he entered, caught, presumably, by the draft. But the frame was so small and of such cheap, light plastic that he couldn’t figure how it managed to land with such a noisy thud against the carpet. It fell with enough force to dislodge the picture inside – a grey, fading photo of Dad in his uniform, on deck, taken before the war, the blurred ghostly towers of some unknown, exotic port rising mistily behind him. Duncan supposed he ought to set the photo straight, but he couldn’t be bothered. All this junk would be binned by the end of the week. He placed the frame beside the telephone.

Sitting with a pile of paperwork on the old walnut coffee table, Duncan began to sift for anything useful. The sale of the house in Larkfield was now his last hope. While he’d enjoyed his life and lecturing in Stirling, he had private reasons for wishing to move on, reasons that now filled him enormous unease.

For two years now, he’d pinned these hopes of escape on his latest work – the most recent of his many unpublished works, this one a collection of short horror stories he’d called Cantus Arcticus. He’d been pleased with it, but only the day before he was summoned back to Greenock to witness Dad’s final illness, he’d received yet another rejection slip. The literary agent to whom he’d written evidently thought it too pretentious and its style too outdated, baulking at some of his phrasing. She seemed to take a particular and, to his mind, peculiar dislike of “squamous hideousness”, a description of which he’d been rather pleased.

This rejection piqued his intellectual pride, but, more than that, the book had been his favoured escape route. To finally become a published author, in whatever genre, would enhance his academic reputation even if it didn’t make him rich in itself. Success might lead somewhere – he might sell the rights to the stories to the movies, or get work reviewing books. Or, at the very least, it might enable him to find that elusive job he so needed in another town, at another university. Anything was possible. He just needed to focus more and make it happen. His problem, he knew, was that he’d always been a dreamer. But, surely, that was what made him a writer in the first place?

Yet Cantus Arcticus remained a pipe dream so long as agents and publishers remained squeamish of words like squamous. Now he had only Dad’s house to finance his release from worry.

The jingle of an ice-cream van broke his thoughts. It was surely too early in the day and too late in the year for ice-cream, but the local vendor must know his market, thought Duncan. The sound of women and kids huddling around the van made him realise again how quiet this house was.

There were ghosts in this house, he thought. Not real ones. That – even to a writer of horror stories – would be silly. But in the oddest of ways, every movement of his seemed somehow to disturb the house as though it were a living body. Every step, every creak from the sofa as he shifted in his seat, kicked up ghosts like dust from the carpet. Ghosts of memories locked within the very fabric of the building. Ghosts he’d rather avoid. Memories of childhood, of Mum cooking, of Janet playing, of Dad trying to crack jokes Duncan could never raise a smile for. He had only to open a kitchen cupboard and see all those ancient mugs and teacups to be reminded of them all. He hadn’t spent this length of time here since he was a teenager, and yet he wasn’t the stranger within it he felt he ought to be. It was all too horribly familiar.

Dad really must have had more than this. Duncan began sorting through pension documents and bank statements. After all, during latter years, the old man hadn’t seemed to spend his money on anything, locked up here in Larkfield, rarely going out, and never spending his pension on more than food and tobacco. He’d never been a big drinker, either, even after Mum and Janet died, so he must have stashed away quite a bit. It was simply a case of working out where. A light drizzle spattered softly against the window, a steady pattering hum that lulled Duncan’s tired, dozy mind and made him wonder whether or not he should snooze for an hour.

“Jesus!” Spat from his mouth, the word awoke him. There had been a loud clatter from the hallway. The picture frame had fallen again, this time tumbling off the telephone table. The old man grinned up at him. Duncan dropped the photo in the wicker bin beneath the table and returned through the living room to the kitchen. As he entered, he could’ve sworn he heard the tinkle of metal, of cutlery being lifted, which was strange because the cutlery drawer had indeed been left open, something Duncan didn’t remember doing. He heard laughter. From the window he saw old Mrs Dempster grabbing damp washing from the line, rescuing it from the rain. She was talking to a neighbour on the other side of her fence.

Duncan returned to the silence of the sofa with a cup of coffee, a silence too deep for his comfort. He’d play a record if he could, but of course the only ones left were Mum and Dad’s old Val Doonican and Jim Reeves albums. And they would do his mood no good at all.

If there was one thing in Larkfield’s favour, it was that you couldn’t see the sea from it, not from this house, anyway. The Clyde was obscured by the streets ahead and behind the house rose hills high above the town. Duncan loathed the sight of the sea. It acted as a constant reminder of his father’s obsession with it. It still depressed Duncan how deeply Dad had failed to understand his son’s inability to share a love for all things nautical. This incomprehension had led Dad to disapprove of all Duncan’s other adolescent pursuits – which amounted to little more than reading. Duncan, both as a child and an adult, had been an indoor kind of person, a dreamer, a loner, an embroiderer of fantasies – fantasies of places he would much rather be. Duncan had spent a lot of his life living and travelling in his head and (if he was brutally honest) never really winding up anywhere. Dad, the opposite, never could comprehend this, the salty old seadog with his interminable tales of the sea – tales of places he had already been. Dad was a doer.

In fairness, Dad hadn’t bored him with war stories as a child. In fact, he kept quiet about it until much later, during the heart scare of 1995. Then he wouldn’t shut up, as though the unexpected lease of extended life he’d been afforded gave him a desperate need to offload his life story on to others, before it was too late. Having recovered, Dad realised he was living on borrowed time. But, with nobody else left, who could he tell but Duncan? And that was the problem. By that point, it was far too late to try impressing Duncan with anything. He’d detested the old man ever since Mum and Janet died.

Dad, Suffolk farming country born but bound for sea, joined the merchant navy in 1938 and then found himself in the North Atlantic convoys during the next six years. It must, Duncan had to admit, have been a hellish experience. After the war, Dad met Mum during a stop at Greenock, they married, and he proceeded to try and win his own personal peace with a family and a job at Scotts shipyard. However, the old man had been so bullish in his continuing enthusiasm for the sea – always goading the boy to join the Sea Cadets and suchlike – that he’d alienated his young son, who wanted nothing to do with it. A lanky, spotty land-lubber, young Duncan loved books and came to yearn for the simple, warm, dry comforts of a quiet life in academia. Why couldn’t Dad have understood that?

An ocean of misunderstanding surged and swelled between them. Then, in his late teens, it threatened for a while to drown them both. Stuck in the same house together, trying to come to terms with what had happened, each blamed the other. Duncan ached to avoid the memory of that day. A row with Dad because he refused to go to Millport with Mum and Janet. Then, later, the news. There had been an accident. Dad had taken them out too far in a dinghy, the weather had broken, the helicopter came, but too late to save but one of them. Dad returned home, and never forgave Duncan for not being there to help him. Duncan never forgave Dad for taking them out that far in the first place.

These then were the ghosts that, like dust, sprang up from Duncan’s every footfall: having tried for years to escape this house, this past, each familiar household item – every coffee cup, or the pair of Dad’s old boots he’d earlier thrown in the bin – brought it all back to him; dragged him back within its, to his mind, miserable hold. Remembrance of things past he’d far sooner forget.

The grey afternoon closed in around the house on Auchmead Road and, although Duncan was too blind to the signs to realise it, so too did the past – his past, his father’s past, and all the consequences that must flow from them began to edge and creep a little closer towards him, encircling, affecting, and infecting both his present and future.

Part Two...

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