Dockyard Press

Fiction

The Honesty Stall — 25 April 2021

by Gerard Brennan

“I was watching out for you.” His voice, a sudden intrusion, blotted out the traffic hubbub for an instant. “To tell you a truth.”

Jeanine almost knocked a batch of traybakes off the chestnut sideboard. She’d dragged it out of her café that morning, onto the still busy Upper Ormeau Road footpath. Her first attempt at a socially distanced business diversion since panicked government restrictions forced her to close her doors to the clutch of semi-regulars she’d managed to net. Bent over the remaining wares, sunlight warmed the back of her neck. She resisted the urge to turn and face the source of the voice. To squint at a mystery silhouette framed by a sky full of pink clouds.

The man’s voice crackled, like it needed more time to warm up. “I saw the wee ‘Honesty Stall’ sign and wondered if it was some sort of God thing.”

“I don’t pay much attention to religion,” Jeanine said; Belfast-speak for, Let’s not make this an us-and-them thing.

Her face reddened, but still she didn’t look away from her task of gathering little Tupperware boxes, mostly empty, into a larger Tupperware box. She just wanted to carry them inside, get the empty ones washed, and hole up in her bedroom, directly above the shopfront of her halted business.

“Pity.” This time he tried to clear his throat; the noise muffled by a tissue or sleeve. A cough disguised. “The Godly things ’round here are usually free.”

Jeanine wanted to go indoors and wash her hands. She considered leaving the boxes behind, to be coughed on and touched by strangers. Maybe stolen by bored kids with no school to go to. Then she could tell herself that her modest business model couldn’t possibly work in this climate. She was too scared of catching the virus anyway. Refused to believe that hand sanitiser and polite coughing techniques could save the world.

Her interim business idea was inspired by a news article about a young man living with Down’s Syndrome who sold baked goods in the country. People drove to the entrance of his family’s farm and collected a bag of cookies from a pillar-mounted wooden box, shaped like a barn. They completed the transaction by squeezing a donation into a padlocked moneybox bolted to the bottom of the miniature barn. The suggested donation was a measly quid. Janine would get a lift out there someday and stuff a fiver into the moneybox to thank him for the inspiration. She just hadn’t gotten around to it before the lockdown.

But she’d come up with her own version of an Honesty Stall. The sideboard had a few traybakes on the upper surface, and the donation tin was in the drawer on the righthand side, glued down rather than bolted. The drawer on the left had tissues and plastic knives, for anybody that wanted to cut their sugary treat in half. Both drawers were left open to reduce the need to touch the handles, since they were deep enough to stop the napkins sailing down the road in a gentle breeze.

The previous week, Jeanine’s nephew, Jason, designed a poster based on her vague outline. He printed out and posted a colourful A4 sign for the price of a few caramel squares.

“How does it work?” the man asked.

The instructions were written on the sign. She should have listened to young Jason when he said she needed a bigger page with clearer instructions. But she’d liked his first effort and didn’t want to torture him with extra work just because he had a computer and printer in his bedroom.

Jeanine looked over her shoulder to see how close the stranger was. The volume of his voice suggested mere inches, but she could see he’d heard the news about standing two metres from strangers. If anything, he’d overcompensated his distancing as much as he had cranked the volume of the crackled enunciation of his speech. The man was younger than she’d first thought. Was his voice deepened and gravelled by a throat infection? A virus? The virus? Her palms slickened under disposable rubber gloves. She wished she’d worn a mask or a visor or something. They still hadn’t decided if face coverings made a difference, so far as she knew. Certainly, there weren’t many to be seen around Belfast right then.​

“What do you mean?” Jeanine asked, and wished she hadn’t.

“The sign says, ‘Honesty Stall,’ but I can’t see the small print from two metres away.” He nodded towards the inadequate instructions. “Do I tell you something, then get a wee treat?”

Jeanine couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be funny. Winding, as her generation put it, or banting, as young Jason had taken to saying since he’d started big school. The maturing sunlight behind the man made it harder to read the creases in his face. She decided to play it straight rather than risk angering him with a misunderstanding.

“No, it just means that I have to trust you to pay what’s fair, because I can’t stand outside and serve you.”

He tilted his head. “Oh. Well I have money. Just not on me. How long before you close? I’ll go get some.”

“I’m closing up now.”

“Will them ones go in the bin?” He nodded at the remainders.

Jeanine needed the loo. She didn’t want to be outside any longer. The risks were higher than ever. Used to be she’d be worried about getting mugged on her way to the bank with much needed takings. Found her breath quickening every time she passed a soul. Now her anxiety could be triggered by somebody attempting friendliness with a passing ‘hello.’ She wanted to shout at people to be quiet, irony be damned. That’s how she knew she wasn’t in great form. How she knew she was only a breakdown or two from homelessness. From begging in the street. Or relying on ‘Godly stuff’ to get by.

She reminded herself that it was often a good idea to be kind. And the man still hadn’t made a move to go fetch his money, despite the silence between them swelling towards infinity. Jeanine made a snap decision before doubts could start prickling her scalp.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’m going to leave these tubs inside. You help yourself to what’s left and next time you’re passing you can drop a wee bit of money in the box.”

“But what if I don’t pass by here again?”

“Are you not local?”

“Aye, I am. But like…”

​The man started to mutter. Jeanine couldn’t make out what he’d said under his breath, and she didn’t want to lean in to spitting range.

Be kind.

“Well, don’t worry about it, then. Just have them.”

“I don’t want to owe you.”

“It’s grand. You owe me nothing. Just enjoy them and tell your friends about the wee stall. We’ll call it advertising.”

She stopped just short of winking at him.

“I don’t have friends anymore.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Jeanine started to feel like she was being sucked into a sob story. One that might end up costing her more than some leftover traybakes. It was time to bail. “It was nice talking to you. Goodbye.”

“I should probably die,” he swatted at his ear. “I miss my old friends.”

Jeanine bumped her backside into the front door of her café and swung it open too hard. She stumbled backwards across the threshold and dropped her Tupperware. A swift kick sent the nested boxes across the café floor and she slammed the door shut. Turned the lock. Took a breath. The man had come closer to the door. She felt safer with a pane of glass between them but briefly considered rolling down the metal shutters for good measure. They’d be too slow, though. If this man wanted to put a brick through the window, she couldn’t stop him.

The man raised his arm. Jeanine flinched, expecting him to hammer-fist his way in. But he hadn’t curled his hand into a weapon. He touched the tip of his index finger to the tip of his thumb and fanned out the other three fingers. Then doglike, he tilted his head and pushed out his lower lip, turning the okay sign into a question.

“I’m fine,” Jeanine said, so loud she hurt her own ears. “Don’t worry about it. Just help yourself.”

“Not unless I can give you something for them.”

Jeanine no longer felt the urge to be kind.

“Then could you just go away, please? I’m finished working, right?”

Now that his face was close enough to mist up the other side of the glass Jeanine could see he was younger than she first estimated. She could also see that he was scared. Maybe more scared than she was herself.

“I don’t want to go home. Barney’s dead and I don’t know what to do with him. And if I die tonight, there’ll be two messes to be cleaned up instead of one. But maybe Barney could be my ghost friend then.”

It was time to lower the shutter. Thank God she’d put the extra money into fitting an electric one. She turned the key from her side of the door and watched its maddeningly slow descent.

The man breathed more mist onto his side of the windowpane. He used the tip of his finger to draw a simple sad face. Two dots for eyes and a downturned slash of a mouth.

“Barney was my last friend. My best friend. I don’t know what to do with him.”

“Try phoning the police.”

“What if they think I killed him?”

The shutter stopped in its tracks. Jeanine turned the key left and then right. She pressed the button again. More movement, but not far enough to end their encounter.

“I’ll phone the police,” Jeanine said.

“Then they’ll definitely think I killed him. Don’t worry about it. He’ll probably fit in the wheely bin.”

Jeanine had heard the bins wouldn’t be emptied for a few weeks. Jesus wept. Should she tell him?

“That was the truth I wanted to tell you,” the man said. “Barney’s dead, but I didn’t kill him. I was trying to keep him safe. That’s all.”

“I believe you,” she said.

Neither of them believed that.

The man knocked on the window, three slow beats. “I wish I could come in there and tell you stuff. Tell you the truths. But I know I’m not allowed.”

Jeanine thought about her mobile phone. The one Jason had chosen for her. It had a touch screen and loads of gigabytes and Facebook for her café and it counted her steps and she sometimes felt guilty about clicking into Daily Mail articles about women older than her who looked twenty years younger and she could use it to phone the police if she could remember where she’d last left it.

The till.

She’d left her phone beside the till. Everything would be okay. The police would come and take this poor, sick man away and they could deal with dead Barney. Everything would be okay. They shouldn’t even need to talk to her in person. Not during a pandemic. She just wanted to make sure this man got taken care of. Or investigated. Maybe arrested if he’d hurt somebody.

The man knocked at the window again, still polite, and yet Jeanine almost loosed her bladder. The bloody shutter needed a service or something. She decided to give up on it.

“I think I’ll take one traybake,” he said. “Would I owe you anything for one?”

Jeanine pretended she couldn’t hear the question. She turned her back on the man and hoped that he wouldn’t smash his way in.

“Did I tell you enough truth for one traybake, missus?”

She walked past the till, decided in the split second it took her to spot her phone that a knife would be a better option, and continued on into the café kitchen.

Chef knife. Psycho blade. She could barely grasp the handle tight enough to draw it from the wooden block it resided in. When she managed to wiggle it free it felt unwieldy. She laid it on its side by the blade block and snatched at a paring knife instead. It looked nasty enough to scare someone but wasn’t so top heavy that it would slide through a shaking, sweat-slicked hand.

Jeanine tucked her right hand behind her back and started a breathing exercise. She closed her eyes and sucked in air for four seconds, held it for five, then blew it out again for six seconds. Once, twice, three times.

When she opened her eyes, she saw that the man was gone. Or maybe he had moved a few paces to the left or right, just to get out of her line of sight. It didn’t matter. A few more rounds of measured breathing, only this time with her eyes opened and fixed on the ghost of a sad face drawn on the other side of the door glass, and she felt brave enough to venture forward.

“Relax yourself,” she said. The sound of her own voice made her feel foolish, but she continued to talk. “Just make sure he’s gone, try the shutter one more time, and don’t panic. It’s going to be fine.”

Baby steps turned to a disjointed shuffle. She got to the door before she could figure out how she usually walked.

And he was gone.

Jeanine giggled a little and called herself stupid. She tried the shutter again, this time raising it slightly before trying to lower it. Something fell out of the track closest to the door. A little wedge of wood. Jeanine squinted at it until the shutter rumbled to her eye level. She blinked and moved backwards, her movements still a little alien to her.

Somebody must have put that wedge high up in the shutter track to stop it from closing. But when and how? Even a tall man would struggle to place it high up enough to stick. Her creepy visitor hadn’t seemed particularly big. And it wasn’t like there would be much point breaking into her wee café to rob her. She hadn’t had a customer in a few weeks and the Honesty Stall had barely made enough to cover her ingredients since she’d started.

Maybe somebody wanted more than money from her. Something physical?

“Stop thinking like that.” Jeanine shook her head. “And for the love of Christ, stop talking to yourself before you end up in the same care home as Barney’s mate.”

Her wee jibe made her feel guilty, but she couldn’t suppress a sneaky smirk.

She halted the shutter at waist height. Relief flooded her body, and she took a second to think. Her Honesty Stall was still outside. It would need to be dragged in if she wanted to try again in the morning. Otherwise some scumbag would lift the whole thing. Either an opportunistic thug hoping to make a couple of quid, or some drunk students thinking petty theft was hilarious.

Although, if somebody did steal it, she could give up and admit that she shouldn’t have taken redundancy from the civil service last year. She should have kept that dull job for the rest of her life and not taken any chances on her wee retirement dream. Maybe she could get another job. Just not in an office or a café.

Before she could decide, her mobile phone rang. She almost stabbed herself in the face with her paring knife when she automatically raised her hands to her mouth. Jeanine dropped her weapon and kicked it towards the dropped Tupperware. She bustled to the till and snatched up her handset. A video chat from Jason. Such a good boy. Her world began to feel more normal.

“Hiya, Jason. Ach, I’m so glad you called.” She squinted at her screen. “Are you all right? You look worried.”

“I saw your café on Snapchat. Where’d that weird guy go?”

“Snapchat? Why would one of your friends…?”

“They aren’t friend-friends. We have a streak, just.”

“Streak?”

Jason looked away from his phone then back at the screen. “Mum’s making faces at me here. Never mind why I saw it, but I did.”

“Put your mum on.”

“I can’t. She’s trying to phone the police.”

“What for?”

“She’s worried about you. That man got beat up after he tried to break into your place. Some kids dragged him away.”

“He’s only been gone for a minute.” She checked her watch. “Maybe five minutes.”

“Mum says you have to come stay with us.”

“But the virus. The lockdown.”

“She says it doesn’t matter. They’ll only fine us if somebody touts on her, but nobody’s like that ’round our way. Dad went out in the car and mum doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Pack an overnight bag, phone a taxi and come on.”

“That poor man.”

“He was trying to rob you. There’s been burglaries all over Belfast since this whole thing started. And they’re targeting people who live on their own.”

Jeanine thought about her visitor, and her reaction to him. How the little wooden wedge had fallen out of her shutters. The man had scared her, but logic started to whisper in her ear. He didn’t seem capable of planning a robbery. He didn’t even look like he’d have been strong enough to break through her window, now that she really thought about it. She had been anxious, scared of the virus. Odder people had come into her café and left without incident. It wasn’t the man, it was the situation. For all she knew, Barney was the guy’s pet dog. Barney seemed like a common pet name. The weird guy just needed to talk to somebody.

And because of her, and her overreaction, he’d been hurt.

“I have to go out there. See if I can help him.”

“It’s not your responsibility, Auntie Jeanine. Wait, I think Mum’s got talking to someone. Uh-oh, she doesn’t look impressed.”

Jeanine heard her sister ask for Jason’s phone.

“Tell your mum I’m fine,” she said, then her view of Jason flipped and there she was, upside-down on the screen for an instant before the image turned 180 degrees. “I’m fine, Beth. Don’t worry about me.”

Beth still had her own phone pressed to her ear. Strands of wet hair straggled over her hand. She looked like she’d just jumped out of the shower.

“You’re staying with us tonight,” Beth said. “Lockdown or not. You’re family.”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

Jeanine could have bit her own tongue in half for saying something so daft. She wasn’t that old. Beth could probably use her about the house to help out while Jason was off school. Her husband, Rory, was a keyworker pulling long shifts and Beth had been asked to work from home despite pleading her case for furlough. Jeanine could cook for them and earn her keep. But when she tried to take her words back her mouth refused to comply.

“The police aren’t going to help,” Beth said. “They have me on hold here. Apparently there’ve already been calls about other shops on the Ormeau getting robbed. These hoods are jamming shutters and breaking into shopfronts while the emergency services are stretched. Stretched they said. Like, I understand nurses being thin on the ground, but cops? Jeanine, just come, will you? It’ll be fun.”

Jeanine thought of the wedge of wood. “Why would they break into my place? There’s no money here, no valuables.”

“Apart from all your kitchen equipment. These vultures would sell granny’s jewellery for a bottle of WKD.”

Jeanine needed to get off the video chat before she threw up on her phone.

“I’ll phone a taxi now, Beth. Thanks.”

Her sister spoke while Jeanine jabbed at her screen, trying to end the call. “Thank God. Only grab your essentials. I’ve everything you need here until Rory gets a chance to bring you back for a proper pack.”

Jeanine killed the screen and ran to the customer toilet. She threw up in the sink and stumbled away from the smell of it. Her balance was off. She ignored the instinct to clean her mess with anti-bacterial spray. A cold drink would be better.

“Barney said I should thank you for the traybake.”

She could hear him, but she couldn’t see him. Cold sweat stung her eyes. How the hell did he get in? The shutter was down, her back door deadbolted. But he’d got in. The hints of guilt she felt for her earlier overreaction disappeared. She was in survival mode again. And the knife block was just steps away. All she had to do was open the toilet door and run. If the weird guy stood between her and the kitchen…

Jeanine didn’t finish the thought. She reacted. And when she shoved open the bathroom door, the man stood there, blood drenched and bedraggled. For once in her life she picked fight over flight. Jeanine charged at the man, clenched her teeth expecting impact, and ran through him.

She skidded to a halt at the entry to the kitchen and looked back, expecting to see him lying on the ground. But he stood, his back to her now, mercifully hiding his damaged face. A painfully thin cat wove figure eights around his ankles. Jeanine sat down on the floor.

“How did you get in?”

The man shrugged. The skeletal black cat hissed at her. Jeanine closed her eyes and refused to open them.

That crackled voice grated over Barney’s mewls: “I have more truths to tell, if you have time.”

#GerardBrennan #ShortStory #Fiction #DockyardPress

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A Street-Level Classic — 14 January 2021

The Herald has reviewed The Heavyweight Champion of Nothing:

“Today, Zak Mucha is a psychotherapist living and working in Chicago. But in a previous existence he used to haul furniture, and this novel is inspired both by his own experiences and those of clients he’s treated who were stuck in dead-end jobs and turned to crime. His narrator is Johnny, “an average guy with a babyface”, who has worked for a removal-truck business for five years and fallen in with the “bad boys” on the team. When not griping about their bosses, customers and working conditions, they’re copying keys and robbing homes, fencing stolen goods through a crooked antique dealer – until, inevitably, the law closes in. In prose that’s blunt, direct but eloquent, Mucha summons up the reality of being stuck in no-future jobs and dysfunctional relationships, of men whose lives are defined by tedium, inertia, resentment and empty rituals. A novel that deserves recognition as a street-level classic.”​

#ZakMucha #TheHeavyweightChampionOfNothing #Fiction #Novels #DockyardPress

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Calling (excerpt from work in progress) — 24 July 2020

by Meat & Bones | 肉そして骨

The sun cleared the horizon. The breeze carried hints of oncoming heat. I walked the road encircling the neighborhood. On one side, a ten-foot wall; the other, open desert.

A car passed, the driver disregarding the thirty mile-per-hour speed limit.

Desert sounds intermingled with those of the neighborhood: mourning doves cried, starlings rattled, air conditioners droned, purple finches chirped, black-tailed gnatcathers whistled, swimming pool pumps hummed, sprinklers ticked.

I saw and heard a male quail call to his mate. Her body lay against the curb, dead. He called then nudged her body with his head, hopped up the curb, hopped down and called then bumped her body again.

The male flew and landed atop the wall, called twice and waited. He flew down to her. He called then stood a few seconds more before flying away.

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The Fishmonger's Violin — 14 July 2020

by Alexander Thompson

The Mitchell Library is the biggest in Glasgow, occupying five floors and containing more than a million books. The librarians are friendly or not, depending on your accent, skin colour and clothing.

K. would show up there most mornings, go to the general literature section, browse the shelves, pick a book. Sometimes that would take a few minutes, sometimes an hour. K. would take the book to a table, sit down, and read for the rest of the day. Lunch was out of a bag, a cheese roll, packet of crisps, can of Irn-Bru. The first few days at the Mitchell, K. would eat there at the table, reading. But then a librarian came over and said it wasn’t allowed.

“Sorry, I didn’t know,” K. said, and carried the food outside, ate, then came back in.

Some days when K. came back after eating lunch, a librarian would have taken that day’s book from the table, even if there were plenty of unoccupied tables. Sometimes they’d just put the book back on the shelf, but other times they hadn’t, and K. would have to approach their desk and ask them for it.

Some days K. would have finished reading a book by early afternoon, and would browse the shelves and find another one. Sometimes the book K. had been reading would mention another book that seemed interesting, and K. would go to the librarian’s desk and ask if they had it, and the librarian would give K. a card on which to write the title of the book and the name of the author. If the library had the book — it almost always did — they’d either have it brought from whatever department had it, or they’d tell K. to go and read it there. K. never knew why it was sometimes one and sometimes the other.

One morning K. asked the librarian for The Fishmonger’s Violin. “I was going to look on the shelf, but I don’t know the name of the author.”

“Here,” said the librarian, handing K. a card and a pen.

Five minutes later, the librarian said they couldn’t find any record of it.

“Any idea who else might have it?” K. asked.

“No. It’s not just that we don’t have it, there’s no record of it. Are you sure you’ve got the title right?”

“Aye.”

“Where did you hear about it?”

I made it up, K. thought, but said, “Somebody told me about it. It’s supposed to be really good.”

“Well. I don’t know.”

“Thanks.”

K. went to the bookshelves and browsed for a while, but didn’t choose a book.

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Company — 28 April 2020

by Deek Brodie

Jake had never used anything that did the job nearly as well as the Japanese knife. A birthday present from a friend a couple years ago, it had soon become the only knife Jake used. It seemed to glide through the vegetables rather than chop them.

Using the knife made food preparation enjoyable, which was good, because since Jake lived alone now it would be easy to fall out of the habit of cooking and just heat up processed food.

Jake lived in a block of high flats in the Wyndford housing scheme. A lot of people were afraid to live there, but Jake liked it for its sense of community. Recently, though, it had been hard because of the lockdown in response to COVID-19. It wasn’t a lack of people to talk with — Jake had plenty of friends to text or video chat with — it was a lack of other people’s physical presence. You couldn’t even have a wee banter with a neighbour in the lift, now that the rule was only one person in the lift at a time. Same at Tesco, since everyone had to stand six feet apart.

So Jake was pleased to hear someone at the front door, first knocking, then rattling the letterbox, and then there was the scraping sound of something being shoved through the letterbox. Then the same sound again. And again.

Jake had been chopping an onion to put in an omelette, but now stopped and, knife in hand, went out to the hallway.

A man had stuck his hand through the letterbox as far as it would reach, almost to his elbow, and was now groping around, fingers wiggling, but not finding anything.

Jake remembered reading an article on Glasgow Live saying thieves had been pushing open letterboxes and grabbing car keys or any other valuables within reach. This guy must have been desperate to be trying it when everyone was supposed to be at home. Desperate, or just daft. But, either one, the guy was out of luck, because the wee table near the door wasn’t near enough for him to reach, and there was nothing on it but an empty shopping bag.

The hand kept twisting and turning. Jake waited till the inside of the wrist was facing upwards, then drew the knife across the wrist.

It would have been easier to grab the hand for leverage while cutting, but better to let the man think he’d cut himself on some sharp surface he couldn’t see. And the Japanese knife was so sharp, no leverage was needed.

At first, the man didn’t feel anything. It was only after his wound had gone from trickle to spray that he felt the wetness and pulled his hand back. Jake heard him crying, swearing, stumbling.

A look through the peephole showed the man pressing the lift button while his other hand was clamped around his wrist. He fell, but when the lift door slid open he was able to crawl inside, leaving a wet trail. Jake watched as the door slid shut.

Jake went back to the kitchen. She was washing the knife when her phone beeped. There was a text from her nephew. “Hiya, Auntie Jacqueline, I’m at Tesco. Do you need anything?”

She texted back, “No, thanks, I’ve got everything I need. Be careful out there!”

Jake melted butter in the pan, then tossed in the eggs and onion, put a lid on it, turned the heat down low. While the omelette cooked, she used a cloth to clean the blood off the laminate floor of the hallway.

Later, as she ate, she hoped the man hadn’t died. She’d enjoyed his company.

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Excerpt — 7 February 2020

by Johnny Shaw

Context is for suckers. It’s more interesting to pull a random page from a book and let it stand on its own.

Today’s selection is page 37 of Meth Mountain by Coil Branch, published by Simulacrum Press in 2013.

In 2016, it was later revealed that Coil Branch was the penname of Winthrop Thornycroft III of Whiteville, CT, an MFA student at Yale University who received a high six-figure advance for Meth Mountain, his debut novel. The publisher called it, “an authentic look at the bottom of the American barrel.” In a 2017 interview for Ambitiosior Magazine, Branch stated, “The reason I write about the poors is because they don’t have any of the complex troubles of those that face the burden of wealth. They are a simple folk, dirty-faced and gullibly pure.”

(The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author.)

was tough. Tough as nails. Tough as old leather. Tough as a poorly cooked steak. Tough as that one piece of crackling that feels like it’s going to break your tooth. That’s how tough he was. He knew it. Everyone knew it. Even that sumbitch, Buford Morehouse knew it. Travis Haymaker was not just a man’s man. He was a man’s man’s man.

The tales echoed down from the Sugarbush Mountains, along the Cottonmouth River, all the way down into Poverty Valley. If his red pickup cleared the tree line and headed down into the holler, it was best to stay indoors. Because when Travis Haymaker was in town, trouble followed. And mayhem usually followed trouble. And then subsequently, death was definitely close behind. Travis Haymaker, trouble, mayhem, and death were like an ordinary lunch. Travis Haymaker was the spinach salad. Trouble was the vichyssoise. Mayhem was the duck confit with ramps. And death was the poached pears in raspberry sauce. Four courses of the apocalypse.


If Trask Porter could only get a new set of engine parts for his pickup truck, then everything would work out fine for him and his. He was about to finally pay off his debt to the Haymaker family. Unless they asked him for some unexpected demand of him, he could finally go straight. The six years he spent in prison had taught him a valuable lesson about crime. It didn’t pay. Except in prison time. Which wasn’t a viable unit of currency.

Trask had his trailer and his girl and his dog and his truck. If a man needed more than that, he didn’t know what it was. White lightning moonshine, maybe. Or his faithful shotgun, Thelma. But right now, he just needed those engine parts to make his engine work.

Watching the sun rise, he wadded up a big wad of chewing tobacco and jammed it into the side of his mouth. Some people got sick and nauseous when they tried chewing tobacco, but not Trask. He had been chewing since he was eight years old.

“What for you doin’ outin’ here on the veranda, Trask?” his girl Ruthie Ann asked from behind the screen door. She wore her short shorts and gingham top tied in a knot at the front. Her pigtails made her look younger than her fourteen

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crow — 19 December 2019

by daishin stephenson

i sipped coffee and looked out a window. a crow lay in the yard under the white oak.

hours passed, the crow had not moved.

i approached the bird. blood oozed from its nostril, its leg bent at the knee in a direction it should not. i picked it up, carried it inside.

i placed the bird on a floor pillow. beside the pillow, a bowl of water.

we spent the afternoon there on the floor.

the crow died on the pillow. i felt loss, sadness. death is commonplace, part of the cycle. i sometimes forget that and it is good to be reminded.

​this is what happens when you invite something wild into your home.

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The HOST: a Thomas Carnacki Story — 9 December 2019

by Barry Graham

The email was from Carnacki, and was sent to me and the three others normally invited to his gatherings. It was an invitation to a Halloween party, but, Carnacki emphasised, it would not be the usual sort of Halloween party – no dressing up, no party games. Instead, Carnacki would cook dinner for us, and then he would tell us a story.

I wrote back and said I would be there.

When I arrived at Carnacki’s flat at 184 Woodlands Road in Glasgow’s West End, Hodgson, Reekie and Welsh were already there. They sat around the dining table in Carnacki’s kitchen, while that gentleman himself stood at the stove-top, stirring a wonderful-smelling pot of soup. In one hand he held the wooden spoon, and in the other a large glass of Laphroaig, of which our friends at the table also had glasses.

“Good to see you, Graham,” he said as I entered and took my place at the table. “Help yourself to a snort of Laphroaig. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Indeed it was, and, as always, it was delicious. It was not a complicated dish; the soup was of fresh seasonal vegetables and a few herbs, and the bread was fresh from the oven. The simple flavours were so pleasant, however, that I temporarily forgot Carnacki’s dislike of talking about his sojourns before it was time to tell his story, and I remarked, “You haven’t had a gathering like this in a while.”

“No,” was all he said, and he turned his attention to the bread he was breaking into pieces and adding to his bowl of soup. Quickly changing the subject, I remarked that I had been reading an article in The Economist about how people in Glasgow had a shorter lifespan than elsewhere, which the journalist was unable to explain other than by saying that “It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians.”

“I’d say that’s about right,” said Carnacki, with a smile of appreciation for my implied apology for my faux pas. “But, as you shall hear shortly, such malign vapours are by no means confined to Glasgow.” We all knew better than to ask him to say more at that time, but I think our friends were all as intrigued as I.

When our repast had been taken, we took our glasses in hand and retired to the living room, where a couch and comfortable chairs surrounded a table that served as a throne for two additional bottles of our friend’s favourite libation. He poured everyone a generous measure, not excluding himself, then lit candles, turned off the electric light, and settled into his favourite chair. For perhaps a minute, we sipped our drinks in convivial silence, and then Carnacki began to speak.

“As Graham correctly observed, it has been a while since I invited you fellows for dinner, though of course I’ve seen all of you individually hither and yon. Although I’ve been on a few jaunts since our last such gathering, none provided me with a story to tell you... Not, that is, until my most recent trip, which was not very far from this city.

“As you know, such excursions have been the vocation of the men in my family starting with my great-great-grandfather, whose experiences have been terrifying people for more than a hundred years now. I do not think I am being immodest in saying that a few of my own discoveries—which, like his, have been given the vulgar label ‘ghost-finding’—have been comparable in their extraordinariness. However, for some time now I have been encountering so many dull hoaxes that I was even beginning to doubt the veracity of the stories I’ve told you—stories you know to be true in every word, but that were seeming less and less believable even to me.

“I resorted, to my shame, to phoning the Scottish Tourist Board, and asking for a list of purportedly-haunted houses and castles. They sent me a brochure. I called again and explained that I wanted to know about the places that no one would in good conscience include in a brochure. They passed me around a few people, and then at last someone told me they had heard bad things about Drimdarroch Castle.

“It sounds like some desolate place in the Highlands, but when I went online and did a search, I discovered that it is, in fact, in Dumfriesshire, not a long train-ride from Glasgow Central Station. At first, I thought I had made a mistake in my search, because there was little about the castle online, and nothing about its being haunted. But, since everything in the world is supposedly online, its lack of an Internet presence piqued my interest, and I decided to find out who the present owner was.

“This turned out to be a man called Monroe, who lives in the city of Dumfries itself. When I contacted him by phone and asked him about his property, he made no bones about it. ‘I wouldn’t set foot in that place at night,’ he told me. I asked him why not, and he became wary, wanting to know the reason for my interest. I told him that I would like to spend a night there, alone. There was a long silence—I thought perhaps he had hung up the phone—and then he surprised me by flatly saying, ‘All right. It’s up to you.’ “At that moment, I somehow knew that this haunting was not just another hoax, of the kind I had exhausted myself with this past while. In those cases, the owners of the properties had done their utmost to convince me to stay there, so they could play their tricks and convince me. Monroe’s casual insistence that he would never go there after dark, and his indifference as to whether I did, made me realise that this was something different. You can understand?

“On a Saturday morning, I took a train from Glasgow to Dumfries. I was carrying a large bag that contained the electric pentacle and other essentials you know I take with me on such jaunts. Monroe met me in a pub there at lunchtime, and told me what little he knew of his property.

“The castle was mostly a ruin. The reason he bought it is that it came with a nearby mansion-house, which he’s restoring with the intention of turning it into a hotel. There are really only two sections of the castle that are completely intact: the banqueting hall, and a small chamber adjacent to the hall. There is, of course, no electric light, though Monroe plans to install it some day. “He gave me a key to the castle, too big to fit in a pocket, and some notes he had made about the place. Of his reasons for refusing to go there after dark he would say nothing.

“I thanked him, paid for his beer, took my leave and caught a bus to the village of Drimdarroch, about half an hour from Dumfries. I asked the driver for directions to the castle, but he told me he wasn’t sure, and that I should ask people at the village pub, The Cross Keys.

“I went to the pub, and a most pleasant place it was. I was reluctant at first to ask directions to the castle, because I didn’t want to give the local lads the idea of playing a prank on me. If you knew how many yokels I’ve had show up by my bedside draped in white sheets and making howling noises, you would understand.

“The pub has wireless, and I had brought my laptop with me, so I got online and tried to find directions from the pub to the castle... but I found nothing. You can understand how intriguing this was. Intriguing, and something else, something that made my neck tingle.

“I struck up a conversation with some fellows playing pool, and asked them how to get to the castle. They knew, and they told me, and they thought it a funny thing that I wanted to go there. I had half-expected that they might react like peasants hearing the name of Castle Dracula, crossing themselves and urging me not to go there, but not a bit of it. They just gave me directions, and invited me to join them back at the pub, an invitation I gladly accepted.

“It only took about twenty minutes to walk from the pub to the castle, carrying my rather heavy bag. Just outside the village, you reach an unmarked driveway, walk up it for a while, and find the mansion house on your left and the castle on your right. The castle looks just like any one of the numberless other such ruins to be found throughout Scotland.

“I found the door, which was at the bottom of a turret, let myself in and climbed a crumbling winding staircase to the banqueting hall. There was a big fireplace, almost big enough for a man of my six feet to stand upright in, and in two glass cases there were mummified cats, which Monroe had exhumed from the walls, where they had been bricked up alive. Back when the castle was built, it was believed that if you bricked up live cats during the construction of a castle, their spirits would stay there and protect it. As you know, I’m rather fond of cats, and none of the ones I know would thank you for suffocating them to death, but no doubt these were different times.

“There was a long table and a chair, which looked as though they could have been there for centuries, but in fact had been put there by Monroe. So also had the candles in the holders that aligned all four walls, and that sat in a large candelabra on the table. “At one end of the room was an archway, without a door, that led to the side-chamber. There was no other entry to it, so I decided that was where I would sleep. I set up my sleeping bag, flashlight, and water-bottle, and around them I constructed the electric pentacle.

“As you know, my grandfathers believed that you had to construct the pentacle around yourself for it to protect you, but I have found that they were mistaken. As long as you don’t turn on the electricity until you are within the barrier, you are safe. If I were wrong about this, I would have paid the price for my error years ago. The important thing is to have a battery that will last through the night, which is why I use a new battery every time.

“When I had finished setting up the pentacle, it was about five in the afternoon, still daylight. The side-chamber had no windows, but the banqueting hall had high, narrow, rectangular, glassless windows though which slivers of sunlight entered. It was light enough for me to sit at the table and read Monroe’s notes.

“The castle was supposedly haunted by a young woman who burned herself to death in the fireplace four hundred years ago. Less than fifty years ago, a woman from the village, exploring the castle, stayed after dark and jumped to her death from the top of a turret. This was all the information the notes contained.

“When I had finished reading, I stood up, got my camera, and took some photographs of the banqueting hall. Then I set up my camera on a tripod at the entrance to the side-chamber, facing into the hall. I adjusted its settings as I needed them—of which more later—and then I left, locked the door, and walked back to the village and the pub. It was a pleasant walk, and when I got to the pub the men I had met earlier were still there, and had been joined by quite a few more.

“I played pool with them, and then talked politics, with particular regard to Scottish independence. By early evening, some went home for dinner, and just as many did not. We ate some fine pub grub, and continued to drink and talk. I went easy on the beverages, which was just as well, as I received a few tempting invitations to abandon my silly idea of sleeping rough at the castle and instead stay the night with one of my new friends. One of them was a young lady with whom I’m still in touch, and had I had a few more pints I might have accepted her offer.

“As it was, I took my leave at about ten in the evening. Still thinking that someone might find it amusing to play a prank on me, I remarked, casually and falsely, that one reason I wasn’t afraid was that I had a gun with me, and planned to shoot anyone or anything that disturbed my sleep.

“I will make no claim to complete sobriety as i walked back to the castle, but, as Burns had it, ‘I wasnae fou, I’d just had plenty.’

“I will tell you, entering a place like Drimdarroch Castle in the dark of night is very different than doing so in the afternoon. I followed the beam of my flashlight up the driveway, which was easy enough, but when I reached the wooden door of the turret, I was missing the camaraderie of the pub—and when I entered, and made my way up the winding staircase, I was in something of a brown study. You can understand?

“It was chillier within the castle walls than outside. I went into the side-chamber, and turned on my camera, which, as I have said, stood in the doorway. It was attuned to the state of the light, or darkness, so that if there was any change in the light—such as that caused by a person entering the banqueting hall—it would automatically begin to take pictures. “I removed my shoes, and, otherwise fully-clothed, got into my sleeping bag. I turned on the electric pentacle, and, comforted by its blue light and by the beer I had drunk throughout the evening, I soon fell asleep.

“I am not sure how long I had been asleep when I was awakened by the sound of the camera taking pictures. I sat up, and when I realised what had awakened me, I felt no fear. Knowing that the camera was activated by changes in the light, I felt sure that the cause was either a bat or a bird entering the hall through one of the windows, or perhaps the arrival of one of the villagers to have some fun with me. I even thought it might the the young lady I had met in the pub, and I did not strongly object to that idea. “So unconcerned was I that I did not get out of my sleeping bag. When the camera went on taking pictures, and I realised I must investigate or turn it off, I stood up in my sleeping bag, holding it around me for warmth, and hopped like a kangaroo until I reached the camera. I stood behind it and peered into the darkness of the banqueting hall, but I could not for the life of me see anything that might have triggered it.

“Then the candles that aligned the walls were lit, all at once, like electric lights being turned on. So were the candles in the candelabra on the long table.

“Now, as I tell you this story, this room we are sitting in is lit only by candlelight, by which I can see you and you can see me. But the candles in that hall gave off no light. I could see the flames, but they gave off no light beyond their own shape.” Carnacki held up a finger. “Like this. You see my finger, but of course it gives off no light. The flames were like that.

“Then there was a face. Only a face, though if a man sat at the chair at the end of the table, it was where his face would have been. But it was not the face of a man, though I suppose it was closer to that of a man than of anything else I have ever seen. It was lit, like the candles, but, like the candles, its light did not shine.

“It smiled at me.

“It smiled at me, then raised a hand, a hand made of solid, unshining light, and beckoned to me in invitation.

“I closed my eyes, though tears squeezed and poured from under my eyelids, and I shook my head.

“Then the sound of the camera stopped. It was no longer taking photographs. I opened my eyes. The candles had all gone out. I realised that I had let the sleeping bag fall away from my body. I turned around to go back to the electric pentacle, and it did not even occur to me that by leaving it I had broken the protective barrier...

“Until I saw that thing, that face, inside the pentacle. It smiled, showing teeth that were not quite teeth, and again raised a beckoning hand in invitation. And when I did not move, it beckoned again, and then it came towards me, and as it crossed the barrier the pentacle went dark but its face did not.

“There is something that I have been preparing for twenty years to do, never believing that I would ever have to do it, but practising, practising saying it, though never out loud. And now I said it aloud, said the Unknown Last Line of the Saamaa Ritual, which, according to the Sigsand MS., is only to be spoken in the time of gravest peril, with no certainty that it will save your life, only your soul.

“As you know, I am not a man who is easy to frighten. But, for no reason I can tell you, I knew without a doubt that this was the time I must say these most dangerous of words, and I did, I said them, and then I started to say them again, but I do not know if I did...

“The next I knew, I was on the winding staircase, falling or flying, bouncing off the circular walls, reaching the bottom, exploding out the door, running, shoeless, running, and not stopping until I reached the village, where I walked the streets, loving every streetlight, until dawn.

“When the sun was fully risen, I walked back up that path, back to the castle, my feet like raw steaks, and I entered, and went to the banqueting hall.

“I checked every candle. They were ordinary candles, made of wax.

“I disassembled the electric pentacle, and packed it, along with my camera, and I walked back to the road, and waited for the bus, which took me to Dumfries. From there, I called Monroe, got his voice mail, and told him his key was in the door of the castle. I have not heard from him since.

“As I sat on the train back to Glasgow, full of laughing, chattering people who have never been to the worlds I have, people who did not know that my shoes were full of blood, I was tempted to look at the images on my camera, but I resisted that temptation. When I got home I went to bed and slept through the day, because I knew I would not be able to sleep that night for fear that I might wake and find that thing sitting by my bed, smiling and beckoning to me.

“I awoke in the early evening, ate dinner and partook of some Laphroaig, and then uploaded the contents of my camera to my laptop. In a good ghost story, the photographs would show nothing, but in actuality they showed exactly what I had seen. Interestingly, there are no pictures of the thing entering the hall, approaching the chair, sitting down, and then getting up and leaving, which there should be as the camera responds to changes in the light. You can understand?”

Carnacki said no more for a minutes, and neither did the rest of us. He refreshed our glasses, then said, “Would you like to see the pictures?”

No one answered. Carnacki opened his laptop, and said, “Here they are. Look if you want to. If you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”

After varying degrees of hesitation, we all got up and gathered around him and looked at the screen.

He clicked through picture after picture. It was as he had said. There was a face, hands, candle flames, but nothing else, and the flames radiated no light.

As we started back to our chairs, Carnacki said, “Wait. Do you remember I told you I took photographs of the banqueting hall in the afternoon? Well, I have those too. Look.”

The photographs showed the hall, the table, the chair, and the folder of notes Carnacki had been reading at the table. Behind the chair was the fireplace, and in the fireplace stood a woman in a gown, hands covering her face. There were no flames in the picture, but we all remembered that a young woman had burned to death in that fireplace.

“You didn’t see her at the time?” asked Welsh.

“No,” Carnacki said.

We all returned to our chairs.

“Any questions?” Carnacki asked.

No one answered.

“I think the legend of the haunting is wrong,” Carnacki said. “Monroe seemed to think it was haunted by the girl in the fireplace. I don’t think so. I think she burned herself to death under the influence of what I saw. I think the same is true of the woman who jumped to her death. And, had I not uttered the forbidden words I did, I think I would have joined them. I think whatever I saw was there before the castle was built, and will be there after the castle is gone. It is the place. It hosts everyone and everything that has the misfortune to be there. I know this with the certainty of my own death, and with as much mystery.”

None of us had anything to say. We finished our drinks, then Carnacki stood up. “Out you go!” he said, as he always did at such times, and we put on our coats and walked together down the stairs, into the icy dark, and along Woodlands Road, eventually separating and going to our homes.

#BarryGrahm #ShortStory #Carnacki #Glasgow #Fiction #DockyardPress

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